Review: The Mayflower Pilgrims

mayflower pilgrims

The Mayflower Pilgrims: Sifting Fact from Fable, Derek Wilson. London: SPCK Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A historical account of the movements and political developments that shaped the composition of the 102 who made the voyage on the Mayflower.

There is a kind of mythology that has developed around the passengers on the Mayflower who settled in Plymouthostensibly on a quest for religious freedom. Derek Wilson, in this new book, traces the separatist movements and the political conditions that shaped them in the century before this voyage. What emerges is a far more complex account than is often given of a persecuted minority who were paragons of Christian virtue seeking religious freedom. It wasn’t quite that simple.

The broad strokes of this narrative go back to Henry VIII and the formation of the Church of England, and the succeeding reigns down to James I. One one side there is the Catholic reaction, and brief ascendancy during the reign of Queen Mary I. On the other, and especially during the reign of Elizabeth I onward, there was the pressure from the separatists who did not believe the church went far enough.

Wilson traces these reigns and movements in both moderate and more radical forms down to the time of the Mayflower Pilgrims, thirty-seven of which were from a particularly vigorous separatist group, many having taken shelter in Leiden in the Netherlands. The remainder of the 102 consisted of everything from indentured servants, some of which were children, to others simply seeking a new start in the New World and economic opportunity. Needless to say, they did not all share the vision of a new Christian commonwealth, free from interference from the crown.

The striking thing about this book is that only about the last sixty pages are about the group of people from which the Mayflower passengers were drawn. The rest chronicles the separatist movements in England and on the continent that preceded them. It shows the Pilgrims as part of a larger movement seeking an idealized form of Christianity. It also shows the folly of this vision, including the compromises the planners of the voyage made, and the reality that they ended up replicating the very wrongs, including intolerance, from which they fled. The wonder is that it all survived.

Wilson tries to cover all these movements in parallel, interwoven accounts. He admits that “[t]his may make for a rather ‘jerky’ narrative,” which I felt to be the case. It felt like an incessant flow of names, places, dates, and events that jumped back and forth chronologically, and it was difficult to trace how it was connected. The book ends with the voyage and we don’t learn anything new about the Plymouth settlers after they arrive.

If you are looking for a work that traces the historical antecedents of the Plymouth settlers, this offers plenty of material. However, the title and even the cover image may be deceiving. We learn relatively little about the pilgrims, and nothing of their efforts and challenges in the New World.

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

Review: Religion and American Culture

religion and american culture

Religion and American Culture (3rd edition), George M. Marsden. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the interaction of religion and American civil culture from the nation’s beginnings up to 2016.

“The United States is both remarkably religious and remarkably profane.”

The opening line of this survey of the history of the interaction of religion and American culture is an accurate thesis summary of this work. In part, it reflects the point of view of the author, George M. Marsden. He notes in the introduction to the work that his thinking is shaped by an Augustinian outlook that recognizes both the dignity of humans in God’s image and the reality of human evil, the parallel cultures of “City of God” and the “City of Man,” and that Christians inhabit both cities.

Marsden traces this interaction from the Protestant heritage of the early immigrants, which held sway in the country until the Civil War and the conflicted engagement with Native Peoples–from uneasy coexistence, to violent displacement, to occasional mission efforts–a conflicted record. He examines the different streams of thought contributing to the American revolution–and how they converged and diverged. He examines the heritage of dissent, the secular and deist founders, and the ideas shared in common by Locke and the Puritans. He notes a paradox of high ideals of liberty and justice, and the beginnings of manifest destiny and the use of power to displace native peoples, and hold Africans in servitude. These threads continue into the nineteenth century with the revivalist spread of evangelical culture, marked by increasing levels of education as frontier denominations establish colleges. This culminates in institutions like Oberlin College, motivated by religious revival, enrolling female students, and advocating abolition in an increasingly divided evangelical church along the geographic lines of north and south.

The post-Civil war era on its face seemed to reflect a continued advance of Protestantism, including Protestant missions. At the same time developments of both social progressivism, and the advent of Darwinism and higher critical theories brought the first cracks in the established position of both mainline and evangelical Protestants. They also faced an increasingly plural situation with the immigration of large numbers of Catholics and Jews, as well as the growing influence of the African-American church, which in turn, made its contribution to the rise of pentecostalism.

The fault lines become more pronounced in the early twentieth century with divides in mainline denominations between north and south, a rise of fundamentalism in reaction to liberal scholarship. John Dewey’s secular ideals prevail in the educational establishment. The Niebuhr brothers and Karl Barth offer a neo-orthodox alternative to liberal scholarship in more mainline contexts while those of evangelical belief retreat into fundamentalism.

Marsden notes another great reversal post-World War 2 with the rise in church membership, the baby boom, the ministry of Billy Graham, a re-framed culturally engaged evangelicalism, as well as the growth of Jewish and Catholic influence in the country. The African-American church led by Dr. King awakens and asserts its call for justice and civil rights. Then a rising evangelical movement becomes increasingly politically engaged and Marsden traces this history from the rise of Jimmy Carter to the election of 2016, chronicling an increasingly fragmented, secularized, and polarized country.

This “brief history,” as the subtitle calls it, covers extensive ground, and various movements, sects, and various religious communities, in a history at once descriptive, and illustrative of the “religious and profane” theme. Marsden particularly portrays the conflict between religious ideals and our treatment of native peoples and African-Americans, the changing face of Protestant privilege, the unholy alliances that have existed between Christians and our government throughout our history, the growing pluralism, both religious and irreligious, and the perennial tension between the country’s religious and secular ideals.

Marsden concludes with a few thoughts on preserving a truly pluralistic society, which he believes begins with clarifying the rules that protect free speech and genuine diversity within various sub-communities, protecting them from the tyranny of the majority. He concludes by noting why knowledge of our history is so vital to this project:

“This book is a history, and it is much easier to describe how the United States got to the point it has reached with respect to its secular and religious diversity than it is to prescribe exactly how its future with respect to those diversities might be improved. Still, we can safely say that there will be no improvement without historical understanding of how we got to be where we are. One lesson is sure. When it comes to religion, it will not do to resort to easy generalizations; evaluation of its roles must always be nuanced. Such nuance will help us see that religion, even at what we may regard its best, appears in human affairs almost always as a mixed blessing.”

Marsden has given us the resources for that nuanced “understanding of how we have gotten to be where we are.” This seems critical for religious and political leaders alike, to enable wise and humble decisions that avoid the hubris and folly that sadly has too often characterized our history.

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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: The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No BordersMelani McAlister. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the international dimension of American evangelicalism, focusing particularly on Africa and the Middle East, the impact this American movement has had globally, and in turn ways global evangelicalism is engaging American evangelicalism.

American evangelicalism has been the subject of much historical, sociological and political analysis. Nearly all of this has been focused within the borders of the United States. Melani McAlister studies this movement through a different lens–the mission efforts of the past fifty years that have led to an international engagement, particularly as growing indigenous movements have challenged American evangelical beliefs and practices. The work includes extensive archival research, on the ground observation, and carefully chosen photographs that enhance the text. The focus of the author is on efforts in the Middle East and Africa, consistent with the author’s research area as an associate professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University.

The scope of this study is the last fifty years, going back to the 1960’s. After an introduction, the first section of the book is concerned with “networks,” the linkages of various key organizations within evangelicalism (e.g. the National Association of Evangelicals, InterVarsity, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others) both with one another, at conferences and in mission efforts. The narrative begins with the efforts of evangelicalism to reconcile its concern for peoples of color with the racial struggle coming to the surface in the 1960’s, then moves on to the Congo Crisis and encounters with Marxist movements and the intersection of religious and political concerns–would Congo become another Vietnam. At the same time, Israel captured the American imagination in its victory in the 1967 war, leading to travel to biblical sites and increasing linkages between religious hopes and American foreign policy. This section concludes with the largest networking encounter of the period, Lausanne ’74 and the growing tension between missional advance and social justice concerns from delegates in the developing world who were asserting their own voices increasingly.

Part Two is organized around body politics. It begins with Richard Wurmbrand displaying the wounds from his tortures before the U.S. Congress. Much of this section concerns persecution of evangelicals abroad and the intersection with concerns for religious liberty at home. McAlister traces the engagement with South African apartheid and how U.S. evangelicals dealt with the treatment of blacks and the witness of black Christian leaders. She explores the rising awareness of the Muslim World and the 10/40 Window heuristic for the unreached and resistant areas of the Muslim World. The section concludes with African American evangelicals efforts to address the crisis in South Sudan, and the redemption of people taken into slavery, an engagement of the heart that fails to get to the heart of the political turmoil in this troubled part of the world.

This leads naturally into Part Three, titled “Emotions.” McAlister explores what she calls “enchanted internationalism” that motivates much of evangelical mission. She chronicles the “short term missions” movement and the motivation of so many who “have a heart” for the lost, but often do not truly engage the cultural realities of the places they go, often supplanting national workers who may be as, or more capable. McAlister tells the complicated story of American engagement around HIV/AIDS, and homosexuality in Africa, where African evangelicals take a much harsher line than Americans like Rick Warren, and resent what they see as American cultural imperialism asserting itself into African churches. Again, much of the focus is South Sudan, as she joins Dick Robinson from Elmbrook Church as he visits believers scattered through the country and joins a Global Urban Trek of InterVarsity students in Egypt working with South Sudanese refugees as they confront both the enchantment of close identification one student had with Muslim Egyptians, and the struggle of a black participant who feels the racism of Egyptians while identifying more closely with the South Sudanese. All confront the expectations on Americans, the complexities of political and social realities, and the challenge of trying to live authentic Christian lives in difficult circumstances.

As someone who lives inside the world McAlister is studying and works in one of the organizations she investigates, I wondered how she would treat us. She is honest at one point in identifying herself as secular (on an Elmbrook Church mission project, one of the few organizations that permitted her to participate in such projects), and I thought fairly represented the facts. This was neither tribute nor hatchet job. It represents both noble efforts and questionable outlooks. She explores how global realities intersect with the American expressions of evangelicalism–how can we care for people of color around the world while tolerating racism at home? How do we hold mission in the Muslim world together with an increasing animus toward Muslims at home? How concerned are we for the religious liberties of the other as we advocate for our own? Furthermore, will we truly regard those who are fellow evangelicals around the world as equals and allow them to speak into our religious and political life as Americans? What happens when grateful recipients become equal partners? What happens when American evangelicals are a minority in a growing global movement?

I was deeply impressed with the incarnational approach of McAlister, who makes the effort to get on the inside that enables readers to see what American evangelicalism in its global efforts might look like to an outsider. I often read accounts of evangelicalism that are unrecognizable. The challenging aspect of this book is how recognizable it is, a mirror held up to us that shows all our features—and flaws.

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

Review: God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution

God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the relationship between religion and our national life in the U.S. were a Facebook status, it would be “it’s complicated”. Truth is, it always has been, according to Thomas S. Kidd.

In this “religious history of the American Revolution” Kidd gives us a highly readable yet nuanced account of our early religious history which avoids either the “Christian America” or “secular state” options. Nothing illustrates this more than the relationship between Baptist evangelist, John Leland and Thomas Jefferson. These were strange bedfellows to be sure and yet both were agreed on one crucial issue, the disestablishment of religion and the promotion of religious liberty for all Americans.

Kidd documents that this passion for liberty, first from the British establishment, and then from any establishment of a particular church was in fact the meeting place between much of the evangelical movement that arose out of the first Great Awakening, and the by and large Unitarian deists and skeptics who were among many of our “Founding Fathers”. Both recognized the vital importance of religion in energizing the rebellion against Great Britain, which accounted for the wide support of military chaplains during the war. Both recognized the importance of religion for the encouragement of sacrifice and public virtue. And both opposed state supported churches that privileged one denomination with tax revenues, and often excluded from public office those unwilling to meet religious tests.

The book also chronicles the fateful concurrence particularly between New England religious leaders and Thomas Jefferson in the statement in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable rights”. Intended to assert American equality with the British, it also underscored the deep inconsistency within our country of oppressing Native Americans and enslaving Africans. Kidd explores how this piece of our religious history set up a tension not only between sections of the country but even within the lives of people like Jefferson who both trembled at the consequences of slavery for the country and yet held slaves until he died.

What Kidd argues is that the evidence of these early years presents a picture of public expression of religious faith without state establishment of religious institutions. None envisioned the complete exclusion of matters of faith from public life. In fact, the disestablishment of religion was believed to be a vitalizing factor that even contributed to subsequent religious awakenings and the exceptional vibrancy of religion in American life, a fact noted by de Tocqueville. He sums up the agreement between the evangelicals and the founders as follows, “The founders’ religious agreement was on public values, not private doctrines” (p. 254). He warns against things like divine providentialism supporting every conceivable conflict and the kinds of “Christian America” rhetoric seen in some quarters today. Yet none of this argues against the importance of religion in public life, particularly to advance commonly held values.

The only reservation I have here is that this can sometimes smack of a pragmatism that uses religious faith for political ends. While people of faith should be welcomed in public life and discourse, they also need to be watchful for being used (and duped) for political ends inconsistent with their most deeply held principles.

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