Mannaseh Cutler: A Puritan’s Heart and The Dignity of Every Human Life

We are a people that so easily forget our history. Whether we realize it or not our history deeply shapes who we are as a people, it is formational in our identity. Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” The challenges we face today, the problems we face today, the barriers we experience today, they are not new. In one sense they have their own unique edge, but in another sense men have been striving with and against each other since Cain struck Abel after the expulsion from the Garden. When we study history we learn from those who have gone before us. When we study Christians of history particularly, we glimpse into imperfect men and women, filled with the same Holy Spirit and equipped with the same Bible as us, facing their own moment’s circumstances and aiming to honor the Lord as best as they were able. While history is full of scars and mistakes, it is also full of wonderful examples of faith. We are shaped by both and must fear neither.

A while back I read David McCullough’s history titled The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. This book traced the history of the founding of what was originally called the Northwest Territory of America, modern day Ohio and Indiana. The founding of that land as an American settlement took place place shortly after the American Revolution largely by one particular leader, a Puritan by the name of Manasseh Cutler. Until this book I had never heard of Manasseh, yet weeks after finishing the last page I keep returning to his life and legacy.

Manasseh Cutler was a Puritan. The Puritans exemplified the belief that our protestant Christian faith when lived out fully impacts every area of our life. The Puritans, rooted in the Scriptures, believed that their lives of faith were more than just private belief systems to be held and taught at home and inside the walls of the Church. Rather, the Puritans believed that the full teaching of the Bible was to influence every aspect of their thoughts, their work, their meaning, and their pursuits. The Puritans labored to build society upon Christian values because they believed that as they labored the Holy Spirit was expanding the Kingdom of God on His Earth. As they built schools and hospitals, they did so under the belief that as God worked through their hands in medicine and education, the hope of Jesus Christ would infuse all of society around them. They not only believed this, but frankly they were quite effective.

The Puritan Mannaseh Cutler attended Yale and graduated with honors in 1765. He was soon three doctors in one: A doctor of Law, of Medicine, and of Divinity. When we think about submitting our minds to Christ, and pursuing the knowledge for the sake of God’s Kingdom and understanding all that God has given us, the Puritans set the bar high. Manasseh was a man of tremendous study.

But what I loved about this man was that his range of learning was far beyond law, medicine, and Bible. If there was something to know about the world Manasseh wanted to know it. He loved studying and collecting plants. He soaked up every worthy book he could find. On the day he met Benjamin Franklin he spent a good while standing before Franklin’s personal library considering what knowledge there was to be learned that he had not yet learned. His favorite quote was from Virgil and his family believed it was the essence of his character, “Fortunate is he who understand the cause of things.” He served in the Revolutionary War, established a boarding school for young students in order to prepare them to enter the world as useful citizens, and on the side (as if he was not already busy enough) he learned French. (Oh the things you can accomplish without television in your life! Sigh.)

It was Manasseh’s work as a frontiersman that secured his legacy as a monument of Christian faith and Puritanism. Manasseh, fueled by a desire to ensure that any westward expansion of the newly formed United States would not include slave-holding states (thereby securing the future inevitable demise of slavery in America), made it his aim to lead the way in establishing new territories as a pioneer. He eventually became the de facto spokesman for what would become known as “The Ohio Cause.” He and others with him made a heroic journey west, battling sickness, death, danger, and every unknown to fulfill the work they believed God had given them.

Manasseh took a primary role in drafting the Ordinance for the government of this new Northwest territory, which would quickly approved by Congress. The Ordinance had two particular articles that demonstrate the Christian love and Puritan character of Manasseh’s thoughts towards westward expansion.

First is Article III. Manasseh’s Biblical heritage gave him an incredible sense of the dignity and worth of every human being. Therefore in Article III of the ordinance we read, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.” It is a lament of history that as time passed American leadership did not live up to their early Christian beliefs about the dignity of the Native Americans who lived in the land. The Puritans (both the earliest founders of Plymouth and later generations like that of Manasseh Cutler) had incredible respect for all humanity. The Puritans of early America sought to honor the Native Americans and their way of life so much as they were able.

In terms of the abhorrent practice of slavery which were clearly dividing the newly formed country, Article VI of the ordinance read, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…” This was Manasseh’s aim. He knew if he did not step up to the plate to do what he could as a Christian man to end slavery as it was practiced in early America, then someone else might and they might botch the job. And so he set his aims to tilt the scales, to add an entire new territory to the map of America which would be guaranteed slave-free. This was cunning and ambitious, and full of the bold Kingdom love of Jesus. Might this new territory become a true “city on a hill?”

There is so much more to write on the life of Manasseh as well as his son Ephraim who took up his cause after him. But I leave this post with a reminder of my reason for writing it in the first place. First, we would do well as modern Christians to remember our Puritan heritage. Their reading of the Bible was profound, consistent, and the kind of stuff that nations were built upon (literally). We have much to learn from their achievements. But further, we are not the first to face the problems we face today. Often by looking to the past, by studying those whom God has used throughout history, we can gain wisdom and discernment for our present. We once again face a seemingly divided nation. It is of utmost importance for Christian men and women fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, leading with agape love and a belief in the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom, to pick up the mantle of courage and to lead God’s Church, and their nation if the Lord permits, towards a brighter more Biblical future.

Written by Raef Chenery

I'm a pastor in Chicago at Park Community Church - South Loop. I'm a husband to my beautiful wife Sara and a dad to three sweet girls, Ruth, Joy, and Mira. I'm blessed to be surrounded by a number of men and women who love to think about the ways that our faith interacts with our culture. This blog is as much for me to get my thoughts in order, as it is for those who might benefit from it and engage in the conversations as well. I would love to get your feedback through the comments on each post.

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