29 May 2011

Website of Interest--Church History

From time to time, I check out what is out there on the web in relation to church history.  One such site is located on the Christianity Today website.  Christianity Today is an evangelical magazine that includes many differing articles on topics that may be of concern to evangelical Christians living in today's society.  Many of the articles focus upon current events and movements in the world of Christianity.  There are also links to articles and blogs on topics such as politics and entertainment, written from a Christian viewpoint.  There is even a book review section, that discusses numerous recent books.  After a brief perusal of the "Books and Culture" page, one of the more influential Christian historian's name, Mark Noll, appeared with a review.  Readers can glean much information from these pages on the Christianity Today site.

All of these topics are worth investigating, and they provide useful information from an evangelical viewpoint.  However, the blogs mentioned were not the specific reason for this post.  Christianity Today's website includes a page devoted entirely to church history, which includes such topics as "Today in Christian History" and a quote for each week.  These particular links can provide readers with an opportunity to scratch the itch for some random facts on church history.  At times, these seemingly random facts can encourage readers to be faithful in their journey of following Christ.  The website is available at this link: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/.  I would point out that the information on this website includes information on a wide variety of Christian traditions and that not all of the subjects of discussion are evangelical in nature.  Finally, while the website is not by any means focused entirely upon American church history, there is much that will interest those with an interest in that specific sub-field of inquiry.

27 May 2011

Holiday Weekend Randomness

I am currently in the middle of taking a five state circuitous route to Colorado to do some work beginning on June 2.  I decided to take the family on this circuitous route to check out some areas that I have never had the chance to see before.  We left Grand Forks yesterday, and as I type this post in Pocatello, Idaho, we have been in the car for about 22 hours over the last two days.  We could have gotten here quicker if not for the 6 hour, 100 mile detour through Yellowstone National Park.

I saw the western half of North Dakota for the first time yesterday, and it is much different than the eastern half.  The Red River Valley is definitely about the flattest place that I have ever seen, with only Kansas coming close.  Starting about Bismarck, however, the land changes from farm to ranch.  The most impressive section of the trip was the 20 miles or so of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, home of the Badlands.  Shortly after stopping for a few minutes in 55 degree weather with about a 30 mile per hour wind, we drove into Montana.  This was the first opportunity that I have had to visit Montana, and it did not disappoint by any stretch of the imagination.  Although the Yellowstone River has been flooding recently, leading to a partial closure of I-90, there were no obstacles to our getting through today.

From I-90, we took US 89 to Yellowstone National Park.  It would be easy to spend a week at Yellowstone and still have much to see.  One thing that I did not expect before I started checking the weather this week was a snowstorm.  After driving around for quite a while and checking out a huge canyon and some bubbling and steaming sulfur pools, we got to Old Faithful.  This geyser is probably the most famous feature of the oldest national park in the US.  However, about the time that we got to Old Faithful, near blizzard conditions began and continued until after we left the area.  We were able to see an eruption, but the snow led to less-than-optimal viewing conditions.  The switchbacks without guardrails that were necessary to maneuver to get into the park in a way reminded me of IRT Deadliest Roads and in a way weirded me out, but it was a great view.


23 May 2011

Church Music in the Eighteenth Century

To many Christians today, one of the more controversial topics of discussion can be what type of music gets sung in church on Sunday.  Some act like this is a new controversy that just began in the last thirty to forty years with the advent of "Christian Rock".  However, this is definitely not the case.  The type of music sung in church has been a controversial subject for at least the last 300 years.  This may seem confusing to some readers because they think only hymns were in existence at this early date.  Actually, the controversy involved hymns.

In the last few years, I have read two scholarly biographies on Jonathan Edwards, who is far from being considered one of the most liberal theologians in American history.  In both of these biographies, one by George M. Marsden, titled Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and another that I recently reviewed on this page titled Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, written by Douglas A. Sweeney (http://americanchurchhistory.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-im-reading-jonathan-edwards-and.html), a topic that both writers discussed was the relationship of music to the church.

Most Puritans in Edwards' day believed that parishioners should only sing Psalms in church.  These very conservative Puritans considered the singing of any music other than Psalms (yes, they would announce the 23rd Psalm as the day's selection) a very controversial and almost scandalous act.  Edwards received quite the reputation among many old-line ministers for singing Isaac Watts hymns in church.  For those who may be unfamiliar with the name of Isaac Watts, Watts was a hymn writer who wrote and published such hymns as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed" (without the 'At the cross, At the cross, where I first saw the light...' refrain, which was added nearly 200 years later).  Few Christians of any denomination would have a problem singing these songs in church today, but in the eighteenth century, they were considered inappropriate for worship.  The focus of the service, even the music focused on the Word, hence the singing of Psalms. 

I personally find this a very interesting topic.  I know of some Christians who believe that only hymns should be sung in church, but very few who want to sing the Psalms.  I also know of many who sing songs that are more contemporary.  This evidence from the 1700s almost makes one wonder what songs people will argue about in another 300 years if Jesus hasn't returned by that point.

19 May 2011

Summer Gig--Internship

As of last Friday night, when I turned in the final grades from my section of "The United States since 1877" my first year as a doctoral student officially came to an end.  I really enjoyed being a full-time student again, and also enjoyed the opportunity to teach a college class on a college campus.  My assistantship ended with the semester, however, and I was left with the question of what to do with the summer.  While I am not against working at Wal-mart or some other similar job (I've worked in both the fast food and grocery industries in my day),  I wanted something that would be beneficial to my academic and career goals.

I found the perfect job, an internship with the Theodore Roosevelt digital library, which actually has North Dakota ties because of Roosevelt's time in Dakota Territory.  The first presidential library was set up for Herbert Hoover.  TR's second term ended about twenty years before Hoover's lone term began.  Therefore, there is no presidential library for Roosevelt.  One really cool thing about this job is that I get to read all sorts of old documents on all sorts of (sometimes) random topics related to one of my favorite presidents.  As an aspiring historian, this is the type of work that provides ammo for articles and, hopefully, books.  Regardless of whether any publications come from this work, it nonetheless provides a great learning experience and helps me understand more about one of the past eras that I find especially interesting.

One of the topics that I have already had an opportunity to notice is religion.  Various correspondents have discussed Catholicism, Methodism, and Protestantism in their letters and other communications with the Progressive Era president.  One of the interesting letters mentioned Protestantism and Americanism in the same context (actually the same phrase of the same sentence).  Some of my previous reading and research shows that many Americans from this era viewed the terms nearly synonymously.  I am only in the first week of this job, and I've already seen several of these interesting notes.  I'm hoping to see many more since my major research project is going to focus upon Progressive/World War I era Christianity. 

17 May 2011

What I'm Reading--Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word

I recently finished reading (again) a short work on the Northampton minister of Great Awakening fame, Jonathan Edwards.  Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word is a good introductory biography of this famous minister.  In writing it, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor Douglas A. Sweeney attempted to provide an accessible biography that focused upon the importance of the Bible in the life of Edwards.  In general, he succeeded on both accounts.

Sweeney's work definitely emphasizes the importance of the written word, in general, and the Bible, in particular, on Puritan life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The author began this work with a background of New England society and how it differs from our modern twenty-first century world.  Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word generally followed a narrative structure and traced the important events in the life of Edwards from his birth to his death.  The Congregational divine has often been called the greatest theologian in American history, and Sweeney focused a chapter on four works that Edwards wrote after his dismissal from his pastorate in Northampton, Massachusetts.  This chapter was a bit awkward as to its position in the book, serving as a bit of a parenthesis between the Northampton and Stockbridge chapters of Edwards' life.  Some of the theological issues dealt with in this chapter, titled "With All Thy Mind", could be somewhat tough sledding to those uninitiated to theological terminology. 

Sweeney pointed out a glaring weakness in Edwards' life--his racial understanding of the world.  The minister owned several slaves during his life, and Sweeney referred to Edwards as "something of a racist" (180) in his dealings with Indians as a cross-cultural missionary.  The author did not attempt to minimize these character flaws, but used them to point out the sinfulness of humanity. 

This work could have been slightly better with a greater explanation of the Half-way Covenant as background for the ouster of Edwards in Northampton.  It is easy to view the issue over communion as a local issue without more background information.  Rather, this controversy enveloped much of New England around the time of the Great Awakening.  Sweeney utilized published primary sources on the life of Edwards in the compilation of his text.  His work is a very good introduction to the life of Edwards, one of the more influential Christian thinkers in American history.

15 May 2011

Latest Edition of Fides et Historia

The latest edition of Fides et Historia, the journal of the Conference on Faith and History came out last week.  I found it quite interesting that the title of the first article was "The (Worst) Year of the Evangelical: 1926 and the Demise of American Fundamentalism."  The title itself was not so much what interested me, but rather the topic, since I just sent in the first draft of an encyclopedia article on "fundamentalism."  The president of the society, Barry Hankins (history professor at Baylor), pointed out three events that failed to put fundamentalists in a good light in 1926.  The first was the Scopes Monkey Trial, although Hankins pointed out that the outcome of the trial was not originally looked at as a defeat for fundamentalists.

Hankins argued that it was not until the next decade that some began to look at the Scopes Monkey Trial as a contribution to the downfall of fundamentalism--although the movement did not really die out.  The general public understanding of the trial now comes not from the trial itself, but rather from a theatrical presentation very loosely based upon the trial titled Inherit the Wind, which is about as far from true history as one can get.  This movie did not come out until the 1960, but has done much to stigmatize fundamentalism.  In all actuality, the prosecution won the case.  According to Hankins, contemporary accounts tended to point out that the people of Dayton, Tennessee, were quite hospitable (not the country bumpkins as portrayed), and William Jennings Bryan intended to continue his anti-evolution work (rather than being totally defeated as portrayed in the movie).  Even a review for Time believed the movie biased.

The other two events cannot be looked at in the same light however.  The other two events highlighted in this article (taken from the author's presidential address at the society's biannual meeting) were the "abduction" of Amiee Semple McPherson and the murder trial of J. Frank Norris.  The former was a very strange episode that almost led to a trial, and the latter led to a Norris acquittal by means of self defense.  The main argument of the article was that certain events can tend to stigmatize a group in the public opinion.  As examples of stigma, Hankins used Munster, the Salem Witch Trials, and Waco (no further explanation needed on the last one--one word suffices).

In any event, even though many thought fundamentalism was dead in the 1930s, it actually thrived and made a comeback, although some fundamentalists came to call themselves evangelicals.  The comeback was so strong that 1976 was called the "year of the evangelical."  The election of professed born-again Christian Jimmy Carter contributed to this claim.  Far from being dead, the fundamentalists and evangelicals continue to impact American society in spite of some popular misconceptions of the movement.

11 May 2011

Book Review from 2009

As an aspiring scholar who's just getting started, the list of my publications and scholarly presentations is quite small.  Most of my work previous to my studies at UND focused upon West Virginia working class/labor history.  One of my other areas of interest is Baptist history.  My current research focuses upon North Dakota Baptists in the Progressive/WWI era.  However, I have no current publications in this area.

My only publication in the field of Baptist history, or Church history in general, thus far, is a book review I did for the journal Baptist History & Heritage in 2009.  Here is the link: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NXG/is_2_44/ai_n48711387/?tag=mantle_skin;content. The site does not mention me as the reviewer until the very bottom of the review, so don't be confused with the book review editor's name at the top of the website.

One of my goals with this site is to provide an avenue for comments and feedback on my work.  While I have nothing other than a couple of encyclopedia articles going at the moment, I hope to get back to my research on North Dakota Baptists at some point this summer.  If not, I will definitely be on it at some point during my program of study.  I will plan to post working papers on my findings from time to time.

08 May 2011

What I'm Reading--Fundamentalism and American Culture

In preparation for the writing of an entry on fundamentalism for an upcoming encyclopedia, I am in the process of reading some scholarly work on the topic.  One of the most influential scholarly works on this topic is Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden.  I figured that Marsden, a very influential historian of American Christianity would be not be a terribly antagonistic source.  Marsden has been a professor of history at both Calvin College and Notre Dame and has published widely. Neither his scholarly credentials nor his Christian profession are really in question.  One of his works is titled The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,which questions the "lack of a spiritual center" in universities today.  I had previously read a fairly lengthy biography that he published on Jonathan Edwards, and found it quite interesting.

In his preface, Marsden pointed out that he "attempted to assume a stance of detachment and to avoid using history for partisan debate," and that "this study represents a definite point of view and set of interests...This is an essay in distinctly Christian scholarship, an attempt to present a careful, honest, and critical evaluation not far from my own." (ix)  His first edition, published in 1980, largely preceded the impact of the religious right in American politics, but the second edition, published in 2006, included a new section that discussed this development.

Marsden's account is more fair-minded than most caricatures of fundamentalism that are often put forth.  He argues that fundamentalists were not necessarily anti-scientific, nor were they necessarily against culture per se, although some of the later fundamentalists tended to those positions.  The scientific understanding of the intellectual fundamentalists, such as J. Gresham Machen of Princeton Theological Seminary (a thoroughly orthdox thinker), was closely tied to a Baconian and Scottish Common Sense view of science.  In other words, the speculation of Darwin did not hold up to the observational component of science and, therefore, did not qualify as true science.  The theological compromises of modernism were a big problem to the fundamentalists.  The arguments over the supernatural aspects of the Bible and the extent of its own inspiration (was it written by God and innerant or was it written by men and fallible) were the main areas of conflict.  Traditional fundamentalists, which rose from the evangelical, revivalist, and later premillenial traditions of the nineteenth century, believed (in my worldview, rightly) that modernism and Christianity were two completely different belief systems.

Some of the more interesting topics that came up in the book, more from some research interests that I have, were the idea of Americanism and reform.  Some of the conservative fundamentalists were for labor unions, for better wages and better living conditions, and against child labor in the Gilded Age, when social Darwinism and the idea of the survival of the fittest tended to frown on such help for the poor.  Conservative (theologically-speaking) evangelicals only abandoned this concern after the advent of the Social Gospel among modernist/(theologically) liberal ministers that focused only upon social ills at the expense of conversion of the soul.  It was also interesting that fundamentalists were considered less-than-patriotic by some of their liberal counterparts during the Great War for their tendency toward ambivalence about American involvement in the war (before the US actually joined).  Their concern was more involved with the return of Christ, which they expected at any minute.  Fundamentalist patriotism increased greatly during the first Red Scare after the war, and it viewed modernism, Darwinism, and Bolshevism as threats to Christian (i.e. American) civilization.

Marsden's book tended to be fairly unpolemical on either side of the issue, and provided some hypotheses, drawn from writers such as Sandeen and Hofstadter, as to why fundamentalism arose as it did.  He pointed out that one of the misconceptions of the origins of the movement is the idea that uneducated Southerners founded fundamentalism.  Rather, this belief system arose first in the Northern cities, and spread from there.  Los Angeles was one of the earlier hotbeds of fundamentalist activity.  For those interested in the history of fundamentalism, this is a good scholarly introduction to the concept.  However, those who would want a more polemical apologetic may be left a bit disappointed.

05 May 2011

Welcome to the American Church History Blog

Welcome to the American Church History Blog.  The purpose of this blog in the upcoming days and months will be to inform, question, review, and disseminate information related to American church history.  Christianity has had a very important impact on American history from the landing of the first Pilgrims in what would later be known as Massachusetts.  While the original founders of Massachusetts Bay intended religious liberty for themselves, this religious liberty has expanded to the point where all Americans have the constitutional right to practice their religious beliefs (or none at all) without fear from governmental reprisal, as long as said beliefs do not lead to actions that cause harm to others. 

According to an article in Christianity Today from March 2010 (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/march/12.14.html), the most popular field of study for members of the American Historical Association was religious history (7.7% of respondents).  While this field includes religions other than Christianity, it is nonetheless an interesting stat.  The opinion that a particular historian takes regarding church history necessarily depends upon his or her view of the world.  A secular humanist writing about Christianity would most likely come at the subject quite differently than a theologically conservative Christian.  Even professing Christians can, at times, come to differing conclusions regarding the impact of Christianity on American society.  For this reason, it is important to analyze an author's argumentation critically. 

Hopefully, this site will provide a forum for the investigation of this rich history and the work in which scholars and laymen involve themselves in producing knowledge about the history of Christianity in America.  From time to time, I will most likely refer to sites or works with which I disagree at least in part.  A mention on this site will in no way indicate a complete agreement with every assertion made by another author.  The only author with whom I totally agree is God, and according to what He's already written, He won't be coming out with another book.