The popularity of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, has drawn public attention to the role of religion in American life, and especially in politics. But author Hugh Nissenson says America’s focus on religion is nothing new. In fact, he says the country has been preoccupied with religion since its founding.
The importance of religion to the birth of America comes into sharp focus in Nissenson’s new book, The Pilgrim, which follows the story of a Puritan Separatist who left England amid religious persecution in 1622, and settled in British America’s Massachusetts Bay Colony.
“It is not an unfamiliar American experience that a group of people come and find what they consider to be salvation in the ‘promised land.’ It is a replication always of the identification that they have with the children of Israel, with the Jews who wandered in the wilderness and found a promised land,” Nissenson said in an interview with VOA.
“The Mormon story is not exactly the same, but follows along many of the lines of wandering in the wilderness, coming to Salt Lake, ‘this must be the place’ and finding what they consider to be redemption.”
Listen to Hugh Nissenson's interview:
Nissenson, known for bringing history alive in such acclaimed works as Tree of Life, does it again with The Pilgrim. The novel is presented as a first person account of the life of one man, the fictional Charles Wentworth. It comes in the form of a “confession” that Wentworth writes as a part of the process of joining a strict Puritan church.
“I hereby publicly confess my sins and declare my regeneration…” he begins.
In the manuscript, Wentworth describes the trials of his early life in England. After being scarred by smallpox and enduring the death of his fiancé, he boards a ship for America. He joins a group of Puritan Separatists who split from the official Church of England in hopes of establishing a more “pure” religious community.
Wentworth encounters a different set of challenges: bitter weather, starvation and attacks from hostile Indians, native people who were massacred at the end of the story.
"This is where the drama becomes tragedy,” said Nissenson, underlining the incongruity between the British colonists’ beliefs and their treatment of the Indians. “What I showed at the end with the massacre of the Indians was the specter of race war, and this is what blotted the American experience from the very beginning.”
Throughout this period, Wentworth struggles with his faith and with a nagging uncertainty over his eternal destiny.
“I really felt that the development of modern psychology is a result of Protestant sensibility because Protestant sensibility rests on the fact of, ‘Am I damned or am I saved?’ And the only way to find out was by introspection. Agonizing introspection,” Nissenson said.
The Pilgrim unsparingly sets out the terrifying trials and bitter hardships of daily life in the 17th century, but it also reveals the overwhelming fear of damnation that permeated life in early America. Then, as now, religion was at the center of daily life for many Americans.
Nissenson says the Pilgrim experience was repeated over and over throughout U.S. history as people moved west across the North American continent to establish communities where they could build new lives.
“That’s what I intended it to be - a dramatization of the basic foundation myth of America,” he said. “These are the people who after all contributed immensely to our concept of ourselves as Americans.”
In this political season, The Pilgrim reminds Americans what kind of people set them on their current path, where matters of religious faith often take center stage, even in a presidential campaign.