Review: Every Leaf, Line, and Letter

Every Leaf, Line, and Letter, Edited by Timothy Larsen, Introduction by Thomas S. Kidd. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A collection of articles in honor of historian of evangelicalism, David Bebbington, exploring expressions of the “biblicism,” in Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism, known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.”

Historian David Bebbington is most widely known for his description of the defining characteristics of evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, which has become known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.” This collection of articles focuses on biblicism, an effort to honor Bebbington on his 70th birthday and retirement from his Chair. The articles cover a span of time from the 1730’s to the present and are organized by century. One of the main themes of the books is the variety of uses of the Bible and forms of expression of evangelicalism’s commitment to the Bible. In my review I will summarize the articles by century, noting salient points.

Eighteenth Century

Kristina Benham opens this collection considering American preaching during the Revolutionary War and the widespread invocation of Exodus and Independence as ascent to an American Zion. She notes how the exodus theme will later be used by slaves from within the American system. Bruce Hindmarsh takes some exception with Bebbington’s observation of Enlightenment influence in 18th century evangelicalism by noting the extensive examples of figural reading of the biblical text. Then Jonathan Yeager rounds out this section by contrasting the views of Jonathan Edwards and John Erskine on faith and free will. Yeager exposes Edward’s distinctiveness from the reformers on his views of the place of the will in the exercise of faith, contrasting him with the more traditionally reformed Erskine.

Nineteenth Century

I found K. Elise Leal’s “Young People Are Actually Becoming Accurate Bible Theologians” one of the most interesting essays in the volume. She looks at children’s Bible education, including a heavy emphasis on memory work and the efforts of the Sunday school movement to form children into “Bible Theologians.” I saw echoes of these efforts in my own childhood Sunday school experience. Mark Noll explores the challenge that the debate to slavery posed to the belief in sola scriptura–the reality that pro-slavery and abolitionist preaching both invoked the same Bible. I’m convinced that evangelicalism in the U.S. bears the mark of this crisis down to the present day. I had not previously been acquainted with Josephine Butler, a crusader for women’s rights whose life was animated by her reading of scripture, particularly in its focus on the gospels and an almost mystical love for Jesus. Mary Riso offers a fascinating portrait of her as an example of the expression of biblicism in evangelical piety.

Twentieth Century

This section opens with David Bebbington’s own contribution to this volume: a study of the Bible crisis in British evangelicalism in the 1920’s, the fundamentalist reaction to critical studies that brought significant divides in the U.S. was more muted, in part because of the strong Anglican evangelical presence who refused to denounce or separate. I was fascinated to learn of the significant role the Bible league played in the student movement that became Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the UK, later spreading to Canada and the U.S. Timothy Larson follows up with a study of Liberal Evangelicals in the UK through a study of the ministry of Vernon Faithful Storr, a leader in the Anglican Evangelical Group Movement, the locus of liberal evangelicalism. It was telling that they were defined as much for their stance against Anglo-Catholicism and for the “central” churchman rather than doctrinal views, although Storrs moved to a position of believing neither in the plenary inspiration or final authority of the Bible. Sadly his efforts to be “on the right side of history” led to the eclipse of his movement by the evangelicals led by John Stott, much to his chagrin.

The next essay shifts the focus to the United States and the anti-lynching efforts of Francis Grimke and the biblical arguments he used, the lack of attention he received, and his developing arguments for the legitimacy of defensive resistance in the face of white tyranny and oppression. The section concludes with the rise of the charismatic movement, particularly in New Zealand and Britain, the rift between Michael Harper and John Stott over whether Spirit baptism was a second and distinct work to justification and how the charismatic renewal led to more democratic uses of scripture in personal and public devotion and ministry.

Twenty-first Century

This last part begins with what I thought a chilling study of the Patriot’s Bible, the interweaving of biblical text and American history laying groundwork for a kind of Christian nationalistic fervor and militarism in defense of country. It is interesting to trace how many problems in American Christianity trace to what is in the margins of our Bibles along with the Biblical text from C. I. Scofield to the present. I’ve often warned against treating the notes as inspired and that we may do better to read Bibles without such notes. Finally Brian Stanley, a global church historian considers the variety of forms biblicism takes in global evangelicalism, particularly in context where oral tradition or hymn-singing are important.

While this is a selective treatment of biblicism in evangelical history as any such treatment must be, this festschrift offers rich food for thought. The two articles on early twentieth century evangelicalism remind me of the challenge of avoiding either polemical dogmatism or liberal latitudinarianism. It was fascinating to think about the formation of children, which seems less important in many circles, than even in my youth. More striking is how often evangelicals have appropriated scripture for political ends, from revolution to slavery to making America great. It makes sense to me of the advocacy of some Christians that we need a new revolution. It seems to me instead that we need a better reading of scripture, perhaps one shaped by the other aspects of Bebbington’s Quadrilateral–the centrality of Christ and his cross, the necessity of conversion (rarely talked about these days) and activism like that of Josephine Butler, fueled by the biblical text and the love of Christ.

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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: 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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