Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1843, by Robert W. Weir (Architect of the Capitol)If we can’t see the cost of our remoteness from America’s origins, it is only because we choose not to.
Come out from among them, and be ye separate.
— II Corinthians 6:17
The story does not begin in 1776. It does not begin with Concord, the Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution. It does not really even begin in the Dutch city of Leiden, where a colony of English Christian nonconformists settled after its members decided upon the spiritual necessity of separating themselves from the Church of England and hence, the times being what they were, with the English state. From King Henry II and the martyr Thomas à Becket to King Henry VIII and the martyr Thomas More, the consistent stupidity of the English state left its enforcers unable to distinguish between disloyalty to the crown and loyalty to the kingdom that is not of this world. And so the Puritans were persecuted. That much was inevitable.
They fled England and found tolerance in Holland — in fact, they found too much of it for their liking. The Dutch have been Dutch for a very long time, and they are not what you would call natural ascetics. The libertine Dutch culture (along with the notoriously difficult Dutch language) left the Puritans alienated. But it did not have the same effect on the Puritans’ children, who, to the dismay of their pious parents, began to acclimate themselves, becoming more Dutch by the day and less Puritan. Some of the refugees had made very comfortable livings for themselves in the university town of Leiden, enough to help to provide for those whose were less prepared to thrive in the university precincts. Compared with the commercial city of Amsterdam, Leiden offered relatively little opportunity to make a living by manual labor. But give the old Protestant work ethic its due. William Bradford, the colony’s unofficial historian, wrote: “They fell to such trads & imployments as they best could; valewing peace & their spirituall comforte above any other riches whatsoever. And at length they came to raise a competente & comforteable living, but with hard and continuall labor.”
Hard work, comfortable living. The Puritans would have recognized exactly where they were: The Land of Goshen, in which the Israelites thrived and grew complacent in spite of the heavy burden of labor laid upon them by the Egyptians. And that’s where the story really begins.
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The Jewish people had always remained distinct, never having been fully assimilated into any of the civilizations that exercised domination over them: the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Romans, etc. It is possible that the Jewish dietary laws, which forbid the consumption of many foods that were eaten ceremonially in adjacent cultures (the Israelites’ frequent Old Testament antagonists the Hittites, for example, seem to have consumed pork ritually) were in effect a complex code for keeping the ancient Jews from participating in pagan religious festivals and thereby assimilating into foreign cultures and forfeiting their unique national identity. (No, it wasn’t trichinosis, which wasn’t linked to undercooked pork until the 19th century.) Understanding themselves as the new Israelites, the Puritans had their laws, too, probably more of them than they really needed: The oppressive and at times bloodthirsty character of John Calvin’s experiment with totalitarianism at Geneva did not keep the theocratic project from being widely admired. And with a little bit of sympathetic historical imagination, we might understand that without condoning it. The implicit tradeoff — a measure of harsh government in this life against eternal torment in the next — must have seemed reasonable, especially to a people who had a much more communal and less individualistic understanding of Christianity than we have today. The Puritans were dedicated above all to fulfilling the mandate of Paul to the Corinthians: “Be ye separate.”
Paul links this mandate to something that haunted the Puritans intensely: idolatry.
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?
And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.
Paul is in that passage echoing Exodus: “I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt.” Why did God bring the Israelites out of Egypt? The Israelites were comfortable in Goshen. They became a political problem for the Egyptians precisely because they were so prosperous and numerous: They were in a position of what the Christian might understand as implicit idolatry.
Pharaoh was understood to be a god on Earth, like Roman emperors, Japanese emperors, Alexander the Great, and other exemplars of sacral kingship, both historical and legendary. Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, was descended from Aphrodite through Aeneas; Clovis was said to be of divine descent, which must have proved embarrassing after his conversion to Christianity. By Charlemagne’s time, divine ancestry had been downgraded to mere divine appointment, an idea that in Puritan political thinking would outlive monarchy per se, with mere assemblymen and administrators ruling in theory by the grace of God and with His delegated authority. What should be here kept in mind is that the belief that political relations are modeled on supernatural relations was of intense interest to the Puritans, who understood political sovereigns to be participants in God’s own sovereignty. Political disputes were necessarily religious disputes, and the tyranny of ancient Egypt was therefore not merely political: Pharaoh’s boast was not divine right but divinity itself.
The god-king mode of government holds that the divine ruler is either the direct source or the sacred channel of the supernatural forces that bring happiness and prosperity to the kingdom, making the crops grow, the rains come, the livestock fecund, and the people prosperous. It is this idea — a theory of government — that God Himself attacks in the Exodus story.
The plagues that descend upon Egypt under the watch of Moses and Aaron are not random torments and degradations but instead are a focused attack on the ideological infrastructure of the pharaonic system in which political, economic, and spiritual life converged, with the divine ruler himself at their nexus. The first assault is on the Nile itself, which is turned to blood, thereby ruining both agriculture and aquaculture in one swoop, a profanation with religious consequences. The annual Nile flood, the cornerstone of Egyptian prosperity, was religiously welcomed as the “return of Hapi,” the Nile god who is attended by frogs. Frogs, a fertility symbol, constituted the second plague, ironically invading the beds and private spaces of Egypt.
There is a Christian tradition (I do not insist that it is beyond argument in every particular) that holds that each of the plagues mocks a particular Egyptian deity or religious principle. But note well the political and economic character of the plagues, too: Though Hapi and Heqet, the Nile fertility deities, were insulted by the first two plagues, the immediate threat from the Nile’s pollution was the eminently earthly concern of starvation; Geb, the god of earth who blessed the crops, was transmuted into a plague of lice; flies (possibly) associated with Osiris plagued the royal household and the houses of Egypt’s officials, ruining the formerly productive Egyptian land while the Israelites were left unmolested; Hathor was associated with cattle, the economic commodity wiped out in the fifth plague along with draft animals and other livestock; the healing goddess Isis was no defense against the handful of dust — taken from the brick-baking ovens over which the enslaved Israelites labored — that set an infection of boils upon the people, who were thereby made religiously unclean by their own industrial implements; the plague of hail spared the wheat but wiped out the flax, which was used to make priestly robes, and barley, which was associated with Osiris and used to make the beer that was consumed at many public festivals and sometimes used as wages; what grain survived the hail was devoured next by locusts. Those plagues were an attack on Egyptian ideology, administration, and capital, as indeed were the final two afflictions: The solar deity Ra, who was associated with the pharaohs personally, was blotted out as darkness covered the land, prefiguring the especial horror of the tenth and final plague, the death of all of the firstborn of all of the families of Egypt, including Pharaoh’s son, and the surviving livestock, too.
In case the plagues did not make the point entirely clear, God explained: “I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt.” Pharaoh was one of them.
Exodus keeps hammering home the same point. Upon hearing the story, Moses’s father-in-law is struck with awe: “Blessed be the Lord, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.” God Himself insists: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me. . . . Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold . . . make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth. . . . Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images. . . . Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee.”
No gods of silver, no gods of gold — still less gods made of such flimsy stuff as barley, rain, and flax, or something as petty and transitory as mere political power. “Put not your faith in princes” is a warning against one of the least subtle but most irresistible practices of idolatry.
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If the Israelites needed the spur of Pharaoh’s tyranny to shock them out of their complacency in Goshen, the Puritans had the shadow of another tyrant — the Spanish king — to awaken them to the fragility of their comfortable Dutch Goshen. The long-term problem was the seduction of the Puritans’ children by the liberal and freethinking ways of the Dutch. (Galileo’s Two New Sciences would be published at Leiden by the House of Elzevir in 1638; while that was necessary to avoid the Inquisition, consider that in a sermon on idolatry, no less a Reformation figure than John Calvin himself had condemned heliocentrism as satanic.) But the Puritans faced the specter of a more immediate political crisis as the fragile truce that had ended the Eighty Years’ War began to unravel, raising the possibility that the Netherlands would be brought back under the control of the Spanish crown, which was unshakably Catholic and not famous for its toleration of dissent. To the Puritan mind, the Catholic Church was synonymous with idolatry; it was, after all, the echoes of Roman practice in the Church of England that rendered that communion intolerable to them.
There was no place left to go — not in Europe. And so the Puritans became the Pilgrims, new Israelites wandering in a new wilderness.
Landing in Massachusetts in November of 1620 presented the Pilgrims with a rough and dreary Promised Land after two miserable months at sea during which one member of the crew and one of the Pilgrims had died. (One child was born during the journey and named Oceanus.) Things did not improve — they grew much worse. By March, more than half of the Pilgrims were dead, and half of the Mayflower’s crew, too. They loved their children, just like you do. Watching them die — and die horribly, hungry and in pain — do you think they thought to themselves: “Thank God we are not still in England, where the clergy wear surplices!” It must have been difficult to distinguish the love of liberty from the loathing of idolatry, courage from fanaticism, the promise of the continent before them from the terror of the sea at their backs. But they endured. That we all know. How and why they endured is a question about which we are increasingly foggy.
The Pilgrims brought with them to the New World a definite religious system and a less fully articulated set of related political ideas. Their model of political life was the covenant, which is to say it was contractual and a little bit ad hoc. Their politics were utilitarian in a sense: They did not come to Massachusetts for the purpose of living life under a new kind of political settlement, but for the purpose of living a Christian life in community, a purpose to which all questions of political administration ultimately were subordinated. Government was for them a means, not an end. It was legitimate to the extent that it was in harmony with their religious doctrine and desirable to the extent that it enabled them to live the holy life they had in mind for themselves. There was an element of procedural democracy in the Mayflower compact, but the Pilgrim political mind recoiled from democracy as such in all but its most limited form.
Instead, the first thing resembling a bill of rights to be enacted in New England, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641, begins: “The free fruition of such liberties Immunities and priveledges as humanitie, Civilitie, and Christianitie call for as due to every man in his place and proportion without impeachment and Infringement hath ever bene and ever will be the tranquillitie and Stabilitie of Churches and Commonwealths. And the deniall or deprivall thereof, the disturbance if not the ruine of both.” Churches and commonwealths — in that order. And, yet, even therein was contained a germ of Anglo-American liberalism: “Every man whether Inhabitant or fforreiner, free or not free shall have libertie to come to any publique Court, Councel, or Towne meeting, and either by speech or writeing to move any lawfull, seasonable, and materiall question, or to present any necessary motion, complaint, petition, Bill or information, whereof that meeting hath proper cognizance, so it be done in convenient time, due order, and respective manner.”
Government, understood from this point of view, is an instrument. An instrument of what? Liberty, in the context of a Puritan polity. But liberty, too, is only an instrument: Liberty to do what? The Puritans answered that question before they set up their systems of government, and as their understanding of the Christian life evolved, so, too did their political thinking. It is worth keeping in mind that all this “wall of separation between church and state” stuff came into vogue approximately the day before yesterday; when the Constitution was ratified, most of the states still maintained established churches, and continued to do so for years after the fact, with no constitutional problem apparent to the men who wrote and ratified the document.
In a remarkably short period of time, the pilgrim people of what would become the United States went from divesting themselves of absolute monarchy in favor of a limited monarchy operating on a principle of consent to liberating themselves from the idea of monarchy entirely. If that seems like a radical and unlikely political development, consider it from another point of view: They were not liberating themselves from a particular system of political organization. They were liberating themselves from idolatry.
They left Pharaoh behind.
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It was the Puritans’ hatred of idolatry and their disgust at idols that enabled colonial Americans to escape so heroically from the intellectual confines of their times and imagine a form of government fit for the life they desired for themselves, and this act of radical imagination spread from Puritan New England to the rest of the colonies and to American civilization at large. With the example of the Divine Covenant before them, the challenge of negotiating a temporal and administrative covenant among themselves was daunting — but possible. It was possible because they were able to think that which had been unthinkable. The view from the wilderness is not like the view from Goshen.
Naturally, the American Founders, like the educated Puritans before them, were familiar with other models of government from other nations and other epochs: the Roman republic and the moral warning of its decline; the Greek democracy that John Adams so despised; the Venetian and Dutch republics; the absolute monarchies of Europe and the constrained monarchy of Great Britain; classical and more recent aristocracies; even the idea of a caliphate was not unknown to the most widely read of them. And, of course, they knew the various forms of political organization described in the Bible. (James Madison became Princeton’s first graduate student when he lingered after graduation to study Hebrew under John Witherspoon.) The American sense of identification with the Israelites only deepened from the Pilgrims’ time. Rich Lowry argues that the national idea of the Israelites in fact is the prototype of our own national idea.
The contours of that idea may be found in the sermon delivered by John Winthrop before his Puritan fleet sailed to fortify the English presence in Massachusetts. Winthrop, too, saw a problem of government, but one that was subordinate to the question of what kind of life was to be lived in the New World. Consequently, he warned his congregation not to assume that “the Lord will bear with such failings at our hands as he doth from those among whom we have lived.”
The end is to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord; the comfort and increase of the body of Christ, whereof we are members, that ourselves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world, to serve the Lord and work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.
The means whereby this must be effected . . . are twofold, a conformity with the work and end we aim at. These we see are extraordinary, therefore we must not content ourselves with usual ordinary means. Whatsoever we did, or ought to have done, when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go. That which the most in their churches maintain as truth in profession only, we must bring into familiar and constant practice; as in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren.
. . . Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.
And what believer can read those words without holy terror? “Such failings at our hands as from those among whom we have lived”? All that and more, Reverend, beginning with me. More, more, and too much more. Cardinal Torquemada would have been ashamed of our prisons, Cardinal Richelieu scandalized by our indifference, Nero embarrassed by our luxury. And, of course, we have fallen back into the old idolatry, too: gods of silver and gold and silicon and electricity and noise and flesh. The soybean crop has failed in South Dakota — what does it mean for the president? What will he do? What must he do? He will speak about it in the State of the Union address, in the divine assembly, before the wise men in their black robes, interpreting the new scripture.
Winthrop then continues with his most famous passage:
We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
Perhaps it is not the Christian alone who is able to see the prophecy in that.
We feast on this day of Thanksgiving, to acknowledge the inexplicable blessings of peace and prosperity that have been poured out on this pilgrim republic and its people without any thought or possibility of our deserving it. And peace and prosperity are worthy of being celebrated. But what about purpose? Are we so remote from that wretched winter at Plymouth that we have forgotten that this nation was founded for a particular purpose, and that the government was constituted not to raise up men over us to keep us in awe but only as a convenience suited to that purpose? If we cannot see the bone under the skin in ourselves as obviously as we do in the turkey, it is only because we choose not to see. We do not want to see, because we have returned, in spite of our regenerate national greatness and our considerable skill in map-making, to the Land of Goshen, to the land of comfortable idolatry under the watchful and benevolent gaze of the god-king. We are happy in harness, pleased to be liberated from that terrible liberty and all its unreasoning demands. We do not dare raise our eyes, because we are terrified of the prayer we would then be compelled to say. But we do not need prayers! We have silver and gold, and plenty of it, and a king to perform the needful rituals to satisfy the gods, that the crops and the GDP may grow. Or else we will, come next election.
Smile, Pharaoh. You will have the last laugh, if not the final word.
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