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1492: The Seven Deadly Sins Tumble out of Europe 

By Steven J. Keillor

AT DAWN ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12, 1492, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS landed at an island that the indigenous Taino called Guanahani. With the captains of the Niña and Pinta, he "went ashore in the armed launch," displayed King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's flags, with the cross prominent, and took "possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords."

Some Taino witnessed this ceremony, but they likely saw no reason why this stranger should take possession. Nor did they understand his actions in the next weeks: planting crosses as symbols of conquest, naming places and natural features, eyeing the Taino as potential slaves, looking for gold and reconnoitering for good sites for forts.


DURING THE RECENT QUINCENTENNIAL, COLUMBUS'S ACTS, though understood, have been condemned. In The Conquest of Paradise Kirkpatrick Sale ridiculed him as a bumbling navigator, a deceptive captain, an incompetent gold-obsessed explorer who misidentified flora and fauna, "a man rather lost in a world that he cannot come to know." Everything about his "discovery" is controversial. How can we say that Europeans "discovered" a land which was quite familiar to its inhabitants? How can we call it a "New" World when its civilizations were quite old or its peoples "Indians" when they lived far from India? How can we celebrate what resulted in the deaths of millions of "Indians"? How can we call Columbus a hero?

This controversy dismays many Americans, who view it as an unwelcome manifestation of "political correctness" spoiling the old-fashioned American history they fondly remember from their school days.3 Yet these are legitimate questions. By trying to answer them apart from politicizing polemics, we Americans can learn much about ourselves and our past.

On some points we can agree. Others can be left to specialists to debate. We need not cross swords over the term discovery. Let's think of it as a first encounter between peoples or, as Mexican historian Silvio Zavala argues, "a multiplicity of encounters between peoples and cultures." If encounter sounds too peaceful, think of it as a head-on collision. We need not argue over calling this a "New" World. It was merely a different one, quite unlike Europe and Asia. (For convenience, we will consider Africa's contribution in the next chapter.) We need not fight over guessing the Americas' pre-1492 population, a task likened to "extract[ing] Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers."4 That is not vital for our broad-brush discussion.

We must, however, attend seriously to arguments that the Americas' indigenous cultures were somehow superior to European culture in ways that discredit the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. The Columbian encounter is said to have proven that all cultures and religions are equally valid--with European Christianity perhaps least valid in light of 1990s concerns about the environment, the status of women, human equality, peace and social justice.

Many scholars and popularizers make this argument. From an environmentalist's perspective, Sale criticizes "the Hebraic Yahweh" for "using [nature's] elements to wreak vengeance on His flock" and for remaining aloof from nature. He perceives a "long history of Christian antagonism to nature." Calling Christianity "the core of European thought and culture," David E. Stannard considers this "theocratic culture" to have been "obsessed with things sensual and sexual" and committed to holy war. He holds Christianity responsible for "the horrors that were inflicted by Europeans and white Americans on the Indians of the Americas." Their violent path was "paved in the earliest days of Christendom."5

Writers of college textbooks are more circumspect. In The American People historian Gary Nash argues that Europeans, who "came bearing the crosses of their religion, were a volatile and dangerous people." He links their crosses to their volatility: "European settlers . . . saw a holy necessity to convert--or destroy--these [Indians who were] enemies of their God." Indigenous societies were environmentally sensitive, communal, egalitarian, committed to "the sharing of power between male and female" and "less structured in their religious views." All the contrasts work to Europeans' disadvantage, but Christianity is not identified as the main disadvantaging factor. James Kirby Martin, in America and Its People praises "group-oriented" natives and faults Europeans for "cultural superiority," but he does not attribute these to the absence and presence of Christianity in the two groups.6

In the classroom, professors can make explicit what is only implicit in the texts--and many undoubtedly do. The Columbian encounter becomes their object lesson in cultural relativism to start the year's work in American history. Here is the creation myth of American cultural relativism: the foolish Europeans who thought theirs were the only crops, animals and gods discover a completely new set, as valid and useful as theirs--even more so. Yet looking at the evidence we find that, far from being a proof text for cultural relativism, the Columbian encounter powerfully argues for the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. But we cannot see that without looking at the evidence. The historian "proves" an argument by crafting a credible explanation of past events, not by crafting a syllogism or conducting an experiment or solving an equation.

The first step is to take the anti-Christian revisionist argument at its strongest point, not its weakest. Sale and Stannard do romanticize indigenous peoples: Stannard, for example, devotes only two paragraphs to Aztec human sacrifice. Historian William Cronon notes that Sale's "Indians are so perfectly in tune with nature, such paragons of ecological wisdom, that they glide right out of history and back into noble savagery."7 Yet, like snipers, critics often take aim when the revisionist steps out a little too far. Sniping (that is, answering only the weaknesses in opponents' arguments) is too much a part of our current cultural debates. Confronting opponents' strengths will prove more helpful.

Let us confront the fact that polytheistic, animal- and star-worshiping indigenous peoples were generally less violent, more generous, more egalitarian, less aggressive and more in tune with nature than Christian Europeans. Then we will gain new insights into European society on the eve of colonization. Then we will see--as we go along--that this paradox confirms rather than disproves God's revelation in Christ and in Scripture.

Critics of Christianity, such as Sale, Stannard and Martin, err in equating European culture and the Christian faith. From their secular perspective, they see the Hebrews constructing creation myths about their tribal god Yahweh and Christianity as a cultural artifact formed by Europeans. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Old (or Hebrew) Testament is one long argument between Yahweh and his often-rebellious people. European history also reveals an argument between the triune God and rebellious Europeans. They desired the benefits of the faith they professed but avoided the rigorous demands accompanying the knowledge of God. When Columbus brought European history to the Western Hemisphere, he brought this argument with him. That accounts for much of the resulting conquest, slavery, war, exploitation and misery. Yet tragedies caused by rebellion against Christianity and its God cannot logically be blamed on that faith or that God.

Before examining Europe and the Columbian encounter, we must backpedal and look at the pre-Columbian world of the Americas. Can we summarize the diverse characteristics of its many indigenous peoples and cultures?


THERE IS MUCH TRUTH IN THE ROMANTICIZERS' PORTRAYAL, despite differences from place to place and changes over time. Pre-Columbian societies were not homogeneous or static. Rich fishing societies along the Pacific coast of Canada, communal agricultural Pueblo villages on the upper Rio Grande, migratory buffalo-hunting Plains tribes, settled Mississippi Valley corn-growers, small scattered groups of hunters and gatherers north of the St. Lawrence, urbanized Aztec imperialists--these varied greatly one from the other. Also, one group might at times change the other. Some time before A.D. 1000, Mayan-speaking traders spread a Caddo cult to the Mississippian culture in the lower river valley and altered that culture's religious system.

Indigenous cultures did, however, share certain characteristics. Each used religion to locate "human life at the center of reality," with everything else "bounded and controllable by reference to that center." Each used a creation myth and anthropocentric gods to integrate a culture. The Pueblo conceived of the female god Iatiku as a helper who gave humans corn and assistance but made few demands on them. The Huron created two anthropocentric deities--Aataentsic, the mother of humanity, and Iouskeha, people's helper. Many oki, or "guardian spirits," assisted humans as well. In Incan and Aztec societies, human-created gods were more demanding. The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli demanded sacrificial victims. Therefore the Aztecs continually warred to secure captives for their sacrificial rites. Incan mythology also strongly drove the Incas to militaristic expansion. They believed that their rulers were immortal gods. When one died, his mummy was worshiped: he kept his palace, his possessions and his servants. Deprived of these, his "successor" had to conquer new territories to acquire palace, property and servants.9 Past human life became a "center of reality" as deceased kings kept on ruling.

These indigenous belief systems were constructed by humans to achieve human goals. In the case of the Incans, the goal was royal immortality. In Huron culture, commoners achieved their desires once a year in a dream-fulfillment festival called Ononharoia. More communal, the Pueblos sought the group's long-term good. Since humans had designed the belief system to meet human needs, rebellion was folly. It did occur, but rarely. Religion integrated indigenous societies and regulated every facet of daily life. It was "the one great force in behavior,"10 and it was all-pervasive. Many Native American peoples lived in a spirit-filled world in which trees, animals and landscapes had spiritual personalities. That encouraged proper care for the environment.

Note the contrast between these belief systems and Christianity, which is God's revelation to humanity, not a human construct. (Again, we cannot prove that here; we can only see if it helps us explain events.) By contrasting them, we are not denigrating indigenous cultures or saying that they were somehow less "advanced" than European ones. Many were complex, with sophisticated states conducting diplomacy and ruling vast areas and with complex economies and beautiful arts and crafts. Nor was Christianity a European invention that reflects credit on Europe. It was not invented by humans, nor was it primarily designed to meet human needs. Humanity is not its "center of reality." Because it is not anthropocentric, rebellion against its God is the normal human response to being replaced as the "center of reality." Already, in the Hebrew Testament, Yahweh announced that rebellion was his people's characteristic response:

 I reared children and brought them up, but they

 have rebelled against me.

 The ox knows his master,

 the donkey his owner's manger,

 but Israel does not know,

 my people do not understand.

Even when they claimed they were not rebelling, he knew they were:

These people come near to me with their mouth

and honor me with their lips,

 but their hearts are far from me.

Their worship of me

 is made up only of rules taught by men.11

Running through Old and New Testaments is the stark reality that human rebellion produces a split between those who falsely claim to be his people and those who truly are his people. The latter characteristically obey him, but sometimes they rebel too.

That is not the case with human-centered belief systems. It makes no sense to speak of Hurons rebelling against Iouskeha, the helper of humans, or of false, professing Aztecs versus true Aztecs or of Pueblo who did not believe in Pueblo religion. The Pueblo did not think in terms of outward behavior versus inner attitudes. Religion was outward behavior. What were indigenous religions if not "rules taught by men"? What else was there?

Europeans, by contrast, were inextricably enmeshed in all these dichotomies, dilemmas and rebellions. Rather than being pious followers, God's dutiful schoolchildren living to teach others of him, they were often in active rebellion against the God they professed to obey. Their religion was not an integrated, harmonious human-centered belief system but a traveling argument between their God and them. Contrasting Aztec and Spanish religions, Tzvetan Todorov captures this truth: "The Spaniards' God is an auxiliary rather than a Lord, a being to be used rather than enjoyed." These conquerors' self-proclaimed goal was to advance their religion, but actually they used religion to conquer--"ends and means have changed places."12


REVISIONISTS' UNFAVORABLE PICTURE OF FIFTEENTH-CENTURY EUROPE is largely correct. Sale sees it as "uniquely a culture in flux." It was "far less stable and conservative in its religious customs or political systems than those ancient, encrusted regimes of long-sanctioned rule and unquestioned authority" in Mesoamerica. To Stannard, Spain appears "a land of violence, squalor, treachery, and intolerance . . . no different from the rest of Europe." That is an exaggeration, but, compared to indigenous societies, Europe was unstable and dynamic to the point of being destructive, aggressive, unbalanced and contentious. Its religion did not integrate fully its economy, politics and society as did Native American religions. That is the key.

But we must not oversimplify. Western Europe was a large area with many competing states, language groups, cities and classes--all of which made for dynamism and discord. It had two conflicting cultural roots--Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian--which caused a "flexibility of mind" but also instability.14 Before Christianity, Greek and Roman cultures were dynamic and imperialistic. When Renaissance Italians used classical Greek and Roman heritage to authenticate their rebellion against medieval Christianity, their dynamism stemmed from both their rebellion and their classical models. Europe's flux had many causes, but rebellion against religion was crucial in preventing full cultural integration. To be sure, a common Christianity caused cultural similarities throughout Europe and between the linked realms of church, economy and state. But rebellion against the Christian God caused similarities to fall short of integration. Parts did not function smoothly as a whole.

We must not fault Europeans too strongly. Christianity was not designed to accomplish a human purpose such as integrating a culture, a polity or an economy. Implicit in the Scriptures were the right of private property (theft is condemned) and the God-ordained right of rulers to rule (submission to governments is commanded). Within a society permeated by total obedience to God, those two ideas would be controlled by a more powerful one--the knowledge of God. In a society rebelling against God, they could not be. Avarice and ambition ran rampant. Medieval Europeans attempted to integrate their society around a popular lay religiosity and a bureaucratic church, but they failed to restrain individual self-seeking. Their religious-political-economic mix satisfied many people's interests, but it did not make for a harmonious, integrated society.

Lack of full integration meant that few European institutions really worked to accomplish their supposed goal. Instead, they used proclaimed goals to achieve aggrandizement, personal wealth and power as ends in themselves: to reiterate, "ends and means changed places." We can see this if we examine in more detail European churches, governments and economies. The purpose is not to preach at the past or urge the deceased to repent but to understand Europe's impact on the New World and on history. If rebellion is a driving force in history that helps to produce capitalism, democracy, imperialism and other driving forces, then we must understand it.


INSTEAD OF SEEKING THE SALVATION OF SOULS AND THE WORSHIP OF GOD as ends, the fifteenth-century Catholic Church often used people's hunger for salvation and for God for its own profit. Pope Leo X sold two thousand church offices yearly for five hundred thousand ducats. With the annual income from their purchased offices, officials hired deputies at much lower salaries to do the spiritual tasks and pocketed the difference. One cleric often held many offices. Already archbishop of Magdeburg, Albert of Brandenburg desired another archbishopric (he had to support several mistresses), for which he owed Leo X about thirty-one thousand ducats. To raise the money, he sent the notorious Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences with the jingle.

As soon as the gold in the basin rings,

Right then the soul to heaven springs.

In saints' relics, the church had another consumer good to sell.

The laypeople--the consumers--supported this system. Church profiteers were partly responding to laypeople, who created a human-centered religion for their solace. Historian Euan Cameron notes, "Most lay people were less worried about saving their souls, than about everyday security." Thus "they used an arsenal of supernatural charms" to solve "the immediate pressing concerns of human survival." Like indigenous peoples, they used material objects, festivals, images and paraphernalia to manipulate the supernatural world. "Firebrands from St. John's day bonfires were regarded as talismans, as were eggs laid on Good Friday." Popular religion stressed externals, not attitudes or understanding: "All the most popular activities of late medieval religion were based on doing something . . . on experiencing an event more than on learning or understanding a message." This lay religion corrupted the church and prevented true reform. The wealthy poured money on the reformed religious orders--hoping to buy the benefits of their greater holiness but corrupting them in the process.16 Mutually reinforcing were people's eagerness to buy and the church's eagerness to sell. The result was what two Dutch historians "kindly disposed to Catholic Christianity" describe as "a religious consciousness that can hardly be called Christian."17


Pope and church sought political power as well. The pope ruled the Papal States in central Italy. To obtain funds to finance construction in Rome and the States, Pope Sixtus IV in 1476 ruled that purchased indulgences could reduce a soul's time in purgatory. Upon seeing Pope Julius II in 1506 triumphantly parading through Bologna with his army, Erasmus reputedly asked, "Whose successor is this Julius, Julius Caesar or Jesus Christ?" Popes intervened in European politics. "The bequests of the devout, largely in the interests of their departed souls," made the church the largest landowner. Popes used "spiritual sanctions" to give their Papal States a monopoly on the sale of alum in Catholic Christendom.18 Spiritual powers became means to political ends.


In the first week or two of an American history course, these familiar examples are used to explain Martin Luther and the Reformation. Yet, as Cameron notes, they don't come close to explaining the Reformation. Europeans did not complain about this popular, human-centered religion "adapted to the needs, concerns, and tastes . . . of the people who created it." They grumbled about the church's appetite for funds and the clergy's privileges, not about shrines, rites, pilgrimages, saints, relics, indulgences and festivals.19


True, this human-created distortion of Christianity did not integrate society fully or control the powerful drives of political ambition and economic avarice. Yet the ambitious and the avaricious hardly complained. As we shall see, the Reformation resulted from God's complaints about medieval religion, not Europeans' grumblings about it. Medieval distortions did not pit some Europeans (clergy) against others (the devout laypeople), but almost all of them against a God who condemned human pride, ambition, lust and greed. Almost all conspired in a conquest of a Christianity whose original, pacific, self-denying, all-embracing character was as unfamiliar to them as any New World island. The church's spiritual functions and people's spiritual needs became mines to be worked for individual profit like the Potosi silver mines of Peru.




BECAUSE RELIGION DID NOT INTEGRATE EUROPEAN SOCIETY, GOVERNMENT did not perform functions which religion assigned it. Government's purpose was to maintain order and to dispense justice (Romans 13:1-7). If Christianity had integrated European society, as Pueblo religion did its society, then European Christian rulers would have maintained order and provided justice out of a motivation to serve their God. But most rulers needed other motives.

After the collapse of the Roman and Carolingian Empires, local governmental powers were parceled out to the leaders of roving military bands in exchange for their allegiance to the king. To motivate these lords to govern and to help them feed and clothe their private armies, the king gave them extensive lands ("fiefs") to farm and serfs to work them. This meant "the passing of public power into private hands" for private economic gain. These lords dispensed private justice in their own courts. Their knights swore allegiance to them, not because they were just or the knights were Christian but because they offered protection, booty and small fiefs. At first the church criticized this "disintegration of the Christian empire." Soon, however, church officials saw that they could profit from it by becoming lords, estate owners and dispensers of private justice. Thus they legitimized it with "the usual Christian façade."


This feudalism did not serve monarchs' long-term interests. Kings sought to regain functions they had farmed out. If Christianity had integrated European society, then the church's impressive coronation ceremony, its anointing of a new king, would have won lords' loyalty to the Lord's anointed. But the rulers' authority to grant lands won their fealty instead. Recognizing a new king safeguarded their land titles. Self-interest spoke louder than the church.


As kings expanded their powers and created nation-states, they used economic motives to bind their subjects to their cause. England's King Edward III secured military services by promising a share in the spoils or new government posts in conquered territories. "The soldiers in Edward III's armies were men on the make and military considerations seldom clouded their selfish intentions." His "war with rich France" was "more popular than war with poor Scotland." Edward showed his men how a government post could be milked for money: when he returned to England from France in 1340, he lodged accusations of misconduct against his subordinates "partly in order to levy large fines from them." Justice was prostituted for mercenary profit.21


Taxes were a king's main source of revenue. Scripture authorized them: "This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing" (Romans 13:6). Tax revenues paid them for their work of governing. When they collected taxes, though, they were not to collect more than was due (Luke 3:12-13). French taxation glaringly revealed how little these principles were respected. The French king authorized taxes (aide, taille, gabelle and so on) but farmed out tax collection to private "tax-farmers." They purchased the rights to collect taxes in a given region for a sum much less than the anticipated revenue, then pocketed the difference. By the eighteenth century, they squeezed as much from peasants as possible with little regard for legal rates. The public power of taxation was sold into private hands for private profit.22


Viewed in terms of European history, unrestrained self-interest seems unremarkable. However, Europeans stood poised to break out of parochial European history into new worlds where self-interest was restrained. In the Incan empire, "state-administered labor taxation was governed by ancient Andean principles of reciprocity." Taxpayers paid in labor, but while working they had to be fed and entertained. That limited the ruler's ability to increase taxation: the more labor, the more food and entertainment.23 When transported to this world of reciprocity, where there was no countervailing power, Europeans' unrestrained self-interest would prove immensely destructive and dynamic.




IN EXPLOITING THEIR FUNCTIONS FOR PROFIT, rulers and church officials were ably assisted by merchant bankers. When Archbishop Albert sent Tetzel to sell indulgences, the Augsburg merchant bankers (the House of Fugger) sent along an accountant. They had loaned Albert money for the down payment on his second archbishopric and were to be repaid from Tetzel's sales receipts. Despite the church's rules against interest-bearing loans, the Medici of Florence earned interest from the pope's alum monopoly and sales of offices.


Merchant bankers profited from loans to rulers who outspent their revenues. In the Italian city-states, government debt "held promises of returns" for lenders. Servicing debt was more lucrative than collecting taxes, so public "finances were in a disastrous state." Merchant bankers took 40-60 percent of city-state revenues as interest payments. The resulting hyperinflation and doubtful coinage drove Italians to deposit money in banks, thus giving bankers more capital to loan out at interest.


Easy profits from lending to church and government pulled the economy from its proper functions. In Florence, "the net loss to productive investment" from financing the public debt "was enormous." In Christian terms, investment, production, employment and trade should enable people to acquire necessities at reasonable prices. Naturally, people who invest, produce, hire and trade expect to earn a profit, but profit should not be exorbitant or so high as regards luxury goods that production of necessities is neglected. Production of necessities for everyone in society is crucial. Tax-farmers, papal bankers and indulgence sales accountants did not produce anything. The larger merchants mostly dealt in luxury goods or in money as a commodity. That was where large profits lay. The European capitalist, says historian Fernand Braudel, "did not commit himself wholeheartedly to production" but eyed the main chance and the easy profit. He "only took an interest in production when necessity or trading profits made it advisable."25


Millions of European peasants lived close to starvation, while merchants, princes and clerics exploited political and spiritual institutions for private profit. Self-interest was the great integrating motive. Important consequences resulted from organizing society around self-interest rather than religious, communal or reciprocal principles. When Europeans left Europe, those consequences became clear. Countervailing self-interests restrained each other in Europe, but, since indigenous peoples lacked that power, European self-interest ran riot in the conquered world.




EUROPEANS LACKED AN IDEOLOGY JUSTIFYING SELF-INTEREST. In Renaissance Italy, elites and intellectuals used the Greco-Roman heritage to free themselves from a medieval Christian worldview and to integrate their society. In the Italian city-states, lack of cultural integration was especially marked. Rather than one set of rules, there were separate sets for separate "games" of politics, trade, church and art. Capitalists, politicians and thinkers such as Machiavelli developed rationales that justified existing rules.


The Dane Johannes Sløk argues, "The Renaissance meant that humanity seized power in a radical liberation from all traditions and authority." Acquiring power and accumulating capital became justifiable ends, unlimited ends. There was no limit to the power and capital that could be accumulated. By accumulating, elite individuals and families differentiated themselves from society and its interests. Individualism justified accumulation. Limitlessness created uncertainty (especially for those subject to elites), which encouraged dynamic innovation. Individualistic, innovative, respecting no limits, humans were in control.


Renaissance Europeans did not invent rebellion against God. They only tried to justify and regularize it, then build a society around it. They groped for ideas to explain and justify rebellion and for human-centered ideologies to integrate their culture.27



The Columbian Encounter


STARTING IN 1492, MANY OF THESE LIMITLESS, INNOVATIVE, INDIVIDUALISTIC self-seekers were tumbled out of Europe and set loose on generous, communal, stable and nonaggressive societies. They were tumbled out of their homelands to reveal what was really in their hearts. The sight was not a pretty one.


They had enormous military advantages: cannon, firearms, the horse, the caravel, armor, navigational instruments. In their aggressive, innovative, monotheistic mentalité, they had an added advantage. The Spanish "wore their religion like a sword . . . against all who were not, or who did not rapidly become, Christians." (In many ways they were not Christians themselves, but the conquistadors were not much given to introspection.) The effects were catastrophic. The Aztec population had declined 95 percent seventy-five years after the conquest, and that percentage was typical of other societies! By far the largest losses were to European diseases, for indigenous peoples lacked immun-ity to them. The Pilgrims' friend Squanto was the last survivor of his Patuxet tribe, once numbering two thousand, which was devastated by disease.


We have to be clear in how we describe this catastrophe. As historian James Axtell cogently argues, it was not genocide: the spread of disease, the main killer, was unintentional. No European state tried to destroy Indians as a race. If for no other reason, profit-seeking Europeans found Indians valuable as workers and trading partners. To describe these Europeans as genocidal is to demonize them, to exaggerate their racist violence, to make them safely unlike our modern selves so that we need not confront the darkness in our own souls. Their violence was not a uniquely European problem, for the Iroquois tried to destroy the Huron in 1649.29


That is not to downplay the conquest's horrible reality. On Columbus's second voyage, after he fell sick his Spanish forces lost all self-control: they "went wild, stealing, killing, raping, and torturing natives, trying to force them to divulge the whereabouts of the imagined treasure-houses of gold." Recovered, Columbus systematized the terror by ordering that the hands be cut off any adult Indian who did not bring the Spanish a set quantity of gold. Supposedly in the Aztec capital on a peaceful mission, Cortés's conquistadors suddenly began to massacre Aztecs. Throughout their famous campaign, they killed, destroyed, raped and terrorized with attack dogs, which ate slain Aztecs. Elizabethan English explorers "wished to emulate the conquistadors, by subduing native cities and kingdoms." They used their military superiority to kidnap, steal, rape and murder.30 It was as if the seven deadly sins had escaped Europe, taken to horseback and galloped across the Americas.


With his superior weapons, every European adventurer could now hope to acquire the wealth, booty, women and lordship previously available only to the European elite. He was freed from restraints imposed by king, church or public opinion, now thousands of miles removed. He could "profit beyond the reach of the king." Europe had few constraints on self-interest, but the Englishman or Spaniard away from home was freed even from these.31


More than military weakness hindered indigenous peoples in resisting this assault. Their human-centered, traditional, naturalistic, polytheistic, generous worldview weakened them. In 1614-1618, Indians who first encountered English ships off the New England coast took them to be floating islands complete with trees (masts), thunder and lightning (cannon). Others took the English for manitous, spirit beings, who had to be placated. A century earlier, the Aztecs briefly had "the paralyzing belief that the Spaniards [were] gods." They saw the Spaniards' ability to write and to decipher written messages as godlike.

Cortés took advantage of the Aztecs' polytheistic uncertainty as to whether the Spaniards' horses were gods or animals. He secretly buried dead horses at night to encourage a belief that horses were immortal. An English captain magnetized his sword "to cause [the Indians] to imagine some great power in us . . . and for that to love and feare us." Indians felt a paralyzing awe of European objects. They lacked a strengthening belief that their deity was above such material objects.32


Europeans' belief in one invisible God gave them a temporary advantage. They could never mistakenly venerate objects or take indigenous peoples for gods. They did not fear and obey this invisible God, but they used the doctrine of his invisible nature to free themselves from a limiting veneration of visible objects. They were limited by reverence for neither God nor objects.


Veneration of objects also weakened the natives when Europeans used consumer goods to win their friendship and secure their dependence. Quick to learn the relative worth of goods, they as quickly became dependent on European consumer goods. For them, objects had communal and religious, as well as individual, meanings. Europeans normally did not use objects in self-abnegating worship of God; they used them for self-exalting pleasure. In the process, Europeans created goods that were more appealing and accessible to Indians than their abstract religious ideas. For example, a mirror powerfully appealed to human vanity. Young warriors wore small mirrors around their wrists or on their shoulders and constantly altered their face-paint, hair, necklaces and so on in a "preoccupation with personal fashion."33


Traditionalism and communalism left them ill-prepared to deal with Europeans' limitless, individualistic innovation. Aztec culture was very ordered, past-oriented and communal: "The individual's future is ruled by the collective past." Believing that history repeats itself in cycles, they consulted the past to determine how to respond to the Spanish, for surely this had happened before.


Improvising was difficult for them. Cortés improvised brilliantly, inventing conquest's goals and means as he went along. Nominally obedient to Christendom's evangelizing mission, he claimed to have come "to extol and preach faith in Christ." To that motive he added "honor and profit," which he admitted was an innovation, for these "seldom fit in the same bag." He threw them all together: "Let us go forth, serving God, honoring our nation, giving growth to our king, and let us become rich ourselves; for the Mexican enterprise is for all these purposes." Means became ends, and ends means, as Cortés's conquistadors used religion "to give themselves courage" for the dangerous, self-seeking conquest. 34


Communicating the truth of one invisible God proved much harder than selling mirrors. Commerce and conquest were usually higher priorities than conversion. Yahweh seemed a very abstract idea to people used to gods in nature, and he did not appeal to their human vanity. In 1605, the English briefly left one Owen Griffin among the Abenaki. The Abenaki laughed at this "Igrismannak" when he denied worshiping moon, sun or stars--though he lifted his hands toward heaven. Indigenous peoples could not easily comprehend the concept of sin either, since their morality derived from human social needs, not from divine command.35


Missionary work was frustrating for the Spanish, French and English. Spanish efforts were greatly hindered by the legacy of their forcible expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian peninsula and their forced conversion of Jews there. That left a "confusion between conquest and Christianization." Conversion was involuntary. Before proceeding, a Spanish conqueror had to read to natives the infamous Requerimiento. It grandly announced Christianity's and the pope's worldwide supremacy and Pope Alexander VI's grant of most of the Americas to Spain. They had to obey the Catholic Church and the Spanish king. If they refused, the document threatened them with war, slavery, loss of property and imminent destruction. As Bartolomé de Las Casas, an early Spanish missionary and defender of the Indians, wrote, this made "mockery of truth and justice and [was] a great insult to our Christian faith and the piety and charity of Jesus Christ." It was more like Simon Peter cutting off the ear of the high priest's servant. Thus Spanish Franciscans burned Pueblo religious materials, whipped nonbelieving Pueblos and required daily attendance at Mass for baptized Pueblos. Not surprisingly, the Pueblo externally acquiesced to Christianity while maintaining the old religion within their small groups.36


The French were more understanding of indigenous cultures and more cynical about papal decrees. Hearing of Pope Alexander VI's decree, King Francis I of France exclaimed, "I would be pleased to see the clause in Adam's testament that excludes me from a share in the globe." French missions were led by the Jesuits, who adapted Christianity to appeal to receptive elements in each indigenous culture. They achieved great success with the Huron, for example, but their pragmatic approach led to many Huron converting for pragmatic reasons: to keep family ties with prior converts, to obey dreams about being baptized or to obtain preferential treatment from French traders.37 The Huron were shrewd too.


Puritan missions produced fewer converts in New England. Products of the Protestant Reformation, Puritans concentrated too obsessively on their argument with Catholicism to be very missions-minded. They were reverse images of the Jesuits--intolerant of everything in indigenous culture lest it recontaminate their own Christianity. They focused on their own survival. Despite their demand that converts make a total cultural change, they convinced a surprising number of Massachusets and Wampanoags to break with their past and become "praying Indians."38




THEIR BEHAVIOR WHILE CONQUERING THE AMERICAS OUGHT TO HAVE convinced Europeans that they needed to be converted to Christianity. Instead, what caught their attention after 1492 were surprising aspects of indigenous cultures. Some European writers now saw their culture as deficient in light of indigenous cultures. Rather than seeing Europeans' rebellion against God as the cause, these writers blamed European ideas about property and the state.

In New Worlds for Old, William Brandon portrays "attitude toward property" as "the greatest dividing difference" between European and indigenous societies. Europeans were quick to notice it. In the Americas there was no "mine and thine." A stay-at-home compiler, Peter Martyr, summarized explorers' accounts in 1504 (here translated in Tudor English). Land was held communally, "in open gardens, not intrenched with dykes, dyvyded with hedges, or defended with waules. They deal trewely one with another, without lawes, without bookes, and without Judges." Europeans' stress on "mine and thine," Brandon argues, created a stratified society of haves and have-nots, and a powerful state was needed to protect property rights. By contrast, many indigenous societies stressed group ownership of land and generosity with food and goods. This produced an egalitarian "masterlessness" by comparison. Europeans thought the natives amazingly free.


The root problem was Europeans' lack of obedience to the God who instituted property rights and government, not those institutions themselves. In a state of rebellion that rendered their religion unable to integrate their society, Europeans made property and power ends in themselves. European writers did not focus on the root problem but on its surface manifestations. Without realizing the revolutionary implications of their argument, they favorably contrasted indigenous propertylessness and "masterlessness" with European avarice, tyranny and bondage. They used the myth of human goodness in a New World state of nature to liberate themselves from the Christian belief in innate human depravity.


In reality, there were inequality and some private property and some rulers in the Americas.40 European thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Michel de Montaigne ignored that fact and used indigenous societies as models whose libertarian nature Europeans might copy. Here were human-centered societies they could imitate in order to create a more human-centered Europe free of the old medieval argument between God and man. The New World mirror showed them their defects in light of their relationships to each other, not in light of their relationship to God.


So the Columbian encounter did not change their minds about their argument with God or even show them they were arguing with him. It did not cause the Protestant Reformation, for initially seafaring and settling had secularizing effects. Also, as Cameron argues, lay dissatisfaction with some church abuses did not logically lead to the Reformation. The laypeople were generally satisfied with "the predictable cycle of sin and forgiveness, the breathtaking shrines and sparkling festivals, the sensuous, tangible piety" they had created.41 The Reformation was not anthropocentric but theocentric. It used the mirror of Scripture, not of exploration or experience.


Martin Luther's emphasis on justification by faith alone powerfully undercut human means to salvation: indulgences, good deeds, masses and prayers for the dead. Thus it undercut the mining of the church's spiritual functions. It powerfully restored God's preeminent role in human salvation:


The saving of fallen souls was not a process of little lapses and little rituals to correct those lapses. Rather, it was a question of real sin, of a massive, all-corrupting inability to do right, which only God, by utterly gratuitous, self-sacrificing mercy, first covered with his grace, and then gradually . . . replaced with his own goodness in the Christian, in a process completed only in death.42

Reformers told Europeans that God was "a being infinitely vaster and more mysterious than the God of current anthropomorphism."43 They powerfully restated God's side in his argument with Europeans.


Instead of reintegrating Europe, this restatement further divided it into bitter factions. Far from motivating exploration and colonization, the Protestant Reformation delayed them in countries such as England, where people were preoccupied for generations with religious strife. Later, the Reformation supplied a religious motive for emigration, but that was not its immediate effect. The engine driving European overseas expansion was not religious zeal but capitalism, so we must examine the roots of European capitalism to understand expansion. Those roots are intertwined with the fact that, given Europeans' rebellion against God, the Christian religion did not fully integrate European societies.


We must recognize the paradox that the Reformation tended to strengthen, not weaken, the capitalist spirit unshackled in Renaissance Italy. First, it further destroyed any ability the Catholic Church and Catholic monarchs had to restrain merchants' behavior by secular or religious authority. Second, by reconnecting some Europeans to the transcendent God, the Reformation created the ascetic, intensely striving, calculating, saving Calvinist, whom Max Weber and others have seen as the personality type in capitalism's origins and growth. Protestants dignified all labor--not just the priest's or monk's labor--as service to God, to be done diligently and well, thus "producing a zeal for work unlike anything the world had yet seen." Calvinists seemed like Italian merchants--motives varied, but, as Stephen Innes notes, outwardly "the diligent saint (working for God's glory only) was indistinguishable from the diligent worldling (working for himself or herself only)."44

Innes describes Puritan Massachusetts Bay, but his words apply to all of Calvinist Europe: "The settlers' providentialism--the belief that they were participating in the working out of God's purposes--made all labor and enterprise `godly business,' to be pursued aggressively and judged by the most exacting of stan-dards." This Protestant providentialism was outwardly similar to yet inwardly opposite from Renaissance individualism: it stressed individuals (their consciences, not their desires); it was innovative; it was limitless in a way (God asked total obedience, but to well-marked rules); it did not condemn the accumulation of capital (the Bible had little to say on wealth creation but much on its distribution). Thus in economics two opposite movements worked to the same end.45


EUROPEAN CAPITALISM: Amoral, Abstracting, Accumulating, Limitless


FOLLOWING BRAUDEL, WE CAN DEFINE CAPITALISM AS THE "realm of investment and of a high rate of capital formation," where multiplying capital is the all-consuming goal, private property rights are assumed and markets and prices govern economic actions. Here, capital means either fixed assets used in production or circulating assets such as raw materials, unfinished goods and, most of all, money. Accumulating capital was the goal which integrated European society. That was not predetermined or inevitable; it was the result of people's choices--though once made they could not easily be unmade by later generations.


This drive to increase capital took off in the towns, especially Italian city-states and Dutch and German cities. Towns had more freedom for innovation apart from princely control, for Italian and German cities often ruled themselves. The country's fertile land could increase capital only very slowly. Harvest came once or twice a year, and the capitalist who wanted a quicker turnover of his investment could not speed it up. It was hard to increase the amount of tillable land, and demand for foodstuffs was limited too. Governments tended to control the price, lest food riots break out.47 Farming was not abstract or limitless.


The drive to increase capital found release in the long-distance trade of luxury goods, not in the trade of necessities such as foodstuffs, which could not be transported far. Luxury goods made by city craftsmen and traded by city merchants were in great demand, and governments did not normally regulate their price. Their production was not limited by the seasons. They were less perishable and could be traded over long distances. Capitalists were less interested in producing them than they were "in distribution, marketing--the sector in which real profits were made."48


By stressing profit, not production, by trading luxury goods, not necessities, and by setting the highest prices, capitalists circumvented God's purposes for the economy and trade. The prophet Amos warned Israel of God's anger against unjust profiteering:


Hear this, you who trample the needy

and do away with the poor of the land, saying,

"When will the New Moon be over

that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath be ended

that we may market wheat?"--

skimping the measure,

boosting the price

and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

selling even the sweepings with the wheat.49



Avaricious capitalism was not the result of private property but of a rebellious priority on accumulating property above worshiping God or supplying one's neighbor with necessities. Merchants did not corrupt European society with capitalism. They used capitalism to integrate a society which could not be integrated fully through politics or religion. They were the priests of the self-interested religion of ambition and avarice. Generalists who used the easily translated language of money, they effortlessly crossed political and religious boundaries to finance and coordinate the vices that existed: simony, sale of indulgences, tax-farming, wartime raids and ransoms, rulers' prodigal spending.


Bills of exchange show how merchant bankers integrated European society and flaunted their superiority over the church and their immunity from its rules. A bill of exchange was a merchant banker's promise to pay a certain amount "after a stipulated period in another place with a different currency." A merchant in Florence might write up a bill promising to pay three hundred Venetian ducats in six months in Venice. The merchant banker then sold the bill for money in one currency (ducats), and it was redeemed later in another currency (florins). The currency exchange rate between ducats and florins was set such that the banker made a profit (really, interest) on the exchange and a profit by investing the purchaser's money for the stipulated period. This increased capital and avoided the church's ban on usury (earning interest).50


The Medici, the pope's bankers, used bills of exchange in conducting his business, thus using church funds to evade the church's ban.51 Though perhaps unreasonable, this ban and merchants' evasion symbolized the church's failed attempt to control economic life and to integrate European society. Yet the bill of exchange showed the merchants' successful attempt to integrate business dealings in distant places--Florence and Venice, for example.


As Braudel points out, "The bill of exchange, . . . the key weapon in the armoury of merchant capitalism in the West, was still . . . circulating almost exclusively within the bounds of Christendom." That similarity in creed and church created a minimal level of trust needed to accept bills from distant places.52 Yet widespread similarity was not full integration. The bill might earn interest or buy slaves, and both were practices condemned by the church.


Bills of exchange, exchange fairs, stock exchanges, joint stock companies and other devices abstracted the merchant from the particularities of locality, product, people, nation, religion or language. Such financial devices flowed across these barriers. The merchant was distanced from the morality or immorality of any particular transaction. He profited from distant investments without feeling responsible if his agent was "buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals." He had learned the wisdom "of never allowing oneself to be deterred in the pursuit of profit by moral, religious or sentimental considerations." He rejected "traditional values," which held that long-distance trade "served no legitimate social purpose" and threatened "the salvation of the soul." The abstract, generalized nature of his business allowed him to engage in many forms of trade. He did not have to know the details of any one craft, only the prices. Thus he could integrate European trade across craft and industry lines as well.53 These devices were developed in Italian city-states mainly engaged in Mediterranean trade with Egypt and the Levant. The long-distance luxury trade in Asian spices, medicinal plants, jewels, ivory, dyes and herbs was the most profitable. It drove the growth of city-state capitalism. Slaves were also traded. Columbus's home city, Genoa, dominated the long-distance slave trade. Its merchants bought slaves in the Balkan Black Sea ports and sold them in Egypt or in Genoa.


Italian and Moslem domination of long-distance Mediterranean trade drove Portugal and Spain to seek other trade routes. In 1492, Columbus was seeking a shortcut to the Orient to horn in on the spice trade. The Spanish brought to the Americas these capitalist devices. The resulting plantations were conquest institutionalized. Braudel calls them "capitalist creations par excellence: money, credit, trade, and exchange tied them to the east side of the Atlantic." They were "remote controlled" from Europe by means of capitalism's abstract devices with few misgivings about their


This amoral capitalism resulted from the failure of religion or the state to integrate and control European society. That is clear when we consider the example of China, which did not develop capitalism despite its advanced market economy. Using Confucian culture, the Chinese state integrated and controlled Chinese society. According to Braudel, it did not allow merchants to nourish great ambitions: "The state uncompromisingly controlled everything and expressed unmistakable hostility to any individual making himself `abnormally' rich." It controlled the economy in a nearly Christian manner: guarding against famine, controlling markets and opposing "excessive wealth." Only the state, not the individual, could accumulate capital.55


Theoretically, Christian doctrine encouraged similar moral control of Europe's economy. As pious individuals exercised self-control, renounced greed and considered their neighbor when buying or selling, the economy would come under control. However, Christianity was not heeded in Europe as Confucianism was in China. Moreover, Confucianism was "a state ideology as well as a personal ethic." It explicitly justified and upheld the social order.56 By contrast, Christianity was a personal ethic strangely unconcerned with exactly what government or economy its followers lived under. Its "kingdom of God" was not a blueprint for a specific nation or empire, and its God-centeredness provoked rebellion among its own adherents. Absorbed in their pursuit of riches and power, Christendom's pope, church officials and rulers did not use Christian doctrines to integrate European society.57

Integrated mainly by capitalist devices and common self-seeking, this European society was almost destructively dynamic, innovative, aggressive and expansionist. Describing it at a later stage, historian Theodore Von Laue calls it "a singularly prolific cultural hothouse in which all human accomplishments were advanced at a forced clip." Even by 1500, it was a hothouse in the making.58




FREED BY MONOTHEISM FROM A PARALYZING WORSHIP OF OBJECTS, Europeans rebelliously argued with that one God in ways that added to their destructive dynamism. Divinely revealed, Christianity denied innate human goodness, diagnosed humanity as sinful and rebellious and exalted a God whom humans could not manipulate. Its once-for-all text, Scripture, stood as a barrier to any attempts to alter it for human purposes. Even its Reformation exacerbated the dynamism: Calvinist saints' seeing eternal consequences in daily deeds were nearly as intense and dynamic as rebellious merchants. The Reformation also showed that any religious monopoly would face competition. Bishops and rulers could not make Christianity as secure a support for their status quo as Confucianism was for Manchu and mandarins. It provoked Europeans to rebellion or to holy zeal, so it could not integrate European society.


Try though they might, using New World "noble savages" as examples, they could not return to pre-Christian "innocence." They could not invent a human-centered creation myth and religion which everyone would accept and use to achieve integration. They could not manipulate Christianity indefinitely, and they could not escape it. They would have to hurtle into the future "at a forced clip" with a society and culture that was not integrated or controlled. As Sale notes, Europe's "increasingly vigorous capitalist system" was "more materialist, for sure, than any other economy, more expansionist, more volatile and energetic . . . and almost everywhere without the kinds of moral inhibitions found in the world's other high cultures."


It was apocalyptic in its destructive dynamism, a proof of history's linear character, a guarantee that one day history would come to an end. It was impossible to project this "cultural hothouse" advancing at "a forced clip" and avoiding some kind of catastrophe indefinitely. Even sixteenth-century Europeans, who had hardly seen the start of new accomplishments, understood that "the almost miraculous sequence of events which led to the discovery, conquest and conversion of the New World" tended "to reinforce the linear and progressive" view of history.


A student of biblical prophecy, Columbus believed that by reaching new lands he was hastening the end of the world. The prophet Isaiah and Jesus the Messiah had stated that the end could not come until the gospel had been preached to all nations. Pauline Watts notes that "Columbus's apocalyptic vision of the world and of the special role that he was destined to play in the unfolding of events that would presage the end of time was a major stimulus for his voyages."61 Without justifying his actions, or those of other explorers and conquerors, we can say that Columbus was correct here. By starting the process whereby this dynamic  European culture became globally dominant, Columbus made global history an irretrievably linear history.


His advancing of God's purpose in history was somewhat inadvertent, however, for he thought God's purpose was inextricably linked to his and to Spain's. It was not, for they were engaged in an argument with him. He used them to accomplish his purposes anyway but did not excuse their actions. Columbus's view of biblical prophecy does not justify his actions toward the Taino, but neither do his actions make biblical prophecies erroneous. One can have a right idea and still do wrong. One can have truth and still rebel against it. Europeans were doing just that. God's ends did not justify their means, even if they had been pursuing his ends, which they were not. 

So, paradoxically, both Columbus and the revisionist writers who condemn him are correct. His voyages advanced God's long-range goals and yet were profoundly ungodly. That is so because of a deeper paradox: the Christianity carried by Europeans to the New World was divinely revealed truth, yet those who carried it were in serious rebellion against it. As divine revelation, it provoked human rebellion. Exploration brought rebellion to a world that had not known rebellion as destructively dynamic as was Europe's.


Taken from This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity by Steven J. Keillor. Copyright © 2002 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Permission kindly granted to Faith & Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.


 Steven J. Keillor (Ph.D., University of Minnesota) is an independent scholar engaged in research and writing on rural history for the Minnesota Historical Society and other organizations. He has published several academic texts in the field of American history, politics and government, and his work has appeared in national publications like Books & Culture and in professional journals like Minnesota History, Agricultural History and Norwegian-American Studies. Keillor is based in Askov, Minnestota.