David Bebbington on Evangelical Preaching in North America

David Bebbington (University of Stirling) is the foremost historian of British evangelicalism, and for years has occasionally come to Baylor as a visiting professor. He is best known for his “Bebbington quadrilateral,” the four-point definition of evangelicalism, including activism, crucicentrism, biblicism, and conversionism.

Bebbington has also compiled what I suppose is the most comprehensive collection of notes on church services over the past half-century in the English-speaking world. When you attend a church service with David, he takes meticulous notes, not just on the sermon, but also on details such as the number and names of hymns, the exact length of the sermon, the position of flags (if any) in the sanctuary. He’s been doing this at multiple services a week since the 1960s.

Friends and colleagues have been encouraging David to synthesize and analyze these notes for some time, and he has begun to do so. He gave a recent talk at Baylor in which he unpacked his observations on sermons in North America in the 1990s. David’s observations give remarkable texture to the substance and style of evangelical preaching in those years, and for many, his recollections will seem like a trip down memory lane.

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The Original Thanksgiving Menu in the Fall of 1621

Yesterday Tommy Kidd provided a helpful overview of the original context for the first Thanksgiving, along with its development through time.

In a review of Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (IVP, 2013), John Turner summarized what we know about that original feast in 1621:

In late September or early October, the Pilgrims celebrated their recently gathered harvest.

They did so without pumpkin pie (no ovens), cranberry sauce (no sugar), and sweet potatoes (not native to North America).

One of the settlers, Edward Winslow, recorded that they ate some kind of “fowl”—more likely to be goose or duck than turkey. Geese were much easier to shoot.

The meal may also have included fish, shellfish, and perhaps eel, and the settlers would also have used vegetables such as turnips and carrots.

Nor did they sit across from their native counterparts at a long table. Instead, McKenzie writes, “We should picture an outdoor feast in which almost everyone was sitting on the ground and eating with their hands.”

About 90 Wampanoag men and their chief Massasoit were present, but we don’t know whether they came with an invitation.

A few years later, a delegation politely informed Massasoit that the Pilgrims “could no longer give them such entertainment as [they] had done.”

It was, in any event, a fragile peace. In 1623, the Pilgrims placed the severed head of a Massachusetts Indian on their fort as a warning to native enemies and friends alike.

For the Pilgrims, this was not a holy day of thanksgiving, a long and solemn day of prayer, preaching, and worship. Instead, the “first” thanksgiving was a harvest celebration, including military drills and “recreations” (probably races, shooting contests, and so forth).

Later generations of Americans temporarily managed to turn Thanksgiving into a church-centered day of worship and thanks, which eventually faded into an increased focus both on large family meals and football games.

Narrative historian Nathaniel Philbrick—the author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War—offers his own summary of what we learn from a letter written a couple of months later (December 13, 1621) by Edward Winslow, the 26-year-old governor of Plymouth Colony:

He describes a harvest festival that occurred not at the end of November but in late September or early October. Interestingly, Winslow does not call it a thanksgiving. . . .

What the pilgrims did have were ducks and geese. Winslow tells us that once they had harvested their crops, Governor William Bradford ordered four men to go fowling so that we might rejoice together after a more special manner.

In just a few days, the hunters secured enough ducks and geese to last the entire settlement a week. But what began as an English affair soon became an overwhelmingly native celebration.

Earlier that spring, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit had offered to form an alliance with the pilgrims. That fall, Massasoit arrived in Plymouth with 90 of his people and five freshly killed deer. Instead of the prim and proper sit-down affair of legend, the first Thanksgiving was an outdoor festival. Even if all the pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted or sat as they clustered around fires where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits. Also simmering were pottages, stews into which meat and vegetables were thrown.

Winslow makes no mention of it, but the first Thanksgiving coincided with what was, for the pilgrims, a new and startling phenomena, the turning of the green leaves of summer to the incandescent yellows, reds, and purples of a New England autumn.

In Britain, the cloudy fall days and warm nights cause the autumn colors to be muted and lackluster. In New England, on the other hand, the profusion of sunny, fall days and cool, but not freezing, nights unleashes the colors latent within the trees’ leaves. It was a display that must have contributed to the enthusiasm with which Winslow wrote of the festivities that fall.

For me, this is an instance when the historical reality is much more interesting than the myth. Instead of a pious warm-up for a glum Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws, the Plymouth Harvest Festival of 1621 was more like Woodstock, an outdoor celebration that just sort of happened.

Here is the relevant text from Winslow’s letter:

Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.  Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

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A Historian’s 5 Tips on Writing

Kevin Kruse is professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of two important works in American religious history: White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005) and One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (2015).

At his Twitter account, @KevinMKruse, Professor Kruse did a series of tweets on writing advice. With his permission, they are reprinted here in a more permanent format.


The best way to improve your own writing is to read as much as you can from other authors. Not just the great books, either. You can pick up good habits in reaction to bad writing, too.

And don’t just read narrowly in your own sub field, or even in your own discipline. Historians should read novelists, not just for prose but for plotting and pacing.

Maybe this section works as a mystery, with slow build up and then a reveal? Maybe that chapter needs the tension of an upstairs-downstairs plot? Does this political tale need the grandeur of a heroic battle, or the intimacy of a flawed character study?

This advice will come too late for more advanced scholars, but if you’re in college and just starting out—try your hand at as many different kinds of writing as possible.

When I was in college, in addition to my classwork, I wrote for the campus newspaper and took a lot of creative-writing poetry courses. Now, I was a horrible poet. But I learned a whole lot about word choice, structure, meter, rhyme, and rhythm along the way.

I’ve written this a thousand times on undergrad papers, but it’s a lesson that could be learned by some grad students and senior scholars too. You’re trying to persuade readers with your argument, not impress them with your thesaurus.

Avoid jargon whenever possible. There are certain terms that are vital to a field, but if they’re not readily understood by non-specialists, neither will your argument. Break it down for them.

There’s a reason newspaper editors often tell op-ed writers to imagine they’re writing for an audience of “intelligent non-specialists.”

I wrote every line of my dissertation with two people in mind—my dissertation director and my mom, a high-school graduate. I knew that if I could craft a history that met his high standards but was accessible and understandable to my mom, then I’d have done it right.

Too often, academics hear their writing as they imagined they wrote it, and not thinking about how it sounds to someone approaching them fresh. This is why I always tell students to read their work aloud.

Sentence structure matters here. I often read work that’s a mass of uniform sentences styles and length, but writers have to remember they’re not just providing the lyrics of a song, but the music that will accompany it.

There’s a popular quote by Gary Provost that gets this point across well:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the larger process of writing an article, a dissertation or a book, so think about the big picture first and then focus in on one sentence, then one paragraph, then one section. One at a time.

Some grad students follow the model of my brilliant colleague Tony Grafton by setting a minimum word limit to hit each day, but I learned a long time ago that I’m no Tony Grafton. (You may be, though. Have at it!)

But yes, write something each day. Some days it flows effortlessly, and I can crank out five to ten solid pages. Some days I struggle over a single sentence, but if I finally get it right, that’s enough. Some days I realize I just have to walk away.

But the writing is only the beginning. That “write drunk, edit sober” line attributed to Hemingway might be apocryphal, but it has the stress in the right place. Editing and rewriting are the key to the whole thing.

And this can be, and should be, a collaborative process. Whether it’s presenting in formal workshops or sharing drafts with a friend, get some fresh eyes on your writing whenever you can.

And, this should go without saying, but you should be circulating your worst material, the stuff you need the most help on. You’re not trying to show off, you’re asking for help. We all need it.

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Not All Turkey and Touchdowns

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony weren’t the first Europeans to settle in North America, nor were they the first permanent English colonists. But because of our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, and our hazy images of their 1621 meal with Native Americans, the Pilgrims have become the emblematic colonists in America’s national memory. Although modern Thanksgiving has become largely non-religious — focused more on food, family, and football than explicitly thanking God — the Pilgrims’ experience reveals a compelling religious aspect of our country’s roots.

Although people often refer to the Pilgrims as “Puritans,” they technically were English Separatists. These were Christians who had decided that the state-sponsored Anglican Church was fatally corrupt, and that they should found their own churches. (The Puritans, who would establish Massachusetts in 1630, believed in reforming the Anglican Church from within.) Establishing independent churches, however, was illegal. Under heavy persecution, some Separatists decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands around the same time that the Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607.

The Netherlands offered the Separatists religious liberty, but the Pilgrims also became concerned about the negative influences of living in such a culturally diverse society. So in 1620, 102 settlers sailed to America on board the Mayflower. Their final Old World port was Plymouth, England, which supplied the name for their new settlement in what became southeastern Massachusetts.

All adult men on board the ship signed the “Mayflower Compact,” which many consider the first written constitution in American history. It is a very brief document, but it powerfully articulated the colonists’ commitment to God and government by common consent. It reads, in part:

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.

Documents such as the Mayflower Compact leave little doubt that the New England colonies were founded primarily for religious purposes.

The Compact noted Plymouth’s legal connection to Virginia (they shared the same charter), but their southern neighbors were less motivated by religion than were the New England colonists. Some today may exaggerate the secular nature of Virginia, however: among the first laws of that colony was a demand that the people honor God, to whom they owed their “highest and supreme duty, our greatest, and all our allegiance to him, from whom all power and authoritie is derived.” The 2011 discovery of the remains of the oldest Protestant church in America at the site of the Jamestown fort also reminds us of the southern colonists’ faith.

Although our records for the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth are sparse, we do know that in 1621 the Pilgrims held a three-day celebration with allied Indians, in observation of a good harvest and in gratitude for God’s help in passing through the trials of the first year of settlement (half of the settlers had died in that scourging winter). And yes, they had a “great store of wild turkeys” to eat for the festival.

The American colonies, particularly in New England, continued the tradition of holding thanksgiving days into the Revolutionary era, when the new American nation also picked up the practice. The Continental Congress and American presidents, beginning with George Washington, regularly proclaimed days of thanksgiving. In 1789, the first year of his presidency, Washington declared that the last Thursday of November would be a “day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

Thanksgiving became an annual holiday in America during the Civil War, and Congress made the fourth Thursday of November an official national holiday in December 1941, shortly after America’s entry into World War II.

Thanksgiving historically was about “thanks-giving” directed to God. This is an instructive lesson, not only for better understanding our history, but also for curbing the temptation to make Thanksgiving into a holiday of overconsumption. The Pilgrims remind us that Thanksgiving is not all about turkey and touchdowns.

This post originally appeared at The Anxious Bench, Patheos.

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Opinion Polls and the ‘Evangelical’ Illusion

Virtually every day some media story tells us what “evangelicals” believe—usually what they believe about some political issue. I have become convinced that many of these stories are simply unreliable. The primary reasons that they are unreliable are (1) the difficulty in getting solid polling data on any subject, (2) unclear definitions of “evangelicals,” and (3) ideological biases against “evangelicals” among pollsters and reporters.

Observers have noted that ever since the advent of cell phones, reliable polling has become ever more difficult. Polls routinely get no more than a 10 percent response rate. Some academic experts (including colleagues of mine at Baylor) have begun to despair about using polls to gather reliable information about anything at all. FiveThirtyEight gave a good, balanced overview of the problems in polling four years ago. The problems have only gotten worse since then.

The second issue is that many polls depend upon self-identification to determine who is an “evangelical.” Some polls do use other means of determining who an evangelical is, such as church affiliation. But typically, pollsters simply ask a person if they identify as an evangelical. If the answer is yes, then that person is taken to have “evangelical” views about Donald Trump’s latest antics, or whatever the topic is. This is highly dubious. For instance, if you ask more probing questions, it turns out that significant numbers of these “evangelicals” do not go to church.

In many cases, we have no idea how many of these “evangelicals” read the Bible regularly, have been born again, or share other hallmarks of historic evangelicalism. As I have argued repeatedly, I suspect that large numbers of these people who identify as “evangelicals” are really just whites who watch Fox News and who consider themselves religious.

To be fair, many polls do explicitly break out white voters from blacks, Hispanics, and others. And if my hunch is correct, it would be worth investigating how the term “evangelical” became a code term for a kind of nominal Christianity in America. But the fact remains that “evangelicals” are usually an indistinct mass in these stories.

Finally, the news media love stories on “evangelical” hypocrisy. A perfect example was a recent story which suggested that many “evangelicals” were more likely to support GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore because of allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct and dating of minors.

Anyone who thought about this for a second should have been incredulous. Would anybody tell a pollster that allegations that a candidate had sexually abused minors would make them more inclined to support that candidate? Nate Silver called out this silly interpretation on Twitter:

Whoever these “evangelicals” might be, they’re obviously saying that they don’t believe the charges against Moore, and they’re sticking by their man in the face of “fake news.” (I’m not trying to defend Moore here, I’m just suggesting that the power of the “fake news” theme gives Moore’s defenders a ready response against the explosive charges women have made against him.)

But this is part of the fundamental problem with polling: there are so many possible meanings left open by the way a question is framed, the context in which it is asked, the person responding, and the reporter interpreting. The media will undoubtedly keep using such statistics, because reporting on polling is such a popular staple in all forms of news media.

Before you read a story and despair about the state of evangelicalism in America, pause for a second. The reality about evangelicals may indeed be bad and disheartening. But are polls supplying reliable information about “evangelicals” and their beliefs?

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Billy Graham at 99: A Look Back at the Evangelist and the Presidents (From Truman to Trump)

Evangelist Billy Graham turns 99 years old today.

One fascinating part of Graham’s life is his interactions with the presidents of the United States. He has personally met with 13 of the nation’s 45 presidents—nearly 1 out of 3—dating back to 1950. In other words, he has personally interacted with (and usually prayed with) all of the presidents following World War II—from Truman to Trump.

For information on each relationship, see the book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House. (And by the way, if you want to read the definitive biography of Graham, wait until March of 2018 and get the updated edition of William Martin’s magisterial biography, A Prophet with Honor.)

I won’t make comments on Graham and each president, except for the first and the last, since they are both somewhat unusual.

On July 14, 1950, when the evangelist was just 31 years old, he had his first meeting in the White House with a president: Harry Truman. Graham was joined by his three associates, Jerry Beavan, Cliff Barrows, and Grady Wilson.

Afterward, as the four men stepped out on the White House lawn, they were met with reporters, who suggested they pause, pose, and pray before the cameras. The men took a knee and prayed for Truman to have the Lord’s guidance in his handling of the Korean crisis. Truman took the action as grandstanding and was not impressed.

No picture exists of Graham meeting with Truman in the White House. Seventeen years later, however, Truman welcomed Graham to his home in Independence, Missouri.

In November 2013, Graham met Donald Trump, who was a guest at the evangelist’s 95th birthday party. Seventeen months later, Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States. So though Graham has not met with President Trump in office, he has still met every president dating back to 1950.

The following is a photograph of Graham with each president.


#33. Harry Truman (1884–1972) | Democrat | 1945–1953

Billy Graham on white house lawn 1950

Graham later met Truman in 1967:

Billy Graham and Harry Truman


#34. Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) | Republican | 1953–1961

Dwight Eisenhower


#35. John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) | Democrat | 1961–1963

Billy Graham and John F Kennedy


#36. Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973) | Democrat | 1963–1969

Billy Graham and Lyndon Johnson


#37. Richard Nixon (1913–1994) | Republican | 1969–1974

Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 1.13.24 PM


#38. Gerald Ford (1913–2006) | Republican | 1974–1977

Billy Graham and Gerald Ford


#39. Jimmy Carter (1924– ) | Democrat | 1977–1981

Billly Graham and Jimmy Carter


#40. Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) | Republican | 1981–1989

Billy Graham and Ronald Reagan


#41. George H. W. Bush (1924– ) | Republican | 1989–1993

Billy Graham and George HW Bush


#42. Bill Clinton (1946– ) | Democrat | 1993–2001

Billy Graham and Bill Clinton


#43. George W. Bush (1946– ) | Republican | 2001–2009

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#44. Barack Obama (1961– ) | Democrat | 2009–2017

Billy Graham and Barack Obama


#45. Donald Trump (1946– ) | Republican | 2017–

Graham and Trump

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