The Basic Choice for White Evangelical Americans | A Long Repentance, Post #1| New Humanity Institute: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa

john-winthrop-&-roger-williamsThe Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.


What’s At Stake and How It Impacts Us

“But isn’t it enough to pray for conversions and church growth?” asked Eric.  “Isn’t that the common goal all churches have?  Why do we need to care about the social and racial issues you’re bringing up?”  Eric was talking with Bill, his brother-in-law and fellow New England pastor, on this topic of race and faith.

“I really don’t think so, Eric,” replied Bill.  “What’s at stake is the relationship between doing evangelism and discipling people.  Jesus led people to tackle the biggest evils and problems of our day, just as he did back then.  That includes the demons, the divisions among us, including institutions and policies, and the decay within ourselves.”

“People are more and more polarized on these issues, Bill,” pleaded Eric.  “Isn’t that all the more reason to bring pastors and churches together?  And across racial lines?”

“Absolutely, Eric,” said Bill, leaning in, over the table, and nodding with urgency.


Two Archetypes for Evangelicals:  John Winthrop and Roger Williams

Eric said, “In Boston, we have a legacy.  Christians called themselves “a city on a hill.”  It goes all the way back to the Puritans and John Winthrop and the founding of this country.  If revival breaks out again, from secular Boston, and secular New England, just imagine…”

Bill winced.  John Winthrop was a Puritan icon, sometimes celebrated as the visionary of Protestant America, starting from New England.  “Eric, I mean this in all seriousness,” said Bill.  “The real hero in American history is not John Winthrop or the Boston Puritans.  They reflect the problem with evangelicals today.  The hero is Roger Williams, and what he did in Providence, Rhode Island.”

“So settling down in Rhode Island had an effect on you after all?” Eric said, with a raised eyebrow.

Bill thought he heard some genuine curiosity behind the humor.  So he pressed in.  “What John Winthrop and Roger Williams believed about the role of Christian faith in a nation and in the world can’t be more different.”

“They represent very different directions.  We are white American evangelicals, and we have to choose between them.  You choose John Winthrop.  So do the majority of white evangelicals.  I think we should all choose Roger Williams instead.”

“How so?” asked Eric.

“John Winthrop wanted a white Protestant nation, and landed in Christian heresy,” said Bill.  “Roger Williams did not.”

Eric rubbed his chin and asked, “How’s that?  Why was John Winthrop a heretic?”

“For one,” replied Bill, “John Winthrop said:

“If we have no right to this land, yet our God has right to it, and if He be pleased to give to us (taking it from a people [i.e. the Native Americans] who had so long usurped upon him, and abused his creatures) who shall control him and his terms?”[1]

“What if I said God is giving me your house?  Wouldn’t I be taking the Lord’s name in vain, manipulating the name of God to get your land?”

“Okay,” agreed Eric.  “And how did Roger Williams treat Native Americans?”

“He bought land from them fairly,” said Bill.  “He challenged his fellow English colonists because they did not.  He accused the King of England of lying that he had the right to the land.  Williams treated the Natives with so much respect that the Narragansetts took him in when the Puritans exiled him.  He did it out of his Christian conviction and love.”

“But how much do we have to talk about this today?” asked Eric.  “That happened in, what, the early 1600’s?”

“Eric,” replied Bill.  “The Wampanoag people are still here in Eastern Massachusetts.  And many of them are Christians, since the whole tribe at the time of 1690 reportedly became Christians.[2]  Other Native people have become Christians, too.[3]  And do we want them to just forget the past, just to come to our prayer meetings?”

“They can come to our prayer meetings,” retorted Eric, starting to feel defensive, “And put the past on hold, or forgive, or adapt to a new culture.  People can adapt.”

“What if a few Wampanoag Christians show up to our prayer meetings in Boston and then, when they go back home, get criticized for it by their own people?  What if the biggest obstacle to more Native people coming to Jesus is that white American Christians don’t repent?”

Eric sat back, feeling his frustration rising.  “I can sympathize with that.  But what can I do today?  We didn’t do that.  That happened a long time ago.”

Bill answered, “Look at it this way.  If my grandfather stole your grandfather’s house, car, and bank account, and passed it down to me, haven’t I benefited from something that probably would have been yours?”

“But what do we do now?” Eric protested.

“I think there is a range of good options, Eric,” replied Bill.  “But it starts with taking an honest look at the history, as a Christian, with the eyes of Christ.  It’s a long journey.  And it will be a long repentance.”


[1] John Winthrop, papers 3:149; see Harvey, “A Social Economy of Whiteness,” p.188, and Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), p.79.  Alfred A. Cave, The Pequot War (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), p.35 – 36 points out that the early settlers sometimes tried to buy lands, but Winthrop also believed that if land was only used seasonally by Native people, then it was free for the taking; Winthrop also believed that Europeans were “more advanced” and therefore could simply take the land.

[2] Kenneth R. Mulholland, “Indian carried Christianity: Wampanoag Christianity on Martha’s Vineyard, 1643–1690,” Indigenous Policy Journal, July 2010; says, “The Puritan mission on Martha’s Vineyard [began] in 1643 through the Christianization of the entire Wampanoag people in 1690.”

[3] James Treat, Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada (New York: Routledge, 1996); Michael D. McNally, “The Practice of Native American Christianity,” Cambridge University Press Journal of Church History, Volume 69, Issue 4, December 2000; has an excellent bibliography


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Gary says:

    Excited to think through these issues with you. My first question: Was Roger Williams really that righteous in his dealings with Native Americans? Do historians of different persuasions agree?


    1. makonagasawa says:

      From a Native American persuasion, this is what I found: The Tomaquag Museum ( linked to the Carter Roger Williams Initiative, to promote awareness of Williams. So this page seems pretty affirming of Williams: “The underlying assumption of [his book] The Key– that natives mattered – sounded an unusual note in early American history, and set a precedent for the celebration of diversity that we now take for granted. As Williams discovered, the best way to get at the basic truths of America was to talk with the original Americans themselves. Williams was proud of his talent for languages, and he worked hard to master the Native dialects after his arrival in Plymouth. One of the many reasons he was banished from Massachusetts Bay in 1635 was his advocacy for the Natives. He believed that their land should not be taken from them, and they ought to be treated with respect and due process. An early manuscript he wrote on Anglo-Indian relations no longer exists, but contributed to his banishment.” The rest is quite enjoyable and inspiring to read.

      I’ve also read through historian Edwin Gaustad’s earlier book on Williams (though there’s a new one that looks really good), and glanced at James A. Warren’s book God, War, and Providence, which narrates the Narragansett alliance with Rhode Island, which drew the anger of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth. Not sure, though, if Gaustad, Warren, or other historians of this period fall into denominational, or other, persuasions which we would find most relevant? Thoughts?


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