The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey McDonald

hres.9781498296311.jpgJeffrey McDonald is an Affiliate Professor of Church History at Sioux Falls Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America (Pickwick Publications, 2017).

JF: What led you to write John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America?

JM:  I wrote this book because I felt that John Gerstner and members of the old United Presbyterian Church of North America had been neglected.  The UPCNA was a Covenanter/Seceder influenced denomination that contributed in numerous ways to rise of modern evangelicalism and their work and legacy needs to be appreciated and understood. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America?

JM: The argument of the book is that John Gerstner’s efforts led to a revival of interest in Jonathan Edwards and that he helped facilitate the modern resurgence of Presbyterian and Reformed evangelicalism. I demonstrate that the Pittsburgh Seminary church historian made many contributions to American Christianity and became a key shaper of evangelicalism.   

JF: Why do we need to read John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America?

JM: I think my book should be read because it provides good contextual history of a vital faction within American evangelicalism and illuminates very aspects of Presbyterian history. It also shows that evangelical marginalization by mainline Protestantism has led to the growth of evangelicalism.

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?)

JM: I was a history major in college and loved church history in seminary. In seminary I read Don MacLeod’s excellent biography of W. Stanford Reid and that really showed me how I could combine ministry with historical scholarship. I became a historian because history is important to Christians and I enjoy studying and illuminating the past.

JF: What is your next project?

JM: My next book will be a 20th century history of American Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism. My next project will look at the movement from a broader perspective and provide in depth analysis of the various streams.

JF: Thanks, Jeff!


The Jonathan Edwards Center Adds to its Collection


In case you have not heard, Andover Newton Theological School (Newton, Massachusetts) is now affiliated with Yale Divinity School. According to this piece in the New Haven Register, the merger will bring additional Jonathan Edwards material to the the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale.

Here is a taste:

When Andover Newton Theological School announced it would be moving to New Haven and affiliating with Yale Divinity School, Stephen Crocco and Ken Minkema took a special interest.

It meant that a lot of overdue books borrowed from in the seminary’s Jonathan Edwards collection would be returned after about 150 years.

Crocco is the seminary’s librarian and Minkema is executive director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at the divinity school, the premier research institution devoted to one of America’s greatest theologians.

“As Edwards’ editor, it brings great relief, I sleep better at night knowing these things are all reunited again,” said Minkema, who is executive editor of the 26 volumes of “The Works of Jonathan Edwards,” published by Yale University Press.

Andover Newton, the nation’s oldest graduate seminary, announced in 2015 that it would move to New Haven and in July the two schools’ officials signed a formal affiliation agreement. There’s a lot of overlap in the 100,000 volumes being shipped from Newton, Massachusetts, but about a dozen boxes contain the Edwards material.

Read the rest here.

Princeton Seminar 2017: Day 3


The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Colonial Era” teachers seminar (aka the “Princeton Seminar“) is rolling along.

This morning in the lecture hall we finished our discussion of colonial Virginia. I made the connection between mercantilism and tobacco culture and challenged the teachers to consider the social and cultural influence of tobacco on race, social structure, gender, and labor in the seventeenth century colony. We ended this lecture with an examination of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Midway through the morning session we turned to colonial New England.  We did a lot of background work today.   My lecture developed along these lines:

  • The settlers of New England were Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Calvinist Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were English Calvinist Protestant Christians

We then discussed Winthrop’s idea of a “City Upon a Hill” and how Puritan theology influenced politics and regional identity in Massachusetts Bay.  On Thursday, when we return to New England, I am hoping to say a few words about social life in the region, drawing heavily from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives.

The teachers spent the afternoon with master teacher Nate McAlister.  He continues to work with the teachers on their lesson plans and the use of primary documents.

After dinner we all headed over to the Princeton Cemetery.  I gave a very brief lecture at the graves of the early Princeton presidents–Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon.  For some reason the grave of Aaron Burr Jr. got more attention than it has in years past. 🙂

We will be in Philadelphia tomorrow with George Boudreau!


Phillis Wheatley: “On Virtue”


Michael Monescalchi is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University.  Over at Common-place he reflects on Phillis Wheatley‘s poem “On Virtue” and her engagement with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

Monescalchi writes: “Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can ‘guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul.”

Here is a taste of this piece:

In agreement with Edwards, Wheatley argues that Virtue is a divine and “sacred” quality (it is “array’d in glory from the orbs above”). Yet Wheatley additionally alludes to Edwards when she asks Virtue to “embrace” her soul and “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss.” For in Freedom of the Will, Edwards also claims that one’s soul is capable of influencing the way one walks: “And God has so made and established the human nature . . . that the soul preferring or choosing such an immediate exertion or alteration of the body, such an alteration instantaneously follows. There is nothing else in the actings of my mind, that I am conscious of while I walk . . .” The reason that Edwards is conscious of nothing while he walks is because his newly converted soul has suspended “the actings of [his] mind.” By saying that his body only moves as a result of his soul’s and not his mind’s “preferring or choosing,” Edwards argues that when one undergoes a conversion experience and gives one’s self up to God, one no longer has complete control over one’s own body. Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can “guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul. 

This idea that one’s spiritual status is reflected in the way one walks recurs in black evangelical writing in the early-national period, most especially in Lemuel Haynes’s sermons. Like Edwards and Wheatley before him, Haynes, in his 1776 sermon on John 3:3, argues that a converted man “evidences by his holy walk that he has a regard for the honour of God.” Though she was not a minister, Wheatley was, like Haynes, deeply invested in Edwards’s theology and advanced his theory of conversion. Placing Wheatley’s “On Virtue” in dialogue with the writings of other evangelical ministers, black or white, is one of the many ways that scholars can begin to value Wheatley as a formidable theological thinker in the colonial era.

Read the entire piece here.


Ken Minkema of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale

MinkemaThe Junto is featuring Katy Lasdow‘s interview with Ken Minkema, the heart and soul of The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University.

Here is a taste:

JUNTO: Tell us about the work that you do. How does it relate—or not relate—to the research you undertook in your doctoral studies?

KENNETH MINKEMA: I completed doctoral studies at the University of Connecticut in 1988, having completed a dissertation on—what else—Edwards. But more precisely, I wrote on the Edwards family as a ministerial dynasty in eighteenth-century New England (think Middlekauff on the Mathers and Nagel on the Adamses, prominent multi-generational family studies that appeared at that time).

Since then, I have come to be responsible for nearly all of the activities of a major historical papers and digital humanities project. The Yale Edwards Edition is venerable, going back to the 1950s, when a multivolume series was begun by a team of editors under the direction of Harvard’s Perry Miller and published by Yale Press.T hat series, 26 volumes, was completed in 2008. Out of the Edition’s offices the Jonathan Edwards Center was created to support research, education and publication in Edwards Studies and related fields. In the process, we became a digital humanities project as well, digitizing all of the printed volumes as well as supplemental born-digital sources that amount to nearly 100,000 pages. So, while we perform all of the functions of a research center, assisting scholars, students and others, and coordinating several outreach initiatives, we are also still transcribing and editing texts by Edwards and documents that relate to his life and legacy.

JUNTO: What was the journey after graduate school like for you? Can you reflect on some of the choices you confronted when you made the decision to work with for — and later lead — the Jonathan Edwards Center?

MINKEMA: Following doctoral studies, I adjuncted for one year, teaching classes at UConn and at University of Hartford. Meanwhile, my mentor and long-time friend Harry (Skip) Stout, who had become part of the Yale faculty the previous year, joined the board of the Edwards Works, eventually becoming the General Editor (so he’s technically the “leader,” while I’m the managing editor). When the project received its first multi-year grant, enabling it to establish a central office for the first time at Yale Divinity School, Skip put my name forward and I was hired, beginning in 1989. (I arrived a couple of days before a tornado hit downtown New Haven, tearing right up Prospect Street in front of the Divinity School; I recall stepping over downed power lines and trees on my walk home, and of course electricity was out for days. Welcome to New Haven!)

Over the years, and especially early on, I applied for and have been recruited for other positions, but I made the decision to remain with the Edwards project, because I felt a real sense of purpose there. It has become my life’s work, my vocation or calling. I feel very fortunate to have found just the right niche for myself, in which I love what I do. Not many people get to realize that. But I owe that to the advice and support of many people (not least of all my wife, Lori).

Read the entire interview here.

National Endowment for the Humanities Funds the Online Works of Jonathan Edwards


Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University is at work in putting the papers of this 18th-century evangelical minister and theologian online.  Here is a taste of what Edwards Center is all about:

The mission of the Jonathan Edwards Center is to support inquiry into the life, writings, and legacy of Jonathan Edwards by providing resources that encourage critical appraisal of the historical importance and contemporary relevance of America’s premier theologian.

The primary way that we do this is with the Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, a digital learning environment for research, education and publication, that presents all of Edwards’s writings, along with helpful editorial materials that allow the reader to examine Edwards’ thought in incredibly powerful, useful ways.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), pastor, revivalist, Christian philosopher, missionary, and college president, is widely regarded as North America’s greatest theologian. He is the subject of intense scholarly interest because of his significance as an historical figure and the profound legacy he left on America’s religious and intellectual landscapes. His writings are being consulted at a burgeoning rate by religious leaders, pastors, and churches worldwide because of the fervency of Edwards’s message and the acumen with which he appraised religious experience. Yet for centuries, scholars and readers of Edwards have had to rely on inaccurate and partial versions of his writings. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, the critical edition of Edwards’s writings, was created at Yale University in 1953 to overcome these obstacles.

But even with the Edwards Works amounting to a 26-volume letterpress series, less than half of Edwards’s total writings was available. To provide the entirety of Edwards’s corpus on a global basis, we have created the Works of Jonathan Edwards Online (WJE Online), a digital environment that supports and assists the research, reading, and teaching of Edwards’s writings, primarily through a comprehensive, searchable online database that contains the series published by Yale University Press but also tens of thousands of pages of unpublished computerized transcripts–sermons, notebooks, essays, letters, and personalia–that the Jonathan Edwards Center has on file. Complementing these primary texts are reference works, secondary works, chronologies, and audio, video, and visual sources. Simply put, no comparable digital resource for an American religious figure exists.

In 2016 the National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding for the continued digitization of Edwards’s works.

To learn more about the Edwards Center click here.

For other posts in this series click here.

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Yeager

Edwards and PrintJonathan Yeager is UC Foundation Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This interview is based on his recent book Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: I enjoyed researching and writing the last two chapters of my first book on the Scottish Presbyterian minister John Erskine (1721-1803). In these chapters, I discussed how Erskine helped disseminate and publish the works of several evangelical authors, including many of Jonathan Edwards’s posthumous books. While conducting research for these chapters, I benefited greatly from reading Richard Sher’s seminal monograph,
The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 2007). Because Sher’s book was devoted exclusively to secular and theologically liberal Scottish Enlightenment authors, I thought that I might be able to make a scholarly contribution on eighteenth-century evangelicals and publishing. I discovered that no one has ever written on the history of Jonathan Edwards’s publications, and so I started to write an article on how his major works were published in the eighteenth century. I amassed so much material on Edwards’s publications–especially on the various people behind the scenes who helped publish his works–that I decided to write a full-length monograph on this topic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: I make two major arguments that can be summarized as the following: First, even though Jonathan Edwards can rightly be described as a theological genius and the foremost American revivalist of the eighteenth century, much of his success was dependent on a host of booksellers, printers, and editors who helped publish his works before and after his death. Second, evangelicals like Edwards cared how their books appeared in print, even thought they worked harder at disseminating their works for evangelistic purposes than making profits from their publications.

JF: Why do we need to read Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: There has been
a lot written about Jonathan Edwards. But nearly all the scholarship has focused on his life and thought. In order to have the fullest understanding of Edwards and other eighteenth-century authors, we need to examine the publishing history of their books. I want readers to see that Edwards’s ideas were packaged in a particular format, with various options in sizes, bindings, paper and font quality, and pricing that made a difference in the reception of his works. More importantly, a number of people, acting as booksellers, printers, and editors, made most of the decisions on how Edwards’s books should appear in print and how they should be marketed to the public. Edwards had a definite idea on how he wanted his books to look, but he did not know the best way to have them published so that they would be appealing to the public (without giving too much away, I show this in a few case studies within my book). Knowing all this to be true, I argue that we need to take a closer look at how individuals such as these contributed to his success as an internationally-recognized author.

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

JY: In 1998, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in business administration and then went on to work as a financial consultant for five years with two different brokerage firms in Florida. About halfway through my time as a broker, I became disillusioned with the business and began reading a lot of books on church history and theology. With my wife’s blessing, I resigned from my job in 2004, sold our house, and moved my family to Vancouver, Canada to study theology at Regent College. At the time that we moved, I simply wanted to gain more knowledge about Christianity. I was having so much fun in Vancouver learning about my faith, snow skiing, and hanging out with friends from multiple denominations all over the world, that after finishing a MA in Christian Studies, I stayed for an additional ThM degree in theology. In my last year in Vancouver, I began corresponding with David Bebbington, who helped me with a thesis that I was working on at Regent College under J. I. Packer. Later that same year, I was able to meet Bebbington in person, and he and I talked about studying history with him in Scotland. After much thought and prayer, my family and I decided to move to Scotland in late 2006 to begin my PhD. My time in Vancouver and Scotland highlight my twin interests of theology and history. I feel very fortunate to have a job that allows me to do research and teach in both fields. 

JF: What is your next project?

JY: My immediate plan is to write an article on the publication of Samuel Hopkins’s System of Doctrines (1793). This mammoth two-volume book by Edwards’s disciple became the first systematic theology of the so-called New Divinity movement, and helped shape the next generation of Edwardseans. After this project, who knows.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!

Jonathan Edwards on the Marks of the Christian Convert


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He then writes:

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

Here are the so-called “Distinguishing Marks”:

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

Spotted in Oxford: Douglas Sweeney, *Edwards the Exegete*

One of the most popular features of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog is our Author’s Corner series in which we interview authors of new books.

Over the course of the next several days I will be posting pics of books we have featured in the Author’s Corner and that I spotted last week at the Oxford University Press bookstore in Oxford, England.

Here is Douglas Sweeney’s Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment.   Read his Author’s Corner interview here.




The Author’s Corner with Douglas Sweeney

Douglas Sweeney is Chair of the Church History & History of Christian Thought Department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. This interview is based on his new book, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Edwards the Exegete?

DS: I’ve been writing about Edwards and his legacies since my grad school days at Vanderbilt in the early 1990s and my stint at Yale in the mid 1990s. The more I grew familiar with the shape of Edwards’ corpus, especially the manuscript material in the Beinecke, the more I became convinced that we need serious scholarship on its thousands of leaves of biblical material. So I applied for a Jonathan Edwards Research Fellowship at Yale (2003-2004) and began exploring these manuscripts in earnest.

JF:  In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Edwards the Exegete?

DS: Edwards was a clergyman and Protestant theologian who, like many of his peers, spent the bulk of his life studying the Bible. We will not understand Edwards’ life or Edwards’ world until we come to terms with the role that this study played within them.

JF: Why do we need to read Edwards the Exegete?

DS: Modern scholars have yet to come close to understanding the ways in which Edwards’ life was animated by Scripture. Three hundred years after his birth, half a century into what some have called the Edwards renaissance, few have bothered to study Edwards’ massive exegetical corpus. While preoccupied with his place in America’s public life and letters—and failing to see the public significance of his biblical exegesis—we have ignored the scholarly work he took most seriously. Though we know a great deal now about his ethics, metaphysics, Calvinism, and aesthetics—not to mention his pastoral labors and his role in the Great Awakening—few know much at all about his exegetical work. Although we know quite a lot about his engagement with the leading philosophical men of his day, we know little of his work with Matthew Poole, Philip Doddridge, Matthew Henry, Arthur Bedford, John Owen, or Humphrey Prideaux—biblical scholars all. Yet they were steady, staple sources of his study day to day—more than Locke, Berkeley, and Newton. They rarely played as great a role in shaping his scholarly agenda, but they played a greater role in its execution. He spent decades, quite literally, poring over their biblical writings, doing his most important work with them at hand. We should not pretend to understand the real Edwards of history until we recover and interpret the significance of his long-lost exegetical world.

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

DS: I entered Wheaton College in the fall of 1983 as an economics major headed to law school. But I soon grew disgusted with my professional ambitions and, as I did, I took a class with Mark Noll on the history of the Protestant Reformation. The course changed my life in a number of respects. I became a history major not knowing where I was headed (and yet sure that historical study was something I needed to do). Eventually, I completed a PhD in religion (1995), and have spent my life since then helping others to grow in the ways that I have grown through the study of both history and religion.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I am co-editing two books for Oxford right now, an Oxford Handbook of Jonathan Edwards (with my friend Oliver Crisp), and Jonathan Edwards and Scripture (with former student David Barshinger), which is an effort to invite a wide variety of others to help us understand the subject of Edwards the Exegete.

Thank you, Doug!  You sound like a very busy man.

Princeton Seminar: Day One

In the Nassau Presbyterian Church Cemetery

Day One of the Gilder-Lehrman Summer Seminar on the “13 Colonies” at Princeton University is in the books. 

Actually, we began on Sunday night with a great buffet dinner.  After the feast we wandered around the Princeton campus and got ourselves oriented. We paused for a moment at the John Witherspoon statue and then I spent a little time talking about the colonial and revolutionary history of Nassau Hall.  (The students are very familiar with 18th-century Princeton from reading my The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America). 

I was with the students for three sessions.  In my opening lecture I tried to challenge the students to think about colonial America on its own terms rather than as a precursor to the American Revolution.  We talked about some of the problems with “Whig” history. 
We also spent a lot of time in this session discussing historical thinking.

The second and third sessions focused on the colonial Chesapeake.  We discussed mercantilism, the “Jamestown deathtrap,” tobacco, indentured servanthood, Bacon’s Rebellion, and slavery.

My partner in crime this week is Nate McAlister, a middle school teacher in Kansas and the 2010 Gilder-Lehrman National Teacher of the Year.  Nate spent the afternoon with the teachers and helped them with their lessons plans.  (Each participant must produce a lesson plan based on a primary source and it is due at the end of the week).  I can’t imagine doing this seminar without Nate.  He is an outstanding coordinator.

After dinner in a Princeton dining hall we headed to the Nassau Presbyterian Church Cemetery.  It was such a pleasure and honor to talk about Jonathan Edwards, Aaron Burr Sr., Aaron Burr Jr., Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon as we all stood over their gravestones.  After a very short lecture at these gravestones the teachers all went their separate ways in the cemetery.  I wandered around a bit and found the gravestones of Grover Cleveland, B.B. Warfield, and Varnum Lansing Collins.

It was a long day that ended in the Tap Room at the Nassau Inn and a great conversation with Nate and a couple of teachers that covered everything from the Gettysburg Address to environmental history and the First Amendment to Good News for Modern Man.

It should be a fun week. Follow along on Twitter at @princetonseminr

Why Can’t I Teach Courses Like This?

I am very jealous (seriously, I am) of Richard Bailey, Associate Professor of History at Canisius College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Buffalo.  As I toil away teaching traditional courses like “Pennsylvania History,” “United States History to 1865,” and “Colonial America,” Richard is teaching the following courses this semester:

HIS 302: “Sex, Sinners, and Spiders: Jonathan Edwards’s Life in the Colonial Atlantic World”

HIS 421: “Nature and the Arts of Angling, Restoration, and Contemplation”

HON 246: “American Religions”

Tonight Richard posted a pic of his syllabi on his Facebook page.

By the way, check out his recent book, Race and Redemption in Puritan New England

Readers:  Head to the comment session or my FB page and tell us about your ideal course.

Jonathan Edwards in New York City

As Jonathan Wilson notes in his post “Looking for ‘a World of Love’: Jonathan Edwards in the Big City,” we sometimes forget that Edwards spent a few months as a teenager ministering to New York Presbyterians.  As he interprets Edwards’s experience in New York, Wilson wonders if he is reading his understanding of New York in the late 19th- century back into the early eighteenth century, a time when the town had under 10,000 people.

I am going to share this post with my students.  It is a great example of how a scholar wrestles with presentism.  Here is a taste:

While living in New York, Edwards enjoyed contemplating the afterlife as a place of “perfect holiness, humility and love.” He expressed frustration that, in the present world, “the inward ardor of my soul, seemed to be hindered and pent up, and could not freely flame out as it would.” Heaven, in contrast, would be “a world of love.” He nurtured these thoughts during long hours in the countryside on the shore of the Hudson River, where he would retreat into solitude. But that didn’t mean he resented Manhattan. When he left New York in April 1723, sailing for Connecticut, Edwards gazed sorrowfully backward at the disappearing city, consoling himself with the knowledge that his New York friends would meet him again in heaven.

When I read that account, I want to interpret it according to modern experiences of city life—and according to other historical accounts of rural youth arriving in great cities. I also want to read Edwards into a long literary tradition, alongside other rural-to-urban arrivals like Dick Whittington and Sister Carrie. Edwards’s account looks like a familiar story of uprooting, noise, news, invisible social barriers, and new spiritual horizons. But I think there’s a problem with my impulse. When Jonathan Edwards arrived in New York City in 1722, the population was probably under 10,000.

Why might that be a problem? Well, what got me thinking about this was a review of the sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s Small-Town America. Wuthnow, apparently, defines a small town as including up to 25,000 people. Whether or not that’s a reasonable criterion today, it makes me wonder how valid it is to talk about an early American big city of 10,000 people. How reasonable can it be, in other words, to assume that a city of 10,000 in the 1720s shares key social features with a city of ten million today—but not with a modern small town of 10,000?

In other words, when we talk about a city in early America and a city in modern America, are we discussing the same thing?

Philip Gura: How Jonathan Edwards Talked About God

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

"Early Evangelicalism: A Reader"

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

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

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

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

Noll on Genovese and May

Yesterday I received in the mail the January/February 2012 issue of Books & Culture.  As usual, it is loaded with great stuff and I look forward to exploring it more fully over the course of the next few weeks.

This month’s issue begins with Mark Noll’s tribute to two giants in the field of American history who passed away this Fall: Eugene Genovese and Henry May.  I am sure the article will appear on the B&C website in the near future, but in the meantime here are a few entertaining quotes from Noll’s personal encounters with the two historians.

Noll on Henry May’s appearance at a 1984 conference on Jonathan Edwards held at Wheaton College:

At the conference, which featured most of the premier Edwards scholars from the university world, May’s demeanor was as impressive as his paper.  In keeping with his acknowledged status as an academic elder statesman, he was dignified, serious, and reserved.  But his kindness and approachability were just as evident.  For me the deepest impression came when he was heard to tell one of the presenters who obviously accepted Edwards’ theology as well as his simple brillance: “very good to hear from the home team.”

And here are Noll’s recollections of Genovese at a 1994 Wheaton conference on religious perspectives and historical scholarship:

More striking than their impressive formal presentations, however, was a memorable conversation after the meeting as the Genoveses waited outside Wheaton’s dining hall for a limo to O’Hare Airport.  It was shortly after Betsy Genovese had been received into the Catholic Church, when Gene had started to attend services with her but still proclaimed his own agnosticism; it was also while both were deep into the study of southern slaveholders that would lead to their trio of learned books in the next decade.  Luxuriating in a lovely spring day, Gene offered an unaccustomed spectacle to the Wheaton undergraduates passing by as he puffed away furiously on an angular black cheroot.  Those who paused to listen got an even more spectacular earful: “You wussy evangelicals.  It makes me sick to be around your pansy theology.  You need to be reading the real Calvinists like James Thornwell and Robert Dabney.  Now they knew what they were talking about.  If you want real theology, these were the real men!”  But…but…some of us tried to splutter, “Thornwell and Dabney were infamous for their stout defenses of slavery.”  A problem, Gene conceded, but a minor one compared to the strength of what they had to say about God and the human condition….

And finally, Noll describes a phone call he had with Genovese after he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church of his childhood:

I was the recipient of a Mafioso-style Catholicism at its most characteristic: “So you haven’t yet acknowledged the Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ?  Remember that purgatory can last for a very, very long time.”

The Historical Society Conference Recap

This past weekend I was in Columbia, South Carolina for the biennial conference of The Historical Society.  The focus of this year’s conference was “Popularizing Historical Knowledge: Practice, Prospects, and Perils.”  It was hosted by the University of South Carolina.

On Friday morning I chaired a session entitled “Religious History and the Public Imagination.”  Adam Brasich, a graduate student at Florida State working with John Corrigan, gave a presentation on the way Reformed Evangelical minister and author John Piper utilizes the legacy of Jonathan Edwards to promote his 12st century religious agenda in the same way that Jonathan Edwards used the life of David Brainerd to promote an 18th century version of evangelical Reformed piety. 

Charles McCrary, another Corrigan student at Florida State, lamented the way that the news media does not understand religion.  His paper focused on popular evangelical preacher Rob Bell and the response to his controversial book, Love Wins.  McCrary encouraged historians to bring historical thinking skills and responsible American religious history to bear on current events

Jason Wallace of Samford University traced the history of the way Americans have looked to the religious past to promote popular causes.  He suggested, rather controversially, that historians did not have much to offer the public in the promotion of a virtuous republic.

After lunch with friends–Jay Case, Beth Lewis-Pardoe, and Christopher Graham–I attended a very interesting session on “popularizing Andrew Jackson.”  Mark Cheathem of Cumberland University and Jacksonian America blog fame, offered a very entertaining paper on the way the contemporary play “Bloody Bloody” enlists Jackson in the cause of populism.  Cheathem questioned this appropriation of Jackson because it failed to account for his elitism and status as a wealthy planter.  (I could not help but ask him about the play poster and its possible connection to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album cover).  Dan Allosso followed-up with a talk on some nineteenth-century letters of a New England family who settled the Old Northwest.

At 3:00pm, I sat on a roundtable entitled “The Perils and Promise of Popular History in a Digital Age.”  I was very happy to be included in this stellar lineup of historians who are committed to trying to reach the public through the Internet.

Yoni Applebaum started things off with a discussion of the “digital essay” (or what Dan Cohen has recent called the “Blessay“).  He discussed his work as a writer for The Atlantic and encouraged the audience to consider this kind of writing as a way of bringing history to larger audiences.  I told Yoni that his talk inspired me to try to do some more writing in this genre.

Christopher Cantwell introduced us to digital history through the exhibits he is helping to design at the Newberry Library.  Of particular note was an upcoming exhibit on religious pluralism in Chicago and his own work on the Pullman Digital Collection. Chris gave us a glimpse of what looks to be a very informative map of congregational life in the Windy City.  His talk got me thinking about some of our own digital humanities initiatives at Messiah College.  On the way to dinner we had a good chat about the world of digital humanities and Chris gave me some good suggestions for moving forward in this area.

When my turn came I talked a bit about The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  I shared how I got started in blogging and some of the “perils” and the “promise” of this kind of writing.

Finally, Beth Lewis-Pardoe of Northwestern University discussed her work as a blogger and a writer for the Inside Higher Ed blog “University of Venus.”  Beth’s talk was particularly insightful for those of us who are trying to write good history for popular audiences.  She shared the ease in which she is able to write popular blog posts and the difficult in using the same style of writing to make her scholarly work accessible.  I think that this is a struggle that many of us face, but I was disappointed that there was not more discussion of this during the Q&A.

I was only able to stay in Columbia for one day, but it was certainly worth the trip.  I left the South excited about the possibilities of doing a new kind of public history and public writing that brings the past to light for non-scholarly readers.

It was also great to meet so many people who, until now, I have only known through the Internet or e-mail.  This list includes Heather Cox Richardson, Dan Allosso, Mark Cheathem, Chris Beneke, Seth Bartee, and Yoni Applebaum.

My 8 hour ride back to Pennsylvania was less than smooth.  When I pulled out of Columbia on Saturday morning I realized that one of the tires on my rental vehicle was rapidly losing air.  Thanks to the good folks at Pope-Davis Tires in Blytheville, SC, the massive screw (see below) was removed, the tire patched, and I was back on the road in less than an hour.

By the time you read this post, I will be in Mount Vernon for the George Washington Book Prize dinner.

The Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS

Some of you may know that Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in partnership with the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale, has established a center for the study of Edwards.  The Jonathan Edwards Center at TEDS is in the capable hands of Douglas Sweeney, a fine scholar of Edwards and American Evangelicalism.

I encourage you to check out the website of the Edwards Center at TEDS, but I want to call your attention to two of the Center’s programs.

On January 6, 2011, the Center will host a colloquium on “Jonathan Edwards’ Global Legacy.”  If you are in the Chicagoland area on the 6th I would encourage you to attend.  Perhaps some of you will be in town for the AHA and might want to take a drive up to the Deerfield to attend this colloquium.

Last December, Mark Noll of Notre Dame gave a great lecture on Edwards’ use of the Bible.  You can listen to it here.

Faith and Leadership Interview with George Marsden

Marsden reflects on Christian education, Jonathan Edwards, and Reformed spirituality.  Here is a taste:

Q: It seems that institutions driven by an explicit confessional Christian commitment provide reasons for being that are stronger than simply training people to make money.

That’s certainly true. A few years ago the retiring academic dean at Harvard, Harry Lewis, wrote a book called “Excellence Without a Soul,” talking about why he saw Harvard education as becoming empty, because it’s too much driven by immediate vocational interests, and competing interests and vocational interests of faculty; no one is thinking about holistic education.

Whereas higher education in the more evangelical frame has been driven by a vision of Christians as having a cultural task as well as evangelistic tasks, the idea that there should be an infusion of Christian principles throughout everything people do in their lives. It provides a coherence that a lot of people are seeing as lacking in the educational mainstream.

That has something to do with these schools doing relatively well with respect to growth in the last 15 years or so. Even though it costs a lot to send people to those institutions, parents and students recognize you’re getting the kind of education that people have traditionally imagined college should be about, that has some direction to it, some coherence to it. It’s not just a cafeteria of odd things that you might be interested in studying.