Posts Tagged ‘20th Century’

“Los Nacionales” – Foreign Actors in the Spanish Civil War

Monday, December 30th, 2013

by Kathy Schneider

The cover of this month’s Church History illustrates the left’s portrayal of the Nationalist Front. The Ministry of Propaganda published the caricature during the Spanish Civil War. In the boat are all the familiar faces (clockwise from the left): Italian military as marked by the blue sash with the fasces symbol, two Moorish troops with three more below, the Nazi capitalist, and, most prominently, the cardinal who gives his blessing. “Arriba España” was one of the slogans of the Francoist forces.

In contradiction to this phrase, the cartoonist has placed Spain on the gallows. Lastly, the boat in which they travel has the words Junta de Burgos and Lisboa. Burgos is the location of the rebel government and Lisboa represents Portugal’s support of Franco. In short, the cartoonist sought to include all sources of foreign aid for the Nationalists in the hope that Spaniards would see the Nationalists and their supporters as a grave danger to Spain’s existence. Interestingly, the Church is included among the foreign supporters although the Spanish Church tended to see itself as a bulwark of traditional Spanish identity.

The depiction, as propaganda is wont to do, simplifies a complicated situation. The Spanish conflict had very Spanish roots, but was pulled into larger European events with the rise of the radical right. Both the Nationalists and the Republicans contributed to this portrayal through their generalization of a conflict between ungodly Communism versus fascism. While Hitler and Mussolini had their own interests that shaped their actions, the assistance was vital to Franco’s victory.

Earth Day

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

By Patricia Appelbaum

Happy Earth Day, everyone. Last year in my community, several local churches sponsored a speech and rally with environmentalist Bill McKibben. There was much talk about the important part that religious communities could play in resisting global warming, as if this were somehow a novel idea.

So I was struck by the very contemporary sound of Christian voices from the early environmentalist movement, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much of the theological discussion sounds fresh today; the issues it tackled have recurred or are still unresolved. For example, the Faith-Man-Nature Group (a group of academics who had been meeting informally since the early 1960s) asked at its 1967 conference, “What is the role of the church, of churchmen, in the stewardship of the earth?” One contributor replied, “Just as the church has become an effective agent of social change in race relations, I would hope that she may soon be in the vanguard of the conservation movement.” Another, more radical participant said, “We must affirm [that we are] related in a profound way to the whole web of life that makes up existence on earth.” These writers linked the new movement with earlier forms of social activism, and they were already using the now-familiar language of stewardship and interdependence.

In 1970, Ian Barbour – who went on to do distinguished work at the intersection of religion and science – proposed an “ecological ethic” based in part on the “land ethic” of Aldo Leopold. He noted the biblical mandates for dominion and stewardship and addressed their limitations. And he pointed to theologians like Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin, who emphasized the “organic interdependence of all creatures.” That same year, Paul Santmire published a groundbreaking ecological theology in which he wrote that the “American Christian community … in virtue of its size and its openness to new moral imperatives, has the potential of being a powerful force for ecological sanity in this country.”

And the editor of Christianity Today wrote in 1970, around the time of the first Earth Day, that the church could “do more than merely acquiesce in a cultic faith in technology.” He continued, “This position assumes, of course, that the Christian Scriptures do contain a set of valid insights into man’s environmental problem. … The Christian should face with frank realism the thought that the biblical understanding of things must run counter to many prevailing modes of thinking. He must, for example, challenge the current stress upon purely quantitative evaluations of economic success, usually stated in terms of the annual increase in our Gross National Product.” Liberals, conservatives, and back-to-the-land hippies could all have agreed on this.

I’m not promoting any agenda here. Some people will want to march in the streets, some will quietly go home and lower their thermostats, and some may still harbor doubts or are devoted to other commitments. What I do wish is that activists would have a clearer sense of their own history. I also wonder about the nature of collective memory. In some cases, it seems persistent beyond all reason or imagining. And yet at other times, it’s so ephemeral and so quickly lost.

Alfred Stefferud, introduction to Christians and the Good Earth, Friendship Press, 1969.

Ian G. Barbour, “An Ecological Ethic,” Christian Century, October 7, 1970. See also James C. Livingston, “The Ecological Challenge to Christian Ethics,” Christian Century, December 1, 1971.

H. Paul Santmire, Brother Earth: Nature, God and Ecology in Time of Crisis, Thomas Nelson, 1970.

Harold B. Kuhn, “Environmental Stewardship,” Christianity Today, May 8, 1970,

David Tracy’s Principle of Provocation and the Reading of Church History

Monday, January 28th, 2013

By Tom Schwanda

I teach both a grad and undergrad course in the history of Christian spirituality. While the primary areas of my specialization are seventeenth–century Puritanism and eighteenth–century Evangelicalism I enjoy teaching the entire landscape of church history. In my classes we read and examine the writings of some of the “Communion of Saints” including Perpetua, the desert fathers and mothers, Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Thomas á Kempis, Jan Hus, Martin Luther. John Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Woolman, Phoebe Palmer, Theophan the Recluse, representatives from Pentecostalism, Howard Thurman, Desmond Tutu, Watchman Nee, and Thomas Merton.

Over the centuries we have tended to privilege oral and written texts by and about those whom we study. However, increasingly we recognize the importance of art and architecture and place and space as equally revealing texts. Regardless of the type of text we face a common challenge in reading wisely and well these records. This reminds us of the common task of interpretation. Recently, I was revisiting David Tracy’s summary of hermeneutical principles in his Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (Crossroad, 1981, see especially chapter 3).

There he defines a classic text as something that is always in need of deeper interpretation because it possesses the ability to transform us and communicate new meaning. His four guidelines are: preunderstanding, that no one ever approaches a text objectively; provocation, which recognizes that texts can provoke, vex, challenge, and transform our reading; dialogical engagement with the text that is often reflective of the dynamic interaction between a conductor and a symphonic orchestra; and the company of readers, which indicates that no one reads or interprets a document in isolation. This may occur subconsciously or far more obviously as other colleagues confirm or challenge our readings and presentations, whether at our annual conferences or in peer review journals and the like.

While all of these are useful to historians I would like to reflect more fully on Tracy’s second point of provocation. He asserts that reading a classic text should in some way unsettle us. Provided we approach a text with a degree of openness it is impossible to read it and remain neutral. For example, in reading the spiritual writings of eighteenth–century Evangelicals some might bristle at the lingering Puritan influence of the Song of Songs that manifests itself in the devotional language of ravishment, sweetness and mystical transports to heaven. However, this provocation might not always produce resistance. Possibly, at times, it might transform our own perceptions and expand them in a positive way. In reading early Evangelical diaries and letters I recognize the strong sense of awe and wonder that characterize those men and women. Their view of God often seems more transcendent and sensitive to an appropriate holy fear than I find in myself.

Further Tracy’s second hermeneutical principle reinforces the self–implicating nature of Christian spirituality (For a helpful summary of this principle and key resources that introduce this in the field of Christian spirituality see Tom Schwanda, “’Hearts Sweetly Refreshed’: Puritan Spiritual Practices Then and Now.” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 3, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 30). Therefore we recognize it is impossible to engage any texts accurately and honestly and remain completely objective and unbiased. When I was first introduced to this principle I spoke of my reservations to an older historian. He strongly asserted that no one, regardless of impartiality, reads anything with total objectivity. Over the years I have become convinced of that reality.

How then can we read Benedict’s Rule and not be challenged by the temptations to pride and the struggle of humility which we face in the academy that he explores in chapter 7? Interestingly this is the longest chapter in the Rule. Or in reading Julian of Norwich’s vision of the hazelnut in which God responds to her query of what it means by declaring that God made the hazelnut, God loves the hazelnut, and God preserves the hazelnut. Does that not encourage us to reflect on the doctrine of providence and God’s care for us? Or how does the Puritan practice of heavenly meditation provoke our own consideration of the importance of heaven in relationship to all of our comforts and investments in this earthly life?

Recognizing the self–Implicating nature of church history also is present in every classroom. Students typically identify with certain writers while they express deep frustration with others. Many undergrads, in particular, find the austerity and ascetical practices of the desert tradition forbidding, especially in the affluent ease and wellbeing that they normally inhabit. But others students are strongly attracted to the identical saints and their counter–cultural writings. Indeed this is a very salient reminder that as we explore the writings of our discipline it is not enough to register mild resistance or even a stronger rejection or conversely a favorable acceptance. More appropriately what is to be invoked is the deeper impression of why a certain text vexes us or why another document, perhaps celebrated by others leaves us cold.

To illustrate this more personally I have been recently reading Susanna Anthony (1726–1791) for a research project on eighteenth–century Evangelical spirituality. Samuel Hopkins, a student of Jonathan Edwards and later Anthony’s pastor at the First Congregational Church, Newport, RI, collected her writings and published them as The Life and Character of Miss Susanna Anthony (1799). Mark Noll comments that, “the spiritual transports of Anthony’s life were reminiscent of similar experiences from mystical Christian women of the late middle ages” (The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 288). On the one hand, I struggle with Anthony’s debased view of self and frequent references to “worm theology.” Repeatedly she affirms her vileness and describes herself as a “worm of the dust.”

Nonetheless while I find an internal resistance to that there is the reality of my own sin, brokenness, and twisted motivations. Moreover on the other hand, Anthony is not stuck in a gloomy pit of despair because of what target=”_blank>“the great God–Man–Mediator” has done for her, uniting her in union with Christ. Responding to this her soul soars with gratitude of joyful love and adoration and contemplation of God. Amid her transport of joy she declares “while my whole soul is divinely ravished, with the infinite glories of thy nature, and the felicity of being so nearly united to Jesus the dear Mediator, it is enough.”

It is enough! Personally I am attracted to that type of affective piety and contemplative enjoyment of God. However, as I pay attention to Tracy’s hermeneutical principle of provocation I realize that which might first unsettle me, in case of Anthony’s worm theology, prepares me for a greater transformation of contemplation and transport of love and joy. Provocation can be very positive, especially as it guides and challenges our reading of classic texts. And perhaps it might just stretch us to be more attentive in our research and teaching.

Review: David Schwartz’s Moral Minority

Monday, January 21st, 2013

By Phillip Gollner

David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)

It did not have to be. The Falwells, the Dobsons, the Reeds, the LaHayes, all those who may well have given more contours to the term “evangelical” than any theologians – they did not have to be the embodiment of evangelical public activism that goes down in history. There was another option. Maybe there still is. One that protests abortion but also nuclear armament and imperial wars, that answers “what would Jesus do?” with “he would consume less.” One that thrives not only under the halogen lights and artificial plants of suburban churches but also under the scrutiny of Berkeley or Chicago academia. What sounds like a happy hipster fantasy from the fringes of indefinable 21st century evangelicalism is, in fact, a well-substantiated claim of David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, just out from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The 1970s were not a “Reagan Revolution-in-waiting,” he argues, but the age of a “fluid”, open-ended evangelicalism that was beginning to explore more than just one kind of electoral politics and political activism. In the end, Swartz’ narrative documents a failure. However grand the intentions of the faithful’s small movement, it was not effective enough, was torn apart by identity politics and theological disputes. During the Reagan years, evangelical political involvement eventually became equated with conservative causes. And even though this book makes one wonder at times if it hasn’t arrived ten or twenty years too early, given the fact that many of its protagonists are still around and influential, it describes a chapter in American political and religious history that is definitely closed. Yet Swartz does not provide a lament, and even hints at at signs of re-birth, despite the groans of Ron Sider, one of his main characters: “we called for social and political action, (and) we got eight years of Ronald Regan.”

Characters, anyways; this book is full of them, and they sparkle here. Swartz’s ability to combine biography and social history carries his narrative through the stories of several more or less prominent individual activists who, taken together, represent a segment of the political landscape that is barely imaginable today: there is Jim Wallis, the Post-American communitarian turned presidential confidante; Mark Hatfield, Evangelical and Republican Senator from Oregon who called the Vietnam war a “sin that scarred our national soul;” Sharon Gallagher, the enigmatic co-founder of Berkeley’s “Christian World Liberation Front” that negotiated the movement’s porous borders with both the Radical Left and fundamentalist religion. We meet Calvinists whose Kuyperian understanding of God’s total claim on all of life translated into progressive action on campus and in politics, and Anabaptists whose attempts to live, cook, and bring in the kingdom were suddenly echoed once simple living became a matter of economic urgency, not just Christian faithfulness. Or Peruvian evangelical Samuel Escobar, representing “other third-world evangelicals” and their scathing diagnosis of how American imperialist assumptions had infected evangelical theology and praxis.

Swartz’s emphasis on the contribution of ethnoreligious fringe communities to evangelical political engagement is intriguing. Why was it that the call to a different kind of public faith was echoed so loudly in Dutch, Latino, African-American or Swiss-German quarters on the vast map of American Protestantism? Was there something peculiar about growing up among a minority which could afford the luxury of emphasizing the desirable, not just the doable, and placed a premium on a healthy and functioning community that made many of Moral Minority’s characters particularly susceptible to the goal of changing an entire national community and to “a dualistic application of moralism?” Or was it, in fact, embarrassment about their own confined ethnic communities and the desire to finally being listened to by the America out there that drove their quest for relevance?

Or was the origin of the Evangelical Left located within transformations in fundamentalism, not necessarily the energy of minority communities? Swartz seems to suggest so. It is Carl F. H. Henry’s clarion call to fundamentalists to overcome their “uneasy conscience” and recover the “world changing potential of the gospel” that kicks off Moral Minority. Given Henry’s reputation as the patron saint of conservative evangelical culture-transformers, the storyline of him inspiring the likes of Jim Wallis and Ron Sider seems unlikely at first. But Swartz succeeds in telling it. He downplays the larger implications of choosing this kind of genesis, but demonstrates a significant point: despite the dividing line between right and left, both sides are best understood as fundamentally united by the desire to change the world through activism and politics. At the end of the day, it is that kind of understanding of what the church ought to be and the assumption that such a thing as “Christian responsibilities of citizenship” existed, as the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern put it, that sets it apart as the kind of neo-evangelicalism that blossomed in light of Henry. Swartz provocatively suggests another form of kinship between left and right: the Manichean worldview behind progressives’ combat against what they saw as “satanic” in the United States ultimately “modeled” to the religious right what good activism could look like. “The evangelical left hastened the arrival of the religious right,” he states.

The final third of the book is devoted to a story of decline and decreasing relevance. When workshops were finally splintered up into smaller segments, each representing a particular brand of identity politics or theological preference, a cohesive activist movement became an illusion. And though Swartz points out that many evangelical communes were more long lasting and, by many measures, more successful than their secular counterparts, they also became less and less self-consciously evangelical. Their magazines had to rely on Catholic and mainline Protestant subscribers, still tickled by the peculiarly evangelical brand of energy on their pages, and more than once does Swartz document the looming question: was the evangelical left still evangelical? His suggestion that space played a role in the movement’s decline – stuck in academic bubbles and Northern cities while the country’s political pulse moved more and more to the South and West – is equally intriguing and deserves further consideration in light of the larger historiography of 20th century political geography.

In addition, Swartz points out, the evangelical left was pushed away by secular progressives with whom they shared agreement on various policies. While the evangelical right found powerful coalition partners in rising secular neo-conservatism, the left had to deal with secular cobelligerents for whom abortion rights were non-negotiable and evangelicals an expendable force. Though Swartz doesn’t state it explicitly, one wonders if the religious left was ever taken seriously by their supposed secular allies. Too often, evangelical progressives appear as Johnny-come-latelies, frantically trying to baptize an already existing political agenda and unable to deliver large number of votes for Democratic causes (unlike the evangelical right for Republicans). Eventually, the reader is not surprised to learn that evangelicals who wanted “Jesus’ demands” taken seriously were dragged out of a meeting of the Berkeley Students for a Democratic Society.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Swartz’ narrative of decline is the enduring hold that denominational subcultures had on many progressive evangelicals. Denominational loyalties remained strong. Some activists perceived “evangelical” itself as an imperialist word conquering older, ethnic, local and peculiar subcultures. American religion, Swartz all-too-briefly suggests, cannot be as easily divided along the lines of a conservative-liberal realignment that sociologists invoke. Older boundaries still endured – or were freshly discovered: “High Church traditions … poached surprising numbers of young evangelicals.”

Swartz’ portrait of the Evangelical Left’s breakdown counters not only the thesis that political and sociocultural interests supercede denominational loyalties, but also common wisdom among many conservative evangelicals: peace’n justice speech does not necessarily spill its speakers into a quasi-secular mainstream but may as well throw them on a quest for the distinct and particular. “There is a lack of a sense of body in the evangelical community. It is fragmented.” Carl F. Henry sighed in an interview with Sojourners. After all, once the slogans got old and common enemies couldn’t be identified easily enough anymore to inspire energetic action, whose peace and what kind of justice one talks about became important again. It remains to be seen if para-denominational evangelicalism and its case for modern capitalism are strong enough of a center to prevent a similar fate for the religious right.

David Swartz has written a book of colorfully portrayed characters and credible storyline that strikes an elegant balance between politics, theology, social history and biographical narratives. Wherever he has refused to go down an avenue to explore what was, this book at least opens a new discourse. And wherever he provokes the reader to ponder what might have been, it succeeds, no doubt.

Philipp Gollner, Doctoral Student in History and Presidential Fellow, University of Notre Dame

America’s Culture War Since the 1960s

Friday, December 14th, 2012

by William Russell

In the late twentieth century Americans experienced a major cultural shift in their experiences of religion. Cultural commentators have called this a “Culture War” and argue for a return to traditionalism – or at least how they believe religion was traditionally practiced. Theologians largely left behind the idea of constructing systematic theology in favor of diversity and meeting the needs of particular peoples in particular places and times. Americans readily ignored the denominations of their parents and grandparents preferring a stronger sense of voluntarism in their religious affiliations.

These religious, theological, and ecclesial changes ran parallel with and intersected with changes in mobility, cultural identity politics, and worldview alternatives. Historians of religion in the late twentieth century followed suit, challenging traditional religious narratives too heavily focused on Puritan ideals and cultural hegemony. The descent of Protestantism in American intellectual ideology was fostered by an increasing recognition of pluralism, voluntarism, and cross-cultural contact.

Religious changes since 1950 have been massive indeed. The first philosophical problem encountered in the 1960s was the perceived hegemony of Protestant thought. The rise of Catholic and Jewish intellectuals challenged the accepted narrative creating the first step in undermining the cultural consensus. Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew argued for three occasionally overlapping spheres of religious experience in American culture. Their combined efforts against the perception of an anti-religious communism brought the three independent groupings together in a unified American ideal.1

Robert Bellah saw the consensus ideology as a unique phenomenon informed by these three spheres and called it “American Civil Religion” with its worship of its own saints and martyrs, religious sites and pilgrimages, and its own religious rituals. Civil religion remains a site of scholarly debate today as to exactly what it entails, where it best applies, and how it works. The debates regarding Civil Religion opened up the scholarship to a consciousness of America’s Protestant hegemony.

The second shift in the historiography was the incorporation of sociological, anthropological, and ethnographic methods to the study of American religion. As scholars began to view American history through new lenses, pluralism emerged throughout American history – pluralism noticeably absent from the grand narrative. Americans had always been pluralistic, and the nation was founded in part on the disestablishment of religion. Continual immigration and religious innovation had created widely variegated religious ideas and practice. When combined with economic opportunities and seemingly infinite space, the country inevitably fertilized a massive plurality of religious expression. The Immigration Act of 1965 opened the United States to massive immigration, particularly from East and South Asia and South and Central America, bringing a variety of ancient religious practices and ideas with it.

The countercultural ideas regarding extreme freedom, personal authenticity and something I call “religious realism” inoculated the American experience with openness to alternative religious experiences beyond the dominant traditions. Americans experienced these expanding religious options in a very American ahistorical syncretic manner. Using a variety of new sociological tools scholars uncovered a great deal of variety in American history at the same time as they themselves experienced an expanding pluralism. Scholars at the end of the millennium began to recognize that religion and culture were inseparable and intermingling. New more provisional narratives emerged creating meaning and logic from religious experience.

As a direct result of the cultural upheavals of the 1960s a new force in American politics emerged in the Christian Right. As a synthetic political collaboration between social conservatives, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals, the force came to dominate the Republican Party by the early 1980s, supporting the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

The ascendancy of the Religious Right caught the mostly secular and mainline left off guard. Having undergone a movement away from national politics in the late 1920s, Fundamentalists in America had been largely ignored, yet fostered significant growth during that period. Some Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham gained national fame and political influence, but a great deal more occurred away from the spotlight as Evangelicals developed their own countercultural views inculcated through TV, radio and their own publication circles. The move back to political power in the late 1970s came as a surprise to many and demonstrated a shift in Evangelicalism away from isolationism and personal experience to a concerted effort to regain cultural dominance in America. This movement called for the dissolution of denominationalism and the ascension of a particular (but understood as a universal and traditional) Born Again Christianity.2

In total, these three shifts in the last half of the twentieth century drastically altered America in its variety of religious experiences and its recognition of difference. The descent of Protestantism in American culture opened up the view of our past as pluralistic and awakened a recognition of difference as having had direct contributive impact on the American experiment. The rise of pluralism challenged our understandings of the past and the question of who we were as a people – if even there has ever really been a “we” to begin with. The emergence of the Christian Right in one sense represents a very particular type of religious experience, but it too stems from recognition that choice, pluralism, and syncretism have always been a part of the American experience.

Theological shifts since 1950 have also had great effect on American culture. Theology followed the religious shift from the hegemonic to pluralistic with a slight delay. But at times the emergence of new theological options had immediate effects on the culture immediately as well. The first shift in the 1950s were the great ecumenical accomplishments such as the formation of the National Council of Churches and the corresponding World Council of Churches. Ecumenism followed theologically from a concept of the universal church and the idea that disparate traditions should in fact work together to create world peace and justice. Denominationalism was considered sinful. In a few short years ecumenical work also became interreligious work, first between Christians and Jews, then between Christians, Jews and Muslims, and soon extending to the religions of the world. Interreligious experience brought with it both experiences of self pride but also of religious humility in the face of alternative equally viable religious traditions. Theologies of pluralism, soon emerged to help describe this new religious reality.3

In the so-called third world, one such theology developed. The forces of decolonization fostered the growth of theologies of liberation. As immigration expanded in the 1960s theologies of justice and the preferential option for the poor entered the American scene, and undermined the Protestant cultural authorities and created space for alternative views of America as a destructive world power. These largely Roman Catholic theologies inspired the creation of a Black Liberation Theology as an authentic black religious expression.4

Other oppressed cultural groups in America fashioned their own culturally informed theologies resulting in a grouping of peopled theologies. The Civil Rights movement, the New Left and the Counterculture inspired white and black American women to begin to think of the theological implications of misogyny, resulting in new theological strains of Feminist and later Womanist theologies. Feminist and Womanist theories drew from traditional theological sources, but also from non-traditional (even non-Christian) sources.5 The trend continued through the following decade and extended to a peopled theology of Queer theory – a re-creation of theology for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgendered people and their allies. More importantly, Queer Theology is an effort at recognizing difference as a theological value at the core of the religious experience.

Historical narratives from the nineteenth and early twentieth century attempted to draw American life into a single unified stream of history. Puritan values such as hard work, universal education, family centered society, and capitalism have been argued as such organizing principles. Other ideas such as a the idea of Progress, of American exceptionalism, chosen status, and of America as world savior still infiltrate our society today, but without the power of unity and the determinism that made these hegemonic in the 1950s.

Unified meta-narratives simply could not stand against the pressure of America’s past that continually defies amalgamation. This is not to say that there is no longer intrinsic value for narrative in the American experience; that would be far too naïve and limited. But the expansion of narrative to include the diversity and pluralism of the American experience challenges the notion of a single unified theory. Monolithic historical narratives create a kind of purified uniform past that never was. So while useful in organizing some aspects of society into understandable chunks, the hegemony of meta-narratives has rightly gone extinct. The summation of the religious changes in the United States over the past half century has been an extreme expansion of the recognition of pluralism and the value of cultural contact. Unified cultural ideology is continually being eroded by experiences of difference and new forms of historical narratives expressed through it.



[1] Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

[2] Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America”, Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96, no. 1 (Winter 1967).

[3] Preston Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007.

[4] See as an example of pluralistic theology John B. Cobb, Varieties of Protestantism, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

[5] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970.

[6] See as an example of early Feminist Liberation Theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Church against Itself: An Inquiry into the Conditions of Historical Existence for the Eschatological Community, New York : Herder and Herder, 1967.

Understanding The Activist Impulse: A Review Essay

Monday, August 20th, 2012

by Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas

Samuel Frey Wolgemuth (1914-2002) was born and raised among the necktie-eschewing, bonnet-wearing, peace-practicing “plain people” of the Brethren in Christ Church, a then-small, sectarian denomination similar to the Mennonite Church. By 1939, Wolgemuth was an ordained minister, shepherding a revival among a once-dwindling congregation in southwestern Pennsylvania. Within a decade, he’d been elected to the bishopric—no small feat for a man not yet 40 years old.

Then, in 1952, Wolgemuth resigned his denominational post to pursue full-time employment with Youth for Christ (YFC), a parachurch ministry aimed at evangelizing young people. He initially served as YFC’s representative to Japan and as organizer of the eighth-annual World Congress on Evangelism in Tokyo. In 1957 he became vice president of YFC’s Overseas Program, and by 1965 had ascended to the presidency of Youth for Christ International, a post he held until his retirement in 1973. All the while, he maintained connections to his natal denomination, serving on many of its boards and continuing to promote its distinctive doctrines, like nonresistance.1

How do we make sense of someone like Samuel Wolgemuth—someone whose theological identity lies deep within traditions as seemingly divergent as Anabaptism and evangelicalism?

Historian Jared S. Burkholder and theologian David Cramer provide one answer to this question in their recent edited volume, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Wipf and Stock, 2012). As their title indicates, Burkholder and Cramer see evangelicalism and Anabaptism as linked by a shared “activist impulse,” a desire to “engage American society” and to make “vigorous efforts . . . in support of Christian ideals” (p. 2). This shared “impulse,” though understood and operationalized differently in each tradition, has created a space for myriad “intersections,” both historical and theological, between these two movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By focusing on these intersections rather than the obvious departures, argue Burkholder and Cramer, church historians and theologians might gain more nuanced insights into Anabaptist-evangelical relations.

Such an approach directly challenges the dominant historiography of Anabaptist-evangelical relations. As developed by a previous generation of scholars (mostly historians) like Rodney J. Sawatsky and Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, this historiography has emphasized declension, arguing that as evangelical influence increases, Anabaptist distinctives decrease and, ultimately, vanish.2 Burkholder and Cramer want to move beyond such dichotomistic thinking. “While such arguments still carry some weight, and some Anabaptists continue to resent the appeal of popular evangelicalism,” they admit, “others see plenty of opportunity for integrating the two traditions” (p. 3).

Burkholder’s and Cramer’s assembled band of collaborators flesh out this integrative approach in a series of fourteen thought-provoking essays. The opener, a brilliant survey of Anabaptist-evangelical intersections across American and Canadian history by Mennonite historian Steven M. Nolt, lays a fine foundation for subsequent entries. Nolt chooses the guiding metaphor of conversation, suggesting that at various points Anabaptists and evangelicals have engaged in spirited debate, at times tentatively and at times vigorously. On occasion, the conversation has been conflicted: Nolt notes that evangelicals have long felt suspicious of evangelicals’ uncritical devotion to the nation-state and to consumer culture, while evangelicals have expressed concern over Anabaptists’ insufficient concern with “stewarding” politics, culture, and the arts. On the other hand, evangelicals and Anabaptists have often had much to agree upon.

Some evangelicals have warmly embraced Anabaptism’s “long-standing witness of discipleship” as a critique of the “cultural status-quo,” while some Anabaptists have used evangelicalism’s emphasis on a personal religious faith to “distinguish theological convictions from ethnic conventions” or to “move past embarrassing particularities” and into the religious mainstream (pp. 37-38). Importantly, he concludes that the future of Anabaptist-evangelical relations will center not on North America but on the global south, where both Anabaptist and evangelical churches are gaining new members at unprecedented rates.

Building on Nolt’s survey are two sections of historical case studies. These studies profile a variety of Anabaptist-related communities—including Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren in Christ, Grace Brethren, and others—and their intersections with American evangelicalism. The first section, “Anabaptism and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy,” examines Anabaptist efforts to navigate the murky theological and cultural waters of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American Protestantism. Two essays stand out. The most convincing, by University of Notre Dame doctoral student Benjamin Wetzel, describes how some Mennonites—including prominent Bishop Daniel Kauffman—endeavored to carve out a “third way” between fundamentalism and modernism: one that confronted the perceived dangers of a rapidly changing society while endeavoring to preserve Mennonite distinctives like nonresistance and nonconformity.

A similar study from Burkholder, examining anti-modernist activism among eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites, argues for a “distinctly Mennonite version” of fundamentalism that “was both an internal response to modernity and . . . that simultaneously opposed the broader, non-Mennonite fundamentalism that was gaining momentum in America during the same period” (p. 187). Burkholder’s theory seeks rightly to counter the dominant “‘infiltration’ theses” in Anabaptist historiography, which situate Mennonites as the agency-less victims of fundamentalist influence. Nevertheless, his invention of a “Mennonite fundamentalism” seems less convincing than Wetzel’s “third way,” especially in light of recent scholarly critiques of “comparative fundamentalisms.” [PDF]

Like “Muslim fundamentalist” or “Hindu fundamentalist” in other contexts, “Mennonite fundamentalist” may fail to capture what Burkholder is trying to describe in his essay, given the historical rootedness of the broader category. Indeed, if “Mennonite fundamentalism” offered a critique of both the liberals and the conservatives, why employ the term “fundamentalism” at all?

In the second section of case studies, “Intersecting Concerns: Anabaptist and Evangelical Public Witness,” a handful of diverse scholars push the conversation on Anabaptist-evangelical intersections in interesting new directions. First, Felipe Hinojosa complicates preceding studies by showing how Hispanic Mennonites in the American Southwest “forged an evangelical and Anabaptist identity that was unique to their communities—one that better reflected their own cultural and ethnic context” (p. 239). His discussion of becoming evangélico—which, as he notes, carries meaning beyond the English-language “evangelical”—is particularly fascinating.

Asbury University professor David Swartz’s essay similarly re-directs the discourse by showing how evangelicals have been influenced by Anabaptists. For thousands of progressive evangelicals, Anabaptist icons like John Howard Yoder, Ronald J. Sider, and Doris Longacre (author of the bestselling More With Less cookbook) provided the ideologies and practical theologies necessary to provoke action on issues like global poverty, pacifism, and simple living. Years before Jerry Falwell’s Religious Right became the de facto public face of evangelical politics, these Anabaptist-inspired evangelicals forged a left-of-center movement that left a significant mark on the 1970s public sphere.

The book also contains a section of theological essays, exploring “intersecting trajectories” as diverse as atonement theory, pacifism, and biblical authority.

One of the collection’s most unique contributions comes from John Fea, a professor of history at the Brethren in Christ-related Messiah College. Departing from the historical narratives and theological treatises that comprise the majority of The Activist Impulse, Fea’s essay offers a historiographical excavation of the ways in which the activist impulses of both Anabaptism and evangelicalism are driven by oversimplified, ideologically charged readings of American history. Among Anabaptists (especially Yoderian neo-Anabaptists), Fea identifies an attempt to use the past to critique America’s moral failings (slavery, war, economic oppression, etc.) and to envision a more just, peaceful future.

By contrast, Fea argues, evangelicals seek “to discern the hand of God in American history” (p. 83) and to emphasize American’s providential status as a “Christian nation.” “Both approaches,” Fea contends, “allow political, religious, and cultural agendas to be their lens for understanding the past, rather than letting the past stand on its own terms” (p. 83). He concludes with an invitation for both Anabaptists and evangelicals to cultivate a less ideological view of the past, one that sees historical actors not in Manichean terms but as fallible humans shaped by their contexts: “An encounter with the past in all its fullness, void as much as possible of present-minded agendas, can cultivate virtue in our lives” (p. 91).

There are, of course, problems with the The Activist Impulse. In the main, it contains too few voices of women. Given that women have long dominated the membership rolls of both evangelical and Anabaptist churches, their stories undoubtedly shed substantial light on the question of these “intersections.” Yet outside of Swartz’s discussion of evangelical feminism and its Anabaptist encouragers, few women are allowed to demonstrate their “activist impulse.” In the same vein, youth—such as might have flocked to the trendy Youth for Christ rallies of the 1950s, participated in the 1-W alternate service programs of the 1960s, or listened to the popular evangelical rock music of the 1970s—are also strangely absent from the collection.

What’s more, the book doesn’t deal adequately enough with the definitional problems associated with the terms “evangelicalism” and “Anabaptism.” Both have a rather contested genealogy–a fact mentioned in only a handful of the contributions. For instance, scholars like Sawatsky and Perry Bush have offered excellent readings of the evolution of “Anabaptism” from the sixteenth-century to the present, showing that it has been repeatedly re-interpreted to address presentist concerns and to meet specific needs. (Fea gets this; others do not.) And while the editors address specifically the definitional quandary associated with “evangelicalism,” they nevertheless allow each contributor define the concept on his or her own terms, with the result of a rather disjointed overall approach to the topic.

As theologian Ted Grimsrud noted in his blog review, the “rather benign,” David Bebbington-inspired definition favored by most contributors ignores the fact that evangelicalism is (at least with regard to the dominant historiography) a “post-fundamentalist” movement. That is, evangelicalism emphasizes not just the “authority of the Bible” but its plenary inspiration and inerrancy; it emphasizes not only “Christ’s atoning death on the cross” but substitutionary atonement. Both of these, Grimsrud rightly concludes, are areas in which some Anabaptists (especially more liberal Mennonites) would take exception to evangelicalism.

Of course, defining evangelicalism as “post-fundamentalist” negates the influence of holiness and Pentecostal traditions, both of which were often more appealing to Mennonites than fundamentalism and both of which existed on the margins of fundamentalist evangelicalism and therefore did not wholly embrace either inerrancy or substitutionary atonement. Thus, the question of adequate definitions remains.

Definitional issues aside, The Activist Impulse unquestionably demonstrates the vital intersections between these movements. From Swartz’s discussion of Anabaptist-inspired evangelical leftists, to Wetzel’s determined excavation of Mennonites’ “third way” between fundamentalism and liberalism, the volume catalogs numerous instances in which Anabaptists and evangelicals have cooperated and commingled—though not without conflict.

Such is undoubtedly the case with Samuel Wolgemuth. Clearly, Wolgemuth saw his primary “activism” as evangelism, a fact he made clear during countless rallies, preaching engagements, and lecture series. And yet, at least among his natal denomination, his revivalist rhetoric rang with a distinctly Anabaptist timbre. Consider a 1978 sermon delivered to the Brethren in Christ General Conference, on the importance of world missions. “Our history as a church calls us, as does the Word of God, to identify with those who set out long ago to turn their world upside down,” delcared Wolgemuth. “Their obedience to the Holy Spirit set them apart from the crowd with an initiative that no one could stop. . . . The church of today is heir to the revolutionary [missionary] forces [that] changed the face of the world.”3

Unlike the majority of his evangelical colleagues, Wolgemuth viewed the preaching of the Gospel as a distinctly counter-cultural act. If that’s not an evangelical-Anabaptist intersection, I don’t know what is.

[1] For more on Wolgemuth, consult s.v. “Wolgemuth, Samuel Frey,” in Randall Balmer, Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2003); Joan Giangrasse Kates, Obituary of Samuel Frey Wolgemuth, Chicago Tribune, February 8, 2002.

[2] Monographs advancing such a thesis include Hostetler, American Mennonites and Protestant Movements (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1987), and Theron Schlabach, Gospel vs. Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1863-1944 (Scottdale, Pa. : Herald Press, c1980). Other similar studies include Rodney J. Sawatsky, “Fundamentalism, Liberalism, and Anabaptism: Mennonite Choices in the 1920s and 1930s,” unpublished paper, December 4, 1978, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa., and Luke L. Keefer, Jr., “The Three Streams in Our Heritage: Separate or Parts of a Whole?” Brethren in Christ History and Life 19, no. 1 (April 1996), pp. 26-63. Burkholder and Cramer are explicitly critical of a 1979 collection of essays, Mission and the Peace Witness: The Gospel and Christian Discipleship (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press), edited by Robert L. Ramseyer.

[3] Samuel Wolgemuth, “‘An Open Door — No Man Can Shut It’ (Revelation 3:8),” Brethren in Christ History and Life 1, no. 2 (December 1978), p. 71.

Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas (M.A., Temple University) is a public historian and archivist. He is currently working on an article-length biography of Samuel Wolgemuth that seeks to shed further light on twentieth-century intersections of Anabaptism and evangelicalism. Professionally, he serves as assistant editor of Brethren in Christ History and Life, the journal of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.

Fundamentalist Networking Across the Atlantic

Monday, August 6th, 2012

by Marrku Ruotsila

New discoveries in American church history await in the unlikeliest of places. This I found out recently when in Lund, Sweden, conducting archival research on conservative evangelicals in Cold War era Scandinavia.

Spend a week at the regional state archives’ search rooms in an industrial estate on the outskirts of the city and you have discovered a wealth of new information on the global networking of American fundamentalists and evangelicals. Spend a fortnight and, even if you do not read Swedish or German, you have discovered still more.


Wikimedia Commons

The Lund archives are the repository for the papers of David Hedegård (1891-1971), Swedish Bible translator, publisher and evangelical educator active in the first six decades of the twentieth century. He is well known to scholars of revivalist movements in Northern Europe, and just last year a PhD dissertation was finished at Trinity Theological Seminary in Indiana into his view of the Bible (Bruno W. Frandell, “Contending for the Faith: The Apologetic Theology of David Hedegård”). But for the most part, Hedegård remains forgotten outside the admittedly small circles of Scandinavian evangelicalism.

If historians of American church history have come across his name, this would most likely have taken place in connection with the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC), the staunchly anti-ecumenical rival to the World Council of Churches that was founded by Carl McIntire in 1948. Hedegård was a founding vice president of the ICCC and remained in that post until the early 1970s. He was also, as it turns out, right at the center of the Cold War era global networking of American fundamentalists.


Wikimedia Commons

David Hedegård

Among the first things you notice when starting to go through the more than six archival meters of boxes that constitute the Hedegård collection is a treasure trove of late 1940s and early 1950s correspondence by Francis Schaeffer. The authors of recent biographies of this luminary of the American evangelical movement were apparently unaware of this collection. Consequently they missed on aspects of Schaeffer’s activities and aspirations in the early years of his career when he worked for the ICCC’s separatist fundamentalists.

From these materials it becomes abundantly clear that from almost the moment that he landed in Europe in 1946 Schaeffer identified with European evangelicals and acted as their interpreter to his superiors in the United States. He also schemed – a lot and right from the beginning of his European sojourn. He tried feverishly to recruit supporters for a bid to take over the ICCC through his secretive “European Friends of the ICCC” opposition group.

They were clearly a fractious lot, these ICCC fundamentalists. Although in Carl McIntire they had allied with one of the most militant of twentieth century American fundamentalists, in Europe they refused to use “fundamentalist” as their self-designation because they said it was purely an American term and did not apply on the other side of the Atlantic. They were “Bible-believers” instead, and they agreed with their American brethren and sisters on biblical inerrancy and on opposing the ecumenical movement but on little else.

Vigorous internal debate took place in the ICCC over methods and goals alike. It was no American-dominated monolith but a site for genuine inter-cultural and theological exchange across the Atlantic. The Europeans worried at first about the Americans’ trying to use the organization to push their agendas in defense of unregulated capitalism and for aggressive anticommunism, but by the early 1950s they declared victory: allegedly, everything specifically American had now been purged from ICCC positions.

With Schaeffer on their side, the European leaders of the ICCC even defeated the strong-willed McIntire when in 1950 he wanted to speak as the organization’s president on free enterprise as a biblically prescribed non-negotiable for all “Bible-believing” Christians. McIntire gave up “so as not to cause offense”.

In the Hedegård papers one finds, too, a mass of evidence about the breadth and length of interactions across the fundamentalist/evangelical divide that we have come to regard as fixed certainly by the late 1950s.

It was the Western European leaders of the ICCC who pressurized the Americans to go in for merger talks with the National Association of Evangelicals in the late 1940s. Although highly critical of the NAE later, they were also the ones who remained in touch with selected members of the rival organization after the ICCC formally and definitely turned against it. This collaboration was known to McIntire and his inner core and it was condoned.

The collaboration found institutional expressions as well. When vice president of the ICCC, David Hedegård was, at the same time, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and an official advisor to the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He was in frequent touch with the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship headquarters in England, helped organize its Swedish chapter’s work and kept trying to persuade his American friends into more formal cooperative arrangements.

When Harold O.J. Brown resided in the Lausanne offices of the IFES in the 1960s, he and Hedegård were in close contact, sent each other materials and generally patted each other on the back. It was Hedegård as ICCC vice president who made the arrangements for Brown’s trips to Sweden in that period.

Unsurprisingly, with the help of their European friends, American fundamentalists also built extensive interdenominational networks with émigré Eastern European anticommunist clergy and even with some on the other side of the Iron Curtain. More surprisingly, some of these collaborators were Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. The ICCC was also intimately involved from early on in the smuggling of Bibles to the other side of the Iron Curtain that European evangelical groups started early on in the Cold War.

David Hedegård broke with McIntire and left the ICCC in the early 1970s when the Northern Irish Presbyterian pastor Ian Paisley brought to Northern Europe the mass demonstrations that McIntire had pioneered in the United States. These to Hedegård were a “shame and a scandal” that no “Bible-believer” could go in for. The cultural differences between the Americans and the Northern and continental Europeans in the ICCC ultimately proved unbridgeable.

Many things in the history of modern American evangelicalism and fundamentalism look different when viewed from the perspective of these Western and Northern European activists in the ICCC. We need more study on American church history in the unlikeliest of places, such as the regional state archives in Lund, Sweden.

Markku Ruotsila is Adjunct Professor of American Church History at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Adjunct Professor of American and British History at the University of Tampere, Finland.

Herodotus, Hermeneutics, and Vatican II: Should Historians Trust Us Theologians?

Monday, July 9th, 2012

by Christopher Denny

HerodotusTwo decades ago I graduated from a liberal-arts school whose curriculum is based upon reading classic texts from Western Civilization—the so-called Great Books. Students read them in roughly chronological order, from Homer to Heidegger. Having decided that I needed to postpone entry into the real world for a tad longer, after I left college I embarked upon a more ambitious reading project.

Beginning with surviving fragments of ancient Egyptian literature from the Old Kingdom period, I planned to work my way chronologically through influential texts from the succeeding four and one-half millennia of human history, this time branching out beyond the West and also reading texts from China, India, the Middle East, and Japan. The detail with which I drew up the reading list was not matched by a corresponding level of interest in the need to earn enough money upon which I could live, and so after three years I decided to head to graduate school in religious studies, where I could embark upon a profession in which I could combine teaching, writing, and reading. I put aside my reading list, having only reached Herodotus’s History.

In the succeeding years I finished graduate school, earned a doctorate, and assumed a post teaching historical theology at St. John’s University in New York City. My cherished reading list was relegated to a file cabinet, until this past year, when I decided to return to Herodotus, picking up right where I left off twenty years ago—in the middle of the History’s third book.

Herodotus wrote his History during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, around 430—425 BCE, and his subject was the earlier war between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire. The History was part of a stream of demythologization that swept through Greek literature in the last half of the fifth-century. Along with Aristophanes, Euripides, and Thucydides, Herodotus cast a critical eye upon both Greek religion and the paideia that supported this piety.

His opening account of the Trojan War, which Herodotus saw as the prelude to the latter struggles between the Greek city-states and Persia, omits any reference to the machinations of divinities. Croesus of Lydia loses his empire to King Cyrus after misinterpretations of oracles lead to a series of political mistakes. Herodotus reports religious customs of the Babylonians without evincing any belief in their efficacy, chastises the Egyptians with being “religious to excess,” ridicules selected Greek beliefs regarding Heracles, and emphasizes the novelty of Greek religious beliefs by comparison with more ancient cultures.

Herodotus does not ascribe the events of the Persian Wars to a theomachy on Mount Olympus. This novel emphasis does not stem from religious unbelief, as Herodotus warns that harsh punishments can draw down the gods’ wrath. Rather, Herodotus relegates religious influence to the realm of the inscrutable, pushing his History away from religion and towards . . . history. It is to Herodotus, the so-called “Father of History,” that later centuries owe the distinction between theological and historical interpretations of the world. Readers interested in Herodotus and Greek religion can read Thomas Harrison’s book Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus (Oxford UP, 2000).

As a historical theologian, both the institution at which I work and the Catholic community of which I am part expect me to make sense of history by discerning God’s activity therein, but the enterprise is treacherous and often ill-defined. Methodologically church historians despite their monotheism are the offspring of the polytheist Herodotus, while Christian theologians are impatient to construct a “usable” history for their present contexts, lest they and the communities they represent be suspected of antiquarianism, nostalgia, or reactionary sympathies. The same events, the bare facts of the Christian past, are examined through two very different disciplinary lenses, leaving historical theology as an uncomfortable hybrid in the academic menagerie.

These musings about Herodotus came to mind as I was reading a new book by theologian Massimo Faggioli, Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning (Paulist, 2012). Faggioli is a religious historian at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, and his specialization is the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council (1962—65).

Those with an interest in intra-Catholic disputes perhaps know about the recent struggles among Catholic historians, theologians, and bishops regarding the proper understanding of Vatican II. Part of the ongoing debate between centralized and decentralized visions of the Catholic Church, these differences of opinion have recently crystallized into two major groupings. One group’s preferred understanding of Vatican II is alternately termed “the hermeneutics of discontinuity” or the “hermeneutics of rupture,” while the opposing group styles itself as promoters of the “hermeneutics of continuity” or the “hermeneutics of reform.” Regardless of the terminology employed, the fundamental difference between the parties is the extent to which the Second Vatican Council should be understood as having departed from the previous practices, intellectual frameworks, and customs of Roman Catholic tradition.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) Wikimedia Commons

Is this a theological dispute or a historical dispute? No less a theologian than Karl Rahner begged off making a clear distinction between history and theology at the beginning of a widely cited address in 1979, later published as “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II.” (PDF) This contest operates at both these levels simultaneously because each faction wants not only to recount past events but also to use the past to establish ecclesial norms for the future. Faggioli himself acknowledges his debt to the late Italian church historian Giuseppe Alberigo, the editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II (Orbis, 1995—2006).

Alberigo’s work established a new standard for the historiography of Vatican II, making use of archival documentation, unpublished correspondence of council participants, and journals to construct a narrative of conciliar activity. The end result was so influential that the name of Alberigo’s home institution is now the eponym for the scholars who use the series as a baseline for further historical research — the Bologna school.

Debates about the Council predate the close of the council itself, but Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning joins other recent publications in promoting a new standard by which to settle theological disputes about the Council. Along with John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard UP, 2008), Faggioli’s book aims to ground theological disputes about the meaning of Vatican II by appealing to history. In what Faggioli identifies as one of the “macro-issues of the debate,” he writes,

What is typical of Vatican II is the dimension of the relationship between the Church and the modern world, the assumption of history in its epistemological value for Catholic theology, and the fact that Vatican II is not a paradigm in itself . . . but a ‘paradigmatic example’ of the complex relationship between continuity and discontinuity” (p. 137). Again, “The historicization of Vatican II starting in the late 1980s has clearly introduced a hermeneutical shift in the theology of Vatican II.

Catholic theologians of different persuasions can certainly spill ink about how to balance the letter and the spirit of Vatican II, and debates about continuity and discontinuity have been a feature of Christian theology since the first-century debates over circumcision in Antioch and Jerusalem recounted in the New Testament. But what stake do historians have in this debate? Continuity and discontinuity may be problematic for theologians seeking doctrinal, liturgical, and moral norms, but all historians presume change as a precondition of their disciplinary methodology. One doesn’t have to be a resolute empiricist or positivist to insist that ascertaining theological standards and formulations is more than a function of setting past events in their historical context; this much should be uncontroversial, and yet the turn to history in twentieth century Christian theology unearths quite a few examples of theologians attempting to settle differences with an appeal to history.

Consider the example of ecumenism. In 1963 the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches met in Montreal. In a conference report the Commission published that year, entitled “Scripture, Tradition, and Traditions,” the hope is expressed that somehow history can be a catalyst for overcoming church divisions. The Commission wrote:

During the centuries the different Christian communions have developed their own traditions of historical study and their own particular ways of viewing the past. The rise of the idea of a strictly scientific study of history, with its spirit of accuracy and objectivity, in some ways ameliorated this situation. But the resultant work so frequently failed to take note of the deeper theological issues involved in church history (para. 59).

A “scientific” Christian history tantalizes theologians with the prospect of undoing the damage done by early modern confessionalization, but the authors of the Commission’s report recognize that such history is insufficient. The hope that ressourcement of Christian traditions, especially from the period of the early church, would bring ecclesial unity was also present at Vatican II. Members of the 1963 Commission included Protestant observers at Vatican II, while Catholic periti (theological advisors) at Vatican II were present at the Montreal gathering, even though the Roman Catholic Church was not (and still is not) a member of the World Council of Churches.

Yet despite major advances in historical scholarship in the intervening decades, the ecumenical movement is no stronger than it was during the heady days of the 1960s. Indeed, the global Anglican Communion itself is struggling to remain united, with little indication that historical study will heal divisions rooted in contrasting understandings of the authority of both Scripture and ecclesial traditions as they pertain to church authority and sexual morality.

If the ecumenical frame of reference seems too narrow, historians can listen in on the theological debate regarding salvation history and world history that emerged in Europe after the Second World War. In two influential books — Christus und die Zeit (1947) and Heil als Geschichte: Heilsgeschichtliche Existenz im Neuen Testament (1962) — Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann (1902—99) distinguished between the events of history and their significance for God’s plan of salvation. In Cullmann’s formulation the empirical facts of history are visible to all, while proper insight into the specifically religious significance of these facts is only granted to those privileged to receive the Word of God in faith.

Cullmann himself was a biblical theologian who participated in ecumenical dialogues from the 1920s onward and was an observer at Vatican II. His proffered relationship between world history and salvation history is a neat solution to many of the pressing issues confronting Christian theology at mid-century. By granting historical scholarship autonomy from theology, Cullmann made room for historical-critical research while safeguarding religious interpretations of Christian history.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-) Wikimedia Commons

Wolfhart Pannenberg and others attacked this cleavage in the 1960s, challenging the claim that salvation history was a sanctum cordoned off from the general progression of world events. In the introduction to Offenbarung als Geschichte (1961) Pannenberg evinced a confidence that historical events needed no supernatural hermeneutics to make them intelligible. He claimed that using historical methodology to examine the events of Christian history should be sufficient in principle to establish a response of religious faith.

Whether they deal with the relationship between Christian churches or between Christians and the world, these debates are in essence boundary disputes in which the fence pickets are often dimly glimpsed. Catholics such as Alberigo, O’Malley, and Faggioli debate opponents of the Bologna school such as Agostino Marchetto, Matthew Levering, and Matthew Lamb over whether the intentions of those who drafted the documents of Vatican II should guide interpretation of the sixteen documents that the Council produced.

O’Malley cultivates a vision of Vatican II that identifies the Council as a language event that is unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church, while Marchetto (Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II: Controppunto per la sua Storia; Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005) insists that the texts themselves rather than the surrounding conciliar debates establish the standards for contemporary Catholic theology. Alberigo’s co-editor of the History of Vatican II, Joseph Komonchak, emphasizes the reception of the Council by the members of the Church as an important marker in understanding its activity, while Levering and Lamb (Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition) interpret the conciliar constitutions and decrees with reference to each other and to previous magisterial teaching. The necessary distinction between history and theology in these publications is mostly implied and rarely expounded in sufficient detail.

Continuing a trend of magisterial statements on the meaning of Vatican II dating back to the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, Benedict XVI himself reentered the fray in a Christmas address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, in which he contrasted a defective “hermeneutics of discontinuity” with his preferred “hermeneutics of reform.” Historically of course discontinuity cannot be denied, but the pope is primarily concerned to assert that the Catholic Church “has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”

For the former Cardinal Ratzinger, the essence of the Catholic Church transcends temporal fluctuations. Like Cullmann’s sacralized interpretation of salvation history, however, the pope’s ecclesiology is rooted in a theological vision that historical-critical researches will not be permitted to obscure.

Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps we should expect this of a religious leader, even one who is a former academic whose 1957 habilitation was devoted to the theology of history in Saint Bonaventure, but for theologians and historians promoting the historicization of the Second Vatican Council are we not right to insist upon a more systematic differentiation between history and theology? Shouldn’t we expect that the tasks of historical reconstruction on one hand, and doctrinal, ethical, and systematic construction on the other, be properly distinguished?

Fortunately a pair of theologians influenced by Bernard Lonergan (1904—84) have set about to clarify these matters by directly examining what history and historiography are and what they are not. Lonergan was a Canadian Jesuit who was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. His most lasting contribution to Christian thought was the development of a detailed methodology that distinguished between research, interpretation, historical reconstruction, and evaluative judgment. In his 1971 book Method in Theology Lonergan provided a thoughtful delineation of intellectual tasks that contestants in the Vatican II debates should keep in mind. Lonergan wrote:

Embedded in the problem of hermeneutics, then, there are quite different and far profounder problems. . . . In my opinion, they can be met only by the development and application of theological method. Only in that fashion can one distinguish and keep separate problems of hermeneutics and problems in history, dialectic, foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. In fact the most striking feature of much contemporary discussion of hermeneutics is that it attempts to treat all these issues as if they were hermeneutical. They are not.

For Lonergan a concern with theological method was a non-negotiable requirement for empirical cultures of the modern age if Christian theology was to successfully negotiate the discontinuities that the modern world imposes upon the churches at an exponentially increasing rate.

Robert Doran is a Jesuit at Marquette University, the author of Theology and the Dialectics of History (University of Toronto Press, 1990) and also the editor of Lonergan’s collected works. As a student of Lonergan, Doran built upon his teacher’s theories in a 1999 article in Theological Studies (“System and History: The Challenge to Catholic Systematic Theology”) to argue for a more explicit distinction between critical descriptive history and a systematic explanatory history.

The former genre would address the question, “What happened at Vatican II?” while the latter answers the question, “Why is Vatican II significant?” Critical history is one discipline; philosophies and theologies of history are another. Archival researches, cross-cultural comparisons of contemporary events, and interviews to compile oral history collections are all necessary endeavors for critical history.

If one wants to compose a Christian theology of an historical event, however, whether that event is Vatican II or any other event, none of these activities are sufficient by themselves. Ressourcement is not sufficient for theologians; direct appeals to a normative source shaping continuities and discontinuities within historical developments are unacceptable in critical histories. This is true whether the normative source is the God of Israel, a Hegelian Geist, or the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches during the 1960s. Doran understands the contemporary theological task as one of mediating history while respecting its autonomy.

The second theologian using Lonergan’s thought to bring clarity to the issue of Vatican II interpretations is Neil Ormerod, a theologian at the Australian Catholic University who also holds a Ph.D. in mathematics. Ormerod retrieves the work of John Henry Newman to remind theologians that there are more productive ways of describing historical changes than to use the tautological categories of continuity and discontinuity.

In An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Newman, Omerod sets forth criteria to adjudicate between authentic growth in theological understandings of Christian tradition and distortions of the same. Ormerod’s 2010 article in Theological Studies (“Vatican II—Continuity or Discontinuity? Toward an Ontology of Meaning”) brings Newman’s work to bear on the Vatican II debates:

In terms, then, of the changes initiated in the aftermath of Vatican II, what would Newman contribute? He would alert us to the many types of change that can occur. Change is not one-dimensional. . . . At the very least this question takes us beyond the simplistic metaphor of continuity/discontinuity. (p. 619—20)

Ormerod believes that Lonergan’s account of change improves upon that of Newman, to whom Lonergan acknowledged a debt in his writings, by enabling theologians to understand that their proper domain in historical research is not change in itself but the meaning of changes in church history for individuals and Christian communities.

Church historians may understandably bristle at this proposed division of labor, as though my praise for Doran and Ormerod is designed to suggest that historians sit down at the back of the bus while theologians, hoping to restore their discipline to its former glory as the “queen of the sciences,” shape the narratives that historians compile into something significant for Christian religion. Such is not my intention. First, many historians also wear theological hats while many theologians don historical garb. The popular discipline of historical theology attests to this.

Second, critical histories need not mean secularist histories impervious to religious interpretation. The narratives that church historians create are not simply indifferent catalogs from which all theological interpretations that can be drawn are equally adequate explanations. In his 1986 presidential address to the American Catholic Historical Association (“No More Than ‘Footprints in Time’? Church History and Catholic Christianity”), James Hennesey noted, “The historian’s role is to aid in the discernment of the authentic tradition, not to make the ultimate judgment. . . . The history of the Church, rightly studied and rightly understood, has a vital theological and ecclesial role” (The Catholic Historical Review 73/2, p. 194).

The insistence upon disciplinary boundaries that I am promoting is designed to protect church historians from theological encroachments rather than to shackle historical scholarship. The problems with recent debates over the hermeneutics of Vatican II and its implementation is that scholars from various positions on the spectrum of Catholic opinion are inserting specifically theological claims into historical reconstructions, and these claims are too often unacknowledged as such. When George Weigel titles his account of the papal election of Benedict XVI God’s Choice, even Weigel’s ideological opposites can acknowledge that he has made his theological convictions surrounding the events in 2005 explicit.

Would that others writing about Vatican II and its aftermath were as straightforward in expressing their own religious viewpoints. To make the claim God speaks through the Bible, through bishops, or through cardinals is easily identified as a theological claim and as an act of religious faith. But to claim that the cultural event of modernity provides the framework that should guide the application of Vatican II is also a theological claim. To claim that the documents of Vatican II should only be understood in accord with the intentions of those who promulgated them rather than the wider Church is yet another theological assertion.

In contemporary American society we are admonished to avoid expressing religious beliefs in polite conversation, and blurring the difference between historiography and faith is one way for Catholics in a polarized Church to camouflage their differences with one another in the interest of avoiding further rifts. Whether this scholarly politesse is helpful to the life of the Roman Catholic Church is a theological question for another time.

What should church historians learn from these theological disputes? For that I conclude by returning to Herodotus. Herodotus wrote at a time when traditional Athenian piety was solely tested by shifting social patterns resulting from urbanization on the Attic peninsula.

The early years of the Peloponnesian War were fueled by the enthusiasm of Cleon’s democratic party in Athens, but Athens’ early successes did not last. War dragged on and the oligarchic and democratic factions grew further apart. Playwrights such as Aristophanes lampooned divinities on the comic stage, laying the groundwork in the next generation for the more direct demythologization of Greek religion led by Socrates, Plato, and their associates. The historical parallels with the last decade of American society need no belaboring.

In the midst of these upheavals Herodotus adhered to a middle path. His History separated itself from the traditional myths that served as a foundation for Attic religion, but Herodotus did not deconstruct religion in the manner of philosophers such as Xenophanes and Plato. Though he is undoubtedly uncritical by modern standards — and evinces no consistent grasp of the ideals of multiple attestation, relative chronology, and other requirements of modern historical research — Herodotus’s value for those perusing the boundaries of theology and history is in what he refrains from doing.

At the start of a war that would eventually destroy both Athens’ economy and its independence, Herodotus looked back to an earlier war in which the combatants called upon their respective divinities and refused to take competing religious accounts of the world at face value or to choose among them. In this he should be a model for contemporary scholars regardless of his methodological shortcomings.

Church historians, when we Christian theologians come calling with supernatural explanations that presume to account for the course of human events, stick to your principles. Insist upon empirical scholarship and consistent standards of evidence. When evidence is lacking, show more humility and consistency than we often do in disguising piety as history. Learn from Herodotus, the father of history.

The Church and the Trapezius Muscle

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

by Shaun Horton

The trapezius is a muscle that extends from the base of the neck to just below the shoulder blade, and appears to serve little purpose other than to feel pain. It occasionally assists in movements of the neck and arm, but mostly it gets sore when you have been sitting at a computer for too long. According to James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, the trapezius muscle also provides an ideal means of disciplining uncooperative children. Simply grasp the muscle firmly where the shoulder meets the neck, and squeeze. The child will be pacified immediately, and parental authority will be restored.


Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 1: Nature’s mute button


In 1970, James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline sought to put the pain back into child rearing. He presented his first book as a corrective to the “permissiveness” that had crept into American parenting since the publication of Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. Dobson blamed the decline of Protestant authority in public life directly on America’s infatuation with permissive parenting. Permissive parents indulged their children’s desires without exerting the control needed to inculcate them with discipline and respect for authority. Spock’s detractors argued that love and nurture were not enough to raise a healthy child. Children needed discipline.

Dobson considered pain a necessary tool to that end. Children were naturally rebellious, prone to open defiance of parental authority and ill-equipped to deal with their own sinful natures. When authority was challenged, that challenge had to be met decisively – with pain. Otherwise the child might grow up with no genuine respect for authority of any kind, be it parental, governmental or divine. By denying the discipline that pain helped to inculcate, parents were unwittingly raising children who would be receptive to the hedonism and radicalism of the antichristian political leftists who plagued American college campuses.

Despite the traditional acceptance of spanking in our society, we tend to consider pain in itself a negative force, even a destructive one. In her discussion of torture, Elaine Scarry portrays pain as an appropriation of the victim’s agency. For Scarry, intense pain subverts speech, rendering the victim inarticulate. Pain becomes the “cultural insignia” of the regime that its administrator represents, allowing the administrator to assert the regime’s authority when no other argument for its legitimacy will suffice. It is a foolproof way to turn a defiant “no” into a submissive “yes.”

Dobson had a chance to use his neck-squeezing technique during the turbulent 1960s at a local drug store. A group of teenage boys, about 14 years old, were running out of a neighboring hardware store, taunting the angry proprietor for being “Jewish and rather overweight.” They had run down the isles, knocking bottles and paint cans off the shelves, leaving the place in disarray. They recognized Dobson as he approached them. He had chased them out of the drug store earlier that afternoon, and was now returning to pick up an item he had forgotten to purchase.

Glaring up at Dobson, one of the boys yelled, “You just hit me! I’ll sue you for everything you’re worth.” Dobson put one hand on either side of the boy’s neck and squeezed. That shut him up. The boy collapsed. His friends fled. Before leaving, one of the other boys said to Dobson, “I’ll bet you’re a school teacher, aren’t you?” (He was.) A police officer later told him that the same group of boys had been terrorizing local businesses for weeks, but their parents had refused to discipline them or cooperate with police. Dobson’s account of the confrontation implied that the barabarism of these unruly youths had stemmed from an unhealthy lack of pain in their upbringing. The failure to apply systematically what Dobson had provided in one moment had produced a pack of chronic delinquents.

Dr. Dobson would probably not like Scarry’s assessment of pain-as-torture being applied to the case of corporal punishment. True, both the parent and the torturer use pain to alter the subject’s speech, to turn no into yes, defiance into obedience. But Dobson would find this view too oppressive. As critics of Scarry have pointed out, pain is a polyvalent phenomenon. It can be an obliterative force that constricts language, but it can also be a creative force that informs the articulation of meaningful experiences.

Dobson stressed the importance of applying just the right severity of pain when punishing a child. Parents needed to be aware of their children’s emotional states, punishing them with just enough pain to make them cry with sincerity. (Fake crying was to be ignored.) This emotional catharsis left the child uniquely sensitive to parental influence. It was during these moments of catharsis that parents needed to be reconciliatory towards their children, allowing the painful experience to strengthen the bond between them.

“After the emotional ventilation, the child will often want to crumple to the breast of his parent, and he should be welcomed with open, warm, loving arms. At that moment you can talk heart to heart. You can tell him how much you love him and how important he is to you…This kind of communication is not made possible by other disciplinary measures, including standing the child in the corner or taking away his firetruck.” (Dobson, Dare to Discipline 35)

This post-cathartic communication made the pain meaningful. It allowed the parent to emphasize that it was the defiance that was being condemned, not the child. It allowed the parent to heal as well as to hurt. Most importantly, it allowed the confrontation between parent and child to be framed as a learning experience, one in which the child, with the aid of an authoritative parent, moved a little closer to maturity.

Once the defiance was corrected, the child had work to do as well. Punishment – corporal and otherwise – was part of the process of teaching children to control themselves in a society that no longer seemed to value self-control. Dobson emphasized that the child’s will was not to be broken, but “shaped.” Children had to cultivate their own virtues. Adults had to instill within them the desire and the wherewithal to do it. To accomplish this, parents needed to impress upon their children the “cultural insignia” of their parental regime. They had to subvert their rebellious children’s attempts to control the home. Parental authority, Dobson argued, must be absolute and unquestionable.

With the right degree of control, corporal punishment became an extension of the natural laws of cause and effect. Just as the pain of a hot stove taught a child not to touch it, so the pain administered by a loving and well-disciplined parent taught a child not to challenge parental authority.

From Dobson’s perspective, this use of pain might more closely resemble Scarry’s description of work. For Scarry, work is the business of creating new things in the world: a bench out of wood, a sculpture out of clay, a story out of memories. In Scarry’s terms, pain is an obliterative force for “unmaking” the subject’s world, while work is an act of “making.” Work entails the “aversive intensity” of pain, but mitigates that intensity into “controlled discomfort” in the course of making new things.

For parents, proper punishment entailed the aversive intensity of self-discipline. It was work – difficult work, as any parent can attest. Lazy parents nagged their children, yelled at them, or put up with their misbehavior. If a parent failed to do the necessary work on the child, the child’s rebellious streak would grow and solidify. By late adolescence, the child’s personality would be almost irrevocably warped.

Dobson’s early books contained stories of spoiled children who turned on their doting parents like wild animals, including one account of a teenage girl named Becky who bludgeoned her mother in the head during a party. Becky left her mother bleeding and unconscious in the upstairs bathroom. Then she went downstairs, as though nothing had happened, to dance with the “mob of dirty, profane teenagers” who had “swarmed into the house, breaking and destroying the furnishings as they came.”


Michael Fisher (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Mob” appears to have been the accepted collective noun for dirty, profane teenagers.


The image of the teenage mob was a familiar and powerful one in 1970. Its use in Dobson’s grisly example of intergenerational conflict was not a coincidence. The success of Dare to Discipline and its sequels, Hide or Seek and The Strong-Willed Child, lay in their ability to subsume religion and politics under the more immediate everyday concerns of conservative Christian parents. They advanced the view that much of the church’s most important work in the world was being done in the home by nurturing mothers and hard working fathers. Dobson’s advice required the maintenance of a patriarchal social order in the home. If children did not know how to submit to traditional patriarchal authority, then they could not appreciate the importance of submitting to God.

Herein lay the inextricable political implications of corporal punishment. Like Becky’s home, the patriarchal family was under attack. Feminists denigrated the homemaker in favor of the working woman. Movies and television glorified sex, violence, and unconventional family arrangements. Secularists methodically chipped away at the conservative evangelical heritage of the public school system, while proponents of “free love” threatened to do the same to the institution of marriage. By attacking the traditional family, they attacked evangelicalism and threatened the psychological well-being of American children.

Dobson wrote Dare to Discipline with the spectacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in recent memory. During the months following the convention, one explanation for the chaos surrounding it resurfaced frequently: the young activists involved had been spoiled as children, and were now incapable of functioning as rational, mature adults. Raised in a world of material abundance and instant gratification, pampered by permissive parents, they suffered from low self-esteem and an inflated sense of entitlement. Sure, they might have some legitimate complaints regarding the unequal treatment of black citizens or women, but they lacked the capacity to form rational goals and to pursue those goals responsibly.


Via Flickr

Abbie Hoffman: a kid who should have been spanked


Dobson’s manifesto on discipline developed this theme into a sustainable framework for understanding the apparent declension of Christian values during the 1960s. In Focus on the Family literature, the Sixties became the decade in which things went wrong, when a society dominated by Christian values lost its way.

Corporal punishment was more than a tool to safeguard children against growing up to become psychopaths. It was part of a broader project to correct the errant course set by the previous generation of parents, a crucial strategy for training up a child in the way that he should go. Beginning in the late 1980s, Focus on the Family’s literature began to take on a more overtly political bent, encouraging its members to actively lobby for institutional enforcement of a conservative Christian way of life.

“Picket an abortion clinic. Serve on the hospital lay committee. Take a teacher to dinner. Examine the policies of your local library. Support your neighborhood crisis pregnancy center. Accept a pregnant teenager into your home…Support the work of your church in reaching a lost and dying world for Christ. And by all means, do these things in a spirit of love that would be honoring to the One who sent us.” (Dobson, Children at Risk 41)

Parents needed to take control of themselves, of their communities, and of their children in order to safeguard their children’s freedom. God had designed humanity to be self-reliant and spiritually mature, but only through “controlled discomfort” in the service of careful cultivation could this design be realized. This cultivation extended outside the home to every institution that affected the lives of young Christians. Spiritual life, political life and domestic life were all inseparable parts of the same work. In order to make Christian children, parents had to make a Christian world.

Does the East African Revival turn 90 this year?

Monday, May 21st, 2012

by Jason Bruner

Sometimes what seems to be historians’ most basic task – telling when something happened – can prove to be among the more difficult. At the same time, determining when a particular event happened – or when various people think it happened – can uncover rich resources for understanding complex processes, personal rivalries, and hidden assumptions about the people and events being studied.

And such is the case with the East African Revival. (For Kevin Ward’s fine historical outline of the Revival, see here.)

“It is a delicate matter, to write up Revival!” So said Dr. Joe Church, and he would know. As an evangelical Anglican missionary doctor who spent decades working in Rwanda and Uganda, he was the Revival’s most dedicated historian. His eye to posterity led him to preserve thousands of letters, newspaper clips, photographs, sermon notes, and other sundries. And through his dozens of published editorials, pamphlets, booklets, and his quintessential revival history Quest for the Highest: An Autobiographical Account of the East African Revival, he has probably done more than any other single person to form the historical perception of the Revival, particularly in the West.

For Joe Church, the Revival was the outgrowth of a microcosmic exchange between himself and an educated Ganda man in Kampala, Uganda, Simeon Nsibambi, in 1929. The two sought a higher Christian life and spent a few days tracing Scofield’s chain references, by the end experiencing a more intimate relationship with God and one another. In the process, an African and European helped one another move towards a more victorious life of personal holiness.

As he tells it, Church soon returned to his mission station in Gahini, Rwanda, where he instituted a similar regimen of plain Bible readings and daily prayer, from which the pattern of the East African Revival emerged in the early 1930s. The message was then carried throughout East Africa by small bands of African preachers, who brought a message of the severity of sin and the need for individuals to confess their sins publicly and have them washed in the powerful blood of Jesus.

But accepting Church’s chronology would make the revival only 83 years old.

Church’s narrative efforts (and his status as the central European responsible for the movement) did not go uncontested. As conflicts between revived and non-revived Ugandan Anglicans approached a breaking point in the early 1940s, they drove the British Bishop of Uganda, C.E. Stuart, to counter Church’s historical ownership of the Revival’s origins.

Attempting to claim the credit for the revival’s spread across southern Uganda and elsewhere, Bishop Stuart argued that the revival didn’t really begin until he invited Joe Church and African Revival “brethren” to conduct missions for the Uganda Jubilee in 1937. Later, he also claimed that the training he provided to a handful of ordinands in Kampala in the early 1930s “softened the soil” for the revival to sprout in the late 1930s. The revival, therefore, was an outgrowth of his vision and efforts, though he never joined the revival personally. And his chronological imagination sought to bolster his contested authority as the bishop of a divided church.

For Stuart, the revival would be 75 or 80.

Then there is a history (unpublished, housed at the Henry Martyn Centre) written by Simeon Nsibambi in the early 1970s. Intriguingly, Nsibambi’s own accounts contest Church’s history by stating off the top: “The Revival in Uganda has been running for 50 years, that is from 1922.” For Nsibambi, the revival began when he received a personal blessing from God that drove him into a deeper spiritual quest and resulted in his greater attentiveness to prayer and Bible study.

But Nsibambi’s history is by no means politically neutral. He wrote during an age in which the revival itself was wrought by factions that formed in the late 1960s – factions which he worked, largely unsuccessfully, to reconcile. His narrative, therefore, asserts his preeminence as the progenitor and patriarch of the movement (sans Joe Church), which should heed his calls toward reconciliation.

Accepting Nsibambi’s story, this year the revival is a nonagenarian.

So, what do all these conflicting chronologies reveal about the Revival?

It is telling that all of these histories (in print or in a verbal testimony) of the Revival are personal. In written form, they trace the revival to the outworking of microcosmic exchanges between individuals or particular decisions: the singular conversion of Nsibambi, the meeting of Church and Nsibambi, a decision to organize a mission. For them, writing the Revival’s was creative act that was inseparable from theological convictions and claims to legitimate authority.

While it was personal, the Revival was also a biographical movement. As Derek Peterson has described, Revival fellowship groups taught ordinary folk how to compose their history for themselves – their story of how God brought them to salvation and maintained them in that salvation. But each revivalist had a story to tell. Microhistories abounded, and these histories might have little to do with the narratives composed by Church, Stuart, or Nsibambi.

Revival biographical histories reveal that the Revival is a movement that has a plurality of narrative beginnings, which attest to the internal diversity of the revival message’s appropriation. In fact, some Ugandans were keen to maintain that their “revival conversions” in the early 1930s preceded any preaching by a Revival preaching team sent from Gahini – they were “revived” before or apart from the Revival, so to speak. For them, the Revival started when they were awoken with a divine voice, or received a particular vision, and confessed, rid themselves of charms and fetishes, and began living a more devout Christian life. For one of these converts, the Revival might be 79 or 78 this year.

Most testimonies, however, were not written down for a variety of reasons. Some viewed this as a calcification of a story of God’s dealings with their heart that must, by definition, remain au currant. Many revivalists were simply illiterate. Others feared that writing and publicizing the movement might lead Satan to attack that person, thereby discrediting the movement. (Ironically, Joe Church held this view, despite his efforts to tell their stories.)

What, then, can we say about how old the East African Revival is?

Like many things, it depends on whom you ask, but the pursuit of an answer to this basic question has illuminated the historical ambiguities of this dynamic movement. The tensions and debates that wrote and re-wrote the Revival’s history point to the theological discrepancies among Ugandan Anglicans and personal rivalries within the Anglican Church of Uganda.

It is safe to say, however, that for the majority of those who found the revival’s message to be personally revolutionary, the chronological squabbling of prominent men is of little concern. Their own histories are far more important. This points to the need for the inclusion in historical scholarship on the Revival of the dedicated ordinary “historians” who have not had the privilege of print or status, but have nevertheless through their testimonies been composing the Revival’s history for decades. They know without a doubt when their story begins, often down to the hour they received salvation.

Joe Church certainly had one thing right: writing up revival is a delicate matter. So happy 75th, 79th, 80th, 83rd, or 90th (or other) birthday.

Jason Bruner is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Princeton Theological Seminary.