( Pictures from left ro right: Red Jacket,Anne Bradstreet.and Roger Williams)
I recently read about authors Anne Bradstreet, Roger Williams, and Red Jacket and I found their writing/speech very interesting; their theme is similar regarding the real role of religion. The first two were Christians (Bradstreet was a puritan and Williams some sort of separatist) and Red Jacket believed in the Great Spirit. Even though, they have different views about religion; they agree about America, a supposedly free New World.
After speaking with Doctor Harman, my American Literature professor at Northern Virginia Community College; I decided to share this paper especially with non native English speakers like myself who might/may/must need to read and learn about these first American writers like Bradstreet who has very appealing poetry. This post is also a good excuse to reach young readers like my very good friends at Grand Valley State University.
Writer Roger Williams, Anne Bradstreet, and Red Jacket
Free Spirits in an intolerant New World
The main reason English men came to America was to flee persecution, hoping to find freedom to practice their religious beliefs. At least that is what we can infer by reading William Bradford on his writing, “Of Plymouth Plantation.” However, the long hard journey and several facts around religious differences among the English proved that the New World was not the Promised Land either. Authors, Rogers Williams, Anne Bradstreet, and ultimately Red Jacket (a Native American) showed some interesting points of view and/or inconsistencies about the Pilgrims and their desire to live a religious life in a tolerant environment.
William Bradford’s writings explain clearly the context of the pilgrims and their voyage to America. He joined nonconformist minister Richard Clyfton, who opposed the Church of England. They would be called separatists because of their desire to divide from the Church of England since they did not believe a reformation from within could be attainable. This opposition made separatists unwanted in England. Some of them settled in The Netherlands, but they would never call it home. Hostility against separatists is evident in Bradford’s writings, “They could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted and prosecuted on very side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken and clapped in prison, others had their houses beset and watched now and day” (106).
After a long and epic voyage to America, Pilgrims who received permission from the King of England to travel started a new life in America under the impression that the New World would be a free one; but some events indicate that Pilgrims were not the only travelers. Intolerance, as a hidden passenger, also found its way to America.
Roger Williams was one of first persons to be accused of having ideas that differed from those of the Church of England and the Puritans. According to John Winthrop‘s notes, “The governor of Massachusetts and his assistants could not wait until spring to banish him from the commonwealth. They had to move immediately and ship him back to England. His opinions were dangerous and spreading” (173).
Williams, as well as many Separatists, Seekers, Jews, and, Quakers, were forced to find shelter living with Narragansett Indians in Rhode Island a land where freedom of conscience was accepted as a result of a Royal Charter imparted by Charles II.
What were Roger Williams’ dangerous ideas?
First, he declared that King Charles had no authority over Native Americans’ land. Second, he said that non religion should be professed by coercion. Third, that Massachusetts Colonists should separate and deny the Church of England. Ultimately, he stated that civil authority is limited and cannot control the human soul.
After reading these “dangerous” ideas it is palpable that Roger Williams’ ideas were inclined to freedom of conscience by stating that men should have the option to choose if a religious life was the path they wanted to follow. Moreover, he strongly believed that theocracy and civil government could not fully rule a person and his soul. His thoughts about the sovereignty of American Indians over their land were also a very modern concept of geopolitics and diplomacy that could not be understood in those days.
In today’s a modern world, no civilized people could just arrive in a territory and claim the land as theirs. We have to note that also French Colonists who landed on Florida in the early 1560’s also wanted to claim the land as French territory. But the New World was already occupied by the Native Americans who had a culture, families, traditions, laws, and their own religious values.
Williams in a sense wanted to respect the Native American culture without imposing his own faith but trying the natives to understand it. However, his work Key into the Language of America was useful for people who wanted to teach the Christian faith to the natives, “Friend, not so. You are mistaken. There is only one God. the Fifth day He made all the fowl.(182) However, by mentioning the Native American beliefs of The Eastern God, The Sun God, The Fire God, Williams assimilates the Native American culture too.
One of the most noteworthy of Williams’ opinions was to declare “improperly sinful” and “unchristian” to call American Indians “Heathen” (174). In a modern and educated society, to believe that someone who has a different background and culture is heathen (pagan or savage) would be not only politically incorrect but unacceptable. At present in Australia or Brazil there still native people who live under their own traditions. Even though they are part of a country and respect the law, they cannot be enforced to accept a religion under the “warning” that hell waits if they do not convert to a certain religion.
Anne Bradstreet was also an author who regardless of having Puritan beliefs showed in her writing that faith wasn’t necessarily accepting a religion by dogma or imposition. She believed in God not by reading the Bible but from, “the wondrous words that I see, the vast frame of heaven and the earth, the order of all things, night and day, summer and winter, spring and autumn, the daily providing for this household upon the earth, the preserving and directing of all its entire proper end” (187).
In a sincere and very philosophical self questioning she doubts at times if God exists, if miracles are true. Her faith comes more out of observation of the world, nature, and daily life. Furthermore, she shows some tolerance towards other faiths and questions her own, “yet why may not be the Popish religion the right? They have the same God, the same Christ. They only interpret it one way, we another” (217).
Finally, it is not only the English who begin to question, not the existence of God, but the way Christian faith is taught and imposed. The Seneca orator Red Jacket had also a very controversial and deeply philosophical rhetoric. First, Red Jacket condemns the invasion of their land and also mentions that English civilization interferes with Native American culture, “They told us they had fled from their own country for fear of wicked man, and had come here to enjoy their religion. They asked for a small seat. We took pity on them, granted their request.” (446) In addition, Red Jacket says: “Our seats were once large and yours were small. You have become now great people, and we scarcely have a place to left spread our blankets. You have our country, but are not satisfied, and has slain thousands; you want to force your religion upon us”.
What is more, Red Jacket questions the English colonists about faith and their so claimed unique and valid religion that prevails over any other, “Brother, you say there is one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can read the book” (446).
In a sense, Bradford, Bradstreet and Red Jacket shared similarities about the existence of God and also in one way or another they seem to be free spirits who do not want to compel their beliefs on other human beings. They all agreed that there is one God although different faiths may exist.
Bradford and Red Jacket expressed in different ways the right to be free to exercise faith and also demanded the respect of Native American law, which is something the colonist failed at. Red Jacket’s appeal for freedom of conscience was not understood probably because his way of thinking was too modern for the time and many people who came to America were as intolerant as the ones from whom they escaped in England. Red Jacket did not ask too much when he addressed his speech to the English, “Brother, We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.” (447)
America without doubt was made built mostly by brave people who ventured in an unknown land having no more strength that their faith and hard work. It would be impossible to build a big and prosperous nation just by mere providence. However, there is another part of the story that needs to be told to comprehend the complexity of America’s early days, Pilgrims, religion, and intolerance. Chuck Larsen, an educator and historian from Tacoma Public Schools who is also of Indian ancestry states that, “The Puritan "Pilgrims" who came to New England were not simply refugees who decided to ‘put their fate in God's hands’ in the ‘empty wilderness’ of North America, as a generation of Hollywood movies taught us. In any culture at any time, settlers on a frontier are most often outcasts and fugitives who, in some way or other, do not fit into the mainstream of their society. This is not to imply that people who settle on frontiers have no redeeming qualities such as bravery, etc., but that the images of nobility that we associate with the Puritans are at least in part the good ‘P.R.’ efforts of later writers who have romanticized them” (http://www.manataka.org/page269.html).
Bradford, Williams. “Of Plymouth Plantation.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Ed Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. W. W.Norton & Company. New York-London, 2007. 106
Bradstreet, Anne “To My Dear Children.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Ed Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. W. W.Norton & Company. New York-London, 2007. 187-217
Red Jacket. “Speech to the U.S. Senate.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Ed Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. W. W.Norton & Company. New York-London, 2007. 446-447
Williams Roger. “A Key into the Language of America.”The Norton Anthology American Literature. Ed Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. W. W.Norton & Company. New York-London, 2007. 173-174-182
Larsen, Chuck. “About Thanksgiving, an Introduction to Teachers.” Sep 1986