On COVID-19, Plymouth, and providential history

Many Christians believe in providential history. This is the idea that human beings can understand the will of God in the affairs of men and women as they lived through time. Most providential historians have no place for the mysteries of providence. Instead, they are certain that they know exactly what God has done in the world, especially if such divine action enhances the glory of the United States.

I have roundly rejected providential history on both historical and theological grounds. See my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past for more.

But after I read a recent piece on the 400th anniversary of the settlement of the Plymouth colony, I thought I would imagine a way of doing providential history that does not invoke the glory of the United States or its supposedly Christian roots.

Based on the methodology (if you can call it that) of providential history, one could make some interesting interpretations of the relationship between COVID-19 and the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Plymouth colony.

What if God brought COVID-19 at this particular time, in this particular year, to remind Americans that the Plymouth settlement may not have been possible if disease had not killed-off most of the local native Americans before the Pilgrims arrived?

Just to be clear, I am not endorsing such a view. But if you are going to invoke God’s providence in founding Plymouth as the forerunner of an exceptional United States, then what is to stop someone from offering an alternative providential reading? This is why providence is not a useful category for historical interpretation.

Here is Allen Breed of the Associated Press:

The year 2020 was supposed to be a big one for the Pilgrims.

Dozens of events were planned to mark the 400th anniversary of the religious separatists’ arrival at what we now know as Plymouth, Massachusetts. But many of those activities have been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Historian Elizabeth Fenn finds that deeply ironic.

“Novel infections did MOST of the dirty work of colonization,” says Fenn, a history professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who has studied disease in Colonial America.

Disease introduced by traders and settlers — either by happenstance or intention — played a significant role in the “conquest” of Native people. And that inconvenient fact, well known to the Natives’ descendants, is contrary to the traditional narrative of the “New World.”

Read the rest here.