Should Evangelicals Be Defined By Their Spiritual Commitments or Something Else?

George-Whitefield (1)

(This is the second post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today).

In my first post in this three-post series, I made the case that there was a religious movement in the eighteenth-century that can be identified as “evangelical.”  Of course I could never make this case in just one blog post, so I cited several prominent scholars who have made the case in a much more thorough way.

I also noted in that post that the word “evangelical” is a contested term.  Today there are historians who believe that doctrine, theology, or spirituality is not the best way to define the word.  In other words, these scholars believe that the “evangelical” movement in America (and elsewhere?)  is really about something other than religious experience.  It is really about white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism or nationalism (at least primarily).

Tim Gloege is a historian who believes that the definition of  “evangelical” should not be tied primarily to theological. religious, or spiritual principles.  In a January 2018 piece at the old Religion Dispatches, he took a few shots at the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” historian David Bebbington’s four-point definition of what it means to be “evangelical.”  For Bebbington, an evangelical is someone who believes in:

  1. Conversionism: The belief that one must be “born-again” through a conversion experience that will result in a life of following Jesus.
  2. Activism: The belief that one must express one’s born-again faith in the proclamation of the gospel through missionary and social justice efforts.
  3. Biblicism: The view that the Bible is the word of God and the ultimate guide to Christian living
  4. Crucicentrism: The belief that Jesus redeemed humanity through his death on the cross.

Gloege argues that there are many manifestations of Christianity, (and even non-Christian religions) that affirm Bebbington’s four points.  If this is true, he asks, what makes the Bebbington Quadrilateral unique to evangelical religion? (“Muslims convert too,” he writes).  Writing in the context of evangelical support for Donald Trump, Gloege believes that anyone who uses the Bebbington Quadrilateral to define what it means to be “evangelical” is trying to advance an “agenda.” In this case, he casts his net widely.  Those who believe that the Bebbington Quadrilateral is a useful interpretive tool are ignoring the fact that being “evangelical” has less to do with one’s sincerely held religious beliefs and more to do with racism, patriarchy, free-market capitalism, or the policing of sexual ethics.  (I responded to this piece, in the context of present-day evangelicalism, here).

I am not sure if Gloege would say that the Bebbington Quadrilateral is useful for understanding 18th-century evangelicals.  His piece in Religion Dispatches seems to be mostly concerned with twentieth and twenty-first century evangelicals.  (Gloege’s wrote his dissertation and book on Moody Bible Institute). If he does not find the Bebbington Quadrilateral useful to interpret the evangelical movement in the 18th century, he is not alone.  Many historians of the period agree with him, but for very different reasons.

In my last post, I noted that some eighteenth-century historians, including Doug Winiarski, believe that the Bebbington Quadrilateral does not go far enough in defining 18th-century evangelical religion.  But rather than seeing the 18th-century evangelical movement as a guise for racism, patriarchy, or something else, Winiarski thinks Bebbington’s category of “conversionism” is too “flat.”  He thinks that evangelicals in early New England were defined by a spiritually powerful experience of the New Birth that transformed their lives in profound ways–a type of conversion that was much more radical, Holy Spirit-empowered, and instantaneous than the old Puritan “morphology of conversion.”  Thomas Kidd makes a similar argument in his history of the First Great Awakening.  If Gloege wants to apply his Religion Dispatches argument to the 18th-century (and, again, I am not sure he does), he is going to have to engage with these historians and others.

In my view,  the eighteenth-century evangelical movement must be defined primarily by the born-again experience (as Jesus taught in the Bible, as centered on the cross, and as an impetus for evangelism, missionary work, and social justice). This, it seems, is the only way to distinguish someone associated with the evangelical movement from someone who was not.

Gloege says that “a definition should connect to a movement’s most salient features (what sets it apart).”  Agreed.  Were 18th-century evangelicals patriarchal, racist (by today’s definition), entrepreneurial, etc.?  Of course they were.  So were most other 18th-century British-Americans:  Old Lights, Old Sides, Deists, continental Protestants (Lutherans, Huguenots, Dutch Reformed), Catholics, Jews, etc….  Even the Quakers, if recent historiography is correct, were a bunch of wealth-seeking slave-holders who “prayed for their enemies” on Sunday and “preyed on their enemies” during the rest of the week.  I am not suggesting that we should ignore these darker dimensions of eighteenth-century life, but none of them really make evangelicals unique or set them apart from the rest of British provincial culture.  But their religious beliefs do set them apart.  And most people living in the 18th century also believed that the religious beliefs and spiritual practices of evangelicals set them apart.

Another scholar who wants to suggest that “evangelical” is more than a spiritual term is Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez.

I embedded this tweet for its final sentence.  Du Mez notes that she is part of a group (“us”) who have been “contesting a (primarily) doctrinal definition” of evangelical religion.  Gloege is part of that group.

In a piece at The Anxious Bench blog, Du Mez historicizes the term “evangelical” in a way Gloege does not..  She writes (along with her co-author Hannah Butler):

Thinking of evangelicalism as a historical and a cultural movement invites closer scrutiny to the centrality of racial identity, patriarchal power, and Christian nationalism in shaping the contours of the movement, and to the politicization of American evangelicalism that has occurred over the past half century.

It’s important to realize that this isn’t the first time “evangelicalism” has been a topic of public conversation. And it’s not the first time that the term has been reinvented. In fact, linguistic analysis reveals multiple shifts in meaning, and these shifts often correlate with spikes in public usage. In other words, people talk about evangelicalism more when its meaning is shifting. (Or, the more people talk about evangelicalism, the more its meaning can shift).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term emerged in Germany and Switzerland as a way to distinguish the Lutheran from the “Reformed,” or Calvinist church. In Germany, “evangelical” came to signify Lutheranism specifically, or Protestantism more generally. Circa 1537, the OED reports that “evangelical” also began to signify being “characteristic of the Gospel dispensation,” and did so until 1875. During the 18th century, “evangelical” also came to specify a particular doctrine of salvation by faith, a definition continuing into the 1890s.

Looking to American history, one can observe shifts in the meaning of the term “evangelical” through corpus analysis, the study of linguistic phenomena through analysis of language corpora, or collections of words.

Again, if we examine evangelical religion historically, should we conclude that it has always been a movement defined primarily by “racial identity, patriarchal power, and Christian nationalism”?  Are these the things that “set evangelicals apart,” to use Gloege’s phrase?  How do we distinguish an 18th-century evangelical from everyone else in the century who believed in white supremacy, patriarchal power, and Christian (British) nationalism?

Once we establish that 18th-century evangelical religion was defined primarily by a belief in the new birth and the spiritual power associated with such an experience, then we can move to a debate over historical continuity.  In other words, we can then advance to a discussion about whether or not the new birth and the life-transforming faith that millions of people claim to have experienced is what defines (primarily) an evangelical today (or in the 19th century or in the 20th century).  A lot of early American historians who study the eighteenth-century, whether they have a stake in twenty-first century religious debates or not, have suggested that such continuity does exist.  For example, Winiarski writes :

Incited by Whitefield and fascinated by miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit–visions, bodily fits, and sudden conversions–countless New Englanders broke ranks with family, neighbors, and ministers who dismissed their religious experiences as delusive enthusiasm. These new converts, the progenitors of today’s evangelical movement, bitterly assaulted the Congregational establishment.

But, of course, this does not mean, as Du Mez notes, that we historians should not also be concerned with change over time.

Finally, these attempts to define evangelical religion as something other than a deep spiritual commitment to an instantaneous and radical new birth remind me of the argument American religious historians have been waging for a long time about the necessity of treating religious belief as a legitimate category of analysis rather than as a guise for something else.

The First Great Awakening, and the larger evangelical movement, as understood in its 18th-century context, was a ultimately a religious movement–a movement about spiritual experience informed by an encounter with God through the new birth.  This encounter, many believed, had the potential to transform a person’s life and launch it in a new direction characterized by service to Jesus Christ.  When historians make it primarily about something else–the coming of the American Revolution, a manifestation of racism and patriarchy, an example of consumer culture–they miss what the movement meant to its participants and they undermine spiritual belief and lived religion as a legitimate category of analysis.

So why am I making such a big deal about how to define 18th-century evangelicals?  Because I will address this question in my next post in the context of the fallout from the Kidd-Merritt debate and the role I played in it.  And yes, Phillis Wheatley will be mentioned!  🙂

Yes, There Was an “Evangelical” Movement in the Eighteenth Century and it Should Be Defined Theologically

Darkness(This is the first post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today).

If the Jonathan Merritt dust-up had a positive result, it was that it got historians thinking again about the meaning of the word “evangelical.”  There has been a lot of good Twitter banter on the subject.

(Caveat:  My criticism of Merritt had less to do with the definition of “evangelical” and more to do with his attack on a historian I respect and the idea of historical expertise in general. If you go to his Twitter page he says that I attacked his credentials and platform.  He is right.  I did criticize his platform, but not because I don’t think he uses it well or it  is bad to have a platform.  I criticized his platform because I wanted to make clear that his Twitter followers and “influencer” accolades do not qualify him to denounce historians like Thomas Kidd, a historian who has spend his whole career studying a subject.  In other words, you cannot simply dismiss decades of scholarship in a few tweets.  But I digress).

In the age of Trump, everyone seems to have a definition of the word “evangelical.”  As Linford Fisher has argued in a recent essay in Religion & American Culture, the meaning of “evangelical” has been contested for a long time.

What is interesting to me is the way that evangelicals and former evangelicals seem to be so invested in the definition of the term.  Everyone is angling for a definition that will support their present-day understanding of American religious life.  Some are ex-evangelicals or progressive evangelicals trying to find a usable past to justify their belief that white evangelicals are racists, patriarchal, too wed to nationalism, etc.  Others are descendants of the neo-evangelical movement that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and want to find a historic definition of evangelicalism that helps them strengthen that identity in the present.

There is nothing wrong with trying to find a usable past.  The past must always speak to the present in some way.  But when we get caught up in searching for a usable past there is always a danger of forgetting that the past is a foreign country.  This is especially the case when we start to dabble in eighteenth-century evangelical history, the subject of the debate between Kidd and Merritt.  And when you bring an African-American poet like Phillis Wheatley into the mix, the debates will take on added weight.

So let’s start first with the meaning of the word “evangelical” in the 18th-century British Atlantic World.  (I say “British Atlantic World” and not “13 Colonies” because historians of the 18th-century English-speaking world are in almost universal agreement that we cannot understand what is going on in British North America without understanding these colonies as part of a larger culture that spanned the Atlantic and included Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Caribbean, and other so-called British provinces.  Today the students in my “Colonial America” answered a final exam question on this very topic.  My favorite book on this subject is Ned Landsman, From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture, 1680-1760).

As Fisher, and more recently Daniel Silliman, has noted,  the word “evangelical” has pre-18th century origins.  But in the 1730s and 1740s, a distinct Protestant culture emerged that was centered around a belief in the “new birth” or the “born-again” experience.  The phrase comes from the Gospel of John when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3).  There was an eighteenth-century religious movement that rose-up around the idea of the “New Birth and the inward-looking pietism that came with such an experience.  Some used the adjective “evangelical” to describe this movement and to separate it from other forms of Christianity that may have still believed in something akin to a born-again experience, but did not privilege it.  (I should add that I am talking here about the word “evangelical.”  The word “evangelicalism” does not appear in any 18th-century works published in America in the 18th century or at least the books, pamphlets, and broadsides that appear in the Evans Early American Imprints database).

For example, in Scotland those who favored the new birth and the Holy Spirit-infused experiential piety that it produced were called, and called themselves, the “Evangelical Party.”  (As distinguished from a “Moderate” Presbyterian party that drew heavily from the Scottish Enlightenment and opposed revivalism).  It is telling that when the champions of evangelical religion who founded the College of New Jersey at Princeton needed a new president in 1768 they turned to the Scottish clergyman John Witherspoon because he was the leader of Scotland’s Evangelical Party.  There was clearly a transatlantic evangelical movement that was discernible and real and it was defined by a commitment to the new birth.

Some historians go even further when using the term “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century context.  Historian Douglas Winiarski is one of them.  Here are a few passages from his Bancroft prize-winning book Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakening in Eighteenth-Century New England (Omohundro Institute/UNC Press, 2017):

p.8: “Darkness Falls on the Land of Light examines the breakdown of New England Congregationalism and the rise of American evangelicalism during the eighteenth century.”

p.15-17: “The…term ‘Whitefieldarians’ comes closest to naming those eighteenth-century Protestants who contemporary historians have identified as evangelicals.”

If I read him correctly, Winiarski thinks the Bebbington Quadrilateral” is weak because it does not do enough to define 18th-century evangelical religion as a predominantly spiritual movement.  (Tommy Kidd makes a similar argument in The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America.  Winiarski writes (p.16-17):

David Bebbington’s frequently cited quadrilateral definition–conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism–masks far more than it illuminates the popular religious cultures of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic.  In New England, Whitefield’s fascination with conversion as an instantaneous event was quite unlike the more traditional seventeenth-century puritan morphology of conversion, which ministers and lay people often conceptualized as a lifelong pilgrimage through the wilderness of the world.  Although provincial Congregationalists were steeped in the scriptures, during the Whitefieldian revivals and the decades that followed new converts such as Hannah Corey learned to think of the Bible as a detextualized voice that pierced their minds with supernatural force…The “people called New Lights” diverged from their puritan ancestors in two specific ways: their preoccupation with Whitefield’s definition of the new birth and their fascination with biblical impulses.  

It appears that those scholars, like Winiarski, who do not have a political or religious stake in the historical meaning of the word “evangelical” today seem to have no problem using the term or identifying it primarily with a theological/spiritual definition.  Winiarski uses “evangelical,” “evangelicalism,” “New Lights,” and “Whitefiedarians” as synonyms.  Whatever “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” means today, it was always understood as a spiritual movement in the eighteenth century.

So Winiarski seems to think that there was definitely some kind of spiritual “movement” that we can describe as “evangelical.”  He is not alone.  These works also make a similar case:

Frank Lambert’s Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Thomas Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009)

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Eerdmans Publishing, 1991)

Peter Choi, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Eerdmans Publishing, 2018)

Susan O’Brien, “A Transatlantic Community of Saints: The Great Awakening and the First Evangelical Network, 1735-1755,” The American Historical Review (1986)

Timothy Hall, Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World (Duke University Press, 1994)

Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013).

Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (Inter-Varsity Press,  2011).

John Fea, “Wheelock’s World: Letters and the Communication of Revival in Great Awakening New England,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 2001).

So I think it is safe to say that there was an evangelical movement in the 18th-century.  It revolved primarily around a commitment to the New Birth.  All of the authors above would also agree that changes in consumer culture, print culture, increased human mobility, celebrity, and other non-religious factors became staples of this movement or helped it grow, but these are all secondary factors in explaining what the movement was, in essence, all about.

I will stop there.  In my next post I want to talk about some folks who want to define evangelical as primarily something other than a spiritual movement.  And I also eventually want to discuss how Phillis Wheatley may or may not be related to this eighteenth-century movement.

Stay tuned.

Pastor Greg Laurie Wrongly Tells Fellow Court Evangelicals that the United States Was “founded in a time of spiritual revival”

Laurie

Greg Laurie (left) and some of his fellow court evangelicals

Here is what Laurie recently told his congregation (as reported by the Christian Post) about his speech (and prayer) at the August 27 court evangelical celebration at the White House:

Laurie reminded those in attendance for the dinner that the U.S. was “founded in a time of spiritual revival.”

“One of our founding fathers named George — not Washington but Whitefield, an evangelist from England — preached the Gospel and thousands of colonists came to faith in Christ and it brought about moral change in a culture as a revival always does,” Laurie said. “We were able to sow the seeds of this new nation in that receptive soil of morality based on a faith in God. I don’t think we could have done it without it. I mentioned that not only are we founded with revival, we need to have another revival.”

I don’t know where to begin.

Let me start with a few quick facts:

  1.  George Whitefield died in 1770.
  2.  Church attendance and membership was at a low point during the American Revolution.
  3.  I can’t think of a legitimate historical work that proves the First Great Awakening brought about sustained “moral change” in British-American culture.

If I had to guess, I would say Laurie is getting his “history” here from Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  (Metaxas was also present at the White House dinner).

As some of you know, I wrote an extensive critique of If You Can Keep It.  The book is loaded with historical problems.  In fact, the entire argument is built on a bad historical foundation.  Here is my post on Metaxas’s belief that George Whitefield is somehow responsible for the American Revolution:

This post examines Metaxas’s understanding of the First Great Awakening and, specifically, the role in the Awakening played by George Whitefield.  Since Metaxas devotes an entire chapter to Whitefield and connects the eighteenth-century ministry of the evangelist to the coming of the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America, it is worth spending some time exploring his treatment of this topic.

As Metaxas correctly points out (over and over again), George Whitefield was extremely popular.  During the height of the evangelical revival known as the First Great Awakening he was, without a doubt, the most popular person in the British-American colonies.  As the first inter-colonial celebrity, Whitefield’s message of the New Birth did play a unifying role in the colonies.  The evangelist forged an inter-colonial community of the saved. Indeed, this is why many historians have traced the origins of American evangelicalism to Whitefield.

But after establishing Whitefield as an American rock star who brought the colonies together in unprecedented ways, Metaxas’s argument goes off the rails.  First, it is worth noting that not everyone liked Whitefield.  There were many who opposed him or simply did not care about what he had to say about the state of their souls.  On p.112, Metaxas cites evangelical pastor John Piper as a historical authority on this issue.  Since there is no footnote (there are only 8 footnotes in the entire book) I have no idea where Metaxas got the quote, but Piper apparently once said: “by 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion.” I like John Piper–but he overstates his case here.

Second, and perhaps most troublesome, is Metaxas’s effort to turn Whitefield into some kind of spiritual founding father of the American republic.  Here are the passages worth thinking about more deeply:

p. 100:  “During his lifetime [Whitefield] would cross the Atlantic thirteen times, but it was this second trip to America that would forever alter the landscape of the New World, which in turn would affect the rest of the world. Because it would unite that scatting of peoples into a single people, one that together saw the world differently than any had before and that was prepared to depart from  history in a way none had ever done.  What would happen during his time in the thirteen colonies would begin the process of uniting them into something greater than the sum of their disparate parts, would begin the process of preparing them to become the United States of America.”

p.103: “Americans were becoming united in the wake of his nonstop preaching.  People were being offered a new identity that fit well with the American way of thinking.  Some were German by background and some were French and some were English, but none of it mattered.  They were all equal under God; they were all Americans.  This was something new, an identity that was separate from one’s ethnicity or one’s denomination.  To be an American meant to buy into a new set of ideas about one’s equal status in God’s eyes–and by dint of this to be accepted into a new community, to be an Americans.

p.112:  “[Whitefield] united the colonies as they had never been united, articulating what they came to believe.  So that everyone who accepted these views about liberty and independence–with all of their ramifications and corollaries–would have this in common with the others who did; and sharing these ideas set forth by Whitefield became a vital part of what it meant to be an American.  All who believed these things began to think of themselves as Americans as much as–if not more than–they thought of themselves as citizens of Connecticut or Maryland or North Carolina, for example.  The various members of the thirteen colonies thus slowly became a people; and these people–this people–would eventually seek political independence and would become a nation.”

Metaxas suggests that Whitefield paved the way for the American Revolution.  At one point in his book he even describes Whitefield’s conversion, which took place while he was a student at Oxford University, as “a hinge in the history of the world–a point on which everything turns.”  Not only does this imply that Whitefield somehow triggered the American Revolution and the birth of the United States, but it also feeds into Metaxas’s argument, which we will discuss in a later post, that God raised up America as an exceptional nation to accomplish His will in the world.

To be fair, there are several historians who have suggested a link between Whitefield (and by extension the First Great Awakening) and the American Revolution.  The argument goes something like this:  Whitefield’s egalitarian message taught the colonists that they were all equal before God and his preaching in local communities taught the colonists how to challenge the authority of ministers who had not experienced the New Birth.  This new sense of equality and resistance to tyrannical authority was then somehow transferred to the political realm, thus explaining the colonial resistance to Great Britain in the 1760s and 1770s.

Those who make this argument today do so with a great deal of caution.  But Metaxas throws caution to the wind. No legitimate historian would take this argument as far as he has done in the three passages I quoted above.  The reason why so many historians tread lightly when connecting the evangelicalism of the Great Awakening to the American Revolution is because there is limited concrete evidence that the founding fathers, or the people for that matter, were specifically drawing upon evangelicalism as they articulated their political resistance to England.

Metaxas is basically trying to argue for the evangelical origins of the American Revolution. The New Birth, he suggests, melted away all other forms of identity–ethnic identities, local political identities, religious identities–into a unique and exceptional “American” identity.  He offers a Whig interpretation of the American Revolution on steroids.  It fails to explain the persistence of ethnic identity in the decades following the Revolution.  It fails to explain the states-rights and local orientation of the Articles of Confederation.  It fails to explain denominationalism as it developed in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.  And it highly exaggerates the influence of Whitefield, evangelicalism, and the Great Awakening on colonial life.  Metaxas fails to realize that religious belief was not particularly strong at the time of the American Revolution.

Finally, let’s remember that the First Great Awakening was a transatlantic spiritual movement.  Whatever unity among evangelicals that Whitefield helped to create was not unique to the British-American colonies.  Whitefield preached the same gospel message in England, Wales, and Scotland.  The people in the British-American colonies who embraced the New Birth saw themselves as part of a movement that was transatlantic in nature.  In other words, the Great Awakening made the religious and cultural relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies stronger, not weaker.

The Great Awakening was a deeply religious movement that had a profound impact on ordinary people and their relationship with God. Metaxas’s interpretation makes it into a political movement. When people experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit they were not thinking about the ways in which their newfound encounter with God was planting the seeds of rebellion against England.  It is time to stop interpreting the Great Awakening through the grid of the American Revolution.

The Christian Right continues to build their political argument on sinking historical sand.

The Author’s Corner with Peter Choi

ChoiPeter Choi is Director of Academic Programs at Newbigin House of Studies.  This interview is based on his recent book George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Eerdmans, 2018).

JF: What led you to write George Whitefield?

PC: It was a seemingly simple question that got me interested in George Whitefield, especially his later years: “What happened after revival?” I wanted to understand the Great Awakening in all of its various stages, including what I call in the book “revival twilight”––that is, “the long, calmer, and cooler aftermath of the white-hot bursts” of revival. It seemed sensible that to understand the long trajectory of revival I should attempt a study of the lifelong arc of the most important revival preacher. For such a well-known figure, the second half of his life is a surprisingly neglected feature of works on his life. The more I encountered this phenomenon, the more I wanted to know what he was like as he got older. Other questions arose along the way, like, What were the long-term effects of a spirituality of revival on Christian communities? Crucibles rarely leave things intact, and so, how did spirituality and theology change as a result of the fires of revival?

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

PCThe evangelical revivals and early leaders like George Whitefield were products of an imperial age. Describing how evangelical Christianity emerged from a culture of empire building is therefore essential work for understanding the development of Christianity in America.

JF: Why do we need to read George Whitefield?

PCWith so many questions swirling about the relationship between religion and politics today, and myriad questions surrounding evangelicalism in particular, my book is one attempt to go back to the beginning in order to offer a reexamination of nascent evangelicalism. The past informs our present, and I’m convinced that it’s impossible to understand the state of American Christianity today (and broader issues related to culture and politics for that matter) apart from an honest assessment of the early evangelicals and their entanglement in the British empire.

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

PCAs an Asian American interested in learning about the history of Asian American Christianity, I received helpful counsel early on to study a topic that was related yet distant from the questions in which I had a more vested personal interest. Because of the significant influence of evangelicalism on Korean-American Christianity in particular, I was drawn to a study of revival history more broadly conceived.

Also, in the course of pastoral ministry, I began to see that historical questions interested me as much as, if not more than, theological ones. Beyond doctrine and belief, I became more interested in how Christianity had changed over time.

JF: What is your next project?

PCI’m in the early stages of a project on Christianity and race in the 18th century, attempting to connect the work I’ve done on Whitefield and slavery to other early evangelicals and their relationship to broader processes of racialization occurring in their era. 

JF: Thanks, Peter!

Is Evangelicalism Primarily a Political Movement?

latin evangelicals

No, it is not. I think John Turner is correct in his recent piece at The Anxious Bench blog.

Here is a taste:

John Fea, in what has become a must-read age-of-Trump blog about American religion, quotes from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters in a recent post:

Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of [the cause] … Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours.

It’s possible that I am entirely misreading the present climate, but if one did not know anything about religion in the United States and merely relied on media coverage of contemporary politics, one would presume that evangelicalism is a political movement. A HUGE majority of evangelicals typically vote Republican, and an even HUGER majority voted for Donald Trump (just about the least Christian major-party nominee since … perhaps Richard Nixon?). [As an aside, it’s worth noting that Australia now has an openly evangelical prime minister]. The relationship between Trump and a small number of men and women whom John Fea terms “court evangelicals” receives considerable attention, as has the fact that large majorities of evangelicals support Trump’s policies on matters such as immigration. And this week President Trump hosted a dinner for his high-profile evangelicals supporters at the White House. Sadly, my invitation got lost in the mail.

Evangelicalism is first and foremost a religious movement.  It is a movement that celebrates the centrality of the cross, the born-again experience, evangelism, service, and the inspiration of the Bible.  Yes, there are American churches that bring politics into the pulpit, but the majority of evangelical churches do not dwell on politics.  Most clergy do not think it is a good idea to preach on political themes or endorse candidates.  I have yet to find an evangelical church with a “politics ministry.”

Evangelical congregations are primarily concerned about living holy lives of faith–a vertical relationship with God.  When most evangelicals think about moving beyond the walls of church, they think primarily in terms of missionary activity, serving neighbors in local communities, caring for the vulnerable, feeding the poor, and exemplifying acts of compassion.  I would even argue that this is true of evangelical churches and ministries run by court evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and others.

Because the day-to-day acts of compassion and love performed by evangelicals rarely make headlines, the general public only sees politics.  And because many evangelicals have not thought deeply about political engagement, when they do try to bring their faith into the public square it usually results in a big mess.

All of this reminds me of the generation of early American historians who tried to make connections between the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution.  Rather than interpreting the First Great Awakening as a religious movement, many historians, driven by their Whig sensibilities, seemed to suggest that this deeply spiritual movement was only useful for what it told us about the coming of American independence.  In the process, they failed to understand this important historical event.

Today, when we define evangelicals or evangelicalism in a solely political way, we get a  very limited understanding of what the movement is all about.  Turner’s post is a good reminder of what really happens in evangelical congregations and para-church ministries.

On Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name

ebb68-georgewhitefieldTwenty-five years ago I was writing an M.A. thesis on separatist fundamentalism in twentieth-century America.  One of the key figures in my research was a mid-century fundamentalist named Carl McIntire.  (I actually published an article about him in 1994).

As I read secondary sources that mentioned McIntire I was struck by how so many scholars–very good scholars–misspelled his name “McIntyre.”  But I digress.

I thought about the McIntire-McIntyre issue when I saw the title of Thomas Kidd‘s recent post at The Gospel Coalition: “The History of Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name.”  Kidd, of course, is the author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

Here is a taste:

Whenever the topic of George Whitefield comes up in my classes, I always have to tell the students, “I know it looks like you’d pronounce his last name White-field, but it is pronounced Whit-field.” Therein lies the reason why Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th century, also has one of the most misspelled names in history. In one of the odd accidents of English pronunciation, Whitefield’s name was not pronounced the way it is spelled. Thus from the beginning of his public career, people have been misspelling Whitefield’s name as “Whitfield….”

…One of the first misspellings of Whitefield’s name came in one of his first published sermons. In 1737 in London, a publisher produced an edition of what would become one of his signature sermons, The Nature and Necessity of the New Birth, but misspelled his last name. After that, most publishers were clued in to the correct spelling as he became arguably the most famous man in Britain and America during the mid-1700s.

But misspellings continued to pop up occasionally. Sometimes the name would be spelled correctly on the title page but wrongly within a publication. A 1771 Boston edition of John Wesley’s memorial sermon for Whitefield misspelled the name on the title page. (Ironically, Whitefield died in the Boston area in 1770. When word arrived in London, Wesley gave a memorial sermon at Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Road chapel, and the text of it made its way back across the Atlantic, where it was published in Boston, with Whitefield’s name misspelled.)

Read the rest here

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 6

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Very happy teachers!! Gilder Lehrman “Princeton Seminar” participants enjoying their last day on campus

The 2017 Princeton Seminar on the “Colonial Era” wrapped-up yesterday.

The day began with lectures on the “Enlightenment in America” and the “First Great Awakening.”  The Enlightenment lecture focused largely on the lives of Philip Vickers Fithian and Benjamin Franklin.  The teachers read my The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America and spent a lot of time on Wednesday touring Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia with historian George Boudreau.

The First Great Awakening lecture focused on George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Chauncy, Gilbert Tennent, James Davenport, and the legacy of evangelicalism as it relates to American oratory, American religion, the transatlantic world, and colonial education.

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My attempt at drawing a primitive graph illustrating the spike in church membership during the First Great Awakening

After lunch we wrapped things up with a lecture titled “From Colonials to Provincials: The American Colonies on the Eve of the American Revolution.”  This lecture is adapted from Ned Landsman’s From Colonial to Provinicals: American Thought and Culture, 1680-1760, but I also take it in a few different directions.  In this lecture I try to get the teachers to understand the Anglicization of the British colonies and the sense of British nationalism pervading the colonies at the end of the French and Indian War.

During the rest of the afternoon the teachers met together to discuss the lessons plans they designed during the seminar:

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Throughout the week I wanted the teachers to think about British colonial America on its own terms, rather than through the grid of the American Revolution.  We tried to imagine what the story of the colonies might look like if the Revolution had never happened.  Those who took this exercise seriously began to move from a Whiggish, civics-based view of the era, to an approach defined by the “unnatural” act of historical thinking.  This is not easy for most teachers and I appreciated their efforts to reorient their thinking and their lesson plans in this way.

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Another Princeton Seminar is in the books. It was a great week of teaching, learning, and collaboration with 35 K-8 teachers from around the country.  Special thanks to Nate McAlister, my partner-in-crime, master teacher, heart and soul of the Princeton Seminar, and an all-around great guy.  I couldn’t do it without him. Nate is a history machine! Next week he will be in Mount Vernon doing research on George Washington and Native Americans. I also want to thank the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History for giving me the honor to lead this seminar.

And I am also happy to announce that the Gilder Lehrman has informed me that we will be back again next year!  Stay tuned for more details.

The Author’s Corner With Doug Winiarski

WinarskiDouglas Winiarski is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Richmond.  This interview is based on his new book Darkness Falls of the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DWAn earthquake, actually, and a stunning discovery at a public library in Massachusetts. I was a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School looking for some interesting texts to study for a paper I had planned to write about popular religious responses to the famed Great Earthquake of 1727. On a broiling hot summer day in 1995, I drove up to the public library in Haverhill, Massachusetts—which was located near the epicenter of the earthquake—hoping to examine the town’s earliest Congregational church record book. The archivist gruffly informed me that the original volume was too delicate to be retrieved from their vault. But after a little prodding he wandered into the back room pulled out a small bundle of manuscripts: hundreds of neatly trimmed slips of paper bearing short religious narratives written by nearly everyone in the community, from wealthy merchants and Harvard graduates to obscure single women and African Americans.  Half of them had been composed during the surge of church admissions that followed the earthquake. The Haverhill relations turned out to be one of the richest—and certainly one of the largest—collections of religious autobiographical writings composed in British North America prior to 1750. And only a handful of scholars had ever seen them. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I knew instantly that I had a story to tell about the religious experiences of ordinary people in eighteenth-century New England. Figuring out what that story was, however, required more than two decades of archival work in New England and abroad.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DWThe rise of trans-Atlantic evangelicalism during New England’s era of great awakenings sundered an inclusive and flourishing Congregational establishment. The key agents inciting this dynamic and divisive change were not prominent ministers and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, but ordinary people who learned to experience religion in extraordinary new ways over the course of the eighteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DW: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is the first book to examine both the thriving Congregational system in provincial New England and the shattering of that system entirely through the religious experiences of lay men and women. The book features an eclectic cast of fascinating characters and unusual events. And it’s built on a vast array of remarkable manuscripts. Although Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is primarily a study of the transformation of New England Congregationalism, readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the diversity of denominations in the region by the time of the American Revolution: Anglicans, Baptists of varying stripes, sectarian groups, and “nothingarians,” or people who held all religious institutions at arm’s length. Above all, I devote considerable attention to examining the costs of the so-called Great Awakening revivals of eighteenth century, something that scholars have been slow to acknowledge. The “people called New Lights”—progenitors of today’s evangelicals—were religious insurgents, troublemakers, radicals; and many of them were bent on breaking apart the Congregational establishment. New Englanders struggled to come to terms with the marketplace of fractious and competitive religious groups that emerged from the revivals. It’s as important a story today as it was during the eighteenth century.

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

DWI guess you could say I’m a child of the American Bicentennial. I was caught up with the celebrations and pageantry of my home town in 1976. Four years later, my mother took me on a trip to visit Revolutionary War sites in Boston. I can still remember walking the Freedom Trail and visiting the Old South Church for the first time. I had no idea that these places would play such a prominent role in my professional life. It wasn’t until the final week of college that one of my mentors encouraged me to connect my interest in early American history with my recent undergraduate training in religious studies by applying to graduate school. Suddenly, everything seemed to fall into place.

JF: What is your next project?

DWI am currently working on a new book that explores the fascinating but troubled relationship between the earliest western Shaker converts and the followers of Tenskwatawa, the controversial Shawnee Prophet and brother of the famed war captain Tecumseh, during the years leading up to the War of 1812. The story of the Shakers and the Shawnee Prophet—at least as I envision it at this early stage—is about a religious culture that might have been, one that could have taken shape in the crucible of the early American frontier. It’s a tragic tale in which two notorious groups of dangerous religious outsiders briefly discovered common ground and mutual respect within a racially charged and violent backcountry world. Perhaps when it’s finished, the book may offer a cautionary message for our own times about how we, as a society, should think about religious difference and the relationship between religion and violence. We’ll see.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

Jonathan Edwards on the Marks of the Christian Convert

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Last week James Dobson claimed  that Donald Trump had recently had an evangelical or “born-again” conversion experience.”  Since Dobson is a well-known leader within evangelicalism there are many Christians who believe his claim.  Others are skeptical.

I have no idea if Donald Trump had a legitimate conversion experience.  I am certainly skeptical, especially since this supposed conversion happened in the midst of a presidential campaign and, more specifically, at a time when some evangelical leaders are trying to make Trump palatable to their followers.  But as a Christian who still describes himself as an “evangelical” I would rejoice to learn that Donald Trump has committed his life to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a minister  or what the great student of the Puritans J.I. Packer called a “physician of the soul,” but I am a historian who can provide some context.

Back in the 1740s, during the height of the evangelical revival known as the “First Great Awakening,” large numbers of people in the English-speaking world claimed to have had encounters with God that led to a conversion experience–the embrace of what itinerant preacher George Whitefield described as “the New Birth.”

Many Christian ministers–the intellectuals of the age–were skeptical about all of these conversions.  These revivals were often associated with strange behavioral manifestations and excessive emotionalism.  The revival bred divisiveness in congregations as those who claimed to be truly “saved” questioned the Christian commitments of those who did not have a conversion experience.  It got ugly.

Northampton, Massachusetts clergymen Jonathan Edwards, who defended the Great Awakening as a true work of God, was concerned about these disorders. He understood the views of the revival’s critics and agreed with some of them.  In 1741, he put his pen to paper and wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Applied to that Uncommon Operation that has Lately Appeared on the Minds of the People of New England With a Particular Consideration of the Extraordinary Circumstances with which this Work is AttendedEdwards’s long title speaks for itself.  He wrote to distinguish a true born-again conversion experience from a false one.  I reread Distinguishing Marks this morning in light of this whole Trump-conversion controversy.  I encourage you to do the same.

Edwards introduces Distringuishing Marks with a quote from 1 John 4:1: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”

He then writes:

In the apostolic age, there was the greatest outpouring of the Spirit of God that ever was; both as to his extraordinary influences and gifts, and his ordinary operations, in convincing, converting, enlightening, and sanctifying the souls of men. But as the influences of the true Spirit abounded, so counterfeits did also abound: the devil was abundant in mimicking, both the ordinary and extraordinary influences of the Spirit of God, as is manifest by innumerable passages of the apostles’ writings. This made it very necessary that the church of Christ should be furnished with some certain rules, distinguishing and clear marks, by which she might proceed safely in judging of the true from the false without danger of being imposed upon….

Here are the so-called “Distinguishing Marks”:

  1. A conversion experience will “raise their esteem of that Jesus” among the converted. True converts will believe that Jesus Christ “came in the flesh–and that he is the Son of God, and was sent of God to save sinners; that he is the only Saviour, and that they stand in great need of him.  They will have “higher and more honourable thoughts of him than they used to have” and will “incline their affections more to him…”
  2. True converts will work against the “interests of Satan’s kingdom, which lies in encouraging and establishing sin, and cherish[ing] men’s worldly lusts.” A true conversion experience will “lessen men’s esteem of the pleasures, profits, and honours of the world, and to take off their hearts from an eager pursuit after these things.”
  3. A true convert will have a “greater regard to the Holy Scriptures.”
  4. A true convert will have a new appreciation of spiritual truth.
  5. A true convert will reflect “a spirit of love to God and man.”  Edwards writes: “Love and humility are two things the most contrary to the spirit of the devil, of any thing in the world, for the character of that evil spirit, above all things, consists in pride and malice.”

One and Done

jmm16In case you haven’t seen the First Round results in the 2016 Junto March Madness tournament, my article “The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian’s Rural Enlightenment (JAH 2003lost to Jon Butler’s “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Intepretive Fiction,” (JAH 1982).  Butler received 58% of the vote.  I received 42%.

Here is a taste of the Junto results summary:

It was an interesting first round, everybody. 168 of you voted, which, as you’ll see, was a real problem in one of our brackets. Upsets occurred in every category, and we had our first ever March Madness tie. Read on for your results!In the Atlantic World, Warsh surged at the end to defeat Gould. Things got complicated, as they tend to, in the Gender bracket, where Camp and Hughes Dayton tied (more on how we’re dealing with this, below). In Economic and Social History Rao smoked Hartog, and in the American Revolution Brown beat out Jasanoff. The History of Ideas had two upsets; Junto supporter Fea lost to Butler, despite a strong Twitter game, and Kloppenberg lost to Grasso. In Native American history Barr upset Greer, and in Slavery and Race Formation Waldstreicher just beat out Johnson. Our Historiography and Theory bracket was the only bracket in which the seeds performed as anticipated. It’s shaping up to be an exciting tournament!

I am still not sure how my article received a #1 seed in the “History of Ideas” category.  It is perhaps even stranger that Butler’s article received a #8 seed.  So I guess, technically, the Butler victory was an “upset.”  Although any early American scholar worth his or her salt knows that Butler was the favorite.

Oh well.  We made a nice run.  Thanks to everyone who voted for Philip Vickers Fithian and the “rural Enlightenment.”  I hope that everyone who voted for my article will now throw their support behind Butler in the “History of Ideas” bracket.  His 1982 article really did shape the field.

 

The Author’s Corner with John Howard Smith

John Howard Smith is Associate Professor at Texas A&M University– Commerce. This interview is based on his new book, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775 (Fairleigh Dickinson, December 2014).


JF: What led you to write The First Great Awakening?

JS: I started working on the First Great Awakening while I was writing my dissertation. I had gotten the idea for writing a new synthetic history of the Awakening in 2000, and I happened to meet Edmund S. Morgan at an American Society of Church History conference in Santa Fe, and I told him my thoughts about what was needed in such a work. He was incredibly encouraging, and agreed to read a few chapter drafts that I worked up after that meeting, and his comments and suggestions substantially guided the architecture of the book. I worked up a full-length manuscript proposal in 2004 and sent that to Harry S. Stout, who forwarded it to Kenneth P. Minkema, and both were very complimentary. I had to set it aside for a little over a year in order to publish my dissertation in 2008, after which I was able to devote myself completely to the Awakening. In the meantime Thomas S. Kidd’s The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelicalism in Colonial America had come out, but I knew that my approach was markedly different from his, and that another account approaching the Awakening from an opposite angle would be very interesting. I remain surprised that relatively few historians have endeavored to write a comprehensive history of the Awakening, and so much great work on it had emerged since 2007 that I thought needed to be incorporated into a history that was more secularist in its approach.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The First Great Awakening?

JS: The First Great Awakening is not so much the story of how evangelical Protestantism created a consistent American identity, but rather about how evangelicalism established fractious sectarianism as the defining characteristic of American Christianity. “The First Great Awakening” is a reassertion of the importance of religion to the colonial American mind, as well as of the fact that the Awakening was a significant intercolonial and international phenomenon that was sustained from the 1720s through the 1770s.

JF: Why do we need to read The First Great Awakening?

JS: My goal is to challenge the accepted definition of a religious awakening, and specifically of the First Great Awakening, to include particularly the revival and reinvention of American Indian religions in the ‘middle ground’ of western Pennsylvania. Also, I try to give greater attention to African Americans and women than practically all other book-length studies have done. I follow Doug Winiarski in emphasizing the professedly mystical aspects of eighteenth-century revivalism to identify charismatic behaviors as essential to understanding the Awakening, which I think most other historians have downplayed in one way or another. I disagree with Jon Butler that the Awakening was a nineteenth-century invention, and with Frank Lambert that it was invented by the eighteenth-century revivalists, but rather that it was a creation of ordinary people as well as of the revivalists and their critics alike. I think that my attempt to reframe and redefine the Awakening offers a challenging alternative to what has become the traditional interpretation of it. I’m not trying to obliterate prior interpretations, but I do think that the vast bulk of it is shaped by a combination of tacit and overt pro-Christian precepts. However, I want to clarify that while I am a secular humanist, I am not anti-religion. I believe that religion can allow human beings to exhibit some of their best qualities, and my depiction of the ordinary and extraordinary people who were part of the Awakening is executed with sympathy and respect. My view of the Awakening is of an event that was shaped by the vigorous and sometimes contentious interplay between reason and revelation.

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

JS: I think I was almost destined to be an early Americanist. When I was eight years old, I studied a biography of Thomas Jefferson for a merit badge in Cub Scouts, and was fascinated by him (and the fact that we share the same birthday!) and by eighteenth-century America in general, which seemed to be everywhere on TV during and just after the Bicentennial in 1976. I maintained that fascination ever since. In 1986 I saw the Alan Alda comedy “Sweet Liberty” and was enchanted by the notion of being a college professor, and resolved that that was what I would do with my life. However, I started off as an English major at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and only about halfway through did I declare a second major in history. I was guided by a great early Americanist, Milton Ready, who always pushed me to do more and be better at what I do, and my best work was always in the early American field. By the time I graduated in 1991, there was no question that I was going to go to graduate school to become an early Americanist, which I eventually did under the fatherly tutelage of Prof. Sung Bok Kim at the State University of New York at Albany. Besides, with a name like John Smith, how could I not be an early Americanist?

JF: What is your next project?
JS: I have begun preliminary research for what I intend will be a new history of occultism, witchcraft, and witch-hunting in colonial America from the 1620s through the 1720s, centering of course on the Salem witch trials. I want to pull together the best of what can be found in the works of Jon Butler, Keith Thomas, John Demos, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Carol Karlsen, Bernard Rosenthal, and Mary Beth Norton, among others, into a comprehensive study that seeks to explain the evolution of the complex relationships between religion, belief in the supernatural, occultism, and Enlightenment rationalism over the course of a century of phenomenal change in colonial British America.
JF: Looking forward to reading about it! Thanks John.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Thomas S. Kidd

Thomas Kidd is Professor of History at Baylor University. This interview is based on his new book, George Whitefield : America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write George Whitefield : America’s Spiritual Founding Father​?

TK: George Whitefield, the most important preacher of the First Great Awakening, has been the subject of several excellent academic and Christian biographies, but as his 300th birthday approached (it is this December 16), I thought that it was time for a fresh approach to Whitefield, one that might blend strengths of the previous approaches. As an evangelical Christian, I admire many aspects of Whitefield’s ministry, but I am also seeking to place him fully in the religious and cultural milieu in which he lived.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Whitefield : America’s Spiritual Founding Father?

TK: George Whitefield was the key evangelical leader of the eighteenth century. Although it is undeniable that he was formed by factors such as the theater culture of the eighteenth century, and the century’s emerging commercial economy (approaches taken by previous academic biographies of Whitefield), Whitefield’s fundamental motivation lay in his evangelical convictions about sin and salvation, and this is the framework in which he would have seen himself.

JF: Why do we need to read George Whitefield​​ : America’s Spiritual Founding Father​​?

TK: It is not difficult to make the case for Whitefield’s importance, not just in religious history, but in eighteenth-century Anglo-American history generally. He was the most famous person in America before the Revolution, he was in his time the most influential leader of the Great Awakening, and he transformed the art of preaching, as well as the print and media culture of the era. (He also maintained a peculiar and intriguing friendship for thirty years with the self-described “Deist” Benjamin Franklin.) This is someone that all Americans – but especially American Christians – should know.

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

TK: I was a political science major as an undergraduate at Clemson University, but I was drawn more and more to reading and writing in history, my minor. Several key professors encouraged me to consider graduate school. Once I discovered the work of prominent religious historians such as Perry Miller and George Marsden (my eventual doctoral advisor), I was hooked and wanted to devote my career to history teaching.

JF: What is your next project?

TK: My Baylor colleague Barry Hankins and I are finishing a history of Baptists in America, which should be out by mid-2015. Next I am writing a broad history of early America, and I am also planning on doing a religious biography of Benjamin Franklin.

JF: Can’t wait to read them! Thanks Thomas.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

AHA Session Overview: "Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution"

This morning (AHA  Day 2) I had the privilege of presenting a paper on a panel devoted to religion and the American Revolution at the Winter meeting of the American Society of Church History.  The session was entitled “Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution.”  My fellow presenters were Katherine Carte Engel of Southern Methodist University and Christopher Jones of the College of William and Mary.  Mark Peterson of Cal-Berkeley provided the comment.

Jones led things off by giving us a taste of his dissertation research on transatlantic Methodism with a particular focus on Canada and the Caribbean.  This is a wonderful project.  Chris’s work will definitely expand what we know about Methodism in early America from the works of Dee Andrews, John Wigger, and Cynthia Lyerly. 

I tried to challenge the prevailing (although Peterson did not think it prevailing) paradigm that links the First Great Awakening to the American Revolution.  My focus was on Presbyterians. 

Engel argued that both traditional or “territorial” Anglicans and “evangelical” Anglicans in England cared little about the American Revolution.

Peterson described our panel as a “religious dog that does not bark in the night.”  He suggested that all of our papers suggested, in one form or another, that religion was not a factor in the American Revolution.  While I don’t think that such a suggestion was a completely accurate portrayal of my paper (I argued that religion was important, but evangelical Christianity was not), all of the papers questioned  whether it was appropriate to understand the American Revolution in religious terms.

Peterson said that the scholarly conversation on the relationship between religion and the Revolution is still stuck in the Cold War–a time when it was important to connect religion to American nationalism as a counter to “godless” communism.  In other words, this conversation is still embedded in a kind of consensus or “homogeneous” history that thinks about religion less as a local or regional phenomenon and more as a force that contributes to nationhood.

Peterson said that there is no intrinsic reason why religion should be an explanatory factor for explaining the American Revolution.  He called for a new synthesis–one that he thought our papers were moving toward–that focused more on the diversity of religious experience in eighteenth-century America.

As far as my paper was concerned, Peterson raised questions that I have been wrestling with for several years.  First, he chided me for making a vague reference to the Enlightenment as a more plausible reason for Presbyterian political activity.  Indeed, the reference to the Enlightenment was vague.  I wrote an entire book on what might be called the “Presbyterian” or “rural” Enlightenment and as I argued in that book, the Presbyterian embrace of the Enlightenment was essential to understanding why the members of the denomination became patriots.  Second, Peterson asked me to be more specific about the term “Presbyterian.”  Was is it really a religious category?  Or was it more of a political or ethnic category.  This is a question I continue to try to nail down and it was one that I grappled with a bit in a recent paper on the Paxton Boys massacre of 1765.

Peterson was a great commentator.  He handed back my paper with dozens of marginal comments–stuff he did not bring up during the formal response.  I could not ask for anything better from a commentator on a panel like this.  It was also a pleasure to see Chris and Kate again.  I am eager to read their forthcoming works.

Philip Gura: How Jonathan Edwards Talked About God

Readers Almanac, the blog of the The Library of America, is re-running a piece on Jonathan Edwards by Philip Gura, the editor of the Library’s recently released Jonathan Edwards: Writings from the Great Awakening.  Gura is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of several great books on American religious history and literature, including Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical and one of my personal favorites, A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620-1660.  I have long been a fan of his work.

In this particular piece, Gura asks: “Why should one be interested in the writings of the eighteenth-century American revivalist and theologian Jonathan Edwards?  Here is a taste of the essay:

Edwards the merciless logician who published lengthy tomes in which he denied that we have free will and defended the notion that all humans struggle in bondage to original sin? Edwards, the fire and brimstone preacher who stared dispassionately at the bell rope across the space of the meetinghouse as he described God’s everlasting and just hatred of sinners and their proper condemnation to a vividly imagined hell? Edwards the apologist for emotional religious revivals that made his spiritual descendants Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and Jimmy Swaggart into household names?

The answer is simple. We should read him for his mastery of language, and that is why he is in the Library of America. All attempts to speak of ultimate things are metaphorical and as such depend finally on the resource of language. Words are all we have to express such thoughts and perhaps our only way of “knowing” the world. And in this case in particular, Edwards helps us, as far as language goes, to understand our humanity. His language bends backward and forward, and allows us better to know ourselves, no matter in what religion we believe.


Read the rest here.

How Loud Was George Whitefield?

I have a loud voice.  My voice just seems to carry.  I once broke a speaker system lecturing at the David Library of the American Revolution.  When I whisper to my wife in church to make a semi-critical remark about the sermon she insists that I can be heard by everyone in the sanctuary. My seminar-mates in graduate school used to say that my voice was loud and it would get even louder when I was trying to make a point.  I am pretty sure my students make fun of me for the same reason, but I have no proof. (Does anyone want to admit this?  Students?) I have a regular gig speaking at a local retirement home.  One day a resident told me that I was her favorite speaker because I was the only one she could hear from the back row without her hearing aid.

I may have some volume to my voice, but I don’t think I can hold a candle to George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century revival preacher best known for leading the eighteenth-century religious movement known by historians as the “First Great Awakening.”  (Mandatory Jon Butler scare quotes included. Sorry, but only my early American historian friends will get that one, though I am happy to explain).

Whitefield appears several times in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (which I teach every year). My favorite reference to Whitefield is the passage in which Franklin tries to calculate the number of people that can hear Whitefield’s booming voice.  Here is Franklin describing Whitefield:

He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ’d the most exact silence. He preach’d one evening from the top of the Court-house steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles. Both streets were fill’d with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur’d it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill’d with auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconcil’d me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach’d to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the antient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.

As this passage indicates, Franklin estimated that Whitefield could be heard, without a microphone, by 30,000 people.

It turns out his estimation was correct.  Recently two researchers at New York University’s Music and Audio Research lab reproduced Franklin’s experiment and generally confirmed his conclusions.

Here is a small taste of this fascinating report:

As can be seen from the results, in the Moorfields and Mayfair areas, the largest reported crowd sizes would not have been able to hear Whitefield’s voice even under optimistic acoustic conditions, and if the crowd was noisy or Whitefield was feeling hoarse, the maximum number of listeners would decrease sharply. However, at Kennington Common, the most wide-open of the three sites, it is projected that the largest reported crowd of 50,000 could have heard Whitefield’s voice under optimal conditions.

It will be noted that if Franklin’s more generous density figure is used, these crowd size estimates will be more than doubled. However, Franklin’s maximum intelligible area calculation yields about 23,000 square meters, which is close to the values simulated here for some of the sites. This shows that Franklin’s overall method of estimating the acoustic range of the voice was actually fairly accurate. His primary error was his overly large density calculation, which would have predicted a crowd size of about 125,000 listeners. A crowd of that size packed so densely would probably find it difficult to be silent and might even run the risk of a stampede.

However, Franklin reported a more modest figure of 30,000 listeners, possibly because he believed that the higher estimate was far-fetched, and also because the majority of Whitefield’s crowds were reported as 30,000 or fewer. The largest crowds were only reported during the summer of 1739 in London, after which Whitefield’s celebrity waned somewhat. Similarly, these computer simulations are also useful for evaluating the more modest crowd sizes that were reported: most of his large crowds in Britain and America were estimated at 20,000 to 30,000, and based on these simulations those numbers seem acoustically reasonable. Without a time machine, we will never know these crowd sizes exactly, but by applying scientific techniques to historical data we can still discover new pieces of the past that had previously been lost.

"Early Evangelicalism: A Reader"

I finally made it to my Messiah College mailbox today after some time on vacation and was pleased to find a copy of Jonathan Yeager’s Early Evangelicalism: A Reader (Oxford, 2013).  Yeager has put together a wonderful collection of eighteenth-century sources related to the rise of evangelicalism in the Atlantic world.   Scholars who are teaching courses in American evangelicalism or religious history will find this book invaluable.  It is the only book of its kind.

The book includes documents written by Isaac Watts, Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Jonathan Dickinson, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Howell Harris, Charles Wesley, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Finley, Hannah Heaton, Nathan Cole, William McCulloch, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, James Robe, Thomas Prince, Susanna Anthony, Thomas Gillespie, Philip Doddridge, John Cennick, David Brainerd, Benjamin Ingham, Joseph Bellamy, Hugh Kennedy, John Witherspoon, Jonathan Edwards, Sarah Prince Gill, John Maclaurin, Sarah Osborn, James Hervey, Esther Edwards Burr, Samuel Davies, Anne Steele, Eleazar Wheelock, Henry Venn, John Newton, William Romaine, John Erskine, Mary Fletcher, John William Fletcher, William Williams, Samson Occom, Isaac Backus, Phillis Wheatley, Samuel Hopkins, John Newton, John Ryland Jr., Henry Alline, Andrew Fuller, Charles Nisbet, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, Olaudah Equiano, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, William Carey, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Richard Allen, Charles Simeon, William Wilberforce, Lemuel Hanyes, and Jedidah Morse.

Yeager offers short introductions to each document and a more extensive introduction to the entire volume.

I am already thinking about how I will use this book.  Yeager’s collection is so comprehensive that he might convince scholars to design entire courses around the book rather than trying to fit reader into already existing courses.

Project Reading

Here are my continued thoughts on the secondary reading I am doing for my current project on Presbyterians and the American Revolution.  (For additional entries in this series click here).

I just reread Patrick Griffin‘s excellent, The People With No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764. I actually reviewed this book about ten years ago for the Journal of Presbyterian History, but this time around I was reading it with different eyes–the eyes of a historian working on a specific project related to Presbyterian life in the era of the American Revolution.

Griffin’s central argument is that eighteenth-century Ulster Presbyterians reinvented themselves as full-fledged members of the British Empire despite living lives on the geographical margins of that Empire. They did this by embracing mobility, Reformed Protestantism, and the language of British rights.

One of Griffin’s subtle arguments in the book centers on the identity of post-Great Awakening Presbyterians in British North America.  While he does not deny that Old Side and New Side Presbyterians had their differences following the 1758 reunion, he tends stress the sense of unity and consolidation that emerged in the wake of these divisive revivals.

Only a few historians have noticed the culture of consensus that emerged in the denomination between roughly 1745 and 1770.  Over half a century ago, Dietmar Rothermund developed this trend toward unity in Layman’s Progress: Religious and Political Experience in Colonial Pennsylvania. Robert Ferguson (The American Enlightenment) and Steven Bullock (Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order) also discuss it, albeit in the larger context of pre-revolutionary culture.

Griffin attributes this post-Awakening unity to a growing sense of Britishness among the Ulster Presbyterians in America,  He writes (p. 158):  “By the 1760s, these men and women achieved elusive unity after years of socioeconomic and religious strife.  They overcame division by rallying around a familiar concept, Britishness.”

In The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I also explored in depth this sense of community, harmony, and solidarity among post-Awakening Presbyterians, but I chalked it up to the influence of the British Enlightenment on the denomination and its leaders.  I think Griffin and I were barking up the same tree.

Why is this renewed sense of unity so important?  It is important because Presbyterians had to overcome their Great Awakening differences as a prerequisite for the establishment of a nearly unified front against what they perceived to be the tyranny of the British Empire in the years between 1765 and 1776.  This is the way I hope to take my argument in this project, expanding on what I wrote in The Way of Improvement Leads Home and what I argued in a 2008 essay in the Journal of Presbyterian History entitled “In Search of Unity: Presbyterians in the Wake of the First Great Awakening.”

Of course little of this historiographical nitpicking will find its way into my manuscript.  I am trying to write this book for a general audience and I am afraid that many readers unfamiliar or uninterested in Presbyterian history may find this stuff a bit dry.  This was a problem I faced in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Scholars of early American religion liked the first couple of chapters dealing with Presbyterian post-Awakening politics, but I lost a lot of my general, non-scholarly readers in those first two chapters–chapters that I thought were necessary to set the context for Philip Vickers Fithian’s life.  Many general readers who came to public talks where I expounded on Fithian’s fascinating life story told me later that they skipped over the first two chapters and picked up the story in chapter three, the point in the book where the biographical narrative begins to pick-up steam. The challenge for this project will be finding a way to tell this story of post-Awakening unity without losing my readership as the narrative builds toward the Revolution.

I want to mention a few things about Griffin’s take on the Paxton Riots as well, but I will save that for my next “Project Reading” post.

"Skyping In" to Kim Johnson’s AP US History Class

It is always gratifying to see Messiah College history alums doing important things.  I had the privilege of teaching Kim (Pearce) Johnson in several classes at Messiah, including a course in history pedagogy.  Now she is teaching AP US History at Susquehannock High School in York County, PA.

This morning (7:56 to be exact) I spoke to her class via Skype about the Great Awakening and the American Enlightenment and took questions from her students.  Kim had them well-prepared.  They asked about the legacy of these two movements in American life, the impact of the Great Awakening on women’s roles in 18th century society, and the influence of both movements on education and the economy.  By all accounts, Kim is a great teacher.

I had a lot of fun and I wish Kim’s class well as they start on their journey toward the AP Exam in May.