Monthly Archives: May 2013

Do you have your Beatitudes Coin?

Allow me to digress for a moment.

Through a direct mail advertisement I ended up with a Beatitudes Coin.


Now first, you might be wondering, where are such coins being produced? No worries here–the packaging alerts us that it was “made in America.” Good, I was worried such trinkets were being stamped out in a foreign sweatshop.

The writing on the reverse might be a bit obscure: It cites Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Now, this might seem too easy to critique–o.k., it is too easy to critique, but that won’t stop me.

You see, I might have missed the verse where Jesus commanded his disciples to “carry around a coin about being poor in spirit,” but now I can understand better. Further, I now know that I can gain more Beatitude Coins through purchasing other goods. Surely owning a whole set of Beatitude Coins is almost as good as having the virtues that lead to real blessings, right?

Further, of all the Beatitudes to pick, why would you put “Blessed are the poor in spirit” on a coin? And, to make things even more complicated, the parallel Luke passage (6:20) simply says “Blessed are the poor.” But how will the poor be blessed if they can’t afford to purchase Beatitude Coins? One suspects an irony was lost on whoever came up with this genius marketing idea.

But what should I do with my Beatitude Coin? I’m moving soon, and I surely can’t keep it. I don’t want to be like the heartless sot who’s trying to sell his “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” coin for $12.50 on ebay.  (Yes, who knew that being “poor in spirit” could now be obtained for a mere $12.50?)

If anyone’s really interested, you can have it for the price of shipping. Otherwise, it will disappear into oblivion, and I will no longer have a faux silver trinket to remind me of a virtue I should be following anyway.


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Henry Dunster–Bonus Material

Here’s an additional use for a blog: the posting of bonus material. I know some people devour all the extras that come on DVDs. So, one more thing I could use this blog for is to post material that doesn’t find a place elsewhere.

Today’s post might be thought of as a “deleted scene.” Due to space limitations, I had to cut it out of the final Henry Dunster article. But, so that words might not be lost, I’ll share it with you.

The set-up is that Henry Dunster’s memory became contested territory after his death. In fact, people were arguing about it into the eighteenth century. One example of this is that Henry Dunster shows up in the writings of a British historian, Daniel Neal.

I should highlight again that I was put onto this scent by Baylor’s Bracy Hill.

This paragraph deals with Neal’s treatment of Dunster:

Several decades later, Dunster also became a figure for comment for the British minister and historian Daniel Neal.[1] Neal walked a fine line as a British dissenter who was sympathetic yet critical of seventeenth-century Puritans. Neal’s larger point was to ally the dissenting tradition with the Protestant British empire.[2] Although he drew on [Cotton] Mather’s Magnalia, “he also exercised a critical judgment which to Mather might well have verged on disloyalty.”[3]  Neal rejected Mather’s easy accommodation of Dunster and others into a heroic, univocal New England Way. As a dissenting reformed Congregationalist, Neal was generally suspicious of the extremes of most Anabaptists, but he could also find some respect for a few devout baptists, of whom Dunster was one. In The History of New-England, Neal suggested Baptists deserved religious liberty because they were “following the Light of their Consciences” and making use of “the natural Rights of Mankind.”[4] Puritan persecution of these Baptists was thus unjust. In this context, Dunster was especially badly treated, because “He was an excellent Scholar, and a modest, humble, charitable Man.”[5] Dunster was thus worthy of respect and a personal lesson for reform in Britain and America. Although Neal remained most interested in religious liberty for dissenters, his histories could also be used to work for religious liberty for Baptists.

            [1] My specific thanks to Bracy Hill for pointing me to Neal’s treatment of Dunster. Hill, “Suffering for their Consciences: The Depiction of Anabaptists and Baptists in the Eighteenth-Century Histories of Daniel Neal,” The Welsh Journal of Religious History 5 (2010): 84-113.

            [2] Neal expresses this clearly in Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans, Or Protestant Nonconformists; From the Reformation in 1517, to the Revolution in 1688, Comprising An Account of their First Principles: Their Attempts for a Farther Reformation in the Church; Their Suffering, and the Lives and Characters of Their Most Considerable Divines (London: Richard Hett, 1732; Reprint ed., NY: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1863), ix-xv. For Neal’s general purposes, see Laird Okie, “Daniel Neal and the ‘Puritan Revolution,’” Church History 55 (December 1986): 456-467; John Seed, Dissenting Histories: Politics, History and Memory in Eighteenth-Century England (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 1-12, 41-72.

            [3] Neal’s historiography shaped how colonial New Englanders thought about their own history. Bruce Tucker, “The Reinterpretation of Puritan History in Provincial New England,” The New England Quarterly 54 (December 1981): 481-498. Qt. on p. 484.

            [4] Daniel Neal, The History of New-England, Containing an Impartial Account of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Country, To the Year of our Lord, 1700, The Second Edition (London: A. Ward, T. Longman, T. Shewell, J. Oswald, A. Millar, J. Brackstone, 1747), I: 303, 305.

            [5] Neal, The History of New-England, 309.

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Who is Henry Dunster?

Some readers might be thinking the better question is, “Who is John Galt?”

I am going to “Shrug” in response to that question to answer my original question.

Henry Dunster was perhaps the most important Puritan that even American historians haven’t heard much about. He was the real founding president of a little institution called Harvard. He arrived in the New World in 1640, at the tail end of the “Great Migration” and quickly proved his value to the colony. A man of learning with an MA from Cambridge, he was a scholar of Near Eastern languages. He was quickly appointed to lead the infant Harvard College, which he did well, securing both its financial security and intellectual rigor. During the 1640s, he was near the center of the leadership of the Bay Colony, working for Indian evangelization and revising the colony’s Psalter hymnbook.

Then, something happened. In the 1650s Dunster began having concerns about infant baptism. He refused to have a new-born baptized. When challenged, he prompted a large, public debate in which he defended the anti-infant baptism position against eleven other church leaders. Removed from his presidency at Harvard, Dunster further disrupted the public order by interrupting an infant baptism in his Cambridge Church.

Banished to Plymouth Colony, Dunster lived a few quiet years before his death.

My contention is that Dunster’s theological challenge also carried with it a political challenge. Because baptism was tied to church membership and membership to citizenship, any adjustment to any of those elements had significant political implications.

I explore this at length in my article, “National and Provinciall Churches Are Nullityes”: Henry Dunster’s Puritan Argument against the Puritan Established Church.” The article is forthcoming from the Journal of Church and State, but an advance access article is available here.

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Puritans on a Monday Morning

If you’re looking for your Puritanism fix this Monday morning (which I know you are), I have a post for you!

Just up at the Religion in American History Blog, my reflection on new studies about Puritanism.

At the end, I talk a little about an article of my own. I’ll be blogging more about it later this week.


The piece was also linked through John Fea’s Way of Improvement Blog. You can see his comments here.

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Meeting Chen Guangcheng

After posting several pieces about China, I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m reporting an experience from today that definitely counts as a highlight of my year. This morning I had the chance, along with ten other folks from my program, to sit down with Chen Guangcheng.

Chen Guangcheng at the US Embassy on 1 May 2012

If that name doesn’t immediately ring any bells, Chen is a Chinese human rights lawyer who is also blind. He repeatedly drew attention to abuses in contemporary China by suing governmental officials, demanding that they would abide by the guarantees in China’s constitution and written laws. He particularly pointed to the dreadful effects of China’s one-child policy, including the abortions performed on women against their will. For this, Chen was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest. Last year, he escaped to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and asked for asylum. This generated an international incident, and Hillary Clinton was forced to dance around the issue until a way was found to get Chen out of the country. With certain wordings secured, Chen was able to come to the United States. (Here’s a NY Times piece on Chen from two days ago.)

Although he’s now living in New York City, he was down in Princeton for some meetings. To meet with him was most impressive. He should be recognized as a real hero–someone truly willing to speak truth to power and to do so by pointing to the law.

Chen speaks no English, so the entire conversation was mediated through a translator. Still, we had some fascinating exchanges.

I appreciated the moment when someone brought up how he’s referred to in China, and Chen observed that officially he has “gone abroad to study.”

Chen made much about the conflict between the Communist Party, which wants to be the only locus of identity and authority in China, and the desire for civil society. When I asked him to elaborate on this, he made the point that anything Westerners can do to encourage civil society in China will be helpful.

Of course, the very concept of a civil society apart from the power structure of the Party is a challenge to it. By contrast, the West has thrived by recognizing private realms as well as “public spheres” that are still non-governmental. On this point, I’d be happy to recommend Alexis De Tocqueville as a great theorist of the necessity of Voluntary Societies for the functioning of self-government.

Another interesting exchange came regarding the nature of law. To Chen, there is no rule of law in China. There is no independent judiciary: law is just an outgrowth of the Party. Where, then, might China develop such a concept? Chen observed that there still existed the memory of Daoist philosophy, which spoke of law as part of the “ordering of Heaven.” A colleague astutely pointed out that writers such as C.S. Lewis had connected the Dao to a larger concept of Natural Law. It strikes me that this would be an investigation worthy of a conference at some point.

Our time together ended too soon, but I have to say I was most impressed. I will follow Chen’s next contributions with great interest.

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