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100 Bible Verses That Made America: Defining Moments That Shaped Our Enduring Foundation of Faith
by Robert Morgan
Learn More | Meet Robert Morgan
December 21, 1511
Antonio de Montesinos and His Blowtorch
For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:—MATTHEW 3:3
‘Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.’”
The horde of Spanish conquistadors and soldiers who followed Christopher Columbus to the New World wreaked devastation. Many of these Spaniards claimed to be religious, but their actions proved they were not true followers of Christ. Many of them massacred, enslaved, and brutalized the American indigenous peoples. The conquistadors were motivated by greed, lust, and power, and they dreamed of glory and conquest. They were cruel.
One Spaniard was different. His name was Antonio de Montesinos, and he was part of a team of Dominican missionaries who landed on the island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti / Dominican Republic). Friar Antonio was appalled at the carnage inflicted on the local tribes by Spanish authorities. Thankfully, he was no coward, and he became “the first man to raise his voice publicly in America against slavery and all forms of oppression.”1
On December 21, 1511, Antonio climbed into the pulpit of a straw-thatched church, faced the Spanish authorities who had gathered, and preached one of history’s most blistering Christmas sermons:
In order to make your sins against the Indians known to you I have come up on this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island, and therefore it behooves you to listen, not with careless attention, but with all your heart and senses, so that you may hear it: for this is going to be the strangest voice that ever you heard, the harshest and hardest and most awful and most dangerous that ever you expected to hear. . . . This voice says that you are in mortal sin, that you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land? . . . Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?2
The sermon hit the Spanish community like a blowtorch, and the friar found himself being shipped back to Spain like an outlaw. But when Antonio faced King Ferdinand II, the priest persuaded the king of the horror unfolding in the Americas. As a result, the king convened a commission that established the Laws of Burgos, the first ordinance in the Americas aimed at protecting indigenous peoples.
There’s also an important postscript to the story. One of the slave owners who heard Antonio’s sermon, Bartolome de Las Casas, was incensed at first. But later he became so convicted that he divested himself of all his slaves, became an outspoken defender of Christian charity toward indigenous Americans, and made sure Antonio’s sermon was preserved for posterity.3
Antonio de Montesinos is known as the first defender of human rights in the Americas.4 Modern visitors to the Dominican Republic are reminded of him, as his memory is enshrined in a fifty-foot-tall statue, established in 1982 and erected near the site of his fearless sermon.
I find great comfort in this story of courage. Not everything done in the name of religion is Christian. Yet, rather than defending the indefensible or being put on the defensive, we should be the voices crying in the wilderness, calling our culture to repentance and obedience to the grace of Jesus Christ.
April 20, 1534
Jacques Cartier and the Northwest Passage
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
On behalf of King Francis I, Jacques Cartier sailed from France on April 20, 1534, with two ships and sixty-one sailors. They had all confessed their sins before sailing, and they prayed for the safety and success of their voyage. Their goal: to determine if a northwest passage existed that would link the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. European explorers were fascinated with the possibility of reaching Asia by sailing westward around the continent through a northern waterway that would connect the two great oceans.
Encountering good weather, Cartier crossed the Atlantic in less than three weeks. On May 10, he spotted what today is called Newfoundland. As he explored the coastline, he and his men paused on June 10 to worship God—the first recorded instance of public worship in Canada.1
At first, Cartier and his men were discouraged by the desolate nature of the coastline, and the explorer commented that it reminded him of the land God gave Cain.2 But after the sailors began encountering tribes of Native Americans, their attitude changed. Eager to share the gospel, Cartier erected large crosses and sought to explain their meaning to local tribal leaders. On the shore of Gaspe Bay, Cartier wrote, “We kneeled down together before them, with our hands toward heaven yielding God thanks; and we made signs unto them, showing them the heavens and that all our salvation depended only on Him which in them dwelleth; whereat they showed a great admiration, looking first at one another and then at the cross.”3
The next year, Cartier returned on a second voyage, this time with three ships; on October 3, 1535, he entered a Native American village named Hochelaga, the site of present-day Montréal. Cartier was deeply moved when local tribesmen gathered around him bringing their sick and afflicted. The villagers thought the French explorers might be celestial beings.
To a man of Cartier’s habit of mind, the scene must have been an affecting one, suggesting as it did the many similar occurrences in the Savior’s life upon earth; and in recalling the words of power from the Divine lips—I will, be thou clean—Receive thy sight—Take up thy bed—he must have longed for the gift of healing, if only for a few moments. . . . As his heart went out in sympathy for this poor people whose bodily ailments were but a faint type of their spiritual condition . . . he . . . sought to direct them as best he could to the Great Healer of men—to one who could do for them that which he was powerless to effect.4
Cartier couldn’t heal the villagers of their sickness, but he knew how to give them the gospel. Lifting his voice, the explorer began reciting the first chapter of John, starting with verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The gospel of John, Cartier knew, presents Jesus Christ as God Himself, who, in love, came down from heaven as the Great Communication—the Word—the message of eternal life. Cartier spoke of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, then he earnestly prayed for the physical and spiritual needs of those gathered around him. The villagers were “marvelously attentive, looking up to heaven and imitating us in gestures.”5
Jacques Cartier didn’t find the elusive Northwest Passage, but his three voyages to North America brought the symbol of the cross and the message of the gospel to the vast areas of the St. Lawrence River, the waterway that slices through eastern Canada and links the Atlantic not with the Pacific but with the Great Lakes. In the process, he also gave Canada its name, from the Iroquois word Kanata, meaning “village.”
September 10, 1608
If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.
—2 THESSALONIANS 3:10
French explorers notwithstanding, the Spanish Empire dominated the Americas for a hundred years, shipping back enough gold to make Spain the richest nation on earth. But England had no intention of being left out. Sir Walter Raleigh journeyed to the New World and staked out a portion of land he named Virginia for England’s virgin Queen Elizabeth. His efforts faltered, but after Elizabeth’s death her nephew, James I, granted a charter for an attempt led by Captain Christopher Newport.
On April 26, 1607, three ships arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, and within a few weeks the settlers established the colony of Jamestown up the James River from the current site of Newport News. About the same time, King James also authorized a new version of the Bible, lending his name to two legacies—Jamestown and the King James Bible.
The Jamestown venture wasn’t a spiritual enterprise but a commercial endeavor. Unlike the Pilgrims and Puritans, who would cross the Atlantic a few years later to settle areas farther north, there was little Christian spirit at Jamestown. Consequently, things didn’t go well. The community was splintered by conflict, greed, drought, and disease. No strong leader emerged, and the settlers bickered like children. The water from the James River made them sick, and they were tormented by mosquitoes and malaria. They suffered attacks from local indigenous tribes.
All told, half the settlers perished during the summer and fall of 1607.
A single pastor was present—Reverend Robert Hunt. On June 21, 1607, he presided over the first communion service in British America. It was held under a sail suspended between trees, and the pulpit was a board nailed between trees. Hunt appealed for a spirit of unity and pointed out that the very sacrament of communion represented the urgency of living in harmony. Hunt’s voice of reason didn’t last long. He died about the time a primitive chapel was constructed and was buried under its floor.1
After Hunt’s death, Jamestown again deteriorated into chaos, splintered by weak leadership and laziness. Many settlers refused manual labor. They had come to dig for gold, but they had no intention of digging for crops. To make matters worse, a fire broke out and destroyed many of their huts and houses. Once again, it looked as if the colony would perish.
On September 10, 1608, Captain John Smith became leader of the Jamestown community. Appalled by the idleness of some of the settlers, Captain Smith made an important ruling based on 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” He told them
that their late experience and misery were sufficient to persuade everyone to mend his ways; that they must not think that either his pains or the purses of the adventurers at home would forever maintain them in sloth and idleness; that he knew that many deserved more honor and a better reward than was yet to be had, but that far the greatest part of them must be more industrious or starve; that it was not reasonable that the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men should be consumed to maintain one hundred and fifty loiterers; that, therefore, every one that would not work should not eat.2
People grudgingly went to work, the death rate dropped, supply ships arrived, a well was dug, crops were grown, and the colony began to slowly establish a foothold. Although Jamestown still faced many difficult days, an important precedent had been set in the early history of America—the biblical principle of hard work.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in the first century, he knew some of them were wasting their time and simply waiting around for Christ to return to earth. In 1 Thessalonians 3, he addressed the issue of idleness, reminding them that when he visited the city, he didn’t sponge off the Christians there but “worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you” (1 Thessalonians 3:8). Then he proceeded to lay down the principle that became so important to the mind-set of America—“If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.”
Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in North America. Smith’s knowledge of a single principled verse of Scripture—2 Thessalonians 3:10—ushered in a work ethic that has, over the centuries, created the most industrious and productive nation in history.
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