"HISTORY SPEAKS" BLOG

The Oregon Trail: How Christianity Carved a New Path West

By Rick Chromey | October 21, 2022 |

Oregon. Washington. Idaho. Parts of Montana and Wyoming.

It’s nearly 300,000 acres of majestic, rugged land known as the Oregon Territory, a portion of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The infamous Oregon Trail snakes through this vast estate, connecting the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of westward wagons once traveled its corridors and canyons, leaving behind etchings, belongings, and graves. Today it’s scored by interstates and roads, towns and cities.

But who started the trail? And for what reason?

The Oregon Trail story originates with four Indians—two Flathead and two Nez Perce—who traveled over two thousand miles to visit “their great father” William C. Clark. Clark and Meriwether Lewis had encountered the Nez Perce and Flathead Indians in their exploration of the Missouri and Columbia rivers in 1803-1806. In 1831, Clark was the governor of the Missouri territory and the agent to the Indians, to handle disputes, relationships, conflicts and other questions.

That’s why these four Indians came to faraway St. Louis to meet with Clark.

The Indians wanted to secure the “book to Heaven” that allowed people to “live forever with the Great Spirit.”

However their journey was not easy. They all got sick along the way. One died prior to arrival.

There are several varying accounts of what happened next. This is one of them.

The remaining three Indians found Clark at his home. Upon learning of their quest, Clark kindly gave them a tour of town and showed them a cathedral…but offered no answers. When another two Indians died, the remaining chief desperately pled Clark for insight. Don’t send us back “blind…broken and empty,” he begged. A young man overheard this Indian’s request to Clark, wrote his words and mailed it back east to a friend. The friend shared the request with another friend. And then another. Eventually the Indian request was published as an article titled “Wise Men from the West” for the Christian Advocate journal (March 1833).

The story inspired eastern Christian churches. Somebody needed to go West.

America, at the time, was in its “Second Great Awakening.” A period of great religious revival and fervor that spread like a wildfire across the young nation. Churches were full. Revivals were popular. Fresh forms of “non-denominational Christianity” and “restoration movements” (to restore ancient Christianity) were finding root. The Methodist church, thanks to its promotion of a program called “Sunday School”–that taught kids how to read and write through using the Bible–was particularly influential.

Consequently, when this article about Indians in the western frontier was published it caught the attention of those committed to missionary work.

A New York physician named Marcus Whitman was one of those inspired missionaries…and he was ready.

From his youth, Marcus wanted to be a clergy man. However, the schooling was too expensive and so he settled instead upon medicine. Nevertheless, this New Yorker hungered for the adventures of mission work. Consequently, in 1835, Whitman traveled with another missionary to Montana and Idaho to scope out the situation. They purposely visited the Flathead and Nez Perce tribes. From their efforts, some Indians converted to Christianity. The Nez Perce then invited Whitman to live among them and he promised to return.

Meanwhile another New Yorker in the east was excited about the news out West.

Narcissa Prentiss was also a product of the Second Great Awakening.

All her life she felt called to mission work and attended Franklin Academy in Pittsburgh to prepare for that vocation. Then she met Marcus in 1835, after his return from the West. His convictions and stories inspired Narcissa. They fell in love and married February 18, 1836.

A month later Marcus and his new bride Narcissa headed west again.

This time they blazed a new trail deep into the Oregon Territory along with another missionary couple named Henry and Eliza Spalding. Narcissa and Eliza became the first white women to travel west of the Rocky Mountains,…and Narcissa kept a journal of her experiences. Once in Oregon country, the Whitmans established a mission north of Pendleton in Walla Walla, WA among the Cayuse (who had never met them, never invited them to their land and were surprised they stayed). The Spaldings moved north to establish a mission among the Nez Perce.

For the next decade the Whitmans lived, worked, and churched among the Cayuse tribes of eastern Washington.

They proved the perfect power missionary couple. As a teacher, Narcissa taught the Indians how to read and write. Meanwhile Marcus tended to their health, treating wounds, disease, and aging. Through their Christian service, the Whitmans evangelized a few Cayuse, but generally found the work difficult, exhausting and bearing little fruit. In time, some of the Cayuse grew suspicious of the Whitmans–particularly Narcissa–when they limited access to particular rooms at their mission. Narcissa was tired of the fleas the Indians carried and did not want them inside the bedrooms. The Cayuse viewed her behavior as inhospitable.

In 1842, Marcus returned east to raise funds for his mission.

Christianity was spreading, Whitman preached, and there was great need for additional Christians to teach, lead, serve and comfort. The idea proved unpopular. Most easterners viewed settling the Oregon Territory as pointless. It was desolate, worthless…and few cared about the Indian. One southern senator chortled he “would not give a pinch of snuff for the whole territory.”

But Marcus was not deterred. Whitman recruited a group of “Christian soldiers”–over 200 wagons and several hundred people strong–to head back to Oregon along the path he had charted in 1836.

The “Oregon Trail” was born.

Soon their western route (and news of fertile land in the Willamette Valley [Portland, OR]) inspired additional wagon trains to form and follow.

The Whitmans continued to work among the Cayuse…but now saw a greater need to serve the emigrant. They opened their mission and established a school for widows and orphans who had lost the fathers and parents along the Trail.

This shift in focus from the Indian to the emigrant didn’t sit well with the Cayuse. Their homeland was filling up with white people, many who came not to serve the Indians but start a new life on a patch of ground in Oregon. The Cayuse were slowly being pushed out of their native lands…and began to despise the Whitman Mission. It was a symbol of white aggression.

Furthermore, it didn’t take long for gold-seekers, outlaws, frontiersmen, gamblers, and politicians with greed (not God) on their minds to spark problems.

Skirmishes between the Indian and white emigrants increased. New infectious “white” diseases–including cholera and measles–were introduced through contact. Lacking immunity, these deadly viruses spread quickly among the Indians.

In 1847 a measles epidemic spread through the area, infecting both the white and Indian (who had no immunity to this deadly disease). Marcus Whitman, at great risk to his own health, doctored both the infected white and Indian. While he had some success with the whites,. many of the sick Indians died from the disease. The Cayuse tribe–and their chief named Tiloukaikt–grew suspicious and angry. Their tribe, especially the children, had been decimated by measles and they blamed the “medicine man” Whitman. Some even spread false rumors that he intentionally infected the Cayuse to exterminate them According to Cayuse tradition, Whitman was a “healer who couldn’t heal” and needed to be killed.

On November 29, 1847, a band of Cayuse warriors massacred Marcus and Narcissa Whitman along with eleven other settlers.

The Cayuse then torched the buildings, destroyed property, and kidnapped dozens of women and children–holding them hostage for a month. This event sparked a manhunt and a wider conflict known as the Cayuse War (1847-1855). Eventually five Cayuse confessed to the crime and were tried, convicted and hung in Oregon City (1850).

The Whitman mission was gone.

But their legacy was not.

Twelve years later, a seminary to train ministers was established in Marcus’ name. Today that college still exists as Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. In his youth Marcus dreamed of becoming a clergyman but family and money dissuaded him. Instead, he apprenticed medicine for two years to become a doctor. God used Marcus’ medical skills and Narcissa’s teaching abilities to serve the Indian. And while there are differing interpretations on the motives, methods and success of their mission, one thing cannot be denied.

Christianity is why the Oregon Trail was pioneered.

It wasn’t carved by gold seekers, outlaws or easterners seeking new land as much as by an army of Christians committed to serve, teach and nurse the natives. They came to settle Oregon and Washington for God.

Many modern western histories miss this spiritual element. And too many historians blame all white men for atrocities against the Indian, but these claims lack merit. In reality, the West was also settled by Christians who came not for gold, land, power, or escape…but rather to selflessly evangelize, minister, and educate those in need…and that included the Indian. From Jason Lee’s Methodist mission in The Dalles, OR to Catholic missions like St. Ignatius in Montana, the mountain and Pacific Northwest was largely populated, from the beginning, by Christians sent to serve.

Ironically, a half century after the Cayuse burned down the Whitman mission, a remnant of Christian Cayuse invited another white missionary to come to their lands. His name was Jimmy Cornelison and this diminutive missionary proved rather popular. The Cayuse adored the short pastor–nicknaming him “Little White Man.” Hundreds of people–Indian and white–converted to Christianity as a result of his long ministry in the Pendleton, OR area.

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding summarized this first emigrant expedition: “Never in the history of the world has there been a finer example of civilization following Christianity. The missionaries led under the banner of the cross, and the settlers moved close behind under the star-spangled symbol of the nation.”

Harding’s words certainly reflect the greater western myth of “manifest destiny” that many historians now denounce, and with good reason. However, the genesis of the Oregon Trail still cannot be denied. The origin story, even with its variations with William Clark, sparked a missionary movement to the West.

 

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SOURCES:

  1. Warren G. Harding’s “Address in Meacham, Oregon” on July 3, 1923: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-meacham-oregon
  2. How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon by Oliver W. Nixon, M.D., LL.D. (Chicago: Star Publishing Company (1895). Available for download at Google books.
  3. Marcus Whitman: Pathfinder and Patriot by Rev. Myron Eells, D.D. (Seatte: The Alice Harriman Company (1909). Available for download at Google books.
  4. Transactions of the 19th Annual Reunion of the Oregon Pioneer Association (Portland, OR: A. Anderson & Co), 1893. Contains the complete journal of Narcissa Whitman. Available for download at Google books.
  5. The Oregon Missions by James W. Bashford (New York: Abingdon Press, 1918). Available for download at Google books.
  6. Little White Man by Rick Steber (Bonanza Publishing, 2017).

 

 

Suicide or Murder? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

By Rick Chromey | October 11, 2022 |

Meriwether Lewis led one of America’s greatest expeditions and was the apple of Thomas Jefferson’s eye.

To this day the name “Meriwether Lewis” sells books, inspires audiences and provokes pride. His leadership of the Corps of Discovery, along with William Clark, remains one our nation’s most enduring tales. In his post-expedition years he enjoyed fame and fortune, and a cushy job as the governor of the newly-minted Louisiana territory.

And yet, in the fall of 1809, a lot of things were going wrong for Meriwether Lewis.

He was physically ill, some say due to malaria and others claim from a case of syphilis, both possible consequences of his journey to the Pacific. Emotionally, he was a lonely guy who struggled with relationships–whether it was the failure to find a wife or work with the political powers in St. Louis and Washington. Even his most ardent supporters and personal friends–Thomas Jefferson and William Clark (who governed along side him in St. Louis)–were losing faith in his abilities. Lewis was tasked with preparing the expedition journals for publication in 1806. Three years later he had yet to pen a single word.

And then, in 1809, the Madison administration audited Lewis on his gubernatorial expenditures. He was spending unauthorized funds and his invoices for reimbursement were denied. This news shocked Meriwether Lewis, as it meant financial ruin. He faced not just bankruptcy but also scandal. Lewis’ reputation, honor and legacy were all at stake.

To make matters worse, Meriwether Lewis was hitting the bottle.

As a young man he was known in the socialite circles of Washington and Philadelphia to indulge in the “ardent spirits” too much. The Expedition hauled 18 barrels of whiskey up the Missouri but it didn’t last long. After his return to the States, Lewis and Clark were honored with balls, parades and galas. Lewis, in particular, enjoyed these events…perhaps a bit too much. His friends noted that he was not just drinking…but drinking heavily.

Lewis was also sporting a new opiate addiction. He was self-medicating on pain-killing powder. While it’s speculative, his addiction could be rooted to a painful gunshot wound he experienced in the waning weeks of the return voyage from the Pacific. Lewis was shot by one of his own men (Pierre Cruzatte)–the nearly blind fiddle-player and river man–who somehow thought Lewis was an elk. The shot could’ve killed Lewis but instead only wounded him. Nevertheless, for the next several weeks, the Captain had to lie on his stomach in the canoe due to the pain of sitting upright. As the medical doctor for the Corps he had access to the drug cabinet, and the Corps carried plenty of opium on board as a pain reliever. Could this incident be the genesis for an opiate addiction? Possibly.

On September 4, 1809 Meriwether Lewis left St. Louis for Washington, DC.

His plan was to argue his expenditures before James Madison himself. However, there were signs that he was mentally unstable. He penned a will only a week after his departure and then arrived at Fort Pickering on September 15, 1809 drunk and under a suicide watch. Lewis spent the next two weeks in quarantine to dry out. During that time he penned a confusing and messy letter to Madison.

While the commander of the fort–Capt. Gilbert Russell–wanted to accompany Lewis to DC, a Major James Neelly was assigned as an escort. On September 29, Lewis and Neelly, along with his personal attendant John Pernier and another servant, set out for the famed Natchez Trace trail that ran from Mississippi to Tennessee.

On October 10, two the horses carrying important documents strayed and went missing.

Neelly knew the area and stayed behind to round them up. Lewis and is two servants ventured ahead. By this time, Lewis was drinking again and likely dipping into the opium. A sad irony is that Maj. Neelly was known for his drinking too. Could the person assigned to escort Lewis be the one who reignited his alcohol addiction? This, too, is possible.

Lewis arrived ahead of his two servants to Grinder’s Stand on October 10, 1809. He rented a room from Priscilla Grinder and settled in for the night. Mrs. Grinder’s husband was away on business and she quickly became suspicious, even fearful, of her new guest. Lewis was acting strangely and erratically, she’d later recount. He didn’t want a bed but rather preferred to sleep upon his buffalo robe laid out on the floor. She noted he was also drinking that night and musing about William Clark coming up the trail soon. She could hear him loudly debating a legal case in his room. At times his behavior was so strange it created fear. She became so afraid of his “mental derangement” that she chose to sleep next door. John Pernier and Lewis’ other servant bunked in a nearby cabin.

On the night of October 10, 1809, Meriwether Lewis was all alone.

Around 3 a.m. Priscilla Grinder heard two shots shatter the early morning silence. It was a moonless night. When she peeked outside, she saw nothing outside except Lewis staggering back to his cabin. Remaining fearful she rendered no aid, even though she claimed to hear Lewis cry for help. Given his odd behavior earlier in the evening, and likely her own husband’s warnings and woman’s intuition in situations of this sort, Mrs. Grinder chose to close the door and wait for daylight. At the crack of first light, she awoke his servants and they entered the room to find Lewis on the floor, still alive. They saw two wounds, one in his forehead and the other in his side. Lewis asked for water. He also requested Pernier to use a nearby rifle and finish the job (end his life). Pernier declined.

As the sun rose, Meriwether Lewis died.

His final words were cryptic: “I am no coward, but I am so strong, so hard to die.”

Later that morning, Major James Neelly arrived with the stray horses to learn that Lewis was dead. Both Priscilla Grinder and John Pernier stated the cause of death was suicide. Meriwether Lewis had used two flintlock pistols to “do the deed.” Neelly gathered Lewis’ personal effects, buried him nearby and wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson that Meriwether Lewis was dead “by suicide.” Jefferson received that letter a week later on October 18, 1809.

William Clark was on the road with his wife Julia, in Kentucky at his brother’s place in Louisville, KY when he heard the news of Lewis’ suicide…by way of a newspaper on October 28. His response echoed what he hoped was not true: “I fear O! I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him.” Clark knew Lewis’ sour dispositions and depressive moods. He knew his partner was in bad shape when he left St. Louis a month earlier. It was sad news to hear of the suicide of his friend…but it was not surprising news.

In the weeks, months and years after Lewis’ death there were investigations and reports into what happened that night…and all concluded that Lewis died “by his own hand.”

Gilbert Russell, the captain at Fort Pickering, issued an 1811 report to the American Philosophical Society (the same think tank that resourced Lewis with insight for his journey west). Alexander Wilson interviewed the Grinders, toured the area and viewed Lewis’ grave…also released his report in 1811.

And while there were some who suspected foul play, the evidence, testimony and general assessment seemed to agree: Meriwether Lewis committed suicide. He was capable of suicide. He had the means and opportunity for suicide. His depressing circumstances, his addictions, his melancholy and emotional detachments, his failures to produce, his political oppositions, his two previous suicide attempts…were all enough to drive a man both mad…and to self-destruction.

Thomas Jefferson was also not surprised by Lewis’ suicide.

He knew Meriwether well. The Jefferson and Lewis families lived near each other. Lewis was mentored by Jefferson and a father figure to him. Jefferson penned that Lewis “had from early life been subject to hypochondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition.” Jefferson also observed that when Lewis lived with him in DC that he “observed at times sensible depressions of the mind.” 

It would seem, given the clear history and testimonials, that we have the full story. However, since the mid-19th century, the speculation of “murder” has continued to bubble. And for good reasons. There are serious issues that seemingly undermine the integrity of the eyewitnesses.

  • Priscilla Grinder was not an “eye” witness but an “ear” witness. She did not see Lewis pull the trigger nor anyone else. She only heard gunshots on a moonless, pitch black night. The fact she didn’t render aid is suspicious. And her recollection of that event 30 years later added several details not contained in her 1809 and 1811 accounts. What was she covering up? Was her inconsistent testimony evidence of an making up a story?

 

  • John Pernier, Lewis’ black servant, had a financial motive to harm Lewis (who owed him money). He was present that night and could’ve easily slipped back to his cabin. Lewis’ own mother (Lucy Marks) fingered Pernier as suspicious from the beginning. The fact that only months later he, too, was found dead left a new question. Did he commit suicide out of shame for his deed (of murdering his master)? Or did someone murder him to bury the real truth further?

 

  • And then there’s Maj. James Neelly, the military escort. His absence that night is equally opportunistic. Could he have slipped into Grinder’s Stand, found a drunk Lewis, and used his own guns against him? The likelihood he had already reintroduced Lewis to drinking suggests some foul play. And Neelly is no church boy. He’s a known trouble-maker. His alibi that he’s not present that fateful night leads to ask “What if he was the guy who pulled the trigger?”

Those who advocate for murder also offer highly speculative conspiracy theories, political assassination attempts and Natchez Trace thuggery as potential suspects for homicide.

The problem is no argument is iron-clad for how Lewis died.

The historical and origin narrative of suicide does have its holes, but many of these can be explained.

Yes, Priscilla Grinder embellished the story in 1839–three decades after the fact. However, she is now an old woman. Nevertheless, she continued to state the basic facts of that night for suicide. If she was growing senile, that would certainly explain the embellishments, but it also affirms the suicide narrative. Senility causes a person to forget the lies just as much as remember the truth. If she had been lying all these years, senility would’ve brought it out. And if she’s not senile, nothing has changed (but a few embellishments): Meriwether Lewis committed suicide.

The idea that John Pernier, fingered by Lewis’ mom as suspicious, was quickly shot down…by Lewis’ own family. Pernier was never a serious suspect because the Lewis family rejected and denounced Lucy Marks suspicion of Pernier…who was a deeply faithful and trusted servant to Lewis. Lucy had her own religious motivations for a “murder option” too. Her firebrand Methodism denounced the type of lifestyle Lewis lived (from his playboy ways with women to drinking). It also viewed suicide as an unpardonable sin. Essentially, Lewis’ mother couldn’t imagine her boy self-destructing to the point he’d spend his eternity in Hell. She believed he was better than that. So she created her own “murder” myth to keep him out of Hell.

As for Maj. James Neelly, he clearly wasn’t the best person to escort Lewis to DC. And he did retain some of Lewis’ possessions because Lewis also owed him money. Why he chose to bury Lewis in a shallow grave instead of taking him to Nashville will remain a mystery. However, in that day and age, it was not unusual to do what Neelly did. He was a military officer with other work on his plate. His job with Lewis was over the moment Lewis died. Neelly completed all the paperwork, finished the burial task and was on his way.

In the end, there’s no compelling reason to revise the story toward a murder plot.

First, because there’s no direct evidence of murder. No one at the scene stated it was murder. No foot or hoof prints. No clothing or other articles left behind. Even Lewis, who was cogent enough to ask for water and his servant to “finish the job” never fingered a killer. Surely, if someone tried to murder him, he’d have named his kill. In the end, there’s only silence…with much speculation and imagination.

Second, there’s no attractive plot nor suspect for murder. While Lewis had political opponents that might have wanted him dead, they could’ve done that deed easier in St. Louis. If James Neelly wanted Lewis dead it would’ve been easier to kill him in the woods (without witnesses) than in a notable inn along the Natchez Trace (with witnesses). Priscilla Grinder had no reason to lie or cover up. John Pernier was too loyal. The only other suspects would be Natchez Trace thugs bent on theft and murder. And yet there were no other sounds or sights on that moonless night. No whoops or hollers. No torches. No horses galloping away.

Only two shots in the dead of night.

Leaving Meriwether Lewis in the final hours of his life.

Ultimately, the Captain does prove “so hard to die.” And so doe his legacy,  leadership and life.

Meriwether Lewis likely died of suicide. But that doesn’t change his national influence.

Nor does it alter his glorious story to the western sea in 1804-1806.

Meriwether Lewis was a national treasure in his day…and remains one to this day. His story–all of it–must continue to be told.

Public Education: Why Its Failing (and the Solution to Fix It)

By Rick Chromey | September 1, 2022 |

public educationAmerica’s schools are a mess.

Teacher morale is low. Disrespect, truancy and discipline problems are rampant.

Today’s kids are more profane, angry, hurting, confused, violent…and ignorant (especially of their history).

But a failing education system was a problem our Founding Fathers knew was possible.

In a rather inconvenient quote about American education. Dr. Benjamin Rush penned:

The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty; and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments….”[i]

Dr. Rush fully knew the destructive nature of a purely secular education. In his day the French Revolution had removed God from its cultural institutions…and French society collapsed as a result. There was a clear line between the religiosity of a people and her social dysfunctions. It was critical for a citizenry to survive that they carried a sense of morality…and religion is where morality sprouts.

Our Founders observed how a French secular state produced disobedience, crime, disrespect, division and ignorance.

Dr. Rush, who also founded the Sunday School movement in America, argued:

“We waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity, by means of the Bible; for this Divine book, above all others favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws.”[ii]

American education originated in the mid-1600s in the Puritan colonies with the “Four R’s”: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and religion.

For centuries, American children were schooled in, with and through biblical values.

The purpose wasn’t to evangelize (a task for church and home) but to inculcate general Christian virtues of civility, temperance, respect, compassion, industry, self-reliance, frugality, self-restraint, fortitude and modesty. Children had the clergy as teachers. Many churches housed schools. Prayers and Bible readings were part of the curriculum. The greatest distinction was between Protestant and Catholic education (which is what prompted the rise of parochial schools).

A biblical philosophy guided the work of American education for three centuries, although not without occasional challenges.

In 1844, for example, a French Deist named Stephen Girard attempted to establish a secular school in Philadelphia prohibiting Christian education. The resulting lawsuit against Girard went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The famous lawyer Daniel Webster argued America was founded upon Christian values and religious principles, and Girard’s request was “repugnant to the law.” In the unanimous Supreme Court decision against the establishment of a purely secular school., Supreme Court justice Joseph Story opined:

Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the (school)–it’s general precepts expounded…and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? …Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament.”[iii]

Fifty years later, at the 1892 Columbian Exposition, Kansas teachers issued a national historical review of public education. They were concerned with a trend in public education to divorce itself from church control, noting in the 19th century how “the church reluctantly relinquished her claim upon the elementary schools.” Then these public educators made this stunning conclusion (and request):

“…if the study of the Bible is to be excluded from all State schools–if the inculcation of the principles of Christianity is to have no place in the daily program–if the worship of God is to form no part of the general exercises of these public elementary schools–then the good of the state would be better served by restoring all schools to church control.[iv]

The “good of the state?” Absolutely. These teachers knew without a virtuous education (based upon biblical principles), a secular America, and all her social institutions, was doomed to descend into chaos, anarchy, violence and other evils.

In the 20th century progressives, socialists and secularists worked for decades–finally succeeding in the early 1960s–to remove religion from public schools.

On June 25, 1962, a U.S. Supreme Court–without legal precedent and invoking a vague line by Jefferson about the “separation of church and state”–banned the use of non-sectarian prayers in American schools. A year later the same Court, relying upon the precedence of its earlier ruling, removed Bible readings from public schools. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, America scrubbed public prayers, courthouse nativity scenes, the Ten Commandments and Christian crosses, among other religious imagery from its culture.

By the 1990s, America had raised its first purely secular generation (known as Gen X). By 2010, Millennials were checking “none” for spiritual preference, no longer attending church and embracing secular lifestyles. Not to be outdone, Gen Z has become the most agnostic and atheist generation in American history. Furthermore, Gen Z is far more hostile to religion (most notably Christianity) than previous generations.

Why would a secular culture be so dangerous to America’s future?

A secular American culture is not only more profane, disrespectful, angry, divisive and narcissistic, but it’s also easier to manipulate for state control. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote in the 1920s:

Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity…In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.

Gramsci essentially laid out the playbook for American progressives and secularists. The first step is controlling the curriculum and changing the narratives. In order for a secular state to rise, it must eliminate the centrality of Christianity from its culture.

Ironically, in 1892 another Supreme Court ruled on the centrality of Christianity in shaping America’s political institutions. The case was the Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States. The conclusion of that Court clearly supported religion as central to the civil health and happiness of a society:

“The happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government depend upon piety, religion and morality.”[v]

Besides home and church, where does this “good order and preservation” propagate?

Founding educator Noah Webster, echoing the words of Benjamin Rush, argued for our American school system:

[T]he Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government ought to be instructed. No truth is more evident than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.[vi]

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln noted the connection between education and government when he reportedly said: “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

And that proverb has proven true. Just talk to any teacher over 45 about how education and students have changed. Today’s students, not to mention many of their parents, are generally confused, ignorant, depressed, wounded and lost. Their lives are a mess. Their homes are a mess. Their neighborhoods and cities are a mess.

American schools are simply reflecting the culture.

And harvesting the fruit of sixty years of secular education.

 

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SOURCES:

[i] Benjamin Rush Quoted in “Report of the Commissioner of Education for the Year 1893-1894”; Washington Printing Office, 1896: p. 721. Download available at Google Books.

[ii] A Century of Gospel Work: A History of the Growth of Evangelical Religion in the United States” by the Rev. W.F.P. Noble (Philadelphia: H.C. Watts and Co, 1876): 184. Download available at Google Books.

[iii] Mr. Webster’s Speech in Defence of the Christian Ministry and in Favor of the Religious Instruction of the Young Delivered to the Supreme Court of the United States (February 10, 1844). Download available at Google Books.

[iv] “Columbian History of Education in Kansas” (Topeka: Hamilton Printing Company, 1893): 82. Download available at Google Books.

[v] “The United States: A Christian Nation” by David J. Brewer (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1905). Download available at Google Books

[vi] Noah Webster, A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects (New York: Webster and Clark, 1843), p. 291. Download available at Google Books.

 

The Summer of ’77: When a Bible Shortage Forced the Hand of Congress

By Rick Chromey | August 16, 2022 |

The summer of 2022 was a season for shortages. From fuel to rental cars, certain food items to paper goods, stock was low and prices were high.

Gasoline, for the first time in U.S. history averaged more than $5/gallon. In some places a gallon of petrol could run as high as $10/gallon!

But it wasn’t the first time that America had to tighten its fiscal belt.

In the summer of 1777, Americans faced a similar scarcity as the Revolutionary War ramped up.

It started when British embargoes severed supply chains, impacting commodities like paint, glass, tea…and Bibles. Suddenly a lot of items were no longer available, but the Bible shortage was particularly noticeable. After all, at that time, religious materials were licensed by the Crown, then regulated and shipped by Britain’s blessing.

The situation got so serious three prominent clergymen—Francis Alison, John Ewing and William Marshall–wrote to Congress. Alison founded the Universities of Pennsylvania and Delaware. These pastors told Congress that America was in trouble without “Bibles for our schools and families, and for the public worship of God in our churches.”

It was illegal and costly to print an English Bible.

But there was another problem: the war blockades produced shortages for ink, paper and equipment to publish works. These shortages created deep concerns. Our citizens, churches, courthouses and schools needed printed Bibles for personal reading and public services, oaths and lessons.

In late 1777, a Continental Congress committee addressed the Bible shortage.

On September 11, the committee proposed importing “20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere.” Unfortunately, on that same day, Washington’s troops were routed in battle. Two weeks later the British invaded and occupied Philadelphia, forcing Congress to scatter.

Consequently, the matter was tabled…for another two years.

In 1780 Congress motioned again on the Bible shortage. This time they agreed to print English Bibles on American soil.

A Philadelphia printer named Robert Aitken offered to handle the job, despite great risk. On one occasion Aitken had to “remove his type and materials hastily out of the city, and bury them under a barn in order to save them from destruction by the British soldiers.” Nevertheless, on September 12, 1782, the first English-language Bible on American soil was printed. After chaplain review, it was recommended and authorized by Congress for use:

Resolved,…the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken,…and being satisfied…of his care and accuracy…recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize him to publish.

The Aitken’s Bible is the rarest of Bibles. In 1940, fewer than fifty copies had survived. However, this “Bible of the Revolution” opened the floodgates for other American Bibles to be printed. From churches to schools to homes, Americans no longer had a want for the Holy Scriptures.

The Bible was influential in America’s infancy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt observed: “We cannot read the history of our rise and development as a Nation, without reckoning with the place the Bible has occupied in shaping the advances of the Republic.”

America’s founding fathers also spoke highly of the Bible:

JOHN ADAMS: “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited…What a Eutopia – what a Paradise would this region be!”

PATRICK HENRY: “[The Bible]…is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed.”

JOHN JAY: “The Bible is the best of all books, for it is the word of God and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next. Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts.”

JAMES McHENRY: “Public utility pleads most forcibly for the general distribution of the Holy Scriptures. Without the Bible, in vain do we increase penal laws and draw entrenchments around our institutions.”

BENJAMIN RUSH: “The Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life…the Bible…should be read in our schools in preference to all other books because it contains the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is calculated to produce private and public happiness.”

NOAH WEBSTER: “The Bible is the chief moral cause of all that is good and the best corrector of all that is evil in human society – the best book for regulating the temporal concerns of men.”

America can face many shortages that cause people to suffer. But our founders knew a depletion of biblical principle and moral foundation was the worst. It’s why they legislated and authorized the printing of the Bible in early America.

In God’s Word they trusted.

 

 

SOURCES:

  1. Letters of Delegates to Congress, Paul H. Smith, editor (Washington: Library of Congress, 1981), Vol. 7, p. 311, n1.
  2. Journals of the American Congress, Volume 2, 1777 to 1778 (Washington: Way and Gideon, 1823): 262. Download available at Google Books.
  3. Early Bibles of America by Rev. John Wright, D.D. (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 2&3 Bible House, 1894): 66.
  4. Journals of the American Congress, Volume 4, 1782 to 1788 (Washington: Way and Gideon, 1823): 76. Download available at Google Books.
  5. Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Statement on the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Printing of the English Bible.” October 06, 1935: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/…/statement-the-four…
  6. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856), Vol. II, pp. 6-7, diary entry for February 22, 1756. Available for download on Google Books.
  7. William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1818), p. 402; Available for download at Google Books.
  8. John Jay, John Jay: The Winning of the Peace. Unpublished Papers 1780-1784, Richard B. Morris, editor (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980), Vol. II, p. 709, to Peter Augustus Jay on April 8, 1784.
  9. James McHenry: Bernard C. Steiner, One Hundred and Ten Years of Bible Society Work in Maryland, 1810-1920 (Maryland Bible Society, 1921), p. 14.
  10. Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral & Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas & Samuel F. Bradford, 1798), pp. 94, 100, “A Defence of the Use of the Bible as a School Book.”
  11. Noah Webster, The Holy Bible . . . With Amendments of the Language (New Haven: Durrie & Peck, 1833), p. v.

The Yale Man: How One American Preacher Lit the Fuse for the First Great Awakening Revivals

By Rick Chromey | August 8, 2022 |

America’s first colleges were in the Ivy League. And they were created for a distinct purpose.

The original 1636 purpose of a Harvard education was to “…advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity: dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”

Essentially, Harvard trained the clergy and equipped missionaries to work among the Indian.

When Harvard started to drift from that original objective, a new school called “Collegiate College” was founded in New Haven, CT (1701). Thanks to funding by a Boston merchant named Elihu Yale, the New Haven school was eventually renamed Yale University.

One of Yale’s earliest students was a 13-year old kid named Jonathan Edwards. Four years later this teenager graduated valedictorian of his class and started his career as a member of the Presbyterian clergy.

In 1741 Jonathan Edwards preached a “fire and brimstone” message that ignited the Great Awakening revival in America.

It’s a religious revival–at the time mostly among America’s youth–that would have significant consequence upon America’s moral and political fabric. In fact, the Great Awakening spiritually united the colonies in their revolt from England. That was no small feat, as each colony was religiously distinct and often fought with other colonies over doctrinal matters and biblical interpretations.

Edward’s sermon was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (preached and published on July 8, 1741).” Here is a synopsis:

The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hat opened her Mouth under them…

However unconvinced you [the unconverted] may now be of the Truth of what you hear, by & by you will be fully convinced of it…The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire…O Sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in…

Therefore let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the Wrath to come. The Wrath of almighty GOD is now undoubtedly hanging over great Part of this Congregation: Let everyone fly out of Sodom: Haste and escape for your Lives, look not behind you, escape to the Mountains, least you be consumed.

The purpose of Edward’s message was to teach on the reality of Hell, but his words left congregants in tears, fear and repentance. During the sermon, Edwards was interrupted several times due to wailing, moaning and shouts of “what must we do to be saved?”

The response to Jonathan Edward’s message, especially after it was published for others to read, spread like wildfire.

A revival, now known as the First Great Awakening, changed America between 1740 and 1770.

Ben Franklin observed that this Great Awakening “was wonderful to see.” It moved Americans, he wrote, from “being thoughtless or indifferent…it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in…every street.” It wasn’t without its critics though. Conservative Congregationalist clergy, particularly the Puritans, bitterly denounced the “bodily effects” of congregants fainting, convulsing and crying loudly.

But Edwards didn’t let the opposition faze him. He also didn’t just preach about Hell and repentance, even though that’s what he’s remembered for. He denounced the African slave trade (a radical idea at the time), and rallied to support the Indians by criticizing those who profited or stole their land. Edwards wrote several books, including one on The Life of David Brainerd (1749) that inspired missionaries for generations.

Edward’s preaching style was surprisingly bland.

According to one biographer, Edwards “scarcely gestured or moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination.” Instead, Edwards powerfully persuaded by “overwhelming weight of argument” and “intenseness of feeling.”

In his twilight years Edwards worked with the Indians. However, his preaching proved unpopular. For years no one converted or joined his congregation. Eventually he was fired. Edwards was then elected president of Princeton in 1758, but he didn’t live a year in that work (dying of a smallpox inoculation). He left behind his wife Sarah and eleven children.

Despite Edward’s troubles, his mark on America (and her founding fathers) was deep. The First Great Awakening revivals in America rooted our nation (and her leaders) to a biblical foundation for democracy, government, human rights and justice. These are all Judeo-Christian principles found in the Bible. Americans in the late 18th century were overwhelmingly Christian in their views.

And that religiosity was significant for a world in revolution.

The French Revolution was known for its infidelity, immorality, violence, theft, irreligion and obscenity, but the American Revolution emerged beneath a flag of valor, honor, sacrifice, perseverance, freedom and duty. These uniquely positive and productive values were rooted to America’s Christianity. It’s something that the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville noted was still dominant in 1831:

Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…

It’s possible to argue the American Revolution might never happened without an American revival firstAnd that first “Great Awakening” was sparked by the “hell and brimstone” preaching of a Presbyterian named Jonathan Edwards…who was trained at Yale and later served at Princeton.

At the heart of America’s greatness has always been its goodness.

A goodness that was centered by a nation’s Christianity.

Court Packing: How Franklin D. Roosevelt Reshaped the U.S. Supreme Court

By Rick Chromey | July 22, 2022 |

In 1937 nobody was more popular than Franklin D. Roosevelt.

His “New Deal”–hinged to Social Security and unemployment benefits–catapulted FDR to a 523-8 electoral landslide (60.8% of the popular vote) to a second term in 1936.

Only Ronald Reagan would come close to that margin of victory in 1984 with 525-13 electoral votes (58.8% popular vote).

 

But Roosevelt had a problem with parts of his New Deal being constitutional and the Supreme Court of the United States often weighed in against him.

That’s when FDR introduced the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 that would add SCOTUS justices–presumably ones that favored his New Deal politics–to get his agenda legally passed.

The central provision of his bill would have granted a U.S. president power to appoint an additional justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, up to a maximum of six, for every member of the court over the age of 70 years.

At the time, six of the 9 justices were over 70 and the U.S. Supreme Court had leaned to the Right for decades thanks to Republican dominance since the Civil War. Until Franklin D. Roosevelt, there had only been two Democrat Presidents–Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson–between 1868 and 1932.

And the U.S. Supreme Court reflected this Republican rule.

But in 1937 the Great Depression still raged. And it was a year of more losses. Many Americans were now questioning the logic and cost of Roosevelt’s New Deal. And his bill to enlarge the Supreme Court smacked of a power grab by the executive branch (setting off alarm in both the House and Senate). Eventually the Senate rejected Roosevelt’s idea (July 22, 1937) and his bill died.

Despite the political rebuke, FDR’s popularity remained.

He was re-elected to a third and fourth term (1940, 1944). Of course this circumstance prompted the 22nd Amendment (1951) to limit future U.S. presidents to two terms.

Nevertheless, in his 12 years as U.S President, Roosevelt appointed eight new Supreme Court justices, all of whom reflected his political ideology:

  • HUGO BLACK (1937): A “thumping evangelical New Dealer” Alabama senator and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • STANLEY REED (1938): A staunch Kentucky Democrat who supported New Deal policies. He never graduated from law school.
  • FELIX FRANKFURTER (1939): A liberal Austrian immigrant who was hard to pin down politically, yet considered a radical for his views. He founded the ACLU.
  • WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS (1939): The youngest SCOTUS appointee at age 40, Douglas was a “progressive civil libertarian” who served the Court for 36 years. Known for his “pithy” first draft opinions, penned under 20 minutes, Douglas also wrote 30 books.
  • FRANK MURPHY (1940): A liberal Democrat Catholic who served as governor of Michigan. Dissented on FDR’s internment of the Japanese during WW2, using the word “racism” for the first time in a SCOTUS opinion.
  • JAMES F. BYRNES (1941): A fervent New Deal South Carolina Democrat. He supported FDR’s court-packing bill.
  • ROBERT H. JACKSON (1941): A New York Democrat and New Deal supporter who served as U.S. Solicitor and Attorney General. Known for his public feud with fellow jurist Hugo Black, Jackson also lauded for his superior opinion writings and commitment to due process.
  • WILEY RUTLEDGE (1943): A Kentucky Democrat, he was among the most liberal SCOTUS justices (most of his views not popular until the 1960s Warren Court emerged). A committed New Dealer, he supported FDR’s court packing plan,. Rutledge served six years, dying of a massive stroke at age 55.

In the end, Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t need to enlarge the U.S. Supreme Court.

His long tenure as a U.S. President allowed him to replace eight of the nine justices, all who were Democrats and sympathetic to his New Deal policies. Furthermore, the rulings of Roosevelt’s Supreme Court appointees reshaped America beginning in the 1950s. And this transformation would be helped by other Democrat Presidents. Between 1932 and 1980, five of the nine U.S. Presidents were Democrats (FDR, Truman, JFK, Johnson, Carter), 32 of 48 years.

It’s why, after 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court leaned to the Left for 70 years, offering rulings over some of the most transformative legal cases related to civil, religious, parental and personal rights.

From prayer in schools to abortion to gay marriage, the effects of Democrat appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court reverberated for decades.

And then in 2016, it happened.

With President Donald Trump’s three conservative appointees (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett), the U.S. Supreme Court suddenly shifted to the right. These three Republican-appointed justices were joined by two other longstanding conservative justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. Chief justice John Roberts, a G.W. Bush appointee, occasionally rules to the RIGHT as well, creating a potential 6-3 super majority.

But despite its critics, this conservative shift reflected the political tone of the U.S. Presidency since 1980.

In the 40 years between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, twenty-four years were controlled by four Republican Presidents (Reagan, HW Bush, GW Bush, Trump), while the remaining sixteen were led by two Democrats (Clinton, Obama). Consequently a political SCOTUS shift to the RIGHT should be expected.

Ironically, in recent years many Democrats have again issued calls to “expand” the U.S. Supreme Court.

As more opinions–including Roe v. Wade–are overturned or decided by a more conservative juris view (known as the “strict constitutional” or literal position), this option is popular among those on the left side of the aisle.

However, constitutionally, the U.S. Supreme Court (nor any court) is intended to make law. A court’s only purpose is to give an opinion and ruling that makes a certain law valid or void. It’s why Roosevelt needed the U.S. Supreme Court on his side in 1937. It’s also why elections matter, especially national contests.

Our Founding Fathers knew that America’s laws need to be checked.

Not all laws are good laws. Similarly, U.S. Presidents (the executive branch) also need checked, because not all executive orders are good ones. The Supreme Court reflects the ultimate will of “we the people.” It may take decades for a shift (left or right) to fully manifest but when it does, it does so in a way that transforms the American landscape.

And depending on your political perspective, that’s either a good or bad thing. But in many ways these “checks and balances” are what makes the American “idea” GREAT. Our Founding Fathers were geniuses. And we are most fortunate. Can you imagine our lives without a U.S. Supreme Court? Without a group of legal experts to rule for (or against) the laws our legislatures–both state and federal–produce? To offer an opinion on executive (presidential) orders that can easily be over reaches and breaches of constitutional rights? 

Yes, our Courts may act “political” (even rogue) at times. And yes, certain Courts may overturn or correct earlier rulings. But these decisions only reflect how culture changes. American is always shifting, from left to right and right to left. Outside of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court is American’s best bet against tyrannical government. 

++++++++++++

DID YOU KNOW that the U.S. Supreme Court did not have a permanent place to do business until 1935? It’s true. For 146 years, the U.S. Supreme Court operated from chambers located in the U.S Capitol. Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to make the Supreme Court a “co-equal” branch of government (even though the U.S. Constitution speaks to the judicial branch far less than the other two branches of U.S. government).

Roosevelt also felt that since the President has the White House and the Congress has the Capitol that the U.S. Supreme Court needed its own building. In many ways a permanent home for the U.S. Supreme Court philosophically reshaped its purpose for the 20th century. Up to Roosevelt’s time, Supreme Court rulings were often ignored and never considered to “legalize” anything. That was not its purpose. The role of the U.S. Supreme Court was simply to validate or invalidate law passed by state and federal legislators.

Alexis de Tocqueville: The French Man Who Saw America’s Past, Present and Future

By Rick Chromey | June 23, 2022 |

“[It’s] the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between character and society in America that has ever been written.”

That’s how one historian described Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; a work considered among the most influential books of the 19th century.

Published in two volumes between 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville analyzed the social and political life of early America.

Born in the wake of the French revolution, he was a diplomat, philosopher, historian and aristocrat. Initially he  traveled to America in 1831 to study our prisons, but quickly found something greater underfoot.

Alexis de Tocqueville discovered our Christianity.

He penned: “Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…”

Alexis de Tocqueville observed how our “notions of Christianity and of liberty” were so deeply intertwined that it was “impossible to…conceive one without the other.”

He noted in his travels how our Puritan forefathers immigrated and established both a “democratic and republican religion.”

He summarized how “religion in America…must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country…[imparting] a taste for freedom.” Alexis confessed his inability to “know whether all Americans [had] a sincere faith” but was “certain” that we fully accepted religion and all other institutions being connected. “This opinion,” he wrote, “is not particular to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”

Alexis de Tocqueville affirmed this thesis through an anecdote of an August 23, 1831 court case he observed in Chester County, New York. In this case, a witness admitted to the judge his atheism. In Alexis’ home nation of enlightened France, atheism was not uncommon nor was it reason for concern in matters of integrity. And yet this American judge “refused his testimony” because atheism was enough reason to lose the “confidence of the court” in any testimony someone possessed. Alexis also documented a local newspaper’s report for how this judge was surprised to discover “a man living who did not believe in the existence of God…[and] knew of no case in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief.”

Alexis de Tocqueville wasn’t alone in his perception of America’s Christian roots.

His traveling partner—Gustave de Beaumont—penned his own memoir known as the Marie ou l’Esclavage aux E’tas-Unis (1835). Beaumont documented over a dozen different sects of Christianity in early America and wrote: “Religion…is not only a moral institution but also a political institution … In the United States, the law is never atheistic … All of the American constitutions proclaim freedom of conscience and the liberty and equality of all the confessions…”

Beaumont noted how the Massachusetts’s Constitution recognized “only Christians.” He cited how Maryland’s Constitution declared “all of the faiths are free” and gave its legislature the power to tax “for the support of the Christian religion.” The Vermont Constitution recognized “only the Christian faiths” and mandated “every congregation of Christians [to] celebrate the Sabbath.” Pennsylvania required a belief in God as part of its citizenry. Beaumont further documented how most states demanded profession of Christianity to serve in public office.

Beaumont summarized: “In general, anyone who adheres to one of the religious sects, whose number is immense in the United States, enjoys all of his social and political rights in peace. But the man who would claim to have neither a church nor religious beliefs would not only be excluded from all civil employment and from all political offices … but … would be an object of moral persecution of all kinds. No one would care to have any social relations with him … No one in the United States believes that a man without religion could be an honest man.”

In 21st century America such religious fervor would be considered prejudicially extreme, even among the Christian faithful. We’d never consider excluding someone from employment or political office if they were not Christian, nor discounting the court testimony of the agnostic or atheist.

But in early America—founded as a Christian nation–we did…and it was a preferred state of living.

Alexis de Tocqueville also opined on how America could lose our democracy and freedom. It would happen, he said, in slow measures as Americans “in a restless search for…petty, vulgar pleasures” eventually numbed to its political “protective powers” who removed “autonomy… from each citizen.”

“It is …difficult to imagine,” de Tocqueville concluded, “how men who have completely given up the habit of self-government could successfully choose those who should do it for them…The vices of those who govern and the ineptitude of those governed would soon bring it to ruin and…revert to its abasement to one single master.”

It’s why Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America should be required reading in America’s history classes. He not only documented, as an outsider, America’s Christian founding and deep religious fabric, but offered a blueprint for how “we the people” could lose our cherished liberty and democracy.

Essentially, it’s how one French man saw America’s past…and future.

==================================

Memorial Day: How Former Slaves Created a National Holiday

By Rick Chromey | June 1, 2022 |

American summers are built around three holidays: Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.

Memorial Day and Labor Day are the bookends. The July 4th celebration is the centerpiece. Most Americans view Memorial Day as the “kickoff” for summer…and it is.

But there’s much more to this holiday than we think. Unfortunately, many contemporary histories of Memorial Day only share part of the story. It’s why we need to go back to the beginning.

The curtain for Memorial Day opened on May 1, 1865.

It had been less than a month since America’s bloody Civil War ended. The Southern states laid in ruin. Over 620,000 soldiers–an entire generation of American men–gave their lives on dozens of battlefields, from Vicksburg to Gettysburg.

On a spring day in Charleston, SC a group of former slaves coordinated a memorial event. The location was the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a country-club-turned-prison for Union soldiers. Behind the grandstand was a mass grave holding hundreds of Union soldier corpses.

Everyone in town knew about the mass grave.

The buried Union soldiers, most of them captured after being wounded, suffered greatly before they passed. They were fed poorly and treated terribly. They also received little to no medical attention to their wounds or the diseases that plagued the prison camp. Their dead bodies were dumped in a mass grave without any identification nor notification of kin. Nobody knew their names nor wanted to know their names. In white Charleston, these dead Union soldiers were treated like trash.

The black men and women of Charleston knew the sacrifice of these Union soldiers.

After all, it was northern Republican abolitionism that fueled the Union army to fight. And it was a slain president Abraham Lincoln, also murdered only weeks earlier, who had issued an Emancipation Proclamation to free them from slavery.

These Charleston ex-slaves wanted to give these Union soldiers a proper funeral and an honorable burial.

First they dug up the mass grave and exhumed 257 Union soldiers.

Then they reburied each body in a separate grave in a new cemetery. At the entrance they posted the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

This act of service would’ve been enough. But then these former slaves did something truly remarkable. They organized an all-day parade event to commemorate their lives.

According to two newspapers of the day, over 10,000 gathered to remember these soldiers.

The crowd included freed slaves, white Republicans,  and visiting missionaries. The parade was held at the race track of the Washington Race Course and Country Club, the very spot that once held this Confederate prison camp.

On May 1, 1868, thousands of former slaves gathered (and danced) in the Confederate city of Charleston to celebrate a new day in the South. A choir of 2800 black children led the procession carrying flower bouquets and singing “John Brown’s Body.” All day long this mostly black crowd sang spirituals, listened to sermons and read Scripture. It was a holiday–a HOLY DAY–sanctified for gratitude, honor and freedom.

Ironically, it wasn’t the first black-led parade in Charleston.

That honor goes to The 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment who, on February 21, 1865, marched into Charleston to claim it for Union victory…rejoicing and singing. The 55th were likely part of the May 1 celebration too, as they mustered near Charleston until May 7. There’s also evidence the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment attended this event.

In time, similar spontaneous celebrations occurred to remember the sacrifice of the Union army to liberate the slave.

These celebrations primarily happened in northern states, as there was little joy in the southern states at that time.

Nevertheless, the memorials became such a prominent celebration that in 1868, a Union general named John A. Logan proposed an official annual day of recognition (on May 30) that he called “Decoration Day.” It was a day to honor, and decorate, the graves of all soldiers–Union and Confederate–who died in the Civil War. On May 30, 1868, the newly-opened Arlington National Cemetery held it’s own “memorial” event, the first national commemoration on record.

In 1881, President James Garfield issued an executive order for government workers to recognize “Decoration Day” traditions. By 1890 every Northern state now observed Decoration Day as an official holiday, but it wasn’t until World War 1 and 2 that a new holiday began to emerge. “Memorial Day,” as it was called, slowly replaced “Decoration Day” as a time to honor all of America’s war dead, from the Revolutionary War to present time.

In 1968 Memorial Day was christened to occur on the last Monday of May.

Many historians still dispute the origins of Decoration Day because the practice of decorating the graves of slain soldiers was common prior to the Charleston, SC event. However, these earlier remembrances were individual in nature. The Charleston, SC “memorial” was an organized event with a parade and other activities to show gratitude and honor. It was a collective and public event. The May 1, 1865 event, organized by former slaves, was also unique in that it chose to remember the Union army that had liberated them…and did it with Scripture, sermons and spiritual music. It was as much a church revival as a public funeral.

Nevertheless, it was still the first time a group of people gathered to memorialize the dead from any American war.

This is the piece often missing in contemporary re-tellings of this story today. Memorial Day wasn’t just a day that former slaves threw a parade and remembered Civil War dead. These black slaves organized this event as a distinctly religious event to memorialize the dead Union soldiers. Why? Because that was the reason Union soldiers fought to their death. They laid down their lives to liberate the Black slave…and these former slaves were deeply grateful for that sacrifice.

It’s why we can’t forget telling our true history…and the whole story.

Some historians think this Charleston event was intentionally lost to time because the white Charlestonians didn’t want the story told. It didn’t fit the narrative of their culture. They didn’t want Union soldiers being honored. There was no love lost between the South and the North–before or after the War. It took South Carolina and the white citizens of Charleston decades to recover. And the fact this event was organized by former slaves only poured salt in the wound. It was reason enough to bury the story along with these Union soldiers.

And they did just that. Eventually even the horse track and country club that once housed this Union solder prison was torn down. And these Union soldiers graves were exhumed a second time and moved to Beaufort National Cemetery. Today, the area that once housed a Union soldier prison camp is a beautiful city park, with nothing but a single sign to remind park visitors.

It’s why this story is so dusty and forgotten.

But the truth remains. And so did newspaper evidence of this early event.

It’s why Memorial Day isn’t just a day to barbecue brats and burgers, and officially kick off the summer. It’s a day to reflect on the sacrifices, remember the soldier dead and restore history. Again, it wasn’t until 1968–over 100 years after this Charleston day–that Memorial Day was officially observed as a national U.S. holiday.

But there’s one more piece of history that Americans overlook. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” to encourage all U.S. citizens, at 3:00 p.m. every Memorial Day, to stop and pray as a “symbolic act of unity…to honor the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.”

Memorial Day was, is and shall forever be, according to this Congressional act, “a day of prayer for permanent peace.”

All gave some…but some gave all.

And thanks to former slaves America has a “holy day” to remember her war dead.

Lewis and Clark: How Two Women Saved the Corps of Discovery

By Rick Chromey | May 19, 2022 |

SacagaweaLewis and Clark is the greatest adventure story in American history

In May of 1804, the Corps of Discovery went on pursuit of a fabled Northwest passage.

They would be gone two and a half years. Along the way they’d meet dozens of Indian tribes, including the fierce Sioux and Blackfoot. They’d travel in or upon a barge, dugout canoe, horseback and by foot through some of the West’s most gorgeous and intimidating landscapes.

This band of brothers spent three long winters together–surviving brutal cold, blinding sandstorms and relentless rain. They’d encounter grizzlies, bison, rattlesnakes, wolves and other dangerous animals.

Only the hardiest could survive such a journey.

And it’s a credit to the expedition’s resolve and fortitude that only one casualty happened (Charles Floyd)…and he died likely from appendicitis not the elements or attack.

The Corps of Discovery never would’ve made it past the Bitterroots of Montana had it not been for two Indian women. The first one is as famously-known as Lewis and Clark themselves. But the second is largely lost to history and often overlooked in the stories about the Corps of Discovery.

The first woman to save Lewis and Clark was a young Shoshone wife named Sacagawea.

She was only 16 years old when she served Lewis and Clark’s expedition, but she helped the men to survive the rivers, weather, hunger and other Indians. And she did it with a baby on her back. In many ways, Sacagawea was herself still a kid. Several years earlier, she had been kidnapped by the Hidatsas and removed from her Lemhi-Shoshone homelands in southwest Montana to western North Dakota.

The Shoshone were known for their horses, but they were also bullied by other tribes, namely the Hidatsa and Blackfoot.

Sacagawea was eventually gifted (possibly sold or won in a gambling bet) to a French fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau.  In November of 1804, the couple’s path crossed with Lewis and Clark at the Mandan Villages where the Corps were wintering. Sacagawea was pregnant and Lewis delivered her baby on February 11, only two months before they set out for Montana.

Sacagawea means “Bird Woman” in the Hidatsa.

However, it was her Shoshone heritage that proved the true asset for the Corps. The Corps needed horses once they reached the Rocky Mountains and her tribe was the solution. Sacagawea also spoke Hidatsa. That’s why Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau (as an interpreter) because he knew Hidatsa and French. They had French men who could already translate to English. This meant they had a translation line with the Shoshone.

Many historians believe Sacagawea and baby Jean Baptiste centered the young, rowdy explorers and brought peace to camp. Just the presence of a woman and baby leading a pack of men eased the tribes they encountered. Indian women didn’t accompany their men into battle. Sacagawea’s presence (with child) was like a “white flag” of peace. It’s likely why many tribes embraced these white explorers.

Sacagawea helped Lewis and Clark to find her Shoshone people.

She taught valuable skills for food foraging, helped navigate difficult terrains and, on one occasion, saved their equipment, food and their journals when her husband accidentally lost control of their white pirogue (May 14, 1805).

But Sacagawea wasn’t alone. There was a second Indian woman who likely served a larger role. She saved the Corps of Discovery from being murdered.

Her name was Watkuweis.

She was an elderly Nez Perce woman who was present when the starving Lewis and Clark expedition stumbled down the backside of the Bitterroot mountains into the hands of her tribe. The entire expedition was on its last leg. Sick. Hungry. Weak. Desperate. According to one oral traditon, a group of younger Nez Perce, led by their chief Twisted Hair, were conspiring to destroy the entire Corps. The warriors saw the Corps weapons, plus loads of powder and balls…and their horses. A hostile takeover of the Corps’ goods would enrich the Nez Perce greatly.

According to Nez Perce oral tradition, Watkuweis spoke up and stopped her own warriors from killing the Lewis and Clark party with four words: “Do them no harm.” Why would Watkuweis care so much for a starving group of white explorers? It’s because she knew their peoples’ generosity and compassion well. Like Sacagawea, she had also been captured as a youth, abused and traded among Indian tribes.

This is where the story gets muddy, but Watkuweis was redeemed from her slavery by a kind white familywho took her to the Great Lakes region. She was raised in a white community, learning white customs, manners and their Christianity. Eventually this family helped her return to her Nez Perce home in the Rockies. Watkuweis held a deep affection and gratitude for the white people who helped her in a time of need.

Now it was the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery that had need, and this old Indian woman was their saving angel.

Because of Watkuweis’ order to not harm Lewis and Clark, the Nez Perce formed a deep friendship with the white explorers.

They taught the Corps of Discovery how to build a burned out canoe, introduced new foods, cared for their horses, and showed them how to get to the Pacific ocean.

SACAGAWEA, a teenage Shoshone mom.

WATKUWEIS, a grateful, old Nez Perce woman.

But there’s a final twist worth noting.

Those Nez Perce Indians, because of their positive experience with Lewis and Clark, were also introduced to a “little black book” (Bible) that could show them the way to God. In 1831, another tale emerges about four chiefs (two Nez Perce, two Blackfoot) who traveled to St. Louis to visit an aging William Clark about this “book.” That interaction inspired a missionary movement to the Great Northwest, carving what we now know as the Oregon Trail.

God works in surprising ways. In this particular legendary tale through two women–one young and one old–who kept the Lewis and Clark expedition alive, moving forward and successful in their goal to reach the Pacific Ocean..

The Pain of Thomas Paine

By Rick Chromey | May 14, 2022 |

Thomas PaineIn 1776 Thomas Paine was a “rock star” among American patriots.

His writings inspired a loosely united thirteen colonies to revolt against the great British Empire.

But Paine lived down to his name. He’d die a “penniless drunk in Manhattan,” scorned by most of the Founding Fathers. Only six people attended his funeral.

 

Thomas Paine was always a radical revolutionary.

He loved to challenge the status quo politically. It’s why his writings, like the best-selling Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776-1783), were the rage among American patriots. Few people were more famous than Thomas Paine during the Revolutionary War.

But Paine also had a way of wearing out his welcome. He lived in America only thirteen years, (arriving in 1774) before returning to his native England. In 1791, when his writings on the Rights of Man created controversy and eventually charges of sedition in Britain, Paine fled to France.

That’s where his notoriety caught the attention of French Revolutionaries. Paine was immediately granted honorary citizenship and elected to the National Assembly. But his French honeymoon also proved short. He “agitated” the wrong people, got arrested and sentenced to death. If it hadn’t been for French ambassador and future president James Monroe, who negotiated Paine’s release, his story would’ve end with the guillotine.

But Paine’s real agitation was just beginning. While in prison he began writing his skeptic’s view of religion titled The Age of Reason (published in three parts between 1794 and 1805). Thomas Paine was a religious skeptic, but no atheist. He still believed “in one God” and the “equality of man.” Nevertheless, Paine rejected every human religious creed, including Jewish, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.

“My own mind is my church,” Paine wrote. It turned out to be a church few attended.

Back in America, now religiously shaped by the Second Great Awakening, Paine’s radical irreverence, secular propensities and open embrace of Deism sparked controversy and opposition.

His friend Ben Franklin begged Paine not to publish The Age of Reason and warned: “I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance.”

But the insolent Paine didn’t listen to Franklin’s counsel. Instead, he became even more antagonistic. In 1796 he maliciously attempted to impugn the character and competence of George Washington in a public letter. At the time no one was more popular in America than George Washington. In fact, many Americans desired to make Washington “king.” Consequently, the public response was swift.

Thomas Paine was criticized, censured, condemned…and cancelled…by the people.

Nearly every Founding Father called him out, from John Adams to John Jay. The Age of Reason was “blasphemous” (Charles Carroll), “absurd and insidious” (Benjamin Rush), “puny” (Patrick Henry) and “ignorant” (John Witherspoon). Founder Elias Boudinet was so incensed he penned his own refutation titled The Age of Revelation (1801).

Samuel Adams wrote Paine: “When I heard you had turned your mind to a defense of infidelity, I felt myself much astounded and more grieved, that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States…Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?”

From that point forward, the irreverent, secularist Thomas Paine lived as a social outcast. He spent his final years largely in seclusion, nursing a flask of booze. And while his early works reflected “common sense,” Paine’s commitment to French enlightenment “wokeness” and secularism—something most people embrace today as normal and mainstream—was completely out of step in early 19th century America.

Paine’s secularism cost him everything. He literally reaped his surname: pain.

Thomas Paine died June 8, 1809.

But not a single cemetery in America would accept his corpse. He was eventually buried, without ceremony by a few friends, on his farm outside Rochelle, NY. Ten years later his remains were exhumed by a journalist named William Cobbett and shipped back to his native England. Cobbett wanted to give Paine a heroic reburial, but it never happened. Paine’s bones ended up in his closet and eventually disappeared.

Shortly thereafter a rhyme to Paine’s memory emerged:

 

“Poor Tom Paine! There he lies:

Nobody laughs and nobody cries

Where he has gone or how he fares,

Nobody knows and nobody cares.”

 

The “pain” of Thomas Paine is how far this patriotic “rock star” fell to earth. He was a man out of step with his culture. His ideas and lifestyle outside the cultural and religious norms of his day. It’s a hard story to understand in contemporary secular America (where a Thomas Paine easily fits), but in the era of a Second Great (Christian) Awakening, his deism and irreligiosity found no favor. Like many today he chose a life that became a pursuit of pleasure. But that pursuit, as the biblical Solomon once described, can be chasing the wind, resulting in a life framed by divisiveness, narcissism, emptiness, addiction and loneliness.

Thomas Paine could’ve had much more. He could’ve been so much more.

But ultimately the man who penned Common Sense proved in the end to have none himself.

 

SOURCES:

  1. Read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
  2. Franklin’s Letter to Paine: Jared Sparks, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1840), Vol. X, pp. 281-282.
  3. Samuel Adams Letter to Paine (1802)
  4. Read Elias Boudinot’s response to Paine: The Age of Revelation (1801)