Magazine article The American Conservative

A WASP Looks for God: A Descendant of America's First Shepherds Searches for a Flock

Magazine article The American Conservative

A WASP Looks for God: A Descendant of America's First Shepherds Searches for a Flock

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: this article is the first in a series on Neal Freeman's inquiry of faith.

One of the most heuristic things ever said about a member of my family was said by William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth colony, the early American settlement located in what would, at a later day, become the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Writing in his memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford said of my paternal ancestor, William Brewster, "He was tenderhearted and compassionate of such as were in misery, but especially of such as had been of good estate and rank and were fallen unto want and poverty."

What was remarkable in that encomium, of course, was not the contention that Brewster was a nice man. Down through the centuries, the record would probably confirm that my family has produced at least one nice man every generation or so. What was remarkable was that Brewster was revered not so much for his work in comforting the afflicted as for his success in comforting the formerly comfortable. As the Elder--a spiritual leader, that is to say--of a small band of English Christians who decamped first to Leiden, Holland, and then to America in 1620 on the good ship Mayflower, Brewster was tending to a relatively well-placed and well-connected flock. These were merchants and farmers, men of the law, men of the Book.

These Pilgrims, as they came to be called, were not low-born or criminal elements fleeing authority in search of a second chance. (For the footloose and felonious, conveniently, there would soon be Australia.) These were proper Englishmen, some of them educated, which was rare in those days, and most of them with "good prospects" What set them apart from the rest of their countrymen was a determination to worship

God according to their own lights, free from constraints imposed by the almighty Church of England, and free as well from an English King increasingly given to what the Pilgrims perceived to be papist tendencies. These Pilgrims were men and women willing and in notable cases eager to subordinate the temporal to the transcendent. They were, as history would later inscribe, the brave souls who brought across a vast ocean and then planted in the hard soil of New England the radical and very American idea of religious freedom. That idea took root, deep root. Almost two centuries later, the framers of the Constitution would begin the very first sentence of the very first clause of the Bill of Rights this way: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Another way of looking at that hardy congregation huddled aboard the Mayflower, of course, is to say that they were a boatload of religious fanatics, led in matters religious by the most fanatical congregant among them--my man Brewster.

My mother's family arrived somewhat later. She was a descendant of John Winthrop, who came to New England aboard the Arbella in 1630. He settled on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and, as a dogged and competitive sort, busied himself with the task of building a community superior to Plymouth, which was situated just a few miles down the Atlantic coast. Winthrop was a drumbeater. He is perhaps best known to history for urging his fellow colonists to appreciate that the eyes of the world were upon them and that, accordingly, they should "consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill"--that is, that they should conduct themselves so as to serve as shining examples for those left behind in Old England. (Notable political figures, Ronald Reagan prominent among them, would consider Winthrop's exhortation to be the fons et origo of the worldview known today as "American exceptionalism.")

Winthrop was a man of this world and less so of the next. He was, in the contemporary formulation, a community organizer: the trains, had they yet been invented, would surely have run on time. In matters of the spirit he made even Brewster look like a theological wimp. …

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