All sides of a recent textbook battle are right, and wrong, about religion in American history.
I think five different people mentioned the same article to me earlier this month: “How Christian Were the Founders?” from The New York Times Magazine. Russell Shorto’s long and generally balanced piece examines how one institution, the Texas State Board of Education, exerts tremendous power over the interpretation of such contentious issues as creation/evolution and the role of Christianity in the founding of the United States. It is a story full of ironies, not unlike American history itself.
Texas is a big state, and it orders a lot of textbooks. Textbook publishers cannot afford to tailor their products to every potential audience, so they often aim at the large target under the Lone Star. As a result, 15 people in Texas help determine the curriculum for much of the country. Who knew that an elected body including high school teachers, administrators, real estate agents, lawyers, and a dentist has more direct influence over public schools in this country than do the presidents of Ivy League universities?
Reality as the opposite of what you would expect is one kind of irony. Irony as unintended consequences, and irony as the juxtaposition of contradictory impulses, are also on display in Shorto’s piece. Both appear in his discussion of the fabled wall of separation between church and state.
Before there was Christian History, there was Christian History.
Thomas Prince Sr. may have worried that the Great Awakening was fading when he and his son started the first evangelical magazine in 1743. But he wanted to publish a journal that would document the revival that had been spreading through the American colonies. Future generations could turn to the Christian History magazine and remember God’s faithfulness. He also hoped the periodical would keep the awakened community from fracturing, encourage recent converts, and perhaps even prompt a few new ones. Whether or not the Boston pastor succeeded in all his aims, we are indebted this progenitor of evangelical publishing, who inspired generations of journalist/historians to support the church by documenting the gospel’s progress.
“Where there had been no specifically evangelical periodical publication in the first forty years of the [eighteenth] century,” Susan [Durden] O’Brien observes, “by the last forty years such literature had become a normal means of communication and propagation for several denominations.”
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.
In November 1739, Jonathan Edwards preached not freedom from want, but freedom from demons.
Thanksgiving is a feel-good holiday. All Americans know, or think they know, about the “first Thanksgiving” celebration among helpful American Indians and grateful Pilgrims. Some Americans know, at least vaguely, that the national tradition is also connected to war. Abraham Lincoln began the annual observance in 1863, as the Civil War was nearing its bloody crescendo, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the federal holiday official by signing a bill in December 1941, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. But hey, those wars happened a long time ago, and they were noble wars, and the good guys won. As the twentieth century spun on, Thanksgiving became synonymous with plenty, even excess, prompting an annual round of reduced-fat recipes, dieting tips, and warnings about the lethargy brought on by too much turkey. The dominant image was Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Freedom from Want,” another World War II artifact symbolizing all that was right with America and could be right with the world following an Allied victory.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), America’s foremost theologian, held forth a very different vision in his 1739 Thanksgiving sermon.