What Most Historians Have Gotten Wrong about the History of Pro-Life Activism

Historian Daniel K. Williams, in Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, 2016):

daniel k williams abortion

Most histories of postwar American politics say almost nothing about the millions of Americans who opposed abortion before Roe v. Wade.

They do not mention the African Americans in Detroit, the Lutheran wheat farmers in rural North Dakota, or the Catholics in Midwestern parishes who mobilized on behalf of the unborn at the beginning of the 1970s.

They do not discuss the pro-life movement’s success in defeating abortion liberalization proposals in dozens of state legislatures and ballot initiatives in 1971 and 1972.

Nor do they include much information about the pro-life movement’s failures in the late 1960s—or its quiet successes a few years earlier.

Williams explains what most histories of postwar American politics do instead:

[They] treat the pro-life movement—if they mention it at all—only as a reaction against Roe v. Wade, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, and the growth of federal power. . . .

This consensus has largely been established by historians of abortion rights activism, and the activists they study have almost invariably understood the motives of their opponents.

As a result, historians have mischaracterized both the chronology of the pro-life movement and its ideological origins.

Williams shows why this is wrong:

Pro-life activism actually began decades before Roe v. Wade or the formation of the National Organization for Women.

And it originated not as a conservative backlash against individual rights, but as a defense of human rights for the unborn.

Williams goes on to look at the consequences of getting the history wrong:

Because historians have misunderstood the pro-life movement’s origins, they have been unable to explain why it remains a potent political force today, long after other socially conservative, religiously inspired causes, from Prohibition to school prayer, have faded from the scene.

If the opponents of abortion had based their opposition merely on religious teaching or the seemingly arcane principles of natural law—as Catholics had when campaigning against contraception—it is unlikely that the pro-life cause could have withstood the force of the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and the social changes of the 1960s.

But because the pro-life movement grounded its arguments in the language of human value and constitutional rights, it was able to attract a politically and religiously diverse coalition that actually gained strength over time. The pro-life movement succeeded because it drew on the same language of the human rights, civil rights, and the value of human life that inspired the struggle for African American freedom, the feminist movement, antiwar protests, and the campaign for the rights of gays and lesbians.

Williams explains, then, what his book accomplishes:

This book offers an intellectual and political history of the pro-life movement.

I argue that the movement’s origins and endurance can be explains by its rights-based paradigm and its utilization of the language of postwar American liberalism.

The pro-life cause originated at a far earlier date than historians have previously thought, and its origins were not tied to a backlash against the women’s movement, but instead to a concern about the consequences of the nation’s disrespect for human life.

This book also challenges conventional presuppositions about the pro-life movement by showing that it originated not among political conservatives, but rather among people who supported New Deal liberalism and government aid to the poor, and who viewed their campaign as an effort to extend state protection to the rights of a defenseless minority (in this case, the unborn).

Only after Roe v. Wade, when the pro-life movement’s interpretation of liberalism came into conflict with another rights-based movement—feminism—and it became clear that pro-lifers would not be able to win the support of the Democratic Party, did the movement take a conservative turn.

Yet because of the movement’s liberal origins, its position in the Republican Party remains an uneasy one even today.

You can get the book here.

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Why and How John Piper Does Biography

John Piper

Historian John Coffey, in an insightful, critical analysis of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s use of history, noted:

Few pastors have displayed such a sustained interest in both reading and promoting church history, though a similar emphasis can be seen in the writings of the contemporary American Reformed pastor John Piper, who shares many of the same passions as Lloyd-Jones.

One accomplished historian at an evangelical seminary does an opening lecture for his PhD seminar on historiography entitled, “Is John Piper a historian?”

Looking at Piper’s approach to and use of history can be instructive. I will attempt to summarize and evaluate Piper’s use of history as a means of edification for the Christian life.

Piper’s Attraction to Biography

Piper’s relationship to biography can be analyzed in accordance with his use of biographies for his own spiritual nourishment and his production of biographies for the edification of others.

“Biographies,” Piper writes, “have served as much as any other human force in my life to resist the inertia of mediocrity.” Upon becoming pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1980, Piper sought out biographies in order to charge his “pastoral batteries” and to give him both guidance and encouragement. There was a season in his pastorate when Warren Wiersbe’s Walking with the Giants and Listening to the Giants greatly encouraged him in his work. “The main reason these collections of mini-biographies have been helpful is that they showed diversity of pastoral styles God has chosen to bless. There have been great and fruitful pastors whose preaching patterns, visitation habits, and personalities were so different that all of us may take courage.” Piper recognizes that “many of the most faithful and fruitful missionaries are almost completely unknown, except in the all-important books of heaven. But the lives of some have been recorded on earth.” Piper expresses gratitude for this: “They are a source of great strength to me. That’s why I read about their lives.” Elsewhere he writes, “Few things inspire me to live radically for Christ more than the story of those who did.”

Well-chosen Christian biography, Piper argues, uniquely combines several things that pastors need but usually have little time to pursue, which means that “Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading.”

First, good biography is history, which guards us against what C. S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.”

Second, good biography is the most powerful kind of theology, “because it bursts forth from the lives of people.”

Third, good biography is adventure and suspense, for which we naturally hunger.

Fourth, good theology encompasses psychology and personal experience, which deepen our understanding of human nature, especially knowledge of ourselves.

Piper also sees biography as a means of perseverance and a ballast against discouragement:

What I have found . . . is that in my pastoral disappointments and discouragements there is a great power for perseverance in keeping before me the life of a man who surmounted great obstacles in obedience to God’s call by the power of God’s grace. I need very much this inspiration from another age, because I know that I am, in great measure, a child of my times. . . . When you are surrounded by a society of emotionally fragile quitters, and when you see a good bit of this ethos in yourself, you need to spend time with people—whether dead of alive—whose lives prove there is another way to live.

Piper is a pastor inspired by biography who wants other pastors to be helped in the same way. He writes that God “regularly uses human agents to stir up His people. So the question for us pastors is: Through what human agents does God give us vision and direction and inspiration? For me, one of the most important answers has been great men and women of faith who, though dead, are yet speaking (Heb. 11:4).”

Piper’s Delivery of Biography

In 1988 Piper founded the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, an annual event designed to serve and instruct pastors through teaching and fellowship. At the first conference, Piper gave a biographical address on “The Pastor as Theologian: Life and Ministry of Jonathan Edwards.” Piper later reflected on the significance of this yearly endeavor and commended the practice to fellow pastors, calling it “One of the most fruitful disciplines I have ever undertaken . . . . This has forced me to do more reading than I would have without this commitment. . . . I would encourage all pastors to consider presenting to their people an inspiring biographical study of some great Christian at least once a year.”

swans-series-piper

Piper went on to produce an “inspiring biography study” each year. Beginning in 2000, seven volumes of three addresses each have been published in Piper’s The Swans Are Not Silent series, published by Crossway. The books published thus far are grouped together by the topics of joy, affliction, perseverance, defense of truth, cost of missionary service, poetic effort, and confidence in the sovereignty of God. In addition to these published pieces, Piper has also delivered unpublished biographical messages on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, William Piper (John’s father), Robert Murray McCheyne, and J. C. Ryle.

Of the 27 biographies delivered,

  • all of the subjects are male;
  • over half (56%) are primarily associated with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
  • over two-thirds (67%) are British (with 19% American);
  • at least two-thirds (67%) would be sympathetic to or proponents of Calvinistic soteriology;
  • nearly half (48 percent) are vocational pastors.

Piper’s Limitations and Genre

Piper—whose own doctoral work at the University of Munich was in biblical studies—knows that he is not doing professional or academic history, and therefore he offers a disclaimer to his work:

There are enough academic remnants left in me to include even more of a disclaimer, and enough of the pastor in me to restrict it to a footnote and be unashamed: My historical efforts in these biographies lay claim to no comprehensiveness or originality of research. I lean heavily, but not totally, on secondary sources that I cite generously as a tribute and for verification. In search of God’s providence and grace, I ransack the sources for evidences of what makes a person tick spiritually.

Piper acknowledges that he brings “huge Christian assumptions” to this task—for example, “that God exists and is involved in the lives of these men, and that the Bible is true and gives valid interpretations of experience. . . .” He knows that he is not giving “deep and broad attention to the wider historical setting and culture in which they lived.” The list of limitations, he says, could be multiplied. The point, he explains, is that

I am a pastor reading and writing between sermon preparation, staff leadership, prayer meetings, building programs, church-planting efforts, and so forth. If academic historians say,“Farewell,” I don’t blame them. I only hope that what I write is true and helps people endure to the end.

Piper does not consider his biographical messages to be either “expositions of Scripture” or “lectures.” They are, he writes, “passionately personal and, at times, will taste like preaching. There is no attempt here at dispassionate distance from my subject matter.” He is up-front with the fact that these messages have a goal which is not hidden:

I long to endure to the end for the glory of Christ, and I want to help others do the same. I believe God has ordained the history of sustaining grace in the lives of his living and long-dead people as a means to that end. God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated saints who have endured to the end are one of the roots of our own endurance.

Piper’s Selection of Biographical Subjects

Piper chooses the subjects for his biographical studies primarily by looking at pastors in history, finding one that has something that other pastors need, and then studying the person’s life and work for several months.

He is influenced in his selection of biographical subjects by the perspective of Benjamin Brook (1776–1848), a nonconformist divine and historian:

Of all the books which can be put into your hands, those which relate the labors and suffering of good men are the most interesting and instructive.

In them you see orthodox principles, Christian tempers, and holy duties in lovely union and in vigorous operation.

In them you see religion shining forth in real life, subduing the corruptions of human nature, and inspiring a zeal for every good work.

In them you see the reproaches and persecutions which the servants of God have endured; those gracious principles which have supported their minds; and the course they have pursued in their progress to the kingdom of heaven.

Such books are well calculated to engage your attention, to affect your feelings, to deepen your best impressions, and to invigorate your noblest resolutions. They are well calculated to fortify you against the allurements of a vain world; to assimilate your characters to those of the excellent of the earth; to conform your lives to the standard of holiness; and to educate your souls for the mansions of glory.

Piper’s Reasons Why Christians Should Read Biography

Piper offers several reasons why Christians should read biography as a means of grace.

First, good biographies are enjoyable and give us joy. “O, the refreshing, liberating, exhilarating experience of living for several days with the saints in another century!”

Second, “The story of a good and holy life is a strong defense and confirmation of true Christianity and the beauty of goodness.”

Third, there is Scriptural precedence and prescription for recalling and benefiting from the lives of the saints in the past. Piper concludes from Hebrews 13:7—“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their life way of life, and imitate their faith”—that “we are commanded to ponder the lives of faithful leaders, and trace out the issue of their lives to the end, and imitate the way faith shaped their conduct.” He points out that in Hebrews 13:7, ἔκβασιν (translated “outcome”) is used in only one other place in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians10:13 (“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape [ἔκβασιν], that you may be able to endure it”). The idea behind this word, Piper writes, is both “a way out” and the “result of a way.” Therefore, he interprets Hebrews 13:7 to refer to “the finishing of a way of life that leads out of this life into the next.” Christians are commanded to “consider the outcome of his [i.e., a leader’s] way of life,” which entails considering “how a leader’s life leads to the completion of his journey.” As a Christian, Piper writes, “I am commanded to remember my leaders who spoke to me the word of God, and to watch them finish, and then imitate the faith that bore them safely and fruitfully to the ‘outcome.’”

In addition to Hebrews 13:7, Piper also appeals to Hebrews 11 as “a divine mandate to read Christian biography.” As the writer to the Hebrews works through seventeen figures from the Old Testament and alludes to several more without specifying their names, Piper sees a connection between the use of the past and being equipped for the present: “The unmistakable implication of the chapter is that if we hear about the faith of our forefathers (and mothers), we will ‘lay aside every weight, and sin’ and ‘run with endurance the race that is set before us’ (Heb. 12:1).” “If we asked the author [of Hebrews], ‘How shall we stir one another up to love and good works?’ (10:24), his answer would be: ‘Through encouragement from the living and the dead’ (10:25; 11:1–40).”

Piper on Heroes and Flawed Saints

Piper believes with all his heart that God wants us to have heroes. He wants Christians

to feel drawn . . . to the value of having some great heroes in the ministry. There are not many around today. And God wills that we have heroes. . . . It seems to me that the Christian leaders today who come closest to being heroes are the ones who had great heroes. I hope you have one or two, living or dead.

Piper recognizes that our relationship to the saints of the past can be complicated. Those who are worthy of sustained attention—especially when the aim is edification—will often be regarded as heroes. At the same time, there is no such thing as a saint who is not a sinner. It takes wisdom to encounter this paradox in a wise and godly way. Piper writes:

When it comes to heroes, there is an easy downward slip from the desire for imitation to the discouragement of intimidation to the deadness of resignation. But the mark of humility and faith and maturity is to stand against the paralyzing effect of famous saints. The triumphs they achieved over their own flagrant sins and flaws should teach us not to be daunted by our own. God never yet used a flawless man, save one. Nor will he ever, until Jesus comes again.

Of Charles Spurgeon, who evidenced legendary productivity in the cause of the gospel, Piper asks, “What shall we make of such a man?” He answers, “Neither a god nor a goal. He should not be worshiped or envied. He is too small for the one and too big for the other. If we worship such men, we are idolaters. If we envy them, we are fools.” He explains:

Mountains are not meant to be envied. They are meant to be marveled at for the sake of their Maker. They are mountains of God. . . . We are to benefit from them without craving to be like them. When we learn this, we can relax and enjoy them. . . . Let us be, by the grace of God, all that we can be for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 15:10). In our smallness, let’s not become smaller by envy, but rather larger by humble admiration and gratitude for the gifts of others.

Piper also argues that we must view the flaws of our heroes through the lens of the gospel: “thank God with me that when we fail, and when all of our earthly examples fail, we can—we must—look to the flawless author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2).”

Even as we seek to resist the paralysis of envy, we must also work against the impulse of disillusionment as we encounter the sins of the saints. “God ordains,” Piper writes, “that we gaze on his glory, dimly mirrored in the ministry of his flawed servants. He intends for us to consider their lives and peer through the imperfections of their faith and behold the beauty of their God.” “The history of the world is a field strewn with broken stones, which are sacred altars designed to waken worship in the hearts of those who will take the time to read and remember.” At the end of the day, “The lives of our flawed Christian heroes are inspiring for two reasons: because they were flawed (like us) and because they were great (unlike us). Their flaws give us hope that maybe God could use us too. Their greatness inspires us to venture beyond the ordinary.”

The Purposes of History

Piper distinguishes between the primary and secondary purposes of history.

The primary purpose, he says, is “to glorify the God who plans, sustains, governs, enters, transforms, and renovates history. That’s why he does all those things.”

Beneath this overarching purpose of history are several secondary designs.

For example, Piper argues, history can rescue us from despair (Ps 77:11–14, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples”).

History educates the next generation (Ps 78:4, “We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done”).

History provides us with knowledge and wisdom: “God ordains that events happen and that they get recorded as history so that we will learn them and become wiser and more insightful about the present for the sake of Christ and his church.”

History can inspire us to do great things: “How does it come about that an ordinary person breaks out of the ruts of humdrum life to do something remarkable? It usually happens because of the inspiration of a man or woman they admire.”

Finally, history offers protection against “the folly of the future.” “If we do not know history, we will be weak and poor in our efforts to be faithful in our day.”

Piper believes that “there are life-giving lessons written by the hand of Divine Providence on every page of history.” And the purpose of providence in history is worship: “Ten thousand stories of grace and truth are meant to be remembered for the refinement of faith and the sustaining of hope and the guidance of love.” Citing Romans 15:4 (“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope”), Piper writes, “Those who nurture their hope in the history of grace will live their lives to the glory of God.

Piper sees himself as aligning more closely with the historiography of Iain Murray than he does with the academic work of Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Harry Stout. (Piper, Noll, and Nathan Hatch were all friends and in the same graduating class at Wheaton College in 1968.)

Piper does not believe that the new evangelical historiographers would define the aims of history differently than he does, but what sets them apart is the way in which those aims are pursued. “I have always seen my biographies as a kind of preaching. I read looking for biblical lessons. This is partly owing to my audience, partly to the space of time I have to prepare and deliver, and partly to the limits of my own abilities.” He hopes his approach “does not necessitate any falsehood or any whitewashing of the subject.” He also does not believe that close attention to secondary causation justifies what he calls the “snide” approach of Stout in the first half of his biography of George Whitefield. Of the new evangelical historiographers, Piper judges that Marsden “is able to be scholarly in his thoroughness and objectivity while at the same time letting his sympathies and admiration show.”

Piper recognizes a fundamental difference between contemporary history and biblical history. History writing about non-biblical history cannot follow the same processes as the biblical authors, who were able to cite inspired documents. “Therefore, historians not only are not inspired, but lack inspired sources for reconstructing the battle of Gettysburg.” Piper believes strongly in the absolute sovereignty of God, who does whatever he pleases with all events (Ps 115:3; Eph 1:11), but this belief “does not give precise meaning to those events. It gives broad meaning: all for the glory of God. All for the advancement of his kingdom. But there are so many switchbacks to go forward one cannot look at any event and know in what direction it is moving in the short run.” The inscrutability of providence, however, does not entail agnosticism when it comes to the history of our personal experience:

I think that there are sufficient biblical promises that one could probably draw out true lessons in providence from a life based on the overall twists and turns. For example, as I consider the promises of God’s faithfulness and keeping power (Jer. 32:40), and as I look at my life, and how prone I am to discouragement and how many times I felt emotionally fragile and vulnerable, and how many conflicts I have tasted at home and at church, I feel warranted in saying as a historical truth that God has kept me from falling away from him and from marriage and from ministry. That is a judgment based on general biblical truth combined with a habit of prayer for his keeping combined with many obstacles and yet perseverance.

Piper, who has read both Noll and Murray extensively throughout the years, suggests that the difference between the two is that Murray would say that “the quote above is true,” while Noll, even if he agrees personally, would say that “John Piper believed deeply that it was true.”

When it comes to the suggestion that Christian historians can be “bilingual” or “dual practitioners,” serving different audiences and making their Christian interpretations more explicit or implicit accordingly, Piper responds:

I don’t see it as dual but multi. It seems to me that we have not two ways but a hundred ways on a continuum from the most pietistic to the most religiously skeptical. I would find some overly pietistic and simplistic renderings of history unhelpful. And I find skeptical and negative renderings unhelpful. Near the middle of this continuum I am sure I would benefit from many approaches. As it moves out to the edges I would find them less helpful and probably less accurate. I am skeptical that over the long haul much good is done for the kingdom by concealing our worldview or writing as if it had no bearing on how we interpret the world. In other words, I am not sure that smuggling history into the secular academy by imitating their God-omitting ways does too much to magnify God and advance his cause in the academy and in the world.

Piper is explicit about his limitations, genre, selection, and aims. His biographical work took place in his context as a working pastor seeking a usable past by selecting flawed but heroic Christians from history to instruct and strengthen Christians today (pastors in particular) to endure faithfully to the end. He benefits from the new evangelical historiography while modeling his own work more along the lines of providential historians, though perhaps with a more chastened approach. His focus on individuals, rather than movements or cultural periods, of necessity makes his focus and therefore his claims more limited.

I would suggest there are even situations where Piper can do more insightful historical interpretation than many professional historians, in part because of his gifts of interpreting the Bible and the human heart. One example of his insights into historical figures from the past is his observation about human nature: “It seems to me that any serious analysis or exploration of a human being’s life will always deal in paradoxes. It will see tensions. Again and again, the serious effort to understand another person will meet with ironic realities.” Piper uses this rubric effectively in analyzing his own father, whose ministry, theology, and personality are paradoxically related to his fundamentalism.

Another example of Piper’s insight into historical figures can be seen in his analysis of Whitefield. Piper judged Stout’s analysis of the first part of Whitefield’s life as consistently cynical. Stout calls Whitefield “the consummate actor” who sold the New Birth “with all the dramatic artifice of a huckster” and who used tears as a “psychological gesture.” Whitefield was “plying a religious trade,” pursuing “spiritual fame,” craving “respect and power,” driven by “egotism,” and putting on “performances.”

Piper agrees with Stout that there is data related to acting that must be taken into account when understanding and evaluating Whitefield. But Piper believes that Stout’s take is not only cynical but superficial. Piper offers a deeper explanation, based upon Whitefield’s own understanding of preaching about spiritual reality:

George Whitefield is not a repressed actor, driven by egotistical love of attention. Rather, he is consciously committed to out-acting the actors because he has seen what is ultimately real.

Piper explains:

His oratorical exertion—his poetic effort—is not in place of God’s revelation and power but in the service of them. It is not an expression of ego but of love—for God and for the lost. It is not an effort to get a hearing at any cost but to pay a cost suitable to the beauty and worth of the truth.

He is acting with all his might not because it takes greater gimmicks and charades to convince people of the unreal, but because he had seen something more real than actors on the London stage had ever known. In the very acting, the very speaking, he was seeing, experiencing, the reality of which he spoke. The poetic effort to speak and act in suitable ways wakened in him the reality he wanted to communicate. For him the truths of the gospel were so real—so wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real—that he could not and would not preach them as though they were unreal or merely interesting. He would not treat the greatest facts in the universe as unworthy of his greatest efforts to speak with fitting skill and force.

This was not a repressed acting. This was a released acting.

It was not acting in the service of imagination. It was imaginative acting in the service of reality.

This was not rendering the imaginary as real. It was rendering the realness of the real as awesomely, breathtakingly real.

This was not affectation. This was a passionate re-presentation—replication—of reality.

This was not the mighty microscope using all its powers to make the small look impressively big. This was the desperately inadequate telescope turning every power to give some small sense of the majesty of what too many preachers saw as tiresome and unreal.

Christian historians, indeed all Christian readers, must judge which interpretation—Piper’s or Stout’s—fits best with all of the evidence, but it may be an instructive example of where a non-academic reading of history can yield a fresh interpretation that must be taken into account.

As various groups of Christians seeking to do and use history—providentialist historians, pastors presenting inspirational biography, and the new evangelical historiographers—“consume or put to good use [the past] as we live our lives in the present” (John Fea) we can benefit from all three as they seek to operate within their perspective and spheres by pursuing truth with careful research under the lordship of God in Christ.


Piper recently recounted in the Ask Pastor John podcast his own summary of how he approached theological biography, why he encourages pastors to produce biographical sketches for their people, and whether he’ll do any more biographies in the future.

All of the references in this post can be found in my doctoral dissertation, which includes more discussion about the providentialist historiography debate among evangelicals.

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