New Semester, New Post

The Fall Semester is now 1 week old. Classes have all met several times.

With the new semester comes a new blog post, connected to one of my classes this semester.

In this post, I talk about a new book about Cotton Mather that I’ll be using to help students understand colonial New England Puritanism.

Read it here!


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Published in the Wall Street Journal!

I was very pleased to see an article I had written make it into the Wall Street Journal on Friday, April 21.

In the “Houses of Worship” section, my article appeared. I didn’t pick the title, but the editors headed it “In God We Trust, Even at Our Most Divided.”

The article starts reflecting on the addition of “In God We Trust” to American Coinage in 1864, during the Civil War.

It moves on, then, to reflect on what type of religious nationalism was being invoked.

I use that question to point to Lincoln’s religious themes in his Second Inaugural Address. It’s there, I claim that:

The 16th president thus demonstrated that the best religious reflection in public life could lead to humility, self-criticism, care for fellow citizens, and renewal of civic ties. And that seems like a beneficial reminder from the random coins jangling in our pockets.

Thus, when used properly, public religion can serve positive ends.

I’ve been glad to see the response to the article. I’ve heard from readers from Connecticut to Guam. John Fea picked up the article for his Sunday Night Odds and Ends.

Finally, in my bio, I mention the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center. Let me encourage readers to keep them on their radar screen as they plan and build an engaging presence in Philadelphia.

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A note on Religion in Antebellum New York

I enjoyed reading Kyle Roberts’ new book on religion in New York during the Early Republic, titled Evangelical Gotham.

Today at the Religion in American History blog, I make a point about how the book ties together the local story with national and international stories.

This helped my thinking, as I’m simultaneously working on an academic review of the book.

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U.S. Religion Updates

I thought it would be appropriate to provide some updates of blogs I’ve done on U.S. Religious History.

Last September, I reflected on ways I expected to encounter religious beliefs in my “American Revolution and Early Republic” class.

Then, at the end of the class, I was able to turn around and report what had worked out.

In January, I filed a quick note on recent books by Paul Harvey. But note: this Paul Harvey is not a daily news commentator but an historian writing about religion in the American South.

Then, this past month, I returned to the theme of religion in the American Revolution with a notice of Daniel Dreisbach’s new book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers.

And, in between those posts, I’ve been thinking about new topics to cover here and in my monthly Religion in American History blog entry.

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Visiting St. Vincent College

Let me check in with a report from my trip this week to Latrobe, Pennsylvania—just outside of Pittsburgh.

Now, I learned a number of things about the area.

1. Latrobe is the hometown of Mr. Rodgers. I guess I was literally in “Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood.” I had the privilege of speaking in the “Fred Rodgers Center.” I’m just glad that the dress code did not require a cardigan sweater.

2. Latrobe is also the hometown of Arnold Palmer, the golfer. I was very impressed with the Palmer memorabilia I encountered around town and even at my hotel. My one oversight during the trip was my failure to order a half iced tea/half lemonade.

3. Latrobe is home to the training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers. We walked past the practice fields, where Steelers fans prepare for every season with hope.

4. Latrobe is home to St. Vincent College, my hosts. St. Vincent College was founded by the Benedictine missionary Boniface Wimmer. He founded both a monastery on the site and eventually the college. The monastery is still active, and St. Vincent has been instrumental in encouraging Benedictine spirituality throughout the country.

5. St. Vincent College is home to the Center for Political and Economic Thought, an institute doing really outstanding educational work for their students.

The Center, in cooperation with their Political Science Department, hosted me for St. Vincent’s Constitution Day Lecture. I had the privilege of speaking on “The Other Publius: John Jay’s Constitutional Moment.” Publius was the pseudonym for the authors of The Federalist Papers. While Alexander Hamilton and James Madison regularly get a lot of attention, Jay’s constitutional contributions are often overlooked. I was aiming to remedy that.

My hosts were incredibly gracious, and it was great to address a large auditorium. The questions posed by students and faculty were thoughtful and pushed in ways that helped me unpack some concepts I only gestured towards in the talk.

In short, the experience really made me appreciate another liberal arts college doing impressive things. May they bear good fruit!

Saint Vincent Basillica

The beautiful Basilica at Saint Vincent College. Courtesy Wikipedia.

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Teaching the American Revolution and Early Republic

As I always like to say, “Nothing says up-to-date like two months between blog posts!”

The semester has now begun at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul.

This semester, I’m teaching an “Honors Western Civilization” class, as well as the first half of our U.S. History Survey.

I also have the chance to teach an upper-level class in “The American Revolution and Early Republic.”

Some people have asked about readings. The books I’m assigning are these:

Ellis, Joseph. Founding Brothers. NY: Knopf, 2000.

Fischer, David Hackett. Washington’s Crossing. NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Frohnen, Bruce. The American Republic. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Kidd, Thomas. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. NY: Basic Books, 2010.

Morgan, Edmund. The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Course Packet. Includes articles and primary sources.

The class already has a great vibe, and I’m looking forward to the class debates that start next week (for instance–“Should America declare independence?”). One other wrinkle that I’ll be throwing is playing selections from the Hamilton musical to keep us all on our toes. And, not to disappoint, we will talk about the Federalists.

Earlier this week I reflected on how I’m also planning to integrate religious history into the course. You can read that post here.

And now…off to class!

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Doing Digital History 2016

One highlight for me this summer is the opportunity to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminar called “Doing Digital History 2016.”

I’m joining twenty-three other historians for the next two weeks in Washington, D.C. The seminar has been organized by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. These are some of the leaders of the field, so it’s good to learn from the best.

This seminar is designed for mid-career scholars who are interested in gaining more digital skills for their work in history–this definitely applies to me!

If you’d like to see what we’re doing, you can check out the seminar’s website.

We’re also using the twitter hashtag #doingdh16.

I’m looking forward to developing skills that I can use both in my research and in my teaching at the University of Northwestern.

One day in, and I already have some good ideas. I’m sure more will be coming.

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Religion and the War of 1812

One of my major tasks this summer has been to work on an article about the War of 1812 and how it might be interpreted through the ethical lens of the Just War tradition. I just sent a draft of that piece off to my editor (woohoo!).

Thinking about Religion and the War of 1812 was a theme in Patriotism and Piety (no surprise, there). It also generated a blog post, which just went up today at the Religion in American History site. Enjoy!

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Summer Books 2016 #1

Sitting on my school desk is a rather large stack of books for my summer reading. Some of them are in my academic field, some arrived from publishers, and some I just found interesting. I thought one way of processing them might be to blog about them as I go through the summer. Let me say I won’t be providing full reviews but only providing some key impressions I have with the books.

I’ll start off the series today with the book Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity by Phillip Luke Sinitiere.

The book came out in late 2015, but I just had the chance to get to it this past month. I definitely enjoyed it and learned a lot. Because of Sinitiere’s efforts, I feel like I can speak both more fairly and more confidently about Osteen. That’s a win all by itself.

Sinitiere CoverThe book has several strengths.

It provides a very strong congregational history of Lakewood Church in Houston. In case you were wondering where Osteen’s megachurch came from, this book provides a great, fine textured look at the congregation. In the process, Sinitiere does a great job of unfolding the life of Joel’s father, John Osteen, the church’s founder. In doing this, Sinitiere also succeeds in placing Lakewood on the spectrum of American charismatic Christianity.

A second strength is Sinitiere’s very fair parsing of  Osteen’s messages. Sinitiere does a great job at highlighting the themes that tie together Osteen’s messages, which he remarks have evolved even while remaining consistent on several themes.

In looking at Osteen’s ideas, Sinitiere identifies two key influences on Osteen. The first is John Maxwell, the motivational speaker. Maxwell likes to encourage “leaders” (of all stripes) to fulfill their “visions,” and Osteen picked up this language. The second is Joyce Meyer. This flashy female televangelist emphasized the significance of positive thinking and recovery in all parts of life. Osteen picked ideas about positive thinking and positive confession and worked it into his messages. Identifying Maxwell and Meyer as formative influences help us understand where Osteen is coming from.

I mentioned above that the book places Lakewood church on the spectrum of American Christianity. Where does it fit? In particular, Lakewood should be understood as part of Charismatic American Christianity that emphasizes the Prosperity Gospel. Sinitiere shows that this isn’t a slur: it’s a statement of fact. Since John Osteen’s days of ministry, the church has been linked to the nexus of “Prosperity Gospel” formed by people like Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, and Kenneth Copeland. Osteen might be more media-savvy, but his preaching and his church grow from those emphases. (In passing, let me say that any readers who want to know more about the Prosperity Gospel as a whole should pick up Kate Bowler’s great book on the topic.)

Let me mention two concerns I have with the book.

First, I was a bit uncomfortable with the way Sinitiere describes the Prosperity Gospel movement as a “neo-Pentecostal” and then lumps them in with other Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. It strikes me that this muddies the water to identify Prosperity Gospel preaching with the rest of the Charismatic movement. There is some overlap, it’s true, but this catch-all term doesn’t do justice to the nuance of these Spirit-emphasizing movements.

Second,  I’m not sure about the audience for the book. I should say that it’s pitched to an academic audience. As an historian I enjoyed it, but I would be hesitant to recommend it to a general audience. There is too much direct reference to other scholarship in the text and too many scholarly by-ways that slow the writing down. With the topic and with Sinitiere’s research, this could easily have been a great mass audience book, but I fear it’s been kept too much as an academic monograph.

Finally, two final points.

If this topic sounds interesting, don’t let me discourage you from reading the book! You can also listen to Sinitiere doing an interview on the Research on Religion podcast.

Second, my favorite nugget in the book is that Victoria Osteen–Joel’s wife–wrote a series of children’s books. One of them is titled Hooray for Wonderful Me! I’m thinking I should take that as my new tagline. I’ll see how my family members appreciate it when I regularly quote that around the house.

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Jefferson and Christianity

In recent days the space not taken up by discussions of, say, the Cincinnati gorilla, has been taken up online by  a vibrant discussion about Thomas Jefferson and Christianity. Jefferson claimed to be a Christian, even as his beliefs in “Christianity” diverged strongly from orthodox Christianity. How should we evaluate this?

The conversation was kicked off by a presentation by Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed on C-Span. It played out on twitter. Recent posts by John Fea and Ben Park have also addressed this.

Rather than rehash the issues raised, in my brief time I want to raise one other historical point. We could also ask: how did Jefferson’s contemporaries view his faith?

It’s worth noting that some of Jefferson’s contemporaries were quite suspicious. Due to his writings in places like Notes on the State of Virginia and various correspondence, many of Jefferson’s opponents questioned his faith.

I see this most clearly in a political editorial in 1800 that asked its readers if they wanted to vote for “God and a Religious President” [i.e., John Adams] or “Jefferson…and NO GOD.”

A more sustained statement of this idea came from two New York ministers, John Mitchell Mason and William Linn. After parsing Jefferson’s public utterances, they asserted that Jefferson was an infidel (one who maliciously rejected Christian truth) and so not to be trusted.

Or, as they claimed in a second pamphlet:

Christians! Lay these things together: compare them; examine them separately, and collectively: ponder; pause; lay your hands upon your hearts; lift up your hearts to heaven, and pronounce on Mr. Jefferson’s Christianity. You cannot stifle the emotions; nor forebear uttering your indignant sentence–infidel!!

(“The Voice of Warning to Christians,” 1800)

Now, Linn and Mason didn’t speak for everyone, and you could suggest that their claims were at least partially politically motivated. Still, as ministers, they claimed their duties forced them to point out Jefferson’s heterodoxy. To some believers of his day, Jefferson’s beliefs seemed suspicious.

Politics, you say? Would there be a book out there that talked about religious and political conflicts in the early republic? Maybe one involving the Federalists? Oh, that’s right: this one.




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