05 November 2017

Recent Read--Benjamin Franklin:The Religious Life of a Founding Father

As an academic, it's probably not terribly surprising that one of my favorite pastimes is reading. I recently completed reading a spiritual biography of one of America's founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. This particular work was written by the eminent Baylor historian, Thomas S. Kidd, who has written extensively on the era of the American Revolution.

In his Autobiography, which is itself an interesting read, Franklin claimed to be a deist. Deism was a term that could describe a range of religious or irreligious beliefs. Franklin called for prayer at the Constitutional Convention, which would indicate that he believed that God was active in human affairs. This contrasts with the commonly taught depiction of deism as a "religion" that viewed God as a cosmic clock maker who built the universe and then stepped away and allowed it to run according to natural law. 
Kidd argues in the introduction of his work that Franklin was one of the first to follow a moralistic, doctrine-free form of Christianity that is common in much of American life. Kidd then pointed to Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey as a couple of modern-day examples of this religious point of view. 

This book draws extensively from the Autobiography as a source of Franklin's beliefs, but it goes into many other sources such as his other publications and correspondence. Franklin, who grew up in a staunchly Puritan home, was far from orthodox in his beliefs. While he believed in a deity who superintended over human affairs, he questioned many of the tenets of orthodox Christology. 

Kidd points out quite well that Franklin had little interest in Christian doctrine. He was more concerned with action than belief. This action usually involved the service of others, and Franklin undertook such activities for the public good. These included the foundation of the Philadelphia Academy (forerunner of the University of Pennsylvania) and one of the first public libraries in the American colonies.

This book included an assessment of Franklin's correspondence with evangelicals such as his sister Jane Mecom an the noted evangelist George Whitefield, the subject of another work by Kidd. Franklin was not above making money publishing both Whitefield's works as well as documents that criticized the English divine. Both Mecom and Whitefield frequently questioned Franklin regarding the state of his soul, to no avail. Franklin would go to his grave maintaining his unorthodox beliefs.

Overall, this is a very engaging read that utilizes a range of primary sources to craft an interesting analysis of Ben Franklin's religious beliefs and how they changed over time (he appeared to in some ways become less skeptical over time). It contextualizes Franklin's life in the social and religious milieu of his day.

Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017). 

06 April 2015

William Henry Sheppard and King Leopold's Congo Free State

I'm currently teaching a course in World History since 1600, and when working up the syllabus, I decided to have the students read Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, (2006 Mariner edition) which is a story of terror in the Belgian Congo during the decades that straddled the turn of the twentieth century. I read this book a few years ago, but because I had assigned it for this class, I decided to reread it to refresh my memory. The appalling nature of what went on at the time was not a surprise for me to say the least, and my memories were pretty fresh regarding most of the events.

To make a long story short, King Leopold was a king who felt his lack of an empire made his little country of Belgium, well, little. Wanting to increase his standing on the world stage, he was able to use people like Henry Morton Stanley to work his way into the Congo and get the United States to recognize his own personal colony. What followed in this attempt to "improve" the region was a level of death and destruction that ranks up there with that perpetrated by some of the more famous butchers of history. Hochschild and other writers have estimated that nearly 10 million Congolese lost their lives at the hands of the Force Publique and other minions of a variety of companies that traded, first in the ivory, and then in the rubber, that the region produced.

Of course, in addition to civilizing the Congolese, many people in Belgium appreciated that Catholic missionaries would be let in. In many instances, these priests did little to stop the atrocities in the early years. Some of the biggest outcries against the regime came from Protestant missionaries. One of the earliest to attempt to bring attention to Leopold's personal colony of what he termed the Congo Free State (an ironic name considering that forced labor was the rule, rather than the exception in the colony) was a Presbyterian missionary from the United States, William Henry Sheppard.

Sheppard was an African American who endeared himself to the Congolese among whom he worked. He was paired with Samuel Lapsley for the Southern Presbyterians. When his superior, Lapsley, died, Sheppard effectively took over the mission in a capacity he would not have been afforded in his home country. Over time, he became aware of the violence that occurred daily and published an account for his denomination. As it was published in the Congo Free State, Sheppard was guilty of breaking the law, but he was acquitted in the trial. His report, along with others by missionaries and secular humanitarians, eventually contributed to the transfer of the colony to the Belgian people. Sheppard will probably not come up in many of the leading general works on American church history, but his impact on the Belgian Congo was quite important.

07 October 2014

Puritanism and Patriotism

I've just finished re-reading a relatively recent work on the Puritans and how they've impacted American history basically since the beginning of the earliest colonies. Puritans were for reform, and they tended to have a high view of America's covenantal destiny should they live up to their end of their relationship to God. I read this book to get some context for the revision of my dissertation, hopefully for publication. George McKenna noted that a nearly unbroken strain of American Puritanical thought has continued through to the present day, first through the areas the Puritans inhabited in the burned-over district in New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, and Michigan, as they expanded to look for new lands to inhabit. The Puritan worldview then continued throughout the North during the Civil War and on through the reformers of the Progressive Movement. The Puritan thread then followed through the New Deal, after which it switched to the unlikely amalgam of Catholics and Southern Evangelical Protestants, both of whom took over the idea of the US as a chosen nation.
While McKenna drew upon a wide range of personalities, including such disparate characters as Jonathan Edwards, the Transcendentalist writers of the nineteenth century, Abraham Lincoln, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Ronald Reagan. The thing that tied these people together was the optimism that things could get better and their reforming impulse. They also tended to have a belief in a messianic destiny for the American nation that could be lost if the people of America did not follow this destiny. McKenna, although not the first to describe it, noted the importance of the political jeremiad in calling the people back to the straight and narrow from their wanderings off the righteous path. McKenna's book is well worth reading and will make the reader think about how much his or her ideas of America might reach way back into the past.
McKenna, George. The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

24 October 2013

Serpent Handlers

One of the more interesting groups that has arisen in American church history since the arrival of Europeans over 500 years ago is the serpent handlers of Appalachia. I grew up less than a dozen miles from a congregation that was reputed to be an authentic serpent handling church in West Virginia, although I have never been to one of their services in my nearly four decades of life. This church is no longer in operation, according to relatives (although I've since moved away from my hometown). Not surprisingly, these groups have never had a large following. Some states have attempted to shut them down and have laws on the books against the practice.

A few years ago, I read a book on the practice that took a relatively sympathetic approach. Fred Brown and Jeanne MacDonald's The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith looked at three of these congregations and the families that dominated them. Some family members had actually died of snake bites, yet their relatives were not deterred. While many people might find their faith well outside mainstream Christianity, few could doubt the sincerity of their faith, as most people tend to think that the only good snake is a dead snake.

I was flipping through the television channels a few weeks ago when I happened upon the National Geographic Channel. I rarely go above channel 48 (the History Channel), but nothing much was on this particular Tuesday night. I ran upon a show called Snake Salvation that was a sort of reality show on two serpent handling pastors. With my interest in American religion, I stayed with it--and watched additional shows on the next two or three Tuesdays.

A National Archives image of Serpent Handlers in Kentucky, 1946, via Wikimedia Commons

The show looks at Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin. The former is a member of the Coots family that was included in Brown and MacDonald's The Serpent Handlers, and the latter is a protege of Coots who moved from Kentucky to Tennessee to take over a serpent handling church. The show allows the serpent handlers to tell their story in their own words and follows them around church and on their snake hunts. As of 1997, it was estimated that only 1,000-2,000 of this group existed in the United States in between 25-45 churches, although the legal issues could possibly keep some groups underground. Both of the churches depicted on "Snake Salvation" appear to have between 20 and 40 attenders at most of the church services.

Not only do the serpent handlers pick up poisonous vipers, they also take the additional parts of Mark 16 in a very literal sense. While speaking in tongues is a common, although debated, practice in American (and world) Christianity, serpent handling is not. Neither is "drinking any deadly thing." Yet, the serpent handlers also drink toxic mixtures and handle fire. In one of the latest episodes of "Snake Salvation," an overalled fellow by the name of "Big Cody" drinks strychnine and also mixes up some lye for his co-religionists. He lives to tell his story. I checked the TV schedule for the next week, and it appears that this particular show might be over. Regardless, it was somewhat enlightening as it continued the work of The Serpent Handlers and other works on this system of belief that exists on the fringe of Christianity. I must say that I'll keep watching and reading because I have no real desire to attend a serpent-handling service.


13 September 2013

Getting a Doctorate and a Full-time History Gig

The last few months have been a whirlwind. I've just finished the first month of what I started out to get just over three years ago. I started my doctoral program at the University of North Dakota in August 2010, and the three years flew by. I was able to graduate on time with a Doctor of Arts in history. My dissertation looked at the early days of the Baptist communities in North Dakota. The project focused upon archival materials that were in the Chester Fritz library and the state archives in Bismarck. I had a major chapter on the state-level church and one of the local Grand Forks congregation. Fortunately, my committee signed off on it in time for graduation in May.

Just before graduation, I had the second of two interviews that I got from about 30-40 applications to various private high schools, community colleges, 4-year colleges, Bible colleges, small universities with master's programs, post-doctoral fellowships, and just about anything else in between. The school was in a rural community in Northwest Kansas, and I fortunately got the job. I must admit that I was a bit concerned before getting an offer because of the common tales of those holding doctorates in the humanities that have to adjunct for years. I did not really want to become a freeway flyer and try to find as many adjunct jobs as possible.

While my position is basically geared at teaching, as was my terminal degree, I'm hoping to revise parts of my dissertation in the next few months for publication. I'm just happy that I've been able to achieve a goal of becoming a college-level instructor that I had starting back as an undergrad nearly two decades ago.

07 August 2013

August Christian Blog Carnival

I have the privilege of posting the Christian Blog Carnival this month. The submissions come from a wide variety of bloggers and cover a number of different topics. I hope you enjoy this month's topics and the perspectives that they contain in the following general areas:


Harry Neufeld submitted an interesting post on why we need some help to truly get the full meaning of Biblical passages at his Participatory Bible Study Blog. He writes: We all depend on others, such as scholars, in our Bible study. How effective this is depends on when and how you do that.


Karen Vaughn's blog Karen's Devotions includes a post on the absence of a call for grief over sin in much of current evangelism.

Ridge Burns questions where God lives in his personal blog on the InFaith website. Reading Ezekiel 43:7 caused him to ponder this question, but New Testament passages inform his conclusion.

Silas Eke posts a sermon on his Sermon Notes blog about Zacchaeus and his conversion. He writes: Many no doubt, were converted to the faith of Christ of whom no account is kept in the Gospels; but the conversion of some, whose case had something in it extraordinary, is recorded, as this of Zacchaeus. The name Zacchaeus means pure or justified. He is the man who overcame obstacles.


Dean at the Working on the Mission blog looks at how he was blown away by God's creation. The cause of his wonder is a pretty cool picture of an Indonesian frog. A very brief post, but seriously just stop for a moment and in the middle of all our theological thinking, our critical critiques and our academic understandings let's just marvel at the majesty of God through His creation.

Jennifer Vaughn-Estrada writes a book review on her Chic of Domesticity blog. This post gives a quick review of Douglas Foster's The Story of the Churches of Christ. The book is intended for a lay audience that wants a brief overview of how the Church of Christ began.  

Thanks to those who submitted blogs from July. Until next month, when Practical Proverbs hosts, I hope you enjoyed this small sample of Christian blog posts.

05 May 2013

Two Years Old--Thoughts on Gilded Age/Progressive Era Baptists

I just thought that I would note that this blog is turning two years old today. Over the past two years, I've posted 126 posts. This one makes the 127th. I have had over 27,000 page views according to the on-site stats.

Some of the things that I've found most interesting are the things that other people are searching for on the internet. Surprisingly, the most popular post that I've had is related to the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647. I would not have figured that nearly 1,600 people would have an interest in this relatively narrow topic, although it is pretty interesting because of the fact that it shows that the Puritans were very interested in education and were actually willing to levy taxes to pay for it.

Much of my work on this site has focused on Puritans. I have other interests, and my recently-approved dissertation actually focused upon Gilded Age/Progressive Era North Dakota Baptists. These folks tended to emphasize many of the same things that the general Protestant establishment did. Prohibition, a Progressive Era reform (in spite of the idea that it was a conservative concept), showed up in the minutes of just about annual meeting of the North Dakota Baptist State Convention--even after Prohibition became the law of the land in 1918.

The North Dakota Baptists would have agreed largely with Rudyard Kipling's idea of the "White Man's Burden" as the idea of evangelizing and civilizing seemed to come together and get conflated at the time. Of course, it is interesting to note that Jesus said to make disciples, not Anglo-Americans, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many believed that these two ideas were one and the same. Some would still seem to think that this is the case.

I'll be interested to see what the next two years has in store as I begin the transition from full-time grad student to full-time instructor.