On Thursday night a very interesting, revealing, and somewhat disturbing Twitter exchange took place between religion writer Jonathan Merritt and historian Thomas Kidd. Here is what happened:
It began when someone retweeted Kidd’s Gospel Coalition post on eighteenth-century African-American poet Phillis Wheatley.
Here is a taste of Kidd’s post:
Wheatley’s most popular poem was her 1770 elegy to George Whitefield, who died in Massachusetts that year.
Hail, happy Saint, on thy immortal throne!
To thee complaints of grievance are unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy lessons in unequal’d accents flow’d!
While emulation in each bosom glow’d;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refin’d,
Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we, the setting Sun deplore!
Which once was splendid, but it shines no more;
He leaves this earth for Heav’n’s unmeasur’d height,
And worlds unknown, receive him from our sight;
There WHITEFIELD wings, with rapid course his way,
And sails to Zion, through vast seas of day.
Then she implored her fellow African Americans to accept Whitefield’s savior.
Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due;
If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.
A variant edition of the poem ended that line with, “He’ll make you free, and kings, and priests to God.” This undoubtedly reflected Wheatley’s desire for her fellow slaves.
Read the entire post here.
Merritt entered the conversation when he took issue with Kidd using the word “evangelical” to describe Wheatley. (Kidd uses the term in the title of the post).
Kidd requests an explanation:
These are all legitimate questions. The meaning of the word “evangelical” has been debated by historians for a long time. And this debate is raging again in the age of Trump.
But then Merritt tells one of the most prolific American religious historians of this generation to “think on this some more.” I guess this is the kind of bravado that comes when Outreach Magazine names you one of the “30 young influencers reshaping Christian leadership.” Just for the record, here are just some of Kidd’s books:
- The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009)
- George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2016)
- God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books, 2010)
- American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton University Press).
I think its fair to say Tommy Kidd has done some “thinking on this” topic.
At this point in the exchange Merritt has wandered into the deep end of the pool only to prove that he is not a very good swimmer. He follows his “think about this” line with a bold, strange, and inaccurate claim to his 58K Twitter followers:
After reading this tweet a day later, I decided it was time to insert myself into the conversation:
By the way, I just spent a week in my colonial America class at Messiah College reading Yale historian’s Harry Stout’s Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism with my students. One of the central premises of the book is that the “evangelical” movement in the eighteenth-century was characterized by those who, to use Merritt’s phrase, endorsed “Whitfield’s (sic) new birth.”
And here is a description of Peter Choi’s recent book on Whitefield titled George Whitefield: Evangelists for God and Empire (foreword by Mark Noll): “GEORGE WHITEFIELD (1714–1770) is remembered as a spirited revivalist, a catalyst for the Great Awakening, and a founder of the evangelical movement in America.”
And here is Frank Lambert in Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals (Princeton University Press, 1994): “By printing and preaching throughout the colonies Whitefield standardized evangelicalism. He created a common language of the new birth that evangelicals everywhere employed to distinguish themselves from those who had not undergone a spiritual conversion.” (p.131).
Perhaps Merritt doesn’t “know” these scholars.
But back in real time, Kidd responds to Merritt’s “exactly zero scholars” line with references to some of the best American religious historians working today. He could have cited his own books, but instead he cites Catherine Brekus and Bruce Hindmarsh.
And then former Books & Culture editor John Wilson enters the fray:
Back to Kidd:
Wilson adds this:
Merritt turns the conversation back to definitional issues:
Wilson, a veteran of these conversations about the definition of evangelicalism, is tired:
And then he awakens and tweets:
Merritt responds to his 58K Twitter followers. Remember, Merritt fashions himself as a public intellectual who “trains hundreds of young writers” and is a “sought after speaker at colleges, conferences, and churches.” (Also, don’t forget he writes for The Atlantic). He decides to pontificate with a vast and universal claim:
Wilson brings the conversation back to the original issue.
Merritt has some choice words for Wilson:
I can’t let such disrespect slide without pushing back:
Kidd has had enough:
But Merritt is in attack mode:
Kidd is a bigger man than I am. I can’t let Merritt get away with this:
Later, Kidd places it all in a larger cultural context by quoting a review of Thomas Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters:
By the way, here is the Kirkus review of The Death of Expertise:
As a veteran governmental adviser and think-tank participant, Nichols (National Security Affairs/U.S. Naval War Coll.; No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security, 2013, etc.) has experienced firsthand the decline of respect accorded specialists in many disciplines, as the internet has leveled the playing field to the point where all opinions are more or less considered equal, and a Google search substitutes for decades of research. “These are dangerous times,” he writes. “Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything,” However, the author sounds less like an alarmist than like a genial guide through the wilderness of ignorance. There are no startling revelations. Media in general and social media in particular tend to function as echo chambers, reinforcing biases. Some of those whose conclusions are the shakiest tend to shout the loudest, basing their arguments on spurious evidence. Credentials are suspect in an age when university degrees are everywhere, grade inflation runs rampant, and colleges woo prospective students as customers and clients. Little wonder, then, that “if in a previous era too much deference was paid to experts, today there is little deference paid to anyone at all.” Students challenge teachers, patients challenge doctors, and so-called experts argue with other so-called experts (often in territory beyond the expertise of either). “People who claim they are ‘experts’ are sometimes only about as self-aware as people who think they’re good kissers,” he writes. Not that Nichols lets the experts off the hook—some hide behind the impenetrability of academic jargon; others have even faked the data or cooked the books. The answer to this pervasive problem lies in greater media literary and in citizens having a better idea as to what they can trust from whom.
And now I want to give Jonathan Merritt “something to think about.” Kevin Kruse tweeted this in the context of his ongoing debate with Dinesh D’Souza about race and the Democratic Party. The content of their debate is different from the Kidd-Merritt debate (and Merritt is not a Trump supporter), but the message is the same: