25 August 2012

Teaching US History to 1877

I've started my latest semester and have a week under my belt. I'm taking an independent study course in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, which is the general time-frame of most of my research. I also have six hours of research credit this semester that is going to go toward my final scholarly project. The Doctor of Arts program that I am in does not have a traditional dissertation, but rather a project that involves primary research (like a dissertation) and a pedagogical component (somewhat like an EdD, I think). My research is going to focus on the local religious landscape during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I've noted some of my work previously on this site.

In addition to my own work, I am again teaching a section of History 103, The US to 1877. I utilize Tindall and Shi's America: A Narrative History for the course. I like this book well enough as a political narrative, but think that it has the same weakness that many of the other textbooks I've reviewed have. They pretty much have a handful of pages on the pre-Columbian Americans and something similar for the background of Columbus's voyages to the New World. This gives enthusiastic college freshmen the idea that the history of the New World began with exploration in the late fifteenth century.

There were millions of people in the New World before Columbus, and I think it's important to note them. I give my first major lecture on the topic of the American Indians. I then move to the buildup to Europe in 1492. I try to answer questions about the economic system and the changes that were going on at this time and the major reasons for European exploration and expansion--religion was one of them. I think that this gives the students a better background for understanding what took place after the initial contact between Columbus and his Native American hosts in the Bahamas in 1492.

17 August 2012

A Brief History of Seating in the Christian Church

Today's post at the American Church History blog is actually a guest post that comes to us from Joshua Gabrielson, who is a consultant involved in church furnishings. He also contributes to a relatively new blog that, in addition to dealing with his various product lines, also at times discusses current and historical developments in European and American church history related to the furnishings that people placed in the spaces in which they worshiped. You may find some other topics of interest at Joshua's Church Furniture blog.

Before you begin complaining about the hard pews you sit on at church, think about the early Christians, gathered together wherever they could meet, only allowing the weak, sick and elderly to sit on benches and walls of stone. The able-bodied gatherers stood as they listened to the preacher and speakers while mingling with other community Christians. Only during the Reformation Period, sparked by German priest and monk, Martin Luther, did church-goers begin to rest and relax by sitting during church services. But even then, the congregation often sat on cold, rough stone. Those pews are starting to sound a little better, aren’t they?

The earliest pews simply consisted of placing stones alongside one another in front of a wall, which served as the back of the pew. After the reformation of the church, the wooden pew was introduced. Individuals and families would bring in their own wooden, backed benches for use within their close family and friends. Eventually, pews were no longer considered an individual’s private property when they were provided by the church. Not long afterward, these staples of church furniture began to be permanently fixed to the floor for stability and were considered a basic element of the modern  church sanctuary.

But in the modern world of comfort and convenience, even the centuries-old tradition of adorning church sanctuaries with wooden pews is going by the wayside. The newest church seating tradition stars the church chair – available in a wide variety of styles, sizes, colors and even shapes. Chairs’ fabric is often customized to match the sanctuary’s surroundings, blending the palettes of the carpet, wall color and other color and decorative schemes in your church environment. It is unusual to find a new church building being erected that plans to use pews instead of church chairs. Why?
The American Christian church has been in the process of shifting its physical style for decades. Television ministers are implementing podiums, rather than traditional wooden pulpits, for their sermon delivery. We are seeing more nontraditional materials for church furniture, such as aluminum, titanium, acrylic and tempered glass. And as you watch your favorite minister on television, notice what the congregation is sitting on. It’s not pews, it’s church chairs.

On average, you can seat approximately 20 percent more people in a sanctuary filled with rows of chairs than one full of pews. In pews, people tend to place personal items beside them, whether a conscious effort to prevent other members from sitting too close or not. Other times, families will “claim” a pew in the church, leaving other members of the congregation feeling that they are not welcome to sit there. With church chairs, people tend to better utilize the space. Sometimes, one chair will be left empty to separate people for personal space, but overall, more seating is used for what it is meant for – sitting.

Joshua Gabrielson is a professional church consultant and owns and operates Heavenly Pulpits in Virginia.

15 August 2012

Is a Liberal Conservative Possible?

I just posted a review of a book I read. I'm into studying the intersection of politics and religion, and this book, Carl Trueman's Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, asks some of the same questions I've been wrestling with for the past several (probably about 8 or so) years. I'm actually about two years late on the book--it came out in 2010.

Trueman is a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, hardly a Marxist, New Left, or theologically liberal institution, but he does bring up some very important questions regarding the seeming inconsistencies in the current religious right's thinking. Theologically, he is not a liberal; politically, he is not a conservative (although he opposes abortion and gay marriage quite vociferously at times in the book).

I would urge anybody with an interest in the intersection between Christianity and American politics to read the book. The book will probably cause some people angst (actually, on both sides), but it's a discussion that I think needs to be held, especially for those who believe that Christ and the gospel is above every political system. I don't agree with everything Trueman says in the book, but it is quite humorous and an easy read (from a readability standpoint, anyway). I read the whole book word-for-word in under three hours. I highly recommend it.

11 August 2012

The World of Historical Revisionism Turned Uside Down

The Facebook and other sites on the interwebs, including one as prominent as MSN's homepage, had a history book in the news yesterday. This is quite unusual. What is even more unusual is the fact that the "history" book was written by a Christian author.

The book was David Barton's recent tome The Jefferson Lies. There is no link because the book has been pulled from shelves by Thomas Nelson Publishers. Barton is famous for his support among such famous Republican leaders as Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, and Mike Huckabee. These three have each made a run at the White House in the past two terms. Barton attempts to illuminate the Christian roots of American government for the masses. Liberals have derided him. Gingrich says he learns something new every time he hears Barton speak. Huckabee said that all Americans should be forced to listen to Barton.

Barton has frequently accused liberal historians of trying to hide the religious nature of the founding fathers. I've argued on this site multiple times that some of the founding fathers were devout Christians. Most historians would agree with that assessment. Barton goes a bit too far. In The Jefferson Lies, he attempted to paint the third President, Thomas Jefferson, as an orthodox Christian. There was no surprise that he got nailed on this by secular historians. The surprise was the number of Christian historians, some of whom are conservative evangelicals, who joined in the parade of critics. Christian authors such as Thomas Kidd at World Mag and Napp Nazworth at the Christian Post noted the affair, as did left-leaning publications such as Mother Jones. The news was everywhere.

Nelson pulled the book because of questions about its accuracy in dealing with the facts. Just about any person with a casual interest in American history knows that Jefferson was anything but orthodox in his beliefs. The whole letter from the Danbury Baptists to Jefferson arose because many people in Jefferson's day believed he was an atheist, and the Baptist Association wanted clarification that they would not be persecuted. These fears would not have been prevalent if he had been an outspoken God-fearing man. Barton's webiste at Wallbuilders tried to deal with the accusations. A scathing critique by Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter is dismissed because it disagreed with Barton's philosophy on American exceptionalism and these professors quoted "a number of liberal professors to prove that American Exceptionalism is a bad thing, not something good. So from the start, these two make clear that they object to the philosophy I set forth..." He also accused them of jealousy because academic books don't sell as well as popular history.

Some popular history sells quite well. Barton has sold many books. He mentions David McCullough in his attempt at refuting his critics as a popular historian. I've read many of McCullough's works. Most are not ground-breaking in interpretation. They are, however, quite good as a form of narrative history. I've thoroughly enjoyed books like The Johnstown Flood, John Adams, and 1776. Some historians may criticize McCullough for synthesizing the hard work of academic historians, but I've never heard him criticized for misusing evidence in the way that Barton is accused of distorting it. Historical interpretations vary. This is widely accepted. They can be debated. Arguments that go against clear facts, such as the idea that Jefferson was pretty much orthodox is not acceptable, nor should it be.

I will clearly state that I am an evangelical. Most outside the fold would consider my religious beliefs pretty conservative. However, as an aspiring historian, I find it troubling that people would fabricate a story and try to pass it off something other than historical fiction in the name of Jesus. Christ claimed to by the way, the truth, and the life. If he is truth, his followers should seek out the truth, wherever that truth may lead, even if it leads to answers we don't like. While historical knowledge is a sort of provisional truth, there is a truth out there. To fabricate "knowledge" for political gain is not Christ-like. To think that all of these years that I've heard about liberals and their attempt at revisionist history, one within the fold is one of the worst offenders.

Please note: I do realize the need for revisionist history. Sometimes, new evidence is available that leads to new knowledge and new interpretations. Other times, interpretations are not exactly adequate and need to be expanded or totally revised. American history and American church history are not one and the same. This fact does not hurt my faith, nor should it hurt that of any other American Christian. Making up an interpretation that doesn't hold up to the evidence does not reflect good on Christ or Christians, however.