The Author’s Corner with D.L. Noorlander

Heaven's wrath.jpgD.L. Noorlander is Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Oneonta. This interview is based on his new book, Heaven’s Wrath: The Protestant Reformation and the Dutch West India Company in the Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: The project started when I was a graduate student at Georgetown University. I was reading a lot of colonial history for my classes and exams, and I noticed that British and Spanish topics tend to dominate the field. I had had an interest in Dutch history for a long time, partly because of my own family ties to the Netherlands (Noorlander is a Dutch name) and partly because I had lived there for two years and spoke the language, which is pretty rare in the United States! When the time came to propose a dissertation topic, there really wasn’t much question about doing something on the Dutch in early America.

At this point I honestly don’t remember how I came to focus on the Calvinist influence in the Dutch West India Company, but that’s what happened. In reading about New Netherland and other Dutch colonies, I think I just came to believe that American historians had paid a lot more attention to the former than it probably deserved, given its place of relative unimportance in the Dutch empire. And I came to see that historians had written a lot about Dutch commerce, but they had done less social, cultural, and intellectual history.

To give credit where credit is due, I think my eyes were also opened to all the rich opportunities in Dutch research by reading books like The Reformed Church in Dutch Brazil(F.L. Schalkwijk), Fulfilling God’s Mission(Willem Frijhoff), and Innocence Abroad religio(Benjamin Schmidt). They are very different books, but they all contained wonderful surprises regarding Dutch ideology, Dutch religion, and Dutch activities in West Africa and South America. The same company that oversaw New Netherland oversaw Dutch forts and colonies in these other places, too, so it just made sense to study them together.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: The Dutch Reformed Church and West India Company forged a close union, with significant consequences throughout the seventeenth century. Certain of those consequences were, from the Calvinist point of view, positive; but the union also encouraged expensive, destructive military operations and divisive campaigns against sinners and religious nonconformers in colonial courts.

JF: Why do we need to read Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: In my experience, Americans tend not to know just how active and influential the Dutch were in early America and the Atlantic world. Because they ultimately lost Brazil to the Portuguese and New Netherland to the English, it’s easy to forget that the Dutch once had an impressive Atlantic empire. Their endless attacks on the Spanish and Portuguese may have inadvertently assisted the English and French, as well, because the Dutch kept their enemies so occupied that they (the Spanish and Portuguese) couldn’t resist and quash competitors with the same vigor and capacity they would have had without having to fight the pesky Dutch for so many years.

In short, readers of my book will learn about a people who did far more than trade: They were pirates and privateers, they waged wars, they founded colonies — and yes, despite their reputation for pragmatism and tolerance, they pursued religious goals and exhibited the occasional streak of zealotry and intolerance. I’m not the only historian noticing and writing about these things today. But Heaven’s Wrath is unique, I think, as a history of the whole West India Company, no matter where it operated, and the book is unique in using the topic of religion to reveal and explore these diverse colonial goals and methods.

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

DN: I was an English major as an undergraduate student. I was a senior before I finally realized that, as much as I love literature, I was also reading a lot of history and a lot of biographies, even more so than fiction. So I took a year off after I graduated and I applied to an MA program in history. And I liked it enough that I decided in the end to pursue a PhD.

The more profound answer is this: I love stories, but sometimes the non-fiction variety of story is more fascinating than the made-up variety, maybe because with fiction, no matter how good and profound it can be, there’s always the slightly disappointing knowledge that “this didn’t really happen” and “this doesn’t involve real people” (except in the vague sense that fiction writers draw upon human experiences and the human condition). I also love the mystery and challenge of putting my “story” together, meaning searching it out in the archives and using scattered sources to reconstruct what otherwise isn’t clear. It requires a lot of patience and detective work and, yes, even a bit of imagination.

JF: What is your next project?

DN: Readers of Heaven’s Wrath will sometimes encounter a poet, lyricist, and colonist named Jacob Steendam. Over the course of his life he lived in Europe, Africa, America, and Asia. I’ve been collecting sources on Steendam for years, and I’m now going to write a whole book about his travels and writings. Because he’s such an obscure figure, it won’t be a simple biography. But I’m going to use him and his poetry to explore the many “worlds” of the Dutch Golden Age, meaning the places he lived and the less tangible worlds of early modern writing, publishing, music, and their place in colonial life and colonial thought.

JF: Thanks, Danny!

Beware of Social Justice Warriors and Women Preachers

Founders

Tom Ascol of Founders Ministries

The anti-social justice warriors and complementarians are at it again.

Here is Religion News Service:

(RNS)  — A video posted by Founders Ministries, a neo-Calvinist evangelical group, paints Bible teacher Beth Moore, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and the SBC’s current leader as part of a conspiracy to introduce social justice advocacy into evangelical churches.

The video, posted on the Founders Ministries website, intersperses images and comments from a number of Southern Baptist leaders with commentary from Tom Ascol, president of the group.

“I see godless ideologies that have spread across Western civilization over the last decades with a vengeance, to tell us what we are supposed to be seeing, ” said Ascol in the video. “Many of these ideologies have been smuggled into many evangelical churches and organizations through the Trojan horse of social justice.”

Read the rest here.

Some Southern Baptist leaders who appear in the trailer are not happy about it:

 

Calvinists and Their Christian America Cruises

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Check out Jack Jenkins’s recent piece at Religion News Service.  I had never heard of these cruises until Jack called me the other day.  Here is a taste:

There aren’t many cruise “experience” directors who spend their days defending what is described as America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promoting “nation-ism” — a version of nationalism that champions “the right of self governance and the right of people to be self-governed.”

But Michael O’Fallon does, and he argues both are under attack by the Open Society Foundation, founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. He often says as much on his website, Sovereignnations.com, as well as through conferences with speakers who range from controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson to a slate of evangelical Christians of the Calvinist variety.

And when he has some spare time, he goes on a cruise — like a recent journey to the Galapagos Islands, which O’Fallon recently highlighted on his personal Facebook page.

“On a strikingly blue day, we came ashore to hike and explore the home of Marine Iguanas, the Galapagos Albatross, the Blue-Footed Booby, the Red-Footed Booby, the Magnificent frigatebird and the ever-present Pacific seals,” wrote O’Fallon, who is both CEO of Sovereign Nations and owner of Sovereign Cruises and Events LLC, which runs vacation excursions for religious and political groups, alike.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Adriaan Neele

before jonathan edwards

Adriaan Neele is the Director of the Doctoral Program and Professor of Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What inspired you to write Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: In Before Edwards I seek to balance the recent academic attention to the developments of intellectual history after Jonathan Edwards. On the one hand, the recent rise of Edwards scholarship and eminent reflections on Edwards’s “uniqueness” in American religious history, his Puritan sermon style and substance, and the appropriation of his thought in the courses of New England theology gave me to pause to offer another study on the preacher, theologian, and philosopher of Northampton. On the other hand, the rise of another scholarship—at the same, that on Protestant scholasticism and Reformed orthodoxy of the early modern era rarely coincides with studies on Edwards but offers consideration to re-assess and re-interpret Edwards’s theological relationship to the early modern era. The publication After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology by Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney— “a groundbreaking study of a neglected topic,” however, became a further stimulus to embark on a more comprehensive study of providing a broader background of Edwards’s use of Reformed orthodoxy and Protestant scholastic sources in the context of the challenges of his day. The longstanding trajectories of classical Christian theology are indispensable to discern continuities and discontinuities of his theological thought.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: The theological and philosophical sources of the early modern era have contributed to Edwards’ thought through his resourceful appropriation in biblical exegesis, formulation of doctrine, polemical response, and explication of practical aspects of Christian theology.

JF: Why should we read Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: This volume will present the first comprehensive study of Jonathan Edwards’s use of Reformed orthodox and Protestant scholastic primary sources in the context of the challenges of orthodoxy in his day. It will look at the way he appreciated and appropriated Reformed orthodoxy, among other topics. The book studies three time periods in Edwards’s life and work, the formative years of 1703–1725, the Northampton period of 1726–1750, and the final years of 1751–1758. A background of post-Reformation or early modern thought, but with particular attention to Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706)—Edwards most “favored” theologian, is offered for each period enabling readers to assess issues of continuity and discontinuity, development and change in Edwards. Since there has been limited research on Edwards’s use of his primary sources this study analyses the theological ideas of the past that found their way into Edwards’s own theological reflections. The book argues that the formation, reflection, and communication of theological thought must be historically informed. The teaching, preaching, and practice of theology must be rooted in the classical curricula, methods of preaching, and systema of theology. Inherited theology must be evaluated on its own terms, historically and theologically, so that meaningful answers for the present can be constructed. Tracing Edwards’s discerning engagement with past ideas exemplifies how theology unfolds in an era of intellectual, religious, social, and political transition.

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

AN: My training in Protestant scholasticism, Reformed orthodoxy and concentration in the early modern era of ca. 1565 – 1750, and my work at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University offered an opportunity to examine the writings of the sage of Northampton, and situates Edwards in a world more European, classical, and biblical-theological than the one taken for granted by most of his interpreters.

JF: What is your next project?

AN: Book: Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706): Text, Context, and Interpretation (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2019)

Chapter: Early Modern Dutch Biblical Exegesis: Renaissance and Reception (UPenn, 2019)

Chapter: The Reception of Jonathan Edwards in Africa (OUP, 2020)

Book: The Reception of Medieval Rabbinic exegesis in Reformed Orthodoxy (2020)

Chapter: The Reception of Jonathan Edwards in the Netherlands (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2020)

Chapter: Jonathan Edwards and Prolegomena (T&T Clark, 2021)

Article: Hyleke Gockinga (1723-1793): A Woman, A Bible Commentator, and A Translator of Puritan Work in the Dutch Republic (2019)

JF: Thanks, Adriaan!

Marilynne Robinson on John Calvin

robinson_examinedlife_ba_img

Fans of Robinson‘s fiction and non-fiction know that she is an admirer of John Calvin.  Over at Commonweal, Matthew Sitman just publishe an interview he conducted with Robinson that focuses on her love of the Genevan reformer.

Here is a taste:

MS: I have heard your fiction, especially Gilead, described as being “sacramental.” Yet it also possesses an obvious debt to Protestantism—for example, John Ames is informed largely by Protestant theology and the literary tradition that derives from Calvinism—which often, if perhaps mistakenly, is associated with “disenchantment,” a world increasingly emptied of God’s presence. How much of your work is an intentional retrieval of an alternative Protestantism, a non-disenchanted Protestantism? What’s distinctive about a Protestant vision of a world imbued with grace?

MR: I don’t think I had heard until I was in college that the Protestant world was “disenchanted,” so the notion has never had much importance for me. It is not surprising, given European history, that there is a tradition of polemic available for use against Protestantism and Catholicism as well. It really ought not to be taken seriously as cultural analysis. I know it is a feature of modern thought that these drastic pronouncements are made and pondered. But they can be remarkably superficial. From a Protestant point of view the world is intrinsically enchanted. Nothing need be added. The world is filled with the glory of God. I doubt a Catholic would disagree! The two traditions simply respond to the fact differently. Protestants acknowledge only Baptism and Communion as sacraments, using ordinary water in the first and ordinary bread in the second—which implies the holiness of the ordinary, of all bread and all water. This seems to me to broaden the sphere of the sacramental and to give every holy—that is, loving or generous—use of the ordinary things of life a sacramental character.

Read the entire piece here.

 

The Anti-Christ in New Hampshire

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If you have been following the GOP presidential race, you know that New Hampshire has fewer evangelicals than Iowa or South Carolina. But though evangelicals do not make a large swath of the population in the Granite State, it does have its fair share of born-again Christians.  One of them is apparently Susan DeLumus, a member of the state legislature. DeLumas is supporting Donald Trump.  She obviously has no problem with Trump’s recent squabble with Pope Francis because, after all, the Pope is the anti-Christ.

Here is a taste of an article on DeLumas:

In response to her own Facebook post of three snippets of scripture from the Geneva Bible, Rep. Susan DeLemus (R) wrote: “The Pope is the anti-Christ. [sic] Do your research.” In another response, DeLemus said “I’m not sure who the Pope truly has in his heart.”

She told Politico that she was generally referring to the papacy, rather than Pope Francis in particular.

“I was actually referencing the papacy. And what I wrote after that ‘do your research,’ if you read the Geneva Bible, which is the Bible I use when we study, the commentary is – actually by the founders of the United States actually, the Protestant Church – their commentary references the papacy as the anti-Christ,” DeLemus said.

DeLumus is correct about the Geneva Bible.  Here is a taste of the notes on Revelation 13:12 that appeared in the 1560 edition:

13:12 17 And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein 18 to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. 

(17) The history of the acts of this beast contains in sum three things, hypocrisy, the witness of miracles and tyranny: of which the first is noted in this verse, the second in the three verses following: the third in the sixteenth and seventeenth verses. His hypocrisy is most full of lies, by which he abuses both the former beast and the whole world: in that though he has by his cunning, as it were by line, made of the former beast a most miserable skeleton or anatomy, usurped all his authority to himself and most impudently exercises the same in the sight and view of him: yet he carries himself so as if he honoured him with most high honour, and did truly cause him to be reverenced by all men. 

(18) For to this beast of Rome, which of civil Empire is made an ecclesiastical hierarchy, are given divine honours, and divine authority so far, as he is believed to be above the scriptures, which the gloss upon the Decretals declares by this devilish verse. “Articulos solvit, synodumque facit generalem” That is, “He changes the Articles of faith, and gives authority to general Councils.”
Which is spoken of the papal power. So the beast is by birth, foundation, feat, and finally substance, one: only the Pope has altered the form and manner of it, being himself the head both of that tyrannical empire, and also of the false prophets: for the empire has he taken to himself, and to it added this cunning device. Now these words, “whose deadly wound was cured” are put here for distinction sake, as also sometimes afterwards: that even at that time the godly readers of this prophecy might by this sign be brought to see the thing as present: as if it were said, that they might adore this very empire that now is, whose head we have seen in our own memory to have been cut off, and to be cured again.

Marilynne Robinson’s Latest Collection of Essays

RobinsonIt is titled The Givenness of Things and it was published near the end of last year.  Natasha Moore reviews it at the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

In The Givenness of Things, Robinson carries her characteristic refusal to recognise any gap between her indelibly theological view of the world and her mainstream secular audience to a new level. Like a theologian of old, like a twenty-first century Jonathan Edwards, she nonchalantly invokes concepts long out of use in public conversation. She muses, with unselfconscious seriousness, on questions of Christology or the workings of the Trinity in relation to urgent contemporary issues like the partisanship of American politics, or the travails of the modern university.

Some readers will find this refreshing; others, I imagine, quixotic or baffling. But then, I thought that about Gilead too, and it won the Pulitzer.

The pointy end of Robinson’s high view of humanity, rooted deeply in what she understands to be God’s high view of humanity – the imprint of his image in us – comes in her periodic excoriations of a public discourse that defaults so easily to contempt for other people. Her diagnosis of the problem leaves quite a few of us, on both sides of politics, pinned and wriggling on the wall – whether in Trump’s America or Operation-Sovereign-Borders Australia:

“Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat. If there is anything in the life of any culture or period that gives good grounds for alarm, it is the rise of cultural pessimism, whose major passion is bitter hostility toward many or most of the people within the very culture the pessimists always feel they are intent on rescuing.”

Read Moore’s entire piece here

Calvin’s Beatles

Calvin gang

l to r: Wolterstorff, Marsden, Mouw, Plantinga  Cartoon credit: Jack Harkema

Four of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last generation once taught together at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  They are philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, historian George Marsden, and theologian/philosopher Richard Mouw.

Plantinga taught at Calvin from 1963 to 1982 and spent the rest of his career at the University of Notre Dame.

Wolterstorff taught at Calvin from 1959 to 1989 and at Yale University from 1989-2001.

Marsden taught at Calvin from 1965 to 1986, Duke Divinity School from 1986 to 1992, and finished his career at the University of Notre Dame (1992-2008).

Mouw taught a Calvin for seventeen years and then moved to Fuller Theological Seminary, where he was eventually elected president.

 

 

 

 

Adult Onset Calvinism

Do you have it?  

Stephen Altrogge, the past of Saving Grace Church in Indiana, PA, describes the symptoms at The Blazing Center.

Here are few of those symptoms:

  • A sudden urge to correct everything and everyone all the time about every possible thing.
  • A burning passion to convert everyone, especially your extremely godly parents WHO TAUGHT YOU THE BIBLE, to Calvinism.
  • A growing level of arrogance that is directly inverse to the number of blog posts you write about humility.
  • Constant cravings for cigars and microbrews, even though they make you incredibly sick.
  • Deep-seated cynicism toward anyone who doesn’t take a hard stance on an issue, including but not limited to: free will, Calvinism, sports, coffee, the Trinity, capitalism, child schooling, and dating.
  • The ability to bring every conversation full circle to Romans 9.
  • Inevitably arriving at the conclusion that John Calvin was not that strong of a Calvinist. At least, not as strong as you are.
  • Growing a beard, but not in a hipster way! This beard is WAY DIFFERENT from hipster beards, because it tapers to a point somewhere between the nipples, just like Calvin’s beard did.
If you or someone you know begins experiencing these symptoms, go to a pastor IMMEDIATELY. It won’t make the slightest bit of difference, because you were predestined to be a Calvinist, but still, you should probably see a pastor.
But don’t worry. After 5-6 years, these symptoms will subside and you or your loved one will return to being a mostly normal person.
HT: Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed

Why Don’t Lutherans Have Celebrity Pastors?

Yesterday morning the pastor of the church I attend–a pretty mainstream evangelical congregation in the Evangelical Free Church denomination–was preaching up a storm about the “mandate” of the church to “transform” the culture for Christ. (For the record, I am not comfortable with this kind of ecclesiastical mission for the reasons that Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, articulates here).  On several occasions, when the preacher made an important point, people in the congregation started clapping.  If I did not know better I would have thought I was attending a political rally.

Large evangelical churches are known for their celebrity pastors.  But the author of the blog Alive Lutheran (a convert to Lutheranism from Reformed Presbyterianism) want to know why there are no celebrity pastors in Lutheranism.  He writes:
… why don’t we have any celebrity pastors …? I suspect that it is because Lutheranism is not glitzy or relevant…but rather boring. And that is not a terrible thing. We Lutherans view the purpose of attending church differently from our evangelical friends. While they chiefly view worship as something we do for God, because he deserves it or is owed it, we, on the other hand, view worship as the place where we receive forgiveness in Word and Sacrament. The paradigm difference is likely to dampen any efforts for a Lutheran pastor to gain wide adulation or even acceptance in the court of evangelical public opinion.  I mean, can anyone imagine a celeb pastor wearing a clericl, an alb, and a stole? 

“Lex Lutheran,” a blogger at Lutheran Knuckleheads, also takes up this question.  See his post here
And then there is Mark Noll’s essay “The Lutheran Difference” in which he described Lutherans as “remarkably unremarkable.”  Maybe that has something to do it with. 

The Author’s Corner with Abram Van Engen

Abram C. Van Engen is Assistant Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. This interview is based on his recent book SympatheticPuritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Sympathetic Puritans?

AV: When I entered graduate school, I knew that I wanted to combine many interests into a project on literature and religion. I first proposed a study of Auden, but to cover my major field exams in American literature, I started with the Puritans and never really left. One thing in particular startled me: the tears. I had been given to understand that the Puritans were a stern, unyielding, unemotional, iron-hearted bunch of settlers who solved their problems primarily through a great deal of thought. That is what I learned through Hawthorne; and that is the crude version of Perry Miller’s magnum opus that seemed to filter through intellectual history and guide literary studies. The Puritans were a people of the head, not the heart. So what were teary, sentimental Calvinists doing in seventeenth-century Puritanism? I wanted an answer, and the answer I found led me into a Puritan theology of sympathy that seemed to have all sorts of ramifications for cultural, intellectual, and literary history. For the Puritans, the heart mattered most (as most scholars of Puritanism know full well)–and one good sign of a healthy heart was the proper experience and expression of sympathy.

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

AVSympathetic Puritans argues that a Calvinist theology of sympathy shaped the politics, religion, and literature of seventeenth-century New England with widespread and long-lasting consequences. In this period, a dual meaning of sympathy–the active command to fellow-feel (a duty to sympathize with saints), as well as the passive sign that could indicate salvation (a discovery of such sympathy within)–pervaded Puritan society and came to define the very boundaries of English culture, affecting conceptions of community, relations with Native Americans, and the development of American literature.

JF: Why do we need to read Sympathetic Puritans?

AV: My study of Puritan sympathy addresses dominant narratives in intellectual history, the history of emotions, and American literary history. First, of course, there are the Puritans. For a general audience who sees the Puritans as the stern and iron forebears of Hawthorne, this book reveals a surprising Puritan investment in tears and emotion. For those who have long been familiar with Puritanism’s language of affection and the heart, this book demonstrates how and why Calvinists focused on such matters. And for both sets of readers, this book uncovers the significant and widespread impact of Puritan sympathy on early New England while also tracing forward its effects on important developments within American culture and literature.

Second, this book revises a prevailing story in intellectual and literary history, which attributes the beginning of any real thinking about sympathy to moral sense philosophers in the eighteenth century (Shaftesbury, Hutchinson, Hume, Smith, and so on) and traces the rise of America’s vast sentimental literary tradition to these thinkers. That narrative starts the story too late and assumes too secular a shape. My book shows that sympathy had religious roots and connotations in early America, and I open the possibility that a theology of sympathy in seventeenth-century Puritanism preempted, prompted, and even perhaps enabled the shape and embrace of moral sense philosophy that followed, as well as the meaning and experience of sentimental literature much later.

Finally, scholars in the history of emotions seem especially torn about historical distance and present understanding: does the experience of sympathy three hundred years ago, for example, resemble in any way what we might call sympathy now? Well, yes and no, it seems to me. The more I engaged with Puritan sympathy and its consequences for community, conversion, persuasion, preaching, rhetoric, and literary form, the more I realized how much these ideas recur today, sometimes in a strikingly similar form. A historical study of Puritan sympathy can teach us a good deal about the way we view sympathy now.

For all these reasons, I hope the book speaks to any student of American culture, American religion, American literature, and the history of ideas and emotions. The more one unpacks a Puritan theology of sympathy in early New England, the more one discovers just how far its consequences extend.

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

AV: This question is a bit vexed for me, since I never seriously considered becoming a historian (maybe because my father is one). Instead, I set out to become a philosopher. Good philosophy, I thought, can change lives by shifting the way we think about the biggest questions we face. But the more English classes I took in college, the more I realized just how attached I was to a well-told story or a well-wrought poem. Good literature, I thought, can change lives by putting into words what had only been sensed or by giving us whole new experiences and new ways of seeing the world. I thought maybe I would become a writer, and I worked hard at short stories and poetry. Along the way, meanwhile, I nursed a love of history and especially American history (in high school, for example, I collected books about the Civil War and toured battlefield sites). Good history, it seemed to me, could reveal how lives had actually been changed by facing big questions or encountering new experiences. Then one influential professor explained that if I went into English, I could do both history and philosophy while studying, writing, and teaching good stories. Such a claim is problematic, I realize now, but as an undergraduate I was inspired. I wanted to do philosophy, I loved history, and I’ve always been inspired by literature. English seemed to me the most amenable to doing it all.

In an interdisciplinary age, my desire should seem rather unexceptional now. Still, disciplines are disciplines because they often train people differently, emphasizing certain kinds of skills and certain ways of looking at evidence, arguments, and significance. I recognize that. And I am more comfortable describing myself as an English professor than an American historian. At the same time, like many English professors flooding archives across the country these days, I am drawn to American history–and not just as background context for a piece of literature. A new literary history requires a sustained engagement with cultural, intellectual, and other kinds of history as well. When I began the research for this project, I chose a dissertation committee composed of English professors and historians, and I wrote a book that I hope will speak to both.

JF: What is your next project?

AV: My next project is a history of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. Many do not know the surprising story behind this text. In its own day, A Model of Christian Charity went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. Only when nineteenth-century antiquarians rediscovered it two hundred years later did the sermon slowly turn into a defining statement of American identity. First published in 1838, A Model of Christian Charity gradually worked its way into national consciousness, achieving status as an American classic in the mid-twentieth century. My next book, American Model: The Life of John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, writes the biography of this rags-to-riches sermon, studying its original context, changing uses, new editions, and competing interpretations in order to examine both the way literary history takes shape and the changing shape of American self-conceptions.


Some of this work has been done previously (see Richard Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill), but much remains to be told. For example, in an early essay from this project appearing in The New England Quarterly, I argue that the sole surviving manuscript is incomplete and that a headnote added later greatly influenced the reception and framing of this sermon in American culture. Another forthcoming essay sets the context for Winthrop’s utterance by revealing the broader seventeenth-century Catholic-Protestant debate about the meaning of “city on a hill” (Catholics claimed that this verse proved Protestants false). I am now delving into the nineteenth century recovery of the sermon and beginning to study the role of historical societies in the making and shaping of American literary traditions. In the end, I hope to offer a broader narrative about dominant and competing visions of American identity–the different “meanings of America” that emerge through rediscoveries, reinventions, and reinterpretations of its literary past.

JF: Thanks Abram!

The Author’s Corner with Mark Stoll

Mark Stoll is Associate Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University.  This interview is based on his new book, Inherit the Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015)

JF: What led you to write Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: Back in 1987, I was thinking about John Muir, the popular nature writer and environmental activist. At the time, the famous Lynn White thesis had convinced many that Christianity was innately hostile to nature, and that, of the Christian traditions, Protestantism was the most hostile. This supposedly explained why Protestant nations had been the first to industrialize and to exploit and pollute the environment. Muir’s deeply religious upbringing made me wonder how he went from Protestant to environmental icon. My first book, Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America (1997), examined the interesting paradox that environmental figures like Muir tended to be raised in the very same denominations as America’s early captains of industry, showing the environmental ambiguity of Christian theology. As I finished revising the manuscript, it occurred to me that individual denominations — Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Baptist, and so on — tended to produce people with certain characteristic attitudes towards nature and environment, regardless of adult beliefs. I intended to explore that insight in a followup book. In writing it, it became clear that the influence of denominations were not constant over time. Their contributions to conservation and environmental thought and activism rose and fell. These cycles of denominational influence explained a great deal about the evolution of conservation and environmentalism from the middle nineteenth century until today.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: A passion for nature born in Reformed Protestantism shaped dominant American attitudes towards nature and environment until at least the 1970s. In particular, the near-total Congregational domination of nineteenth-century conservation and heavy Presbyterian influence on environmentalism in most of the twentieth explains much about the histories of conservation and environmentalism.

JF: Why do we need to read Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: Inherit the Holy Mountain presents a completely new perspective on environmentalism and its sources. For example, I found it very interesting that conservation originated in the desire to preserve sustainable and equitable communities in New England towns. I think embedding environmental goals in an overall vision of a just, moral, and sustainable society is inspirational. There are also lessons to be learned from Presbyterianism’s influence. Presbyterians gave environmentalism a moral conscience, a drive to preach and proselytize, and a political will that led to victories from the Progressive Era to the Great Society. Environmentalism today suffers from the dying of the Presbyterian fire that formerly made it so politically formidable. Now, politically effective evangelism is the property of the right, which allies with great concentrations of wealth and power rather than standing against them. Finally, contemporary religious environmentalists advocate respect for creation as the foundation for environmental action. Inherit the Holy Mountain shows that campaigns to convert individuals to environmental consciousness are doomed to be relatively ineffective politically.

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

MS: I love to write, and the history profession combined steady income and benefits (important when I was a new husband and father) with an outlet for my writing.

JF: What is your next project?

MS: I’ve been working on this book for many years, so at the moment I am glad to have completed a work that I think is original, significant, and powerful. But I have been invited to write a sequel of sorts.


JF: Thanks, Mark.


The Author’s Corner with S. Scott Rohrer

Scott Rohrer is an independent historian who has published several books on religious history. This interview is based on his new book Jacob Green’s Revolution (Penn State University Press, November 2014).

JF: What led you to write Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: When I finished my previous book on religious migrations in early America, I turned my attention to the American Revolution—my initial thought was to explore how a Presbyterian community functioned during the war, in an attempt to understand what made church members such fervent backers of the Revolution. I wanted to know what was happening on the ground, religiously and socially, during the war. So I began reading about a Presbyterian community that seemed like a good candidate for a case study: Morris County, N.J., a Presbyterian-Whig stronghold if there ever was one. Presbyterians dominated the religious landscape in Morris and wholeheartedly backed the war.

As I read through the primary and secondary sources for this community, a name kept jumping off the page: Jacob Green. I had never heard of him, but I became more and more intrigued by his story as I learned more about this remarkable man: Green wrote a bestselling tract (a social-religious satire), helped persuade New Jerseyans to declare for independence, and fought for the abolition of slavery, among many other things. I also found that no one had written a modern biography of him. There was a personal reason as well for this change: my first book (on the Moravians’ agricultural settlements in North Carolina) was a community study, and I realized I really wasn’t interested in doing another one. It would be fun to do something different, to write a biography.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: Jacob Green was all about reforming society, so this book seeks to explain why—and to explain why his source of energy is important to our understanding of revolutionary society. And my argument is that Calvinism—for all its seemingly crazy predestinarian beliefs that many contemporaries saw as inhibiting reform (where’s the incentive to act morally, to do good, to reform society, if God has preordained your fate, and this fate is immutable?)—spurred on Green’s reform drive and was vibrant, even revolutionary, compared with, say, High Church Anglicanism.

JF: Why do we need to read Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: To be blunt, some reviewers will be asking this very question: why should we care about someone so obscure? Admittedly, this parson from Morris County, N.J., is not a household name, even to historians of the revolutionary period. Few have heard of him. Which is exactly why I think he’s worthy of study. At heart, I’m a social historian who finds the obscure just as interesting and important as the famous. This book details the life of a little-known revolutionary who pursued a reform program that was as radical and ambitious as anything pursued by the Adamses and Jeffersons of the revolutionary world. Green’s life provides an enlightening look into the ways religion influenced—and did not influence—society during the revolutionary era.

I’d like to think this book is worth a read for a second reason: Jacob Green’s Revolution experiments with the biographical format. Religion’s influence on the Revolution was not uniform. So I decided to tell an alternate story between the main chapters in an effort to show this, and to better demonstrate Calvinism’s inherent radicalism. The second story revolves around a High Church Anglican named Thomas Bradbury Chandler who lived about 20 miles from Green and was Green’s polar opposite: both were New Englanders who came to New Jersey to become ministers; both pursued reform causes; both were influential writers—but they took opposite sides in the revolutionary drama and had far different conceptions of society and religion’s role in it. So Chandler’s story, told as narrative-driven vignettes, is meant to sharpen our understanding of Green’s radicalism. I also hope readers, especially general readers, will simply find Chandler’s story interesting and entertaining.

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

SR: History’s in my DNA. I always hated math and science and never, ever considered pursuing a career in business. From a young age I was fascinated by colonial America—the architecture, the people, the times they lived in. Besides taking trips to Williamsburg, visits to the old family farm in Lancaster County, Pa., also hooked me on early American history. My ancestors were German Mennonites, and my great-grandfather’s farm was a trip back in time. Those Mennonite roots helped pique my interest in religious history. I was utterly fascinated by the Mennonites, Moravians and others, and how their religious beliefs influenced the way they lived.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next project builds on Jacob Green’s Revolution—it takes a deeper look into religion and revolution by focusing on the British Atlantic world over three centuries. The work that’s been done on religion and the American Revolution is outstanding, and the quality of this work is forcing me to try to find fresh ways to approach the topic. That’s a healthy exercise.

I do think studies attempting to explain religion’s influence—or lack of influence—on the Revolution are too focused on the 18th century and the Great Awakening. A long, long history of religious turmoil stretching back to Henry the VIII helped condition the colonists to react a certain way when the crisis with British authorities began in the 1760s. This history was centered on the English Church’s attempts to impose conformity and the backlash this attempt created. So to fully grasp the religious dimensions of the revolutionary crisis, I’m going all the way back to Tudor England and the attempts during the Elizabethan period to stifle dissent and create a consensus for a state church based on a middle way (“via media”).

The book will be divided into three sections that look at religious conflict through a series of case studies: the Tudor period; the Laudian years of the 1630s; and the American scene in the 18th. I’m most interested in comparing/contrasting England, Scotland, Ireland, and America (including Canada) over the three periods and showing how important this history was to the American colonists and their impending revolution. The bishop’s cause and Thomas Bradbury Chandler will figure prominently in the story, too.

JF: Thanks, Scott! Sounds good.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Bratt on Hart on Calvinism

James Bratt, a Calvinist who teaches American history at Calvin College reviews Darryl Hart’s Calvinism: A History at The Christian Century.  Hart is a Calvinist who teaches American history at Hillsdale College.

Here is Bratt’s opening:

Some classic works on the origins of modernity gave pride of place to Calvinism. Max Weber famously made it the fount of capitalist economics; Robert K. Merton, that of experimental science; Michael Walzer, of political radicalism. In his new history of Reformed churches, D. G. Hart will have none of it. Rather than shaping modern life, he argues, Calvinism developed in reaction to it—sometimes in the negative sense of the word.

And here are some of his conclusions:

…readers should be aware of the particular interpretations structuring the book’s argument. Hart’sCalvinism is a very old-fashioned work, so old-fashioned as to be newly revealing. In contrast to the contextual analyses of religion that have dominated the professional guild for at least 40 years, Hart stays very much within the official institutions of Reformed Christianity, calling our attention to dy­na­mics and developments that the looser contextual ap­proach can overlook. The cost of this strategy is to ignore the broader connections and interactions that Calvinists made outside of formal church assemblies—in their workweek activities and in their participation in and impact on politics and education.

Read the rest here.

"The New York Times" Tackles the Calvinist Resurgence Within Evangelicalism

M. Dever. Photo Credit: Drew Angerer of NY Times

Calvinism is apparently cool again.  At least that is the image presented by Rev. Mark Dever in the photo accompanying Mark Oppenheimer’s New York Times piece, “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival.”  I am not familiar with Dever or his ministry at the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, but his casual and relaxed style, his leather coat, and his faded jeans speak volumes about the nature of this so-called “Calvinist revival.”

I think that a historian of American evangelicalism who is in town for the AHA needs to make a research trip to Dever’s church on Sunday morning.

Here is a taste of Oppenheimer’s piece:

Evangelicalism is in the midst of a Calvinist revival. Increasing numbers of preachers and professors teach the views of the 16th-century French reformer. Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Tim Keller — megachurch preachers and important evangelical authors — are all Calvinist. Attendance at Calvin-influenced worship conferences and churches is up, particularly among worshipers in their 20s and 30s.
In the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, the rise of Calvinism has provoked discord. In a 2012 poll of 1,066 Southern Baptist pastors conducted by LifeWay Research, a nonprofit group associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, 30 percent considered their churches Calvinist — while twice as many were concerned “about the impact of Calvinism.”
Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization. The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief. In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist. 
Darryl Hart:  I turn this one over to you.

White Guys Talking About Christian Hip-Hop and "Reformed Rap"

Does anyone think it is strange that there are seven middle-age white guys on this platform talking about a Christian response to hip-hop and rap?  One guy calls Christian rap musicians “disobedient cowards that wear gold grillz to try and be who they are not.” This was at a conference sponsored by an organization called the National Center for Family Integrated Churches  HT: Fred Clark at Slacktivist

//player.vimeo.com/video/80291749 The Worship of God Q&A: Holy Hip-Hop from NCFIC on Vimeo.

Marilynne Robinson: Christian, Liberal, Calvinist

I really enjoyed Robert Long’s piece in The American Conservative on Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson.  Not unlike the writings of cultural critics such as Wendell Berry or Christopher Lasch, Robinson’s work appeals to both liberals and conservatives.  Her respect for religious belief, tradition, rootedness, and duty tends to attract the attention of conservatives.  Yet she claims that she is a liberal Christian who grounds her faith in the teachings of John Calvin.

Here is a taste of Long’s article:

Calvin looms large in Robinson’s work: Gilead and its 2008 companion novel, Home, are surely the only bestsellers to hinge on a scene where a preacher ruminates about predestination. In her essays, Robinson presents Calvin as a Christian humanist—contrary to his stereotype as a cold-hearted theocrat—and his intellectual heirs as a vital corrective to our cheapened discourse.
As she tells TAC:
Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.
Most Americans still call themselves Christians, but Robinson finds our politics afflicted by a debased and un-Christian view of ourselves. “We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul,” she writes in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Instead, we “adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups.