Some Historical Perspective on the “Right to Bear Arms”


The blog “Age of Revolutions” has published a very informative forum on the eighteenth-century meaning of the Second Amendment.  Check out essays by Bryan Banks, Robert Churchill, Andrew Fagal, and Eliga Gould.

Here is a taste of Gould’s wrap-up piece: “Bordering on the Frivolous?: The Right to Bear Arms Yesterday and Today.”

As I read the stimulating essays in this forum by Robert Churchill, Andrew Fagal, and Noah Shusterman, my thoughts kept turning to the late Antonin Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the landmark case in which five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices affirmed an individual right to bear arms.  In particular, one phrase stood out: “bordering on the frivolous.”  For anyone who hasn’t read the opinion, this is how the famously combative justice dealt with the proposition “that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment.” “We do not interpret constitutional rights that way,” explained Scalia.[1]  Case closed. 

But history is rarely so clear cut.  As this forum reminds us, the right to bear arms during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was quite different from what it is today.  The most obvious difference was technological, which is the subject of Andrew Fagal’s excellent contribution.  In 1791, the year that the Second Amendment was ratified — and a year before Joseph Gaston Chambers first pitched the idea of a repeating gun to the U.S. War Department — the typical firearm was a muzzle-loaded flintlock.  When the bore was smooth, muskets could be loaded and discharged up to three times a minute, but they were notoriously inaccurate.  Rifles had the opposite problem.  Although projectiles fired from grooved bores could kill and maim across great distances, friction from the rifling made reloading a laborious, time-consuming process.  No wonder that inventors and entrepreneurs saw such potential in guns like Chambers’ multi-barreled musket.  It is also unsurprising, though, that their schemes repeatedly failed.  For the Second Amendment’s framers, the idea of a firearm that could discharge twenty rounds a minute was just that:  an idea.

Because of these limitations, eighteenth-century guns were most effective when fired collectively in mass volleys, something only a regular army or well-regulated militia could consistently do.  Although John Locke did not have much to say about bearing arms, pro or con, this may be one reason why the English philosopher was so untroubled — as Robert Churchill perceptively observes — about the possibility that giving the people a right to change their government would allow malcontents to foment civil unrest.  Having lived through both of England’s seventeenth-century revolutions, Locke had seen how vulnerable the Stuarts were to armed resistance.  But in an era when guns were cumbersome to use, using them effectively required training and discipline that only a government body could provide.  Even in New England, where armed citizens took the lead in resisting the king’s soldiers in 1775, the Minutemen who fought at Concord’s North Bridge and Bunker Hill were organized, trained and, often, equipped by town governments.  The danger of a lone shooter making his own law was a danger that neither Locke nor the authors of the Second Amendment had to worry about.  Only with the perfection of multi-chambered rifles and pistols, most famously by Samuel Colt during the 1830s and 1840s, did firearms become a truly lethal form of personal empowerment.

Read the entire post here.

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week:

  1. The Liberty University Student Body Calls Our Falwell Jr.
  2. Donald Trump May Crash a Party Thrown by Christian Historians
  3. Trump Evangelicals May Have Forfeited Their Right to Speak to the Moral Coarseness of American Culture
  4. InterVarsity Press and Society of Biblical Literature Issue a Joint Statement
  5. Wait, Has Eric Metaxas Become a Prophet of God?
  6. It’s Official: Trump Will Crash a Party of Christian Historians on Saturday
  7. What James Dobson Said in 1988 About Moral Character and the Presidency
  8. Jerry Falwell Jr. Responds to “Liberty United Against Trump”
  9. Charles Marsh on the “Bonhoeffer Delusions” of Eric Metaxas
  10. Bruce Springsteen Talks Catholicism on “Fresh Air”

We are Only NOW Realizing That Our Democracy is in Trouble?

Final Presidential Debate Between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Held In Las Vegas

At Wednesday night’s debate Donald Trump refused to say that he would concede the election to Hillary Clinton if she defeats him in November.  Then yesterday he said that he would accept the election results, but only if he wins.

The media is going crazy over Trump’s remarks.  Last night on CNN,  historian Douglas Brinkley, political adviser David Gergen, and law professor Alan Dershowitz were talking about how Trump’s comments, if he acts on them, undermine American democracy.  These commentators and others are correct.  The peaceful transition of power is vital to the success of American democracy.  On November 8 the people will speak through the ballot box.  They will elect Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  Democracy works when the loser concedes to the will of the people.

What strikes me the most is that the media is just waking up to the fact that our democracy might be in trouble.

Let’s remember that for a democracy to thrive, citizens need to learn how to live together with their differences.  Today, sociologists, cultural critics, and public intellectuals often connect the success of democratic life to the cultivation of a civil society.  A civil society is one in which citizens foster a sense of community amid their differences.  Such a society, as writer Don Eberly describes it, “draws Americans together at a time of social isolation and fragmentation.”  A successful democracy rests on our ability to forge these kinds of connections and behave in a civil manner toward one another.

A democracy needs citizens–individuals who understand that their own pursuits of happiness must operate in tension with obligations and responsibilities to a larger community.  Citizens realize that their own success, fate, and ability to flourish as humans are bound up with the lives of others.  Such commitment to the common good requires citizens who are able to respect, as fellow humans and members of the same community, those with whom they might disagree on some of life’s most important issues.  It requires empathy, the willingness to imaginatively walk in the shoes of our neighbor.  As Mary Ann Glendon puts it, “A democratic republic needs an adequate supply of citizens who are skilled in the arts of deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, and reason-giving.”

The sixteenth-century writer Montaigne once said, “Every man calls evil what he does not understand.”  Our everyday lives will always be filled with disagreements and misunderstandings, but a democratic society will survive only if we are able to live civilly with them.  We are correct to believe that in the United States we have a “right” to our opinions and beliefs, but there are also times when we must rise above private interests and temporarily sacrifice our rights for the greater good of the larger community.  Such a view of the common good, which the late Pope John Paul II called “solidarity,” requires that we see others, even those who we may believe are “evil,” as neighbors and “sharer[s] on par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.”  To put an alternative spin on Montaigne’s quote, “The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.”

Because we all have our own views and opinions, civil society requires conversation.  We may never come to an agreement on what constitutes the “common good.,” but we can all commit ourselves to sustaining democracy by talking to and engaging with another.  As author and activist Parker Palmer puts it, “Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change.  Partisanship is not a problem. Demonizing the other side is.”

The inner working of this kind of democracy is described best by the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of DemocracyHis description of the mechanics of democratic conversation is with citing in full:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead.  We have to enter imaginatively into our opponents argument, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade.  Argument is risky and unpredictable, there educational.  Most of us tend to think of it…as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground.  But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents.  They are won by changing opponents’ minds–something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments.  In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

These are the virtues necessary for a democracy to thrive.  I am glad that the media is talking about the fate of democracy.  The peaceful transition of power is important, but there is so much more needed to making democracy work.

(This piece is drawn partially from my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

Pro-Life Family Physician: Trump Is Not Our Man


Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who works at hospital for women and children in South Sudan.  He is pro-life and believes that Donald Trump will do more to harm the pro-life movement than Hillary Clinton.

Here is a piece he published today at the conservative The Federalist:

If Hillary Clinton is taking shots at the culture of life from the outside, Donald Trump is a rot poisoning us from the inside. Any time he has spoken about abortion (which is not often, indicating how unimportant the cause is to him), he has only managed to embarrass the pro-life cause by associating himself with it. Some have suggested that Trump will be held in check or redirected by the “good people” he has surrounded himself with. But he has only managed to corrupt and debase those associated with him. He talks about “the evangelicals” like a pimp who owns them. In turn, far too many pro-lifers have acted like the Biblical character of Oholibah, who prostituted herself to pagan political powers in exchange for protection.

The most pro-life argument for Donald Trump revolves around his promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, who would at some point find some way to overturn Roe v. Wade. But in the words of Leon Wolf, “If you believe that Trump has actual pro-life principles or that he will honor any sort of pledge to only appoint pro-life justices, then you have to be one of the most monumental suckers who has ever lived.” Trump’s promises to the pro-life movement are as worthless as a Trump University degree or one of his previous marriage contracts. There is simply no pro-life case for Trump.

But even in the best-case scenario, where Trump does win and does appoint a Supreme Court justice or two that’s favorable to the pro-life cause, his foolish antics will undoubtedly punish down-ballot Republicans in the next few election cycles (assuming that they aren’t battered hard enough this November). With Trump as the de facto standard bearer for the pro-life movement, any anti-abortion measures will have to overcome the gravitational force of his sleaziness to get anywhere. Despite claims that Trump would be a life preserver for the pro-life movement, he is a millstone around our neck. The only way to survive is to let go and keep swimming.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Jennifer Goloboy

CharlestonandtheEmergenceofMiddleClassCultureintheRevolutionaryAmerica.jpgJennifer Goloboy is an independent scholar based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This interview is based on her new book, Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: The project originally started because of a graduate school class I took with David Hancock, in which we read the Henry Laurens papers.  I was fascinated by Laurens as an exemplar of the eighteenth-century middle class.   He had a rigidly hierarchical view of the world.  He demonstrated a weird blend of public sanctimony and private willingness to betray his own principles, especially when engaged in the slave trade. 

When Prof. Hancock told the class there weren’t any other collections of letters from Charleston’s merchants that were as interesting as the Henry Laurens papers, I took it as a personal challenge.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: My book is designed to help us clarify what we mean by “middle-class” in Early America.  Focusing on merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, it shows how the economic impact of the post-Revolutionary transition shaped middle-class culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era?

JG: For readers interested in class in early America, my book is unusual in that it focuses on work rather than the home as a cradle of middle-class culture.  Charleston’s merchants used shared cultural assumptions to connect with their business partners.  These assumptions changed over time.  Before the Revolution, the ideal merchant was deferential and polite; the post-Revolutionary merchant was a rowdy sport willing to do anything to serve a client; and the cotton-port merchant was a professional and an institution-builder.                  

Readers interested in Charleston will remember that historians have rarely written about the city between the end of the Revolution and the late 1810s.  So there’s been a mysterious and unexplained transition in local behavior: before the Revolution, a happy participant in British mercantilism, but after the gap, disdainful of trade.  This book argues that Charlestonians distrusted merchants because of a forgotten post-Revolutionary bubble, based partly on the slave trade and neutral trading with the Caribbean, which ended disastrously because of the War of 1812.  This is important because antebellum Charleston was so central to Southern intellectual history; we need to know that resentment of mercantile outsiders was not a natural product of the cotton empire.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JG: I really became interested in history when I realized that the point was not to eulogize heroes of the past, but to explain the distinct internal worlds of our ancestors.  I was a big fan of the “If You Lived In” series as a kid— and now I torment my poor children by telling them what “If You Lived In Colonial Times” left out.

JF: What is your next project?

JG: As I was researching this project, I realized how much we still have to learn about American trade in the years before the War of 1812.  They’re exciting years in economic history: lots of smuggling, lots of semi-licit trade between Europe and the Caribbean.  Stephen Girard, as one of the most important merchants of his era, kept track of the goings-on in all the ports touched by his business— I intend to use his papers to clarify this confusing era.

JF: Thanks, Jennifer!

InterVarsity Press and Society of Biblical Literature Issue a Joint Statement


Last night I posted on a report that the Society of Biblical Literature is banning InterVarsity Press from displaying books at its forthcoming meeting.  This morning I learned about a joint statement–yes a JOINT statement–put out by IVP and SBL.

I am encouraged by this statement.  Some of the concerns I expressed in my post last night still stand (about principled pluralism), but I am encouraged.  The statement corrects some misconceptions and illustrates the kind of dialogue on this matter that I hope will result in the SBL permitting IVP to display books at its next conference

Here is the statement:

InterVarsity Press Publisher Jeff Crosby has confirmed that the Society of Biblical Literature’s Council, at its next meeting on October 29-30, is taking up the question of IVP Academic’s right to exhibit at the 2017 annual meetings of the jointly-hosted AAR-SBL. That conversation is a part of a larger discussion the SBL Council will have regarding its protocols and standards for exhibitors at its events.

Crosby was notified of this intent in a letter of October 12, 2016 from John Kutsko, SBL’s executive director, who made clear that it is a question — not a decision — regarding whether or not IVP Academic will continue to have access to the exhibit space.

“I have been grateful for the cordial conversations I’ve had with John Kutsko of SBL, and appreciate the many complexities a person in his role is navigating at any given time,” Crosby said. “For 70 years, IVP has been committed to fostering dialogue and a robust exchange of ideas. All of us who represent the IVP Academic program genuinely hope the Council will continue to make room for the particularity of the discourse that IVP Academic brings to the theological academy via SBL’s annual events. Indeed, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature gatherings have been an essential component for our academic program for more than three decades.”

“While many concerned scholars have commented on social media and by email about a supposed ban of InterVarsity Press from exhibiting at the SBL-AAR Annual Meeting, IVP has not been banned or limited in any way at the Annual Meeting or for other matters relating to SBL. At its meeting later this month, the SBL Council will discuss protocols and standards for exhibitors and other groups associated with SBL in the context of ongoing discussions involving academic freedom and the disciplinary standards of discourse the organization fosters. Indeed, IVP was invited to contribute to this conversation. Further, SBL was not speaking for the American Academy of Religion, though any protocols for exhibitors would be drafted in conjunction with it. Finally, SBL values the contribution of IVP, and many SBL members have published with the Press,” John F. Kutsko, Executive Director, Society of Biblical Literature, said.

Report: Society of Biblical Literature Bans InterVarsity Press From Selling Books at Annual Meeting


Here is Rod Dreher at The American Conservative:

This is extraordinary. The Society of Biblical Literature describes itself like this:

Mission, Visions, and Values
The following Mission Statement and Strategic Vision Statements were adopted by the SBL Council May 16, 2004, and revised October 23, 2011.

Mission Statement:
Foster Biblical Scholarship

Strategic Vision Statement:
Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.* As an international organization, the Society offers its members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development through the following:

  • Advancing academic study of biblical texts and their contexts as well as of the traditions and contexts of biblical interpretation
  • Collaborating with educational institutions and other appropriate organizations to support biblical scholarship and teaching
  • Developing resources for diverse audiences, including students, religious communities, and the general public
  • Facilitating broad and open discussion from a variety of critical perspectives
  • Organizing congresses for scholarly exchange
  • Publishing biblical scholarship
  • Promoting cooperation across global boundaries

Here are what the SBL says are its “core values,” in a statement revised in 2011:


Openness to Change




Respect for Diversity

Critical Inquiry

Scholarly Integrity



You might wonder why an academic organization devoted to Biblical scholarship holds as its core values “respect for diversity,” “openness to change,” “inclusivity,” and “tolerance”? Isn’t this just one of those typically euphemistic liberal ways of saying, “No Biblical scholars who don’t accept progressive views on LGBT issues allowed”?

Why yes, apparently, it is. SBL has reportedly banned InterVarsity Press from having a booth at the 2017 SBL convention in Boston because of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent decision to hold firmly to orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality, and to ask employees who dissent to resign.

Read the entire piece and the links for the full context.

Here is another piece on the topic from World magazine.  If someone is aware of any other posts or articles please let me know.

I am holding judgment on this story until I get some more information.  Certainly the Society of Biblical Literature is not suggesting that men and women and organizations (IVCF) who believe that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman should be banned from their annual meeting.  There must be more to the story.

InterVarsity Press publishes some great books.  Some excellent historians and theologians have published with the press, including Mark Noll, Tracy McKenzie, Harry Stout, David Bebbington, Thomas Oden, Douglas Sweeney, Justo Gonzalez, Crystal Downing, Alister McGrath, Gerald McDermott, Roger Olson, G.R. Evans, Brian Stanley, Richard Mouw, and Kevin Vanhoozer.  I don’t know what most of these authors think about gay marriage, but it would be a shame if their scholarship is banned from the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meetings.

I am also an InterVarsity Press author.  I wrote the foreword to John Wilsey’s excellent American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea

I mentioned the American Academy of Religion above.  They have not made any announcement yet on the fate of IVP.   I have never been to a meeting of the AAR, but in November there will be an entire session at this conference devoted to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyTo be honest, I am not sure what to think about attending a conference that plans to have an entire session on one of my books, but will not allow another book with my name on the title to be displayed in the book exhibit.

Let me be clear:  For me this whole thing is not a matter of the correct definition of marriage.  It is a matter of principled pluralism or what George Marsden describes as a “more inclusive pluralism.”

I need to think this through a bit more and, as I mentioned above, gather more information.

New Insight on the Falwell Jr. Censorship Case


We reported on this yesterday.  It seems as if the story is more complicated than the original piece in the Daily Beast. 

Here is a taste of a helpful piece by Ariana Rowlands at Refined Right:

According to an Oct. 18 piece published by The Daily Beast, Liberty University censored an article critical of Donald Trump from its weekly student newspaper. The author of the piece in question, Joel Schmieg, was allegedly told that his piece had been censored by university president Jerry Falwell Jr. for its political bias against Trump. Due to the presence of two articles about Trump, Schmeig’s piece was cut from publication in the Oct. 18 issue of Liberty Champion.

In the article, Schmieg recounts having been read the contents of an email from Falwell: “the gist was that there were two articles this week about Trump.”

While Falwell did make the decision to cut Schmieg’s piece, he actually initially chose to run the piece, later telling Refined Right he chose to run a piece that was “not [by] a staff member, but rather an independent reader.”

“The paper already had a letter that was very similar in content supporting Hillary Clinton and condemning Trump for the 2005 video,” Falwell told Refined Right. “The two letters were redundant and space was limited so an editorial decision was made to go with the other letter written by a medical student [who was not on staff.]”

While Schmieg does have a weekly sports column in the paper, his article critical of Trump was submitted in lieu of his regular column, as an opinion piece.

“Please include the names and we only need one column about Trump’s videotape.” Falwell’s first email read. “Get rid of the last one by the medical student and replace with a column from an undergrad on some other topic (if you have any).”

Falwell followed up a few minutes later: “On second thought, keep the column by the medical student and get rid of the one by the male athlete about the videotape.”

Read the entire piece, including the e-mails in question, here.

Report: Jerry Falwell Jr. Puts the Kibosh on Anti-Trump Article in Student Newspaper

Trump and FalwellLast week when students at Liberty University spoke out against  Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support for the candidacy of Donald Trump, Falwell dismissed them as a minority group on campus with no real influence among the student body.  He also said that he was “proud” of these students for engaging in the political process.  Falwell likes to tout the fact that Liberty provides space for all political positions.  Indeed, in the last year or so Liberty has hosted Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Falwell has said repeatedly that his endorsement of Donald Trump was a personal endorsement and did not represent the official position of Liberty University.  It is hard to take this statement seriously since Trump courted Falwell’s endorsement precisely because he was president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world.

All of this is necessary context for a Daily Beast report claiming that Falwell vetoed an anti-Trump article in the Liberty student newspaper.  Read all about it here.

The Daily Beast has printed the article that Falwell would not allow to appear in the student newspaper.  Here it is:

As a former male athlete, I know exactly what high school guys talk about when they think they are alone. It absolutely can be vulgar and objectifying to women. But here’s the thing — I have never in my life heard guys casually talk about preying on women in a sexual manner.

Trust me, I hated the way the guys talked on the field during practice or in the halls at school. It was downright dirty. Some would call it “locker room talk.” In other words, guys talking about the things they supposedly did with their girls. The conversation never turned to the things they were going to do to a girl.

While I do not condone premarital sexual activity, guys talking about the things they do with their girlfriends is part of today’s culture. On the other hand, when a guy talks about what they are going to do to a girl, that is when it is no longer locker room talk, but pre-meditated sexual assault.

Some examples of this kind of talk are “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” This is not a joke. Men do not casually say things like this. This is not locker room talk.

Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to excuse the terrible things they or others have said.

If a high school male was heard talking like this, I would hope appropriate action would be taken. This might involve counseling and some sort of punishment. Not because punishment would magically fix what he said, but to ensure he understands the severity of what he said. So he understands that sexual assault is not a joke. So he understands that women are to be cherished, not spoken of as property.

But when an adult in his late ‘50s says things like “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” that should be a major red flag. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” Luke 6:45.

The things that come out of a man’s mouth when his guard is down is probably what is in his heart.

With that said, everyone deserves forgiveness for things that seem to be in the past. But in this instance, the words said do not seem to truly be in the past. He was never accosted for his atrocious words. And most importantly, it seems the words spoken are par for the course.

Donald Trump may have issued an apology for the words he said, but the fact that he can brush them off with a description of “locker room talk,” tells me that he does not believe what he said is truly bad. It tells me that this man says things like this all the time, because it is casual talk to him.

Ladies, please hear me when I say the words spoken by Trump are not normal. That is not what decent men talk about. Not even in high school. You mean so much more than that, and you deserve so much better than that.

Donald Trump May Crash a Party Thrown by Christian Historians

regentBREAKING NEWS: A reliable source has informed me that Donald Trump may be holding a rally on Saturday, October 22, 2016 at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

This should be interesting since the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History will be held October 20-22 at Regent.  Stay tuned.  This should be interesting.  See you there.

Trump aside, this is going to be a great conference.  On Thursday afternoon I will be giving the luncheon address to the students attending and presenting papers at the undergraduate conference.  The topic of my talk will be “What Can You Do With a History Major?”

If you are in the area I encourage you to come to Virginia Beach for the conference.  Speakers that might interest the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home include (but are certainly not limited to) Thomas Kidd, Jay Green, Kate Bowler, Veronica Gutierrez, John Wilsey, Jonathan Den Hartog, David Swartz, Luke Harlow, Bob Elder, Elesha Coffman, Andrew Turpin, Peggy Bendroth, Rick Pointer, Ed Blum, Darryl Hart, John Turner, Eric Miller, Joel Carpenter, Rick Kennedy,  Rachel Cope, Timothy Larsen, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Karen Swallow Prior, John Fry, Jeff Webb, Curtis Johnson, Tracy McKenzie, Don Yerxa, Michael Hamilton, Wilfred McClay, Beth Allison Barr, Doug Sweeney, Steven Keillor, Fred Beuttler, Daniel K. Williams, Michael Lee,  Josh McMullen, Dick Pierard, Glenn Sanders, Beth Barton Schweiger, Melissa Harkrider, Rusty Hawkins, Jonathan Yeager, T.J. Tomlin, Kathryn Long, Matt Hedstrom, Mark Edwards, Brad Gundlach, Jim LaGrand, Todd Brenneman, Susan Fletcher, Mark Norris, Barry Hankins, and Colin Chapell.

The Incarnation and Christian Liberal Arts

52c2c-boyerhallI was thinking about the Christian doctrine of the incarnation today.  For those unfamiliar, the incarnation is the historic Christian belief that God revealed Himself to the world (or incarnated Himself) in the form of a man (Jesus Christ).

The school where I teach, Messiah College, affirms the following in its statement of faith:

God speaks to us in many different ways, times and places but is uniquely revealed to all the world in Jesus of Nazareth who was fully human and fully divine.

If we believe this, how might it shape the culture of a Christian college?  As historian Mark Noll has argued, most forcefully in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, the incarnation implies that the stuff of this world is important to God.  The world is important to God because it was the place where He decided to uniquely reveal Himself.

The Christian scriptures teach that human beings–in the flesh–are important because they are created in the image of God and because God revealed himself in human form.

What are the implications of this belief?  What might it say about online courses in which students are not bodily present with the instructor in a flesh and blood learning community?  What might it say about MOOCs or other forms of course delivery in which professors are not bodily present and where students are passive consumers of information as they sit behind computer screens?

I like this older piece from Christian philosopher Jerry Gill.  Here is a taste:

Although there is room for, indeed a need for, a wide variety of professorial styles within the college setting, the sine qua non of an educator is the ability to communicate through embodiment. Presenting ideas and questions clearly, listening attentively, evidencing continued growth, and integrating faith in learning are priorities. Such criteria place a necessary premium on selectivity in faculty recruitment. Moreover, continual faculty development must provide models and skills for educational growth. Here again it is the fruits that count – learning as participation rather than as accumulation.

From the student’s perspective, the living-out of an incarnational approach to education will involve active participation in the learning process. The passive reception of information and someone else’s ideas does not constitute education any more than merely giving mental assent to a set of doctrines constitutes Christian faith. Students must take responsibility for their own education as well as for their faith. They must search and sift, think and feel, create and synthesize; moreover, they too must apply and incorporate their learning in order for it to become an actuality.

Just thinking out loud.  Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Charles Marsh on the “Bonhoeffer Delusions” of Eric Metaxas

a6441-marshAs some of you know, evangelical writer and culture warrior Eric Metaxas has invoked 20th-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to buttress his argument that evangelical Christians should vote for Donald Trump in November.

Metaxas is not the only Bonhoeffer biographer out there.  Charles Marsh of the University of Virginia has also recently published a biography of Bonhoeffer.  Over at Religion & Politics Marsh has responded to Metaxas’s use of the German theologian in the debates over how evangelicals should vote.  Here is a taste:

WHAT MIGHT BONHOEFFER make of his “Moment” in American politics? Born in 1906 into a prodigiously humanist family, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had rarely discussed politics in his university years; when he had, it was mostly in response to his brothers, who, radicalized by the Great War, never missed an opportunity to butt heads concerning the finer points of the Weimar government or the morality of its democratic reforms. A university friend complained of Bonhoeffer’s inclination to escape into ethereal regions of “comprehensive” ideas and thus “avoid the murk and mists of boiling-hot politics.” Indeed, during Bonhoeffer’s postdoctoral year at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, there is not even mention in his notes or letters of what was the lead item in the Times on the day of his arrival: “Fascists Make Big Gains in Germany.”

This changed during that transformative year in America. Between August 1930 in May 1931 Bonhoeffer would journey into new regions of experience: into the tenement buildings of New York, into the Harlem Renaissance, into the Deep South weeks after the Scottsboro Boys went to trial, into a six-month immersion in the black church in Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem. He spent time with the National Women’s Trade Union League and the Workers Education Bureau of America; he wrote notes on the labor movement, poverty, homelessness, crime, and the social mission of the churches. He met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union, the nation’s premier defender of civil liberties, which after its founding in 1920 had focused heavily on the rights of conscientious objectors and on the protection of resident aliens from deportation. After returning to Berlin, he told his older brother that Germany needed an ACLU of its own. And in the spring of 1931, Bonhoeffer took a road trip through the heart of the Jim Crow South, after which he wrote that he had heard the Gospel preached in “the church of the outcasts of America.” In these unfamiliar regions, among a nearly forgotten generation of American radicals and reformers, Bonhoeffer found the courage to reexamine every aspect of his vocation as theologian and pastor and to embark upon what he would call “the turning from the phraseological to the real.” No other thinker in the modern era crosses quite so many boundaries while yet remaining exuberantly—and one must always add—generously Christian. This is why his story has attracted both liberals and evangelicals, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews, church-goers and secularists alike, people of all faiths. What all admire is Bonhoeffer’s indisputably authentic witness to the dignity of life.

In the end, Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer resembles no one so much as Metaxas.

Read the rest here.

Alan Taylor: “We honor the founders best by sustaining their debates over core principles of government.”


As a historian, I think it is fair to say that there is much about the 2016 presidential race that is unprecedented. But, as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor reminds us, even the founding fathers fought bitterly over the best way to secure a bright future for the United States.

Here is a taste of his recent New York Times op-ed: “Our Feuding Founding Fathers.”

Instead of offering a single, cohesive and enduring vision for America, the founders were diverse and squabbling. They generated contradictory political principles that persist to our own day. Instead of offering us an antidote to our divisions, those clashing founders created them.

Our early politics were so edgy and shrill because the stakes involved were so high, as leaders and their followers struggled to define the revolution and Constitution. The union of states and the republican form of government were new, tenuous, vulnerable and open to debate. It was easy to imagine one’s political rivals as ominous threats to free government. When Mr. Trump accuses Mrs. Clinton of cofounding the Islamic State, he echoes the recklessness with which Hamilton associated Jefferson with the bloody Jacobins of the French Revolution.

We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized. In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Smithsonian Turns to American Religion

manseauGood news on the American religious history front.  The National Museum of American History has hired a curator in American religion.  Congratulations to Peter Manseau.

Here is the press release:

The role of religion in the formation and development of the United States is at the heart of a new multiyear initiative launching at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Nov. 5. Beginning with a program series on sacred music in American life, this comprehensive religion initiative will be led by Peter Manseau, who has been named the museum’s Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History. It will include collecting, researching, documenting and exhibiting materials as well as presenting programs reflective of the country’s diverse religious traditions.  

A $5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. provides for a permanent curator of religion in the museum’s Home and Community Life division and a five-year multifaceted program consisting of scholarship, future exhibition planning and performances exploring religious faith through music and theater. A gift from museum’s board chairman, former Ambassador to Romania Nicholas Taubman, funded the creation of the Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Gallery where “Religion in Early America” will open June 28 as the inaugural exhibition. This temporary one-year exhibition will be the museum’s first to illustrate the influence of religion in early American history, from the Colonial period until the 1840s.

“Religion has had an indelible impact on our nation’s history since our earliest days and is fundamental to our understanding of American life today,” said John Gray, the museum’s director. “The national museum is uniquely positioned to explore the connections between America’s vibrant religious traditions and American history.”

“The National Museum of American History is a flagship cultural institution and sets a path that many other museums follow,” said Christopher L. Coble, vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment. “We believe that a permanent curator for religion will help the museum build up its collections of religious artifacts and ensure that religion will remain an ongoing element of the Smithsonian’s interpretation of American life.”

Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History

An author and historian, Manseau earned his doctorate in religion from Georgetown University. His books include One Nation, Under Gods, a history of religious diversity in America; Vows, a memoir chronicling 20th-century Catholicism in the U.S.; the National Jewish Book Award-winning novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter; and the travelogue Rag and Bone, which examines the use of relics in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. He is the author of the upcoming companion book to the museum’s religion exhibition, Objects of Devotion, which will be published in spring 2017.

“Religion in Early America” Exhibition

The exhibition opening June 28, 2017, “Religion in Early America,” will focus on the themes of religious diversity, freedom and growth as it explores the role of religion in America from the Colonial era thorough the 1840s. Some of the featured artifacts will be national treasures from the museum’s own collection, including George Washington’s christening robe from 1732, Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, which is also known as “The Jefferson Bible,” Wampum beads and the cloak worn by abolitionist Quaker minister Lucretia Mott. Other objects will be on loan from museums, institutions and private individuals from across the nation. Among these are Massachusetts Bay Colony-founder John Winthrop’s communion cup, circa 1630; a Torah scroll on loan from New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, founded in 1654; a chalice used by John Carroll, the first Roman Catholic bishop in the U.S. and founder of Georgetown University; and a first edition of the Book of Mormon. The objects will represent the diverse range of Christian, Native American and African traditions as well as Mormonism, Islam and Judaism that wove through American life during this era.

Religion Programming Through Music and Theater

On Nov. 5 and 6, the museum will present the first in a new program series, “Sounds of Faith” with “Waking the Ancestors: Recovering the Lost Sacred Sounds of Colonial America,” developed in partnership with Plimoth Plantation, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum. The arrival of the Mayflower on the shores of North America in 1620 forever transformed the lives of those living on the continent. Led by Richard Pickering, deputy executive director of Plimoth Plantation, the documentary theater program will explore the intersection of two musical traditions: hymns and psalms from the Church of England and Calvinist congregations and the sacred songs and dance of the Wampanoag, the indigenous people of Cape Cod, the Islands and southern Massachusetts. Information on this free public program can be found at The second program in the series, “Jazz and Spirituality: From Ellington to Sun Ra and Beyond” will follow Dec. 9 and feature the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) with a special guest choir in an evening highlighting compositions by musicians inspired by spirituality, divinity and religion. This SJMO performance requires a purchased ticket. More information is available at Beginning in 2017, the museum will feature an annual theater program on religion and American history under its “History Alive!” theater series.

Funding for the religion initiative comes from Lilly Endowment, a private philanthropic foundation that supports causes in religion, education and community development. The exhibition, “Religion in Early America,” is made possible through the Taubman gift, which includes funding for a new gallery and changing exhibition program on the second floor of the museum’s west wing. Taubman is the president of Mozart Investments and the former director of Advance Auto Parts.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is continuing to renovate its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on democracy, immigration and migration and culture. For more information, visit The museum is located on Constitution Avenue, between 12th and 14th streets N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

*Scientific American* Magazine: “Politicians trying to dump humanities education will hobble our economy”

science-vs-humanitiesGlad to see the editors of Scientific American, the oldest continually published magazine in the United States, defend the humanities.  Here is a taste of the editorial “STEM Education is Vital, but Not at the Expense of the Liberal Arts“:

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin wants students majoring in electrical engineering to receive state subsidies for their education but doesn’t want to support those who study subjects such as French literature. Bevin is not alone in trying to nudge higher education toward course work that promotes better future job prospects. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a former presidential candidate, put it bluntly last year by calling for more welders and fewer philosophers.

Promoting science and technology education to the exclusion of the humanities may seem like a good idea, but it is deeply misguided. Scientific American has always been an ardent supporter of teaching STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But studying the interaction of genes or engaging in a graduate-level project to develop software for self-driving cars should not edge out majoring in the classics or art history.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with David Silverman

thundersticksDavid Silverman is Professor of History at George Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (Belknap Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Thundersticks?

DS: It was the culmination of a number of different things.  Honestly, the first important step came when I was working as a colonial interpreter at Jamestown Settlement the summer after completing coursework toward my M.A. at William and Mary. My duties included a daily militia drill demonstration in which I loaded and fired a matchlock musket (something which routinely sent the throngs of boys among the tourists into a frenzy). It took barely a week of practice before I could get off a shot within 25 seconds, which made me wonder about the historical truism that these weapons took a painfully long time to load. I also learned firsthand about the power of gunfire. The interpreter in charge of the muskets showed me metal breastplates and helmets at which he had fired from distances ranging from fifty to a hundred yards. They were filled with baseball- and grapefruit-sized holes. Arrows, whether tipped with stone or metal, would have had no effect on this armor. Indeed, I also learned that arrows were incapable of breaching the gambesons (coats of padded cloth armor) worn by soldiers at Jamestown. This experience put me on the lookout for evidence of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of firearms in Native American life.  Over the course of several years researching a dissertation and several books and teaching several classes, the data began to mount.

A couple of other experiences later in my scholarly career convinced me it was finally time to address this issue in book format. The first was reading through the Curwen papers at the American Antiquarian Society, which contains a detailed account of the Indian attack on the English town of Medfield during King Philip’s War.  There are a number of anecdotes of colonists peeking out from the shelter of their blockhouse only to suffer a deadly gunshot from Indians firing at quite a distance away. This material made me wonder, yet again, why historians routinely slight the accuracy of flintlock muskets in the face of such evidence.

Another impetus was reading the burgeoning literature on the Indian-English slave trade of the North American Southeast (this was in the late 1990s and early 2000s). It seemed so obvious to me that this trade was fundamentally an exchange of captives for guns in which communities without firearms fell prey to those with them. However, when I began Thundersticks, historians too often muted and even explicitly dismissed the role of guns in this trade based on the old, unsubstantiated truism that flintlock muskets were slow, inaccurate, and valued by Indians primarily for their so-called psychological effect, not their effectiveness as weapons of war.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Thundersticks?

DS: Between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, indigenous people across North America used firearms to transform their warfare, hunting, politics, gender roles, ceremonies, and material culture. Though Indians became dependent on guns, powder, and shot to defend their communities, they rarely became politically dependent on Euro-American states because they cultivated multiple sources of trade and diplomatic gifts of munitions.

JF: Why do we need to read Thundersticks?

DS: It is a continent-wide treatment of one of the most fundamental changes in Native American life during the Early Modern era.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DS: I reached this decision during my junior year as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, under the influence of such wonderful professors as Thomas Slaughter, Philip Greven, Paul Clemens, and Calvin Martin.  I was inspired by the notion of leading a creative life of learning and mutual intellectual exchange. I also found (and continue to find) it noble to engage in the work of bringing the experiences of everyday people of the past to life.  Part of our collective endeavor to have the United States live up to its ideals should involve teaching the public about the dark legacies of colonialism, including historic and ongoing Native American struggles for self-determination and justice.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I have two in the works. The first is a Wampanoag-centered history of Plymouth colony and the Thanksgiving holiday timed to appear for the quadricentennial of Plymouth’s founding in 2020. The second will examine the roles of Christian Indians in North American colonial empires, and of colonial empires in the roles of Christian Indians.

JF: Thanks, David

Alan Jacobs: Christian Intellectual

jacobsOn Friday we published Marilynne Robinson’s response to Alan Jacobs’s Harpers essay on Christian intellectuals.  You can read that post, with all the pertinent links, here.

Since we posted this piece I learned that Jacobs has responded.  Here is a taste:

I am not sure why Robinson writes “I think the word ‘secularist’ itself is a crude presumption, disrespectful of the mysteries of the soul” — I don’t use the word “secularist” in the essay, though I do use the word “secular,” and I quote Robinson herself saying “I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example.” Why “secularism” is something she can be loyal to while “secularist” is crude and disrespectful I cannot guess.

While I was over at Jacobs’s blog I also found some other thoughtful pieces.  For example:

Jacobs on the recent New York Times piece on hijab-wearing political science professor Larycia Hawkins and what it says about Wheaton College.

Jacobs on why he can’t vote for Hillary Clinton

Jacobs on Eric Metaxas and evangelical support for Trump