Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Frederick Douglass and the Hypocrisy of Antebellum Slaveholding Christians

“Of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”[1]

These words felt like a terrible blow as I was listening to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass*, an autobiographical account of Douglass’s life in slavery and eventual escape from it. 

Douglass is a remarkable figure in nineteenth-century America. He amazed the people of his day with his striking intellect and powerful oratory skills. His narrative was meant to validate his genuine slave background and further the abolitionist cause—a cause he championed with great force and effectiveness in the antebellum years. 

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John Calvin on “True Happiness”

Doesn’t it seem like we are always chasing happiness? We desire fulfilling and lucrative work. We want not only comfortable but also pleasant accommodations. We expect to have discretionary income to enjoy Friday night pizza and trips to the beach and the symphony. We believe these things make us happy. 

John Calvin considers a similar mindset in his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where he discusses the Sermon on the Mount:

We know that not only the great body of the people, but even the learned themselves, hold this error, that he is the happy man who is free from annoyance, attains all his wishes, and leads a joyful and easy life. At least it is the general opinion, that happiness ought to be estimated from the present state.

HEL219079 Portrait of John Calvin (1509–64) (oil on panel) by Swiss School, (16th century) oil on panel 41.5×28 Bibliotheque Publique et Universitaire, Geneva, Switzerland © Held Collection Swiss, out of copyright

The American dream seems to promise such a way of life, and it is easy to buy into this thinking, being submerged so deeply in the culture we live in. And if I’m honest with myself, I have to confess that these are the very things that I believe I should enjoy and that the lack of them makes me feel as if I am missing something. 

Calvin points to Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as a foil to the perennial human desires to find happiness in this life, and there he addresses what Christ taught his disciples about “true happiness.” Far from leading “an easy and prosperous life according to the flesh” as the way to happiness, Christ offers the way of the cross. He wants “to accustom his own people to bear the cross.” As Calvin notes, 

It is impossible that men should mildly bend the neck to bear calamities and reproaches, so long as they think that patience is at variance with a happy life. The only consolation which mitigates and even sweetens the bitterness of the cross and of all afflictions, is the conviction, that we are happy in the midst of miseries: for our patience is blessed by the Lord, and will soon be followed by a happy result.

Happiness is found in patience. This is the counterintuitive message of Calvin—or, as he would say, of Christ. Patience tempers our hopes for what can be achieved or secured in this world and drives us to find God’s greater blessing in a world beyond our own. Such thinking goes against “the common opinion,” for “carnal reason will never admit what is here taught by Christ.” But those who would follow Christ, Calvin warns, “must learn the philosophy of placing their happiness beyond the world, and above the affections of the flesh.”

As Calvin puts it, what Christ teaches is not “imaginary”—though we are certainly tempted to think it is, since it is not tangible in our temporal experience. Rather, it is a “fact,” a fact “that those persons are truly happy whose condition is supposed to be miserable.” Thus, in the Beatitudes, the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, 

not only does Christ prove that they are in the wrong, who measure the happiness of man by the present state, because the distresses of the godly will soon be changed for the better; but he also exhorts his own people to patience, by holding out the hope of a reward.

As we feel pulled and pushed always to pursue greater happiness in this world, the Christian expectation is to be marked by patience. We are to expect disappointment and trouble and opposition. We are not to be surprised by bad news (cf. Ps. 112:7). But we are to patiently wait on the Lord and look ahead to the “true happiness” that Christ preached about and that Calvin here reminds us of. Though it goes against the grain of our culture—and of our own inner appetites—patience is the path to “true happiness.”

Reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 2020

This year has forced us to wrestle with the legacy of a system of race-based slavery in the United States. What better time than now to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), a novel with huge influence in turning public opinion in antebellum America toward abolition—and possibly even influencing Lincoln’s drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century in the US. And though it would still take a civil war to end slavery here, the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was undeniable. 

Uncle Tom's Cabin Cover Page

When I began listening to an audio version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I expected to find a taste of how nineteenth-century Americans thought about slavery and how this book depicted the tragic slave experience. And I did find that. What I did not expect to find was a commendation of Christianity and an exhibition of true Christian living in the face of tremendous trials and temptations. Stowe doesn’t let Christians off the hook entirely, for she relates the failings of many such Christians. But she also presents a moving picture of how Jesus can transform a man. 

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Of Monuments and Men

We love to look back on the past and select stories of people who embody our values, people who inspire us because of great deeds, people who make us feel proud. That’s one reason why we erect monuments—to remember great men and women who have accomplished significant feats. We want to enter into and identify with their greatness. 

In the United States, our presidents often receive some of our grandest accolades. We have even carved their faces out of rock in the hills of South Dakota. The four men whose faces are depicted there capture for us the hope that Americans can aspire to greatness and do magnificent deeds. 

But all our heroes fail us. 

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The American Frontier, Borders, and the Christian

The End of the Myth

I recently finished listening to Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (Metropolitan Books, 2019). He tells an unsettling narrative of how Americans have used space to address some of their nation’s deepest problems, particularly its hang-ups with racism and empire building. The book traverses much ground, and while it is not focused on religious elements of American history, I found that some themes in this 2020 Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume (in general nonfiction) prompted some thoughts regarding American religion worth discussion on this blog. 

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Understanding the Life and History of Eastern Orthodoxy

McGuckin, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History - cover

For many Western Christians, Eastern Orthodoxy is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps ironically, calling Orthodoxy mysterious would be a kind of compliment, for mystery permeates Orthodox theology and practice. As John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History* (Yale University Press, 2020; source: publisher), puts it, Orthodoxy “can be summed up in four simple words that can hardly be exegeted: the Mystery of Christ” (32). That this phrase cannot easily “be exegeted” emphasizes the mystery element of Orthodox faith in Christ and makes it all the harder to describe this concept in simple terms. Yet McGuckin does seek to explain the phenomenon of Eastern Orthodoxy in this new book. 

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The American Indians and Religion in the West: An Interaction with Jennifer Graber’s “The Gods of Indian Country”

The Gods of Indian Country

The story of the American Indians is an important story. It is too often neglected—perhaps because we gravitate toward the triumphalism of American power and progress. It is hard to tell—perhaps because of the death, sorrow, and injustice that mark it. And it is hard to tell well—perhaps because the narrative often reflects the values of the age in which it is told more than the actual story.

Jennifer Graber—Gwyn Shive, Anita Nordan Lindsay, and Joe and Cherry Gray Professor in the History of Christianity at the University of Texas at Austin—has made a contribution to this story through her book The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West* (Oxford University Press, 2018; source: publisher). What makes her book stand out among histories of the American West is its attention to religious elements in the long nineteenth-century narrative of white-Indian encounter, struggle, and settlement.

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C. S. Lewis, Screwtape, and Devaluing Old Books

C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters* (1942), describes how history has been devalued in the modern age. The notorious Screwtape, a master demon writing to his younger protégé Wormwood, says this about the intellectual climate in Western Europe:

Only the learned read old books, and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.”[1]

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Visualizing the Places of Church History

History is notoriously filled with names and dates—details that leave some students in tears as they approach exams. These names and dates, the historian comes to know, serve quite helpful purposes though. Names identify people and their relationships with other people, and dates locate events and publications on a continuum. Both lend support in understanding the meaning of historical events and analyzing trends and the reasons for change.

Another key identifier in the study of history is geographical location. Visualizing where events took place in history and the relationship of people living in one place with those living in another is essential to understanding the flow of history and exploring why some changes occur in one place and not another. One resource that helps students of history visualize the places of church history is Tim Dowley’s Atlas of Christian History* (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), which features the work of cartographer Nick Rowland.

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Augustine on the Happy Life

The belief that all people have the right to pursue happiness is enshrined by the founders of the United States in the annals of American history and has been embraced as a way of life by their posterity. But Americans have no corner on the market of pursuing happiness; the belief is imprinted on the heart of every human. We all naturally seek our own happiness.

Of course, the ideal of happiness looks very different from one person’s mind to the next, which explains the wide variety of human experiences in the world. Some believe they will find happiness in indulgence, others in restraint; some believe they will find happiness in wealth accumulation, others in vows of poverty. And there are many shades of thinking in between.

To be sure, the pursuit of happiness is no modern invention. That is not to deny that cultures have differed over who they believe should have the right to obtain happiness, but that doesn’t negate the inborn human desire to obtain it. And long before Thomas Jefferson put the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to paper, people like Augustine were reflecting on what it means to be happy.

Augustine explores what happiness looks like in his book On the Happy Life,* translated by Michael P. Foley (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019; source: publisher). This is the second book in the four Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students, friends, and family that took place after Augustine’s conversion but before his baptism. I reviewed the first of these dialogues, Against the Academics*, elsewhere on this blog.

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All You Need to Get Holiday Ready

When I opened the Amazon app on my phone recently, I ran across this headline: “All you need to get holiday ready.”

Reading over that statement, my mind immediately moves to the food, the gifts, the decorations, the home prep. And of course, Amazon has asserted itself as a provider of all these things. I have benefited from Amazon’s fast delivery system. I’m a Prime user. And I even have an affiliate account set up with Amazon, linking to their website from this blog, which is a good place to point readers to for a resource I discuss here (even as it can potentially provide some affiliate fees for me). So the benefits of Amazon are not lost on me.

I do worry about its size and increasing power. And part of the reason is that its philosophy of life conflicts with that given us by Christ. In the Age of Amazon, we are hard pressed to escape the philosophy it offers us—a world in which we can have so much at our fingertips, from entertainment to unending possessions. And in this we are to find happiness (at least, most of the people I see on Amazon’s website look happy).

And that brings me back to the holiday headline. Something subtle lurks in this statement. “Holiday ready” for Amazon revolves around the material world: I can be holiday ready if I buy enough material items.

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Living a Theologically Engaged Life with Abraham Kuyper

When one thinks of the Dutch churchman Abraham Kuyper, one likely thinks of his most cited quotation: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (8). This powerful statement is a challenge to anyone who wants to be in control of some part of his or her life—which, of course, is everyone. It also captures a driving theme in Kuyper’s life: sphere sovereignty. The idea that Jesus is Lord of every sphere reorients humans in all areas of life, and Kuyper untiringly devoted his life to seeing how Christ’s sovereignty could be applied to every sphere of human existence. 

Michael R. Wagenman explores these themes in his book Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper* (Lexham, 2019). This is one of the first books in a new series by Lexham Press called Lived TheologyMichael A. G. Haykin, who writes the series preface, is presumably the series editor, though he is not explicitly identified as such. According to Haykin, the series is meant to put flesh and bones on theological convictions, showing how beliefs about the Christian God have led people to live out their faith in diverse contexts. The series seeks to introduce readers to well-known and lesser-known figures in church history through accessible books, all with this goal in mind:

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Martin Marty’s View of Global Christian History

I enjoy reading close studies of particular figures and periods in church history. When well researched and well crafted, they are often rich with illuminating detail. But I also find it valuable to read broad surveys of the Christian story. Such volumes are difficult to pull off because they require enough knowledge of so many different eras for one to select fair and representative figures to show the story’s development. Yet again, when done well, such volumes can provide macrolevel clarity that otherwise gets lost in the proverbial trees. 

In this vein, I recently read Martin Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (New York: Modern Library, 2007). I had dipped into parts of it before, but I wanted to read through the whole volume front to back. Marty is a highly respected church historian, and he packs his rendering of Christian history into a remarkably short 236 pages, making it one of the shorter and more accessible books on the full spectrum of church history available today. 

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Augustine the New Convert on Skepticism in “Against the Academics”

Augustine of Hippo is known as one of the greatest theologians in Christian history. His Confessions continues to stand as one of the most influential works in Western culture and literature. It is in The Confessions that we follow Augustine’s remarkable journey seeking meaning, fulfillment, and truth, in which he explores pleasure and the religious ways of the Manichaeans but turns ultimately to the triune God of Christianity.

Augustine would go on to become a key leader in the church of his day and to bequeath a massive corpus of Christian writings to the church. Some of his less known and less read volumes are the Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students and friends that were written down for publication. The dialogues took place after Augustine converted to Christianity yet before he was baptized, and thus, in the Cassiciacum dialogues, we get a rare glimpse of a thirty-two-year-old Augustine—before he was “of Hippo,” before he was great, and before he was a professional theologian.

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Jane Dawson’s John Knox

Jane Dawson, "John Knox"Of the sixteenth-century Reformers, John Knox (1514/1515–1572) is known as a fiery soul. Though he called John Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ,” he and Calvin were quite different in terms of dispositions, gifts, and callings. Despite a number of differences, they saw themselves as colaborers in the Reformation, and while Calvin is the better known Reformer, largely owing to his voluminous writings, Knox nonetheless made his own lasting impact on the Reformation as it developed in Scotland and England and beyond.

Jane Dawson offers a critical biography of Knox in her book simply titled John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015). A professor of Reformation history at the University of Edinburgh, Dawson aims to dispel the notion of Knox as “the dour Scottish Reformer” and reveal, partly through the use of some more recently discovered sources, “the many different shades within Knox’s character that make this complex man such a fascinating subject” (4). Dawson also seeks not only to give a “fresh and more nuanced account of Knox’s life” but also to illuminate readers on the Reformation in Scotland, England, and parts of Europe as it intersected with his journeys. What follows are some key themes and insights from Dawson’s book about Knox.

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