“Can Someone Tell Me Who Was President?”: Thinking Historically About Evangelicalism

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Over at The Anxious Bench, historian Tim Gloege (see his visit to the Author’s Corner here) begins his discussion of what he calls the “evangelical paradigm” with a great Mark Noll story:

Twenty years ago, I sat in a Wheaton College classroom with a half-dozen other students, awaiting my first real history seminar. For a recent Bible School graduate, the book-a-week workload seemed daunting, but I was excited to be working with Mark Noll and committed to learning the craft. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The seminar subject was Pentecostalism, a religious tradition of which I knew little. Yet I was eager to impress and dove headfirst into a conversation that turned almost immediately to doctrine. As the theological weeds grew deeper, we pressed forward, constructing intricate taxonomies of spirit baptism and genealogies of faith healing.

After about twenty minutes of this, Noll finally cut in with a simple question. “When did the Pentecostal movement begin?”

Silence enveloped the room, interrupted only by the sound of frantically flipping pages. Finally, someone offered a tentative response: “Around 1900?”

“Alright, that sounds fine. Now, someone tell me what else was going on.”

Silence.

“Cultural trends? Social movements?”

More silence.

“Can someone tell me who was president?”

Uncomfortable fidgeting. Embarrassingly, this basic sort of historical contextualization hadn’t occurred to me (or, apparently, to anyone else at the table). Raised a conservative evangelical, these things just didn’t matter. Sure, theology may have developed, but it was directed by God, right?

I slouched lower in my seat.

“Come on, you’ve got to know this. We’re doing history, not theology. The question we need to answer is why 1900? Why not 1870 or 1930? What changed and what caused that change?”

Read the rest of the piece here, including Gloege’s take on how to move evangelical historiography forward.

Mark Noll: “Martin Luther Where Are You?

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Mark Noll

Writing at LaCroix International, a Catholic website, Villanova theologian Massimo Faggioli argues that the “political legacy of the Reformation” has been “absorbed largely by white evangelicalism, which has given political support and theological justification to Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ platform.”

Midway through the piece Faggioli refers to the work of evangelical historian Mark Noll:

In a sense, if there is an American problem today that is embodied by Donald Trump, there is also a problem of American white Protestantism in Christianity. The German pastor and theologian (and martyr of Nazism), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famously defined the religious culture of the United States in 1939, during and immediately after his time in America, as “Protestantism without Reformation”. 

But European theologians of one century ago are not the only ones who have identified the genetic mutation of Protestantism into what is known today as American evangelicalism. There are also white evangelicals in the United States today who publicly acknowledging this. 

One of their most important intellectuals to do so is Mark Noll. He is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of several seminal books that deal with the intellectual crisis of evangelicalism, the relationship between Christian theology and racism in the Civil War, and many other issues. 

It was during a panel discussion of Noll’s 2005 book (co-authored with Carolyn Nystrom), Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, that I witnessed the most powerful indictment of contemporary American evangelicalism. It took place ten years at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta (Georgia). 

In his response to the panel, Noll emphasized that the problem of the Reformation was no longer concerned with Catholicism. He said the Reformation has succeeded to some extent by making Catholicism more evangelical. But the problem, he said, is that it still not clear if American Protestantism has remained faithful to the Reformation. 

Noll gave a quick description of what continues to pass for American Evangelicalism. It is a declared or undeclared theology of the “prosperity gospel”, an aberrant theology that teaches that God rewards faithfulness with financial blessings. Noll concluded his remarks with the powerful question – “Martin Luther, where are you!?”.

Read the entire piece here.

Getting the Band Back Together To Discuss the State of the Evangelical Mind

eac22-scandalI am happy to announce that in September I will be participating in a conference in Indianapolis titled “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections upon the Past, Prospects for the Future.

Here is a description from the conference website:

Evangelicalism, however one defines it, finds itself at the intersection of a host of crossroads.  After decades of relative prosperity in North America, the churches, universities, and seminaries that evangelicals cultivate, populate, and depend upon for leadership are wrestling with legal, social, and ultimately theological questions on a wide variety of fronts. 

For many, the financial challenges that compelled Christianity Today to close Books and Culture after twenty-one years were tangible expressions of those challenges.  Caught between fear and hope, some observers proposed the evangelical mind is now on the threshold of another “scandal.”  In contrast, others propose the opportunities for faithful intellectual engagement and witness are greater now than in recent history.    

This symposium offers a context in which participants can reflect upon that past but also think critically about the prospects for the future of the evangelical mind.  Those prospects will depend in many ways upon the influence of evangelical churches, universities, and seminaries.  What role then will each one of those institutions play?  What kinds of relationships will they need to share with one another?  What kinds of relationships will churches, universities, and seminaries need to forge with other institutions? 

By drawing upon the wisdom of the past, perhaps some of these questions might be best navigated by reflecting anew upon the common and respective purposes animating the church, the university, and the seminary.  Please consider joining us as we explore these questions at “The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections upon the Past, Prospects for the Future,” on September 21-22, 2017.Confessing History Available for Pre-Order

I am even more excited to announce that I will be joining my old partners in crime, Jay Green (Covenant College) and Eric Miller (Geneva College), for a plenary panel titled “Mark Noll’s Scandal and the CCCU: A Tripartite Review.”  If you are a regular reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you will know that we co-edited Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.

(Our session was just added to the conference program. At the time I am writing this post it does not yet appear on the conference website.  The conference organizers at the Lumen Research Institute tell us that we will be presenting at 7:00pm on Thursday evening as the lead-up to Mark Noll’s plenary address).

The other conference speakers (in addition to Noll) are Jo Anne Lyon (Wesleyan Church), Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College), Lauren Winner (Duke Divinity School), and James K.A. Smith (Calvin College).  The conference will also honor former Books & Culture editor John Wilson.

I hope to see some of you in Indianapolis in September!

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with Green (left and sporting the nice argyle sweater vest) and Miller (center)

 

Mark Noll Talks Trump, Hawkins, and the Evangelical Mind

NollCheck out this interview with Noll at The Wheaton Record, the student newspaper of Wheaton College.  As many of you know, Noll taught at Wheaton for 27 years before moving to Notre Dame for the final decade of his teaching career.  In this wide-ranging interview Noll talks about Donald Trump’s election, the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton, his retirement plans, and the state of the evangelical mind.

Here is a taste of editor Ciera Horton’s interview:

C: The word “evangelical” took center stage in the presidential election and continues to do so. However, there does seem to be a disconnect between Trump’s policies such as the now-blocked travel ban, immigration and sole support for Israel which Christians are divided on — so how do you explain the evangelical support and winning the evangelical vote?

M: I think what’s called “evangelical support for Trump” had to do with the pro-life position of the Republican party, it had to do with a lot of antagonism against some of the cultural steps taken by the Obama administration. It certainly had to do with the memory of Bill Clinton’s immorality in the White House, and a lot of white evangelicals were concerned about economics…I do think we have increasing numbers of Christian academics who would have a much more sophisticated approach to political life than, “I’m angry at Hillary so I’m voting for Trump.” But I’m worried about the Christian populace at large listening all the time to their media go-to and never being concerned about folks who are trying to see things more broadly.

Read the entire interview here.  It appears just in time for Nollstock (Nollfest?, Nollapalooza?) next month.

Quote of the Day

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.  An extraordinary range of virtues is found among the sprawling throngs of evangelical Protestants in North America, including great sacrifice in spreading the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, open-hearted generosity to the needy, heroic personal exertion on behalf of troubled individuals, and the unheralded sustenance of countless church and parachurch communities.  Notwithstanding all their other virtues, however, American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations.

-Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, p. 3.

Will Evangelical Trump Supporters Reap What They Sow?

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I wrote this back in May.  I think it still holds up.-JF

(RNS) There are a lot of theories to explain why large swaths of evangelicals seem to like a narcissistic, vulgar, misogynistic, intolerant, and angry reality TV star who behaves like a school yard bully and has a temperament that is diametrically opposed to the meekness, humility and prudence necessary to lead the free world. I will not rehearse them here.

But as a historian it is also my job to take a longer view — to look deeper into the American evangelical past in search for answers. Is there something inherent within American evangelicalism, as it has developed over the decades, that has led so many born-again Christians to vote for Trump?

I think there is.

In 1994, Mark Noll, a history professor at evangelical Wheaton College published “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” The book began with what is now a much-quoted phrase among the evangelical intelligentsia: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Noll then went on to describe a deep-seated anti-intellectual impulse that has long characterized American evangelicalism.

Ten years after it was published, the editors of Christianity Today claimed Noll’s book “arguably shaped the evangelical world (or at least its institutions) more than any other book in the last decade.”

On one level, Christianity Today was correct. The evangelical mind is doing better these days. Young evangelicals now see the pursuit of an intellectual life as a legitimate Christian calling. They are contributing to a vibrant renaissance of Christian thinking about history, politics, science, nature, and the arts.

But the scandal still exists.

Conservative Protestants have a long way to go if they want to rid themselves of the anti-intellectual populism that Noll lamented almost a quarter century ago. Evangelical churches and colleges have failed to educate people on how to think Christianly about their role as citizens. They have failed to teach their constituencies Christian habits of acting in the world that allow them to make meaningful contributions to American democracy. Is it any wonder that so many evangelicals have cast votes for Donald Trump?

Part of the responsibility for bringing a more thoughtful understanding of politics and culture to everyday conservative Protestants rests with evangelical intellectuals.

And then there are the evangelical colleges. It is often unclear how these institutions serve the larger evangelical world. Christian philosopher and educator Richard Mouw tried to explain their impact in 1995 when he wrote: “Tens of thousands of young people in Christian evangelical colleges and seminaries are receiving a trickle-down effect from their professor’s work. These are future laypeople.”

I am sympathetic to Mouw and those who hope for an intellectual trickle-down effect, but such an approach does not seem to be working.

Evangelical students are no longer interested in studying the humanities.

Enrollments in humanities fields — history, philosophy, literature, theology — at evangelical colleges have experienced a precipitous decline over the last decade. Yet these are disciplines that teach evangelical young people how to live together with their deepest differences, reflect on the purpose of life, think critically about the world, cultivate moral courage, make evidence-based arguments, and recognize that life does not always fit easily into binary categories.

These are the subjects that raise the kinds of questions that go to the heart of a Christian education. They help us see the world from the perspective of others and teach us humility as we ponder our place in the expanse of human history. They help us to understand the common good and to serve it. They make us informed citizens.

Unfortunately, today we are training evangelicals for our capitalist economy. We are not training them for life in our democracy.

Many Christian colleges are just trying to keep the doors open. Physical therapy and accounting majors bring in a lot of tuition revenue. If students do not want to study the humanities then these institutions are happy to offer programs — ever more programs — they will want to pursue.  Such colleges must bow to consumer needs in order to survive. Give them what they want, not what they need.

Evangelical churches and their pastors are also to blame. How many evangelical churches have created spaces where conversations can take place about how to apply the Christian faith to culture, politics, art, nature, or our understanding of the past and its relationship to the present?

I am not saying these topics need to be addressed during Sunday morning services. This time and space needs to be reserved for Word and sacrament. But certainly some of our megachurches could make room for this kind of training.

In the end, I do not have much patience for evangelical leaders who are shocked and surprised that so many people support Donald Trump. We have reaped what we have sown. We evangelicals can, and must, do better.

 (John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He is the author, most recently, of “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.” Follow him @johnfea1)

Church Libraries as an Antidote to “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”

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God calls Christians to love Him with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. (Luke 10:27).  Many Christians are pretty good at orienting their heart, soul, and strength toward their Creator, but few really know what it means to love God with their minds.  This problem, as many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, was addressed most forcefully by historian Mark Noll in his seminal 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and its 2011 sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.  I have written about this as well, both in Why Study History: A Historical Introduction and most recently in my May 2016 Religion News Service piece, “In Supporting Trump, Evangelicals Are Reaping What They’ve Sown.”

Noll diagnosed the problem of evangelical anti-intellectualism.  We are now faced with how deal with it.  What kind of practical steps can churches take to overcome this serious deficiency in the church?  How can people interested in serious Christian thinking make a difference in their churches and communities and perhaps prompt others to take this Christian duty seriously.

One way of overcoming the scandal is to start a church library that not only caters to children and popular Christian materials, but also to books and resources that encourage Christian intellectual engagement.  Why not start the kind of library that Ron Maness had built at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas?

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I have never met Ron, but when he started following me on Twitter (@johnfea1), identified himself as a church librarian, and began asking for book recommendations, I knew his library must be something unique and special.  Ron is a very active librarian.  He sends out a monthly list of new books (with short summaries) to the congregation (250 members), he contacts individual members of the congregation when a new book arrives that falls within their area of interest, encourages his pastor to mention new books from the pulpit, and produces a daily e-mail list of links related to new books, author interviews, and reviews.   The Community Bible Chapel is used extensively by church members, community members, local clergy, and seminary students from nearby Dallas Theological Seminary.  Ron’s diligent work has cultivated a spirit of reading, conversation and a Christian life of the mind in his church and in the wider community.

I asked Ron to answer a few questions about his church library.  Here is my interview with him:

JF: Community Bible Chapel has a very large library for a church of 250 members. What role does the library play in the mission of the church. 

RM: Here is the Statement of Purpose/Mission Statement for the library:

Maintain a broad-based library of books, videos, DVDs, audios and other media items for all ages and levels of Christian growth, with the goals of 1) promoting knowledge and application of scripture and doctrine, 2) promoting knowledge of church history, 3) facilitating and supporting other ministries of CBC, including Sunday School and other teaching ministries, ministry groups, youth workers, etc. and 4) enhancing individual and family spiritual growth and discipleship. This will include not only maintaining the existing library inventory, but also the acquisition of new media items on an on-going basis.

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JF: What is your library budget?

RM: Our library budget is currently $7 thousand. It has been as high as $9 thousand, but due to the maturity level of the existing library, I have reduced it the last few years.

JF: How many books do you have in your church library?

RM: We currently have over 14 thousand books in the library, of which 11 thousand are adult and 3 thousand are juvenile/childrens books. In addition, we have approximately 500 other media items (DVD, CD, video).

JF: What is your philosophy of book-buying for the library?

RM: I have been managing the library, along with my wife, since 1981. Because I have “lived” books so long, I don’t have any problem with knowing what books I want to buy. In the past, I visited Dallas Seminary’s bookstore weekly, along with other Christian bookstores on a regular basis. I am familiar with publishers and their new offerings, as well as the key commentary series, and authors/theologians. I visit the Gospel Coalition website daily, and am now a frequent visitor to Twitter. I get emails from Westminster Seminary Bookstore. All of these sources provide book information that I use to make buying decisions. I make most of my purchases from Amazon, who is also good at letting me know of new books in my areas of interest. I frequently pre-order books in advance of their publication dates.

Also, since I am the only one purchasing adult non-fiction books for the library (my wife purchases adult fiction and children’s books), I know the library stock and what items might be needed. I try to ensure we have a broad-based stock for all levels of Christian maturity, from new believers to seminary students and pastors.

JF: Christians are called, among other important things, to love God with their minds. How is the library making an impact on the intellectual life of your church?

RM: Our library has been described by several outsiders as comparable to many Bible college libraries. We have a full range of current and classic Bible commentaries, systematic and biblical theologies, Puritan classics,  books on all categories of Christian doctrine or ministry, Christian living, biographies, and an extensive history section (church and general).  So we have provided the resources to enable the members of our body to grow in the knowledge of Scripture and the doctrines of the faith, in order to equip them to fulfill their individual and collective ministries and strive toward Christian maturity.

In addition to managing the library itself, some time ago I began a library email list. Only those who requested to be included are on it. Presently there are around 75 people on the list, including some who don’t attend CBC.  Every morning, I visit the Gospel Coalition website, along with a few other selected  sites, and review that day’s articles. I then choose 3 to 5 of the most interesting articles and forward them to the library email list. Part of the purpose is to encourage library usage by articles featuring book reviews, but an additional purpose is to increase awareness of issues being discussed in the wider evangelical world.

Let me provide a quote from a response I received last week from a library patron who is on the email list:

“Ron, thank you, once again, for your diligence to spawn discussion and broaden our thinking.”

That is the impact that I would hope the library would have on the intellectual life of our church.

I was particularly influenced by three books that I read a number of years ago:

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll.

No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? by David Wells.

Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America, by Mark Noll.

I believe the library has contributed to our body gaining a fuller understanding of other traditions and perspectives. To take three examples of areas where there are often sharp differences of opinion, I have found a receptive  audience for books featuring different views on end times theology, creation (young earth vs old earth, creation science vs intelligent design, etc.), and the on-going “Christian America” debate. And I am always quick to acquire new volumes in the several series giving four or five views on specific subjects, like Zondervan’s Counterpoint series for example. These enable the reader to, in one volume, see different perspectives all together.  

In summary, I do think our library has had an impact on the intellectual life of the church. In the past, this was aided by our church leadership determining not to tie our church to hard positions on secondary matters, such a specific end times theology. And in the present, the library has been enabled by leadership’s continuing financial support for an aggressive library ministry.

JF: Thanks, Ron.

Are you interested in developing a church library or strengthening your existing library? Check out the library page at Community Bible Church for Ron’s helpful suggestions.

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In Supporting Trump, Evangelicals Are Reaping What They’ve Sown

U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. during a campaign event in Sioux City Iowa

Here is a taste of my latest column at Religion News Service:

(RNS) There are a lot of theories to explain why large swaths of evangelicals seem to like a narcissistic, vulgar, misogynistic, intolerant, and angry reality TV star who behaves like a school yard bully and has a temperament that is diametrically opposed to the meekness, humility and prudence necessary to lead the free world. I will not rehearse them here.

But as a historian it is also my job to take a longer view — to look deeper into the American evangelical past in search for answers. Is there something inherent within American evangelicalism, as it has developed over the decades, that has led so many born-again Christians to vote for Trump?

I think there is.

Read the entire piece here.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–Part 4

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Read the entire series and get some context for it here.

In Part 3 of this series I reflected on the meaning of college with the help of William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.  I highly recommend this book.  I plan to give it to my eighteen-year-old daughter to read as she prepares to head off to college in the Fall.

At one point in the book Deresiewicz says that religious colleges may be the only places where the virtues necessary to live a meaningful life are still being discussed, debated, and taught  (see our last post for his list of these virtues and my history-related supplement).

But as I have written in previous posts in this series, the numbers of history majors and, more broadly, humanities majors are in decline and Christian institutions are not investing in the field.  As a result, I don’t think Deresewitz is entirely correct about his praise of religious colleges.

Yes, there are examples of students and departments and administrations encouraging this kind of soul work.  Of course no administration is going to disagree with the idea that religious colleges need the humanities to sustain their missions.  But we also need to follow the money.  Where are the resources spent? Money shapes the culture and narrative of small colleges and universities.

A campus full of business majors and physical therapy majors does not necessarily mean that the humanities ethos of a small campus will be weak, but in most cases this will be the case.

Of course all of this is not new in an evangelical world that sends its children to Christian colleges.  Mark Noll has shown us that the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” has a long history.  Sometimes I wonder if it is getting worse, not better. But I also think it is unfair to apply the anti-intellectual label to Christians only.  The scandal of the mind extends to more than just evangelicals.

There are many ways historians can respond to this crisis. In the next post, I will explore some potential responses.

Paul Bartow Checks-In With A Few Session Reviews From AHA 2016

FreemasonPaul Bartow is back with another post as Day 2 of the AHA conference comes to a close.  See his previous posts here.–JF

After a great start to the AHA Conference yesterday, I was looking forward to day two. I attended the following sessions today: “Freemasonry: The World’s First Global Social Network,” “American Society of Church History Luncheon Honoring the Career and Contributions of Mark Noll,” and “The New Tools of the Trade: How You Can and Why You Should Become a Documentary Filmmaker or Digital Historian.”

The day yielded mediocre results in my opinion, but it was salvaged by the Exhibit Alley at 5:00 PM – a reception that included discounted book sales and complimentary wine, presumably to facilitate the uninhibited purchase of books.

The first session on Freemasonry was very informative. Coming in, I already had a fair understanding of the concept of Ancient versus Modern Freemasonry, which turned out to form the crux of the session’s discussion. I was very interested in papers on Freemason lodges outside of Britain and the United States. I had no idea that the French, who hate everything English, would have Freemason lodges, and the Germans were a pleasant surprise as well. Hans Schwartz, a PhD candidate at Clark University, seemed extremely knowledgeable even when asked what appeared to be a “designed-to-stump-you” question about Freemasonry in Latin America. Furthermore, I really appreciated how they emphasized the point that Freemasonry allowed influential, well-placed, and ambitious men to make business and professional connections across the Atlantic and within European nations. Grand lodge registers or almanacs were compiled with the meeting dates, places, tavern insignias, and other helpful information to allow visiting masons to make connections with their brethren spanning many nations. Perhaps the creators of LinkedIn should take note.

The luncheon honoring Mark Noll was obviously more ceremonial than informational. It was an honor to see Dr. Noll again, a scholar who has made pioneering contributions to Christian religious history in North America and Canada. While I was an undergraduate student at Wheaton College Noll had a peculiar but well-deserved cult following. The man’s integrity, humility, and pleasant demeanor coupled with his profound ability for historical scholarship is something rarely seen in the profession today. He will retire from the faculty of the University of Notre Dame at the end of this academic year. His scholarship will be dearly missed.

I was particularly looking forward to the session on documentary filmmaking. In my early college career at Waubonsee Community College, Ken Burns’s documentaries inspired me to declare a history major. His features on the Civil War, Lewis & Clark, and Thomas Jefferson were particularly compelling. I studied history in college but was never presented with options or training regarding how to become a historical documentary film maker. The title of the session, “The New Tools of the Trade: How You Can and Why You Should Become a Documentary Filmmaker or Digital Historian” seemed to promise insights into how to begin a career in the profession. After the first half hour, however, it became clear that two different schools were presenting their findings and syllabi on how they incorporated their first attempts at documentary and digital media courses at their institutions. This was not what the title led me to believe, and this was the biggest disappointment of the day. Although the panel presented great insights into how to implement documentary and digital media into college courses, perhaps they should have re-titled their session.

Tomorrow promises some great panels, and I look forward to writing about my experiences here at the AHA Conference in Atlanta!

J.L. Tomlin on the Bible in 19th-Century America at the AHA16

BibleWe are happy to have J. L. Tomlin writing us for this week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home from the annual meeting of American Historical Association in Atlanta.  

Tomlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in early American religious history at the University of Tennessee. He has presented research on religious fears and anti-Catholicism in early America at a number of conferences including the Omohundro Institute and the Society for Military History. His dissertation now in progress examines the links between early American religious fears and democratic sensibilities, focusing on the links between symbolic religious language and political meaning.

Here is his first dispatch –JF: 

One of the most exciting aspects from 2016’s AHA is the large amount of scholarship covering various aspects of biblical interpretation and the diffuse effects of an ever-evolving, specifically American Christianity. Perhaps the most compelling session on the topic on Thursday was the panel “19th Century American Scriptural Imagination: Three Case Studies.”

Professor Mark Noll opened the panel with his study of American scriptural interpretations of the death of national leaders titled “Presidential Death and the Bible: 1799, 1865, 1881, 1901.” This paper, a portion of the larger book in progress from Dr. Noll, makes the argument that at times of national mourning over the loss of Presidents the nation clung to Biblical allegory to make sense of larger events. In the process, however, the tone and nature of that biblical understanding evolved. At the death of Washington, for instance, Noll explains that many saw Washington as Moses; a selfless leader who led his people out of immediate destruction toward a promised land and providential future sanctioned by the almighty. Not surprisingly, most saw the loss of the nation’s greatest son as a turning point in the nation’s trajectory. True to the form of most Biblical interpretation of the 18th century, the jeremiad factored large in religious leader’s interpretation of events and calls for mourning were only surpassed by warnings of the nation’s latent sinfulness. Repentance and humility before God were necessary prerequisites to remove God’s disfavor and regain providential protection over the nation.

Lincoln’s assassination, quite different from Washington’s natural death outside of office, demanded even greater interpretive imagination. Was Booth an agent of God? Perhaps Lincoln was the martyr that God required of a nation destined to “pay in blood that which is owed on the altar of Liberty.”Much like interpretations of Washington’s death, eulogies and sermons focused on the sins of the country and demanded penance. Unlike Washington, however, most understood Lincoln’s demise, however unpleasant, as the appropriate and timely exit of a divinely ordained figure who had completed his earthly task.

For Noll, the larger trend regarding scriptural interpretation of Presidential death over the 19th century demonstrated first and foremost the changing complexion of American Christianity. Over this period the emphasis on the jeremiad declined and the life of Jesus factored ever larger in national thinking. Rather than subservience to God and the atonement of sins, the nation turned more and more to a cooperative view of God; a turn in tone that looked increasingly nationalistic and exceptionalist.

There were, however, important strands of continuity. Throughout the period, the United States figured into scriptural interpretations as divinely administered, if not directly ordained. The notion of a providential existence first expounded by the Puritans and their Congregationalist successors appeared more and more in the diverse belief systems that flourished in 19th century America. This assumption of providential governance also led believers to view the natural experiences of America as indicators of God’s power and judgement. Peter Thuesen of Indiana University examines the link between violent weather events and Divine power in “A Rushing Mighty Wind: Tornadic Pentecosts and Apocalypses in 19th Century America.” Tornados, barely understood and incredibly lethal in the 19th century, were paradoxically seen as both signs of the chaotic, destructive power of nature and a visible manifestation of God’s wrath on Earth. Like Noll, Thuesen tracks evolutionary change in the interpretation of tornados over time. Earlier events were seen as signs of God’s displeasure, but as the nation shifted toward the New Testament and away from the often arbitrary God of the Old Testament, meaning came to be increasingly found in the the presumed protection God offered to those spared by the storm. The storm was not defined by its destructive quality, but by providential mercy extended to those who escaped it unharmed.

The third presentation of the panel, and by far the most densely doctrinal in nature, is the study offered by Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia in “The Abraham Mythos and Mormon Marriage, Early and Late.” Flake examines the Mormon retranslation of the book of Abraham, looking for the expanded meaning the Joseph Smith and his followers found in the great promise extended from God to Abraham. According to Flake, Smith found that Abraham’s seed was to be innumerable not just through procreation, but also through missionary work and conversion. Additionally, Flake expertly outlines Smith’s ability to make sense of the Abrahamic story as a part of the larger cosmology constructed by Smith’s gospel narrative. Family, procreation, and eternal marriage were but larger parts of a covenantal relationship with God that, although not bestowing sovereignty on humanity, did allow for human agency and a recognition that humanity formed an important part of God’s larger plan for salvation and, ultimately, the exaltation of his elect.

What pulls the disparate threads together from this panel was the extent to which American Christianity was evolving during the 19th century. Reimagining the meaning of the Old Testament, an increasing emphasis on the New Testament and the narrative of Jesus’s life, and an ever closer union between the nation’s identity and providential custodianship marked recurring themes. These were not, however, changes in doctrinal tone or mere trends the larger culture. Their evolution was, as it is now, a peculiarly American desire to continuously reexamine the relationship of the nation to the divine that continues to shape the way American thought and identity, political or religious, is expressed.

Tim Lacy Weighs-In On Mark Noll’s *Scandal of the Evangelical Mind*

Tim Lacy, one of the catalysts behind the revival of American intellectual history in the United States, has finally had a chance to read The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll’s love letter to his fellow evangelicals urging them to love God with their intellects.  

Here is a taste of his recent post on the book at the U.S. Intellectual History blog:

Returning to Noll, one must keep in mind that he wrote this as a faculty member at Wheaton College—the “McManis Professor of Christian Thought,” in fact. Noll is now amember in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame, but the accusatory “scandal” in the book’s title did not result in a scandalous departure, or firing, from Wheaton. In 1994-95, he was an insider historical critic. A Publisher’s Weekly blurb on the cover of my paperback says: “A brilliant study by a first-rate Evangelical mind.”
After completing Noll’s book, and then picking up (again) Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (AIAL), I’ve been surprised at how much both books agree on the Protestant roots of American anti-intellectual tendencies. Indeed, Noll prominently cites Hofstadter in the the former’s introduction. But Noll quotes from prominently from a Hofstadter footnote rather than the part of AIAL that directly correlates with Scandal. For instance, here’s the part of AIAL that goes to Noll’s concerns, as well as the concerns of many recent writers about the role of Christianity—particularly Protestantism—in America’s founding and thought life (e.g. Sehat, Fea, etc.). Here’s Hofstadter, in the opening chapter 3 (the first to directly address historical roots) directly addressing the root cause of all anti-intellectualism in American life (bolds mine):
The American mind was shaped in the mold of early modern ProtestantismReligion was the first arena for American intellectual life, and thus the first arena for an anti-intellectual impulse. Anything that seriously diminished the role of rationality and learning in early American religion would later diminish its role in secular culture. The feeling that ideas should above all be made to work, the disdain for doctrine and for refinements in ideas, the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the twentieth century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism.[3]
So much for separation of religion from the American founding, whether in terms of churches influencing the state or vice versa. It didn’t matter what happened in terms of material separation because a deep-seated Protestant mindset ruled all. The latter’s anti-intellectual sensibility determined what followed—only to be enhanced by subsequent theological, scientific, or philosophical innovations.
Even Noll’s book wasn’t this assertive. Noll limited his arguments to roots and effects in Protestant Evangelicalism alone. But there can be little question that Noll built his work on ground tilled and planted by Hofstadter. Noll just made Hofstadter’s work more palatable, and less scandalous to Protestant Evangelicals, because of the former’s insider status.

*The Secularization of the Academy* Turns 25

It all started in 1990 with a conference at Duke on secularization and the academy.  (At the time I was a first year divinity school student.  The internet did not exist yet and I had no idea that this conference was happening and even if I did hear about I probably would not have cared). The conference proceedings were edited by George Marsden and Bradley Longfield and published in 1992 as The Secularization of the Academy.

Then, in 1994, came Marsden’s magisterial The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief.  Three years later Marsden expanded the postscript of this book and published it as The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.

Now, twenty-five years later, Books & Culture is running a symposium on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conference that started it all.  Marsden, Longfield, James Turner, Darryl Hart, and David Bebbington have written reflections.  Mark Noll introduces the symposium here,

Here is a taste of Turner’s response:

That collection of essays opened a debate that sizzled for 20 years. What counts as “secularization”? What brought it about? What gains did it bring to higher education? What losses did it inflict?

The question of gains turned out to have easy answers. In an ever more pluralistic America, a de-facto Protestant establishment ruled even state universities until about 1900; all sides in the debate agreed that dismantling it came none too soon. When students and faculty might profess any faith or none, the once-universal imposition of Protestant chapel services is a corpse no one wants to disinter. Likewise, all accepted that religiously committed colleges and universities may continue to set standards of faith and behavior in line with their beliefs. Finally, everyone agreed that denizens of secular campuses, public or private, should be free to pursue any religious—or anti-religious—activity, so long as the institution remains even-handed in facilitating their doings. The debate thus revealed consensus on how secularization should express itself institutionally—and wide agreement that, in creating this new framework, secularization liberated American higher learning from a past it had outgrown.

The question of losses, however, proved neuralgic. Should faith—or religious intellectual traditions—play any role in research in now-secular disciplines? Some of America’s most distinguished Christian scholars, including Marsden, argued for a limited rollback of secularization here, insisting that Christian perspectives (like feminist ones) could enrich research for all scholars. Skeptical opponents saw instead new religious fetters on reason, and they strenuously defended secularized knowledge against non-rational pollutants. These arguments grew sharp, even heated.

Vigorous though the latter debate was, it is unclear to me today how much it mattered. Religion has won a certain autonomy in the secular academy. More scholars now than two decades ago treat faith as a first-order phenomenon that cannot be reduced to biology or sociology. But Christian professors (in contrast, say, to feminist ones) have not proven adept at drawing on Christianity to propose new methodologies or fresh lines of research in their disciplines. Nor have Christian colleges and universities spent much capital egging them on.

Such Christian scholarship as exists today (beyond biblical and theological studies) lies in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. (Methodist astronomy, anyone?) And arguments around it have lately been drowned out by wailing over the “crisis” of the humanities. If all humanistic learning is to give way to scientific research and technical training, what’s the point in arguing about the Christian piece of it?

The fascinating debate set off by The Secularization of the Academy begins to seem a relic of a moment that has flown.