Monthly Archives: June 2013


Independence Day is less than a week away, so I thought I would share a few more thoughts about what it might look like to think Christianly about the American founding.  The degree to which Christian beliefs influenced the creation of the United States is a question that many American Christians find intrinsically important.  I certainly share that view.

As I observed in my most recent post, however, we should ask ourselves why it is important to us before we begin to explore the question.  Academic historians will tell you that one key to thinking historically about the past is to learn to practice metacognition–a fancy term for thinking about how we are thinking as we are thinking, i.e., learning to become self-aware of the thought processes that we employ in arriving at conclusions.  This is necessary because, as a marvelous book by Sam Wineburg demonstrates, historical thinking is an “unnatural act.”

As finite human beings, we live in time and space.  We encounter the world, necessarily, from our own limited perspectives.  This means, as Wineburg explains, that we naturally make sense of new things by analogy.  Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new to us (like an unfamiliar behavior or belief from an earlier time or a different place) we reflexively search for an analogue that we are already familiar with, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it.  When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else.  The construction of this analogy is natural, and potentially it’s a valuable first step toward understanding, but it comes with risk.  Once we recognize  something ostensibly familiar in people from the past, we will be tempted simply to label them and move on, to let that first step toward comprehension serve as our final judgment.  When we do that, however, we exaggerate the familiar at the expense of the strange, and we misrepresent the people we are trying to understand.

But when we study the past, our hearts are always involved as well as our brains.  And so I am convinced that one of the keys to thinking Christianly about the past is to practice greater self-awareness of our hearts as we study and explore.  This means, above all, examining our motives: Why are we interested in the topic in the first place?  What do we hope to gain by our efforts?  Are we open to being challenged, even to changing our minds?  Are we seeking to learn from the historical figures we encounter, or is our real intention (whether we’re aware of it or not) to use them to accomplish our own purposes?

As a Christian, I believe that our sin nature leaves its mark on everything we do, even our study of history.  Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to view the past in self-serving, self-justifying ways.  This means that thinking Christianly about the past–guided by love and humility–is every bit as unnatural as thinking historically.  The latter reflects our finiteness; the former results from our fallenness.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that academic historians are immune from this tendency.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But my primary burden is not for academic historians.  As I shared when I started this blog, my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with the church about the relationship between loving God and learning from history.  And so I have a warning to share: be careful of what you read.  When it comes to thinking about the relationship between faith and the American founding, the work by Christian amateurs caught up in the culture wars has been just as biased and, in my opinion, just as damaging as anything that the secular academy has produced.

Why would I say such a thing? I have already written about how individuals such as Peter Marshall Jr., David Manuel, Francis Schaeffer, Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins erred by grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  These writers inadvertently backed themselves into a corner that it made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their interpretations of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretations of the American present.  What is worse, in varying degrees these writers conflated the authority of scripture with the force of their own fallible interpretations of American history.

They also modeled what I have labeled the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.  Whether their goal was primarily to motivate the faithful or to do battle with unbelievers, they implicitly thought of history primarily as a source of examples to buttress arguments they were already determined to make.  For all his genuine zeal and good intentions, this is precisely true of David Barton as well.  The problem with the history-as-ammunition approach is that its goal is not really understanding.  It typically emerges from a context of cultural debate, and the goal of debate, as we all know, is to win.

When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, then, amateur Christian historians have too often focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role or didn’t it?  And so, like David Barton, they count references to God and allusions to Scripture and answer the question with a triumphal “yes!”  They then wield this two-dimensional “Christian heritage” as a lever for motivating believers and putting secularists in their place.  In the process, however, they actually discourage  the kind of encounter with the past that can penetrate our hearts in life-changing ways.

What would a different approach look like?  The best way I know to answer this question is with a concrete example.  As I mentioned in my last post, an encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among Christian historians to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  Younger scholars who are doing so include (among many) John Fea of Messiah College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor, and a historian whose work I plan to discuss in my next post, James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).  (Oxford University Press will soon be releasing Byrd’s wonderful study of how Christians appealed to Scripture in thinking about the American Revolution. )

The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll.  Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman.  You may possibly recall that I have mentioned him once before in this blog.  When Noll offered an interpretation of American history that differed from Francis Schaeffer’s, Schaeffer told an ally that Noll was a “weak Christian” whose work needed to be challenged so as not to undermine the battle being fought “against the collapse of our generation.”

In the context of the bicentennial of American independence, Noll determined to investigate “the way in which religious convictions and Revolutionary thought interacted in the minds and hearts of American Christians.”  The purpose of the resulting book, Christians in the American Revolution, was less to prove that the United States had a Christian heritage than to discover the response of Christians to the revolution and learn from it.  Undertaking an exhaustive reading of colonial sermons, pamphlets, and other primary sources, Noll concluded that the Christian response to the momentous political events of the period had been complex.  In their responses, colonial Christians fell into four broad categories.  Some supported the revolution enthusiastically, convinced that the patriot cause was unequivocally righteous and perfectly consonant with every Christian virtue.  Some supported independence more circumspectly, troubled by perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency in the patriot position.  Others saw loyalty to the Crown as the only truly Christian response, while a final group, believing that Scripture condemns violence, embraced pacifism and supported neither side.

Noll then proceeded to ask two overarching, open-ended questions of the evidence.  The first involved the nature of Christian influence on the struggle for independence, i.e., what did the Church do to and for the Revolution?  Among several influences, Noll found that countless colonial ministers openly espoused the cause of independence from the pulpit.  They defined freedom as the divine ideal, equated oppression with the Antichrist, assured their flocks that God was on the side of the patriots, and effectively presented the Revolution as a holy crusade, a spiritual struggle between good and evil.

Had Noll only been interested in establishing that the American Revolution had a Christian dimension, he could have stopped right there.  Readers interested only in proving that the United States was founded as a Christian nation would have found a treasure trove of useful quotes indicating that American colonists routinely thought of the conflict with Britain in religious terms.  And yet Noll didn’t stop there.  Instead, he asked a second, probing, uncomfortable question that Christian culture warriors have too often passed over, i.e., what did the Revolution do to and for the Church?

Again, the answer is multifaceted, but much of what Noll found was troubling.  To begin with, looking broadly at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it appears that the Revolutionary era was a period of declining Christian influence on the culture.  In broader historical context, Christians’ widespread support for the Revolution was actually an example of the increasing degree to which “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” rather than the other way round.  Even more troubling, Noll found evidence to suggest that revolutionary fervor had sometimes undermined Christian integrity, as Christians too commonly forgot that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone.  Noll’s summary thoughts on this point bear repeating in detail, so I will leave you with the final extended quote as food for thought:

In addressing the question of what the Revolution did to the church, it is necessary to consider whether Christian integrity was not swamped in the tide of Revolutionary feeling.  From a twentieth-century perspective it appears as if all sense of proportion was lost, particularly where no doubts were countenanced about the righteousness of the Patriot cause.  Where presbyteries could exclude ministers from fellowship because of failure to evince ardent Patriotism, where the “cause of America” could be described repeatedly and with limitless variation as “the cause of Christ,” and where the colonists so blithely saw themselves standing in the place of Israel as God’s chosen people, the question must arise whether the Revolution did not occasion a momentary moral collapse in the churches.  Those ministers and lay believers who allowed the supposed justice of the Patriot cause and displays of Patriotic devotion to replace standards of divine justice and the fruit of the Spirit as the controlling determinants of thought and behavior betrayed basic principles of the Christian faith–that absolute loyalty belongs only to God, and that unwarranted self-righteousness is as evil as open and scandalous sin.


In an article on our culture’s dismissive attitude toward history, the late Christopher Hitchens once wrote that modern Americans live in a “present-tense society.”  The atheist Hitchens was wrong about a great deal, but not about this.  By experience, I can tell you that there is no better way to kill a conversation at a party than by answering the ubiquitous question, “So what do you do?” by confessing that you earn your bread as a historian.  And yet there are exceptions to Hitchens’ generalization–lots of them.  I have frequently encountered Christians outside the academy who care about history.  It’s not just that they find it entertaining, on a par with movies and sports.  They genuinely believe that history matters and that we can learn from it.  Of course I agree.

I have concluded two things from my conversations with these individuals.  First, it would appear that Christians interested in the American past are drawn to one issue above all others: the relationship between Christianity and the American founding.  The evangelicals whom I talk to in church and homeschool settings are interested in whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, by Christian leaders, guided by Christian principles, in pursuit of Christian ends.  Second, to the degree that they have already formed opinions on the matter, they have based their historical views overwhelmingly on the teaching of non-historians with minimal qualifications: popular authors like Peter Marshall, Francis Schaeffer, Doug Wilson, or David Barton.

This frustrates me greatly, but I can’t really say that I blame them.  We academic historians like to explain our miniscule audiences by pointing to the anti-intellectualism of American culture, which is certainly real enough.  But that’s far from the whole story.  On the whole, academic historians stopped writing for the general public long ago.  We are trained to write for each other.  We are rewarded primarily for writing for each other.  And so we write for each other.

But not exclusively.  One of the most encouraging developments of recent years has been the willingness of a growing number of Christian historians to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  If you are interested in the relationship between Christianity and the American founding, the good news is that there are now a number of outstanding, engaging works written by sincere Christian scholars who explore the topic with sympathy, integrity, and expertise.  If you are looking for some summer reading, the following would be well worth your time: Two wonderful recent titles are Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, by John Fea of Messiah College, and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, by Baylor University’s Thomas Kidd.  I would also recommend an excellent older work that was re-issued a few years ago: Christians in the American Revolution, by former Wheaton College professor Mark Noll.

If you are thinking of delving into one of these titles, may I offer a few words of challenge before you do so?  As Christians interested in history, our goal should be to practice history Christianly.  A common view that I have encountered in church and homeschool settings is the unstated assumption that “Christian history” is defined by its conclusions.  By this reasoning, an interpretation that asserts that the United States was founded on Christian principles is an example of “Christian” history.  A view of the American past that denies this must be non-Christian or even anti-Christian.  I think this badly misses the mark.

If our goal is to approach the past Christianly, I want to suggest that how we think is a better litmus test of success than what we conclude.  What it means to think Christianly about history is a question I am still working through, but I am convinced that it requires the expression of the Christian virtues of love and humility.  Expressing love when we study the past starts with remembering that the individuals we encounter were image bearers just like us.  They had their own way of looking at life–their own hopes, dreams, values, and aspirations–and loving them requires that we take them seriously, that we respect them enough to listen to them and allow them to ask us hard questions.

Bringing a posture of humility to our study of the past starts with our remembering the declaration of Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite.  If you’re generally familiar with the story of Job, you know that Job’s life came crashing down after God allowed Satan to test him, and you know as well that the friends who came to comfort Job were not much comfort at all.  In perhaps the only useful advice that Job’s friend Bildad gives him, Bildad encourages Job not to limit his quest to understand his circumstances to conversations with the living.  “Inquire please of the former age,” Bildad counsels Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9a).

If our goal is to practice love and humility when we study history, what does that mean when all you want to do is sit down with a book on Christianity and the American founding?  There is a skill to reading a history book effectively, and much of it involves critical attention to the logic of the historian’s argument and the validity of the evidence that underpins it.  But it also requires that you examine your own heart as you read, especially your motives for exploring the topic.

Many of us turn to history as a form of entertainment, and that’s OK.  (There are far worse ways to fill the time.)  But when our motives are weightier, when we believe that something is at stake, when we believe that history is really important to our lives, we tend to study the past with one of two goals in mind.  Ideally, we are propelled by a yearning for illumination.  Far too commonly, we are driven by a need for ammunition.   The latter goal, often unconscious, is a trap, and we fall into it all the time.

When Christians ask my views on the place of Christianity in the American founding, what I really want to ask in reply is, “Why do you want to know?”  I’ve found that many Christians have a great deal invested in the topic of faith and the founding.  Because of popular writers like Marshall and Schaeffer and Barton and the dogmatic interpretations of American history that they have made popular, too many American Christians believe that their commitment to Christ requires that they believe in a particular interpretation of the American past.  Any challenge to that interpretation becomes literally an assault on their religious convictions.  The result is that such individuals study the past not to be challenged, and possibly changed, but simply to find supporting evidence for interpretations that they already hold.  This approach has become a staple of the so-called “culture wars” of the last generation, as both Christians and secularists have ransacked the past in search of evidence to support their predetermined positions and ammunition to hurl at their adversaries.

There are multiple problems with what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.  To begin with, it effectively insures that we learn nothing from the past beyond what we already know.  If our goal is to study history Christianly, moreover, it is crucial to realize how much the history-as-ammunition approach inhibits both love and humility.

It is difficult to love figures from the past when we primarily expect them to help us prove points in debate.  We will be sorely tempted to ignore the complexity of their world in order to further neat and tidy answers in our own.  (Remember Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning: “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”)  To the degree that we insist that historical figures serve our purposes, we are not loving our neighbors from the past but using them.  And because the history-as-ammunition approach will routinely validate our assumptions and confirm our convictions, the chances are great that it will also feed our pride.

So beware of the temptation to “keep score” as you read any of these books, triumphantly underlining the quotes that seem to support your interpretation of choice.  Fea, Kidd, and Noll all provide evidence that Christians played a significant role in the American founding and that Christian principles were one important factor in shaping the path to American independence.  But the story that each tells is far more complex than we might wish it, full of inconvenient truths for Christians and secularists alike.


One of the most common complaints that I hear from Christians who are interested in history concerns the prevalence of “revisionist” history within American higher education.  When I was teaching at the University of Washington and would mention that fact when introducing myself to folks at church, a common sympathetic response was, “Bless your heart–it must be awful working in the midst of all those revisionists!”  I would always smile and thank them, but inside I would be groaning: the truth is that popular understanding of revisionism is generally way off base.

Let me explain what I mean by sharing an extended quote from my forthcoming book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, due out in early September from Intervarsity Press.   Although it focuses on the origin and evolution of the Thanksgiving holiday, my real goal in writing the book was to use a concrete historical topic as a context for exploring what it means to think Christianly as we engage the past.   The book is full of concepts that are broadly applicable to the study of history more generally, and one of those is this misunderstood concept of revisionism.  As you will see from the excerpt below, I find the concept almost worthless.

First Thanksgiving

The extended quote below comes from Chapter Seven: “Understanding Revisionism: How the First Thanksgiving has Changed Over Time”:

“Let me begin this chapter with a personal plea: please don’t use the word revisionist in discussing history.  I’m serious.  Promise me.  If you are enslaved to this ugly habit, seek help.  If you’ve never taken it up, don’t start.

“Here are three reasons why the world would be a better place if revisionist disappeared from the English language.  First, as an assessment of historical interpretations it has become meaningless.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term first appeared in the 1920s to describe ‘a person who questions or revises a previously accepted version of historical phenomena or events.’  Today, for all practical purposes, Americans apply it to ‘anyone who remembers the past differently than I do.’  ‘Revisionists’ lurk everywhere.  Evangelicals see them in the secular academy.  President George W. Bush found them among Democratic critics of the Iraq War.  Tea Party supporters smell revisionism among moderate Republicans.  Atheists berate Christian ‘revisionists.’  Liberal bloggers hand the tag on Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.  NBC Sports applies the label to New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.  (No kidding.)

“Second, in purporting to speak to the motives behind an historical assertion, revisionist can be mean spirited and insulting.  Make no mistake; outside of academic circles, this is the term’s primary contemporary function.  According to popular usage, revisionists not only disagree with us about the past, they also intentionally distort the past to promote personal agendas such as political advancement or the downfall of western civilization.  In sum, as we wield it today, the expression is typically a character attack.  Had it existed in the Old West, a hush would have fallen in the saloon whenever a black-hearted villain uttered it across the poker table.  (‘Ya better smile when you say that, pardner.’)

“Are there individuals who deserve such condemnation?  Sure.  But we need to realize that rejecting an interpretation as revisionist is more schoolyard name calling than serious critique.  As Christians, I would say that, before we condemn the motives of people we have never met, we need to be very sure that God is calling us to engage the culture in that way.  At a minimum, we must be wary of the air of self-righteousness that so often comes with the revisionist accusation.  Google it, and you’ll see that revisionism is always something that the other guy is prone to, in contrast to our own noble commitment to truth whatever the cost.  ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.’

“Third, in contemporary parlance, revisionist reflects a basic misunderstanding of what history actually is.  It makes no sense to view revision as intrinsically wrong unless we understand history as akin to Scripture, a special revelation delivered once and for all to the saints to be guarded and transmitted unchanged across the generations.  Viewed in this light, any change to the original corpus becomes, quite literally, an act of unfaithfulness deserving of condemnation. . . . Such an understanding of history is badly off the mark.  The past in its pristine purity has not been revealed to us, and history is not the past itself but the results of our efforts to make sense of the past in the ever-changing present.  Because ‘time is the very lens through which’ we gaze on the past, the passing of time necessarily influences what we see in the past.

“Historical interpretations may evolve for nefarious reasons, as when ideologues consciously rewrite history for political ends, like the clerks in the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Yet they change far more frequently for natural reasons related to the human finitude and fallenness that define us all. . . .”