“What went ye out into the Wilderness to see?”
“A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness” was a sermon by Reverend Samuel Danforth, pastor of the Puritan church in Roxbury, a town near Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As he delivered the sermon before the newly elected members of the General Court of that state, Danforth used the occasion to remind the delegates that the reason the New England colonies came into being was to create a society based on Puritan values and traditions. The primary focus of the new leaders should be to uphold these spiritual ideals, placing them above more earthbound matters of public policy. The sermon, therefore, cautioned the delegates to be mindful of their duties to the church (and God) as well as the body politic.
In the early to mid-sixteenth century, English King Henry VIII cut ties with the Vatican and forged a new church during the period known as the Reformation. His Church of England, which was fully established in the latter part of the sixteenth century, seemed to strike a middle ground between the ceremony and iconography of Catholicism and the stripped-down faith known as Calvinism. Henry VIII, as monarch of England, assumed the ultimate authority over the church (as would his successors), directing his bishops and clergymen to administer his particular religious ideals among the people.
Meanwhile, the Puritans (a term originally intended to be derogatory) protested the fact that the Church of England retained many of the tenets of Catholicism—as Calvinists, the Puritans took issue with such ideological similarities. Puritans stressed the word of the Bible as the true road to salvation, eschewing any of the traditions and trappings of the Catholic Church or the Church of England. As the English church grew, so did the Puritan movement, with the two groups at odds.
The conflict between the English church and the Puritans abated somewhat by 1558, when Queen Elizabeth I took the throne. Elizabeth signed the Act of Supremacy in 1559, reestablishing the Church of England after the reign of her Catholic half-sister, Mary I. Although, she did away with many aspects of the Catholic mass, she kept some of the traditions, which angered Puritans. However, Elizabeth allowed for the election of Puritans to Parliament, and even retained some Puritans as advisors. Meanwhile, a group of separatist Puritans, observing the corruption and general malfeasance of the local church representatives, decided to leave England altogether, settling in Holland (now the Netherlands).
In 1603, Elizabeth I died, leaving no heirs. Scottish King James I assumed the throne, vowing to reinvigorate the Church of England. In doing so, he allowed for the increased repression of the Puritans (even those who were loyal to the throne). Some of the separatists who had fled to Holland decided to join the increasing number of groups traveling to the New World to start colonies. This group was known as the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. By this time the son of James I, Charles I, had assumed the throne and continued the trend of despotism that had grown since Elizabeth’s death. A group of Puritans, led by John Winthrop, joined the Massachusetts Trading Company in traveling to New England to start a new colony. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was to remain loyal to the Crown, led by a governing body known as the Massachusetts General Court. Nevertheless, the colony was founded on Puritan principles and values, with the Puritan congregational church clearly the dominant social and cultural force in the region.
Reverend Samuel Danforth was born in 1626 in Framlingham, a community in Suffolk, England. His mother, Elizabeth, died when Samuel was three years old. In 1634, Samuel, his brother Thomas (who would later become a colonial governor) and his father immigrated to New England, settling in the Boston area. Danforth attended Harvard College to become a minister.
While at Harvard, Danforth became interested in learning all aspects of culture and literature, not just the traditional texts of Puritan ideals. He embraced poetry, reading the works of so-called pagan writers. Although his interests outside of Puritan culture were considered unhealthy, by his teachers, he eventually embraced the ideals of Puritan culture, graduating from Harvard in 1643.
As he completed his studies at Harvard, Samuel Danforth was approached by Reverend Thomas Welde to become a colleague pastor at the Roxbury church outside of Boston. In this capacity, he would work with the Reverend John Eliot, who had become known as “the Apostle to the Indians” for his ministerial work with the New England tribes. Danforth accepted the offer, and worked at the church through his graduation from Harvard. In 1650, Danforth completed his training and was ordained as a minister at the Roxbury church. A year after his ordination, Danforth married Mary Wilson. They would eventually have twelve children.
In addition to his talents as a poet and a Puritan minister, Samuel Danforth had an interest in natural science, with which he struck a delicate balance with his Christian faith. He gained a strong understanding of astronomy, which he integrated into his work as a minister. In 1664, for example, a comet approached the earth. Danforth used the occasion to remind the congregation of the importance of studying the comet’s natural properties and dynamics. However, he stressed, comets also served as signs from God, and that people and theologians alike should study and appreciate their spiritual significance.
Samuel Danforth remained the minister of the Roxbury church for twenty-four years, becoming widely known for his pious leadership and decency. While in his forties, Danforth took ill with what physicians at the time called putrid fever (which we now know as typhus). However, Danforth stayed on as the leader of the Roxbury church until his death on November 19, 1674.
The election of delegates to the General Court was considered an important civic event for the fledgling Puritan colony in Massachusetts. The newly elected leaders were charged with helping to build a new community in what they saw was a wilderness. Addressing this group, the
Reverend Samuel Danforth recalled Matthew 11 as it appeared in the New Testament of the Bible. According to this Gospel, Jesus offered his praise of John the Baptist, who left his own society to live in the harsh wilderness, performing the work of God while preparing humanity for Jesus Christ’s arrival.
Reverend Danforth’s sermon serves as a reminder for the delegates to remain mindful of Christian (and more specifically, Puritan Christian) values as they went about their political activities. The “wilderness” in which the Puritan colonists had arrived was developing rapidly, but there were still many dangers to be addressed and overcome. Still, Danforth reminds these new leaders (and indeed all of the Puritan colonists in attendance at that event) that, although meeting these challenges would be extremely difficult, success could be reached through steadfast commitment to God and the Church.
“A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness” also presents the New England colonies as unique settlements among the American colonies. Because of its distinctive Puritan composition, the New England experience could be compared to other remote locations to which people of religious conviction traveled to explore their faith and live a life free from the oppression of others. In light of the trials and challenges the Puritans had prior to their arrival in America, Danforth saw parallels between their own adversities and the many trials and challenges faced by John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and their followers more than a millennium before.
Danforth’s sermon begins with a reflection on this Biblical passage, discussing how many people who had heard about John the Baptist’s travels into the wilderness followed him in the hope that they might understand what he was doing. According to the account, Jesus asked, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” questioning why John the Baptist’s “spectacle” was of significance to those who traveled to see him.
Reverend Danforth offers further depth to this reference by comparing the Gospel to the responsibilities of government that the General Court’s new members were about to assume. He begins by analyzing a key question: Did John the Baptist’s followers proceed with him into the wilderness to see “a reed shaken in the wind”? He answers that question by commenting on the negativity of the metaphor. A reed, Danforth explains, stands tall and upright when the wind is calm. However, when the wind blows even lightly, the reed shakes, trembles, and bends downward. Only when the wind subsides does the reed return to its upright stance.
Danforth points out that people who appear as a reed in the wind are inconstant and “empty.” These individuals agree to the truth (in other words, the distinct word of God) when conditions are calm and peaceful. When strong forces that run contrary to God’s word begin to influence them, however, those people yield. Danforth cites temptation as one of these forces; only when the pressure of temptation is lifted do those empty people return to their morally upright positions and once again embrace the word of God.
In this regard, Danforth argues, John the Baptist’s followers could never have traveled into the wilderness to witness his own lightness of being. In fact, Danforth states, John was a constant man, unyielding to temptation and wholly dedicated to God’s truth. Furthermore, even as his notoriety grew and more came to witness his baptisms, John never believed in his fame as some sort of divine gift. Rather, Christ, for whom he was waiting, was the truth the people sought. Danforth’s point was that John remained truthful and committed to his faith in Christ, even when the authorities took him into custody—as Danforth’s sermon indicates, John never doubted Jesus, despite the imminent threat of torture and death leveled at him for that support.
The point that Danforth is making with this reference is that the new delegates to the General Court should demonstrate similar inflexibility when it comes to their responsibilities to the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The temptation may arise to show a light-handed interpretation of prevailing Puritan tradition in the governance of the new colony, Danforth says. An honest and clear demonstration of adherence to Puritan Christian values, Danforth asserts, inspires the people in the very same way that John the Baptist’s speech did.
Danforth continues his review of the story of John the Baptist and Christ. Christ repeats the earlier question about why John’s followers came with him into the harsh wilderness, adding if they did so to see John dressed in soft, beautiful clothes. Danforth notes that the Gospel clarifies this question by observing that Christ’s words read in negative fashion. Surely, Christ was saying, the people did not come into the wilderness to see a man dressed like a member of royalty. Danforth points out that only kings residing in large houses dress in fine garments. John, according to Christ, was not dressed in such a manner, nor did he live in a king’s home.
According to the passage and Danforth’s interpretation thereof, John the Baptist had the appearance of someone who was living in an environment that was difficult and unforgiving, one in which the soft and delicate clothing worn by wealthy men would be ruined. Danforth added that John lived an austere life, eating little and wearing clothes that could withstand the harsh climate.
Furthermore, John did not concern himself with the garments and trappings of wealthy, influential people. His task was to prepare the world for Christ’s arrival and, in doing so, to help as many people as possible cleanse themselves from sin. John the Baptist was, in the estimation of both Christ and Danforth, a man of great sobriety and gravity, focused on the salvation of others rather than the acquisition of personal wealth and possessions.
Here, Danforth issues a very clear warning to the delegates to be similarly mindful of their own responsibilities. All of those people who had come to New England had arrived in another challenging environment. They did so, according to Danforth, not to find wealth and luxurious property but to establish a community based on Christian values. He cautions the delegates to remain focused on the spiritual basis of their government rather than the trappings of power and prestige.
The Gospel, as interpreted by Danforth, then asked for a third time what the people hoped to see when they traveled to the remote location where John the Baptist had settled. This time, however, the question was accompanied by a question to which the answer would be in the affirmative: “Was it to see a prophet?” Danforth points to Christ’s declaration that John the Baptist was indeed a prophet. To be sure, Danforth argues, John was a teacher of the traditions and values of Judaism, interpreting Jewish law and helping others conform to these concepts. However, the Holy Spirit descended upon him, granting John divine inspiration. From this point forward, John became knowledgeable of the mysteries of salvation as well as the steps humans needed to take to achieve that salvation.
From the point at which John became imbued with these concepts, however, he became much more than a simple carrier of God’s word. According to Jesus’s teachings, John was much more than a prophet. He was, in fact, the Messiah’s herald, placed on Earth to help humanity understand and prepare for the coming of the Son of God. John would spread the word about the Messiah’s coming and the kingdom that Jesus would bring to Earth. He would also help prepare the people for entrance into the Messiah’s kingdom through the power of repentance and baptism, removing from the people the sins they carried their entire lives.
Danforth continued to discuss John’s significance in relation to other prophets. Indeed, the reverend points to the scripture that states that there has never before arisen a prophet greater than John the Baptist. Such an elevation in status was not made out of disrespect for someone like Abraham, whose faith fostered and united the faiths of countless generations after him. Similarly, John’s graces could not be adequately compared to the wisdom of Solomon, the humility of Moses, or the faith of David. Additionally, Danforth argues, there were many prophets who, for ages prior, foretold with great accuracy the coming of the Messiah (including his birth, life, torture, and death). Danforth makes clear that the significance of each of the graces and virtues of the prophets could not be downgraded when compared to John.
Rather, John the Baptist’s singularity as the greatest of the prophets was rooted in the fact that John knew of the Messiah’s coming and when he arrived. He even undertook the task of preparing the people for his arrival, baptizing an inordinate number of the faithful. In this regard, Danforth says, John served as the sword of the Son of God, making room for the Messiah “in the hearts of the people.”
Furthermore, John immediately recognized Jesus when they met, baptizing him and presenting him to the people as the Messiah. John’s status as the harbinger of Jesus therefore made him singular among all of the prophets. John helped countless people redeem themselves before Jesus, by his death, redeemed all of humanity from their sins.
According to scripture, John the Baptist chose to move away from the city and into the wilderness, where the climate was harsh, food was scarce, wild animals threatened his life, and there were few commodities available (including clothing). Then again, John’s decision was not entirely his own; the Gospel suggests that John was in fact drawn to the wild by the Holy Spirit. He was not the only such individual the Bible cited for withdrawing from populated areas: according to the Gospel, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wild (where he met John). On a number of other occasions, Jesus traveled away from others in order to pray.
Danforth believes the wilderness to be an important aspect of communing with God. By leaving the comforts of the city, Danforth argues, people are able to worship God in a pure, distraction-free environment. He states that many individuals take brief trips to quieter locations, where they can relax and gather themselves spiritually. In fact, Danforth states, God draws people into the wilderness, not for pleasure or to live in luxury, but so that they can conduct a serious examination of themselves and their faith. Furthermore, he brings people to such locations so that they may learn and spread the true and unaltered Gospel of the Lord.
Danforth makes this point to the delegates in order to remind them of the true reason the people left England for New England: they arrived to convene with God and carry out His word. As was the case for John the Baptist and his followers, however, the environment in which the Puritans found themselves was harsh and challenging. In addition to the natural dangers that he and his followers faced in his remote location, John the Baptist encountered a great many trials as he prepared humanity for the coming of the Messiah, not the least of which was his eventual capture, torture, and death at the hands of his adversaries. Still, John was vindicated when he came face-to-face with Jesus Christ, and according to Danforth and the Bible, was ultimately rewarded with a special place in the Kingdom of God.
Danforth’s meditation on the plight of John the Baptist in the wilderness, as presented to the new delegates to the General Court of Massachusetts, served two important purposes. The first was to remind the group that the primary purpose of the colony was to foster an environment in which the Puritan ideal would be upheld. Like John the Baptist and his followers, the Puritans were drawn by God away from the comforts of home and into an a region with dangerous animals, an unfamiliar and sometimes unfriendly population, and severe winter weather, with only the supplies they brought with them to sustain them and help built the new colony. Danforth is reminding them to stand tall in the face of these adversities, as such trials were part of God’s plan; they were performing a holy task given to them by the Lord, and this task was not to be undone.
The second purpose of this approach to Danforth’s sermon to the General Court was to remind its members to stay their course. In addition to the natural and human challenges they faced in the development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the temptation to use their position to pursue personal wealth or otherwise focus entirely on worldly concerns over the defeat of sin and the pursuit of salvation. God, Danforth cautions, would continue to punish the sinners among the colonists by inflicting hardships and trials upon them.
The key, according to Danforth, was continued diligence and attention to the teachings of the Bible. Their reward for doing so would be the strength of God on their side in the face of their adversaries. Danforth cites the example of the early Christians in the face of the Pharisees, a powerful and influential group of Jewish political leaders In this case, the Pharisees denied the divinity of Jesus Christ and attempted to curb his growing popularity. The Pharisees are said to have plotted with King Herod to have Jesus captured and, ultimately, crucified. Reverend Danforth states that the Pharisees made a conscientious effort to wipe out Christ’s followers during and after Christ’s lifetime. However, the faith and dedication of the Christians was the obstacle that prevented the Pharisees from succeeding in this endeavor.
Danforth continued to promise the new members of the General Court that, as long as they remained true to their Puritan values, they would enjoy God’s support when facing challenges. Their faith would serve as a weapon against the many adversaries that these leaders would encounter. If these leaders, as well as all other Puritans in Massachusetts, hold fast to God, Jesus, and the prophets (as well as God’s laws), those who oppose or otherwise seek to undermine them will become exasperated and confused.
Reverend Danforth advises that continued practice of Puritan tradition and adherence to God’s laws is the key to “divine protection and preservation.” This concept refers to the Book of Revelation 3:10, in which God (through the apostle John) promises that, on the day all people are judged for their sins, those who kept God’s word will be given special protection by Jesus. Christ, who would return on Judgment Day, would defend any faithful person who was accused of sin.
“A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errands into the Wilderness” is both a lamentation and an exhortation. Presented to the new delegates to the institution that would be charged with governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the sermon distinguishes the region from other colonized territories, citing a strong foundation of religious faith and tradition. To help illustrate his points, Reverend Samuel Danforth drew parallels between the New England area and the remote location in which John the Baptist conducted his holy duty of baptizing Jesus Christ and countless others.
As a lamentation on the ills of society, the sermon discusses the challenges facing all of the region’s colonists, including the inconsistency of food supplies and farming in New England as well as the region’s harsh winters. The sermon does not focus just on the physical and environmental problems facing the fledgling colony. Rather, this complaint also takes to task the corruptibility of leadership. Danforth cites the fact that many people who acquire power are quick to waste it with self-indulgence. Additionally, Danforth commented on the fact that far too many leaders compromise their faith in order to serve the general public.
Danforth recalled another story in which God led an individual and his followers away from the city and into the wilderness. Like the Puritans, John the Baptist was drawn into the wilderness in order to perform his holy tasks. The messiah’s herald, John was subjected to a harsh climate and rivals who refused to accept John’s messages about the impending arrival of the King of the Jews (including but not limited to the Pharisees). Even though he was eventually killed by his rivals, John the Baptist never wavered in his faith, a point that Danforth underscored strongly in his sermon.
While Danforth lamented on the shortcomings of humanity as the colonists struggled to build the colony, he also exhorted the leaders of the General Court (as well as the large crowd of local residents who were on hand to witness the ceremony) to learn from and emulate the uncompromising and tireless example of John. By remaining true to the tenets of Puritan Christianity, Danforth argued, the colonists would succeed in taking control of that new land. Furthermore, maintaining dedication to the ideals of Puritanism would enable the people to achieve an even greater success; when Judgment Day inevitably comes, Danforth argued, those who had purity and faith would be called into Heaven and allowed to join Jesus Christ’s company.
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