Posts Tagged ‘North American History’

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).

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

Friday, September 13th, 2013

by Cristine Hutchison-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

Michael Brown Wins Raboteau Prize

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

The Journal of Africana Religions has announced that Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (Cambridge University Press, 2012) has been selected to receive the 2013 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.

This award is given each year to an academic book that exemplifies the ethos and mission of the Journal of Africana Religions, an interdisciplinary journal that publishes scholarship on African and African diasporic religious traditions. Albert J. Raboteau, for whom the prize is named, is author of the classic Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, a book that has made a lasting impact in the field of Africana religions. To become eligible for the award, books must be nominated by an academic publisher, and a prestigious five-member committee is responsible for assessing these nominations and determining a winner. The selection, thus, is international in scope and highly competitive.

Brown’s book examines perceptions of the natural world revealed by the religious ideas and practices of Africa’s Kongo region and among African-descended communities in South Carolina from the colonial period into the twentieth century. Brown is an Associate Professor in the History department and the Africana Studies department at the University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale. African-Atlantic Cultures is his first book.

The Journal’s founding co-editors, Edward E. Curtis IV and Sylvester A. Johnson, were quite positive about the book prize. “We are very excited to learn of the committee’s decision. They described Brown’s book as a model of erudition,” said Curtis and Johnson. “Most religious studies scholarship still devotes too little attention to Africana religions. So, we think it is especially important to recognize outstanding work in this field.” Curtis teaches at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts, Indianapolis (IUPUI); Johnson is at Northwestern University.

Reflecting on Professor Raboteau’s work, in whose honor the prize was named, they both emphasized that a range of pioneering scholars aspired more than a half-century ago to produce scholarship and train professional researchers in the intellectual study of religion among African and African-descended peoples. “Professor Brown’s book certainly advances this aim,” they agreed. Of added significance for Professor Brown is the fact that the 2013 award, which recognizes a book published in 2012, is the inaugural book prize. “Professor Brown should take special note of the committee’s assessment that his scholarship is an especially keen contribution to this larger enterprise of studying Africana religions.”

The journal receives support from the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts-Indianapolis and Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. It is housed at Northwestern University’s Department of African American Studies.

Sermon Studies: More Possibilities than We Can Imagine

Friday, May 31st, 2013

by David M. Powers

I am grateful to Robert H. Ellison for the useful suggestions raised in his post “On the Discipline of ‘Sermon Studies,’” and I endorse his hopes for more systematic attention to the vast and often undervalued resource which sermons provide. Basing his comments in part on Keith A. Francis’ proposals in The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, 1689-1901 (2012), Ellison has specified several areas for potential gleanings. It occurs to me there may be additional benefits we can scarcely envision.

Certainly sermons offer a source for accessing the issues, the questions, the flavor of any given point in Christian history. They not only provide snapshots of the character of popular theological discourse at particular moments in the past; they also encompass the observations of community leaders who were charged with addressing a “word from the Lord” to their contemporaries. Depending on how carefully sermons were recorded and preserved, they can offer the possibility of listening in on long-lost community conversations from a variety of times and places. Add imagination, and exploring past sermons can provide a time-warp way to recover an hour spent in a social setting, as if one were seated in the midst of a worshipping congregation, witnessing a community experience from possibly centuries ago. And read with care, through the various lenses Francis proposes, sermons can offer what he calls “detail — depth and contour” (p. 615) which can greatly help us get inside the thought and word patterns of previous eras.

At its best the approach does need to be interdisciplinary. When it comes to the area with which I am most familiar, namely, American Puritan sermons, much careful work is being done by persons in the fields of literature and rhetoric. I think of Lisa M. Gordis’ Opening Scripture: Bible Reading and Interpretive Authority in Puritan New England (2003), and Patricia Roberts-Miller’s Voices in the Wilderness: Public Discourse and the Paradox of Puritan Rhetoric (1999), as well as Meredith M. Neuman’s forthcoming Jeremiah’s Scribes: Creating Sermon Literature in Puritan New England. Each of these offers insightful observations on the dynamics of communication as they apply to sermons and other forms of public discourse in the Puritan world.

I suspect the treasure trove of sermons is even richer than we are probably aware. Although taking every fragmentary note into consideration would be both impossible and unnecessary (Wilberforce’s single word on the back of an envelope may possibly be an exception!), it seems to me that sermon studies runs the risk of privileging printed materials. Scholarly awareness of the contribution of sermons to the Puritan enterprise has evolved significantly since Perry Miller’s The New England Mind (1939), with its heavy reliance on sermons in print. By exploring non-published materials, Harry S. Stout developed a substantially revised understanding in The New England Soul (1986); his study leaves Puritan preachers looking much kinder and more versatile than the stereotypical haranguers of “Jeremiads” we used to assume they were.

I have deciphered and transcribed sermon notes taken in a “short writing” code of his own invention by a teenager in Springfield, Massachusetts. At the time those notes were composed in 1640, Springfield was on the western colonial frontier. John Pynchon, the young man in question, was what Neuman calls an “aural auditor:” he wrote what he heard of the Rev. George Moxon’s preaching.

 

Click the image to see full size.

 

It is his notes, with their sporadic phonetic spelling of Moxon’s Yorkshire words and pronunciation and his recording of Moxon’s occasional interpositions, like “Well,..” and “Only, by the way, one thing I forgot,” that make me confident that some recorded sermons offer vivid links to recoverable if not relivable moments. Again, in Sermon Studies imagination as well as analysis plays a part.

But access does remain a very large problem. My question is, will anyone beside me be able to make use of those notes on thirteen mid-seventeenth century sermons? What is the vehicle for making such primary material more widely available, more thoroughly studied, more carefully discussed? Short of a journal dedicated to this discipline, sessions on sermon studies at academic conferences could extend the conversation around this rich resource and the sometimes surprising access sermons provide to the past.

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.

 

Notes

 
[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.

Banned Books Week and an Incident in Boston

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

By David M Powers

 
The American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week” (September 30-October 6) underscores a disturbing recurrent theme in American life — and a trait we clearly share with other parts of the world. While perhaps more notorious and frightening in other countries, the dangers from banning and burning books continue in our own, as we have seen when a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran on September 11, 2010.

The Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts, has one copy — and there are only nine known in the world — of the first book banned and burned on American territory. This significant event occurred in Boston on October 17, 1650. The volume in question is The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. Its author was William Pynchon (1590-1662), a merchant and magistrate of considerable importance to the puritan venture in New England.

Pynchon was so busy as the colonizing founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, that it is extraordinary that he had time for anything else. But much to everyone’s surprise copies of a theological treatise he wrote arrived in Boston in October 1650. As luck would have it –- or not –- the Massachusetts General Court (the colony’s legislature) was then in session. Even though it is a thin volume, 158 pages of text, the authorities did not need to read it. The Meritorious Price was a book you could tell by its cover: a glance at the title page convinced them that Pynchon’s views were somewhat unorthodox. That, in their judgment, was enough to make it potentially prejudicial to the Bay Colony, especially among those in the British parliament who were already skeptical about the Massachusetts experiment. Pynchon fell victim to the puritan versus puritan struggles which eventually doomed the English republican Commonwealth.

The General Court voted a “protestation” on October 16, 1650, which called for “the said book now brought over be burnt by the executioner… & that in the market place in Boston, on the morrow, immediately after the lecture.” (Mass. Records, III, 215)

As for the aftermath: the book-burning incident had a traumatic impact on Pynchon. Though he tried a conciliatory approach when he conferred about it with three Court-approved clergy, he never attended the Massachusetts legislature again. And while the dramatic public censure of The Meritorious Price reflected badly on Massachusetts, its result at the time was negligible, if not counterproductive. The symbolic execution by burning Pynchon’s book changed nothing. By 1653 Pynchon was back in England, where he wrote several more increasingly wordy volumes, mostly on the same theme. He never changed his mind. He died late in 1662.

Adapted from a posting on Beacon Street Diary

For a more extensive analysis see David M. Powers, “William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price: The Story of the First Book Banned in Boston and the Man Who Wrote It,” Bulletin of the Congregational Library, Spring 2009, pp. 4-13. For more on burning books, see Hans J. Hillerbrand, “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (and Powerlessness) of Ideas,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74, (2006: 593-614).

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

Monday, September 24th, 2012

by J. G. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 17th, 2012

By Adam S. Borneman

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

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

John Nevin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schaff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

[3] Anxious Bench, 28.

[4] Ibid., 67-68.

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid., 226.

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