By Faith, Moses . . .

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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The American Puritans were a hardy folk. When first set ashore on this continent, they found no Holiday Inns, no brightly lit BP gas marts. Fast food was as unheard of as indoor plumbing. There was nothing at all on the Massachusetts coast, not even a Massachusetts.

Their task was to build a community. Worn and haggard after a less-than-amiable trip across the shining sea, they came ashore and soon enough fell under winter. That “howling wilderness” William Bradford describes in his history slung them a brutal succession of nor’easters, and they with nary a parka from L. L. Bean.

Generally we think of the Puritans only on Thanksgiving and as pious folks around a bounteous table; but we forget that their first American winter cost them half of their dear souls. In the freezing cold, death was no stranger. In that howling wilderness, there must have been no end of wailing.

What’s left of the Puritan image today is likely derived from H. L. Mencken’s darling little cultural slap: “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.” When we think of “puritans” today, we think of schoolbook censors, the Prohibition, Aunt Henrietta, and those who stand foursquare against what Las Vegas has long called “gaming.”

Fair enough. That the American Puritans hoisted the morality bar to intolerable heights seems obvious to anyone who’s read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Salem was hardly a Biblical city of refuge: 20 people were killed there in a self-righteous frenzy that even today should make Christian believers weep.

But, let’s remember this, too: Today it’s the Puritan influence in our culture that rolls its eyes at Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” and insists that as a nation and culture, we’re better than that. In part, it is the Puritan influence that insists we have a moral calling to aid the world’s impoverished. Our Puritan legacy is somewhere behind the impulse many of us feel to head off to church every Sunday. This country has very religious roots.

What’s more, it’s the Puritan “Mayflower Compact” that drew a bead on the revolutionary idea that every human being has worth and dignity. Democracy as we know it grew from Puritan enclaves, no matter how self-righteous or bigoted those folks may seem or were. Any assessment of American cultural power that does not locate some roots in our Puritan past does not merit attention.

Unlike any other attempt at colonization in what is now the United States, the Puritan enterprise worked—despite the horrors they suffered. And unlike any other early colonization effort, only the Puritans left an indelible imprint on American culture.

And why? Hmm. What gave them cause and strength is summarized in the first question and answer of the catechism they memorized: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” A vision larger than their own.

Hebrews 11 reads like long list of all-stars: “By faith, Enoch. . .; by faith, Abraham. . .; by faith, Moses. . .”

How is it that these people’s stories all end up in wonder? By faith.

How is it that a scraggly group of religious dissenters, nobody’s favorites, created a community in a howling wilderness and established an undeniable place in a new and amazing culture? By faith.

And now, the big question: What is it that turns each of us into something more than the sum of our parts?

Same old same old. The answer is a vision larger than our own. The answer is faith.