31 December 2011

Goodbye 2011--The Best of the American Church History Blog

In case you've not heard, the New Year comes in tonight.  December 31 marks the end of the first calendar year of this blog, although the first post didn't show up until May 4.  The average daily visitors has grown by about 400% since that first month.  That's not what's the most interesting point, however.  One of the things that I find interesting is the pages that have been viewed the most...

Here are the top 5 pages for this blog for all of 2011:

1. My Paper from the Northern Great Plains History Conference
2. Jan Hus--Pics from Bethlehem Chapel in Prague
3. Perry, Romney, and Mormonism
4. New England Execution Sermons
5. Olomouc, Czech Republic--Pics Included

From this quick perusal of the most popular posts, it appears that people like pictures of cool things from a foreign country.  That's no big surprise.  A couple of other topics that surprised me as to their popularity (as shown from search results) were Mormons and execution sermons.  The Mormons may be getting a bit more press this year because two of their number are running for president.  New England execution sermons, or some variation of this topic received quite a bit in the way of search traffic, which was very surprising.  Perhaps, people enjoy reading about morbid stuff.  I enjoyed the book Between Heaven and Earth, the subject of my post on the subject of Puritan execution sermons.

What topics did you find most interesting?  What topics would you like to see covered in the future?  I'm interested to know going forward. 

Oh, yeah, and have a great 2012--even if the Mayans were right.

27 December 2011

Tim Tebow and Bill Maher

Tim Tebow sure is a lightning rod for many haters out there.  He also has many fans that follow his every move.  Tebow seems to be one of those sports figures that people either love or hate.  I recently submitted a post that discussed the uproar about the Tebowing controversy.  After that post, Tebow ran off quite a little winning streak.  The last two weeks have not been quite so kind.

Which brings us to the latest controversy related to Mr. Tebow--some comments by commedian Bill Maher.  Some comments that Maher made after Tebow's latest (less-than-stellar) game have produced quite the outrage.  Maher is an atheist and seems to rather enjoy bashing the religious.  What about Tebow does Maher find so offensive, other than his professed faith in Jesus Christ?  To anyone's knowledge, Tebow's not out carousing with loose women (a la Tiger Woods).  He's not out there getting in trouble for PEDs like the reigning NL MVP (Ryan Braun).  He's not been in trouble with the law like an number of sports stars.  He visits sick kids.  He's building a children's hospital in the Philippines.  He's the kind of guy that I'd like my daugthers to bring home to dad.  Why the hate?

Some people will no doubt argue that it's part of the left-wing conspiracy to remove all references to any deity (and especially Jesus) from any aspect of life.  I don't quite buy it.  I have several friends that lean to the left politically, yet are committed in their religious beliefs (in spite of the seeming equation of conservative politics with Christian orthodoxy).  I can talk religion with these folks, and while we may have disagreements, neither side is hateful with the other.  I can talk politics with these folks, and we may have disagreements there. 

Maher seems quite angry.  He's what I would consider an evangelical atheist.  These are the folks that get mad when evangelical Christians or other people of other religions try to spread their message.  Yet these atheists have no problem spreading their disdain for all things religions or telling the religious that they need to grow a brain and cast of such medieval superstitions.  Richard Dawkins comes to mind when discussing the evangelical atheist.  I would argue that this is simply a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Many professed evangelical Christians deserve the criticism they get--certain televangelists who get caught up in various and sundry scandals come to mind.  However, it seems that Tebow is one of those guys who actually get persecuted for righteousness' sake (in the context of Matthew 5), rather than for their hypocritical attitude.  If/when Tebow falls, he'll deserve criticism.  Until then, people, including Bill Maher, should just leave him alone.  Maher's tweet insulted about 2 billion of the world's 7 billion directly, and those who hold religious faiths other than Christianity are also the butt of his jokes.  Jokes about religious beliefs tend not to go over terribly well.  Maher's market should suffer accordingly.

25 December 2011

Christmas and the Franks

You may wonder why I've titled this post "Christmas and the Franks."  You may also wonder...who exactly are the Franks?  They have only a slight tie to American church history, but the Franks are important to church history as a whole.  The Franks were a Germanic tribe that in the early Middle Ages controlled much of western and central Europe.

Why is Christmas important to the Franks?  There are a couple of reasons.  First, in 496, the Frankish king Clovis "converted" to Christianity with about 3,000 of his closest friends (i.e. soldiers).  The conversion is quite iffy, but nonetheless a version of Christianity began to spread.

The second reason that Christmas was important to the Franks occurred in 800.  On this date Charles I of France/Charles I of Germany/Charles I of the Holy Roman Empire received the imperial crown from Pope Leo III.  This officially started the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire famously quipped was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.  There is historical debate as to whether Charlemagne actually knew that this was going to happen when he went to church that day.  This action was significant in European history, because it established the precedent of the pope offering the imperial crown as if it was the papacy's right to grant it.  This precedent of the pope as over secular rulers lasted for much of the medieval period, and the Roman see continued to assert this prerogative in English affairs up until Henry VIII's break with Rome in the 1530s.

This last point was important in the Protestant Reformation, which was quite important in the quest for America due to the rivalry between Catholic nations and Protestant nations.  England as a Protestant nation gained control of much of North America, and the rest, as they say, is history.

23 December 2011

Short Synopsis of R. H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Fairly recently, I posted a review of Max Weber's classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  A very similar work that gets lumped with Weber in the historiography of the Protestant Ethic is R. H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.  Tawney came from a slightly different standpoint as a British Christian socialist, but here is a short overview of his major argument, taken from my recent historiography on the Puritans:

British historian R. H. Tawney proposed a similar argument to Weber in his 1926 work Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.  However, he did not focus upon Calvinism in general, but rather the English Puritans as the progenitors of capitalism.  As a Christian socialist, Tawney actually bemoaned the individualism and loss of concern for the common good that he saw arising out of the Puritan movement.  Like Weber, he saw Luther tied more to the medieval understanding of business.  Unlike Weber, Tawney still viewed Calvin as more of a medievalist, although he allowed that Calvin gave a few concessions to the business class regarding the charging of interest.  He also distinguished between the Puritans who left for the New World and those who remained in England.  The former attempted to imitate Calvin’s Geneva with their concern for the commonwealth, while the latter became enamored with business and became a fairly sizable proportion of the wealthy merchant class in the mother country.  While he mentioned that the first Puritans who went to the New World were more communitarian in their dealings, he did not really discuss why they changed quite rapidly in their viewpoint toward business.[1]     
Tawney and Weber both dwelt on the relationship between religion and capitalism.  Many people still hold to this view today.  However, people at that time of the Puritans did not view what they were doing as overly Christian, because the use of interest and profiteering were major areas of conflict between churches and businessmen.  It is quite interesting how merchants came to be one of the more revered classes in the modern world, after spending the medieval era as a sort of necessary evil.  I wonder what people writing about Christians and business in the twenty-first century will write when looking back at our time. 

[1] R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London: John Murray, 1926).

22 December 2011

Christmas in American History

Different Christian groups throughout American history have celebrated Christmas in many different ways.  Some have totally ignored the holiday, others have been quite festive.  Christmas itself was not a national holiday until declared so by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870.  That is not to say that many people totally ignored the holiday before this date. 

Just today, I read an article on Christmas in Revolutionary America by Thomas Kidd.  Apparently, some people at this time had a major problem with the revelry, especially from the lower sort.  Kidd points out some of the gifts that people gave (mostly wealthier individuals to relatively poorer people) and the signs that commercialism was becoming a characteristic of Christmas at that date.

The accounts that Kidd listed were based in New York, a cosmopolitan town even at this early date.  Other groups viewed Christmas as a pagan ritual that true Christians should avoid.  In New England, the early Puritan settlers had a legal ban on the celebration of Christmas.  Celebration of Christmas could apparently lead to fines of up to five shillings.  The ban on Christmas ended in 1680, but many people continued downplaying the holiday.  Schools in Boston scheduled classes on Christmas day until the 1870s and punished those who skipped out to celebrate.

Baptist groups tended to downplay Christmas until the late nineteenth century, as well.  A short article by Bruce Gourley on Baptist celebrations of Christmas indicated that early American Baptists continued their general day-to-day lives on Christmas.  The first Baptist educational endeavor in America, Isaac Eaton's Hopewell Academy, scheduled classes on Christmas in 1757.  Eaton refused to celebrate Christmas because Jesus was not born on that day.  Gourley's article points out some interesting changes in Baptist churches over the nineteenth century that tended to follow trends in American society. 

It would seem that the legitimization of Christmas by President Grant helped in removing some of the stigma associated with the holiday in some circles.  Even today, however, some groups claiming to be Christian refuse to celebrate the Christmas holiday.  I am not among these groups, and although I have a major problem with the commercial aspect of things, I still celebrate with friends and family at this time of year.  So, to those who read this, I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

19 December 2011

American Christianity and Communism during the Second Red Scare

Today, I read an interesting post on another blog regarding Conrad Hilton and anti-communism.  Most people think hotels or Paris Hilton's wealthy ancestor when they think of Conrad Hilton.  Most people do not recognize that he was an ardent Catholic who saw religion in general and Christianity in particular as a bulwark against communism.

In the post-World War II era, Christianity saw a huge boom, with perhaps more church members per capita than at any time in American history.  This was also the age of fervent anti-communism with Joseph McCarthy and his infamous lists and the HUAC hearings against anyone who happened to be even remotely related to communism.  If you even read Marx you were suspect and might lose your job.  Robin Hood even found itself on the anti-communist version of the Index of Prohibited Books because it advocated that communist idea of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

The increase in religious sentiment in America during the 1940s and 1950s brings up an interesting question.  Was this Christianity more pro-Jesus or pro-America?  While Christianity and America are by no means mutually exclusive, some people seem to equate the mission of America and the mission of Christianity as one and the same.  I tend to view this as a danger, because America has at times been on the wrong side of issues (Indian policy and slavery are a couple of obvious examples far enough in the past not to engender a major political debate).  If Christians equate America's mission with that of Christianity, they are likely to unquestioningly stand by if something similar came across the radar in the future.  This subject is something that really interests me.  People have written quite a bit on the topic since the appearance of Robert Bellah's essay on American civil religion.  Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation traces this idea through the Civil War, showing how people came to kill based upon the idea that they were doing God's will (both sides had somewhat similar rhetoric).  This book really challenged my thinking, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.  The intro to Stout has a synopsis of Bellah's argument.

Is this viewpoint still as prevalent as it was in the 1940s and 1950s, or is America becoming so secularized that it does not matter?  Only time will tell.  I think both extremes can be dangerous.  Without a moral compass, people do bad things.  People can also think they are doing God's will and do bad things.  Neither is a good thing.

16 December 2011

Significance of the Puritans Today

Those silly Puritans, with their funny hats and grim demeanor.  When people think of the Puritans, they tend to think of such things.  As I've mentioned before on this site, much of what you've read about the Puritans is probably not true or at least a caricature of what was true regarding these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious pilgrims (not to be confused with the actual Pilgrims of Plymouth).  As I've also mentioned on this site, I did a historiography of the Pilgrims this semester.  One question that needs asked is what is the significance of the Puritans today.  People such as Perry Miller, Christopher Hill, S. R. Gardiner, and R. H. Tawney wrote extensively regarding the Puritans.  They found them significant--often from the British side of the Atlantic.  What is their significance for American church history?  Here is one interpretation that I gleaned from my reading for this historiography paper:

While these works shed much light on the actual lives of Puritans and the ideas they held, laymen may still wonder about the importance of the Puritans to current life.  George McKenna attempted to answer this question in his 2007 work The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism.  McKenna’s work tied a thread throughout American history that went back into early days of the Puritan experiment in New England.  He used Miller’s errand into the wilderness to show that Americans still believe that they have a certain mission in the world, which is tied to the idea of Americanism.  McKenna argued:
The very definition of America is thus bound up with the biblical paradigm of a people, like the ancient Hebrews, given a holy mission in a new land.  It runs through the rhetoric of America’s presidents, and we can find it almost at random in their speeches, whether it was Lincoln depicting Americans as an “almost chosen people,” Franklin Roosevelt talking about an American generation’s “rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan calling America “a shining city on a hill,” or George W. Bush declaring that “America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs.”  We can trace this providentialism directly back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century.  They managed to envisage an America long before there was a United States of America.  America is a work of the imagination as much as it is a juridical entity, and it was their imagination that played the seminal role in creating it.  “The myth of America,” writes Sacvan Bercovitch, “is the creation of the New England Way.”
McKenna then went on to tie this thread together from New England through various reform movements or calls back to American values.  For example, when dealing with the Populists and Progressives, he pointed out that some of the reforms (like prohibition) that these groups encouraged are now considered conservative, while others (such as encouragement of labor reform) fall under the liberal rubric.  McKenna maintained that these reforms were a part of the social gospel, and that the same people supported these progressive reforms with a mainly religious purpose.[1]

McKenna did not only use examples from the Progressive Era.  He looked throughout American history and saw a Puritan thread throughout.  He saw Patriotism and the reform ethos of the Puritans as inextricably linked.  So, whether you agree with the Puritans from a religious standpoint or just think (erroneously) that they wore funny clothes and hated all manner of fun, their goal of a godly reformation has greatly impacted American history.

[1] George McKenna, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 7, 218-221.

15 December 2011

Another Semester under My Belt

This evening, I sent the final revision of my final paper of the semester after finishing up revisions and proofing in a hotel room in Danville, Illinois.  I am basically 1/2 of the way done with my program.  This semester, I had a 12-hour schedule, which is quite hefty for grad school.  All told, those four classes had final projects that came to nearly 100 pages of double-spaced, 12-point font, Times New Roman work that took up who knows how many hours.  It's a good thing I enjoy reading and writing. 

Now, it's time for a break between semesters, although I have a few projects I hope to complete in the interim (including writing the first several lectures for next semester's US to 1877 class).  Although I'm not sure of the actual grades that I'll be getting, it is always good to get done with so much.  Next semester involves comprehensive exams in 4 fields.  I won't lie and say I'm looking forward to them.  I also have two classes in the education department.  Those should be interesting, but they aren't history :(  Oh well...life goes on.  Until next time.

08 December 2011

Southern Baptist Name Change?

Is a big change in the cards for the nation's largest Protestant denomination?  A couple of articles I've seen in the past few days indicates that it could be.  The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States, is considering changing its name after a poll indicated that 40% of Americans would refuse to go to one of their churches.

In the era of the mega-church, we've seen the influence of marketing strategies and the equivalent of customer satisfaction surveys.  Is this just one more attempt to cater to the public at large?  Or is it actually, as Convention President Bryan Wright said, just an attempt to remove barriers that turn people away.  The association is apparently not removing Baptist from their name, so there will still be a tie to the historical "denomination" (some Baptists don't like being thought of as a denomination).

One of the reason for this consideration is a downward trend in memberships.  In the current market-driven environment, it is quite easy for people to just leave a congregation that they don't like and find another.  In the days before the Second Great Awakening, this was more difficult.  Historian Nathan Hatch emphasized the democratization of American Christianity that this event brought about.  With this democratization, and earlier moves to religious toleration, the power of state churches eroded immensely (the Congregational Church remained established in some New England States into the 19th century).  This brought the ability for people choose their congregations more easily.

There could be the question of whether this would change the theological and doctrinal stands to which Southern Baptists have traditionally held?  Church officials argue that it won't.  If so, they probably won't change people's opinion of them with a simple name change.  The question then becomes, if they truly hold these offensive beliefs dearly, why would they really want to change?

Please note that I'm not discussing issues related to nineteenth-century opinions about slavery or anything related to race.  I'm only concerned with doctrinal/theological issues.  Any thoughts or comments are appreciated.

04 December 2011

What Happened in the Church with Blatant Racists?

As I've mentioned before on my last post, racism in American churches is one of my big pet peeves.  The link I've given refers to the attempts of a Kentucky church to ban interracial couples from their membership for no other reason than their interracial makeup. 

This afternoon, a new article indicated that the church's pastor will throw out the ruling, in spite of its being voted on by the membership.  While I'm not sure how the original vote came about since churches from a Baptist background have different constitutions that rule such things, I have to at least applaud the minister's choice to do this after having consulted his association.  However, it does beg the question of where the minister's opinion against the vote was when it was actually taken.  Of course, this could've been a church in which a few laymen control everything that goes on.  It will be interesting to see how long said pastor remains in his current position.

01 December 2011

American Churches and Racism

Why are churches some of the most segregated places around in America today?  I've often wondered this, and I must say that it really, really bugs me.  Race is obviously a contentious issue in American history.  One need not look any farther than the relations between new seventeenth-century settlers and group that these Anglo-Americans drove out of their homeland (American Indians) and between the same Anglo-American settlers and a group (African slaves) that they brought across the Atlantic against their wills.  Some people would argue that racism is largely gone today.  Then a story like the following shows up in the news. Just recently, a Kentucky church voted to exclude interracial couples from membership.

Moves like this definitely show that racism is far from dead.  Would the interracial character of the relationship been a big deal to those that voted to exclude the couple if the non-white member had been a Christian from Turkey, Korea, or Brazil, rather than Africa?  The answer can't be known definitely, but it seems that black/white relationships seem to draw the biggest complaint.  Of course, this goes against Paul's writings about there being no distinctions in the body of Christ (see Galatians 3:28, which ironically, considering American history, put slaves and masters on the same level).

Racism and bigotry have been very common throughout American history.  A recent post on the Religion in American History blog talks about some of the recent directions in the historiography of the Ku Klux Klan.  This post was quite interesting.  I've also read a couple of interesting works lately on the topic of bigotry.  

One was Lynn Neal's article in the June 2009 issue of Church History, "Christianizing the Klan." This article showed how KKK sympathizers used images in their literature that depicted the Klan in Christian and 100% American terms against Catholics, Jews, unions, etc. A good recent work on anti-Catholic journalism in the Progressive Era is Justin Nordstrom's Danger on the Doorstep. The anti-Catholic publication, The Menace, had the second-highest subscription rate in America for a time. All of this tied to the idea of 100% Americanism, which the KKK endorsed. I was also doing some research recently on a totally unrelated subject, and a minister's autobiography (Albert F. Gray) told of a service that he attended (I believe it was Washington State) in which some men in robes came in, presented an American flag, and left. Although the book did not identify said men, I assume that it was some Klansmen given the time period and this practice. (I posted the previous paragraph as a comment on the American religion blog post noted above).

This 100% Americanism has shown up in much of my research on Grand Forks, North Dakota, religious history.  A Baptist church, which I've mentioned in a couple of conference papers that I've posted here, definitely believed in American exceptionalism and thought that the rest of the world should become English-speaking American-style democrats against WWI-era German autocrats.  A Lutheran church in town that I've studied transferred to English-speaking services around the same time that there were moves for 100% Americanism.  While I can see the desire for people to speak the same language as others, because it's difficult to communicate without speaking the same language, I don't think that a proper understanding of Christianity allows for the blatant racism that many in American history have fostered (and apparently continue to foster) in their churches.  I would personally argue that it makes the church as a whole look bad to society.  However, it's just a reflection of the view of people who vote this way in church meetings.