Two Historical Anniversaries

Keeping up the theme of “backward-looking blog posts on Friday,” this week let me direct your attention to 2 historical anniversaries in the last two months.

June 6th saw the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. This would be a great opportunity to reach for a Stephen Ambrose book, maybe his Band of Brothers. Also commemorating the event was my friend Sean Brennan, who blogged about some research he’s been doing on a Catholic Chaplain who was at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Later in the month of June, we witnessed the centennial of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Franz Ferdinand was the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a reformer. In June of 1914, he traveled to the city of Sarajevo near the border of the Empire. Waiting for him was an assassination plot devised by the “Black Hand,” a secret organization controlled by the Serbian government. Riding the crest of nationalism, Serbia believed that Sarajevo and its surrounding Bosnian countryside should belong to it (after all, the area contained many ethnic Serbs).

File:Archduke Franz with his wife.jpg

On the morning of June 28, 1914, one attempt had been made on the Archduke’s life: a bomb had been thrown at the motorcade. Though the Archduke and his wife were unhurt, others of their party were injured and were taken to the hospital. Later in the morning, wanting to visit the hospital, the Archduke’s motorcade got backed up in the streets, stopping right in front of a cafe, where another plotter, Gavrilo Princip, was sitting despondently. Princip immediately seized his chance, jumped to the car’s running board, and fired fatal shots directly at the Archduke and his wife.

More than just an individual tragedy, the assassination of the Archduke set in motion the diplomatic steps that would drag Europe into World War I by the end of the summer. Though the summer of 2014 was beautiful in Europe, behind the scenes were doings that would create unforeseen destruction. This centennial summer, we might plot the steps, as Austria conferred with its ally Germany, Germany gave them the blank check to attack Serbia, and then the German command prepared for the war it knew it would fight with both Russia and France.

The assassination of the Archduke was thus the boulder that started an avalanche that would bury Europe’s 19th century ideals and open the door to the horrors of the 20th century, including the rise of Nazism and, eventually, the Allied invasion on D-Day.

As time allows, I hope to blog more this summer about how we might remember World War I, through several significant books on the topic.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Christianity and the “enlightenment” in America

For a Friday in July, this is a good article to flash-back to.

Back in May, I wrote up a blog post onĀ “Religion and American Enlightenments” and posted it to the Religion in American History site.

The piece grew out of a presentation I had heard this spring, in which some academics attempted to describe the “enlightenment”* in America, while bracketing religious belief in the period. This seemed to me the wrong way to go, and I think the post became a little cantankerous–and maybe more entertaining to read–as a result.

[*The term "enlightenment" is itself problematic, and I'd be happy to explain why, at length, to anyone interested.]

After I posted the piece, I was alerted to a recent article published by Douglas Sweeney on “The Biblical World of Jonathan Edwards” (for those curious, it’s in Jonathan Edwards Studies 3, no. 2 (2013): 221-268). Sweeney argues that Edwards’s ideas were deeply shaped by his Biblical study. Edwards was no simple reader of the Bible but instead used all of the linguistic, exegetical, and even historical tools at his disposal to explicate the biblical text. Edwards owned over 800 works relating to the Bible and theology. Edwards was truly a cosmopolitan reader, keeping up with the intellectual trends of Britain and the Continent. With his own contributions, Edwards was part of the transatlantic republic of letters. In fact, Edwards was “central to what some now call the religious–or the Christian–Enlightenment” (Sweeney, 263). A Christian Enlightenment?!? It’s almost as if those categories need to be brought together, contra the champions of the European Enlightenment as skeptical and humanistic.


Sweeney’s piece is well worth reading and does expand on the points I was trying to make. And for those who want to go really deep, his footnotes 108-135 are well worth mining. He’s demonstrating the vast literature undergirding his claims about Edwards and the intellectual world of the 18th century. It’s almost as if there was an academic blindspot at the previous conference.

So, if you missed my piece earlier this spring, here’s some meaty material for the middle of July!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Religion and the American Revolution, July 2014 edition

It’s the middle of summer, and what better way to reinvigorate the blog, than with a post about Religion and the American Revolution!

In honor of the 4th of July week-end, I posted on this subject at the Religion in American History blog.

In this post, I talked about a volume recently released, entitled Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, edited by Daniel Dreisbach and Mark Hall. The volume featured 14 scholars (including myself!) writing on the subject.Dreisbach and Hall

Although I’m definitely self-interested, I think this is an important volume that moves the conversation forward toward better understanding of the topic.

As I say in my review:

These authors are writing as serious scholars deeply desiring to understand the past properly. This is no polemic–indeed, the editors entirely bracket any contemporary reflections. Rather, by bringing in multiple voices, the editors have shown that religion in the founding period operated in multiple ways and interacted with Enlightened and secular political thought to create a distinctive American mix.

It’s well worth the read.

Further, you’ll get insight into how religious commitments shaped the political culture of the period how such commitments shaped several important founders. My chapter on this latter topic features Elias Boudinot, an important Presbyterian from New Jersey–and a character who plays a big role in my forthcoming book. So, get a sneak peak into understanding Boudinot with this chapter! And, sample the other chapters while you’re at it!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Eroding Biblical Certainty in Early America

I see that my last post came in…exactly one month ago. To which I can say, it’s been one of those months.

My monthly post for the Religion in American History blog just went live. In it, I give a quick review of Michael J. Lee’s Erosion of Biblical Certainty.

Having seen the manuscript at several points along its life, I’m thrilled to see this book in print. Lee pays close attention to how the Bible was read, understood, and defended in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is an excellent study in the history of biblical criticism and the place of the Bible in American life. Along the way, Lee is offering a gentle rebuke to those biblical defenders who attempted to use the rationalist instruments of their critics to defend the Bible. He is suggesting that a healthier defense of inspiration comes from the assertion of faith within the confessing community.


In the review, I also relate Lee’s book to Charles Taylor’s massive work A Secular Age. Lee might be read as offering a small piece of the secularization story Taylor tells. And, if we’re mentioning Taylor, let me suggest that people also be on the look-out for James K.A. Smith’s forthcoming book How (Not) to Be Secular.

Jump over and read the review here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Religious Authority in America

I just posted my monthly piece to the Religion in American History Blog.

In this one, I spring-board off of discussions of George Marsden’s new book (read my quick review here) to raise the larger point about about the dilemma of religious authority in America.

As I demonstrate in a brief sketch, religious authority has been something Christians in America have been wrestling with for a long time–at least back to Jonathan Edwards, although one could make the argument it goes back to Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams.

From Wikimedia Commons

Tocqueville, From Wikimedia Commons

To my mind, understanding Tocqueville is an important piece of this dilemma. Tocqueville saw with great insight the challenges confronting any authority, including religious authority, in a society whose first passion was democracy.

Take a look at the piece, and let me know what you think.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment

Just released this week, I wanted to give a quick comment on George Marsden’s new book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.

The nutshell version is: Run, don’t walk, to buy this book. Or, if that’s too “last century” for your taste, drop it immediately into your Amazon cart.

Marsden is one of the leading historians of American religion–and, for purposes of disclosure, my graduate advisor. He has previously published award-winning books on Fundamentalism, religion and the university, and most recently, Jonathan Edwards.

In this new book he jumps back to the twentieth century to examine, as the subtitle has it, “The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.”

In Marsden’s account, “liberal” in the 1950s was used as a centrist term, for the rational, open-minded approach to the world favored by the cultural mainstream. This liberal outlook, Marsden contends, continued to embrace the empirical, rationalist values of the American Enlightenment, which dated back to the eighteenth century. Such an approach favored a unified cultural outlook that had little room for diversity. Religiously, it embraced a liberal Protestantism, which remained institutionally close to the levers of cultural influence.

Although culturally confident in the 1950s, this dominant approach was actually on its last legs. It was maintaining its optimism and intellectual categories, while the under-girding belief system was dissipating. It was thus set for a rapid decline with the cultural and intellectual upheavals of the later 1960s. That era would produce approaches that would undermine easy confidence in rationality, the authority of science, individualism, and cultural consensus–all factors of the cultural confidence of the ’50s. As consensus culture shattered, it produced many subgroups, but with no coherent ideal to keep them together. The end result was to set intellectual trends that remain to this day.

Another result was secularism. The shattered coherence sidelined liberal Protestantism, replacing it not with another set of beliefs but with no religious belief. The end result was a dominant form of secularism. As Marsden had, in the Soul of the American University, chronicled this secularization in higher education (from established Protestantism to established non-belief), so now he traces it on a broader cultural level.

In his conclusion, Marsden echoes a strategy that has become a trademark: he steps back from his subject to consider how the historical account can help us (collectively) think about contemporary issues. He argues for the need for a principled pluralism. He criticizes how both evangelicals and secularists seem unable to come to terms with pluralism, to make a place for genuine difference in the pursuit of the common good. Instead, he offers a helpful contrast to the work of Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands at the turn of the twentieth century. Kuyper, although deeply Reformed in his thought, made an intentional place for cultural and religious differences. That the Kuyperian option never really appealed to American thinkers is also a legacy of American interpretations of enlightenment.

Throughout, the writing is done gracefully, and complex issues are treated clearly. This is an engaging and accessible book for anyone willing to think through important issues.

Finally, I can’t resist one historiographic note. There’s been much recent discussion of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason, which highlights the problem of authority among neo-evangelicals who claimed authority from Biblical sources but still needed interpreters or organizational leaders. On the other hand, Marsden suggests that there was simultaneously a crisis of authority among liberals and modernist Protestants. Put together, the two books could highlight a very real theme about issues of authority in democratic America. I definitely think the two could be read profitably alongside each other.

In any case, the homework for each reader of this post should be to buy and then read Marsden’s Twilight of the American Enlightenment.


Filed under Uncategorized

Huguenots in the World

Last week my most recent posting went up at the “Religion in American History” site.

I started off the piece with a reference to an internet meme. If I were to draw it up, it would look like this:

The Dos Equis Man reflecting on the AHR

The Dos Equis Man reflecting on the AHR

I wasn’t sure if this would have lowered the tone of the other blog too much, so I’m sharing this image only with you, kind readers.

The context was that I did find an American Historical Review article that I liked (actually, somewhat of a rare occurrence).

In the December 2013 AHR, Owen Stanwood published an interesting piece about the Huguenot diaspora, entitled “Between Eden and Empire: Huguenot Refugees and the Promise of New Worlds.” Huguenots came to British North America and made a tremendous impact, but they also spread throughout the world.

A bonus: see if you can spot any references to Federalist leaders in the piece.

Read all of my comments here.

And, my comments also got noticed on the “Way of Improvement” blog!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized