What is the Difference Between Liberty University and Messiah College?


The covered bridge on the campus of Messiah College

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community class at Messiah College we discussed different kinds of Christian colleges. We thought about the things a Christian college requires all faculty to affirm, the issues a Christian college “privileges” (but does not necessarily require faculty to agree with), and the issues on which a Christian college does not take an official position.  (Most of our discussion built on the work of Messiah College provost Randy Basinger).

Faculty at Messiah College must be Christians.  All faculty must affirm the Apostles Creed.  We thus have Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox faculty.  Other Christian colleges require faculty to affirm more than just the Apostles Creed.  For example, faculty at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan must affirm the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. Wheaton College and Gordon College do not hire Catholics.

Messiah College privileges social and religious positions that line-up with the school’s historic Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist roots.  For example, as a college with Anabaptist roots, Messiah privileges pacifism. As a school with Anabaptist and Wesleyan roots, the college privileges the ordination of women.  But a faculty member does not have to be a pacifist or believe in the ordination of women to teach at the college.  We have faculty who are advocates of a “just war” position and we have faculty from denominations (traditional Catholics and Orthodox, conservative Presbyterians, and complementarian evangelical churches) that do not ordain women.

And there are all kinds of issues on which Messiah College does not have a position.  For example, the college does not take a position on political candidates or parties.

All of this makes for a vibrant and diverse Christian intellectual community.

During our conversation in class, a few students brought up Liberty University.  What does Liberty require of faculty?  What positions and issues does Liberty privilege? What are the issues on which the university does not take a position?

For example, last month we highlighted Jerry Falwell Jr.’s leadership of VEXIT, a movement started by Virginia counties and localities who want to leave the Commonwealth and join the state of West Virginia. Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, is not happy with proposed legislation to restrict gun rights in Virginia.

VEXIT is getting a boost from Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, a think tank created to “equip courageous champions to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ, to advance his kingdom and American freedom”:

The Falkirk Center is connected to Liberty University.  In a January 20, 2020 piece at the Liberty Champion, student journalist Hattie Troutman writes: “The idea for the center was presented by [co-founder Charlie Kirk] when he pitched the idea to Falwell last year. [Executive Director Ryan] Helfenbein said Falwell received the idea well, knowing that if Liberty was to be in a partnership with the center, it must be rooted in the Gospel and represent Liberty University’s missional values.”

So there you have it.  The Falkirk Center is an extension of the mission of Liberty University.  The Falkirk Center promotes VEXIT.  It thus appears that Liberty University privileges VEXIT.

A quick read of the Falkirk Center Twitter feed suggests that the university also privileges gun rights, BREXIT, Donald Trump, free markets, and a pro-life position on abortion. If Messiah College is rooted in the historic Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions, Liberty University is rooted in the (very short) history of the Christian Right.

At Messiah College, we also have “centers” that support beliefs that the college privileges:

  • We have a center for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan studies that promotes issues related to peace, reconciliation, heart-felt conversion, and personal and social holiness.”
  • We have a Center for Public Humanities with a mission to promote the study of the humanities and “partner with our broader community in meaningful inquiry, conversation, and action.”
  • We have a center devoted to the work and legacy of former U.S. Commissioner of Education and Messiah graduate Ernest L. Boyer.  The Boyer Center “advances educational renewal for the common good.”
  • We have a center called The Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research.  This center has a mission to “foster justice, empower the poor, promote peace and care for the earth through applications of our academic and professional disciplines.”

Because Messiah College is a Christian college informed by the history and theology of the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan movements, the college supports centers that reflect the things the college privileges.  Liberty University also has a center that supports the things Liberty University privileges.

Not all Christian colleges are the same.  High school students and their parents should be aware of this.

The Created and Called for Community course continues next week with some additional exploration of Messiah College’s Christian identity.  Follow along here.

Meeting George Marsden

Marsden and Ally

Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog will recognize the name George Marsden.  He is the author of many award-winning books on American religious history and higher education including Fundamentalism and American CultureReforming FundamentalismThe Soul of the American University,  The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (winner of the 2004 Bancroft Prize), and The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.  He spent his academic career teaching at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School, and the University of Notre Dame.

I did not study with Marsden, but his books and work are part of the reason I entered the historical profession.  When I think of a Christian historian, I think of George Marsden.  The opportunity I had a few years ago to share the stage with Mark Noll and George remains one of the highlights of my career.  Since then, he has blurbed one of my books and I have had the honor to blurb a couple of his.

Yesterday, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Calvin Theological Seminary  in Grand Rapids, Michigan (where George now does some teaching in retirement) honored his life and career by having one of his former students, James Bratt, do a public interview with him.

Since George moved back to Grand Rapids after his retirement from Notre Dame he has attended a few Calvin College women’s volleyball games and has become a fan of the team.  As many of you know, my daughter Allyson, a history and psychology double-major at Calvin, plays on the volleyball team.  Whenever George would tell me that he attended a game I would pass the news along to Ally.  (“Hey Ally, a famous historian came to your game last night!”).

So when I learned about the event at Calvin Theological Seminary I sent a text to Ally:  “George Marsden has come to your volleyball games.  You need to return the favor and go to this interview.”  I did not expect her to attend (what college student listens to her father when he tells her to go to a lecture on campus!), so needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that she not only attended but also introduced herself to George and asked for a photo with him! Very cool.

George, if you’re reading this, thanks for being so gracious with Ally!  And Ally, I hoped you learned something by attending this event!  🙂

The Fea Girls on the Championship Road

I am always proud of my daughters, but I am especially excited for them this week.

Caroline, a high school senior, is playing on Tuesday night in the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Athletic Association (PIAA) state semifinal game in the hopes of advancing to the state championship game on Saturday.  I wrote a bit about the Mechanicsburg Wildcat’s girls soccer team here.  Last Saturday afternoon they advanced to the semifinals with a thrilling 2-1 double overtime victory over Archbishop Ryan High School in 30 degree weather and howling winds.

Caroline banquet

Caroline at the team banquet last week

GIrls soccer team

Caroline’s team has 11 seniors

Allyson, a junior right side hitter on the Calvin College women’s volleyball team, will compete this weekend in Pittsburgh for the NCAA Division 3 National Championship.  On Saturday night they won an epic 5-set match against Wittenberg University to advance to the round of 8.  I have no idea why the #1 ranked team in the country (Calvin) faced the #3 ranked team in the country (Wittenberg) in a regional final, but that’s what happened.   Either team could have won this game and both deserve to be in the Elite 8 this weekend in Pittsburgh.   It was a sweet win for Calvin.  Last season Wittenberg defeated Calvin on their home court in the national semifinals.

Sarah and Ally

Ally is #19

Ally and Dad

Playoff Season in the Fea Household!


Some of you have been following the exploits of the Mechanicsburg Girls Soccer team.  They are currently 21-0 and ranked 16th in the nation according to USA Today.  Tonight Caroline and her team the play Manheim Central High School (Lancaster area) for the District 3 Championship at Hershey Park Stadium.  If you are interested, the game starts at 5:3pm.

Meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Calvin College (26-1) will be trying to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Division 3 volleyball tournament.  Allyson is a starting right-side hitter on a team that has been ranked #1 in the nation for most of the season.  Calvin will secure an automatic bid by winning the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament this weekend.  And even if they lose, it is likely that they will receive an at-large bid.  (In 2016, they rode an at-large bid to the National Championship).

So what does this mean for the proud parents.? Joy just left for Grand Rapids.  She will be spending the weekend watching volleyball.  I am staying here in south central Pennsylvania and will be watching soccer in Hershey tonight.

We never expected that our November would be so busy or that we would have to split-up to watch our kids compete for championships.  (I played sports through college, but never came close to winning anything! 🙂 )

Stay tuned!

Reflections on the 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History

The 2018 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History is over.  As program chair, I spent most of the weekend pinch-hitting for folks who were unable to come and making sure our plenary speakers were comfortable.  This is what program chairs do.  If I passed you in the hallway at the Prince Conference Center at Calvin College and did not stop to chat please forgive me.  I hope we can catch-up soon.

I wanted to blog a lot more than I did this weekend.  I got off to a good start on Thursday night, but then fell silent.  If you want to learn all the cool things that happened this weekend check out the conference Twitter feed: #cfh2018.  I am sure Chris Gehrz will eventually have a wrap-up post at The Pietist Schoolman.

Here are some of my highlights:

On Friday morning I chaired Session 12: “Christian Historiography: Kuyper, Ellul and O’Donovan.”  As I listened to Richard Riss’s excellent paper on Jacques Ellul, I realized that I should have read more of this French philosopher as I prepared to write Believe Me.

On Friday afternoon, I spent some time with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn of Syracuse University.  Elisabeth’s plenary address, “The Art of Living, Ancient and Modern,” challenged us to consider the third-century Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus as a way of countering the therapeutic culture of modern life.  Lasch-Quinn pushed us to move beyond the pursuit of the “good life” and consider what it might mean to live a “beautiful life.”

Lasch Quinn

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn delivers here Friday afternoon keynote address

Following Lasch -Quinn’s lecture and before the evening banquet, I got to spend time with my favorite Calvin College history major

Ally at CFH

Beth Allison Barr of Baylor University is the new president of the Conference on Faith and History and the organization’s second female president.   Her presidential plenary drew heavily on medieval sermons on the roles of women in the Church as a way of thinking about the place of women in the today’s church and the Conference on Faith and History.  She encouraged the conference to respect the past and move toward the future by listening to the voices of the record number of women in attendance.


Beth Allison Barr delivering her 2018 presidential address

On Friday evening, I got together with some old friends at a Grand Rapids funeral home that has been converted into a bar and grill.  As you see from the photo below, much of the stained glass from the funeral home chapel was preserved.


With Eric Miller (Geneva College), Jay Green (Covenant College), and Jon Boyd (InterVarsity Press)

Saturday began with a panel on Messiah College’s Civil Rights bus tour.  It was a great session and it made me proud to be part of Messiah’s work in the area of racial reconciliation.  It was also a privilege to chair a session with three of my Messiah colleagues.  Next time I won’t put them at 8:00am. (Sorry guys!)

After the Civil Rights session I had coffee with our latest sponsor of The Way of Improvement Leads Home PodcastBob Beatty of the Lyndhurst Group.  If you are a community leader, a historical site administrator, or a museum professional, the Lyndhurst Group can help you with your public history outreach.  Bob is a great guy with lot’s of energy, enthusiasm, expertise, and experience. We are so happy that he is sponsoring the podcast.

After the CFH board meeting, I dropped in on Robert Orsi‘s plenary address, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.”  Orsi argued that scholars of religion must learn to pay attention to the relationship between religion and “horrors” such as pogroms, crusades, slavery, racism, misogny, and other “brutalities of everyday life.”  He suggested that “there may come a time when the human being who is also a scholar of religion reaches a limit of disgust.”  Beyond this limit, Orsi argued, “distinctions, qualifications, countervailing evidence, parsings, and other theoretical or hermeneutical subtleties fail.”  Orsi spent most of his time reflecting on “disgust” as a category of analysis in the context of the Catholic sexual abuse scandals.  It was a tough session to sit through, but many felt it was necessary.

Orsi at Calvin

Late Saturday afternoon I chaired a session that may have been one of the best CFH panels I have ever attended.  Session 53, titled “Theology and Spirituality in the Doing of History,” included three magnificent papers on the place of love and Christian spirituality in the doing of history.  Wendy Wong Schirmer, a newcomer to the CFH, argued that Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on love can help us think Christianly about the historian’s craft.  Brad Pardue of College of the Ozarks talked about how he integrates Christian practices into his history courses.  Mark Sandle of The King’s University (Alberta) delivered a powerful paper on loving the dead in the context of the archives. I hope all three of these papers will be published in Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History.

It is not easy putting a 56-session conference together, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of Joel Carpenter, Ellen Hekman, Jay Green, Eric Miller, Devon Hearn, and Robin Schwarzmann.  Thank you.  I am now going to take a nap.

When at Calvin College…

Calvin 4

This past weekend I was on the campus of Calvin College.  On Saturday I was part of a capacity crowd at Calvin’s athletic arena watching the Knights defeat Hope College in a battle of nationally ranked teams.

While I was on campus I took a walk through the Calvin College Ecosystem Preserve.  For those of you coming to Calvin next week for the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, I highly recommend reserving some down time for a walk in the woods.  One of the access points to the trails is located behind the Prince Conference Center.

Here are some pics:

Calvin 1

Calvin 2

Calvin 5

Calvin 6

Will You Be Attending the Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History in October?


I hope so.  October 4-6 in Grand Rapids, MI

Our keynote speakers are Margaret Bendroth, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Beth Allison Barr, and Robert Orsi.

Other historians on the program include: Joel Carpenter, John Woodbridge, Brad Gundlach, Steven Keillor, Timothy Hall, Ted Davis, Jared Burkholder, David Swartz, Scott Culpepper, Trisha Posey, Fred Jordan, Bernardo Michael, Chris Gehrz, Jon Boyd, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Ron Wells, John Turner, Amy Easton-Flake, Rachel Cope, Fred Buettler, Mike Kugler, Michael Hammond, Eric Miller, Jeff Bilbro, Timothy Gloege, Dwight Brautigham, Rick Kennedy, Richard Gamble, Elesha Coffman, Karen Johnson, Douglas Howard, Anthony Minnema, Amy Poppinga, Ron Rittgers, John Giggie, Jemar Tisby, Beth Barton Schweiger, Jonathan Den Hartog, Jennifer Hevelone-Harper, Glenn Sanders, Janine Giordano Drake, Andrea Turpin, George Marsden, William Katerberg, John Haas, James LaGrand, Paul Harvey, John Wilsey, Michael Lee, Brian Franklin, Heath Carter, Cara Burnidge, Jay Case, Katherine van Liere, Dale Van Kley, Luke Harlow, Jeanne Petit, Lisa Clark Diller, Daniel Williams, Darryl Hart, Tal Howard, Nancy Koester, Tracy McKenzie, John Fry, Catherine O’Donnell, Jay Green, Don Yerxa, Patrick Connelly, Otis Pickett, Emily Conroy-Krutz, Mark Edwards, Lauren Turek, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, Jesse Curtis, Rebecca Koerselman, Bill Svelmoe, Una Cadegan, Jill Titus, Kent Whitworth, Susan Fletcher, Bob Beatty, Seth Perry.

There will also be tours of the Meeter Center at Calvin College and a trip to the Gerald Ford Museum in downtown Grand Rapids.

Get all the information you need here.

Calvin University?


Calvin College is the latest school to become a “university.”  Here is the press release:

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan—On Thursday, May 3, Calvin College’s board of trustees unanimously approved Calvin College becoming Calvin University. The move is part of Vision 2030, a statement which provides vision for the college as it fulfills its mission over the next decade.

The shift to university, which was approved during the board’s spring meeting, will happen in 2020 during the 100th-anniversary year of Calvin becoming a four-year college. The board’s decision follows the unanimous endorsement of the college’s faculty senate in late April, marking the culmination of more than nine months of collaborative strategic work taken on by the Calvin community. 

“This direction enables us to live into what has already been true about Calvin, and it will better position us for the innovative work that is necessary for the future,” said Michael Le Roy, president of Calvin College. “We see this move providing a great opportunity to introduce more people to Calvin’s distinctive Christian mission.”

Le Roy says the rationale for Calvin becoming a university is strong, including Calvin’s strength, breadth, and depth of its academic programs; new opportunities for academic innovation; and the college’s increasing influence with students and higher education partners around the globe. The college also has a large international student population for whom “university” is more visible and better understood than “college.”

Calvin leaders also see the university structure combined with increased collaboration as creating a more prominent platform for the institution to express its mission through opportunities and innovation within and across disciplines, professional programs, and centers and institutes. 

“A move to a university with a liberal arts foundation both names what we already do and liberates us to do that work better,” said Kevin den Dulk, political science professor at Calvin College and executive director of the Henry Institute. “I’m especially enthusiastic about using the university structure to expand our global reach, which is already considerable yet has a lot of room to grow.”

I know a lot of Calvin alum read this blog.  What do you think?

Don’t Forget to Submit Your Paper or Panel for the 2018 CFH Meeting in Grand Rapids!


I am heading off to the executive board meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to give them an update on the 2018 Biennial Meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.

It is going to be a great conference.  Keynote speakers include Robert Orsi, Margaret Bendroth, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn.   Deadline is March 15, 2018.  Contact me with questions.

Here is the call for papers:


The 31st Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith & History

History and the Search for Meaning:  The Conference on Faith and History at 50

 October 4-6, 2018

Calvin College

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Plenary Speakers:

Margaret Bendroth (Congregational Library & Archives, Boston)

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn (Syracuse University)  

Robert Orsi (Northwestern University)

The Conference on Faith and History (CFH) was chartered fifty years ago to uphold, study, and improve the complex relationship between Christian faith and the discipline of history.  As an organization, we are interested in how Christian faith in all its manifestations (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) plays a role in our lives as professionals, writers, teachers, and colleagues. Our members work at large public universities, Christian liberal arts colleges, museums, historical sites, libraries, publishing houses, churches, and K-12 schools.

In October 2018, we will gather together at Calvin College, one of the organization’s earliest sponsoring institutions, to reflect on a theme that has been at the heart of the CFH since its birth: “History and the Search for Meaning.”  During our meeting in Grand Rapids, we will consider how the study of the past—in all its fullness and complexity—might bring meaning within our institutions, neighborhoods, classrooms, and congregations, and how it might promote health and stability for our democracy in an ever-shrinking and even more dangerous world.

As always, we are eager to see papers and panel (preferred) proposals that focus on the conference theme, but we will consider submissions on any historical topic.

Proposal ideas may consider, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • Historians and the church
  • Christian historians as public intellectuals
  • Thinking Christianly about the history of race and gender
  • Teaching as Christian historians (at both the university and K-12 level)
  • The role of the Christian historian in teaching and writing about under-represented groups
  • Christian historians and the history of justice and inequality
  • Christianity and historiography
  • The social responsibility of the Christian historian
  • Christian faith and the writing of history
  • The role of the history major and the place of historical study in the academy
  • Spiritual disciplines and the work of Christian scholarship and teaching
  • The relationship between theology and the work of the historian
  • History and citizenship
  • The calling or vocation of the Christian historian/scholar
  • The influence of the Internet and social media on Christian scholarship
  • Digital history and the Christian historian
  • History and the state of the “evangelical mind”
  • History and advocacy
  • Christians and graduate training in history
  • Stories of women and seeking meaning through the study of the past
  • History and Christian mission
  • History and the moral imagination

Individual paper and/or complete session proposals may be sent to:

 John Fea, Messiah College:  jfea(at)Messiah(dot)edu

 DEADLINE: 15 March, 2018

 Decisions will be made on or before April 30, 2018.

Details about the Conference on Faith and History and forthcoming information about local arrangements can be found at the CFH website: faithandhistory.org

My Visit to Calvin College Made the Student Newspaper!


Read all about it in the December 1, 2017 issue of Chimes.

Here is a taste of Hannah Butler’s article:

Concluding the history department colloquium for the fall semester, John Fea lectured on President Trump’s Christian advisers and the historical context of their position.

Fea, who identifies as an evangelical Christian, visited from Messiah College, where he is a professor of early colonial history. His latest book , entitled “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”covers evangelical Christians and Donald Trump The book was prompted by several blog posts as well as nearly thirty op-ed newspaper articles throughout the 2016 election cycle.

John Fea encouraged students to become active citizens through engaging the relationship between religion and politics in American life.

“I think any Calvin student, in order to be a responsible citizen, needs to understand how we’ve gotten to the particular political moment that we’re in,” stated Fea, whose own daughter is a sophomore at Calvin. “Christians who voted for Donald Trump or who didn’t vote for Donald Trump just didn’t fall from the sky. There’s a long trajectory of changes that have happened through the years that brought 81% of American Evangelical Christians to vote this man for president.”

In his lecture, Fea created a narrative to answer how history facilitates our understanding of the democratic government and our political community on campus. He stated that “political dimensions need to be understood in context.”

Read the entire piece here.

We Have a Title!


Yesterday I was at Calvin College to try out some of the material from my forthcoming book on Donald Trump.  A lot of smart people at Calvin gave me a lot of things to think about as I wrap-up the manuscript.  Thanks to Kristin Kobes Du Mez of the Calvin College History Department and Kevin Den Dulk of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics for inviting me to speak.

At the start of my lecture I announced the book’s title:

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

Let me know what you think.  The book will be out with Eerdmans in the Spring.

Here is how I closed my lecture at Calvin:

When Donald Trump speaks to his followers in the mass rallies that have now become a fixture of his populist brand, he loves to use the phrase “believe me.”  The internet is filled with video montages of Trump using this signature catch phrase.  (He says it even more than “Make America great again!”):

            “Believe me folks, we’re building the wall, believe me, believe, me, we’re building the wall.”

“I love women.  Believe me, I love women.  I love women. And you know what else, I have great respect for women, believe me.”

“I am the least, the least racist person that you’ve ever met, believe me.”

“The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out, OK.  That’s what I do. I fix things.  We’re going to straighten it out, believe me.”

And, perhaps most importantly:

“So let me state this right up front, [in] a Trump administration our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before. Believe me.”

Why do the the court evangelicals and their followers believe in Donald Trump?  They believe in this man because fear paralyzes them, power seduces them, and nostalgia blinds them.  Donald Trump will be gone in 2021 or 2025.  Let’s pray that he does not take the evangelical church with him.

“Court Evangelicals” Lecture at Calvin College


If you are in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area stop by on Wednesday and say hello:

“The Court Evangelicals: Who Are Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisers and Where Did They Come From?”

Since the election of Donald Trump, a group of leaders from a variety of evangelical traditions have served as advisers to the President on matters of faith and public life. John Fea has called these advisers Trump’s “court evangelicals.” Like the religious members of the king’s court during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Trump’s court evangelicals seek power and worldly approval by flattering the “king” rather than speaking truth to power. Who are these court evangelicals? Do they have a political theology? What are the historical forces behind their “unprecedented access” to the Trump White House? This lecture will situate these religious leaders in a longer history of evangelical political engagement.

About the speaker

John Fea is Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 2002.

His first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), was chosen as the Book of the Year by the New Jersey Academic Alliance and an Honor Book by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. His book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011) was one of three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize, one of the largest literary prizes in the United States. It was also selected as the Foreword Reviews/INDIEFAB religion book of the year.

John is also co-editor (with Jay Green and Eric Miller) of  Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), a finalist for the Lilly Fellows Program in Arts and Humanities Book Award.  His book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past was published in 2013 with Baker Academic. John’s book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society appeared in March 2016 with Oxford University Press.

John’s essays and reviews on the history of American culture have appeared in The Journal of American History, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, The William and Mary QuarterlyThe Journal of the Early RepublicSojourners, Explorations in Early American CulturePennsylvania HeritageEducation Week, The Cresset, Books and CultureChristianity Today, Christian Century, and Common Place.  He has also written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Fox NewsUSA Today, Al-Jazeera, Washington Post, CBS News, New York Daily News, AOL News, Houston Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Harrisburg Patriot News, Salt Lake City TribuneChicago Sun-TimesReligion News Service, and other newspapers.  He blogs daily at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, a blog devoted to American history, religion, politics, and academic life.

Co-sponsored by the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics. This talk is part of monthly history colloquia series. These lectures are open to the Calvin community – students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends – and all are welcomed and encouraged to attend. Come early to enjoy refreshments and conversation, and feel free to ask questions or join the discussion at the end.


The Conference on Faith and History Comes to Grand Rapids in October 2018


The Fall 2018 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH) will be meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan from October 4-6, 2018.  This year’s conference theme is “History and the Search for Meaning: The CFH at 50.  Mark your calendars!

I am happy to report that we have secured the following keynote speakers:

Thursday Night Plenary: Peggy Bendroth, Congregational Library—“The Spiritual Practice of Remembering”

Friday Afternoon Plenary: Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Syracuse University—Title TBD

Friday Banquet Speaker: Beth Barr, CFH President

Saturday Morning Plenary: Robert Orsi, Northwestern University, “History and Presence”

I hope to see you all there.  Let’s have a record turnout for our 50th anniversary conference.  Stay tuned.  The Call for Papers will be released in a few months.

Calvin College in *The Atlantic*


Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been getting a lot of attention lately since one of its alums, Betsy DeVos, became Secretary of Education. (I should add that DeVos is not the only Christian college graduate to serve as the country’s chief education officer.  Ernest Boyer, a graduate of Messiah College, was Jimmy Carter’s Commissioner of Education).  Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination founded by Dutch Calvinists.

Since Donald Trump picked DeVos, pundits have been trying to make sense of her connection to the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College.  Some of the attempts at understanding her religious background have been more successful than others.  I still think Abram Van Engen’s piece at Religion & Politics is the best.  His piece is followed closely by Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article in The Washington Post.

The third best thing I have read on Calvin and DeVos is Emily Deruy’s piece at today’s Atlantic.  Deruy’s essay treats Calvin fairly and does a good job of explaining the school to the left-of-center, upper-middle class, educated readership of the Atlantic. 

Here is a taste:

In more than a dozen interviews, professors, students, and alumni of all political stripes painted a picture of a college where intellectual diversity and thought-provoking debate are the norm, and where the belief that followers of the Christian Reformed Church, with which the school is affiliated, have an obligation to engage with the world around them compels both instructors and students to question what they think they know.

“Our faith commits us to engaging the world all around us,” said Kevin den Dulk, a political-science professor who graduated from Calvin in the 1990s, during an interview in the DeVos Communication Center, which sits across from the Prince Conference Center bearing the secretary’s maiden name. (Her mother, Elsa, is also an alum.)

Den Dulk’s words aren’t just PR fluff; it’s a concept borne out by the school’s 141-year history and the Dutch-influenced part of western Michigan it calls home. The Christian Reformed Church is a Protestant tradition that has its roots in the Netherlands and has been deeply influenced by the theologian Abraham Kuyper, a believer in intellectualism—specifically the idea that groups with different beliefs can operate in the same space according to their convictions while respecting and understanding others. “Fundamentalism is really anti-intellectual and Calvin is the exact opposite,” said Alan Wolfe, the author of a 2000 Atlantic piece about efforts to revitalize evangelical Christian colleges.

Read the entire piece here.

Why I Missed a Conference Session Devoted to My Book


I was supposed to be in San Antonio this Saturday.  I did not make it.

The Society for Comparative Research on Iconographic and Performative Texts devoted its annual session at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in San Antonio to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  S. Brent Plate of Hamilton College organized the session and recruited David Morgan (Duke), Laurie Maffly-Kipp (Washington University), and Julius Bailey (University of Redlands) to give papers on the subject of the book.  I was scheduled to respond to their presentations.

Needless to say I was flattered and greatly honored to have The Bible Cause featured in this way.  How often does one have an entire conference session devoted to his work?  It would be my first meeting of the AAR and my first visit to San Antonio since the Advanced Placement United States history reading left Trinity College for a convention center in Louisville.  It was looking forward to hearing some jazz on the River Walk and trying to score some Spurs tickets.

I agreed to participate in this session well before my oldest daughter had decided where she would be attending college.  She eventually chose Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan because it is a faith-based school with a stellar academic reputation and a very strong NCAA Division 3 women’s volleyball program.

When I agreed to go to San Antonio on the weekend of November 18, 2016 I had no idea that the AAR conference would conflict with the NCAA Division 3 national championship game in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Nor could I have predicted that Calvin would be playing in that game.

The decision to skip to San Antonio was an easy one, but I sincerely appreciate the graciousness shown to me by Brent, David, Laurie, and Julius.  I was disappointed that I could not attend a session devoted to my book, but I am glad that I was in Oshkosh last weekend to watch my freshman daughter, the starting right-side hitter, contribute to Calvin’s NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP victory!!!

Since I could not be there, Brent read my comments.  Here they are in full:

Good morning.  As you probably know by this point of the session, I am not in San Antonio this weekend for what would have been my first meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  I am writing instead from Oshkosh, Wisconsin where my daughter, a freshman at Calvin College, is competing for an NCAA Division 3 national championship in women’s volleyball.  I am honored that the Society for Comparative Research on Iconographic and Performative Texts has chosen to devote a session to The Bible Cause and grateful to Brent Plate for bringing together a group of panelists whose work I have read and greatly respected.  These kinds of events don’t happen very often in a scholar’s life, but neither do opportunities to see one’s daughter compete at such a high level.  I hope you understand my dilemma and my decision not to be with you today.

If I was with you today to talk informally about the book I would probably say a word or two about the challenge of writing this kind of institutional and anniversary history.  The American Bible Society asked me to write a bicentennial history of the organization, but I negotiated the academic freedom to write it in the way I wanted to write it.  I realized that the ABS took a great risk in letting me do this, especially when many of their leaders would have preferred some kind of providential or hagiographical history.  Having said that, my audience for this book was not Bible Cause Coverscholars.  While I hoped the book would be useful to historians, and perhaps make some contribution to our understanding of American religious history and American history more broadly, but I also wanted to produce a volume that be accessible to the educated layperson.  As I wrote I thought about the person who at one time or another has donated money to the Bible Society or has a vested interest in the dissemination of the Bible in the United States and abroad. 

In the end, the book has received some positive and negative reviews.  The negative reviews have chided me for failing to achieve critical distance from my subject matter and for not going far enough in my deconstruction of the stories the Bible Society has told about itself. The American Bible Society has distanced itself from the book because it does not fit well with the “brand” that the current administration is trying to create.  (The administration at the ABS changed considerably during the writing of this book).  At the Bible Society’s 200th anniversary gala last May—a massive event attended by several thousand people at the Philadelphia Art Museum—the book was never mentioned.  When a group of Messiah College humanities majors visited the American Bible Society last week for a career exploration event (my spouse, a career counselor at the college, was in attendance) the book was not displayed anywhere in the Society’s Philadelphia office and the historical presentation the students received from ABS staff did not mention it.

Needless to say, the response to the Bible Cause has been an interesting one.  I doubt I will be writing another history of a still-functioning religious institution anytime soon.

But enough about the book’s reception.  This is a session on the American Bible Society and print culture and I am pleased to respond to the three presenters.

David Morgan’s response to The Bible Cause focuses on the way American evangelicals have interpreted the Bible.  Morgan compares William Miller (a person, I might add, who was not connected in any way to the American Bible Society) and his literal reading of the Bible with ABS founder Elias Boudinot’s efforts to interpret the Bible in a way that incorporated non-Biblical literature and the insights of non-Christian thinkers.  In the process, Morgan seeks to complicate the prevailing scholarly narrative—a narrative often linked to historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Theodore Dwight Bozeman—that all nineteenth-century Amerivcan evangelicals (and by implication 20th and even 21st-century evangelicals) read the Bible in a “common-sense” way.  As Morgan concludes: “All the talk about common sense and plain style notwithstanding, it becomes evidence that the Evangelical construction of the Bible is no simple matter.”

Morgan is no doubt correct, but I wonder if Boudinot’s approach to biblical interpretation is an aberration, at least for the nineteenth century.  Granted, I am sure that there were evangelical Bible scholars who saw the necessity of interpreting the scriptures in conversation with non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, but I have my doubts about whether this is how most of the laypeople who supported the American Bible Society, and the colporteurs, peddlers, and agents who did its work across the United States, thought about biblical interpretation.  These folks were probably much more attracted to William Miller’s concordance and common sense readings of the text than Boudinot’s nearly unreadable tomes.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s remarks bring the Mormons into the story of the “Bible Cause.”  Of course she is correct when she says that the American Bible Society believed that Mormons “would never read the Bible correctly.”  The irony that Maffly-Kipp calls attention to in her comments is worth repeating.  The American Bible Society was in the business of distributing the Bible “without note or comment” and letting churches, denominations, and the Holy Spirit help the recipient make sense of it and apply it to their spiritual lives. But this broad-based mission was narrowly confined to a particular kind of church and denomination, and the Holy Spirit was clearly a Protestant.

I did have a small section on the Mormons in the original draft of The Bible Cause, but I had to cut it out for lack of space.  Here is a small taste of that section:

In the 1870, Rev. Nelson Reasoner, the ABS agent for eastern California and Nevada, canvassed Utah territory to see if the roughly 120,000 followers of the late Joseph Smith living in the territory would welcome the Bible.  (The ABS was not willing to enter Utah if the Mormons were not interested in the Protestant scriptures).  Reasoner met with Brigham Young who told him that most of the people of Utah owned Bibles, but he gave the ABS agent permission to travel throughout the territory.  When Reasoner found enough people “destitute” of the Bible, the ABS started its work in Utah.  Reasoner found that Mormons were eager to obtain copies of the Bible in order to have “a more complete record of God’s revelation” to humankind.  Reasoner’s successor, Rev. H.D. Fisher, was invited to present the Bible Cause in the “Mormon meeting-houses” and Sabbath schools and was received cordially by the Mormon leadership.  In fact, the Mormons worked closely with a comparatively small number of “Gentiles”—mostly Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians—on the establishment of county and branch auxiliaries.  One Mormon auxiliary Bible society hired three colporteurs to distribute Bibles.

Fisher did have his struggles in Utah.  Because Mormons donated heavily to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, they did not give money to the ABS to degree that Fisher had hoped that they would.  Of course the ABS and its agents in Utah were no fans of Mormon theology and church teaching.  Fisher noted that “Bible circulation and reading is the only antidote to the abounding evils of rapidly constituted communities, far removed from centres [sic] of Christian activities and influences.”  In a veiled attack on the Book of Mormon, Fisher expressed his interest in bringing the Protestant scriptures to a region of the country “where other books have been for a half a century substituted as of equal or superior authority to the Bible.”  By 1885, after roughly fifteen years of work among Mormons, Fisher concluded that the ABS investment in Utah was too expensive and was yielding too few Protestant converts.  Mormons continued to cling to what Fisher believed were extra-biblical revelations and few of the inhabitants were willing to purchase ABS Bibles, forcing Fisher to give them way—“an expensive proposition.”

Julius Bailey’s paper is extremely helpful in putting a sharper point on my treatment of the American Bible Society and slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War.  It does not surprise me that African American newspapers and black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass were strong critics of the Bible Society’s decision to leave the distribution of Bibles in the South to the pro-slavery leaders of local auxiliary societies.  For example, in 1849, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery society invited a fugitive slave from Kentucky named Henry Bibb to address its annual meeting in New York.  Bibb’s speech was critical of the Bible Society because it “Had not done all that it might have done” to bring Bibles to the slave population.  Instead, he told his audiences of white abolitionists, the Bible Society had given slaves “the go-by.”  Bibb made it clear that the leaders of several ABS auxiliaries in Kentucky were slaveholders.  In fact, a man who had once sold him to another slaveholder in New Orleans was the secretary of one of these auxiliaries.

Bailey’s research reminds me that there is more research to be done about the American Bible Society’s position on the distribution of the Bibles to slaves in antebellum America.  Frankly, I wish my research had taken me further down this road.  A careful reading of African American newspapers would have made my discussion of this topic much stronger.

In the end, there is still much to say about the American Bible Society’s influence on American history and its intersection with a variety of sub-themes in American history including women’s history, labor history, lived religion, Native-American history, African-American history, and especially the missionary movement in virtually every part of the world.  Fortunately, the American Bible Society has a rich archive (if it ever finds its way out of storage in the wake of the Society’s recent move to Philadelphia) that will enable future scholars to take the story of the Bible and religious print culture in some promising directions.