Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Tag: America

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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Social Learning in Colonial America

By Peter Pelham, artist (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/law/witt/images/lect3/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Pelham, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Postmodern Western culture is marked by individualism. It upholds the value of “thinking for oneself” and embraces the right of private judgment.

But that has not always been the case in America. In his biography of Cotton Mather, Rick Kennedy describes the social thrust of learning in seventeenth-century colonial America, whether in the homes of ministers or in the halls of Harvard. The contrast sheds light on our culture and suggests potential benefits with a more social approach to learning and thinking:

Increase Mather . . . probably advised his son that there had long been philosophers who disparaged [the] rules of social thinking. He could give many examples to his son of theologians and scholars who insisted on thinking for themselves, by themselves. On the other hand, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, and Quintilian had taught the necessity of learning the art of social thinking. They asserted that people think best in groups and within long traditions. First things first: an aspiring young scholar needs to learn the social arts of listening and appropriate trust.

. . . [At Harvard v]arious types of logic were taught to students in a multi-year, multi-layered system of classes and textbooks. These logic textbooks were most often titled either Logic or Dialectic, or, sometimes, The Art of Thinking. The Harvard curriculum placed a high value on teaching “reasonableness.” This felicitous term described something both bigger and softer than hard and narrow rationality. Cotton learned at Harvard that knowledge, like politics, was a fellowship.

Cotton learned in his logic classes that a lone and anti-social boy could be a great mathematician, a rational genius, and even a brilliant thinker, but no such boy could be the wise leader of a state or the pastor of a church. The most common analogy used for teaching reasonableness was courtroom jurisprudence: witnesses introduce external information into the court, prosecutors and defenders analyze the information, judges set rules of evidence and certainty, and a jury decides by consensus. Truth rises out of the interaction of many people. Jurisprudence—like the leading of a state, a church, or a family—was too important to leave up to a lone individual thinking rationally.[1]

This may raise questions in some minds about Mather’s role in the Salem witch trials, which was actually far more limited (he actually never attended any of the trials, though he preached at one execution) and much more moderate (he recommended personal care, not execution) than is commonly assumed. And that moderate approach was driven by this very social model of learning, drawing from the past and the aggregate of present witnesses who were known to be of reliable character. Kennedy clears this up in his book, which I have reviewed here.

But again, the point here is to recognize that Mather illustrates the general approach to gaining knowledge and discerning truth from error in seventeenth-century America, one that rested on a social rather than an individualistic model of learning. This social learning model raises cautions for a day when everyone is expected to have an opinion about everything, whether he or she is knowledgeable about a given topic or not (see Alan Jacobs’s striking comments along these same lines).

 

[1] Rick Kennedy, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather, Library of Religious Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 22.

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Sweeney’s “Edwards the Exegete” and “the Real Jonathan Edwards”

Edwards the ExegeteDouglas Sweeney - Edwards the Exegete represents a crowning achievement of a dozen years of studying Jonathan Edwards. Doug Sweeney, who was my doctoral advisor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and who runs a helpful blog on Edwards, has done Edwards scholars and followers a tremendous service in this volume, pulling back the curtain on a foundational aspect of Edwards’ life and thought that has generally been ignored. As Sweeney puts it succinctly, “We fail to comprehend Edwards’ life, thought, and ministry when viewing them apart from his biblical exegesis” (ix).

This monograph offers readers the first synthesis of Edwards’ exegesis across his entire corpus. Other volumes have explored aspects of Edwards’ corpus—particularly Stephen Stein’s fine introductions to Edwards’ biblical manuscripts printed in Yale University Press’s Works of Jonathan Edwards—or examined Edwards’ approach to particular parts of the canon. But Sweeney offers a truly groundbreaking study in analyzing the whole, based on a remarkable mastery of the primary and secondary literature on Edwards and his world, visible in the length and detail of the book’s notes.

As indicated by the volume title, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015; source: publisher), Sweeney aims to present Edwards in his broader exegetical and cultural context without outright commending or denigrating Edwards as a biblical exegete. He admits, “I am not an Edwardsean,” and he instead seeks to approach the topic “as a historian, . . . transport[ing] thoughtful readers into Edwards’ biblical world, helping them understand and sympathize with Edwards’ exegesis, from the inside out, before resuming critical distance and evaluating his work from a late-modern perspective” (ix). He accomplishes this goal well.

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Billy Graham, Evangelicalism, and America: A Review of Grant Wacker’s “America’s Pastor”

Grant Wacker - America's PastorMentioning the name Billy Graham evokes all kinds of responses. Deep respect for a faithful evangelist. Admiration for a life of unparalleled achievements. Anger toward a figure who failed to do what some subgroup wanted him to do. Disappointment over a man who appeared ever drawn to politics and presidents. Increasing ignorance of who he is.

While the sentiments toward Graham vary, of all these opinions, perhaps the most surprising—and least justifiable—is ignorance. But even if many pay less heed to Graham, who as of this writing is still kicking at age ninety-six, his legacy is palpable in evangelicalism and even American culture. So argues Grant Wacker in his masterfully written America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap, 2014; source: publisher).

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George Whitefield’s Preaching on the Holy Spirit

George_Whitefield_preaching (Joseph Belcher, 1857)In my previous post, I mentioned that John Owen devoted a great deal of time and energy to understanding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We see that emphasis fleshed out further in the rise of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century. One eminent evangelical who manifested that focus on the Spirit was the renowned preacher George Whitefield (1714–1770).

Whitefield was especially known for preaching the new birth message; that is, he frequently discoursed on the doctrine of regeneration. It’s no surprise, then, that he was also very interested in the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the agent of regeneration. And we see evidence of this fascination in his sermons.

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Americans and the Color of Christ

Blum and Harvey - The Color of ChristToday, if we ask the question, what color was Jesus?, we will most likely hear that he was dark or brown, like the color of a Middle Easterner. But in America, even if people recognize this likelihood, most envision a white Jesus in their mind’s eye. We, of course, have no known images of Jesus. So how did this view come about?

In The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), Edward Blum and Paul Harvey trace the differing visual portrayals of Jesus from the colonial era to our day. I recently listened to the audiobook version of this volume and found that they recount a fascinating—though, at times, disturbing—tale that brings out the diverse ways people have reimagined Jesus and used him for their own purposes in American history, often in ways with tragic racial consequences.

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American Evangelicalism and Education: Perspectives

J.G.MachenAmerican Evangelicals today debate the value of one form of education over another. Some see public education as a mission field; others decry it as both intellectually lacking and spiritually eroding. Some see private Christian schools as a sophisticated effort to nurture a well-rounded Christian worldview in children; others find them overpriced or uneven in quality. Some see homeschooling as the premier form of instilling family and faith values in one’s children; others charge it with being insular or infeasible.

To some degree, all of these claims resonate with reality. One will find positives and negatives with any school system. But that doesn’t make them all equal. Wherever one stands on these issues, it is interesting that two towering evangelical figures in the 1920s and 1940s highlighted the important role of education in a society while warning of the dangers of an unchecked state-run education system.

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) and Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003) wrote in the throes of Christianity’s displacement from mainstream American society—Machen during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies that led to several denominational splits and Henry during the postwar years. As Christianity’s influence in the U.S. diminished, they raised questions about the role of public education.

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Anne Bradstreet on Pilgrimage

Anne BradstreetWe live in a world of suffering, though those in the twenty-first–century West admittedly enjoy many material, medical, and technological luxuries that make life easier than it is for many around the world today. Still, when we suffer, our gut reaction is often to complain and ask, “Why?”

Nearly four hundred years ago, a Puritan housewife faced severe trials and suffering in the wilderness of colonial America. Anne Bradstreet (1612/3–1672) too sought answers about illnesses, traveling dangers, and the deaths of young grandchildren. As she reflected on the difficulties in her world, she framed her thoughts using the metaphor of pilgrimage.

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Remembering the Real Pilgrims and the History of Thanksgiving

Robert Tracy McKenzie - The First ThanksgivingTurkey, stuffing, family, freedom—all good things we associate with Thanksgiving. Yet as this national holiday approaches next week, many of us will remember a portrait of the Pilgrims that skews the actual people who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620.

In his book, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (IVP Academic, 2013), Robert Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College busts a number of myths about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. For example, the Pilgrims doubtfully wore silver buckles and stark black garb, instead avoiding anything resembling jewelry and gladly donning bright-colored clothes, especially at a celebration feast. Their Thanksgiving dinner would have lacked any sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. Rather than turkeys, they likely ate ducks, geese, and possibly even eels. These austere figures were also wont to wash down the meal with beer.

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Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield: Evangelical par Excellence

Thomas Kidd - George Whitefield CoverA few weeks ago, I reviewed Philip Jenkins’ book commemorating a major anniversary in 2014, the centennial of the launch of World War I. This year marks another important anniversary in religious history, the birth of George Whitefield three centuries ago. And Thomas Kidd, a colleague of Jenkins at Baylor University, has done us the service of writing a new biography of the great evangelical preacher, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014; source: publisher).

In this volume, Kidd approaches Whitefield as an academic historian who also identifies with Whitefield’s evangelical movement. He has “high regard” for Whitefield, but does not hesitate to share his warts (4). What one finds, then, is a narrative that sympathetically helps readers understand what motivated Whitefield’s indefatigable preaching of the gospel while setting the flawed itinerant in his context. It is this kind of balanced history that best guides readers in wrestling with the past in constructive ways.

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John Wesley, Hymns, and “Directions for Singing”

John WesleyIn Select Hymns: with Tunes Annext (1761), John Wesley included a short guide to singing this collection of Methodist hymns. Titled “Directions for Singing,” Wesley lays out seven principles when it comes to hymns.

 

 

 

 

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Sentimentality in American Evangelicalism: A Review of Homespun Gospel

Todd Brenneman - Homespun GospelVisit a Christian bookstore in America today, and you won’t have to search hard to find sentimental language. This reality is partly what led Todd Brenneman, Assistant Professor of Christian History at Faulkner University, to write his book, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). In Homespun Gospel Brenneman seeks to plot the influence of nineteenth-century sentimentality on American evangelicalism today.

Much of Brenneman’s study is driven by the sense that “most evangelicals have abandoned the life of the mind in favor of a religious life of emotion” (4) and thus that scholars have overemphasized categories of belief in their discussion of evangelicals. That is, Brenneman suggests that definitions of evangelicals (e.g., the Bebbington quadrilateral) rely too heavily on trying to identify shared doctrinal commitments and instead should look at practice and emotion.

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Engaging Jon Meacham and John Fea on Religion and Politics in America

Jon Meacham - American GospelLast week, a divided Supreme Court ruled to allow town boards to begin their sessions with prayer. Tellingly, both the majority and minority opinions, written by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagen, respectively, appealed to the founding fathers to support their views for and against prayer in town board meetings.

Appeals to history to support contemporary political opinions are not going away anytime soon. So what does America’s founding have to say about religion in the U.S. today? This question continues to be debated from our local schools to the highest levels of our government.

In considering this question, I’d like to engage two noteworthy discussions that seek to provide historical perspective on our nation’s founding: Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House, 2006)—which I listened to in its audiobook version—and John Fea’s Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2011). Both Meacham and Fea address the Christian America thesis, yet they approach the question from different angles.

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