From Colonial to Woke

A recent trip to New England, for the SBC Conference, no less, reminded me once more of the strange and mixed origins and influence of the Yankee States over the entire country. On the one hand, I once more revelled in the tree-coloured autumn I so love. Over the course of the week that I was there, drives through the Massachusetts and New Hampshire countryside with their usual features of quaint villages, white clapboard churches, colonial graveyards and the like — as well as the omnipresent autumn/Halloween decoration on nearly every house — refreshed and rejuvenated my spirit as they have ever done. Moreover, in token of the book on Servant of God Empress-Queen Zita’s life I am writing, I was able to visit her sometime home in Royalston and parish church she attended, Our Lady Immaculate in Athol.

But, as always, it was and is the colonial remnants of the area’s past that I sought out. Now, I must admit that I love the colonial era of American history. Not merely New England’s, nor just my native Hudson Valley, but all of it. The Thirteen Colonies to be sure, but also the Spanish Southwest (including the California Missions) and French Louisiana and such of her Midwest settlements as Sainte Genevieve, MO; Prairie du Rocher, Kaskaskia, and Cahokia, IL; Vincennes, IN; and Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, WI as retain any remnants of their French character. For that matter, Royal Hawaii, Russian Alaska, the Danish in the Virgin Islands, and the Spanish in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Marianas also fascinate. Taken collectively, these various influences and the missionaries, soldiers, settlers, and explorers who brought them are the very foundation of everything that is best in these United States. In truth, the colonial era in our history is the equivalent of Medieval history in Europe.

Nevertheless, there is a particular charm to the remnants of those days in New England. Certainly such ancient watering holes as Westminster’s Old Mill, Sudbury’s Wayside Inn, and Concord’s Colonial Inn always call me back — and so it was this time. I also made a pilgrimage to Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s colonial capital, to see Wentworth Senior Living. I was not interested in checking in, but in seeing the historic part of the building, which had been the residence of Sir John Wentworth, one of my favourite Loyalists in our first civil war, commonly called the American Revolution. Despite being a native son of the province, and having done so much for it during his tenure, he was forced to flee, ending up as Governor of Nova Scotia.

But throughout Portsmouth — and indeed, through many of the other towns I passed through — the rainbow flag and often enough BLM banners were omnipresent. Often enough, these would be present on the picturesque little clapboard churches that are so much a part of the New England landscape. Built initially by the Puritans and their descendants, one might have a hard time understanding how far they could have strayed from their roots. This past year, the Cambridge-based Christmas Revels, which had been a source of Yule-tide pleasure for me and many others, changed its name to “Midwinter Revels” — something I cannot imagine their founder, John Langstaff, signing off on.

But perhaps, had he lived longer, he would have. One thing New England and American history teaches us is that Yankee standards have always been on a sliding scale, with no fixed position. True enough, the Puritans came to our shores bound and determined to maintain Calvin’s poison in the New English Canaan, pure and undefiled. They founded Harvard College to train ministers learned in the same, and raised our very first militia units — both the Ancient and Honorable Artillery and some current outfits of the National Guard — to defend their “Godly Commonwealth” against the heathen French and Indians. They introduced their Town Meetings to govern each Town; to vote, one had to be a full member of the Church — that is, having both been baptised and having demonstrated a genuine religious experience to the local minister.

But a number of factors — interior and exterior — began to wear away at this version of paradise. Although the Pilgrims had successfully cut down the “Maypole of Merrymount” and banned Christmas and Easter, heresies such as Baptistry and Quakerism began to agitate the Lord’s own — to say nothing of Witchcraft. Halfway covenants allowed all the merely baptised a voice at Town Meeting. Although the Congregationalist establishments in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts sailed through the Revolution unscathed, the first State ended it in 1818, the second in 1790, and the third in 1833 (the District of Maine did the same when it became a separate State in 1820).

But while all that was going on, the Unitarian movement split the Congregational churches of eastern Massachusetts, after capturing Harvard College in 1805. In parish after parish across the Bay State and in Maine, referenda were held. When the Trinity won, the Unitarians withdrew — otherwise, the reverse occurred. By 1833, the process was complete. But the division took a bit longer in various joint institutions — and indeed, there are still certain joint Congregationalist and Unitarian ministerial pension funds that date back to colonial days.

Unitarianism, however, in turn gave birth to an even vaguer movement — Transcendentalism. Where the Unitarians jettisoned belief in the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ, the Transcendentalists in a sense retained only a sort of “belief in belief.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller were among the great prophets of this point of view. It too became predominant at Harvard and is enshrined in the words of Fair Harvard. That ditty’s first verse pays an obligatory homage to the Puritans who founded the place:

Fair Harvard! Thy sons to thy Jubilee throng,

And with blessings surrender thee o’er

By these festival rites, from the age that is past,

To the age that is waiting before.

O relic and type of our ancestors’ worth

That hast long kept their memory warm,

First flow’r of their wilderness! Star of their night!

Calm rising thro’ change and thro’ storm.

But while praising them, the song intimates that they and their views — although the reason for the institution existing — are no longer valid, and that truth is an ever-shifting thing — and so education ultimately doomed:

Let not moss-covered error moor thee at its side,

As the world on truth’s current glides by

Be the herald of light, and the bearer of love,

Till the stock of the Puritans die.

Harvard, like all else, must change constantly in order to remain tied to truth — or so the song assures us. In doing so, although betraying everything the Puritans held dear, Harvard folk considered themselves as having remaining true to the Puritans in some “higher” sense or other.

One of the byproducts of ongoing Yankee liberalism was a huge decline in the birthrate of the native-born thanks to contraception. Embraced by both Congregationalists and Unitarians, this had the effect of sending both churches into tail spins in terms of membership. Many of the white clapboard churches in just as many New England villages had too few members to justify staying open. So where you formerly had Unitarian and Congregationalists building their churches as far away from each other as they could, in certain towns they reunited. These “Federated Churches” as they were known might add Methodist, American Baptist, or Quaker congregations to the founders.

Given the doctrinal variation there present, the Catholic could be forgiven for supposing such unions impossible. Nevertheless, as the website of the First Parish of Bolton (founded in 1741) tells us, “Since 1931, The First Parish of Bolton has brought together people from many different religious traditions. We are currently affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), United Church of Christ (UCC), the American Baptist Churches (ABC), and have Quaker roots.” How to maintain this diversity? Well, “Our worship life is centered on Judeo-Christian teachings, but we view scripture through the prism of human understanding and experience as well as valuing wisdom drawn from other faith traditions.” Their doctrinal stance is very vague, indeed: “We do not adhere to a particular statement of faith or belief. We encourage each individual to shape his or her own faith and spiritual practice.”

This sort of progressive vagueness reigns supreme through the land of the former Puritans. The online history of the First Church in Salem — an unapologetically Unitarian church — emphasises continuity of a sort with its Puritan past: “It is clear that the Puritans who founded the First Church in Salem saw themselves as being on pilgrimage to the City of God, to use the famous Augustinian metaphor. As a result, they believed that they could somehow perfect their world and community. Along with the Salem Covenant and its language of ‘walking together,’ this belief in the church’s ability to move towards the Kingdom of God here in this world has reverberated down through the centuries, inspiring and informing how the church developed. While the original Calvinist theology of the founders transformed over time, some of the Puritan values and practices have remained.” Indeed, “Through all of this, some of the vision of those hearty Puritans who founded this First Church remained — and remains. The work of this church, after 378 years of schisms and hysterias and wars and infighting, is still not complete. We remain a church whose purpose and mission is still unachieved and whose history is still being written.”

Such an outlook, once convinced, made rainbow flags and BLM banners inevitable indeed; the world — “on truth’s current” gliding by — quickly and earnestly became Woke. So it is that the churches, learned societies, universities, and other institutions founded by the Puritans have completely surrendered to the zeitgeist. How could they not?