Tag Archives: Mark Noll

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CHURCH

[I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, and since the Fourth of July is rapidly approaching, I am re-posting slightly revised versions of some of my favorite past essays on the American founding.]

American-revolution

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.

When it comes to the topic of faith and the American founding, however, 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.  There are many that I could cite.  An encouraging development in recent years has been the increasing willingness among accomplished Christian scholars to breach the walls of the academy in order to communicate with the church.  Younger historians who are doing so include (among many) John Fea of Messiah College, Thomas Kidd at Baylor, and James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).

The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll, formerly of Wheaton College, now at the University of Notre Dame.  Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman.  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.

Christians in the American RevolutionUndertaking 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.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: C. S. LEWIS ON MEMORY AND HISTORY

I’m still occasionally struck by the irony that the person who has helped me most in thinking through the nature of history wasn’t himself a historian.  But the irony that C. S. Lewis has frequently been my guide is more apparent than real.  Lewis was a scholar of ancient and medieval literature, and that gave him both an appreciation for the past and a language for expressing it that few historians have equaled.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Lewis rarely taught on literary works less than half a millennium old.  Of necessity, he spent much of his career trying to convince skeptical undergraduates that they should care about the world before they were born.  Few scholars have been more adept in exposing the arrogance that underlies “chronological snobbery” and the blindness that presentism perpetuates.  But he was also a master of metaphor and story, and he understood something we academics are prone to forget: namely, that when it comes to conveying complex truths, word pictures are often more effective than abstract theorizing.  Among his many intellectual gifts, Lewis’s greatest may have been his talent for translation, by which I mean his ability to make complicated concepts accessible to broad audiences.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything from my commonplace book, so I thought I’d pass along a couple of passages from Lewis that I copied just this morning.  They come from his short book A Grief Observed, a set of reflections that Lewis recorded as he was dealing with the death of his wife Helen.  I listened to A Grief Observed on tape while driving to see my father over spring break, and then I re-read it in hard copy once I returned to Wheaton.  It’s not a fun read, but it’s honest, convicting, and ultimately encouraging.  I recommend it.

Surely most of the readers who pick up A Grief Observed aren’t thinking about history at all.  They open its pages to see how Lewis dealt with death, perhaps to think about the ways that loss can challenge faith.  That’s as it should be.  But hidden early in Lewis’s “map of sorrow” are ruminations that spoke to me as a historian, for they wonderfully capture a challenge that I face every day.  When I ask students what causes them to admire a particular history book or history teacher, what I hear most commonly is that the book or teacher in question makes the past “come alive.”  This, then, becomes my challenge if I want to connect with them.  What they find engaging, I should strive to model.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible.

Only God resurrects the dead.

What do we really mean when we say that a particular work of history makes the past “come alive”?  Sometimes all we mean is that it entertains us, but often we have in mind much more than that.  With the historian as our guide, we have the sensation of traveling into the past; we imagine ourselves in another time.  Soon the historian fades into the background and we observe the drama in solitude, directly observing the historical figures that the historian has made to “come alive” for our benefit.

Early in A Grief Observed, Lewis bluntly dispels such misleading figures of speech.  Listen in as he talks with himself about advice that he should think less about himself and more about Helen (or “H”) as he deals with his grief:

Yes, that sounds very well.  But there’s a snag.  I am thinking about her nearly always.  Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers.  But it is my own mind that selects and groups them.  Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.  Founded on fact, no doubt.  I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t).  But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own?  The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.

Here Lewis confronts us with a disturbing reality.  Despite the clichés with which materialists comfort themselves—the dead do not live on in the memory of the living.  “What pitiable cant,” Lewis snorts.  Although Lewis loved Helen dearly and knew her intimately, he knows also that his memories of her are imperfect and selective.  And though it is heart-wrenching for him to acknowledge, he knows that the Helen who “lives” in his memory will be “more and more imaginary.”

Lewis elaborates his point by relating how he had recently met a man whom he hadn’t seen in ten years. Although he thought that he had remembered this acquaintance quite accurately, it took only five minutes of real conversation with the fellow to shatter that delusion.  “How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.?” Lewis asks with palpable anguish.  “That it is not happening already?”

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her.  The real shape will be quite hidden in the end.  Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this.  And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again.  The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.

What a remarkable illustration!  And how does this help us to understand the body of knowledge we call “history”?  History, as John Lukacs puts is, is not the past itself but the “remembered past.”  And just as with Lewis’s memories of his late wife, the past as we remember it will always bear an imperfect resemblance to past reality.  We can magnify the disparity through sloppiness or dishonesty, but even in our best moments—when we labor to recreate the past with the utmost integrity—we always fall short.

Like Lewis, we can strive to immerse ourselves in the facts, we will (hopefully) purpose to invent no details, but the necessity of selecting, grouping, and interpreting the facts—figuratively breathing life into them—inescapably remains.  This means that to some degree we always remake the past subjectively.  “Little flakes” of us are perpetually, inexorably settling down on the past to obscure its real form.

So what are we to do with this truth?  Shall we throw up our hands and say the whole quest is futile, that there’s no point in pretending that we can learn anything about the past or from the past?  Absolutely not!  But if we take Lewis’s insight to heart, we’ll be more humble in the claims that we make to historical knowledge.  The exciting news is that God regularly pulls aside the curtain and grants us precious glimpses into the past.  The humbling news is that we always peer into the past “as through a glass, darkly.”

WILLIAM BRADFORD ON “PROVIDENTIAL” 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.

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“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 AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CHURCH

(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.)

Independence Day is only 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 a previous 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 previously 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 James Byrd of Vanderbilt University (my alma mater).

The example I want to share now, however, is from an older book by Mark Noll, formerly of Wheaton College, now at the University of Notre Dame.  Noll is a brilliant scholar, a prolific historian, and a kind and gracious Christian gentleman.  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.

Christians in the American Revolution

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.

THE PULPIT AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION–A MODEL TO IMITATE?

(Readers: I will be on the road June 18-28 attending a workshop for college teachers at Yale and visiting a variety of East Coast historical sites. While I am away–and with July 4th looming on the horizon, I will be reposting a series of past essays on Faith and the American Founding.  The review below originally appeared two years ago in Christianity Today.  With politically-minded evangelicals like David Barton and Dan Fisher praising the role of preachers in supporting the cause of American independence in 1776, I thought it a good idea to revisit James Byrd’s systematic study of how patriots appealed to Scripture during the Revolution.  While Barton, Fisher et al contend that the Bible shaped colonial pastors’ politics, Byrd finds evidence to suggest that the opposite was at least equally true.)

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James P. Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

The history of the American Revolution is, above all, a story about national beginnings, and stories about beginnings are stories that explain. How we understand our origins informs our sense of identity as a people. We look to the past not only to understand who we are but also to justify who we wish to become. And so, as a nation divided over the proper place of religious belief in the contemporary public square, we naturally debate the place of religious belief in the American founding.

Outside of the academy, much of that debate has focused on a simplistic, yes-or-no question: did religious belief play an important role in the American founding? This makes sense if the primary motive is to score points in the culture wars, mining the past for ammunition to use against secularists who deny that the United States was founded as a Christian country. There’s a problem with the history-as-ammunition approach, however. It’s good for bludgeoning opponents with, but it positively discourages sustained moral reflection, the kind of conversation with the past that can penetrate the heart and even change who we are.

Sacred ScriptureIn contrast, books like Sacred Scripture, Sacred War have the potential to challenge us deeply. Granted, author James Byrd inadvertently offers ammunition to readers cherry-picking evidence for a Christian founding. He matter-of-factly contends that sermons were more influential than political pamphlets in building popular support for independence, and he insists unequivocally that “preachers were the staunchest defenders of the cause of America.” And yet the question that really interests him is not whether religion played an important role in the American founding but how that it did so. More specifically, he wants to understand how colonists used the Bible in responding to the American Revolution.

Toward that end, Byrd went in search of original colonial sources that addressed the topic of war while appealing to scripture. He ultimately identified 543 colonial writings (the vast majority of which were published sermons) and systematically analyzed the more than 17,000 biblical citations that they contained. The result is by far the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken of “how revolutionary Americans defended their patriotic convictions through scripture, which texts they cited and how they used them.”

Byrd relates his conclusions in five thematic chapters, each of which highlights a common scriptural argument in support of the Revolution. Americans found in the scripture “a vast assemblage of war stories” relevant to their own struggle with England. From the Old Testament, ministers drew inspiration especially from the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14-15), from the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, and from the example of David, the man of war who was also the “man after God’s own heart.” Ministers read each of these stories analogically and drew lessons from them. The Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt resembled their own bondage to British tyranny; ditto for the Israelites’ subjection centuries later to Jabin, king of Cannaan. The contest between David and Goliath, in like manner, foreshadowed the colonists’ righteous struggle with a powerful but arrogant British empire. (That David went on to become a king was a fact that need not be emphasized.)

To the patriotic ministers who declared them from the pulpit, the lessons embedded in these stories were indisputable. God championed the cause of independence. A warrior who liberated his people by means of war, the Lord clearly sanctioned violence in the pursuit of freedom. Furthermore, he would intervene on their behalf, and with God on their side, the ill-trained and poorly equipped patriots would be victorious. This meant that loyalism was rebellion against God, and pacifism was “sinful cowardice.” Had not the angel of the Lord cursed the people of Meroz because they did not come “to the help of the Lord against the mighty” (Judges 5:23)? Had not the prophet Jeremiah thundered, “Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood” (Jer. 48:10)?

If the biblical argument in support of the Revolution was to succeed, of course, patriot ministers knew that they must buttress these arguments with support from the New Testament. This was no simple task, inasmuch as the apostles Peter and Paul both seemed to condemn rebellion and teach submission to rulers as a Christian’s duty. Paul enjoined the church at Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1); Peter commanded Christians to “honor the king” (I Peter 2:17b). Neither admonition seemed to leave much room for righteous resistance to civil authority.

Advocates of independence countered, however, that these passages only commanded obedience to rulers who were ministers of God “for good,” and since liberty was self-evidently good, the apostles could not possibly be calling for submission to tyrants. They reassured their flocks, furthermore, by repeatedly citing one of the few unambiguous endorsements of liberty in the New Testament. “Stand fast,” Paul had counseled the churches of Galatia, “in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1). The liberty Paul had in mind was civil as well as religious, ministers insisted, which meant that the refusal to “stand fast” with the patriot cause was nothing less than “a sin against the express command of God.”

Three overarching patterns emerge from Byrd’s study that should trouble Christian readers. First, the influence of political ideology and historical circumstance in shaping the colonists’ interpretation of scripture is striking. Traced to its roots, the colonists’ conviction that civil liberty is a God-given right owed more to the Enlightenment than to orthodox Christian teaching, and yet the belief strongly informed how colonists understood the Word of God. Reading the scripture through the lens of republican ideology, they discovered “a patriotic Bible” perfect for promoting “patriotic zeal.”

Second, the readiness with which Christian advocates of independence sanctified violence is disturbing. “Colonial preachers did not shy away from biblical violence,” Byrd finds. “They embraced it, almost celebrated it, even in its most graphic forms.”

Third, and most ominously, the evidence suggests that the way patriotic ministers portrayed the military conflict with Britain morphed rapidly from merely a “just war”—a war originated for a morally defensible cause and fought according to moral criteria—into a “sacred” or “holy war”—a struggle “executed with divine vengeance upon the minions of Satan.” Patriotism and Christianity had become inseparable, almost indistinguishable.

Byrd writes with restraint and offers little commentary on his findings, but the implications for American Christians are sobering and the stakes are high. As Byrd acknowledges in his conclusion, over time the United States has come “to define itself and its destiny largely through the justice and sacredness of its wars.” American Christians have played a major role in that process of national self-definition, all too regularly sanctifying the nation’s military conflicts as sacred struggles.

Historian Mark Noll has lamented that by the time of the American Revolution “the thought and activity of the American churches tended to follow the thought and activity of the American nation,” not the other way around. With painstaking thoroughness, James Byrd reaffirms that conclusion, showing that the pattern even defined how revolutionary-era Christians read their Bibles and thought about war.

 

STARTLING STATISTICS ON WORLD CHRISTIANITY

from every tribe and nationIn my most recent post I recommended a great new book by Christian historian Mark Noll, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story.   (See here.)  I focused on Noll’s account of how he was “rescued by the Reformation,” i.e., of how his faith was broadened, deepened, and revitalized by an encounter with Christians from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.  Noll’s story is a marvelous illustration of what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he exhorted us to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

To whet your appetite further, I thought I would share a bit more from the book, this time from a chapter titled “By the Numbers.”  Here Noll shares an assortment of comparative statistics that attest to the recent dramatic changes that are remaking the map of world Christianity.  Here are a few, which I quote verbatim:

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* “Last Sunday, it is probable that more Chinese believers were in church than in all of so-called ‘Christian Europe’; as recently as 1970 there had been no legally open churches in China.”

* “Last Sunday, more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Episcopalians in the United States combined . . .”

* “Last Sunday more members of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Brazil were in church than the combined total of the two largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States . . .”

* “Last Sunday more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul . . . than attended all of the churches in significant North American denominations, such as the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Free Church, or the Presbyterian Church in America.”

* “From 1900 to 2000 the number of individuals affiliated with Christian churches in Europe, Latin America, [and] North America . . . rose at roughly the same rate as the general population.  By contrast, the number of affiliated Christians in Africa rose about five times faster than the general population, while the number in Asia rose four times as fast.”

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What’s your reaction to these statistics?  The first thing that struck me is how incredibly ignorant I am about the contours of Christianity in other parts of the world.  Although I am a Christian historian, I am not primarily a historian of Christianity, and so the figures that Noll shares speak to a vast field about which I have little or no knowledge, much less expertise.

Beyond that, I wonder how many of us might be troubled by these statistics, especially those that seem to indicate that the United States is declining in its significance within the larger story of world Christianity.  Ought we to be troubled?

It seems to me that there are two questions here that might easily be conflated.  The first involves the intrinsic vitality of Christianity within the United States.  Broadly speaking, is the church in this country alive and well, holding its own, or declining as a living testimony to the truth and power of the gospel?  The second involves the comparative prominence of U. S. churches in the larger story of world Christianity.  Do Christians in other parts of the world, for example, look to American churches for leadership, encouragement, and other forms of support?

These are related questions but they are not identical, which means that the answer to one does not automatically determine the answer to the other.  On the one hand, if Christianity in the United States is like salt that is losing its savor, then we should expect to see America’s role in world Christianity decline.  But why should the reverse also hold true?  If the United States is home to an ever shrinking proportion of the world’s Christians, if the world looks less and less to us for leadership, is that automatically cause for concern?  Or might it instead be cause for rejoicing, interpreted as evidence of the spread of the gospel to “every tribe and nation”?

This is a complicated question, and I won’t even pretend to try to answer it.  But as a Christian historian fascinated by the intersection between faith and American history, I do want to think about how we respond to it.  My guess is that our initial, unguarded response to the question says a lot about what we think America’s role in world Christianity ought to be.  That assumption, in turn, speaks to our sense of who we are.  It reveals something about our collective identity, in other words–our identity not just as Christians but as American Christians.  As a historian I’m convinced that our sense of collective identity both shapes and is shaped by the stories we tell about our past–the way that we remember our history.

All of this points to the conclusion that how we understand our country’s religious history will go a long way in shaping how we assign meaning to  contemporary trends in world Christianity and America’s place within it.  As I write this, I’m particularly mindful of the argument set forth in Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. (For a previous post on the book, click here.)

With neither logic nor evidence on their side, Marshall and Manuel argued that the United States was founded to be God’s New Israel.  In the opening pages of The Light and the Glory, the authors pose the fundamental question, “Could it be that we Americans, as a people, 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?”

Their answer is a resounding “Yes!”  The authors relate how their research  convinced them that “God had put a specific ‘call’ on this country and the people who were to inhabit it. In the virgin wilderness of America, God was making his most significant attempt since ancient Israel to create a new Israel of people living in obedience to the laws of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.”

The Light and the Glory is the most widely read Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever published.  Readers learn from it that the United States wasn’t just founded as a Christian nation–it was God’s chosen nation.  Logically, shouldn’t those who accept this view of American history see the changing contours of world Christianity as God’s judgment against His chosen people, i.e., the United States?

 

RECOMMENDED READING: “FROM EVERY TRIBE AND NATION”

In my last post I shared a bit about Nathan Hatch’s recent chapel talk at Wheaton on “the redemptive power of the past.”  (See here.)  Hatch, a Wheaton grad who is now president of Wake Forest University, began his case for the importance of history to Christians with a pair of vignettes about two of his classmates, pastor John Piper and historian Mark Noll.  In the course of his remarks about the latter, he quoted extensively from Noll’s most recent book, which I immediately purchased and read.  Now that Thankgiving has come and gone, I want to tell you why you need to read it.

The book that Hatch read from is Noll’s From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story.  The book is part of a new series from the Christian publishing house Baker Books.  The series is edited by Calvin College professor Joel Carpenter, and its goal is to educate U.S. Christians about the spectacular explosion of Christianity in other parts of the world, most notably Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  To do that, Carpenter has invited several prominent scholars of American Christianity to write autobiographical essays about their own growing engagement with Christianity in the global South.  Noll’s book is the third volume in the series.

Professor Mark Noll..Photo by Bryce RichterIf you’re not familiar with Mark Noll, here is a bit of background: Noll is an alumnus of Wheaton College, where he majored in English and graduated in the same class as Nathan Hatch and John Piper, among others.  After briefly studying comparative literature in graduate school, he redirected his attention to the history of Christianity, a field which he has mined relentlessly and brilliantly ever since.  He is the author or editor of over fifty books on the topic and shows no sign of slowing down.  I have read eleven of those books.

The first work by Noll that I ever read was his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  Reflecting on his career, Noll recently observed, “As someone called to function as a scholar, it has long seemed to me imperative that at least some Christian believers should be thinking hard about why and how Christian believers should be thinking hard.”  Scandal was one of the first fruits of that sense of calling.  It was the first book that I had ever read that spoke so directly to the intersection between Christian faith and the life of the mind.  From its memorable first line–“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind”–I was hooked.  That first sentence notwithstanding, Noll’s primary goal in Scandal wasn’t to condemn evangelical anti-intellectualism but to explain it, and in explaining it, to exhort his brothers and sisters to greater faithfulness.  (“This book is an epistle from a wounded lover,” he explained in the preface.)  The book remains one of the two or three most personally influential books I have ever read.

The books that I read after Scandal reflected the range of Noll’s scholarship.  They included sweeping surveys such as The History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, The Rise of Evangelicalism, and America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.  Some were more focused works, for example Christians in the American Revolution and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  And some were expressions of that sense of calling to think hard about why Christians should think hard, including Noll’s 2013 sequel to Scandal titled Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.

from every tribe and nationFrom Every Tribe and Nation differs from all of these in that it is is autobiographical. It’s essentially the story of his personal spiritual and intellectual journey, with an emphasis on the way that Noll’s engagement with Christianity in other parts of the world has deepened his faith. But as every historian knows, you can visit foreign countries by traveling through time as well as space. Noll illustrates that truth wonderfully in the book’s second chapter, “Rescued by the Reformation.”

In “Rescued by the Reformation” Noll seeks to explain a religious renewal that he experienced during his early twenties. During these years he ceased being an “interested Christian spectator” and became a “committed Christian participant.” Heart and mind were both transformed. “My disquiet about the religion with which I had grown up,” he summarizes, “gave way to a captivating new experience of Christian faith.”

Noll was raised in a devout evangelical family in the Midwest, and he is quick to praise his parents’ faithfulness and to give thanks for the many godly examples to be found in his church. And yet he describes a larger evangelical culture in post-WWII America that all too often obscured the grace at the heart of the gospel. “I was not alone as a young person,” Noll writes, “in hearing that godliness was not smoking, drinking, or going to movies, and waiting for sex until marriage. . . . The weightier matters of the law—doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God—were not entirely disregarded, but were all too easily obscured by the behavioral shibboleths of fundamentalism.”

“The most important spiritual problem,” Noll concludes, was that

Despite endless repetition about the fullness of God’s grace, it was all too easy to absorb an image of Christianity defined almost entirely by what you did nor did not do, entirely equated with a short list of propositions that had to be believed, or practically reduced to my conversion experience and the need to convert others.

Noll hastens to clarify what he is not saying: he is NOT suggesting that Christians aren’t called to purity, that right belief is unimportant, that conversion is not essential, or that evangelism is optional. He IS suggesting that these emphases, when they comprise the entirety of our faith, are incomplete and in the long run debilitating.

It was a mistake to leave the impression that moral behavior constituted Christian faith. It was also a mistake to think that my checklist of proper beliefs amounted to Christianity as such. And it was a mistake to let the reality of conversion crowd out other Christian realities.

So by what path did God lead him to a deeper, more vital faith? To quote a famous essay by C. S. Lewis, it was through “the reading of old books.” American evangelicals, like modern Americans generally, are “stranded in the present,” to quote a haunting phrase by Christian historian Margaret Bendroth. (For more on her reflections, see here.)  We cut ourselves off from the vast majority of all the Christians who have ever lived, implicitly assuming that we have nothing to learn from those who have gone before us. You can see this “chronological snobbery” on display in almost any commercial Christian bookstore. The shelves will bulge with the latest hastily written book from the pulpit celebrity of the moment, but good luck finding anything dating to the first nineteen centuries of Christian history.

Danger comes with such tunnel vision. As Lewis understood, contemporary books mainly reinforce what we already believe—including what we wrongly believe. They cast light where we already see and deepen the darkness where we are unwittingly blind. The only antidote, Lewis maintained, “is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”

Noll experienced the truth of Lewis’s prescription in his twenties as he began to broaden the chronological boundaries of God’s church and enter into conversation with past giants of the faith. I’ll conclude with this lengthy, powerful quote:

A crude statement of how I would read my own life goes as follows. From internalizing such preaching about what I needed to do in order to be saved, I experienced existentially Martin Luther’s message about what God had endured in order to save me. From a view of the Bible preoccupied by its meaning for the future, I learned from John Calvin a way of reading Scripture that revealed its pervasive relevance for the present. From singing true, but thin, words about the wonderful grace of Jesus, I was transformed by singing Charles Wesley’s account of a long-imprisoned spirit unchained by the bright light of divine mercy. From being taught that I should be intensely concerned about how many authors contributed to the book of Isaiah, I followed Jonathan Edwards in seeing that the only really important question was the purpose for which God created the world (it was for his own glory). Just a little bit later, from seeking first one and then another foundation, it was reassuring beyond comprehension to hear in the Heidelberg Catechism that ‘my only comfort in life and in death is my faithful Savior Jesus Christ who has fully paid for all my sins with his blood.’

In other words, the riches of classical Protestantism opened a new and exceedingly compelling vision of existence. Intellectually, theologically, existentially, I was rescued by the Reformation.