There is a place we live, and there is a space we inhabit. I’m a Midwesterner, in St. Paul, but the real space I inhabit is somewhere in the cloud of ontology. From here I ask this question: how do we get by? Not only in the great scheme of things, but day to day to day. How do we make it through on this rock, which simultaneously holds such beauty and evil? I used to have a strong belief in things that made it easier, God and Grace and the easily recognizable sublimity of life. These things held me fast to where I was and what I did. But it’s much harder these days. And from this space and with that question in mind I, and many others, turn around and look at history, conjecturing, expecting to learn something to apply to this current middle-class 21st century life. In my experience, the past only complicates, and leaves me with a looser grip on what it was I formerly believed. But I do it anyway, because the past is interesting. And I hope it helps.
Occasionally, when such thoughts fill my head, I think of the circumstances my European lineage in North America and my feeble attempt to get into the heads of those men and women dead for centuries. At these times I am reminded of a sermon I heard years ago at the House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota. The preacher, Reverend Mark, used a ridiculous prop gag, a helmet of sorts fashioned out of a bowl and some tinfoil and a few antennae attached somehow. I forget the details. The purpose of this device, said the most Reverend, was to allow him to read the thoughts of his congregation. Thus, as Mark read a droll sermon on a subject I have long forgotten, he occasionally stopped for the pre-recorded thoughts of his church members to be played through the speakers. As the congregants slowly focused more on the thoughts of their peers, they became less focused on what Mark was saying at the pulpit. Eventually, we congregants simply sat, ignoring the sermon, waiting to hear what wit our neighbors were thinking.
I can’t say I know what the point of this experiment was. But the helmet itself left an indelible mark on my psyche. Looking back at those years I spent in the pews of House of Mercy, and later at St. Ita’s Catholic Church in Chicago, and later, in the mountains and the woods, all the sermons seem to come down to the same thing: what are you going to do, faced with this world you live in? What are you going to do when you are presented with the truth and the misery, the death and the life of the world? All we can do is try and get by using whatever tools we have.
As those pre-recorded messages of interiority were playing over the speakers of the House of Mercy, it was clear that, even in the pews on Sunday, everyone was simply trying to get by. Worrying about spouses and bills, kids, college, jobs, getting to the grocery store, the things we weather day to day. Mark just let it unfold, in the mundane language of dispassionate, monotone pre-record thoughts. It feels like I used to know what I held to on my way through day to day, but I’m not so sure anymore. I used to be so certain.
I am uncertain now, and so I look to moments of history that show incredible certainty of belief. Hardened faith in the face of an unknown future. The history I read seems to show how frequently such belief results in catastrophe. If we are trying to learn how to get by, we have as much to learn about failures to do so as those which succeeded. And so I take the helmet of Reverend Mark and tune it to the past, to those times when things were so terrible. What do we learn? What do our predecessors say, as they tried to find a way forward only to be stopped short, their faith unable to bring them any further?
Two spectacular failures that occurred in this country, both in the first century of English settlement on the Dark Continent, are of particular interest regarding the struggle to live day to day. The first group came with their faith in Empire and business, profits in their hearts and minerals on their minds. The second came with the belief that God would lead them towards freedom from religious persecution and to the new Israel. Both succeeded, sort of, in the long run.
The first occurred in the Jamestown Colony of Virginia. Specifically, the period known as the “starving time,” a phrase taken from the journal of then President of the Colony, Sir George Percy. The name is apt. Six-hundred people lived in the Jamestown when the winter of 1609 arrived. In 1610, when the colony was abandoned, only sixty were living.
The Jamestown Colony before the “starving time” was a bare-bones operation. It was established in 1607 to bring mineral wealth, primarily in gold, back to England to line the pockets of those who invested in the endeavor. Secondary to this purpose was expansion. The first Englanders in Jamestown were not up to the job. They were daily presented new problems—real problems—and solutions were unknown. They settled an island whose main characteristic was swamp; the land was not virgin, but inhabited by natives who had to be “managed.” But most difficult, according to some accounts, were the mosquitoes. Welcome to America.
Posed with a new world to explore and resources to extract and bites to scratch, Jamestown was a mess. The settlers had very little experience with physical labor, let alone founding a society, erecting buildings, farming, practicing medicine to aid malarial fever. Within months over fifty of the new arrivals were dead. This hardship eased a bit, but only by making daily life harder. A military man, Captain John Smith, took over leadership of the colony and introduced discipline. He motivated the aristocrats and their manservants to get Jamestown on its feet. The year of 1608-1609 was a relatively quiet year at Jamestown, compared to the years that came before and after it. Colonists were still dying, but in fewer numbers, and the first export of goods from the Americas was established in glasswares, so there was a little money.
If we could tune into their thoughts I would listen for clues on what got them through those earliest days? Was it faith in the leadership? People did not like John Smith, but leaders need not be liked. They must give their people a shot to survive. Or was it more basic? Faith in God? Unlike later immigrants looking for justification, Jamestown made no pretense to be spreading the Gospel to those lacking salvation. They were there for resource extraction and colonization. But they were believers in God, and they wrote their heartfelt prayers for comfort. Whatever they believed in, it would not spare them from catastrophe.
The winter of 1609-1610 in Jamestown is nearly unimaginable. Smith was gone now, as a strange turn of events led to his pocket exploding. Discipline laxed. They ran out of food because they planted too late in the season, because they were bad at farming. They couldn’t trade with the Indians. They couldn’t forage for food because those who left the city walls were generally killed, or disappeared. They were stuck in their wooden triangle. They ate whatever they could touch and death was everywhere. They wasted away and waited for the pale horseman.
I struggle to get through the tediousness of modern life and look for something to provide meaning and value. Can anything truly provide meaning and value as you wait to starve? I wish that didn’t sound like a rhetorical question, because I do not mean it to be one.
So winter came without food, and the people of Jamestown ate whatever they could touch. They robbed flour from the store and as punishment were put to death. They ate their horses and their dogs and cats and caught rats and mice and ate them until the mice stayed away and there were no more animals in Jamestown. With no meat, they ate their boots and shoes and belts, everything made of leather. Then things got bad.
They died from diseases that caught up to the settlers as health their declined. They died in their sleep from starvation. Darkness came and made their faces sink. George Percy hints at what, in this moment, people held on to: life. Belief and hope were attached to staying alive, at any costs. “Nothing was spared to maintain life, and to do those things which seem incredible,” Percy wrote. When injury struck, blood was slurped from the snow because there was no water—fresh or dirty—to access from within the walls. In the end, what else could they do but turn to the only abundant resource? The settlers dug up the dead and ate the frozen fresh of their families. One man murdered his pregnant wife, discarded the fetus and ate the mother.
If you could, would you want to know how they survived mentally and spiritually, until physically they could not? If Reverend Mark could tune into Jamestown 1609, would you listen to those thoughts? What faith, what good could be in those thoughts? What to believe in? A fledgling glasswares industry is likely little comfort. What solace can Empire offer in the winter of starving? Long live the king.
A few rounds of immigrants after Jamestown brought the Puritans to America. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were a different breed with a different purpose than Jamestown. By 1692, things were moving along for the English quite smoothly. They had farmers now who actually could farm, and leaders who could manage and lead. They had beyond a doubt their faith in God. God brought them safely across the sea, and would bring them safely through the trials of life in the New World. Day to day life was easier than that winter in Jamestown. Then the devil reared his head and filled Salem Village with his tricks.
I understand, only slightly, what was going on in Salem.. There is a stern logic that can be followed in the certainty of God. It is the logic of the Puritans, and it is common in their history. If there is a God, and that God is all good, and there is also evil, that evil must be caused by something other than God. That cause is of course Satan, and he is a highly convenient for religious leadership. Satan allows for all kinds of maneuvering, for accusations to maintain a physical source in the real world, beyond recrimination. The devil is not in the details. The Devil is, literally, outside the walls. When the Devil is real, he’s the detail.
Bertrand Russell said, “It doesn’t matter what you believe in, as long as you don’t believe it completely.” This seems never more important than with belief in the Devil.
What astounds me most about the Salem Witch Trials is the absolute fixed foundational role played by the Devil. The Devil in Salem, like God, is capitalized King of the Earthly domain. He, and He alone, was responsible for the horror that took place in Salem. It was never a question of whether Satan was responsible for what happened; it was only a question of figuring out who Satan was affecting: the witches or the accusers? Sense, really, can’t begin to fully understand what unfolded in Salem in 1692. What was a day like? If you were a woman, every day you were not accused was probably a victory. One day at a time. Having been accused, well, what could one do but hope God was somewhere watching out for you as you awaited your hanging.
Twenty people died in the Salem craze. But two of the individuals caught in the Salem Witch Trials show just how much madness was present in that village. Their names were Sarah and Dorcas Good. Sarah was one of the twenty who were executed, convicted of her crimes of collusion with Satan. Her story, even before the accusations, was sad. Sarah’s husband killed himself, and left her a lot of money. But she married a man who took all the money and left her. Alone and poor, she then married an indentured servant, who died shortly thereafter leaving Sarah in heaps of debt. She sued to get her father’s fortune back, won, then had that money taken by the government to pay for her second husband’s debts. When the witch craziness began, Sarah was back living on the streets, a beggar. She was among the first accused, and her guilt was never questioned. In the first round of executions, on July 19, 1692, she was hung until dead, as they say, with five others.
Dorcas was Sarah Goode’s daughter, with Sarah through the trauma of domestic life. When her mother was in custody, the authorities came around and accused her, too, and examined her in ways that I refuse to imagine. She was found guilty, like mother like daughter, and put into prison for eight months, though her case never made it to trial. Those eight months of prison time for Dorcas Good must have been unbearable, her day to day experience a torment. Chained to a wall in a dungeon, accused of witchcraft, a mother on her way to the gallows, what could she believe in to get from one day to the next? Was her God a comfort? I would ask this, if I could, because I truly wish to know. But even if my helmet worked, Dorcas could not answer.
Dorcas Good was not executed. She was, I suppose, one of the lucky ones, imprisoned long enough that the craze of Salem came to an end, and she was pardoned with the other hundred or so witches awaiting their fates in the prisons. No, she was not executed. Instead, she went insane. What more can we expect; she was only four years old.
My life is not surrounded by death, or the madness of a society tearing itself apart. I live a comfortable existence, day to day. But always my mind returns to the ontological questions; maybe they are hardwired into all of us, maybe I just obsess. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that I believe nothing completely. This makes the future unknown and a bit frightening, but it affords a comfort, and adaptability in the realm of ontology.
To cling to that which society has rejected makes one anachronistic. It is the definition of the word. I’ve always felt a little anachronistic. I spend my time struggling to make sense of the Puritans belief in God and the Devil, and the English belief in Empire and extraction, not just to understand them historically but to learn from these things how to live better now. I do not know with any certainty why these things appeal to me. But I think it is because, in these histories, the players believed in something, good or bad, in the face of such circumstances. Meanwhile, here I am, born in the age of post-everything, thinking about what the purpose of belief is while nimbly avoiding it, trying to find sense and meaning in the face of the everyday happenings of a middle-class life. Maybe this is indulgent, wallowing in tedium, or maybe it’s just anachronistic. My helmet is frequently tuned to history, trying in vain to grasp how it was done before, and hoping to get of sense of how it can be done a little better, today.