John Ericsson: The Swede that Saved the Union

By Rick Chromey | March 22, 2023 |

John EricssonWhen it comes to America’s naval history, few had more influence on battleship design than a man named John Ericsson.

In fact, it’s a Swedish story better than ABBA.

Ericsson was a Swedish American who revolutionized steamship propulsion through his invention of the screw propeller.

He also invented the first submarine boat, self-propelled torpedo and torpedo boat. His innovations made large ships move faster and further, reimagining the use of navies in war. Thank God he was on our side.

Two of Ericsson’s most revolutionary naval ship designs were the USS Merrimack (1855) and the USS Monitor (1862).

During the Civil War, the Confederacy resurrected the de-commissioned Merrimack and transformed it into a iron-plated naval destroyer (renaming it the CSS Virginia). The Merrimack was a formidable foe in the water. The Union suffered great losses to this naval monster (including 16 war ships).

On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginian sunk two of the Union’s best: USS Congress and USS Cumberland. It was a moment of fate. After all, the very next day the Union launched a new Ericsson designed warship named the USS Monitor—who immediately went to battle the Confederate’s CSS Virginia. After a four-hour battle, the Monitor eventually crippled and disabled the Virginia…permanently. The Monitor, surprisingly, suffered no damage. After that victory, the Union owned the coastal waterways. It just kept launching more Ericsson “monitor” ships.

On May 29, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge honored John Ericsson as the “great son of Sweden” and “a great American.”

But there’s something often missed in this story. And that’s Ericsson’s Swedish and religious heritage.

At one time, Sweden was one of the more religious nations on earth.

Influenced heavily by the Protestant Reformation, this Nordic country converted to Christianity. In fact their prominent and popular Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (a.k.a. “The Lion of the North”) proved rather zealous for religious freedom and expansion. He is also credited with making Sweden a powerful force (politically and militarily) among the European nations of his day. His greatest notoriety was on the seas. Adolphus was an influential and noted naval commander known as the ”father of modern warfare.” During the Thirty Year Wars, his defense of Protestant Christianity inspired many Europeans to name their churches and societies after him, including Germany’s Gustav-Adolf-Werk foundation.

Gustavus Adolphus wanted to help colonize America with Swedes for the purpose of trade…and religion.

He desired to create another nation “made more civilized and taught morality and the Christian religion…[through] propagation of the Holy Gospel.” One of the skill sets Swedes brought to America was ship making and naval innovation—later incredibly helpful in naval battles with the British, French and Confederates.

The state of Delaware was where most early Swedes migrated…and Sweden continued to export into America not just its people, but Bibles, hymnals, and pastors. In the years leading up  to 1789, Sweden sent forty-one prominent clergymen who “laid the basis for a religious structure” in America. These Swedes built the first flour mills, ships, brickyards, and roads. They also introduced the sciences of forestry and horticulture. And they built nearly 2000 churches and schools.

Wherever a Swede landed on America soil, their first task (after building their own shelter) was to erect a place to worship and launch a school to train clergymen and teachers. They also continued to influence and innovate naval operations for a young nation.

John Ericsson was one of those Swedish descendants.

By the way, the Swedes were also abolitionist. They despised the slave trade.

John Ericsson was so committed to liberating slaves, he refused payment for his design of the Union warship the USS Monitor. “It was my contribution to the Union cause,” he told Lincoln, “…which freed 4,000,000 bondsmen (black slaves).”

Like all Swedish-Americans, Ericsson cherished America and its commitments to equality, justice and liberty.

He once penned: “I love this country. I love its people and its laws, and I would give my life for it.” In fact, a famous photo features skyscraper builders high above the New York skyline enjoying lunch. Although their identities remain a mystery, the Swedes claim at least two of them.

Lunch atop a skyscraper

It’s why we cannot forget John Ericsson. Nor should we dismiss the contributions of the Swedish that helped forge the American ideas of liberty, equality, and justice. Many nationalities contributed to the building of America, but few have given more than the Swedes.

It’s something to think about the next time you listen to ABBA, dine on Swedish meatballs or shop at IKEA.

Harlan Sanders: The Kentucky Colonel Who Made Chicken Finger-Lickin’ Good

By Rick Chromey | March 20, 2023 |

The story of the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken is one worth knowing.

Harlan Sanders (1890-1980) was a true late bloomer.

He was also a man who relentlessly refused to give up on his dreams. And later, even his own soul.

Sanders didn’t open his first restaurant until he was 40 years old, and then spent a dozen years before he launched his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Salt Lake City (1952).

Sanders spent half his life in failure, poverty and dead ends.

The hard-charging kid from Henryville, IN struggled to keep jobs. He quit too soon. He got laid off.  And, occasionally, even fired. In one infamous tale, Sanders brawled with his own client in a courtroom. This heated moment ended his brief stint as a lawyer. One biographer noted the temperamental Sanders suffered from a lack of “self-control, impatience, and a self-righteous lack of diplomacy.” His focus was relentless. His energy was tireless. And he evolved into a raging, vulgar workaholic with a horrendous temper.

Sanders sold life insurance, worked the railroad and ferries, sold tires, ran a service (gas) station, and many other jobs to pay his bills. But it was his gas station that sparked a new idea. His travelers who stopped to refuel were also hungry to be fed themselves. Sanders developed a roadside grill that sold chicken, ham and steak dinners.

The famed food critic Duncan Hines once visited his Corbin, KY restaurant and penned in popular travel guide: “A very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits.”  It was such publicity that created fresh opportunity and honor for Sanders. In 1939 he opened a motel next door. His governor named him a Kentucky “colonel.”

Sanders was 50 years old when he created his “secret” chicken recipe.

Then he spent the next two decades of his life building a brand and becoming the face of a new type of fast food restaurant. At 60 years of age, Sanders fully adopted the “Kentucky colonel” image. He changed his attire to all white, grew a goatee and, from that point forward, was known simply as “The Colonel.” For the next decade he lent that image to his company to create an iconic brand for chicken that was “fingerlickin’ good.” In 1964, he sold his business for $2 million dollars and put a price on his image going forward. The Colonel was rich and famous…but hardly happy. He was 73 years old and miserable.

So the elderly Sanders set about changing his life.

His reputation for a quick temper, vulgar (even racist) language and driving personality created both shame and guilt for the aging Colonel. Despite his millionaire status and famous mug, his business dealings brought no peace. He penned in his autobiography: “But all this while I knew I wasn’t right with God. It bothered me especially when I’d take the name of the Lord in vain. I did my cussin’ before women or anyplace. … I knew the terrible curse of cussin’ would probably keep me out of heaven when I died.”

The Colonel’s hard attitudes and forceful personality were initially softened by a new marriage to his long-time mistress Claudia in 1957. However he still spent the 1960s searching his soul to find true inner peace. His mother brought him up in a strict Adventist faith that only tortured him with guilt and shame. Sanders was looking for something different…something lasting.

In 1969, Sanders visited a revival service at The Evangel Tabernacle in Louisville, KY. On that night, his whole life changed (including his temper and profanity). The Colonel rekindled his religious faith, much like Johnny Cash, to embrace a simpler form of Christianity that finally exorcised his demons. On his 80th birthday, he and Claudia were baptized in the Jordan River. The couple faithfully attended church from that day forward. Among his friends were Billy Graham, Pat Boone and Jerry Falwell.

Sanders died ten years later at the age of 90.

His body laid in state at both the Kentucky capitol and the Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters for thousands of people to pay their respects. Over 1,200 distinguished people and government dignitaries attended his funeral at Southern Seminary on December 20, 1980. By the time of Sanders’ death, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries worldwide, with $2 billion in sales annually, but what his friends and family remembered most was his joy, love and peace.

Colonel Harlan Sanders.

A failed, arrogant, stubborn, vulgar workaholic who found the real “secret recipe” to life wasn’t in chicken but God.

And now you know the rest of HIStory.

Dred Scott: The Man Behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s Worst Decision

By Rick Chromey | March 6, 2023 |

Dred ScottMany legal scholars believe the Dred Scott decision was the worst by a U.S. Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes called it the Supreme Court’s “greatest self-inflicted wound.”

But why did it happen? Who was Dred Scott? And why should we know his story? 

DRED SCOTT was born a slave in Virginia (1799). His slave owner took him to Alabama and eventually relocated to St. Louis, MO. Then Scott was sold to a U.S. army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson, who moved him to Illinois and later to the Wisconsin territory. At the time, both Illinois and Wisconsin territory were “free” (meaning slavery was abolished and illegal). But that didn’t mean it wasn’t practiced. Like today, many people do illegal activities in their private lives.

In 1837, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson–who was sold by her owner to Dr. Emerson. 

The Scott couple lived in “free” territory for two years (1836-1838), half the time separated from their army surgeon master who the U.S. Army had transferred to the slave state of Louisiana. That’s when the surgeon married and reunited the two families, eventually returning to Missouri (another slave state). In 1843 Dr. Emerson died and the Scott family was passed in the will to his widow. That’s when things get messy.

The Dred Scott legal case originated in his desire to free himself and his family.

Scott first tried to purchase his freedom from his surgeon’s widow but was denied. So he took his matter to the courts. Dred Scott’s argument was simple: because he and his family had lived freely (separated from his master) in Wisconsin territory (where slavery was abolished and illegal) then he was technically freed at that time. And the rule of the day was “once free, always free.”

The first Missouri circuit court to hear the case agreed. Scott should be a free man, however the Missouri Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 1852. In doing so, the bench set a new precedent that a “slave” state did not have to honor a “free” state’s laws. A major part of their argument also included the fact Dred Scott should’ve filed for his freedom when in Wisconsin and not Missouri. For whatever reason, perhaps from ignorance of the law or busyness, Scott had not done this work.

Eventually the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 7-2 against Dred Scott.

It was purely a political and unprecedented decision by activist judges. After all, every one of  seven justices in the majority were pro-slavery Democrats appointed by Democrat presidents (the pro-slavery party of its day). The two dissenting justices were affiliated with the anti-slavery Whig/Republican parties.

This Supreme Court decision stated that, according to the U.S. Constitution, no African (black) was ever intended to be, nor could be, an American citizen.

Consequently, Dredd Scott had no “standing” to even file a case. That right was exclusively only for citizens of the United States. Furthermore, the Court stated Congress had no authority to ban slavery in territories (nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820). Finally they noted that “due process” (5th Amendment) prohibited the government from even freeing slaves brought into federal territories from slave-holding states.

Essentially, Dred Scott (and all Blacks, nearly all who were now born in America) were viewed as pure property. This case had ramifications even for “free” blacks in “free states” who owned property and voted. In one single decision the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the natural born “rights” of a group of people, based purely on their skin color.  It was a crushing blow, not just for blacks (in slavery or not) but for the abolitionist cause to end slavery in America.

The Dred Scott decision was also the first step in the march towards Civil War (1860-1865).

And yet this story is not without its twists.

Who, for example, initially financed Scott’s legal case and footed his bills? It was actually the adult children of Scott’s original owner. His kids became staunch abolitionists in the years after selling Scott to Dr. Emerson. Slavery was an evil of which they repented using their pocketbook.

But what happened next for Dred Scott, his wife and two daughters was even more amazing.

In a wild twist of irony, the Missouri widow who owned the Scott family remarried in 1850. Her new Massachusetts husband was a fiery and staunch abolitionist Republican doctor named Calvin C. Chaffee. In 1854 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Massachusetts. Both the marriage and election happened years before the 1857 Dred Scott decision. As a result of that ruling, Scott and his family were returned to the new Mrs. Chaffee as she was still their owner. However, the new bride was also an abolitionist like her congressman husband! She no longer believed in owning slaves and knew exactly what to do with Dred and his family.

Unfortunately, when she tried to emancipate Dred and his family, there were legal complications. To avoid the courts, Mrs. Chaffee deeded the Scott family to another Republican congressman named Taylor Blow (R-MO), who immediately freed Dred, his wife Harriet, and two children Eliza and Lizzie on May 26, 1857…just three months after this terrible Supreme Court ruling!

Dred Scott was a liberated man.

Unfortunately, his freedom on this side of eternity did not last. Scott’s life tragically ended sixteen months later due to tuberculosis. His body was returned to Missouri and buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. That’s where most stories end, but in Dred Scott’s case he became more celebrated after his death.

In fact, to this day, there’s a long-standing tradition to place Lincoln pennies on his grave for good luck. That’s because the Dred Scott decision was the inspiration for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, as well as the genesis for the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. In these constitutional amendments all the wrongs were corrected for Dred Scott and Black Americans. They were now all free from slavery, rightful citizens of the United States and able to universally vote.

But it all started with a man named Dred Scott.

And now you now the rest of HIStory.

Four Chaplains Day: A Day When Faith Led Through Sacrifice and Service

By Rick Chromey | February 3, 2023 |
February 3 is honored as “FOUR CHAPLAINS DAY.”
Never heard of it? It’s a fascinating story that needs to be told and shared.

In the early morning hours of February 3, 1943 the U.S.A.T. Dorchester–packed with 902 servicemen–was hit by a Nazi torpedo.

The surprise attack killed several soldiers and trapped dozens of others. The ship quickly began to sink in the icy waters off Greenland and every man was for himself. Chaos abounded.

Two Coast Guard ships rushed to area and began to pluck drowning soldiers from the frigid waters.

Meanwhile, on board the sinking ship, four chaplains–a Methodist, a Roman Catholic, a Dutch Reformed and a Jew–consoled the panicked sailors desperate to board a life boat.

With no more life jackets available, these four chaplains tore off their own and gave them away.

When the chaplains had saved as many men as they could, eyewitnesses in the life boats observed how these four religious leaders linked arms, prayed, quoted Scripture and sank with the ship.

The U.S.A.T. Dorchester went down in 27 minutes. The chaplains had no chance of survival without life vests. Only 231 men survived that tragic icy North Atlantic moment.

In 1998, the U.S. Congress designated February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.”

It’s a day to honor the bravery, service and sacrifice of  all U.S. military chaplains, and to remember the sacrifice and service of Lt. George L. Fox, Lt. Clark V. Poling, Lt. John P. Washington and Lt. Alexander D. Goode.
On that night all give some, but some–including four chaplains from different faiths–give all.

Nazism: How Hitler Used Fascism and Eugenics to Transform 1930s Germany

By Rick Chromey | January 11, 2023 |

Few four-letter words spark more fear, insult and outrage than Nazi.

And well it should.

Nazism carries a boatload of baggage, even for generations that never experienced the Holocaust and fascism of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

“Nazi” is a nickname linked to a political ideology characterized by dictatorial rule, forcible suppression of opponents and harsh, even violent, control of a society. Make no mistake. Adolf Hitler was a bonafide fascist. And yet his “right wing” politics were remarkably married to progressive, socialistic and “left wing” ideologies.

Perhaps a little historical context will help.

The term “Nazi” is a German abbreviation for the National Socialist Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Arbeiterpartei).

Originally, Hitler wanted the word “socialist” removed from his party name but relented to appease the radical leftists he needed to get elected. The moderate middle is where most fascists launch their political careers. Hitler was no different. He was also the first to co-opt television in order to broadcast his political ideology. Thanks to the cover of German politicians and a state media in his hip pocket, Hitler and his Nazi party could hide their sins, foil opposition and push an increasingly radical and destructive dogma.

Ultimately, it wasn’t about improving Germany but controlling Germany.

The Nazi Party wanted to reimagine the nation through a message of hope and change.

Maybe that’s why Hitler’s first act as Chancellor of Germany was to institute socialized health care (1933). Initially, this benign and benevolent legislation was appreciated by the German people. Who wouldn’t want affordable health care? However, hindsight proved a devil in the details. There’s nothing “affordable” about socialized medicine.

Few knew Hitler’s ultimate goal was a “master race.” All other races were genetically inferior and socially unnecessary.

Adolf Hitler was a charismatic communicator.

His speeches generated enthusiasm and his messages on German nationalism inspired patriotism that eventually produced fanaticism. The irony? Germany had been the heart of intellectual, scientific and religious exploration for four centuries. Some of the world’s best thinkers were German. It was, after all, where Protestant Christianity started. And yet these Germans were all slowly seduced by the lie.

At the heart of Hitler’s delusion was German socialism.

Government was the answer to every problem.

Consequently, as socialized health care normalized the German people, it conditioned them towards a more sinister and deadly reality. Since socialized health care (for all Germans) was an expensive venture, it proved fiscally prudent to eliminate those German people who weren’t pulling their weight.

The first targets were the disabled, elderly, incurable, insane and demented, most of whom were already under institutional state care.

Hitler’s Nazi party utilized the guise of social engineering to exterminate the unnecessary. The oldest Germans were particularly costly, however individuals with chronic disease, or mentally off the rails or crippled were also expensive eyesores.

The “merciful” solution was to kill them for the good of all Germany.

Consequently Hitler’s Nazi Party systematically eliminated anyone labeled as “lebensunwertes leben” or “life unworthy of life.”

Naturally these fascist state-led murders caught the attention of the German Lutheran and Catholic churches, who vehemently denounced such atrocities. However, by then, it was too late. Modern Germans weren’t as “religious” as their forefathers. Liberal Christianity originated in Germany through the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). By the early 20th century, liberalism had decimated the German Church and left a wake of apathy, agnosticism and atheism.

The German people were easy pickings because they no longer had a moral compass.

Consequently, once able-bodied Germans were conditioned to “merciful” euthanasia, Hitler moved to other social “undesirables”: beggars, criminals, homosexuals and homeless. These groups were either executed or sterilized (to prevent further reproduction). As the weak and undesirable were eliminated, the average white, healthy, younger, working German grew in prominence and political clout. This reality made it easy for Hitler to further apply Nazi eugenics and euthanasia to non-German ethnicities: Jews, blacks, Slavs and gypsies.

The rise of a new Aryan master race transformed Germany.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis got many of their ideas from America.

In the early 20th century, a eugenics movement emerged in the United States that wanted to socially engineer a perfect human race. Influenced by Darwinian evolution, scientific progress and a desire to curb the “undesirable” immigration of Italians and Jews, American eugenicists felt they should manipulate who could reproduce.

American eugenicists focused initially on the blind, deaf, diseased, insane and poor. However, they also felt “dumb” people were equally a problem.

In 1927, a legal case made its way through the courts involving an 18-year-old Carrie Buck (with a mental age of nine). She was the offspring of an equally “feeble minded” 52-year-old mother.[i] The eugenicists wanted to sterilize Carrie (who already had an illegitimate child). Once committed to a state agency, Carrie was deemed unfit and scheduled for sterilization. The prosecution argued this action was inhumane and unethical.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard the case of Buck v. Bell in 1927—and surprisingly ruled in favor of the eugenicists “for the protection and health of the state.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously quipped in his opinion on the case: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”[ii]

One of America’s most influential eugenicists was none other than Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

Today abortionists try to distance the pioneer from their pro-choice cause. Some even say Sanger was only loosely affiliated with the eugenics movement in order to politically strengthen her personal agenda. Regardless of her involvement, it’s clear where Sanger stood. She once penned that eugenics, including “planned parenthood” through birth control, was “the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.”[iii] The problem is who defines the word “defective?” It’s why Hitler’s application of that word was far different from Sanger’s.

It was eugenicists like Sanger that caught and captivated Hitler’s attention.

In his desire to create a “master race,” forced sterilization and mercy killings proved perfect tools.

Ironically, Hitler’s rise to power was not without the help of strange bedfellows. His far-right fascism was aided by the “Brownshirts”–a violent protest group composed of radical leftists and homosexuals. However, once these Brownshirts were no longer useful to Hitler, they too were eliminated in what became the hellish “Night of the Long Knives” (June 30 – July 2, 1934). Throughout the 1930s, the Nazi Party slowly suppressed all critical voices, eliminated all undesirables and squelched any political criticism.

German politics was eventually saddled to a one-horse party.

Once in complete power Nazis could rewrite the rules to insure their power. With complete control of the media, the German people were told only what Hitler and his Nazi party wanted them to know.

But Hitler still wasn’t done.

His next move? Disarm the German people.

With no way to resist Hitler’s forces nor politically fight for the right to defense, the Germans either complied or died.

Many younger Germans, now indoctrinated with Nazi ideologies through German political and educational institutions were willing to die for their furor. That’s when Adolf Hitler took his Nazi army on the road to spread his deadly gospel. He invaded and occupied other countries to further infect Nazism. It was Nazi aggression and occupation that sparked the second World War in Europe. Even in faraway America the Nazi party had affectionate devotees among German Americans.

Adolf Hitler duped the German church to serve his cause.

At first, he seemed sympathetic to Christianity, but once elected, Hitler turned hostile and imposed Nazi socialism upon the German Christians. He eventually embraced Islam as a better “religious” solution to eliminate opposition…inspiring Muslims to rally and fight for his Nazi cause.

But not everyone bent the knee.

A new brand of German Protestantism emerged to stand against Nazism.

It was known as the “Confessing Church.” No matter what the Nazis did, they could not intimidate nor manipulate these Protestant Christians. Two of the movement’s greatest leaders were Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller. It was Niemoller who famously penned:

“In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”[iv]

That’s the way fascism works. It’s why America needs freedom of speech, assembly and the press. It’s why the Second Amendment is critical to a free society. It’s why “cancel culture” and racist demagoguery, media suppression and “fake news,” unfair elections and illegal immigration, abortion and euthanasia are warning bells to greater tyranny. It’s why politicians who prefer to suppress opposing viewpoints and demonize the minor party, rather than work with them for the good of the whole nation, should be noted and removed.

The story of Hitler and Nazism is not a unique moral tale.

It can happen again.




[i] “Buck v. Bell” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_v._Bell

[ii] “The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations,” NPR interview (March 7, 2016) with Andy Cohen, the author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. https://www.npr.org/2017/03/24/521360544/the-supreme-court-ruling-that-led-to-70-000-forced-sterilizations

[iii] “Fact Check: Was Planned Parenthood Started To ‘Control’ The Black Population?” by Amita Killy (August 14, 2015): https://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/08/14/432080520/fact-check-was-planned-parenthood-started-to-control-the-black-population

[iv] Martin Niemoller, as quoted: https://www.nehm.org/the-holocaust/

“God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves”: The Eclectic Faith of Benjamin Franklin

By Rick Chromey | January 6, 2023 |

Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, patriot, politician, diplomat…and Deist. That’s a fact according to many modern historians. After all, Franklin himself advocated for Deism. He once wrote that his skepticism of Christianity made him “a thorough Deist.”[i] Of course it should be noted he wrote that conviction at the tender age of fifteen in a private journal.

Deists reject the divinity of Jesus, miracles and biblical revelation.

Consequently, many historians also argue Franklin was agnostic. Still others contend Franklin’s religion was eclectic, self-styled and personal. His Christian background was also evident in many of his writings, values and statements. Could Franklin’s Deism be mostly a youthful fancy…a temporary phase of life?

What’s the truth?

First, Benjamin Franklin was more religious than most Americans today.

He was a product of the First Great Awakening (1730s – 1770s)–a religious revival in America and parts of Europe that was culturally transformative. The question in Franklin’s day wasn’t whether you believed in God or not, or even in Jesus, but rather what kind of Christian are you? The issue was denominationalism–schisms of Christianity–that divided Americans.

Raised Presbyterian, Franklin struggled with divisive denominationalism and his church’s rigid traditions that separated both Christians and Americans. Like most young people, he found his preacher’s sermons boring and lacking in moral principles. Consequently, Franklin avoided church services and reserved Sundays for personal Bible study.[ii] Later in life Franklin embraced Freemasonry—a fraternal organization that blends good works and God.

Nevertheless, Franklin remained marked by Christianity.

He gleaned much of his pithy wisdom from the Bible. His popular series Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732-1757) was packed with proverbs that sounded biblical. In 1747, as the “president” (governor) of Pennsylvania, Franklin proposed a fast and prayer day. He reminded Pennsylvanians of their “duty…to acknowledge their dependence on…Almighty God.” Franklin preached “…there is just reason to fear that unless we humble ourselves before the Lord [and] amend our Ways, we may be chastized with yet heavier Judgments.[iii]

In the mid-1750s, Franklin penned a recruitment pamphlet for Europeans intending to send their kids to America. Part of Franklin’s pitch was America’s colonial Christian culture. Franklin boasted how America had no adolescent misbehavior…because it was devoted to Faith and Christianity. He noted America was so Christianized that it was possible to grow old and never personally meet “either an Atheist or an Infidel.” Franklin extolled how America’s Christian culture produced “mutual forbearance and kindness” and a “remarkable prosperity” that brought “favor” to the nation.”[iv]

Benjamin Franklin’s America was a Christian America.

In a 1778 correspondence to France (widely known as secular and Deist) , Franklin practically bragged about “a Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district…the principal support of [America’s] virtue, morality and civil liberty.” Another time Ben remarked “Whosoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.”[v]

Essentially, Franklin saw America as a place where religion was prevalent, thoughtful, respected, and productive.

Whatever were his youthful Deist views regarding Jesus’ divinity, his affection for Jesus was undeniable. Franklin’s concluded, “As to Jesus of Nazareth…I think the system of morals and His religion as He left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.[vi] In his 1789 autobiography, the elder Franklin outlined thirteen virtues that guided his life—including frugality, silence, temperance and cleanliness. His top virtue? Humility… which he noted needed to “imitate Jesus.”[vii]

Franklin also pursued various Christian disciplines like prayer, charity, and service.

He prayed daily, petitioning for Divine strength, wisdom and blessing upon his work. He declared he “was never without religious principles…never doubted…the existence of the Deity; that [God] made the world, and governed it by his Providence.” Franklin noted the importance of “doing good to man” and belief in both a final judgment and eternal life.[viii] Consequently, he was no agnostic and certainly no secularist. Franklin was firmly committed to a belief in Creator God and Jesus, as well as to His Providence and Governance of this world. He may have temporarily–as a young teenager–embraced Deism, but his later writings and statements betrayed that theological idea. Franklin also disagreed with the more irreligious writings of Thomas Paine.

Later in life, Benjamin Franklin gravitated back to church attendance.

Historian Carl Van Doren detailed Franklin’s latter church experiences and recorded how Franklin’s family owned a pew at the famed Christ Church (Episcopal) in Philadelphia, PA. It’s where Benjamin Franklin attended Sunday services with his family and witnessed the baptisms of  his two youngest children. Both his parents, his wife and Franklin himself are buried at Christ Church. He also financed clergy salaries, supported building programs, and helped with church accounting.[ix] These are hardly the acts and lifestyle of an agnostic or unbeliever.

Franklin described in his own Autobiography a longtime friendship with famed revivalist George Whitefield. In fact, Franklin faithfully attended Whitefield’s crusades and printed his sermons and journals.[x] Franklin was so impressed by Whitefield he financed an auditorium solely for his Philadelphia revivals…then later donated that space to launch the University of Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Franklin’s religion found flight during a fiery debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

The issue was prayer…particularly the practice of prayer to guide the Constitutional Convention. Various factions of political thought had created a moment where there was question if a Constitution could be created to satisfy every state. At one point the aged Franklin rose and stated:

.. In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. … And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance. I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: … I therefore beg leave to move—that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.

None of this sounds like the rhetoric of an irreligious Deist or agnostic secularist.

Benjamin Franklin was never a faithless man.

He believed in God and, despite any Deist and Masonic dispositions, maintained deep appreciation for Christianity. Yes, he struggled with religious divisiveness, pomposity, and hypocrisy, but Franklin still valued how Christianity framed American culture. In elderhood Ben Franklin attended, to what degree we cannot say, a Christian church in Philadelphia and was eventually buried in that same church’s graveyard.

Maybe that why Benjamin Franklin’s faith is hard to define—particularly over 230 years after his passing. Perhaps spiritual ambiguity is exactly what Franklin preferred.

Regardless, like a lightning strike on a kite string, Franklin’s faith proved just as unpredictable, unique and, to a degree, shocking. For this Founding Father, religion and Christianity, in particular, remained a faithful friend to guide and guard his life.

Perhaps Benjamin Franklin’s faith story is best summarized in his famous proverb: “God helps those who help themselves.”




[i] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1848): 97.

[ii] Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren (New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1938): 131.

[iii] Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: Theo. Fenn and Company Volume 5, 1851): 169. Accessed on Google Books.

[iv] The Works of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (New York: Frederick Campe and Company, 1835): 306. Accessed on Google Books.

[v] As quoted in George Bancroft, History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1866), Vol. IX, p. 492.

[vi] Benjamin Franklin, Works of Benjamin Franklin, John Bigelow, editor (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), p. 185, to Ezra Stiles, March 9, 1790.

[vii] Franklin added “and Socrates” as someone else to model.

[viii] Excerpted from Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111frank2.html

[ix] Van Doren, Franklin, 132.

[x] Autobiography of Franklin, 1848, 164-170.

[xi] Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), Vol. I, pp. 451-452, from James Madison’s Notes on the Convention for June 28, 1787.


Hark! The Herald Wesley Wrote: How a Christmas Hymn Transformed America

By Rick Chromey | December 19, 2022 |

In 1739 a young colonial Georgia preacher wrote a “Hymn for Christmas Day.”

His opening line was “Hark! how all the welkin rings.” Welkin is an old Dutch word for “heaven.”

The lyricist’s name? Charles Wesley.

In the late 1720s, he and his older brother John had founded a new form of Protestant Christianity known as “Methodism”–featuring a novel “method” for connecting people to God. Methodism became wildly popular at Oxford University when they were students.

It’s why, in 1735, the young Wesleys migrated to America to help lead a new colony known as “Georgia.”

The Wesley brothers came to pastor the colonists and preach to the Indians. Unfortunately, their high hopes were soon dashed. John’s efforts to evangelize the Indians fell flat. And fellow Georgia colonists despised the Wesleyan strict religiosity of “methodism.” After a year. the discouraged and defeated brothers returned to England.

That’s when they met Peter Boehler, a Moravian missionary soon headed for Georgia.

Boehler reignited the Wesleys’ spiritual fire, converting them to a new understanding of the indwelling Holy Spirit and Grace. John journaled about this “grace” he had never known: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” Armed with this new theological perspective, the Wesley brothers decided to return to George to serve, pastor and teach again.

The Wesley brothers also loved contemporary music, including bar tunes.

They felt these modern secular tunes were the perfect vehicle for communicating Christian theology. Theology, after all, proved more memorable if sung. Consequently, the theologian Charles soon became a master lyricist. In his life he composed over 6500 hymns, including the Easter classic: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

But it’s his composition “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” that most people–whether you’re a believer or not–still know and love.

And yet we only know it because a friend of the Wesleys–the famed Methodist evangelist George Whitefield–got involved. It was Whitefield who suggested Charles change that opening line from “Hark! how all the welkin rings” to “Hark! the herald angels sing.” And then to help the young lyricist, Whitefield included this Christmas song in his famous “Collection of Hymns for Social Worship” (1754).

That particular book became the primary hymnal of the First Great Awakening. During the mid-1700s a religious revival swept through Great Britain, America and other British colonies that transformed the religious landscape. Preaching and singing became central to Protestant worship services. Hymnals were as valued as Bibles in the church, thanks to Whitefield and Wesley.

In America, the influence of religious awakening reached the highest levels of government and culture.

Ben Franklin penned a mid-1750s recruitment pamphlet for Europeans intending to send their kids to America. Franklin boasted about our Christian colonial culture, claiming it had no adolescent misbehavior. Franklin further noted America was so Christianized that it was possible to grow old and never personally meet “either an Atheist or an Infidel.” He extolled how America’s Christian culture produced “mutual forbearance and kindness” and a “remarkable prosperity” that brought “favor” to the nation.” In 1778, Franklin wrote to the French there’s “a Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district…the principal support of [America’s] virtue, morality and civil liberty.”

And to think “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” helped to light that path.

But what about that beautiful tune? Originally Wesley envisioned a slow and somber melody. He even proposed the same tune as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” For a hundred years it’s impossible to know exactly what tune the lyrics employed. However, in the mid-1800s, W.H. Cummings adapted a Felix Mendelssohn cantata to perfectly fit “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Mendelssohn’s original music was a secular ode to technology and Gutenberg’s printing press. In fact, if Cummings hadn’t adapted either Mendelssohn’s music and Wesley’s hymn, both probably would’ve been lost to history.

However, when the Mendelssohn music was matched to Wesley’s rich lyrics it created a new Christmas classic.

For many people, it’s their favorite Christmas hymn. It’s likely a song you’ll hum or sing sometime this week. You might be humming it right now.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Glory to the newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled. Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the triumph in the skies. With angelic hosts proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: Glory to the newborn king!”

Christ, by highest heaven adored. Christ, the everlasting Lord. Late in time behold him come. Offspring of the Virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate Deity. Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: Glory to the newborn king!”

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings. Risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing: “Glory to the new-born king”

The Santa Chronicles: The Rise of Sinter Klass (Part 2)

By Rick Chromey | December 7, 2022 |
How did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? It’s an important part of the real history of Santa Claus. In part 1, we looked at the humble beginnings of a devout Greek bishop known as Nicholas. His generous deeds were legendary. Now let’s dive into the European chapter that sets up the myths and legend we know today.

Muslim aggression into the Middle East and Asia Minor during the 11th century saved this story for us.

The tale of “St. Nick” should be as forgotten as most religious saints of that period. But it wasn’t. Nicholas’ remains were moved to Italy in 1087 AD to save them from desecration by the invading Moors. This relocation pushed his story of generosity and Faith to a new audience. There were already “midnight gift giving” traditions associated with Nick on the day of his death (December 6) in Asia Minor. Now western Europeans added “St. Nicholas Day” and his gift-giving tradition to their other “saint days” holidays.

“St. Nicholas Day” (Dec 6) quickly became a popular European Christian holiday.

One legendary story reported how Nicholas left gold coins for people in their shoes (usually kept just inside the front door). It’s still a tradition in some countries for children to leave their shoes by the doors on Christmas Eve to be filled with gifts. For the rest of us we prefer socks on the fireplace. In the Middle Ages, the “saints day” holidays began to lose their luster.

In the early 1500s Martin Luther (and his Protestant Reformation churches) eliminated “saints days”–including St. Nicholas Day.

The Protestant churches felt “saints days” removed the focus from Jesus. However, the Germans loved the gift-giving aspect of St. Nicholas Day. Consequently, the German Luther moved the Nicholas story and tradition to Christmas (December 25). He felt it better emphasized the gift of the Christ Child and gifts of the wisemen. Germans pronounced “Christ Child” as “Christkindl.” Therefore, the name Nicholas evolved into KRIS KRINGLE. The Germans also gave us the Christmas tree, advent calendars and wreaths.

But it was Dutch Christians who truly changed the St. Nicholas tradition.

According to Revelation 19-20, Jesus will one day return to the earth at the midnight hour…in judgment. He’ll ride a white horse, with the saints of heaven following him. Jesus will then remove all mankind to a Day of Judgment to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. The righteous are saved because their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

The Dutch Christians attached this biblical idea to St. Nickolas (who they call Sinter Klass) on Christmas Eve.

The Dutch created a morality play. Like Jesus, Sinter Klass returned annually (and sometime during the night) to judge children according to his “Book of Naughty and Nice.” In this Dutch story mash-up, the angels become elves. The north star, because it’s a fixed point, becomes the North Pole, the home for Sinter Klass. And because there aren’t many horses in the Arctic, Sinter Klass’ sleigh is pulled by reindeer. One interesting twist on the Dutch “St. Nick” tradition is Sinter Class was accompanied by a Black Moor named Zwarte Piet. The “nice” children received treats and reward, but the “naughty” children were hauled off to Spain in a gunny sack and sold into Muslim slavery. It’s why Dutch boys (who tended to be more “naughty”) slept with a pocket knife on Christmas Eve (to escape from the sack of Zwarte Piet). It’s also why Santa carries his toys in a large gunny sack. A bit creepy, I know, but that’s the reason. Thank you Dutch parents.

Unlike the Dutch, the English focused less on St. Nicholas gift-giving and more on the feast of Christmas.

And nobody feasted better than King Henry VIII. During his reign the Christ Mass “holy day” devolved into Sin City and Mardi Gras combined. The Twelve Days of Christmas were for hard partying, gambling, dancing, sexual promiscuity, drinking (wassail was a spiced beer) and getting into trouble. It’s a holiday that separated the rich from the poor…a theme Charles Dickens framed in his story about Scrooge and Tiny Tim (“A Christmas Carol”).

All this Anglo bawdiness is going to create a problem for a certain group of English Christians known as the Separatists (Pilgrims) and Puritans.

In fact both of these religious parties will migrate to “New England” to create a better society. In their first order of business they’ll outlaw Christmas (as well as Halloween) in their new American home.

The Santa Chronicles: How A Man Named Nicholas became Santa Claus (Part 1)

By Rick Chromey | December 6, 2022 |

His name was Nikolaos or Nicholas…St. Nicholas in the Greek Orthodox tradition.

You and I know him better as “St. Nick.”

Around the world he has other names: Sinterklass (Dutch), Kris Kringle (English), Papa Noel (French/Spanish), Weihnachtsmann (German), Grandfather Frost (Russia)…and SANTA CLAUS.

Most of what we know about this “jolly old elf” and his relationship to Christmas is thanks to four significant people or groups: Islamic jihadists, Martin Luther, the Dutch and Irving Berlin.

It’s quite a yuletide tale. And it all began on December 6, 343 A.D. It’s the day Nicholas died and his legend began. I’m going to tell his story in three parts and focus first on the man named NICK.

Nicholas was born into great wealth in Patara, Turkey (280 AD).

He survived the most brutal Christian persecution in history by Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD). This tyrant ordered the arrest and death of church leaders. He wanted all the “scriptures” destroyed and the homes (where churches met) torched. Many Christians who refused to recant had their tongues cut out and were burned alive. It was a terrible, gruesome time to be a Christian.

Thanks to his parents wealth, which Nicholas inherited, he never lived in need.

But his sensitive spirit opened him to the need of others.

He became particularly noted for his generosity to the poor.

But Nick never took credit. He always gave anonymously.

One day he learned of a desperate and bankrupt merchant who was going to lose everything, including his three daughters, to creditors. The merchant wanted to save his girls from being trafficked for sex by marrying them off…but he had no dowry money to pay a suitor’s family.

Nicholas caught wind of the merchant’s great need and, one night near the midnight hour, tossed a bag of money into each girl’s window for their dowry. According to lore, one bag landed in a sock that was drying by the fireplace. Have you ever noticed that older pawn shops often have three balls hung outside or built into their logo? It’s because of Nicholas and this story.

Nick is the patron saint of pawnbrokers who help people get past their hour of need through pawn loans.

After Nicholas died on 343 AD, and he was venerated as a “saint” in the Greek Orthodox faith, a tradition of “midnight gift-giving” (stuffing stockings with presents) emerged on the anniversary of his death (December 6). It’s a tradition that lasted over 1200 years.

Nicholas was also an important church leader.

He was a bishop in Myra, a significant port city in Asia Minor. Initially Nick didn’t want the job. Diocletian had targeted bishops for imprisonment and death. In fact, Nick, as he expected, was soon arrested and jailed, but thankfully a new emperor named Constantine rose to power and in 313 AD ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.

Once freed, the fiery Nicholas took on the pagan Roman culture.

He preached against adultery, homosexuality, prostitution and other sexual sin. His sermons created such a stir in Myra that they tore down an ancient temple to Diana (the fertility goddess). He helped end the Greek Olympics for their bawdy, pagan games…originally performed in the nude for the pleasure of the crowds. He spoke against murder, particularly the Roman practice of killing unwanted babies at birth.

Nicholas was among the bishops who convened at Nicea in 325 AD to deal with heresy.

Reportedly, Nick was so angry at Arian for his heretical view of Jesus that he slapped him! As a result, these church leaders produced the Nicene Creed (which remains a spoken tradition in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches to this day).

Evidently the prayers of Nicholas were miraculous too.

He once prayed for an angry sea to calm…and it did. It’s why he’s known as the patron saint of sailors too. Another time he prayed that merchant ships might remain full of grain, even after they gave up large deposits for his famished people in Myra…and they did.

Nicholas died on December 6, 343 A.D.

Myra soon built a church to honor him.

Seven centuries after that Islamic jihadists invaded Asia Minor. Like Diocletian, they were brutal and barbaric, killing Christians, destroying churches and desecrating the graves of saints. To save Nicholas’ remains, the Myra Christians sent them to Bari, Italy for safe-keeping. In 1087 AD Pope Urban II named a church in Nicholas’ honor (Basilica di San Nicola de Bari).

The Muslim invasion was so bad that the Pope requested help from European kings to intervene.

It was the First Crusade and it eventually saved Europe from falling to Islam.

The story of St. Nicholas was kept alive in the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, but now that his remains were on European soil, the tales of his generosity and Faith began to spread into Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and England.

The irony? If it wasn’t for the Muslim invasion and Nicholas’ remains being moved to Europe, we probably wouldn’t have a St. Nick tradition for Christmas. It’s a story that would’ve been lost to time.

But that didn’t happen. And the legend of St. Nick would evolve in Europe over the next millennium to become Santa Claus.

And that’s where we’ll pick up his story in PART TWO…

Stay tuned.

Pilgrims, the Mayflower and Squanto: The Real Story of Thanksgiving

By Rick Chromey | November 18, 2022 |


Pilgrim Thanksgiving


This week we celebrate Thanksgiving Day.

It’s a day we’ll gather for turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, and pie. We’ll gather with friends and family, watch football and check the advertisements for Black Friday specials. Most of us will share gratitude for something or someone.

But in 1621, the first Thanksgiving feast happened for none of those reasons.

Here’s the REAL story. The story that you won’t hear on the History Channel, at the museum or in school. In fact, if you’re under 45, you’ve likely never learned what really happened with the pilgrims. In recent years, we’ve been fed a history that one revisionist stated was how “noble-minded pioneers slaughtered Indians with little remorse, kept servants and slaves, and treated women no differently than cattle.”[i] It’s simply not true.

Many Americans believe Europeans originally settled America as part of a systematic “hostile takeover” of the native Indian (or indigenous people). They argue the “white man” stole the land from the Indian, then enslaved the African Black.

But is that true? Were the Pilgrims evil white Christian oppressors? Or have we been taught the wrong story.

To understand this tale we need to begin in 1603 when King James I ascended the English throne.

King James wanted a pure Anglican church and absolute obedience to civil authority. He drove dissident groups underground through imprisonment, fines and other persecution. In 1611, King James  “authorized” his own Anglican translation of the Bible. Among these dissident groups were groups called Separatists and Puritans. Initially, the Puritans wanted to “purify” the corruption in the Anglican church but tried to retain unity with their Anglican brothers. The Separatists were different. They completely separated from the Church of England. In 1607, an entire church (known as the Scrooby congregation) illegally migrated to Holland to escape King James. This group of dissident Christians were eventually known as the “pilgrims.”

Holland proved tolerant of religion for these Christian pilgrims, but it was also more heathen in culture and traditions.

After a dozen years living among the Dutch, this Scrooby church noticed changes in their kids…and they weren’t good ones. It was time to move again. That’s when they heard about a new world called “America.” England was seeking immigrants to colonize the region that eventually would be called “New” England.

In September of 1620 the “pilgrims” set sail for America.

They set sail initially on the Speedwell but this ship was leaky and unreliable. The Mayflower ship, accompanying the Speedwell, was able to take only 102 of the Speedwell pilgrims. There were other non-separatists aboard, but the pilgrims were the in the majority. The 65 day voyage across the Atlantic was a dangerous and life-threatening. Intense storms nearly tore the Mayflower ship apart, and tore off the central mast at one point.

One pilgrim named James Howland fell overboard and would’ve drown had he not (miraculously) found the trailing rope behind the Mayflower. Howland was saved and that proved fortunate. James later married and had ten children. Among Howland’s descendants are H.W., G.W. and Jeb Bush, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, Henry Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Humphrey Bogart, Alec and Stephen Baldwin, Chevy Chase, John Lithglow, country artist Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Joseph Smith, Jr. and Jane Austin.

On November 9, 1620 the Mayflower arrived in America.

Originally the pilgrims planned to settle in Jamestown, VA but a winter storm pushed them further north into Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

William Bradford led the group in a thanksgiving reading of Psalm 100: Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.

William Bradford emerged as a leader and pastor for the pilgrims in the new world.

He was barely 30 years old but already a respected leader among the pilgrims. He volunteered to help explore the area with several other men. But first they needed to agree on a basic government for their new colony. They authored what would become “The Mayflower Compact.” The pilgrims knew settling in a different area than Jamestown could be perceived as defiance by King James. Consequently, they wrote out a simple constitution—the first for Americans—promising “all Submission and Obedience” to “King and country.”

They also stated their purpose was a Christian settlement “undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.”

With the Compact signed, exploration parties commenced.

Initially, they found no people. The cold November winds were chilling, the New England land barren, rocky and hard to traverse. On their third exploration the men discovered an abandoned Indian village. It was the former fort of the Patuxet Indians and it was now a graveyard of skulls and bones. Between 1616 and 1619, a deadly plague killed off the entire tribe. The tragedy of a tribe would be fortunate for these pilgrims seeking a quick home. But the young Bradford now faced his own tragedy. Upon his return to the Mayflower he learned his young wife had accidentally fallen into the cold Atlantic waters and drowned. It was the first of many misfortunes he’d face.

The abandoned Indian fort proved a Divine blessing for the pilgrims who began disembarking the Mayflower.

Winter was approaching fast, and they needed food and shelter. By Christmas Day 1620 the settlers were rebuilding the old Indian fort. Unfortunately, starvation, freezing temperatures and sickness soon took its toll. At one point, Bradford collapsed from a sudden pain in his hip. Some feared he wouldn’t last the night, but he “miraculously” pulled through. Not everyone was that lucky. During March and February, two to three pilgrims died every day. By spring more than half the original 102 pilgrims were dead.

Many Puritans later thanked a hired soldier named Myles Standish for their survival in that first winter.

Standish not only nursed Bradford back to health, but many others too. He foraged for food, reinforced the fort and kept the dying pilgrim community alive. He’d also be William Bradford’s right hand man…and a gift from God. For Bradford everything was a matter of Divine Providence. God was controlling this venture…and blessing it. Even when the Mayflower headed back to England and the ship’s captain begged the starving pilgrims to return, they refused.

God had led them to America.

As for the neighboring Indians? Here’s the real story that’s not taught today.

In early spring 1621, this surviving band of pilgrims had their first meeting with an Indian.

His name was Samoset and he was part of the Wampanoag tribe. His chief Massasoit had sent him to meet the white settlers and to their surprise he greeted them in English. The introduction grew into a friendship and eventually a mutual treaty to work together for the good of all. The pilgrims and Wampanoag  agreed to help each other and, if necessary, fight together. It was an alliance that likely saved the pilgrims.

The reason Somoset could greet the pilgrims in their English tongue is due to another Indian named Tisquantum.

He was not a Wampanoag Indian. In fact, he belonged to that fateful Patuxet Indian tribe that had perished due to the plague. Tisquantum was kidnapped twice by white slave traders. The second time he was taken to Spain to be a slave, and that proved fortuitous because he missed the epidemic that wiped out his tribe in 1617. In Spain Tisquantum was sold to some Spanish Christian monks. These monks educated Tisquantum, taught him Spanish and English, as well as European customs. They also instructed him in Christianity…then they freed Tisquantum. The liberated Indian left Spain and traveled to England (where Tisquantum met  Pocahontas) and then, in 1619, returned to his native America.

But Tisquantum returned to discover his people were gone. 

His family and friends were all dead due to a killer epidemic. His entire life and culture was finished. So he joined the Wampanoag tribe. He was the one who likely taught Samoset a simple English greeting. Because once in the door, Tisquantum quickly took the lead. He did all the translation work between the Indians and these white settlers, and helped create the treaty. He lived with the pilgrims for nearly two years and proved an indispensable resource to Bradford and the colonists. Bradford said Tisquantum was “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.”

The pilgrims gave Tisquantum a different, shortened name: Squanto.

And he became one of the most influential Indians in American history. Like Pocahontas and, later, Sacagawea, he proved a trusted friend to the white settler.

Squanto singlehandedly equipped this struggling colony. He was their American “Moses”—leader, guide, interpreter, and advisor. Squanto introduced the settlers to the fur trade and taught them how to hunt and fish. He showed them how to grow crops in the rocky Massachusetts’s dirt, including a new crop known as “corn.” At one point, a food shortage forced Bradford to take a treacherous expedition to trade some pelts. Squanto expertly piloted the ship through dangerous waters. But that expedition was also Squanto’s last, as he contracted “Indian fever” sometime during the trip. Within days, he was dead. Bradford tenderly cared for his Indian friend to his last breath. He wrote in his journal how Squanto was a “great loss” to him and the pilgrim colonists.

The year 1621 proved a banner year for the pilgrims.

Despite the steep loss of human life in early spring, the colony rebounded—thanks to the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe. They now thrived in their new world. There was an abundance of wildlife and fish in this new world, not to mention trees for building homes. The pilgrims killed so much fowl and deer, and their crops grew so well, that they had more than they needed for the coming winter.

It was time to party. It was time to thank God for His Protection and Provision.

The First Thanksgiving was a fellowship meal of gratitude.

Yes, there was gratitude towards the Indians. It why the pilgrims invited their chief Massasoit and several Indians to join their company for a good old-fashioned potluck dinner. Ninety Indians showed up for the fellowship meal. They feasted for three days on wild turkey, venison, fish, fowl, fruits, nuts and vegetables. They also dined on a new dish known simply as “corn.” A pilgrim named Edward Winslow recorded his gratitude: “And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time, with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Thanksgiving was about thanking God for his “goodness” and his abundant provision.

It was also gratitude for new friends, rugged individualism and a liberty to live (and worship) as one desired.

It’s why those who wish to twist this Thanksgiving tale into a story of greed, theft and hate completely miss the point. The Puritans weren’t oppressors. They didn’t steal any land. In fact, every Indian tribe in the area could’ve done what these Puritans did, but they did not. Why? Because their superstitions about death kept them far away from this plot of land these pilgrims chose. They feared living in such a place would bring death upon their own tribe. So the abandoned fort was never inhabited again…until a hundred hungry European Christians desperately needed shelter one cold November day.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday with an amazing tale of survival. We should enjoy the bounty of what we’ve earned and produced. But let us never forget to be grateful for how God provided that opportunity, that job, that paycheck, that home, that food.

And out of charity and gratitude, don’t forget to invite some friends to the table.

Thanksgiving is about being grateful, hopeful…and neighborly.




  1. Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis (New York: Avon Books, 1990): 20.
  2. Bradford’s History “Of Plimoth Plantation” by William Bradford (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing, 1898)
  3. The Pilgrim Fathers or Colony of Plymouth from 1602 to 1625 by Alexander Young (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1841).