Monday, July 11, 2016

Fea: "Review of Eric Metaxas, 'If You Can Keep It': Part 5"

From Dr. John Fea here. A taste:
.. The reason why so many historians tread lightly when connecting the evangelicalism of the Great Awakening to the American Revolution is because there is limited concrete evidence that the founding fathers, or the people for that matter, were specifically drawing upon evangelicalism as they articulated their political resistance to England.

Metaxas is basically trying to argue for the evangelical origins of the American Revolution. The New Birth, he suggests, melted away all other forms of identity–ethnic identities, local political identities, religious identities–into a unique and exceptional “American” identity.  He offers a Whig interpretation of the American Revolution on steroids.  It fails to explain the persistence of ethnic identity in the decades following the Revolution.  It fails to explain the states-rights and local orientation of the Articles of Confederation.  It fails to explain denominationalism as it developed in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.  And it highly exaggerates the influence of Whitefield, evangelicalism, and the Great Awakening on colonial life.  Metaxas fails to realize that religious belief was not particularly strong at the time of the American Revolution.

Finally, let’s remember that the First Great Awakening was a transatlantic spiritual movement.  Whatever unity among evangelicals that Whitefield helped to create was not unique to the British-American colonies.  Whitefield preached the same gospel message in England, Wales, and Scotland.  The people in the British-American colonies who embraced the New Birth saw themselves as part of a movement that was transatlantic in nature.  In other words, the Great Awakening made the religious and cultural relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies stronger, not weaker.
Yeah it's fairly ridiculous to single Whitefield out and try to credit him as Metaxas does. One thing America was at the time of the Revolution and Founding was diverse in a sectarian sense. The kind of Christianity that Whitefield preached by no means spoke for the viable theologies at that time in America in general and those that drove the Revolution in particular.

It did not predominate. 

Indeed, arguably the direct enemies of Whitefield's theological movement drove the revolutionary sentiment more so than Whitefield's faith did. Revs. Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy were not orthodox evangelical types. They were proto-unitarian and universalist and quite theologically liberal for their time, which was the era of "classical liberalism."

I'm not in the business of saying who is a "real Christian." I do know that sectarian division often leads to finger pointing of the lines of "I'm a Christian and you are not."

So even conceding that Mayhew and Chauncy are "Christians" as they identified (though with questionable orthodoxy), there was as much difference, if not more so, between their faiths and Whitefield's than as between Billy Graham's and Bishop Fulton Sheen's.

I use the latter two for a particular reason. The sectarian diversity and consequent religious liberty that the American Founders worked hard to establish permitted us to live in an age where Graham and Sheen in their heyday of the 1950s could vie for the role of "America's Popular Preacher" of their age.

Yes, Whitefield was popular. Ben Franklin liked him; they were friends. But when they spoke to one another, they talked like they believed in two different theologies. How to define Franklin's personal creed is debatable. If he can be called a "Christian," his creed was much closer to Mayhew's or Chauncy's than to Whitefield's. Though, Franklin was arguably less identifiably Christian than Mayhew or Chauncy.

12 comments:

Laurie Waller said...

I think Franklin was more of a Penn and Williams. His generosity to other religious factions tells me that he was agreeable to compromise of doctrine and recognized its value. As a scientist he had to recognize the world outside of biblical adherence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Whitefield section was by far the largest argument in the book [30 pages or so!] and also my least favorite.

But accredited historians disagree on the role of the [First] Great Awakening in unifying pre-revolution America. As is pointed out John Fea's comments section, a very esteemed Yale professor named Harry Stout is basically supportive of Metaxas's thrust here.

As for "proto-unitarian" Charles Chauncey [versus "conservative" Jonathan Edwards, say], Chauncey was the stick in the mud, one of the "Old Lights."

"babes in age as well as understanding.

They are chiefly, indeed, young persons, sometimes lads, or rather boys; nay, women and girls, yea, Negroes,

have taken upon them to do the business of preachers."


It was the "liberal" Chauncey who was the elitist, the anti-egalitarian.

Hell, that's the most beautiful thing about Christianity of all, that all men are equal in Christ, even women, young girls and {gasp} Negroes!

So let's be cautious about just who were the "liberals" and who were the reactionaries!

Jonathan Rowe said...

Did you see what Throckmorton reported on Whitefield and slavery?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Typical PC blather. I expect nothing of actual thought from that gentleman.

Jonathan Rowe said...

You aren't aware of the quotes about which I speak?

Tom Van Dyke said...

B-b-b-but slavery!!! Same ol' same ol' PC disingenuousness.

Does Jefferson's slaveholding invalidate his thoughts on liberty?

Jonathan Rowe said...

The reason I mentioned it was because I saw him as making a very similar point about Whitefield that you just made about Chauncy.

Art Deco said...

I do know that sectarian division often leads to finger pointing of the lines of "I'm a Christian and you are not.

That's nice. You actually live in a time when denominations are corporate shells run by people engaged in a " project of replacing ecclesial authority with personal experience as the norm determinative of authentic faith", as Fr. Paul Shaughnessy, SJ put it. That, or the latest fashion among second string academics or the mental health trade. If they're not run by such people, they're infected by such people. If you've a common purpose, boundary conditions are inherent, and they're a neuralgic issue when your organization is a wreck.

And, without a doubt, some of the people name-checked here are termites.

JMS said...

Any honest historian should acknowledge that a significant problem with the discipline of history is its over-emphasis on thesis-driven interpretation. Writers like Metaxas get so wrapped up in proving their argument, that it becomes reductionist, and does more to distort than clarify historical events, eras and ideas.

The relationship between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution (and the influence of the former on the latter) have been debated for decades, without reaching much of a consensus. The scholarly trend has shifted from the Great Awakening strongly and directly influencing the American Revolution, to a much less discernible connection between the two eras.

My own view concurs with Jon Butler's conclusion that, "The American revival tradition originated in Britain’s eighteenth-century mainland colonies, and some historians have linked them to the American Revolution. But a closer examination suggests that the revivals actually bore little unifying or political force, exhibited strong regional and religious differences, and had no substantial relationship to the Revolution." http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/religion-and-eighteenth-century-revivalism/essays/religion-and-eighteenth-century-rev

For a good presentation on the Great Awakening I recommend the PBS God in America program at http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-one.html

Art Deco said...

The relationship between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution (and the influence of the former on the latter) have been debated for decades, without reaching much of a consensus.

Perhaps because answering that sort of question requires being informed by the study of social relations and that's outside the skill set of all but a few historians. Maybe historians should stick to delineating characteristics and events and leave the rest to historical sociologists.

Art Deco said...

Since the explicit conflicts concerned tax laws, commercial regulations, matters of political architecture and authority, intrusions on property, customary immunities, punative legislation, and what might-be called 'points of pride' (interwoven with the above), it is up to the author to demonstrate why this outside story needs to be supplemented or supplanted by some inside story.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous JMS said...
Any honest historian should acknowledge that a significant problem with the discipline of history is its over-emphasis on thesis-driven interpretation. Writers like Metaxas get so wrapped up in proving their argument, that it becomes reductionist, and does more to distort than clarify historical events, eras and ideas.

The relationship between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution (and the influence of the former on the latter) have been debated for decades, without reaching much of a consensus. The scholarly trend has shifted from the Great Awakening strongly and directly influencing the American Revolution, to a much less discernible connection between the two eras.


Ah, then it's acceptable to posit that influence?

I don't necessarily agree there is much of one, but what I don't like is some people weaponizing the issue against Metaxas. Yale historian Harry Stout seems to think the influence is strong, so Metaxas is really on safe or at least valid ground asserting it himself.

Clearly it's a matter of opinion, on which good and credible people can differ.