Book Coverage is on the Rise

Book Reviews

As an author, I am happy to learn that media outlets are starting to devote a little more attention to books.  Sam Eichner tries to make sense of this rise in book coverage in an interesting piece at Columbia Journalism Review.  Here is a taste:

IF IT OCCASIONALLY FEELS like nobody reads books, anymore—that we are indeed witnessing the slow death of the literary novel, and the rapid decline of leisure readingand the steady increase of American non-readers—why is it that mainstream publications are writing more about them?

Since the beginning of 2017, The New York Times has continued to expand its already robust book coverage. More recently, New York announced that it would triple its book coverage. In October, The Atlantic launched a Books section and a newsletter, “The Books Briefing,” with plans for “additional products.” Even BuzzFeed is getting in on the action: in November, they launched an online book club, complete with an attendant Facebook group and newsletter.

For the Times and The Atlantic, the changes arrived at a moment of substantial growth for each publication as a whole.

Read the rest here.

Gordon Wood Strikes Again!

Slavery debates

I love reading Gordon Wood book reviews.  I don’t always agree with him, but sometimes I do.  Whether I agree with him or not, I must admit that I sometimes take guilty pleasure in watching him whip academic historians into a frenzy with his long and provocative reviews that often challenge historiographical orthodoxy.

At the age of eighty-five he is still going strong, as evidenced from his recent review of books by Sean Wilentz and Andrew Delbanco at The New Republic.

I like Wood’s reviews so much because he always frames them in a larger historiographical conversations.  His reviews were invaluable to me in graduate school as I tried to make sense of hundreds of books I needed to read for my comprehensive exams.

In this latest review, Wood shows how Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding and Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War challenge what he calls a “Neo-Garrisonian” view of slavery and the coming of the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

In October 2017, President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, declared that “a lack of an ability to compromise” brought on the Civil War. This remark outraged a number of historians, who told The Washington Post they thought it “strange,” “highly provocative,” and “kind of depressing,” something that was out of touch with current historical research. Kelly’s interpretation carried echoes of a revisionist explanation of the causes of the Civil War that was popular in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Commonly known as the “blundering generation” interpretation, it held that the sectional conflict arose not from a fundamental disagreement over slavery but from the squabbling of politicians whose demagoguery and fanaticism eventually undermined the political system.

Few historians pay attention any more to the blundering generation interpretation. Not only did it play into the hands of Southern apologists, by implying that slavery was not the fundamental source of the conflict, but it also played down the substantial differences between the societies of the North and South that slavery had created. Most academic historians today no longer think of the abolitionists as fanatical agitators, stirring up hostility between the sections. Instead, they have become the heroes of their narratives. Indeed, many have come to accept the view of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that America’s entire political system was riddled with the evils of slavery, beginning with its founding document. The Constitution, Garrison declared, was “a covenant with death” and “an agreement with hell.”

In a like manner, many present-day historians have contended that the border between the slave South and the free North was not as sharp as we are apt to think. Not only were the North and South economically interdependent, but they shared in the exploitative nature of American capitalism. Despite the fact that the Southern slaveholding planters thought of themselves as anything but bourgeois capitalists, their slave system, scholars such as Sven Beckert and Edward E. Baptist now claim, was just as capitalistic as the industrial system of the North. Northerners as well as Southerners are now seen as thoroughly implicated in the terrible business of slavery, morally as well as economically. It was not just the South that was morally flawed; the North was just as racist, just as antagonistic to black people, as the South.

This is all part of a determined effort by current scholars to ensure that the North bear its share of blame for slavery and for race relations in the nation. They emphasize that Northern delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were equally involved with Southerners in the compromises that protected slavery in the Constitution and helped to make it “an agreement with hell.” Northerners agreed to the three-fifths representation of slaves in the Congress and the Electoral College. And, most lamentably, they accepted the clause in Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution that declared that persons held in service or labor in one state who escaped to another state had to be returned to those to whom such service or labor was due.

In all their subsequent compromises over slavery, white Americans, both Northerners and Southerners, displayed what Ta-Nehisi Coates today calls a “craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people.” The North tended to appease the South at every turn and effectively tolerated Southern dominance of the national government during the antebellum period. Present-day scholars suggest that the North bears nearly as much responsibility for the persistence of slavery as the South. That’s why no one should try to claim that North and South were two distinct societies. The whole nation was guilty.

This is the gist of prevailing neo-Garrisonian scholarship dealing with antebellum America. In different and subtle ways both Sean Wilentz’sNo Property in Manand Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War seek to challenge this scholarship—but not return to the revisionist interpretation of the mid-twentieth century. Both Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton, and Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia, accept without question that slavery was at the heart of the sectional conflict. They offer no apology whatsoever for the Confederacy and its system of racial slavery. But both do aim to correct and refine what they believe are some of the crudities in the current interpretations, which have had the unintended effects of reviving a Southern view of the Constitution and of blurring in their own ways the differences between the societies of the North and the South.

Read the rest here.

A Pietist Response to a Negative Book Review on Pietism

Pietist Option 1

I was intrigued today by Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz‘s response to Union University’s Nathan Finn’s review of his book The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity (co-authored with Mark Pattie).  The review appeared at The Gospel Coalition website.

Finn writes:

Closer to home, the Pietist ethos that Gehrz and Pattie champion, while it has much to appreciate, has introduced into evangelicalism a fuzziness toward (and sometimes outright rejection of) biblical inerrancy, an openness to inclusivism and sometimes universalism, an egalitarian view of gender roles, an openness toward progressive views of gender identity and human sexuality, a rejection of penal substitutionary atonement, and Open Theism.

This raises the question of whether the Pietist Option at least implicitly opens the door to tired dichotomies—between the “red letters” and “black letters” of Scripture, between Jesus and Paul, between the kernel of the gospel and the husk of doctrine—that have fueled theological revisionism and moral declension among so many contemporary evangelicals.


And here is a taste of Gehrz’s response at his blog The Pietist Schoolman:

Well, maybe. I’m not a universalist, and my Pietist forebears were going to the ends of the earth to make disciples of Jesus Christ at a time when some Calvinists were debating the continued relevance of the Great Commission. But I do hold to an egalitarian view of gender roles — not because of any fuzziness, but out of a clarity that comes from fresh engagement with Scripture. (Not that this is unique to Pietists: in her current Anxious Bench series, Finn’s fellow Baptist Beth Allison Barr is arguing that complementarians have fundamentally misunderstood Paul’s epistles.)…

Even though Finn identifies more with the Reformed trajectory (I think you’d find plenty of Baptists on both wings), I appreciate that he gives our book a fair hearing. He summarized the “option” accurately, found our tone winsome, and even “nodded a fair amount as I considered the authors’ call to a more radical discipleship and holistic mission.” While he celebrates the Puritans and other “renewal movements that cultivated many of the same instincts as the Pietists, but in ways more deeply rooted in a robust doctrinal vision,” Finn nonetheless encourages Gospel Coalition readers “to learn more about Pietist movements. When we aren’t at our healthiest, we can drift into the sort of spiritual lethargy that first inspired men like Spener, Francke, and Zinzendorf.”

(By the same token, I’ve noted before that two Gospel Coalition favorites — Tim Keller and John Piper — have each written positively about aspects of what they define as “pietism.”)

You can’t ask much more from a reviewer than to be fair-minded and thoughtful, appreciative when they agree and critical when they don’t. So thanks to Nathan Finn for the review, and to TGC for publishing it.

Read Gehrz’s entire response here.

A true pietist response, Chris.  Thank you.  If I was accused of everything Finn accused me of simply because I thought pietism was a stream of the Christian church that needs to be revisited in today’s day and age,  I would be pretty ticked-off.


Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.

“The Coalition That Made American Independence Possible”

Brothers in ArmsEducation and Culture: A Critical Review is running my review of Larrie Ferreiro’s Brothers in Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.

Education and Culture is John Wilson’s new venture.  For over two decades Wilson edited Books and Culture.

Here is a taste of my review:

The recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was the impetus for an interesting Twitter exchange between Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Chair of Early American History at Harvard University, and Ted Cruz, the junior US Senator from Texas. Chaplin was not happy about Trump’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement and used the 140 characters allotted to her on Twitter to express her dissatisfaction. On June 1, 2017, she wrote, “The USA, created by int’l community in Treaty of Paris in 1783, betrays int’l community by withdrawing from #parisclimateagreement today.” Cruz, appalled by the suggestion that the “international community” created the United States, fired back: “Just sad. Tenured chair at Harvard, doesn’t seem to know how USA was created. Not a treaty. Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.” Later in the day, the Texas Senator continued on the offensive: “Lefty academics @ my alma mater think USA was “created by int’s community. No—USA created by force, the blood of patriots & We the People.” As might be expected, most academic historians rushed to defend Chaplin, while conservative websites viewed the exchange as another battle in their war against so-called liberal élites.

We should not make too much of this short Twitter exchange. Both Chaplin and Cruz used the social media platform to marshal historical evidence in support of their own political preferences. But the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up, and the reaction to it, does tell us a lot about how Americans understand and misunderstand, use and abuse, the past. Chaplin’s attempt to connect the Treaty of Paris to the Paris Climate Agreement was a stretch. On the other hand, her insistence that the United States was not forged in a vacuum is a point worth making. Cruz’s tweets reflect an older version of the American Revolution that serves the cause of American exceptionalism. Scholars sometimes describe this historiography of exceptionalism as “Whig history.” Cruz’s understanding of the nation’s founding—one that celebrates the “blood of the patriots” and “We the People”—ignores the fact that the colonies were part of a larger transatlantic world that influenced the course and success of their Revolution. Cruz’s brand of Whig history offers a usable past perfectly suited for today’s “America First” foreign policy and the Trump administration’s skepticism regarding globalization. It is also wrong.

Read the entire review here.

“Education and Culture” Is Here!

Wilson Ed and Culture

John Wilson‘s new venture, “Education & Culture: A Critical Review,” is now up and running at

Bookmark it and visit often.

Many of you know John Wilson as the founder and only editor of the now defunct Books & Culture (1995-2016).

With John at the helm, I have no doubt that “Education and Culture” will deliver some of the best book reviewing and cultural criticism on the Internet.

Here is a taste of what you will find:

Joseph Bottum’s review of Pierre Brant’s The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire.

Wilson’s interview with Chip Colwell, curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and author of Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.

Catherine Brekus’s review of Ann Little’s The Many Captivities of Esther Wheewright. (Check out our interview with Ann in Episode 11 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast).


Why Has This Blog Been Silent on Francis Fitzgerald’s *The Evangelicals*?

EvangelicalsSeveral of you have now asked.

It seems like everyone is writing about this book.  I have a copy and I am reading it, but I will not be commenting on this blog because I will be reviewing it at an academic journal.

I would say “stay tuned,” but anyone who knows anything about academic journals knows that the review will probably appear sometime in the next decade.

BTW, the same is true about Gideon Mailer’s new intellectual biography of John Witherspoon.

And as long as we are talking about reviews, I am also working on a review of Larrie D. Ferreiro’s Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It for a more popular outlet.

What Happens to Evangelical Intellectual Life After “Books & Culture?”

bcI started graduate school in 1994.  That was the same year that Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published. One year later, Christianity Today Inc. began publishing Books & Culture: A Christian Review with John Wilson as editor.  I subscribed immediately.  I have read every issue in its 22-year run.

Books & Culture was a book review modeled after the New York Review of Books.  It was a place where evangelicals turned to worship God with their minds.  My heart always skipped a beat when I opened up my mailbox and found the recent issue waiting for me.

John Wilson was always good to me and my career as a historian and writer.  In 2008 he published Lauren Winner’s review of my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  Then in 2012 he called upon Jay Green, Eric Miller, and myself, the editors of Confessing History: Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, to reflect on the historian’s vocation.  Later that year John published Paul Kemeny’s review of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  This year, Books & Culture published Peter Thuesen’s review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

I have also done a little writing and reviewing for the magazine.  Back in the summer of 2015 John published my review of Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.  I have also written a for short reviews for the Books & Culture website.

But more importantly, I have learned a great deal from the many reviews I have read by Christian scholars interested in the life of the mind.  My friend Eric Miller was a fixture in the pages of Books & Culture over the years.  In the early years Don Yerxa interviewed a lot of important intellectuals, including John Lukacs, Jonathan Spence, Andrew Walls, Barry Strauss, and Max Hastings.  Wilson gave a voice to writers that were new to me at the time that I first read them: Lauren Winner,  Mary Noll Venables, Matthew Milliner, Alister Chapman, Preston Jones, Jane Zwart, Agnieszka Tennant,  Alissa Wilkinson, Elisha Coffman, Agnes Howard, Eugene McCarraher, Virginia Stem Owens and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson all come to mind.

And then there were some of the more familiar names (at least to me) in the world of Christian thought and scholarship:  Mark Noll, Grant Wacker, Betty Smartt Carter, Philip Jenkins, Allen Guelzo, Timothy Larsen, Alvin Plantinga, Alan Jacobs, Carlos Eire, David Bebbington, Daniel Walker Howe, Karen Swallow Prior,  Dale Van Kley, Wilfred McClay, John Schmalzbauer, Thomas Albert Howard, Brad Gregory, James Bratt, George Marsden, David Lyle Jeffrey, Paul Harvey, Bruce Kuklick, John Stackhouse, Stephen Webb, Bruce Ellis Benson,  Miroslav Volf, James Calvin Schaap, John G. Turner, Catherine Brekus, Dana Robert, Joel Carpenter, Gerald McDermott, Harry Stout, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, David Hempton, Richard Cawardine, Roger Lundin, Tim Stafford, Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner, D.G. Hart, Aaron Belz, Harold K. Bush,  Christian Smith, Thomas Kidd, Charles Marsh, Douglas Sweeney, Richard Mouw, James K.A. Smith, David Skeel, Kristina Bieber Lake, Susan VanZanten, Joseph Bottum, Mark Walhout, John McWhorter, Laurance Wieder, Scott Cairns, Susan Wise Bauer, Ralph Wood. C. Steven Evans, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

John Schmalzbauer, the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University, seems to feel the same way that I do about the end of Books & Culture. Check out his piece, “The Life and Death of Evangelicalism’s Little Magazine” at Comment magazine.

Here is a taste:

Ending its run at twenty-one, Books & Culture did not live to see middle age. Its closing has left the evangelical intelligentsia searching for answers. Among the questions being discussed:

  • Has the evangelical intellectual renaissance run its course?
  • Do conservative Christian philanthropists care about the life of the mind?
  • Can evangelicalism sustain a publication that bridges the ideological divide?

In approaching these questions, it is helpful to consider the wider context of evangelical intellectual history. Too narrow a focus on 2016 will keep us from seeing some of the larger issues.

Downplaying his own publication’s significance, Wilson once called Books & Culture a “Small Good Thing (Even a Small and Very Good Thing),” adding that “if you know of any philanthropists who might agree, send them my way.”

Schmalzbauer’s piece suggests some places where “those who care about evangelical book culture” can turn now that Books & Culture is off the scene.  It is a great list, which includes Englewood Review of Books, Byron Borger’s Hearts and Minds blog, and Eighth Day Books.  I would also add the ever-popular “Author’s Corner” published most Mondays and Thursdays right here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Read the entire piece here.

Accidental Patriots

taylorEarlier this week on our Virtual Office Hours series we wondered about the things that motivated revolutionary war soldiers to take up arms.

Historian Caitlin Fitz takes up the question of who supported the Revolution and who did not on a larger and more general scale (not military-specific) in her review of two new books on the American Revolution: Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804.

Here is a taste:

It’s life or death for America, people tell you. Angry debates about taxes, religion, and race relations inflame the newspapers. Everyone is talking politics: your spouse, your teenage daughter, your boss, your grocer. Neighbors eye you suspiciously, pressing you to buy local. Angry crowds gather, smelling of booze and threatening violence; their leaders wink, confident that the ends justify the means. The stores have sold out of guns.

It’s 1775 in Britain’s American colonies. Whose side are you on?

Read the rest in the December 2016 issue of The Atlantic.  

And check out interview with Fitz on her new book Our Sister Republics.  And check out our interview with Taylor here.

The Bible Cause in The Wall Street Journal

Bible Cause CoverCheck out Darryl G. Hart’s review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in today’s Wall Street Journal!

Here is a taste:

For the past 50 years or so, the Bible—the collection of sacred Jewish and Christian texts—has taken a back seat in American politics. To be sure, various political leaders and many citizens have desired public recognition of Holy Writ as a source of truth and morality. But since the Supreme Court ruled in A bington v. Schempp (1963) that prayer and Bible reading were unconstitutional in public-school opening exercises, public officials and government agencies have understood that to invoke, endorse or promote the Bible for official purposes is to invite contempt—and a legal challenge. This situation obscures an older history of Bible politics, a time when officials of Western nations not only relied on biblical norms in executing their tasks but also adopted policies to ensure that their subjects and citizens had access to sacred texts.

The granddaddy of state-sponsored Bibles was the King James Version (1611), an English translation commissioned by King James I in response to petitions from Puritans for wider access to Scripture. In authorizing a translation, James facilitated religious uniformity and delicately handled biblical material that his political opponents might use to challenge his authority, such as the narratives of Israel’s monarchs that feature divine judgment for abuses of royal power. Yet in shoring up his rule, James also put his stamp on the English-speaking world. For more than three centuries the KJV was unrivaled in use on both sides of the Atlantic by politicians (think William Wilberforce) and church leaders (remember Billy Graham?).

Readers unfamiliar with this intertwined history of politics and proselytizing may regard the cover of John Fea’s “The Bible Cause,” which features a man holding a Bible in one hand and waving a U.S. flag with the other, as nostalgic, creepy or worse. The man pictured is an agent of the American Bible Society (ABS), the organization whose history Mr. Fea narrates from its founding in 1816 to its bicentennial celebration this year. The society’s initial goal was to place a Bible in every American home, a target that prompted four major printing and distribution campaigns as the nation’s population grew during the 19th century. ABS also sent Bibles overseas: Between 1875 and 1916, it distributed roughly 21 million copies among the Chinese. Even so, the ties between the wide distribution of the Bible and America’s evolving self-definition are much stronger than even the cover’s image suggests.

The rest of the review is behind the Wall Street Journal paywall, but if you really want to read it (and I know you do!) head to your local news stand and pick-up a copy.

Hart asks a brilliant question–one that I wish I had thought about.  “What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial?”


*The Bible Cause* and its Mixed Reviews

Bible Cause CoverThe reception of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society has been interesting, to say the least.

Some academics have claimed that I am too sympathetic to the American Bible Society.

Other historians have offered positive reviews:  See here and here.

The American Bible Society held its 200th anniversary gala last week and the book was nowhere to be seen.  Nor was it referenced. Not entirely sure why this was the case.

Some evangelicals really liked the book.  See Scot McKnight’s review at Jesus Creed.

And then there are evangelical readers such as Debbie at the “Christ-Focused Book Club.” She writes:

Considering the length of this book, I would have preferred an author who was enthusiastic about the ABS’s work. Instead, the author seemed disinterested or mildly disapproving. For example, the ABS tended to set high goals for Bible distribution. The author repeatedly labeled these efforts as failures because they didn’t meet these goals even though what they did achieve was impressive.

Can’t wait for the next review!

Paul Harvey Reviews *The Bible Cause*

Bible Cause CoverCheck out his thoughtful and nuanced review at Religion Dispatches.

Here is a taste:

…A work of history is often about what its sources are about. And when the sources come directly from the archives of the institution, the language of the text inevitably recapitulates some of that voice. Fea places his story in a broad national context. He does so particularly effectively in earlier portions of the book, which cover the ABS’s early glory years. He ties the aims of the ABS to the broader culture of early nineteenth-century Federalist sympathizers who created national organizations in part to unite the new Republic and create the “Christian nation” they longed to see, but knew was not there, at least not yet.

The historical distance from the subject lessens at precisely the point when humanizing anecdotes appear. The emotional narratives of people collapsing in joy at receiving the promised texts, cherishing and never misusing them and so forth, raise questions of interpretation difficult to answer from within the requirements of the genre of institutional history. The answers that might emerge would have to come from questions and interpretive choices that necessarily breach the historical decorum required to produce an institutional history.

Put more simply, you are not supposed to bash the institution you have been commissioned to write a history about. Except that, actually it is possible. Fea critiques the ABS skillfully in parts of the text. For example, Fea describes the “Colored Agency” that emerged in the late nineteenth century. It was to replace a failed local auxiliary system that by definition could not work to supply Bibles to African Americans. But in doing so, the ABS “also revealed its willingness to embrace the status quo of a ‘separate but equal’ America.” I would say “separate and unequal,” but the point is well taken.

Another example comes from the passages in which Fea traces the various permutations the ABS has undergone as an organization. It has been all societies for all people at various times—a benevolent society in the nineteenth century, a service organization for much of the twentieth century, a business always because it sells Bibles, and today branding itself as a “ministry,” modeling the language of contemporary evangelicals. Throughout, and regardless of the type of organization it conceived itself as, the goal has been to spread the gospel through distributing Bibles, and “to build a Christian civilization.”

At its 150th anniversary meeting in 1966, Billy Graham spoke on the need to “Return to the Bible,” and endorsed the ABS’s historic raison d’être of distributing scriptures. The ABS subsequently moved into a new building in New York City, and resumed its work: “Scriptures needed to be distributed. Morality needed to be restored. And the United States needed to be returned to its biblical heritage.” Into the 1970s, the ABS sought to “reassert its historical connection to Christian nationalism” by realigning itself away from mainstream Protestants and more towards conservative evangelicals. This is Fea at his best—narrating a story effectively, and implicitly interpreting itprecisely by adopting the voice of the institution’s founders and followers but retaining a gently ironic distance in style….


Scot McKnight of “Jesus Creed” Reviews “The Bible Cause”

Bible Cause CoverHere is a taste of McKnight’s review at his popular blog Jesus Creed:

The United States of America chose intelligently and rigorously not to have a national religion/faith. American Christians have not been so rigorous, even if intelligent. Instead of a national religion we have Americans of all persuasions seeking to express their viewpoints and claims and, at the same time, using the political process to implement those persuasions for the nation — even if only slightly cleverly disguised. Both Republicans and Democrats think their agendas and platforms are the most Christian while many leaders avoid partisan politics from the pulpit (many don’t) while they use the same to announce which moral issue points to which political party. We don’t have a national religion but instead religionists who want it to go national.

Enter the Bible, and in particular, the American Bible Society, and it should not take long to see in the picture to the right an open Bible in one hand and American flag in the other. A recent and exceptional book by John Fea, called The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, tells this story through one institution — the American Bible society — but in so doing Fea demonstrates the constant intersection of Bible and nation building. I recommend this book for all churches and for all schools, colleges and universities. The impact of the ABS is of magnitudes and often enough totally unknown. Fea is an exceptional historian of the church in America. His expertise in connecting ABS to American church history is all over this book.

Before I begin this: those who read the New Testament in Greek or the Old Testament in Hebrew or the Septuagint in Greek read from an ABS or United Bible Societies produced edition. Many of the most important tools used in Bible studies today were produced by or in cooperation with the ABS.

Read the entire review here.

Candy Gunther Brown Reviews *The Bible Cause*

The forum on my The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society continues at the Religion in American History blog with a review by Candy Gunther Brown of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University and the author of The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880.

It is a pretty negative review of the book.  I am looking forward to responding to it.

Here is a taste:

The Bible Cause presents a largely affirmative portrayal of the ABS and its agents. Fea reports that “the American Bible Society has never lost touch with its cultural mandate: to build a Christian civilization in the United States and, eventually, around the world” (3), concluding that “as the Bible Cause in America enters its third century, the future looks bright, but the challenges ahead are great” (316). Although noting examples of “nationalism” (96) and “imperialism” (117), the book does not offer sustained analysis of the ABS’s cultural agenda. It relies primarily on ABS sources and makes relatively scant use of secondary scholarship, for instance post-colonial theory and critical renderings of U.S. nationalism, exceptionalism, and policies aimed at the assimilation of Native Americans and non-Protestant immigrants, and of institutions like the ABS as agents of cultural imperialism abroad and social control of the working classes and people of color domestically.

The book foregrounds ABS perspectives and seems to accept the claims of ABS agents and authors at face value. Citing ABS publications as the only source of evidence, Fea reports that seamen were “notorious for vice, irreligion, and congregating together in urban areas where they gambled, visited prostitutes, and drank their fair share of alcohol,” but they “found comfort in the Bible,” and “it was common for sailors to return to port desperate to replace a Bible lost at sea” (38). Similarly, “the urban poor . . . spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble” until rescued by Sunday Schools (55). Bible sales reportedly “brought an intense spiritual interest among the Cherokee . . . . One Cherokee woman was so overwhelmed upon receiving an ABS Bible that she wrapped it in silk and carried it close to her chest at religious meetings” (55). As to the ABS’s positive impact on soldiers, “the evidence is overwhelming. Stories abound of soldiers reading the Bible in their tents before bedtime.” The “overwhelming” evidence cited consists exclusively of ABS reports that “filled the pages of the Bible Society Record,” such as the claim of one ABS agent that “ ‘I have not seen one New Testament thrown away or otherwise misused’ ” (81–82). The analysis could have been enriched by considering how ABS agents might have heard or seen what they wanted or expected to encounter and how their portrayals functioned as rhetorical strategies that served ABS purposes such as fundraising. Similarly, the text could have contemplated editorial decisions about what kinds of reactions to ABS overtures to publish, which parts to include and which to exclude, and how to frame them, and devoted more attention to negative responses.

Read the entire review here.

*Publisher’s Weekly* Review of *The Bible Cause*

Bible Cause CoverHere it is.  I love that they mentioned “Aunt Sue.”

This comprehensive history, written to commemorate the American Bible Society (ABS) bicentennial, explores the ABS’s roots, guiding philosophies, evolving mission, and influence domestically and internationally. Founded in 1816 by prominent philanthropic nationalists to widely distribute the Bible “‘without note or comment,'” the ABS believed it “imperative that the United States be unified… around Protestantism and the social virtues that logically flowed from its teachings.” American history professor Fea (Why Study History?) examines campaigns of different eras: the “General Supply,” an early endeavor to give every family a Bible; the pre-Civil War emphasis on “defeating the Catholic threat”; efforts to bring Bibles to Native Americans, freed slaves, new immigrants, and interred Japanese-Americans; and the ABS’s role in 20th-century ecumenical and evangelical movements. Fea references “sensational accounts of the struggles faced in Bible distribution” included in ABS publications, and highlights individuals such as Frances Hamilton, ABS’s first female agent, who stayed in Mexico through the 1910 Revolution, and “Aunt Sue,” an African American ABS volunteer who in 1943 boarded a bus full of whites to explain how the Bible would bring racial harmony. These stories put a human face on this national movement. (Apr.)

*The Weekly Standard* Review of *The Bible Cause*

Bible Cause CoverThomas Kidd of Baylor University offers a generous review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

The ABS was one of the largest and most successful of the great benevolent societies of the antebellum period, and its continued (though not unalloyed) prosperity through the present day makes it an ideal case study. Some readers with no direct connection to the ABS might ask why they should read the history of a single Christian organization. I would challenge the premise of the question: Legions of people in America and around the world have been touched by the ABS in ways they do not realize. Fea helped me see how deeply my own family’s Bible-owning and reading was shaped by ABS imprints. Moreover, focusing on one denomination or agency over a long period of time illuminates broader trends in American religion. The ABS shaped American religion and publishing; but external forces, from war to immigration, also influenced the society. Some readers may find the details of ABS policy and governance a bit overwhelming, but the massive significance of the ABS justifies what Fea has written…

The most fascinating part of Fea’s account is the changing theological allegiance of the ABS over the past 75 years. At its inception, and for a century afterwards, the American Bible Society was basically an “evangelical benevolent society in an evangelical culture.” But when religious conflicts of the 1910s and ’20s split Protestants into fundamentalists (proto-evangelicals) and modernists, the ABS largely aligned with the modernist leaders of the mainline denominations. Given the prevalence of Eisenhower-esque American civil religion, and the continuing financial and cultural sway of the mainline churches, this alignment made sense: After World War II, the ABS’s dissemination of Scripture was grounded in the quest for a just and humane world order, championed more generically by the United Nations and the World Council of Churches.

The Worst Book Reviews in American History?

Here are few snippets from these reviews as provided by Tracy O’Neill at the blog of the New York Public Library:

Saturday Review review of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1952)

“Her story is built around a fanatic who believes that there is no Christ, no redemption, and no soul, and who goes about preaching this doctrine with complete dedication. There are possibilities in the idea, but they are not realized, for one reason, because the individual is so repulsive that one cannot become interested in him… The result is inevitably a gloomy tale.”

Dress and Vanity Fair review of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913)

“Miss Willa Cather in ‘O Pioneers!’ (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.”

The London Spectator review of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851)

“It is a canon with some critics that nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish. Mr. Melville hardly steers clear of this rule and he continually violates another by beginning in the autobiographical form and changing ad libitum into the narrative.”

Read more here.

Kruse, *One Nation Under God*: A Review

I have been singing the praises of Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. It is a great book that has received a lot of attention.  Kruse has been doing a lot of interviews to promote it and we have linked to several reviews of the book in our “Sunday Night Odds and Ends” posts. 

When John Wilson of Books & Culture asked me to review the book I jumped at the chance.  I read most of the book on a trip to Las Vegas for one of my daughter’s volleyball tournaments.  It took my mind off the fact that my 6’8″ frame was jammed in a coach seat.

I learned a lot from Kruse’s work and was able to cite One Nation Under God in my forthcoming history of the American Bible Society.  The book provided the perfect context for the American Bible Society’s decision in 1970 to publish a special “Eisenhower Commemorative Edition” of the Good News Bible.

Here is a taste of my review.  It appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Books & Culture.

On March 23, 2015, Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas and the darling of the Tea Party movement, announced that he would be running for President of the United States. The announcement was made at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, a school founded by the late culture warrior and fundamentalist Jerry Falwell. The Texas senator used his speech to expound upon the Christian roots of America, the “mischiefs of government,” American exceptionalism, economic growth, and religious liberty. Anyone who reads or listens to his speech would conclude that Cruz believes these ideas all stem directly from the pages of the Bible.

As Princeton historian Kevin Kruse reminds us in his new book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Cruz’s message of faith, freedom, and free enterprise has a long 20th-century history. According to Kruse, the belief that the United States is a Christian nation—an idea that continues to hold weight among Republican politicians and many ordinary evangelicals—can be traced back to the “Christian libertarians” of the 1930s who opposed FDR’s New Deal. Whenever and wherever Christian nationalism thrived in modern America, businessmen and other advocates of free markets and limited government were there. As his subtitle suggests, Kruse sets out to show “how corporate America invented Christian America.”

Kruse tells the story of Christian nationalism in the United States from the Great Depression to the Nixon Era. In the process he introduces us to characters who seldom find their way into the traditional narrative of 20th-century American religious history. For example, in 1935 James Fifield, the pastor of the lavish First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, founded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization for the purpose of spreading the belief that Christianity and capitalism were inseparable. Fifield recruited corporate leaders from General Motors, General Electric, Standard Oil, and Mutual Life to his cause by convincing them that FDR’s welfare state was sinful because it threatened individual liberty and the God-ordained free market. By the 1940s and 1950s, Spiritual Mobilization was leading “Freedom Under God” celebrations throughout the country and promoting “Independence Sunday” events in local Protestant churches.

Fifield’s Christian libertarian vision would find an ally in Billy Graham. Kruse downplays Graham’s staunch anti-communist sermons, focusing instead on his pro-business and anti-labor rhetoric. Such an emphasis is part of Kruse’s larger thesis about the roots of the religious revival sweeping the United States in the immediate wake of World War II. Conventional wisdom suggests that this revival, and especially the various manifestations of civil religion that accompanied it, can be explained by Americans’ desire to distinguish themselves from the godless communism of the Soviet Union. For Kruse, the attempt to make America “one nation under God” had its roots not in the Cold War, but in attempts by Christian libertarians like Fifield and Graham to defeat a more imposing danger than the Soviets—the state power brought about by the New Deal.

The Christian libertarianism of the 1930s was co-opted in the 1950s by Dwight D. Eisenhower. A deeply religious man with roots in River Brethren Anabaptism, Ike believed that the United States government was based on Christian principles, but he was no libertarian. In fact, he believed that religion was needed to strengthen the state rather than tear it down. It was under his administration that the Cold War replaced the New Deal as the primary enemy of Christian nationalists. Though Christian businessmen and those Protestants aligned with the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party wished that Eisenhower would talk more about the relationship between Christianity and free markets, and perhaps even roll back the welfare state, they were happy that the President was willing to bring businessmen into his cabinet and religion into the halls of American power.

According to Kruse, America became a Christian nation for the first time during the Eisenhower administration. When in 1953 the National Association of Evangelicals issued its “Statement of Seven Divine Freedoms,” a decree that basically declared that the United States was founded on biblical principles, Eisenhower was the first to sign it. By 1960, the phrase “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and the phrase “In God We Trust” was printed for the first time on paper currency. Both initiatives had overwhelming bipartisan support.

Read the rest here.

New Review of *Why Study History*

Thanks to Jeff Straub for a great review of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past in Credo magazine.  Click here and scroll to page 58 to read it.

I love the title of the review: “Think History is Boring? Think Again. John Fea Brings History to Life”

A taste:

The book, therefore, serves as a kind of apologetic for the study of history, particularly Christian history. In a relatively short space, Fea makes an impassioned appeal for the pursuit of history….

Pastors have demands on their time, and reading can sometimes be slotted to a minor priority. With a vast array of practical and systematic theological books, not to mention an ever-growing abundance of exegetical material, what does a busy pastor read? This may leave little or no room for reading topics like history, much less a book on the historian’s method. Yet the pastor who will take the time to peruse this book may come away with a greater appreciation for the value of historical reading. Fea includes a chapter that argues for the value of Christian history as a part of one’s spiritual formation. Good historical writing has the power to transform a believer’s life. However, Christian historians need certain virtues like prayer and dependence upon God when studying the past so that God may use the study to its fullest.