Sundays With The Christianists: American History Textbooks For Homeschooled Witch-Finders
Welcome, time tourists! Ready for some Colonial American fun? This week, wecontinue our autopsy of two American History texts for homeschoolers and Christian schools: a high school text from Bob Jones University Press, United States History for Christian Schools, and an 8th-grade text from A Beka Book, America: Land I Love. As we've noted throughout this series, these books don't necessarily "lie" about history so much as they promote a highly selective version of it, which is of course a necessary corrective to the liberal bias of public education, just like Fox News is fair and balanced. This week, we'll learn how colonial Americans rejected communism and promoted religious freedom by driving out heretics.
We won't attempt to cover the entire span of the colonial period, but it's worth noting that both books, originally published in the early 1990s, take time to connect the difficult first years of the Jamestown colony to modern fundamentalists' loathing of anything that might sound like socialism. Of the two, Land I Love is, as usual, the loonier. After noting that Jamestown was established in a malarial lowland with an unclean water supply, surrounded by tribes who didn't appreciate being invaded, and populated by settlers who expected to get rich right away but knew little about agriculture or basic survival, Land I Love diagnoses the chief cause of Jamestown's difficulties: Communism.
Jamestown’s biggest problem was the common-store system established by its charter. Each man was required to place the fruit of his labor in a common storehouse, and each was entitled to receive food and supplies from the storehouse according to his need. This communal (belonging to the community) system meant in reality that the industrious man must provide for the idle. Many yielded to their sinful nature and spent their days in idleness or searching for gold. With everyone benefiting from the common storehouse but few contributing to it, the food supply was quickly depleted. Thus America’s first experiment with a form of socialism failed miserably.
In 1608, Captain John Smith took charge of the colony and saved it from self-destruction by ruling with a firm hand. He established the policy that any who would not work should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10). As one historian put it, "Those who tried to live without working soon found that they must also try that harder thing -- to live without eating."
Oddly, Smith's free-market reforms didn't prevent the "starving time" of 1609-1610, but Land I Love somehow suggests that this had more to do with Smith's return to England after an injury. In any case, free enterprise ultimately saved the day because Virginians started growing and selling tobacco, yay. But just to underline the point, Land I Love also takes the later colonists of Plymouth Plantation to task for flirting with socialism before getting capitalism right. It's kind of fascinating to see just how widely this myth of the "secret history of Thanksgiving" has become a fixture in wingnut holiday celebrations.
Anyhow, once the colonies figured out that they could only prosper by rejecting Marxism long before Marx was born, they jumped into the important task of pursuing religious freedom, as long as it was freedom for the right kinds of religion. Both textbooks note the sectarian roots of each colony, noting, for instance, that Rhode Island was founded after the Massachusetts Bay Colony hounded Roger Williams into the wilderness. Land I Love doesn't have much to say about the colonists' fondness for driving out heretics, while U.S. History does a fairly comprehensive job of outlining the major theological tensions among the various groups of settlers, and even discusses acts of outright persecution, such as the hangings of Quakers in Massachusetts. Once again, surprised props to the Bob Jones book for at least acknowledging that it happened.
Both books give a shout out to John Winthrop's 1630 sermon calling the Massachusetts colony a "city on a hill," although Land I Love gives it the Reaganesque spin that Winthrop meant this as "an example to the world" (you just know they wanted to add Reagan's adjective and make it a "shining city on a hill"). U.S. History, however, reminds us that Winthrop meant the metaphor as a warning, not mere cheerleading:
"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."
There's no better discussion of this sermon -- and of its awful cheapening by the We're Number One! wing of American Exceptionalists -- than you'll find in Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates.
As for everyone's favorite example of colonial religious enthusiasm, the Salem Witch Trials, Land I Love has a clever strategy for the troubling question of how Godly people could execute 20 innocent people and allow more to die in jail: It simply doesn't mention the trials at all. Instead of throwing the trials down the Memory Hole, U.S. History puts them in context -- that is, it makes excuses for them, calling them "the low point in Puritan history." The witch trials didn't represent anything typical of religious fundamentalism, but rather demonstrated the Salem colonists' error in having "forsaken much of the faith of their fathers" and sinking into "fanaticism and hysteria." In a sidebar titled "The Truth About the Salem Witch Trials," we learn that modern views of Salem are mostly the result of anti-Christian prejudice:
Several facts are ignored in the blast of accusations hurled at the Puritans. The ministers of Massachusetts, rather than being persecuting fanatics, actually counseled caution and restraint to the more zealous civil authorities. It was the opposition of some of the clergy, in fact, that helped end the witch trials. Boston pastor Cotton Mather, who is often falsely accused of urging authorities on, said, "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person should be condemned."
See! Can't blame the good Christians, it was the just their flocks that got a little out of hand. Furthermore, let's not forget the REAL WITCHES:
Often forgotten too is the fact that some in Massachusetts actually were practicing witchcraft, although it is difficult to tell whether this practice was mere superstition or real demonic activity. Even if this activity were only superstition, nearly everyone at that time -- not just the Puritans -- believed that it was genuine witchcraft and that it must be relentlessly punished. In the century before the Salem witch trials, for example, over three thousand accused witches were burned in the Swiss canton of Vaud alone. Salem, by comparison, was restrained.
Also, the people of Salem later repented and were very, very sorry, so why does everyone keep dragging this stuff up alla time?
Regrettably, the worthy contributions of early American Puritanism have been obscured by the wild fanaticism of a few and by an eager willingness of later generations to believe only the worst.
There's simply no justice. You hang just one witch...
Next Week: The Great Awkening, which we are pretty sure has something to do with coffee.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.