Now it's a Southern Baptist sex abuse scandal: 2-16/17-19
How 'extreme partisans' think, if at all: 2-19-19

The radical religious roots of the U.S.: 2-18-19

Most Americans over the age of 10 or so are aware that the world is full of people with religious differences. And that sometimes those people think those differences are so serious and so important that they're willing to commit violence over them.

Hot-protestantsWhat I think a lot of Americans miss about our nation's own history is that some of our earliest settlers were among those people who held such strong religious beliefs that to call them intolerant would be way too generous a compliment. Many of them were argumentative, full of certitude, willing to pay a high price for their beliefs and utterly convinced that people who held different religious views were either tools of the devil or simply dreadfully misinformed.

The story of our early religious ancestors is told in enlightening but disheartening detail in a new book by Michael P. Winship, who teaches history at the University of Georgia. It carries this engaging title: Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America. It's official publication date is a week from Tuesday, but it can be pre-ordered now.

Winship does us the favor of starting this history in England in the mid-1500s, a time of enormous religious upheaval across Europe. Martin Luther had, inadvertently, begun the Protestant Reformation in Germany in 1517, and in 1534 King Henry VIII had separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church, leading to all kinds of fractious developments as England first tried to figure out whether it was somehow still Catholic and then tried to figure out whether the separate Church of England was really Protestant.

Into the middle of all of this came the so-called Puritans, who were trying to purify the Church of England by removing any remaining Catholic traces but who, eventually, couldn't create a truly purified (in their eyes) church in England, a failure that led them to set up shop in the New World.

The colonists on this side of the ocean found themselves all entangled with puritanism as they created what Winship calls a "novel church establishment. . .Congregationalism."

Winship's title comes from a quote from a minister purged from the Church of England for his Puritan leanings, Perceval Wiburn. As Winship writes, "Wiburn once described puritans as 'the hotter sort of Protestants,' as well he might. He himself started out hot, as a member of (John) Knox's Geneva church in the 1550s."

The term "puritan," he writes, emerged "as an insult used against the London nonconformist ministers. . .Soon after, it was being thrown at anyone who wanted the English reformation brought more closely in line with Swiss ideas of New Testament church practice, or who displayed the kind of zealous Protestant piety fostered by the nonconformists. Those at the receiving end of the insult preferred to describe themselves with words like the godly, the brethren, the saints or the church. Their preferences reflected their sense of holy community and common purpose. To their opponents, those preferences exemplified the prideful, holier-than-thou attitude of a self-selected, would-be spiritual elite."

This detailed, full-of-stories book takes readers up through the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, speaking of people full of false religious certitude. Decade by decade, between 1540 and then, Winship traces the path of the puritans and, by extension, the first residents of what would become the U.S. and let's us see what today can only be described as radical religious thinking and action at the roots of our nation. That kind of religious life was possible because there was the promise here of religious freedom, though often the more zealous people of faith wanted to limit that freedom to people who believed just what they did.

The early Calvinist influence in the colonies dominated New England for a long time, and with it came what Winship calls it's "cultural baggage: anti-Catholicism, high intellectual endeavor, communitarianism, visionary zeal, coercive, moralistic evangelism and a participatory culture in church and state." As for puritanism itself, one still can find vestiges of it today, but, as Winship concludes, it belongs to "an older world."

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As various uses of Artificial Intelligence continue to develop, this article from a British paper suggests robots may well have roles to play in religion. I'm guessing some of them would look more alive than some of the people in the pews.

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P.S.: I serve on the board of Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care, and February for us is Mustache Month. So some of us are growing mustaches to help raise funds to help support the pediatric hospice care we offer. My new mustache is hideous and will come off the moment I reach my fundraising goal or at the end of the month. You can help beautify the world by making a donation on my Mustache Month page, which is here. I will thank you, KC Hospice will thank you and so will my bride.


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