Tag Archives: manifest destiny


Can seventeen hundred miles of driving by yourself qualify as a personal “retreat”? If so, then I recently enjoyed one.

Last week was spring break at Wheaton College, and I took advantage of the time to visit family in Tennessee and Georgia. I’ve now made the trek more than thirty times since moving to Wheaton in 2010. In addition to the pleasure of reconnecting with several generations of relatives, I’ve also come to enjoy the pleasures of the drive itself.

That’s not something I could have predicted, as I’ve been known to get irritated when I drive. I blame this on my father and take no responsibility. Dad hasn’t been able to drive for years, but in his prime he elevated impatience on the highway to an art form. He rarely used profanity to express his displeasure (although he had a creative assortment of euphemisms), but he did like to label the miscreants who violated his rules of the road. These tags had nothing to do with the culprits’ ancestry, by the way. Dad classified drivers by their age. If a teenager was tailgating him: “Dadburn it, I got me a young buck right on my tail.” If a senior citizen was slowing him down: “Dadgummit, we’re behind an old codger.” And if someone his own age was inexplicably less than perfect? “Doggone it, that scutter’s old enough to know better.”

As a rule, I struggle with the same impulses when driving close to home, but I enter a different state of mind on road trips. The difference, I think, is psychological. These trips come during school vacations. I’m in less of a hurry. I’m able to relax enough to savor the solitude and relish the opportunity to read (books on tape) and reflect. Relaxing, reading, reflecting—that sounds like a retreat, doesn’t it?

Parker Palmer says that your true vocation is not an obligation you strive to fulfill but a natural expression of how God made you. One of the reasons I believe I’m called to be a teacher is that my mind naturally turns toward the classroom even when I’m away from it. And so as the miles passed by, before I consciously realized it I was meditating on the conundrum that defines my vocational life: how to convince inhabitants of our present-tense culture to see—or perhaps, more accurately, to feel—the power of the past in their lives.

We are creatures who live in time. “Time is the very lens through which we see,” as C. S. Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce. Unavoidably, as humans we make sense of our lives retrospectively—from hindsight. And yet Americans are “stranded in the present,” to use Margaret Bendroth’s wonderful phrase, and what is more, we’re content with that soul-impoverishing isolation. We’re not just ignorant of the past. We’re contemptuous of it.

This is just as true of American Christians, although we have even less excuse than our secular neighbors. We claim to stake our lives on a faith that, at its heart, is “a vigorous appeal to history,” to quote Georges Florovsky. The core tenets of our faith rest on theological interpretations of historical events. If history is the story of humanity, we believe that God has ennobled that story beyond measure. God Himself set the story in motion. Its central characters bear His image. The Lord of the Universe actually entered into the story, identifying with its characters and walking the earth as one of them. He continues to be involved in the minutest details of the story, an epic that is unfolding according to His design and decree. And yet for the most part we mirror the culture’s debilitating presentism.

Why is this?

The answer is surely complicated and beyond our ability to nail down completely. But here are some likely culprits. First, as numerous historians have pointed out, as Americans, we remember our founding as a radical rupture with the past. Our Founding Fathers, we like to say, turned their backs on the Old World and brought something entirely new into being: a “new order for the ages” as those strange Latin words (novus ordo seclorum) declare on the back of our dollar bills.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the view that all but the most recent past was irrelevant had become a truism. “We are the great nation of futurity,” trumpeted the journalist John L. O’Sullivan, popularizer of the catch-phrase manifest destiny. “Our national birth was the beginning of a new history . . . which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only,” O’Sullivan informed readers of the Democratic Review. “We have no interest in the scenes of antiquity, only as lessons of avoidance of nearly all their examples. The expansive future is our arena.” It was an arrogant, ignorant, anti-intellectual, and popular assertion.

Second, if we’re evangelical as well as American, we’ve also been trained to be skeptical of most church history. As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we’re suspicious of tradition and tend to think of the millennium and a half between the time of the Apostles and the arrival of Martin Luther as an enormous black hole. But even that’s probably too generous. The reality is that most of us think of Church history as starting with Billy Graham (if we’re “old codgers”) or even Rick Warren or Joel Osteen.  The growth of non-denominational churches has only heightened this sense of disjuncture with the past.

A third factor, I suspect, is technological. Relentless technological change conditions us to view anything from the past as inferior. The pace of change, furthermore, compresses our definitions of time. We describe a year-old phone or laptop as being from a previous generation. “How can you get by with such a dinosaur?” we ask. As Bendroth notes, one of the easiest ways to dismiss historical figures is to imagine how lost they would be in our present. As I write this, a popular cable TV company pitches its services by likening consumers without the latest technology to quaint nineteenth century settlers who churn their own butter and spin their own yarn. Looking for a symbol to represent ignorance and backwardness? No problem. The past is full of them.

My recent road trip drove home another cause of our present-mindedness: the relentless movement that has characterized American life for much of the past two centuries. This is because, in addition to visiting my father in Tennessee, I also made a quick overnight trip to see my father- and mother-in-law in southwest Georgia. Hunter and Brenda were living in the Atlanta suburbs when I first met them thirty-two years ago, but from our first conversation I understood that Hunter’s heart was in the rural community where he was born and raised. As soon as he had the opportunity, he left suburbia and built a house in the country only minutes from the farm he grew up on.

Living in this still rural community, Hunter sees reminders of his past in every direction. The church where his family worshipped (established in the 1830s) is a mile away. The school where his friends and neighbors all attended and his mother taught is just down the road. His best friend from childhood lives across the highway.  As we drive to dinner, he tells me who is buried in the cemetery off the road, explains who used to own the abandoned store we just passed, points out the house where the president of the senior class of 1956 still lives. In Hunter’s world, so different from my own, the past is a tangible frame of reference for the present.

In The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth observes that another reason that we disregard the past is that we simply don’t think of it as real. As our communities become revolving doors—ever-shifting conglomerations of strangers—we lose the sense of physical connection with a personal past. The generations that have gone before us become abstractions. It becomes easier to ridicule them and, eventually, to ignore them.

Driving home, I began to wonder whether the alienation that we feel from the past is inseparable from the isolation that we feel in our present. Surely the two are reinforcing. After all, in addition to a shared love, isn’t a shared history one of the things that characterize our richest and most rewarding relationships? Might our rootlessness be reinforcing our present-mindedness?

I welcome your thoughts. Back in touch in a bit.


At its best, the study of the past can provide a marvelous context for serious moral inquiry.  One of my favorite statements to this effect comes from historian David Harlan.  In his book, The Degradation of American History, Harlan writes movingly about history’s potential to facilitate  a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”

In practice, secular historians today frequently write implicitly as moralists—criticizing past views about race, class, gender, and colonialism with which they disagree without building a systematic moral argument for their views.  And yet officially, for more than a century academic historians have insisted that moral inquiry has no legitimate place in responsible historical scholarship.  They usually make their case by equating moral inquiry with heavy-handed dogmatism, painting nightmare scenarios in which the historian becomes a “hanging judge,” passing out sentences left and right for the moral edification of the audience.

Obviously, this is not the only form that moral inquiry may take, however.  I like to distinguish between moral judgment, defined as outward directed inquiry focused on determining the guilt or rectitude of people or events in the past, and moral reflection, an inward directed undertaking in which we engage the past in order to scrutinize our own values and behavior more effectively.

The concept of manifest destiny and its role in American history is one of those topics that cries out for moral engagement.  Most of the contemporary allusions to manifest destiny in popular culture evoke the worst kinds of self-righteous judgments, however.  The furor over the Gap t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” on its front was one such instance.  But what might it look like to think historically and Christianly about manifest destiny with an eye toward moral reflection?

There is no one single way to do so responsibly, but here is what I would recommend:  To begin with, we need to purpose to go to the past in search of illumination, not ammunition.  Next, we must determine to take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). The starting point of moral reflection is “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), or if you prefer, Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (I Timothy 1:15).  In thinking about the past, this means that we purpose to identify with those whom we are trying to understand, acknowledging that their propensity to sin is no more developed than our own, glimpsing shadows of our own struggles in theirs.  When we do that, whatever is morally troubling about the mindset of manifest destiny becomes a clue to what we might expect to find in our own hearts if we look closely enough.

As a Christian and a historian, what strikes me most about manifest destiny in its original nineteenth-century context is the degree to which its advocates were able utterly to confuse the work of Christ and His Church with the role of the United States.  This comes through clearly in the writing of John O’Sullivan, the Democratic journalist from New York City who is commonly credited with coining—or at least popularizing—the term manifest destiny.  In his capacity as editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review during the 1840s, O’Sullivan became an outspoken advocate of American westward expansion and of the annexation of Texas, in particular.  In his 1845 editorial titled “The Great Nation of Futurity,” O’Sullivan told his readers, “We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can. We point to the everlasting truth on the first page of our national declaration,” the editor went on to say, referring to the Declaration of Independence and its pronouncement of equality and inalienable rights.  “We proclaim to the millions of other lands that ‘the gates of hell’—the powers of aristocracy and monarchy—‘shall not prevail against it.’” 

Do you see what O’Sullivan was doing in this passage?  In referring to “the gates of hell,” the editor was actually quoting Christ.  Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus asked his disciples, “who do you say that I am?”  When Peter replied, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus affirmed him, saying, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.  And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:15-18).

In O’Sullivan’s editorial, in contrast, the bedrock truth is not Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, but Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment proposition of natural equality.  The edifice built upon that foundation is not the Church, but American democracy.  The enemy it will vanquish is not the forces of hell, but the power of aristocracy.  Without the slightest apparent sense of incongruity, O’Sullivan adopted language given by Christ to conceptualize the church, and used it to convey divine approval for the territorial expansion of the United States.

When the following year the United States Congress declared war against the Republic of Mexico, a mass meeting of patriotic New Yorkers gathered in celebration and listened to a new “national anthem” by popular song writer George Pope Morris.  The lines perfectly captured the conflation of Christian and democratic themes that O’Sullivan had earlier perfected:

Freedom spreads her downy wings / Over all created things; / Glory to the King of Kings! / Bend low to Him the knee; / Bring the heart before his throne / Bow to Him and Him alone / He’s the only King we own, / and He has made us free! / Arm and on, ye brave and free! / Arm and strike for liberty!

By going to war with Mexico, the anthem proclaimed, the nation would be striking for liberty and bringing glory to God.  Expanding the territorial domain of the United States would be an act of homage to the King of Kings.

I write this not to condemn those who joined in this self-congratulatory (and arguably, blasphemous) chorus.  Sir Herbert Butterfield, one of the leading Christian historians of the twentieth century, argued persuasively that judging the dead does them no good and, to the extent it feeds our self-righteousness, may do us much harm.  In Butterfield’s words, it is an action “not merely dangerous to my soul but unfitted for producing improvement in human nature anywhere.”

Rather than condemn O’Sullivan and Morris and all who were thrilled by their rhetoric, I think it is more important to remind ourselves that the temptation to conflate our identity in Christ with our identity as Americans is real, powerful, and often subtle.  Like Butterfield, I doubt that the best response to wrong-doing in the past is moral outrage.  It sounds a little too much like the Pharisee’s prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11).  Wouldn’t the better model be the entreaty of the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24a)?


In my last post I used Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion as a springboard to talk a bit about one of the most misunderstood statements in the American past, Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop’s famous declaration, “We shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us.”  I noted that historians have often taken the statement out of context and discerned in Winthrop’s words an early expression of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the United States has a special, divinely ordained role to play in world affairs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Rather than trumpeting the special mission for which God had chosen his Puritan colony, Winthrop was instead reminding his listeners that the enemies they were leaving behind in England would be closely watching their every move and hoping that they would stumble.  If they did so, there would be no concealing the fact: like a “city upon a hill,” their venture would be visible for all to see.

The concept of manifest destiny is still salient today, and still worth our thinking about, both Christianly and historically.  Just this past autumn, the popular clothing retailer The Gap created a mini firestorm when it added to its “GC Collection” a black and white t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” blazoned across the chest.  (You can read about the episode here.)  A chorus of righteous indignation immediately assailed the corporation for its egregious insensitivity.  Incredulous critics circulated a Facebook petition condemning the retailer for promoting “a belief that has resulted in the mass genocide of indigenous people” and suggesting that, if the t-shirt continued to be sold, it would serve “to normalize oppression.”  Predictably, The Gap quickly backed down, responding to the threat of a boycott by announcing that, “based on customer feedback,” it was withdrawing the shirt from its stores.

As a historian, what struck me most was that this was one of those rare, fleeting moments when history seems to matter in contemporary popular culture.  At the heart of almost every scathing condemnation of the hapless Gap was a lecture about the corporation’s unfathomable historical ignorance.  And yet with history seemingly so central to the controversy, the episode evoked a boatload of dogmatic historical pronouncements but almost no serious thought about the past.  More specifically, they seethed with moral judgment at the expense of moral reflection.  Moral judgment, as I am defining these terms, is directed outward, as we strive to understand the world around us.  Moral reflection is directed inward, as we attempt to understand ourselves.  As applied to history, we engage in moral judgment when we use our critical faculties primarily to determine the guilt or rectitude of the people, events, or belief systems we encounter in our study.  In contrast, we approach history as a medium for moral reflection when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, when we figuratively resurrect the dead and allow their words and actions to speak to us and ask hard, probing questions.  The Gap t-shirt tempest elicited an outpouring of cheap moral judgment—moralizing that renders a verdict but requires nothing of the knowing heart.

In my next post I will share some thoughts about what it might look like to grapple with a historical phenomenon like manifest destiny with the goal of genuine moral reflection.


In my last post I briefly discussed Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion and his penetrating critique of what he provocatively labels “the heresy of American nationalism.”  Douthat’s argument dovetails nicely with many of my own concerns.  As a Christian historian, I have long been alert to the temptation to idolatry that awaits us whenever we study history.  We face this temptation as we study the past for the same reason that we struggle with it as we live in the present: our minds are idol factories, as John Calvin so memorably put it.  And as C. S. Lewis understood, even the most devout Christian can fall prey to what Lewis labeled “Christianity And,” a mindset in which we gradually blend our allegiance to Christ with any number of other loyalties.  For many American Christians, “Christianity And” takes shape as we unconsciously equate the role of the United States in the world with the mission of the Christian Church to the nations.  The most common name for the resulting mindset is “manifest destiny”: the belief that the United States—not the Church per se—is God’s chosen instrument for spreading Christianity around the globe. 

As Douthat observes, no historical metaphor has been more frequently invoked in support of this mindset than the comparison of the United States to a “city upon a hill.”  Both supporters and critics of manifest destiny vaguely recall that somebody important in early American history employed the phrase in describing America’s mission to the world.  That somebody was John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (who Douthat misidentifies as the Pilgrim governor of Plymouth Colony.)  Winthrop invoked the analogy in the year 1630 as part of a shipboard sermon to migrating Puritans that he titled “Christian Charity, a Model Thereof.”  “We shall be as a city upon a hill,” Winthrop told the colonists.  “The eyes of all people are upon us.” 

But what did Winthrop mean by this memorable phrase?  The most common reading is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission.  The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world.  God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate.  Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies.  Critics have scorned the arrogance that it supposedly reflected and promoted.  Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of the original statement.

In context, Winthrop was not remotely claiming that God had decreed a special mission for the political community that the Puritans were about to establish.  For nearly a century, a minority of the members of the Church of England had believed that the English Reformation had not gone nearly far enough.  Although they were openly critical of the established church, these “Puritans” had not withdrawn into secret “Separatist” congregations.  Instead, they had hoped to cooperate with the state in purifying Anglicanism of surviving vestiges of Catholic hierarchy, doctrine, and ritual that they believed were unsupported by Scripture.  Under Queen Elizabeth such an outcome had seemed possible, but the hopes for continuing reformation grew dim under her successor, James I, and vanished entirely when James was succeeded by the openly Catholic Charles I in 1625.  The eventual result was what historians call the “Great Migration,” a massive relocation to New England of perhaps as many as 20,000 Puritans during the 1630s.  In the technological context of the early 17th century, this was an undertaking of monumental proportions. 

In his sermon, Winthrop reminds his listeners of the seriousness of the undertaking upon which they had embarked.  They were leaving England in search of a new home in which they could more effectively serve the Lord, increase His church, and distance themselves from the corruption of the English church that now seemed to them as beyond reformation.  If their venture was to succeed, Winthrop stresses, the migrants must purpose to “love one another with a pure heart,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and be willing to sacrifice their “superfluities” (material surpluses) “for the supply of others’ necessities.”  If they failed in these particulars, the governor warned, they would almost certainly fail in their overall mission.

This brings us, finally, to Winthrop’s famous phrase.  Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a shining example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed.  Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind, and they would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope.  The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the meticulous scrutiny of their enemies.  So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”  In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision.  What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.”  Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.  “Manifest destiny” this was not.