Liberty University’s Falkirk Center meets all expectations at its “Get Louder” event

Yesterday, Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, the culture war wing of the largest Christian university in the world, held a 1-day conference titled “Get Louder: Faith Summit 2020.” Evangelical Trump supporters were encouraged to yell and scream more, fight more, and make sure that they were active on every social media platform. This is how the Kingdom of God will advance and Christian America will be saved because in the minds of the speakers, and probably most of those in attendance, there is little difference between the two. There was virtually nothing said about civility, humility, empathy, peace, compassion, the common good, or justice for people of color or the poor.

If there is any doubt that the Falkirk Center, with its angry and bitter political rhetoric and unswerving support of Donald Trump, represents Liberty University, those doubts were put to rest in the first fifteen minutes of the event. The day began with a video from the late Jerry Falwell Sr.:

This was followed by a welcome from Liberty University Provost Scott Hicks. Scott Lamb, Liberty’s Vice President for Communications, also welcomed the audience and praised the work of the Falkirk Center.

Falkirk Center director Ryan Helfenbein introduced the day’s festivities:

The first plenary speaker was former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. He started-off with a real “historical” whopper:

Much of Huckabee’s speech confused identity politics with “collectivism.” It was an ideological mess. The real socialist collectivists in America are no fan of identity politics.

And it wouldn’t be a Huckabee speech without some fearmongering:

Huckabee is disappointed with students on “evangelical campuses”:

Next came Ralph Reed, one of the primary architects of the Christian Right playbook. Reed sings one note:

The “Great Awakening” was ubiquitous at this event:

We’ve written about the “Black-Robed Brigade here.

Falkirk Center’s co-founder Charlie Kirk’s pastor spoke:

A general observation about the day:

And then Eric Metaxas showed-up:

I compared this session on the “Christian mind” to Bruce Springsteen’s convocation address last night at another Christian college–Jesuit-run Boston College:

Next-up, court evangelical Greg Locke:

Next-up, the anti-social justice crowd:

At the end of a long day Eric Metaxas came back for a solo speech:

Please read my recent Religion News Service piece in this context of these texts.

How Princeton is dealing with John Witherspoon’s slave ownership

Princeton 2018 2

The Witherspoon statue at Princeton University

I must have missed this from two weeks ago, but the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to change the name of John Witherspoon Middle School because the Presbyterian minister, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and former president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton (now Princeton University) owned slaves.

Marissa Michaels has it covered at The Daily Princetonian. She also reports on an attempt to remove the Witherspoon statue from the campus of Princeton University. Here is a taste of her piece:

Their petition — which has garnered 1,558 signatures — reads, “In the midst of the ongoing support of the Black Lives Matter movement, this has created the opportune moment for John Witherspoon Middle School to rid itself of its slave-owning and anti-abolitionist namesake … This change is imperative, as the school’s name and Witherspoon’s legacy creates a hostile environment for both the middle school and district’s racially diverse student body.”

A full letter to the Board, which includes alumni testimony, outlines the reasons for the Witherspoon name removal, citing the Princeton & Slavery Project. Witherspoon, the University’s sixth president (1768–94), owned slaves, as did his children. In 1790, Witherspoon and the majority of a New Jersey Board voted against helping to abolish slavery, believing it was “already dying out.” Slavery in New Jersey, however, continued until the end of the Civil War.

Witherspoon’s legacy has also sparked debate at the institution over which he once presided. An early-July open letter signed by over 350 University faculty members called on Nassau Hall to remove a campus statue of Witherspoon. When asked about the letter then, University Spokesperson Ben Chang said the administration was “currently reviewing these and other suggestions for change that have been made by members of our community” as part of a process laid out in June.

In a controversial response, classics professor Joshua Katz wrote, “Since I don’t care for this statue or its placement in front of the  building in which I have my office, I would not be sad if it were moved  away—but emphatically not because of Witherspoon, a signer of the  Declaration of Independence who was a major figure in Princeton and  American history with a complex relationship to slavery.”

Witherspoon middle school

My take on this story is similar to what I wrote about the removal of the George Whitefield statue at the University of Pennsylvania.

If Princeton University does decide to remove the Witherspoon statue, we should not interpret the decision as “erasing history.” We will still talk about Witherspoon. In fact, he features quite prominently in my uncompleted book manuscript (very) tentatively titled, “God in the Crossroads: The American Revolution in New Jersey.”

A George Whitefield statue is coming down at the University of Pennsylvania

Whitefield

George Whitefield was arguably the most popular man in colonial America. His preaching was the catalyst for the colonial-wide evangelical revival that historians call the “First Great Awakening.”

Recently, the University of Pennsylvania decided to remove a Whitefield statue on campus because the evangelist promoted and defended slavery in eighteenth-century Georgia.

Here is a taste of Zoey Weisman’s piece at The Daily Pennsylvanian:

Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli wrote in the University-wide email that, after considering Whitefield’s support for and advancement of slavery in the American colonies, they have decided to take down the statue that stands in front of the Morris and Bodine sections of Ware College House.

“Honoring him with a statue on our campus is inconsistent with our University’s core values, which guide us in becoming an ever more welcoming community that celebrates inclusion and diversity,” the email read. 

Although the email vowed the statue would be removed from campus, it contained no mention of when it would be removed or whether it would be replaced with another figure.

The bronze statue of Whitefield was created by R. Tait Mckenzie in 1919. Whitefield, a prominent evangelical preacher in the mid-18th century who successfully campaigned for slavery’s legislation in the Georgia colony — where the practice had been previously outlawed — owned 50 enslaved persons himself. 

Penn’s announcement to remove the Whitefield statue comes shortly after other Ivy League institutions have made efforts to reconcile their ties with slavery and racism. Last Saturday, Princeton University announced that it will remove the name of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs and a residential college due to his record of supporting racist practices and segregation as president.

Whitefield’s connection to the University comes from his church meeting house located on 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia, the email read, which Penn founder Benjamin Franklin purchased for the Academy of Philadelphia that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. The email made no mention the lifelong friendship between Whitefield and Franklin, or Whitefield’s ownership of enslaved persons. 

Since the announcement, the University has removed a 2013 Penn Today article called ‘For the Record: George Whitefield’ that described Franklin’s relationship with Whitefield, but failed to mention any of the preacher’s ties to slavery. The article was still accessible earlier this week.

Read the rest here.

You can also read the official University of Pennsylvania statement. It makes an effort to separate Whitefield from the university’s founding in 1740: “Whitefield’s connection to Penn stems from a church meeting house he owned at 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia  which was purchased by Ben Franklin to house the Academy of Philadelphia, a predecessor to the University of Pennsylvania. Given that Whitefield prominently advocated for slavery, there is absolutely no justification for having a statue honoring him at Penn.” (I believe a Wyndham Hotel now sits on the spot where the Whitefield meeting house was located, or at least that is what I tell students and K-12 teachers when I give them tours of colonial Philadelphia).

The Penn statement makes it sound as if Franklin answered a classified ad for a vacant building that just happened to be owned by Whitefield. It ignores the fact that Whitefield and Franklin were close friends, worked together on projects of moral improvement, and even thought about establishing a colony in Ohio. (The history of the Whitefield statue published on the website of the University of Pennsylvania archives is more nuanced about the relationship between the two men).

I am not writing to defend Whitefield or to criticize Penn’s decision to remove the statue.  They can do whatever they want with it. Whitefield will continue to be an important and flawed figure in American history and Penn’s decision will not “erase” history. News of the removal, as historian Peter Choi points out, might also awaken contemporary evangelicals to the fact that one of their heroes helped to contribute to America’s history of systemic racism.

Indeed, Whitefield’s relationship to slavery was morally problematic. Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, a somewhat sympathetic biographer of Whitefield, refuses to give the “Grand Itinerant” as pass on slavery. Here is a taste of a piece he published in 2015 at The Christian Century:

Here is a man who was the most tireless gospel preacher of his era, and who seemed to care a great deal about orphans and African American converts. But he also became one of colonial America’s staunchest advocates for slavery’s expansion. Are we permitted to admire such a man, in spite of his glaring blind spots? (The question is hardly limited to Whitefield: we might ask the same about slaveowning historical figures from George Washington to Stonewall Jackson.)

I do admire Whitefield because of his passionate commitment to the gospel, but his relationship to slavery represents the greatest ethical problem in his career. It represents an enduring story of many Christians’ devotion to God but frequent inability (or unwillingness) to perceive and act against social injustice. Instead of condemning Whitefield as irredeemable, I would suggest that we let his faults—which we can see more clearly with 300 years of hindsight—caution us instead. Even the most sincere Christians risk being shaped more by fallen society than by the gospel. 

Read the rest here.

As Kidd notes, many important people in colonial and revolutionary America owned slaves. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come immediately to mind. It is also worth noting that the university’s decision to remove the Whitefield statue from campus seems to break with some prominent American historians who have weighed-in on our current monument debate.

For example, Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, has argued that Jefferson statues and monuments should remain in place because the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third United States president made major contributions to American life that went beyond his commitment to the institution of slavery.

Award-winning historian of abolitionism Manisha Sinha recently told NPR:

I think it is important not to go from one extreme to the other. And while it is true that many of the Virginian Founding Fathers – Washington, Jefferson, Madison – all owned slaves, we put up their statues not to commemorate their slave holding but for different reasons. So these statues, I think, need to be contextualized historically. We shouldn’t shy from the fact that many of these men were slave owners, but we should also be able to judge each case individually. The Confederate statues have no redeeming qualities to them, but other statues certainly do.

I don’t know what Gordon-Reed or Sinha would say about the Whitefield statue. (Sinha discusses Whitefield in her book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition). But it is fair to ask whether Whitefield, like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, also made contributions to American life that extend beyond his defense and promotion of slavery.

I am not in the camp of historians who believe that Whitefield had something to do with the American Revolution, but I do think there are many Americans–past and present–who would say that the evangelical message he preached had a spiritual and moral influence on their lives. Christians continue to read Whitefield’s sermons for their devotional value. The evangelical movement he helped to found, though not without its flaws, has been a source of meaning and purpose for many Americans. And the evangelical theology he championed, promoted, and popularized also influenced many future abolitionists.

As Jessica Parr has argued in her book Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivialism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, Whitefield’s legacy is a complicated one:

To slaves owners and slaves alike, Whitefield also represented the duality of Christianity in the lives of slaves. For those who opposed slavery, his preaching about equality in the eyes of God inspired antislavery sentiments. Black abolitionists invoked his preaching. White abolitionists invoked his early criticisms of slavery. And although many a southern planter doubted his sincerity, Whitefield was also a model of proslavery paternalistic slaves’ well-being (spiritually and otherwise) but who saw no contradiction between slave owning and his faith.

What if we thought about the University of Pennsylvania’s Whitefield monument in the same way American historians have been thinking about Confederate monuments? Most American historians today argue that Confederate monuments should be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a celebration of the Lost Cause. In 1931, African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote,

The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments,–the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to it to explain on its war monument, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter to read on a North Carolina Confederate monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”

Most of these monuments were erected between 1900 and 1920 for the purpose of advancing the cause of white supremacy. Read historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage here. Read the American Historical Association here.

They were also erected to celebrate Confederate military officers like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These men were traders to their country.

So why was the Whitefield statue was erected? It was unveiled on the Penn campus in June 1919. Here is how the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the event:

Fri, Jun 13, 1919 – Page 6 · The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com

A quick search at Newspapers.com reveals that the erection of the monument drew attention throughout the country and beyond. Reports of the event–some more extensive than others–appeared in newspapers in Victoria, BC; Corsicana, TX; Paducha, KY; Annapolis, MD; Harrisburg, PA; Pittston, PA; Wilmington, DE; Tampa Bay, FL; Lexington, NC; Pittsburgh, PA; Chanute, KS; Atlanta, GA; Winfield, KS; Casper, WY; Nashville, TN; Salisbury, NC;  Wausau, WI; Lawrence, KS; and Winston-Salem, NC. An article in the Harrisburg Telegraph discussed Whitefield’s visit to south central Pennsylvania and his relationship to John Harris, the founder of the city.

Rev. Wallace MacMullen’s speech on the occasion was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 16, 1919. It focused on Whitefield’s evangelical convictions, his relationship with John and Charles Wesley, his powerful preaching in the British transatlantic world, his printed sermons, his family life, and his commitment to education.

As might be expected at such an event, there was no mention of Whitefield’s flaws or his promotion of slavery in Georgia. Unlike the Confederate monuments, the Whitefield statue was not erected in 1919 to celebrate slavery, white supremacy, or racism. It was erected because Whitefield had a connection to the University of Pennsylvania, was a friend of Ben Franklin, had made significant contributions to the religious life of America, and was an advocate of learning.

Of course the Penn administration may view statues differently than historians such as Gordon-Reed or Sinha or Yale historian David Blight. Perhaps they believe that any statue of a slaveholder has no place on their campus. If that is the case, then the removal of Whitefield is consistent with the university’s beliefs.

I am thus assuming, based on the way they handled the Whitefield statue, that Amy Gutmann (President), Wendell Pritchett (Provost), and Craig Carnaroli (Executive Vice President) would also argue for the removal of statues commemorating Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, Patrick Henry, or John Hancock. They were all slaveholders and many of them were complicit in the preservation of slavery between 1776 and 1789. Of course the university would have no reason to have a statue to any of these figures on campus, but let’s remember that Quaker William Penn also owned slaves. This might get a little closer to home. (For the record, there is no statue of Penn on the University of Pennsylvania campus).

And let’s not forget that Ben Franklin was also a slavemaster. As David Waldstreicher writes in his book Runaway America:

Franklin’s antislavery credentials have been greatly exaggerated…His debt to slavery, and his early persistent engagement with controversies surrounding slaves, have been largely ignored. He profited from the domestic and international slave trade, complained about the ease with which slaves and servants ran off to the British army during the colonial wars of the 1740s and 1750s, and staunchly defended slaveholding rebels during the Revolution. He owned a series of slaves between about 1735 and 1781 and never systemically divested himself of them…He declined to bring the matter of slavery to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when asked to do so by the abolition society that he served as president. There are enough smoking guns, to be sure, to condemn Franklin as a hypocrite, Jefferson-style, if one wishes to do so.

While Franklin relied upon slaves and servants for his success, he also, later in life, became an abolitionist. If the Penn administration ever has to justify the three Franklin statues that currently stand on the campus, I am sure they will appeal to this anti-slavery work. They would probably argue that Poor Richard was a complex person. They might even say that his role in the preservation of American slavery should not be the only thing that defines him and his legacy. Whitefield, however, does not seem to get the benefit of such complex and nuanced thinking.

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

trump-with-evangelical-leaders

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Rudy Giuliani shares a tweet from a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center. Notice how Giuliani uses Jenna Ellis’s tweet of Psalm 27 to make a political statement. When he says “we all matter” I think we all know the message he is sending in the midst of our post-George Floyd moment. In a follow-up tweet, Ellis gives Giuliani an “Amen.”

As the coronavirus cases spike, Ellis retweets an anti-masker attacking California senator Kamala Harris:

Liberty University’s Falkirk Center does not understand history. It’s tweet today seems like a defense of Confederate monuments. I am guessing Russell Kirk is taken out of context here. As I argued in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, history is always created from a dialogue the between past and the present. Sometimes the past is useful in the present. Sometimes the past is a “foreign country.” Ironically, the Falkirk Center and the rest of the Christian Right activists who talk about the past, have mastered the kind of cherry-picking Kirk may be warning against here.

What is the relationship between the following tweet and Jenna Ellis’s anti-mask retweet above? It seems that “rights” are a form of self-fulfillment, while concern for others is a form of self-denial. John MacArthur’s lesson might be useful for evangelicals as they think about masks and the spread of COVID-19.

Florida is seeing record numbers of coronavirus cases. Paula White is opening her church:

Wow: This is an amazing tweet from Trump’s #1 court evangelical:

Tony Perkins is hosting a video conference called “Arise and Stand.” You can watch it here.

Here is Gary Bauer’s Facebook post:

Kudos to my good friend Vice President Mike Pence!

Vice President Pence stood firm in the face of the media mob this Sunday, as well as the mob in the streets, by refusing to repeat the divisive slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” He was pressed to do so during an appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Of course Black Lives Matter, as do Asian lives, Hispanic lives and Caucasian lives. That’s the truth. And it’s also a central Christian principle that the color of our skin is the least unique thing about us. What makes us special is that we are made in the image of God, and the vice president strongly believes that. 

Read the rest here.

I’ve said this before, this pivot toward “all lives matter” is simply a way for those on the Christian Right to avoid tough conversations on race in America following the killing of George Floyd. When Pence refused to say “Black Lives Matter” on television he was sending a message to the Trump base.

all lives matter cartoon

It’s all about the Supreme Court justices for Ralph Reed.

Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran have a nice response to Reed’s way of political thinking:

When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resources families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marion icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

Read the entire piece here.

Ralph Reed, perhaps more than any other member of the Christian Right, is responsible for what Hauerwas and Tran call a “failure of political imagination” among evangelicals.

According to Robert Jeffress, the “eventual collapse of our country” is now certain:

And last but not least, David Barton is on the Eric Metaxas Show today. When activists indiscriminately topple and deface monuments, it just provides ammunition and fodder for Barton’s Christian Right view of the past.

Barton defends a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a white supremacist who helped found the KKK. He seems to think that such a statue is essential to his ability to teach history. This comment even makes Metaxas squirm: “I think we all would agree that lines can be drawn, we don’t have a statue to Adolph Hitler.” In this sense, Metaxas’s obsession with Godwin’s Law serves a useful purpose.

When Metaxas says that debate over monuments is “complicated,” he reminds me of something I wrote at the end of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:

In 2010 the political commentator Glenn Beck devoted an entire television program to a discussion of George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century evangelical revivalist and the precipitator of the event known as the First Great Awakening. Near the end of the show, Beck’s conversation with his guests–two early American religious historians–turned to the topic of slavery. Beck wondered how Whitefield could inspire anti-slavery advocates in England such as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” while at the same time owning slaves. Befuddled by this paradox, and clearly at a loss for words, Beck turned to the camera and said, “Sometimes history is a little complex.”

Barton peddles an unbelievably dumb theory about the origins of slavery and race in America. He says “out of Jamestown” came “slavery and intolerance and classism and racism.” But out of Plymouth came “liberty and freedom and constitutional government, bills of rights, etc.” His source is an uncritical use of an 1888 wall map showing these “two strands of history, one bad and one good.”

Apparently, Barton has never studied New England’s Native American history or the intolerance the Puritans showed to the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. But wait, it gets better. Barton says that “both of those groups were Christian, but Jamestown was not biblical. They [just] professed Christianity. That’s much of what we see in America today. 72% of the nation professes Christianity, only six percent have a biblical world view.” Slavery started in Jamestown, Barton argues, because the settlers didn’t “know the Bible.” This is interesting, since during the early 19th-century Virginians used the Bible to justify slavery. I guess they were more biblically literate by that time. 🙂

Barton seems to suggest that New England did not have slaves. Wrong again. Even Jonathan Edwards, one of Barton’s heroes, a man who Barton would probably say had a “Christian world view,” owned slaves. Granted, New England did not have a slave-based economy, but slavery was not illegal prior to the American Revolution. If you want to learn more, see Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. and Joanne Pope Melishs’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860

Barton goes on to say that today “we look at past generations through today’s filter and today’s lens and you really can’t do that.” This is rich coming from a guy who has built his entire career around cherry-picking from the founding fathers and then applying such cherry-picked passages to contemporary Christian Right politics. (See my comments about the Falkirk Center’s tweet about Russell Kirk).

He then uses this argument to reject systemic and institutional racism. Here is Barton:

So all the notion that America is institutionally racist–you gotta see what the atmosphere was like in that day–we were leading the world in the right direction that day. Now we can look back where we are today and say we weren’t perfect…but we’re not the racist nation everyone is trying to make us out to be. When you know history, you see that all clearly.

Barton speaks as if the Civil War–a war over slavery in which 700,000 people died–never happened. Is this “leading the world in the right direction?” Heck, he sounds as if slavery never existed in the United States. He dismisses four hundred years of slavery and racism by saying, “yeah, we weren’t perfect.” Barton is not a historian. He only cares about the parts of the past that advance his political agenda. Read this recent post to see the depths of racism in the evangelical church or grab a copy of Believe Me.

And finally, Metaxas praises Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a great moment of national unity. He says that Lincoln showed “graciousness” toward his enemy. He said that because of this graciousness, Lincoln and Grant allowed the Confederate monuments to stand. Barton says that Lincoln’s “zealous” Christian faith is why he tried to reconcile with the South after the war. He says that Lincoln took seriously Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 about “reconciliation.”

There are so many problems with this part of the interview that it is hard to know where to start.

  1. Lincoln did want to the bring the Union back together and he tried to use his Second Inaugural Address to do it. But let’s remember that this address was delivered after victory in the war was all but secured. The Union won. Whatever reunion needed to take place, Lincoln believed, must happen on his terms. The idea that he would allow Confederates to continue to celebrate their slave-holding “heritage” with the erection of monuments does not make sense.
  2. Metaxas seems to think that these Confederate monuments were erected during the days of Lincoln. Most of them were built in the early 20th-century as a way of defending the Confederate’s “Lost Cause”–a commitment to white supremacy. Lincoln had nothing to do with them.
  3. Lincoln was not a Christian. Nearly all Lincoln scholarship is clear about this.
  4. 2 Corinthians 5 has nothing to do with the Civil War or nationalism.
  5. But most disturbing is the fact that Barton and Metaxas seem to be endorsing a white romanticized idea of reunion and reconciliation that left out African Americans. The best book on this subject continues to be David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Until next time.

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!

The Willow Creek Mess

Hybels

A couple of weeks ago I was lecturing about George Whitefield to a group of K-12 history teachers gathered for a summer seminar at Princeton University.  I was rambling-on about Whitefield’s celebrity and his ability to attract large crowds.  I talked about his ability to unite Atlantic provincials in a common evangelicalism.  I described his relationship with Ben Franklin, his founding of an orphanage in Georgia, and his leadership of the First Great Awakening.

At one point in the lecture, an elementary-school social studies teacher who had never heard of Whitefield raised her hand and asked, “So what happened with this guy?  As I hear you talk I am expecting some kind of scandal or moral indiscretion.  How did Whitefield fall?”  This teacher seemed surprised that Whitefield never got caught-up in some kind of sex scandal.  She assumed that the Whitefield story ended badly.  We stopped and talked about Whitefield’s self-promotion, his ownership of slaves, and the way he divided local congregations, but as far as I know there was never an Elmer Gantry or Jimmy Swaggart moment in Whitefield’s life.

I thought about this teacher’s question as I read more about Bill Hybels and his moral indiscretions while serving as pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.  She may have meant her question to be snarky or cynical, but I did not take it this way.  It seemed like she had just come to expect this kind of thing from popular and powerful evangelical preachers.

You can get up to speed on the recent developments in the Hybels case by reading Laurie Goodstein’s piece in The New York Times.  I also appreciate Scot McKnight’s critique of Willow Creek and Hybels at Jesus Creed.  McKnight once attended Willow Creek.

Here is a taste of McKnight’s post; “Willow Creek, Your Time is Now”:

The time is now to be guided by this independent council of wisdom to tell the truth about Bill, to tell the truth about the women and Bill’s inappropriate, sexual relations, to tell the truth about governance that protected Bill’s reputation rather than Willow’s congregation, to tell the truth about bullying by the leaders through the Human Resources and buying silence through NDA (non disclosure agreements), to tell the truth about how the WCA’s Board was told by the three who resigned when the WCA refused to investigate Bill Hybels, and to tell the truth about the need for an independent investigation. The investigators cannot choose those who have to be investigated. An independent leadership council must do the choosing. Willow must be willing to listen to the council.  It is also time to tell the truth, in spite of what has been said by leaders after his resignation, about Bill’s continued contact with leaders at Willow to shape decisions.

It is time now to find the truth, to be transparent, to investigate the governance, and to tell that truth honestly.

The women told the truth. The Willow narrative is a false and deceptive narrative.

Why was it so easy for the journalists at Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today to find stories from women but Willow’s so-called investigation turned up nothing?

The time is now. Willow, your time is now. Time to find the truth, tell the truth, and live into that truth.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Fred Witzig

41WNTjQqz9L._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_Fred Witzig is Professor of History at Monmouth College. This interview is based on his new book, Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: I was introduced to Alexander Garden by George Whitefield. My interest in Whitefield and the Great Awakening began when I was an undergraduate and never ended. But I quickly noticed that while the scholarship on Whitefield is lively and expansive, historians had never even begun to adequately assess the enormous efforts of clergy who worked against him. Foremost among them were New England Congregationalist Charles Chauncy and the commissary of the Church of England in the Carolinas, Alexander Garden. Chauncy largely failed in his efforts against the Awakening, and he’s famous among historians today. Garden went after Whitefield with more creativity and energy than Chauncy did, and, impressively, he succeeded in squelching the Awakening in South Carolina. More broadly, Garden arrived in South Carolina at a seminal moment in its development; in the aftermath of the Yamasee War, the white colonists shifted the economic foundations of their colony squarely onto African slave labor. Garden lent his considerable leadership skills to this endeavor, and in the process made a place for the Church of England, and Christianity in general, in the South that would last for more than a century. Yet, historians sometimes confuse him with the botanist Alexander Garden, and his only biography—until now!—is an unpublished dissertation from almost forty years ago. I think it’s time he gets his due.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: Alexander Garden marshalled the resources of the Church of England in support of the burgeoning slave plantation economy of early South Carolina and applied a veneer of spiritual respectability to carnal exploitations of slave labor. In the process, Garden smothered the fires of a more egalitarian evangelical revivalism, burdened possibilities for the amelioration of the conditions of slavery with a Christianized paternalism that prevailed until the Civil War, and made the Church of England in the colony more influential than ever before.

JF: Why do we need to read Sanctifying Slavery and Politics in South Carolina: The Life of Alexander Garden?

FW: Are you interested in the long and sometimes sordid history of the entanglement of Christianity and slavery in North America; the history of the Christian Church, and especially the Church of England, in the South; the development of the southern social order that prevailed at least until the Civil War; the early efforts to educate and evangelize slaves (Garden founded the continent’s first major slave school); the reasons why the Great Awakening flourished and then died out in the Carolinas and Georgia; and the way non-evangelical colonial leaders challenged and shaped George Whitefield’s evangelical ministry? If you are, this is your book. I wrote it with undergraduates in mind, as well, so that faculty teaching courses on Southern history, evangelicalism, slavery, and other such topics could assign it to their students. In the preface I call it a dual biography: the story of the tragic but productive relationship between a refugee from Scotland and his colony on the edge of the British Empire.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

FW: Two events stand out. The first was when I visited Appomattox Courthouse with my family when I was probably seven years old. Standing outside on the rutted road there in Virginia, my dad told in dramatic fashion the story of General Grant’s meeting with General Lee, and then Lee’s surrender of his troops in the next couple of days. I knew then that history was the most fascinating subject anyone could ever study. The second event was when I was twenty-six and decided to change careers and become a teacher. What else would I ever want to teach?

JF: What is your next project?

FW: I’ve had a strong interest in public history for . . . years. Recently I started two websites. One is an attempt to reach smart but non-expert adults with thoughtful histories of the United States, the church at large, and a smattering of other topics. Eventually it will host resources for homeschooling high schoolers who, in my view, are at the moment stuck with a choice between ultra-nationalist Christian histories or secular histories that ignore or denigrate religious impulses in America and the world. The second website, not yet public, will host podcasts of conversations between me and a historian friend talking about Christians of the past whose stories can challenge us to evaluate current American evangelical assumptions.

JF: Thanks, Fred!

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

The Author’s Corner with Robert Caldwell

TheologiesoftheAmericanRevivalistsRobert Caldwell is Associate Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (IVP Academic, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Ever since my seminary days, I have been fascinated at the interplay between theology and Christian experience or spirituality, most specifically related to Christian conversion. As a scholar working on the First and Second Great Awakenings, I found that many revivalists had a well-developed theology that combined soteriology (doctrine of salvation) with insights related both to how Christian conversion was supposed to be experienced and how the gospel is to be proclaimed. I found that from 1740-1840 there was a rich genre of literature that combined these three elements, which collectively I call “revival theology.” 

Evangelical churches today have given little theological reflection to the nature of Christian conversion and revival. Much of what they do understand is practically oriented and often pre-theological. In this book I examine the numerous schools of theology that evangelicals employed at a time when there was much more theological writing and preaching on the subject. My hope is that Christians today will be both informed and challenged by the various schools of thought presented in the book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Theologies of the American Revivalists argues that American revivalists from the First and Second Great Awakenings (1740-1840) thought, preached, and wrote extensively on what I call “revival theology,” which I define as the three-fold combination of Protestant soteriology, conversion expectations, and preaching practices associated with revival. The book identifies, explores, and charts the historical theological developments of the various different schools of revival theology of the period, with specific attention given to the major controversies and writers.

JF: Why do we need to read Theologies of the American Revivalists?

RC: Revivals have been a fundamental feature of American evangelicalism. My hope is that the book has faithfully explored the multiple theological traditions that have undergirded the revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Theologians and historians will find an in-depth account these various theological traditions and practices. General Christian readers will hopefully come to appreciate the theological backgrounds to evangelical revivals and see just how deep the interplay is between theology and corporate Christian practice. As I mention in the introduction, the book is “fundamentally a theological history about what it has meant to ‘become a Christian’ during the age of America’s Great Awakenings.” (10)

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

RC: I come to American history as a student of intellectual history and historical theology. I have always been fascinated by the interplay of thought and history. Numerous scholars shaped my work during my student days. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I was drawn to the history of science and Isaac Newton’s theology while taking several courses from Dr. Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs in the late 1980s. When I went to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School I benefitted greatly from courses by Drs. John Woodbridge and Douglas Sweeney, both of whom know how to situate theology deeply in its historical context. There, my interests shifted to the history of theology of American evangelicalism, especially that of Jonathan Edwards. Studying Edwards, his theology and legacy, as well as the First and Second Great Awakenings has required me to become more proficient as a historian. In many ways I still feel like I am becoming an American historian.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I am working on two smaller projects now. The first deals with the lesser-known antinomian controversy that surfaced in the late 1750s upon the publication of James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio in England (1755). The controversy involved a broad cross-section of American and English non-conformists: New Divinity and traditional Calvinists, Sandemanians, Radical revivalists, Moravians, Methodists, and English Particular Baptists. Another study addresses Jonathan Edwards’s assessment of Isaac Watts. Both Edwards and Watts attempted to do theology while simultaneously engaging the enlightenment. Edwards found Watts’s strategies for doing this woefully inadequate, even though he admired Watts in many ways. Both studies illuminate some of the lesser-known intramural debates that existed among early evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

My Review Series on Metaxas’s “If You Can Keep It”: A Wrap-Up at RNS

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville

Six posts are enough.  I could say a lot more about Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, but I decided, for a variety of reasons, to bring the series to an end yesterday.

Today Religion News Service is running a piece that I envisioned, when asked to write it, as a summary and wrap-up post.

Here is a taste:

(RNS) In 1994, evangelical historian Mark Noll wrote about the “scandal of the evangelical mind.” The Wheaton College professor called out evangelicals for their anti-intellectual approaches to public engagement and urged his fellow believers to be more thoughtful in their political reflections.

I don’t know if Eric Metaxas has ever read “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” but since the release of his wildly popular biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer he has been touted as one of conservative evangelicalism’s leading spokespersons and public intellectuals.

Metaxas’ latest book, “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,” is soaring up the New York Times best-sellers list. The title comes from a popular story about Benjamin Franklin and the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787.  When Franklin walked out of the Pennsylvania State House at the end of the convention he was met by Elizabeth Powell, a prominent woman in Philadelphia. She asked Franklin what kind of government the members of the convention had forged.  Franklin responded, “A republic … if you can keep it.”

Read the rest here.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 5

MetaxasWe are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

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.

Stay tuned.