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.”

Presbyterians in Love

Letter to Beatty

The first letter that Fithian wrote to Elizabeth Beatty, dated July 15, 1770. From the Fithian Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Courtesy of the Princeton University Library. 

I am glad to learn that Commonplace: The Journal of Early American History and Life is re-running my 2008 piece “Presbyterians in Love” at its new website. I love the subtitle they chose: “He was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion.”

I can’t I published that piece twelve years ago.

Here is a taste:

Can Presbyterians fall in love? Okay, everyone falls in love, but when people think of Presbyterians they normally conjure up images of stoic Protestants whose kids eat oatmeal and memorize the Westminster Confession of Faith. Reverend Maclean, the Montana minister and father figure played by Tom Skerritt in A River Runs Through It, comes to mind. Presbyterians don’t “fall” in love—they rationally, and with good sense, ease themselves into it.

This was my image of Presbyterians until I read the correspondence of Philip Vickers Fithian. Most early American historians know Philip Vickers Fithian. He was the uptight young Presbyterian who served a year (1773-1774) as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter, and wrote a magnificently detailed diary about his experience. For most of us, Fithian is valued for his skills as an observer. His journal offers one of our best glimpses into plantation life in the Old Dominion on the eve of the American Revolution.

But despite Fithian’s ubiquitous presence in the indexes and footnotes of contemporary works of Virginia scholarship, most of us know little more about him than the very barest facts: He was born in 1747 in the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich. He was the eldest son of Presbyterian farmers but left the agricultural life in 1770 to attend the College of New Jersey at Princeton. After college he worked for a year on Carter’s plantation and was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. In 1776 he headed off to New York to serve as a chaplain with a New Jersey militia unit in the American War for Independence.

Such chronicling—the stuff of encyclopedia entries and biographical dictionaries—only scratches the surface of Philip’s life. It fails to acknowledge the inner man, the prolific writer who used words—letters and diary entries mostly—to make peace with the ideas that warred for his soul. Philip was a man of passion raised in a Presbyterian world of order. He came of age at a time when Presbyterians were rejecting the pious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening for a common-sense view of Christianity. And while Philip was clearly a student of this newer rational and moderate Protestantism, he remained unquestionably Presbyterian. For he was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion. His struggle to bring these worlds together is seen most clearly not in his well-known observations of plantation life but in his letters to the woman he loved—Elizabeth Beatty.

Philip first met Elizabeth “Betsy” Beatty in the spring of 1770 when she visited the southern New Jersey town of Deerfield to attend her sister Mary’s wedding to Enoch Green, the local Presbyterian minister. It may not have been love at first site, but it was close. Philip was enrolled in Green’s preparatory academy, and Betsy was the daughter of Charles Beatty, the minister of the Presbyterian church of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, and one of the colonies’ most respected clergymen.

Betsy was a new face in Deerfield, a fact that made her especially enchanting to the town’s young men. Philip had spent enough time with Betsy while she was visiting to begin a friendly correspondence with her. In his first letter, written shortly after she returned to Neshaminy, Philip wrote, “You can scarcely conceive . . . how melancholy, Spiritless, & forsaken you left Several when you left Deerfield!” He hoped for a prominent place “in this gloomy Row of the disappointed.” Since Betsy had departed Deerfield he could not “walk nor read, nor talk, nor ride, nor sleep, nor live, with any Stomach!” The “transient golden Minutes” they had spent together, he added, “only fully persuaded me how much real Happiness may be had in your Society.” Philip was smitten.

Betsy did not reply to this letter, and Philip’s obsession waned as he headed off to college in the fall of 1770. While he was there Philip had more than one opportunity to see Betsy again. He joined fellow classmates on weekend excursions to visit Charles Beatty’s church at Neshaminy, and it was during these visits that he made his first serious attempts to court Betsy. Though Philip and Betsy would spend much time together over the course of the next several years, the establishment of a correspondence was equally important to the development of their relationship. Betsy had given Philip permission to write her, a clear sign that she approved of his desire to move the friendship forward. By February 1772 he was signing his letters with the name “Philander” (“loving Friend”), an obvious indicator of his affection for his new correspondent.

Though much of Philip and Betsy’s courtship was conducted through letters, the exchange of sentiments usually flowed in only one direction. Perhaps Betsy did not like to write. Perhaps she preferred more intimate encounters or feared the lack of privacy inherent in letter writing. Or perhaps she did not want to encourage her suitor with a reply. Whatever the case, women generally did not write as much as men, especially when it came to love and courtship letters. In other words, Betsy may simply have been following the conventions of her day.

Read the rest here. Or get the entire story here:

Fithian Book

 

 

The Author’s Corner with Kevin DeYoung

The religion of john witherspoonKevin DeYoung is Senior Pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, North Carolina and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon: Calvinism, Evangelicalism, and the Scottish Enlightenment (Routledge, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: The book is a revised version of the dissertation I completed at the University of Leicester under John Coffey. My interest in John Witherspoon was first piqued while reading on the origins of religious liberty in America. I started reading more and more about Witherspoon, and quickly I wanted to read everything I could from Witherspoon. I’m fascinated by how getting to know this one figure has helped me go deeper in a variety of topics: from the theology of Reformed Orthodoxy to the history of the trans-Atlantic awakenings to controversies in the Scottish Kirk to the philosophy of the Enlightenment to the founding of America. In particular, I wrote this book to push back against the received narrative that presents Witherspoon as a confused thinker who capitulated to Enlightenment ideas once in America and infused a deleterious Common Sense Realism into the bloodstream of the colonies.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: John Witherspoon is known for many things—he was a thorn in the side of the Moderate Party in the Scottish Kirk, a successful president at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), an influential moral philosopher, the conduit of Scottish Common Sense Realism into the civic and ecclesiastical life of the American colonies, an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, and, most famously, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Most scholars, however—in overlooking his parish sermons, his treatises on justification and regeneration, his Lectures on Divinity, his student addresses at Princeton, his lifelong commitment to the Westminster Standards, and his work as a Presbyterian churchman in the United States—have failed to see that Witherspoon was not just a president, philosopher, and founding father, he was also an important theologian and Reformed apologist.

JF: Why do we need to read The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: John Witherspoon’s career and ministry can be divided into almost two equal halves. For twenty-five years—from his ordination in 1743 until he sailed across the Atlantic in 1768—Witherspoon was a minister in the Church of Scotland, serving two congregations (Beith and Paisley), both on the outskirts of Glasgow. After moving to America, Witherspoon labored another twenty-six years, still as a preacher, but now also as a college president and a founding father of a new republic. Witherspoon’s theology (not to mention Witherspoon the person) cannot be understood unless we see him not only engaged with the Scottish Enlightenment, but firmly grounded in the Reformed tradition, embedded in the transatlantic evangelical awakening, and frustrated by the state of religion in the Kirk. The focus in the book on Witherspoon’s Scottish career is intentional: those that know his Scottish context well tend to be less conversant with the nuances of Reformed theology, while those that show an interest in theology tend to mine the first half of Witherspoon’s career in order to set the stage for his more famous endeavors in America. Both groups are more interested in Witherspoon’s Enlightenment credentials than his Reformation roots. My contention is that Witherspoon’s ministerial career, and the theology that drove it, deserve scholarly inquiry of their own, quite apart from whatever the Scotsman would go on to accomplish in the New World.

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

KD: My first calling is to be a pastor, but as a local church pastor I also have the unique opportunity to teach history and theology at a nearby seminary. I’ve always loved old books and the detective work that comes along with digging through the past. As a Christian, I consider academic history to be an exercise in loving my (dead) neighbor as myself. While we never articulate the past in a pristine way free from all biases, I strive to understand the people, movements, and ideas from the past with the same intellectual honesty and sympathy I would hope to be looked at in the future.

JF: What is your next project?

KD: I have a lot of projects in the works, most of which are on a popular level. I’m finishing up a storybook Bible along the lines of my children’s book, The Biggest Story. I’m working with the same illustrator, Don Clark, to create a book of 104 stories drawn equally from the Old and New Testaments. The big project I’ll start next is a book compiling 365 short chapters on important theological topics and terms. My hope is that the book will be used by some as a daily devotional, by some as a reference guide, and by others as a mini-systematic theology. In the future, I’d also like to see Witherspoon’s theological works and sermons published for a wider audience, and eventually I’d like to write a biography.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

North Korean Ice Hockey Has Presbyterian Roots

North Korea

This is news to me.  Atlas Obscura has it covered.  Here is a taste:

FOR ALL THE INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION that the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang are bringing to the Korean Peninsula’s fractious history, tense present, and uncertain future, there will likely be little talk about the era when a team of American high school students represented the (now North Korean) city of Pyongyang—in hockey. Today, North Korea has thoroughly erased positive depictions of Americans from its capital, but before World War II it hosted a strong American missionary presence, and was the site of a remarkable chapter in sports history.

The first documented ice hockey games in Korea occurred in 1928, when the Japanese Empire ruled Korea, which they called Chosun (1910–45). An organized national hockey league and a national championship followed a couple of years later. In the Chosun Hockey League, which included teams of all age groups, Americans from the missionary communities were instrumental in developing the game. The first national champion, in 1930, was Chosun Christian College in Seoul, a school founded in 1915 by American Presbyterian missionaries. In Pyongyang, the leading team was from Pyongyang Foreign School, the school that served the American community. Hockey was the school’s leading winter sport.

Hockey games in 1930s Korea were elemental, played on outdoor rinks on land and on Pyongyang’s frozen Taedong River. Bitter cold, rough natural ice, ankle-high improvised boards, and wind and snow were normal for the players, and spectators had to stand all game on the edge of the ice, and sometimes on it. Like pickup games on frozen ponds in Canada or Minnesota, the conditions of these early games challenged the dedication of players and spectators alike.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey McDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Jeff!

 

Happy Anniversary Philip and Betsy!

298ce-fithiancover2Darryl Hart just called my attention to today’s post in “This Day in Presbyterian History.”  On this day in 1775, Philip Vickers Fithian married Elizabeth “Betsy” Beatty.   Anyone who has read The Way of Improvement Leads Home knows that Philip and Betsy had a rather tumultuous courtship.

Here is a taste of the entry:

An opportunity for further service interrupted this formal schooling. He was asked and encouraged by John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, to became a tutor of the large family of Robert Carter the Third in Virginia. Hesitant to go at first, he finally decided to take the opportunity and traveled south to this new ministry.

Chief also in his thoughts at this time was a young lady back home, the daughter of Rev. Charles Beatty, Elizabeth Beatty. His attempts of devotion and love toward her was met with silence or opposition. Even when he proposed to her, she rejected his proposal. All during the one year of tutorship, he wrote often to her.

Upon returning to New Jersey, he was licensed to preach the gospel. His ministry involved preaching to the vacant pulpits of Southern New Jersey. After a while, he transferred to the Donegal Presbytery in Pennsylvania, and was sent on two tours to western Pennsylvania and Virginia. In the middle of these tours, on this day, October 25, 1775, he was united in marriage with his long term sweetheart, Elizabeth Beatty.

Read the entire entry here.

Review of Gideon Mailer’s *John Witherspoon’s American Revolution*

MailerMy review of this important book is in the Summer 2017 issue of New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Here is a taste:

Prior to John Witherspoon’s American Revolution, the received wisdom from historians of Witherspoon’s thought was that the Presbyterian divine was the perfect representation of how evangelical Protestantism had either merged with, or was co opted by, the enlightened moral thinking emanating from the great Scottish universities. Historians Ned Landsman and Mark Noll argued that Witherspoon’s ethical sensibilities drew heavily from moralist Francis Hutcheson and the moderate wing of the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Landsman coined the phrase “The Witherspoon Problem” to describe how Witherspoon strongly opposed Hutcheson’s human-centered system of morality prior to arriving in the colonies in 1768, but then seemed to incorporate these same ideas in the moral philosophy lectures he delivered to his students at Nassau Hall. Noll forged his understanding of Witherspoon amidst the intramural squabbles in late twentieth-century evangelicalism over whether or not the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Since Witherspoon was a minister with deep evangelical convictions, many modern evangelicals claimed him as one of their own and used his life and career to buttress the Christian nationalism of the Religious Right. In a series of scholarly books, Noll challenged his fellow evangelicals to understand Witherspoon less as an evangelical in the mold of First Great Awakening revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, and more as a product of the Scottish Enlightenment who drew heavily from secular ideas to sustain his understanding of virtue.

Mailer’s revisionist work challenges much of what we have learned from Landsman and Noll. 

Read the entire review here.

The Author’s Corner with Cara Burnidge

APeacefulConquest.jpgCara Burnidge is Assistant Professor of Religion at University of Northern Iowa. This interview is based on her new book, A Peaceful Conquest:  Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: A Peaceful Conquest is the result of me thinking about the American social gospel movement as both intimately connected to Christian ideas of proper governance, particularly American democracy, and as an example of American religious movements responding to their global context. 

As a graduate student, my primary research area was on the work of white social gospel ministers and the women of the settlement house movement. I knew from the primary sources that these themes were present, but when it came time to write a proposal for my dissertation, I had a hard time finding a hook that could make this project make sense without being the cliche of a PhD candidate who couldn’t speak succinctly about their own research. While sharing this conundrum in a meeting with a mentor, she asked simply “What about Woodrow Wilson? Have you thought about him?” I hadn’t. I didn’t consider myself a presidential historian and, to be honest, the vantage point of suffragists colored what limited considerations of Wilson I had had at that time. To be fair and start with the most obvious intersection between “on the ground” reformers and politicians, I began reading the The Papers of Woodrow Wilson and the most recent biography of Wilson at the time. I hoped to find a connection that would show that local and regional social gospel efforts made an impact beyond domestic policy concerns. Rather than a connection I could point to then move on, I found a treasure trove of of memos, letters, telegrams, speeches, and policy conversations that demonstrated the pervasive influence of social gospel thought in American foreign relations. The combination of primary and secondary sources convinced me that I had a different perspective to contribute to the existing historical conversation about Wilsonian liberal internationalism and American religion in this era based on my understanding of the social gospel movement.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: I argue Woodrow Wilson’s religious identity, shaped by both southern evangelicalism and social Christianity, influenced his liberal internationalism and its legacies for American religion and politics in the twentieth century.

JF: Why do we need to read A Peaceful Conquest?

CB: It should come as no surprise that I am not the first person to write about President Wilson and that others have written great works examining the role of religion in Wilson’s presidency. In fact, Wilson is often the go-to example of a president whose religion “mattered.” What makes A Peaceful Conquest different from these works is its intentional placement of Wilson in the greater American religious landscape and its reconsideration of how we think of presidents and their religious identity. Methodologically, I consider Wilson’s religious identity as I would any other historical figure—intersectional. Race, class, gender, and religion are not separate “lenses” to clarify or frame figures, but constitutive parts that must be held together to understand the whole person and their historical context. Some readers may find this approach helpful for understanding recent public conversations about Wilson’s legacy. It also allows scholars to place Wilson in historical perspective as Americans think (and rethink) the place of white evangelicalism in American identity and the role of America in the world.

A Peaceful Conquest should be added to your reading list if you want to know more about how American religion shaped international politics; if you’re interested in how religious identity does (and does not) shape presidents and their policies; if you’d like to think about the peculiar ways religion is both present and absent from American democracy; if you’re wondering how the social gospel could have been central to American culture yet seemed to disappear after World War I; and if you’re wondering how or why the so-called “God gap” became central to the Democratic Party’s identity.

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

CB: As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of having professors and mentors who treated me and other history majors as their equals. The History professors at Washburn University impressed upon us that history is a conversation among historians and they treated us as members of the guild well before we earned our credentials. Those conversations—arguments, debates, and more than one pontification on how history can save the world—convinced me that I was an American historian. More good fortune, generous mentors, and hard work helped me get to the position I am in now.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: My next project examines the King-Crane diplomatic mission, which surveyed residents of mandated territories of Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan to determine who they preferred to oversee their development toward democracy. I am considering how the State Department approached the role of residents’ religion and race in its commitments to advancing national self-determination and democracy in the Middle East.

JF: Thanks, Cara! Sounds like some good stuff.

The Author’s Corner with Glenn Jonas

acloudofwitnessesfromtheheartofthecityGlenn Jonas is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Charles Howard Professor of Religion at Campbell University. This interview is based on his new book, A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City: First Presbyterian Church, Raleigh, 1816-2016 (Mercer University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City?

GJ: The First Presbyterian Church of Raleigh, NC, contracted with me to write A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City.  The church celebrated its bicentennial this year and in 2012 they enlisted me to write their history.  I had just completed a similar project for the First Baptist Church of Raleigh that year.  Writing these two books has been the most enjoyable, yet challenging, scholarly work that I have done.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City?

GJ: In A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City, I attempt the chronicle the two hundred year history of one of the leading churches in the heart of downtown Raleigh, NC, the capital city of the state.  I set the story of this local congregation within the broader context of regional, state, national and denominational history and in doing so, provide a glimpse of Presbyterian history from the “bottom up” rather than from the “top down.”

JF: Why do we need to read A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City?

GJ: A Cloud of Witnesses from the Heart of the City, is a useful read for any member of that church.  However, others will find interest in the book because it provides a glance at the history of a denomination from the perspective of one congregation.  Typically, denominational histories are written from the perspective of the leading theologians, ministers or denominational leaders.  My approach is to tell the story from the perspective of the people who sit in the pews each week.  So, I provide a look at Presbyterianism from the perspective of the local congregation as it filters up to the denominational leadership.

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

GJ: During my second year of seminary, I made a decision to pursue a Phd at Baylor University in the history of Christianity.  This was approximately 1983.  During my doctoral work, I focused on American Religious history, a subset of American history, and a field in which I continue to be fascinated.

JF: What is your next project?

GJ: Currently, I am working with two other scholars here in North Carolina to edit a work which will highlight the various religious traditions in the history of North Carolina.

JF: Thanks, Glenn!

The Author’s Corner with S. Scott Rohrer

Scott Rohrer is an independent historian who has published several books on religious history. This interview is based on his new book Jacob Green’s Revolution (Penn State University Press, November 2014).

JF: What led you to write Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: When I finished my previous book on religious migrations in early America, I turned my attention to the American Revolution—my initial thought was to explore how a Presbyterian community functioned during the war, in an attempt to understand what made church members such fervent backers of the Revolution. I wanted to know what was happening on the ground, religiously and socially, during the war. So I began reading about a Presbyterian community that seemed like a good candidate for a case study: Morris County, N.J., a Presbyterian-Whig stronghold if there ever was one. Presbyterians dominated the religious landscape in Morris and wholeheartedly backed the war.

As I read through the primary and secondary sources for this community, a name kept jumping off the page: Jacob Green. I had never heard of him, but I became more and more intrigued by his story as I learned more about this remarkable man: Green wrote a bestselling tract (a social-religious satire), helped persuade New Jerseyans to declare for independence, and fought for the abolition of slavery, among many other things. I also found that no one had written a modern biography of him. There was a personal reason as well for this change: my first book (on the Moravians’ agricultural settlements in North Carolina) was a community study, and I realized I really wasn’t interested in doing another one. It would be fun to do something different, to write a biography.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: Jacob Green was all about reforming society, so this book seeks to explain why—and to explain why his source of energy is important to our understanding of revolutionary society. And my argument is that Calvinism—for all its seemingly crazy predestinarian beliefs that many contemporaries saw as inhibiting reform (where’s the incentive to act morally, to do good, to reform society, if God has preordained your fate, and this fate is immutable?)—spurred on Green’s reform drive and was vibrant, even revolutionary, compared with, say, High Church Anglicanism.

JF: Why do we need to read Jacob Green’s Revolution?

SR: To be blunt, some reviewers will be asking this very question: why should we care about someone so obscure? Admittedly, this parson from Morris County, N.J., is not a household name, even to historians of the revolutionary period. Few have heard of him. Which is exactly why I think he’s worthy of study. At heart, I’m a social historian who finds the obscure just as interesting and important as the famous. This book details the life of a little-known revolutionary who pursued a reform program that was as radical and ambitious as anything pursued by the Adamses and Jeffersons of the revolutionary world. Green’s life provides an enlightening look into the ways religion influenced—and did not influence—society during the revolutionary era.

I’d like to think this book is worth a read for a second reason: Jacob Green’s Revolution experiments with the biographical format. Religion’s influence on the Revolution was not uniform. So I decided to tell an alternate story between the main chapters in an effort to show this, and to better demonstrate Calvinism’s inherent radicalism. The second story revolves around a High Church Anglican named Thomas Bradbury Chandler who lived about 20 miles from Green and was Green’s polar opposite: both were New Englanders who came to New Jersey to become ministers; both pursued reform causes; both were influential writers—but they took opposite sides in the revolutionary drama and had far different conceptions of society and religion’s role in it. So Chandler’s story, told as narrative-driven vignettes, is meant to sharpen our understanding of Green’s radicalism. I also hope readers, especially general readers, will simply find Chandler’s story interesting and entertaining.

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

SR: History’s in my DNA. I always hated math and science and never, ever considered pursuing a career in business. From a young age I was fascinated by colonial America—the architecture, the people, the times they lived in. Besides taking trips to Williamsburg, visits to the old family farm in Lancaster County, Pa., also hooked me on early American history. My ancestors were German Mennonites, and my great-grandfather’s farm was a trip back in time. Those Mennonite roots helped pique my interest in religious history. I was utterly fascinated by the Mennonites, Moravians and others, and how their religious beliefs influenced the way they lived.

JF: What is your next project?

SR: My next project builds on Jacob Green’s Revolution—it takes a deeper look into religion and revolution by focusing on the British Atlantic world over three centuries. The work that’s been done on religion and the American Revolution is outstanding, and the quality of this work is forcing me to try to find fresh ways to approach the topic. That’s a healthy exercise.

I do think studies attempting to explain religion’s influence—or lack of influence—on the Revolution are too focused on the 18th century and the Great Awakening. A long, long history of religious turmoil stretching back to Henry the VIII helped condition the colonists to react a certain way when the crisis with British authorities began in the 1760s. This history was centered on the English Church’s attempts to impose conformity and the backlash this attempt created. So to fully grasp the religious dimensions of the revolutionary crisis, I’m going all the way back to Tudor England and the attempts during the Elizabethan period to stifle dissent and create a consensus for a state church based on a middle way (“via media”).

The book will be divided into three sections that look at religious conflict through a series of case studies: the Tudor period; the Laudian years of the 1630s; and the American scene in the 18th. I’m most interested in comparing/contrasting England, Scotland, Ireland, and America (including Canada) over the three periods and showing how important this history was to the American colonists and their impending revolution. The bishop’s cause and Thomas Bradbury Chandler will figure prominently in the story, too.

JF: Thanks, Scott! Sounds good.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Working with Presbytery Records

Minutes of the Carlisle Presbytery, May 1765

I spent most of the day (along with Megan and Brianna) on Thursday working through presbytery minutes at the Presbyterian Historical Society.  We read the eighteenth-century minutes (roughly between 1740 and 1790) of the Donegal, Philadelphia, New York, Lancaster, and Carlisle Presbyteries.  Here are some of the things we hoped to find:

1.  References to the James Caldwell.  As part of my consulting project this summer we are trying to gather everything we can about this revolutionary-era pastor of the Elizabeth-Town (NJ) Presbyterian Church.  Caldwell was a member of the New York Presbytery, but he makes occasional appearances in the records of other presbyteries as well.

2.  References to the Paxton Boys.  I am working on a paper/chapter on Presbyterianism and the Paxton riots.  There is no mention of the Paxton riots in any of these minutes, but it was still worth checking. Presbytery meetings usually stay focused, at least officially, on the life of the Presbyterian Church.  This includes cases of discipline, pulpit supply, and other ecclesiastical affairs.  It is not until the Revolution that public and political issues are mentioned (see below).

3.  One of the chapters in my current project will deal with the role of the church in the decade or two following the First Great Awakening.  We are thus looking specifically for the ways in which the presbyteries and local churches responded to the Plan of Union that reunited the Old Side and the New Side in 1758.  Some of my argument on this front appeared in chapter two of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

4.  The American Revolution.  We are looking at the ways in which the Revolution affected Presbyterian life and how Presbyterians responded to the Revolution.  For example, many presbyteries did not meet during the war.  Others made proclamations or comments about the “troubled state of affairs.”

We probably have a few more days left in the PHS.  Stay tuned…next week’s Virtual Office Hours will be coming to you from Philadelphia.