United Church of Christ New York Metropolitan Association
      History and Polity of the UCC
 

   

The Chosen People

By Rev. Elizabeth Wheeler

John Cotton, among the most famous of Puritan ministers in England , preached to the departing Puritans in 1630. His text was:

2 Samuel 7:10 Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel and I will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own and move no more.

In this tenth verse is a double blessing promised. First, the designment of a place for his people. Secondly, a plantation of them in that place, from whence is promised a threefold blessing.

First they shall dwell there like freeholders' in a place of their own. Secondly, he promiseth them firm and durable possession; they shall move no more. Thirdly, they shall have peaceable and quiet resting there. The sons of the wicked shall afflict them no more. . .

John Cotton went on to say that the natives favored these immigrants as Ephron the Hittite favored Abraham when he bought the field of Machpelah; that although the country was not entirely empty it was empty where they chose to take possession of it; and that the holy presence was with the people because

The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof . . . Therefore it is meet he should provide a place of all nations to inhabit, and have all the earth replenished. Only in the text here is meant some more special appointment, because God tells them it by his own mouth; he doth not so with other people, he doth not tell the children of Seir (the children of Seir were in Josh 24:4 separated from God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 17 that I will give unto thee and to thy seed after thee . . . all the land of Canaan; for an everlasting possession) that he hath appointed a place for them; that is he give them the land by promise; others take the land by his providence, but God's people take the land by promise; and therefore the land of Canaan is called a land of promise. Which they discern, first, by discerning themselves to be in Christ, in whom all the promises are yea, and amen.

Second by finding his holy presence with them, to wit, when he plants them in the holy mountain of his inheritance, Exodus 15:17. And that is when he giveth them the liberty and purity of his ordinances. It is a land of promise, where they have provision for soul as well as for body . . . when God wraps us in with his ordinances and warms us with the life and power of them as with wings, there is a land of promise
(Heimert and Delbanco 76-77)

Provisions for body and soul were God-given through God's covenant with the people. At the heart of the church is the covenant and the church incarnated through the entire New England Way , God's heavenly kingdom upon earth. Here is Richard Mather's definition of covenants

A solmne and publick promise before the Lord, whereby a company of Christians, called by the power and mercy of God to fellowship with Christ, and by his providence to live together, and by his grace to cleave together in the unitie of faith, and brotherly love, and desirous to partake together in all the holy Ordinances of God, doe in confidence of his gracious acceptance in Christ binde themselves to the Lord, and one to another, to walke together by the edification one towards another, as the Gospel of Christ requireth of every Christian Church, and the members thereof. (Miller 435)

Perry Miller in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century reports that one Anglican reader of such covenants regarded them as fantastic conceits, unreal and inhuman. Incredulous though Puritan opponents were, this was the rule the faithful sought to live by. Peter Bulkeley who led his band to what is now Concord , MA encouraged his people in 1639-40 when some were having second thoughts about the hardships they had not expected.

For ourselves here, he said, the people of New England, we should in special manner labor to shine forth in holiness above other people; we have that plenty and abundance of ordinances and means of grace, as few people enjoy the like. We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in. If we open the mouths of men against our profession by reason of the scandal of our lives, we (of all men) shall have the greater sin.

There is no people but will strive to excell in something; what can we excel in, if not in holiness? If we look to number, we are the fewest; if to strength, we are the weakest; if to wealth and riches, we are the poorest of all the people of God through the whole world. We cannot excel (nor so much as equal) other people in these things, and if we come short in grace and holiness too, we are the most despicable people under heaven our worldly dignity is gone. If we lose the glory of grace too, then is the glory wholly depart from our Israel , and we are become vile. Strive we therefore herein to excell, and suffer not this crown to be taken away from us; be we an holy people, so shall we be honorable before God, and precious in the eyes of his saints. (Heimert and Delbanco 120)

From minds like these came America 's founding myth of a Nation Chosen by God for God's work on earth. In the Reformed thought of these Puritan divines, God alone was sovereign over all creation and their drive was to restore as closely as possible the original purity of ancient Christian faith and life. Congregational polity patterned group life in the primitive church. The law of God as revealed in scripture was the rule of life that conformed human will to God's will and thus purified, New England would beam back a light to corrupted Old England and rescue her from the wrath of God. Here was a New Israel in a New Canaan.

In 1630 the story was a convincing retelling of the immigrant story, of Puritan confidence, liberation, hardship, of journeying to a new life in a promised land and God's commonwealth unto the millennial generation. By 1634, however, strong minded critics rose against the commonwealth's governor, John Winthrop. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were right but Winthrop was not wrong.

The great threat to the young Massachusetts Bay Colony was the passion for purity and separating. Winthrop 's dilemma was how to maintain some distinction between the flood of immigrants indifferent to the Puritan commission and how to contain Puritan zealots like Williams and Hutchinson. His policy was flexibility. For the most part he resisted prosecuting or excommunicating persons preaching excessive purity or who practiced unorthodox Christianity. But a few like Williams and Hutchinson were too powerful to contain.

When he met Anne Hutchinson in 1634 he was already dealing with Williams' shocking question: how pure could the Puritans be if they occupied the land by force? The land issue questioned the Puritan claim that there could be no separation between civil rule and spiritual rule. For Williams the sword of the magistrate corrupted the sword of the spirit and taking the land from the Indians by force had defiled the church. In his 1643 The Bloody Tenent of Persecution Roger Williams wrote

Truth. There is a civil sword, call the sword of civil justice, which, being of a material civil nature, for the defense of persons, estates, families liberties of a city or civil state, and the suppressing of uncivil or injurious person or actions by such civil punishments – it cannot, according to its utmost reach and capacity (now under Christ, when all nations are merely civil, without any such typical, holy respect upon them as was upon Israel, a national church), I say, cannot extend to spiritual and soul causes, spiritual and soul punishment, which belongs to that spiritual sword with two edges, the soul-piercing (in soul-saving or soul-killing), the Word of God. (Heimert and Delbanco 198, see also 208-9)

Hutchinson 's issue, with which Williams agreed, was grace: could human beings do anything to save themselves or was the peace of God freely given to whomever God willed regardless of merit? Unmerited mercy is the definition of grace. Hutchinson believed that nothing in this world could give any sure evidence of one's eternal salvation. Humans did act and hope their actions pleased God. But they had to seek their own salvation in fear and trembling and until they met God face to face they could never know their fate for sure.

Winthrop was horrified. The whole moral order was in jeopardy if citizens had no reason to do good and Scripture had no power of law over them if its rule were not absolute. By 1637 Mrs. Hutchinson had caused an uproar in the colony and Winthrop brought her to trial for heresy. He was no theologian and Hutchinson was very obviously his better. She could have prevailed over him at her trial had she kept still at the end. But she could not. Instead of citing the authority of Scripture for her authority she said God had spoken to her directly: By a voice of his own spirit to my soul, she said. (Morgan 152)

The Great Commission from God to establish a holy commonwealth could not, the court believed, tolerate inner voices of individuals so adamant. The colony would fragment into a thousand sects and restart the religious wars New England had expressly reproached. Her penalty was banishment.

Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were right. But both were banished. Not until Jonathan Edwards a century later was their theology joined to their enthusiasm in the Great Awakening and everyone agreed that personal mysticism could contribute to communal renewal. But John Winthrop was not wrong. Unity requires faithfulness not purity and in religious matters the light touch of ambiguity rather than the heavy hand of moral certainty is truer to the fullness of the faith.

Hutchinson and Williams were 100 years ahead of their time but nonetheless her trial was an ominous beginning. Although Winthrop might have banished two godly people in an attempt to exorcise the demons of disunity and doubt, the myth of the chosen people, like all myths holds within it positive and negative forces which can be used for good or ill.

The Puritan colonists had long thought of the New World as a “waste place” into which they could expand without any moral hesitations. Roger Williams was a nuisance who was gotten rid of and the saints could convert what Indians remained into praying towns under colonial administration. Some Indians resisted, of course, and for 40 years raided villages on the outer edges of the colony. But the colonists could still maintain the moral high ground of their civilizing mission.

The Indians were restrained as long as their great sachem, Massasoit, lived. His counsel that outright war with the colonists would mean a holocaust for the Indians kept an uneasy peace. When he died, however, his son, Metacomet known to the colonists as the brilliant military strategist, King Philip, organized the anger among the tribes. On June 20, 1675 a settler killed an Indian who was part of a band looting houses in Swansea MA . The English had a chance of capturing Philip then. But their blunders allowed his escape into western Massachusetts . The 100 women and children he and his warriors had to leave behind were sold into slavery.

Throughout July the number of attacks escalated and two years of war from Maine to Connecticut had begun. Eventually thousands on both sides died. Half the 90 New England town were attacked and 20 of these were either burned to the ground or might as well have been. It was the “single most cataclysmic event of seventeenth century colonial New England .” Today it is a footnote to the story. (Schultz & Tougias 6)

What made King Philip's War so shocking to Puritan New England was more the atrocities of the colonists than the Indians. They assumed savagery from savages but they were civilized! From this time forth, the apparent colonial policy was to wipe out all Indians who stood in the way of American expansion. Gone was the “errand to the wilderness” that motivated so many righteous Puritans and the romanticized image of that first Thanksgiving suppressed stories of Puritan persecutions against even Christian Indians. (Schultz & Tougias 17).

Whether the war would be won, as some would say, by Great Jehovah's reformed people or, as others would say, by superior force of arms ruthlessly employed, the colony's intellectual leadership would be henceforth divided. The children of God had failed in a significant way and the chastisement of the Lord was upon them. There would be no peace until repentance.

God had a controversy with New England . (Micah 6:1-8) In 1687 New England 's Micah Solomon Stoddard, predecessor of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton MA and the controlling voice among the powerful Connecticut River “gods”, pointed to the spirit of self-righteousness and the illusions of self-salvation as the causes of God's displeasure. He said what many only dared whisper: The only reason why God sets his love on one man and not upon another is because he pleases.

The self righteous man comforts up his heart with this, that surely God will have some respect unto his pains, his affections, his charity, his strict walking: this is his fort that he retire unto in time of danger. He has not been so bad as other men and he hopes God will not deal rigor with him. He thinks that his duties do lay some engagements upon the love and compassion of God; he hopes his prayers and tears have some constraining efficacy upon the compassionate heart of God . . . whereas a man, when he finds his heart bad, comes to Christ to make it better. . . And to this end attend the preaching of the word; attend the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and read the word of God diligently. (Heimert & Debanco pg 169-72)

Jonathan Edwards disagreed with Stoddard on many things but not this. God again reproved New England when a coalition of French and Indians raided Deerfield in February 1704. This was spiritual warfare against the anti-Christ pope in league with pagan Indians and Catholic France. Preachers raised the alarm. The Devil's counterfeits were everywhere. Trust only in God and God's certified agents, the established church. But the people went on “nightwalking” and drinking in the taverns and yet again God admonished them. This time an earthquake on October 29, 1727 , followed by 9 days of aftershocks, so agitated the people that the governor set December 21st as a Day of Fasting and Repentance for the communal sins.

Against all reason we assume divine favoritism without divine chastisement and human goodness without human sin. But to be chosen is not an unconditional seal of privilege and power or a justification of the American Way of life. Jonathan Edwards in his day struggled to regenerate his people through revivals and disciplinary actions against the habituees of Northampton 's tavern culture and lost his pulpit. He had in 1642 allowed himself to believe that “the beginning of the great work of God must be near . . . and that there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America .” (Marsden 265) Ten years later he had learned that some New Englanders belonged to the tribe of Satan and were worse than the Indians for rejecting the Gospel right at hand.

In 1751 as he took up his mission parish in Stockbridge MA Edwards was almost immediately in a dispute over land grabs by advancing colonists. And when the French and their Indian allies said the English “were only opening a wide mouth to swallow'em up,” he could not say otherwise. He could only resist. And that unsuccessfully. (Marsden 207, 396-99)

Nor could he stop the pernicious appeal of a benevolent God whose ultimate interest was human happiness. His argued against this error because it elevated human interests over God's commandments. God does not serve man. Man's first duty is to glorify God. Edwards arguments could not, however, withstand the high hopes of the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary era. The God-given laws of nature were self-evident and all human beings had to do to be virtuous was to know them and apply them.

Edwards knew better. “True virtue.,” he wrote, “grows out of a disposition to true love. True love is the widest possible affection for persons and all that is good in the universe. It is doing good for its own sake – for its beauty. Merely natural ‘virtue' which superficially may look very similar, is ultimately motivated by humans' natural inclinations to love themselves and their own kind.” (Edwards 470 also 396-99)

After two hundred and fifty years we would look back at King Philip and the colonists as the unhappy victims of human frailty and at Edwards and Williams as their prophets. After two hundred and fifty years of scientific achievement we are no closer to human virtue and the remnants of the Native American tribes today critique not only the American myth of choseness that justified earlier genocides but also today's system of sacrilegious land development that Williams opposed around Boston and Edwards opposed in Stockbridge. (Maxey in Hambrick-Stowe Who Shall Sit at the Table)

Indigenous peoples believe all creation is sacred because God's power is manifest in all nature. We defame God when we claim to “own property.” To own property is to own God and that is blasphemy. The exploitation and pollution of the earth are direct attacks upon God and a misappropriation of chosenness.

Rather human beings are the weakest creatures in creation because we depend on all other life forms for our life. God seeks salvation for the world, to restore the created order for the sake of all creation The human part is to listen for God speaking through creation. The human part is to revere the land like an elder and nurture it as a child.

When we walk gently upon the earth, it will yield to us in abundance and grow beautiful from our embellishments of its settings – gleaming alabaster cities and waving seas of grain. Treat the earth tenderly and it will bless generation after generation. Learn from the vital life of the old and they will show us eternal life. In the mortification of youth's beauty, the disintegrating flesh and shrinking bones of the old reveal their spiritual essence. Paradoxically, we long for eternal life but only in decay do we recognize what endures on the other side of the ephemeral, the ostentatious, the outward appearance of illusory youth. This is not regeneration. It is revelation.

Indigenous people show us one way to re-enchant our lives. The wakanda of the Sioux and the manitu of the Ojibwa Algonquins were translated by missionaries as the “Great Spirit.” But such a rigid interpretation does not render adequately the elusive yet protean idea (Cassier 68-70) and “Manito the Mighty” of Hiawatha assumes a personal creator god unknown to Native Americans. Manito the Mighty is a romantic reflection of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Christian god.

On the Mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
He the Master of Life, descending,
On the red crags of the quarry
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together.

From his footprints, flowed a river,
Leaped into the light of morning,
O'er the precipice plunging downward
Gleamed like Ishkooda, the comet,
And the Spirit, stooping earthward,
With his finger on the meadow
Traced a winding pathway for it,
Saying to it, “Run in this way!”

The Algonquin use of manitu , however, connotes something more pervasive than a Master of Life. Manitu is in words like -- power, sacred, ancient, grandeur, animate, immortal. Divine power is everywhere manifest and the world is full of wonder, marvelous and terrifying, demonic and divine. From this charged atmosphere however vague and inchoate, emerges another perspective on the mystery of life. Appearances may be deceiving.

Encounters with other faith traditions should, therefore, be approached with great delicacy. Because our religious tradition is in our DNA as is the Ojibwa tradition is in their DNA, we can never really understand each other. Intellectually, yes, but never in our bones. Our different traditions are infused into us and have no reference to empirical data. Observation yields only clues to the culture but never the real thing. What we can do, however, is to love our own traditions so that we may more easily see them in contrast to and dialogue with others.

The dialogue projects “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphone of fully valid voices, each with their own worlds and each with equal rights”. Rather than a single author with a single point of view, dialogue presents a fuller unity of one event through many perspectives. (Dorrian in his discussion of Mikhail Bakhtin's “Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics and his The Dialogic Imagination.”18-19)

Pluralism is not, therefore, an embrace of relativism but a submission to God's majesty and the acknowledgement of human fault and sin. God cannot be manipulated by good works but good works will be the by-product of a holiness wrought into the nature of the people, into their DNA through diligent reading of the Scripture, through worship in word and sacrament, through unceasing prayer and by the grace of God.

It is a return to the insights of Solomon Stoddard and Jonathan Edwards. Without a theology of God's absolute sovereignty and Christ's divinity, we cannot embrace human diversity with any theological coherence. The error of the fundamentalists is that they are not fundamental enough.

Absolute truth claims are always conditioned by the historical context through which God is still speaking and revealing new things. Like Israel we journey through time with God, experiencing the holy but never fully grasping who God is. There are universal truths but we stutter them and bow before God's correction and that of other peoples and faiths. And when in reverence we stand with a believer of another faith on the threshold between our traditions and each of us dares to let go of our theological supports, we feel a surge of spiritual energy, of God unmediated and cohabiting in each of us for a little while.

In recent years the UCC has been listening to Native Americans and finds itself in the odd position of defending the non-Christian spiritualities and religions its ancestors destroyed. This is not so much a matter of reparations but of responding to God, the Other, in the other. It is also a matter of justice. Here is Lawrence Downes' report on the Editorial Page of the New York Times, Tuesday February 15, 2005:

On a mild Sunday in February 2005 at the Diamondback Correctional Facility in OK 100 Hawaiian inmates marked the end of Makhiki, an ancient three month festival timed to the rising and setting of the Pleiades. The incongruities are piled up, thick and mysterious: these inmates, many of them not particularly devoted to any faith, have found God – or gods, rather – in a medium-security private prison in the land of the Cheyenne and Arapaho after being locked up for robbery, drug dealing and other felonies.

They have been helped not only by native religious teachers, community organizations and legal advocates back home but also by volunteer ministers from the United Church of Christ, a denomination whose roots include the Congregationalist missionaries who tried so hard to destroy the Hawaiian religion two centuries ago. . .

Traditional worship helps restore a sense of ho'opponopono, or righteousness, for men who have disrupted a spiritual balance in themselves, their families and their communities. It enforces strict rules about attendance and respect and rejects gangs, alcohol, drugs and violence. . . The rites. . . were conducted with the intensity of a fundamentalist revival meeting but with almost monastic sobriety and restraint.

On Sunday night, the inmates . . . chanted and danced a solemn hula. They sipped ‘awa, a ceremonial drink and ate poi. They sang. They planned to end by dismantling the akua loa, a paper-mache structure with Lono effigies but the music went on too long. At 9 p.m , after the agreed-upon two and a half hours were up, the men were told to stop what they were doing and return to their cells.



References

Eric R Schultz and Michael J. Tougias King Philip's War Woodstock VT : The Countryman Press 2000

George M. Marsden . Jonathan Edwards: A Life . New Haven : Yale University Press, 2003

Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco The Puritans in America . Cambridge : Harvard University Press 1985

Edmund S. Morgan The Puritan Dilemma New York : HarperCollins Publishers 1958

Perry Miller The New England Mind: Seventeenth Century Cambridge : Harvard University Press 1939

Gary Dorrian Soul in Society Minneapolis : Fortress Press 1995

Ernst Cassier Language and Myth New York : Dover Publications 1946