Posts Tagged ‘Church History Journal’

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

Monday, April 14th, 2014

By Thomas Kidd

Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Sherr, 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 Sherr

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

By John Ragosta

Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Sherr, 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).

“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.

December 2013 Issue Available

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

The December issue of Church History is now online. In this issue:

Martin Marty reviews Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle.

Daniel Richie looks at Irish Reformed Presbyterians who opposed slavery in antebellum America.

Kathy Schneider discusses the secular front organizations established by Catholics in the Second Republic of Spain to get around laws prohibiting schools run by religious orders.

Luke Fenwick looks at the politics surrounding the denazification of two Protestant churches in Germany after 1945.

Klaus Petersen and Jørn Henrik Petersen analyze the attitudes of Danish and Norwegian Lutherans toward the modern welfare state in the mid-twentieth century.

And George Faithful examines successive versions of the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” with an eye toward the theological and aesthetic needs of its translators’ religious traditions.

Check out the entire issue at Cambridge Journals Online.

September 2013 Issue Online

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Our September issue is out! This issue features a forum on the faith of four U.S. presidents and the ways in which their approach to religion and governance played out in American public life.


From the Editor’s Introduction:

Marking four significant moments in a religious history of the U.S. presidency, this forum begins to outline a larger arc of historical change. [John Quincy] Adams’s openness to the larger world and pride in America’s new beginning as a protestant nation helped lay the groundwork for Wilson’s assiduous commitment to Christian policy making. FDR’s effort to commandeer Christian rhetoric for political and military ends built on some of the precedents of Wilson’s religious idealism. And today, Obama’s strategic use of Christian realism as a matrix for policy formation reflects his effort to manage the legacies of Wilson and FDR as well as the hostility toward those legacies expressed by his opponents.

Also in this issue:

Tjamke Snijders and Steven Vanderputten reexamine medieval monastic penance in a reconciliatory manuscript in “From Scandal to Monastic Penance: A Reconciliatory Manuscript from the Early Twelfth-Century Abbey of St. Laurent in Liège.”

Bianca Lopez explores how a Roman aristocrat practiced Franciscan piety in Lopez’s Mead Prize winning essay, “Between Court and Cloister: The Life and Lives of Margherita Colonna.”

Daniel Cheely follows the development of one version of the New Testament in early modern France and England in “Legitimating Other People’s Scriptures: Pasquier Quesnel’s Nouveau Testament Across Post-Reformation Europe.”

And B.M. Pietsch’s “Lyman Stewart and Early Fundamentalism” explores the interplay between capitalism and fundamentalism through the career of the oilman who financed The Fundamentals and co-founded the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.

Check out the entire issue here.

Call for Papers: ASCH-EHS 2014 Spring Conference

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

[PDF Version]
Download Submission Form for Complete Sessions (docx)
Download Submission Form for Panels & Roundtables (docx)
Download Submission Form for Individual Papers (docx)
The American Society of Church History (ASCH) and the Ecclesiastical History Society in Britain (EHS) will be holding a special joint meeting, Thursday to Saturday, April 3-5, 2014, in Oxford, England.

The primary theme of the conference is Migration and Mission in Christian History. The program committee invites proposals for individual papers or full sessions on this theme. Papers could examine themes such as: Christianity in migrant communities in the early generations of re-settlement; missionary efforts directed towards non-Christian migrants or those from a different Christian tradition; or the migrations of missionaries themselves.

From the scattering of the Jerusalem Church in 70CE through the ‘barbarian’ invasions of the Roman Empire, the Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlements of England, and the migrations of the religious refugees in the Reformation era, to the Atlantic slave trade, the Irish, Scottish and European diasporas of the nineteenth century and the African and Asian ones of the twentieth, people movements have profoundly shaped the course of Christian history. They have disrupted religious commitments, forged new ones, and inspired and constrained mission. There is hence enormous scope for papers from all periods of Christian history.

The ASCH and EHS hope to produce an edited volume and/or special issue of Church History with papers from the conference that engage explicitly with the above theme. Individual paper proposals and proposals that are part of a session must relate to the above theme in order to be considered for publication.

The program committee also invites ASCH members, EHS members, and other interested scholars to submit session proposals on any aspect of the history of Christianity and its interaction with culture. These could include proposals for formal sessions, panel and round table discussions, consideration of a major recent book, critical assessments of a distinguished career, and other relevant themes and issues. Panels should exhibit diversity of gender, rank, and scholarly location in their composition: those bringing together scholars from both societies would be especially welcome.

Sessions will be two hours in length and should allow for three or four papers, a formal response, and Q&A with the audience.

There will be two deadlines for proposals: 21 October 2013 and 20 January 2014 (12 noon, London time). The earlier deadline will allow the program committee to make decisions by late November/early December 2013, to facilitate the booking of flights. It is possible that, if the program is already quite full, only a limited number of proposals submitted to the second deadline will be accepted.

Paper proposals should consist of:-
1) A short description of less than 300 words
2) A biographical paragraph or CV summary of the applicant
3) A current mailing location, e-mail address, and phone number for the proposed presenter.

Session proposals should contain all of the above for each of the presenters as well as:-
1) The session title
2) A brief description of less than 300 words outlining the theme or topic of the session
3) Biographical data and contact details for the chair and the respondent (which can be the same person)

The availability of audio-visual equipment cannot be guaranteed at this stage, but please indicate if you would like to use it if possible.

Please send proposals, by e-mail, to

Further information about the conference will be available in due course on ASCH and EHS websites, and will be e-mailed to those whose proposals are accepted. The program committee reserves the right to reconfigure sessions as needed.

NOTE: All program participants must register for the conference and be members of the ASCH or EHS (which can offer temporary membership) at the time of the Meeting.

John Wolffe, President of the EHS and Program Chair
Bruce Hindmarsh, President of the ASCH

Download the Call for Papers [PDF]

June 2013 Issue Online

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Our latest issue of Church History is out now. In this issue:

Gregory Dodds examines the ways English speaking Protestants’ drew uncritically from Desiderius Erasmus to construct their views of pre-Reformation Catholicism in “An Accidental Historian: Erasmus and the English History of the Reformation.”

Tim Verhoeven examines the backlash against the American Sabbatarian movement in his article, “In Defense of Civil and Religious Liberty: Anti-Sabbatarianism in the United States before the Civil War.”

Marianne Robins challenges traditional narratives of French Protestant aid to Jewish refugees in “A Grey Site of Memory: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and Protestant Exceptionalism on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.”

Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s plenary address, “The Burdens of Church History,” reconsiders the role that institutions play in a historiography that seems increasingly to find Christianity beyond institutions.

And Felicity Jensz and Hanna Acke introduce a forum on the form and function of nineteenth century missionary periodicals.

ASCH members can view the entire issue here.

March 2013 Issue of Church History

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Our March 2013 issue of Church History is now online. Its feature articles include:

Kristi Upson-Saia revisits the anger and violence attributed to Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in “Holy Child or Holy Terror? Understanding Jesus’ Anger in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.”

Carolyn Muessig traces the changing meanings of Galatians 6:17 (“I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ in my body”), and the development of stigmata in “Signs of Salvation: The Evolution of Stigmatic Spirituality Before Francis of Assisi.”

Andreas Loewe examines the emergence of the Lutheran musical tradition in “Why do Lutherans Sing? Lutherans, Music, and the Gospel in the First Century of the Reformation.”

Lisa McClain discusses the sixteenth century practice of penance without priests in “Troubled Consciences: New Understandings and Performances of Penance Among Catholics in Protestant England.”

..and Timothy E.W. Gloege analyses the impact of the newspaper Christian History on nineteenth century American revivalism in “The Trouble with Christian History: Thomas Prince’s ‘Great Awakening.’”