Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

os guinness

Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Someone sent it to me recently.

I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.

Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way.  Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.

Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.

Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes.  In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Menthe Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.

The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolutionthe French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).

Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.

In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.

In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality.  But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”

We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.

What American Historian and Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch Said to Mike Pence

13981-hatchHere is Nathan Hatch‘s op-ed at the Winston-Salem Journal:

Last week, I was invited to a conversation with Vice President Mike Pence and 13 other college and university presidents across the country to discuss what it will take to reopen campuses in the fall.

We talked about all of the considerations — public health and safety concerns, testing availability, robust containment measures and economic impact. We shared the various struggles and contingencies we are all working through. We agreed that universities are vital economic and innovative engines in their communities. And we admitted that there are no easy or predictable paths along this uncharted way.

When I was asked to share my perspective, I thought of a story that would illustrate our best way forward as a university and a community. I proudly talked about our “Mask the City” initiative with the vice president of the United States and shared the creativity, collaboration and unity of the Winston-Salem community. For this conversation is about more than returning to in-person classroom instruction at our nation’s universities; our concern should be about supporting our communities well as we seek to regain economic vitality safely.

As we have navigated these last several weeks, I shared how the people of Winston-Salem have learned to adapt to changing circumstances and adopt recommended practices. I told of the ingenuity of Dr. Bill Satterwhite and the specialists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, who spent five days developing a prototype of a reusable mask. A few days later, the idea was shared with Renfro, which had the capability and the capacity to reconfigure their manufacturing enterprise from socks to masks. With the organization of Mayor Allen Joines, Don Flow and other community leaders, many businesses, civic organizations, colleges and universities, foundations and faith-based organizations have made it possible to purchase and distribute more than 300,000 masks — one for every person in the city.

What will it take to reopen our institutions of higher learning? The same principles that will allow us to reopen our communities, re-energize our economy and keep ourselves and our neighbors safe: adapting to our changing circumstances and adopting recommended practices to keep one another healthy. And so the people of Winston-Salem will “wear a mask, love your neighbor, protect yourself, and stop COVID-19.” We all are part of the solution. When we offer what we have — an idea, a quieted manufacturing operation, a monetary donation, an hour or two delivering masks to neighbors — we slowly become whole.

Read the rest here.

A History of the Jerks

The Jerks

Image accessed at douglaswiniarski.com

No, this is not a political post.

Over at The Panorama, University of Richmond religion professor Douglas Winiarski writes about the jerks, a “fascinating spirit possession phenomenon” often associated with certain forms of evangelical Christianity.  It looks like this short piece draws from Winiarski’s recent William and Mary Quarterly article,”Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival.” Winiarski also wrote about the jerks in an August 2019 piece at the Uncommon Sense blog.

Here is a taste of his piece at The Panorama:

It was long after sunset on a brisk fall evening in 1804 when Joseph Brown drew the reins on his horse near the summit of Cumberland Mountain and settled in for the night. He had been riding all day along Avery’s Trace to attend a treaty meeting with the Cherokees at the Tellico Blockhouse in East Tennessee. Slipping down from his saddle to prepare a small meal of corn for himself and his mount, Brown paused in prayer. Suddenly his body began convulsing uncontrollably. Brown had been “taken with the Jirks,” the latest and most extraordinary of the somatic exercises that exploded across the trans-Appalachian west during the Great Revival (1799–1805). He continued to experience them over the next five decades until his death in 1868.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the jerks recently. They’re a fascinating spirit possession phenomenon that complicates our understanding of the origins of the southern Bible Belt. Once dismissed an bizarre curiosity in the history of evangelicalism, the jerks and other bodily exercises of the Great Revival loom especially large in the controversies that precipitated what Nathan Hatch famously called the Democratization of American Christianity—a landmark study that turns thirty this year. Jerkers like Joseph Brown pose a special problem for historians of the early republic. After all, his first experience with jerking occurred on the road to a treaty council in which the Federal Government sought to dispossess the Cherokee of their homelands. Was there a connection between frontier revivalism and western expansion?

Read the rest here.


Historian Nathan Hatch is the Highest Paid College President in the U.S.

f53b9-hatchWhat can you do with a history major?  Earn $4 million a year as a college president.

Many readers of this blog know Nathan Hatch for his award-winning The Democratization of American Christianity.  But did you know that he was pulling in $4,004,617 as president of Wake Forest University? Wow!

Learn more here.

It’s also worth noting that Jerry Falwell Jr. makes $958,021 as president of Liberty University.

Nathan Hatch on Why Christians Should Study the Past

Nathan Hatch

Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College is calling our attention to a recent chapel talk at Wheaton by Nathan Hatch.  As many of you know, Hatch is a Wheaton graduate, the author the award-winning The Democratization of American Christianity, and the current president of Wake Forest University. Hatch’s chapel talk was titled: “Engaging History: The Redemptive Power of the Past.” (Scroll to October 31, 2014).

Here is a taste of Tracy’s commentary on Hatch’s talk:

Hatch begins by observing that we evangelicals have long been suspicious of the past.  We pride ourselves on grounding our religious beliefs wholly on the Bible, not on human tradition, and that tends to make us skeptical of the past as a source of wisdom for our lives today.
As American evangelicals, we are doubly skeptical, inasmuch as we have been affected by a national culture that is relentlessly present-minded.
Hatch then explains why he finds this regretable, but he does so in a novel way.  He shares brief vignettes of two of his classmates in Wheaton’s class of ’68: John Piper and Mark Noll.  Both went on to great distinction after leaving Wheaton–Piper became a nationally-recognized evangelical pastor and writer, while Noll developed into arguably the most distinguished and prolific Christian historian of the last century.
When Piper and Noll were in their twenties, Hatch relates, both experienced a religious awakening by delving into the past.  Each story is fascinating, but I won’t spoil them by sharing too much of the specifics.  Building on these examples, Hatch identifies two general benefits to the Christian who, like Piper and Noll, chooses to delve into the past.  First, serious study of the past can “expand our view of God and His work in the world.”  Second, it can do much to improve our understanding of our own times.   Both benefits are invaluable.

The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals Closes Its Doors

In case you have not heard, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton College (IL) will be shutting down operations at the end of the year.   Last week Wheaton held a symposium to celebrate the work of the Institute and somewhere along the way this video was produced.  It provides an informative and brief oral history of the ISAE.  It also has some great pictures of Mark Noll, George Marsden, Grant Wacker, Harry Stout, Darryl Hart, Nathan Hatch and other members of the “evangelical mafia” in their younger days.  I love the story that Noll tells about some of these evangelical historians gathering together in a local eatery near the campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to discuss plans for the Institute. Reminds me of similar meetings, about a generation later, during my own days at TEDS.


//player.vimeo.com/video/110402289?title=0&byline=0&portrait=0 Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals Farewell from Tim Frakes on Vimeo.

American Society of Church History Session on Amanda Porterfield’s "Conceived in Doubt"

Jones, Bowman, and Altman at the Book Exhibit

I really wanted to attend this session, but I had a conflict. 

The American Society of Church History devoted an entire session today to Amanda Porterfield’s Conceived in Doubt:Religion and Politics in the New American Nation.  A panel of seasoned and younger scholars tackled Porterfield’s critique of the so-called “democratization” thesis–an interpretation of religion in the early republic most associated with Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity.

Over at Religion in American History, Michael Altman of the University of Alabama, who was one of the panelists, shared some of his opening thoughts.  Here is a taste of that post:

About a year ago I was having coffee with an American religious historian I greatly admire. We were discussing how we imagined ourselves, our work, and our audience. This historian looked at me at one point and said something to the effect of, “I wanted to show historians that religion is a powerful force. That it does stuff.” Religion does stuff. Isn’t this the theme of our subfield? I don’t walk the halls of a history department but I imagine this is what the religious historian says to their Marxist colleagues. I don’t walk the halls of divinity schools either, but I imagine it’s what church historians tell future church leaders. Religion is not epiphenomenal. It is not simply a mask for politics or capital. It does stuff.

For example, in their 2010 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, titled “Everywhere and Nowhere,” Paul Harvey and Kevin Schultz described the ways historians of American religions have “found the persistence, continuity, and adaptability of American religion an impressive, motivating, guiding, and ever shape-shifting specter,” (p.131).  Motivating. Guiding. Shape-shifting. So many verbals. Because religion does stuff, right? Religion guides, motivates, adapts, continues, persists, right?

Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe those moments of persistence, guidance, motivation, and continuity are actually the moments where religion itself gets constructed. Maybe it’s shape-shifting because it is constantly being rebuilt. But by who? And to what end? These were the questions driving my skepticism.

“Religion came to designate a diffuse realm, protected by the state, where people built communities, conceived relationships with God, and lamented the corruption of the state and of profane, mistrustful society,” Amanda Porterfield wrote (p.12). Here religion does nothing. People build, conceive, and lament and in that process they build a diffuse realm they call religion. And so, as she closes her introduction, Porterfield stoked my skepticism. Religion is not an agent, it is not a force, it is not a motivator. It is a realm, a category, a way of cordoning off this and not that. It is a product of distinctions and combinations.

In my reading, Porterfield’s most important contribution to American religious history is the shift from arguing that religion does stuff to an argument about how religion became a “diffuse realm” that Americans distinguished from the political and the profane. It is a shift from descriptivism to constructivism—a shift from looking for religion and seeing what it does to tracing out how Americans built this category they called religion.

If anyone who attended this session would like to write a summary post for The Way of Improvement Leads Home I would love to have one. 

On a related matter, I ran into Altman, Christopher Jones, and Matthew Bowman at the book exhibit following the session.  A picture of these Way of Improvement Leads Home readers was absolutely necessary.  (See above).  I was also asked to comment on Altman’s red pants.  Nice.

After Nathan Hatch’s "Democratization of American Christianity."

Over at The Junto, Roy Rogers discusses the impact of Nathan Hatch’s seminal The Democratization of American Christianity on the study of religion in the early republic.  When I started graduate school Hatch’s book was a hot new interpretation of early 19th century evangelicalism. Everyone was talking about it and critical reviews were rare. I have taught the book on at least four different occasions over the years–all to great effect.  It is hard to believe that next year marks the 25th anniversary of its publication.  Hatch’s book has certainly stood the test of time.

Younger scholars like Rogers, a graduate student at CUNY Graduate Center, continue to wrestle with Hatch’s argument. His post is very helpful in chronicling some of the most substantial critiques of Hatch’s democratization thesis that have appeared over the years.  (Jon Butler, Amanda Porterfield, Christine Heyrman). Here is a taste of his post:

The central problem faced by critics of the “democratization thesis,” myself included, is that no scholar has come up with an interpretative scheme to replace it. While, perhaps, “the democratization thesis” is teetering on the edge of the historiographical abyss, no work of synthesis has come along to give it that final shove. The closest potential executioner would be the excellent Conceived in Doubt (discussed above) but Porterfield’s book is too new and carefully argued to have such an immediate, startling impact. While the foundations of the analytic house that Hatch built are damaged it still stands. 
From my point of view if we are going to move beyond the legacy of The Democratization of American Christianity we need to pay more careful attention to the role the state continued to play in shaping post-Revolutionary religious life. While expanding evangelicalism did open new possibilities to many groups with in the new American society this was not a clear or straightforward process. It does not seem clear to me that we should describe denominational competition in the early republic as “democratic” with Mormons, Millerites, Methodists and more competing, fiercely and always honestly, for both souls and cultural-political influence. What unites scholarship working under the “ democratization thesis” and that interpretation’s critics is a focus on cultural explanations for the rise and success of evangelicalism in the new United States. What might be needed is to shift the focus of our analysis towards institutional and legal factors, over directly cultural ones. Law and political conflict continued to shape denominational building and competition after the Revolution. The new state governments of post-Revolutionary American continued to be the primary force defining the religious marketplace – through incorporation laws, through tests oaths, through moral legislation, through a general tax assessment to support Christian churches. Evangelicals, and their rivals, sought to use law to shape (and reshape) the religious marketplace in their favor and at their competitors’ expense. Keeping in mind this continuing relationship between state power and religious practice might allow us to devise a new, more persuasive interpretative framework for the chaotic world of early national Christianity.