Posts Tagged ‘US History’

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

Friday, September 13th, 2013

by Cristine Hutchison-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Award Winning Research Essays

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Day

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

By Patricia Appelbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Ignorance in a Religious Society

Monday, December 31st, 2012

by Jay Case

One of the stories from the departmental lore where I work comes from a colleague who a few years ago had stopped into a barbershop for a haircut. He noticed a breaking news story on the shop’s TV and asked the barber what was happening. The barber responded by saying, “Oh, it’s just an event somewhere over there in Islam.” So now, whenever we crack departmental jokes about ignorance, the phrase “somewhere over there in Islam” inevitably makes an appearance.


Daniella Zalcman (CC BY 2.0)

Mahmoud Whatsisname, President of a place in Islam somewhere


I am guessing that members of the American Society of Church History are all too familiar with Americans’ ignorance of the world and its history. We probably react to this reality in different ways. We might wring our hands. We might disregard ignorance as something that can’t be helped. Personally, my temptation is to turn to humor in the face of this ignorance, though I don’t know if this is healthy, since it can breed cynicism and self-righteousness.

Yet it provokes me to ask a couple of questions. Is there anything we can do to help the situation? Do we have a responsibility to try to do more to address this ignorance?

We devote ourselves to scholarship and teaching, projects that certainly play a role in the expansion of knowledge and understanding. But we are probably also aware that most of the work we do does not seep through to the public at large.

The findings of a Pew Research poll on Americans’ religious knowledge bear this out. The 2010 poll found that about half of all Americans did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation or that Joseph Smith was Mormon. Only 40% knew that Catholicism teaches that during communion the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Close to 90% could not connect Jonathan Edwards to the First Great Awakening.

The problem, of course, extends beyond just factual knowledge. Ignorance also shapes perceptions of the current religious composition of the United States (and the world), a reality that cannot help but shape the ways that Americans engage one another. According to a study by Grey Matter, “only 56% of all Americans can give any sort of substantive definition of ‘evangelical,’ beyond a simple ‘I don’t know’ or just criticism or invective.” To make matters worse, that 56% included Americans who gave substantive definitions that completely missed the mark, such as stating that evangelicals were strict Catholics or that they worshiped angels.


Thomas Lieser (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Possibly because the word “evangelical” has the word “angel” in it.


Another Gray Matter study from this past October found that Americans estimate that there are about seven times as many Muslims in the United States as what there really are, a response that must play a role in explaining why some Americans feel threatened by Islam. Americans also greatly overestimate the number of Jews and Mormons in the United States, while greatly underestimating the number of Protestants.

Politics does not seem to help much. Even though Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy brought widespread publicity to Mormonism during the past year, 82% of Americans say that they learned little or nothing about Mormonism during the presidential campaign. According to this Pew study, only 29% of Americans could correctly answer two basic factual questions about the history and sacred texts of Mormons.

Americans are not wired to desire historical reflection. There are reasons for this. The historic influence of Protestantism on American culture has generated impulses to disregard tradition as something that could be of value. The American nation established an identity with the conviction that it was created as something new that had broken free from traditions that bound and shackled European nations. The modern concept of progress does not tend to view the past as something that could provide insight for the world today, beyond a utilitarian and almost perfunctory study of what we should avoid.

The project of studying historical Christianity faces additional obstacles. Simply put, we have very few venues in American culture where ordinary people can learn about the history of Christianity. Even though one can legally teach about religion in public schools, it seems that most educators find it easier to navigate potential conflicts by ignoring religion altogether. In fact, most American educators may not even know what, constitutionally, they may or may not do in class. While 90% of Americans in the Pew study on religious knowledge knew that the Supreme Court has ruled that a teacher cannot lead a prayer in class, only 36% knew that a public school can offer a comparative religion class and only 23% knew that a teacher could read from the Bible as a source of literature. Although we can hope that public school teachers are better informed than the general public on these issues, I have encountered anecdotal evidence that indicates many teachers are themselves unsure about how religion can be taught.

Popular media tend to avoid religious history as well. Like it or not, most Americans seem to pick up much of their conceptions of history from what they consume in film and TV. Neither of these media deals much with religious history. This may not be all bad. In some cases, silence may be preferable to misinformation. Should we be thankful that “Inherit the Wind” at least tells some version of the Scopes Trial or should we bemoan the fact that the film and play ends up casting so much of that event in stereotypes? Are we better off that we don’t have any major films that deal with Thomas Aquinas, the Great Awakening, African Independent churches, Vatican II, or Pentecostalism in Brazil? I don’t know. At any rate, this influential segment of American culture does little to provide knowledge of Christian history.


United Artists


Finally, American churches do a poor job of educating their members about what their own traditions believe. Christian Smith’s studies on the spiritual lives of teenagers and emergent adults demonstrate a widespread lack of basic knowledge about their own religious tradition, even among those who attend church regularly and express a sincere commitment to their religious faith. According to Smith, “the language and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.”1 If churches are doing a poor job of teaching the basics about their own religious tradition, they must be doing very little or nothing to help their members understand other religious traditions.

So here we are, scholars of Christianity living (most of us, at least) in the most religious nation in the industrialized world. This society, nevertheless, is quite ignorant about Christianity.

Is it too grandiose to think that the American public could gain a better understanding of the history of Christianity if ASCH members embarked on more specific and intentional projects that targeted the general public? Or is this a situation over which we really have no influence?

What if, for instance, we wrote more books that were aimed at nonacademic audiences? A few ASCH members already write books for general audiences, but more of us could undertake these kinds of projects. What if we wrote books with different kinds of formats than what we usually produce? Could we write books that were more fully shaped by narratives (though based on good scholarship) rather than evidentiary-based argumentation? Maybe some of us could try a hand at historical fiction. Since most ASCH members teach classes to non-specialists, we should already have experience in understanding the limits and misconceptions of American audiences. If we have put much time into teaching effectively, we would have ideas about how to make our areas of expertise compelling and pertinent.

Blogs would seem to be another form of nonacademic engagement that ASCH members might consider. Several historians use the Patheos website to delve into matters of Christian history. Many others have already ventured out with their own individual blogs. Blogs may be the most readily accessible way to engage in conversations with non-academics. There are probably more ways that we could engage nonacademic audiences.

Of course, these projects take time and effort and are not always recognized as valid scholarly efforts by promotion and tenure committees. We need tenured and senior members of departments to give serious consideration to the idea that work undertaken for popular audiences counts as valid scholarship. We have seen no shortage of critics in the last few decades who have pointed out that the academy produces far too many scholarly works on narrow and highly specialized topics that are only read by a very small fraction of scholars. Adjusting our academic incentives to reward scholars for work geared toward popular audiences might help to bring some balance to this problem.

Is it possible that, beyond the classroom and the scholarly monograph, we could put a dent in Americans’ ignorance of Christian history? Or am I just dreaming?



[1] Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 171.

America’s Culture War Since the 1960s

Friday, December 14th, 2012

by William Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24th, 2012

by J. G. Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 17th, 2012

By Adam S. Borneman

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

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

John Nevin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schaff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

[3] Anxious Bench, 28.

[4] Ibid., 67-68.

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid., 226.

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

Understanding The Activist Impulse: A Review Essay

Monday, August 20th, 2012

by Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamentalist Networking Across the Atlantic

Monday, August 6th, 2012

by Marrku Ruotsila

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

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


Wikimedia Commons

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

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


Wikimedia Commons

David Hedegård

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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