The Role of Columbus’ Faith in the Discovery of America

Posted on May 9, 2012. Filed under: An American Catechism |

An American Catechism:

Religion, Politics, Economics, History & Culture

 

Series I: The Discovery of America

Crucial Question- Does American history show a belief in God?

Memorize: “No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our Saviour, if it is just and if the intention is purely for His Holy Service,” Christopher Columbus.

Lesson 1: Did Christopher Columbus’ belief in God help him discover America?

            Although many people from a variety of places “discovered” America long before Christopher Columbus of Genoa, it was Columbus’ discovery of the Caribbean Island he named San Salvador (Holy Saviour) on October 12, 1492 that brought a permanent European presence into the New World. Modern day Americans are the descendants of Columbus’ discovery, so for that reason it is important that we know what motivated Columbus and what brought him to this hemisphere in 1492. Professor Marshall C. Eakin of Vanderbilt says that the discovery by Columbus is “arguably the most important event in world history during the last millennium.” If we are to understand this most important event, we must not neglect the religious side of Columbus and his voyage.

The evidence shows that Christopher Columbus believed in the God of the Bible and had a gospel purpose, among other purposes, in discovering America. Since at least the 1970’s,Columbus’ fame and name have been shamed in some education circles and in the broader culture. The Columbus Day holiday is embarrassing to many people because it represents the genocide of the Native Americans. It is not a coincidence that the shame of Columbus has grown as liberalism and atheism have spread in America. The religious circumstances attending the discovery of America by Columbus are generally not known, are mocked, or worse, are deliberately hidden from school children and the public today, and are a source of embarrassment for the academic elites. While some consequences of the discovery of the New World by Columbus are tragic, they are conveniently overplayed by those who hate America while other incidents surrounding Columbus which are positive are conveniently forgotten by those same people. This brief essay will show the religious belief’s of Columbus, and the historical, religious circumstances which allowed his journey of discovery, and how some notable scholars view him and his discovery of theNew World.

            Who was Christopher Columbus? Cristoforo (the name means Christ-bearer) Columbo was born in the Republic of Genoa in 1451 to a family of weavers who had been in the area for at least three generations prior. Morison writes, (p.7, Admiral, 1942), “There is no reason to doubt that Christopher Columbus was a Genoese-born Catholic Christian, steadfast in his faith and proud of his native city, than to doubt that George Washington was a Virginian-born Anglican of English race, proud of being an American.” Morison continues, (p.8), “Every contemporary Spaniard or Portuguese who wrote about Columbus and his discoveries calls him Genoese….Nobody in the Admiral’s lifetime, or for three centuries after, had any doubt about his birthplace.”

            Morison points out that Columbus’ patron Saint was St. Christopher and recounts the story of that Saint and how it would have impacted Columbus: “He conceived it his destiny to carry the divine word of that Holy Child across the mighty ocean to countries steeped in heathen darkness. Many years elapsed and countless discouragements were surmounted before anyone would afford him means to take up the burden. Once assumed, it often became intolerable, and often he staggered under it; but never did he set it down until his appointed work was done. We may fairly say that the first step toward the discovery of America was taken by the parents of Columbus when they caused him to be baptized Cristoforo in some ancient church of Genoa….” (Admiral, p.11.)

This sense of destiny that Admiral Morison points to is clearly supported by one of Columbus’ more obscure writings, Book of Prophecies. Columbus wrote this book looking throughout the Bible for verses that he thought pointed to his mission of sailing west and discovering new lands. Morison cites this source twice (pp.444, 577), but it is Peter Marshall who quotes from this source in The Light and the Glory (1977), “It was the Lord who put into my mind…the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies. All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me. There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me….I am a most unworthy sinner, but I have cried out to the Lord for grace and mercy, and they have covered me completely. I have found the sweetest consolation since I made it my whole purpose to enjoy His marvelous presence….No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our Saviour, if it is just and if the intention is purely for His Holy Service. The working out of all things has been assigned to each person by our Lord, but it all happens according to His sovereign will….” (p.17.)

It is interesting and significant that United States Navy Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, 1887-1976, history professor at Harvard, winner of TWO Pulitzer Prizes and TWO Bancroft Prizes, who actually retraced parts of Columbus’ voyage by sail, considers his Christian background and beliefs to be a serious part of the reasons why Columbus discovered America. One reason many today consider what Columbus did to be shameful is that they do not consider Christianity, or Columbus’ gospel purpose, to be any better than any other world religion. The worldview of modern, anti-Christian, Western liberals is that all religions either lead to the same god, or are equally worthless. Morison believes that Columbus’ Christian faith was an essential part of his eventual discovery of America.

            In describing the year 1492, Morison writes (p.3), “At the end of the year 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science….Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate….Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom. Every effort to recover the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, touchstone of Christian prestige, had been a failure. The Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had over-run most of Greece, Albania and Serbia; presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna.” Much of this description of 1492 sounds very similar to today (2012). Understanding the religious setting of 1492 is crucial for understanding why Columbus did what he did and when he did it. Columbus sailed west not simply to find the Orient and gain the spice trade; he sailed west because Islam had closed the land routes to the East and Christianity was locked in a struggle for its very survival. He sailed west to bring the light of the gospel to the people of the east because the Muslims were prohibiting the spread of the gospel in their part of the world. The discovery of America was a part of the broader conflict between Christianity and Islam that had been going on for 800 years and it was to some degree, a spiritual struggle and a spiritual victory for Christendom.

            In Captain Gonzolo Fernandez de Oviedo’s History of the Indies (as reproduced in part in the Penguin Classic, Christopher Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1969) he writes as the Royal Historian of the Spanish court and published his work in 1526. On p.33,Oviedo writes, “Columbus worked through his brother Bartholomew on King HenryVII of England (father of the present King Henry VIII) to support him and equip him with ships in which to discover these western seas, offering to give him great wealth and to increase his realm and estates with new kingdoms and lordships. After consulting his counselors and certain men whom he had asked to examine Columbus’ proposals, the King laughed at the idea….”Columbus was from Genoa, not England, so why was he seeking to sail under the English flag and make the English King wealthy? Columbus obviously did not want to sail for any nationalistic pride, he was open to any who would fund the journey. He tried to sail for Portugal with similar results because the King of Portugal was more interested in sailing around Africa to the East. Columbus had personal motives as a navigator, as a ship captain, as an explorer, for wanting to undertake this dangerous journey.

            Oviedo continues, p.34, by telling us that Columbus went to Spain after Portugal and persisted in trying to sell his idea for seven years, “repeatedly holding out great prospects of wealth and riches for the crown of Castile.” We see this theme of gaining great wealth for the Sovereigns for whom he would sail, but this would also include great wealth for Columbus as he would share in the cargo’s value should he return. Thus, we can see that he did have a pecuniary motive as well as religious and professional motives.

            Listen to how Oviedo describes Columbus’ attempts to gain an audience with Ferdinand and Isabella to share his plans for sailing west (pp.34-35): “Columbus went in search of the Catholic sovereigns, whom he found occupied at that time in their holy war against the Moors of the Kingdom of Granada. It is no marvel that such Catholic princes should be more concerned with winning souls for salvation than with treasure and new estates which would only increase their royal cares and responsibilities, nor that that they decided to back this project of discovery. But let no one believe that this alone could account for their good fortune, for eye had never seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart dreamed of the rewards prepared by God for those who love Him. These and many other blessings fell to our good sovereigns for their faithful service to Jesus Christ and their fervent desire for the spread of His holy faith. It was for this purpose that the Lord brought Christopher Columbus to their notice, for He sends the ends of the earth and all that happens beneath the sky. And when in due season this great business was concluded, it was God’s purpose that was to be fulfilled.”  Notice that Oviedo quotes from 1 Cor. 2:9 and attributes the Spanish royalty with gospel oriented motives. He concludes by stating that it was God’s purpose that was fulfilled in Columbus. This is the worldview which permeated the times in which Columbus sailed. Columbus shared in this belief in God’s purpose for his sailing west.

            Oviedogoes on to tell the story of how the Spanish monarchs agreed to fund Columbus’ voyage of discovery as they were finishing up the siege of Muslim held Granada, thus linking the discovery of America with finally removing the Muslims from Spanish territory. America was discovered in the context of the Spanish victory over the Muslim invaders in a war that had lasted for over 700 years. The reason Columbus discovered America in 1492 is that that was the year of the victory of Spain over the Moors in Granada which freed up funds for the expedition.

            Oviedo concludes, p.36, “…these blessed princes, in addition to bringing the whole of Spain to our Catholic religion, decided to send an expedition in search of this new world and propagate the Christian faith there, for they devoted every hour to the service of God. For this holy purpose they ordered Columbus to be dispatched, giving him authority under the royal seal…for this long voyage whose only hope of success lay in the pious zeal and holy purpose of these Christian princes, under whose auspices and by whose commands this great adventure began.” This clearly shows that among the other motives of the Spanish court, there was a clear gospel motive for the sending out of Columbus.

            But what about Columbus himself? There are many clear statements of the faith of Columbus in the Digest of Columbus’ Log-Book on His First Voyage Made by Bartolome’ De Las Casas in the Penguin Classics Christopher Columbus: The Four Voyages and in The Log of Christopher Columbus, translated by Robert H. Fuson (International Marine Publishing Company, 1987). Fuson writes in the Prologue, pp.19-22, “The Log provides a solid foundation upon which we may reconstruct the religious framework that guided the Admiral. That he was a devout Christian there can be no doubt. His devotion and faith are no better demonstrated than on February 14, 1493, when he vowed to fulfill two different pilgrimages if delivered from the terrible storm surrounding his ship….Although Columbus seems to have believed that God intervened directly on several occasions by providing signs…he never prayed for miracles….When he made direct references to the scriptures, they were to Old Testament ones. Running throughout the Log are ample proofs that Columbus was not a superstitious person. For example, he preferred not to sail from a port on Sundays, but said that this was because of piety, not superstition….Columbus found no conflict between religion and science.”

            Fuson writes of this man of faith, p.29, “Columbus always rates the highest accolades from scholars when it comes to his seamanship. He was, without question, the finest sailor of his time. Perhaps he was the greatest dead-reckoning sailor who ever lived. His navigation to the Azores on the return voyage, through one of the most terrible storms the residents of those islands could recall, is sufficient proof of his ability.”

            In Digest of Columbus’s Log-Book On His First Voyage Made, by Bartolome’ De Las Casas (Penguin Classics: The Four Voyages, p.55) writing about his first landfall and meeting of the Indians, Columbus writes, “In order to win their friendship, since I knew they were a people to be converted and won to our holy faith by love and friendship rather than by force, I gave some of them red caps and glass beads….”

            One of the modern day critiques of Columbus is that what followed, the genocide of the Native Americans, is a horrible blot on the European peoples’ record. Some estimates of the catastrophe that befell the natives include 90% of the population of North, South, and Meso America being wiped out. But what did Columbus think of the Indians? Fuson writes, p.32, “All through the Log, Columbus expresses nothing but love and admiration for the Indians….There is no contradiction between Columbus’ warm feelings for the natives and his desire to secure Spanish authority over them. After all, Europeans were subjects of this ruler or that- and a subject is one who is subjected. Furthermore, to bring Christianity was a noble thing. The fact that today we can point out countless abuses has nothing to do with 15th century morality.”

            The introduction of new diseases by the Europeans to the Native Americans was accidental, initially. It is true that some villains deliberately spread diseases at various times once it was learned that the Indians had no natural immunities to the European diseases. But the major damage was done simply by accident and cannot be blamed on Columbus.

            The bottom line is that a strong, technologically advanced society (Spain) came into contact with a stone-aged culture that was very advanced and beautiful in many ways, but still could not compete with the more advanced European culture, and the weaker culture was overrun by this collision. This is the story of man for thousands of years. Christopher Columbus, the Christ-bearer, brought Western Civilization and Christianity to the New World, and in the end, we are the result of his discovery and we should celebrate his legacy and understand the Christian beliefs that drove him across the ocean sea.

American Apologetics:

CLAIM- America is NOT and has NEVER been a Christian Nation.

ANSWER- The evidence of history is overwhelming that Christopher Columbus, though not a perfect man, was a committed Catholic Christian, who believed the Bible and who sailed with a gospel purpose, and who was sent by the Spanish sovereigns in 1492 as a part of the struggle against Islam. The most thorough biographer of Columbus, Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard Professor, believes that the Christian background and beliefs of Columbus are an essential part of his great discovery.

Bibliography:

            Bailyn, Davis, Donald, Thomas, et.al. The Great Republic, A History of the American People. D.C. Heath and Company:Lexington,Mass. 1977 (1267pp. see chapter 1.)

Bennet, William J. America, The Last Best Hope Volume I: From the Age of Discovery to a World at War. Nelson Current:Nashville, TN. 2006 (573pp. especially Chapter 1: “Westward the Course 1492-1607”.)

Bergreen, Laurence. Columbus, The Four Voyages. Viking:New York, 2011 (423pp.)

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search To Know His World and Himself. Vintage Books:New York, 1983 (745pp.)

Boyer, Clark, Kett, et.al. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. D.C. Heath and Company:Lexington,Mass. 1990 (1159pp. see chapter 1 “The New and Old Worlds”.)

Cohen, J.M., editor. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Penguin Classics:New York, 1969 (320pp.)

Coleman, R.V. The First Frontier, A History of How America Began. Castle Books:Edison,N.J. 2005. Originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1948. (458pp.)

            Columbus, Christopher; Fuson, Robert H. editor/translator. The Log of Christopher Columbus. International Marine Publishing Company:Camden,Maine 1492/1987 (252pp.)

            Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies, updated. W.W. Norton & Company: New York 2005, originally 1997, (518pp.) Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

            _____________. Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed. Viking:New York, 2005 (575pp.)

            Dugard, Martin. The Last Voyage of Columbus. Little, Brown and Company:New York, 2005 (294pp.)

            Eakin, Marshall C. The Great Courses: Conquest of the Americas, Part 1, Course Guidebook. The Teaching Company:Chantilly,VA 2002.

            Elliot, J.H. Empires of the Atlantic World, Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830.YaleUniversity Press:New Haven,CT. 2006 (546pp.)

            Gunn, Giles; editor. Early American Writing. Penguin Classics:New York, 1994 (pp.26-31 deal withColumbus).

            Kagan, Ozment, and Turner. The Western Heritage, Eighth Edition, Combined Volume. Pearson-Prentice Hall:Upper Saddle River,New Jersey 2004 (1120pp. especially chapter 10.)

            Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Alfred A. Knopf:New York, 2005 (509pp.)

            Marshall, Peter and Manuel, David. The Light and the Glory. Fleming H. Revell Company: OldTappan,NJ. 1977 (384pp.)

            Meinig, D.W. The Shaping of America, A Geographical Perspective On 500 Years Of History, Volume 1, Atlantic America, 1492-1800. YaleUniversity Press:New Haven,CT 1986 (500pp.)

            Menzies, Gavin. 1421 The Year China Discovered America. William Morrow: New York, 2002 (552pp.)

            Morison, Samuel Eliot. Admiral of the Ocean Sea, A Life of Christopher Columbus. Little, Brown and Company:New York, 1942 (680pp.) A Pulitzer Prize Winner and one of the very best biographies I have ever read!

            ___________________. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages.OxfordUniversity Press:New York, 1971 (712pp.)

            ___________________. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages. 1974 (758pp.)

            ___________________. The Oxford History of the American People.OxfordUniversity Press:New York, 1965 (1153pp. but see chapters I-III.)

            Morison, Samuel Eliot; Commager, Henry Steele; and, Leuchtenburg, William E. The Growth of the American Republic, volume one, Sixth Edition, Revised and Enlarged.OxfordUniversity Press:New York, 1969 (921pp. see I-II.)

            Perry, Chase, Jacob&Jacob, Von Laue. Western Civilization, Ideas, Politics, and Society, Eighth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company:Boston, 2007 (876pp. especially chapters 13-17.)

            Richter, Daniel K. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press:Cambridge,Mass. 2011 (502pp. but see especially chap.3 “Crusades of the Christ-Bearers to theAmericas”.)

            Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael. A Patriot’s History of the United States From Columbus’s Great Discovery To The War On Terror. Sentinel:New York, 2004 (928pp. especially Chapter One “The City on the Hill”.)

            Shi, David E. and Mayer, Holly A., editors. For the Record: A Documentary History of America, second edition, volume 1, From Contact Through Reconstruction. W.W. Norton & Company:New York, 2004 (593pp. see chapter 1 “The Collision of Cultures”.)

            Stephens, Alexander H. A Compendium of the History of the United States from the Earliest Settlements to 1872. First published in 1872, this edition published by American Foundation Publications:Bridgewater,VA. 1999 (513pp. chapter 1 “The Discovery ofAmerica”.)

            Taylor, Alan. American Colonies, in The Penguin History of theUnited States series, Volume 1, ed. Eric Foner. Viking: New York, 2001 (526pp.)

            Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. Random House:New York, 2003 (696pp.)

Web sources:

http://www.eagleforum.org/educate/columbus/columbus.shtml

http://nautarch.tamu.edu/shiplab/01George/index.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Eliot_Morison

 

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One Response to “The Role of Columbus’ Faith in the Discovery of America”

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This was a fantastic essay. I learned a lot too and I’ve been exposed to the liberal lie for years, knowing it was false, but not having the information to combat it. I think I’ll celebrate Columbus Day this year with a prayer and some favorite Castilian dishes!


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