While many Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving today and consider its historical origin, many more will question the religious reasons early European immigrants came to the New World. While the personal reasons for the early European immigration to the New World may vary, they typically fell under one main religious reason—a reason of faith. Despite speculations concerning the immigrants’ motives of greed or monetary gain, faith served as a significant motivation.(1)
From the early days of American exploration, missionary activities sanctioned by the Catholic Church dominated the western continent. One such group, the Jesuits, produced the majority of Catholic missionaries, as well as many of the famous explorers known to most Americans today, including the well-known Mississippi explorer, Jacques Marquette.(2)
The main effort of these early missionaries was the conversion of Native Americans to the Christian faith. However, the intentions of these missionaries did not always align with their original mission, and often resulted in disaster and, at times, an abandonment of Christian ideals. For the most part, Native Americans were viewed “in terms of their potential for trade, for labor or land, for military attack or alliance, and for conversion.”(3)
With these views in mind, it is fairly easy to see how they often gave way to greed and hostile actions against the very people being converted. However, common misconceptions concerning other early European immigrants, such as the Puritans, dilute their real reason for coming to the New World. A perfect example of this is the misunderstanding of why the Puritans came to the New World. Despite the groupthink of freedom of religion as the chief motivation for the Puritan immigration, it only served as an offshoot of a grander mission—to serve as a Christian example to a corrupt and wayward England. Their primary religious mission was to “prove that one could form a society so faithful, a church so cleansed, that even old England itself would be transformed…”(4)
For the American church today, the faith-based underlying principles and ideals pioneered by these early immigrants remain the same, only with a different face. The mission of today’s church is still one of preaching the gospel and serving as missionaries of Christ. In addition, like the Puritans, it must serve as a Christian example for a corrupt and wayward America. Modern Christians must continue the primary religious mission of the Puritans in proving that the American church can remain faithful and pure so that America, like England at the time, can be transformed. This truth is more relevant today than ever before in our history as a nation.
1. Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), 54.
2. Ibid., 27.
3. Ibid., 9.
4. Ibid., 54.