Friday, February 6, 2015

Fea: "Was the United States Born as a Result of a Religious Revival?"

Check it out here. A taste:
[Jerry] Newcombe and Mark Beliles of the Providence Foundation have a new book out.  It is called Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson.  I have not read this book, but if the Amazon description is any indication it sounds like something similar to David Barton's discredited The Jefferson Lies.  Perhaps Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter should look into this.


Tom Van Dyke said...

So far, so good.

"In this honest and thorough examination of Thomas Jefferson''s public and private life, authors Beliles and Newcombe make a strong and persuasive case that in his critical younger years---when he drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia bill for religious freedom---Jefferson was a practicing orthodox Christian. Painstakingly researched and written, the authors refute those scholars who would superimpose Jefferson''s later doubts about core Christian doctrines in support of their views that religion must be separated from politics. --- Herb Titus, Founding Dean, College of Law and Government, Regent University (1986-1993)

What Barton hit on--but ultimately failed on--was that the early Jefferson may have had doubts about the Trinity but was nowhere near the dogmatic anti-Trinitarian he would become in later life.

As for whether these authors overstate the Jefferson's orthodoxy when he was a younger man drafting the D of I and the Virginia statute can only be resolved with a thorough fisking.

But the thesis, where the rubber meets the road, should not take a back seat to arguments about historical factoids about Jefferson's private beliefs, which he notoriously kept hidden from the American public. As Titus concludes,

"To the contrary, as Beliles and Newscombe ably contend, Jefferson''s contribution to the Declaration and the Virginia statute for religious freedom evidences the work of a Christian statesman whatever his personal belief may have been about the redemptive work of Christ at the cross. Anyone who wants to know Jefferson''s real contribution to religious liberty ought to read this book."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Herb's a nice guy. I haven't thought about him in a while. I have had some interesting experiences with him.

He was royally screwed by Pat Robertson.

Jonathan Rowe said...

The problem is Jefferson didn't provably become the theological creature we are familiar with until around 1800 (yes there is evidence that by the time he was President he was that creature; it occurred before 1813).

It's the "pre-Priestley" Jefferson v. the "post-Priestley" Jefferson.

Barton, Newcombe et al. are trying to shove the pre-Priestley Jefferson into orthodox Christianity.

However, given what we know, we could just as easily shove that Jefferson into something that is more strictly deistic as opposed to something that is more orthodox Christian.

Tom Van Dyke said...

FRT, I don't see any evidence for an orthodox Jefferson at any point in his life. But he got more dogmatic in his anti-dogmatism as he went on.

JMS said...

Here is what I took as the main historical point Professor Fea was making, and with which I agree wholeheartedly:

"Was America "born as the result of...the First Great Awakening?" The relationship between the religious revival known as the Great Awakening and the American Revolution is a complicated and contested one. I have gone on record saying that there is very little connection between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution. But even those historians who do claim that the Great Awakening had some connection to the birth of the United States would never claim that America "was born as the result" of this revival.

Newcombe makes a fair case about the Great Awakening's impact on American culture during the years in which the revival fires flamed, but the claim he makes about the relationship between the Awakening and the Revolution is not supported by any evidence apart from the fact that the founding fathers wanted people to be "virtuous."

I am assuming that Newcombe is trying to make a connection between the founders' call for a virtuous citizenry and the spiritual interest that stemmed from the Great Awakening. This is a stretch. The Awakening was separated from the Revolution by almost two generations. Nearly all historians agree that Christianity was very weak during the Revolution. Whatever spiritual vitality the Great Awakening brought to the colonies had largely subsided by 1776. Moreover, the founders' thought that Christianity was merely one source of the kind of virtue necessary to make a republic work. I tried to make this argument in both The Way of Improvement Leads Home and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

We really need to move beyond these simplistic views of the relationship between religion and the founding era that lead us to manipulate the past to serve our own cultural, religious, and political agendas."

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think a nitpick on the minor issue of the effect of the Great Awakening on the Revolution to a sweeping condemnation of

"these simplistic views of the relationship between religion and the founding era that lead us to manipulate the past to serve our own cultural, religious, and political agendas"

is itself a stretch.

JMS said...

Tom - of course I disagree. The "stretch" is Newcombe's statement that,"America was born as a result of a national revival, known as the First Great Awakening." IMHO, to call him out on this gross over-statement is not "nitpicking."

Tom Van Dyke said...

There seems little room for disagreement in your regime.

The first is to get students thinking about possible connections between the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution. You can do that by encouraging them to consider the experiences of colonials in the decades just before the onset of the imperial crisis in the mid 1760s, which for many included being swept up in evangelical revivals, perhaps even being converted. In other words, the members of the revolutionary generation had faced, as individuals, important choices about their fundamental religious beliefs and loyalties, and that experience may have prepared them to make equally crucial and basic decisions about their political beliefs and loyalties. More important, no small number of those men and women who converted during the First Great Awakening had defied traditional authorities to uphold their new religious convictions. Some had criticized and ultimately rejected their former ministers or churches for not being sufficiently evangelical, while others had challenged the legitimacy of state-supported churches, which they deemed enemies to individual religious freedom. In short, this was a generation of people who had, during their youth, been schooled in the importance of self-determination and even rebellion against the existing hierarchies of deference and privilege.


More recent historical inquiry has focused on connections between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution. Alan Heimert’s controversial study, Religion and the American Mind, probably did more than any other book to prompt that curiosity, for he argued that, at least in New England, the radical evangelical supporters of the revival later became the most ardent rebels, while the moderate and conservative opponents of the Awakening became either neutrals or loyalists when the conflict came with Britain. Most historians today reject this neat dichotomy, mainly because so many nonevangelicals—Christians and otherwise, both in New England and elsewhere—played such prominent roles in advancing the rebel cause. Even so, many historians now believe that the religious ferment churned up by the Great Awakening in the decades immediately preceding the revolutionary crisis had profound implications for American politics.