America the New Israel
"We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us...," the Puritan John Winthrop wrote. The Puritans who disembarked in Massachusetts in 1620 believed they were establishing the New Israel. Indeed, the whole colonial enterprise was believed to have been guided by God. "God hath opened this passage unto us," Alexander Whitaker preached from Virginia in 1613, "and led us by the hand unto this work."
Promised Land imagery figured prominently in shaping English colonial thought. The pilgrims identified themselves with the ancient Hebrews. They viewed the New World as the New Canaan. They were God's chosen people headed for the Promised Land. Other colonists believed they, too, had been divinely called. The settlers in Virginia were, John Rolf said, "a peculiar people, marked and chosen by the finger of God."
This self-image of being God's Chosen People called to establish the New Israel became an integral theme in America's self-interpretation. During the revolutionary period, it emerged with new force. "We cannot but acknowledge that God hath graciously patronized our cause and taken us under his special care, as he did his ancient covenant people," Samuel Langdon preached at Concord, New Hampshire in 1788. George Washington was the "American Joshua," and "Never was the possession of arms used with more glory, or in a better cause, since the days of Joshua, the son of Nun," Ezra Stiles urged in Connecticut in 1783. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wanted Promised Land images for the new nation's Great Seal. Franklin proposed Moses dividing the Red (Reed) Sea with Pharaoh's army being overwhelmed by the closing waters. Jefferson urged a representation of the Israelites being led in the wilderness by the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. Later, in his second inaugural address (1805), Jefferson again recalled the Promised Land. "I shall need...the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life."1
The sense of divine election and the identification of the Americas with ancient Canaan were used to justify expelling America's Indigenous Peoples from their land. The colonists saw themselves as confronting "satanic forces" in the Native Americans. They were Canaanites to be destroyed or thrown out.
Since the Europeans arrived in North America, Indigenous Peoples have lost millions of acres of land. Theft, murder and warfare, forced removal, deception, and official government land programs have deprived them of their territories. Land rights of Native Americans were never taken seriously. Rather, they were seen as obstacles to the colonists' need for land. The Puritans did not respect the farms of Native Americans. They sought "legal" ways to get their land. If a Native Americans broke one of the rigid Puritan religious laws, the fine was paid by giving up land. In this manner, some Puritans were able to amass large landholdings through the Massachusetts courts. John Winthrop, for example, obtained some 1,260 acres along the Concord River.2
Native Americans had a very different idea about land. "Originally there were no lands owned by individual Indians. All land was held in tribal status, and its tribal governing body, the council, or headmen would allot pieces of land for each family to use," two Native-American scholars explain. 3 The Pilgrim idea of land was based on individual, private holdings. How ironic for a people who modeled themselves on ancient Israel! As we saw in chapter 3, ancient Israel's understanding of the land and its distribution was more like the Native-American idea of land than their own. That was overlooked by the Pilgrims!
Most land was taken violently. First of all, Europeans brought diseases that killed several million Native Americans within a few years. These great killings left land "vacant" and "available" to the colonists. Then there was war. When the 1600s ended, most Native Americans in New England had been killed or driven away.
See also: Promised Land and Land Theft by Roy H. May, Jr., which discusses Manifest Destiny in a historical context that begins with the Crusades and ends with contemporary issues related to South Africa and Israel.
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1. Conrad Cherry (ed.), God's New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1971). The quotations are from this book: Winthrop p. 43; Whitaker p. 33; Rolf p. 26; Langdon p. 99 ; Stiles p. 88; and Jefferson p. 65. The information about the Great Seal is found on p. 65. See also, Joseph Gaer and Ben Siegal, The Puritan Heritage: American Roots in the Bible (New York: A Mentor Book/The New American Library, 1964).
2. Hans Koning, The Conquest of America: How The Indian Nations Lost Their Continent (New York:Monthly Review Press, 1993), p. 69.
3. Kirke Kickingbird and Karen Ducheneaux, One Hundred Million Acres (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), p. 14.