The start of a new year is a time for reflection, projection, and introspection—looking back, looking ahead, looking within. An American missionary in India made such an analysis of our nation over a century ago. His insightful evaluation has been
all but buried and obliterated by an avalanche of new-age information, demographic changes, and a secularized, digitized disconnect with our past. His three main points are worth sharing.
1. "Our Pilgrim and Puritan fathers laid a foundation on which their sons framed a government that has become the wonder and envy of statesmen around the world. The free government of a free people is no longer an experiment. Planted in weakness, it has grown to power. America’s wealth has nearly quadrupled over the last thirty years."
America was on the verge of becoming a world power in 1898, and Rev. Samuel Perrine raised the question of what our nation should do with such wealth and power, foreseeing that it would continue to increase.
2. "Is America’s power and wealth for herself? Never! This great nation is ordained for more than mere money-getting, and our duty is not to make conquests, seek new power, nor greater military and naval power. No man can live merely for himself, nor can a nation. By virtue of the call of God, the duty of the American people is to give the world a life more abundant, both for here and the hereafter. Righteousness has exalted this nation, and the duty of a great and influential people is to help humanity."
As a missionary, Rev. Perrine saw America becoming "a schoolmaster to the nations of the earth," a nation-building role only in the sense of "righteous empire." Helping others was really helping ourselves since it avoids "letting our spiritual life be smothered by material prosperity." But who should receive American help even if we lead mostly by example? Rev. Perrine saw a uniquely ordained role for us because of who we are.
3. "The American people have come into possession of the most valuable institutions man can have. What America reaps was sown for her at the stake and in the dungeon; she has endured cold and want, gone through the fires and tempest of war, been cursed with slavery and freed the slaves, and received from foreign shores every conceivable wreck of man and built him into the republic. Through the toil and sacrifices of generations of pure-souled men and women who toiled not simply for themselves have these priceless blessings come."
Cynics might howl in laughter at what they would see as the naïve idealism of Rev. Perrine in a world where corruption reigned and raw power was the only currency that counted. His goals included a strong educational system to "solve vexing problems, make the world better, and carry salvation to the world." He believed in an America that was great because she was good, a country of "pure-souled" people who prayed and paid homage to hard work, honesty, creativity, and deferred consumption.
I would not say that we have lost the America I grew up in. But we have misplaced her. Informing younger generations of the toil and sacrifices of America’s founders, fighters, farmers, pioneers, inventors, factory workers, tradesmen, merchants, medical personnel, and schoolteachers, male and female and many of whom were their ancestors, would be a good start. Columbus may have discovered America; our job is to rediscover her, appreciate her past, correct her faults, and share our riches, both material and spiritual, with the world as Rev. Perrine envisioned.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.