The Arduous Path Toward Freedom

I’ve been traveling with an invisible companion this past week. I’ve taken her with me on a couple of planes, a bus and ferry ride, and an Uber pick-up from New Bedford to Providence. She has been my dinner companion and early morning guest. Channeling the young Cole Sear, while others were unable to notice her, she has not been far from my thoughts and I could envision “seeing” her walking around.

At an open-aired cafe on Church Street, in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard
May 22, 2019

When the devout Puritan and deeply-committed Christian, named Anne Hutchinson was summoned to appear before the Massachusetts Bay Colony on a chilly day in November 1636, she was the 46 year-old mother of twelve living children, the grandmother of one, and was now pregnant for the sixteenth time. Normally, after crossing the Charles River by ferry from her home on the Shawmut Penninsula of Old Boston, she would travel the five miles to Cambridge on horseback or by coach. But icy conditions upon the roads and pathways risked breaking a horse’s leg. Her mandatory appearance before the 40 men led by Governor John Winthrop who would determine her fate would have to be met this time by traveling upon foot. It would take two and one-half hours to complete the trip (LaPlante, 2015, p. 14).

I don’t think I would have been a close friend to Anne Hutchinson. Accounting for the 400 years of separation between us and the typical determination, iron-tested will and overall physical stamina required of colonial Americans, she still comes across as far too strict for my style; her interpretations of Scripture are too narrow, her Calvinism too definitive, and her Quaker leanings way too constraining.

But I deeply admire her impressive courage and strongly-held faith. The “crime,” that had put her on the hot seat that bitterly frigid day in November was for hosting and leading home Bible studies. Over time, the gatherings had become increasingly popular, persuasive and a threat to the common order (and bruised egos) of the power structure found within the Puritan patriarchy. Her emphasis on “a covenant of grace” or inner confidence based solely on the sovereignty of God as surpassing “a covenant of works” or outward manifestations that proved one’s saving relationship with God may have proved reassuring to anxious Puritans worried about the security of their salvation, but it was a viable contrast to the many sermons preached by local clergy and the new world of strict moral obedience they sought to establish.

These early settlers had left their native England in favor of America for the cause of religious freedom and to establish, in Winthrop’s now widespread metaphor, a “City Upon a Hill,” a new Jerusalem and a visible manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth. But like the growing sentiments found in much of today’s American Christians, they desired religious freedom only for themselves, without any concern to protect the religious (or non-religious) freedom and expression of others.

The seriousness with which these restrictions were codified into law can be illustrated by the exacting and controlling details of their expectations. In September of 1634, they had approved laws where:

No person…shall hereafter make or buy any apparel with any lace on it, silver, gold, silk or thread, under the penalty of forfeiture of such clothes….All cutworks, embroidered or needlework caps, …all gold or silver girdles, hatbands, belts, rugs, beaver hats, are prohibited.” And “if any man shall judge the wearing of any….fashions…or hair…to be uncomely, or prejudicial to the common good, …then [he] shall have power to bind the party so offending to answer it at the next court.

(LaPlante, 102)

It may have been easier to legislate against such “offensive” public behavior in plain sight, but as evident with Anne Hutchinson, they were equally concerned about behavior that occurred in the privacy of one another’s homes, and further desirous to advance their reach into the leanings of one another’s hearts, especially one belonging to a woman whose confident spirit would not yield to them or to any man, especially if it contradicted an exclusive reverence for God alone.

Anne Hutchinson’s whole-hearted commitment, and likely stroke of genius was appealing to God’s authority discerned by her personal experience, through readings and applications of Holy Scriptures and by her equally strong awareness of God’s confirming Holy Spirit. These factors transcended the rules, customs, or demands from any legislating body regardless of how pious and religious they claimed to be. Her “divinations” as she called them, were the true marks of one’s eternal status before God.

Governor Winthrop and his gang were unmoved. Anne and her followers needed to go. They had banished Roger Williams a little over a year previously. They would do the same the following year for Anne’s brother-in-law, John Wheelwright who would go on to found Exeter, New Hampshire. The American story can be told from this continuous struggle between those who use religion to oppress and abuse those they find disagreeable and those who use their religion to help and defend the very ones being oppressed and abused.

This tension within the Euro-American story stems from our earliest beginnings and it persists still. If you are inclined and committed to the enrichment possible by honoring a life of faith, such decisions are as pressing as ever. You must choose if your support and maintenance of a religious system is in order to be a force to control others or a power to invite their liberation.

The path to freedom has never been easy. We can ask Anne Hutchinson. She, along with family members and other followers were excommunicated from their Boston church and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For a while, they found a home in Narragansett Bay (now part of Rhode Island) near and aided by Roger William and his founding of the Providence Plantation. After a while, when Anne’s husband William died in 1642, she moved with her six youngest children again, further West to Long Island, New York. There, she and all but one of her children were tragically killed by members of the Algonquian Indian tribe.

My traveling with Anne Hutchinson was greatly aided by the excellent book, American Jezebel, by Eve LaPlante (2015). It was not only revealing of Anne’s amazing story, but incredibly helpful to more fully understand the temperament and practices of 17th Century America. The faithful few, who are diligently walking a path to ensure the ongoing advance of this freedom story in their times, are deeply aware. This commitment will put you at risk with your friends, your family and, for the most serious, with the ruling authorities. I pray it is worth it, if only to be passionately connected with some truly exceptional company along the way.

Under This Name

A naming controversy over an infamous bridge in Alabama is an appropriate location to reflect upon the polarities that divide us. America is stretched and pulled by the unavoidable differences arising from our cultural, racial, historical and personal experiences. We are cut off by our past and the hidden truths we refuse to acknowledge or the shame we are too frightened to confront. Distance and denial walk happily hand-in-hand when there’s little motivation to reach across the divide that separates the human family.

In 2015, a petition of 189,000 signatures advanced a Senate Bill in the state legislature to rename the Edmund Pettus bridge. Built in 1940, this bridge connects Selma to the capital city of Montgomery along Highway 80 and was named for a two-term U.S. senator who entered the race in 1896 at the age of 75 and stayed in office until his death 11 years later.

But it was not for a reputable gentility or seasoned statesmanship his name was meant to be proudly memorialized by the bridge that has made him better known in death than he ever became during his long life. Historian Wayne Flynt recounts how the purpose of naming places in 1940’s Selma was about a black person’s degradation. “It’s a sort of in-your-face reminder of who runs this place.”

The commemorated Pettus was a slave owner, from a family of slave owners who had profited enormously from the cotton industry and the enforced labor that sustained it. A “true-believer,” he fostered a “fanaticism” that moved him up the ranks as a Confederate brigadier general, “legendary” for his tenacious and rebellious spirit. Never at peace with the defeat of his beloved south or the prejudices and principles that provided the foundations of Antebellum society he worked so hard to maintain, he became, after the war, the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. His leadership in this well-organizational structure undoubtedly boosted his successful ascendancy into the U.S. Senate.

Whether or not he was an active participant in the violence of the Klan, it is highly unlikely he would have opposed it. “I would be very surprised if a man of his social standing actually went out with guns and masks on, but the fact that he knew what was happening is almost inevitable,” Flynt said. “There’s really no way of excluding Edmund Pettus of responsibility from the violence. He helps organize it, he helps protect it, and he does not seek to prosecute anyone who did it.”

John Lewis and other marchers crest the Edmund Pettus bridge on March 7, 1965

Therefore, the recent effort to rename the bridge proposed what sounded like a long overdue change. They suggest the “Freedom Bridge,” would be more fitting. But the movement failed in the Alabama house. It was challenged, not by those wishing to keep the old ways, but from those wiser witnesses who wanted to ensure the old ways were never forgotten so they would not as likely ever be repeated again.

House Reps. John Lewis (whose unique voice of authority is underscored by his suffering upon that bridge of infamy) and Teri Sewell are the ones who defended keeping the name of the bridge. “Renaming the Bridge will never erase its history. Instead of hiding our history behind a new name we must embrace it — the good and the bad,” they said.

They are correct. We cannot pretend this past is well behind us. The tone-deaf response, as noticed by recent (and possibly short-lived) Presidential hopeful Howard Schultz, who claimed, “I don’t see color,” ignores the reality of on-going structural and societal forces that only grow more powerful by our neglect to acknowledge and address them. We repeat the worst parts of our past when we forget the past and fail to learn from its lessons.

The bridge to our future is an open, frank and honest look at our history. It requires a courageous reach across the racial and economic divide that separates us from our neighbor, and a brutal recounting of one another’s stories, even if we must bear the weight of the pain and shame they are likely to reveal.

Five year old Kendarius Vickers stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as he waits for his family before the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in Selma, Alabama March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Under the name of Pettus, Jim Crow-era abusers sought protection. The name was obscured by troubles and tear gas when the world was shocked to see with their own eyes and on their own tiny black and white televisions the freedom fighters attacked and beaten and then courageously and peacefully returning on following days to claim a new destiny. Today, this name still spells out in honor and dishonor, a place where people of all colors and backgrounds visit, remember, and wonder what will lie ahead.

Room on the Bus

Over President’s Day weekend, I’ll be traveling with the Presbyterians to Alabama. Our first stop will be to Selma to visit the Edmund Pettus Bridge and take the National Park Service tour at the Selma Interpretive Center. The following day is reserved for the newly opened Legacy Museum in Montgomery (see video below).

Sunday will find us at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church with the American Spiritual Ensemble under the direction of Dr. Everett McCorvey. I’ll be sharing travel memories in this blog.

I’m thankful there’s room for me, especially as I remember and honor the dignity and bravery of those for whom so much has been denied.