Tag Archives: Christian history


I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Our countdown to the holiday is over, but I’m not quite ready to move on yet. Before doing so I want to share one more lesson that I think we might learn from the Pilgrims—in this case, specifically the long-term governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. Bradford was both a man of deep, persevering faith in Christ and a remarkable historian. In the reflections below, I share what Bradford can teach us about a particular approach to the past called providential history.


“Where is God in history?” is a question that many Christians yearn to explore. Many of the believers I have talked with doubt that a historical interpretation can be truly Christian without answering it. Implicitly, they advocate what academic historians call “providential history.” The providential approach to the past views history as an arena in which to trace God’s unfolding plan for humanity. It assumes that the Christian historian, through the ordinary analysis of historical evidence, can discern the Lord’s handiwork on earth. It constantly asks of the past, “Where is God and what is He doing?”

I sympathize with this desire for providential history, but I believe that the reasoning that under girds it is faulty. Let’s begin with the doctrine of providence itself. This crucial church teaching instructs us that God’s sovereignty is exhaustive, that the Lord is working “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11b). In the words of the Westminster Confession, God “doth “uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things . . . by His most wise and holy providence.”

Although it may trouble us to hear it, the more seriously we take the doctrine of providence, the less useful it becomes to us for explaining the past. Think for a minute. If we were to apply the principle consistently, the explanation for every event in world history would be reduced to the same three-word conclusion: “God willed it.” (Granted, this would make exams a lot less stressful.) This is why Christian historians think of historical explanation as the identification of secondary causes, of those means that God employs in effecting His will.

For similar reasons, they reject as illogical the temptation to apply providential explanations selectively, to concentrate on secondary means ordinarily and reserve appeals to divine causation for key turning points or particularly momentous events. As Christian historian Jonathan Boyd puts it, “if God’s rule extends over all and his providence comprises all events . . . it makes little sense to name some events as more providential than others.”

In reality, however, for most of us the question “Where is God in history?” is less about divine action than divine purpose. What we really want to know, in other words, is not whether God was at work in a specific historical context but why, that is, how did particular historical events relate to God’s larger divine plan? Here, however, Deuteronomy 29:29 sounds the alarm: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” that passage warns us. Only “those things which are revealed belong to us.”

The sweeping historical narratives of the Old Testament repeatedly tell us God’s intentions in acting—why He granted victory in this instance or brought sickness in that one—but we must never forget that the history that comes to us from the Bible is divinely inspired, literally “God-breathed,” as II Timothy 3:16 tells us. To speak bluntly, when we view the Old Testament as authorizing present-day historians to write providential history, we implicitly denigrate the difference that divine inspiration makes in discerning divine purpose. Unwittingly, providential history reflects a low view of Scripture.

The Bible itself makes clear that, in the absence of divine inspiration, God’s purposes in human affairs are easily misunderstood. Part of the problem is our own myopia. As theologian N. T. Wright points out, God’s prophetic messengers are repeatedly saying to His people, “This is what God is doing in your midst. Why are you so blind?” Part of the challenge, to paraphrase Isaiah 55:8, is that “God’s ways are not our ways.” He doesn’t handle things as we would. Thus we are constantly running into surprises in Scripture, what Notre Dame historian Mark Noll calls “strange reversals . . . in the Christian story. The Christ is crucified. Good appears to fail. The monuments of historical goodness—Roman order, Jewish morality—conspire to do unspeakable evil. Good things come out of hopeless situations.”

Countless other gleanings from Scripture frustrate our efforts to reduce God’s ways in history to a simple formula. Blessing is sometimes a sign of divine favor, but not always; God causes the rain to fall on the unjust as well as the just (Matthew 5:45), and He allows the wicked to prosper, if only for a time (Psalm 73:3). Suffering may be an expression of divine judgment, but not always; Jesus’ teaching about the man born blind and the Galileans killed by Pontius Pilate makes this clear (John 9:1-3, Luke 13:1-2). This is why theologian J. I. Packer argues emphatically that “no historical event,” in and of itself, “can make God known to anyone unless God Himself discloses its meaning and place in His plan.”

In sum, while we can be confident that God is constantly at work in human history, both for His glory and for our good, it is not ours to know God’s specific intentions for any particular historical occurrence not explained in Scripture.

Does this mean that we simply dismiss the question “Where is God in history?” No, but when we encounter dogmatic answers to the question, we must recognize them for what they are—prophetic declarations, not historical conclusions. If a pastor feels called to assume the prophet’s mantle and pronounce from the pulpit God’s intent in a particular historical event, we may choose to give him a respectful hearing. But when a historian claims to know God’s purposes in that same event—not from special revelation, but on the basis of ordinary analysis of historical evidence—then we rightfully dismiss that claim as presumptuous.

When we approach the past both Christianly and historically, the most that we can ever do with regard to God’s intention in a particular event is to speculate, and when we speculate we should be explicit that we are doing so. As Wright points out, the apostle Paul modeled this for us when writing to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul conjectured that “perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave” but as “a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16a). Perhaps is the key word here; it is a mark of what Wright calls “the necessary reticence of faith.” With exemplary humility, Paul combines an unshakeable confidence that God is at work with an awareness of his inability to read God’s mind. His modest perhaps invites God to say of Paul’s claim, “Well, actually, no.”

For a more recent illustration of this marriage of confidence and humility, I can think of no better work to commend than William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. On the one hand, Bradford interpreted the unfolding of events around him as a glove on the hand of Jehovah. The Maker Bradford adores is “not a God afar off,” to quote the prophet Jeremiah, but “a God near at hand” (Jeremiah 23:23).

This statue of William Bradford, by Cyrus Dallin, stands in Pilgrim Memorial State Park in Plymouth, MA>

This statue of William Bradford, by Cyrus Dallin, stands in Pilgrim Memorial State Park in Plymouth, MA.

Although the Pilgrim governor regularly alluded to what we’ve called secondary causes, he never hesitated to link them to the Lord’s overarching decrees. When John Howland fell overboard amidst a violent storm, he didn’t drown, Bradford explained, because “it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards.” The Pilgrims’ first landing party survived the attack by the Nausets because it had “pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance.” The “general sickness” of that gruesome first winter occurred because “it pleased God to visit” them “with death”; the death toll ended only when “it pleased God” for “the mortality . . . to cease.” When Squanto showed up he was “sent of God.” When rain relieved their drought-parched crops, it was because the Lord had brought “seasonable showers” as a “gracious and speedy answer to their prayer.” Finally, when many of the Mayflower’s passengers ultimately lived to an unusually old age, the cause, Bradford knew, lay in “the marvelous providence of God!”

And yet Bradford paired this deep conviction that God was “near at hand” with a resistance to proclaiming God’s specific purposes in any given circumstance. God was in control and God was good—this much was certain, God had revealed that—and so Bradford did not hesitate to interpret the Lord’s providential oversight of the Pilgrims as an expression of His love for them. Beyond this he would not go, however, and Bradford’s history contains not a hint of special knowledge concerning the particulars of the divine plan. God’s specific will was simply too difficult to discern. Bradford took pains to show that the congregation at Leiden was divided as to the wisdom of migrating to America, and at no place in his history did he declare the decision to relocate as indisputably the will of God. The plan was “lawful” and its objectives “honourable”—that was all that could be said.

Bradford’s reticence is all the more remarkable when we remind ourselves that he was writing well after the events he was describing. From hindsight, he knew that the Pilgrims not only had survived unimaginable hardships but that their colony had grown and flourished materially. What is more, thousands more Puritans were flocking to New England, building on the Pilgrims’ “small beginning” to shine a light to the entire English nation. Could we blame Bradford had he concluded that God had indeed preserved the Pilgrims for a very special purpose?

And yet he did not. The Pilgrims’ story was just too ambiguous; in his heart, Bradford knew that it intertwined increasing prosperity with declining purity. In reviewing their history, furthermore, the truth of Romans 11:33 regularly constrained him. “God’s judgments are unsearchable,” the governor noted, echoing Paul, “neither dare I be bold therewith.” We would do well to follow the Pilgrim governor’s example, not because Bradford’s stature as an honorary “Founder” gives him moral authority over our lives, but because his modest, yet literally “faith-full” approach to the past resonates with the precepts of Scripture.


The essay below first appeared as a “daily update” from Christianity.com.  I thought it was worth calling to your attention.  The author, whom I don’t know personally, is an associate editor at the Gospel Coalition.  In referring to the value of “Christian History,” he has in mind church history or the history of Christianity.  For an argument about the value of history more broadly, consider reading my post on “A Christian Case for Studying History.”


7 Ways Christian History Benefits You

Matt Smethurst

Christian history. Some of you already may be tempted to stop reading. History, after all, is a subject that can often feel distant, boring, irrelevant.

But I’m convinced you should care about the history of the church. In fact, I believe it’s essential. And for your good.

Christianity is a history-anchored faith. We don’t teach a set of abstract principles or philosophical ideas; we teach the truth of a historical event. As Francis Schaeffer liked to say, if you were there 2,000 years ago you could have run your hand down the cross and gotten a splinter. How silly would it for us to conclude, “Well, I believe Jesus lived and died and rose in historical time, and that without those historical events I’d be lost forever, but I don’t really care about history.”

Further, if you’re a Christian, then church history is your family history. Think about that. Studying church history is like opening a photo album and exploring your family heritage.

But Christian history isn’t just meaningful; it’s intensely practical, too. Here are seven ways that studying it benefits us.

1. It Instructs

First, Christian history instructs us, replacing our ignorance with truth. “To know nothing of what happened before you were born,” warned the ancient philosopher Cicero, “is to forever remain a child.” Learning history matures us by rooting us in reality—in what actually happened as opposed to what we assume must have happened or wish had happened.

The Christian church has a glorious yet checkered past. Just as the scriptural record of God’s people is a mixed bag—great feats of faith mingled with great falls into sin—so is the history of the people who have made up the church through the ages. Historians John Woodbridge and Frank James observe:

The history of the church reminds us that Christians can be culprits of foolishness as well as bold titans for truth. They can be egoistic and self-serving; they can be humble and generous. A single individual can embody conflicting traits. We may find it disconcerting to discover that our heroes are sometimes flawed. . . . [But] God works through sinners to accomplish his good purposes.

The study of Christian history serves an instructive, and therefore maturing, purpose.

2. It Exhilarates

Second, Christian history exhilarates. Yes, it can seem boring at times. And no doubt it can be taught boringly. When taught well, though, it involves the thrill of discovery—and that’s exciting. You get to meet people you’ve never seen and visit places you’ve never been, and can never go, since they no longer exist.
Exploring your spiritual heritage can be a thrilling adventure.

3. It Gives Perspective

Third, Christian history provides perspective, freeing us from the narrow perspectives and overwhelming demands of the urgent.

One historian aptly noted that history “must be our deliverer not only from the undue influence of other times, but from the undue influence of our own—from the tyranny of environment and the pressures of the air we breathe.”  An excessive focus on the present leads to historical and spiritual myopia. We need Christian history to expand our horizons.

Additionally, it can be easy to think that there was some golden age of doctrinal knowledge and Christian living long ago to which we must return. But this is an illusion. No era has known a level of Christian thought and practice that didn’t cry out for the King’s return.

4. It Illumines

Fourth, Christian history illumines. It sheds light on present trends and circumstances, thereby going a long way toward explaining why things are the way they are today.

The challenges facing us as Christians are rarely unique to our time. For example, if you’ve ever talked with a Mormon you may know that they deny Christ’s deity. He isn’t the Creator God, they say, but a created god—the highest creature, even. But this argument has been around since at least the third century, and a book like Athanasius’s On the Incarnation—written in response to this very issue—can illumine us on how to answer our Mormon friends.

5. It Inspires

Fifth, Christian history inspires. I imagine you know what it’s like to hear a story or watch a film about a historical figure and feel stirred. Reading biographies can be a particularly powerful source of inspiration. Whether learning of the heavenly-mindedness of Jonathan Edwards, the persistence of Adoniram Judson, the faith of George Mueller, or the conviction of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God has often used biographies in my life to encourage my soul and spark fresh devotion to Christ. . . .

In Scripture, rehearsing acts of faith in the past (Hebrews 11:1-40) is tethered to running with endurance in the present (Hebrews 12:1-2). Your King intends yesterday’s stories to inspire you in today’s race.

6. It Humbles and Convicts

Sixth, Christian history humbles and convicts. As you explore the lives of your spiritual forebears, you’ll soon find you’re not as impressive as you thought.
Bethan Lloyd-Jones, wife of the great 20th-century preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones, once explained: “In order to understand my husband you must understand that he was first of all a man of prayer, and then an evangelist.”  Now ask yourself: if the person who knows you best were to share the secret to understanding you, would prayer and evangelism top their list?

7. It Fires Worship

Finally, studying Christian history fires worship. How could it not? It deepens our amazement at God’s unflinching faithfulness through the ages. We’re moved to praise him for saving, for preserving, and for using his people despite themselves.

Although Christian history is the study of the works of men and women, it’s ultimately the study of the work of God. It’s not Christians who have been building the church, after all; it’s Christ. I will build my church, he promised, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).

Speaking of Jesus, few things showcase him like church history. We may think there are many heroes of the past, but in the final analysis there’s only one. The Lord Jesus is the only perfect Hero to which all of his imperfect followers point.

Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife Maghan have two children and live in Louisville, Kentucky, where they belong to Third Avenue Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter.


Hello, again:

Here are three more YouTube teasers from my recent Q and A session at the headquarters of Intervarsity Press:

* On the danger of thinking of the Pilgrims as being just like us, click here.

* Click here for my brief take on the concept of “Christian” history.

* On the danger of imputing authority to historical figures, click here.

Intervarsity Press is the publisher of my recent book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  The staff there have been a delight to work with from beginning to end.

First Thanksgiving


The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience.  As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well.  History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that.  Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before.  It alters the way we think.  It challenges our hearts.  It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan.  We shouldn’t settle for less.  Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26).  I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher.  Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.”  We must seek them persistently, insistently.  Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past.  This summer I have been re-reading the “God’s Plan for America” series by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel (The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet).  I have lost track of the number of times that they claim God’s supernatural intervention in their historical research: “The Holy Spirit gave us insight after insight . . .”; “The Holy Spirit reminded us that . . .”; “thus did the Lord bring to our attention . . . “; “the Holy Spirit went on to show us why . . .” etc.

I do not question their sincerity.  But note that Marshall and Manuel are not just saying that God blessed their research by sharpening their minds.  In his prayer “Ante Stadium” (“Before Study”), the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas regularly asked God to grant him, among other things, “keenness of mind” and “skill in learning.”  The Christian historians I know would all readily echo that prayer and long for the Lord to grant it.  Marshall and Manuel go much farther, however.

Repeatedly, they identify particular moments when God supernaturally intervened to direct them to just the right source at just the right time , in the process leading them to a more accurate understanding of American history.  I don’t doubt for an instant that God could do this if it pleased Him, but I find no scriptural basis to expect this sort of revelation.  When such insight comes, if it comes, it is a form of special revelation, and those who receive it are really exercising a prophetic role.  This is why books like The Light and the Glory are not really historical at all–they are works of prophesy.

While I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us, the Bible is clear that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).  So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts.  Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present.  Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom.  As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word.  That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg.  They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind.  You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions.  For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring.  As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago.  I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that).  As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event.  The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference.  For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we?  The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church.  We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more.  It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so miniscule.  And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small.  That’s a good thing.  If an integral component  of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them.  I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there.  That’s not a message we care to hear.  We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it.  “The past,” Lewis observed, “was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of . . . moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.”  The difference between the past and history, then, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg.  Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge.  As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses.  We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective.  We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back.  (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”)  We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge.  (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent.  As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems.  Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward.  Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope.  Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience.  In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews.  To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals.  As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know?  The author of Proverbs  provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7).  It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth.  From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and  unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance.  Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.”  Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.


In my previous post, I shared my opinion of the fabulously popular Christian interpretation of American history authored by the late Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet–often packaged together as the “God’s Plan for America” Series–have reportedly sold nearly a million copies combined.  If correct, this surely makes the trilogy the most widely read Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.

As I mentioned, there are aspects of these works that I admire.  They are written in narrative prose accessible to a broad audience.  They speak to larger questions of being and purpose, acknowledging our natural human longing for something more than the detached perspective of the academic technician.  Finally, they take God’s sovereignty over human affairs with admirable seriousness.

And yet their flaws overshadow these strengths.  Although I think they are incorrect in many of their factual assertions, I am more concerned with the basic structure of their argument.  Simply put, Marshall and Manuel grounded their scriptural critique of the American present in a historical interpretation of the American past.  Although I am sure that they meant well, such an approach had three negative consequences.

First, it fed a widespread temptation among American evangelicals to conflate our identity in Christ with our identity as Americans.  Second, it reinforced a tendency among well-meaning believers to impute a degree of moral authority to the Founding Fathers than can border on idolatry.  Finally, by grounding their religious argument so squarely in their own subjective interpretation of American history, Marshall and Manuel placed themselves in a predicament: any challenge to their assertions about the American past would seem to weaken the force of their Scriptural argument about the present.  In a sense, they unwittingly allowed the authority of Christian principles to depend on the veracity of their historical claims.  This was not malevolent.  It was, however, appallingly misguided.

I have focused exclusively on Marshall and Manuel thus far, but we evangelicals frequently adopt this historical approach when we try to do battle with the unbelieving culture around us.  David Barton has recently come under a microscope for they way that he has wielded his interpretation of American history as a weapon in the culture wars, but he is only the latest in a long line of Christians (almost always non-historians) who have pursued such a strategy.  In the rest of this post, I want to speak to a contemporary of Marshall and Manuel who fashioned a far more sophisticated historical argument but without escaping the same unfortunate consequences.

Schaeffer IThe person I have in mind is the late evangelical writer and thinker, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984).  If you are not familiar with Schaeffer and want to learn more, the best place to begin is with Baylor Professor Barry Hankins’ wonderful biography, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmanns, 2008).  You can make a compelling case that, from the 1960s through the mid-1980s, no single individual did more than Francis Schaeffer to encourage American evangelicals to take the life of the mind seriously.

In books like The God Who is There (1968), Escape from Reason (1968), and He is There and He is Not Silent (1972), Schaeffer challenged Christian readers to develop an explicit, internally coherent, scripturally grounded world view as a platform from which to critique and engage the culture.  I read these books myself in the early 1990s.  A young assistant professor at a secular research university, I was just beginning the long (still far from finished) process of trying to figure out what it means to love God with all my mind, as well as with all my heart, soul, and strength.  Schaeffer’s trilogy encouraged and convicted me, less for any of its particular claims than for its implicit message that the life of the mind was important work, and that Christians were called to it.  As he did for thousands of others, Schaeffer made me want to continue the arduous work of trying to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.”

Schaeffer II

And yet Schaeffer ultimately fell into the same trap that ensnared Marshall and Manuel.  His early works contained  an historical dimension, but they touched lightly on the American past and did not culminate in a clear call to action.  Beginning in the mid-1970s, Schaeffer penned a series of books that developed his historical arguments further and sounded a clarion call for Christian activism.  What concerned him most was Americans’ growing devaluation of human life, revealed in their acceptance of abortion and openness to euthanasia.  Collectively, How Should We Then Live? (1976), Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), and A Christian Manifesto (1981) constituted “a call to culture war,” as Hankins puts it.

Writing at approximately the same time, Marshall and Manuel had explained the sad moral state of the nation in terms of a falling away, a forgetting of God in times of prosperity reminiscent of ancient Israel.  Schaeffer’s take was different, if not incompatible.  With sweeping generalizations that drove professional historians crazy, Schaeffer explained two thousand years of western intellectual and cultural history in terms of a struggle between world views.

On the one hand is theism.  This world view begins with “the God who is there” and understands mankind’s existence and purpose in the light of His revelation.  Its irreconcilable antithesis is secular humanism–materialistic, relativistic, nihilistic–a world view that exalts autonomous Man as the center of the universe and the definer of meaning.

Focusing on the last five hundred years, Schaeffer condemned the intellectual currents of the Renaissance and Enlightenment for embracing secular humanism.  Thankfully, their disastrous potential had been held in check, at least partially, by the beneficent influence of the Protestant Reformation and its re-invigoration of Christian theism.  But the threat posed by secular humanism persisted, and it was growing.

Schaeffer’s primary goal was to pierce the hearts of his readers by engaging their minds, warning them that a culture that embraced relativistic humanism had forfeited any coherent basis for defending the preciousness of the individual.  Once transcendent principle had been abandoned, power alone remained, and the society that took such an ominous step had laid itself bare to the inroads of authoritarianism and tyranny.  I agree.

Unfortunately, just like Marshall and Manuel, Schaeffer insisted on grounding his religious critique of the American present in a historical interpretation of the American past.  Like Marshall and Manuel, albeit with different emphasis, Schaeffer told Americans that the United States had begun as a Christian country.

Placing the greatest stress on intellectual currents, as was his habit, Schaeffer argued that the influence of the Enlightenment on the Founding Fathers had been negligible.  Rather, they had been primarily shaped by Reformation thinkers.  In calling on Americans to renounce secular humanism, Schaeffer said they need merely return to the foundation on which the nation had been built.

It was at this point that leading evangelical historians began to register their concern.  For Christian scholars like Mark Noll (then at Wheaton) and George Marsden (then of Calvin College), the claim that the Founders had been untouched by the Enlightenment ignored extensive evidence to the contrary, whereas evidence that they had been formed by Reformation thinkers was almost non-existent.

Now is not the time to address the question of whether the United States was founded as a Christian country.  (If you would like to dive into that huge question, a good place to start would be John Fea’s Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?)  For now, what we need to see is the corner that Schaeffer had backed himself into.  Out of a deep religious conviction, he had gone forth to confront the culture about the implications of its secular world view, but in his approach he had so intertwined scriptural and historical arguments that any disagreement with the latter seemed to undermine the former.

Schaeffer IIIAs Barry Hankins’ biography relates, for more than a year, Schaeffer, Noll, and Marsden engaged in an extensive correspondence over the  accuracy of Schaeffer’s historical claims.  Much of the interaction revolved around specific historical points, but another recurring thread in the correspondence centered on Schaeffer’s contention that in publicly challenging his historical interpretation, Marsden and Noll were effectively, if unintentionally, giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

In the end, Schaeffer found it hard to believe that anyone who disputed his view of the American founding could be theologically sound.  In a letter to Mark Noll, he bluntly questioned the Wheaton historian’s view of Scripture.  In correspondence with an ally, Schaeffer castigated Noll and Marsden as “weak Christians” and lumped them with “those who devaluate the Scripture” and “those who confuse the socialistic program with the kingdom of God.”  Such Christian historians had to be challenged, Schaeffer averred, so as not to undermine the ongoing battle “against the collapse of our generation.”

American evangelicals who read such words should shudder.  Despite the best of intentions and the most genuine of convictions, Schaeffer had so confused his own subjective interpretation of history with the authority of Christian principles that the two had become inseparable.  After nearly two generations of culture war, we are inured to a perpetual bombardment from talk show hosts and pseudo-celebrities who implore us to equate fidelity to Scripture and faithfulness to Christ with a particular interpretation of American history.  The result has been to add a man-made layer to the “good news” and to make it harder, not easier for us as Christians to think deeply about the culture we inhabit.

Let us be very careful in how we appeal to the past.


A reader of this blog recently contacted me (offline) to ask my opinion of the book The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel.  Although I answered her privately, her question is so important that I think it merits a more extended answer here.  The Light and the Glory is arguably the most popular Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever written.  It makes sense to share a few thoughts about it, given that this blog is devoted to the question of what it means to think Christianly and historically about the American past.

Light and the Glory I

Many of you will already know of this work, but for those you who aren’t, here’s a bit of background.

First the authors: A graduate of Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary, the late Peter Marshall Jr. was a prominent Presbyterian minister and the founder of “Peter Marshall Ministries,” an organization created to remind Americans of their Christian heritage and “restore America to its Biblical foundations.”  Marshall’s co-author, David Manuel, was an editor at Doubleday Publishing Company before turning to full-time writing.

Next, their published works: In addition to numerous lesser writings, Marshall and Manuel authored three major works, The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet.  The first, published in 1977, offers an overview of American history from the voyages of Columbus through the establishment of independence from Britain and the creation of the Constitution.  The second and third, written over the course of the next two decades, sketch the history of the nation from the creation of the Constitution to the eve of the Civil War.

Although the authors went on to produce simplified versions of these works for younger readers, all three books in their original versions feature engaging, accessible prose suitable for juvenile readers on up.  This versatility has assured for them a wide readership among adults and a popular and enduring place in the curriculum of private Christian schools and home schools.  Their combined sales now supposedly approach one million copies and, if correct, this would make the authors far more widely read than any currently living academic Christian historian.

Before offering my own critique, let me stress that there is much that I admire in these works.  Professional historians could learn a thing or two from Marshall and Manuel.  They took the craft of writing seriously.  They understood that historical knowledge, to make a difference in the world, needs to end up between the ears of general readers.  (We academic historians too often think of history as a conversation among ourselves.)  Marshall and Manuel also appreciated that history is, above all, a story, and they intuitively understood the power of narrative to convey important truths.  This is something historians in the Academy used to realize but have long since forgotten.

Finally, I have no doubt that Marshall and Manuel had good intentions.  Although I have known neither personally, I can imagine that it took courage to take the stand that they did.  I suspect that they were on the receiving end of more than their share of criticism and condescension from the surrounding culture.  I have certainly never been as bold as they.

That said, I would not recommend these books.  They are marred by numerous errors of fact and interpretation, far too many to catalog here.  These do not constitute their fatal flaw, however.  The fatal flaw in these works is the authors’ well-meant but misguided decision to ground their religious critique of the contemporary United States in an historical argument about the American past.

Let me elaborate briefly.  As they explain in the introduction to The Light and the Glory, when Marshall and Manuel began writing in the 1970s, they were looking for an explanation for the moral crisis that they believe gripped the nation.  Surveying the national landscape, they saw a once unified nation now bitterly divided over Vietnam, bitterly disillusioned by Watergate, and succumbing to a variety of moral ills such as mounting divorce and sexual permissiveness.  As Christians heartbroken over the trajectory of their country, they sought an explanation.  More specifically, as Christians interested in history (Marshall had been a history major at Yale), they sought an explanation in the past.

The Light and the Glory introduces that explanation.  Marshall and Manuel summarized their thesis in the form of a rhetorical question in the book’s opening pages: “Could it be that we Americans, as a people,” they asked, “were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?  Was our vast divergence from this blueprint, after such a promising beginning, the reason why we now seem to be heading into a new dark age?”

The thrust of these two works is to answer that foundational question with a resounding “Yes!”  Condensing dramatically, their argument is that the U. S. had originated as a Christian nation, had had a special calling from God to be a light to the world, and had fallen away from God, forgetting the Lord’s “definite and extremely demanding plan for America.”

Note that most, though not all, of their argument was historical.  Marshall and Manuel’s insistence that God had a special plan for the United States was not a historical conclusion at all.  It was a prophetic declaration, a fact that the authors should have been more forthcoming in acknowledging.  This important exception aside, their interpretation rests squarely on a series of historical claims having to do with the values of the country’s founders and the degree to which succeeding generations did or did not conform to them.

There were other possible approaches.  As a pastor, Marshall simply could have opened his Bible.  Employing scriptural principles as a plumb line, he could have instructed his congregation (and any other audience that would hear him) in the ways that current American values fell short of the scriptural standard, in effect calling them (and the nation) to repentance.  What he and Manuel did, however, was to intertwine that call to repentance with a historical narrative—not a narrative based on divinely revealed biblical history, but a narrative based on the authors’ interpretation of American history.

Why did they do that?  I don’t know what their motives were, but there are two reasons why I think well-meaning Christians in general so frequently do something similar.  First, it may seem to strengthen our argument to other Christians.  When we buttress a religious argument with an interpretation of American history, we simultaneously appeal to two aspects of American Christians’ identity, namely their Christian faith and their American heritage.  Whether they consciously intended this, this is what Marshall and Manuel were doing.  They were calling their audience back in not one, but two respects: back to Biblical principles, and back to the supposed ideals of the American founding.

 Second, well-meaning Christians may also inject historical arguments in their efforts to reach non-Christian audiences in the public square.  For example, in evaluating the moral state of the nation in the 1970s, Marshall and Manuel might have observed that the United States was rejecting God’s standard and simply left it at that.  Their assertion might have pierced the hearts of some believers, but what weight, humanly speaking, would we expect it to have with the broader, unbelieving culture outside the church?

Eventually, Christians who want to have a political impact in the public square always have to confront a momentous question:  Do we ground our arguments solely in explicitly religious principles, or do we seek some sort of “common ground” on which to build arguments that non-Christians might be more open to?  I am not claiming that this is what motivated Marshall and Manuel, but this much is clear: appeals to the American past are one frequent way that American Christians try to influence the contemporary culture without making explicitly religious arguments.

So why was it such a bad idea for Marshall and Manuel to support a religious critique of contemporary America with a historical argument about America’s past?

I can think of three reasons.  First, their approach exacerbates an identity crisis that has long plagued American Christians, American evangelicals especially.  It is always dangerous to link our commitment to Christ too closely with one or more of our other group attachments.  And there is always a temptation to do so.  It is so easy to intertwine our faith with adherence to a particular social cause, economic system, approach to education, or political party, for example.

When the boundaries between these loyalties become blurred, we fall prey to what C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters called “Christianity And.”  By “Christianity And,” Lewis had in mind a state of confusion in which our ultimate identity in Christ becomes inseparable from other kinds of loyalties that can actually take preeminence in our hearts.  When it comes to thinking about the past, I think that “Christianity And” is most often a concern when we grapple with what it means to be both a Christian and an American.  The Marshall and Manuel approach merely feeds this temptation.

Second, there is a way in which the linking of religious argument with historical interpretation can unintentionally promote idolatry.  That’s a strong statement, I know, and I want to stress that this was never Marshall and Manuel’s conscious intent.  In fact, here I have Marshall and Manuel less in mind than more recent writers who regularly appeal to the founders in making arguments about contemporary public policy.  Living as we do in a pluralistic society suspicious of anything that looks like “theocracy,” I understand why it is so tempting to make such arguments.

Advocating that the nation return to the supposed principles of our founding seems like an acceptable way to promote Christian values in public life without making explicitly religious arguments.  The problem with this approach, however, is that it gives moral authority to the founders of our country, and that is simple idolatry.  The founders deserve our respect, unequivocally, but when “What would the Founders do?” becomes a proxy for “What would Jesus do?” we are imputing moral authority where God has not granted it.  That is idolatry.  There’s no other word for it.

Third, when Marshall and Manuel linked their religious critique of contemporary America to an interpretation of American history, they effectively backed themselves into a corner that made it impossible for them to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their historical interpretation of the American past would seem to weaken their religious interpretation of the American present.  I cannot emphasize this too strongly: This is a predicament no Christian historian should ever be in.  The truth of Christianity and the authority of Christian principles are not on trial when we debate American history.