Has ‘Evangelical’ Become Toxic?

University of Pennsylvania law professor David Skeel has a sensible editorial at the Wall Street Journal pleading with evangelicals not to give up on their movement. Here’s his conclusion:

I believe that Christianity is self-correcting. And because evangelicalism is a faithful understanding of Christianity’s essence, I believe it is self-correcting, too.

Rarely have evangelicals been so divided and uncertain of the way forward. But the problem is with us, not with evangelicalism or the Christian principles it represents. The label and the history are important. For those who have recently renounced evangelicalism, I have a simple plea: Please reconsider.

Skeel bases his plea on the biblical value of the term “evangelical,” and the historic value of the evangelical movement. I agree with this point. The strongest argument for continuing to identify as an evangelical is because the concept of “good news” from God is the heart of the gospel. The evangelical movement has also done a great deal of good in the past, and we have a great cloud of evangelical witnesses, from Jonathan Edwards to Phillis Wheatley, to admire in history.

So far, so good with Skeel’s argument. The problem is that the term “evangelical” itself has become deeply corrupted by its association with white Republican politics, culminating in the election of Donald Trump. We can cite David Bebbington’s quadrilateral (as Skeel does) of historic evangelical characteristics until we’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t change much about the common cultural perception of who an evangelical is. An “evangelical” in the pervasive pop stereotype today is a white Republican who watches Fox News and who considers himself/herself religious.

So if the question is whether I remain devoted to the biblical and historical meaning of “evangelical,” the answer is “yes.” I’m just not prepared to be committed to the amorphous, politicized movement that gets called “evangelical” by the media and pollsters today. As I have argued before, we don’t have a good sense for how many of the people who identify as evangelical to pollsters are actually evangelical in any useful sense. We do know that some of these so-called evangelicals rarely go to church, and that many do not hold to basic evangelical beliefs.

What if it turns out that millions—or even tens of millions—of those who say they’re evangelicals don’t meet basic historic criteria for what it means to be an evangelical? Should we keep identifying with the “evangelical” label when the most visible “evangelical” spokesmen defend Donald Trump no matter what he does? What lines have to be crossed before the term becomes too toxic to use anymore?

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The History of Misspelling George Whitefield’s Name

Whenever the topic of George Whitefield comes up in my classes, I always have to tell the students, “I know it looks like you’d pronounce his last name White-field, but it is pronounced Whit-field.” Therein lies the reason why Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th century, also has one of the most misspelled names in history. In one of the odd accidents of English pronunciation, Whitefield’s name was not pronounced the way it is spelled. Thus from the beginning of his public career, people have been misspelling Whitefield’s name as “Whitfield.”

I see it all the time on social media. On Twitter, there are on average multiple tweets per day where his name is misspelled. (Figuring this out is made slower by the fact that one of America’s most prominent quarterback trainers is named—you guessed it—George Whitfield. I do not know if he’s named for the evangelist.)

One of the first misspellings of Whitefield’s name came in one of his first published sermons. In 1737 in London, a publisher produced an edition of what would become one of his signature sermons, The Nature and Necessity of the New Birth, but misspelled his last name. After that, most publishers were clued in to the correct spelling as he became arguably the most famous man in Britain and America during the mid-1700s.

But misspellings continued to pop up occasionally. Sometimes the name would be spelled correctly on the title page but wrongly within a publication. A 1771 Boston edition of John Wesley’s memorial sermon for Whitefield misspelled the name on the title page. (Ironically, Whitefield died in the Boston area in 1770. When word arrived in London, Wesley gave a memorial sermon at Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Road chapel, and the text of it made its way back across the Atlantic, where it was published in Boston, with Whitefield’s name misspelled.)

It appears that misspellings of his name became more common after Whitefield’s death in 1770. They started to appear in some significant publications, such as Olaudah Equiano’s remarkable slave narrative of 1789. There was also a different person named George Whitfield who worked in John Wesley’s book business and who appeared in Wesley’s will, which could have added to the confusion.

Another important reason for the chronic misspellings of Whitefield’s name in print was that spelling and editorial standards were, in general, lower in the 18th century than today. Thus a lot of misspellings of names and words showed up in a variety of publications. A notable accomplishment on this front was a hymnal (see image) that managed to misspell both Whitefield’s and the Wesleys’ names on the title page!

Learn more about Whitefield (hopefully with his name spelled correctly in every instance) in my 2014 Yale University Press biography of him.

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When Christians Began Speaking of ‘the’ Antichrist

A number of academic books include an intriguing 1840 quote, and editorial insertion, about Manifest Destiny and “the” Antichrist. The quote says that Manifest Destiny and the spread of Protestantism into Catholic lands represented the “beginning of the downfall of [the] Antichrist, and the spread of the Savior’s power of the gospel.” As we can see from the quote, Manifest Destiny was deeply tinged with anti-Catholicism.

But why do historians routinely assume that sources like this must mean “the” antichrist, even to the point of putting “the” in corrective brackets? The author meant to say “downfall of Antichrist,” not “downfall of the Antichrist.” It turns out that speaking of “the” antichrist is a relatively recent development. Inserting [the] before antichrist misunderstands the way that most Protestants before 1900 thought about the meaning of that eschatological term. For most observers between the Reformation and about 1900, “antichrist” was a power instead of a person.

Many readers will recall that 1 and 2 John are the only places that the term “antichrist” appears in Scripture. In the King James Version (the dominant English-language Bible well into the 20th century) “antichrist” appears four times in those books. None of the KJV references speaks of “the antichrist,” although 2 John 7 speaks of a deceiver who is “an antichrist”; 1 John 2:18 suggests that there is a single antichrist to come, but also notes that many antichrists have already entered the world. Of course, there are other references in the Bible, such as the “man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians and the beast(s) of Revelation, that commentators have associated with the antichrist.

Modern translations like the English Standard Version, New American Standard, and New International Version include “the” in most of the antichrist references in 1 and 2 John. My colleague David Garland tells me that in the Greek, “The definite article with antichrist appears in 1 John 2:22; 4:3, and 2 John 7. It is absent in 1 John 2:18, but that does not necessarily make the noun indefinite.”

Before the 20th century, most Protestant commentators spoke of “antichrist” far more frequently than “the antichrist.” For example, a search of Jonathan Edwards’s works gives 670 hits for “antichrist” but only 48 for “the antichrist.” Most of the latter are in editors’ words rather than in Edwards’s. Many commentators in this period, including Edwards, associated “antichrist” with Roman Catholicism, and sometimes with Islam. These were the great world religions they saw as opposed to the true interest of Christ in the world. Less frequently did commentators assert that the pope or Muhammad was “an” or “the” antichrist.

Edwards (as always) is instructive, writing about antichrist and “the antichrist” in a 1723 note on Revelation 13:11’s beast coming out of the earth. “This is he that is called Antichrist in Scripture,” Edwards wrote. He associated this beast with Catholicism, or “popery.” It was antichrist because of

the perfect and universal contrariety of popery to Christianity, and its peculiar opposition to it, beyond all religions that ever were; and because this is the contrivance of the wit of hell in opposition to the gospel, the masterpiece of all his inventions against the interest of Christ, the most cunning and subtle, the most effectual, of longest duration, the fruit of the greatest and longest labors and study: so that however there have been a great many antichrists, this is the Antichrist.

Satan was dreadfully surprised by Christ’s appearing in the world and the proclaiming [of] the gospel to all nations, and begun to look upon himself totally overthrown. But he, at length, thought of one thing more a means to defeat the design; and this was the last effort, and how wonderfully did he seem to succeed! Fitly, therefore, is this grand contrivance for opposing the gospel called antichristianism.

“Antichristianism” is closer in meaning to the typical concept before the 20th century than our modern concept of “the antichrist.” For these theologians, antichrist was a power, rather than a single individual, although a single individual might certainly be at the head of world antichristian power.

What changed in theological terminology so that “antichrist” without “the” started to seem like a mistake to historians? There was never a time when the usage of “the antichrist” vanished entirely, so it is hard to identify a single turning point when “the antichrist” started to become the norm.

But undoubtedly the advent of dispensational theology, with its elaborate end times chronology, was the key development. The Scofield Reference Bible, the most popular text of dispensational theology ever, emphasized the personal nature of the coming antichrist. “Antichrist the person is to be distinguished from the ‘many antichrists’” of 1 John 2, Scofield wrote (his italics). “The ‘many antichrists’ precede and prepare the way for the Antichrist,” he said.

In popular Western culture, the phrase “the antichrist” may have also become standard, ironically, in part because of Friedrich Nietzche’s furiously anti-Christian book of that name in 1895.

By the 1970s, wildly popular dispensational books such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth made it a commonplace that “the Antichrist” was a person who would come in the future. Lindsey and other dispensational writers construed him as a globalist political leader more often than a religious leader. Lindsey interpreted the beast out of the sea in the early verses of Revelation 13 as the Antichrist. “The passage is obviously talking about a person because the personal pronoun ‘he’ is used,” Lindsey wrote.

Such writers relegated the second beast of Revelation 13 to the status of the “false prophet,” or head of an apostate church that aids the work of the Antichrist. The best-selling Left Behind series of books in the 1990s and 2000s promoted a similar dispensational framework of the last days. Left Behind featured the Romanian politician Nicolae Carpathia as the head of the United Nations, and secretly, “the Antichrist.”

By the time of the Left Behind novels, it was hard to remember a time when most Protestants spoke of “antichrist” rather than “the Antichrist.”

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Alan Jacobs and Augustinian Anthropology

I recently read my friend and Baylor colleague Alan Jacobs’s erudite and accessible book Original Sin: A Cultural History. This book is a model of the kind of Christian apologetics that might actually reach non-Christians. Humankind’s flawed nature is an intractable problem that has vexed prominent observers from the ancient Greeks to the “New Atheists.” But explaining the reasons for that flawed nature has been trickier than observing it. Jacobs does not assume that his readers are Christians, but he does suggest that the Christian explanation for humanity’s propensity to sin is the best explanation of all.

Learned observers, including some liberal theologians, have been trying to jettison the doctrine of original sin (or our sin nature inherited from Adam) for millennia. But they haven’t come up with any more satisfactory explanations than the Christian one. That explanation was best advanced by Augustine and his theological descendants.

You must hold five distinct beliefs in order to affirm the Augustinian anthropology, Jacobs writes.

You must believe that everyone behaves in ways that we usually describe as selfish, cruel, arrogant, and so on. You must believe that we are hard-wired to behave in those ways and do not do so simply because of the bad examples of others. You must believe that such behavior is properly called wrong or sinful, whether it’s evolutionarily adaptive or not. You must believe that it was not originally in our nature to behave in such a way, but that we have fallen from a primal innocence. And you must believe that only supernatural intervention, in the form of what Christians call grace, is sufficient to drag us up out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves. (If we add to this list a sixth belief, that through the death of Jesus Christ God has provided this intervention, then we have the core of the theology that complements the anthropology. But that hasn’t been the concern of this book.)

Once the model is laid out in this way, with these five interlocking and necessary propositions, it may be surprising that anyone has ever affirmed it. Yet millions have, and millions more will. Perhaps that’s because each of these positions is well warranted by careful observation of human beings.

There’s a lot more to recommend in this book, not least Jacobs’s remarkable reading across many different times and places on the theme of sin and fallenness. It also displays a Christian willingness to speak to an interested non-Christian audience on their own terms. We must remember that the truths of the gospel will often seem implausible to outsiders, especially those who did not grow up in a Christian context.

Too often, pop Christian apologetics proceeds with the assumption that Christianity is so self-evidently true that you’d have to be stupid or dishonest to reject it. This is a bad approach for a number of reasons, not least that it implies that believers saw the light because they were smart enough to see it. For those of us with a high view of grace, such a smug view will not do.

Jacobs follows in a much healthier and theologically sound tradition of those such as C. S. Lewis who say to the non-Christian world, as it were, “I know that Christianity’s claims may sound crazy at first. But what if they actually make sense of life’s most besetting problems?”

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Is Jesus an Imperialist? The Problem of Missions and Empire

It has become a standard tenet of evangelical missiology today that missionaries overseas must not impose their extra-biblical cultural values on proselytes or converts. Critics say that missions by definition involves cultural imposition, if not outright imperialism.

There was a time in American history when missions advocates had no hesitation about combining the agendas of evangelism, “civilization,” and even empire. That backstory should make it clear why American Christians and other missionaries need to be careful to not let cultural or political assumptions infiltrate the gospel message. Yet the fact remains that it has always been easier for American missionaries to go where America has a strong business, political, or military presence. Like it or not, there has been a historic connection between empire and missions.

This was nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in the U.S. annexation of the Philippines in 1898, one of the first instances of the United States acting as a formal colonial power. It was also the first time that the United States had taken colonial possession of a territory with large numbers of Muslims living there.

As Karine Walther shows in her book Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921, prominent U.S. politicians and missions advocates made the case for annexing the Philippines on evangelistic and civilizational grounds. President William McKinley told a group of Methodist pastors that God had shown him that the United States should  “take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”

Senator Albert Beveridge added aspects of civil religion and racial superiority to bolster the case.

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race he has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man.

Some anti-imperialists accused the pro-annexation, pro-missions advocates of hypocrisy, as these same people would criticize Islam for having been spread by force. South Carolina senator Ben Tillman declared, “We are a Christian people and our missionaries, or those imbued with the missionary spirit, clamor for the annexation of the islands for the purpose of shedding over them the light of the gospel. We are asked to do as Mahomet did with his creed—carry the Christian religion to these people upon the point of a bayonet, as he spread Islamism over western Asia and eastern Europe and northern Africa on his scimitar.”

But in general, American missionary societies and other Christian leaders (including advocates of both Social Gospel service and direct evangelism) backed annexation as a boon for missions. One Presbyterian minister said that he believed “in imperialism because I believe in foreign missions. Our Foreign Mission Board can teach Congress how to deal with remote dependencies. . . . The Church must go where America goes.”

One religious periodical, the Missionary Record, even claimed Jesus for the cause of empire. “Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus was the most imperial of the imperialists?” they asked.

Evangelicals believe that the gospel is universally true and that they should share the gospel message with the hope of converting the world. How hard it has been to distinguish that conviction from other forms of cultural and political baggage! But we must be constantly vigilant against letting other agendas corrupt the gospel.

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Why Cynicism Is One of the Historian’s Great Gifts to the Church

I was recently reminded of this older piece from church historian Carl Trueman, and I thought it might be worth reposting an extended quotation on how the church can benefit from historians who take the long view and don’t get caught up in hyperbole and hagiography.

Some years ago, Phyllis Tickle likened Brian McLaren to Luther and the Emergent Church to the kind of paradigm shift that happens only once a millennium.

The amazing thing was not that she said this; in a world shaped by the continual escalation of sales rhetoric, this kind of language is to be expected in advertising.

No. What was truly amazing was that people actually took her seriously, friend and foe alike. Such people are in urgent need of help to stop them saying or believing things that are very, very silly and absurdly self-important.

Enter the church historians. Any intellectual historian of any merit will tell you that the last 1,000 years in the West have only produced two moments of paradigm shifting significance, and neither of them was the Reformation.

The first was the impact of the translation into Latin of Aristotle’s metaphysical works.

This demanded a response from the thirteenth century church. The response, most brilliantly represented by Thomas Aquinas,

revolutionized education,

transformed the philosophical landscape,

opened up fruitful new avenues for theological synthesis, and

set the basic shape of university education until the early eighteenth century.

Within this intellectual context, the Reformation was to represent a critical development of Augustinian anti-Pelagianism in terms of the understanding of the church and of salvation, but it did not represent quite the foundational paradigm shift that is often assumed.

The second major moment was the Enlightenment.

Like the earlier Aristotelian renaissance, this was a diverse movement and the singular term is something of a scholarly construct; but the various philosophical strands covered by the terms served to remake university education and to demand new and fresh responses from the church in a way that the Reformation had never done.

In this light, to hear that the work of some trendy representative of the angst, insecurities, and obsessions of middle America somehow represents the kind of paradigm shift that comes along once in a millennium in self-evidently laughable. He may have an enviable gift for writing popular books and speaking (the musical talent is, I fear, more questionable) but he is not bringing about a comprehensive revision of the whole of theology, establishing a comprehensive framework for understanding the world, or reshaping the very foundations of knowledge as either the church or the wider world understands it.

Further (and here is the real historical rub) even if he were doing so, it would be a hundred years or so before anybody would really be able to make that judgment with any confidence. . . .

And that is why church historians play such an important role and our cynicism is such a boon. Church history keeps things in perspective. Through reading the texts and studying the actions and events of the past we can truly say that we have seen it all before. Thus, whatever it is that the latest guru is suggesting, it definitely will not work as well as expected, probably will not work at all, and anyway it will be a hundred years or more before we can say whether it made a real difference or not.

Thus, the next time someone comes along and tells me that a movie by Mel Gibson is the most significant contribution to church culture since the Apostle John laid down his stylus and parchment, my eyes can glaze over in confident knowledge that what I have just been told is complete drivel. When I am informed that a book by the Rev. Tommy Tweedlethumb is the most important piece of Christian literature since Augustine’s Confessions, I can politely stifle a yawn behind my hand and go back to reading the newspaper, for I know full well that in a hundred years time Tommy’s complete works will be as long-forgotten as genre-shattering pop bands such as ‘Men Without Hats.’

The old saying has it that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Whether or not that is entirely accurate, it is certainly true to say that cynicism is one of the historian’s great gifts to the church. To put it bluntly, cynicism serves to keep things, especially us, in proper perspective. After all, most of what goes on today in the name of earth-shattering paradigm shifts has no value, whatever the price tag.

Of course, cynicism is not the only thing a historian offers to the church, and cynicism by itself can be a vice and not a virtue. Neverthless, Trueman is right. We should listen to those who have a built-in skepticism about the latest hype because they know enough to have a proper perspective.

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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 were subduing fearful apprehensions of electricity and lightning, and bringing them into the realm of rational understanding. “Another miracle! the ignorant would say,” Kinnersley scoffed. But now through Franklin’s experiments, “the mystery was understood.” Yet Kinnersley did not see himself as undermining faith with science. Instead, he paired the de-mystifying of nature with greater worship of God. Scientific knowledge leads us “to the First Cause,” he wrote, “by refining, enlarging, and exalting our ideas of the great author and God of Nature.”

For many believing scientists, knowledge has continued to produce doxology. But in Kinnersley’s popularization of Franklin, we can see tangible ways in which a former pastor also helped open new opportunities to believe that the natural world is all there is. Divine mysteries, the secular rationalist says, will all eventually dissipate before the bright sun of science.

I also discuss Kinnersley, Franklin, and the religious implications of Franklin’s experiments in my biography Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale, 2017).

This post originally appeared at the Anxious Bench blog, Patheos.

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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 the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” There was no resurrection in Jefferson’s edition. The Jefferson Bible was not published until the early 20th century, but it illustrated the Deistic view of Jesus as a preeminent moral teacher, and nothing more.

Unlike many of Christianity’s critics today, Jefferson was deeply familiar with the Bible. He had to be in order to produce the Jefferson Bible. But Jefferson clearly put his own standards of rationality above the authority of Scripture. Lots of people implicitly cut out parts of the Bible they don’t like. Jefferson literally did so.

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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.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 II.

Although the film included much fictitious material, it was attentive to the religious themes in York’s life. Here are a couple of the key clips:

David D. Lee’s Sergeant York: An American Hero is a good, brief introduction to the life and American image of Alvin York.

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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 would come to wonder about the value and propriety of such heated scenes, and would expend much effort trying to craft a rubric to test the godly fruit, or the hypocrisy, of the intense awakenings.

The era of the Great Awakening saw its greatest upsurge of revivals in the early 1740s, catalyzed by the itinerant preaching of the Anglican evangelist George Whitefield. Historians have debated the extent and significance of the Great Awakening, but there is little reason to doubt that it was the greatest religious and cultural upheaval in Anglo-America prior to the American Revolution. Discussions of the Great Awakening have often cast it as a contest between Old Lights and New Lights, the former opposing the revivals as disruptive chaos, and the latter welcoming them as a gift of God.

But even in Edwards, we see that the New Lights could range from radical enthusiasm to cautious moderation. It was typical for the leaders of the awakening to make their own journey from radicalism to moderation. Edwards may not have ever fully plumbed the depths of evangelical radicalism in his personal piety, but he never repudiated the transcendent experiences of the radicals, either. Nevertheless, by the end of 1740 Edwards was already beginning to question some of the most incendiary practices of the radicals, and by the mid-1740s he had become hesitant about the scenes he once fostered in Suffield and Enfield.

Read the whole thing here.

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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.

The case for Phillips may run into trouble, however, because of the precedent of Employment Division v. Smith (1990). This was a peculiar case in which Antonin Scalia, normally a great friend of religious liberty, argued in the majority opinion that a state could infringe upon religious freedom when doing so was an “incidental effect of a generally applicable” law. In that case, two men were fired for using peyote, even though they claimed that they were using it for ritual purposes in the Native American Church. The state of Oregon had banned peyote, and the Court found that since the law was not intended to discriminate against religious people specifically, the termination could stand.

Colorado will similarly argue that it is in the public interest to prevent discrimination against gays and lesbians, and that this requirement is “generally applicable” to all business people in the state, not just principled Christians. The problem is that it is hard to envision whom this policy might affect other than bakers of traditional religious views. And the commission has permitted other bakers to refuse to make cakes expressing hostility to gay marriage, so the law is not being equally applied. Employment Division v. Smith made clear that a state cannot “impose special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status.” Functionally, that is what Colorado has done in this case.

The Court’s newest justice, Neil Gorsuch, has a good track record of defending religious liberty, so there is some reason for optimism that the Court might narrowly find for Masterpiece Cakeshop. If they do not, it will be a devastating blow to a number of Christian business owners who have been disciplined under similar circumstances. A decision against Masterpiece Cakeshop would also raise more questions, such as whether a state can force Christian adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples.

We can hope that in Masterpiece Cakeshop the Court will defer to the First Amendment’s free speech and religious liberty provisions, as compared to the right to same-sex marriage, which the Court majority only recently discovered in the Constitution. Of course, Jack Phillips hardly prevented any same-sex couples from getting married; he just resisted the state’s attempt to force him to create a cake.

See also Jack Phillips, “Here’s why I can’t custom-design cakes for same-sex weddings,” USA Today

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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.

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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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