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Massasoit ~ Introduction

 Native American Nations | Massasoit of the Wampanoags                   

Almost three hundred years have passed into history since the Pilgrim ship bearing its precious freight of human souls dropped anchor in Cape Cod Bay, and its occupants sent out their shallop in search of a suitable place for landing.
     English ships had visited the New England coast many times between the date of the discovery of the New World by Columbus and that day; but they had brought only explorers, adventurers, traders and fishermen. Unlike the long line of its predecessors, the Mayflower came laden with men, women and children, bringing with them all their earthly possessions; and, what was immeasurably more important, the Anglo-Saxon love of liberty, which, developed under the new conditions they found here, has given us the boon of perfect liberty and equality under the law, but not in contravention of law.
     They had come to stay. Denied the right to worship God in such form and manner as they saw fit, persecuted for their non-conformity to the established faith, they had fled from England to Holland, and from the latter country to the wilderness peopled only by natives who knew nothing of European civilization, European customs or European religion, beyond what little they had learned from traders; and that was not favorable to the Europeans.
     The century preceding their coming had witnessed the most remarkable upheavals in the religious world of which history furnishes any record, except the advent of men who have promulgated an entirely new religion with such vigor that they have succeeded in impressing their teachings upon a considerable portion of the people of the world.
     In 1517 Tetzel, a Dominican Friar, and the guardian of the Franciscan Friars had been appointed by the Cardinal Archbishop of Mainz, joint commissaries for Saxony and North Germany, to preach an indulgence to all who would contribute to the rebuilding of St. Peter's Church at Rome; and while Tetzel was preaching in the Schlosskirche at Juterbogk, Luther had nailed to the door of the kirche his ninety-five theses, in which he challenged Tetzel to a defense of his position, and took an attitude contrary to the established order, from which he ever after refused to recant.
     A little later, Henry VIII of England, in consequence of a quarrel with the Pope and Cardinals concerning the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, had established the Church of England as an independent ecclesiastical body; and still later John Calvin, a Frenchman, born in the rear that Henry ascended the throne of England, promulgated the Geneva Creed.
      All these things had set the leaven of religious liberty into a ferment which nearly blew the lid off the mixing pan; and creeds without number sprang up, especially among people who had chafed under the restrictions which held them to forms of worship and to beliefs established by others, whom they thought no more capable of expounding the teachings of the founders of the religion they professed than were they. If Luther the priest could dissent from the teachings that had been inculcated into his mind through a long course of training for his profession; if the King of England, who had been a firm adherent of the established order of things, and had so ably defended the prerogatives of the church of Rome that he had been recognized by it as "Defender of the Faith," could set up an independent church, what limit was to be placed upon revolts against theological dogmas? What was to prevent the men who followed Luther, the English dissenters and Calvin in doing their own thinking, from doing a little independent thinking on their own account?
     At any rate, this is just what happened, with the result that the dissenters from the dogma of the first dissenters found themselves in just as uncomfortable a position as that in which those first protestants against the established religion were placed by their protestations; for it is a peculiar characteristic of the human mind, that, having discovered what it considers error in the tenets of any faith, and set up its own standard, it at once becomes intolerant of any one who suggests or even thinks that he has the same right to dissent from the latest standard established. So we find the Church of England refusing to the followers of Calvin the same religious liberty they had claimed in their defiance of the Church of Rome.
     It was this which drove the Pilgrims across the Atlantic in search of a home in the wilderness where they might be free from all restrictions upon their religious liberty; and by the irony of fate, it was this same working of the human mind, this same characteristic of which I have just spoken, that led them to acts of intolerance and oppression against men of other religious beliefs and the heterodox members of their own congregations, men whose consciences would not allow them to subscribe to all the tenets of the creed set up for them. It was this that drove Roger Williams from Salem to seek refuge first with Massasoit at Sowams, and later with the Narragansetts at the place which he devoutly named Providence; that sent Gorton from Plymouth to the same Narragansett country; and John Easton and a multitude of other Quakers from the Massachusetts Bay colony to Rhode Island and other places.
     The Pilgrims and the Puritans came here in search of a home where they might be free, but closed their doors to others impelled by the same love of freedom to flee their native land, thus following the example of those whose persecutions they themselves had fled. In this they were bait following the inscrutable workings of the human mind, and indirectly and unintentionally laying the foundations of a broader liberty than they ever beheld in their wildest flights of fancy; for the very intolerance which they displayed but sharpened the spirit of resistance, and led to a more thorough understanding of true liberty, the liberty to pursue one's own inclinations until the pursuit reaches the bounds of positive evil, or trespasses upon the like liberties of another.
     These reflections are peculiarly applicable to the settlers of Southern New England, because they were the first to attempt to establish upon these shores the principle of religious liberty for themselves, though denied to others. The Roman Catholics in Maryland and the Quakers in Pennsylvania but followed the trail they blazed; and it is in consequence of these facts that we of New England claim for our barren soil the title of Birthplace of the American Ideal, which if carefully conserved and safeguarded, will become the ideal of the world. Our New England soil may not be as productive as that of the plains of our middle west or of our sunny south; but the atmosphere of New England civil and religious liberty that has surrounded us has been highly productive of men and women who have left the impress of their character upon the life of the country. In fact, I question whether any one will attempt at this late day to gainsay the claim so often made that December 21, 1620, was the natal day of the American system of government. Somewhat crude at its birth was the idea out of which that system has grown; but the intolerance of restraint in matters of thought was there, and it is this spirit of resistance to attempts to limit the freedom of thought and action, running through all our colonial history, that finally developed into that immortal document, the Declaration of Independence, written, it is true, by a lover of humanity from fair Virginia, but breathing in its every line the traditions of New England, which had ere that time become the traditions of an incipient nation.

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Massasoit of the Wampanoags

Massasoit of the Wampanoags

 

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