Did Missionaries Contribute to the Growth of Secularism?

Protestants AbroadOver at The Christian Century, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester reviews David Hollinger‘s latest book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.

Here is a taste:

Protestants Abroad fits snugly within Hollinger’s long-standing narrative of the price that ecumenical Protestants paid as a religious community for their thinning of the particularism of Christianity. Clearly missionaries were prominent among the church leaders who got out ahead of the rank and file on controversial social and political matters and lost the loyalty of many of them. And the weight of Hollinger’s extensive biographical evidence is that they also pioneered the art of raising post-Protestant children who may well have admired their moral strength and shared their humanitarian values but found little need for their religious beliefs.

Hollinger himself remains impatient with those who persisted in “God-talk” long after he thinks it lost its plausibility, favoring post-Protestant “mish kids” over their still devout parents in this regard. But arguably, on his own evidence, there is something to be said, even if one does not speak it oneself, for God-talk or even Christ-talk. It may very well be that the tension between the universal and the particular was crushing for missionary theory, but was it so for missionary practice? There is little evidence in Hollinger’s book that this was the case.

Many of the numerous life stories in Hollinger’s books are tales of courage, courage that was for many of those who mustered it sustained by Christian belief, however thin it may have been. Civil rights activist and former missionary Ruth Harris was described by one of the students she inspired as “acting up for Christ”—not for humanity but for Christ. And the same might be said of many of those who gave us a more cosmopolitan republic. Could they have found the strength to act up elsewhere, outside the confines of Christian belief? Maybe, but in their Christianity was where they found it.

Thin God-talk is not necessarily weak God-talk; it can be wiry God-talk. God-talk lean, supple, and articulated alongside humility and doubt. Might one not cop to the considerable uncertainty that remains in even such wiry God-talk and despite doing so be moved by religious faith to do far more good than one might otherwise have done? The more cosmopolitan American republic that liberal Protestant missionaries did so much to create is of late under siege. If we are to protect it, perhaps a few courageous, die-hard ecumenical Christian survivalists will come in handy.

Read the entire review here.

Landmark Baptists

Landmark

Yesterday I gave a lecture on Protestantism to the teacher participating in the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History Princeton Seminar.  I tried to get them to see that when the Bible is translated into the vernacular and can be read by the people, the people will come up with different interpretations and thus different denominations.  I joked, “Last time I checked there were more than 100 kinds of Baptists.”

The Landmark Baptists are one of those groups.  Here is a taste of Sarah Laskow’s Atlas Obscura piece on this interesting Baptist group:

“Landmarkism” started in the 1850s, when immigrants were bringing varied ideas about Christianity to America and Baptists were raising questions about religious authority. Of all these churches, competing against each other, which was the one true path to God? James Robinson Graves, the publisher of the Tennessee Baptist newspaper, along with a handful of like-minded men, began arguing that only Baptists could claim this legitimacy. They backed up their claims with arguments about “church successionism,” tracing their beliefs and practices step-by-step, back to the beginnings of Christianity.

“Baptists had been historically a people who didn’t worry about their roots,” says Alan Lefever, director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection. “Landmarkism came at a time that some Baptists were pointing out that we had only been around since the 1600s. To the Landmarkists, that wasn’t good enough.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Paul Kemeny

9780190844394Paul Kemeny is Professor of Religion and Humanities at Grove City College. This interview is based on his new book, The New England Watch and Ward Society (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The New England Watch and Ward Society?

PK: In reading William Hutchison’s The Modernist Impulse, I was struck by his fascinating chapter on how Fundamentalists like J. Gresham Machen and humanists H.L. Mencken shared some common critiques of liberal Protestants. I was already familiar with Machen’s criticisms but did not know much about Mencken’s. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on by Mencken Reading Mencken was enjoyable because he’s such a delightful writer. More importantly, I was far more captivated by Mencken’s critique of Protestant anti-vice activism than his theological criticisms of liberal Protestants. The question that intrigued me was this: why would New England’s leading liberals—Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Unitarians—formed a vice squad? This action certainly clashed with the popular image that liberal Protestants, especially in Boston, were progressive, urbane, and tolerant.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The New England Watch and Ward Society?

PK: The New England Watch and Ward Society provides a new window into the history of American Protestantism during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. By seeking to suppress obscene literature, gambling, and prostitution, the moral reform organization embodied Protestants’ efforts to shape public morality in an increasing intellectually and culturally diverse society.

JF: Why do we need to read The New England Watch and Ward Society?

PK: I can offer three reasons. First, The New England Watch and Ward Society offers a panoramic historical review of mainline Protestant efforts to provide a unifying public morality for American public culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While focusing on the Boston-based New England Watch and Ward Society, my book explores the larger mainline Protestant establishment’s efforts to shape public morality. It describes late nineteenth-century Victorian American values about what constituted “good literature,” sexual morality, and public duty and explains Protestants’ efforts to promote these values in a rapidly changing culture. I examine censorship of allegedly obscene material as well as efforts to suppress gambling and “white slavery” (prostitution).

Second, the work explains why the Watch and Ward Society collapsed in the 1920s. The Watch and Ward Society’s sudden and very public fall from grace offers a new perspective on why mainline Protestantism’s efforts to impose a common civic morality upon American culture failed. 

Third, the study draws upon a treasure trove of previously-unpublished archival and printed sources and tells a number of fascinating stories about the suppression of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the sometimes nefarious tactics that publicly upstanding Protestant elites used to stamp out vice, such as planting eavesdropping devices in the Boston District Attorney’s office to gather evidence of his criminal activity.

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?)

PK: While I was in seminary, I grew interested in the history of America Protestantism during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. This interest gradually grew into a healthy obsession and after doing a Th.M. at Duke, I decided that I wanted to get a Ph.D in American religious history.

JF: What is your next project?

PK: I am currently in the throes of co-editing with my colleague Gary Scott Smith The Oxford Handbook of Presbyterians for Oxford University Press. We have assembled more than thirty-five scholars to contribute essays on Presbyterian history, theology, worship, ethics, politics, and education.

JF: Thanks, Paul!

W.H. Auden on Catholicism and Protestantism

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W.H. Auden

Here is another Protestant Reformation post.  This one is stolen from Alan Jacobs’s blog Snakes and Ladders.  What follows is a quote Jacobs posted today from Auden‘s review of Erik Erickson’s Young Man Luther:

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

Stanley Hauerwas on the Protestant Reformation

Stanley Hauerwas is in Your FaceAccording to theologian Stanley Hauerwas, the Protestant Reformation is over and the Protestants won.  But the victory has also put Protestants in a state of crisis.  What is a theologian to do?

Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Washington Post:

…Over time, historians have helped us see that there was no one thing the Reformation was about, but that if there was a single characteristic at its heart, it was the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world. That emphasis turned out to be the overriding insight that shaped the work of Vatican II, meaning Catholics have overcome the major thrust of the Reformation.

That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.

But I am still a Protestant, even though I’m not sure I know what I am saying when I say I am a Protestant. I can think of my life only as a living ecumenical movement — I was raised Methodist, taught Lutherans (Augustana College), was overwhelmed by the Catholic world, was deeply influenced by the Mennonites and finally returned to the Methodists at Duke. All of which, of course, means I have ended up worshiping at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, N.C. That I am a theologian more defined by where I went to graduate school than by any ecclesial tradition mirrors changes in the Protestant world — in particular, that the gulfs between the denominations seem only to feel smaller and smaller. And so does the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Read the entire piece here.  Hauerwas also wonders why so many of his students have converted to Catholicism.

The *Los Angeles Review of Books* Forum on the Protestant Reformation

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The LA Review of Books has gathered some of the English-speaking world’s best historians of the Protestant Reformation to reflect on its 500th anniversary.  Here is a taste of Yale Divinity School’s Bruce Gordon‘s introduction:

As we mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in all its forms, the older verities seem less certain. The authoritarian nature of both Protestantism and Catholicism created a world in which the faithful were disciplined into conformity with well-defined forms of Christianity. Whether through a pure heart or obedience to the sacramental nature of the Church, Protestants and Catholics made heavy demands on men, women, and children in the early modern world. Among other new realities, the Reformation created cultures in which people of opposing religions had to live side-by-side in rural villages and urban centers. Religious co-existence changed Europe and the Atlantic world, fostering, at least embryonically, the possibility for debates about religious toleration in a later age.

Follow along here.

 

Are Your Kids Going to Vacation Bible School This Summer?

VBS

via Creative Commons

If so, you need some historical context.  Check out Chris Gehrz’s “A Brief History of Vacation Bible School” at The Anxious Bench.”  Here is a taste:

In his 1964 history of Christian education, Wheaton education professor C.B. Eavey traced the idea back to Boston just after the Civil War, but it’s generally agreed that the first VBS antecedent to be held as a summer church-run activity took place starting in 1877 in Montreal, Canada. Then in 1898 Eliza Hawes, the children’s ministry director at New York City’s Baptist Church of the Epiphany, organized an “Everyday Bible School.” Originally held at a rented beer hall, attendance plummeted in 1900 when Epiphany’s pastor insisted on relocating to the church itself. The program moved back near the beer hall the following year, Hawes’ last at the church, when she ran seven separate schools.

But it was another Baptist from the same city who is most frequently credited with founding the “vacation church school” as we would recognize it: Robert G. Boville, executive secretary of the New York City Baptist Board of Missions. “He had a concern,” write James E. Reed and Ronnie Prevost, “similar to that of [18th century Sunday School founder Robert] Raikes in Gloucester [England], that children of New York be given religious instruction during their idle summers to keep them out of trouble and develop patterns for productive and upright adult living.” Or as Eavey put it: “The vacation church school was started to gather idle children into unused churches where unoccupied teachers might keep them busy in a wholesome way in a wholesome environment.”

Read the rest here.  How can you bring your kids to a week-long event without understanding its history?  Too many people live their everyday lives this way.  🙂

Mark Noll: “Martin Luther Where Are You?

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Mark Noll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

Stetzer: Mainline Protestantism Has Just 23 Easters Left

Church for Sale

The headline is provocative, and observers have been forecasting the death of the Protestant mainline for decades, but Ed Stetzer‘s analysis is worth reading.

Mainline Protestantism has been attracting a lot of attention from historians of late. If current trends are any indication, these historians are not trying, as many of us do, to provide historical context for a thriving present-day movement.  Instead, they seem to be chronicling a religious movement that is dying.

Here is a taste of Stetzer piece at The Washington Post: <!–

Christians recently celebrated Easter, a Sunday where many churches are robust and full. But, if current trends continue, mainline Protestantism has about 23 Easters left.

The news of mainline Protestantism’s decline is hardly new. Yet the trend lines are showing a trajectory toward zero in both those who attend a mainline church regularly and those who identify with a mainline denomination 23 years from now.

While the sky isn’t falling, the floor is dropping out.

The trajectory, which has been a discussion among researchers for years, is partly related to demographics. Mainline Protestants, which has been the tradition of several U.S. presidents, aren’t “multiplying” with children as rapidly as evangelicals or others of differing faiths. And geography matters. Places where Protestants live are now in socio-economic decline, and parts of the country like the Sun Belt are become more evangelical with every passing winter.

Read the entire article here.

A Middle School History Teacher Reflects on Martin Luther and the Usable Past

lutherThe Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association ended yesterday afternoon, but reports from The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondents who covered conference continue to roll in.  We were pleased to have Zachary Cote write for us this weekend.  As a middle-school history teacher he has brought a unique perspective to this annual gathering of historians.  In his final post, Zach reports on a couple of sessions he attended on Martin Luther.  Read all of Zach’s AHA 2017 posts here.–JF

One of the perks of attending the 2017 AHA annual meeting was being able to sit-in on a couple panels that were created with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in mind. As a Protestant, I have always been interested in Luther.  So I was eager to see how historians were going to commemorate the quincentenary of his 95 Theses. I attended two sessions, the first entitled “Memories of Reform: German Commemorations of the Reformation” and the second, “Luther and the ‘Second Reformation’. A common thread in both of these panels was how generations after Luther interpreted his work, impact, and theology.

In the 1617 celebration of the 95 Theses Luther was used to either remind a town of the perceived horrors of Catholicism or to promote local exceptionalism, as was the case in Ulm, Germany. The tercentennial celebration looked at the German monk as a “Luther for Everyone.” For Luther’s 400th birthday, in 1883, the new nation-state of Germany used the anniversary to promote German unity; after all, even “German Catholics were better than the others.” In 1967, on the 45oth anniversary of the Reformation, communist East Germany had to come to grips with the fact that so much of the Reformation originated in that region.  East Germany interpreted the Reformation to fit its own agenda, and therefore made it a secular event heavily attached to the Early Bourgeois Revolution of the Peasants’ War. Luther took on a new identity for each of these commemorations.  He became the Luther that the people of each specific time and place needed.

Luther’s impact on others in the “Second Reformation” revealed similar insights. For example, Luther informed John Wesley’s doctrine of sola fide. While Wesley’s theology often looked much different than Luther’s, his scant references to the German reformer point to an implicit influence on his theology of justification.  Seventeenth-century Puritans, too, found encouragement from Luther when it came to the importance of temptation in the lives of Christians. To these Puritans, Luther “was clearly recognized as a symbol of piety” despite his stronger emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Lastly, in mid-eighteenth-century Denmark, Luther’s historical reading of the Old Testament would eventually lead Danish theologians to end their traditional evaluations of civil law in Amsterdam. This, in turn, actually led to a secularization of Amsterdam’s government.

Listening to these panels enlightened me on the role of Luther over the centuries and left me questioning what Luther will look like in this year’s festivities. But perhaps even more importantly, the research presented by the historians at each panel illuminated a larger theme within history.

Something that we emphasize in our classes is that history is the study of change (and yes, continuity) over time. But the study of Luther demonstrates that history itself changes over time. Not simply in the academic historiography of any given subject, but also in the public’s use of the past.  Luther was perceived very differently by people over time, and perhaps may not even recognize himself in those perceptions; nonetheless, it is through perceptions like those that most understand history. I am reminded of what George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon.” How true that is for American society today.

With this in mind, may we, as those who study and teach the past, recognize that history itself is changing, and continue to pursue the goal to teach our students how to navigate those changes in order to paint the most accurate picture of the past available.

Protestantism in America

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I was honored when one of my favorite historians, Jon Butler, asked me to write the entry on “Protestantism in America” for Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History.  I hope my piece does justice to the subject.  Here is a pre-edited excerpt that Oxford has posted to the site:

The theological and religious descendants of the Protestant Reformation arrived in the United States in the early 17th century, shaped American culture in the 18th century, grew dramatically in the 19th century, and continued to be the guardians of American religious life in the 20th century. Protestantism is not monolithic. In fact, the very idea at the heart of Protestantism—the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages so it can be read and interpreted by all men and women—has resulted in thousands of different denominations, all claiming to be true to the teachings of scripture.

Protestantism has flourished in America because it teaches that human beings can access God as individuals, rather than as members of a particular church or religious body. During the period of British colonization, especially following the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, Protestantism went hand-in-hand with British concepts of political liberty. As the British people celebrated their rights-oriented philosophy of government and compared their freedoms with the tyranny of France and other absolute monarchies in Europe, they extolled their religious freedom to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Following the American Revolution, this historic connection between political liberty and Protestant liberty proved to be compatible with the kind of democratic individualism that emerged in the decades preceding the Civil War and, in many respects, continues to define American political culture.

Protestantism is first and foremost a religious movement. The proliferation of Protestant denominations provides the best support for G. K. Chesterton’s quip that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” Spiritual individualism, a commitment to the authority of an inspired Bible, and the idea that faith in the Christian gospel is all that is needed to be saved from eternal punishment, has transformed the lives of millions of ordinary Americans over the course of the past four hundred years.

The entire 8000-word entry will be posted soon.

The End of White Christian America?

I am hoping to read Robert Jones‘s new book The End of White Christian America.  In this video he chats with Judy Woodruff of PBS:

This is very interesting, but something does not seem quite right. (Again, I need to the read the book).

I think it goes without saying that “white” Christian America is in decline.  The demographics bear this out.  But are the things that have long-defined “Christian America” (at least in the last half-century) fading away?  I don’t know.  It seems that in order to answer “yes” to this question we would need to make a case that non-white Christians do not care about core “Christian America” tenets such as the place of Christianity in public life, traditional marriage and families, opposition to abortion, a critique of the coarseness of popular culture, etc…  Since evangelicalism is booming in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere in the global South, can we really say immigrants arriving to America’s shores from these places are going to be any less “Christian” on these social issues?

This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with an immigration reporter for the Houston Chronicle who told me that many of the Latino immigrants she interviewed for a story were very conservative on social issues.  She was surprised how many of them were supporting Trump because they believed The Donald would deliver the Supreme Court.

The Anti-Christ in New Hampshire

bible_Geneva

If you have been following the GOP presidential race, you know that New Hampshire has fewer evangelicals than Iowa or South Carolina. But though evangelicals do not make a large swath of the population in the Granite State, it does have its fair share of born-again Christians.  One of them is apparently Susan DeLumus, a member of the state legislature. DeLumas is supporting Donald Trump.  She obviously has no problem with Trump’s recent squabble with Pope Francis because, after all, the Pope is the anti-Christ.

Here is a taste of an article on DeLumas:

In response to her own Facebook post of three snippets of scripture from the Geneva Bible, Rep. Susan DeLemus (R) wrote: “The Pope is the anti-Christ. [sic] Do your research.” In another response, DeLemus said “I’m not sure who the Pope truly has in his heart.”

She told Politico that she was generally referring to the papacy, rather than Pope Francis in particular.

“I was actually referencing the papacy. And what I wrote after that ‘do your research,’ if you read the Geneva Bible, which is the Bible I use when we study, the commentary is – actually by the founders of the United States actually, the Protestant Church – their commentary references the papacy as the anti-Christ,” DeLemus said.

DeLumus is correct about the Geneva Bible.  Here is a taste of the notes on Revelation 13:12 that appeared in the 1560 edition:

13:12 17 And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein 18 to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. 

(17) The history of the acts of this beast contains in sum three things, hypocrisy, the witness of miracles and tyranny: of which the first is noted in this verse, the second in the three verses following: the third in the sixteenth and seventeenth verses. His hypocrisy is most full of lies, by which he abuses both the former beast and the whole world: in that though he has by his cunning, as it were by line, made of the former beast a most miserable skeleton or anatomy, usurped all his authority to himself and most impudently exercises the same in the sight and view of him: yet he carries himself so as if he honoured him with most high honour, and did truly cause him to be reverenced by all men. 

(18) For to this beast of Rome, which of civil Empire is made an ecclesiastical hierarchy, are given divine honours, and divine authority so far, as he is believed to be above the scriptures, which the gloss upon the Decretals declares by this devilish verse. “Articulos solvit, synodumque facit generalem” That is, “He changes the Articles of faith, and gives authority to general Councils.”
Which is spoken of the papal power. So the beast is by birth, foundation, feat, and finally substance, one: only the Pope has altered the form and manner of it, being himself the head both of that tyrannical empire, and also of the false prophets: for the empire has he taken to himself, and to it added this cunning device. Now these words, “whose deadly wound was cured” are put here for distinction sake, as also sometimes afterwards: that even at that time the godly readers of this prophecy might by this sign be brought to see the thing as present: as if it were said, that they might adore this very empire that now is, whose head we have seen in our own memory to have been cut off, and to be cured again.

The Author’s Corner with Antoinette Sutto

Antoinette Sutto is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi. This interview is based on her new book, Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists: Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic, 1630-1690 (University of Virginia Press, 2015).

 

JF: What led you to write Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists?

 

AS: I wanted to write about politics and religion in the early modern English world – how ideas about subversion and conflict and threats to law and order were shaped by ideas about religion and allegiance. Maryland was an ideal place to do this because in the seventeenth century, it was a colony run by Catholics that formed part of a growing empire ruled by Protestants. As I discovered in the course of researching and writing, the process of extending lines of authority across the Atlantic forced seventeenth-century people to confront the same questions about law, loyalty and confessional difference that caused a civil war and a revolution in the British Isles.

 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists?

 

AS: The book argues that the violent and colorful history of early Maryland is most intelligible when placed in the context of the troubled politics of religion of the seventeenth-century English Atlantic. Ironically, some of the most specifically American aspects of Chesapeake life – the challenges of diplomacy between Indian nations and Europeans, the ups and downs of the tobacco trade – proved so destabilizing because they seemed to fit within familiar European narratives of conspiracy and subversion.

 

JF: Why do we need to read Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists?

 

AS: This book explores the local, regional and imperial politics of Maryland (and to some extent Virginia) in the 1600s. But the scope of the book is larger than the Chesapeake itself. It’s about the history of ideas in the early modern world, and especially about how ideas and material circumstances – trade, disease, demography, economic expansion – are connected. Parts two and three of the book are about the interaction between the American continent and the English Atlantic and describe how the politics of the American continent and American people, many whose activities and concerns were not known to Europeans, meshed with the tensions of the English Atlantic to create a crisis in the Chesapeake. The book also grapples with the category of Atlantic history – whether and under what circumstances it is useful and how best to do it.

 

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

 

AS: When I took the PSAT in high school, the test included a questionnaire about your career plans. I remember filling in the bubbles for “history major” and “historian” for college plans and career, but I don’t remember why!  Later, I began my academic training as a history of early modern England, but I moved into early American history because I have always been fascinated by the moments at which Europeans’ plans and preconceptions about America (and Native Americans) encountered real people, landscapes and experiences.

           

JF: What is your next project?

 

AS: My next project will be about Puritanism in the colonial world and the United States. I want to write a book not about the Puritans themselves, but about how later colonists and Americans understood them. It’s a way to explore ideas about origins, nationality and changing understandings of how to write history.

JF: Thanks, Antoinette! 

Catholic Church Shopping

I guess I did not realize how Protestant I had become.

It was my first academic job after graduate school and I was sitting in one of those new employee orientation meetings that we have all had to endure at one time or another. I was seated next to another newbie–a philosophy professor who just finished his Ph.D at Notre Dame.

He was Catholic.

During one of the breaks in the meeting we got talking about religion.  I told him that since my family had moved to town we had visited a few churches  but had not yet decided on which one we would attend on a more permanent basis.

I then asked him a question:

“Have you found a church yet?”

My new friend gave me a rather odd look and then said something like “We’re Catholic.  We will be attending St. X Parish since it is just a mile or two away from the house we are renting and the other parish is on the other side of town.”

I initially felt bad for this guy.  His religious choices were so limited.  What if he didn’t like the priest at St. X Parish?  What if the parish did not have a strong religious education program for his children?

And then it hit me. St. X was a place where he and his family could attend mass, partake of the Eucharist, and hear a homily on the same scriptural texts that were read and preached upon at every other Catholic church in the world that weekend.  Each local priest would approach the weekly Gospel text differently, but that was not the point.  Catholicism is less about the homily and more about the sacrament of communion.

I should have known better.  I was born and raised in the Catholic church and did not leave until I was in high school.  I knew that it was rare for Catholics to go “church shopping.”  This was a Protestant thing, with roots dating back to the early 19th century when the separation of church and state forced churches and denominations to start competing with each other for membership and support.

My exchange with this philosophy professor took place about fifteen years ago.  I am not sure if his response to my question was representative of all Catholics at that time and I don’t know if today Catholics have become more or less consumer-oriented in choosing a parish.

But I did think about this story when I read Kaya Oakes‘s article on church shopping at the Jesuit America magazine, The subtitle of the article is “Why is it so hard for young Catholics to find the right parish.

Here is a short taste:

So with discernment and talk with my spiritual director, I started church shopping. In an urban area, this should be easy—there are dozens of Catholic churches in the East Bay Area, and even more in San Francisco. I started at one within walking distance, figuring saving gas would assuage my guilty conscience. When I arrived for the Sunday morning Mass, nobody was at the front door greeting people, so I wandered around for five minutes looking for a bulletin or a hymnal. By the time I found both, some 40 people were in the pews. The choir was good, but the homily lasted 35 minutes (I confess that I timed it) and seemed to have no central message. When it came time for singing, I was the only person within several pews pitching in—and I do not have a good singing voice. Other than one or two families with children, I was the youngest person in attendance by a couple of decades. Passing the peace was cursory, there were no social justice activities listed in the bulletin, and the priest shook one or two hands outside before disappearing.

If I didn’t know that Oakes was Catholic, and if her piece did not reference the “Mass,” it could have easily been written by a young Protestant evangelical.  Protestantism is a religion of the individual. This is why it has done so well in the United States.   Just as Americans–as individuals–make choices about their political candidates and their favorite brand of car, so American Protestants have always made consumer choices about their churches based on the preacher, the style of worship, the programs, etc….   

Oakes and the young Catholics she writes about seem to be doing the same thing.  She even notes how young Catholics like good preaching.   Catholics choosing parishes based on good preaching?  How Protestant is that?

All of this is just more evidence of the complete assimilation of Catholics into American culture.  The Pope can now speak in Congress and in front of Independence Hall.  And young Catholics have become religious consumers. 

The Author’s Corner with Heather H. Vacek

Heather H. Vacek is Assistant Professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This interview is based on her new book, Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness (Baylor University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Madness?

HV: I’m curious about how religious beliefs shape practice, and in particular, how Christians respond—or fail to respond—to suffering. Working as a student chaplain at a state mental hospital a number of years ago, I realized Christian reactions to mental illness seemed more complicated than, for example, reactions to minor surgery or cancer treatment.
Early in my research about the history of Protestants and mental illness, I began to frame this reality with the question, “Who gets a casserole?” Thinking about typical modern congregations, it appeared individuals and families navigating cancer diagnoses were much more likely to receive support in the form of casseroles than those navigating acute or chronic mental illness. If Protestants profess to care for the well-being of bodies, minds, and souls, why did those living with mental illnesses often receive minimal attention? I found myself curious to know if the different reactions to mental and physical illnesses had always been the case, and so I set out to uncover Protestant responses throughout American history.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Madness?

HV: From the colonial era to the twentieth century, two forces combined to inhibit American Protestants’ ability to fulfill their stated mission of caring for the whole person: 1) shifting professionalization sequestered clerical and lay Christian authority in the private, spiritual sphere, leaving healing—physical and mental—as the responsibility of secular medical professionals, and 2) the social stigma surrounding mental illness deepened, making churchgoers reluctant to engage sufferers lest they be tainted by association.  Both rising confidence in humankind’s ability to solve problems and the persistence of theological notions that connected mental maladies to sin deepened stigma and linked mental maladies with weakness and deviance, making Protestants reticent to respond. 
JF: Why do we need to read Madness?

HV: It can be easy to assume that particular religious convictions generate an expected set of responses. While that is sometimes the case, Madness demonstrates how and why reality is much more complicated. This is a story of how external factors—shifting clerical authority, the rise of medicine, the interaction between religion and medicine, the emergence of state institutions, and social stigma—formed the reactions of religious people in the face of a particular sort of illness. The book’s exploration of Protestants and mental illness demonstrates what appeared—and failed to appear—on clerical and congregational agendas.  It also offers insight about how Christians engaged suffering, particularly seemingly intractable distress. Though largely a historical account, for those who are members of Christian communities, the final chapter thinks theologically and explores hospitality that might be extended in the face of the suffering and stigma that often accompany mental illness.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HV: I suspect I don’t fit the typical mold of how one enters the field of history. My work as a scholar of American religion is a second career. I first trained and worked as an engineer, employment that I loved and found invigorating. Then, after a decade in corporate America, I responded to a call to a different vocation and enrolled in seminary. Afterward, I entered a doctoral program in American Religious History. The object and purpose of my intellectual efforts shifted from the pursuit of corporate profit to exploring the past to shed light on the present. I found the skills I’d gained as an engineer—working to figure out how and why things work the way they do—translated nearly seamlessly into the work of a historian. The work of engineering and the work of history share common methods. In light of a central question, I pose a hypothesis, and then find, explore, and synthesize sources that will help prove or disprove that initial theory. I attend to the evidence, and finally, I hazard a claim about what that data reveals.
JF: What is your next project?

HV: The shape of my next project solidified during an interfaith prayer service following the tragic shootings at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015. As I looked around a chapel filled to the brim with the laments of members of my city from a variety of faith traditions, I was acutely aware of how theological heritage, demographics, and life events shaped experiences of suffering and ways the human and divine intervention that followed were voiced. Participants lamented together, but from distinct vantage points. Even the Christians in the room brought different postures toward that specific horrific event and the suffering it caused.
Given my curiosity about responses to suffering, my next project will explore more deeply how context has shaped experiences of, and responses to, suffering. Among other factors, theological convictions, frameworks of belief, the source of suffering (war, illness, oppression, and other forms of evil), race, class, and gender play a role in how suffering is experienced and described.
The colonial clergyman Cotton Mather narrated suffering as an expected part of the Christian life. Centuries later the modern preacher Joel Osteen seemed to name suffering as a failure of faith. What have other Americans thought? What have they agreed about? Where and why have their reactions differed? What changed (or remained consistent) in the American political, social, and economic landscape between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries to generate those differences? Some believers expected suffering. Others even sought suffering as a test of faith. Some Americans found their faith strengthened through distress, while others abandoned religion, finding God and radical suffering incompatible.
I’m early in the exploration of this new project, but anticipate that the racial context of the American landscape will figure prominently in the work. Between Mather and Osteen, thinkers including Sarah Osborn, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Beecher Stowe, James Baldwin, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others will populate the account of American Christian responses to suffering.

JF: Thanks, Heather!