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Christopher Columbus: Missionary to America

Isaiah 49:1-6

Guest Speaker: Tom Adams

I’ve been interested in history but have always been a remarkably average student at it unlike Ethan, who assures me that he is completely awesome. Dates? Names? When do we get to the good stuff? When I’d heard the idea of a “Christian history” of America, it piqued my curiosity. I approached the subject very guarded. After all, I’d heard of other “works of God” taking place after the New Testament was completed and I didn’t want to study something similar to golden tablets dug up by a liar. I normally skip introductions and forewords by authors but this time I either didn’t realize I was reading it or I just flat-out wanted to know whom Peter Marshall and David Manuel were. The story of how they researched this series of books was amazing by it self! “Chance” discoveries of long lost tombs in forgotten areas of old libraries, gaining access to collections that were normally reserved only to advanced university scholars by sheer “luck”, etc. Then you have the support from their church. People were rallying behind the project and getting excited over… historical research? I can only imagine how awesome those church picnics are. But the support of the church really made wading through this sea of information possible. Add into that the fact that these people were able to lift out the required nuggets of information necessary to be organized, parsed and crafted into these three books can only be described as divinely guided. I want to be careful with that statement – I in no way want to give the impression that these books are God-breathed like the scriptures. We know that work to be complete and nothing more will ever or needs ever to be added to it. Instead, I simply want to emphasize that this is information that God wants to make sure we don’t lose. He was involved in this work, it was His plan and He is in control. The America that we know and love was not something that happened by chance, and although we do not see her mentioned in the Bible (even though some may argue certain symbols in the Book of the Revelation may allude to us), she does have a purpose, we are supposed to exist and we can be used for His glory if we allow ourselves to be. Before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate in just a few days, other events had to take place to lead up to it. Arguably the first of these events is the crossing of the Atlantic by Christopher Columbus. While in school I learned that the reason Columbus crossed the Atlantic was to prove the Earth was round and to establish a shorter trade route to India. Students today are left with the idea that Columbus’s motivation was worldly, greedy and anything but centered on bringing the light of the gospel to a new, dark land. That information has slowly been removed from historical texts over time. It wasn’t until a copy of the original journal of this now-famous mapmaker-turned-“admiral of the open sea” was found and translated into English that we get a glimpse of what really happened. Peter Marshall and David Manuel read this translation and combined it with other historical sources to create their book “The Light and the Glory”. I highly recommend this book! Today, I want to share with you their research on Christopher Columbus, which they record in the first two chapters of their book.

Columbus’s journal shows that he thought a lot about. His name, Christopher could be translated as “Christ-bearer” and he always viewed that as a sign that God was preparing him for some great service. He selected Isa. 49:1-6 as his “life verses”, and related them to himself – choosing to view them as God’s plan for his life. He was to take the light of the gospel to dark and undiscovered lands. Perhaps that’s why he chose to become a mapmaker: so he could explore new places. It’s unknown when, exactly, during his life that Columbus felt the call to carry the light, but we do know that he felt it and that for a time, nothing else mattered more to him.

Now here’s where we catch up with traditional history. We know that Columbus originally approached King John II of Portugal to help finance his mission. He’d calculated the requirements and the costs of the journey to about 1.25 million of today’s dollars. The king did not answer him immediately but instead turned it over to his advisors and scholars to consider Columbus’s plan. It was very detailed and included the exact route that he intended to use – one that would later prove to be the only route that was capable of success! Even then, you can see God’s hand in this plan. Unfortunately, the King’s advisors did not see what we do today and advised the King against this endeavor. Furthermore, we get a glimpse at Columbus’s personality: they’d found him to be arrogant and overbearing. With his first rejection behind him, he enlisted his brother to take the plan to England for an audience with King Henry VII. Again, the King’s advisors found the plans laughable. After all, everyone knew the earth was flat! King Henry VII rejected Columbus’s plan, so he set off to Spain to ask for help from Kind Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. At this time, Spain was fighting to be rid of the Moor invaders who had landed hundreds of years prior. Columbus was convinced that Spain was the right choice for his life’s mission. Ferdinand and Isabella were renowned for their faith and service in promoting the Christian faith. Because of this, Columbus felt that they were who God wanted him to work with to carry the light. We get the idea that Columbus’s efforts happened in a very short amount of time when in reality months and years take place before he’s able to get an answer from Spain. When the answer finally came, they told him that their advisors found his plans to have a “weak foundation” and “unreasonable to any educated person”. After so many years of waiting and becoming more and more convinced that this was God’s plan for his life, the words must have hit him like a ton of bricks. Could he have been wrong about God’s plan? Was his life-verse chosen in error? Was all this work for nothing? Columbus was distraught and like many of us when things happen and we don’t understand why, he sought answers. Columbus then met with Juan Perez, a Franciscan monk who was gifted with wisdom. After speaking with him, Juan began to question Columbus about his faith. For so long Columbus had depended on his plans, his presentations and his relationships to get him what he wanted. He was doing God’s will, but he was doing it, not God. Perez led Columbus to repentance and soon after, Ferdinand and Isabella called for Columbus to return for an audience with them. They had decided to help him! I imagine Columbus found it hard to remain humble. He must not have connected the dots between his repentance with Perez and the change of heart for the King and Queen because the first thing he did was lay upon them a list of requirements. Columbus demanded three things:

  1. A tenth of all the discovered riches.
  2. The rank of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”
  3. Viceroy and Governor of all the discovered lands.

Although the King and Queen did not like his demands, they eventually agreed and the plans began for Columbus’s mission to the new lands.

This wasn’t the only time we see Columbus’s on/off relationship with God after things started going well for him. In fact, it seems that whenever things were going great, Columbus took the credit but when things turned sour, he was back on his knees. However, even during prayer he didn’t always see the error of his ways. From here, the history taught in many schoolbook holds true in his journal. Toward the end of the long voyage, the crew became increasingly restless. So much so that the captains of the Pinta and Niña met with Columbus to discuss turning back before they had a mutiny on their hands. Columbus bargained with them and was able to get them to agree to press on for just three more days. After the meeting, Columbus went to his knees in prayer. After all, he was in trouble, right? God in all His patience listened to him and that first night the three ships covered more distance than any other day during the entire journey. This caused concern for the crew. Why were they suddenly moving so quickly? The next day, excitement began to spread amongst the crew. Sure signs of land could be found in the water: twigs, flowers, and wood that had been carved were spotted floating past them. A prize was set up of an annual payout to anyone who spotted land first. The next night a small light was spotted. Columbus and another sailor called it out at the same time (he’d later dispute this and claim the prize for himself). It wasn’t long before it was confirmed that there was land ahead of them! God had answered Columbus’s prayers again. Upon setting foot on the new land, the first thing Columbus did was pray and thank God for not only delivering them across the ocean sea, but to praise Him for his beautiful creation of these virtually untouched lands. He set about his mission and found the native peoples and we all know who he thought they were. The wholly inaccurate label of “Indians” was given to them and his first priority was to befriend some to become translators. He’d estimated that converting them the Christian faith would be an easy task. He grossly underestimated our enemy. You see, these lands were an area where Satan need not concern himself much. There were no missionaries here until Columbus and no one had ever heard of the name of Jesus, let alone trust Him as savior. However, the light had touched the shore of the new lands and the enemy needed to act quickly if it were to be snuffed out.

Remember my mentioning of Columbus’s demands? It didn’t take long for the enemy to take notice that Columbus struggled with greed and pride. I don’t know what the look on Columbus’s face was at this moment, but I can imagine the sun striking the golden rings in the native’s noses in just the right way to get his attention. This is what was going to make him famous. This is what was going to give him riches. This was what was going to make him powerful: GOLD. Sadly, this is what history now remembers him for. From then on, bringing the light of the gospel to a land that had never heard it took a backseat to his quest for gold. His searches brought upon the natives cruel treatment. It eventually wrecked one ship and caused the desertion of another. Without enough ships for the return voyage, a fort was established and volunteers selected to stay behind as Columbus returned with some of the treasures they’d gathered. The previously deserted ship, the Pinta, met up with them and they sailed toward home together again. We see little mention of Columbus’s original mission of spreading the Gospel now. His thoughts had turned more to gold than to God.

His return trip wasn’t as easy as the first voyage. At first, the weather was amazing, but toward the end it was anything but. Severe storms pounded the two ships and there were great concerns about keeping them afloat. Sails were torn from the masts and the ships were tossed about. Columbus and his crew were in trouble, and you know what that means: time to pray! We don’t know, but it is easy to imagine Satan’s hand in these storms. Preventing Columbus’s return would no doubt delay any more efforts to spread the light for countless years. If the ships were sunk, the only ones left in the new world that knew anything about Christ were too busy enslaving the natives, torturing them and murdering them for more information about where to find gold! Greed had overtaken those left behind and we know the seeds were growing inside Columbus’s own heart. With the ships in trouble, Columbus cried out to the Lord for deliverance but this time his relief did not come right away. He and the rest of the crew began to bargain with God. On three separate occasions, they cast lots to determine who among them would make a pilgrimage to a monastery as a demonstration of their faith. Two of the three times, Columbus was chosen. Unlike Jonah, who took his selection as a sign from the Almighty that he was the blame, Columbus wore it as a badge of honor, believing that God had chosen him to take this journey because his faith was so strong! The storm continued and the entire crew eventually joined Columbus on their knees, crying out to the heavens so loudly that their prayers drown out the noise of the storm. Still, the ships were tossed and even separated. Nothing seemed to work.

We know that the storms eventually passed and that Columbus returned to report what he had found. Our adversary was unable to prevent this step in God’s plan. Columbus made two more trips to the “new world” in his lifetime. The second was quite devastating to his new-found riches and glory. The King and Queen had discovered the treatment of the natives and greatly disapproved. They ordered that he be removed from the position of Governor, but Columbus refused to acknowledge since he believed that they had no authority to do so. With his focus on more gold and more power, Ferdinand and Isabella did not see fit to allow him to return a third time until much later. They sent others in his place to help repair the damage done to the relations with the once peaceful, now war-like natives. Where before there were about 300,000 inhabitants of Española, barely 2,000 remained.

For his last journey of exploration, Columbus was able to secure four ships but Ferdinand and Isabella forbade him from returning to Española. He ignored their warning and sailed directly to the island. Upon arrival, however, he was refused permission to land so he went on to what is now Central America. We know that he found “gold fields” where the ore was easily removed with bare hands from the dirt. It is this area that Spanish conquistadors would later conquer for greed and profit. Though Columbus brought the message of salvation to those who’d never heard it, you can’t ignore the atrocities that accompanied it. It’s easy to focus on the downsides of his voyages but I believe that is a distraction from our enemy to see the original plan that God had set for him. We were all once sinners, we all have memories of our past sin nature and we are all fallible and able to be tempted. God still chooses to use us, not because we are perfect – that would make the miracle of His work less visible. He chooses us because we are flawed, demonstrating His mighty power through us! I’m reminded of 2 Corinthians 12:9 where Paul wrote “But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Columbus certainly had weakness, just like the rest of us. We may have the same weaknesses as him: a distracting desire for money, an overly exciting fascination with title or position or thoughts of power monopolizing our mind. We may have weaknesses that we don’t even know about (yet). Whether we like to admit it or not, each of us has a point where we are vulnerable and the enemy knows this. As pastor has mentioned before, 1 Peter 5:8 says “Be self‑controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” We’ve been warned to be on our guard. For Columbus, he chose to live a life of being reactive to problems. When troubles pressed upon him, he dropped to his knees and cried out to the Lord. And I don’t want you to think that’s a wrong response. We do need to cry out to the Lord when we need help. David does so repeatedly in the Psalms and we see this demonstrated again by Peter after leaving the boat to meet Jesus on the lake. But rather than depend upon God as a “safety net”, instead we need a plan where we are proactive. Like the verse in 1 Peter says: “Be self-controlled and alert”. That to me has nothing to do with waiting around for hard times to come. Being alert, or as the Amplified Bible says it, being “vigilant and cautious at all times” is something that we need to be doing always. Watching those weak spots in our lives to make sure that when temptation comes, we are ready. Imagine how history would remember Christopher Columbus had he kept his heart in check. Imagine how many of the “Indians” would have lived and gone on to trust Christ as savior had he kept his focus on the calling he’d felt so many years before. When you finish the book, and I suggest that you do read it, you see that God’s plan was never, ever thwarted. Later on we see the arrival of the Pilgrims and the Puritans and see the foundations of a true democracy laid, based on the Christian principles of loving God first and then also your neighbor. Further on, the day where we as a nation declare our Independence and build on those foundations will be marked for centuries to come. For a long time, we were an example of a Christian nation, but even during our best times, we were still a nation made up of both current and former sinners. Old habits die hard and apathy, left unchecked, can slowly erode the principles of a godly society. Habits and lifestyles that were rare and taboo are open and celebrated today. People openly mock God and receive fame and fortune while those who speak out for truth and righteousness are ridiculed and jeered. God’s plans, however, have still not been foiled.

At the end of his life, Columbus’s health deteriorated rapidly. He was unable to set sail again and barely able to leave his bed. We can imagine what went through his mind during this time, and the authors, as they do throughout the book in the absence of documentation, paint a picture of what “might have been”. They imagine him looking at the ships in the harbor and remembering his voyages. They also imagine his thoughts turning to what had set him on the path to exploring the seas and discovering the continent that we live on today.  And, knowing what we do about his last days, it’s easy to imagine him finally seeing where he had strayed from the path God had set him on, where he had abandoned his mission to satisfy his lust. We know that before he died, Columbus repented of his sins and that his last words were “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Finally, at last, yielding to the authority of someone other than himself. He may have strayed from his path, but in the end, he finished well.

I’ve talked about how our nation seems to have strayed from the path God laid out, but that does not mean that we are lost forever. We too, can repent, be revived and restored into fellowship with him, placing us back in His perfect will. Before we can do that as a nation, we have to do that as individuals as well. As I said before, we each have our own weaknesses, but that doesn’t mean that we are weak! Our weaknesses are simply areas of our life where God’s power and glory can be seen all the more! Sure, we can choose to continue to wallow in sorrow that we’re not perfect yet, that we’ve “messed up again” and get discouraged. That’s exactly what the enemy wants us to do! He wants the world to see that Christians are sad, miserable and sometimes even bitter people, unable to shake off their old sin habits. Instead, we need to choose to  “be vigilant and cautious at all times”. Practically, that means spending time with our God each day: reading His bible, talking with Him in prayer and hiding His word in our hearts. When the time comes when we have our own moments of temptation, we are ready, having been watchful, to guard our thoughts and counter with the power of His word. We can do it, we can be successful because we serve a God who loves us and will not be defeated.

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