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God & Country

Christianity has had a profound influence on America. The following vignettes are a sampling of key historical events that are largely ignored today.

Editor’s note: Ed Gitre and Dr. J. Calvin Holsinger authored 15 of the following 20 pieces. Gitre, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, graduated with high honors in history from the University of Michigan and received his master’s degree from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo. Today he serves as a Chi Alpha minister at the University of Chicago. Chi Alpha is the Assemblies of God ministry to American college and university campuses. Holsinger teaches at Evangel University in Springfield. He received his undergraduate and master’s degrees in history from the University of Pittsburgh and his doctorate in history from Temple University in Philadelphia. Dr. Ken Horn and Scott Harrup serve as managing editor and associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel, respectively. Dr. Elmer Towns is dean of the School of Religion at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Individual authorship is noted by the use of the writer’s initials.

1620: Pilgrims to Plymouth
England’s Reformation was a rather messy affair. People there had never truly been united in worship, even under the powerful Roman Catholic Church. When Henry VIII severed ties with Rome in the 1530s — to divorce his barren wife, Catherine of Aragon — the floodgates were opened. Conservatives wanted essentially a pope-less Catholicism. Looking for true reform, however, the radicals wanted far more.

They wanted to rid the church of ornate cathedrals, ecclesiastical courts and rigid hierarchy. They wanted a church established along New Testament lines. Not only did these radical "Puritans" not get their way, but under Queen Elizabeth’s successor, James I, they were told to conform — or else. Shortly after 1600, many left England.

The more-liberal Dutch welcomed English "Separatists," but life in the lowlands proved equally inhospitable. Economically, they met with little success. There was threat of war between Holland and Spain. Most disturbing, their children, according to William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, were being "drawne away by evil examples into extravagante & dangerous courses." They looked to America, a new Eden in their view, to start afresh. In September 1620, having negotiated land through the Virginia Trading Company, they set sail aboard the Mayflower.

Two months later they landed — off course — in Cape Cod, which belonged to the rival Plymouth Company. Some were concerned with this illegality, while others were not. That disagreement produced a compromise — and one of this country’s most famous documents, the Mayflower Compact. Together they "solemnly and mutually" covenanted "in the Presence of God and one another" to form a "civil Body Politick." It remained the colony’s charter until 1691 and served as a model for others.

— E.G.

1621: Thanksgiving Day
It was very difficult to establish stable commonwealths in the wilderness of North America. Governor George Percy wrote of the years 1609-1611 in Virginia: "Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases … by warres, but for the most part they died of mere famine." The Pilgrim settlers in New England found the same difficulties. Of the 100 or so at Plymouth the first year, scarcely 50 were alive by spring.

In his Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford tells of a particularly difficult year. In the spring of 1621 they planted their crops, but from May to July there was a drought. It appeared they would face a winter of starvation. Therefore the governor announced a "solemne day of humilliation to seek the Lord … in this great distrese."

On that day of prayer, it remained hot throughout the morning and afternoon. But "toward evening, it begane to overcast, and shortly after to raine … which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderfull to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold."

This miraculous good harvest, according to Governor Bradford, prompted them to set aside a Day of Thanksgiving and to invite the friendly Indians to join them in their joy.

To the Pilgrims they were not holding a harvest festival or a "pumpkin party with Indians," or "turkey day." In Bradford’s book, he clearly notes, instead, that it was what the Pilgrims believed to be a miracle from God that was the basis for this American Thanksgiving Day holiday so much loved by all Americans.

— J.C.H.

1600s-1700s: Religious education in colonial America
A London pamphlet published in 1643 outlined the goal of a recently established college in the American colonies: "Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternally life."

The school was none other than Harvard College, founded in 1636. That was only a few years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritan Harvard was a "new seminary in the wilderness," a beachhead for Protestant religion in an untamed land. Roughly 50 percent of its graduates in the 17th century entered the ministry. The "new seminary" didn’t just produce clergy. Harvard’s mission was to educate the future leaders of the church, state, and society — all of which were assumed to be deeply committed to God and godliness. Those same assumptions governed every other colonial college.

Connecticut Congregationalists established Yale in 1701 with similar goals. The same goes for Virginia Anglicans (College of William and Mary, 1693) and the "New Light" Presbyterians (Princeton, 1748). The church and the academy had no "wall of separation." Just the opposite. A revival in religion often meant a revival in education.

"Christ is the only, the true, the living way of access to God," proclaimed Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College from 1795 to 1817. In his 1814 "Baccalaureate Discourse" he went on to say, "Give up yourselves therefore to Him, with a cordial confidence, and the great work of life is done."

King’s College (Columbia University) published the following advertisement in 1754: "The chief Thing that is aimed at in this College is to teach and engage the Children to know God in Jesus Christ, and to love and serve him, in all Sobriety, Godliness, and Righteousness of Life, with a perfect Heart, and a willing Mind."

— E.G.

1739: A British evangelist and America’s First Great Awakening
George Whitefield was Oxford-educated and, at 22, Anglican-ordained. He wasn’t your typical Anglican, though. A friend of John and Charles Wesley, he was a "Holy Club" methodist. His sermons were filled with impassioned pleas to be born again.

Whitefield was at the center of this country’s First Great Awakening, a spiritual renewal that swept through the colonies in the 1730s and lasted into the 1750s. It was actually a cycle of local revivals that started in New England and rolled southward in successive waves. Jonathan Edwards — perhaps the 18th century’s greatest English-speaking theologian — led in the north; others elsewhere, like Gilbert Tennent. No revivalist compared to Whitefield, however. Crisscrossing the colonies and the Atlantic, he preached some 15,000 sermons.

Whitefield became a friend to another colonial leader, Benjamin Franklin, who had this to say of the evangelist in his famous autobiography:

"In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches; but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refus’d him their pulpits, and he was oblig’d to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admir’d and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the 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."

— E.G.

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