When Canadian Methodists erased women evangelists from their history

Check out historian Scott McLaren‘s interesting piece at Borealia, a blog about early Canadian history. McLaren, the author of Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada, explores the ways early Methodist historians erased “the dramatic roles women played in Methodism’s early proselytizing success.”

Here is a taste of his post, “The Disappearing Daughters of Jerusalem”:

It is impossible to know, because evidence of this kind is so sparse, how often the male writers seamlessly and without vestige erased the roles women played among Methodists and other denominations in these early years. From a methodological perspective, what is particularly striking about these three narratives is that only the last – the version in which Methodist women play no role at all as active agents in the conversions – was ever published. The other two – the first from Bangs’s 1805 journal and the second from his undated autobiography – are available only to those with access to original archival documents held at the United Methodist Archives at Drew University in the United States. One can only wonder at how many other narratives like these lie dormant in the enormous bulk of handwritten narratives, journals, diaries, and letters left behind by both the men and women who lived in the years preceding Methodism’s determined rise to denominational dominance and social respectability in North America.

Read the entire piece here.

How the history of white evangelical racism has led to Donald Trump’s election and continues to shape support for his presidency

Believe Me 3dI begin with a caveat. This post is not implying that all white evangelicals are or have been racist. Many white evangelicals have been anti-racist and have fought hard to curb systemic racism in American life. But, as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, these are not historical forces that led many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. They are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to continue to support Donald Trump. They are not the historical forces that will lead many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.  And they are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to reject systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

But here is some history:

1 .After Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which resulted in sixty white deaths in Southampton County, Virginia, fearful white evangelical Christians in the South began to fight harder for the expansion of slavery to the west in the belief that its spread to more open country might reduce the proximity of slaves to one another and thus make insurrections more difficult. White churches responded to Turner’s rebellion with missionary efforts in the hope that the chances of passion-filled revolts might be reduced if slaves could be monitored more closely by white clergy and lay church leaders. Yes, the idea of African Americans rebelling and causing disorder has been around for a long time.

2. The anxieties stemming from slave insurrections led Southern ministers to develop a biblical and theological defense of slavery. These ministers argued that anyone who read the Bible in a literal, word-for-word fashion (as God intended it to be read) would conclude that God had ordained this system of labor. Commonsense interpretations of Bible passages that referred to slavery were often difficult to refute. Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham owned slaves. Slavery was a legal institution in the New Testament world, and the apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to obey government laws. In the book of Philemon, Paul required the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his owner. Writing in the immediate wake of the Nat Turner rebellion, Thomas Dew, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary, used the Bible to defend the view that all societies had a fixed and natural social structure. Citing 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Dew reasoned that Africans should remain slaves because God had created them to fulfill such a role in society. Slaves had been given a divine “calling” and, in Paul’s words, “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” One South Carolina Presbyterians went so far as to say, “If the Scriptures do not justify slavery…I know not what they do justify.” I am reminded here of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler’s remarks about slavery.

3. Evangelicals thought that the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible. In other words, the people of the South–and eventually the Confederate States of America–believed that they were living in a Christian society precisely because they upheld the institution of slavery.  The abolitionist argument against slavery was not only heretical because it violated the explicit teaching of Scripture; it also threatened the Christian character of the United States. Robert L. Dabney, a Virginia Presbyterian clergyman and one of the strongest defenders of slavery and white supremacy in the South, contended that the notion that slaves–or any Africans for that matter–had “rights” and thus deserved freedom was a modern idea introduced in the eighteenth-century by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment, not by the expositors of God-inspired Scripture.  James Henley Thornwell, another powerful theological voice in support of slavery, understood the Civil War as a clash between atheist abolitionists and virtuous slaveholders: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders–they are atheists, socialists, communist, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. Sound familiar? Watch this or most other episodes of the Eric Metaxas Show. One of Thornwell’s students, New Orleans Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer, said that the South had been called “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as not existing.” It was a duty to “ourselves, to our slaves, to the world, and to almighty God.”

4. Southern evangelicals also feared the mixing of races (even though the races were mixed mainly because of the long history of master raping slaves). Slaveholders believed that their defense of a Christian civilization was directly connected to the purity of the white race. One Presbyterian minister in Kentucky claimed that “no Christian American” would allow the “God-defying depravity of intermarriage between the white and negro races.”  South Carolina governor George McDuffie, who  said that “no human institution…is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, then domestic slavery,” also claimed abolitionists were on a “fiend-like errand of mingling the blood of master and slave.” In the process, McDuffie argued, they were contributing to the “end of the white republic established in 1776.”

5. Longstanding racial fears did not fade away with the Union victory in the Civil War. Reconstruction amendments that ended slavery (Thirteenth) and provided freedmen with citizenship rights (Fourteenth) and voting rights (Fifteenth) only reinforced Southern evangelical racism. A classic example of this was Dabney’s opposition to the ordination of freedmen in the Southern Presbyterian Church. During an 1867 debate over this issue, Dabney said that the ordination of African American minister in the white Presbyterian church would “threaten the very existence of civil society.” It was God, Dabney argued, who created racial difference and, as a result, “it was plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification.” He predicted a theological version of “white flight” by suggesting that black ordination would “bring a mischievous element in our church, at the expense of driving a multitude of valuable members and ministers out.” Dabney would not sit by and watch his denomination permit “amalgamation” to “mix the race of Washington and Lee, and Jackson, with this base herd which they brought from the pens of Africa.”

6. Northern Protestant fundamentalists at the turn of the 20th century were aware of the moral problem of racism, but they did very little to bring it to an end. While they did occasionally speak out against lynching and other acts of racial violence, they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to systemic racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did. As historian Matt Sutton has shown, the Ku Klux Klan regularly sought partnerships with fundamentalists. The Klan’s leaders believed Protestant fundamentalist crusades to save Christian America made them a natural ally in the war against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Some fundamentalist commentaries on race could have been lifted from the collected works of 19th-century pro-slavery theologians such as Lewis Dabney or James Henry Thornwell. A.C. Dixon, the fundamentalist pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, called the Fifteenth Amendment (the amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote) “the blunder of the age” because African Americans were “ignorant” and thus ill-equipped to cast a ballot. Other fundamentalists upheld typical racial stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as rapists, murderers, and threats to white women. In 1923, Moody Monthly, the flagship publication of fundamentalism, published articles defending Klan activity. Fundamentalist fears about the decline of Christian America regularly manifested themselves in racism.

7. In the wake of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event which historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” several evangelical and fundamentalist clergymen were quick to put their white supremacy on display. Edwin D. Mouzon, the bishop of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, said he did not know who was to blame for the massacre. But if you read the front page of the June 6, 1921 edition of the Morning Tulsa Daily World, “black agitators,” including black activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, were to blame.
Mon, Jun 6, 1921 – Page 1 · The Morning Tulsa Daily World (Tulsa, Oklahoma) · Newspapers.com

Mouzon said, “there is one thing…upon which I should like to make myself perfectly clear. That is racial equality. There never has been and there never will be such a thing. It is divine ordained. This is something that negroes should be told very plainly…At the same time, we must have a Christian attitude toward the black man; he is made by the same creator; he is subject to the same Christian laws, he is our brother in Christ.” On the same day, Reverend J.W. Abel of Tulsa’s First Methodist Church said, “What other nation in all human history has done as much [for] a people as the white race has done for the race which but a brief century ago emerged from slavery? A race which even in slavery was a thousand times better off than the black princes who ruled their race in Africa.” Abel continued, “But the sin of this [black] race is that they are all too ready to protect a member of the race in crime, for no other reason that he is a negro…some day the negro will come to know that the white race is his best friend.” Dr. Howard G. Cooke, pastor of Tulsa’s Centennial Methodist Church, noted that “there has been a great deal of loose-mouthed and loose-minded talking about the white people of Tulsa being equally to blame with the blacks. This is not true.” He added, “[The massacre] should be the beginning of a new regime of law and order in this city.” This is is an interesting observation in light of the fact that a self-proclaimed “law and order” president will be holding a rally in Tulsa tomorrow night, only a few weeks after the 99th anniversary of the massacre.  (Thanks to historian Kenny Brown for bringing this material to my attention)

8. In the mid-20th century,  white evangelicals had a mixed track record regarding racial issues facing the country during the civil rights movement. Billy Graham was famous for desegregating his evangelistic crusades, and many evangelical leaders and publications supported the Brown v. Board of Education decision ending segregation in public schools, just as they supported the Civil Rights Acts (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But very few Northern evangelicals actually participated in the movement, and strong pockets of segregationist thought and practice continued to exist in the evangelical South. Most white evangelicals were not particularly interested in the civil rights movement; they were far more concerned about–and opposed to–the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelicals critique of active government.

9. This relationship between race and evangelical opposition to “big government” intervention into state and local affairs is best illustrated in the evangelical response to two Supreme Court cases. Green v. Connally (1972) removed tax-exempt status from private schools and colleges that discriminated against students based on race. At the center of the controversy was Bob Jones University, a school that banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans. In 1975, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of the university, a case that was eventually decided in favor of the IRS in Bob Jones v. United States.  Green v. Connolly and Bob Jones v. United States also had implications for the hundreds of private Christian academies cropping up (at the rate of two per day) all over the United States. Many of these schools were in the South and had discriminatory admissions policies, which is not surprising given that many such schools were founded in the immediate aftermath of public-school integration. When President Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian,” supported the Green v. Connally decision, he alienated many conservative evangelicals who ran these academies. To be fair, many segregationist academies were already beginning to admit African American students in the early 1970s, but the leaders of these schools, true to their Southern heritage, wanted to deal with the issues of segregation, race, and civil rights on their own terms. They certainly did not want the federal government forcing them to desegregate.

10. Thus, when Jerry Falwell and like minded conservative evangelicals created the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, they already had experienced the power of the central government when the Supreme Court intruded on the affairs of their segregated academies. In fact, historian Randall Balmer contends that it was this fear of big-government interference as it related to desegregation of institutions like Bob Jones University and Falwell’s own Liberty Academy that prompted the formation of the Christian Right. Paul Weyrich, one of Falwell’s closest associates and one of the leading organizers of the movement, told Balmer in a 1990 interchange that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts by the IRS to desegregate Christian academies.

11. Many of Trump’s evangelical supports came to Trump’s rescue when, in August 2017, he drew a moral equivalency between white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia and those who came to the city to try to oppose them. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church–Dallas, went on Fox Business Network and said that Trump “did just fine” in his statement(s) about the event. He performed a rhetorical move that court evangelicals and other Trump supporters have perfected: he changed the subject and went from defense to offense. Jeffress warned Fox viewers that an “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, and the “GOP establishment) were plotting to take Trump down. He then reaffirmed America’s Judeo-Christian roots without any sense that many of the Judeo-Christian influences that have shaped United States history were intricately bound up with the kind of racism that the nation had witnessed in Charlottesville. Watch:

It is time that white evangelicals take a hard look at its past and stop trying to “Make America Great Again.” It is time, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.” The operate word is reconciliation, not “renew,” “restore” or “reclaim.”

Churches and the memory of the Confederacy

Cathedral of the Rockies

Cathedral of the Rockies, Boise, Idaho

Last night I ran across this article from The Spokesman-Review about a Boise, Idaho church that will remove a stained-glass window featuring Robert E. Lee.  Here is a taste:

BOISE, Idaho – One of Boise’s largest churches is removing a controversial reminder of Idaho’s connections to the Confederacy – a stained-glass window featuring Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The Cathedral of the Rockies installed stained-glass windows for its then-new building in downtown Boise in 1960. Church documents show that the window, featuring Lee standing with Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, was meant as an “inclusive nod to Southerners who have settled in Boise,” said the Rev. Duane Anders, senior pastor.

“Clearly, white Southerners,” Anders said.

As protests over the death of George Floyd and police violence against Black Americans continue, communities are increasingly demanding the removal of Confederate monuments and other symbols that elevate racist figures in American history.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the removal of the state’s largest Confederate statue in Richmond. People in Boston beheaded a statue of Christopher Columbus, which was later removed by the city. The Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to strip Confederate names, symbols and icons from all U.S. military bases despite vocal opposition from President Donald Trump.

At the urging of community members, the mostly white leaders and congregation of the Cathedral of the Rockies, the downtown campus of the Boise First United Methodist Church, said the time is now for their church.

“It’s not about removing sinners from the window,” Anders told the Statesman last week, “but about removing a racist symbol that clearly says to some people that you’re less than, and that you’re not really welcome.” Phillip Thompson, the executive director of the Idaho Black History Museum, is one of many people who have been urging church leaders to address the window since 2017.

Read the rest here.

I don’t know of any congregation that has taken racial reconciliation and its Confederate past more seriously than St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Read about it here. And then listen to Episode 43 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

More on the Minnesota United Methodist Church that Reportedly Asked Older Members to Leave

Cottage Grove

Some of you remember this story from the other night.  I originally posted a taste of an article from the Duluth News Tribune reporting that The Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove, Minnesota is closing in June 2020 and reopening in November 2020.  Older members of the congregation, according to a church memo, were asked to “stay away for two years, then consult the pastor about reapplying.”

When my post hit the twittersphere I heard from Jeremy Peters, the minister responsible for leading the The Grove United Methodist Church after it reopens.  Peters said that the Duluth News Tribune story was inaccurate.  I published his tweets as an addendum to the post.

This story has really taken-off in the past twenty-four hours.  Peters continues to offer clarifying tweets.  Here is a taste of Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s coverage at The Washington Post:

When a small church in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul shuts it doors in June, some of the members, who are almost all older than 60, are worried about where their funerals will be held. When it reopens perhaps a year later, the traditional hymns could be missing and a new pastor will be almost three decades younger.

One 70-year-old member called the church leaders’ decision to fold in order to start a new congregation “age discrimination.”

A United Methodist church in Minnesota has put the spotlight on widespread generational challenges across the county, with many leaders trying to attract younger people without alienating the elderly members who are the backbone of their dwindling congregations.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press recently suggested in a headline that the Cottage Grove church will “usher out gray-haired members in effort to attract more young parishioners.” But the Rev. Dan Wetterstrom, its head pastor, said Tuesday that allegations of age discrimination unfairly represented the strategy for a church that has been on the decline for two decades.

“No one is being asked to leave the church,” said Wetterstrom, 59. “People are disappointed that the service is being canceled.”

After some members complained about the leadership’s vote to shutter the Cottage Grove church, leaders said Tuesday they never asked members to leave, but they did say the church will reopen with some changes to its look and feel.

“It felt like they were targeting us even though they didn’t put an age number on it,” said William Gackstetter, 70, who lives about four blocks from the church.

The church’s building sits on prime real estate because it sits across the street from an Aldi and down the street from Target, he said, and he is worried that the church will be shut down permanently and turned into apartments, like other shuttered churches across the country.

Read the rest here.

A Minnesota Church Tells Older Members of the Congregation to Leave and Not Come Back

Cottage Grove

The Grove United Methodist Church (Cottage Grove campus)

I recently talking to a 60-something friend of mine who attends an evangelical megachurch that recently hired three new pastors.  I asked him if he liked these new congregational leaders.  He said, “Yes, I like them, but they don’t seem particularly interested in me.  I don’t think I represent the right demographic.”

I thought about this conversation as I read about a United Methodist congregation in Cottage Grove, Minnesota.  The congregation is not attracting new members and the leadership has decided to close the church in June 2020.

But the story doesn’t end there.

The Grove United Methodist Church will reopen in November 2020 and the present members, most of whom are over sixty years of age, will be asked to worship elsewhere.

Wow!

Here is Bob Shaw’s reporting in the Duluth News Tribune:

A prayer for survival rose from the back of the church last Sunday.

“I pray for this church, getting through this age-discrimination thing,” said William Gackstetter, as the gray-haired heads around him nodded in agreement.

Gackstetter and other members of the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove are upset enough that their church is closing in June. What makes it worse is that their church is reopening in November — pretty much without them.

The church wants to attract more young families. The present members, most of them over 60 years old, will be invited to worship somewhere else. A memo recommends that they stay away for two years, then consult the pastor about reapplying.

Officials say the church needs a reset, and reopening the church is the best way to appeal to younger people.

But the older church members say they see that as an insult.

“This is totally wrong,” said Gackstetter’s wife, Cheryl. “They are discriminating against us because of our age.”

After the plan was explained by a visiting pastor on Jan. 5, she said, “I called him a hypocrite. I said, ‘You are kicking us out of our church.’ ”

Read the rest here.

The Grove United Methodist Church has two campuses.  The Woodbury campus seems to have a large number of younger families and holds two service each Sunday.  The Cottage Grove campus has one service on Sunday mornings and is part of a 2008 merger with the Woodbury congregation.

I imagine that some evangelical megachurch pastors will get upset about this story.  But then they will think about it some more…

Thanks to John Haas for bringing this story to my attention.

ADDENDUM (9:07pm)

Jeremy Peters is the 30-year-old minister who will be planting the new church (November 2020) at Cottage Grove.  He is a graduate of Bethel University and Bethel Theological Seminary.  Peters contacted me via Twitter:

 

Hillary Clinton: Methodist Preacher

Hillary nominated

Over at The Atlantic, Emma Green has a great piece on the Christian faith of Hillary Clinton.  It turns out that the next step in Clinton’s career may have a lot do with her Methodist faith.

Here is a taste:

Hillary Clinton wants to preach. That’s what she told Bill Shillady, her long-time pastor, at a recent photo shoot for his new book about the daily devotionals he sent her during the 2016 campaign. Scattered bits of reporting suggest that ministry has always been a secret dream of the two-time presidential candidate: Last fall, the former Newsweek editor Kenneth Woodward revealed that Clinton told him in 1994 that she thought “all the time” about becoming an ordained Methodist minister. She asked him not to write about it, though: “It will make me seem much too pious.” The incident perfectly captures Clinton’s long campaign to modulate—and sometimes obscure—expressions of her faith.

Now, as Clinton works to rehabilitate her public image and figure out the next steps after her brutal November loss, religion is taking a central role. After long months of struggling to persuade Americans that she is trustworthyauthentic, and fundamentally moral, Clinton is lifting up an intimate, closely guarded part of herself. There are no more voters left to lose. In sharing her faith, perhaps Clinton sees something left to win, whether political or personal.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Joseph T. Reiff

Joseph T. Reiff is Professor of Religion and Chair of Religion Department at Emory & Henry College. This interview is based on his new book, Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Born of Conviction?

JR: I grew up in Mississippi Methodism and knew a couple of the signers of the “Born of Conviction” statement when I was a child in the early 1960s. Though I did not know about the statement then, I was certainly aware of tensions in the white church related to the race issue and the civil rights movement, and in October 1963 I witnessed an interracial group of visitors get arrested at the front steps of my church simply for attempting to worship there. In the mid-1970s at Millsaps College I became friends with two fellow students who had family members involved in the Born of Conviction controversy. I first saw the statement in 1983 when I was a United Methodist pastor in Mississippi, and I photocopied it. When I began teaching, I used the statement as a case study of the clash between a dominant culture and the Christian faith, or more accurately, between cultural Christianity and an attempt to be faithful to the Christian gospel even when such a stance challenges the cultural status quo. When historians Wayne Flynt, Andrew Manis, and Joel Alvis presented papers at a symposium on Southern religion on my campus in 2002, I was inspired to pursue the project, and I began interviewing surviving signers of “Born of Conviction” in 2003.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Born of Conviction?

JR: Though its language seems mild now, the publication of the “Born of Conviction” statement by 28 white Mississippi Methodist ministers in January 1963 caused a significant crack in the false façade of white unanimity in support of segregation in Mississippi. Most of the many brief published mentions of the statement have summarized it as “the signers spoke out and were forced out of Mississippi,” but that is too simple for a number of reasons: the signers received a good deal of affirmation for their stand, though much of it was private; the 20 signers who left Mississippi did so for a wide range of reasons, often involving free choice; and eight of the signers remained in the state for the rest of their careers.  

JF: Why do we need to read Born of Conviction?

JR: It is a powerful story of some white Methodist clergymen who spoke against the tide when massive resistance in Mississippi was at its peak. The white church there usually not only failed to support the black freedom struggle, it also often actively resisted it; here is an alternative narrative: ministers who spoke to a statewide audience in support of change. The negative response to their effort was predictable, but the book offers a complex view of white attitudes on race relations in 1963 Mississippi by examining the responses to the statement: from individuals and congregations in public and private ranging from negative to ambivalent to positive. It is a thick description of white Methodism in Mississippi in the civil rights era and also looks at church efforts to help create the “new Mississippi” after 1964.

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

JR: My training and experience is in practical and pastoral theology as well as qualitative
religious research. When I started a religion Ph.D. program after five years as a local church pastor, I wanted to center my work on pastoral and ecclesiological issues. My dissertation was a study of an unusual United Methodist congregation in Atlanta’s historic Grant Park neighborhood; the church came back from near death in the mid-1980s due to an influx of “cultural left” Baby Boomers and their children, and I was there to study it as an observer-participant. Because the church was founded just after the Civil War, I wove historical research into my consideration of social ethics, ecclesiology, and Christian formation in that congregational subculture. The fundamentally interdisciplinary character of history makes it an excellent platform on which to explore a variety of ethical, pastoral, and ecclesiological issues in Born of Conviction.  

JF: What is your next project?

JR: I am planning to write a biography of Roy C. Clark, a Mississippi Methodist pastor who left the state in 1963 and was eventually elected a United Methodist bishop. Clark grew up in Mississippi as the son of a Methodist Episcopal Church, South pastor and graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1944. He was a great preacher and classic Southern theological moderate/liberal; Davis Houck and David Dixon included a sermon of his in the second volume of their Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement. I look forward to interviewing people who knew Clark in Mississippi, Memphis, Nashville, and South Carolina, and to diving into his voluminous papers in order to tell his story and explore his theology, preaching, and leadership in the embattled context of the mid-20th century South.

JF: Thanks, Joseph! 

The Author’s Corner with Geordan Hammond

Geordan Hammond is Senior Lecturer in Church History and Wesley Studies at Nazarene Theological College (Manchester, UK) and Director of the Manchester Wesley Research Centre. This interview is based on his new book, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford University Press, July 2014).
JF: What led you to write John Wesley in America?
GH: The book has its origins in my doctoral thesis at The University of Manchester. I initially wanted to write on John Wesley’s relationship with America and Americans in his lifetime. Studying the two years he spent in the colony of Georgia as an Anglican missionary was the natural starting point for this project. When I got into the work on Georgia I increasingly became fascinated with the subject and realized that a lot of sources are available, many of which had scarcely been used by past biographers of Wesley and some never before used by them. Studying Wesley in Georgia fit well with my interests in history, theology, and missionary work.   
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Wesley in America?
GH: I argue that the Georgia mission, for Wesley, served as a laboratory for implementing his views of primitive Christianity. His aim of restoring the doctrine, discipline, and practice of the early church in the primitive Georgia wilderness was the central motivating factor in his decision to embark for Georgia and in his clerical practice in the colony. 
JF: Why do we need to read John Wesley in America​?
GH: This question could be answered in a variety of ways depending on the interests of the individual reader. It is the first book-length study of John Wesley’s experience in America. In the past, the majority of Wesley scholars have seen his Georgia mission as a ‘failure’ leading to his evangelical conversion not long after he returned to England from the colony. I argue for the importance of evaluating Wesley’s time in Georgia in its own right. I think a contextual study of Wesley in Georgia presents more areas of ‘success’ than scholars have often realized, and also helps to reveal more continuity with Wesley’s post-Georgia ministry and theology than has often been recognized. For those interested in the eighteenth-century Church of England, the book demonstrates the depth of influence of Anglican High Churchmen and Nonjurors on Wesley’s conception and practice of primitive Christianity. I document the connections between Wesley’s participation in the revival of patristic scholarship at Oxford and his clerical practice in Georgia. Wesley’s vision for restoring primitive Christianity had a dominant effect on his relationships in Georgia. For anyone interested in the history of colonial Georgia, the book contributes to our knowledge of religion and politics in the colony.   
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
GH: Thanks for calling me ‘an American historian’! I decided to become a historian as an undergraduate at Point Loma Nazarene University after a long process of discernment and elimination of other possibilities. When I chose a vocation in history it felt like coming back home as I recalled the interest in history I developed as a child through the stories my grandfather told me. At Fuller Theological Seminary I combined my love for history and theology. So I became a church historian—a vocation that includes the history of American Christianity. While I teach a wide-range of church history from early to modern, my primary areas of research and writing are on John Wesley, early Methodism, the Church of England in the eighteenth century, and the Evangelical Revivals in their international contexts. Being a historian gives me the tools to better understand my heritage in the Wesleyan tradition and to help shape it for the future.
JF: What is your next project?

GH: I am one of the organizers through the Manchester Wesley Research Centre of the ‘George Whitefield at 300’ conference this June 25-27 at Pembroke College, Oxford (where Whitefield was a student). The conference will feature over forty papers on aspects of Whitefield’s life, context, and legacy. My next publishing project will be co-editing a book featuring select papers from the conference. Part of my ongoing publishing work includes serving as co-editor of the journal Wesley and Methodist Studies.   

JF:  Thanks, Geordan!

AHA Session Overview: "Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution"

This morning (AHA  Day 2) I had the privilege of presenting a paper on a panel devoted to religion and the American Revolution at the Winter meeting of the American Society of Church History.  The session was entitled “Fracturing a Global Empire: Religion and Place in the American Revolution.”  My fellow presenters were Katherine Carte Engel of Southern Methodist University and Christopher Jones of the College of William and Mary.  Mark Peterson of Cal-Berkeley provided the comment.

Jones led things off by giving us a taste of his dissertation research on transatlantic Methodism with a particular focus on Canada and the Caribbean.  This is a wonderful project.  Chris’s work will definitely expand what we know about Methodism in early America from the works of Dee Andrews, John Wigger, and Cynthia Lyerly. 

I tried to challenge the prevailing (although Peterson did not think it prevailing) paradigm that links the First Great Awakening to the American Revolution.  My focus was on Presbyterians. 

Engel argued that both traditional or “territorial” Anglicans and “evangelical” Anglicans in England cared little about the American Revolution.

Peterson described our panel as a “religious dog that does not bark in the night.”  He suggested that all of our papers suggested, in one form or another, that religion was not a factor in the American Revolution.  While I don’t think that such a suggestion was a completely accurate portrayal of my paper (I argued that religion was important, but evangelical Christianity was not), all of the papers questioned  whether it was appropriate to understand the American Revolution in religious terms.

Peterson said that the scholarly conversation on the relationship between religion and the Revolution is still stuck in the Cold War–a time when it was important to connect religion to American nationalism as a counter to “godless” communism.  In other words, this conversation is still embedded in a kind of consensus or “homogeneous” history that thinks about religion less as a local or regional phenomenon and more as a force that contributes to nationhood.

Peterson said that there is no intrinsic reason why religion should be an explanatory factor for explaining the American Revolution.  He called for a new synthesis–one that he thought our papers were moving toward–that focused more on the diversity of religious experience in eighteenth-century America.

As far as my paper was concerned, Peterson raised questions that I have been wrestling with for several years.  First, he chided me for making a vague reference to the Enlightenment as a more plausible reason for Presbyterian political activity.  Indeed, the reference to the Enlightenment was vague.  I wrote an entire book on what might be called the “Presbyterian” or “rural” Enlightenment and as I argued in that book, the Presbyterian embrace of the Enlightenment was essential to understanding why the members of the denomination became patriots.  Second, Peterson asked me to be more specific about the term “Presbyterian.”  Was is it really a religious category?  Or was it more of a political or ethnic category.  This is a question I continue to try to nail down and it was one that I grappled with a bit in a recent paper on the Paxton Boys massacre of 1765.

Peterson was a great commentator.  He handed back my paper with dozens of marginal comments–stuff he did not bring up during the formal response.  I could not ask for anything better from a commentator on a panel like this.  It was also a pleasure to see Chris and Kate again.  I am eager to read their forthcoming works.

Dispatches from the American Academy of Religion 2013–Part 2

As part of The Way of Improvement Leads Home‘s commitment to covering major academic conferences, we offer Adam Parsons‘s second dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore. Read Adam’s first dispatch from the AAR here.

Adam is a doctoral candidate in American history at Syracuse University working on a dissertation on modern American evangelicalism with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn.  He is an editor at the Red Egg Review: An Orthodox Christian Quarterly of Society, Politics, and Culture –JF

It is COLD in Baltimore! I had planned to attend a session today on publishing strategies for graduate students, but when I found out it was in another building, I decided to go to my backup panel. (This is exactly why I always choose a backup panel at large conferences). The choice, as it turns out, was serendipitous, as I ended up seeing my favorite paper of the conference so far. Dennis Dickerson, of Vanderbilt, gave a fantastic and provocative paper in the Wesleyan Studies Group in which he argued that the split between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church was not primarily about race or the issue of slavery. Rather, he argues, the founders of the AME thought that white Methodists’ piety was declining – a sentiment with which Francis Asbury agreed (he suggested, in fact, that the Methodists, on coming to America, should have gone first to African-Americans, not to whites). White Methodists’ lack of opposition to slavery was not the cause of the division, but the most visible symptom of the cause. Going further, Dickerson argued that the historically Black Wesleyan churches have maintained a more thoroughly Wesleyan piety and practice than the United Methodists, and that piety was fundamental to African-American social action.

I couldn’t decide which late-afternoon panel to attend, so I went to half of both I was interested in. The first, on apocalypse and authority in Pentecostalism, attempted to bring Pentecostal history to bear on Weberian conceptions of authority. I was most interested in Jeremy Sabella’s paper on charismatic evangelicalism in Guatemala, in which he tried to contextualize and explain the bizarre-seeming phenomenon of Efraín Ríos Montt, charismatic pastor and, briefly and famously, President of Guatemala. While Montt has since been implicated in genocidal attacks during the country’s guerilla war, during his presidency, he was remarkably popular in segments of the West. Ronald Reagan lauded him, and Luis Palau held a massive rally with Montt in Guatemala which was claimed to be the second-largest gathering of evangelicals ever held. Evangelicalism in Guatemala grew explosively throughout the 1980s – even after Montt’s removal in a coup – but tapered off in the 1990s. Sabella sought to explain this by situation its growth in Montt’s particular style of evangelicalism, which was shaped by the Jesus Movement missionaries who had converted him. Steeped in apocalyptic sensibility and promise, Sabella argued, this faith was appealing to a Guatemala shattered by a massive earthquake and civil unrest, and looking to rebuild. Promising a new Guatemala, it offered a safe haven in the present and a hope for a profoundly different future. However, with the end of the Cold War, the broader geopolitical context for this instability vanished, and the existential need for stability ceased to be such a major factor.

I left this panel early, so that I could hurry to the other end of the convention center and catch part of Wendell Berry’s session. He received the Martin Marty Award for Public Understanding of Religion, and, as part of the award, gave an extended interview with Duke’s Norman Wirzba. The audience was the youngest I’ve yet seen at the conference, including a few young children! Mr. Berry read several poems, and discussed his work with the Land Institute. At the end of the panel, he received a standing ovation, at which point he chided the audience and urged them to be more critical.

In other news, Random House is selling paperbacks here for $3, so I picked up copies of two books on my to-read list: Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith and T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, which should give me something to do on the ride to Ohio for Thanksgiving. Other than those, though, I’ve resisted the urge to purchase books – which is good, because the list I’ve kept of books I want is about to run onto its second page!

Tomorrow’s sections look good, so I should get some rest. (I’m dreading going outside again, but we do what we must).

George McGovern, 1972, and the "City on a Hill"

Over the past few days I have been working my way through Jefferson Cowie’s riveting and deeply satisfying Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press, 2010).  I must confess that I am reading this book less out of a responsibility to “keep up with my field” and more for pleasure.  As a child of the 1970s and a product of the white ethnic working class, Cowie’s book is helping me to contextualize some of my memories.

Last night I read Cowie’s chapter on George McGovern and the 1972 presidential race.  Cowie’s primary focus is on McGovern’s inability to tap into the white, ethnic, masculine working class–many of whom supported George Wallace in the Democratic primaries.  His failure to win the support of organized labor and unite the working class, blacks, and anti-war liberals (a vision he inherited from Bobby Kennedy) led to a divided Democratic Party and a landslide victory for Richard Nixon.

But I was most taken by Cowie’s description of McGovern’s campaigning in the closing weeks of the campaign.  By Autumn 1972, McGovern realized that his chances of victory in November were slim and he began to return to his roots as the son of a South Dakota Methodist minister.  Newsweek called it “McGovern’s Politics of Righteousness” and compared the candidate to William Jennings Bryan.

In a campaign stop at evangelical Wheaton College, McGovern invoked “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” speech of 1620.  As Cowie writes:

For McGovern the invocation of a city on a hill came with an absolute convictions that America had veered from the path of spiritual righteousness.  The vote on Tuesday, he claimed on the eve of the election, will be “a day of reckoning and judgment.”  Eight years later, Reagan would later invoke the same sermon as an affirmation of national greatness.

After reading this short section of Cowie’s book, I am convinced that we need a good religious biography of McGovern.

Here is another taste of Cowie’s description of McGovern’s righteous campaigning:

Richard Nixon, he implied, was an agent of not just political death and darkness, but spiritual death as well, who had led the people away from the promise of America.  On the war, he railed against four more years of “barbarism,” reminding Americans of the “thousands of Asians” who were “burning bleeding, and dying under the bombs that fall from American planes.”  “What is it,” he queried the nation, “that keeps a great and decent country like the United States involved in this cruel killing and destruction?  Why is it that we cannot find the wit and the will to escape from this dreadful conflict that has tied us down for so long?” he asked.  McGovern found Nixon’s formula of sparing American casualties by engaging in the massive carpet-bombing campaigns morally reprehensible.  In an address titled “They Too, Are Created in the Image of God,” McGovern subverted the logic of nearly two hundred years of imperial conquest by boldly equating the value of an Asian life to an American life.

Who is up to the task?  David Swartz?  Brantley Gasaway?

A Busy Day on the Local Circuit

It has been a busy day.

This morning I heard a great talk on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by my colleague Jim LaGrand. Jim was delivering a plenary address to the 700+ students taking Messiah’s first year CORE class–“Created and Called for Community.” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one of the required readings in this course. (Yesterday I taught Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” for the first time. I loved it! Tomorrow is Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.”)

Then it was off to the West Shore Country Club to do a book talk and signing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home with the Harrisburg-area chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Thanks to Karen Schmidt for the invitation. The audience was very receptive to the story of Philip Vickers Fithian. During the Q&A we had a great opportunity to talk about the importance of history and how it is being presented and taught in public schools. (One woman even asked about the controversy in Texas). Many books were sold and signed!

After eight years of teaching at an Anabaptist college that does not fly an American flag, I could not help but notice the contrast between the culture of Messiah College and the culture of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The meeting today began with prayer, followed by the pledge of allegiance, followed by the recitation of a creed proclaiming American greatness, followed by the joint singing of the Star Spangled Banner. It has actually been a while since I have been around this kind of intense patriotism.

I then returned to my office at Messiah where I had three very productive and enjoyable meetings with students. One was with a non-traditional student taking my Created and Called for Community course. (I love non-traditional students–they are so much more motivated than the normal undergraduate). Another was with a student who will soon be working for me as a research intern. And the last was with a student writing a senior honors thesis under my supervision.

I finished the day at Bethany Village talking about George Whitefield as part of a panel on the history of American Methodism.

Overall not a bad day. Now it’s time to catch up on some college basketball. Spring Break starts Saturday!