Darryl Hart on Boston’s Park Street Church, Evangelicalism, and the “Ghost of Harold John Ockenga”

Park StreetHarold John Ockenga was the pastor of Boston’s Park Street Church from 1936 to 1969.

He was one of the early leaders of the neo-evangelical movement in the 1940s and 1950s.  We normally associated the rise of neo-evangelicalism with people such Ockenga, Billy Graham, Nelson Bell, and Carl F.H. Henry and institutions such as Fuller Theological Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Christianity Today.

Ockenga was one of the founders of the National Association of Evangelicals and served as its president from 1942-1944.  He was the president of both Fuller and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  He was the chairman of the board of Christianity Today during its first twenty-five years of publication.

As some of you know, the National Association of Evangelicals recently named a new president.  His name is Walter Kim and  he served as a minister of Park Street Church for fifteen years.

Christianity Today recently named a new editor.  His name is Daniel Harrell and he served as a “preaching minister” at Park Street Church.

Here is Hart as his blog:

Here are the balls to keep an eye on: Boston’s Park Street Church, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today.

That means Harrell is following a trail blazed by Harold John Ockenga. Who, you might ask? Well, he was the rare winner of evangelicalism’s Triple Crown — presiding over Gordon College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Fuller Seminary. He was also pastor of Park Street Church. 

And this:

Granted, Kim only has two direct links to Ockenga — Park Street and the National Association of Evangelicals — compared to Harrell’s four. Whether these institutions function more as gatekeepers or networks is debatable. But if you want to know where to look for leadership within those who want to be evangelicalism’s leaders, look to Boston while gesturing to Pasadena, California.

It looks like a certain wing of evangelical Christianity in America still runs through the Boston Common.  I wonder what this means for my former pastor at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

A Short History of Evangelical Fear

Believe Me 3dAs we have already noted, today is the release of the paperback edition of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  As part of the roll-out, I am going to republish some of the piece I wrote back in the summer of 2018 when the hardback appeared. This piece was published at The Atlantic on June 24, 2018:

White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.

Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life. Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.” The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.

A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.

But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.

Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.

Read the rest here.

The Imaginary Turn in Evangelical Scholarship

Bebbington

Historian David Bebbington

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

This roundtable was the closest to my own research interests, and has thus provoked my longest response!

Five scholars of American Evangelicalism explored the shift of Evangelical studies toward understanding Evangelicalism less as a community united by concrete, discernable beliefs (a la David Bebbington’s famous quadrilateral), and more as an “imagined community,” constructed through affections, affiliations, and self-fashioning.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Calvin University) introduced the theme, and  Devin Manzullo-Thomas (Messiah College), Lindsey Maxwell (Gulliver Preparatory School), Hilde Løvdal Stephens (University of South-Eastern Norway) and Daniel Silliman (Valparaiso University) followed-up with particular studies.

On the one hand I found myself in full agreement with the panelists. In my book Heaven on Earth: Reimagining Time and Eternity in Nineteenth Century British Evangelicalism I wrote  that Evangelicalism “can be described as one of the eighteenth century’s several new ‘imagined communities.’”. Meanwhile, in an article in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology back in 2012 I argued that “the bestowal of Evangelical identity comes not through historians or other observers measuring individuals and communities against such a set of predefined characteristics…but rather by the self-determining authority of the Evangelical Leviathan itself, which silent yet ineluctably confirms or rejects constituents by relentlessly and almost impenetrably complexly subjecting them to its unspoken protocols of mutual appraisal and authentication:  [Martin Spence “Unravelling Scottish Evangelicalism (Part One)”. Scottish Bulletin of Theology 30.1 (Spring 2012), 30-50]

So yes and amen to the panelists’ central insight. I enjoyed much of what they had to bring to the table.

Yet I found myself wanting to register some dissent.

First, there was the unfortunate Bebbington-bashing that has become somewhat de rigueur at church history conferences that I have attended in the United States.

On this occasion Kristin du Mez contended that by privileging the beliefs of Evangelicals over their social and cultural attitudes, Bebbington (along with Noll, Marsden, Noll and Thomas Kidd) are in some ways supporting a culturally conservative, politicized Evangelicalism. Her point was that by defining Evangelicalism as primarily a theological movement, these historians imply that the political and cultural elements of the movement are extraneous to an undefiled “real” Evangelicalism. They thereby excuse Evangelicals of their cultural and political sins by telling its critics to overlook these aspects and focus on beliefs, not practices.

In as much as this can be construed as a call to provide an integrated account of theology and socio-cultural identity (perhaps of the kind attempted by Matthew Avery Sutton in American Apocalypse) I am all for it. We should not be Nestorians: in Christian history beliefs and social-cultural-political actions exist in hypostatic union. And I agree that Bebbington, Marsden et al did not consciously pursue the “imaginary turn” and may thus, to some degree, appear a little old-fashioned in their methodological assumption to those scholars alert to more avant-garde theoretical approaches to religious identity formation.

But to see Bebbington and Marsden as fortifying the Age of Trump seems far-fetched. After all, they would no doubt be counted among the elite “faculty lounge” who dissent from the current socio-political views of the majority white American Evangelical community. David Bebbington could more plausibly be accused of wanting to make Britain Gladstonian again than of aiding and abetting American Evangelical nationalism.

Of course, the assertion that these historians are blind to the cultural-political realities of the movement is also itself somewhat of a caricature. It is true that this may not be the dominant paradigm of their scholarship, but George Marsden has always argued that Evangelicalism is not just a set of beliefs, but also a “transdenominational community with complicated infrastructures of institutions and persons which identify with ‘evangelicalism’;” while David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain is a forensic study of a variety of Evangelicalisms at work in modern British history.

Indeed, any time that Bebbington comes up in discussions among American religious historians, I am left wondering whether anyone has actually read more than the first few pages of the book from which his infamous quadrilateral is culled. It is true enough that Bebbington maintains an unflinching loyalty to his definitional matrix that some might think rigid and inflexible. But it only takes up a couple of pages of his opus magnum, and there can be no doubt that Bebbington is well aware of the intricacies, particularities, and varieties of Evangelicalism across time and space. Indeed, anyone who has been supervised, examined or politely interrogated by him after a conference paper will attest that he rarely lets an over-generalization live.

Second, despite the claims of the panelists to break out of old paradigms, it was noticeable that their discussion focused almost exclusively on white American Evangelicalism. In one sense, this is no less than they said they were doing. Since the premise of the imaginary turn is that we must break Evangelicalism into its constituent parts in order to map its particularities and self-constructions, it is certainly a legitimate project to discern and dissect the affinities and protocols of the white American Evangelical community.

Yet given that the scholars wanted to propose a new methodological approach to the study of Evangelicalism to replace the old one, they perhaps needed to recognize that one great selling point of the older paradigm was and is its internationalism: it has proffered trans-national categories of religious belief and piety that transcend place and time. I would argue that any new methodological approach must deliver no less. I am not saying that the imaginary turn cannot do this, but that by only giving examples from American scene, the global serviceability of the imaginary turn was left unproven by the panel. The imaginary turn cannot simply be the justificatory foundation for more studies of the subculture of contemporary white American Evangelicalism. I enjoy such studies as much as anyone and long may they continue; but I sense that there is a danger that the imaginary turn also becomes an inward turn. We need to be careful how we imagine our imagining.

Have You Visited the Billy Graham Center Archives?

Graham Center archives

Last year evangelist Franklin Graham moved the papers of his father, Billy Graham, from the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.  We commented here and here and here.

Despite the transfer of the Billy Graham papers, the Billy Graham Center Archives continue to be the country’s most important repository for the study of American evangelicalism.  Here is a taste of archivist Katherine Graber‘s recent piece at Christianity Today:

What makes the BGC Archives unique is its focus on collecting records that have traditionally been overlooked by other research libraries.

While church denominations collect their own records, many nondenominational and parachurch organizations simply do not have the resources to preserve their history, let alone make it available to outside researchers.

Often, these records are lost or destroyed, and with them invaluable pieces of American evangelical history. The BGC Archives exists to preserve those materials that might otherwise fall through the documentary cracks. After more than40 years of collecting, the BGC Archives now holds records documenting a broad range of missions and evangelism efforts.

Organizations like the Lausanne Movement and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are perennially popular. More recently, we have witnessed renewed interest in role of American evangelicals in 20th-century global missions.

Records from organizations like Africa Inland Mission, Overseas Missionary Fellowship, or Latin America Mission are frequently requested by both scholars and laypeople. While documenting evangelical missions and evangelism is the core of the BGC Archives’ collecting focus, we also hold records that chronicle American evangelicalism more broadly, such as the records of Moody Memorial Church, the Fellowship Foundation, and Evangelicals for Social Action, as well as papers from figures like missiologist Donald McGavran, theologian Harold Lindsell, and even hymn-writer Fanny Crosby.

In addition to making our current collections available to researchers, the BGC Archives is continually receiving new materials, usually faster than we can open them for research. Some new and noteworthy collections donated in 2019 include a treasure trove of Elisabeth Elliot materials, such as recordings from her Gateway to Joy radio program, lecture notes from her many speaking engagements, and years of correspondence between her and Jim Elliot written during their courtship.

We also gathered new materials from a longtime missionary to Kenya that document the growth of evangelical missions efforts in East Africa and supplement our extensive Africa Inland Mission records.

Read the entire piece here.

“Christianity Yesterday, Today, and Forever!”

11839-henry

Carl F.H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today

In 1962, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth came to George Washington University for a question and answer session with American religious leaders.  Carl F.H. Henry, the editor of Christianity Today magazine, was one of these leaders.  Here is how he described the meeting in his memoir, Confessions of a Theologian:

The university invited 200 religious leaders to a luncheon honoring Barth at which guests were invited to stand, identify themselves and pose a question.  A Jesuit scholar from either Catholic University or Georgetown voiced the first question.  Aware that the initial queries often set the mood for all subsequent discussion, I asked the next question.  Identifying myself as “Carl Henry, editor of Christianity Today,” I continued: “The question, Dr. Barth, concerns the historical factuality of the resurrection of Jesus.”  I pointed to the press table and noted the presence of leading religion editors or reporters representing United Press, Religious News Service, Washington Post, Washington Star and other media.  If these journalists had their present duties in the time of Jesus, I asked, was the resurrection of such a nature that covering some aspect of it would have fallen into their area of responsibility?  “Was is news,” I asked, “in the sense that the man in the street understands news?”

Barth became angry.  Pointing at me, and recalling my identification, he asked, “Did you say Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?” The audience–largely nonevangelical professors and clergy–roared with delight.  When countered unexpectedly in this way, one often reaches for a Scripture verse.  So I replied, assuredly out of biblical context, ‘Yesterday, today, and forever.”  When further laughter subsided, Barth took up the challenge…

I thought about this encounter when I heard that court evangelical Ralph Reed recently called Christianity Today magazine “Christianity Yesterday” in an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News.

Here is a taste of a Fox News story about the interview:

Ingraham Angle” host Laura Ingraham told Reed he was making his publication “irrelevant,” adding that the magazine has been gradually taking on a leftward bent since it was founded by the late evangelist Billy Graham in the 1950s. Earlier Friday, Graham’s son Franklin responded to Galli by saying his father proudly supported and voted for Trump in 2016, and by telling CBN that Billy Graham would be “disappointed” to hear what Galli said.

Reed somewhat echoed those sentiments, saying Galli may want to change the magazine’s name to “Christianity Yesterday.”

“You cannot imagine a publication more out of step with the faith community that it once represented,” he said.

“President Trump received 81% of the votes of evangelicals four years ago — the highest ever recorded. His job approval according to a recent poll by my organization — the Faith and Freedom Coalition — among U.S. Evangelical stands at 83%. That is a historic high.”

Read the rest here.

A few comments on Reed’s interview:

  1. Ralph Reed is no Karl Barth.  It is important to establish this up front.
  2. The folks at Christianity Today should take Reed’s comment about “Christianity Yesterday” as a compliment.  Christianity Today represents the historic Christian faith.  The court evangelicals and other members of the Christian Right seem to believe that Christianity began when Jerry Falwell Sr. founded the Moral Majority in 1979.
  3. Reed and the rest of the court evangelicals are scared to death that Mark Galli’s editorial at Christianity Today might peel evangelical votes away from Trump in 2020.  Remember, Reed is a politico.  His job is to spin the news to make sure his evangelical base is in line.
  4. I am continually struck by how court evangelicals justify their political choices with poll numbers rather than deep Christian thinking about political engagement.  Reed seems to be saying that if a significant majority of American evangelicals voted for Trump, think he is a good president, and believe he does not deserve impeachment, then he must be good for the country and the church. God must be on his side.  It seems to never cross Reed’s mind that 81% of American evangelicals might be wrong.  Let’s remember, for example, that the the majority of American evangelicals in the South thought slavery was a good idea.  My point here is not to compare Trump evangelicals to slaveholders, but to show that there is nothing sacred about an appeal to the majority.  Didn’t Jesus say something about the “narrow gate” (Mt. 7:13)? Wasn’t he out of step with the larger faith community of his day?
  5. If you follow the link to the actual interview you will hear Ralph Reed say “I don’t know this editor” in relation to Christianity Today editor Mark Galli.  The fact that Reed has never heard of Galli, and cannot even bring himself to call him by name, speaks volumes about the current divide within American evangelicalism.

Are Trump’s Evangelical Critics Elitist? The Pietist Schoolman Reflects on Evangelical Populism

2nd Great

After Mark Galli published a Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump, several pundits accused Galli of betraying the populist roots of American evangelicalism.  Galli, in other words, is an out of touch elitist.

Read court evangelical Johnnie Moore’s recent piece at Religion News Service.

Read Carl Trueman’s recent piece at First Things. (I responded to it here).

Read Matthew Schmitz’s piece at The New York Post.  (I responded to it here).

It is worth noting that these articles have little to do with the merits of Trump’s impeachment.  Nor do they address any problems with Trump’s character that might lead evangelicals to reject the president.  Instead, these articles try to interpret the editorial, and Galli, through the lens of class.  Galli and Christianity Today do not represent ordinary evangelicals.  As a result, we can’t take the editorial seriously.

Chris Gehrz, the Bethel University history professor and author of the blog The Pietist Schoolman, has written a nice piece on evangelical populism that is worth your time. It engages with Moore and Schmitz.
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Here is a taste of “The Problems and Possibilities of Evangelical Populism“:

2. Which populace defines populism?

Donald Trump likes to present himself as a populist, but he has generally been one of the least popular first-term presidents in American history. Even after a recent bump, he’s still 10 points more unfavorable than favorable in Five Thirty Eight‘s composite poll. He’s particularly disliked by certain groups within American society, including women and persons of color.

If evangelical populism is meant to empower ordinary evangelicals, then it had better address the concerns of three of the most important, most often ignored groups within evangelicalism: women (55% of all evangelicals in America), persons of color (22% and growing fast), and non-American evangelicals (the lion’s share of the world total).

Rather than just reflecting the passions of the white men who compose Trump’s base of support, genuine evangelical populists would join CT president Tim Dalrymple in lamenting that evangelicals are “associated with President Trump’s rampant immorality, greed, and corruption; his divisiveness and race-baiting; his cruelty and hostility to immigrants and refugees; and more.” They would stop waving aside Trump’s misogyny and ask how much it taps into the sexism too often found within evangelical communities.

Finally, truly evangelical populists would look beyond the American nation to recognize that most evangelicals live elsewhere — often in places already being affected by the climate crisis that the Trump administration and its Christian enablers casually deny. “If we shift our gaze from the U.S. political right,” writes David Fitzpatrick, to look at evangelicals of color in this country and beyond it, “we can see an alternative tradition of evangelicalism that embraces social, economic, environmental and racial justice.”

Read the entire piece here.

19th-Century Evangelicals on the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

1869_Zions_Herald_BostonThis morning I read chapter nine of Victor Howard’s book Religion and the Radical Republican Movement, 1860-1870.  The chapter is titled “Impeachment and the Churches” and it focuses on how Protestant churches, denominations, and clergy responded to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.  While Howard’s chapter covers a specific segment of mid-19th century evangelicalism (mostly northern, radical, anti-slavery churches who favored Republican Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War), it provides some interesting context in light of today’s announcement of articles impeachment and the expected court evangelical opposition to these articles.

Here is a passage on p. 155-156. (I added the links):

The lawmakers of the new Fortieth Congress met immediately upon the adjournment of the Thirty-ninth Congress and promptly undertook the task of amending the Reconstruction Act.  On March 23, 1867, a supplementary bill was passed which gave federal military commanders on the South authority to initiate Reconstruction by registering eligible voters and calling state conventions, but Johnson, as the radicals feared, used his presidential powers to obstruct congressional Reconstruction.  Basing his action on the investigations of the Military Board and the report of the congressional committee, General Sheridan had removed the governor of Louisiana and local officers responsible for the New Orleans massacre. Johnson ordered Sheridan to defer the removals, but Sheridan answered him with a protest against recalling the order.  The president sought the opinion of Attorney General Henry Stanbery, who declared that the military commanders were not authorized to promulgate codes in defiance of civil government of the states but were to cooperate with the existing governments which were set up under Johnson’s plan of Reconstruction.  Stanbery’s interpretation virtually emasculated the Reconstruction Act. Stanbery also denounced General Daniel Sickles’s acts in North Carolina as illegal.  The general angrily asked to be relieved of his duties so that he could defend his conduct before a court of inquiry.

The editor of the Baptist Watchman and Reflector asserted “If the President acts on this opinion…to obstruct justice, he will…inaugurate a new war in Congress.”  The generally conservative Ohio Baptist Journal and Messenger concluded, “The President’s conduct from the first has not been such as to inspire confidence in his ability or integrity.  Congress has therefore only the more solemn responsibility resting upon it to be calm, vigilant, and unfalterting in its adherence to duty. The editor of the Zion’s Herald was more direct.  “Without doubt, the easiest remedy would be the prompt impeachment and remove of President Johnson.”

Here is a passage from p. 159:

The Baptist Christian Times and Witness condemned Johnson’s course but still did not think Congress should impeach him, because the president’s term was drawing to a close and opinion on the matter remained very divided.  “Providence has graciously provided for the protection of the country during the remainder of the term…by giving to loyal people such a decided preponderancy in Congress to keep wrong doing in check,” explained the editor.  But J.W. Barker, editor of the Christian Freemanviewed the crisis differently.  “When he who bears the sword bears it so vainly as to be no terror to ‘evil doers,’ but to cause the good and loyal to quake, he has lost his divine commission as a magistrate,’ the editor charged. 

Here is Howard on p. 160:

By October 1867, several ecclesiastical bodies were going on record in support of the current objectives of Congress.  The New London (Connecticut) Baptist Association, for example, resolved that “the open hostility of the President to the laws of Congress and the consequent hindrance to the peaceful progress of reconstruction fill us with the most painful solicitude.”  The Grinnell [Iowa] Association of Congregational Churches characterized Johnson as “an aider and abettor of principles inimical to the best interests of the country.”

“Who is an Evangelical?”: Thomas Kidd on NPR

Kidd who isI was listening to National Public Radio on my drive to Grand Rapids, Michigan on Thursday and somewhere around Ann Arbor I heard Baylor historian Thomas Kidd talking about the definition of the word “evangelical.”  Kidd, of course, was discussing his new book Who Is an Evangelical: The History of a Movement in Crisis.

Here is a taste of what I heard:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We’ve reached the point in the media where the word evangelical has lost a lot of its original meaning. Author Thomas Kidd points this out in his new book “Who Is An Evangelical?”

THOMAS KIDD: I think it is a sign of the politicization of evangelicalism that people who, say, don’t go to church would still be willing to say that they’re an evangelical. I think that signals that somehow, evangelical now is a fundamentally political term.

CORNISH: Thomas Kidd says prior to the mid-’70s, there wasn’t a box to check. But it was shortly after pollsters started actually asking voters about their religious affiliation that we saw the coalescing of a powerful political voting bloc.

KIDD: The transition moment has to be 1976…

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: My name is Jimmy Carter, and I’m running for president.

(APPLAUSE)

KIDD: …When one of the major parties nominates an outspoken evangelical, Jimmy Carter, for the Democrats…

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: All of us – our individual fates are linked.

KIDD: …As the presidential candidate and obviously eventually became president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: In that knowledge and in that spirit, together, as the Bible says, we can move mountains. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

KIDD: And one of the most important developments that comes associated with that is that 1976 is the first year that the Gallup organization begins polling about whether people are evangelicals or born again. And it’s often not being asked about whether you’re an evangelical to see what your spiritual beliefs and practices are but to determine what your political behavior is.

Read or listen here.

More on the Billy Graham Archives Move from Wheaton to Charlotte

BG-Library-Fall-Events

Religion News Service is running another piece on the Franklin Graham’s decision to move the Billy Graham Archives from Wheaton College to the Billy Graham “Library” in Charlotte.

Back in March, I weighed-in as part of another RNS piece on this topic.  At that time I said this: “By taking the papers away from Wheaton, where access is open, Franklin Graham and the BGEA can now control access and can thus control the narrative of his father’s life in terms of who gets to read them….Evangelicals must come face to face with both the good side and bad side of their history by taking an honest look at people like Billy Graham.  I am not sure this will happen in Charlotte.  The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte is not a library.”

I also wrote a post here.

Here is a taste of Tim Funk’s recent RNS piece:

This week, at Wheaton College in Illinois, specially trained movers will begin organizing, preparing and packing 3,235 boxes of paper items, 1,000 scrapbooks of news clippings dating back to the 1940s and more than 1,000 linear feet of videos, cassettes, reels, films and audio.

All of it documents the life and ministry of evangelist Billy Graham, the Christian college’s most famous alumnus. And soon, all of it will be headed to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, N.C., Graham’s hometown.

The big transport trucks that will haul the valuable cargo won’t make the nearly 800-mile trip until mid to late June. But the controversy over moving the Graham materials all began more than two months ago. That’s when it was announced that, after June 1, the materials would no longer be housed at Wheaton’s highly regarded Billy Graham Center Archives.

Since it opened with Billy Graham’s blessing in 1980, more than 19,000 scholars, journalists and other researchers from around the world have spent 67,000 hours doing work there.

The BGEA’s Charlotte site does include the 12-year-old Billy Graham Library, but it was not designed as a research facility. Instead, it is a presidential-like museum celebrating the life of Graham, who died last year at age 99, and is a brick-and-mortar continuation of his worldwide evangelism efforts.

“The so-called (Billy Graham) Library is not a library,” said Edith Blumhofer, a longtime history professor at Wheaton who is now completing a study of the music of the Billy Graham Crusades. “It has no archives. It has no archivist.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is the Southern Baptist Convention Evangelical or Fundamentalist?: Some Thoughts on the Beth Moore Controversy

Beth Moore

As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am not a cradle evangelical.  I spent the first sixteen years of my life as a Roman Catholic.  I had a conversion experience as a sophomore in high school and I left the Catholic church for a non-denominational Bible church.  In other words, I became an evangelical.

When I converted, the word “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” meant nothing to me. I don’t think I ever met a born-again Christian until I started attending the youth group at Gilgal Bible Chapel in West Milford, New Jersey.  I went from the cloistered community of a working-class Catholic upbringing (I seem to remember mostly Catholics and Jews in my public high school, although I am sure there were Protestants as well) to a similarly cloistered evangelical world.  My only exposure to evangelical Christianity came through Gilgal, a church plant with an authoritarian pastor located on a multi-acre site that included a Christian camp and a conference center. (Gilgal had its own unique approach to evangelical Christianity, and its authoritarian pastor had a tragic fall from grace, but I will need to save that for another post or perhaps another book!)

My conversion was real and life-altering.  I put aside a journalism career and prepared for a life in the evangelical ministry.  My pastor recommended I go to Bible college.  So I did.  I initially thought I would be spending the next four years in residence at a place similar to a monastery, but I soon realized that most Bible college students were no different than the students who attended my public high school.  They dressed the same way, had the same haircuts, listened to the same music (despite the fact they were not permitted to listen to “secular music”), drove the same cars, and had the same ambitions and vices.  They baptized these traits with their “calls” to ministry and a sense of Christian piety.  For some, these “calls” were real and I had much respect, and continue to have much respect, for many of my classmates.  For others, I had no idea why they were in Bible college.  In the end, I had a great time at Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University).  I played basketball and made some great friends.  It was like I was attending a four-year Christian youth retreat.  But I digress…

By my senior year I realized that I wasn’t getting much of a liberal education.  In the 1980s Philadelphia College of Bible was a dispensational school.  Bible and theology professors taught us that God had different plans for Israel and the Church.  (One professor, John McGahey, would scream at us: “ISRAEL IS NOT THE CHURCH!). The purpose of this Bible college education, if you could call it that, was to indoctrinate students in dispensational premillennialism. We were required to buy a copy of the Scofield Bible.  We read books by dispensational luminaries such as Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost.  We waited for the rapture–the moment when God would raise-up the true believers to meet him in the air.  And our teachers made sure that we knew the rapture would come before the seven-year tribulation.  All of my Bible professors had advanced degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, the intellectual home of dispensationalism.

Upon graduation, I knew that I wanted to continue my theological education. But I did not want to go to Dallas with some of my other classmates.  I enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois.  TEDS was an evangelical seminary, but it was not dispensational in orientation (although it did have a few dispensational professors).  I chose TEDS because I knew that I would find evangelical professors who would expand my horizons.  My goal was to pursue a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree and use my time to figure out what I might do with such a course of study.  At the very least, I thought an MDiv would allow me to think theologically about the world.  I had no real long-term plan.  My parents helped me out with the tuition, but I also worked as a security guard at various places to get myself to graduation.  I eventually fell in love with history, added an M.A. in church history to my vita, and headed off to pursue a Ph.D in American history.

When I arrived at TEDS in the late 1980s, the school prided itself on its commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible.  Kenneth Kantzer, the retired dean of the seminary, had attracted some of the best evangelical theologians to TEDS for the purpose of providing an inerrancy-based alternative to Fuller Theological Seminary, the Pasadena, California school that abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy in the 1960s.  (See George Marsden’s book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism).

Some professors made a big deal about inerrancy.  Others rarely mentioned it. I took Scot McKnight for a Greek refresher course.  The subject of inerrancy never came up.  (Nor did it come-up much in his Synpotic Gospels course).  John D. Woodbridge, who taught me how to think historically and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D in history, was a staunch defender of inerrancy.  My other church history professor, Tom Nettles (who I did not know as well as Woodbridge), did not say too much about inerrancy despite the fact that he was an important historian of the doctrine during the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Church.

But what I remember most about TEDS was the theological diversity of the faculty.  While some of my readers might wonder how a school that upholds biblical inerrancy could be theologically diverse, at the time I did not see it that way . TEDS was not Philadelphia College of Bible or Dallas Theological Seminary.  During my three years on campus I took courses with dispensationalists (Paul Feinberg) and covenant theologians (Ray Ortlund Jr and Walter Kaiser).  I took courses with faculty who opposed women’s ordination (Wayne Grudem) and those who championed women’s ordination (Walter Liefield).  There were Presbyterians and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians.  I even had one professor (Murray Harris) who did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I sat-in on courses taught by some of the founders of the neo-evangelical movement:  Carl F.H. Henry, Kantzer, and Gleason Archer.  I took theology with Harold O.J. Brown, the Harvard trained scholar who was one of the leading voices of the pro-life movement.  I made a few visits to a class on Puritanism taught by English theologian J.I. Packer.

I don’t know how all of these professors got along in the faculty lounge, but they always modeled a spirit of conversation and debate.  Evangelicals had core convictions, but what made them evangelicals was their irenic spirit and acceptance of those with whom they differed.  This spirit, perhaps more than anything, was what made them “evangelicals” and not “fundamentalists.”  As Marsden once put it, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”

At TEDS I learned that evangelicals championed orthodox beliefs– the deity of Christ, the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, the Holy Spirit’s role in the pursuit of holiness, and the necessity of living-out the Great Commission through evangelism.  But I also learned that evangelicals differed on what my professors called the “secondary” or “minor” doctrines: the ordination of women, the proper form of church government, the proper mode of baptism, capital punishment, the relationship between God’s providence and human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc.), war and peace, and the way one’s faith should manifest itself in the political sphere, to name a few.

I had classmates from every Protestant denomination imaginable–Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Presbyterians.  Students were preparing for ministry in evangelical denominations like the Evangelical Free Church, but they also trained for work in non-denominational megachurches and mainline Protestantism denominations.

At this particular moment in my life (it was the early 1990s), I needed a place like TEDS.  I loved the fact that evangelicals could disagree on some matters of biblical interpretation.  (I even co-wrote a song about it titled “So Many Views,” sung to the tune of the Monkey’s “I’m A Believer”).  I learned how to think critically and theologically.  I knew that there was a larger theological world out there beyond the evangelical boundaries of TEDS and my experience in Deerfield gave me the skills to navigate it.

I understood the culture at TEDS as representative of the spirit of American evangelicalism.

I have been thinking lot about my experience at TEDS as I watch the debates over the role of women in the church currently taking place within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In case you missed it, last month there was a pretty significant Twitter battle on this topic.

It all began when the bombastic Southern Baptist seminary professor Owen Strachan of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary published a piece on women in the church at his blog “Thought Life.”  Here is a taste of that May 7, 2019 post:

Biblical teaching on the sexes is not bad. It is not harmful to women. It is good–thunderously good–for women and for men. If we take the Bible at its word, then we recognize that there is no way for a woman to instruct the gathered church, whether in an authoritative or “non-authoritative” way. Congregational preaching and teaching is authoritative, for the Word of God is authoritative. There is no “non-authoritative” way to preach and teach the Bible. Any who doubt this point might recall how Paul contrasts the “word of men” with the “word of God” in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. If you speak and interpret the Scripture, you speak with the weight of eternity upon you. It cannot be otherwise.

Beth Moore and J. D. Greear are two popular Southern Baptist voices. Both Moore and Greear are gifted individuals, respected within the SBC and beyond it. In recent days, I was surprised to see these two figures endorse, in the context of the church’s gathered worship service, a woman teaching and preaching to the corporate body (see here and here). This was new to me; Southern Baptists have never embraced such a view. As mentioned above, there is no New Testament precedent for a woman teaching the corporate body of Christ (Priscilla’s words in Acts 18 to Apollos came in private, not in public), nor were women called to serve as priests in the old covenant era. Christ did not appoint a woman to be an apostle, nor did any woman serve as an elder in the first-century churches spoken of in Scripture.

And here is his Strachan’s conclusion:

Though many paint women monolithically today, seeing them as instinctually feminist, there are many women in submission to God who wish for men to lead them well and preach the Word faithfully. They do not see the Bible’s teaching on womanhood as “restrictive,” nor the complementarian movement as “afraid” of womanly gifting. Rather, they approach the Word of God with great reverence and awe. They wish to know the will of God, and do it. They take no pleasure in quieting or softening the Bible; they recognize the order that God has established, and they love it. There are scores of such women in church history, in Baptist history, in the modern SBC, and in the broader evangelical world. I know they are out there; I have heard their testimony firsthand. With the whole church of God, these women gladly confess that the counsel of the Lord stands forever (Psalm 33:11), and that the law of God’s mouth “is better…than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119:72).

There is much the Word frees women to do as mentioned above. But for the women I speak of, where the Word gives them a prohibition for God’s glory and their good, they receive that commandment with gladness. They submit to God, as we all must do (James 4:7). In our God-defying age, this posture stands out sharply. It is driven by our total confidence in the unerring mind and will of God. We think of Psalm 119:89 on this count: בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם נִצָּ֥ב דְּ֝בָרְךָ֗ יְהוָ֑ה לְעוֹלָ֥ם, “Forever, Lord, your word is fixed in the heavens.” It is not man who has “fixed” the word of God, and written it in the sky. By God’s own hand and mind, there is order in the home; there is order in the churches; there is order in the world God has made.

Let no one defy this order.

There is a lot that could be said about Strachan’s post.  I disagree with him on the role of women in the church and the family, but my intention here is not to get into these theological and interpretive weeds.  There are indeed a lot of denominations that do not ordain women, including the Roman Catholic Church.  But I will say this:  by ending his post with the words “let no one defy this order,” Strachan reveals his dogmatism on this issue.  I wonder what he would think about someone who does “defy this order?”  Are they living in sin?  Are they outside the fold of Christian orthodoxy?  Of evangelicalism?  Will Strachan still have Christian fellowship with them?  Should they be cast into perdition? What is at stake here?

After he wrote this piece, Strachan turned to Twitter to promote it:

It was at this point that the wildly popular evangelical preacher Beth Moore entered the fray:

Strachan initially responded politely:

But then his Twitter feed got snarky.

For example, he retweeted this:

And then his many followers and others of like mind started chiming in:

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And then this week Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, added fuel to the fire with this tweet:

Those familiar with Mohler will remember that he was instrumental in making Southern Seminary a complementarian school and the Southern Baptist Convention a complementarian denomination.  When one listens to Mohler and Strachan, one gets the impression that they believe their view of what the Bible teaches on the role of women in the church and the home is not a secondary issue of faith, but one that is essential to Christian orthodoxy.  I honestly don’t believe that they really think this, but their rhetoric is so definitive and dogmatic that it certainly sounds like they do.

Strachan is not letting go of this position.  He sees the denial of the pulpit to women such as Beth Moore and others as a non-negotiable theological view in the SBC. In other words, those who take a different position do not belong in the denomination. Here is his tweet in response to Mohler (notice how he continues to see himself in the vanguard of those who led the conservative resurgence, even going to the point of capitalizing the word “Resurgence”):

Of course the Southern Baptist Church leadership has the right to define the role of women in the church in any way they want to define it.  This is what religious liberty is all about.  Millions of evangelicals attend churches that do not ordain women.  As noted above, the largest religious body in the world–the Catholic Church–does not ordain women.  But Strachan and other Southern Baptists also like to fancy themselves as heirs to the evangelicalism that I experienced at TEDS nearly thirty years ago. Strachan writes books and edits books for conservative Christian publishers extolling people like Carl F.H. Henry, Charles Colson, and other members of the neo-evangelical movement.

My professors at TEDS had firm convictions on a whole host of issues, but they did not promote them with the fundamentalist spirit to which I see coming from Strachan and his followers.  In fact, it was this very spirit–the kind of militant spirit I see in their tweets–that made fundamentalism so repulsive to people like Carl Henry, Ken Kantzer, and the other neo-evangelical leaders who broke from fundamentalist militancy in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Southern Baptist Convention can work out their issues on women in the church on their own, without my help, but if you are going to try to make complementarianism a defining and non-negotiable characteristic of SBC orthodoxy please stop writing about how much you love the neo-evangelical movement.

On the other hand, if you do want to claim the Henry/Kantzer/neo-evangelical mantle, perhaps it is time to rethink the Convention’s position on this issue and broaden the tent a bit.

Interpreting the Billy and Helen Sunday Home

BillySundayHome

 Billy and Helen Sunday Home, Winona Lake, Indiana

Since Messiah College started the Digital Harrisburg Initiative a few years ago, I have developed a real appreciation for digital and public history projects at small colleges and universities.  In 2011, I spent a day at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana.  I was there to deliver a lecture, but I also spent some time touring an on-campus museum which would eventually become the Winona History Center.

Winona Lake was a popular vacation resort and Bible conference for evangelicals and fundamentalists in the 20th century largely because it was the home of the revivalist and former baseball player Billy Sunday.  The nation’s most popular preachers and speakers passed through Winona Lake every summer, including William Jennings Bryan and Billy Graham.

Recently, Grace College and the Winona History Center won a grant to create an interactive digital tour of the Billy and Helen Sunday Home.  Here is a taste of InkFreeNews’s coverage:

WINONA LAKE — The Winona History Center in Winona Lake, was one of 18 libraries, schools, and museums to receive grants from Indiana Humanities and Indiana Landmarks this spring. The History Center, which is owned and operated by Grace College, has received an Historic Preservation Education Grant of up to $1,700 to create an interactive digital tour of the Billy and Helen Sunday Home for those unable to access the building.

“Funding a wide range of thoughtful and creative programming that connects so many Hoosiers to the depth and breadth of the humanities is core to our mission,” said Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of Indiana Humanities. “We are encouraged every year by the innovative programs proposed by the grantees and the opportunity to touch the lives of residents all over Indiana.”

The project, which is being developed by museum director Dr. Mark Norris and museum coordinator Karen Birt, will produce an interactive map on an iPad of the layout of the second floor of the Billy and Helen Sunday Home, making it accessible to the mobility challenged. Users will be able to click on the artifacts pictured in each room and receive an audio, visual or textual provenance of the artifact.

The project will allow Sunday Home visitors to interact with the home, which is located at 1111 Sunday Lane, about four blocks from the Winona History Center in Westminster Hall on the Grace College campus.

Read the rest here.  Congratulations!

Billy Sunday

sunday

I used to have a friend who occasionally wore a t-shirt with a picture of Billy Sunday and the caption “Evangelical with an Attitude.” (Hi Fred!).

I thought about my friend and his shirt when I read Liva Gerson’s latest at JSTOR Daily: “Pop-Culture Preaching in the 1910s.”  The piece draws on Margaret Bendroth’s  Religion and American Culture essay “Why Women Loved Billy Sunday: Urban Revivalism and Popular Entertainment in Early Twentieth-Century American Culture.”

Here is a taste:

Evangelical megachurches like Hillsong Church—mainly known outside Christian circles as the spiritual home of Justin Bieber—often come under fire from more traditional Christians for drawing crowds with dynamic rock-star pastors rather than Biblical teaching. As religion historian Margaret Bendroth writes, however, the dilemma of the entertaining, sexy preacher has long been an issue. In the 1910s, for example, a former baseball player named Billy Sunday drew huge crowds of both sexes to blunt, provocative revival meetings.

In the early twentieth century, Bendroth writes, Protestant leaders worried about the “feminization” of their churches that had occurred in the Victorian Era. Sunday presented himself as a solution to the problem of “more feathers than whiskers” in the pews. Decrying “off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified, three-carat Christianity,” he held services just for men. In these services he railed against vice, supported the cause of temperance, and waved a huge American flag.

Read the rest here.

 

The David Walker Memorial Project

Title page and portrait from manuscript by David Walker

A friend recently shared this with me.  Does anyone know if this project is still active?  It looks like a fascinating public history project about one of America’s great abolitionists. Devout evangelicals like Walker were important anti-slavery voices in early America

Here is a taste of Walker’s bio at The David Walker Memorial Project:

Walker was a leader in the African American community in Boston, Massachusetts. He is best known for writing and distributing a pamphlet called David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. This was a passionate espousal of black liberation; a call to his “afflicted and slumbering brethren” to rise up and cast off the chains that bound their minds as well as their bodies.

An evangelical Christian, Walker was a deeply religious man. In his Appeal, he takes white Christians to task for supporting slavery and its savage and unchristian treatment of fellow human beings. Such treatment was not only inhumane, Walker asserted, it was also hypocritical: after fighting for emancipation from Britain and founding a nation based on equality, white Americans continued to enslave and degrade Black people throughout the Republic.

The Appeal was published at a time of growing resistance to slavery. Free Black communities were expanding, and slave rebellions were on the rise. Walker used underground networks to circulate copies of his pamphlet throughout the South. This effort has been called “one of the boldest and most extensive plans to empower slaves ever conceived” in the U.S. before the Civil War.

Read the rest here.

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.

What Happens When an Evangelical Pundit, Armed Only with 58K Twitter Followers and a Reference to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Takes on a Historian

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:

When WAS Evangelical?

Daniel Silliman of Valparaiso University has a very thoughtful and helpful Twitter thread on the use of the term “evangelical” in American history.  I know Daniel is looking for a job in an academic history department.  Someone should hire him based on this thread alone!  🙂

 

Some Good Stuff About Evangelicals

Evangelicals serving

I recently published a piece at the magazine of the National Association of Evangelicals titled “Hope, Humility, and History: How Evangelicals Have Been an Influence for Good.”  Here is a taste:

Evangelicals have been taking some hard hits lately. Some are even abandoning the label because it has become too associated with a political agenda. As a historian who has written and thought deeply about the relationship between evangelical Christianity and American life, I am fully aware that for every positive contribution evangelicalism has made to American culture, we can point to another way in which evangelicalism, sadly, has been at the forefront of some of the nation’s darkest moments.

It is imperative that evangelicals study their past and come to terms with it. This requires us to lament the moments in which we have failed and celebrate the moments when the good news of the gospel has changed lives, set people on a course for eternity with God, and led them to act in ways that are good and just. Throughout history, evangelicals have contributed to society in positive ways when we have emphasized hope over fear and humility over the pursuit of power.

Read the rest here.

Progressive Evangelicals Revive the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern

YMCA Wabash

The Wabash Avenue YMCA, Chicago

In 1973, a group of evangelical leaders gathered at the YMCA on Wabash Avenue in Chicago to affirm the Christian call to racial justice, care for the poor, peace, and equality for women.  The result of this meeting was The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.  The signers included Samuel Escobar, Frank Gaebelein, Vernon Grounds, Nancy Hardesty, Carl F.H. Henry, Paul B. Henry, Rufus Jones, C.T. McIntire, David Moberg, Richard Mouw, William Pannell, John Perkins, Richard Pierard, Bernard Ramm, Ronadl Sider, Sharon Gallagher, Lewis Smedes, Jim Wallis, and John Howard Yoder.

Historian David Swartz begins his excellent book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism with a discussion of this meeting.  I encourage you to read his extensive coverage of this important moment in the history of progressive evangelicalism.  I also highly recommend Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice.

Forty-five years after this Chicago YMCA meeting, progressive evangelicals have reaffirmed the Declaration.  Here is a taste of “The Chicago Invitation: Diverse Evangelicals Continue the Journey”:

As diverse evangelicals, our faith moves us to confess and lament that we have often fallen short of the biblical values and commitments proclaimed in the gospel and affirmed in the 1973 Declaration. In addition to the 1973 Declaration, many diverse evangelicals, including women, African-American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, and Indigenous leaders, have put out strong statements that have often been ignored. Millions of people, especially younger believers, have left the faith during a time in which evangelicalism has become increasingly partisan and politicized. People on both sides of the political aisle have demonized those who disagree with us and failed to love both our neighbors and our “enemies,” as Jesus instructs us to do. We should not be captive to any political party, because our allegiance belongs to Christ. Like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we believe the church is “called to be the conscience of the state, not the master or the servant of the state.”

Affirming the 1973 Declaration, as well as other historic statements from diverse evangelicals, we recommit to an evangelical faith that follows Jesus’ example of living and sharing a gospel that always proclaims good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed. (Luke 4: 18-19)

We recommit to a biblical justice that demonstrates the reign of God as we strive for abundant life for all God’s children, which must include combating economic inequality and exploitation.

We recommit to more faithfully and courageously follow Jesus, who affirmed the sacredness and dignity of all human life.

Building on the 1973 Declaration as well as other historic statements from diverse evangelicals, we also commit to love and protect all people—including life at every stage, people of color, women, Indigenous people, immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people, people who are living with disabilities or mental health issues, poor and impoverished people, and each one who is marginalized, hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick, or imprisoned. (Matthew 25:31-46)

We commit to care for and protect the earth as God’s creation.

We commit to resisting all manifestations of racism, white nationalism, and any forms of bigotry—all of which are sins against God.

We commit to resisting patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and any form of sexism and to always affirm the dignity, voices, and leadership of women.

We commit to defend the dignity and rights of all people, particularly as we celebrate and embrace the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in our nation and churches.

Signers include  Ruth Bentley (1973 signer), Tony Campolo, Sharon Gallagher (1973 signer), Shane Claiborne, Ruth Padilla-DeBorst,  Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (1973 signer), Lisa Sharon Harper, Joel Hunter, David Moberg (1973 signer), William Pannell (1973 signer), Richard Pierard (1973 signer), Ronald Sider (1973 signer), Andrea Smith, Jim Wallis (1973 signer), Barbara Williams-Skinner, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

Read the entire statement here.  Jim Wallis discusses the statement here.

I have a hard time keeping track of all these religious “declarations,” but I took note of this one because of its connection to the historic 1973 meeting.

Court Evangelical Eric Metaxas Continues to Play Fast and Loose With American History

Eric Metaxas is one of the court evangelicals in attendance tonight at the White House.  Here he is with Mike Pence:

Metaxas at Party

Earlier tonight, Metaxas tweeted this:

Metaxas Tweet

I am thankful to several folks who sent this tweet to me.  Eric Metaxas blocked me from seeing his Twitter feed after I wrote a multi-part series criticizing his fast-and-loose (and mostly erroneous) use of American history in his book If You Can Keep It.  You can read that series, and Metaxas’s dismissal of it, here.

Just a few quick responses to this tweet

1. There were some founding fathers who might be described as “evangelical.”  They included John Witherspoon, John Jay, Roger Sherman and Samuel Adams.  But just because a given founder was an evangelical does not mean that he was indispensable to the American Revolution or that his evangelical faith informed the quest for independence from Great Britain.  I have written extensively about the myth of an evangelical founding in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  But perhaps Eric Metaxas is suggesting, as he did in If You Can Keep It, that there was a direct correlation between the First Great Awakening (an evangelical revival in the 1740s) and the American Revolution.  I critiqued that view here.  The bottom line is this:  The American Revolution would have happened with or without American evangelicals.

2. Evangelicals were very active in the abolitionist movement, but so were non-evangelicals.  The question of whether abolitionism would have happened without evangelicals is a debatable point.  For a nuanced picture–one that treats religion fairly–I suggest you read Manisha Sinha’s excellent book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.  We also interviewed her on Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

3.  The idea that the Civil Rights Movement would not have occurred without evangelicals is absurd.  While there were certainly black preachers involved who might be labeled “evangelical,” most of the clergy who led the movement were deeply shaped by the Black social gospel.  White evangelicals in the South defended segregation.  White evangelicals in the North did not have a uniform position on civil rights for African-Americans.  The white evangelicals associated with magazines like Christianity Today did little to advance the movement.  Some good stuff on this front comes David Chappel in A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Chappel’s student, Michael Hammond, has also done some excellent work on this front.  Mark Noll’s God and Race in American Politics: A Short History also provides a nice introduction.

4. If you are a fan of the Reagan Revolution, I suppose you could make the argument that conservative evangelicals had a lot do with it.  The 1980s was the decade in which evangelicals made an unholy alliance with the Republican Party.  There are a lot of good books on this subject.  I would start with Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right.  I also write about this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Don’t get me wrong–evangelicals have played an important role in the shaping of our nation.  I recently wrote about this in a piece at The Atlantic.  You can read it here.

My Piece at *The Atlantic*: “Evangelical Fear Elected Trump”

Trump court evangelicals

This piece draws from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, but it also include material that is not in the book.

A taste:

White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.

Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.

 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing. It can turn your heart black you can trust. It can take a God-filled soul, and turn it to devils and dust.”