Donald Conkey’s grasp on American history is shaky. In his recent piece, “Memorial Day 2021-Did they die in vain?” Conkey quotes scripture and the Declaration of Independence to posit that “today’s millennial generation…‘know not the Lord’…Nor have they been taught that America’s foundational law was founded on ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.’” “This ignorance,” he argues, “could cost them their freedom.”
While there is much to correct in Conkey’s history, it is perhaps most important to note that his dire warning of freedoms lost is nothing new. Instead, Conkey follows in a long line of American prophets keen to chide succeeding generations for their supposed declension into religious depravity. Critically, time proved most of these seers incorrect, a point that appears lost on Conkey.
There is perhaps no better example than the eighteenth-century Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards and his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon. Like Conkey, Edwards believed society was in a state of decline. He castigated his Northampton, Massachusetts congregation, and later a congregation in Connecticut, for what he perceived was their fall from the colonies’ righteous founding only a century prior. Far more effective in the use of imagery than his twenty-first-century successor, Edwards warned that God held the colonists over the “Pit of Hell” like spiders over a flame. Only by repenting, Edwards claimed, could colonists ensure their own salvation, and by extension in the mind of pious Calvinists, the return of God’s favor to their colonial experiment.
But the congregants and their descendants did not turn away from what Edwards saw as their unbridled passions; rather, by pursuing the increasingly prosperous transatlantic trade that had only begun to enrich New England when Edwards preached in 1741, they embraced them. Emboldened in the pursuit of wealth, colonial representatives met in Philadelphia to declare their independence thirty-six years later. That declaration, which Conkey rightly notes makes allusions to a higher power, was written by Thomas Jefferson, an avowed Christian deist whose religious views would have been repugnant in Rev. Edwards’ mind, if he were still alive.
The point is, America’s supposed religious declension has never been as linear as Conkey would have his readers believe, nor is it so easily connected to a loss of freedom. It is a shame that the readers of the Cherokee Tribune are not privileged with more nuanced insights.