“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.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation saw a plethora of works which commemorated the birth of Protestantism. Naturally, many of these works address in some way Martin Luther and the posting of the 95 Theses. As the catalyst, Luther’s action set in motion a reform that developed not only a break from the Roman Catholic Church but numerous Protestant branches.
Making sense of these various Protestant traditions is no small matter. For example, when looking at two of the largest traditions that came out of the Reformation, Lutheran and Reformed, on which theological issues do they find commonality and how are their differences significant? If you have ever struggled with these types of issues, Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology (Baker Academic 2017; source: publisher) may be the book for you.
The history of the church is long. Unfortunately, our modern reception often goes through a Marcionian filter that weeds out vast portions of our heritage. Particularly, the church fathers are neglected due to their unfamiliarity or refusal to fit nicely into our evangelical box.
Bryan M. Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Baker Academic, 2016, 2nd ed.; source: publisher) attempts to reverse this trend. The focus of the work is to introduce the church fathers to a wide evangelical audience. For Litfin, the key to understanding the church fathers is to look beyond just a doctrinal treatment of the fathers, but also to learn of their context and how they lived out their theology.
Mentioning 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).
A 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.
When we think about the eighteenth-century transatlantic revivals known as the Great Awakening, we tend to think about names like George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley. These important figures helped to shape the revivals and the evangelical movement through their preaching and theology in significant ways.
In Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013; source: publisher), Catherine Brekus reminds us about other figures who shaped evangelicalism and its revivals, specifically women like Sarah Osborn. In fact, Osborn not only converted to an evangelical faith in the midst of the 1740s awakenings, exhibiting the effects of the revivals on laypeople on the ground, but led a notable revival herself based out of her house in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1760s.
Brekus artfully uses Sarah’s story both to describe early American Christianity from a creative angle and to illustrate the broader contours of the evangelical movement in its nascent years. To do so, she discusses Sarah Osborn’s life and faith journey at the intersection of evangelicalism and the Enlightenment. And the reader finds an engaging narrative set alongside incisive analysis of the rise of evangelical Christianity.
Mark Noll is renowned for his significant contributions to American religious history. He is also known as the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in which he made the stinging critique, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (3).
In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, his follow-up volume to Scandal almost two decades later, Noll presents a more hopeful (though not completely rosy) picture and seeks to draw on Christian theology as a resource to guide scholars in developing a rich intellectualism.
Visit 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.
The spiritual classics are an elusive category of works that span the history of Christianity. For some, they are celebrated for their notoriety and mysterious nature but in practicality are read only in passing quotes and snippets. For others, the mention of such works results in a rolling of the eyes and scoffs that such esoteric works, and at times contrary to orthodox theology, would be meaningful for today. Perhaps for the majority of us, the spiritual classics have been woefully neglected simply due to our unfamiliarity and hesitation towards them.
Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics (IVP, 2013) is an apologetic for the continued reading of the spiritual classics. In its four sections the work sets out to answer the why, how, what, and who of the spiritual classics. More than merely opening the door for readers to peruse the classics, the authors exhort readers to examine them as formative to contemporary theology, soul care, and edification.
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