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.
“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.
I was deeply privileged to contribute to a hefty book on historical theology that has just released: Reading Christian Theology in the Protestant Tradition. This volume, edited by Kelly Kapic and Hans Madueme, both professors at Covenant College, aims to introduce readers to some of the key figures and works in the history of theology.
To give you a sense of the work’s purpose, Kelly Kapic says this:
We know that most people don’t have the time to read thousands and thousands of pages, and yet a student of Protestant theology must become familiar with key authors and their works. Without such study they simply cannot begin to understand the dynamics of this tradition—or, more accurately, traditions. Therefore, in this volume we have chosen fifty-eight works that represent a reasonable set of selections from the past 2,000 years. (5)
Fourth-century Christianity is perhaps best remembered for the Trinitarian controversies that flared with the rise of Arius early on and continued until the Council of Constantinople in 381. In the East, some of the key figures involved in that controversy were the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. Lesser known is the life of Saint Macrina (ca. 327–379), the eldest sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, yet her faith influenced her brothers in profound ways. And her brother Gregory memorialized her in an account of her life, The Life of Saint Macrina, which offers readers today a portrait of female piety in the early church.
ECH: When and why did you begin writing?
Terry Glaspey: I’ve been interested in writing almost as long as I remember. In grade school I created little 12-page illustrated stories that I sold to classmates for a quarter. And writing papers was the part of high school and college that I enjoyed most. I got started writing books when someone asked me to turn a talk I had given into an article for their magazine. They liked the results, and I wrote several more for them, which eventually became my first book, Children of a Greater God. That was over twenty years ago.
ECH: How did you become involved in the subject matter of 75 Masterpieces?
Terry Glaspey: I’m someone who found his life enriched by the arts—by literature, music, the visual arts, and film. And I have always been interested in the intersection between faith and creativity; by the way that religious commitment can be reflected in various art forms. I appreciate the way that art has a way of giving fresh perspectives to the message of faith.
Once again, I want to commend Terry Glaspey’s balanced and well-thought-out list of 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (see my review here). The list covers practically all of history and various mediums of art and literature. It is in the latter centuries where I have some concerns and I want to suggest a couple of masterpieces I would have included instead.
Before I get started, there are some works that Glaspey addresses and that I would like to highlight. Jan Van Eck’s Adoration of the Lamb (1432) (75 Masterpieces, chapter 10) is truly a masterpiece. Installed in the Cathedral of Saint Bavo in Ghent, the twenty paneled altarpiece expands to eighteen feet and has a height of twelve feet.
The task of narrowing down centuries’ worth of “masterpieces” in a “best of” list is not one I would like to undertake. Deciding what is a masterpiece is a struggle in and of it itself, let alone having to provide a definitive list. Terry Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (Baker, 2015; source: publisher) is a balanced choice of art, literature, music, and film.
Following a chronological ordering, Glaspey begins with the Christian catacombs of Rome (75 Masterpieces, chapter 1). From the second century to the fifth, the underground maze served as a communal burial ground for Christians in times of peace and persecution. Images such as the good shepherd decorated these grounds as a sign of life after death.
Pope Francis has recently arrived in South Korea for a five-day visit. As a Korean and a Kia driver, I can confirm that his decision to ride in a Kia Soul was well-received.
This will be the pope’s first trip to Asia. The highpoint of the visit will be Saturday’s ceremony when Pope Francis will beatify the 124 Catholic martyrs who died from 1791-1888.
Last 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.
We’re two historians and graduates of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who are interested in Christianity, theology, and history. We embrace an evangelical identity and value scholarly endeavors to deepen our understanding of the world in which we live.
In this blog, we hope to reflect aloud on the Christian past to help others think clearly about those who have preceded us and how they have shaped our world today. We believe that engaging the past offers beneficial perspective for the present and the future.
We invite you to join us in exploring church history.
~ David P. Barshinger and Hoon J. Lee