The Former Baptist Pastor Who Popularized Ben Franklin’s Electrical Experiments

James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America offers a remarkable account of Ebenezer Kinnersley, a Baptist pastor who lost his Philadelphia church position due to his opposition to the Great Awakening. Kinnersley then improbably became the greatest popularizer of Ben Franklin’s discoveries in electricity. Kinnersley was born in Gloucester, England, the same hometown as Franklin’s friend George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th-century revivals. As a 3-year-old, Kinnersley came with his family to Pennsylvania the same year, 1714, that Whitefield was born. His family was Baptist, and Kinnersley became an assistant at Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. Unlike the senior minister of the church, Kinnersley opposed the revivals because of the “enthusiastic ravings” of Whitefield and other itinerant preachers. He aired this opinion in Franklin’s newspaper, and it cost Kinnersley his job. Franklin took the unemployed Kinnersley under his wing and would later help him become a professor of English and oratory at Franklin’s new College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania). In the meantime, Franklin encouraged Kinnersley to expand upon his interest in Franklin’s experiments in electricity by preparing public lectures and demonstrations that Kinnersley could take on the road. And take to the road he did, traveling to more far-flung places in the colonies than did Whitefield (Kinnersley even went to Caribbean locations such as Barbados). The former pastor would charge well-to-do audiences five shillings to get in, and dazzled them with displays of electricity. In one favorite demonstration, he would have an audience member volunteer to sit on an insulating stool and channel electricity through the volunteer’s body and into a metal chain. A second volunteer would extend a hand toward the first, and a visible spark would jump between them. Kinnersley, contemptuous of religious enthusiasm and superstition, proclaimed that his shows… Read More

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The ‘Jefferson Bible’ and a Founder’s Deism

The “Jefferson Bible,” or “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” is arguably the most controversial religious book produced in the American founding era. The Smithsonian Museum of American History has a remarkable website with a digital reproduction of the whole text, which is well worth a visit. The Smithsonian has also published a facsimile edition of the Jefferson Bible. Although some popular Christian writers have tried to claim Jefferson as a Christian, he was actually a Deist whose contempt for traditional Christian beliefs became more clear in his retirement. Jefferson reviled beliefs like the Trinity and the virgin birth as irrational and implausible. He said that he looked forward to the time “when we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three.” Jefferson did consider himself a Christian, but not of the sort that TGC readers would recognize. He wrote in 1803 that “to the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other.” In other words, he revered Jesus’s teachings but did not believe that Jesus ever claimed to be divine. Jefferson was convinced that Jesus’s followers had imposed the claims of divinity on him after Jesus died. This accounts for the shape of the Jefferson Bible, which was Jefferson’s multi-language edition of the Gospels. Jefferson used a pen-knife to remove sections of the Gospels that he found unreliable, especially a number of the miracles attributed to Jesus. In last verse of the Jefferson Bible, Jesus’s disciples “rolled a great stone to… Read More

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Alvin York, Christian Soldier

Alvin York, arguably the most celebrated American soldier in World War I, was born on December 13, 1887, in a log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee. York was devout, having experienced conversion through a Church of Christ in 1914. York considered declaring himself a conscientious objector, recalling, “I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my bible. . . . And yet Uncle Sam wanted me.” When York went to training camp, however, an officer convinced him that the Bible endorsed a Christian’s participation in a just war. Alvin York’s Conscientious Objector Claim, National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain. At the Battle of Meuse-Argonne in 1918, York and his fellow soldiers were tasked with flanking a German machine-gun position. York’s best friend was killed in the assault, but York, an expert sharpshooter, picked the Germans off one after another with his rifle and pistol, he said, the “way we shoot wild turkeys at home.” York convinced the Germans to surrender with the assistance of a captured German officer, and brought back 132 prisoners of war. He eventually won the Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds. But York still struggled with the killings, not entirely sure that God approved of his actions. York was reluctant to agree to multiple offers to sanction a film based on his life, but he agreed to do so in order to help him raise money for a interdenominational Bible school that would, as York put it, “prepare its pupils to live and practice a full Christian life.” So he agreed to the production of the 1941 movie Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper. Cooper won a Best Actor award for it, and the film was the highest-grossing film of 1941. Some critics interpreted the film as propaganda to encourage American intervention in World War… Read More

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Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening

Eerdmans has posted the chapter I wrote on Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, in their recently published Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. In my endorsement for the volume generally, I wrote, “The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia assembles a remarkable cast of Edwards experts, whose entries offer a treasure trove of insights into Edwards’s vast body of work. A fitting monument to Edwards himself, this compendium will be an essential resource for scholars and admirers of this great preacher and theologian.” Here’s some of the chapter: Jonathan Edwards’s best-known sermon is his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” delivered in Enfield, Massachusetts (later Connecticut), on July 8, 1741, at the height of the Great Awakening in New England. Two days before that famous sermon, Edwards was preaching in nearby Suffield, Massachusetts, in a private residence packed with two hundred people, many of whom would be in attendance two days later. The scene was chaotic, with a cacophony of sobs, groans, yelling, and screeching nearly drowning out Edwards’s voice. One observer noted that the ecstatic penitents’ bodies dropped to the floor with such devastation that “you would have thought their bones all broken, or rather that they had no bones.” The scene sets the backdrop for Edwards’s Enfield sermon—at this stage of the Great Awakening, Edwards was quite familiar with, and prepared to accept, the most radical manifestations of evangelical piety. Historians have sometimes thought of Enfield as an unanticipated outburst of enthusiastic fervor—one that became so heated that Edwards decided to conclude the sermon before he finished his text. But understood in the context of the Suffield excitement, Edwards may have planned the Enfield sermon to get precisely the fervent response it received, from some of the same people he had addressed across the Connecticut River in Suffield only two days before. Yet Edwards… Read More

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Religious Liberty and the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case

Tomorrow the Supreme Court hears arguments in a critical religious liberty and free speech case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Christians should care about this case because it concerns whether the government can force people to act against their deeply held religious convictions. The case involves baker Jack Phillips, a Christian who ran afoul of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for refusing to make a cake for the wedding of two men. The Supreme Court itself made such a case nearly inevitable when it declared gay “marriage” a constitutional right in the 2015 Obergefell decision. If gay marriage is a constitutional right, the reasoning goes, then businesses can’t refuse to provide services to gay weddings. As The Wall Street Journal noted, Phillips says that baking a cake is an artistic expression subject to First Amendment free speech protections. Phillips has provided bakery services to gays under other circumstances, so his point is not that he won’t serve gay customers. It is that he objects to gay marriage and does not believe that the state should force him to create an artistic product under any circumstances, much less one that violates his conventional, traditional religious beliefs. As a matter of policy, Phillips also won’t produce Halloween cakes, or cakes that feature any profanity or suggestive themes. Court precedent has generally frowned upon the idea of the government forcing people to act against religious conscience. Even at the time of America’s founding, political leaders were well familiar with extending conscience exemptions to groups like the Quakers. As I have noted elsewhere, the Constitution provides an exemption for Quakers and others who might have scruples about swearing oaths. Twentieth-century cases involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses repeatedly found that the government could not force them into making expressions of patriotic devotion, like saying the Pledge of Allegiance.… Read More

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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. [embedded content] Visit TGC Evangelical History

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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… Read More

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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… Read More

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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… Read More

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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… Read More

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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… Read More

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Blaming the Reformation for Secularism?

Baylor recently hosted a splendid conference on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with talks by Mark Noll, Bruce Gordon, Beth Allison Barr, and many more. One of the most intriguing talks I attended was by Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman, who addressed the work of a trio of scholars—Charles Taylor, Carlos Eire, and especially Brad Gregory—who have blamed a host of modern ills on the Reformation. (Collin Hansen and TGC have recently produced a book on Taylor’s thought, in which Trueman is one of the contributors.) These ills include radical individualism, moral relativism, and an utterly fractured church and culture. Most profoundly, they blame the Reformation for the secularism of modernity. This is not secularism as the “absence” of religion, but a secularism that turns religion into one choice among many, as opposed to an inheritance. It is also a secularism in which the world becomes “disenchanted,” and naturalistic explanations rule in science and in everyday life. Trueman’s talk raised a number of problems with these types of criticisms. He readily conceded that modern Western culture is characterized by most of the ills highlighted by the Reformation’s critics. But how do we know the Reformation caused the ills, when there are so many other possible causes? Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). Trueman proposed that we consider material explanations for individualism, relativism, and secularism, as much as ideological and theological explanations. Here I want to give just one example of such material explanations: the advent of the automobile, a development that Trueman says was devastating to church discipline. Sure, the Reformation helped to inaugurate the fundamentally divided nature of Christendom, but the Catholic Church itself had long since aided that process in episodes such as its break with the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. Trueman notes that religious… Read More

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Johnny Cash and the Evangelical Fascination with Celebrities

Evangelical Christians have had a longtime fascination with celebrities. The latest example was Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas inviting Fox News host Sean Hannity for an interview at the church on October 22. To be fair, evangelicals may not be any more consumed with celebrity than American culture at large is. But evangelicals have often seen celebrities as a means to get the word out. Friendship with celebrities could also signal evangelicals’ own status as cultural and political “insiders.” The temptation of celebrity, however, has routinely caused problems as evangelicals have platformed people who have only a distant grasp of evangelical beliefs, and who show little sign of conversion, or of personal devotion to Christ and the church. Sometimes evangelical leaders have also given their blessing to celebrities who have brought embarrassment to the evangelical movement by issues in their personal lives, or when their faith turns out to be a short-lived “Christian phase.” One could write a book on the saga of evangelicals and celebrities from the worlds of politics, sports, music, and more. But perhaps one of the most representative evangelical relationships with celebrity was Billy Graham’s platforming of Johnny Cash. Robert Hilburn’s tragic biography, Johnny Cash: The Life, explains that as Cash’s celebrity crested in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cash’s sincere sympathy for evangelical faith made him an alluring candidate to appear at Graham’s crusades. Instructively, it was Franklin Graham who first promoted Cash to his father as the kind of star who “could attract millions of people to the Crusades, especially young people.” Johnny Cash and June Carter, Wikimedia Commons, public domain. The problem was that Cash in this era was a deeply troubled person who was addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, and who hardly ever attended church in spite of his wife June Carter… Read More

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Exploring Jonathan Edwards’s World: With Drawings and Google Maps

Using the very helpful research of Tony Reinke, I recently plotted the major locations of Jonathan Edwards’s life on a Google Map. If you click through, you can zoom in. This plots not only the major towns where Edwards lived, but also tries to zoom in to exact locations, like the house where he was born, the church where he preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and so on. In his excellent book,  Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (IVP, 2009), Douglas Sweeney explains what it would have looked, sounded, and even smelled like if you went back in time to Jonathan Edwards world: Perhaps the first thing you would notice as you entered one of the small towns that structured Edwards’ world is the quietness of the daily lives of its residents. To be sure, you would hear noises—people talking and working with tools, the rhythmic clopping of horses’  hooves, the lowing of cows and bleating of sheep. But you would not hear any engines, whether of cars or heavy machinery. You might well hear a town crier making announcements to the community with the help of a hand bell, a conch shell or even a drum. But you would not hear any planes, trains, automobiles or trucks. Nor would you hear the steady humming, beeping, honking and general wailing of industrial equipment. In fact, the loudest sound to be heard in  many early New England towns was the ringing, by the sexton, of  the church bell. As you traversed the town green, you would notice the smell of dung. (In early New England these spaces were often used for grazing.) But once you became inured to it, and learned to watch your  step, your gaze would likely be… Read More

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