Tag Archives: Religious Tolerance

Ancestral Journeys: Religion and Belief in Colonial America

We often get a view of the early Americans as a very puritanical peoples, likened to the caricature of various fundie groups that most of us today might very well have “heard all about”, or seen in some movie or on tv, but few of us have ever actually met or been forced to live among.

Certainly there were some of those back then too of course.

Nevertheless, the age that carried the first Europeans to pioneer North America, was one of great religious upheaval, of the kind that produces extremes at ends both conservative and liberal. Early Protestant surveys of rural districts in Germany reported that the folk were entirely given over to “superstitious practices”, which were no doubt a folkish evolution of the same “Germanic Santeria” that their ancestors had been converted to centuries earlier. And we are certainly familiar with many of the folktales, charms, and customs of the English, which, were their origin was clearly not among the learned, can likewise be assumed to have been holdovers of earlier layers of beliefs (Danish, Norse, Anglo-Saxon) that were no less a part of their own “Anglo-Nordic Santeria” that their own ancestors were converted to centuries prior.

Thomas Morton, while seemingly more a rascal looking to flip off the his puritan neighbours than any kind of believer, erected the first May Pole in North America in the 1630s. The early German settlers of Pennsylvania brought their “Germanic Santeria” with them from the old country, with the German edition of the tome “Long Lost Friend” by John George Hohman’s seeing first publication in 1820. Within a decade of that came the birth of Mormonism, with its highly mystical origins, and the known use of “folk magic” by its founder Joseph Smith. Indeed, by 1897 roughly 14% of the U.S.A.’s 72 million citizens, which is slightly more than 10 million people were reckoned “Spiritualists” with strong beliefs in the spirits of the dead and the ability of some to commune with them!

Not exactly a community of religious prudes, taken as a whole of course.

Indeed, my own ancestor, Edward Dimond, was born 1641, some 51 year before the Salem with hysteria of 1692, and just a short jaunt down the road from Salem in Marblehead, where he came to be renowned as the “Wizard of Marblehead”. It is said that he could often be found wandering among the graveyard at night and muttering to himself. Nevertheless, he was beloved by (most of) the folk, whatever else anyone else might have thought of him, for his bewitching of petty criminals and the magical assistance he reportedly lent to sailors in trouble at sea.

While the hysteria of 1692 did not turn a blind eye to Marblehead, it nevertheless left the Wizard untouched.

Speaking of “religious hysteria”: while 1692 was clearly hysterical and boasted 185 out of the total 308 witchcraft trials that took place in British North America since 1642, it nevertheless witnessed a mere 19 convictions resulting in death. In contrast the remaining 123 witch trials witnessed 37 convictions leading to death. In other words the case of the Salem witch-hunts as a gross, religion-driven travesty of justice, and Anglo-America as religiously intolerant to the core, is profoundly over-stated.

We might also keep in mind that it is not only the accusation of malevolent witchcraft that is (potentially) malicious, but also at times its practice; as our preChristian ancestors very well knew themselves. In fact, one need but look over at present day Africa to see the gross indecencies engaged in both to combat witchcraft, but also in observance of it.

They were not a bunch of promiscuous goddess worshipping college girls back then after all.

My great grandmother, Eva Lott, her great-great-great-great grandfather, was Edward Dimond Junior. He was baptized in 1687 and (formally) adopted into the Dimond kindred ten years after the end of (the brutal) Metacom’s War (1677). He was, either in whole or in part — ie. Edward Dimond Sr. “might only” be a spiritual ancestor — of the Naumkeag-Wampanoag population based upon the best available (DNA) evidence. Whatever the case, and to the point, his brother was Aholiab Dimond, who was himself the father of the famous 18th century Anglo-American seeress Moll (Dimond) Pitcher.

Moll was a classic Anglo-Nordic seeress of the caliber of Veleda as mentioned in Tacitus’ 1st century AD work Germania. Her gifts were not only sought after and praised among the common folk, but also by the wealthy and powerful, and it is said that not a ship would leave harbour without first receiving the blessing of her visions. She was in fact so renowned that nobles from Europe also sought her out for her gift of prophecy. And it is even said that George Washinton once visited her and that she prophecized his victory over the Crown.

She gives us a pretty good indication of the Christianity of Anglo-American culture at the time of the American Revolution, and the type of Christianity the Anglo-American Loyalist carried with them into what would become Upper Canada; where even a Mohawk who had chosen to remain “pagan” could nevertheless be described as pious by learned men of no more than a century later.

Here it is probably also worth noting that the Canadas only had between 4 (certainly) to 6 (possibly) Episcopalian minsters at work within it prior to 1791; when the fire-and-brimstone, saddle-minster, William Losse (of New York) began riding the newly formed and formally endorsed “Kingston circuit” through the lands of my Loyalist ancestors.

By 1817, the British Wesleyans began to arrive from the Maritimes, and by 1833 both branches of Methodism re-converged in the “Wesleyan Methodist Church”.

The Catholic Church wouldn’t establish itself west of Kingston, Ontario until the 1820s.

In the early colonial period, religious resources had been either non-existent or very scarce. For many early pioneers, any church, sect or clergyman was often better than nothing at all.” — Religion, UpperCanadaVillage. com

As late as the 1810s, baptismal records show grown adults and entire families coming forward for baptism, just to give one an idea of scarcity of “formal religious resources” in the region at that early time.

It is from out of this culturo-religious soil that our Heathenry as Anglo-Americans began to slowly reassert itself. As it continues to do on into this day. And without a single drop of blood shed at that.

Germanic Belief and Religious Tolerance

The preChristian Germanic peoples have often been characterized by historians, particularly by early Catholic historians,  “hateful of a higher religion, and so, like spoilt and envious children lashed out to destroy it”. We hear the same thing, though mostly from modern historians, about their character and regard for Imperial Roman civilization, but, while fundamentally similar, that is a matter best dealt with separately and on its own.

As for this supposed intolerance of the Germanic people for Christianity; it is best exemplified in the martyring of Sabbas and other Gothic Christians in the latter half of the 4th century AD.  According to the 5th century AD historian, Sozomenus,

“Athanaric’s men placed an idol on a cart and conducted it to the tents of those who were thought to be Christians. Suspects were ordered to worship the idol and to offer sacrifice. Those who refused were burned in their dwellings.”

That however is just a snap shot of a moment in history.

In fact, the Goths first came into contact with (Arian) Christianity in the mid-3rd century AD via their raids into the eastern Mediterranean region, from which they carried home many Christian slaves. And within the space of 100 years, the Bible had been translated into Gothic and Christianity had grown enough among the ethnic Goths to invite the serious attention of their kings and nobles.

Strange is it not? That a people supposedly so “envious” and “hateful” of a foreign faith would not only allow its presence but also its proliferation within their community. Indeed, when Athanaric’s men began their persecution of Gothic Christians a number of their non-Christian kith and kin, for better or worse, attempted to shield or otherwise hide the Christianity of their loved ones from the King’s men. Good ol’ St.Sabbas however denounced got wind of this and utterly denounced such Christians. And so went and got himself (among others) martyred.

It is worth noting that Athanaric’s distaste for Christianity was not a general phenomenon, directed against all Christians, but was directly mostly against Gothic converts. It is also worth noting Sabbas’ own willful contempt for the customs and community of the Goths. It is nothing at all unfamiliar to us from the earlier interactions of Christianity with the Roman Empire, when zealous converted went out of their way to blaspheme the state divinities in hopes of being fed to the lions and becoming a martyr for the cause. And it is also all too familiar from later interactions between the Continental Germanic tribes and Christianity; as perhaps best characterized in Willibrord’s baptism of a number of converts in the sacred spring on Fosites Island, followed by his slaughter of a number of sacred cattle for a subsequent feast. For this, Willibrord was brought before the Frisi-King, Radbod, to face capital charges for sacrilege.

Yes. Our ancestors most certainly had blasphemy and sacrilege laws. More properly, they had pious thew, they were what the Anglo-Saxons called aefast, while the law was an offender’s best hope of not being executed on the spot by an outraged mob.

Just ask Willibrord.

As for Sabbas and his ilk, they refused to partake of the sacrificial meat served up at the holy tides, which is of course tantamount to publicly rejecting the community,  refusing to take part in its spirit. He refused even just a token sign that, “despite your different beliefs, you are one of us”. The kingly hostility that he and his invoked was less a matter of a rejection of the Gothic divinities, though it was that too, and much more a rejection of the (holistic) community itself, gods and all. Basically, they proclaimed themselves to be subversives; more than happy to profit from their position among the Goths, but utterly reluctant to embrace that community and take part in it’s sacral identity.

Centuries later in the Viking Age, King Hakon the Good of Norway would find himself in a similar predicament when presented with the sacral mead at one of the holy tides; which caused a lot of concern among the gathered. He found a way around this Christian inspired reluctance by making the sign of the cross over the draught before taking it, while his confidants explained that he made the sign of the hammer over it.

This saved the king from an ordeal not entirely unlike that of wretched Sabbas, and born of much the same reasons.

Nevertheless, from Clovis of Frankland to AEthelbeorht of Kent to Penda of Mercia to Angantyr (Ongendus) of Denmark to Radbod of Frisia, we see time and time and time again Heathen kings receiving Christian missionaries with a right good will; extending protection to them, provisioning them, giving them the freedom to preach and win converts, sending them off with noble youths to be educated in the foreign beliefs, and treating them about as well as anyone could honestly ever hope or expect to be treated.

Not all of these kings ended up converting. And forsooth, not all of them remained at all friendly to Christianity; as one might expect when you extend every hospitality to a guest who then goes on to repay you by “destroying your house”, but, while Germanic ethics are not at all above “putting one’s best foot forward”, they ultimately hinge on reciprocity.

In fact, it was never the Germanic peoples who had any baleful preconceived notions about Christians or had any kind of special, or even common, hatred for them, or any other religion or culture. History itself utterly refutes such an absurd suggestion. And one need not look very far to discover where the inherent contempt for foreign beliefs comes from. It is clear and evident in historical Christianity. Not so much in our regard for outsiders, their culture and belief, save in reactionary retaliation for assaults on the heart and soul of our people, and the integrity of our community.

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“(King) Raedwald (of East Anglia) was long ago made acquainted, in Kent, with the sacraments of the Christian faith, but in vain; for on his return home, he was perverted by his wife, and certain perverse teachers, and having been turned aside from the sincerity of the faith, his last state became worse than his first, so that, after the manner of the Samaritans of old, he seemed both to serve Christ and the gods which he before served: and in the same temple had both an altar for the sacrifice of Christ, and a small altar for the victims offered to demons.”

— Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation

“King Penda himself did not forbid the preaching of the Faith to any even of his own Mercians who wished to listen; but he hated and despised any whom he knew to be insincere in their practice of Christianity once they had accepted it, and said that any who despised the commandments of the God in whom they professed to believe were themselves despicable wretches.”

— Bede, the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation

“Early in spring King Olaf went eastwards to Konungahella to the meeting with Queen Sigrid (of Sweden); and when they met the business was considered about which the winter before they had held communication, namely, their marriage; and the business seemed likely to be concluded. But when Olaf insisted that Sigrid should let herself be baptized, she answered thus: — “I must not part from the faith which I have held, and my forefathers before me; and, on the other hand, I shall make no objection to your believing in the god that pleases you best.” Then King Olaf was enraged, and answered in a passion, “Why should I care to have thee, an old faded woman, and a heathen bitch?” and therewith struck her in the face with his glove which he held in his hands, rose up, and they parted. Sigrid said,”This may some day be thy death.””

— Snorri Sturlusson, Heimskringla