31 July 2011

In Prague

The past couple of weeks have been on the sparse side when it comes to posting.  I'm now in a Prague hotel, getting ready to leave in a couple of days after a two-week stay in the Czech Republic.  The group I am with is planning to tour Prague tomorrow.  We also spent some time in Olomouc, which is a moderately large city in the Moravian section of the Czech Republic.  We spent most of our time teaching in an English camp that was sponsored by a Czech Baptist Church and held near the small village of Vitkov.   I have met many wonderful people during my stay here. 

I will post photos of some of the historical sites and churches that I have visited after my return to the states, even though they are not directly related to American church history.

19 July 2011

More on Ben Franklin's Religion

My last post discussed Benjamin Franklin's religion in relation to that of George Washington.  This post will discuss Franklin's actual belief in more detail.  As mentioned in my last post, Franklin considered himself a Deist, although he did concede that his "God," Providence, acted in his behalf at times.

Franklin found some ministers interesting, and even befriended the Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield.  His Autobiography speaks highly of Whitefield, and on one occasion, Franklin gave all that was in his pocket to the cause of an orphanage that the evangelist planned to build in Georgia.  Franklin wrote of being somewhat turned off by a minister who plagiarized his sermons, even though he had previously supported him as the best Presbyterian minister Philadelphia had had.

However, Franklin's religion held more in common with a general set of morals than with orthodox Protestantism.  In fact, in his Autobiography, he mentioned that he rarely went to church and found that polemics against Deism actually tended to draw him to the (somewhat) newfangled belief system.  Franklin described his religious views thus in the Autobiography: "I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter."

While he may have considered himself religious, his own words testify against his being a Christian, except perhaps a cultural Christian.  While the idea of doing good to man is a great aspiration, according to Christian doctrine, it does not lead to salvation.  There is no discussion of Jesus Christ in this statement of religious belief, only a generic trust that a God controls the universe and that this Deity watches what humans do in order to mete out justice (with a non-Christian understanding of God's justice).  A more striking contrast to the faith of John Witherspoon would be difficult to find, except for the rare eighteenth-century atheist.

16 July 2011

Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Christianity

One of the more controversial topics in modern American discourse is the question of how Christian the American founding fathers were.  There are people on either side of the argument.  Some argue that nearly all of the founders were devout Christians, while others argue that Christianity played a marginal role in the lives of the founding fathers.  In a previous post on this topic for the occasion of Independence Day, I pointed out that John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was a practicing Presbyterian minister with a strong Christian faith.

One recent book that looked into this topic was Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of our Country.  In this work, Michael Novak and his daughter Jana argued that Washington was a devout Anglican who had a deep faith.  One of the arguments that they make is that Washington's use of the term "Providence," or some variation thereof, generally ascribed activity in the affairs of men to Divine Providence.  This, they argue, would preclude Washington from being the Deist that some scholars describe.  One of the weaknesses of both points of view is that, from what I've read, Washington never specifically laid out his religious beliefs.  This allows either side to speculate on Washington's status as a Christian, Deist, or something entirely other.

The argument regarding Washington's use of the term Providence being inconsistent with supposed Deist belief is weakened by a close reading of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography.  Franklin was a self-described Deist.  He specifically stated he was a Deist.  Deists tended to describe God with the analogy of a watchmaker who builds the watch (universe) and then winds it up and lets it behave according to the natural laws he set into place.  This view of God is very impersonal and argues that God does not intervene in everyday affairs.  Novak argued that Washington viewed his Providence as being active in every day life.  However, in Franklin's Autobiography, the self-described Deist wrote that he "owe[d] the mentioned happiness of [his] past life to His kind providence."  On another instance, when Franklin described the founding of the Philadelphia Academy (which would later become the University of Pennsylvania), he pointed out the need for a building to house the students and stated that "Providence threw into our way a large house ready built," which had actually been used to house the meetings of George Whitefield.  In both of these instances, a self-proclaimed Deist mentioned God as acting in the activities of man. 

In the final analysis, while its nice to find founders who were devout like John Witherspoon, the Christianity or Deism of Washington or Franklin does not impact the truthfulness of the claims of Jesus.  There can be little argument that the founders were not at least culturally Christian, and that America was not culturally Christian at its foundation.  That did not, however, make America a "Christian nation."  Washington did not wear his religious beliefs on his sleeve, so there is a lack of certainty in what he did believe.  Franklin, on the other hand, pointed out his beliefs specifically, and although he was not against religion, he was by no means a conservative evangelical.  While I found Novak's work interesting, my recent reading of Franklin weakened one of his major arguments.  I shall post more on Mr. Franklin at a later date. 

15 July 2011

Christian Blog Carnival and other Links

The Christian Blog Carnival for the week has been posted on Beyond Belief.  Several different posts on Christian-related topics are featured, including one from this blog. This carnival is a weekly edition that posts links submitted by various Christian bloggers.  Some are related to history, others to theology, and still others to apologetics.  Christian living and Christian finance are also posted on this site. 

While searching the web, I also found a site that lists several blogs by/about Baptists and their (many times) varying belief.  This site is somewhat interesting in that it actually color codes what viewpoint the authors come from. 

I will post yet another link.  This site lists the Top 50 Evangelical Christian blogs and posts them in different categories for easier classification.  While nothing is necessarily new or terribly thought-provoking in this post, perhaps the links will provide food for thought for students of Christianity and/or American church history.

13 July 2011

2011 Merrifield Prize Winning Paper

Back in April, I submitted a paper that I wrote in the fall semester on Baptists in Grand Forks during the Progressive and World War I eras.  The submissions had to make use of the Special Collections at the Chester Fritz Library on the campus of the University of North Dakota.  Mine utilized that collection extensively, so I decided to submit, in spite of finding out about the competition about two days before the deadline. 

Here is the press release regarding the outcome of the competition.  I would post the entire paper on my site, but I submitted it to a journal, and I don't know how the journal in question would view that kind of thing.  Here is a link to a revised portion of the paper that I previously posted on this site and that won the best graduate paper at the 2011 Red River Valley History Conference.  I will post another revision of another portion after I read it at the 2011 Northern Great Plains History Conference.

11 July 2011

The Civil War and Baptists

I'm sure that among those who have an interest in American church history, there are many who are also interested in the American Civil War.  Special collections exist that are dedicated entirely to this conflict.  There are several accounts of a revival that broke out on both sides of the conflict.  A minister, J. William Jones, penned a well-known account of this revival in his work titled Christ in the Camp.  Jones tells of baptizing hundreds of new converts.  The Civil War saw foxhole religion at its finest.

Upon perusing the web a couple of days ago, I found a website that is dedicated to Baptist activity during the Civil War.  Baptists and the American Civil War is a site that includes documentary evidence that corresponds to each day of the war, beginning with a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter.  Baptists and the American Civil War is a digital project conceived by Bruce Gourley of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, although it appears that the site has multiple contributors.   A new entry appears each day, so those with an interest in the Civil War will find much to occupy their time.  In addition to those with a general interest in Civil War history, those with curiosity geared toward Baptist history may find even more of interest. 

10 July 2011

North Dakota Revivalism-End of the Story

In recent weeks, I posted a couple of posts related to a July 1930 editorial that discussed an upcoming Billy Sunday meeting in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The author of this editorial, W. P. Davies, opposed such revivals based upon the city's experience with an evangelist by the name of Hunt, who raised funds for a tar-paper "tabernacle" and then proceeded to spread rumors about many prominent members of Grand Forks society. 

While those posts referred to an editorial from July 1, 1930, Davies clarified his position on July 3 in the Grand Forks Herald.  He started his article by stating, "Those who read the article in this column relating to the so-called evangelist Hunt may have gained the impression that I did not and do not admire Mr. Hunt.  That impression is quite correct."  The editorialist then went on to explain his reasoning in this follow-up article.

He mentioned that Hunt was able to amass a very large children's choir for the occasion of his meetings.  In fact, the choir number about 300 and Davies remembered how well they could sing.  However, it seems that Hunt changed the words of familiar hymn tunes and then inserted parodies of leading members of Grand Forks society for the children to sing.  Apparently, Davies also had a problem with the way Hunt used "coarse suggestiveness" to bring the "vileness of the saloon and bawdy house" to bear in his sermons.  The story of Hunt and Grand Forks ended after several people dropped a lawsuit against the evangelist to claim the tar-papered tabernacle.  In these two articles, it does not appear that Davies opposed Christianity or religion in general, just certain self-promoting preachers like Mr. Hunt.

Unfortunately, from a quick search of the digital archive, it appears that Davies did not disclose his opinion of the Billy Sunday event.  The acceptance (or non-acceptance) of Sunday, as well as other opinions on Hunt's meetings from contemporaries, could be a great avenue of future study to better gauge the attitude of this town on the Northern Great Plains toward revivalism in the early twentieth century.  Some who study evangelicalism argue that this type of revivalism was very important in leading to the "revival" (pun somewhat intended) of the fundamentalist movement in the late 1940s.

08 July 2011

270 Years Ago Today

On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached what is probably the most famous sermon in American history.  Edwards preached his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" not at his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, but rather as he visited Enfield, Connecticut.  Generations have studied the text of this sermon, and many are now appalled, or at least disturbed, at its very descriptive imagery (although I would not include myself in that number).  Edwards based his entire sermon on a short passage from Deuteronomy 32, "Their feet shall slide in due time."

Regardless of a person's theological bent, it is hard to argue against the significance of the sermon. First, it was the occasion of a great revival during the Great Awakening, one of the first truly "national" movements.  There are accounts of people moaning as Edwards preached, holding on to whatever they could find to keep from falling into Hell at that very moment, and asking what they must do to be saved.  Secondly, the sermon is a good example of New England Puritan orthodoxy.  Edwards was a staunch Calvinist, and Reformed belief is quite evident in the sermon.  However, while the sermon is meant as a warning to wayward sinners, it does indicate that there is hope for the sinner in Christ.

It is somewhat ironic that the greatest theologian and the greatest sermon in American history burst onto the scene before America even existed as a separate nation.  Regardless, 270 years ago, Jonathan Edwards, that theologian preached "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," that sermon.  It is likely that students of American religion and the Puritans will continue to read and study Edwards and his famous sermon for many years to come.  You can, as well, at the link to Yale University's Jonathan Edwards site.

06 July 2011

Historic Baptist Documents--Link with Early and Modern Confessions of Faith

I grew up in a Baptist Church, and I have attended Baptist churches for most of my life.  I am very much interested in Baptist history.  Because of this interest, I'm a member of the Baptist History & Heritage Society.  Because of this interest, I took a course in Baptist history as part of my (unfortunately uncompleted) seminary studies.  Because of this interest, much of my historical research has involved the study of Baptists on one level or another, either in the study of an individual or in the study of a local church.

My interest in Baptist history causes me to wonder what Baptists have believed over their history.  Beginning in the seventeenth century (sixteenth if one holds to an Anabaptist spiritual kinship view of Baptist history, which I personally find fairly plausible), Baptists began recording their beliefs in their confessions of faith.  Baptist Associations on both sides of the Atlantic wrote down systematic articles that described their beliefs, generally backing them up with specific biblical passages.  Many of these historic Baptist confessions are available online

I have not perused all of the website in question, so I cannot say that I would definitely agree with all that is posted in the link provided above.  However, I would argue that the posting of these historic documents is a valuable service to Baptists interested in their heritage.  I would urge anyone interested in Baptist history specifically or church history in general to check out these documents.  What you learn may surprise you in some ways.

04 July 2011

A Christian Founding Father

I must confess that while looking for an Independence Day topic, I did a google search.  Not much came up.  Christianity Today's website has "This Week in Christian History," but the most interesting thing that I could find for July 4 happened in 1187 with Saladin's Muslim force defeating the Third Crusade at the Battle of Hattin.  While important and influential, this event didn't really seem appropriate for a holiday celebrating America's birthday.  So, I went back to the drawing board.

A topic that seems to cause quite a bit of controversy when discussion turns to the founding of the United States of America is the impact that Christianity had on the founding fathers.  Often, it seems, people fall into two extremes on this argument.  A group on one side of the spectrum tries to argue that almost all of the founders were Deists in the Enlightenment mold and that they attempted to set up a completely secular state that only moderately cared about religion, if at all.  These folks definitely have an agenda and a bias behind them.  On the other side of the spectrum is a group that tries to argue that, while there may have been a couple of Deist outliers like Ben Franklin, the vast majority of the founding fathers were conservative evangelicals.  Much like the secularist crowd, these folks have an agenda and a bias behind their argument.

I would argue that both arguments are in some ways in error and that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It's difficult to argue that at the very least cultural Christianity had little impact on the Founding Fathers.  However, the Constitution nowhere mentions God in any way.  The Declaration of Independence does not mention Jesus or Christianity specifically, although it does refer to a Creator and "Nature's God."  That is not to say that there were no professing Christians in the Continental Congress.  Most of the founders belonged to one denomination/sect or another.  In fact, two of the signers were ordained ministers, one of whom was active at the time of the signing itself.

Lyman Hall is one of the ordained ministers that signed the Declaration of Independence.  Although he was an ordained Congregationalist minister, he is better known as a physician.  The active minister who signed the Declaration was John Witherspoon, a recent Scottish immigrant who held ordination in the Church of Scotland (AKA the Presbyterian Church of reformer John Knox).  Witherspoon came to America to become the president of Princeton College.  Witherspoon preached fairly frequently in the revolutionary era, having come to America only in 1768 and was a leading figure on the Second Continental Congress that put out the Declaration of Independence.  Witherspoon served on some of the more important committees in the Congress during this era.  As president of Princeton, he held to Scottish Common Sense philosophy and saw no conflict between faith and reason.

An interesting fact about Witherspoon, in addition to his itinerant preaching, was a motion he made to have the New Jersey legislature end their day before dinner because he had trouble staying awake.  The motion failed and he informed his colleagues that ``there are two kinds of speaking that are very interesting . . . perfect sense and perfect nonsense. When there is speaking in either of these ways I shall engage to be all attention. But when there is speaking, as there often is, halfway between sense and nonsense, you must bear with me if I fall asleep.''

John Witherspoon was definitely a Christian Founding Father, and few can argue otherwise.

02 July 2011

North Dakota Revivalism--More of the Story

In a post earlier this week, I mentioned that Billy Sunday prepared to visit North Dakota in 1930.  While many considered evangelistic meetings such as this with a great deal of excitement and anticipation, others cringed.  One such individual was W. P. Davies, as I mentioned in the previous post that I linked above.  Davies, an editorialist for the Grand Forks Herald castigated Sunday's use of business technique in his meetings and also his "acrobatics" that tended to arouse emotionalism.

Some contemporary evangelicals may wonder why Davies and others of his opinion viewed revivals with suspicion.  Davies gave his reasons for this suspicion.  Grand Forks had only had one such evangelistic meeting before 1930, held by a minister by the name of Hunt.  Several of the local Protestant churches supported him and encouraged the local community to do likewise.  According to Davies' account, the first few meetings went well, moving from church to church, but then Hunt stood up in the Methodist Church and complained about having to move about and asked for donations to build a tabernacle. 

Hunt obtained enough for a quickly-built (by volunteer carpenters) tabernacle of rough wood covered by tar paper, and then went about hinting at scandals he was going to expose and at times apparently mentioned the names or at least insinuated in an obvious way just about every major figure in town.  This activity worried the businessmen who promoted the meetings, but in the words of Davies, Hunt told them "to go to blazes" because the tabernacle was his, not theirs.  He never did tell the scandalous details (perhaps he knew of none and just wanted to draw a bigger crowd), and left shortly thereafter.  One of the local ministers, according to Davies' account, said in relation to Hunt and his campaign, "I thought we had that man sized up right, but we hadn't.  This is my first experience of this kind, and it is my last.  Never again for me!"