Archive for the ‘ American Character ’ Category

American Character: Edward Winslow

There probably aren’t too many Americans who know the name Edward Winslow. He was one of the Pilgrims, a trusted friend and helper for William Bradford for many years. As with Bradford, Winslow’s Christian faith led him to depart England for Holland, and then on to the New World.

Winslow suffered in the same way Bradford did at first in the new colony of Plymouth. The first winter was severe, and half the company died. One of those was Winslow’s wife, Elizabeth. Yet he continued to believe that God had called him to this venture.

Winslow became the chief diplomat for the Pilgrims with their Indian neighbors. Chief Massasoit had a special regard for Winslow because of one particular episode.

Massasoit was dying, probably from typhus. Plymouth sent Winslow to see what could be done to help. Upon arriving at the Indian village, Winslow examined Massasoit’s tongue and saw that it was “exceedingly furred” and so swollen that the chief could eat nothing. Winslow was able to get some fruit preserves into the chief, then scraped the “corruption” from his mouth and tongue.

Winslow’s constant attention to Massasoit’s needs, which included shooting and cooking a duck for him, as well as offering what medicines he could, led to the chief’s recovery when everyone thought he was going to die. Massasoit then asked if Winslow would do the same for others in the tribe suffering the same sickness. Winslow dutifully scraped the mouths of everyone who was sick, something he admitted was “much offensive to me, not being accustomed with such poisonous savors.” But his Christian faith, and the desire to maintain good relations with the natives, inspired him to complete the task. As Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower,  comments, “This was a form of diplomacy that went far beyond the usual exchange of pleasantries and gifts.”

Winslow also performed diplomatic missions for the colony with the English government. On one such trip back to his native land, he decided to stay and help with the Parliament’s war against Charles I. He never returned to Plymouth, but was instead named a commissioner for a British naval effort against the Spanish. He died in 1655 of yellow fever off the coast of Jamaica. Philbrick concludes,

Winslow undoubtedly looked to his final decade in England as his shining hour as a diplomat, but his most significant contribution to British and American history had actually occurred more than thirty years earlier when he became the Englishman Massasoit trusted above all others.

Edward Winslow’s life and character should not be shuttled to the back pages of American history. His contribution to the founding of the New World should be known by every American.

American Character: William Bradford

Pilgrim Governor William Bradford

He was only in his twenties when the awesome responsibility of governing a community was thrust upon him. Then, for 35 years of the next 40, he continued to lead that community, being reelected annually. That must mean he was doing something right.

His name was William Bradford, governor of the Pilgrim colony of Plymouth. He arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 along with a band of his fellow believers. In England, they were called Separatists because they didn’t want to belong to the state-sponsored church. For that stance, they were persecuted.

America was the opportunity to set up a colony and be able to do things the way they thought God commanded. Bradford, although young, led with increasing confidence.

He negotiated a treaty with his nearest neighbor, Chief Massasoit. That treaty lasted for more than 50 years, beyond the deaths of the two who fashioned it. He changed the farming system from a collectivist method to private enterprise. Immediately, initiative and industry thrived. As he later wrote about this change:

The failure of this experiment of communal living, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men, proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients—that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community . . . . would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. . . .

Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another course was fitter for them.

In William Bradford, we have an American example of honest and godly government.

American Character: Pocahontas

To some, she is the stuff of legend. Perhaps that’s why Disney felt comfortable making a film that is largely fantasy.

First, she was not an alluring young woman when she met Capt. John Smith; she was about ten years old. Fantasy is at work also in the image of John Smith here.

Pocahontas was fascinated with these English settlers. She spent time at the fort playing with the young boys. Her father, Chief Powhatan, didn’t mind her visiting his enemies because she could then provide intelligence about them.

When Smith went back to England, she was informed that he had died. Her link to the settlers was broken, and she stayed away for a few years.

A later Jamestown governor got the bright idea that the best way to get concessions from Chief Powhatan was to take something that he valued and then offer to trade. So he took Pocahontas. She was kidnapped by the settlers in order to force Powhatan’s hand.

Abduction of Pocahontas

Abduction of Pocahontas

Those plans were foiled when Powhatan refused to deal. A combination of Pocahontas’s interest in English culture and anger toward her father for his attitude led her to remain at Jamestown, where she was taught the Christian faith. She decided she wanted to be a Christian and was baptized.

This painting of the baptism of Pocahontas can be seen in the Capitol rotunda in Washington, DC. Yes, it also has a little fantasy in its depiction of the baptism. There were no Roman columns in the New World. Yet the fact is that Pocahontas did become a Christian. She even took what she considered to be a Christian name: Rebecca.

She also married one of the colonists: John Rolfe, a new settler who had recently lost his first wife. Their marriage was the beginning of a better time in the colony. It formed a bridge between the English and native cultures. Peace, however uneasy, resulted.

Pocahontas gave birth to a son, Thomas. The Virginia Company, which had sponsored the Jamestown settlement, knew a good public relations coup when they saw it. The Rolfe family went to England, where the company could show off the Indian princess who had become a Christian. They hoped this would bring in more investors.

Pocahontas liked England, and indications are that she wished to stay. Her Christian faith drew her closer to English culture. She even had her portrait painted while she was in England.

This portrait is probably the most famous of all depictions of Pocahontas, who was now also known as Lady Rebecca.

As they were awaiting departure for the return trip to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill. They had to take her off the ship. As she lay dying, she told her husband not to grieve; it was the lot of everyone to die. She exhibited a calm assurance of eternal life.

Pocahontas–inquisitive child, peacemaker between cultures, voluntary convert to the Christian faith. In her twenty short years, she made an impact on American history, and her real story is much more significant than the stuff of legend.

American Character: Chanco

Most of you probably looked at the name in the title above and said, “Who is that?” Character is not found only among the well known; it appears in those we might call “the common man” as well.

I call Chanco an example of American character even though he was not one of the early English settlers. Rather, he was a native American, one already living here when the English arrived.

The backdrop: Jamestown was 15 years young in 1622. It finally seemed to be thriving, and relations with the natives appeared to be improving. Yet the chief of the Powhatan tribe had devised a scheme whereby his men would rise up against the English at a prescribed time and kill them all. On the morning of March 22, his plot was carried out. It was not as successful as he had hoped. Why not? Because of Chanco.

If you ever go to the original site of Jamestown and go into the church that is erected there, you can view a plaque on the wall that says:

Thus, a native who had heard the Christian message of salvation and believed, did what his faith required of him. This is pretty good evidence that Chanco had truly internalized the message and not merely nodded in agreement with certain doctrines. He was willing to turn away from his own tribe and family to warn the “outsiders” of the threat. True Christian faith doesn’t divide people into “tribes,” whether they are ethnic or racial. Instead, it recognizes that God is the God of all.

So here’s to Chanco, a native American Christian who appears briefly in American history and then disappears, but who teaches us all a valuable lesson.

American Character: Capt. John Smith

Smith Saved Jamestown

Smith Saved Jamestown

I spent a few days posting on the principle of Christian character. Throughout American history, there have been individuals who have exhibited certain of those traits and, by them, have contributed greatly to our history. Some of those people may not have been Christians themselves, except in the cultural sense, but they still exemplify the qualities that are essential for a society to work.

One such man was Capt. John Smith—soldier, adventurer, mapmaker of the New World. One of Smith’s least admirable qualities seems to have been a penchant to tell others how to do things, even when they didn’t want his advice. That quality almost led to his hanging on the trip to the New World.

Once here, though, his character began to show in ways that allowed the young colony to survive. He successfully traded with the natives, who respected him because of his strong words and actions. His efforts to map the Chesapeake region helped not only Jamestown but others who followed after.

Most importantly, however, when Jamestown was at its lowest ebb, he was selected to be the president of the struggling colony. Under his leadership, the gentlemen, who until this time had declined to partake of physical labor, were forced to do so. Smith realized that he had to turn them away from fortune-hunting to planting. The future depended on it.

He also instilled military discipline into the settlers, drilling and training them for self-defense. The natives were watching these exercises, as Smith wanted them to. The military bearing served as a deterrent to attacks, an approach used throughout the ages to keep potential enemies from taking advantage.

It can be said with confidence that Smith saved Jamestown from disaster. The later history, which included a starving time and martial law without personal liberties, were not Smith’s doing. Severely injured after a gunpowder accident, Smith had to return to England, where he fought a different battle—for his reputation. Some were trying to blame him for the Jamestown failures. Scapegoating has been common in all eras. Yet Smith successfully defended his actions.

John Smiths are just as needed today. Practical leadership skills and the foresight to prepare for possible adversity are qualities we should seek in those who want political power. Sometimes, we don’t choose wisely.