Al Mohler’s Former Church History Professor: “I think you can make the case that there was an expediency to Al’s hard-right turn in those days.”

mohler

Check out Jonathan Merritt’s Religion News Service  piece on Albert Mohler‘s recent “flip-flop” to Donald Trump. (We broke this story early. See our posts here and here and here.). Some of the scholars and SBC-insiders he quotes are quite revealing.

Here is Merritt on Mohler’s church history professor and Southern Baptist historian Bill Leonard:

As a fresh-faced student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1980s, Mohler hardly cut the figure as a paragon among far-right conservatives. As Dr. Bill Leonard, Mohler’s church history professor at SBTS reflects, “In my experience and the experience of others, he was mostly an academic and not a part of the conservative contingent at the school. There was no sign that he was going toward the hard right.”

But Leonard, founding dean and professor of divinity emeritus of Wake Forest University School of Divinity, says that Mohler’s theology quickly evolved in the ’80s when theological conservatives moved to take over the Southern Baptist Convention. Mohler pivoted to the right just as it became clear that conservative factions were going to win.

“I think you can make the case that there was an expediency to Al’s hard-right turn in those days,” says Leonard, author of “Baptist Ways: A History.” “He saw where things were headed in the denomination and turned toward it.”

Wow!

And here is Merritt on Mohler’s early support of women’s ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention:

One of Mohler’s most stunning theological flip-flops came at the denomination’s gathering in Kansas City in 1984, when SBC conservatives introduced a resolution declaring that only men were qualified to serve as church pastors and that women should instead concern themselves with the “building of godly homes.”

His opposition was so strong that he helped purchase an ad in the Louisville Courier-Journal declaring that God is “an equal opportunity employer.”

The resolution passed despite Mohler’s fierce opposition (though he later preferred to say he merely “took umbrage”). Rather than fight on, Mohler simply changed his position on women in ministry.

Ouch!

Here is baptist historian Barry Hankins:

Barry Hankins, chair of Baylor University’s history department, who interviewed Mohler extensively for his book, “Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture,” said, “I’ve always believed (Mohler) wanted to be president of Southern Seminary and the SBC’s most influential theologian. The problem is he’s spent way more time on culture wars over the past 20 years than on theology.”

Here is historian Randall Balmer:

Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth University historian of American religion, quoted a Southern Baptist friend who put it more succinctly: “Al Mohler is a soundbite in search of a theology.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am reminded of this:

Race and Evangelicals (#AHA19)

Wheatley

Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL attended a session sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

Right out of the gate in today’s Conference on Faith and History session at AHA19, both Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Jemar Tisby responded to the recent Twitter debate over whether or not Phillis Wheatley should be considered an evangelical.  Esteemed historian of Evangelicalism Mark Noll also entered the fray in the Q&A session that followed the presentation of papers.

For those (like Noll) who hadn’t followed the social media discussion, here’s a short summary.  In early December of last year, historian Thomas Kidd tweeted a Gospel Coalition post he wrote, titled “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”  Religion journalist Jonathan Merritt replied, “Assigning her the label of Evangelical is weird,” to which Kidd asked, “Why?”  As Du Mez put it in describing the exchange after that, “things devolved quickly from there ….”

In her paper, “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake,” Du Mez posed the question: Who are evangelicals and does that label even mean anything anymore?  Her answer to both parts of that question, in short, was that it depends on who’s asking.  To make that point she briefly discussed themes that she’s written about extensively over at the Anxious Bench, such as the ideas that “Evangelicalism is an imagined religious community” and that “there are, in fact, many Evangelicalisms.”  When considering the more nuanced and seemingly academic responses (compared to the Twitterbate) given to the question by LifeWay in December of 2017 and the Voter Study Group in September of 2018, she referred to a piece by Tim Gloege on Rewire.News, in which he questioned the motivation, methodology, and conclusions of such studies conducted in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.  Noting the vested interest that people such as Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer had in rehabilitating the image of evangelicals both during and after that election, Du Mez also stated that it’s worth interrogating why mostly conservative, white, male evangelicals are the ones trying to define what the word evangelical means today.

As one would hope and expect, Du Mez insisted that we must approach the question historically.  It is not appropriate to use a static definition of the word.  “History didn’t end in the early to mid-nineteenth century,” she noted wryly.  To study more closely that change over time, Du Mez conducted a linguistic analysis of the word evangelical.  What she found was that before the 1970s and 1980s, the word was primarily used as an adjective.  Since that time, it has primarily been used as a noun.  She also found that from 1996 on, the word has been used to connotate a political alignment, not a theological one.  And as she came to discover during one fortuitous visit to Hobby Lobby (also a post worth reading on the Anxious Bench), to contextualize evangelicalism in our current time is to realize that much of it is a white religious brand rooted in consumer culture, Christian Nationalism, and patriarchy.  Today, sadly, “James Dobson and Duck Dynasty have more to do with Evangelicalism than Whitefield or Edwards.”  And while many people view the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that started in 1979 as being about orthodoxy, Du Mez argued that it was far more about gender.

For Du Mez then, the issues of race, gender, and power (not belief alone, as the Bebbington Quadrilateral lays out) must be considered when defining the cultural meaning of the word evangelical.  To that end, it’s understandable how Merritt found labeling an enslaved African woman such as Phillis Wheatley an evangelical weird in the context of today, even if historically she was part of the trans-Atlantic movement of protestant Christian revivalism that swept the Anglo world in her lifetime, the influence of which is evident in her writings.

Du Mez’s examination of the question who is evangelical dovetailed nicely with Jemar Tisby’s paper, “Are Black Christians Evangelicals? A Multi-perspectival Assessment.”  To answer that query, he used theologian John Frames concept of Tri-Perspectivalism, examining it from a normative, situational, and existential framework.  From the normative perspective, using the Bible and Bebbington, it is quite easy to label most Black Christians evangelical.  According to Tisby, the normative frame only considers a person’s theological beliefs, and this is what Kidd did with Wheatley.  Using the situational perspective, however, forced Tisby to ask if Black Christians in America could be considered evangelical in every historical, cultural, and geographic context.  The answer there was clearly no.  Sunday mornings only became the most segregated time of the week after the Civil War – it wasn’t always that way.  Lastly, the existential frame required him to take personal experience and self-identification into account when deciding who is and isn’t evangelical.  From that perspective, he pointed out, there are many blacks today who do claim the label (as evidenced by organizations such as the NBEA), even if, according to Pew, more than three in four black protestants belong to historically black churches, as opposed to evangelical or mainline denominations.

In the end, Tisby was comfortable with not answering the question, claiming that such a response was the best way to think historically about it.  “Let the ambiguity remain,” he concluded.  As he had just demonstrated, when deciding whether Black Christians are evangelicals, the answer should always depend on the angle of inquiry.

During the question and answer session, Mark Noll provided his own tweet-sized take on the debate and the topic before the panel.  “Whether Wheatley was an evangelical or not is irrelevant,” said Noll.  “Who is or isn’t an evangelical is really not an important historical question.”  He continued, “I don’t think evangelicals exist … evangelical movements exist, evangelical theology exists, but evangelical individuals are a useful fiction.”  From Noll’s perspective, the session had been a valuable one, but he hoped that nobody would follow up on it.

Thanks, Matt!

Was Phillis Wheatley an “Evangelical?”

Wheatley

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

So is it fair to call Phillis Wheatley an “evangelical?”  Despite what some people may believe, I really don’t have a stake in this debate apart from historical considerations.  As far as I know, Phillis Wheatley never called herself an “evangelical.” That is because virtually no one used the term as a noun in the 18th century.   Historian Ed Blum, who is back on Twitter and, according to his Twitter bio, claims he is no longer interested in “contemporary politics,” will be pleased that I admitted this:

But was Wheatley part of the network of 18th-century men and women who made up the evangelical movement I tried to define in the first post in this series?  I would answer yes.  So would Tommy Kidd.  So would John Turner.  But let’s not stop there. Here, for example, are some quotes from literary scholar Vincent Caretta’s definitive biography Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage:

p.34: “[George] Whitefield and [Selena Hastings, Countess of] Huntingdon linked Phillis Wheatley to the larger transatlantic network of evangelical Christians that had brought Margate to Georgia.  They consequently also connected her to the earliest authors of African descent.  Whitefield’s American preaching tours exposed several members of the first generation of black authors to Methodism.  They use of lay ministers by Methodists and other Dissenting sects gave black authors like Equiano, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, George Leile, David George, and Boston King the opportunity and authority to exercise agency and influence in person and print.”

p.73: “In light of the catechetical “A Conversion between a New York Gentleman & Phillis” and the contemporaneous evangelical value placed on bearing witness to one’s faith, Wheatley’s emphasis on religious themes in her early poems is not surprising.  Evangelical Protestantism gave people of African descent, whether free or enslaved, access to literacy to enable them to read the Bible.   Short are the steps from reading the Bible to interpreting it for oneself, and from there to sharing interpretations with others in the forms of religious poems and spiritual narratives.  Wheatley began writing very soon after the first works by authors of African descent appeared in 1760s, inspired, authorized, and validated by the Great Awakening.  The works of the first such authors concern the faith shared between author and reader, rather than the complexion and social conditions that separated the black speaker and his or her overwhelmingly white audience.”

p.84: “Phillis Wheatley’s first published work, the poem “On Messrs. Hussy and Coffin,” appeared in the 14-21 December 1767 issue of the Newport Mercury, no doubt through the support and contacts of Susanna Wheatley.  The most likely contact was Sarah Haggar Wheaton Osborn (1714-96), a member of the First Congregational Church in Newport who was instrumental in the evangelical Newport revival of 1766-67.  She and Susanna Wheatley were acquainted with each other and shared a mutual correspondent in Rev. Occom.  The preaching of Whitefield and the Presbyterian evangelical Gilbert Tennent (1704-64) inspired Osborn to help create a female prayer society that met in her home weekly from the 1740s until her death.”

Caretta is also the editor of the Penguin edition of Wheatley’s complete writings.

Other Wheatley scholars agree with Caretta.  Wheatley was part of an 18th-century transatlantic evangelical movement.

Here is Phillip M. Richards in an essay titled “Phillis Wheatley: The Consensual Blackness of Early African American Writing,” in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (University of Tennessee Press, 2011)

p.256: “Wheatley deploys this sentimental and aesthetic language vividly in her letters, which embody and enact a form of Christian friendship with her correspondents, moving in much the same way as does Osborn’s writing.  She thus writes her evangelical mentor, the British missionary John Thornton, referring to the Puritan convention of awakening on a sickbed: ‘O that my eyes were more open’d to see the real worth, and true excellence of the word of truth, my flinty heart Soften’d with the grateful dews of divine grace and the stubborn will, and affections, bent on God alone their proper object, and the vitiated palate may be corrected to relish heav’nly things….’ Wheatley’s observations not only describe her spiritual state but signal her shared sensibility of broken will, ambivalence toward the self, internalized authority, and benevolent love of God–all of which establish her membership in the company of saints constituted by Thornton’s missionary group….From her earliest poetry, Wheatley fashioned a literary persona based upon the language of evangelical conversion…”

Here is historian Catherine Brekus in Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

p.185: “Perhaps the most remarkable female author in the eighteenth century was Phillis Wheatley, a slave who had been kidnapped from Africa as a child.  In order to gain acceptance in the republic of letters, Wheatley emphasized the depth of her Christian faith, and in 1770 she published an elegy lamenting the death of George Whitefield.  Because she was young, female, and a slave when she published her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, in 1773, the volume included a testimonial signed by eighteen of Boston’s leading gentlemen, including the governor, swearing that an ‘uncultivated Barbarian from Africa’ had indeed written her own poems.  No other female author in early America faced the same degree of skepticism or hostility.  Yet as Wheatley made clear in her poems, her authority to write came from her rebirth in Christ–on other words, from God himself.”

I could quote other scholars as well, but I think you get the idea.  Wheatley was an important voice in the 18th-century movement defined by a shared commitment to the new birth.  We can call that community “evangelical,” “New Light,” Whitefieldarian,” or something else, but in the end it was a spiritual fellowship of believers, certainly ensconced within 18th-century views on race, gender and social class, that came together around the shared experience of the new birth.

During the Kidd-Merritt debate, Merritt sought out a few religious studies scholars to bolster his view that it was “weird” to call Wheatley an evangelical.  Under fire from scholars and some of his Twitter followers, he needed to find a usable past quickly.  And he found a few scholars to help him:

It seems like this debate offers an excellent opportunity for historians to teach their students the importance of historical thinking.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez gets it:

Both Bass and Ingersoll assume that Kidd and me are trying to take 21st century evangelical religion and impose it on the 18th century and Wheatley.   We are accused of anachronistic thinking and “pasting” modern evangelicalism onto the 18th-century.  I can’t speak for Tommy Kidd, but I don’t think I was doing what I have been accused of doing.  As I have tried to show in the the posts in this series, there was an 18th-century evangelical movement and Wheatley was part of it.  That’s it.  No agenda except trying my best to interpret Wheatley’s life in its historical context.

Modern scholars of religion may not like the way white men and women used Wheatley, or may not like the fact that her membership in this community of the new birth does not offer them a usable past in their present-day battles against evangelicalism in America, but to suggest she was not an evangelical in the 18th century requires mounting a case against the best Wheatley scholarship and the best scholarship in early American history.

Anxious Benchers Weigh-In on the Kidd-Merritt Dust-Up

Death of ExpertiseHere is a taste of historian John Turner‘s post at The Anxious Bench:

To what extent should non-academics defer to academic historians on matters of history? John Fea faulted Merritt for being snarky and dismissive (“maybe you should think some more”) to a historian who has written books about precisely the subject matter at hand. Rather attempt to define the word “evangelical” on Twitter, Kidd recommended that Merritt “check out my books on the topic, including my definition of evangelicalism.” Good idea!

I’ve of two minds here. If someone told me that I should think more about whether Mormons are Christians, I might point him or her to my book on the subject. On the other hand, the recommendation of one’s books as an answer to a question rarely goes over well.

Read the entire piece here.

And at his personal blog The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz (editor-in-chief at The Anxious Bench), reflects on the dust-up in the context of his own work as a historian and generalist.

A taste:

I’ve only half-followed the recent Twitter dust-up between historians Thomas Kidd and John Fea and journalist Jonathan Merritt. You can get caught up to speed with this morning’s Anxious Benchpost from John Turner. Throw in editor John Wilson (who rose to the historians’ defense), and you’ve got several of my favorite Johns/Jonathans sparring over what it meant to be evangelical in the 18th century — especially if you were an enslaved African American like poet Phillis Wheatley.

All of that is interesting, and pointing at some philosophical questions about doing the history of evangelicalism (as Fea explained this morning in part two of a new series on the topic). But I was actually more struck by a larger issue: the place of expertise in an age of Twitter.

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.

Darryl Hart Weighs-In on the Thomas Kidd-Jonathan Merritt Debate

Liberty U

In case you haven’t heard, Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd and journalist Jonathan Merritt had a debate.  Read all about it here.  And now Darryl Hart has commented on it.

As is usually the case, Darryl manages to throw everyone under the bus in one way or another, but the crux of his piece is a criticism of Merritt.  Here is a taste:

Where does this leave us? More people read Jonathan Merritt than Tommie Kidd and more editors and journalists read Merritt than Kidd, and this despite the fact that Kidd is one of the most productive evangelical historians who writes for first rate university and trade presses. What impresses Americans, despite our high rates of college education, is a presence in the media (from podcasts and cable news to Twitter). And yet, if Jonathan Merritt hadn’t had a father who went to seminary to study with professors who read some of Kidd’s book, and if Merritt himself had not gone to a college that only hires and grants tenure to professors with Kidd’s kind of accomplishments, he wouldn’t have a job as a writer.

At some point, journalists might want to pay it backward a little to the teachers who educated them (even indirectly).

Read the entire post at Hart’s Patheos blog.   The only real issue I have with the excerpt above is this line: “if Merritt himself had not gone to a college that only hires and grants tenure to professors with Kidd’s kind of accomplishments…”  Actually, Merritt is a 2004 graduate of Liberty University.  As far as I know Liberty does not have any historians of Kidd’s caliber (it is primarily a teaching university and most faculty don’t publish books with Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and Basic) and the college does not grant tenure.

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:

Eric Metaxas on The Faith Angle Podcast

Faith Angle

Kirsten Powers of CNN and journalist Jonathan Merritt have started a new podcast titled The Faith Angle.

This looks like it will be a good podcast.  The first episode is titled
Trumpevangelicals and the Divided States of America.”  The guest is Eric Metaxas, a guy who we have spent some time writing about here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

A few highlights:

  • Merritt calls Metaxas “the thinking man’s evangelical.” Many would beg to differ.  His book on Bonhoeffer, the work that apparently gave him the “thinking man” moniker, was criticized by Bonhoeffer scholars well before Metaxas endorsed Trump.
  • Most of the podcast episode focuses on how Metaxas went from a “thinking man’s intellectual” to a political hack.  Metaxas is so controversial that Powers and Merritt have to explain why they chose him as their first guest.
  • Powers believes that Metaxas’s support of Trump is “harming his Christian witness.”
  • Metaxas says that “before the election I hated Donald Trump.”  (This, I might add, changed very quickly.  See this pic).
  • Metaxas says that he doesn’t endorse everything about Trump’s character. But Powers makes Metaxas admit that he does support Trump’s policies.
  • Metaxas says that “we are living in a really weird time” because so many people criticize and “attack” Donald Trump.  Could we also say that we are “living in a really weird time” because so many evangelicals, like Metaxas, support a man like Donald Trump?
  • Metaxas laments that our country has become too uncivil.  Let’s remember that this call for civility comes from the guy who called Jim Wallis, “silly, sloppy, and wrongheaded.”  It comes from the guy who once called Hillary Clinton “Hitlery Clinton.”  It comes from the guy who said that “God will not hold us guiltless” if we voted for Hillary Clinton. This is the guy who could not identify textbook racism.
  • Metaxas rejects the King Cyrus argument.
  • Metaxas argues that Trump should get a pass on his character problems (sleeping with porn stars and committing adultery) because they did not happen while he was in the White House.  Bill Clinton, on the other hand, does not get a pass because his indiscretions took place while he was POTUS.  As I wrote last night, this argument fails to acknowledge the ways that Trump’s past sins still have consequences.  And because he is POTUS, we all now have to live through the consequences of his past actions.  His adulterous affairs and porn connections have found their way into the mainstream, further coarsening the culture.
  • Merritt makes a good point.  The Christian Right criticized Bill Clinton because of sexual escapades well before Monica Lewinsky came around.  Why isn’t Trump criticized for his past indiscretions?  (I appreciate Powers and Merritt for holding Metaxas’s feet to the fire.  His answers to their questions are really unconvincing).
  • Metaxas claims that his “Hitlery Clinton” line was just a joke. He then belittles people who thought it was inappropriate.  Metaxas went to Yale and wrote a book about Bonhoeffer.  I think he is smart enough to know what it means when you call someone Hitler. Powers says that she didn’t understand the “joke.”  Metaxas spends five minutes defending the Hitler line, and then, when pressed by Powers, says he shouldn’t have wrote it.  He is really coming across as nonsensical and slippery.  He is speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
  • Metaxas used the phrase “court evangelical.”  No attribution made.  I guess its a thing now.
  • Powers calls him out on his claim that Christians must vote for Trump.  Metaxas regrets that his 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed came off this way.
  • Metaxas seems to believe that there is some kind of moral equivalence between Obama and Trump because they held/hold the same office.  Metaxas says he, a conservative, was nice to Obama despite his disagreements and now it is time for progressives to be nice to Trump.  Powers asks him to identify these “progressives” and his answer is “Stephen Colbert.”  Seriously, Stephen Colbert?  As Powers notes, the guy is a comedian!  Moreover, I thought the entire podcast discussion was about evangelicals and Trump.  Last time I checked, Colbert was not an evangelical. Moreover, this “respect for the office” argument only goes so far.  Trump is not Obama. Trump does not respect the office in the way that Obama respected the office.  I briefly touch on this difference in Believe Me.
  • Metaxas says, “Pray for this president that he would repent of everything we know that he has done and is too proud to admit.”  Yes.  I think I just found some common ground with Eric Metaxas.

By the way, I think this podcast is helpful for putting this tweet in context: