James Fenimore Cooper’s Christian Warrior

This summer I finally read James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Pathfinder. This is a part of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, of which Last of the Mohicans is the most famous. The stories recount the adventures of scout and hunter, Natty Bumppo, nicknamed “Pathfinder”, in 18th century America. The Pathfinder takes place in the 1750’s with Natty and his companions aiding the British in their fight against the French and protecting a damsel in distress.

The book was a fun read with adventure, nobility and interesting insights into the world of Cooper’s day. What was most striking to me was how explicitly Christian the book is. I realize this was not uncommon in Cooper’s day, but it still is fascinating to me, given the world which I know, when I read classic works from earlier American writers who presuppose Christian convictions and doctrine.

The book opens with admiration of the beauty of nature in the immense forests of 18th century America. Introducing these wonders to an English sailor, Bumppo states, “our lakes are bordered by the forests, and one is every day called upon to worship God in such a temple.” The hero moves naturally and regularly from creation to Creator.

It is also clear that this is no generic god which he has in view. At one point, after hearing various of Pathfinder’s ruminations, Master Cap, the English sailor, says “You’re a philosopher, that’s clear, Pathfinder; and I don’t know but you’re a Christian.” Pathfinder responds by saying that he would be “out of humor” with anyone who doubted the fact that he was a Christian. He even mentions that he often discusses the claims of Christianity with Chingachgook, the Mohican chief who is his close friend and companion, “for he has a hankarin’ after Christianity.” So the foremost scout and backwoods warrior is also engaging in personal evangelism!

Trust in God’s providence as the basis of courage is also a common theme. In one desperate situation Pathfinder proposes a daring plan of action as their only hope. Master Cap asks, incredulously, what is to keep them being killed by their enemies since they will be quite exposed to their gunfire. Pathfinder answers:

 “The Lord—He who has so often helped other, in greater difficulties. Many and many is the time that my head would have been stripped of hair, skin, and all, hadn’t the Lord fi’t on my side. I never go into a skrimmage, friend mariner, without thinking of this great Ally, who can do more in battle than all the battalions of the 60th, were they brought into a single line.”

Such trust, however, should not lead to carelessness. Later pathfinder says, “We must trust in Providence, while we neglect none of its benevolent means of protecting ourselves.”

Pathfinder has a healthy doctrine of sin (“We are all human, and all do wrong”) which makes him open to accountability and keeps him from being naïve. Yet, while he acknowledges that his good friend could fall into treachery he stands by him refusing to believe evil reports about him without evidence. At one point he states, “to sleep with distrust of one’s friend in the heart is like sleeping with lead there.”

Pathfinder clearly sees himself as a Christian trying to live out his calling in keeping with the gospel. At one point he states, “boasting in battle is no part of a Christian warrior.”

Pathfinder is also an intriguing portrait of manhood, mystified by women while honoring and protecting them, rugged, persevering, faithful and true. Near the end of the book, Pathfinder congratulates his young friend Jasper and says, “Here’s my hand, Jasper. Squeeze it, boy—squeeze it; no fear of its giving way, for it’s the hand of a man.” That reminded me of the hand-shaking advice I received regularly from my dad, my Sunday School teacher and other men in my childhood.

This is, of course, not a perfect book. For example Pathfinder seems to have low regard for the institutional church. I do, though, commend it to you as enjoyable and helpful. It would be great for reading with young men.

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