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.
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.
“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.
This 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:
Whenever people mention the Salem Witch Trials, they tend to vilify anyone even remotely connected with them. Whenever people mention Cotton Mather, they tend to associate him with the Salem Witch Trials and summarily dismiss him. In reality, life is far more complex than either of these broad-brush strokes of the past suggest, and one of the great benefits of the historical discipline is that it helps us appreciate that complexity—it helps us understand.
In The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans, 2015), Rick Kennedy helps us understand Cotton Mather and taste the complexity of his life and world. For starters, Cotton Mather played a far lesser role in the Salem Witch Trials than is commonly assumed—while he preached one of the execution sermons, he never attended the trials and actually recommended a more hands-on, reparative approach to those charged with being witches. He was certainly more moderate than has been suggested.
Beyond this event, Mather’s life was filled with a fair bit of drama. Here we find a man who experienced tremendous loss. He buried two wives and thirteen of his fifteen children. He also was thwarted more than once from his ambition to become president of Harvard. And he failed to secure a publisher for what became his largest work, his Biblia Americana, a compendium of notes on the Bible (though this book is now seeing the light of publication). Despite these disappointments, Kennedy paints a portrait of a joyful, generous man who gave himself to loving people and to learning as much as he could. Kennedy thinks it is best to “embrace” Mather (xiii), and though he could bring out more of Mather’s foibles, Kennedy’s book is a delightful way to get to know the man Cotton Mather.
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.
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).
Today, 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.
American 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.
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.
Take Protestantism, drop it in the American context, and what do you get? A proliferation of schisms and denominations.
Protestantism broke off of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and quickly formed different streams of Protestants after Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli failed to find agreement over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Fast forward to the early years of the United States when the young republic disestablished religion, and there you find Christian sects—and some not so Christian—forming even more rapidly.
Now in the twenty-first century, with the vast diversity of Protestant denominations, one wonders what unifies this colorful array of Christians? Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan, and Robert Peterson suggest that denominationalism is not essentially at odds with evangelical unity, and in their book, Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity (Crossway, 2013), they probe this question from several angles, pooling the insight of evangelicals in several denominations to offer a helpful foray into the tension of unity and diversity in the church today.