Posts Tagged ‘19th Century’

Article Review: Tammy Heise, “Marking Mormon Difference: How Western Perceptions of Islam Defined the ‘Mormon Menace’” (Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25:1)

Friday, September 13th, 2013

by Cristine Hutchison-Jones

Tammy Heise, “Marking Mormon Difference: How Western Perceptions of Islam Defined the ‘Mormon Menace’,” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25:1 (Spring 2013), 82–97.

In her article “Marking Mormon Difference: How Western Perceptions of Islam Defined the ‘Mormon Menace’,” Tammy Heise argues that inaccurate perceptions of Muslims played a key role in shaping and sustaining the narrative of “slavery and defilement” that Protestant American writers put forward about the Latter-day Saints throughout the 19th century (82). Her argument is premised on the compelling suggestion that 19th-century anti-Mormon literature drew heavily on popular anti-Muslim images then circulating in American culture. In particular, she argues, anti-Mormon writers used images of Turkish sultans wielding absolute power over their political realms and their private harems to convey the message that Mormon leaders exercised anti-republican forms of political and spiritual control over their followers and immoral sexual control over their female followers in particular. Although Heise’s claims are tantalizingly suggestive, unfortunately she does not do more in this article than hint at rich possibilities for future exploration of this subject.

Heise examines a number of anti-Mormon sources from the period, but despite her assertion that “anti-Mormon writers drew on a rich body of polemic literature describing the sexual immorality and political tyranny of the Muslim world” (83, emphasis mine), she does not engage directly with anti-Islamic sources. What were these sources? Books, newspapers, periodicals? Were whole articles and/or books dedicated to describing the Muslim Menace, or were images of Islam largely restricted to passing references in writing dedicated to other subjects (like the Latter-day Saints)? A side-by-side comparison of images of Muslims and orientalized representations of Mormons would have allowed her to draw out the similarities and differences between the two, and might have highlighted the specific anxieties about “foreign” religions that these images expressed. One golden opportunity for such comparison is the work of Richard Francis Burton, the famed British explorer whose Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to el-Medinah and Meccah (1855) and The City of the Saints (1862) – describing his travel to the Mormon stronghold of Salt Lake City – were popular with both British and American readers in the mid-19th century.1 Without this context it is difficult to gauge the relative importance of the images that Heise describes in the anti-Mormon literature she examines.

Heise claims that anti-Mormon literature “relied largely on anti-Muslim caricatures” to convey the Saints’ enslavement and defilement both of individual female bodies and their “violation of the social body through […] treachery and authoritarianism” (82). But this assertion that anti-Muslim imagery carried greater weight in the popular imagination than the tropes circulating in anti-Catholic tales – which were written about a religious minority that, unlike Islam, had a substantial and constantly increasing presence within the US – calls for more support. It is difficult to imagine that representations of a distant minority like Muslims could have had a more significant impact on American Protestant readers than such wildly popular anti-Catholic tales as the fictive 1836 “memoir” of Maria Monk’s captivity in a French Canadian Roman Catholic convent in Montreal.2 The tale – which clearly served as a model for the later “memoir” of the fictional escaped-Mormon Maria Ward – featured all of the major characteristics that Heise identifies as influential in representations of Mormons as Muslims: despotic rulers who mixed religion with government; false religion; the captivity and defilement of female bodies. And it was a best-seller. Heise needed to do more here to demonstrate what – other than the public practice in Muslim communities of what Protestant Americans firmly believed they knew Roman Catholics were doing in secret (87) – distinguished the use in this period of the Muslim image from the use of popular representations of any other non-Protestant religion, and Roman Catholics in particular.

It is not possible, based on the evidence Heise explores here, to see whether and how images of Islam reinforced 19th-century representations of Mormons differently than did writers’ frequent comparisons of the Saints to the Roman Catholic community. Given Heise’s acknowledgment that Islam was by no means the only religious or ethnic other whose image was invoked in the 19th-century project of othering the Latter-day Saints, her examination of images of Muslims within anti-Mormon writing calls for some comparison (p. 94, n. 2). How frequently did images of Muslims appear in anti-Mormon writing, and how did the number and length of those appearances compare to images of other minority groups? While Heise seems to indicate that images of Muslims served different purposes, in the anti-Mormon writing of this period, than did images of Roman Catholics, she does not clearly show how the images of these groups were deployed differently or describe the varying anxieties expressed by images of each.3

I hope that this article is the beginning, for Heise, of a larger examination of the use of the Muslim image in 19th-century anti-Mormon literature – and, further, of the broader uses to which representations of Islam were put in American culture in this period. Heise’s observations here merely scratch the surface of what promises to be a much richer subject.

Cristine Hutchison-Jones earned her PhD in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University. She is a cultural and intellectual historian of religion in the United States with a focus on religious intolerance and representations of minorities. Her dissertation, “Reviling and Revering the Mormons: Defining American Values, 1890-2008,” explored images of the Mormons in American news, fiction and non-fiction writing, and television and film. She is the author of “Center and Periphery: Mormons and American Culture” in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.



[1] While Burton himself was British, Heise indicates by her inclusion in the article of the British film Trapped by the Mormons (1922) that she is willing to consider sources that were consumed but not produced by Americans.

[2] For more discussion of the importance of Monk’s memoir in particular and 19th-century convent tales in general in the American imagination, see Veil of Fear, edited and with an introduction by Nancy Lusignan Schultz (Purdue University Press, 1999). The book attributed to book was quickly followed by a number of new editions that featured additions designed to confirm Monk’s assertions, including supposed plans of the Hotel-Dieu Nunnery in Montreal.

[3] A number of secondary sources compare anti-Mormon literature to other writings of intolerance in the 19th century. J. Spencer Fluhman’s “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012) examined the use of the Muslim image throughout the 19th century, but particularly in the middle of the century when the Saints were first building their kingdom in the West. Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth, which Heise references several times, deeply examined the orientalization of Mormons as a central aspect of the 19th-century American project of redefining Mormons as a foreign body within the nation’s borders [see, for example, “‘They Ain’t Whites…They’re Mormons’: Fictive Responses to the Anxiety of Seduction” in Givens, Viper updated edition (OUP, 2012), esp. 141–149]. Givens also analyzed the relationship between anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic tales, and both he and Jenny Franchot, whose Roads to Rome (University of California, 1994) Heise also cites, look further back to the relationship of American anti-Catholic narratives to early Indian captivity narratives. Heise does not engage these aspects of either Givens’ or Franchot’s work.

Award Winning Research Essays

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

The Journal of Ecclesiastical History has announced the winner of its first annual Eusebius Prize, which goes to the best submitted essay on any topic in early Christian history. This year’s winning paper is entitled “On the Diversity and Influence of the Eusebian Alliance: The Case of Theodore of Heraciea,” by Matthew J Crawford of the University of Durham. Cambridge University Press has made the prize-winning paper available online for free through September 30. You can read it here.

Also in prize-related news: the deadline for the Sidney Mead Prize has passed, but there is still time to submit nominations for the Jane Dempsey Douglass Prize. The Douglass Prize goes to the author of the best essay published during the previous calendar year on any aspect of the role of women in the history of Christianity. Nominations must be in by August 1.

To nominate an essay for the Douglass Prize, send a letter or an email to our Executive Secretary, Keith Francis ( with

1) The author’s name
2) The author’s affiliation
3) The author’s contact information, and
4) The title of the essay

Last year’s winner was Sarah Adelman, whose essay “Empowerment and Submission: The Political Culture of Catholic Women’s Religious Communities in Nineteenth-Century America” appears in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Women’s History.

On the Discipline of “Sermon Studies”

Monday, November 19th, 2012

by Robert H. Ellison, Marshall University

Multidisciplinary endeavors with “Studies” in the name have become a staple of the modern academic landscape. British and American studies are among the more common terms; students at my university can earn degrees in religious studies, and pursue minors in African and African American, Asian, Latin American, sexuality, and women’s studies. A program in film studies is in the works as well.

Recently, an online book review introduced me to another example, the field of “Illustration Studies.” According to that review, one of the main premises of Reading Victorian Illustration, 1855-1875: Spoils of the Lumber Room is that the time has come for Illustration Studies “to be recognized within the scholarly community and beyond.” I wish now to make the same claim for “Sermon Studies.” This field is not entirely in its infancy; by some estimates, it has been emerging for about twenty years (see the Preface to The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901 [2012], for which I was a “consultant editor”), and now boasts some 200 active scholars, according to a count conducted by Bob Tennant. It still, however, lacks the name recognition enjoyed by the areas I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Momentum has been building, through an annual symposium of sermons-oriented scholars of Early Modern English literature held in Reading and Manchester Universities, the publication of an Oxford handbook on Early Modern sermons (2011), Brill’s New History of the Sermon series (I was the editor for Volume 5), and other recent works, but much more remains to be done.

Bill Gibson’s introductory essay in the Oxford Handbook offers a thorough discussion of the task. Some of the work is very elementary, so much so that it might remind us of Vince Lombardi’s famous statement to the Green Bay Packers: “Gentlemen, this is a football.” What, for example, do we mean by the word “sermon”? While the boundaries of most literary genres are fairly clearly defined—we have good ideas about what constitutes a novel, a poem, a short story, or a play—we still lack a definitive answer to this question.

Must a sermon, for example, have an oral component? The fact that George MacDonald published three volumes of what he called Unspoken Sermons suggests that the answer may be “No.” If a speech is delivered before a religious audience or on a religious topic, is that sufficient? The answer, again, is likely “No,” because ministers through the ages have described such works not only as “sermons,” but as “lectures” and “charges” as well. To complicate matters further, some texts were published—in virtually identical forms—under more than one of these names!

Once the term “sermon” has been more or less adequately defined, the next challenge is identifying the texts relevant to a given research project. The quantity of works is not the problem: thousands are available in manuscript, print, microform, and electronic texts online. The issue, rather, is narrowing down the choices. Scholars at other institutions and one of my own graduate students, for example, have recently asked for help in locating sermons preached on specific scripture texts. As it stands now, no resource–WorldCat, the Internet Archive, or a particular university’s online catalog—contains the metadata or search capabilities necessary to provide this information, or to identify sermons by other important criteria such as the dates on which they were preached or the occasions for which they were written (e.g., Christmas, Easter, or 5th November [Guy Fawkes’ Day]). Instead, researchers have to comb through scores of individual sermons and volumes upon volumes of collected works in the hope of finding what they’re looking for. Indexes such as a chronological listing of Newman’s sermons and J. Gordon Spaulding’s 6-volume Pulpit Publications 1660-1782 can aid the process in some cases, but there remains a pressing need for a comprehensive catalog, designed from the ground up for the digital age and reflecting the “best practices” of librarianship and cataloging.

The texts indexed in such a catalog can be used in a host of important research projects. Studies published in the early to middle years of the 20th century—such as those by Edwin Dargan, F. R Webber, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Eric Mackerness—are primarily biographical, applying Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory to the history of preaching. More recently, the focus has shifted to analyses of the texts themselves, a change I have advocated in my Brill volume and elsewhere. Such studies could of course be theological, focusing on interpretations of the creation story in Genesis 1 or examining the sacramental implications of “this is my body” in Luke 22:19, but they need not be restricted to that discipline. They could, for example, be historical (surveying sermons preached in St. Mary’s Church in Oxford), political (examining sermons on the Glorious Revolution or questions of church and state), or linguistic (conducting sophisticated textual analyses using web-based programs such as Voyeur Tools).

Finally, even the best projects are of little use to the scholarly community if they never appear in print.

Work on sermons is currently being published in journals in a variety of fields: recent examples include religion (Anglican and Episcopal History), rhetoric (Rhetoric Society Quarterly), and American studies (American Quarterly). The broad readership of even church history journals, however, prevents them from giving any kind of extensive attention to the genre. It would likely be unrealistic, for example, to expect an article on preaching to be published in every issue (or even every year), to say nothing of having a special issue entirely devoted to the topic. A journal called Sermon Studies, published in association with a respected academic press and perhaps under the sponsorship of a scholarly society, would recognize the emergence of sermon studies as a subfield give it momentum that could be very beneficial to its continued growth.

The final chapter in the Oxford Handbook, written by ASCH Executive Secretary Keith Francis, lays out a rather ambitious agenda for students of the sermon; it, along with Bill Gibson’s introduction, is a kind of manifesto on the current state and future direction of the field. Realizing this agenda—or even just the portions of it I have mentioned here– will be a rather daunting task. Scholarly publishing, like every other aspect of higher education, is facing economic challenges that make the launch of a new journal a risky proposition at best. Building a useful sermon database will be extremely labor-intensive as well, requiring faculty, graduate students, and others to devote hundreds of hours to reading and classifying thousands of sermons.

Readers of this blog are in a good position to help meet these needs and keep Sermon Studies moving forward. The American Society of Church History is already making important contributions, including panels on sermons in its conferences and publishing articles in its journal Church History on topics ranging from Billy Graham’s preaching to French sermons at the end of the nineteenth century. ASCH members who would be interested in contributing to a database, helping to launch and maintain a journal, or collaborate on other projects are warmly invited to contact me at

John Henry Newman, Monasticism, and the Teaching of History

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

by Greg Peters

John Henry Newman’s Coat of Arms
I am a scholar of Christian monasticism, an Anglican priest and a professor at an unashamedly religious institution in the Protestant Christian tradition – and I am happy! There’s something unmatched about working at an institution that supports one’s theological/religious convictions, provides opportunities to further explore one’s faith with students and colleagues and helps to integrate one’s life into a coherent whole. I am here not because I am unable to go anywhere else but by choice. I love what I do and I love coming to work each and every day (though I do enjoy my summer and January breaks). For many scholars such a life would seem too quaint and simplistic and for others my employment at an overtly religious institution is tantamount to a lack of intellectual freedom. That certainly is not the case here at Biola University.

Biola University was founded in 1908 as the “Bible Institute of Los Angeles” (hence the neologism Biola). It became a college in 1949 and a university in 1981. Today there are nearly 6,500 students being educated in six schools from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level. There are several hundred faculty members and twice as many support staff stuffed into 95 acres in the larger urban sprawl of Los Angeles, closer to Disneyland than the Disney Concert Hall. The beaches and the mountains are within easy driving distance as is Mexico, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. If you don’t mind people, asphalt, sunshine and heavy traffic then we are ideally located.

In addition to teaching at a great university, I also teach in one of the most exciting undergraduate programs on campus, and perhaps even in the country – the Torrey Honors Institute. Torrey is a liberal arts, great books based program that demands much reading, writing and discussion from its students. Since students do not take a major in the Institute, they add a specialized major in any area available at Biola University to the grounding they have received in the classics. As a result, Torrey combines the best of classical and traditional American university education; that is, we sit in a circle for six to nine hours a week discussing the classics of the western tradition (think Homer, Plato, Locke, Austen, etc.). I never have to lecture and I always get to work with the best and brightest students on campus.

Furthermore, as a scholar of monasticism and an Anglican I have the privilege of seeing what we do here at Torrey fit into the larger picture of monasticism, at least when viewed through the lens of the Anglican-turned-Roman Catholic John Henry Newman. In his article “Schools of the Lord’s Service: Benedictine Ideals in the Educational Thought of John Henry Newman,” [American Benedictine Review 57.1 (2006): 60-80] Denis Robinson, himself a Benedictine monk, writes that the

virtues of monasticism for Newman were enshrined in five basic ideals: (1) the significant bridge monastic culture formed with the patristic past, (2) the mixture of the active and contemplative ideals, (3) the notion of the central spiritual dimension in education, (4) an essentially Platonic epistemology, and (5) the expression of these in the practice of the Liturgy of the Hours [that is, daily prayer] (p. 64).

On the first point, “In [Newman’s] estimation the Benedictine tradition formed a bridge between the world of the Fathers and the modern world. Monks enshrined the values of the classical world by carrying forward the teachings of the ancient church in a way of life as well as in formal theology” (p. 65). Newman’s writings on the Benedictine’s are some of the results of this belief, as is his The Arians of the Fourth Century from 1833. Concerning the second point, Robinson writes that “Newman had little taste for rarefied academicism. In his estimation, scholarship had to be sound, but it also had to be mixed with a ‘practical frame of mind.’ In other words, theory had to spill over into action or it was essentially useless” (p. 67). Reflecting on the relationship of spirituality and education, Robinson believes that “Newman’s view of education was precisely discovery of meaning. Theory had to be infused with an existential regard, a spirituality that spoke to the dreams and hope of people where they lived…” (p. 67). Regarding Newman’s Platonism,

Theoretically, this intersection of the visible world and the invisible reality of the divine points to Newman’s essential Platonism. Although Newman was influenced by the work of the earlier group of Anglican scholars know [sic] as the Cambridge Platonists, he was somewhat distrustful of their overly rational and supernatural interpretation of Plato’s work. Newman’s project in the Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) in many ways can be attributed to his need for an epistemological rehabilitation of Platonic idealism. Without getting into too much detail, Newman posited the necessity of innate ideas, refusing to accept Locke’s sense-based empiricism. However, Newman also appreciated, in a way Plato undoubtedly did as well, the need for the incubation and expansion of these values in the lived experience of human beings. (p. 69)

Finally, concerning his fifth point, Robinson notes,

In Tract 75, Newman offered an apologetic for the Benedictine breviary… The lessons of the Liturgy of the Hours formed a compendium of prayers, doctrinal readings, Scripture readings and the poetry of the psalms. The Liturgy of the Hours was the ultimate catechumenal text in Newman’s estimation precisely because it did what any good educational and formational tool should do, that is, it shaped the life and thought of the person through continual re-presentation of the truths of Christianity in a varied and multi-dimensional way. (pp. 69-70),

As Robinson ably demonstrates, for Newman the Benedictines provided an educational model that was worthy of emulation. In fact, as Robinson explains, Newman used this model as the basis for an attempted renewal of the Oxford University tutorial system upon his appointment at Oriel College in 1826. It is my opinion that these same five observations are applicable to the educational task attempted today at the Torrey Honors Institute, aligning its program with that of both the Benedictine legacy and the educational philosophy of John Henry Newman as developed under the influence of his reading of the Benedictine tradition.

(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)   Jeff Rau  

First, the Torrey Honors Institute seeks to connect its students to the past, including the Christian inheritance, by reading authors from the past 2,500 years of Western civilization. This reading and study of the past is what best equips students for life. The Institute also strives to connect the contemplative and active ideals of education into a cohesive whole. Though the bulk of a student’s time in Torrey is spent in the reading and discussion of assigned texts, tutors (as the professors are called) encourage students to participate in Institute-sponsored programs that reach others, such as Torrey Theatre, Torrey Music and the Torrey abroad programs.

Further, many students participate in short-term service programs administered by Biola University or other service agencies and/or reach out into the local community through local, community-based programs. The Torrey Honors Institute does not neglect the spiritual dimension of its students who are expected to have a “growing spiritual life.” Through the intentional mentoring program and inclusion of great Christian texts, primarily the Scriptures, into its curriculum, the Institute seeks to minister to the whole person. Conversations between students and tutors are personal and spiritual as often as they are academic.

Though not fully adopting a Platonic epistemology, the Institute does use the Socratic dialogue format, as exemplified in Plato’s dialogues, as the basis of its educational pedagogy. The Institute believes that all truth is God’s truth and is given to us as a gift from God; therefore, discussion of any text that yields an “understanding of the philosophical systems and worldviews of the greatest Christian and non-Christian thinkers in Western civilization” is worthwhile. Finally, the Institute’s educational goals are intended to develop the full Christian life of each student, including their prayer life. Sessions are often begun with prayer and students and tutors are encouraged to pray with one another.

Most importantly, just as the Benedictines have historically prioritized the use of the Sacred Scriptures in both their teaching and praying, the Institute also gives pride of place to God’s Word and strives to incorporate its teaching and truths into all class sessions and Institute activities. Like its predecessors Benedict of Nursia and John Henry Newman, the Torrey Honors Institute honors the Holy Scriptures as it strives to create whole persons with whole souls pursuing truth, goodness and beauty. It too, like Benedict’s monasteries, strives to be a school for the Lord’s service and I am happy to be involved in such an important task.

It seems important to me that scholars, especially those of Christian history, know where they have come from as much as where they are going. Though the past is always open to debate the future is completely hidden, despite our best attempts to predict it. Biola University knows where she comes from and has a fairly good idea of where she’s going should it work out according to plan. As well, the Torrey Honors Institute also understands its connection to the past by way of the great books of the intellectual tradition. We love books because we believe that

Unless great books are our very life, unless we look forward hungrily to the next opportunity to read them ourselves or to hear our students discuss them, unless by impulse and choice we are turning them over in our mind as we walk across the campus or through the school hallways, it is only a cold dish we are likely to serve up to our pupils, and they, taking their cue from us, will discuss great and noble ideas at a low temperature and on a low plane
(John Erskine, founder of the General Honors program at Columbia University in 1920).

It is my hope that all of us, as teachers and scholars of Christian history, be rooted in our respective traditions and histories so that we can be effective in what we do, inspiring those who will come after us. Again, I am happy and I love what I do. I hope you are too.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Theological Roots of the Nineteenth-Century Women’s Movement

Monday, September 24th, 2012

by J. G. Brown

The brouhaha over Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” has been especially virulent in the Saint Louis, Missouri area. It dominated our media for weeks. Akin received a degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis and attends a church associated with that seminary (Presbyterian Church of America). The media frenzy compelled Covenant Theological Seminary to issue an official statement denouncing rape as a violent and heinous crime.

But whether or not Todd’s church promotes an “anti-woman” culture is a question not readily settled by public pronouncements. There is a certain irony in all this, in that Akin’s church is a part of the broader evangelical tradition, a tradition that was largely responsible for the emancipation of women in the early nineteenth century. I have spent a considerable amount of time studying this evangelical conundrum, in an attempt to understand its relationship to culture, then and now.

The Presbyterian Church in America and Covenant Theological Seminary have a well articulated position on the role of women in the church. The PCA believes that men and women have equal value in the eyes of God but different roles or functions within the life of the church. Women, for instance, are barred from being deacons and elders. Church polity concerning women is based largely on I Timothy 2:11–14, a biblical passage that prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men. The PCA believes that male spiritual headship/female subordination is grounded in the created order, an order that Christianity redeems but does not alter. The English Standard Version Study Bible (2008) explains what is called the complementarian view on the I Timothy passage.

The commentators support the view that gender roles in the church are rooted in the created order. They also remark that this passage does not have “in view the role of women in leadership outside the church (e.g., business or government).”1 The PCA/ complementarians claim that they are upholding the historic Protestant interpretation of this passage. This may be an assertion easily made by theologians, but can it be substantiated by historians? New research on early Protestant beliefs concerning natural law and the spiritual and temporal kingdoms brings the complementarian claim into serious question. It also provides new insights into the significant role evangelicalism played in the emancipation of women.

The early Protestant reformers held to a two-kingdom view that was in some ways similar to their medieval forebears. This is especially clear in the writings of both Luther and Calvin. They both defend the moral goodness of the sword-bearing state and the Christian’s participation in that state. They believe Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, both ordained by God. These two kingdoms, however, operate for different ends and under very different rules.

The spiritual kingdom is expressed on earth in the church, which has a redemptive and eschatological purpose. It does not bear the sword and submits to the redemptive ethic of Scripture as revealed in Jesus Christ. The temporal kingdom, on the other hand, can use the sword and is based in natural law. Natural law, for the Reformers, is that law imprinted on the consciences of humankind (Romans 2:14-15) and found in the moral principles underlying the Mosaic law. Natural law also finds its origin in creation ordinances.2 Consistent with Protestant convictions, both Luther and Calvin believed that sin has marred human ability to fully discern natural law outside of God’s special revelation and regenerating grace; nevertheless, through the remnants of natural law, God graciously restrains the consequences of sin in this world.

After doing extensive research, I have concluded that most prominent theologians in the English-speaking world, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, held something similar to a natural law/two-kingdom view. For them, natural law/creation ordinances mandated the subordination of women to men in the temporal kingdom. The church, on the other hand, was animated by egalitarian principles, such as the priesthood of all believers. The church might honor “the order preserved by the world” (as Luther expressed it), but the principle of male headship/female subordination was not organic to the church.

This is spelled out clearly in Luther’s exegesis of Galatians 3:28: “In the world, and according to the sinful nature, there is a great inequality of persons, and this must be observed carefully . . . . But in Christ there is no law, nor difference of persons, there is only one body, one spirit, one hope one gospel.”3 Protestant exegetes, up to the nineteenth century, believed social hierarchy, including male headship and female subordination, was a necessary component of temporal social order, established by God at creation. In this respect they were conservative, re-enforcing traditional cultural norms. However, contrary to today’s conservative theologians, they did not make creation ordinances organic to life in the church.

A survey of commentaries written before the mid- nineteenth century, dealing with pivotal passages, such as I Timothy 2:11-14, I Corinthians 11:3 and I Corinthians 14:34-35 confirms a natural law/two kingdom view. For instance, John Calvin believes that, in I Corinthians 11:3, man is placed in an intermediate position between Christ and the woman. Yet, at the same time, in Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “in Christ there is neither male nor female.” Calvin resolves this dilemma as follows: “When he [Paul] says there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which external qualities are not regarded or made any account of.”

This spiritual kingdom has its present expression in the church, and, in fact, it is this spiritual liberty and equality that underlie the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. However, in this world, our spiritual liberty and equality in Christ always should respect social order and decorum. Therefore Calvin goes on to qualify his position:

In the meantime, however, he [Paul] does not disturb civil order and honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here [I Corinthians 11:3], on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum—which is part of ecclesiastical polity.”4

Calvin later again affirms this principle that male headship reflects “external arrangement and political decorum.”5 He would regard today’s complementarian assignation to men of “spiritual headship” as a strange co-mingling of spiritual and temporal kingdom principles. In accordance with basic Protestant doctrine, Calvin says that the spiritual head of woman is Christ only; however, in the kingdom of this world, she is subject to man. Later theologians follow a similar line of thought.

Puritan Matthew Poole argues that the headship of man over women, referred to in I Corinthians 11:3 is strictly “political or economical.” He also believes that when Paul says that the “head of every man is Christ,” he is referring to all church members, male and female, since Christ is the spiritual head of men and women alike. Baptist theologian John Gill writes that natural law/creation ordinances establish the subordination of women in the civil realm. (Consequently, female subordination is also observed in the church.) Evangelical Anglican exegete, Thomas Scott, says nothing of male spiritual headship and restricts female subordination to “this lower world.”6

Consistent with their understanding of the different principles that govern the civil and spiritual kingdoms, most early theologians also recognized the possibility of something contra mundum in the life of the church. Luther writes in his exegesis of I Timothy 2 that “if the Lord were to raise up a woman for us to listen to, we would allow her to rule like Huldah.”7 Calvin acknowledged the possibility of women with an extraordinary call, as did Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, Thomas Scott, John Wesley, and Adam Clarke. In fact, Methodist theologian Adam Clarke even reprimanded women who failed to act/speak under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.8 Today’s complementarians either reject or ignore the idea of the extraordinary call.

Theologians who were part of the Magisterial Reformation often gave the temporal kingdom an expansive authority — and sometimes distinctions between the two kingdoms were a bit muddled. However, none made creation ordinances foundational to the spiritual kingdom/church, and most recognized the possibility of women with an extraordinary call. No wonder it was in the church or during religious revivals that the voices of women were first heard in American history.

This was a phenomena that was indeed something new under the sun. The egalitarian theology of the spiritual kingdom does much to explain why there were female preachers, evangelists, and exhorters long before there were female politicians, business leaders, and academicians. In 1827, Harriet Livermore preached before the U.S. Congress (and twice again thereafter), long before that august body would countenance a woman sitting among their ranks.9

Lillian O’Connor’s study of the rhetorical styles of women involved in the ante-bellum reform movement found that almost all the early women orators spoke in what was called “pulpit style.” This was because these women had first presented their thoughts publicly inside a church, often from a pulpit.10 Catherine Brekus’s painstaking research on female preaching in America between 1740 and 1845 does much to re-discover the voices of women who others had long ago attempted to obliterate from the historical record. These women were motivated by spiritual kingdom theology —that in Christ there is neither male nor female. They answered an extraordinary call. The narrow path they blazed through the wilderness has become a broad highway of opportunity for women today. Theological ideas do have consequences, then and now.


[1] English Standard Version Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2328.

[2] For a full treatment of natural law and the two kingdoms see David VanDrunen’s book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms : A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] Martin Luther, “Lectures on Galatians, 1535” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1963), 356.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 20 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 354.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For a detailed account of Poole, Gill, Scott, and other exegetes on this issue see J. G. Brown’s book, An Historian Looks at I Timothy 2:11–14, The Authentic Traditional Interpretation and Why It Disappeared (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2012), Chapter One.

[7] Martin Luther, “Lectures on I Timothy” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 28 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1973), 280.

[8] See An Historian Looks at I Timothy 2:11–14, Chapter One.

[9] Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims, Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 1, 12.

[10] Lillian O’Connor, >Pioneer Women Orators: Rhetoric in the Ante-Bellum Reform Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), 115–16.

The Enduring Legacy of Mercersburg: A Brief Introduction to John Williamson Nevin and the Mercersburg Theology

Monday, September 17th, 2012

By Adam S. Borneman

In April 2012 the good folks over at Wipf and Stock published an annotated edition of John Williamson Nevin’s masterpiece, The Mystical Presence. This was a much anticipated addition to the exponentially growing collection of studies in the Mercersburg Theology (including an effort from yours truly). Indeed it seems that in recent years an increasing number of historians, theologians, and Christian laypersons have been delighted to rediscover this fascinating little niche of American church history.

Here I’d like to offer a brief, fly-by introduction to the history and theology of Mercersburg, including some excerpts from the chief texts of the movement. In closing I’ll suggest a few reasons why this area of study continues to garner interest.

John Nevin

John Willliamson Nevin (1803-1886) chief architect of the Mercersburg theology, was born on Feb. 20, 1803 to a family of Scotch-Irish descent in Franklin County, PA. Here he was raised in a “high-church” Presbyterian environment at Middle Spring Church in Shippensburg. At age 15 Nevin enrolled at Union college in Schenectady, NY (notably, where he encountered Revivalism for the first time).

After a brief break following his collegiate studies, he spent time at Princeton, both as a student and eventually as a professor, filling in at the request of the illustrious Charles Hodge for two years (Hodge would later become one of Nevin’s primary theological interlocutors. See Bonomo’s Incarnation and Sacrament). From there Nevin was called as chair of Biblical Literature at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburg and then to the German Reformed Church’s struggling seminary in Mercersburg, PA, in 1840. There, Nevin was joined by the renowned historian Philip Schaff, who was born in Sweden and educated quite broadly at Berlin, Tübingen, and Halle.

Over the next two decades, drawing from the well of German Idealism and Romanticism as well as Patristic and Reformation theology, Nevin and Schaff would offer one of the most insightful and penetrating critiques of Protestant theology and American revivalism to date.

Nevin’s engagement with revivalism at Union, as wall as the Old School vs. New School conflict among Presbyterians at Princeton, prompted a prolific career of criticizing revivalist and nominalist tendencies in the American church. In response to these tendencies, Nevin insisted upon a view of Christ and the church that emphasized the Incarnation, unity, the sacraments, and catholicity. In a letter, Nevin states quite clearly (and beautifully!) that the “cardinal principle” of the Mercersburg system is “the fact of the Incarnation.” He continues,

“This viewed not as a doctrine or speculation but as a real transaction of God in the world, is regarded as being necessarily itself the essence of Christianity, the sum and substance of the whole Christian redemption. Christ saves the world, not ultimately by what he teaches or by what he does, but by what he is in the constitution of his own person. His person in its relations to the world carries in it the power of victory over sin, death, and hell, the force thus of a real atonement or reconciliation between God and man, the triumph of a glorious resurrection from the dead, and all the consequences for faith which are attributed to this in the grand old symbol called the Apostles’ Creed.” 1

But few of Nevin’s writings were so cordial. The bulk of his career is characterized by numerous articles, tracts, and essays that are intellectually rigorous, argumentative, and critically engaged. Notable is Nevin’s The Anxious Bench (1844), a polemical tract which addresses the historical transmission of revivalist Puritanism into its early nineteenth-century manifestations via the Second Great Awakening.

The work is a scathing criticism and outright rejection of Charles Finney’s “New Measures” revivalism, recently employed by a visiting preacher in a local German Reformed congregation in Mercersburg. Finney, one of Nevin’s most frustrating opponents, emphasized the instantaneous conversion of the individual and a doctrine of the individual’s agency in Christian moral action (part and parcel of social reform during what historians have called the age of the “benevolent empire”).

Finney’s “new measures” included the “anxious bench,” which was essentially an intensified version of what is commonly known as an altar call within evangelicalism. Nevin’s hostility towards such trends, which he calls “mechanical and shallow,” 2 is displayed no more clearly than in his own words:

“If Finneyism and Winebrennerism, the anxious bench, revival machinery, solemn tricks for effect, decision displays at the bidding of the preacher, genuflections and prostrations in the aisle or around the altar, noise and disorder, extravagance and rant, mechanical conversions…justification by feeling rather than faith, and encouragement ministered to all fanatical impressions ; if these things, and things in the same line indefinitely, have no connection in fact with true serious religion and the cause of revivals, but tend only to bring them into discredit, let the fact be openly proclaimed.” 3

The alternative to this “system of the bench” is what Nevin calls the “system of the catechism,” by which he means the “organic” life of the church that nurtures Christians over the course of a life time. Opposed to one-time conversion experiences, fiery sermons, and ecstatic enthusiasm, Nevin emphasized word and sacrament, catechesis, Christian nurture, and essentially that the whole (Christ’s body, the Church) always remains greater than the sum of its parts (individual Christians). He explains,

“In this view, the Church is truly the mother of all her children.  They do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them… The Church is in no sense the product of individual Christianity, as though a number of persons should first receive the heavenly fire in separate streams, and then come into such a spiritual connection comprising the whole; but individual Christianity is the product, always and entirely, of the Church as existing previously, and only revealing its life in this way.  Christ lives in the Church, and through the Church in its particular members; just as Adam lives in the humans race generically considered, and through the race in every individual man.” 4

As such, among the primary emphases of the Mercersburg movement is a rediscovery and recasting of Reformed ecclesiology. For Nevin and Schaff the Church is the primary means of communicating Christ and, accordingly, the salvation of mankind. The church is objective and unified in Christ; it is the extension of Christ incarnate through history. According to Nevin,

“Christ’s presence in the world is in and by his Mystical Body, the Church. As a real human presence, carrying in itself the power of a new life for the race in general, it is no abstraction or object of thought merely, but a glorious living Reality, continuously at work, in an organic historical way, in the world’s constitution.” 5

Thus for Nevin there is no presence of Christ in the world apart from the Church, which is the very form that Christ’s body has taken. Simply put, “No church, no Christ.” 6

Philip Schaff

Though by and large more amiable in tone than Nevin, Schaff likewise expressed grave concern over sectarianism and intemperate autonomy throughout the American Church: “The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend,” he wrote, “is not the Church of Rome but the sect plague in our own midst; not the single pope of the city of seven hills, but the numberless popes – German, English, and American – who would fain enslave Protestants once more to human authority, not as embodied in the church indeed, but as holding in the form of mere private judgment and private will.” 7

Schaff, who fell in love with his adopted country (and dedicating a good bit of writing to this theme), nevertheless shared with Nevin apprehension over the sheer and unchecked democratization of the American church, which in their view resulted in throwing out the unity and wholeness baby with the authoritarian bathwater.

In 1846, Nevin composed his most important and influential work, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic View of the Holy Eucharist, now considered by many to be a classic in American theological literature. Though not inherently polemical, the Mystical Presence presents an impressively comprehensive view of the Eucharist that deeply challenged many of Nevin’s contemporaries within his own reformed tradition and continues to challenge a wide variety of theologians to this day. Historically and theologically sophisticated, it is easily the most important work of the Mercersburg corpus. In keeping with his “cardinal principle,” Nevin develops his sacramentology on the basis of the Incarnation:

“’The Word became Flesh!’ In this simple, but sublime enunciation, we have the whole gospel comprehended in a word. … The incarnation is the key that unlocks the sense of all God’s revelations” 8

“His flesh is meat indeed – his blood drink indeed; aleithos, in reality, not in a shadowy or relative sense merely, but absolutely and truly in the sphere of the Spirit. The participation itself involves everlasting life; not in the form of hope and promise, but in the way of actual present possession; and not simply as a mode of existence of the soul abstractly considered, but as embracing the whole man in the absolute totality of his nature.” 9

Two years later, in 1848, Nevin took to his pen rather aggressively in a work titled Antichrist, or the Spirit of Sect and Schism. This work, following in the tradition of The Anxious Bench, focused specifically on the sectarian tendency of nineteenth century revivalism. Nevin goes as far as to suggest that the spirit of sectarianism is akin to the Antichrist of 1 John 4:1-3. His reasoning is as follows: If the Church is indeed Christ’s body, the objective, visible, and historical extension of the Incarnation, then the fragmenting of the church is no less than the dividing of Christ’s body. It is therefore, a rejection of the Incarnation and a promotion of Christological heresy.

Also notable among the Mercersburg corpus is the Mercersburg Review, spanning numerous volumes during the late 1840s and 1850s. Nevin served as editor of the Review, which for its time, aside from the well-known Princeton Review, had few rivals in terms of scope and scholarly acumen. Nevin was not only editor but was also the primary contributor to the Review, writing on a broad range of topics, including everything from philosophy to theology to politics to the Mexican-American war.

In the end, the revivalist impulse, combined with the “commonsense realist” approach of Princeton (and indeed the nation as a whole), proved too powerful for any “high-church” Protestant theological movement (especially one so indebted to a rather foreign German idealistic philosophy), and Mercersburg proved ineffective in terms of any major ecclesial influence. The short-lived tenure of Mercersburg is not to be dismissed, however, as it continues to shed light on the diversity of the Reformed tradition in the antebellum United States and offers insights into the life and practices of the church today.

The eminent historian Sydney Ahlstrom captured well the historical value of Mercersburg when he said that it revealed “with startling clarity that the basically Puritan forms of church life which had become so pervasive in America could be subjected to searching criticism by men who still honored Calvin and treasured the Reformation’s confessional heritage.” 10

There are several reasons why I think Mercersburg continues to retain interest:

1. In recent years, the postmodern penchant for tradition and shifts away from American revivalism for some, demonstrated for example by the emerging church movement, has resulted in the adoption of eclectic liturgical practices and theological expression, stemming from Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and other “high-church” traditions. Mercersburg has an appeal to this sort of sensibility as a Reformed movement that sought to retain the “high-church” sensibilities of the Reformation. That Mercersburg has such a broad, eclectic, and catholic appeal is demonstrated rather well by Brad Littlejohn’s work, The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity.

2. Along similar lines, unity and ecumenism have become all the rage, especially in mainline Protestant traditions. While the Mercersburg theologians would have serious reservations about the doctrinal content of many of these traditions, the Mercersburg tradition does serve well as a confessional, traditional expression of Protestantism that nevertheless values unity and decries the insular and sectarian tendencies of fundamentalism.

3. In an age when “philosophy,” “psychology,” and “sociology” have seemingly trumped the classical methods of “theology” proper, Mercersburg remains relevant as a philosophically sophisticated tradition that will simultaneously satisfy those who insist upon traditional methods of biblical theology. Nevin, it should be noted, wrote intelligently in the fields of psychology, philosophy, and the philosophy of history. Shaff, of course, was a historiographical giant.

4. Many American Reformed traditions are currently undergoing a liturgical renewal of sorts. More and more, confessional Presbyterians and reformed are returning to weekly communion, lectionaries, traditional liturgies, and other forms of “smells and bells.” Mercersburg serves as a wonderful precedent and resource on this side of the Atlantic for those who need an example of a thoroughly – but uniquely! – Reformed and American tradition.

5. Finally, many theological debates continue to get bogged down in the excruciating minutia of exegesis and doctrine (stemming, I would argue, from our American commonsense realist tendencies). The Mercersburg traiditon, while valuing exegesis and doctrine, in my view does a good job of majoring on the majors and minoring on the minors, of ensuring that everything points back to Jesus Christ (so much so that some have suggested a kindred spirit in Barth!)

I for one am very thankful to have been introduced several years ago to this intriguing piece of American Church history, and I am thrilled to be a part of larger project to annotate and publish a wide variety of writings form the Mercersburg tradition. Mercersburg has challenged me to always look for the marginalized philosophies, groups, and movements within American history. It turns out that these historical exceptions to the rule often teach us more about the vast movements of our history than we could ever anticipate.



[1] Letter from John Nevin to Henry Harbaugh, (between 1860 and 1867).

[2] John W. Nevin, The Anxious Bench (Chambersburg, Pa, 1844), vi.

[3] Anxious Bench, 28.

[4] Ibid., 67-68.

[5] Nevin, “Christ and the Church’ in James Hastings Nichols, ed. The Mercersburg Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 89.

[6] Nevin, The Church, 65-66.

[7] Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, ed. Bard Thompson and George H. Bricker (1845; Philadelphia, 1964), 154.

[8] Nevin, The Mystical Presence (1846), 199.

[9] Ibid., 226.

[10] Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale, 1973), 620.

Come On Feel the Noyes: Confessions of an Attached Historian

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

by Kathleen Williams

Several years ago, a professor of mine assigned Jill Lepore’s article, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography”. The essay begins with an account of Lepore’s encounter with a lock of Noah Webster’s hair in a New England archive. Lepore describes feeling “an eerie intimacy with Noah himself. And, against all logic, it made me feel as though I knew him—and, even less logically, liked him—just a bit better” (129).

When I read this essay, I, a newly-minted Ph.D. student with minimal archive experience, responded to this narrative in what I assume was the natural way: “Isn’t that sweet? Weird, and a little too attached for a historian, but strangely endearing.” That was then.


John Humphrey Noyes, circa 1850

Via Wikimedia Commons


Now, the time has come for me to make my own foray into the archives, and a few weeks ago, in a similarly “crisply air-conditioned Special Collections reading room” to the one where Lepore shared a tender moment with Webster, I found it: a laminated sheet containing a lock of John Humphrey Noyes’s hair and a portrait drawn by his youngest sister, Charlotte. (“Portrait of J.H.N. by C.A. Miller (before 1840),” Box 69.)

Noyes, the founder and leader of the Oneida Community, a nineteenth-century Perfectionist Christian commune known for its unusual sexual practices and selective breeding experiment, is not a figure who commonly inspires tender-hearted nostalgia from historians. Writings by and about him reveal a man who sought to secure the exclusive affection and loyalty of his followers, and the historiographic consensus paints him as a needy, controlling, possibly mentally ill, autocrat. Sociologists Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, in their The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation, cite Noyes’s Oneida Community as the prime exemplar of the “psychopathology” model of cult formation.

Despite knowing all of this, and despite my own significant misgivings about the system of sexual relations that Noyes devised (all members were expected to “circulate” sexually, and teenagers were initiated by much older members), when I opened the folder containing that lock of hair, I found my heart strangely warmed. I regretted, even, that it was laminated because it prevented me from reaching that next level of bizarre across-the-centuries intimacy that Lepore felt: I couldn’t touch the hair.

A week or so later, I went with a friend to visit the Oneida Community Mansion House, where we took a tour, and I walked around slack-jawed, feeling almost as close to these communitarians as I had when I beheld that lock of hair in the archive. I spent about two weeks’ food budget on books. Our tour guide was excited that I was a graduate student writing about Oneida, and he graciously offered to share with me his genealogical work on the Community.


The Oneida Mansion House

Nancy Gluck (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Oneida Community Mansion House


Afterward, though, I confessed to my friend my subtle disappointment that he and the other Mansion House staff hadn’t been more thrilled to have me in their presence—they hadn’t swept us into closed-to-the-public back rooms, broken open exhibition cases for our perusal, given me a special discount at the gift shop. “I’ve spent almost my entire adult life studying this community and these people,” I whined. “I just want to shake them and say, ‘I know you! I’m your historian!’”

I was aware of the absurdity of this statement even in that moment; the truth is, the Oneida Community already has its share of capable historians (though I’m hoping there’s room for at least one more). They don’t need me to give them their history. Our tour guide had spent decades studying the Community, living right next door to the place where these people had lived and worked, and he knew things about their lives that I, a wide-eyed academic, couldn’t have gleaned from a few weeks in an archive.

Potential creepiness and naïve hubris aside, the inherent illogic of the heart-swell that that tangle of hair inspired in me, and the scholarly pride-swell that being at the Mansion House provoked, got me thinking about the ways in which we relate to our subjects. Why did I, following Lepore, feel that a few strands of old hair drew me closer than ever to this long-dead religious leader? How could I write in a balanced—much less, detached—way about a man whose diary I’d read, whose hair I’d held in my hand?

None of us, of course, is ever really detached. Some of us have secret, or not-so-secret, political or ethical agendas, hoping that the messages we carry from the past will illuminate our present circumstances and choices; others want to redeem the legacies of the historic people and movements that have occupied so much of our own twenty-first-century lives. My own agenda falls somewhere along the lines of rescuing Noyes from the insane asylum of history—of recognizing, even in one of the many apparent “whackos” (a term jokingly employed by one of my former professors) who people the game-board of U.S. religious history, an affinity with the theology of Second Great Awakening revivalism and a sincere effort to be as fully and authentically Christian as possible. Perhaps a deeper understanding of Noyes and the people who devoted themselves wholeheartedly, wholebodiedly, to his mission might soften our judgment of so-called religious “whackos” past, present, and future.

In the end, I think the real identity of John Humphrey Noyes lies somewhere between the troubled, tyrannical charlatan who fits the “psychopathology model of cult formation” and the soft-spoken, earnestly religious, adored leader whose sister lovingly preserved a lock of his hair. There is something seductive (or, in Oneida Community parlance, “magnetic”) about each of these poles of interpretation, but I hope that avoiding (at least for the most part) seduction from either side will make the story I tell more real and important.

Kathleen Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Vanderbilt University. She holds a B.A. from Davidson College and an M.A. from the University of Georgia. She is currently working on her dissertation, “The Art of Glancing:” Disciplining Bodies and Affections in the Oneida Community.

James Brainerd Taylor: Forgotten Second Great Awakening Evangelist and My “Uncommon” Christian Hero

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

by Francis Kyle

Frontispiece to the Memoir of James Brainerd Taylor (1833). The portrait was completed in New York City, five months before Taylor's death.On July 6, 1998, I purchased the Memoir of James Brainerd Taylor, Second Edition (American Tract Society, 1833) while browsing a used bookstore in Manchester, Connecticut. With the $10 purchase, a hero of the Christian faith (Evangelical Protestant) was found for me. The journey of using the subject of this historical biography as a spiritual “means of grace” had begun. (Later, in April 2000, I purchased a copy of A New Tribute to the Memory of James Brainerd Taylor (1838), a type of sequel to the Memoir. Both the Memoir and A New Tribute have since become available online at Google Books.)

Like my biblical and theological studies, so I also try to apply my historical and biographical studies to my life and ministry. The application can take the form of challenge, imitation, inspiration, instruction, or warning. As long as it does not lead to an unhealthy hagiography, I believe it is good to have a fellow follower of Jesus Christ as a hero in the faith; one after whom a Christian can seek to imitate or pattern his or her life and ministry. I repeat what another hero of mine, the Apostle Paul, once wrote: “Therefore I urge you, imitate [copy, mimic, Gr. mimetai] me” (1 Cor. 4:16). “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). I concur with the compilers of the 1833 memoir that the life and ministry of James Brainerd Taylor are “most commendable and worthy of remembrance and imitation” (275). Available online is a biographical sketch of the once-popular but now forgotten Second Great Awakening evangelist James Brainerd Taylor (1801−1829), a timeline of his brief but activity-filled life, and a list of online resources related to Taylor.

From published articles and books to online blog entries and websites, it is personally rewarding to see the Princeton University and Yale Seminary-educated Taylor become part of the American church, seminary and university’s biographical vocabulary once again. As it did in the mid-to-late 1800’s in America, England, Scotland and elsewhere, so may Taylor’s popularity once again come close to equaling that of his famed evangelist-missionary cousin David Brainerd (1718−1747).

My specific attraction to Taylor is his challenge to be an “uncommon” Christian. Taylor defined an “uncommon” Christian as an “eminently holy, self-denying, cross-bearing, Bible, everyday” Christian.

The below provides the historical background to the term “uncommon Christian,” showing how Taylor either popularized or, more likely, originated the oft-repeated mid-to-late 19th-century term.


James Brainerd Taylor’s Use of “Uncommon Christian”

Shortly after his public profession of faith on September 15, 1816, an “uncommon” Christian is what the then fifteen-year-old Taylor resolved to be. Throughout the remainder of his life and ministry, and until his untimely death just eighteen days shy of his twenty-eighth birthday, this is also what Taylor encouraged other Christians to be. This is in contrast to what Taylor dreaded in himself and other disciples of Christ, namely, being a “deficient, empty, formal, lukewarm disciple.” While dependent upon the Holy Spirit, Taylor believed that “exertion is necessary” in the (synergistic) sanctification process of Christ’s disciples.


Boyhood home of James Brainerd Taylor. Near the Connecticut River In Middle Haddam, Connecticut. (From the frontispiece to A New Tribute to the Memory of James Brainerd Taylor (1838).



Taylor’s own writings, as well as the writings from those who knew him, make clear that the Second Great Awakening evangelist devoted his life and ministry to the promotion and spreading of “uncommon” Christianity. For instance, the compilers of the Memoir of James Brainerd Taylor, Benjamin Holt Rice and John Holt Rice, wrote,

The piety, the zeal, the humility, the heavenly-mindedness, the ardent desire to be useful in the vineyard of his Lord, which characterized the late James B. Taylor, have been already exhibited with such a force of evidence that every reader must see what every acquaintance felt, that he had become, as he proposed to himself and often pressed upon others to become, an uncommon Christian. (111)


Mr. Taylor, who strived to be an uncommon Christian, seems to have excelled in a prevailing desire that Christians, in all their relations, should do their duty, and have large experience of the work of grace in their own souls. (228)


In all his intercourse with the saints and in his voluminous correspondence with Christian friends, his constant aim was, either by testifying of the grace of God to himself, or by direct exhortations to stimulate them also to become uncommon Christians. “Set your standard high,” was his frequent charge. “There remains yet very much land to be possessed [Josh. 13:1]. (429)

As Taylor did himself, so he especially encouraged those converted to Christ through his instrumentality to do also: resolve to become an “uncommon” Christian while a young convert and “babe in Christ” (1 Pet. 2:2).

Grave of James Brainerd Taylor. Hampden-Sydney College Church Cemetery. Prince Edward County, Virginia. The bottom reads in italics: "Reader, his epitaph is, what he would have yours to be. A sinner saved by grace."

In a lengthy letter to “the band of young converts” in Rahway, New Jersey, Taylor wrote the following just weeks after his five weeks of ministerial labors during his 1825 spring break. His labors assisted in seeing “seventy to eighty [conversions], of all ages, from eleven years old to seventy, and of every condition in life” [Memoir, 288]. From his dorm room in Nassau Hall at Princeton University, Taylor wrote,

For the sake of Christ, then—for the sake of the church, which is his body [Eph. 1:23], and which he has purchased with his own blood [Acts 20:28], and for which he intercedes [Heb. 7:25]—for the sake of your pastor, who prays for your prosperity [3 John 2]—and for the sake of those who have labored among you—and for your own sakes, I pray you to be uncommon Christians; that is, be eminently holy, self-denying, cross-bearing, Bible, everyday Christians.

Elsewhere, Taylor penned these words of exhortation to various Christian friends and those converted to Christ through his instrumentality,

[November 9, 1822.] Why may not you be an uncommon Christian? Do you see anything to prevent it? Is not the Lord on your side [Psalm 118:6, 124:1–2]? Have you not the God of Jacob for your refuge [Psalm 46:7, 11]? Have you not an Advocate with the Father [1 John 2:1], who is also a sympathizing friend, having been in all points tempted as his disciples, yet without sin [Heb. 4:15]? O then strive for it. Keep “the world, the flesh, and the devil” continually under your feet [Rom. 16:20], and heaven continually in view [Phil. 3:20]; that you may have heaven within you [Luke 17:21]. Is it not for this that you have been brought into the church at a very early period in life? Is it not your duty to be an uncommon, that is, a very humble, self-denying, cross-bearing, (in a word,) Bible Christian? And it is no less your privilege than your duty.

[January 27, 1823.] May you be uncommon Christians; that is, eminently pious and holy, and, like Mary [Magdalene], ever at the feet [Luke 7:38] and around the cross of Jesus [John 19:25], the precious Lamb of God [John 1:29, 36].

The source of Taylor’s five-fold pillars of “uncommon” Christianity is unknown. His reading of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) and Edwards’ frequent use of the word “uncommon,” or possibly his distant cousin David Brainerd’s use of this and related phrases, most likely influenced Taylor. It is known that Taylor read and spoke favorably of Edwards and Edwards’ memoir on Taylor’s maternal cousin, The Life of David Brainerd (1749). For instance, in a letter to his brother John Brainerd “in the summer before his death,” David Brainerd wrote,

And now, my dear brother, as I must press you to pursue after personal holiness, to be as much in fasting and prayer as your health will allow, and to live above the rate of common Christians; so I must entreat you solemnly to attend to your public work.

(Note Edwards’ use of the phrase “a complete Christian” in such places as his Personal Narrative (Edwards, Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, xiv [“I felt a burning desire to be, in everything, a complete Christian”]) and resolution number sixty-three in his 70 Resolutions (Edwards, Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, xxii).)

Whatever the influence may have been, the specific expression “uncommon Christian” seems to have been coined, or at least popularized, by Taylor.


Others’ Use of “Uncommon Christian”

In the numerous occurrences of the phrase “uncommon Christian” found in 19th-century English literature, it is almost always associated with J. B. Taylor.

The Global and Cross-Cultural Impact of the American Evangelist James Brainerd Taylor and His Two Memoirs. Via

For example, thirty-one years after the popular Memoir of James Brainerd Taylor was first printed, the anonymous 1864 Presbyterian work, Familiar Letters to You, A Young Convert, From Your Pastor, concluded by exhorting, “Resolve this day, that, God helping you, you will not be a common, but (what James Brainerd Taylor called) an ‘uncommon’ Christian; not a dwarf, but a growing Christian.”

In a letter written to his cousin George dated January 17, 1838, the twelve-year-old future Yale student, John D. Lockwood (1825–1844), commented,

Those resolutions of James Brainerd Taylor, which you referred to, are very good ones. He is the only one I remember who went through college unharmed by its polluting touch. . . . I should think there was a great field for usefulness in college. . . . O, may we both become, as J. B. Taylor expresses it, “uncommon Christians.”

[Peter Lockwood, Memoir of John D. Lockwood, Being Reminiscences of a Son by His Father (1852), 32–33.]

Moreover, in the Memoir of Charles Henry Porter [1811–1841]: A Student in Theology, compiler E. Goodrich Smith stated in the book’s opening two sentences,

The grace of God sometimes makes of a common man an uncommon Christian. Thus it was with the subject of this sketch. . . . As one of his friends remarks, he seemed from the first determined to be an uncommon Christian.

The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review stated of Smith’s 1849 memoir on Porter that it was “a narrative not unlike the life of James Brainerd Taylor; the same warmth, and the same turn for active labor” (Vol. 22, No. 1 [Jan. 1850]: 171).

Probably the best known person who was influenced by Taylor’s emphasis on “uncommon” Christianity was David Livingstone (1813–1873). In a diary entry, the famed Scottish missionary-explorer to Africa wrote, “I have found that I have no unusual endowments of intellect, but I this day resolved that I would be an uncommon Christian” (quoted in, and among other places, William R. Newell, Romans Verse-by-Verse [1938; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2004], 187. I have yet to find the original source of this quote by Livingstone. It was most likely written before Livingstone left Scotland for Africa in December 1840).

Elsewhere, in a May 5, 1839, letter to his older sister, it is clearly known that Livingstone read and was influenced by the Memoir of James Brainerd Taylor. At the time of writing, the Memoir’s popularity was at its peak in the U.S. and U.K., and the twenty-six-year-old Livingstone was nineteen months shy of leaving for Africa. In the letter, Livingstone quotes Taylor almost verbatim when he writes,

[Quoted in W. Garden Blaikie, The Personal Life of David Livingstone, 46. Cf. Memoir, 86.]

Further examples could be given of 19th-century occurrences of “uncommon Christian.” The examples provided should suffice, however, in showing that James Brainerd Taylor either originated the term “uncommon Christian,” or at least was instrumental in popularizing it. Again, Taylor defined an “uncommon Christian” as one who is an “eminently holy, self-denying, cross-bearing, Bible, everyday” Christian.



The above is one independent scholar’s attempt at applying one aspect of his historical-biographical studies on James Brainerd Taylor to his life and ministry. Rather than give specific examples of application in my own life, I prefer to leave it to those who know me best to decide whether or not I am succeeding in my desire to be an “uncommon” Christian like my hero J. B. Taylor.

I am curious to learn how other scholars and students of history have sought to apply their studies to their life. Please share and bless us with an example of how you seek to make your historical studies practical and relevant.

I. Francis Kyle III (M.Div., Th.M., D.Min.) is founder of Uncommon Christian Ministries (est. 2007) in Port Angeles, WA. He is the author of An Uncommon Christian: James Brainerd Taylor, Forgotten Evangelist in America’s Second Great Awakening (University Press of America, 2008), the edited anthology Of Intense Brightness: The Spirituality of Uncommon Christian James Brainerd Taylor (University Press of America, 2008), God’s Co-worker: 21st-century Evangelism with Uncommon Christian James Brainerd Taylor (forthcoming), and Uncommon Christian Devotional: Living the Uncommon Christian Life with James Brainerd Taylor (forthcoming).

Review: Sojourner Truth’s America

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

by Amy Voorhees

Sojourner Truth’s America. By Margaret Washington. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Paper, 2011; cloth, 2009. 520 pages. $25.00.

This is an excellent biography. It paints a sensitive portrait of Truth’s multifaceted religiosity that sheds new light on her entire nineteenth-century reform context. Washington argues that Truth, like many of her reform colleagues, was guided by “adherence to a beloved community, faith in primitive Christianity, and faith in American republicanism” (4). She presents Truth as a deeply unifying figure whose faith and shrewd wit enabled her to address a trenchant anti-slavery message to both white and black Americans, all of whom embraced her for it. There are some issues with the last element in this presentation, which I return to later, but overall this is a historically grounded and very careful book.

Washington is particularly good at fleshing out Truth’s experience as a mother (which is deeply affecting) and her place in the nineteenth-century reform milieu as it connected to her religious sensibility. She calls Truth a “‘whole hog reformer” whose causes included “nonresistance, temperance, anti-Sabbatarianism, anti-capital punishment, woman’s rights, health reform, water cure, and a deeply intense Spiritualism” (216). The book portrays Truth’s participation in these causes as an outgrowth of her religious commitments.

In describing Truth’s religiosity, Washington makes two moves previous biographers have not. First, she shows a development from syncretism to an exclusive, though not narrow, Christian orientation. Second, she portrays the overall development of Truth’s Christianity in terms of a first and second blessing, a salvation experience followed by sanctification.

Truth, Washington writes, initially mixed ecstatic Christian millennialism with indigenous African traditions. In claiming her right to retrieve her boy Peter, sold south, Truth (then Isabella) “was connected to a messianic tradition older than Christianity, reaching back to traditional African antecedents” (62). Other examples include Truth’s river altar, naming conventions, and especially her cursing (to apparently startling effect) of the family that harmed Peter. Washington places this within the harming tradition of West African religions, but Truth’s specific words are ambiguous and I would argue that there is evidence of what might correspond somewhat to a harming or cursing tradition within Protestantism as well. Patricia Schechter notes a similar event in Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s life and presents the curse in thoroughly biblical terms; see her Ida B. Wells-Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930, 27.)

Whatever the case, Washington portrays the fulfillment of Truth’s curse as the event that sobered her and turned her from a merging of African and Christian traditions to solely following Christianity (which, it should be noted, does not here equate with “European” religiosity). After that, “Christianity guided her spiritually.” She jettisoned hatred and was guided by a spirit of love, forgiveness, and limitless possibilities in God’s name. She “still claimed a mystical power beyond the white man’s authority,” but it seems to have been a power whites could theoretical share on equal ground, were they righteous enough (80).

In charting the development of Truth’s Christianity from salvation to sanctification, Washington casts her decision to return to enslavement after a year of freedom as an instance of backsliding. Isabella’s longing for “the world of the flesh” familiar to her in slavery drove her to “jeopardize her newly-acquired, God-granted freedom,” writes Washington. “Both Isabella and the ungrateful Hebrews desecrated God’s favor. In both instances, the glory of God was revealed” (73). For the Hebrews, manna appeared on the ground and water came from a rock. For Isabella, she was “saved.” During an all-encompassing vision of God’s love and allness, the enslaver who had come to collect her literally disappeared; when she became sensible to her surroundings again, he was gone, and apparently so were the fleshly longings that had misguided her. Later, after a particularly trying series of events, Truth noted that her “‘ancient’ faith had been shaken.” Washington equates this with a loss of faith in the denominationalism and “dogma of patriarchal Protestantism” and all the white men who had failed her (126). Washington argues that Truth then became more independent and relied on her own scriptural exegesis. This second development, roughly akin to being “sanctified” with a second blessing, fits with Truth’s later embrace of Spiritualism (146, 216) and even her presence at Free Thought conventions (251-252).

The religious detail in this book is significant. Until the mid-1990s most work on Truth sidelined her religion altogether, and since then her association with millennialist religious groups has largely been characterized as an effect of her poverty. This interpretation is in line with Robert M. Anderson’s 1979 Vision of the Disinherited (which casts pentecostalism as a movement of the socially and economically disadvantaged, the “disinherited,” whom Anderson defines as “dependent,” “suggestible,” “neurotic,” and so on). Washington’s interpretation is more in line with Grant Wacker’s 2001 Heaven Below, which casts pentecostalism as a combination of “primitivism” (a yearning to experience God first-hand) and “pragmatism” (a thisworldly realism that is at once practical and shrewd and simply gets things done). Truth’s millennialism predated pentecostalism, a not unimportant point. Taken broadly, however, Wacker’s definition resonates closely with Washington’s Truth, who exercised her millennialism in a variety of ways that always combined charismatic piety with pragmatic practice.

The book makes several other helpful contributions to Truth’s historiography. I will mention three. First, most biographers of Truth have focused much on the circumstances and content of the speech in which she is supposed to have famously offered the rhetorical challenge, “Ar’n’t I a woman?” Recent debates have centered on whether those words belonged to Truth or to Matilda Joslyn Gage, who produced a widely read account of Truth’s speech. Washington suggests that it is essentially beside the point whether Truth actually uttered the phrase. Vetting existing documents, she concludes that Truth reasonably may have said the phrase, though she may not have, and that although Gage took liberties when she produced her account of Truth’s speech, she also captured its content with a general reliability. She decides that Gage “assuming control of Sojourner Truth’s discourse” and assigning her a southern dialect she did not possess—“minstrelizing her language”—seems, in the end, “more significant than whether or not [Truth] said, ‘Ar’n’t I a woman?’” (228) (Truth never lived in the south and spoke only Dutch until age nine.) Washington asserts that the focus of the debate should be on what Truth did conclusively say:rather than asking a question, she “boldly asserted, ‘I am a woman’” (229). But again, contends Washington, the exact words matter far less than Truth’s deeds and legacy. This is in keeping with Truth’s insistence that words printed on a page (which she could not read) mattered little in comparison to the substance of a person’s message, seen in their actions.

Second, Washington clarifies aspects of Truth’s early biography that have caused considerable speculation, notably allegations of sexual abuse by Sally Dumont, the wife of her enslaver John Dumont. Washington shows conclusively that this could not have been the case; Sally died before John purchased Truth (then called Bell). John then married Sally’s sister Elizabeth. Washington persuasively argues for a liaison between John Dumont and Bell, one that stoked Elizabeth’s rage and animosity. The book’s physical description of the overfull Dumont home, based on site visits and historical descriptions of the antebellum New York Dutch environment, makes clear that social and labor divisions could have afforded John and Bell privacy in fields and at raucous celebrations reserved only for men and servants.

Conversely, it is hard to imagine how the matron of the house might carve out the time, privacy, and even physical ability to sexually abuse a girl who was twelve or thirteen at the time of her sale into the home, unusually strong and tall, and always surrounded by the children she nursed (most of whom were born to Elizabeth, who was constantly pregnant). Washington suggests, quite convincingly, that Bell’s daughter Diana was John Dumont’s child. This section of the book is notable not only for clarifying this episode but for its generally rich view into the social, archaeological, and geographical setting of Truth’s early life.

Finally, Washington calls out an “African female culture” that named aesthetic and practical beauty “domesticity” (42). This included artful self-presentation and fastidiousness combined with know-how in such areas as healing, child care, and ethics. This is an interesting and innovative interpretive move. Rather than seeking to conform to a European-American type of domesticity so thoroughly explored by scholars in recent years, Washington finds Truth adhering to a standard in the African American tradition.

She also provides examples of how Truth both upset and leveraged predominant expectations regarding womanhood on her own behalf. In the aftermath of a communitarian scandal early in her career, for example, Truth and her publicist were able to rehabilitate her image by mounting a defense that both subverted and reified existing categories of virtue, vice, and “true womanhood,” shrewdly redefining them without a major backlash. The reversal of public opinion that ensued is truly jaw-dropping in its rarity (120-125) (as was Truth’s earlier ability to take her freedom and to recover her child by suing, especially when viewed retroactively through the lens of the later Dred Scott decision). Truth enacted this type of defense over and over in her life and career.

The last line in Washington’s book quotes a newspaper obituary, which reads that Truth was “loved by all, black and white” (379). This captures Washington’s view of Truth: a mediating, mitigating figure who united all with a Spirit-filled doctrine of pragmatic love (see 276). This minimalizes those unsympathetic to her radical message, and I wonder about a woman “loved by all” whose daughters were allowed to die in the poorhouse. Washington invokes the “beloved community” of Martin Luther King, Jr., in describing Truth, suggesting she was an antecedent to King; if so, surely the violent opposition to King’s message had a central place in Truth’s life, too.

At the same time, Truth did seem able to almost transcend politics-as-usual with her spiritually driven vision for a new America, at least within her particular milieu. She stumped for the two competing arms of the women’s suffrage movement, the AWSA and the NWSA; she both challenged and supported Frederick Douglass; she made her testimony as a female ex-slave matter to whites without apologizing for or referring to her sexual history (in contrast to Harriet Jacobs’ strategy). Her discourse was driven by a religious vision that seems to have been difficult to argue with.

Truth does, in fact seem to have been an unusually unifying and rather transcendent figure. The risk in presenting her that way is reifying the stereotype of the unassailable black woman transcending every hardship in order to inspire others. Washington seems mindful of this problem, and she probes the complexities and circumstances of Truth’s life to give us a persona that is not mythic, but both fully remarkable and fully human.

This book is nuanced, runs both deep and broad, and is full of convincing readings based on exhaustive archival and field work. It sheds new light not only on Truth’s life, but on the nineteenth century, the history of American reform, and the range of religious options Americans have developed and enacted. It is a landmark volume, and I highly recommend it.

The Politics of Exhibit Curation

Friday, January 27th, 2012

by Christopher J. Anderson

The American Civil War continues to fascinate academics, graduate students, and popular audiences. Each year dozens of books, theses, articles, and documentaries are produced that provide biographical sketches, perspectives on particular battles, and revisions of and reflections upon the war. The 150th anniversary of the conflict is upon us and universities and museums throughout the United States are holding conferences and hosting exhibits looking back on the intriguing and disturbing events of the war.

Recently I curated an exhibit on American Methodists and the Civil War at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. The process of building the exhibit and sorting out the multiple historical and religious interpretations surrounding the conflict caused me to reflect upon the politics of curation – the research, construction, and presentation of exhibits.

In his book Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W. Griffith and the American Theater (University of Iowa Press, 2009) author David Mayer argues, “The American Civil War has never been a stable field with an agreed-upon historical interpretation. Rather, it was – and is – an evolving, contested subject which is host to vehemence, disruption, and difference, a palimpsest upon which fresh questions about the past are inscribed.” (121)

Mayer’s insight reminds us that the presentation and representation of texts, objects, photographs, labels, and even how one names an exhibit can generate boredom, interest, aggravation, and outrage. Exhibits are meant to draw attention to historical and/or contemporary issues so that viewers can both reflect upon the past and ask questions in the present. The contents of an exhibit also echo the educational backgrounds, interests, and biases of both curator and curatorial team. As a result, exhibits are often positioned historically, sociologically, theologically, politically, and even metaphorically in order to give voice to the voiceless and to champion certain ideological positions from history.

As we examine exhibits it is important to keep in mind that each display case, each individual object, and each text label are positioned to broadcast a certain perspective (whether the curator realizes this or not). The final product presents viewers with multiple interpretations, readings, and subtexts that help shape her or his perception of the events exhibited.