What Happens When an Evangelical Pundit, Armed Only with 58K Twitter Followers and a Reference to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Takes on a Historian

On Thursday night a very interesting, revealing, and somewhat disturbing Twitter exchange took place between religion writer Jonathan Merritt and historian Thomas Kidd.  Here is what happened:

It began when someone retweeted Kidd’s Gospel Coalition post on eighteenth-century African-American poet Phillis Wheatley.

Here is a taste of Kidd’s post:

Wheatley’s most popular poem was her 1770 elegy to George Whitefield, who died in Massachusetts that year.

Hail, happy Saint, on thy immortal throne!
To thee complaints of grievance are unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy lessons in unequal’d accents flow’d!
While emulation in each bosom glow’d;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refin’d,
Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we, the setting Sun deplore!
Which once was splendid, but it shines no more;
He leaves this earth for Heav’n’s unmeasur’d height,
And worlds unknown, receive him from our sight;
There WHITEFIELD wings, with rapid course his way,
And sails to Zion, through vast seas of day.

Then she implored her fellow African Americans to accept Whitefield’s savior.

Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due;
If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.


A variant edition of the poem ended that line with, “He’ll make you free, and kings, and priests to God.” This undoubtedly reflected Wheatley’s desire for her fellow slaves.

Read the entire post here.

Merritt entered the conversation when he took issue with Kidd using the word “evangelical” to describe Wheatley.  (Kidd uses the term in the title of the post).

Kidd requests an explanation:

These are all legitimate questions. The meaning of the word “evangelical” has been debated by historians for a long time.  And this debate is raging again in the age of Trump.

But then Merritt tells one of the most prolific American religious historians of this generation to “think on this some more.”  I guess this is the kind of bravado that comes when Outreach Magazine names you one of the “30 young influencers reshaping Christian leadership.”   Just for the record, here are just some of Kidd’s books:

  • The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009)
  • George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2016)
  • God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010)
  • American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton University Press).

I think its fair to say Tommy Kidd has done some “thinking on this” topic.

At this point in the exchange Merritt has wandered into the deep end of the pool only to prove that he is not a very good swimmer. He follows his “think about this” line with a bold, strange, and inaccurate claim to his 58K Twitter followers:

After reading this tweet a day later, I decided it was time to insert myself into the conversation:

By the way, I just spent a week in my colonial America class at Messiah College reading Yale historian’s Harry Stout’s Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism with my students.  One of the central premises of the book is that the “evangelical” movement in the eighteenth-century was characterized by those who, to use Merritt’s phrase, endorsed “Whitfield’s (sic) new birth.”

And here is a description of Peter Choi’s recent book on Whitefield titled George Whitefield: Evangelists for God and Empire (foreword by Mark Noll):  “GEORGE WHITEFIELD (1714–1770) is remembered as a spirited revivalist, a catalyst for the Great Awakening, and a founder of the evangelical movement in America.”

And here is Frank Lambert in Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton University Press, 1994): “By printing and preaching throughout the colonies Whitefield standardized evangelicalism.  He created a common language of the new birth that evangelicals everywhere employed to distinguish themselves from those who had not undergone a spiritual conversion.”  (p.131).

Perhaps Merritt doesn’t “know” these scholars.

But back in real time, Kidd responds to Merritt’s “exactly zero scholars” line with references to some of the best American religious historians working today.  He could have cited his own books, but instead he cites Catherine Brekus and Bruce Hindmarsh.

And then former Books & Culture editor John Wilson enters the fray:

Back to Kidd:

Wilson adds this:

Merritt turns the conversation back to definitional issues:

Wilson, a veteran of these conversations about the definition of evangelicalism, is tired:

And then he awakens and tweets:

Merritt responds to his 58K Twitter followers. Remember, Merritt fashions himself as a public intellectual who “trains hundreds of young writers” and is a “sought after speaker at colleges, conferences, and churches.”  (Also, don’t forget he writes for The Atlantic). He decides to pontificate with a vast and universal claim:

Wilson brings the conversation back to the original issue.

Merritt has some choice words for Wilson:

I can’t let such disrespect slide without pushing back:

Kidd has had enough:

But Merritt is in attack mode:

Kidd is a bigger man than I am. I can’t let Merritt get away with this:

Later, Kidd places it all in a larger cultural context by quoting a review of Thomas Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters:

By the way, here is the Kirkus review of The Death of Expertise:

As a veteran governmental adviser and think-tank participant, Nichols (National Security Affairs/U.S. Naval War Coll.; No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security, 2013, etc.) has experienced firsthand the decline of respect accorded specialists in many disciplines, as the internet has leveled the playing field to the point where all opinions are more or less considered equal, and a Google search substitutes for decades of research. “These are dangerous times,” he writes. “Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything,” However, the author sounds less like an alarmist than like a genial guide through the wilderness of ignorance. There are no startling revelations. Media in general and social media in particular tend to function as echo chambers, reinforcing biases. Some of those whose conclusions are the shakiest tend to shout the loudest, basing their arguments on spurious evidence. Credentials are suspect in an age when university degrees are everywhere, grade inflation runs rampant, and colleges woo prospective students as customers and clients. Little wonder, then, that “if in a previous era too much deference was paid to experts, today there is little deference paid to anyone at all.” Students challenge teachers, patients challenge doctors, and so-called experts argue with other so-called experts (often in territory beyond the expertise of either). “People who claim they are ‘experts’ are sometimes only about as self-aware as people who think they’re good kissers,” he writes. Not that Nichols lets the experts off the hook—some hide behind the impenetrability of academic jargon; others have even faked the data or cooked the books. The answer to this pervasive problem lies in greater media literary and in citizens having a better idea as to what they can trust from whom.

And now I want to give Jonathan Merritt “something to think about.”  Kevin Kruse tweeted this in the context of his ongoing debate with Dinesh D’Souza about race and the Democratic Party.  The content of their debate is different from the Kidd-Merritt debate (and Merritt is not a Trump supporter), but the message is the same:

25 thoughts on “What Happens When an Evangelical Pundit, Armed Only with 58K Twitter Followers and a Reference to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Takes on a Historian

  1. I suspect that Merritt’s challenge of Kidd’s use of the term ‘evangelical’ is an extension of his distane for the 81%. Glad to see Kidd and Fea ably employ historical expertise in this debate.

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  2. “Merritt is a Millennial know it all! … a bit narcissistic” We all re prone to such sins — I am a 50 year old know it all — but yes, he does seem to be a bit drunk on his own skinny jeans/recovering SBC hipness. The “cranky uncle” comment (on the overly irenic Wilson, of all people) is straight outta an old Abercrombie & Fitch mindset, though he’s two young to appreciate the glories of LFO. I wish him well, generically, but predict he will land somewhere North of Andy Stanley and right of Rob Bell.

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  3. “Tommy Kidd spends much of his effort on social media promoting a type of evangelical triumphalism and exacerbating the culture wars.”

    You think? I would never characterize Kidd that he. I sense he’s anti-Trump, for starters.

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  4. John,
    I am sadly surprised to read your comment that you “probably agree with a lot of [Merritt’s] ….theology.” From what I can observe he is heterodox at best. I might have erroneously pegged you as adhering to the “….faith once delivered unto the saints.”
    James

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  5. All you guys are speaking in terms that are above my pay grade as I’m not an evangelical historian, but I will say this: Merritt is a Millennial know it all! He actually buys into that global warming crap! I think he’s a bit narcissistic. He reminds me of my Athiest intellectual friend that I try to witness to, that despite, proofs galore of God, he will never believe in God because he CHOOSES not to believe in God. Even though Merritt believes in God, he believes HIS view regarding Evangelicalism IS the right view and he CHOOSES not to give others thoughts about it ANY credibility. God loves him I know, but I can’t stand the guy!

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  6. Kidd can defend himself on this matter you raise. I will let Wilson defend himself on the matter you raise. I criticized Merritt because of 1). His “zero scholars” line. 2). His comment that Kidd should “think more about this.” And 3). His disrespect for Wilson. The question of the meaning of evangelical can be debated. It is a complex and complicated subject, this is why Kidd said told Merritt to read his books. Any historian knows this.

    As for your point about Twitter: It is hard to argue with you here.

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  7. Joe: I think you are correct. Even today on Twitter, Merritt was fishing for help from religious studies scholars who study the past trying to find someone who would back his claim. This completely misses the point of my criticism. This whole debate as it is now playing out on Twitter is a microcosm of the larger debate between conservative and progressive evangelicals. These have now become almost like political parties. One cannot think honestly about an issue without the partisanship or the search for some of blatant political past. Christian Right historian do this all the time. I see too many progressive Christians who use the past to promote their agendas doing it as well. If Merritt wants to find these historians, they are out there. Just read his Twitter feed today. I criticize Merritt as a historian. I probably agree with a lot of his politics and theology, but I can’t let him get away with attacking the profession in this way. By the way, we are seeing a similar thing playing out with Southern Seminary’s statement on its racial past.

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  8. Hi JJ. Thanks for the comment. I think you are missing the point. I am criticizing him because his Twitter following IS SO LARGE!!! It seems like this empowers him to pontificate on American history and tell historians to “think things over more” and claim that he has a basic understanding of the historiography of 18th-century evangelicalism.

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  9. While Merritt acted rashly and should have listened rather than speak, I don’t love the idea of reminding everyone how small his audience is, laughing about his lack of platform, and writing up an article about how “we totally owned that punk on Twitter.”

    For Christians we see too often how God delights to use the weak things to shame the strong, which makes it particularly cringeworthy when we repeatedly remind everyone how small Merritt is. Perhaps demonstrating the kind of class that Merritt did not show would be appropriate.

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  10. Thanks for this Sam. We are currently hashing this out over at Twitter. Kidd is not using an anachronistic label. As Daniel Silliman recently showed (see my post) and as several other historians have noted (Stout, Lambert, Noll, Osborne, Hindmarsh, Choi) there was something akin to an evangelical “movement” in the 18th century. It wasn’t the same as post World War II neo-evangelicalism, but it was centered around the New Birth. I just did a quick search in the Early American Archives database (everything published in America prior to 1800) and found thousands of references to the word “evangelical.” Most of these references were made in the context of the New Birth. I am defended Kidd’s politics or whatever role he does or doesn’t play in the so-called “culture wars.” Maybe Kidd did have an agenda by using “evangelical” in the title of a post at the Gospel Coalition. I am not interested in that discussion right now, although let’s not pretend that Merritt is not doing the same thing from the Left. I am defending Kidd as a historian in a world where folks can discredit someone who has spend decades studying a topic with one or two tweets.

    As far as the ABS museum goes, I am not sure Kidd is still involved.

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  11. I think you highlight my concerns with the original Dr. Kidd article: While he quotes others who lay evangelical claim to Wheatley (as he does with the title), he doesn’t truly explain why “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

    “Whatever you think of his scholarship, Tommy Kidd spends much of his effort on social media promoting a type of evangelical triumphalism and exacerbating the culture wars.” is also accurate.

    This is why I was grieved to see Dr. Fea defending Dr. Kidd for his “expertise” without interrogating the fact that Dr. Kidd is using anachronistic labels in a popular blog without explication or meaningful nuance. What is the point of Kidd asserting Wheatley’s evanglicalism? It is hard to read it as anything other than an attempt to distance “Evangelicalism” from the ongoing exclusion of minorities and women from neo-calvinist “Evangelicalism.” Why does Kidd think Evangelicals need to remember Wheatley? Its hard to read anything deeper than “she is a token black woman who praised a key (white, male) founder of our movement.”

    Dr. Fea generally does such a phenomenal job highlighting the dangers to both sides of an issue – I was saddened to see him set aside that careful listening and analysis in order to defend members of the academy uncritically. Afterall, Dr. Kidd is serving as an advisor for a museum that Dr. Fea felt was too likely to strengthen a Christian-nationalist narrative in Philadelphia.

    I still hope Dr. Fea will place himself, the “Evangelical” academy, white and male dominate theologically conservative movements (like The Gospel Coalition and SBTS), the prevelance (and theological alignment) of Court Evangelicals, and the persistent-and-maleable character of racialized injustice (a la The New Jim Crow) into a connected piece of reflection.

    In my mind, his keen intellect and spiritual sensitivity would generate more light by grappling with these issues than with reflexively belittling Merritt’s cricisms in support of his own “in crowd.”

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  12. How hard it is to rise to a level of intellectual credibility with the experience and wisdom that should accompany it, and maintain an overall spirit of humility! Someone used the word “gentlemanly”; I agree. Knowledge and wisdom must be kind and humble.

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  13. “It looks like you’re about to challenge a historian, armed only with a MAGA hat and a Wikipedia page. Are you sure you want to do that?”

    THAT is One Great Line.

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  14. Joe,
    I think you are correct about Mr. Merritt’s overall journalistic goals, but I might add a further point of opinion. In this particular interchange he was unable to challenge Dr. Kidd, Dr. Fea, and other professional historians on the facts. He deserves credit for soon realizing he had picked the wrong fight. From what I could read Merritt probably reckoned that he was out of his league and proceeded to conduct a retrograde rhetorical ecit. Hopefully, he will be more cautious when venturing into certain historical areas in the future.
    The Way of Improvement has devoted no small amount of space to the definition of the word “evangelical.” I think it would be fair to debate whether Mr. Merritt fully fits under that classic heading.
    James

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  15. but when a tenured professor and widely published author says, “hey maybe you don’t have it exactly right,” you should listen

    part of the problem is that the public venue of social media turns everything into a contest of egos,

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  16. “John Wilson’s contribution to this conversation is mostly trolling. It hurts my heart to see such a towering intellect squabbling in the muck to get in burnz and trying to shame and silence his purported conversation partner.”

    It sounds like you’re close to the old adage that it’s best not to argue with stupid people, because people at a distance will have trouble telling who is who.

    In what I have seen, Merritt seems like a slick and glossy speaker who takes a lot of shortcuts in order to gain mass appeal. I don’t think it’s a great idea to take modern culture buzzwords and categories and social concerns and reinterpret history so it is trendier is solid leadership.

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  17. Merit doesn’t want to challenge a historian. He wants to challenge Evangelicalism. His campaign is to refine terms. He is a male Rachel’s Evans.

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  18. Jonathan Merritt is often a thoughtful, serious, knowledgeable writer about contemporary American evangelicalism.

    Whatever you think of his scholarship, Tommy Kidd spends much of his effort on social media promoting a type of evangelical triumphalism and exacerbating the culture wars. Both expert and layman alike have reason (and right) to be suspicious of how he uses he word “evangelical” in his original post, without any historical context, because it seems to be implying there was a time the tradition didn’t have a problem with sexism and racism (much less poets). Wheatley may have been an evangelical (on many definitions), but that doesn’t mean she ever would have felt included in the larger white evangelical movement. This difference between definitional belonging and social belonging in a historical tradition might have been the cause of the unease Merritt is trying to articulate? In 2018, given the public conversation about evangelicalism and race, it seems to me irresponsible (or maybe “weird”) not to give some context—to include her as part of a religious community in which she would not have felt welcome—and instead of just doubling down, it would have been useful to see Kidd trying to understand Merritt’s concern or reflecting on the ways Wheatley was and was not “evangelical” in context. Humility and nuance being virtues for historians, etc. etc.

    John Wilson’s contribution to this conversation is mostly trolling. It hurts my heart to see such a towering intellect squabbling in the muck to get in burnz and trying to shame and silence his purported conversation partner.

    It’s hard to see this as anything other than an illustration of how Twitter is a perfect instrument of moral decay, making everybody intellectually and ethically worse, and turning conversations between thoughtful and well-meaning folks into a squalid and bad-willed bout of dick measuring.

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  19. John,
    Thanks for letting your readers into this fascinating exchange of words between Mr.Merritt and Dr. Kidd. It does appear that Merritt was outgunned. While I cannot recall reading any of his work, the material you shared will make me skeptical of his depth. Dr, Kidd was restrained in a very gentlemanly fashion.

    With that being said I also concurred with a remark which is brought out in the Nichols’ quote at the end of your posting. Specifically, we cannot blindly trust the work of a person who expects the same simply because he/she is a member of the academy. Even the most honest and scholarly folks are not free from bias. Furthermore, not all academic experts are as honest, trustworthy, or as objective as others. Didn’t the late Dr. Timothy Leary have a ton of credentials? The general principle of being “…wise as serpents…” should apply to all readers and hearers of every information source——-be it amateur or professional. Simply holding a tenured position at a respected school shouldn’t necessarily bring immediate credibility. (Although it’s a good start.)

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