Review: The Most Famous Man in America

The Most Famous Man in America, Debby Applegate. New York: Three Leaves Press, 2007.

Summary: The Pulitzer prize-winning biography of the most famous preacher in nineteenth century America, and the scandals around his sexual life.

The story of the writing of this biography strikes me as nearly as interesting as the book itself. It began when Debby Applegate was an undergraduate student at Amherst researching famous Amherst alumni. She selected Henry Ward Beecher and then went on to write her senior thesis about him. She then went on to Yale, making him the subject of her doctoral thesis. And like any good writer of theses in history, she sought a book contract to turn it into a book. This was in the Clinton era and the sex scandals surrounding his administration. However, due to the time needed for research, it finally published in 2006 (in paper in 2007). The culmination of this twenty year project was that the book was a National Book Critics Award Finalist and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Her biography traces the life of Henry Ward Beecher, who, if not the most famous man in America, was certainly the most famous preacher of America. He was asked by President Lincoln to speak at Fort Sumter at the end of the Civil War, an event overshadowed by Lincoln’s assassination. He filled the pulpit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, a nineteenth century megachurch. At one point he drew a $100,000 salary–in the nineteenth century. He pioneered a more informal style of preaching using humor and pathos and emphasizing the love of God as well as social reform.

He was a mover in the abolitionist movement, although Applegate emphasizes his ambivalent record. One one hand, he raised money to emancipate slaves and sent rifles to Nebraska and Kansas to aid abolitionists–“Beecher Bibles.” On the other hand, he counselled caution and moderation, offending more radical proponents like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. He also campaigned for women’s suffrage and for temperance.

The book portrays his distinguished family. His father Lyman was a New England Calvinist, later transplanted to Cincinnati as president of Lane Theological Seminary. Harriet Beecher Stowe, was his sister. One of the striking facts is that all of his children departed from this stern Calvinism, although a number were ministers. Nine were writers. Applegate traces Henry’s career from his early struggles with his charge in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, where he first begins to shift from the more Calvinist form of preaching to the more informal and engaging style he observed among the Methodists. His success was great enough to attract the notice of church leaders in Indianapolis, who offered him a salary that finally allowed him and Eunice to live more comfortably. Increasingly his preaching focused on the love of God rather than human sinfulness. This, in turn, caught the attention of Henry Bowen, who lured the Beechers to Brooklyn, and the shared ambitions of building up Plymouth Church.

Applegate chronicles the influence of money and power that became increasingly alluring to Beecher. Bowen helped Beecher with his debts and Beecher contributed to his publishing enterprises. Beecher’s fame led to political influence within the newly born Republican party. As he became ever busier on social campaigns, he and Bowen relied more on Theodore Tilton for his writing enterprises.

This powerful alliance unraveled when Beecher became emotionally, and, it seems likely, sexually involved with several women, culminating in an affair with Tilton’s wife Elizabeth. Applegate records a tawdry set of confrontations, confessions, retractions and denial, and ultimately a civil trial that ended with a hung jury and a church trial that exonerated Beecher and shamed his accusers.

Reading the biography brought to mind the Apostle Paul’s counsel to a young pastor, Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV). As Beecher pursued pastoral success, he jettisoned unpopular doctrines for public acclaim. Having struggled with desperate circumstances, he gave way to the allures of money, power, and sex. At one point he defends and propounds free love and the rightness of intimacy with a woman not his wife. And sadly, because of his success, the leaders of his church cast a blind eye to these abuses, and the relational wreckage that resulted with Bowen, the Tiltons, and others.

If the biography came after the scandals of the Clinton administration, it came before the sex scandals, #MeToo, and #ChurchToo of the last decade. It seems to me that Applegate’s biography ought be recommended reading for aspiring ministers as well as the church boards who oversee their efforts, especially where such efforts result in significant growth and acclaim for minister and church. The biography explores not only the personal temptations but the systemic dynamics that contribute to pastoral unfaithfulness and the covering up of moral failures. The biography also traces the rise of the personality cults around pastors, which may arguably have begun with Beecher. A study of the circle around Beecher reveals a web of dysfunctionality. Even if none of this interests you, read this simply for Applegate’s fascinating chronicle of one of the most influential figures of the nineteenth century.

Review: Christian Parenting

Christian Parenting: Wisdom and Perspectives from American History, David P. Setran. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.

Summary: A historical study of Christian parenting beliefs in two eras of American history, the Colonial and Victorian periods.

All conscientious and loving parents have wrestled with the question of how to raise their children. For Christians, there is the added concern of imparting their faith, seeing their children follow Christ, growing up as people characterized by faith, hope, and love.

What David P. Setran offers here is not a handbook but a history of parenting practices among Christians in what became the United States during the first three centuries of our history. Setran divides this history into two periods, the Colonial (1620-1770) and the Victorian (1830-1890), with the intervening years reflecting a transition. And what he finds is a distinctive shift from the former to the latter periods in the parental tasks, the nature of the home, the respective roles and strength of influence of fathers and mothers, and the assumptions about the spiritual nature of children and how, then, they ought to be formed in the faith.

While fathers and mothers both play an important role in both periods, the father’s role stands out in the Colonial period and the home was considered central in the spiritual lives of children. In this period sons often inherited property from fathers, heightening this tie, and much of life, economic and otherwise was centered in the home. Children were understood as unregenerate sinners who needed to be awakened to their own sinfulness and in need of the saving grace of God to impart new life in Christ to them. Thus one of the roles of fathers was evangelist. The home was also a center of worship, with the father as “priest” leading the family in worship. Part of their work was that of intercession for God’s saving work in the lives of their children. The home was also considered the school of faith, with parents instructing their children in both the catechism and the commands of scripture. Literacy was important to catechism and the reading of scripture. The aim of all of this was to provide children with the vocabulary of faith and parents were “prophets,” instructing children in the word of the Lord. Finally, every home was a little kingdom with parents as “kings,” exercising authority over their children, teaching children to honor parents, and exercising discipline in the form of admonition, restraint, and corporal punishment (“the rod”). Yet much of the literature emphasized moderation and not severity in discipline or instruction.

Setran traces a shift occurring from about 1830 on. Mothers play a much more important role as fathers work increasingly takes them out of the home except for Sundays. The home is increasingly seen as a loving and nurturing environment in which children’s faith and character is shaped less by instruction and ritual and more by the loving care and model of parents. There is also a shift from Calvinist belief in depravity to seeing children as malleable, or even as innocents. Instead of stressing the need of conversion, parents influenced the faith and character of children through the environment they created and the model of their own lives, especially early in the child’s life. Reflecting the shift to mothers, much of the literature focused on the mother’s role in Christian nurture. Motherly love was considered an irresistible force while fathers became playmates rather than pedagogues with their children. A critical function of the home was the creation of warm memories. Family worship, “the family altar,” continued to be stressed, less as father-led, and more dialogical. Discipline focused more around the love of parents, with the disobedient child removed from the parental circle through early versions of “time out. The focus on human love ran the danger of elevating it above the love of God and the ideal of home as heaven on earth ran the danger of de-emphasizing the priority of the church, although the church became increasingly the center of catechesis, rather than the home, even as education was being shifted to the schools.

This study offers perspective on how we have gotten to where we are in our Christian parenting practices, particularly the contemporary situation in which so many institutions outside the home are having a more profound influence. While not offering detailed parenting advice, he proposes that there are things that may be drawn from both of the periods, particularly the idea of catechesis and family worship woven into the daily life of families in a warm home environment. Drawing on James K.A. Smith, these “liturgies of the ordinary,” to borrow a phrase from Tish Harrison Warren, can be powerful in forming our children. He argues against an approach that polarizes the two models into either-or in conflict but draws on the best of both.

One question that is noted but not resolved has to do with our assumptions about the spiritual nature of children. Are they unregenerate sinners in need of conversion or malleable creatures or even spiritual innocents? How people answer this has shaped parenting advice and practices. The former view is often portrayed as unloving, harsh, or severe in terms of parenting practices as opposed to the loving home environment associated with the latter. But need it be, and is this even accurate? Setran’s account of the Colonial period refers to warnings about harshness in discipline, or overly taxing approaches to catechesis.

I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that original sin is the one doctrine of the Christian faith empirically verifiable. I’m also reminded that one of the first words children learn is “no.” This inclines me to the Colonial period’s assumptions and suggests that there are some valuable lessons we may learn from them in this work. The shift in assumptions in the Victorian period seems to me linked to Christian Smith’s “moral therapeutic deism” in which Christian faith is reduced to being nice, with God as the friend who is there when I need him and otherwise stays out of the way. While I do not disagree with the author’s conclusion that we draw from the values both periods, I do think the assumptions we make shape how we prioritize those values, and the character of the faith that results.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: A History of Evangelism in North America

A History of Evangelism in North America, Thomas P. Johnston, editor. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021.

Summary: An account of the history of evangelism in North America through a compilation of articles on key figures, movements, and organizations from the colonial period to the present.

If one is to give a full account of American church history, it is difficult to do so without discussing the various evangelistic movements and significant evangelists and revivalists who birthed church and parachurch organizations and contributed to their expansion across the country. This work offers an account of those evangelists, those movements and organizations that fueled successive waves of growth and renewal in American Christianity.

This is not a comprehensive history of evangelism in North America compiled by a single author as the title might suggest but rather an edited volume of twenty-two articles covering key figures and movements from the 1700’s to the present. The work begins with Jonathan Edwards offering a much more extensive study of Edward’s preaching than we often get in truncated versions of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Subsequent chapters discuss other early figures: Brainerd’s efforts among native peoples, John Wesley and his use of preaching conferences to multiply his efforts, George Whitefield’s method for effective evangelizing and Francis Asbury and his organization of circuit riders that led to the explosive growth of American Methodism. We also learn about the important role of Bible societies in the spread of the scriptures that accompanied the gradual spread of American literacy.

The revivalist movement of the early 1800’s is represented by Shubal Stearns and the Sandy Creek Association, Cane Ridge as representative of the camp meeting movement, and the revival of 1800 centered around the lawless region of Logan County, Kentucky. The mid-19th century is covered with discussions of the methodical approach to evangelism of J. Wilbur Chapman including prayer, intentional evangelistic effort, outreach strategies, and systematic efforts to render hospitality and contact prospects. By contrast, John Mason Peck’s efforts focused around education of workers, epitomized in his Shurtleff College and Rock Creek Seminary.

The book then jumps to the post World War 1 era covering Henrietta Mears Sunday School movement and her influence on a generation of evangelical leaders including Bill Bright and Billy Graham, who are also subjects of individual chapters. Other chapters include a wonderful summary of the work of Dawson Trotman of the Navigators and Shadrach Meshach Lockridge, one of the foremost black evangelists who ministered at Calvary Baptist Church in San Diego.

The latter part of the twentieth century was marked by a revival among counter-culture youth in the early seventies, with Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel serving as an epicenter of a movement that spontaneously sprang up around the country. There are also chapters on D. James Kennedy and Evangelism Explosion, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner on church growth, John Piper and evangelism among the “Young-Restless-and-Reformed”. The book concludes with Southern Baptist methodologies and a concluding chapter on Twenty-first century developments.

It was striking to me that there were no chapters either on Charles Finney or D. L. Moody, both of whose methods shaped the “crusade evangelism” of the twentieth century. Billy Sunday is only mentioned as an antecedent of Billy Graham. No women, such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Kathryn Kuhlman are mentioned. While various movements in different church traditions are covered, the flavor is contemporary Southern Baptist, which may account for some of these lacuna.

While this text is framed as a history, the writing and effort to draw practical lessons from different evangelists and movements, which suggests that this text might be used as part of an adult forum on evangelism or as a seminary text as part of a course on evangelism. There are recurring themes of the importance of prayer, confidence in the scriptures and clarity in the message, going out to reach the lost in intentional outreach, the work of the Holy Spirit in conviction, conversion, and empowering of the preacher, and the necessity of making disciples and not just converts.

In an age that prefers presence to proclamation and is squeamish about any of the cognates of “evangel,” this book reminds us that this was not always so, and that many have found faith and passed from death to life through evangelism movements of the past. It reminds us of the transforming power of the gospel. We may need new wineskins, but this book reminds us that the wine is good.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Jesus and John Wayne

Jesus and John Wayne, Kristen Kobes Du Mez. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.

Summary: A historical study of how the ideal of rugged masculinity typified by John Wayne influenced the evangelical embrace of authority, gender roles, and conservative, nationalist politics.

This is one of the most intensely discussed books in religious publishing over the past year. Kristen Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University historian, offers a carefully documented account of the development of authoritarian, patriarchal and “muscular” models of masculinity which have invaded evangelical religious subculture and played a vital role in evangelical political engagement.

Her title is drawn from “Jesus and John Wayne,” a 1980’s Christian hit of the Gaither Vocal Band. She traces how Wayne’s muscular and sometimes violent form of masculinity supplanted the Jesus of the gospels as the evangelical model of masculinity. She traces the fascination with the square-jawed, passionate Billy Graham and the youth leader become family guru Bill Gothard as early figures in this trend, teachers like James Dobson and Tim LaHaye, media figures as diverse as Mel Gibson and Duck Dynasty, and military figures like Oliver North.

This is a movement not only about masculinity but patriarchal gender roles, supported oddly enough by women like Elizabeth Eliot, Phyllis Schlafly, and Marabel Morgan (remember The Total Woman?). Kobes Du Mez traces the influence of the Promise Keepers movement, John Eldredge’s books, Pastor Douglas Wilson, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper in upholding militant masculinity and male control of families. More troubling yet are the connections between this culture, purity teaching, and sexual abuse.

The book also traces the exploitation of this vision of masculinity by the conservative political movement from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. The author challenges the argument advanced by some that only “unchurched” embrace these values. She shows studies that demonstrate high numbers of the most faithful have been equally supportive. She argues that Trump’s rough masculinity appealed to a subculture schooled for seventy years on “John Wayne” models of masculinity and helped explain their willingness to overlook his moral flaws and failings.

This is a deeply troubling account, especially since I’ve witnessed the damage of women abused and not protected by the church, and the thwarting of the gifts of women eager to use them to follow Christ. This is an important but uncomfortable book for men in church leadership to read and wrestle with. Many of us have been troubled by the political allegiance of large swaths of evangelicalism with one political party. What this book connected for me is the connection between these allegiances and flawed masculine and gender role ideals. I also found troubling the complicity of much of the Christian bookselling industry in promoting these views.

If I would have any objection, it is that the narrative does not offer counter-examples, including the Christian institution at which the author holds tenure. We hear of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood but there is no mention of the Council of Biblical Equality. We hear of scholars like Wayne Grudem and John Piper but not of Craig Keener and Aida Besancon Spencer and many others supportive of equal partnership between men and women in marriage and ministry. Nor do we hear of egalitarian churches and ministries, except a passing reference to Beth Moore. Although these movements have not achieved the political influence nor the rank and file embrace of many evangelicals, they offer a counter-narrative that may point the way forward. Many of these operate in what Ross Douthat calls “the evangelical penumbra” and may be increasingly uncomfortable with the identifier “evangelical” for reasons this book makes abundantly clear.

The challenge these groups face, underscored by this book, is to articulate a compelling vision for men and women following Christ, of Christian character and the fruit of the Spirit, lived out in both marriage and ministry partnerships, committed to pursuing the missio dei rather than political influence. Neither the culture of the 1950’s or the 2020’s can help us. Only the real Jesus of the Gospels.

Review: White Evangelical Racism

White Evangelical Racism, Anthea Butler. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, (Forthcoming, March) 2021.

Summary: A short history of the evangelical movement in the United States, showing its ties to racism and white supremacy from the time of slavery down to the present.

This was an uncomfortable book for me to read and review. In our racialized society, I would be identified as white. By conviction, I would identify as evangelical. What troubles me about this account is that it makes a good case that the evangelicalism in America with which I am identified is inextricably bound up with the history of racism, America’s original sin, as Jim Wallis has called it.

Anthea Butler offers in this book a concise historical account of white evangelicalism’s complicity in racism. She traces that history from the support of slavery in white, mostly southern churches. She follows this through post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and the support of white churches for segregation, and the participation of churches in lynchings. While some mainline denominations gave support to the civil rights movement, evangelicals remained on the sideline, calling this a “social gospel.”

Butler is not the first to note that the coalescing of evangelical political engagement in the Seventies and Eighties came as much around the denial of tax exemption for segregated schools like Bob Jones University as it did around opposition to abortion, which was originally not an evangelical cause. She traces the rise of organizations like Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition that led to an increasing alliance of evangelicalism with the Republican party, culminating in the support of 81 percent of self-identifying evangelicals with Donald Trump in 2016 despite race-baiting language, anti-immigration stances, and support of white nationalistic aims.

Perhaps no one person has defined American evangelicalism more than Billy Graham and so Butler devotes a chapter to him. While he desegregated his meetings, and hosted black speakers on his platform, and even include a black evangelist on his team, he took care to distance himself from the civil rights movement as it embraced nonviolent civil disobedience. King may have shared his platform once, but no more. Graham also preached against communism, associated by many in the South with the civil rights movement. His record was ambiguous at best and in the end, the focus remained on winning people to Christ rather than unequivocal stands for racial justice.

Parts of me wanted to protest against this sweeping indictment by citing the abolitionist efforts of northern evangelicals, and other socially engaged efforts in the nineteenth century. Butler does mention this as well as other forays like that of the Promise Keepers into racial reconciliation. The sad fact is none of these movements prevailed over the long haul in standing against white supremacism. The first decade and a half of the twenty-first century saw some promising evangelical initiatives around racial reconciliation and immigration reform, only for these to wither over the last five years.

I also wanted to protest that evangelicalism is not inherently white. Black and Latino churches in this country share the same theology. And people globally identify with the same theological convictions that form the core of American evangelical belief. I’ve been in a meeting with representatives of over 150 countries where this was the case, where those of my skin color were a minority. But in the ways American evangelicalism has separated itself from its Black and Latino kindred, the judgment stands. The typical first response of many white evangelicals to a Christian person of color trying to talk about racial injustice is to defend and argue rather than listen to a fellow Christian. We seem remarkably untroubled that divisions by race in our churches mirror our political divisions.

Butler, a former evangelical who still cares about this movement, reaches this sobering conclusion:

“Evangelicalism is at a precipice. It is no longer a movement to which Americans look for a moral center. American evangelicalism lacks social, political, and spiritual effectiveness in the twentyfirst century. It has become a religion lodged within political party. It is a religion that promotes issues important almost exclusively to white conservatives. Evangelicalism embraces racists and says that evangelicals’ interests, and only theirs, are the most important for all American citizens.”

I have no defense against this. I fear evangelicalism in the United States may be like the church in Ephesus described in Revelation 2:1-7. The church was marked by its orthodoxy and yet Jesus has this to say: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:4-5, NIV). I fear we are at imminent risk of losing our lampstand, that is, our witness within the culture. In fact, I find most churches are more concerned about political interests than even their historical distinction of seeing lost people come to Christ. Butler’s message mirrors that of Jesus in Revelation. This book is a call to repentance. The trajectory of history is not inevitable. We can turn away from the precipice. But I fear the time is short.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Sacred Liberty

sacred liberty

Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious FreedomStephen Waldman. New York: Harper Collins, 2019.

Summary: Rather than a given of American religious history, religious liberty has often been honored more in the breach, and fought for by religious minorities excluded from this liberty.

One of the mythologies of American history was the commitment from the beginnings of the American experiment to religious liberty, beginning with the earliest Pilgrim and Puritan settlers. The reality was actually quite different. Stephen Waldman traces the struggle for religious liberty beginning with the case of Mary Dyer, branded a Puritan heretic for participating in Anne Hutchinson’s Bible studies and eventually becoming a Quaker. On June 1, 1660, she was hung on the Boston Common for her faith. In America.

As the colonies developed, a religious patchwork also developed with particular bodies sanctioned by the state, and others struggling for existence, often restricted by while funding the state-supported churches, Anglicans in one colony, Congregationalists in another. The Baptists seemed to have to fight for their rights everywhere. These religious divisions were submerged during the Revolution, with even Catholics receiving a measure of toleration. Real steps forward were taken with the advocacy of Thomas Jefferson, after his correspondence with the Danbury Baptists, and the genius insight of Madison that the best way to foster religious vitality was to take government out of the business of establishing religion or in any way prohibiting its free exercise. Enshrined in the First Amendment, it was a first major step toward religious freedom–at the federal level. No one had yet applied this to individual states.

The states would follow later, unleashing a fervor of religious activity, confirming Madison’s wisdom. But this at first only applied to Protestants. The arriving Catholic immigrants faced prejudice at different periods, including at one point, opposition from the Klan who expanded their white exclusivism to “100 percent Americans,” excluding Catholics from eastern and southern Europe. Likewise, the tribal religions of slaves were exterminated for a Christianity that liberated the soul but held the body captive. Mormons would pose another challenge, with their strange beliefs and polygamy. They would be murdered and driven out of state after state until finding refuge in Utah. Eventually their liberties were recognized with the concession to monogamous marriage.  Native peoples also had their own religions, but as they were subjugated, they were forced into residential schools. The aim was to “Kill the Indian, Christianize the Man.” Only in 1978 did Congress pass legislation protecting their religious rights. Then it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their refusal to salute the American flag, which led to the application of First Amendment freedoms at the state and local level.

In more recent years, following World War 2, Waldman traces the Judeo-Christian alliance in public life, He traces the increasing presence of the Supreme Court in religious liberty cases, the influx of people representing the other major world religions–Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and modern developments that have led to Evangelical and Catholic alliances, attacks on Islam, the conversion of a religious majority into a “persecuted” religious minority whose religious liberty needs protection.

One question Waldman leaves us with is how religious liberty extends to practices that may have impact on the public good, for example, the case of polygamy, or medical treatment when a child’s life is at risk. Must pharmacists dispense medications that violate their conscience or bakers or photographers accept clients whose views of marriage they disagree with? In these latter cases, Waldman seems to encourage common sense accommodations rather than laws or court rulings. Of course, this assumes a pluralistic marketplace, a condition that does not exist in all communities.

One question Waldman did not address, other than in school prayer discussions, is the protection of the belief and liberty those who believe there is no God. Atheists have also been subject to persecution and discrimination and a chapter addressing the protection of their freedom of conscience, something not explicitly included in the First Amendment, unless one defines atheism as a religion, would have been worth discussing.

A recurring theme is that religious liberty often has been the preserve of the religion in power and minorities had to fight for the extension of those rights to them. Waldman demonstrates the genius of Madison and the First Amendment in fostering a vibrant religious landscape. Part of the key was that he realized that political power would sooner or later have a corrupting influence on the religion. The best test of a religion’s veracity was its ability to convince prospective followers without compulsion. The best way to protect a nation from religious conflict was to determinedly protect the freedom of conscience for all.

This is an important book that underscores the wisdom of applying the First Amendment consistently. To protect the religious freedom of any of us is to protect that of all of us. The real test of religious freedom is, will we defend the liberties of those with whom we disagree or even consider heretical by our own standards? Sadly, our story is too often one of attacking rather than defending the rights of those with whom we differ. For all that, Madison’s wisdom has proven itself over time. Will we reflect upon that and continue to preserve this distinctive “first freedom?”

Review: A History of the Amish

a history of the Amish

A History of the Amish: Third EditionSteven M. Nolt. New York: Good Books, 2016

Summary: A history of the Amish from their European Anabaptist beginnings to the present, tracing the different groups and their continued growth in the United States and Canada.

Ever since a childhood visit to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I’ve had a secret fascination with the Amish. Living in Ohio, one of our favorite getaways has been to Holmes County, home to the largest Amish population in Ohio. One quickly adjusts to sharing the road with horse-drawn vehicles and children walking to and from school. We’ve visited stores selling appliances that do not require electricity, and enjoyed the craftsmanship of Amish-built furniture, including two custom-built pieces in our home. For nearly half of my life, I have been a member of a Brethren Church, part of the same Anabaptist stream as the Amish, albeit far more liberal in its embrace of modern culture.

Steven M. Nolt’s book traces the history of this group from its origins within the Anabaptist reform movement of Germany and Switzerland and the split between Hans Reist and Jakob Amman. We learn about the first groups that came to the United States and settled between Philadelphia and Lancaster, drawn to the religious openness of the Quaker State.  Nolt tells a story of persecution in Europe and a gradual dwindling of the faithful, coupled with waves of migration to North America, with settlements spreading to Ohio, Indiana and other Midwest states as well as Ontario, Canada.

Like so many things, growth leads to division, particularly over the issue of shunning, with first the Amish-Mennonites and then the Beachy Amish, and some smaller groups breaking off from what became known as the Old Order, who continued to take the most conservative approach to technology, generally worshiped in homes, and shunning.

The confrontation with America’s cultural life perhaps was most dramatically underscored by the challenges the Amish, as a peace church, faced when America went to war in 1917 and 1941, and gradually winning acceptance of its conscientious objectors from the government. Then there was the matter of education. Would they be permitted to educate their own children, and let them go to work after eighth grade? Could they opt out of the social welfare net that developed in the U.S. from the Depression onward, continuing to care for their own?

Nolt’s account includes a liberal amount of images, maps, and sidebar features. Some of the sidebars seemed to duplicate material in the text rather than supplement it, but many were features on key figures, ways of life, or historical moments.

A few more recent develops were among the most surprising to me. One was the Amish-Mennonite mission and evangelism movements. I had thought these communities more insular (and some are). The other were the measures they used and the success they enjoyed to retain a high percentage of their youth, 85 to 90 percent in many groups. Most churches in America suffer far greater losses. It was also surprising to me to learn that the percent of Amish engaged in farming has declined, though not as steeply as the rest of the country, even as they enter an increasingly diverse set of occupations and businesses, including an uneasy but explosively growing involvement in tourism.

What perhaps was most striking to me is that Nolt’s account was not one of a dying way, but a thriving one, economically, culturally, spiritually, and numerically. For example, I learned that the number of Old Amish church districts in the U.S. grew from 444 in 1974 to 2,119 in 2014.  As of 2014, there were Old Order Amish settlements in 29 states and in Ontario with Ohio narrowly beating out Pennsylvania for the most Amish with Indiana a distant third. And this is just the Old Order groups.

Nolt offers an even-handed account of this people–their sharp divisions, their stricter groups, as well as portraying a life of enough, of salvation worked out over the course of a life in all of one’s work, of community solidarity, and a remarkable witness of refraining from violence and granting forgiveness. And for all the portrayal of a group locked in tradition, we see a movement continuing to evolve as it wrestles with faithfulness to principle and past, and to the changing world around them.

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left

rise and fall

The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and BeyondL. Benjamin Rolsky. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

Summary: A study of the ecumenical movement among the liberal religious catalyzed by television producer Norman Lear and the causes, particularly stemming from the rise of the religious right, both for its rise and waning influence in American society.

Much attention has been given over the last forty years to the rise of the religious right, and the culture war between secular liberalism and the religious right. Left out of much of this analysis are the efforts of religiously and spiritually liberal individuals. This work seeks to correct that oversight through a focus on the spiritual vision of Norman Lear and the movement he catalyzed among liberal Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. It also focuses on why this move did not succeed in its objective of fostering a religiously plural, civil, and tolerant public square.

The work begins with a historical and sociological survey of the liberal religious tradition in American life, and the kind of civil engagement it sought in political life–an engagement that advocated tolerance, civil engagement, a Rawlsian commitment to invoking public rather than religious reasons for political positions, and the separation of church and state to protect diverse religious perspective.

We are then introduced to Norman Lear, and the catalytic role he played in upsetting the status quo first of all through the sitcoms he produced, like All in the Family and secondly through his advocacy organization, People for the American Way. The book traces the controversy that surrounded Lear’s programming, which explored contemporary issues around race, sexuality, the nature of the American family, and more. Lears own biography is traced, and particularly the secular Jewish tradition from which he arose, and his early resistance to the anti-Semitic intolerance of Father Charles Coughlin’s broadcasts in the 1930’s.

Lear’s situation comedies created a forum where different viewpoints were stated and forthrightly argued, challenging accepted views of the time. Perhaps most controversial was the episode of Maude as she wrestles with and decides to pursue an abortion. These shows reflected the vision of a civil society that did not suppress difference and dissent but protected a public square where different views and ways of life could be aired and lived side by side.

In consequence, resistance to Lear’s programming arose from movements arising from the religious right, including an “electronic church” growing in sophistication. This consisted of protests against programming, efforts to either restrict or provide counter views through the FCC and the Fairness Doctrine. The exploration of alternative moral choices violating traditional values gave rise to efforts like the Moral Majority, a movement that moved being mere religious programming to political advocacy to enforce its morals and beliefs upon wider American society.

Rolsky chronicles Lear’s transition from sitcom production to forming an advocacy organization of his own, People for the American Way, to use television, coalitions with liberal religious groups, and public meetings to advocate for Lear’s version of liberal spiritual politics. All this culminated in his I Love Liberty program, which simultaneously advocated a plural and civil public square, and excluded those on the religious right who did not share his premises.

This paradox, an intolerant tolerance, helped energize a religious rights. In place of an arm’s length, though liberal engagement in politics came the growing alliance of political conservatives and the religious right. One has the sense in reading this account of a missed moment as well as a blind spot in the savvy media strategy of Lear. Somehow, Lear thought he could achieve his vision of a civil, tolerant public square while barring that public square from those whose approach he opposed. Sadly, what he did was awaken an ideologically energized movement that his own movement failed to rival, and helped create the hardened, divided discourse that we have inherited.

I don’t know what can be done at this juncture to escape our deeply divided public discourse. What we learn from Lear, and this account, is that an approach that excludes one’s adversaries from public discourse, and fails to extend the good will that one advocates for in a civil public square, will not succeed. I think today of those who might consider themselves “progressive evangelicals.” Secretly, I believe they often vilify conservatives as “deplorable” as did a recent presidential candidate. This work suggests that such efforts will fail as did Lear’s. Is it time for a different way of framing moving beyond left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and fundamentalist?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Theologies of the American Revivalists

theologies of the american revivalists

Theologies of the American Revivalists, Robert W. Caldwell III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study, not so much of the history, as the theologies underlying the different revival movements in America from 1740 to 1840.

There have been various studies of the histories of particular revival movements in American religious history. What Robert W. Caldwell offers in this work is a comparative study of the theologies of the different revivalists. Undergirding the preaching and methodologies of these revivalists lay considerable thought about the theology of the human will and the sovereignty of God, on how widely the salvation of Christ extended, on the length of the conversion process and a tension between systematic theology and plain reading of scripture.

In seven chapters, Caldwell outlines the theologies of various key figures representing different schools of thought, or religious bodies. These include:

  • Moderate evangelical revival theology. This stream of Puritan Calvinism included George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and notably, Jonathan Edwards. Preaching focused on the law, bringing people under conviction of sin, pursuing “means of grace” as one sought conversion, and finally the consolation of assurance. This process was often emotionally intense and protracted.
  • Free grace revival theology. Andrew Croswell and other radical evangelicals rejected the use of “means of grace” and lengthy conversion processes. They emphasized responses of faith to the Christ who loves, and whose salvation was for the world, by “right.” Conversions were intense, certain, leaving no room for doubt, and quick.
  • Edwardsean Calvinist revival theology. Successors of Jonathan Edwards focused on Edwards idea that people have a natural ability to embrace the gospel, even if morally disinclined to do so. This had ramifications for the understanding of original sin, atonement, and, justification. Conversions continued to be lengthy events, culminating in a “disinterested” spirituality that accepted and even could worship God for his just judgment of oneself as a sinner, leading to the apprehension of God’s grace.
  • Methodist Arminian theology emphasized the love of God, the offer of salvation to all, and the freedom of the will to believe. Conversions were both emotional events and quick, with teaching that encouraged progress to Christian perfection.
  • Early American Baptists. They did not have a single revival theology but different leaders adopted one of the above approaches.
  • Taylorism, or New Haven theology. Nathaniel William Taylor further emphasized both the sinners ability to repent, and the ways in which the means of grace might eradicate selfishness in the sinner even prior to regeneration.
  • Charles Finney’s revival theology. Finney built on Taylor, emphasizing the sinner’s ability to respond to the command to repent and elaborating the means of grace systematically in what became called the “new measures.” Finney asserted that three processes were at work in the conversion process: the work of the Spirit, the work of the minister, and the work of the convert.

Caldwell also discusses two critical responses to these revivalist theologies. The first was that of the Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who believed these revival theologies deviated from classic Calvinism in the direction of Pelagianism. They emphasized the quieter means of the influence of the Christian family. The second was the restoration movement led by Stone and Campbell that eschewed theological systems for the plain teaching of the Bible and the actions of belief, repentance, and baptism affirmed in scripture as resulting in regeneration.

I thought Caldwell’s exposition quite clear as to each of the theologies coupled the key figures, their ideas, and the theological implications of those ideas. Each chapter provides a summary of salient points that allows for good review of the chapter. I wondered about the focus on the conversion theologies associated with the revivalists. While this was a significant aspect of revivals, equally significant was the awakening of those who had already believed to spiritual vitality. Apart from the focus on Wesleyan perfection, this aspect was not addressed. Richard Lovelace’s classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life gives a much fuller account of the renewal of the church in revival.

I appreciated Caldwell’s closing comments on the importance of revival theology in the church today:

“A robust revival theology, one that intimately unites head and heart, Scripture, proclamation, and life, would certainly help galvanize preaching, capture the religious imagination of the lost, and aid in imparting a theological vision that draws sinners to life and raises up God-glorifying disciples” (p. 229).

Caldwell’s work offers a rich account of how those who have gone before us have conceived of these things, as well as pointing us to primary sources for further study. He helps us see that, beyond the emotion and the changed lives of the successive waves of revivals, there were prayerful and thoughtful human agents whose understanding of the ways of God in salvation shaped and energized their preaching and pastoral ministry.

Review: Demanding Liberty

demanding liberty

Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious FreedomBrandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Looks at the history of the struggle for religious freedom in America through a study of the efforts of Reverend Isaac Backus to secure a religious freedom that negotiated a third way between established religion and secularism.

One of the messages of this book is that in order to understand the present time and how to move forward, we do well to look back. Brandon J. O’Brien believes that our present discussions about religious liberty and how we sustain that freedom do well to be informed by understanding the history of religious freedom before and during the nation’s founding years. To do that, O’Brien focuses in on the life and advocacy of Baptist minister Isaac Backus. Backus gives the lie to the idea that America was established in the quest for religious freedom. He writes:

“If Isaac Backus were alive today, he would feel the need to correct the misperception that there was ever a “long-standing American tradition of accommodating religious practice and expression” in the years before or even after the Constitution was ratified. He might tell us about the time his mother was arrested for refusing to pay religious taxes. He might tell us about the time a congregation of New England Baptists had their property seized and their orchards destroyed for holding unauthorized worship services. He would almost certainly tell us about the time he debated with John and Samuel Adams about how claiming to defend religious liberty was not enough. The laws had to be enforced if they were to matter at all.”

The book begins by describing the religious history of New England prior to the War of Independence. Even with the Great Awakening, only 17 percent regularly attended worship. One of these was Isaac Backus, who was converted through an awareness of his own sin and a sermon of George Whitfield. He joined a Congregational Church but due to their “Half way covenant” that allowed people to commune and have their children baptized without a clear account of their conversion, soon became a “Separate.” During this time, he experienced a call of the Holy Spirit to preach and began itinerating to other “Separate” churches. Eventually, he concluded that infant baptism was inconsistent with his understanding of conversion and joined the Baptists.

All these moves brought legal problems. Congregational churches enjoyed government support through taxes levied on the citizenry. Exemptions for others could be granted but were often ignored resulting in fines and seizures of property. Ministers needed not only a call from God but ministerial training in seminaries and approval of other [Congregational] ministers. To preach without this approval could also result in fines and sanctions. All of this was supported by colonial government. Pilgrims may have come seeking religious freedom but Puritans controlled the narrative, establishing “freedom” that enforced with government support their own religious beliefs to the exclusion of others.

O’Brien chronicles how all this transformed O’Brien into a lifelong advocate for religious freedom. He documented wrongs and even made an eloquent case to the Continental Congress, albeit framing it in religious rather than public square terms. He argued for a system that upheld neither a theocracy nor advocated an utterly secular state, but one where religious freedom for all was protected and valued, and where government privileged no belief. In 1779 he formulated a Bill of Rights that anticipated that eventually incorporated into the Constitution. He lived to see the First Amendment ratified.

Throughout the book, O’Brien moves back and forth between past and present, drawing parallels about divisions over religious freedom, when a majority becomes a minority, different perceptions of what it means to be marginalized, the importance for creating space for principled disagreement and the paradox of influence in the halls of power while losing influence in the wider culture. The book explores both what is at stake in our efforts to uphold religious liberties both for ourselves and others and raises intriguing questions about the parallel quest for civil liberties, which often have lagged far behind.  Should not the two go together? And yet often religious believers resist those pressing for greater civil liberties and rights.

This is a timely work on an important current discussion that has always been at the heart of what it means to be a country committed to “liberty and justice for all.”