In 1801, a rumor spread across the United States that God was doing something miraculous in the tiniest of places, Cane Ridge, Kentucky. According to James Bradley Finley, a then nineteen-year-old from North Carolina, the rumor was true: A mighty work of God was happening, a spiritual revival like nothing he’d seen before.
“The noise was like the roar of Niagara,” Finley wrote later in his autobiography. This wasn’t far fetched, considering twenty-five thousand campers had congregated on that field in the middle of Kentucky and there were reports of people being “tossed to and fro” by the Spirit of God. Finley described God as “like the tumultuous waves of the sea in a storm” and the crowd as “like the trees of the forest under the blast of [a] wild tornado.” For five days, Finley watched God do things he’d never witnessed before. A longtime Presbyterian, Finley was uncomfortable with what he saw, at least in the beginning. But the young conservative Christian warmed up to the experience, eventually calling it a “most astonishing and powerful revival,” the biggest movement of God since “the day of Pentecost.”
America’s Pentecost happened during the first week of August in 1801, when God brought together the largest group of people that most of the attendees had ever witnessed firsthand. The majority were Methodists, Baptists, or Presbyterians. Considering that Methodists stood on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from Presbyterians, and that most Baptists stood wherever their pastors told them to, their willingness to worship together was a marvelous achievement, perhaps the most miraculous part of what happened at Cane Ridge.
Denominational unity was for the most part frowned upon by a majority of America’s churches. Still, like Finley, those who attended God’s party in the Bluegrass State weren’t accustomed to seeing God show up, let alone seeing God show up carrying a bag of heavenly tricks. Finley wrote about people becoming “struck with terror and conviction, hastening through the crowd to escape, or pulling away from their relations, others trembling, weeping, crying for mercy, some falling and swooning away.” Finley said that God moved through the crowd like a tsunami, slowly engulfing people in the Spirit, causing people to hop around like pogo sticks or to perform backflips off wagons and tree stumps. Amid the chaos, God, according to Finley, stirred up “a universal cry for mercy, [a] bursting forth in loud ejaculations of prayer or thanksgiving.” This work of the Holy Spirit, Finley admitted, “exhibited nothing to the spectator…but a scene of confusion.”
Then, amid all of that divinely inspired ejaculating, God also killed a man. That’s how Finley tells it, that God killed “a daring blasphemer,” a pompous blowhard who, upon becoming drunk with liquor, stupidity, and the devil, mounted his horse and started riding straight through circled gatherings of prayer. After interrupting two or three prayer circles, “[the man] fell from his horse…as if hit by lightning.” Finley watched as a multitude of people gathered around the man’s lifeless body, cheering and shouting “as if Lucifer himself had fallen.” Too interested in what he witnessed, Finley “watched [Lucifer] closely, while for thirty hours he lay, to all human appearance, dead.” The following day, the man’s lifeless form began twitching and shaking. Leaping from the ground, he hopped, skipped, and performed somersaults while shouting nonsensical sounds of pleasure and praise. These temporary murders happened quite often according to Barton Stone, one of the ministers who preached at Cane Ridge, who said that “the falling exercise was very common among all classes, the saints and sinners of every age and of every grade, from the philosopher to the clown. [They] would generally, with a piercing scream, fall like a log on the floor, earth, or mud, and appear as dead.”
Behold, the strange works of God in America were at hand in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801. Whatever happened that week, whether every detail written by the people who experienced those Spirit-filled days is true, false, or somewhere in between, the truth is that the larger-than-life camp meeting altered the future of God. How could it not? The God that the men and women experienced on Kentucky’s hillsides was one that most Americans had never before encountered. In the months and years following “America’s Pentecost,” spirit-filled revivals broke out across the nation, causing a multitude of Americans to become entranced in holy bliss, overwhelmed and intoxicated with the Spirit of God.
America’s God had indeed grown since his Puritans days, days of piety when wigs and robes were worn behind pulpits, and few things were more exciting than catching one’s neighbor living a secret life as a Baptist or, worse, an Anglican. Could the God who was causing people to get down on all fours or lie slain in the spirit really be the same God who led the Puritans across the Atlantic from England to Boston? And if so, what on earth happened in America to cause such a shift in how people experienced and worshiped God?
Whatever it was that happened to God between 1630 and 1801, the transformation continued after the revival in Cane Ridge. If America’s God was indeed the same yesterday, today, and forever, then it would seem that God’s understanding of “same” was evolving.
In the spring of 1630, the story of God was on the brink of change, a new beginning that would forever affect how humanity interacted with the divine. According to John Winthrop, one of the men in charge of organizing the initial stages of God’s transition to the New World, a fresh start was all a part of God’s dream for America. God had big plans for Winthrop, or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, this quiet but feisty Puritan lawyer was elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, a position he was well suited for, considering Puritanism fit him like a straitjacket. Early on, Winthrop wasn’t a big proponent of organizing a mass exodus out of the Church of England, but eventually he became convinced that not only did the Puritans need to leave Great Britain, but God wanted him to play the role of white European Moses and lead God’s people out of the Old World.
Winthrop imagined himself as a Puritan of biblical proportion, and believed that “Operation New England” was about far more than he and his buddies having more space to stretch their spiritual legs. “Thus stands the cause between God and us,” Winthrop wrote in his thesis, “A Model of Christian Charity,” a personal declaration of sorts that boasted Winthrop’s vision for what America might become. “We are entered into covenant with [God] for this work.” The work that Winthrop alluded to was no small task, either. The New World’s Moses was convinced that he and his fellow Puritans had been divinely called to create a utopia, a Promised Land where God and his people would prosper. “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” he wrote, “[and] the eyes of all people are upon us.”
The vision that Winthrop saw was that of a holy and magnificent existence, a spectacle so bright and lovely, it would cause people to stop, stare, and feel jealous that they weren’t a part of it too. Though Winthrop hoped that the work he and his Puritans were about to engage in was going to change the course of history, little did he know that his actions would also alter the story of God.
In many ways, the term “Puritans” is misleading, because it implies that Winthrop and friends were one unified religious group. But in truth, these “radical Protestants” consisted of people from many different religious factions. They didn’t necessarily agree on all theological points. Their “unified” name, “the Puritans,” was given to them because of their common desire to purge the Church of England of what they considered to be unbib- lical religion, which included anything that smelled like pope. When they failed to purify England’s church of Catholic traditions (the Roman Catholic Church was a religious institution that many Puritans called the Whore of Babylon), these disgruntled Protestants began conspiring to move God to a new and mostly untainted continent far, far away from the loose churches of England and Rome.
What were the Puritans thinking, bringing God to a New World? By most accounts, their leaders were quite intelligent people, many of them educated men and women with a dutiful love for God. So did they really think that moving God to an untamed wilderness was the best alternative, particularly for their God: a sovereign, doctrinally stout, damnation-prone deity who despised change and hated the sight of human skin? It’s no secret that the Puritans’ God wasn’t the easiest to get along with. He was stuffy. And finicky. And sometimes barbecued heretics.
The God of the Puritans was basically the same God that John Calvin had encountered almost a century earlier. Like Martin Luther, Calvin believed that the Roman Catholic Church was vile, and he became a vocal and influential supporter of the Protestant Reformation. However, amid his war against Catholi- cism, Calvin also developed a new spin on God, a spiritual thinking about faith, sin, and Christianity that emphasized the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, predestination, limited atonement, and the supreme authority of the holy scriptures. Calvin’s God was big, in control, and at times choosy about whom he held hands with. One hundred years later, among the Puritans, John Calvin’s God had also evolved to become nitpicky, hellbent on human holiness, and impossible to please.
Still, the Puritans dedicated their lives to making God happy. Which wasn’t easy, considering they viewed themselves as a depraved group of people, hideous and rotten to their very core. The Puritans saw themselves as ill-minded refuse whose souls were filled with cobwebs, demons, and nasty fixations for deviant pleasures. They were Calvinistic in their thinking there as well. Somewhere along Calvin’s spiritual journey, the angst-prone priest became convinced that God thought humans were disgusting creations, dirty little beasts whose filth began in their bowels, which dumped into their souls. “Total depravity” became one of Calvin’s most affecting theological tenets. Essentially he had refashioned Saint Augustine’s theology of “original sin,” the idea that Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden was so great that sin became genetic, an unholy gene that preconditioned every human born after them for sinful behavior. Calvin took it a step further. From his perspective, humans were not just genetically predetermined for sin, they were evil beyond repair, and in fact incapable of doing the slightest “good” in the eyes of God.
Considering their God was so hard to please, it’s a bit surprising that nobody pondered how their plans to move him to the New World might make him feel. This was the early 1600s, remember, and God had only recently started engaging in quasi- personal relationships with some of England’s common folk. This new idea—God hanging out with regular people—was primarily the result of the availability of the 1611 King James Bible. Still, God’s availability to the common man was limited at best. Most people couldn’t afford to purchase God’s Word, and even if they could, the chances that they could read and understand it were dim. Until this time, engagement with God happened in communities, at churches, and by way of pastors and priests telling people what God thought about them. The Puritans certainly had visions of making God more accessible to people without the need for bishops and priests, but as it were, their God was just beginning to learn how to teach middle-class people with moderate comprehension skills about the depravity of their own souls. If their God only had minimal experience with everyday English folk, how comfortable was he going to feel developing relationships with indigenous people whose genitalia he might see?
Truthfully, moving God probably wasn’t their best option; however, from Winthrop’s perspective, it was their only alternative. But since not all of the Puritans agreed, Winthrop knew that convincing those still on the fence about moving would be strenuous. So when it came to framing the big move into a narrative, one that might make the adventure seem exciting and divinely inspired, Winthrop went to the one thing that Puritans almost always relied on when it came to framing big scary unimaginable ideas: He used theology. Theology was the fairy dust in the Puritans’ kingdom, the magic potion for motivating a company of fear-filled people to step out in faith and do something brave, difficult, and incredibly stupid. Even among today’s American Christians, theology is still a pretty convincing manipulator, mostly because it’s often guilt-inducing. And few things motivate conservative Christians more than a holy helping of guilt poured atop a Bible verse taken out of context. Our “fairy dust” today is far less rich and smothered with scripture than what the Puritans offered. Contextual integrity as it relates to the Bible wasn’t something the Puritans often considered when applying biblical narrative to everyday circumstances or enormous adventures that might kill you. Winthrop and company didn’t worry about things like context; they were far too preoccupied with their journey’s subtext: Run away from the Whore!
So shortly before Winthrop was set to depart with an undetermined number of people for greener (and Native American inhabited) pastures, the Reverend John Cotton traveled to the port of Southampton, England, carrying with him an important message. Reverend Cotton’s gracing the future travelers with his presence was a big deal. Not only was he one of the most respected clergymen in all of the Church of England, but he was by all accounts the most important Puritan voice in the entire country. Cotton represented the purest parts of the Anglican Church, and though at the time he wasn’t planning to join the party in America (he would, in 1633, decide to move), his support was, according to Winthrop, heaven sent.
And the message Cotton brought with him? It pretty much changed everything.
“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.” That’s how the Reverend Cotton began his lecture to the Bay Colony, with a passage out of the Second Book of Samuel, a beautiful sentiment about God looking for real estate to plant a beautiful garden of Jewish people.
Like Winthrop, Cotton doesn’t waste time considering the context of Bible verses; he’s too focused on selling the big idea to worry about its truth. Cotton arrived at Southampton on a mission, to separate the chaff (the Euro-losers) from the wheat (the Future American Winners) and give these scared-out-of- their-minds men and women a reason to believe that moving twenty-seven hundred miles from everything they knew and loved was a fantastic idea. By the time Cotton finished, preaching about moving to New England wasn’t just a grand idea, it was the greatest idea in the history of ideas. And most importantly, it was God’s idea, one that he’d designed on their behalf before the foundations of the earth had been formed together.
Though Cotton’s sermon was wordy beyond repair, he delivered one of his best theological conjurings on that day. Not only did he make the Children of Israel disappear from the narratives of a number of Old Testament stories, but he intentionally inserted a brand new noun in the stories, replacing the people formally known as God’s chosen people with God’s new chosen people, the Puritans. By the time Cotton completed his sermon, he had stood with his Puritan brothers and sisters at the edge of the Jordan River and they had witnessed together their first sight of the Promised Americaland. He’d led them to the walls of Jericho (which looked a lot like Massachusetts) and marched before them until they all came tumbling down. He’d battled alongside them and killed Philistines, Moabites, and Native Americans. He’d braved with them the brute strength of a British Goliath and sent Great Britain’s fleets, cannons, and redcoats hightailing it back to the Old World. Using chapter and verse and a whole lot of theological imagination, the great John Cotton put his soon-to-be colonists squarely in the middle of God’s bib- lical story, weaving together with words a holy narrative, a marvelous adventure of Puritanical proportions, a miraculous destiny where God’s new chosen people would become the recipients of God’s providence, God’s promises, and eventually God’s executive order to do whatever the hell they wanted. God’s vision seemed almost too good to be true. But not according to Cotton.
Standing before a packed house at the Church of Holy Rood in Southampton, Cotton inspired the attendees’ minds and hearts with a collection of words he called “God’s Promise to His Plantation.”
“I will plant them.” Cotton spoke that sentiment four different times to the future colonists, a way of describing God as an Almighty Gardener. Cotton told his spiritual brothers and sisters that the Good and Gracious Gardener was preparing to plant a mighty forest in the New World. He said that God’s Puritanical garden was going to be huge, far bigger and more lush than any of his previous gardens, and that they should not be filled with worry, because the Gardener would be sure to care for his little seedlings, that they should find comfort in the fact that God would till, weed, fertilize, and water them regularly. But there was more. If everything went as planned, if the Puritans were well behaved and followed God’s commands, the Gardener would grow the New World’s forest into mighty “trees of righteousness.”
Adding to the God-vision, Cotton said, “When he promised to plant a people, their days shall be as the days of a Tree. As the Oak is said to be an hundred years in growing, and an hundred years in full strength, and an hundred years in decaying.”
On that day Cotton prophesied a major story line, not only for himself but for all of the Puritans. And while he presented it as God’s plan for the Puritan people, it was more or less Cotton’s Puritan plan for God. He ended his eighteen-page sermon with a mighty declaration from God Almighty:
For consolation to them that are planted by God in any place, that find rooting and establishing from God; this is a cause of much encouragement onto you, that what he hath planted he will maintain, every plantation his tight hand hath not planted shall be rooted up, but his own plantation shall prosper, & flourish. When he promiseth peace and safety, what enemy shall be able to make the promise of God of none effect? Neglect not walls, and bulwarks, and fortifications for your own defence; but ever let the Name of the Lord be your strong Tower; and the word of his Promise the Rock of your Refuge. His word that made heaven and earth will not fail, till heaven and earth be no more.
Reverend Cotton changed the story that day. He single handedly steered the course of God’s future in the same direction that the Puritans were headed. No wonder the Puritans failed to consider how the New World—and soon-to-be United States of America—might affect God. Because in their minds, this big move became less about pursuing religious freedom and everything to do with following the divine destiny that God had called them to. What was that divine destiny? The Puritans believed that it was their responsibility to resurrect God from the dead, to fight tooth and nail to keep God safe and out of the hands and parishes of the Whore of England.
The truth of Cotton’s words didn’t matter. People believed they were true. Belief, under the right conditions, almost always trumps truth. And sometimes belief can manifest its own truth. Nevertheless, the Puritans did exactly as Cotton requested. They flocked like geese to New England. Over the next ten years (from 1630 to 1640), during what many historians call the Great Migration, more than twenty thousand Puritans made America their “Promise Land,” their home.
And thus America became God’s home too.
Not long after God, John Winthrop, and the rest of the Bay Company arrived on America’s shorelines, the news from the Old World turned bleak. With every arriving ship, more bad tidings were reported. England’s troubles in many ways caused the seeds of nationalism to gestate in the hearts and minds of the Puritans. These people had just traveled nearly three thousand miles to a new home. Considering that some arrived sick and others didn’t arrive at all, many were thinking, “This was a mistake!” While it might seem dark and mean-spirited, even for Puritans, learning of the bad news happening in England—of Anglican officials becoming bigger bullies toward their Puritan brothers and sisters, sentencing many to prison, torture, or execution, and scattering others into hiding—revived many of the doubters’ faith in their decision to make theirs and God’s future in the New World. The Old World’s bad news was for the Puritans Good News indeed. Though God hadn’t started printing study Bibles for women and teenagers, and heavenly 401(k) plans wouldn’t become a reality for another 350 years, all signs seemed to suggest that the Almighty’s exit strategy out of England was well under way.
One Puritan who seemed certain that God was leaving England was Thomas Hooker, a respected clergyman still living there. In fact, Hooker became so depressed about the events happening in his homeland that amid one of his great mournings he wrote, “As sure as God is God, God is going from England.” The minister knew this to be true because God delivered the news firsthand. “What if I should tell what God told me yesternight,” he wrote, which was rhetorical, since that question ended with this statement, “that He would destroy England and lay it waste?” Eventually, Hooker escaped his homeland safely. After a short stint in the Netherlands, he made a beeline to New England. Boston seemed to be his only recourse since, according to him, that was where God was safe-housing “his Noahs,” a moniker that spoke more about the genocide he was predicting for all of the non-Noahs living it up in England:
So glory is departed from England; for England has seen her best days, and the reward of sin is coming apace; for God is packing up of his gospel….God begins to ship away his Noahs, which prophesied and foretold that destruction was near; and God makes account that New England shall be a refuge for his Noahs and his Lots, a rock and a shelter for his righteous ones to run unto; and those that were vexed to see the ungodly lives of the people in this wicked land, shall there be safe.
Like the Reverend Cotton, Thomas Hooker framed his ideas using Old Testament names and themes, inserting himself and the people he loved into the good parts and those who disagreed with him into the not-so-good parts. Hooker wrote with a desperate tone. And yet even as he joined his fellow Noahs aboard the “Ark” in Boston, he seemed to hold out a small thread of hope for godforsaken England. “Oh, therefore my brethren,” he wrote, “lay hold on God, and let Him not go out of your coasts. (He is going!) Look about you, I say, and stop Him at the town’s end . . . farewell, or rather fare-ill, England!”
God had not been an American for five minutes and already somebody was making his sovereignty into a melodramatic off-Broadway show. But this shouldn’t be surprising, really. Certainty as it relates to faith—something that the Puritans weren’t in short supply of—always leads to exaggerated displays of religiosity. As most of us know, certainty makes us cranky, reactive, and always two prophetic signs away from “the End.” Which was exactly how the Puritans viewed America, as God’s last stand! America was the world’s last hope, a grand fulfillment of Luther’s Reformation, a second install- ment of the Israelites’ Promised Land, and about as close as we were going to get to the divine fruition of the Kingdom of God. In other words, the City Upon a Hill just got skyscrapers and a subway.
That America would become God’s shining example to the world of how society and religion should coexist has been a narrative threaded throughout our nation’s history. John Winthrop’s vision of a “city upon a hill” has become one of America’s unofficial mottos. Though I doubt Winthrop intended his use of Jesus’s words to become such an overused political tagline for speeches and op-ed pieces, that’s just what happened. Derivatives have been used by American people in every arena, from preachers to politicians to pundits. Some people use the phrase to praise America’s “Christian history.” Others use it as a way of chiding the American people for trying to undermine Winthrop’s dream. Most often, when Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” gets mentioned, at least in a serious manner, it’s for political effect. A host of U.S. presidents, from John Adams and Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, have offered their unique spin on the sentiment. Even Sarah Palin paid homage to the phrasing during her run for vice president alongside Senator John McCain in 2008. In America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, Palin writes, “America is an exceptional nation, the shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan believed it is.” Palin combines Winthrop’s ideal with an idea that many call American exceptionalism, a concept that paints America as the greatest nation in the world. Palin writes that “many people don’t believe we have a special message for the world or a special mission to preserve our greatness for the betterment of not just ourselves but all of humanity.”
Ronald Reagan loved borrowing the words of Winthrop to define America, something he did throughout his political career. But in 1989, during his final speech as president, Reagan sat in the Oval Office and explained his own vision:
The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined….He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
Was that how John Winthrop saw it? It’s not that Ronald Reagan’s vision was particularly evil, but Reagan’s “city” is very much a nationalized idea. Winthrop seemed far too consumed with the pursuit of humility12 to cast such an American-focused ideal. As a Puritan, he certainly doused his “humble thoughts” with more than a dash of pride; still, he can’t have imagined an America that resembled anything remotely similar to the Godtropolis that Reagan (and Palin) seemed to visualize.
Or perhaps Reagan was right. Maybe Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” was indeed a municipality brimming with capitalism, patriotism, and a very liberal immigration policy. Lucky for Reagan, Winthrop never fully explained the details of his vision.
However, two generations later, one Puritan did expound on Winthrop’s “city.” Cotton Mather, a Puritan preacher, had been inhaling American exceptionalism since he was a kid, an ideology he no doubt inherited from his father, Increase Mather, and his grandfather Richard Mather, both celebrated clergymen of the Bay Colony. Though Mather was born nearly three decades after Winthrop’s death, his professional work showcases a lifelong interest in the Bay Colony’s first governor. Not only did Mather write a two-part biography about Winthrop, but in 1710 he paid homage to Winthrop’s “city” in Theopolis Americana, which means God City: America:
Our glorious Lord will have [a] holy city in America, a city the streets whereof will be pure gold. We cannot imagine that the brave countries and gardens which fill the American hemisphere were made for nothing but a place of dragons. We may not imagine that when the kingdom of God is come and his will is done on earth as it is done in heaven—which we had never been taught to pray for if it must not one day be accomplished—a balancing half of the globe shall remain in the hands of the devil, who is then to be chained up from deceiving the nations.
Cotton Mather had drunk the Kool-Aid, the juice made by John Cotton and John Winthrop seventy years earlier. Mather believed that God had created the universe and that front and center he had carved out a spot for America. Is Mather’s Theopolis the America that Sarah Palin prays for, a holy city with streets made of gold and underground pipelines filled with black gold? An America that stomps around the world like she owns the place? Because at the heart of this kind of relationship between God and America—one that seems to believe an “executive order” is just another way of saying “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—there sits a swelling amount of pride, a nationalized pride, a pride that continues today to shape our understanding of America as well as our understanding of America’s God.
While the Bible says that pride goes before a fall, in America’s case it also goes before a rise to power. And while we rarely hear people today brag like Sarah Palin does about how exceptional America is, the narrative she promotes still plays out in our country’s Christianity, from the intent and purposes of our missionaries to how Christians in some areas of the United States treat Muslims to the powerful roles that Christians still play today in areas of politics, domestic affairs, and foreign policy. This American pride is found in the very roots of our nation’s God, a God who would soon put America squarely in control of our own destiny. And perhaps by default, in control of the destiny of God.
An excerpt from OUR GREAT BIG AMERICAN GOD by Matthew Paul Turner.
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