On Rudy Giuliani and the Salem Witch Trials

Salem_witch2

In case you missed it, here is yet another example of a politician’s sloppy use of history.

 

Or watch this.  (Now I am really curious to know what “two books” on the Salem Witch Trials that Trump’s personal attorney read).

Marisa Iati of The Washington Post does a nice job of addressing the many problems with Giuliani’s comment. She draws heavily from the excellent work of historian Emerson Baker.  A taste:

Although those suspected of practicing black magic have been persecuted at least since biblical times, hysteria around witchcraft in the United States peaked in the late 17th century. Young girls who started screaming and flying into “fits” would prompt local men to complain to a judge that someone was harming the girls through witchcraft. A dubious legal process would follow.

“Under the English tradition of justice, you are innocent until proven guilty,” said Emerson W. Baker, a history professor at Salem State University who has studied the witch trials. “However, in 1692, that clearly did not happen.”

Giuliani was correct that accusers at the Salem trials had to attach their names to their testimony. His claim that people accused of witchcraft were confronted by the witnesses in their cases, however, was largely false.

Many of the people who accused others of witchcraft never appeared at trial, Baker said. Instead, the supposedly afflicted girls would give depositions that were then presented in court. In these cases, there was no opportunity to cross-examine the accusers.

To start a witchcraft investigation, a person would complain about someone to a local judge. The judge would compel the sheriff’s office to arrest the accused so they could appear before a panel of judges, who would determine whether there was enough evidence to detain them before trial.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course Giuliani breaks almost every rule of good historical thinking here.  The comparison between 17th-century New England and impeachment process in the U.S. Constitution is absurd.  The legal culture of Puritan New England and the legal culture of the early American republic were completely different.  If you are going to invoke the Salem Witch Trials, then let’s talk about spectral evidence and execution of Quakers in Boston Common.  Or let’s just talk about how things ended up for the supposed witches in 1692.

An Introduction to the Winthrop Family Papers

MassHistorichq

Massachusetts Historical Society

Peter Olsen-Harbich, a Ph.D Candidate at William & Mary, reflects on his experience working with the Winthrop Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  Here is a taste:

Among the austere manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection resides an unassuming assemblage. Weighing in at precisely ten boxes, it bears a substantive though middling rank in the vast archival stock of America. An additional marker of ordinary quality concludes the title of the collection: “Transcripts.” These are thus ten boxes of derivative, copied papers—primary documents by proxy only. Yet a full examination of the collection title suggests a content that is anything but mundane, for these are the “Winthrop Family Papers [Transcripts],” also known as Ms. N-2211, a trove of transcribed, unpublished correspondence from the family whose various progeny presided at the very center of seventeenth-century New England’s political orbit.

Read the rest here.

Are you looking for some good books on the Winthrop family?  Here are a few titles:

Francis Bremer, John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father

Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop

Daniel T. Rodgers, As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon

Walter Woodward, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676.

Richard Dunn and Laetitia Yaendle, ed., The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649: Abridged Edition.

My 2013 Piece on Christmas at the *Pacific Standard*

Another magazine has bit the dust.  Read Lloyd Grove’s piece at The Daily Beast on the end of the Pacific Standard.

I wrote a piece for the Standard website back in December 2013.  I don’t know if it will disappear or not, so I am re-posting it here.  Here is “Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?“:

The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”

Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.” At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.

According to Palin and her fellow soldiers in the fight, if stores start replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” if schools will not let children sing Christmas carols with strong Christian themes, or if city hall is not permitted to display a manger scene, then America’s Christian civilization is eroding. Those who complain about the “War on Christmas” want us to return to a golden age when Christmas was a more important part of American culture.

Did such a golden age of Christmas ever exist in America? Yes. But if the Christmas culture warriors took an honest look at the history of this holiday in America they may not like what they find.

From the perspective of Christian theology, Christmas is about the Incarnation. It is the story of God revealing himself to humankind in the form of a baby. As the Gospel of John describes it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But in America, the sacred meaning of Christmas has always existed in tension with the profane.

For those who carried English holiday traditions to North America, Christmas was an important day on the church calendar, but the celebration of the birth of the Christ child always took a backseat to week-long festivities characterized by feasting, shooting guns, playing rough music, drinking to excess, disorderly public activity, and all kinds of raucous behavior. Indeed, this was the golden age of Christmas in early America.

And what did the Puritans, those godly Christians who arrived to New England in the early 17th century to establish what their first governor John Winthrop described as a “city upon a hill,” think about Christmas? Certainly in towns like Boston and Plymouth, the places where defenders of American exceptionalism turn today to find the roots of a “Christian America,” Christmas was revered and respected as a sacred day, a fundamental part of the Christian civilization that these settlers were trying to build?

Not really.

The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.

In the mid-17th century the governors of Massachusetts would have probably banned Palin from the colony because she insisted on defending Christmas. After being banned, there is a possibility that Palin would end up in Rhode Island, a colony that had complete religious freedom and where it would have been anathema to consider making any December religious celebration an official or unofficial holiday.

There is an important history lesson in all of this. When we try to use history to score political points in the present we end up picking the things in the past that suit our needs and ignoring the rest. This is bad history.

The history of Puritan New England works just fine for us if we want to show that parts of early America were founded by Christians with Christian motivations for settlement. Ronald Reagan loved to compare America to a “city upon a hill.” Christian nationalists turn to the Pilgrims to teach their children about the nation’s “Godly heritage.” But the history of Puritan New England does not help us at all if we want to win the “War on Christmas.”

Of course, we are free to think anything we want about how our culture should or should not acknowledge Christmas. But let’s be careful when we use history to make our points.

Court Evangelicals David Barton and Robert Jeffress Talk Christian America

Court evangelical James Robison recently had two fellow court evangelicals on his television show.  Here is the interview with Jeffress and Barton:

A few comments:

2:00ff:  Jeffress says: “You hear Nancy Pelosi and others saying that walls are un-Christian and immoral.  Well, if that’s true, God’s immoral because he told Nehemiah to build a wall around Jerusalem.  There’s gonna be a wall in heaven Revelation 21 says.”

If we were to take the Bible literally when it talks about walls, and apply Bible verses to contemporary policy discussions about immigration, then I wonder what Jeffress would say about these passages:

Deuteronomy 28:52: “It shall besiege you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls in which you trusted come down throughout your land, and it shall besiege you in all your towns throughout your land which the LORD your God has given you.”

Lamentations 2:8: The LORD has purposed to destroy the wall of the daughter of Zion: he has stretched out a line, he has not withdrawn his hand from destroying: therefore he made the rampart and the wall to lament; they languished together.

Proverbs 18:11: A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, And like a high wall in his own imagination. (Ironically, Jeffress is on Robison’s show promoting a book on Proverbs).

These verses show the absurdity of using the Bible to justify a 21st-century border wall. Like many evangelicals who have gone before him (back to the time of the American Revolution), Jeffress cherry-picks from scripture, allowing political considerations (specifically his court evangelical approach to Trump) influence his interpretation of the Bible.

3:00ff: Barton is talking about the durability of the United States Constitution.  He is certain that the Constitution has endured because the country is founded on Christian principles.  He provides no evidence for this assertion. One could also say that the Constitution has endured because of its grounding in Enlightenment principles.  Barton likes to think he is making a historical argument here, but he is really making a theological argument.

Barton goes on to lament the major decline in the number of people who claim to be “born again” Christians.   He does not reference his source, but he claims that the number of  “born again Christians” dropped from 45% of Americans in 2006 to 31% of Americans in 2018.  He is worried about the rise of atheists, agnostics, and “nones.”  As might be expected, Barton believes that the “trends are going in the wrong direction.”

I recently spent half of a morning with 34 high school teachers from around the country talking about the Puritans and the so-called narrative of declension.  Puritans believed that they had a covenant with God not unlike the covenant that God made with Israel in the Old Testament.  When people in 17th-century Massachusetts Bay failed to commit their lives to Christ through conversion, the clerical leaders worried that the colony was not holding-up its end of the covenant.  God, as a result, was not pleased.  This is why God brought Indian invasions, earthquakes, and witches to New England.  Ministers preached sermons known as “jeremiads” calling the people back to God or urging them to work harder to save more souls.

Barton believes in American exceptionalism–that God has uniquely blessed the United States of America.  His lament over the declining number of born-again Christians sounds quite similar to a 17th-century jeremiad.

9:00ff:  Jeffress is flying high here.  He rails against abortion, “moral sewage” in our culture, and threats to religious liberty as he understands it.  He says that “it is not God’s will” that these things are happening.  But is it “God’s will” that immigrants and refugees fleeing poverty and persecution are stopped at our borders?  Is it God’s will that children and parents are separated at the border?  Is it God’s will that our country is led by a man who is a liar, racist, xenophobe, nativist, and adulterer?  Please get off your high horse pastor Jeffress.

14:40:  Jeffress says that “God doesn’t get goosebumps when he hears the Star Spangled Banner” and he doesn’t “stand-up and wave when the American flag passes by.”  Yet Jeffress hosts events like this in his church.

What If Your Faith Makes You “Unpatriotic?”

Dyer

I am in Boston this week filming a series of lectures for an on-line course on colonial America produced by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.  We have been shooting short introductions at places like the Long Wharf, Old South Meeting House, King’s Chapel Burial Ground, Harvard University, and the Boston Public Library.  (We shot some footage at Mount Vernon, Virginia earlier in the week).

Yesterday we filmed an introduction at the statue of Mary Dyer located at the corner of Beacon Street and Bowdoin Street adjacent to the Massachusetts State House.  I talked about Dyer’s relationship with Anne Hutchinson, her so-called “monstrous birth,” her conversion to Quakerism, and her eventual execution in Boston Commons in 1660.

I thought about Hutchinson and Dyer today as I read this tweet from Family Research Council President and court evangelical Tony Perkins.

I agree with Perkins and Pompeo.  We must defend religious liberty.  But I wonder if our current president thinks the same way.  Trump will preach religious liberty to evangelicals until he is blue in the face.  Evangelicals will eat it all up and pull the lever for Trump in 2020.  They will continue to call him the most faith-friendly president of all time.

But what would Trump say about religious liberty if a person’s religious convictions led her or him to criticize the United States for its past and present sins?  What would Trump say about religious liberty if someone’s faith-informed view of the world resulted in the criticism of him?

I don’t know if religious faith informs the moral vision of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib, or Ayanna Pressley (we did a post on Ocasio-Cortez back in June 2017).  But if it does, how might Trump reconcile religious liberty with his recent tweet telling these women to leave the country?  If someone’s faith leads one to oppose racism, nativism, xenophobia, misogyny, dishonesty and general cruelty, should we deem that person to be unpatriotic and encourage them to go back to their own country?

The analogy is not perfect (no historical analogy is), but it seems like the faith of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer led them to criticize the beliefs of the Puritan government in seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay.  They exercised liberty of conscience in a way that Trump might describe “unpatriotic.”  Hutchinson was not “sent home.” She was sent to Rhode Island.  I don’t think the Puritans were chanting “send her back, send her back” when they banned her, but I am sure they were thinking something similar.

Dyer, on the other hand, was “sent home.”

Episode 45: A City Upon a Hill

PodcastOne of the most enduring phrases at the heart of American exceptionalism is John Winthrop’s famous proclamation that the Puritan colonists were establishing a “city upon a hill.” But the story of this lay sermon is much more complicated, and, according to Bancroft-winning historian Daniel Rodgers, Winthrop was not being triumphalist, but instead a statement of anxiety. Dr. Rodgers joins us to discuss his new book on the sermon and its endurance, As a City on a Hill.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

The Author’s Corner with Daniel Rodgers

9780691181592_0.pngDaniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?

DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.

I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?

DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.

JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?

DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.

At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.

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

DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

 

Was America Born Capitalist?

City UponWe are working hard to get Princeton University historian Daniel Rodgers on the podcast.  He is the author of  As a City Upon a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.  (He will be featured on the Author’s Corner very soon).  In the meantime, here is a taste of an excerpt from the book published at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WAS AMERICA BORN capitalist? it is often asked. Ever since Max Weber proposed a causal relationship between early Protestants’ longing for order and rational control and the spirit of modern capitalism, the question has consumed the attention of generations of sociologists and historians. Weber’s ideal types were too abstract, it is now clear. The careful accounting and control of the self that the Puritans so conspicuously valued was only one of the cultural traits on which capitalist economies have thrived. Others, like the risk-taking and labor exploitation on which the tobacco and slave economy of early Virginia was founded, could be successfully capital-generative as well. Capitalism’s identifying features lie as much in its institutions of trade, property law, and labor as in the inner ethos that captured Weber’s imagination.

Measured in these ways, there can be no doubt that Puritan New England was a by-product of capitalism in its expansive, early modern phase. John Winthrop’s settlement arose within one of the great commercial empires of the early modern world. Unlike the Spanish conquest a century earlier, in which arms, expropriation of easily obtained wealth, and missionary zeal took the vanguard roles, the English colonization of the Americas was a merchants’ endeavor. Trading corporations — the Virginia Company, the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, the Plymouth Company — undertook the work of settlement throughout British America, capitalized by investors’ purchase of their joint stock.

Read the rest here.

Episode 40: Sportianity

PodcastWhat do Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have in common? Besides being NFL quarterbacks, they’re both famous kneelers. Yet their actions have been interpreted by sports fans and American Christians in very different ways. In today’s episode, we explore the deep historical connections between sports and Christianity. Host John Fea looks into what colonial New England’s Puritans thought about sports. They are joined by Messiah College historian Paul Putz (@p_emory), who discusses his work on the unique melding of sports and religion, “sportianity.”

Turner: “The Pilgrims receive far more attention than they deserve.”

plymouth

John Turner of George Mason University is writing a history of the Plymouth Colony.  In his recent piece at The Anxious Bench, he reminds us that the “Pilgrims” and the “Puritans” are not the same thing.  As Turner notes, popular culture loves the Pilgrims, but early New England historians spend most of their time discussing the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.

This is certainly true in my U.S. Survey course.  We spend a week (in a MWF course) on colonial New England.  On Monday I lecture on the English Reformation (ending with the difference between Puritans and Separatists).  On Wednesday I lecture on 17th-century Massachusetts Bay and the so-called “City Upon a Hill.”  On Friday we read and discuss the trial transcript of Anne Hutchinson.  I mention Plymouth very briefly in Wednesday’s lecture, mostly for the purpose of debunking commonly held myths about “Plymouth Rock” and the First Thanksgiving.

Here is Turner:

Not all historians have accepted the marginalization of Plymouth in the history of New England puritanism. (Morgan, like David Hall in the latter’s study of the New England ministry, devoted considerable time to separatism and the Pilgrims before proceeding to narrate events in Massachusetts Bay). Perry Miller, for instance, argued that the Bay colony churches “would have proceeded along essentially the same line had there been no Plymouth at all.” Miller wrote against earlier historians who assigned responsibility for the very emergence of congregationalism in New England to Plymouth’s separatist example.

Recently, Michael Winship has posed a very vigorous challenge to the post-Miller consensus. In his Godly Republicanism, Winship argues that there is no evidence that the Salem colonists came to New England as Congregationalists. One major piece of evidence for Winship’s argument is that there were very, very few committed Congregationalists among English puritan ministers. Two as of the late 1620s, to be precise: the exile William James and the London “semi-separatist” Henry Jacobs. There is no evidence that the ministers who came to Salem in 1629 were “Amesians.” By contrast, seventeenth-century sources assert that they came to New England with no agreement about how to proceed in the formation of churches.

Read the entire post here.

Hannah Duston: The Puritan’s Memorialized Indian-Killer

Hannah_Duston,_by_Stearns

Check out Barbara Cutter‘s fascinating piece on Hannah Duston, a Puritan woman who was used as a “national symbol of innocence, valor, and patriotism to justify westward expansion.” Cutter is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of Domestic Devils, Battlefield Angels: The Radicalism of American Womanhood, 1830-1865.

A taste:

On a small island north of Concord, New Hampshire, stands a 25-foot-tall granite statue of Hannah Duston, an English colonist taken captive by Native Americans in 1697, during King William’s War. Erected in 1874, the statue bears close resemblance to contemporary depictions of Columbia, the popular “goddess of liberty” and female allegorical symbol of the nation, except for what she holds in her hands: in one, a tomahawk; in the other, a fistful of human scalps.

Though she’s all but forgotten today, Hannah Duston was probably the first American woman to be memorialized in a public monument, and this statue is one of three built in her honor between 1861 and 1879. The mystery of why Americans came to see patriotic “heroism” in Duston’s extreme—even gruesome—violence, and why she became popular more than 100 years after her death, helps explain how the United States sees itself in world conflicts today.

Born in 1657, Hannah Emerson Duston lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts, at a time when disputes among English colonists, the French in Canada, and various Native American nations resulted in a series of wars in the region. King Philip’s War (1675-1676), for example, decimated southern New England Indian nations, which lost between 60 and 80 percent of their population as well as their political independence. Many were sold into slavery. By the late 1680s and the start of King William’s War, fragments of those southern tribes had joined the Abenaki and other northern New England Indian nations allied with the French to fight the continuing expansion of the English colonists to the north and west. Native men conducted raids on frontier English settlements, burning property, killing or injuring some colonists, and taking others captive, either to ransom them back to their families, or to adopt them as replacements for their own lost family members.

Read the rest here.

“Till the stock of the Puritans die”

harvard

Harvard University has changed the lyrics of the school’s alma mater.

Goodbye Puritans.

Read about it at The Boston Globe.  Here is a taste:

The lyrics “Till the stock of the Puritans die,” the last verse in the 181-year-old song, will be replaced with the line “till the stars in the firmament die,” according to the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, a university group that launched a competition last year and solicited suggestions for revisions from faculty, staff, and current and former students…

“Fair Harvard” was first written in 1836 by alumnus Samuel Gilman for the school’s bicentennial celebration.

The stand-out sentence to replace Gilman’s lyric was submitted by Janet Pascal, a graduate of the class of 1984. The updated version of the alma mater already appears on the school’s website, along with a notation about the revision.

Read the entire article here.

What a Historian Said to His Classes Today

CMU

Central Michigan University American history professor Andrew Wehrman was kind enough to let me publish his Facebook post on how he and his students worked through the Las Vegas shootings:

Today was sadly not the first time I’ve had to address a class of students who have just learned about a mass shooting. I’m weary that I’m so used to it. I remember talking to in my first ever self-taught course at Northwestern after the Virginia Tech shooting. I remember talking to students in a lecture hall after a gunman had killed a professor and students at Northern Illinois. And on and on. This morning in my early American history class I reminded the students of what the Puritans did after tragedies. As strange and sometimes horrible as the Puritans could be, after tragedy struck they called for a day of fasting and humiliation. A day of solemn reckoning with events. A day to pray, but also a day to listen, think, and a day to ask hard, searching questions. I emphasized a point that I make in class about what the Puritans would think of our celebration of Thanksgiving. That every year we assume there will be something to be thankful for without taking time to reflect on things that we should be sorry, sad, or angry about and wish to change. I encouraged my students not to let recent tragedies like the mass-shooting in Las Vegas and the on-going tragedy of hurricane Maria dull our senses. I encouraged them not to let these tragic events become background noise. But to fully engage with them as our present and to think about ways not only to be kind to one another but also to seek ways to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Religious Theories on Hurricane Irma

Hurricane_Irma_Suomi_NPP-VIIRS_03092017

Avi Selk has them all covered at The Washington Post:

A taste:

To dive into the wide-ranging and rarely coherent collection of theories that ascribe motive — be it satanic, godly, Gaian or otherwise — to the movements of Hurricane Irma is to risk being immediately overwhelmed by them. They are endless and everywhere, from the mouth of Kirk Cameron to a mass prayer on Periscope, in which thousands commanded demons to vacate the eye of the storm.

We may as well start on the secular end of this thought spectrum — specifically with that thing Jennifer Lawrence said.

“You know,” she said, “you’re watching these hurricanes now, and it’s really hard, especially while promoting this movie, not to feel Mother Nature’s rage.”

Lawrence was referring to a movie she’d just starred in, which she was talking up in an otherwise innocuous interview with Channel 4 last week when the host asked her about the election of President Trump, and the enduring skepticism about climate change. The actress lamented both — then brought up from nowhere the consequential rage of the sentient planet.

She took a drubbing. For “blaming powerful hurricanes on Trump,” as one critic put it. Or for blaming them on climate change, as the antiabortion activist Randall Terry interpreted her remark, before suggesting another mover of storms:

“These hurricanes are not the result of global warming; they are the Judgment of God because of the innocent blood crying to Him for vengeance,” Terry wrote on Christian Newswire.

Hurricanes for abortions, then. And from this point on in our exploration, God will be dragged into nearly every wild explanation of Hurricane Irma, or Hurricane Harvey before it, or the solar eclipse before that — or the coincidence of all of them, as the more apocalyptic theories elaborate upon.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course none of this new.  Check out these eighteenth-century Puritan/Congregationalist earthquake sermons.

 

 

This Video Proves Why Robert Jeffress is the Court Evangelical of All Court Evangelicals

Watch it if you can stomach it.  The court evangelicals were out in force at the Kennedy Center last night.  Paula White was also there.

In just under 6 minutes:

  • Jeffress claimed that “our nation was founded on a love for God and a reverence for His word.”  Is this correct?  I am wrestling with this question all weekend @johnfea1 and at #ChristianAmerica?. We are posting every 30 minutes during Fourth of July weekend.  Or you can just go get a copy of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  This Christian nation stuff never goes away.  Christians (the followers of David Barton and his ilk will not listen to non-Christians) need to offer an alternative narrative to this way of thinking about American history.  We are here, but we don’t have the resources or the funding.
  • Jeffress dabbles here in American exceptionalism.  He sounds like a 17th-century Puritan delivering a jeremiad calling the new Israel back to its spiritual roots. Jeffress asks “Has God removed his hand of blessing from us?” Earlier today someone on Twitter reminded me of a 2012 statement from Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.  He was writing about the idea that the United States is a Christian or chosen nation.  Anderson said “The Bible only uses the word ‘Christian’ to describe people and not countries.”
  • Jeffress suggests that Donald Trump is a messianic figure who God raised up to save Christian America from despair.  He says, “but in the midst of that despair came November the 8th, 2016 (wild applause) and that day represented the greatest political upset in American history.  Because it was on that day, November the 8th, that God declared that the people, not the pollsters, were going to choose the next President of the United States.  And they chose Donald Trump” (more wild applause).  I think November 8, 2016 just became part of the Christian calendar at First Baptist Church–Dallas.
  • Jeffress reminds us that 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump.  He says they “understood that [Trump] alone had the leadership skills necessary to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in” (wild applause). Jeffress claims that people are more excited now about Trump than they were on election day because Trump “has exceeded our every expectation.” OK.  Those expectations must be pretty low. (By the way, I am still waiting for Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals to condemn the Morning Joe tweets).
  • Jeffress claims that Trump has done more to protect religious liberty than any POTUS in U.S. history. Really?  More than Jefferson?  More than Madison?
  • Jeffress says that “millions of Americans believe that the election of President Trump represented God giving us another chance, perhaps our last chance, to truly make America Great Again.”  Apparently God wants to give us another chance to return to the 1950s or the 1980s.

Trump’s speeches to evangelicals are always the same.  They are getting old. I am pretty sure his speech writers have exhausted everything they know about evangelicals. But why should they think more deeply about faith and public life when they can just have Trump throw out catchphrases and talking points about religious liberty or “the wall” or ISIS and have the crowd go wild.

Trump railed against the fake media and gets rousing cheers from an audience that I assume was made up of parishioners of First Baptist Church in Dallas.  I am inclined to give this cheering a pass because it is not occurring on a Sunday morning in a church sanctuary, but it is still disturbing to watch my fellow evangelical Christians put their hope in a strongman and do so with such zeal.  For example, when Trump says that “in America we do not worship government, we worship God,” the audience starts chanting “USA, USA, USA.” Something is wrong when a reference to the worship of God triggers nationalist chants.

A few final points:

Someone needs to tell Trump’s speechwriter that there was no public prayer at the Constitutional Convention.  Ben Franklin suggested it, but it did not happen.

And let’s also remember that his Executive Order on the Johnson Amendment accomplished nothing.  The Johnson Amendment is still in the tax code.  It can only be changed by Congress.

I remain part of the #19percent!

Barton: God Brings Bad Weather Because of Abortion

purembb

In 17th-century New England, the Puritans set out to forge a “City on a Hill,” a society based upon the teachings of the Bible as they understood them.  They believed that they were a new Israel and thus lived in a covenant relationship with God.  When God was displeased with the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony he punished them with earthquakes, Indian attacks, bad weather, and a host of other calamities.  Whenever one of these calamities took place, Puritan ministers mounted their pulpits to deliver jeremiads, sermons designed to call the Puritans back to their covenant relationship with God.

David Barton, the GOP activist and culture warrior who uses the past to promote his political agenda, apparently still lives in 17th-century New England.  He believes that the United States exists in a covenant relationship with God not unlike that of the Puritans. On his recent show Wallbuilders Live he went so far as to connect bad weather with abortion.  (This is not unlike his earlier attempt to connect low SAT scores to the removal of Bible reading and prayer in public schools).

Here is what he said:

So we understood and that’s why if you look back on WallBuilders website we have a section in the library of historical documents. We have now 850 actual proclamations that we own that were issued by governors. And they could be Founding Fathers governors like John Hancock, or Sam Adams, or signers of the Declaration like all for Oliver Wolcott, or Samuel Huntington, signers of the Constitution like John- We’ve got their proclamations.

And so often their proclamation says, “Man, we’ve got to have God’s help with the weather. We have to pray, and repent, and fast because something is going on wrong with the weather and our crops need rain.” We understood that.

Well, today 52 percent of Christians think that God does a really lousy job with the weather. Maybe it’s not his choice that is doing it. Maybe it’s our own sin or our own unrighteous policies. Maybe it’s because we love killing unborn kids, 60 million of them. Maybe God says, “I’m not going to bless your land when you’re doing it.”

I believe in God.  I also believe he may have something to do with the weather. I also believe that abortion is a moral problem.  This probably separates me from many of my secular readers.

But I do not claim, like Barton, to have a hotline to the will of God on these matters. In fact, as I argued in Why Study History?, this kind of providentialism is arrogant, idolatrous, and fails to acknowledge the mystery and otherness of God.  To suggest that bad weather is connected to abortion is simply bad theology.  And yes, if the founding fathers made this connection it would still be bad theology.  And yes, it would still be bad theology if David Barton had a primary document that revealed the founders making such a connection.

What also strikes me about this episode of Wallbuilders Live is Barton’s rant on human sinfulness.  He says:

And there’s really three areas that I can quickly point to and pretty much tell whether someone has a basic general understanding, a very broad Biblical teachings. If they have any Biblical literacy at all, even if they themselves are not Christians, it used to be as Tim pointed out, just the culture itself had a pretty good degree of Biblical knowledge and literacy. We understood a lot of Biblical idioms, and phrases, and whatnot, knew where they came from. We knew heroes of the Bible even if people weren’t Christian.

But if I start with the question, “Is man inherently good? Does man generally tend to be good?” If you answer that “yes” that means you don’t understand Bible. Because the Bible says, “No, man does not tend to be good. Man will always be wrong. 

He’ll do the wrong thing. History proves that time and time again. When you leave man to his own ways, he doesn’t get better, he gets worse. unless God intervenes and changes his heart and he moves in the right direction.

And that’s a scriptural teaching, Jeremiah 17:9, the heart of man is desperately wicked. Who can know it? Who can predict it? What you can predict is that it will do the wrong thing.

And so you see secular governments across the world end up being oppressive.  They end up killing in the 20th Century, killing hundreds of millions of people in secular governments.

So, the heart of man is not good. If you think man inherently tends to be good…

I actually agree with Barton’s understanding of human nature.  But unlike Barton, I would also apply this belief to the founding fathers.  Last time I checked they were also human beings.  And perhaps their sinfulness explains something about the character of the American founding.

Making Fun of the Puritans

Puritans

The Scarlet Letter.  The Crucible.  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Over at the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, University of Pennsylvania graduate student Chris Fite suggests that our modern understanding of seventeenth-century New England Puritans have been shaped by these works.  These works portray the Puritans as Calvinist killjoys and fundamentalists and ignores their contribution to the modern age.

Here is a taste of his post:

Arguably, English and American Puritans contributed greatly to the development of modernity (to the extent that we can ever define modernity). However, the popular caricature of the Puritan relies on a different understanding of modern. In that definition, what is modern equals what is right and good in the present or recent past. In this way, the Puritans join modernity’s malcontents in the popular imagination. They become zealots who lived in dysfunctional communities. They also become fodder for jokes about ignorance, shame, and anything else considered illiberal in our own time.

Historical misperceptions are frustrating. However, they should also prompt us to reflect on our own work as historians. What do these misperceptions tell us about historical memory? How we might promote different understandings? For those more familiar with the histories of Puritanism and its historical memory, I welcome suggestions for further reading or for addressing these issues in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

A Guide to the Bible in Early America?

genevabible

Over at The Junto, Joseph Adelman calls for the creation of a “Guide to the Bible in Early America.”

With the flourishing of digital projects, at this point I could foresee something online. The problem I want to solve is to understand particular passages in historical context, so I want to be able to look up a passage from the Bible that was used frequently by a group in early America and find an explanation of the Biblical passage as generally understood, some notion of how the group or groups read this passage, how understandings of the passage changed across time and space within early America, and possibly links to other resources. It wouldn’t have to cover the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments, but instead could focus on the most frequently used books, chapters, and verses.

Let me sketch out a quick example with a verse that I used in a lecture last week on the Puritans as an introduction to Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. When Puritans came to Massachusetts, they thought they were founding a new holy city in accordance with Revelation 21:10:[1]

10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and an high mountain, and he showed me that great city, that holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,

With a passage like this, I would want to know something about the consensus exegesis (am I allowed to do that to the English language?) of Revelation 21—a little primer on the chapter within the context of the entirety of the book for those of use not familiar with it. I would want to know a little something about John Winthrop and his “A Model of Christian Charity” sermon he delivered aboard the Arabella, and perhaps other examples of Puritan figures using the verse in order to support their arguments about the settlement of Massachusetts. Were there other groups in early America that drew inspiration from the same verse? I don’t know that well, but somebody does, and it would be interesting to be able to access that. And in this particular case, there could be an extension to discuss the resonances of the idea of a “city on a hill” in modern American politics.

What a great idea!  This sounds a lot like a cross between a Bible Encyclopedia and an Oxford English Dictionary for Bible verses instead of individual words.

And then Adelman delivers the part of the post that hit me right between the eyes:

In my mind’s eye, this kind of project would build on something like Lincoln Mullen’s fantastic America’s Public Bible project, which tracks the use of Biblical quotations in American newspapers. What I’m looking for would be a bit more interpretive, and take advantage of the expertise of a range of scholars. (Usually when I imagine it, John Fea plays a role overseeing the project. John, you’re not busy, right?) In fairness, it’s a massive undertaking, and might not even be feasible. But the Puritans didn’t get across the Atlantic by thinking small.

If someone would provide me with a multi-million dollar grant and a team of researchers I would happily consider “overseeing the project.”  🙂

 

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It: Part 6

MetaxasWe are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

This post, our final one in the series, examines Metaxas’s understanding of American exceptionalism, an idea that drives much of his thesis in If You Can Keep It.

Metaxas roots his understanding of American exceptionalism in the famous words of John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity (1630), Winthrop used the phrase “city upon a hill” to describe the colony.  The phrase comes from Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Here is how Winthrop used the phrase in A Model of Christian Charity:  “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world…”

It is worth noting that Metaxas has made the common mistake of taking Winthrop’s words, which were addressed to the inhabitants of one British-American colony, and applying them to the United States writ-large.  Winthrop, of course, was not applying his “city upon a hill” metaphor to the already-existing colonies of Virginia, Plymouth, and the Dutch colony of New Netherland (which became New York thirty-four years later).  Yet these colonies and several others–colonies in which the “city upon a hill” metaphor was not part of their founding ideal–would also be part of the United States of America in 1776.  Metaxas is in good company here.  John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both fans of the “city upon a hill” metaphor, also made this mistake. (More on Reagan below).

At the heart of Metaxas’s argument in If You Can Keep It is the idea that America remains a “city upon a hill” today.  It is, and always has been, a nation chosen by God to do His will in the world.

Here are some pertinent passages from the book:

p.25: “Therefore, if in any sense we care about the rest of the world, we must first ‘keep’ this republic.  We are to shine not so that we can admire our own brightness but so that we hold out a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Our exceptionalism is not for us but for others.”

p.188-189: In speaking about the United States as a “chosen” nation akin to Israel in the Old Testament, Metaxas writes: “So far from being a selfish idea, it is the idea of living for others–of showing them a new way of thinking–that was at the heart of America.  To miss that is to miss everything.  This idea of being as a ‘city upon a hill’ that can be seen from afar–and that will be seen from afar–has been with us from the beginning.  It is the idea that what we have is indeed something extraordinary, but because of this we have been given the tremendous burden of stewarding and sharing what we have with the rest of the world. So if we are exceptional, we are not exceptional for our own sakes.  We are exceptional for the world beyond our shores, for all who are interested in seeing what we are doing and in joining our project.”

p.194: “Reading Reagan, we see that this most conservative of modern presidents, even in underscoring this idea of American exceptionalism, pointedly expressed the idea that America existed for others, for those not yet here among us.  So if this is an idea that has been at the very core of our identity from before the beginning, can we truly continue to be America if we forget it?

p.211-212: “…Lincoln did not think America’s exceptionalism a mere accident of history.  Indeed…he makes clear that he sees our special role in history much as John Winthrop saw it and as many men in the two centuries connecting them saw it: as nothing less than a holy calling.”

p.212-213: “We are not here talking about the contested and controversial idea of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ nor merely of noblesse oblige, but of something far more serious, of something that is even sacred.  Lincoln felt that America had been called by God to fulfill a role and to perform a duty for the rest of the world.  It was not something to be giddy about.  Far from it.  He understood that to be chosen by God–as the Jews had been chosen by God, and as the prophets had been chosen by God, and as the Messiah had been chosen by God–was something that was a profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.”

p.214-215: “[The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay] would care for one another.  The rich would lift up the poor.  This is something that resonates with us today in large part because Winthrop and his fellow shipmates were successful.  What they did shone so brightly that their distinctly biblical model carried on beyond the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the United States of America.”

So what is wrong with these passage from If You Can Keep It?

A lot.

Before we examine the historical and theological problems here, let’s remember that the United States has, at times, been a force for good in the world.  It has provided a home to millions of immigrants fleeing persecution and economic hardship.  It has offered aid to oppressed and sick people groups around the world.  It has used its power to stop tyrants and advance freedom across the globe.  And in some circumstances American leaders–Woodrow Wilson comes to mind immediately–believed that they were extending American relief and support as leaders of a Christian nation.  (The previous sentence is a historical observation, not an ethical or theological one.  In other words, I am not saying that Wilson and others were right in believing this).

With that said, we must begin our critique with Metaxas’s use of Winthrop’s famous phrase.  Metaxas believes that Winthrop was correct when he called Massachusetts Bay a “city upon a hill.” I don’t know how he knows this, since there is nothing in the Bible about the United States of America, but he nevertheless thinks that Winthrop was on to something.  And then he argues that somehow the special mission assigned to Massachusetts Bay got transferred, presumably at some point during the American Revolution, to the United States.

As historian Tracy McKenzie has pointed out in his own critique of If You Can Keep It, Metaxas does not understand the way Winthrop was using the phrase “city upon a hill” when he uttered it in 1630.  I will let Tracy take it from here:

So what did Governor Winthrop mean when he told the Massachusetts Bay colonists that they would be “as a city on a hill”?  The most common reading—Eric Metaxas’ reading—is that Winthrop was telling the colonists that God had given them a special mission.  The colony they were establishing (and by extension, the future United States) was divinely destined to serve as an example to the world.  God’s plan was for the new nation to model the values (religious, political, and economic) that He desired the rest of the world to emulate.  Metaxas strengthens this interpretation by adding the adjective “shining” to the metaphor—“a shining city on a hill”—although we have Ronald Reagan to thank for that phrase, not John Winthrop.

Admirers of this reading have been deeply convicted by the sense of America’s high calling that it embodies.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas exhorts readers to rediscover this noble mission and rededicate themselves to it.  Critics, on the other hand, have scorned the arrogance that Winthrop was supposedly reflecting and promoting.  Both evaluations miss the mark, because both are based on a misreading of Winthrop’s original statement….

Far from claiming that the Lord had chosen the Puritan migrants to serve as a glorious example to the world, Winthrop was instead reminding them that it would be impossible to hide the outcome if they failed.  Their massive departure had unavoidably attracted the attention of the countrymen they left behind.  They would be watching, many of them hoping that the Puritans would stumble. If Winthrop had been writing today, he could have conveyed his point by telling his audience that everything they did would be under a microscope.  The point was not that they had been divinely selected to serve as an exemplary beacon, but rather that they could not possibly escape the scrutiny of their enemies.

So it is that in the very next sentence after noting that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” Winthrop warned that “if we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken . . . we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”  In so many words, he was telling the migrating Puritans that they would become a laughingstock, objects of scorn and derision.  What was worse, their failure would “open the mouths of enemies to speak evils of the ways of God.”  Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission, Winthrop intended his allusion to “a city upon a hill” to send a chill down their spines.

If McKenzie is correct, and I think he is, then one of the central arguments of Metaxas’s book completely falls apart.  McKenzie shows that there was little continuity between the way John Winthrop used the phrase “city on a hill” and Ronald Reagan (and Metaxas) used it in the 1980s. When Winthrop used the phrase it had nothing to do with Massachusetts Bay (or the United States of America) sharing its ideals with other nations.

But the problems with Metaxas’s argument go deeper.  I hope that his Christian readers will be bothered by the fact that Metaxas equates the United States of America with God’s chosen people.  By equating the United States with the chosen people of God he is propagating one of the worst forms of American exceptionalism.  Most versions of Christian theology teach that God no longer works through the nation of Israel but has instead established a “new covenant” with the church.  The church is a community made up of those who have embraced the redemptive message of the Gospel and, as a result, live their lives devoted to building the Kingdom of God, a kingdom defined by loving God and loving neighbor.  In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas conflates the calling of the church with the United States of America.  I am not sure whether to call this blasphemy or idolatry. Perhaps both.

For a more thoughtful Christian assessment of American exceptionalism I highly recommend John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.