Thursday, December 4, 2014

Honor the Pilgrims?

There are some big anniversaries coming up in the next several years. In less than three years (October 31, 2017) is the 5ooth anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther that began the Reformation. On November 9, 2020 is the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock.

We honor the Pilgrims for two reasons. One, they helped to found our nation, the United States. Of course, they share that honor with others, especially the Jamestown settlers in Virginia. The second thing that we honor the Pilgrims for is religious freedom. That's what I learned in school and have had confirmed in church as well. The Pilgrims came to New England seeking freedom to practice their religion. And I was told that this led to religious freedom in America.

But you might be surprised to learn that some are saying that we should not honor the Pilgrims for religious freedom. (Now, I am not referring to some left-wing nutcakes who hold America responsible for all the world's ills. I am talking about evangelical Christian scholars who think that the sins and errors of our forefathers disqualifies them from this honor.) The Pilgrims wanted freedom to practice their own brand of religion. That same right was not to be granted to those who practiced another religion or another form of Christianity which they would consider to be heretical. So, they did not conceive of religious liberty in the same way that we do today.

I appreciate the fact that evangelical historians are anxious to point out that we often do not realize that our forefathers were imperfect people who sometimes did bad things. The Pilgrims, who generally had peaceful relations with the local Indians did attack them at different times. (I am uncertain whether or not it was justified or if it was an overreaction to some offense.) And it is true that they would not have allowed another competing religion in their community. But the historical question is this: Did their quest for religious freedom eventually culminate in the kind of religious liberty we hold dear today.

I think that it does. Everyone wants freedom for themselves and their viewpoint or religion or race or ethnic group. That is a good thing. People should stand up for their rights and the rights of those like them. That is only natural. In America, different groups went to different places. There were the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Anglicans in Virginia and the Catholics in Maryland. When the states came together during and after the Revolutionary War, they had to have some principle to bind these groups together. Since no group was dominant, it only made sense to give everyone freedom of religion. So, the Pilgrims took the first step toward a freedom that went beyond what they intended, but later spread to all.

The question is how we judge historical figures or groups. Should we count up their sins and misconceptions by our own standards and dismiss them as racist or slaveowners or those who want liberty for themselves and not others? Or should we see what effect they had on history and whether it was good or bad. The latter, I believe.

Look at some of the great figures in history. King David is honored by the Jews, Christians and God Himself for his leadership of Israel. Yet he committed adultery and murder. Moses was also a murderer. God and His people honor these flawed men very highly because, despite their failings, they followed God.

The Pilgrims and Puritans were not always the saints that they hoped that they would be. They did not necessarily create the kind of society they wanted to create. Yet God used them to help found a great nation that has, I think, done great good in this world.

Evangelicals are great for telling us that God uses flawed human beings to do His work and build His kingdom. So we should understand that when dealing with those in the past who might not measure up to our standards. It will be interesting what those Christians, hundreds of years from now (assuming the Lord tarries) will think of us.

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