The American Pharisees

“Religion, taking every mortal form
But that pure and Christian faith makes warm,
Where not to vile fanatic passion urged,
Or not in vague philosophies submerged,
Repulsive with all Pharisaic leaven,
And making laws to stay the laws of Heaven!”
— From “Ethnogenesis,” by Henry Timrod

South Carolinian Henry Timrod penned these words in February 1861 at the meeting of the First Confederate Congress at Montgomery, Alabama. Many regarded Timrod as the “poet laureate” of the Confederacy because his evocative works potently blended lyrical composition with patriotism for his nation, the South.

In “Ethnogenesis,” this teacher, tutor, and devout Anglican boldly describes a people who self-proclaim superior sanctity and feel divinely ordained to impose their will by force, drawing the comparison of the ancient Pharisees to Yankees. But just exactly how did they get there? I began heading down this historical rabbit hole in “A City Upon a Hill,” so let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?

“The Hebrew Republic”

Just as the Pharisees were once “separated ones,” New England Pilgrims originally cloistered themselves in an effort to promote and protect their stringent definitions of piety. The Pharisees were preservers of pure Mosaic law, the Puritans too were steeped in strict rules and draconian enforcement thereof. In fact, instead of embracing the New Covenant of Jesus fulfilling the Law, the Pilgrims were steeped in legalism while trying to institute a “Christian Israel” in Massachusetts.

According to Jewish scholar Dr. David Ariel, “the early New England Puritans saw … King Charles I as Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean as the Red Sea, America as the Promised Land, and Boston as the new Jerusalem.” With its roots in Renaissance humanism, this Christian Hebraism was seen as the cornerstone for creating a new society based upon social and economic ideals of the Hebrew Bible.

In fact in 1636, John Cotton, the central theologian and minister of Massachusetts Bay Colony, drafted “Moses, His Judicials” at the behest of colony magistrates. His writings became the basis for Massachusetts’ first legal code and modeled its provisions solely on Hebrew Scripture’s vision for a faith-based polity and society.

John Cotton’s grandson Cotton Mather, who was a dominant Puritan minister and author in his own right, “quoted widely from the entire canon of Hebrew literature including the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Zohar,” wrote Ariel. Mather “was even reported to have started wearing a skullcap at home and calling himself ‘rabbi.’”

John Bunyan’s influential “Pilgrim’s Progress” was filled with the Scriptural hermeneutics of abandoning the formality, liturgy, and confessionalism of high-church Christianity, and promoting works and salvation through sincerity and what the Pilgrims called a new “pure” faith. Yet, the Puritans weren’t really progressing or reforming.

Rather, they were recycling – trading 1,600-year-old Christian history and traditions for those of the ancient Hebrews. It’s almost as if the Puritans were just reinventing themselves as Judaizers to whom the Apostle Paul wrote the entire New Testament book of “Galatians” as a way to correct this heresy of the early Church.

A sectional divide only deepened

Thirty-five years after the English settled in Jamestown and 22 years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, the English Civil Wars were unfolding back across the Atlantic. It was a complicated series of battles between Parliamentarians (a.k.a. “Roundheads”) and Royalists (“Cavaliers”).

These wars were chiefly over the form and function of how the kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland should be governed. And with the grueling 11-year power struggles obviously came religious clashes, most notably for England an intense face-off between the pro-crown Anglicans and pro-parliament Puritans.

In fact, some historians call the English Civil Wars the “Puritan Revolution.” And Oliver Cromwell – the Roundhead political and military leader who was “1st Lord Protector of the Commonwealth” during the short-lived republican governance of the British Isles – came to be known as the Puritan Moses.

Obviously, these English conflicts had ripple effects for the colonies in America. The New England Puritans were staunch parliamentarians, while Virginians were solidly royalists, further widening the manifest ideological and religious divide that already existed between Northern and Southern colonists.

Many Royalist gentry flocked to Virginia during the Cromwell Protectorate in an effort to escape “entail and primogeniture” (a system in which only the first-born son gets all the land of the father), growing the cavalier population and strengthening the colony’s already distinct culture. Virginia was so devoted to the crown that when the English monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II called her the “Old Dominion” as thanks.

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