I want to tell you a little story:
There were these people who were all living together, bound together by their religion. But they were eventually expelled from where they lived because of their religious beliefs.
So they wandered the earth looking for a home. They were persecuted for their religious beliefs wherever they went, and they tried settling a few times, but it was always disastrous, so they had to uproot and keep going.
Until, a blessing! They came to a remarkable land that was rich in natural resources and had everything they needed. It was perfect for them. They just had to get rid of the enemies that were already there. But they were blessed (and chosen) by God, so they knew they could do it, and were even right to do so.
Now, who am I talking about?
If you grew up going to Sunday School, you know that story well. That’s the story of the first half of the Old Testament in just a few sentences. The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they found a land “flowing with milk and honey” that was the literal “Promised Land,” as in, it was promised to them by God. And because it was promised to them, they had every right to root out those who were already there and take the land by force. Which they did.
If you grew up on a steady diet of American mythos, that story may sound equally familiar. Because that’s the story the American colonists told about themselves, too.
It’s really important to understand that early Americans identified with the stories of the Old Testament because that identification tells you a lot about who they thought they were. They were God’s elect – the new Chosen People. They were blessed by God and were ordained by Him to set out and build a nation for him just as the Israelites had done.
There are a few significant results of this:
One, we have the seeds of what would become American Exceptionalism. Americans, by and large, believe our nation is unlike any other. We believe we are special. Literally exceptional. And that plays out in a number of ways. We are exceptions to the rules. We believe it is our job to be the “beacon” to the world, and so spread our ideology and ways of life to people because it is better than all else. That exceptionalism translates to a general sense of superiority, that has not historically made us popular, politically or in the social domain. Americans have, from the very beginning, seen themselves as chosen or blessed by God, and therefore singularly special. And that has seeped into our politics, our economy, and our social structures.
The other way this is really significant is because of things like the Doctrine of Discovery and Westward Expansion. When Europeans got here, their sense of superiority made them think they could simply take the land, even though there were already people here. Those people simply didn’t count. Europeans thought they had “discovered” a new world. News Flash: you can’t discover something if tens of millions of people are already there. But Europeans claimed the American continents for themselves. And because the colonists felt they were blessed by God, they didn’t feel at all bad about violence toward the natives. This land rightfully belonged to the colonists because God wanted them to be there – the indigenous people just needed to be swept away like pests.
So this idea, our investment in Exceptionalism, justified the genocide of Native Americans that has been going on since.
A sermon given by Samuel Haven in 1763, “Joy and Salvation by Christ; His Arm Displayed in the Protestant Cause,” illustrates all of this and is worth remembering for its terrible summary of some of our worst features.
This sermon is based on two short Old Testament verses. Isaiah 52: 9-10:
“Break forth into Joy, sing together ye waste Places of Jerusalem; for the Lord hath comforted his People: He hath redeemed Jerusalem: The Lord hath made bare his holy Arm in the Eyes of all Nations, and all the Ends of the Earth shall see the Salvation of our God.”
On it’s face it doesn’t seem too bad. It could even be seen as hopeful, because there is an implication of universal salvation, maybe, because all of the earth will see salvation. But that is not how Haven understands these verses. He takes a very different approach.
One of the first things Haven HAS to do is acknowledge how terrible we are.
“But we are more acquainted with the divine dispensations towards the sons of Adam, and much more interested in the discoveries which God has made of his being and perfections in relation to the human, than the angelic nature. When we reflect on the divine memoirs as they respect our sinful race, what abundant reason have we to break forth into joy, and sing anthems of praise to him who hath visited us with his mercy, after we had shamefully violated the most sacred engage|ments, broke his covenant, and justly might have been cast off forever! All praise to him who laid the great plan of our redemption, and gave early intimations of his grace, and promised the deliverer in the very sentence he pronounced on our arch foe: All praise to him who has made all things subserve this most gracious design, in which every moral perfection of the deity is illustrated; and none can say whether his justice or his mercy, his holiness or his love shine with more distinguished lustre. All praise to him who has planned and executed this gracious method in a manner every way uniform and consistent, that all the parts which have been disclosed in the respective periods of the church, coincide to the grand purpose, and form one beautiful whole.”
No sermon is complete without a little humbling and self-degradation, and praising of God. We might be the chosen elect, but we are still miniscule and underserving before God. But that’s telling, you know? If WE are so underserving of God’s love and grace, what does that say about those outside of his favor?
Soon after Haven provides a divine line of reason beginning with the idea that the Israelites were God’s chosen people, and tracing that through a series of steps to justify that Protestants are God’s chosen people.
He then goes back a little to the story of the Jewish people.
“The prophet Isaiah foretold the captivity of Judah for their idolatry and rebellion against God; he likewise predicted their restoration, after they should be humbled in the land of their distress. As the threatning took place upon them, and their land was laid waste 70 years; so the promise like|wise, received a punctual accomplishment. For at the end of 70 years the decree went forth under the hand of the great Persian monarch, to release the jewish captives and rebuild Jerusalem. “Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, the Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem which is in Judah: Who is there among you, of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (he is the God) which is in Jerusalem: And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth let the men of his place help him with silver and with gold and with goods.” To this important event the words of my text primarily refered. Then Zion’s waste places rejoyced, because they were surprizingly replenished and greatly com|forted. Those parts of Jerusalem which had been forsaken and appeared most desolate, “broke forth into joy and sang together.” For God “turned again the captivity of Judah as the streams in the south. They repented of their idolatry and God forgave them their transgressions: he remem|bred them in the land where they were led captive and delivered them from their oppressors.
He re-instated them in the free enjoyment of their religious as well as civil priviledges which were granted them as the seed of Abraham, the children of the covenant, and in a peculiar sense subjects under Jehovah their king. The history of these things we have particularly related in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and the lesser prophets, who were sent to incourage the Jews in rebuilding the temple, &c. and to declare unto them the word of God unto the coming of Christ. And thus God was both the saviour and comforter of his people.”
Finally, Haven concludes,
“In accomplishing this great salvation for the jewish church, the holy arm of the Lord was made bare in the eyes of all nations. For, beyond all dispute it was his arm, his uncontroled influence over princes, and his universal providence in the government of the world which effected all for Judah, and wrought this great salvation for his inheritance; could they ascribe any thing to their own power or policy with regard to this re|markable event? Alas! they were broken and scatter’d thro’ the whole Persian monarchy, and were a people hated of all nations.”
But ultimately, Haven says, he redeemed Israel, and he continues, “God revealed the arm of his power and grace in the eyes of all nations, and the ends of the earth then saw his salvation.”
After a good deal of adulation for God’s mercy and His power, Haven gets to the heart of the matter.
The Protestants are the New Israelites.
Protestants suffered under the papacy as the Jews suffered under the Persians, according to Haven. And just like the Jews, the Protestants have been brought to a Promised Land.
“God has made bare his holy arm, redeemed his Israel, and comforted his protestant church.
But in this review we cannot fail to observe the dispensations of divine providence towards this country. “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us what works thou didst, in their days, in the times of old, how thou didst drive out the heathen with thy hand, and plantest them, how thou didst afflict the people and cast them out. For they got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them; but thy right hand and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance, because thou hadst a favour unto them.” When a cloud was gathering over England and began to discharge itself upon our father’s, hither the divine hand of providence led them…here they sought an asilum, and took their abode among savage beasts and more savage men.
They left their dear native country, their pleas|ant habitations, and indured a train of hardships, scarce credible to their posterity, that they might worship God according to their consciences, and maintain the protestant religion free from those corruptions which the high-church party had introduced at home.”
“When we reflect on their design, it appears truly noble, becoming the disciples of Christ, who has taught his followers, “to call no man master on earth,” nor to receive for “doctrines the traditi|ons of men;” but when we consider the difficulties which were opposed to this design, meer reason surely represents it altogether impracticable. For a handful of men, poorly accommodated to come into an howling wilderness….on a dangerous coast
in a difficult season…into a wilderness, not desolute indeed….but far worse….full of cruel men, void of humanity, subtil, inured to want, expert in cruelty, &c. what surprizing attempt is this! yet the most High succeded it; he prepared room for this his British vine, swept away thousands of Indians by an epidemical sickness the proceeding year, and overuled those that survived; so that many of their tribes assisted the new settlement of our fathers, when (humanly speaking) it was in their power to have frustated the whole design, and cut all off at one blow….”
So Haven’s real proof that they are chosen comes from God’s ultimate blessing – his dealings with the Natives:
“The righteous sovereign, in whose hand the wicked are often the rod of his anger,” has indeed suffered the savages to shed much English blood, and sorely scourge the British colonies, even as the Canaanites afflicted Israel of old; yet HE has greatly restrained their rage, deminished their numbers, and enlarged the borders of his church. nor can we reflect without astonishment on the happy change this land has undergone in the course of one centry: the aboriginals have been most remarkably declining: they have melted a|way, as snow before the southern breaze and scorching sun; while the churches of Christ have been greatly increasing, and are now become nu|merous in these teritories of the Prince of dark|ness. The Lion of the tribe of Judah has dis|played his strength, and the holy arm of Jesus has bound “the strong man armed” and spoiled him of much of his armory wherein he trusted; so that our colonies have long since had little to fear, from the unassisted natives.”
So the arm of God, the work of the Lord, has been the death of the Natives. Haven sees evidence of his community’s chosen status in the fact that indigenous people are dying. That’s God’s work, he claims. That means we are blessed.
He then goes on to thank God for the slaughter of the French and a few other European enemies which he sees as the “arm of God” as well.
Haven wasn’t an outlier in his day. He is illustrative. And he is our history. Our foundation. Our roots are in Haven and his ilk.
All countries are patriotic in their own way. People all over the world feel pride in their homeland. But Americans don’t just feel patriotic. We feel our country is unique and singular. We expect deference in all things and assume that our ways and customs are superior in all contexts and circumstances. We tend to assume our exceptionalism.
There are those that don’t see anything wrong with that. Because in their eyes America IS exceptional and they are just operating in an objective and factual manner. But if we ignore the dark side of American Exceptionalism, people get hurt. Historically, people die. We have seen the disastrous effects of Manifest Destiny and Colonialism. And we live in an age of Imperialism. Is that really what we want for ourselves?
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.