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
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.
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.
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.
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