Posts Tagged ‘Church History Journal’

The Minnesota Turn in the Study of Christianity

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Paul Putz

The Call for Papers for the spring 2015 meeting of the American Society of Church History is now live (check it out here). The theme, “Contact and Exchange among Religious Groups,” looks to be quite promising, but I was particularly intrigued by this line in the CFP: “Given the location of this meeting in Minneapolis, we also encourage papers addressing contact among religious groups in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest…” Obviously Minnesota is not the focus of the meeting. But it was nice to see the astute conference organizers recognize the rich possibilities for exploring interaction among religious groups provided by Minnesota-based (and Midwest-based) studies.

As I have written elsewhere, there has been a movement afoot recently to reinvigorate the Midwest as a subject of academic inquiry. Among the relevant developments: the creation of the Midwestern History Working Group, the launch of a book series devoted to the Midwest from the University of Iowa Press, and the creation of a new journal, the Middle West Review. Given those advancements, I’m sure that the ASCH’s recent CFP will be greeted with enthusiasm by scholars interested in promoting the study of the Midwest, and it should provide a forum for interesting new scholarship on religion in the region.

But what about older scholarship? More specifically, what older scholarship has made it onto the pages of Church History? Out of curiosity, I decided to look through Church History’s online archives to see how often “Minnesota” or the “Midwest” was the featured place of study for an article. I found three relatively recent pieces:

Joan R. Gundersen, “The Local Parish as a Female Institution: The Experience of All Saints Episcopal Church in Frontier Minnesota.” (September 1986)

“This essay blends two areas of theoretical concern. The first area is the debate over the extent and nature of feminization of nineteenth-century religion. The second arises from recent emphasis on the role of the laity in the church and a rediscovery of the meaning of such phrases as ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and ‘lay ministry,’ which spring from an emphasis on the church as the body of Christ….By looking at the actual experience of a parish, it is possible to regain a sense of the role of the laity and to see in what ways women, as part of the laity, shaped the religious parameters of a community….All Saints Parish in Northfield, Minnesota provides the scholar with an opportunity to consider the feminization of religion in a tangible form by studying a single congregation from a neglected denomination in a neglected region.”

William Vance Trollinger, “Riley’s Empire: Northwestern Bible School and Fundamentalism in the UpperMidwest.” (June 1988)

“It has become almost a commonplace among historians of fundamentalism to assert the central role played by Bible institutes in the survival and growth of this religion movement. But the thesis has not been tested, for there have been no case studies dealing with the work of Bible institutes at the grass-roots level. This article is a start toward filling this void. The focus is Northwest Bible and Missionary Training School of Minneapolis and its role in the upper Midwest in the second quarter of the twentieth century.”

Jennifer Graber, “Mighty Upheaval on the Minnesota Frontier: Violence, War, and Death in Dakota and Missionary Christianity.” (March 2011)

With the [U.S.-Dakota War of 1862] as a lens for exploring religious change, this essay offers new possibilities for understanding the violent conflict in the lives of Protestants who articulated the emerging idea of manifest destiny and the dynamics of religious modification in Native American communities who engaged in war in an effort to protect their way of life. Just as much as we need to understand the religious worldviews that came in contact on the frontier, we must also understand how participants understood episodes of violence within their frameworks for interpreting divine and human powers at play in the world.”

Hopefully those who make the trek to Minneapolis in April will get a preview of new Minnesota-related (or Midwest-related) research that will follow in the footsteps of the articles listed above, eventually finding a place within the pages of Church History.

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He can be found online at or you can follow him on twitter @p_emory.

Upon Further Review: Miller’s The Religious Roots of the First Amendment

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

This marks the first post in a new series, “Upon Further Review.” This series uses recent book reviews in Church History to think through broad questions in the study of the cultural history of Christianity. These are not “reviews of reviews.” Instead, they reflect the ongoing discussion around new books and new ideas in our field. Jeffrey Wheatley, a monthly contributor here at the blog, presents the inaugural post.

by Jeffrey Wheatley

In this brief post I would like to use Nicholas Miller’s The Religious Roots of the First Amendment and Mark Hanley’s review of Miller in Church History (June 2014)  as springboards to assess divisions in recent scholarship. Hanley begins his review by situating Miller’s work within a cadre of “religious historians” such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, who have in the past two decades struggled (and succeeded, to some extent) to gain scholarly capital against the tide of the “modern secular academy.” For Hanley the pivot point of this divide is the willingness to “take religious ideas seriously.” Of course, within the realm of scholars who take religion, or “religion”—the historical instances of subjects defining religion over against not-religion—seriously, there are a number of divisions as well. This is what I am currently interested in. Specifically, I ask: what methodological commitments undergird the works of the various scholars interested in these topics? Read the rest of this entry →

The Big Picture: Eighteenth-century Evangelical Doctrines and English Culture

Monday, August 4th, 2014

By Charles Wallace

hindmarsh small

Bruce Hindmarsh’s recent delightfully wise afterword in the ASCH blog recalls for us his presidential address, delivered this past January in Washington and now expanded in Church History’s June number. His careful research and graceful presentation, both in the room and in the journal, deserve our admiration. In effect, he has put the Society’s imprimatur on the growing “cultural turn” in early Methodist studies. And in the process he has deftly illustrated once again our journal’s “new” subtitle: Studies in Christianity and Culture.

It is not the first time the unlikely connection between British art and the evangelical revival has been made. Peter Forsaith has tilled this field for some time (see his perceptive article “Methodism and its Images” in the T & T Clark Companion to Methodism, ed., Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., 2010). But Hindmarsh has focused more narrowly and given us a particularly fine example of what such interdisciplinarity can achieve. Following up on impulses he felt while “off-duty” and browsing the Huntington Library’s collection of 18th-century British painting, this accomplished church historian immersed himself in art criticism well enough to demonstrate how the two specialties might engage. Both art and evangelical religion, we shouldn’t be surprised to know, were breathing the same cultural air. But who knew that the connections and tensions between artistic titans Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough could illuminate the similar loving but contested relationship of Wesley and Whitefield?

Intriguing parallels may also be sketched, Hindmarsh shows, between painting and the basic doctrinal concerns of Calvinistic and Arminian Methodists. Calvinist spirituality, its take on divine and human agency, may be represented by the aesthetic term “sublime” which was increasingly applied in ethical and philosophical conversation as well. Contemplating divine sovereignty and human creatureliness is a key element in this approach, and Hindmarsh sees it illustrated in Gainsborough’s landscapes and self-portraits. The example he has us view, though, is Joseph Wright’s dramatic painting of an erupting volcano (“Vesuvius from Portici” c.1774-76), nicely evoking Rudolph Otto’s Calvinist-sounding conceptualization of “the Holy” as mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

On the other side of the cultural/theological divide, the Arminian “inner life of doctrine” is best described as a life of the struggle, the agon. This active approach to life and faith was appropriated by the Wesleys in part from their reading of Milton (think Samson Agonistes as well as Paradise Lost); but it was certainly also pervasive throughout the British Enlightenment. The painting Hindmarsh chose to represent this spirituality of struggle is the picture he mentions in his blogpost and that graces the cover of Church History, “The Choice of Hercules,” commissioned by the moralist Third Earl of Shaftesbury from Paolo de Matteis (1712). From our 21st century perspective young Hercules may seem to be merely pondering (rather than outright agonizing) over the allegorical option before him. It’s either virtue, represented by the earnest woman on his right engaging him rationally at eye level, or the blandishments of the somewhat scantily clad woman at his feet to his left, symbolizing worldly pleasure. In any case it appears he has calmly made up his mind. For a more intense version of the story, Hindmarsh recommends Handel’s musical version of the same scene wherein indeed Hercules seems to wrestle emotionally with his choice, singing “Where shall I go?” Here (more so in the oratorio than the painting) the accent is on Arminian human action and agency rather than Calvinist contemplation of the divine.

Leaving Hercules to make his decision, we might ponder a similar question: “Where shall we go?” Hindmarsh, pointing the way, has painted religious historical scholarship into a large cultural landscape – a bigger picture even than the one he literally ran up the Ashmolean stairs in Oxford just at closing time to contemplate! It not only includes religious texts, but art, music, architecture and the rest of 18th-century English culture. Scholars like Hindmarsh and Forsaith have already begun to (and will continue to) fill in the canvas. And so, too, have historians from beyond our guild taken up palette and brushes, the most recent being Misty Anderson, whose impressive Imagining Methodism in 18th-Century Britain: Enthusiasm, Belief & the Borders of the Self (Johns Hopkins, 2012), shows that cultural (in this case literary) historians can cross-over and focus on “our” territory, too. Like Hindmarsh, she has discovered surprising connections between Methodism and other improbable cultural productions, in her case, theater, novels (including erotic fiction), satirical art (e.g., Hogarth’s anti-Methodist engravings), and popular music. The big picture is indeed larger than we thought; early evangelicalism is taking its place on this wider cultural canvas. Thanks to Bruce Hindmarsh for his part in expanding our view and our viewing and for inviting us to travel with him. Perhaps we may both contemplate what we see and struggle to express it artfully in our scholarship!

Charlie Wallace is chaplain and professor of religious studies emeritus at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He is working on a study of food and drink in early Methodism.


The Story Behind the Picture

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

By: Bruce Hindmarsh

My presidential address in January, “The Inner Life of Doctrine: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Calvinist-Arminian Debate Among Methodists,” is published this month in Church History, but it began several years ago on a padded bench in Henry E. Huntington’s villa in San Marino, California.

This grand house was built in 1911 and is now the centre-piece of the Huntington Art Galleries. I was in Pasadena with my family and working on a research fellowship at the Huntington Library, and every day I enjoyed walking through the gardens to have lunch in the Café. I used to stop off on the way at the Huntington villa to wander through the galleries, and especially to sit in the Grand Manner Portrait Gallery to look at pictures by Gainsborough, Lawrence, Romney and other eighteenth-century greats. In the library, I was reading sources having to do with Methodism, but here, sitting on my padded bench, I was looking at pictures painted around the very same time.

I became fascinated with one particular portrait, the painting of the actress Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Joshua Reynolds. As I looked at the date, 1784, I tried to think of all that was going on that same year among the evangelical figures that I was reading about. I realized how easily we begin to study our subjects in disciplinary silos, rather than to make the rich interdisciplinary connections that reflect the reality of life lived on the ground then as now. As I became curious, I began reading about eighteenth-century portraiture and seeing connections to my work on evangelical subjects. At first some of the connections were interesting enough, but superficial. Apparently, Reynolds had a niece who was a god-fearing Methodist who wrote a commentary on Ezekiel. The evangelical John Russell was a leading pastelist and member of the Royal Academy with Reynolds. And so on. But then the connections became more profound as it became apparent that there were deeper aspirations and cultural concerns that brought art and religion into the same frame (so to speak!). I began to try to look at these things together, and if art and religion, then why not other cultural “silos,” and so I began to draw in philosophy, literature, and music, as connections appeared. In the end, this interdisciplinary perspective allowed me to take the Calvinist-Arminian debate among evangelicals—what for many folks today would seem a something of sectarian backwater—and place it back at the centre of eighteenth-century culture and to show how it reflected fundamental aspirations. I used the “sublime” and the “agon” as terms of art that made these connections.

There is a nice coda to this story, since my journey with this article also ended with sitting on another bench in another gallery. Several of us were in Oxford in April for the first joint meeting the ASCH and the Ecclesiastical History Society in the UK—a very successful venture and stimulating conference. It was a busy four days on the ground in Oxford for me, as co-chair of the conference. I was also hosting an alumni event for Regent College and visiting with old friends and colleagues from earlier days in Oxford. It was breathless. Immediately after the conference on Saturday, I rushed to North Oxford to have tea with my good friend, the great Methodist scholar, John Walsh. He insisted on “whizzing” me back into town, after tea, to get ready for the alumni reception. At the last minute, I remembered that the painting, “The Choice of Hercules” by Paulo de Matteis was housed at the Ashmolean in Oxford, and I’d be going right by. This is the painting, commissioned by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, that appears on the cover of this month’s issue of Church History, and it figured largely in my address and the article. I had not actually seen the painting in person, and I did not know if it was on display. I asked John to drop me at the corner by the museum, and I rushed past the tourists pouring out the front doors and went to the main desk. It was five minutes to closing, and they were shutting down the computers. A kind museum volunteer started up her computer again and looked up the painting. It was upstairs in the European Gallery at the far end, and if I ran I might be able to get there in time to see it. And so I ran, taking the stairs two or three at a time, and arrived huffing and puffing to the gallery, where I saw the painting. It was hard to miss. I took the picture below to help me remember the scale of it. The gallery attendants kindly gave me ten minutes with the painting in an empty gallery, and it was a fitting conclusion to my research for this article.

I am left with two reflections on my experience. The first one I have alluded to already, namely, that we ought as historians to be open to interdisciplinary investigations as a way of seeing our religious subjects in their fullest context. But secondly, and more personally, I am reminded of the importance of a certain element of disinterested exploration, or what Josef Pieper termed “leisure,” in our research. It was in the interstices—the breathing spaces—of my research at the Huntington, when I was “off duty,” so to speak, that I found my way to Reynolds and began to contemplate connections that would later bear fruit in my work. This element of scholarly leisure is increasingly hard to find, and hard to justify in terms of the world in which we now live, but I am grateful the Huntington remains the sort of gracious place that invites such contemplation.

Finally, I refer to an oratorio by Handel in my article, and if any readers would like to hear the music for this work, “The Choice of Hercules,” which is a kind of sound track to the painting below, you may hear at least snippets of the music here. The track for the trio that I describe in my article is number 18.

Bruce Hindmarsh is the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. This post is drawn from his Presidential Address to the American Society of Church History at the Society’s 2014 Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. The address was published in the June 2014 issue of Church History and is available here.

Arthur Scherr’s “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians”: A Response by Matt McCook

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

By Matt McCook

Church History’s Spring issue included an article by Arthur Scherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared we solicited a number of responses, which can be found here, here, and here. Today we add one more response, this time from Matt McCook, Associate Professor of History at Oklahoma Christian University.


The religious faiths of the founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson, have been the subject of so much recent scholarship and polemical writing, Arthur Scherr’s title, “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife” led me to wonder which historians Scherr’s Jefferson would battle. It was clear from the opening paragraph that historians who supposedly champion the position of the Religious Right were the intended opponents. Although all respondents on this blog have mentioned that Scherr casts his net too widely in identifying the culprits, the critique bears repeating. Polemical works on all sides deserves to be called out by serious scholars, but not all scholars who argue that Jefferson was more Christian or more comfortable with some degree of cooperation between church and state are necessarily writing on behalf of the Religious Right. I find little similarity between the works of David Barton and the scholarship of James Hutson, Paul Conkin, Edwin Gaustad, or even Daniel Dreisbach. Their works are not merely provocative, as unsupported polemical assertions are, nor would they claim their conclusions were above historical revisionism. Rather, they have contributed reasonable assertions based on available evidence that demand attention; their contributions are not so easily dismissed.

Scherr raises important questions about Jefferson’s motives for issuing executive prayer and fasting declarations as Virginia’s Governor. Yet, his depiction of Jefferson makes it nearly impossible to trust what the founder says. Scherr’s Jefferson expresses himself more freely when out of office, more honestly when corresponding with fellow skeptics and materialists, and more evasively when addressing spiritualists or Christians in his own party. If, as Scherr suggests, Jefferson might lie to his friend, Benjamin Rush to keep from offending him, how can we know the true Jefferson? Scherr does not explain why we should take Jefferson’s more heretical writings to heart while explaining away more favorable comments on Christianity. Perhaps John Quincy Adams was justified, not by calling Jefferson an “infidel”, but by labeling him a “double-dealer.”

Much of what Sherr cites as examples of Jefferson’s support for atheism, more clearly illustrates his opposition to Calvinism. In this, Jefferson was in good Christian company for many evangelical reformers blasted popular notions of Calvinistic dogma as vehemently as Jefferson. These were the same evangelicals who supported Jefferson politically being unaware or unconcerned with whatever his unorthodox views might have been. Sherr points out that Jefferson’s hatred of Lyman Beecher and Timothy Dwight were constant, but these were long time political foes and not religious rivals. Perhaps Scherr would agree that Jefferson overlook one’s religious differences, even those of an atheist, more than he could look past one being a Federalist.

In an interesting side note, Scherr points out that Jefferson was confused about Jewish beliefs in an afterlife which raises interesting questions worthy of further study about other mistaken notions various founders had about various religious groups or doctrines.

To his credit, Scherr does not apply his conclusions about Jefferson to the founders generally, something popular audiences and some scholars can hardly resist. Among those scholars who have most convincingly argued against such generalizations are James Hutson and Daniel Dreisbach. Scherr succeeds in distinguishing Jefferson from other founders on religious beliefs. Although, in doing so, he makes John Adams seem more orthodox. Thus, the tug of war over the founders and their faiths will continue. Polemical writers and popular audiences will continue to simplify and overgeneralize. Works like Scherr’s will be scrutinized and analyzed resulting in a deeper understanding of Jefferson’s religious beliefs. In this way, Scherr joins the company of other worthy scholars who force us to contemplate. While I do not agree with all of his assertions, I especially appreciate the much needed attention to historiography.

Thomas Jefferson Versus Some Historians: Frank Cogliano Responds to Arthur Scherr

Monday, April 21st, 2014

By Frank Cogliano

Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Scherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked Frank Cogliano for his comments. We also asked John Ragosta, whose response is here, and Thomas Kidd, whose response is here.

Frank Cogliano is a professor of American history and Dean International for North America at the University of Edinburgh. He has authored or edited nine books on revolutionary and early national America, including Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (2006) and Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy (2014).


In “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians” Arthur Scherr challenges the view that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state was permeable and that the Sage of Monticello was a devout Christian. The view of a Christian Jefferson who accepted a blurring of the boundary between church and state, supported fast days and attended church services in public buildings, has gained traction in recent years particularly among those who advocate for a “Christian Founding” of the American Republic. If Jefferson, so long portrayed as deistic skeptic who believed a wall should separate church and state, the president who excised miracles from the New Testament, can be shown to be a devout Christian, then there can be no question that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and (by implication) should be a Christian nation today. This view has most prominently, and controversially, been promulgated by David Barton – whose work has been discredited even on the Christian Right. (Barton makes a cameo appearance in this essay but, thankfully in my view, isn’t its main focus.)

Arthur Scherr challenges and seeks to refute the Christian Jefferson, arguing that Jefferson believed in a strict separation of church and state and denying that he was a Christian, at least in the sense recognized by Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century. Scherr’s Jefferson was comfortable with atheism and, while he believed in the moral teachings of Jesus, denied Jesus’s divinity, rejecting the afterlife and organized Christianity in old age. Scherr does so through a close reading of some of the scholars who have written recently on the issue of Jefferson and religion, notably Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson and Edwin Gaustad. He provides a detailed point-by-point refutation of their main arguments. His analysis of Dreisbach’s main argument is excellent. On balance his analysis is persuasive. I find Scherr’s Jefferson more compatible with my own understanding of Jefferson’s religion than I do Dreisbach’s (despite Scherr’s characterization of my own treatment of Dreisbach and Hutson as sympathetic, p. 67 n. 17).

Despite this, I respectfully disagree with certain aspects of Scherr’s analysis. For example when he discusses Jefferson’s reluctant acceptance of wartime fast days during his tenure as governor of Virginia, Scherr asserts that Jefferson was “merely following orders from the House of Delegates” (63) and Congress. In 1779, Scherr argues, Jefferson followed the orders of Congress for fear “he would have been suspected of treason or loyalism if he did not.” (66) I think this is a misreading of the situation. While the Virginia constitution of 1776 created a very weak executive, the House of Delegates couldn’t issue orders to the governor. Students of the War of Independence will know that Congress similarly lacked the authority to order state governors to act. While a small matter, I think Scherr has overstated his case somewhat to explain away Jefferson’s support for, or at least his failure to oppose, wartime fast days.

While close reading of the sources, both primary and secondary is the key to Scherr’s analysis, I think he sometimes misreads Jefferson. He suggests that Jefferson’s failure to capitalize “god” “unconsciously” implies “irreverence” (93). Perhaps. Perhaps not. Anyone who’s spent time perusing Jefferson’s writings in manuscript, as Scherr surely has, will know that Jefferson was inconsistent in his use of capital letters. Similarly I don’t think Jefferson actually feared that Presbyterians would introduce an inquisition in Virginia in 1820. (103) His rhetorical excesses when writing about his political opponents are well-documented and this seems to be such a case.

My most serious observation concerns the eponymous “historians” who have misread Jefferson’s religion, according to Scherr. While these include leading figures in the field such as Dreisbach, Hutson and Gaustad, Scherr fails to discuss the work of the likes of John Ragosta and Johann Neem which generally support his view. This may seem curious, except this literature somewhat undermines the premise the article—that there is a “trendy” (106, n. 106) historiographical consensus in favor of a Christian Jefferson which needs to be refuted. As the scholarship of Ragosta and Neem demonstrates this is something of an historiographical straw man.

I was a little bit dismayed by Dr. Scherr’s treatment of some of his fellow scholars. He castigates Andrew Burstein, unfairly in my view, as “vapid” and “perfunctory” (104) for his treatment of Jefferson’s late-in-life views on immortality. He is especially critical that Burstein bases his argument on one letter that Jefferson wrote to Francis Van Der Kemp on January 11. 1825. Burstein’s reading of the Van Der Kemp letter is considerably more persuasive, I believe, than attempting to divine Jefferson’s unconscious thoughts from his orthography. At any rate, Burstein’s scholarship warrants more temperate and measured consideration than it receives here.

Arthur Scherr has written a fascinating analysis of Jefferson’s religious thought. He has taken on some of the most influential writing on the subject in a persuasive manner. I’m largely sympathetic with his portrait of Jefferson. Perhaps more historians share his view than Scherr realizes. This article isn’t so much about Jefferson versus the historians as Jefferson versus some historians.

Jefferson Versus the Historians, or Barton Versus the Historians? Thomas Kidd Responds to Arthur Scherr

Monday, April 14th, 2014

By Thomas Kidd

Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Scherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked for comment from other historians who have studied the role of religion in Jefferson’s thought. (Last week’s response by John Ragosta is here.)

Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University, and is completing a biography of George Whitefield for Yale University Press.


The topic of Thomas Jefferson’s faith generates an extreme range of opinions. These run from Christian pop history writer David Barton’s insistence that, until late in life, Jefferson was an orthodox Christian, to Arthur Scherr’s contention in his Church History piece that Jefferson lived and died as an “Epicurean deistic pagan,” a pantheist, or perhaps even an atheist.

Barton’s The Jefferson Lies strained credulity by its selective use of evidence, leading Thomas Nelson publishers to pull the book from circulation in 2012. Scherr’s article respects standard historical practices in its use of evidence, and his analysis highlights many important aspects of Jefferson’s faith (or lack thereof). But as with other polemical views on Jefferson’s beliefs, Scherr’s thesis – that Jefferson considered himself no kind of Christian, not even a radically liberal one – outruns the nuances of the evidence.

To take one example, Scherr cites Jefferson’s 1788 letter in which he excused himself from serving as a godparent because the ritual would require him to affirm Trinitarian doctrine. (David Barton’s book neglected to address this letter.) “The difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity and Trinity, have, from a very early part of my life, excluded me from the office of sponsorship,” Jefferson confessed. Scherr thinks that the sentences that follow are more important: the prospect of godparenting had often been proposed to him by his friends, Jefferson noted, “who would have trusted, for the faithful discharge of it, to morality alone instead of which the church requires faith.”

Against the conventional reading of this passage, in which Jefferson is simply saying that doubts about the Trinity prevented his service as a godparent, Scherr interprets Jefferson as saying that he “did not believe in Christianity,” and that he was advancing the possibility that “an atheist could be a decent, moral person.” Later, Scherr does not explain the meaning of Jefferson’s famous 1803 statement “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished,” other than to note that this letter denied the resurrection.

Scherr’s article pits Jefferson against the “historians,” and it is quite an impressive roster of “scholarly adherents” whom Scherr regards as standing implicitly with the Religious Right in its co-opting of Jefferson. Thomas Buckley, Andrew Burstein, Peter Onuf, the late Edwin Gaustad, and others all seem to be part of those serving the interests of the Christian Right by “fecklessly attempt[ing] to depict [Jefferson] as a man of devout Christian faith.”

The worst offender, for Scherr, is Daniel Dreisbach. But I see little evidence in Scherr’s article that any of these historians, including Dreisbach, have tried to paint Jefferson (a la Barton) as a person of orthodox, Trinitarian faith. Instead, they have tried to account for Jefferson’s occasional comfort with government entanglement with religion, his fascination with the historical (though non-divine) Jesus of Nazareth, and his political alliance with many evangelicals, especially Baptists.

I covered many conservative and Christian historians’ rejection of Barton for the evangelical periodical WORLD Magazine in 2012. For one of those articles, I interviewed Dreisbach, who told me that he had a “‘very hard time’ accepting the notion,” advanced by Barton, “that Jefferson was ever an orthodox Christian, or that Jefferson ever embraced Christianity’s ‘transcendent claims.’” According to Scherr, Dreisbach is “closer to Barton than Barton’s opponents.” But in fact, across the ideological and faith spectrum Barton found virtually no scholarly supporters for The Jefferson Lies.

As an article on Jefferson’s faith, then, Scherr adds value to the scholarly discussion. The notion of Dreisbach and other historians bolstering David Barton’s caricature of Jefferson, however, is not reflected in what those scholars have actually written.

Thomas Jefferson and the Historians – John Ragosta Responds to Arthur Scherr

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

By John Ragosta

Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Scherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked for comment from other historians who have studied the role of religion in Jefferson’s thought.

Our first response comes from John Ragosta, author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (University of Virginia Press, 2013) and Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped to Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2010).


Asked for a comment on Arthur Scherr’s analysis of Thomas Jefferson, Christianity, morality, and an afterlife, I am a bit ambivalent.

Scherr is deeply concerned with misinformation from the “religious right” suggesting that Thomas Jefferson was not really devoted to a strict separation of church and state or that he was a devout Christian (and the possible implications of such misinformation to constitutional debate and policy – although he studiously ignores those issues).

Scherr is on strong ground here. He points out many problems with the understanding of Jefferson promoted by David Barton, Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson, and Charles Sanford and the occasional excess of Edward Gaustad. Those corrections need not be rehearsed here; Scherr covers many well and there is a voluminous literature on the topic.

Exploring that literature, including works by Michael Myerson, Johann Neem, or my own work,1 would have added considerable primary and secondary sources as well as depth to his argument. He might, for example, have looked to other sources for James Madison’s response to the limitation of the First Amendment to the federal government (a plea that the states adopt its principles) or to the manner in which Jefferson’s beliefs matured over time. His brief dismissal of the good work by Warren Throckmorton and Michael L. Couter as being from the “public field” is also misplaced.

Yet, the article potentially raises more problems than it solves. Scherr’s treatment of the question of Jefferson’s belief in an afterlife is emblematic. He entitles the relevant section, appropriately enough, “Jefferson’s Doubts About the Afterlife,” but concludes that Jefferson’s “only concept of ‘afterlife’ was the end of life: death” (108). (Compare 82 – “probably considered belief in the afterlife puerile.”) This is far from clear, especially as Jefferson grew older, and Scherr’s own citations and quotes demonstrate Jefferson’s lack of certainty. As Neem explains, the empirical Jefferson “could never convince himself” of an afterlife, but “express[ed] hope.”

Reading the entire Jefferson and John Adams correspondence, one might reasonably argue even more strongly. Certainly Jefferson’s materialism is not dispositive as he always believed that God (or, to him, “god”) could enervate matter. (Compare Scherr: materialism “implicitly denying Christianity’s belief in the afterlife,” 104.) More generally, one should not expect more than human certainty from a Founder.

Scherr’s criticisms of a number of historians is also excessive. For example, Peter Onuf’s comments on Jefferson’s support of evangelical church polities and “democratic theology” (107), is hardly to say that Jefferson endorsed evangelical dogma. In fact, Scherr ignores Jefferson’s statement that Christianity is the best religion for a republic (largely for the reasons that Onuf explains). (Compare Scherr’s treatment of Eva S. Wolf’s metaphorical comment about “election[s]” in a republic, 107.)

More seriously, Scherr runs perilously close to endorsing a false dichotomy between a Christian evangelical Jefferson and an agnostic or atheist one. He says dismissively that Jefferson’s inaugural included “pro forma thanks to a creator,” and follows that with a “however” the inaugural supported religious liberty (67), as if the two were inconsistent – an argument made (implicitly) against Jefferson that deeply angered him. With some bitterness, he wrote Margaret Bayard Smith in 1816 of the jibes he suffered from “the priests:” “They wished him to be thought Atheist, Deist, or Devil, who could advocate freedom from their religious dictations.”

Evidence of Jefferson’s sincere and deep belief in a god is overwhelming. To snipe that, when praying in both of his inaugurals, Jefferson “may have only uttered these platitudes with reluctance” (68), is, at best, speculative and inconsistent with Jefferson’s other actions and letters. To say later that Jefferson “lent a tacit approval to atheism” by attacking Calvin and corruptions of Christianity that suggest revelation is necessary to find a god (93), is to give the entirely wrong impression. (As Scherr notes, it was in this context that Jefferson calls Calvin an “Atheist, which I can never be.”)

My criticisms are not meant to undermine the primary point of this article, which is correct and timely. Yet, by giving the wrong impression about Jefferson’s deep religiosity and, most especially, overstating Jefferson’s objections, one risks not only confusion but gives those to whom Scherr is addressing his arguments too much ammunition.

I will end with Scherr’s final words: “Were Jefferson alive, he would probably say, contrary to the claims of the Religious Right and its scholarly adherents, who fecklessly attempt to depict him as a man of devout Christian faith, ‘let the wall of separation stand.’” (109).


[1] See, e.g., Michael Myerson, Endowed by their Creator (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012); Johann Neem, “Beyond the Wall: Reinterpreting Jefferson’s Danbury Address.” Journal of the Early Republic 27 (Spring 2007): 139-54; Johann Neem, “A Republican Reformation: Thomas Jefferson’s Civil Religion and the Separation of Church and State,” in A Companion to Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Francis D. Cogliano, 91-109 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); John Ragosta, Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013).

Church History – March 2014

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

The Spring issue of Church History is out on Cambridge Journals Online. In this issue:

Arthur Scherr provides a thorough rebuttal to historical portrayals of Thomas Jefferson as a Christian.


Caroline Schroeder challenges conventional categories of monasticism with a look at women’s monasticism in early Christian Egypt.


Howard Louthan explores Erasmus’s relationship with the Polish Kingdom, and his portrayal of Poland as a model for Christendom.


John Stuart looks at the influence of imperialism and ecumenism on Anglo-American missionaries’ conceptions of “religious liberty” in Egypt.


And Keith Stanglin traces the rise and fall of Biblical perspicuity in 17th century theology.


Check out the full issue at Cambridge Journals Online

Everything Is Due Monday (An ASCH-EHS Update)

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

The final deadline for proposals for the Society’s joint international conference in Oxford is only two days away. The ASCH and Ecclesiastical History Society have accepted 65 proposals already, but they will take submissions until Monday, January 20, at 12 PM London time. The CFP, guidelines, and submission forms are available through the CFP link in the right side of this page (under Conferences), or on the Society’s Conferences & Meetings page.

The Society has travel funding available for some presenters. If you are an ASCH member, you can apply for a travel stipend by downloading this form (graduate students download this form instead), filling it out, and emailing it to, along with a copy of your CV.

If your proposal has already been accepted, January 20 is also the deadline to register for the conference (which you can do here).