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Victor Nuovo: Errand into the wilderness

“Errand into the Wilderness” is the title of the book by the late Perry Miller, a distinguished historian of New England. Miller took it from the title of a sermon given in 1670. It was a common practice in colonial New England for the people of a town and their public officials to gather in church on election day to renew their commitment to God and good government. The sermon was billed as an election day sermon. The Puritan minister who gave it asked his congregation this question: “What purpose had sent them on this errand in the wilderness?”
The Puritans were English Protestants, proponents of the Reformation. Now the Reformation was both a religious and a political movement. According to its name, its purpose was to reform the Christian Church. Religious reformers desired to purify the church by restoring its authoritative constitution, beliefs, and practices, which they supposed were prescribed in the Bible. They believed that the Bible, and the Bible only, is the true word of God, where God chose to reveal his will for mankind; all Christians were obliged to study it and obey it and to regard it as their supreme authority in all matters of life and death.
However, some Kings of Protestant nations also saw in this an opportunity to increase their power. Hitherto, religious authority centered in the Church of Rome, whose bishop, the Pope, claimed that supreme and universal spiritual power resided in his office. But the Pope was also a temporal ruler and often used this power to interfere with affairs of nations.
In England, Henry VIII, seized the opportunity and in 1534 declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England and decreed that it be reformed. The architect of religious reformation was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and among the notable products of his endeavor was The Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-nine Articles. The former has become an English classic. But Cranmer’s reforms did not satisfy the desires of many religious reformers. It kept too many of the institutions and practices of the Roman Church, and it maintained centralized authority in the Church, which now had two heads, one secular, the monarch, and the other religious, the episcopal hierarchy. This gave rise in England to the Separatist Movement, to the formation of independent churches, some of which prescribed the rule of a council of elders and clergy, Presbyterians, and others, local congregations often led by charismatic ministers who preached the plain Word of God. These were called Independents or Congregationalists. They adopted a form of government whose secular counterpart is still current in New England towns.
The oldest English settlement in New England was established by one of these congregations. They sailed from the Netherlands, where they first sought refuge–for they were religious refugees, and they reached Cape Cod on Nov. 11, 1620. This was not their intended destination. They had planned to establish themselves in Virginia. But fortune brought them to a different place, to a wilderness, that is, a place where there was no European political authority. Therefore, it became necessary for them to reinvent themselves politically just as they had already done religiously. And, while still aboard ship off Cape Cod, they drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact. It declares that the signatories had covenanted together, or mutually agreed, to combine themselves “into a Civil Body Politic.” It stated their purposes, to glorify God, to promote the Christian faith, and to honor their King and Country, and also their intentions: “to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony.” The compact was dated 11 November, anno domini 1620 [the date is according to the older Julian Calendar; according to the Gregorian calendar, now in use, it was 21 November]; there were forty-one signatures, all men. There were others aboard ship who were not asked to sign: these included servants, and “merchant adventurers”, and all the women. The congregation and their leaders believed it necessary to enact the political compact before they landed, because they feared that some among them, adventurers, would seize the opportunity of embarking in a wilderness, a lawless land, to engage in criminal behavior with impunity. The document is known as the Mayflower Compact.
The Massachusetts Bay Company began settlements in New England in 1630. The settlers did not regard themselves as refugees. The Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not leave England to escape persecution, rather they left because they believed themselves God-sent to establish a new society in a new land, which would become a model to the world. According to one of their founders, John Winthrop, they were to become “a city upon a hill”; “a model of Christian charity”; an example to the nations; the eyes of all people would be upon them. This sense of mission, of American exceptionalism had its beginning and continues today, even though the religious context in which it was originally framed has lost its cogency to many. Yet the moral context is not lost. Winthrop was aware that there was great risk in exposing a civil society to the world. For, just as it could bring praise and reputation, it could also bring blame and ill-repute. A nation can also become a mockery, a symbol of wrong, a poster child of hypocrisy, an easy target for obloquy and verbal abuse. It is not clear what sort of model this country best represents to the world, especially now. If this were made a topic for debate, I am not sure which side would win the argument. It would be more profitable to set the debate aside and return to the study of this nation’s history and its political tradition.
But before I leave this topic, I should consider the unhappy consequence of social modeling: persons or nations that imagine themselves to be models for others expect admiration and praise, or at least they hope for it; and when it doesn’t come, when they find themselves rather held in contempt, ridiculed, and mocked, they become resentful, morose, sometimes vengeful. The chance that this will happen is highly probable, given the way the world is, filled with envy, ill will, selfishness, and self-pity. Indeed, it has happened, and we are living in with its consequences today. Exceptionalism is a risky business.

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