Archive for the ‘ American Character ’ Category

American Character: George Whitefield

George Whitefield Preaching

He was a sensation. He was not even strictly an American, but a traveling evangelist from Britain. Yet America was on his heart.

When George Whitefield arrived in America in 1740, he started in Georgia and traveled up the coast, preaching in all the colonies. The result was the climax of what we call the First Great Awakening.

Whitefield’s voice boomed, and he dramatized his sermons. Thousands traced their conversion to his messages. Ben Franklin became his friend, yet never gave his life to Christ. However, he was astounded by the effects of Whitefield’s efforts. Franklin records in his autobiography:

It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if the whole world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.

Whitefield’s impact was tremendous. He returned to America many times, but his final trip was in 1770. Suffering from severe asthma, his friends warned him against overexertion. His response? “I had rather wear out than rust out.”

One account of his life tells of that final trip:

 He was importuned to preach at a place called Exeter, and though feeling very ill, he had not the heart to refuse. A friend remarked before he preached, “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.” Whitefield replied: “True, sir,” and then prayed: “Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.” Although scarcely able to stand when he first came before the group, he preached for two hours.

Arriving at the parsonage of the First Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, he intended to go at once to bed. However, a great number of friends gathered at the parsonage and begged him for just a short message. He paused a moment on the stairs, candle in hand, and spoke to the people as they stood listening—until the candle went out. At 2 a.m., panting to breathe, he told his traveling companion, “My asthma is returning; I must have two or three days’ rest.” His last words were, “I am dying,” and at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning he died—September 30, 1770.

When Americans heard of his death, they mourned from Georgia to New Hampshire. In one sense, he was the first American figure known and respected by all.

George Whitefield was a man who wore himself out doing what he believed the Lord had called him to do. There is no greater testimony than someone who was obedient to the call of God.

American Character: Thomas Hooker

Thomas Hooker: Founder of CT

I like pointing out certain figures in Amerian history that few people can recall. It’s important to revive our collective memory. One of those individuals is Thomas Hooker.

Hooker was a Cambridge-educated Puritan who quickly developed into a very talented preacher. He took a pastorate in a town in England that was notorious for its many taverns and boisterous citizens. He is credited with restoring order to that town by his words and his presence.

His Puritanism, however, led to clashes with the Anglican hierarchy. Summoned to an ecclesiastical tribunal to answer for his views, he instead chose to remove to Holland. His reputation was such that while he was in Holland, he received an invitation to come to America to take a pulpit in the newly established colony of Massachusetts. In 1633, Hooker and dozens of his followers left for the New World.

In 1636, Hooker received permission from the Massachusetts authorities to move to a new area to find better land. He also had concerns about the Massachusetts policy of only allowing church members the vote.

He led his congregation to what is now Hartford, Connecticut, where he took the lead in establishing a civil government. He preached a sermon in which he applied Biblical principles to how a government ought to operate. Those concepts included representation and the expansion of the electorate to all who owned property, not just church members. Since taxes were taken from property owners, it was only fair to include them in the making of laws.

That sermon inspired the first American constitution, called the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. Historian Paul Johnson says it was actually the first real constitution in the world. The preamble to the Fundamental Orders states that the reason for setting up a decent and orderly government is that God’s Word requires it. Further, it says that one goal of government is to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel. It also established a principle that if the laws of the community do not cover a certain situation, the civil rulers should resort to the Word of God to find a solution.

Hooker, therefore, helped create the Biblical foundation for law and government in America. Connecticut, over time, got a reputation as a place where stability reigned. It became known as “the land of steady habits.” In times of confusion and uncertainty, that sounds pretty good.

So let’s remember Thomas Hooker, a somewhat forgotten Founding Father.

American Character: John Eliot

Another early Puritan leader was John Eliot, who developed a heart for bringing the Gospel to the natives. Critics today would say he was infringing on their native religion and flexing the muscles of cultural superiority. That’s not how Eliot saw it. What he perceived was a people worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. They needed to know the One who forgives sins and brings new life.

One account of Eliot’s life states:

Eliot became inspired with the idea of converting the Indians. His first step was to learn their dialects, which he did by the assistance of a young Indian whom he received into his home. With his aid he translated the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. John Eliot first successfully preached to the Indians in their own tongue at Newton in October 1646. At the third meeting several Indians declared themselves converted, and were soon followed by many others.

John Eliot induced the Massachusetts General Court to set aside land for their residence. The Court did so, and also directed that two clergymen be annually elected by the clergy as preachers to the Indians. As soon as the success of Eliot’s endeavors became known, the necessary funds flowed in upon him from private sources in both Old and New England. In July 1649 parliament incorporated the “ Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England,” which supported and directed the work inaugurated by John Eliot. In 1651 the Christian Indian town founded by Eliot was removed from Nonantum to Natick, where residences, a meeting-house, and a school-house were erected, and where Eliot preached, when able, once in every two weeks as long as he lived.

John Eliot’s missionary labors encouraged others to follow in his footsteps. A second town under his direction was established at Ponkapog (Stoughton) in 1654. His success was duplicated again in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and by 1674 the unofficial census of the “praying Indians” numbered 4,000. At Eliot’s death, which occurred at Roxbury on the 21st of May 1690, the missions were at the height of their prosperity.

Eliot’s greatest feat, alongside his preaching, was to develop a written lanaguage for the Indians and to provide them with their own version of the Bible.

The New Testament was at last issued in 1661, and the Old Testament followed in 1663. The New Testament was bound with it, and thus the whole Bible was completed. To it were added a Catechism and a metrical version of the Psalms. This book was printed in 1663 at Cambridge, Mass. . . . and was the first Bible printed in America.

How many Americans know of John Eliot’s labors? Well, maybe a few more know now.

American Character: John Winthrop

John Winthrop, leader of the Puritan migration to Massachusetts, and that colony’s first governor, sometimes gets a bum rap from historians. Even one of my favorite historians, Paul Johnson, considers him too severe. A good corrective on that, however, is a fairly recent biography by Francis Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father. Bremer shows rather conclusively, I think, that Winthrop was a man of great moderation fueled by his Christian faith.

Winthrop is known, if at all, primarily for the sermon he preached on his ship coming over to the New World. In that sermon, called “A Model of Christian Charity,” he instructs:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we 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.

Winthrop understood that God expects people to live up to the standards He has set. If we fail to do so, He will not help us. Christians need to maintain a consistent testimony before the watching world. If we don’t, we besmirch the reputation of the One who saved us.

During Winthrop’s first winter in Massachusetts, sickness overcame the new settlers. Many died; others were starving. Since he was one of the wealthiest of the settlers, he gave freely out of his plenty to help those who were less fortunate. One of the first settlers to die was his own son.

One might think that such an experience would sour a man on the mission. Not Winthrop. When the spring came, he wrote to his wife back in England about all the sorrows and tribulations, but stated clearly,

Yet for all these things (I praise my God) I am not discouraged, nor do I cause to repent, or despair of those good days here, which will make amends for all.

This is called faith. It is the testimony of John Winthrop.

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.