Reflections on History and Theology

Category: American Church History (Page 1 of 3)

Carl Trueman’s Intellectual History of the Sexual Revolution

I had the privilege of participating in the publication of Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution*, published by Crossway (where—full disclosure—I work as an editor). The book is a timely volume for explaining much about where we are in Western culture today and how the road to get here stretches back a lot farther than most of us typically think. While it feels like sexual mores have shifted at an incredibly rapid pace in recent decades, Trueman shows how the groundwork for such shifts were laid even back in the eighteenth century and how they involve much more than merely sex. 

Since I was involved in the project myself, it seems better to point readers to others who are giving the book acclaim. 

For starters, Trueman’s book received the award for best 2020 book in public theology and current events at the Gospel Coalition. The judges conclude: 

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Albert Raboteau on Slave Religion

When I’ve had the opportunity to teach the history of religion in America, I’ve regularly used Albert Raboteau’s Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans* (Oxford University Press, 2001). I recommend it as an accessible, evenhanded historical overview of the African American religious experience in the American colonies and the United States. 

A couple of decades before publishing Canaan Land, Raboteau wrote Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South* (Oxford University Press, 1978; rev. ed., 2004), which was based on his dissertation. That book became important in opening doors to a much-neglected area of American religious history. And it still deserves attention today for its insights. 

Chief among those insights is his tracing of the transformation of African religious practices as Africans were transported to the New World. This theme is echoed throughout the book and appears in different forms. 

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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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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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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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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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“Jonathan Edwards and Scripture” Book Notice

Jonathan Edwards and Scripture Book CoverOver the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Doug Sweeney in putting together a new multicontributor volume on Edwards and the Bible, and I’m pleased to say that the book is now available. The volume is titled Jonathan Edwards and Scripture: Biblical Exegesis in British North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), and it includes contributions from a number of Edwards scholars who have helped further the conversation on this important topic.

The book builds on the work that Sweeney, especially, has done over many years in the form of lectures, articles, and books, culminating in his Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015)—see my review of it here. It also furthers some of my research on Edwards, particularly in my book Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014).

To give you a taste of this new volume, here’s an excerpt from my introduction to the book:

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Thomas Kidd’s “American Colonial History”: A Review

Thomas Kidd, "American Colonial History"When thinking of the colonial period in American history, many commonly known stories and people likely come to mind, from Jamestown and the Pilgrims to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay and the wars with the Indians to the Great Awakening and the colonial resistance to British rule. Yet the American colonial period is rich with all kinds of stories that often fail to get much attention: the West, the backcountry, slaves, women. Thomas Kidd’s American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016) treats readers to a full smorgasbord of early American historical fare, retelling the commonly known stories (with rich details and some corrections) and also enriching our understanding of the colonial period with narratives of the lesser known but equally important people from the time.

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Jill Lepore, King Philip’s War, and the Art of History

Jill Lepore - The Name of WarTwenty years ago, Jill Lepore wrote a book on King Philip’s War that received the prestigious Bancroft Prize: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (Vintage Books, 1998). In her volume, Lepore treats this little-remembered but pivotal war in colonial America from the angle of language. The book still has value today, speaking as it does to both the acts and the annals of war, to both the perpetration of war and the perpetuation of its memory. At the same time, it also raises some questions about historical methodology that warrant consideration.

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Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography,” George Whitefield, and Early American Religion

"Portrait of Benjamin Franklin," by Joseph Duplessis, ca. 1785 (public domain), National Portrait Gallery, Washington

“Portrait of Benjamin Franklin,” by Joseph Duplessis, ca. 1785 (public domain), National Portrait Gallery, Washington

One engaging way to get a taste of eighteenth-century America is to read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. (You can buy countless editions on Amazon, or you can read it online for free at the Project Gutenberg website.) The Bostonian-turned-Philadelphia-printer is a classic story of a young working-class man who makes something of himself through hard work and industry.

In the Autobiography, one can discover much about British colonial America, from the dynamics of the economy and the dependence of the colonies on Great Britain to the politics of colonial life and the ongoing threat and reality of war in America. Franklin’s life touched on all kinds of issues in his day, making this primary source a valuable read. As one would expect, it also wades into questions of religion.

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New Release: The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia

Jonathan Edwards EncyclopediaThis month Eerdmans is releasing a landmark volume in Edwards studies: The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. This book is edited by the Jonathan Edwards Center luminaries Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Adriaan C. Neele, and it makes a substantial contribution to the field by helping those interested in Edwards to get acquainted with various aspects of his life, thought, and context.

It was a privilege for me to be able to contribute three essays to this work, all related to Edwards’s biblical interpretation: “Hermeneutics,” “Inspiration,” and “Scripture.” These form a very small piece of a much larger volume that deserves the attention of Edwards experts and students.

Here’s what other scholars are saying about the volume:

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Grammatical-Historical Exegesis in Historical Perspective

In his book Edwards the Exegete (see my review here), Doug Sweeney gives the following brief but illuminating description of the shift that took place with the rise of “grammatical-historical exegesis,” which holds sway in liberal-theological and many evangelical circles today:

As a host of theologians have bemoaned in recent years, Christians lost something crucial in the triumph of grammatical-historical exegesis and its rather new conception of the literal sense of Scripture. They lost their old conviction that the Bible hangs together by the power of the Spirit. Thus they lost their old facility for interpreting the scope and larger meanings of the canon. . . . Ancient history, not the knowledge and love of God has now become the holy grail of exegesis.[1]

In contrast, Sweeney suggests that Edwards, who was interpreting Scripture “on the edge of the Enlightenment,” can offer something that responds to this shift: “a learned and creative model of biblical exposition that is critical and edifying, historical and spiritual.”[2] Edwards is certainly not the only exegete to offer something. One could look to several biblical interpreters in church history and find examples of exegesis aimed at both the knowledge and the love of God. Edwards, however, is a particularly interesting example because he lived during a transition into more critical methods of reading the Bible, and yet while he found the new learning fascinating, he still read Scripture in ways that resonated with exegesis for centuries preceding him.

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A Review of Mark Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life

Mark Noll - In the Beginning Was the WordLiving in what some call a post-Christian society, one might expect the Bible to have receded from public life by this time. While it might still have some influence in small enclaves of believers, it would rarely be seen in the public discourse. And to some degree this is true. Yet even in recent presidential campaigns and inaugural addresses, the Bible still shows up. Its lingering influence points to a long, complex history of the Bible’s place in American public life.

Eminent religious historian Mark Noll traces the early part of this history in his book In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783 (Oxford University Press, 2016; source: publisher). So much could be said about the Bible in America, and Noll seeks to narrow his discussion by focusing on how the Bible influenced public life—that is, “to show how such influences shaped the history of Scripture for political, imperial, and national purposes” (5).

As one expects from Noll, he provides a very readable account of how Americans used the Bible in public discourse. Inevitably, he must be selective, and many aspects of the history of biblical interpretation stand beyond the scope of the volume (e.g., exploring debates over principles of exegesis, examining shifts in the commentarial tradition). But his selections form a coherent tale that illuminates the shifts within the increasingly sticky relationship between the Bible and politics. Noll gives us an overarching view of the story of the Bible in American public life and provides insightful historical analysis along the way.

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Jonathan Edwards as Faithful Proclaimer of God’s Word

CredoMarch2016-1Credo Magazine has released its March 2016 issue, titled Preach the Word: Preachers Who Changed the World. This issue discusses the preaching of Saint Augustine, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and it also features my article, “Jonathan Edwards: A Faithful Proclaimer of God’s Word.” Here’s a brief excerpt:

Dangling like a spider over tongues of fire. Standing before floodgates holding back furious waters. Targeted with an arrow waiting to be drunk with your blood. These images of the sinner’s condition have both captivated and horrified listeners and readers ever since Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) preached his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in the hot summer of 1741. Those who heard him give this sermon in Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8 of that year became so terrified that they screamed out in the middle of it, “Oh, I am going to Hell,” and “What shall I do to be Sav[e]d?” Their shrieking forced Edwards to stop preaching so he and the other pastors present could minister to the congregation.

While perhaps the most dramatic response to one of his sermons that Edwards ever encountered, this event was just one in a long preaching ministry stretching from 1720 to 1758. Edwards would eventually be remembered more for his contributions to theology, yet his preaching played an important role in promoting revival in his congregation and throughout New England.

Read the whole thing here.

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