Pioneers: Some of them were running to something, but others were running away. Let's spare them a thought.
The Religion Factor: Or, Why They Left Home and Ended Up in North America
Something somebody said to me the other day made me realise how much damage we do to ourselves by believing the 'official' view of history. When I say 'official', I mean the publicly accepted story. And when I say 'damage', I'm not merely referring to the bogus and self-serving simplification of events that tends to glorify the past and gloss over the horrors. There's plenty of blame to go around. Our supposedly enlightened revisionist views can lead us down the garden path to misunderstanding just as quickly as the textbook bromides, if by a slightly different route.
There's also something we do when we look at history that's called 'presentism': we assume that people in the past were doing something that makes sense to us, which isn't really possible, because they'd never heard of the internet or Donald Trump. They had their own reasons.
Finally, there's the problem of misidentification. We tend to slap labels on things, and think they mean the same thing now that they did a few hundred years ago. Believe me, things change over time. Duh. Ask a modern Democrat or Republican what they believe. Now go back 150 years – the Democrats will find themselves nodding at Republican speeches, and vice versa. This confuses schoolchildren, and is impossible for Twitter users to comprehend. (They need to ask the schoolchildren.)
So I thought I'd try to explain what was originally meant by the statement, 'Some North American colonists came to the continent to escape religious persecution.' This statement is true, and more relevant to our understanding of the world in general than you might think. It might help to explain what some of those pioneers of the past thought they were doing.
If that sounds boring, go away. I'll talk to whoever's left. I'll wait while you collect your coats and hats. Don't forget your souvenir programmes.
Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Religious persecution. These days, meaning the 21st Century, most people are worried about religious people persecuting them. They may not realise how much state-sponsored religious terrorism was going on in the 16th and 17th centuries. They also tend to think the statement about 'religious persecution' is being applied to the Puritans, an English sect that did plenty of persecuting itself, and actually came to North America for the cod fishing. This is not the case. So let me back up to the 16th Century and explain, or try to. It's going to take a bit of historical background, and tolerance on the part of the reader. I hope you have that, because frankly, tolerance in the 16th Century was in pretty short supply.
Running from the Inquisition
First of all, there was the Spanish Inquisition. Yeah, I know, nobody expected it. Except possibly Miguel de Cervantes. The Spanish Inquisition made life hell for lots of people in Spain, especially the conversos, a group of Jews by heritage who had been forced to convert to Catholicism or else flee the country back in 1492. They were constantly in danger of being accused of secretly practicing Judaism on the sly, which could get them killed in nasty ways. Some scholars believe that both Cervantes and (surprise!) Christopher Columbus were Jewish by heritage. Sephardic Jews I have known – Mediterranean Jews whose ancestors came from Spain – were particularly insistent that one of the reasons for Columbus' original voyage was to scout out a home for his people. Be that as it may, life was uncomfortable for Jews, Muslims, and conversos as long as the Spanish Inquisition was lurking around.
In a well-researched book I just pulled down from my shelf, called Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America, author Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman finds traces of these Spanish conversos in the southeast United States. This is not too surprising, because the Spanish were scouting the region long before the English. She believes the Melungeons – a minority ethnic group you've probably never heard of – included Muslim and Jewish refugees seeking a safe place to get away from the Spanish Inquisition. Hirschman thinks they may be responsible, at least in part, for something called the Primitive Baptist church. (I promise I won't go there.)
Melungeons today are curious about their history, which is shrouded in mystery. Lack of documentation happens when you're trying to live off the grid. Ask that whole West Virginia town who suddenly found out their g-g-g-grandparents were all Cherokees on the lam from the government. But some historians believe the Melungeons are largely descended from maroon communities1. A maroon community was a good place to hide out back then.
Running from Established Churches
The Spanish Inquisition didn't only torture people in Spain. It did a job on the Netherlands, too, until the Tachtigjarige Oorlog (Eighty Years' War) broke out. You know that song you may sing, or hear sung, around Thanksgiving in the US? We Gather Together sounds tame and pious in English. In the original Dutch, it meant, 'Yay! We finally won a battle! We're going to get the Inquisition off our backs and have church whenever we like.' The Netherlands became a safe haven for dissidents. And back then, dissidents were mostly people who didn't want the government controlling their lives. So what else is new? But you may not have expected to find them in a religious group. Religious groups back then were all about more thinking, not less. They were the tolerant ones.
Over in England and Ireland, how was the government controlling their lives? Well, besides the usual monarchical nonsense, which frankly could be pretty well ignored by most people, there was this thing called the Church of England. So what? you say. We've still got that, we just ignore it except at Christmas, when we go over to admire the architecture and listen to the pretty carols.
You bleedin' well didn't ignore the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries, Sunshine. If you did, you could find yourself in jail, or worse. (Much worse.)
It all started when you were born. You weren't born until the Church said you were. You had to go and get christened – and probably pay a fee for the privilege – and get written up in the parish register. There were no birth certificates back then. Most of the time, we figure out when historical figures were born by counting back a few days/weeks from when they were baptised, depending on local custom. Annoying, you say, but no big deal? What if you had the temerity to go to a different church? Then you weren't legally born. Have you ever heard the hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing? The Baptist preacher who wrote that in the 18th Century, one Robert Robinson, was a plague to the authorities in Cambridge. He had twelve unbaptised children. Such a horror. ('Baptist', ironically, meant you didn't baptise your infants. It's hard to keep up with all these weird ideas, I know. Almost as bad as figuring out the difference between anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism.)
Okay, so you managed to get born without the Church's blessing. Next, you might want to get married. Lots of luck without a baptismal certificate. You either followed the rules and paid the fees, or. . . guess how many dissenting people were officially 'living in sin'? Letting these people get married was, er, the 'gay marriage' issue of the day.
Of course, the worst crime against the state was not going to church on Sunday. Why? So the preacher could tell you to do what the government wanted, of course. (Shades of George Orwell.) As far as the official clergy were concerned, it didn't matter to them if you didn't go because you were an atheist, a Dissenter of some sort, a ridiculous Quaker who attended Meeting on some other day of the week because 'all days are holy' [give us a break!], or just wanted to go fishing. The law was clear: go to church, the official one, on Sunday, or pay the fine. Can't pay the fine? Well, there's some nice livestock, we'll have that.
We'll spare you the problem of burial. Why do you think there are Quaker cemeteries, Jewish cemeteries, etc, all over the Sceptred Isle? Because we can't have those unbaptised, dissenting Heathens polluting our sanctified burial grounds.
You get the idea. Sooner or later, these Dissenters got tired of being jailed, pilloried, and robbed by the state because they happened to disagree with the Thought Police. They were so tired of the government picking on them that they were willing to stuff themselves into leaky ships, endure a couple of months of seasickness, and try to build a home in an uncharted wilderness full of wild animals that tried to eat them, and sometimes hostile neighbours who had bows and arrows, and weren't afraid to use them. They settled in places where Dissenters were welcome, like Pennsylvania and Maryland. Places with tolerant codes. You don't hear much about them at Thanksgiving, because frankly, their descendants didn't write the history books. The New Englanders did, for about a century and a half, and the story got stuck like that.
What About the Pilgrims?
The 'Pilgrims' were a small group of Dissenters who had got run out of England for mostly the reasons we've listed above. They found themselves welcome in Leyden, in the Netherlands. The Pilgrims had two problems there, though: Most of them were farmers or fisherfolk, and they weren't really good at urban living. Also, their children were growing up speaking Dutch, which isn't so much a language as a throat disease, and made their parents sad to listen to. So they crowded into a leaky boat – just one, because the other one had a huge hole in it – and spent a couple of months being seasick, etc. They thought it was worth the risk for a new start in life, a safe place to pray, and freedom from hearing Goedenmorgen with that scratchy noise in it, like dry gargling, every single day.
The Pilgrims weren't related to the Puritans who showed up later. That lot came, as I said, mostly for the cod fishing, and stayed to hunt witches. They continued to name their kids things like Flee Fornication Arbuthnot, and generally be a pain in the tuchas to everybody else in the colonies. They hated Quakers with a passion. Not only did New England and Virginia have anti-Quaker laws that basically said, 'Thou shalt not land a boat on our sacred shores if it containeth the wretched Scum known as Quakers,' but the New Englanders would deport Quakers for the first offence of immigration. If they came back, the New Englanders hanged them. What? Of course they came back: the Quakers were trying to convert the Puritans to peace, love, and non-violence. Have you got any idea how ticked off a Puritan gets if you send him missionaries? The Quakers found out. To this day, Boston and Philadelphia mock one another, and they probably don't even remember why.
What Have We Learned?
Well, I don't know what you've learned. Or even if you hung around for the lecture. But here's what I've gleaned from years of study on the subject:
- It is not correct to say, 'All of these problems are caused by religion. The solution is to abolish religion.' This is an extremely simplistic view, and ignores the fact that a non-Deist viewpoint can also be a form of religious thinking. Official atheism – as opposed to separation of church and state – is in itself a form of state religion, and will cause exactly the same mischief as any other official stance on the subject. You don't believe me? Ask someone from a former East Bloc country.
For another, all of these situations were caused, not by religion, but by state-sponsored religion. Which is why it is so ever-lovin' important to keep government out of your private thoughts about anything: whether there is, or is not, a God, whether you can personally speak to Him/Her/It, whether He/She/It talks back, and whether that makes you crazy, or any other philosophical conundra you care to mention. If the government keeps its paws off private thought, there will be a lot less oppression in the world. So no praying around the flagpole, people. Say 'Merry Christmas' all you want, but don't pass laws about it.
- Humans crave this freedom of thought. They crave it so much that, given relative economic prosperity for those who conform to the majority view, and guaranteed persecution for those who do not, they will face a continent full of bears and panthers rather than give up their right to proclaim any nutty notion they happen to believe in. Good for them.
- When studying history, humans often make the mistake of choosing the side that they think they would have been on, rather than the side they would really have been on. You really believe in social action to improve the world? You're for equal rights for women, freedom for minorities, and public schools? Surprise! You'd probably have been part of the Second Great Awakening. You don't believe your church should be involved in charity? Guess what? You wouldn't. You're a free thinker and a believer in autonomous collectives? You'd probably have been a Baptist or Quaker back in 1650. Want to jail people for dissing patriotic symbols? Probably solid C of E.
- It is very easy for humans to be intolerant. Trying to make other people conform to your ideas is intolerant. Blaming current problems on their 'wrong ideas' is intolerant. It doesn't matter whether you believe in Yahweh, Krishna, Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the proclamations of the Guy on the Bestseller List. Trying to abolish the other person's view, or force yours on them, makes you part of the problem. It's harder to be tolerant. Tolerance requires understanding, and that requires paying attention and taking the time to learn something new. Which you may have just done, if you've read all of this mess I wrote. So thank you, heaven bless you, and Happy New Year to you. May all your thoughts be free, whatever it is you choose to think about. (I hope you'll share them, we've got lots of room.)