Bethany is close to Bethlehem


A little boy let his attention wander in catechism class and his teacher singled him out for a question. “Andy, where was Jesus born?” The boy thought for a minute and said, “Pittsburgh!” The teacher shook her head and said, “Try again.” “Philadelphia?” “I am so ashamed of you, Andy. You had to know it was in Bethlehem!” “Oh yeah, I knew it was somewhere in Pennsylvania.”

In thinking of the monastic renaissance of Europe in the Middle Ages, I’ve come to realize that it was one of the few movements where a society was rebuilt on the basis of an ethical ideal. It has also made me realize that the United States was founded on similar principles.

When settlers came to this land, they had the opportunity to name the places themselves (which leads to fascinating studies in toponymy). They called their new homes many times after the places they came from and we find familiar names like Boston, Chatham, New York, New Jersey, New London, or Oxford. French settlers named Detroit, Michigan after the banks of the river they called le détroit du lac Érié, meaning the strait of Lake Erie.

Trinitarian Congregational Church, Concord (Massachusetts) Photo by PJ McKey

Trinitarian Congregational Church, Concord (Massachusetts) Photo by PJ McKey

They also named their settlements after the economic freedom that they sought – Prosperity, Needmore. They used names from the native American settlers. They called their homes after each other and natural features.

But these settlers also perceived the opportunity to rebuild a world into something purer. In this new land they named their towns Bethlehem, Gilead, Zion, Salem, Galilee, Hebron, Sharon, Rehoboth, Eden, Canaan, Bethlehem, Jericho, Calvary, and Nazareth.

West Falmouth United Methodist, West Falmouth (Massachusetts)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West Falmouth United Methodist, West Falmouth (Massachusetts) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

They called their settlements Amity, Philadelphia, Concord, New Hope, Faith, and Blessing. Paradise can be found in Texas, Michigan, Kansas, Utah, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Ohio, Nevada, and California.

First Parish Church, Concord (Massachusetts)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

First Parish Church, Concord (Massachusetts) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

For the less religious, the settlers named their new homes after classical tradition; there are twelve Spartas, fifteen Athens, and twenty-five Troys. We find Corinth, Texas and Corinth, Mississippi,

Towns were named after goals or principles by which to live; Liberty, Independence, Peace, and Freedom. We see Loyal (OK), Prospect (CA), and Industry (ME). How many cities and towns are named after our national heroes? How many Lincolns (42), Washingtons (25) with 18 Mount Vernons, Jeffersons (11 towns and 17 counties), Madisons (24), Monroes (10), or Franklins (30) adorn our maps.

In short, when these people settled the new land, they tried evoke a world representing something greater than the present, a tie to the eternal. It was a way to remind themselves of their commitment to reform the world spiritually, as well as materially.

First Congregational Church, Chatham (Massachusetts)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

First Congregational Church, Chatham (Massachusetts) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But this reforming strain was married to violent adventurism. There were other Europeans who were plunderers, the most rapacious members of a rapacious society. They came over a few at a time to a hostile land and conquered it. A strong reward lured strong men to strong risks. Others followed, but the land was conquered by these pirates. Their blood is our blood. It still runs in our veins. We are left with their instincts, like a dog long descended from wolves. We get the sniff of game, the tail goes up and the fangs are bared, but we no longer know what to do. But there are a few left who still hunt. They know what those ancient instincts are for.

Dennis Union Church, Dennis (Massachusetts)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Dennis Union Church, Dennis (Massachusetts) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

These rapacious dogs continue to plunder today and take more and more from the world, regardless of the costs to others. And they make mockery of places called Bethlehem, Concord, and Independence.

16 responses to “Bethany is close to Bethlehem

  1. A nice homily and set of images (in USA you look at outsides, in France at insides? Of course I only mean the buildings). It reminds me of an irrelevant thought: in Graham Robb’s wonderful “The Discovery of France” he maps those communes named after saints (p. 118 in my paperback). It’s fascinating, as is the argument he attaches to explain the historical pattern of considerable variation across the country.

    • John, thanks for the reference to the Graham Robb’s book, which I have never come across. Another book to order!!! I actually wrote a short section of this post on the “Saint” towns in the US, especially in the west. But cut it because it didn’t really add anything. Would love to see what Robb has to say.

  2. It’s good to be reminded of the ideals which founded life in North America in this period where the plunderers run riot without check.

    Mr. McKean’s reference to Robb’s ‘Discovery of France’ was also interesting …I wonder what a similar work would make of the U.S.A. – or perhaps such already exists.

    And in Costa Rica, apart from the saints’ names we also have our Carthage, Greece, Athens and Sparta – Spanishised, of course! Relics of a love of liberty.

    • Helen, toponyms have been an interest of mine for a while now, but mostly in the USA. I did buy a book on place names in the Dordogne, which was absolutely fascinating. As far as books on American place names, have come across several, most of them regional. Thanks for your comments, as always.

  3. You’ve prompted me to reflect on Australian place names – we have a few that make us think twice, like Mt Difficult, Mt Disappointment and Disaster Bay. There are many more. Perhaps the early explorers who named them wanted to warn their descendants.

  4. Dennis, what an interesting post. The instincts of Cain and the longing for Abel, as I might put it. Abel’s blood, shed by Cain, still soaks the ground, leaving it to us to redeem the ground from the plundering. At first glance I thought picture #4 was First Congregational Church of Rockport, MA. Beautiful simplicity to these colonial churches. Their steeples keep the vertical central to their communities, even when everything has turned horizontal. Thank you.

    • Gordon, what a delight to hear from you (“Be still my noisy heart, croon not thy bleat!”) We actually have photographed the church at Rockport, one of our favorite “getaway” towns. It was a fun post to counter our European churches, but the “instincts of Cain” leave a footprint as heavy as the “longing for Abel.” Thanks for the comment.

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