The Theology and True-Life Tragedy behind Hallmark’s Hit Show, ‘When Calls the Heart’

Daniel Silliman (PhD, Heidelberg University) is a Lilly postdoctoral fellow at Valparaiso University. A U.S. historian, he is writing the history of bestselling evangelical fiction, including Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly. As the season finale for When Calls the Heart airs this Sunday on the Hallmark Channel—based on Oke’s series—I asked Silliman if he could help us understand the author and the evangelical tradition behind the series and the books. When Calls the Heart doesn’t look like a theology of suffering. The Hallmark Channel show is a sweet and sentimental drama, telling the story of a cultured young woman who takes a job as school teacher on the Canadian frontier in 1910. She faces challenges. She learns lessons. She finds love, inner strength, and a supportive community. The show is finishing its fifth season this month. And it’s a big hit. More than 2.5 million viewers are expected to tune in for the finale on Sunday, April 22. The show has already been renewed for a sixth season, and the first four seasons are available on Netflix. Online, the show has an active fan community, including a “Hearties” Facebook group with more than 60,000 members. “It’s feel-good TV,” The Washington Post reported, explaining the appeal. “The main characters do the right thing. The problems get worked out. The guy and girl . . . always end up together.” Mother of Evangelical Romance Novels  The story, though, with all its sweetness and light, is built on a real reckoning with tragedy. It comes out of an evangelical tradition that addressed itself to the burdened and brokenhearted. When Calls the Heart is adapted from a novel by the same name by Janette Oke (b. 1935). Oke, now 83, is the mother of evangelical romance novels. She wasn’t the first to write a romance novel with evangelical themes, but… Read More

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David Brainerd’s 300th Birthday

April 20 marks the 300th birthday of David Brainerd, the celebrated missionary to Native Americans and protege of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’s publication of Brainerd’s journal made Brainerd an enduring inspiration to many Christians, including missionaries, for a century and more after Brainerd’s untimely death at 29 years old. In 2010, I published a review of John Grigg’s excellent book The Lives of David Brainerd (2009), which should give you a taste of the significance of Brainerd’s career and legacy. In this important book that should be read by scholars of American and British evangelicalism, John Grigg provides a compelling biographical portrait of Brainerd, one of Christian history’s most influential missionaries. It offers new information on episodes such as Brainerd’s famous expulsion from Yale, which may have been precipitated by more persistent, abrasive radicalism than Brainerd simply declaring that tutor Chauncey Whittelsey had no more grace than a chair. Grigg posits that Brainerd’s experiences at Yale challenged him to break out of his staid, prosperous background in Haddam, Connecticut, yet his upbringing reined in Brainerd’s radicalism, leading him to seek readmission to Yale and to repudiate separatism. . . . In 1742, when Ebenezer Pemberton of New York arranged a meeting for him with agents of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, who recruited him to work as a missionary to Native Americans. By that point, Brainerd was more than ready to take up a mission to Native Americans as a way to resolve the agonizing tension between the glory and fractiousness he experienced in the radical revivals. From 1742 to 1745, Brainerd wandered from one mission to another. The close attention Grigg gives to Brainerd’s rambling provides an excellent picture of both Brainerd’s own vocational struggles, and the cross-section of evangelical churches of New England, Long Island, and the… Read More

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Decision Making and the Will of God

DECISION MAKING AND THE WILL OF GOD Deut. 29:29 Acts 15:1-28 As we all feel keenly right now, ECF is in a season of critical decision making. How do we decide on a new associate pastor? What kind of processes do we need to implement and how do we make up our minds? These are big, necessary and important questions. What I would like to do this morning is spend some time on the root topic of Christian decision making in its basics for each one of us; and then try to apply some of those things to our current circumstances. I am truly hoping this will relieve anxiety for some who have struggled in this area in their Christian walk, as well giving us some solid direction as we move ahead in our corporate decisions. I will tell you that at one time in my own life, I knew what it was to suffer from a high degree of decision paralysis brought on by a number of factors some of you may identify with as well. I seriously wanted to make Godly, Christ honoring decisions, and feared somehow missing what some call “God’s perfect will”. The idea that God has one best choice for you in everything in life – from THE person God has chosen for you to marry to THE absolute profession you should undertake to whether or not you should read a certain passage of Scripture that day – or in our case, how do we know THE guy God has for ECF? As we press ahead today, I think you’ll find that being caught in that web is not only frustrating and paralyzing, it is also almost wholly unnecessary. 2. I also feared making mistakes. Not just the idea of missing God’s perfect choice. Hidden… Read More

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Five Great Books on African American Evangelical History

There has been a lot of discussion lately about race and evangelicals, some of it spawned by ERLC and TGC’s phenomenally successful and provocative MLK50 conference. Anyone wanting to foster understanding and Christian love between people of different ethnicities will also need to read in a multicultural way. So much attention gets focused in evangelical and Reformed circles on the likes of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, but we all need broader historical exposure than a short list of white men, no matter how inspiring those men might be. In that spirit, I wanted to offer a list of five great books on African American evangelical history. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South (revised ed., 2004). This authoritative yet readable book is one of the classics of African American history generally. It remains a great starting point for anyone wanting to know about the development of the black church in the slave South. (I have a well-worn copy sitting within reach on my desk.) Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars (2017). In this much-needed book, Mathews explained how traditionalist African American pastors did not fit easily into modernist or fundamentalist camps in the early 20th century, but instead crafted their own kind of evangelicalism. (See my TGC interview with Mathews here.) Thabiti Anyabwile, May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes (2009). If I had to pick one African American church leader I wish more Christians knew about, it would probably be Haynes. A Revolutionary War soldier, Haynes went on to become a pastor of a largely white church in New England, a critic of American slavery, and an advocate of the New Divinity theology of Jonathan Edwards’s successors. Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the… Read More

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50 Years Ago Tonight: The Final Speech of Martin Luther King Jr.

Fifty years ago tonight, 39-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech in Memphis, at the Mason Temple Church, an African American Pentecostal church. He would be assassinated the following evening. In his book Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic: His Great, Final Speech (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), Keith D. Miller, professor of English at Arizona State University, offers an analysis of King’s use of biblical interpretation in support of the Memphis sanitation workers who were struggling to overcome poverty and to have their dignity as man recognized. Miller summarizes the setting of King’s speech, and it is worth quoting at length. Organizers scheduled an evening rally at Mason Temple on April 3, shortly after King’s return. But the formidable thunderstorm seemed to preclude a sizable turnout. Many of those who heard King on March 18 made the prudent decision to stay home, thereby dodging high winds, a tornado, lightning, and flood streets. Yet stout-hearted unionists and their supporters would not be deterred. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people braved the cloudburst to huddle in Mason Temple. . . . Anticipating that only a tiny number of folks would defy the tempest and reach Mason Temple, King dispatched Abernathy to talk in his stead. Why would King speak to a nearly empty house? . . . [O]ver at least a year, he often seemed moody and depressed. . . . Year after year he hopscotched the nation, slipping into airports, then boarding, riding, and exiting planes several times per week, almost every week—all in an effort to resolve a knot of national dilemmas that often seemed insoluble. Following month after month of endlessly wearying travel and stress—his entire life a blur—King felt exceedingly depleted. Young observed that King suffered from a sore throat on April 3 and was “physically feverish.”… Read More

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‘60 Minutes’ on Stunning New Advances in Reading Ancient Bible Scrolls

It’s not every day that the secular media does a feature story on Bible scrolls. But 60 Minutes recently did just that, with coverage on efforts by scholars to read thousands of damaged scrolls (which may contain biblical material, or other ancient Greek writings) of Herculaneum. Herculaneum was a neighboring city to Pompeii, both of which were devastatingly buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The conditions of their destruction also meant that parts of the cities were well preserved when buried in ash. The 13-minute segment on 60 Minutes is a fascinating account of how computer imaging technology is opening possibilities of reading previously inaccessible scrolls. It is also a telling account of how academic rivalry can slow down innovation. The key American scholar in the story, Brent Seales of the University of Kentucky, had already broken international news in 2016 by recovering the script of an ancient scroll from a burnt synagogue in Israel. The scroll turned out to contain text from Leviticus, with this transcription probably dating to the first or second century. This means that the scroll is probably hundreds of years older than originally thought. Its text represents a major bridge between the Dead Sea Scrolls and medieval copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible. National Geographic did a report on the Ein Gedi Leviticus scroll. Here is a key section assessing its significance: “Since the completion of the publication of the Corpus of Dead Sea Scrolls about a decade ago . . . the Ein Gedi Leviticus Scroll is the most extensive and significant biblical text from antiquity that has come to light,” says study coauthor Michael Segal, a biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Emanuel Tov, a fellow co-author and biblical scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says… Read More

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Easter Sunday Sermon – Our Certain Hope

Empty tomb with three crosses on a hill side. Easter 2018 Acts 26:6-8 Acts 26:6-8 “And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” We are all aware that some words we use every day, may have completely different meanings in other languages. The word “gift” in English is the German word for poison. Trombone in French means Paperclip. And I’m told that “In Hebrew our English word pronounced ‘me’ means who, our word pronounced ‘who’ means he, and our word pronounced ‘he’ means she and ‘dog’ means fish. Not only is this true with other languages, English words which have been around for a long time can change their meanings too. When I was young, if something was hot, it only meant that it had a high temperature. Then hot become cool. And cool become hot. And Michael Jackson taught us that bad was good. Green’s Dictionary of slang says “good” can refer to alcohol, phencyclidine, heroin or marijuana. Not only that, but over time the word NICE in English originally meant silly or simple – it was NOT a compliment. And the word SILLY originally meant that which was blessed or worthy instead of foolish. NAUGHTY originally simply meant you had naught, or nothing. You were poor. It can be confusing can’t it? And among many Biblical words which have changed their meaning over time, 2 especially have suffered a most sad and even destructive metamorphosis: FAITH, and the word I wish to key in on in this text… Read More

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A Good Friday Poem

Come gather with me, brothers dear I’ve longed to sit and dine To eat my final Passover With you I own as mine My time, at last, is now at hand And though I’ve told you so I know you do not comprehend The means by which I’ll go The truth, so hard for you to hear Is, one of you this night Betrays me to my enemies And then will take your flight Each one, not knowing what this meant Asked, Lord, could it be me? The hand that dipped the dish with mine He said, that one is he Then Judas pressing further asked Rabbi, am I the one? And Jesus said, “it’s as you say” The treason had begun ‘Tis then that Jesus took the bread And broke it as He blessed Take eat, this is my flesh For you – He this confessed And then He took the cup to Him And giving thanks He said This is My blood I give for you For sin’s remission shed Now do these in rememb’ring me When I am gone from here For I’ll have nothing more until The Kingdom does appear Then going out they sang a hymn And to the Garden came Where Christ in prayer so agonized In unimagined pain He prayed the cup might pass from Him Three times, He cried it still But more, He prayed – not as I wish My Father, as you will He prayed till angels strengthened Him And heavenly succor came Then prayed His own the Father keep In God’s own holy name Until at last the traitor came With those who take by might Betraying Jesus with his kiss They bound Him in the night And to the High Priest’s mocking courts They dragged and beat and… Read More

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Revelation 1-9 Recap – Getting our Bearings

Revelation Part 20 – Recap Revelation Ch. 9 Having just covered this unusual chapter in 2 parts, someone asked if I might do a brief recap to help put it all together. I thought that was a stellar idea. At the same time wanted to show you just how and why I arrived at some of the interpretive decisions I made, with the hope that it will be both useful and encouraging to each of you in your own study. While there is no question Revelation is a challenging book, with just a few key ideas under your belt, there is no one here who cannot read it without great understanding and profit – as long as we avoid assigning arbitrary meaning to the symbols and pictures it contains. So today will be a bit different as a sermon as I attempt to explain some of the methodology of approaching it. Basic Method: Questions. Are the symbols self-explanatory or even common to John and his first readers? Are they explained in the immediate text? Are they explained elsewhere in the Bible? Do the concepts accord with other clear Biblical teaching? What is certain?     What is reasonable?      What is mere speculation? I try to be careful to tell you where that is the case on my part. Quick recap up to Ch. 9. Ch. 1 – Introduction & Commission Chs. 2-3 – The Letters Ch. 4 – The Throne of God Ch. 5 – The Lion, the Lamb and the Scroll Ch. 6 – Opening the 6 seals (Revealing and enacting) Ch. 7 – Sealing the Saints Ch. 8 – The 7th Seal and the 1st 4 Trumpets Ch. 9 – The 5th & 6th Trumpets  /  What can we know for sure, and how do we know it? 1. Books… Read More

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When Did Evangelical Christianity Begin?

One of the most debated questions recently about the history of evangelical Christianity is when evangelicalism began. Some scholars, especially Christian historians, have tended to see continuity between the evangelical Christianity of the Great Awakening and earlier Reformation traditions. Kenneth Stewart and Michael Haykin edited an important volume, The Advent of Evangelicalism, on this theme of continuity. (I have an essay in that volume on the Puritan roots of evangelicalism.) Other scholars (who probably tend to be more critical of evangelicalism itself) see little continuity between the evangelicalism of the 1740s and that of the 1940s, when the neo-evangelical movement defined itself in opposition to mainline, modernist Christianity. As valuable as this discussion is, it seems to me that we’re on solid ground by affirming that evangelical leaders of the 1730s and ’40s were drawing on deep biblical and Reformed traditions, and they also represented a substantially new version of Protestantism that adapted to new realities in the early modern period. This idea of traditional Christianity adapting to new realities is one of the concerns of Bruce Hindmarsh’s new book, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism—see my recent interview with Hindmarsh here. One of the most concise explanations for the origins of evangelical Christianity in the 1730s and ’40s comes from Catherine Brekus’s Sarah Osborn’s World, which is also one of my favorite books ever on the history of evangelicalism. (See my TGC review of the book here.) Brekus writes: Although many people associate evangelicalism with modern religious leaders like Billy Graham and Rick Warren, its roots can be traced back to the eighteenth century. In response to social, political, economic, and intellectual transformations that were transatlantic in scope, eighteenth-century Protestants throughout the Atlantic world gradually created a new kind of faith that we now call evangelicalism. The word itself was not new, and its roots stretch back to the Greek… Read More

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Revelation Ch.9b – Seeing the Invisible

Revelation 9:13–21 Daniel 2:1-45 Seeing the Invisible We are currently in the 2nd portion of Revelation ch. 9. As we saw last time, a pretty challenging chapter due to the nature of its imagery. Once again, we are approaching this structure of Jesus addressing the 7 churches in Asia as they were in John’s day; moving on to Jesus opening the 7 seals of the scroll which lays out and begins God’s final program for judging sin and rewarding His saints; and now the sounding of the 7 trumpets which appear to be warnings and enlargements on the way God’s judgments will take place; and then on to the 7 bowls which seem to be the actual final events being accomplished. And just as John reminds us in his own 1st letter, 1 John 2:18 “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” – All the way through this book of Revelation we have this dynamic of the very final things yet to come, but in some capacity we’re are already experiencing some of those things now. I believe this 9th chapter gives us a real sense of that. This of course is fully in keeping with Jesus’ words to John in Rev. 1:19 “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Because Jesus reveals Himself several times as: Rev. 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” We should expect this back and forth between things which are already history, some things contemporaneous with ourselves and some things yet… Read More

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Why Dwight Moody Was Billy Graham’s Key Predecessor

I have tended to think of George Whitefield and Billy Graham as the two titans of evangelism in the English-speaking world. But Michael Hamilton makes a good case that Dwight Moody was an even more important predecessor for Graham, because of the way that Moody fused traditional evangelical beliefs and piety with the flexibility and power of the parachurch organization. Hamilton is one of the most astute scholars of modern evangelicalism, so whatever he says on the matter is worth considering. Hamilton contributed a piece for the remarkable Christianity Today retrospective on the life of Graham. Here’s an excerpt on the connection between Moody and Graham: If there were a Mount Rushmore for English-speaking evangelists, Graham would be the fifth in granite, alongside Whitefield, Finney, Moody, and Sunday. For the most part, it’s easy to imagine why huge crowds pushed and shoved to hear them preach. George Whitefield—short and cross-eyed, with the voice of a tornado—cavorted, posed, and wept on outdoor platforms as he brought Bible dramas to life. Charles Finney had terrifying eyes that drilled out soft spots in the soul, his fiery preaching about the wrath of God going straight to the exposed nerves. Billy Sunday was charming, with jazzy suits, movie-star looks, and a smile that lit up auditoriums. But up on stage, after joking and mugging and flattering the VIPs, he would throw down his hat, rip off his tie, and jump onto the pulpit—sometimes waving a large American flag—attacking sin and beseeching sinners to come to Jesus. Dwight Moody’s appeal is harder to figure. Of grandfatherly mien, he was portly and genial. He preached less about sin and more about love. All the old drawings of him in the pulpit give the impression he must have been stolid and ponderous. Yet it was Moody—more than Whitefield, Finney,… Read More

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New Billy Graham Archive Collections to Be Opened to the Public

Archival work is essential part of the historical process. If you have benefited from reading good history, you should be thankful for the unsung heroes who collect, catalog, and make available old documents and letters for future generations. For 20th-century evangelicalism, Billy Graham stands at the center. So it is noteworthy when more archival collections become open, now that he has gone on to glory. Today the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College announced that on March 19, 2018, they will open two new collections that had been embargoed by Graham and the BGEA until his death. Those who donate their papers to an archive have agreements on how the materials may be used. With these two collections, Graham did not want researchers to access them while he was still living. And even though these two collections have been opened, some of the documents within them have further restrictions. For example, documents that are less than 30 years old are closed to users. (That means that a letter from, say, 1965, would be open, as it is over 30 years old, whereas a letter from 1990 will remain closed until January 1, 2021.) A couple of the folders have a restriction that closes access until 75 years after the youngest document in the folder. This essentially guarantees that the material, presumably sensitive in nature, will not be made public during the correspondent’s lifetime. The complete statement from Wheaton archivist Robert Shuster is below: The Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College will open two new collections on the ministry of Rev. Billy Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) on March 19. The collections are being opened to the public in accordance with the wishes of Graham, who died February 21, and the BGEA. “These collections are a treasure… Read More

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