All posts from "January 2010"January 27, 2010
Nothing has ever been easy for this once-lush island nation.
Like most people, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to Haiti in the past few weeks than ever before. I know very little about the place. It comes up just twice in my U.S. history survey course, once in the lecture on New World colonization, and again in a lecture on slave uprisings. For my own knowledge as well as for this blog, I thought I’d try to sketch a religious history of Haiti—one that does not include a national pact with the devil.
The island of Hispaniola, now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, bore the brunt of early Spanish colonization of the New World. Christopher Columbus explored its northern coast in 1492, and his favorable reports, along with Spain’s quest for riches and global dominance, soon brought many more soldiers, priests, and economic adventurers. Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican priest whose father and uncles joined Columbus’s second expedition, witnessed the results of this conquest. He titled his wrenching narrative, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542). It begins:
The Indies were discovered in the year one thousand four hundred and ninety-two. In the following year a great many Spaniards went there with the intention of settling the land. Thus, forty-nine years have passed since the first settlers penetrated the land, the first so claimed being the large and most happy isle called Hispaniola…
And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these [indigenous] people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world….
Yet into this sheepfold, into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during the past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola, once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons.
With the native population annihilated, mostly by disease, the Spanish conquerors looked to the African slave trade for a new labor supply. Religion in Hispaniola thus became a mixture of indigenous Caribbean and imported African practices, overlaid with Roman Catholicism. That mixture produced voodoo (or Vodou), which perhaps half of all Haitians practice, despite the fact that some 80 percent of Haitians formally identify as Roman Catholics, and most of the rest formally identify as Protestants.
According to the website of the Cultural Orientation Resource Center, an organization that aids the resettlement of refugees, the word “voodoo” means “spirit” in the Fon language of West Africa. The COR describes voodoo as “a religion based on family spirits [loas] who generally help and protect. Although lacking a fixed theology and an organized hierarchy, voodoo is a religion with its own rituals, ceremonies, and altars that practitioners do not find to be at odds with Roman Catholicism. In fact, many Roman Catholic symbols and prayers have blended with voodoo rituals and traditions to make for a unique and typically Haitian religion. For example, pictures of Catholic saints are painted on the walls of temples to represent the voodoo spirits; at funerals, it is not uncommon that voodoo ceremonies and rituals be performed for family members first, followed by a more public traditional Roman Catholic ceremony presided over by a priest.”
The “pact with the devil” mentioned by Pat Robertson was actually a voodoo ceremony performed in August 1791. France was at that time the ruling colonial power in Haiti, having acquired the western part of Hispaniola from Spain in 1697. Haitian slaves, fed up with brutal repression (one-third of imported African slaves died within a few years of arriving in Haiti) and inspired by the French Revolution, staged the most successful uprising in the western hemisphere. Though the rebellion’s principles originated in France, its opening event, as described by the official Haitian Bicentennial website, was a voodoo ceremony:
A man named Boukman … organized on August 14, 1791, a meeting with the slaves in the mountains of the North. This meeting took the form of a Voodoo ceremony in the Bois Caiman in the northern mountains of the island. It was raining and the sky was raging with clouds; the slaves then started confessing their resentment of their condition. A woman started dancing languorously in the crowd, taken by the spirits of the loas. With a knife in her hand, she cut the throat of a pig and distributed the blood to all the participants of the meeting who swore to kill all the whites on the island. …
The Revolution that would give birth to the Republic of Haiti was under way and nothing could stop it. Toussaint Louverture was the great leader who emerged out of the mass of the revolted. He proved to be a military genius and a formidable leader. He organized the masses of the slaves into an organized army. With political manipulation, and military campaigns, he would gain more and more notoriety in the colony. During the period of 1791, to 1800, Toussaint used the French, the Spaniards and the English against one another. He managed to eliminate all his enemies until he was the only power left in St Domingue (Haiti). By 1801, he was governing the whole island by himself and proclaimed himself governor of the colony. A constitution was soon drawn that same year declaring St Domingue an autonomous French possession where slavery was abolished.
Louverture’s own religious beliefs were complicated. A 1907 book, Haiti: Her History and Detractors, claimed that Toussaint attended Boukman’s 1791 voodoo ceremony but suppressed the religion after coming to power, perhaps to stifle a political force he feared could turn against him. Wikipedia described the leader as a devout Catholic who also, like many American revolutionaries, attained high rank as a Mason. He may have been all of these things. One thing is sure: his name means “all souls rising,” an apt name for the founder of a nation with a long history of glories, disasters, and spiritual upheaval.
Thomas Kidd tells the story of a Great Awakening.
Good history books are a gift that keeps on giving. Baylor University scholar Thomas Kidd published The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America in 2007. But this landmark contribution to a much-studied period will long shape our understanding of the dynamic revival that spawned the modern evangelical movement.
Regarding that thorny question of evangelical origins, Kidd does not go so far as his colleague David Bebbington, who has argued for a “sharp discontinuity” between the transatlantic revival and earlier Protestant expressions. Rather, Kidd describes the American evangelical tradition as a “new elaboration” of the Reformation." In fact, he identifies three “chief tributaries” that fed into the burgeoning movement: Continental Pietism, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, and Anglo-American Puritanism. But the “new elaboration” concerns “dramatically increased emphases on seasons of revival, or outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and on converted sinners experiencing God’s love personally.” This elaboration led to no small controversy in the 1740s.
But Kidd argues that the Old Light/New Light dichotomy oversimplifies what were actually fluid responses to the awakening. In place of this dualistic framework, Kidd suggests a three-part division. As a result, Kidd's narrative elevates radical evangelicals who overturned social conventions. They worried moderate evangelicals who defended the revivals and incurred the wrath of anti-revivalists who justified their opposition by citing radical enthusiasm.
While many historians have been occupied by the debates between Charles Chauncy, an Old Light, and Jonathan Edwards, a New Light, Kidd’s attention to the radicals reveals their significant contributions in shaping American evangelicalism. They did not consider education necessary for ministry. Women and racial minorities sometimes served as church deacons and elders. They welcomed unusual manifestations of the Spirit. They leveled the lingering distinctions between ordained ministers and laypeople by criticizing pastors and telling laypeople they could have full assurance of salvation here and now. Kidd’s argument about the radical influence brings him into conflict with Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, in which he argues that the American Revolution unleashed the populism that characterizes evangelicalism still today.
Though he acknowledges the work of W. R. Ward and Mark Noll in linking the American awakening with events in continental Europe and Great Britain, Kidd focuses on the colonial radicals and moderates. As he tells this story, Kidd declines to offer either a wholly supernatural or entirely natural explanation of the awakening. Radicals and moderates alike understood the awakening as a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But looking back with an analytical eye, Kidd notices that the constant threat of war with powerful France and Spain between 1688 and 1763 scared colonists who hoped the display of godliness in the revivals would lead God to show mercy and save them from Catholic threats. Kidd also notes the role of new media in spreading news of awakenings in nearby and distant towns. New periodicals such as Thomas Prince's The Christian History stoked interest among Christians in seeing this dynamic movement spread to their hometowns.
As he rebuts Jon Butler’s argument that the Great Awakening was an “interpretive fiction," Kidd acknowledges that many historians have perpetuated falsehoods about the revival. Kidd essentially agrees with Butler that the awakening did not lead directly to the Revolution, though he acknowledges that many evangelicals enthusiastically advocated breaking with Great Britain. And he rejects any sharp break between the First Great Awakening, peaking between 1740 and 1743, and the Second Great Awakening, which started in 1800. Actually, revivals predated even the surprising work described by Edwards in 1734-35, and they continued until the Revolution concluded in 1783.
“There was, really, no Second Great Awakening, but rather a long-term turn toward Baptist and Methodist piety from the American Revolution to the Civil War, punctuated by new revivals like the one at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801,” Kidd writes.
Kidd's book may overwhelm some readers who aren't already familiar with the key figures of the First Great Awakening. But his sweeping, fast-paced tour through the period has already become a must-read for anyone who wants to uncover the roots of American evangelicalism.
I’ve been teaching church history at Bethel Seminary for five years, and I think I’ve finally found one of these mythical creatures.
The Fountain of Youth. The Pot of Gold. The Holy Grail. Every professor can add to this list one more legendary object of desire—and indeed, this may be the most elusive and valuable of them all:
The Assignment That Works.
This is the piece of coursework that seems quite regularly, really almost magically, to elicit from students their best, most engaged and thoughtful writing.
I’ve been teaching church history at Bethel Seminary for five years, and I think I’ve finally found one of these mythical creatures.
About a year ago, faculty members teaching certain core courses were tasked with creating assignments for the newly designed “integrative portfolio.” This is a dossier that now accompanies each Bethel M.Div. student through their program, helping them to track their growth personally and professionally.
The assignment I developed to fit this need is the final paper in the church history survey course. I have assigned it three times, and each time it seems to have that grail-like quality of drawing from many students a high level of thoughtfulness and engagement with the historical sources.
In response to this prompt, my students have written papers such as the following:
• A comparison of Andrew Carnegie’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century “gospel of wealth” with the modern “prosperity gospel”
• A look at open theism in light of the Apostles’ Creed
• A critique of evangelical support for American militarism based in the thought of such church fathers as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen
• A paper on whether the Lord’s Supper should be given only to baptized believers, with the winsome title “Table manners: Washing our children before they eat.”
Students doing this assignment are coming up with so many great ways our history illumines our present that it’s become a pleasure to sit down and grade the resulting papers. And that’s something you won’t hear a professor say very often!
Here’s the assignment. Maybe you could try it out yourself:
Final Paper (Integrative Portfolio Assignment)
- Find a single issue in the church today that concerns you personally. This should be a problem or opportunity that shows up in some single branch or area of church life today. There are two ways to go on this. (1) You can choose an issue facing (with particular acuteness) a single denomination or even a single congregation—perhaps your home church. Or (2) you can choose a single, tightly-defined practice or idea that may show up across a variety of churches, say within the orbit of “modern American evangelicalism.” In either case, you will think about what is at stake for this particular church or what is at stake in the area of this particular idea or practice as it affects a broader group of churches. How would resolving the issue you have identified benefit the church?
- Find a single historical crux—that is, a single document, single event, single person’s idea, etc.—from church history in which some version of that same issue emerges, which you feel could help today’s church wrestle with that issue upon which you briefly editorialized. (You will probably need to find your modern issue and your historical crux at the same time—before you start writing either the editorial or the historical portions of this assignment.)
- Study that historical crux (document, event, person’s idea, etc.) by reading a balanced bibliography of primary and secondary sources—at least two and preferably three or more of each. In other words, you want to know both what people of that time thought was going on in that crux, and what historians since that time have said about it.
- Now you will write a three-pronged, 8- to 10-page paper, following this format:
- Describe your issue in the church today in detail, as if you were writing a brief editorial article for Christianity Today. That is, write in the first person—ideally basing your remarks on your own observations and experience. Again, you want to show your readers exactly what the issue is, who it affects, and how the church would benefit from resolving this issue.
- Using the best canons of historical writing (see, for example, the chapters of Gordon Heath’s Doing Church History on how to write historical essays), write a summary/analysis/interpretation of how that issue played out at your chosen historical crux. Very important: you must acknowledge ways in which the contemporary issue differs in how it is playing out today from how it played out at your historical crux. Different times and contexts entail different presuppositions that people find convincing in making an argument. Your summary/analysis/interpretation should follow this format:
- Start with the who-what-where-why-when. We need names, years, places. Historical writing falls apart without these.
- Set up the context of your crux, the stakes and stakeholders, the reasons why people did what they did as the crux unfolded.
- Now analyze your single document, event, idea, etc.: Outline the logic of how the issue played out: what argument or solution prevailed, and why? What grounds did the players use for deciding in favor of that argument or solution? From what agreed-upon warrants and shared presuppositions did they reach their conclusion?
- Now show how that conclusion played out concretely in the flesh-and-blood church of that historical moment: in belief, practice, organization, worship, or other appropriate aspects of church life.
- Give your interpretation (assessment) of the way your crux played out: was it beneficial or harmful for the church? Did it make sense in terms of Scriptural teaching, human psychology/sociology, theological integrity, etc.? (Choose your own criteria).
- Finally, return to your Christianity Today editorial style and write a conclusion on the issue in the church today based on your research into the historical crux: How can knowing the ins and outs of the historical crux you have just presented and analyzed help us resolve this issue that faces us today?
I conclude the prompt by suggesting that for good examples of writing about contemporary issues that draw from historical analysis, students should look at Christian History & Biography issue 94: Building the City of God in a Crumbling World. I ask them to note the care taken by the historian-authors in this issue: they do not impose today’s perspectives on the past (that is called “presentism,” and is anathema to historians). Rather, they seek an accurate picture of the past, from which they can extrapolate lessons for the present. That is the kind of care and historical integrity, I say, with which you are to write this integrative assignment.
From those of you who have taken courses in Christian history, I’d be interested to hear about any assignments you may have written that got your “usable history” juices flowing. From those who have taught Christian history—what has worked with your own students?
And if you have some spare time and decide to give this one a shot, I’d be delighted to read the resulting essay.
Just don’t ask me to grade it. :-)