Wednesday, 29 February 2012

New Review of Enlightened Evangelicalism

There is a new review of Enlightened Evangelicalism, written by Andrew Atherstone and published in the Journal of Theological Studies. I only recently learned of the review when I coincidentally contacted Dr. Atherstone a few weeks ago to introduce myself and ask if he would look over the introduction and excerpt of the Anglican divine Charles Simeon that I had written for my forthcoming evangelical reader.

Below are some of the highlights of the review:

"Yeager’s major argument is that Erskine was a consistent proponent of ‘the reasonableness of Christianity’ or ‘enlightened orthodoxy’ (pp. 20–1)... This portrait of Erskine is significant as shedding new light on the relationship between evangelicalism and the Enlightenment, which are often assumed to be antithetical movements. The eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment is most commonly associated with the scepticism of David Hume, but Yeager presents Erskine as a prominent counter-example...

Yeager argues that Erskine’s greatest significance was not in fact as a preacher and theologian in his own right, but as a disseminator of evangelical literature. In particular he nurtured transatlantic friendships. He was a close ally of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts and became Edwards’s champion and editor after the New Englander’s unexpected death in 1758...

Erskine was a bibliophile and adviser to the book trade, convinced that the best way to propagate and defend evangelicalism was the circulation of inexpensive texts from able theologians. Many American ministers received regular gifts of books from Edinburgh, as did the colony’s new Puritan colleges like Harvard and Yale. Erskine was Scotland’s most prominent American sympathizer, which brought accusations of treason and sedition during the American Revolution, but he saw evangelicalism’s
potential as a global movement...

Erskine’s significance for the development of evangelical theology is not in doubt and this monograph is a valuable contribution to our understanding of wider eighteenth-century religious thought.”

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Billy Graham and the Shaping of Modern America

Next Thursday (March 1) Grant Wacker of Duke Divinity School be giving the final LeRoy Martin Lecture on "Billy Graham and the Shaping of Modern America." The lecture will be at the UTC Auditorium at 7pm. It should be a large turnout, and I am hoping that the Times Free Press will print an article on Graham's former visits to Chattanooga and Tennessee as a whole.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


Yesterday, I found out I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (FRHistS). It was an honor just to be nominated!

Friday, 17 February 2012

Lights, Camera, Action!

Last evening closed out our "Religion in Early America: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution," series in the LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecturer Series at UTC. All the lectures were videoed and will be available for sale on DVD. It was an amazing three nights!

As the organizer for this lecture series, I ate like a king all week at some of the best restaurants in Chattanooga. The only downside was the lack of sleep. I probably averaged about 4-5 hours of sleep this week because I handled nearly all the arrangements for this event, including shuttle runs to and from the airport, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with the speakers and members of the Chattanooga community, as well as faculty at UTC and surrounding schools, technology setup at the lectures, advertising on the radio and in the newspaper, and catering services. I make no complaints though. It was a thrill to meet with some of the best scholars of religious history and thought in America, and offer their knowledge to the local public.

On Tuesday, February 14, Gerald McDermott spoke on "Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening, and the Future of Global Christianity." This is an abstract of his talk:

"Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) was a leader and analyst of the revival that helped shape early America. His experience with the Great Awakening led to an analysis of religious experience that has provided spiritual direction ever since. This lecture explains his relationship to the Awakening, outline his theology of discernment that emerged from the Awakening, and discuss his relationship to millennialism and American exceptionalism. Then it will propose that his larger theological vision is well-suited to the new shape of global Christianity, for it provides bridges between Catholics and Protestants, East and West, charismatics and non-charasmatics, and liberals and conservatives."

McDermott did not deliver his usual seamless, polished speech. Instead, he chose to take a more conversational tone when explaining the person and theology of Edwards. My sense is that the audience, made up of a collection of faculty, students, and people in the Chattanooga community, appreciated the fact that McDermott made Edwards approachable as an important figure in American religious history.

Scholars like McDermott, Marsden, and others have taken great pains to show Edwards as embodying more than simply a fire and brimstone preacher, and this message is making headway. Several people in the audience commented on how their perception of Edwards has now changed. They no longer viewed "America's Theologian" as simply the author of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." As McDermott successfully demonstrated, Edwards was a complex thinker whose contribution to American history, and religion in general, is much broader in scope than most people realize. While I am not necessarily convinced that Edwards bridges the gaps between the East and West, Catholics and Protestants, and charasmatics and non-charasmatics in the way that McDermott proposed, I appreciated the passion that Roanoke's Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion has for one of the most important thinkers America has produced.

Tommy Kidd's lecture on Wednesday, February 15, "Patrick Henry, the Great Awakening, and the Rise of Religious Liberty in Revolutionary Virginia," was (understandably) much more historical than the one by McDermott.

This is his abstract:

"In this lecture, Dr. Thomas Kidd of Baylor University will consider the great Patriot leader Patrick Henry as a bridge between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution. Henry attended revival meetings of the Great Awakening as a boy, which helped form his personal faith and his dramatic speaking style. Along with fellow Founders such as John Adams and George Washington, Henry believed both in protecting religious liberty, and in continuing direct government support for churches. Henry's debates with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson over disestablishing Virginia's state church illuminate the vital importance of faith in the American founding, the Founders' disagreements over the 'separation of church and state.'"

Kidd focused on the issue of religious liberty and Henry's concern for the welfare of America in the aftermath of the Revolution. Kidd argued that Henry has been lost among the crowd of Founders because he objected to the structure of government and view of church-state relations that other patriots like Jefferson and Madison promoted. Henry feared that America was being fashioned by some of the Founders into another Britain, which would be ruled by a president instead of a king. Henry also swam against the current when he suggested that America's government should not necessarily separate completely from religion. He wanted people to continue to pay taxes to churches, but only to those of their choice. Rather, than benefit the Congregationalists or Anglicans, Henry thought it best for people to be able to give to any Christian denomination, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Anglicans. Jews and other non-Christians should be exempt from paying tax completely.

Tommy's lecture also led to some interesting discussions during the time of Q &A with the audience. Several people pressed him for further comments on church-state relations as well as Henry's view of liberty. As always, Tommy handled many potentially explosive issues with poise, care, and graciousness.

Finally, Catherine Brekus spoke on Thursday, February 16 on "Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America."

This is her abstract:

"What are the historical roots of evangelical Christianity? When and why did the evangelical movement begin, and how can we explain its popularity? In 'Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America,' Catherine Brekus answers these questions by recovering the story of an extraordinary woman who belonged to the first generation of evangelical Christians in America. Few people today have ever heard of Sarah Osborn, a schoolteacher who lived in Newport, Rhode Island during the 1700s, but she was one of the most charismatic female religious leaders of her time. During the 1760s she led a remarkable revival that brought hundreds of people, including large numbers of slaves, to her house each week. Her story offers a fascinating window into the early history of the evangelical movement, a movement that continues to influence American life today."

Brekus broke new ground in the series by showing several slides of Osborn's manuscripts and images of eighteenth-century American life. In many ways, Brekus's lecture reiterated the main themes that I tried to engage with in Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine. Brekus described Osborn as an evangelical Calvinist who was influenced by the Enlightenment. Osborn's commitment to empirical evidence, that stemmed from John Locke's philosophy, supports my thesis about Erskine and other eighteenth-century evangelicals. Catherine's lecture is based on her forthcoming book about Osborn, which will be published soon by Yale University Press.

What I appreciated most about the three lectures was that they displayed evangelicalism in a favorable light. When I taught at conservative institutions in the past, Christianity was taken for granted. Most schools required their professors to integrate faith and learning. But at a state school Christianity is not necessarily appreciated, even in the Bible-belt South. Less than an hour away from me is the site of the Scopes (Monkey) Trial of 1925, which has tarnished evangelicalism as an anti-intellectual movement. As leading scholars at recognizable institutions of higher learning, McDermott, Kidd, and Brekus are repairing this damaged image. Hopefully, the word will continue to spread that there are significant differences between fundamentalism and mainstream evangelicalism.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

A Great Day of Teaching

I had a lot of fun teaching today. In my 9am class on "Religion in Southern Culture," four students gave presentations on a supplemental book that they read for the course. I was caught off guard when one student presented Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Out of a list of over one hundred and fifty titles, she chose this book. After the presentation, I had the chance to reiterate the importance of Dochuk's thesis as well as the thoroughness of the book. When the student mentioned Bill Bright and Campus Crusade in her presentation, I noticed several people perk up and ask questions about the book, presumably because they were members of "Cru" and wanted to purchase the text, or perhaps check it out at the library.

In my 11am course, "Religion in the Age of Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards," the sixteen of us debated which excerpts from Jonathan Edwards's A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737) to include in my forthcoming reader. We are only spending one week on Edwards's Narrative, and so we had to move through it very quickly. I instructed the students to pick out roughly fifteen pages of text that they felt future students should read. Several people commented that pages 3-14 were essential in that they provided an overview of the revivals at Northampton in a narrative format. About four or five people countered by saying that this information could be quickly condensed and explained in the introductory paragraphs to the excerpt, and that the best material came from pages 30-45 in which Edwards analyzes the nature of the conversions at Northampton. Finally, two or three people were adamant that the case study on Phebe Bartlet (pages 109-121) should be included. I appreciated everyone's input, despite the fact that we did not reach a consensus. Edwards's book is so interesting, and has so many different parts, that it is indeed difficult to pick out only a few pages.

Jonathan Yeager

How Do They Do It?

How do they do it? It seems that individual authors are pumping out more and more books these days. Mark Noll is one of the best examples of this trend. For years he has consistently churned out such academic titles as Christians in the American Revolution (1977), one of my favorites, Princeton and the Republic (1989), Religion and American Politics (1989), A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (1992), his best-seller, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), Turning Points (2001), The Princeton Theology, 1812-1921 (2001), The Old Religion in a New World (2001), the "magisterial" America's God (2002), The Rise of Evangelicalism (2004), Is the Reformation Over? (2005), God and Race in American Politics (2008), and The New Shape of World Christianity (2009). His Clouds of Witnesses came out in March 2011, and was quickly followed by Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind in July 2011, which came out only a few months before his Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction. I recall Bruce Hindmarsh quipping that he could not read as many books as Noll produced in a year!

Other examples abound. After publishing his PhD dissertation as The Protestant Interest in 2004, Thomas Kidd went on to write a series of impressive texts including, The Great Awakening (2007), American Christians and Islam (2008), God of Liberty (2010), and Patrick Henry (2011). He is on target to complete a biography of George Whitefield by 2014, the 300th anniversary of the Grand Itinerant's birthday. The list continues. The religious historian Paul Harvey, author of Freedom's Coming, has published Through the Storm, Through the Night as well as Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South in 2011. His fellow "blogmeister," Randall Stephens, published The Fire Spreads in 2008, and has co-authored the much-talked about The Anointed at the end of 2011. John Fea turned his dissertation into The Way of Improvement Leads Home in 2008, helped to edit Confessing History at the end of 2010, and only months later released Was America Founded As a Christian Nation? How do they do it?

In fairness, many of these books are offshoots of the research done on previous projects. But still, it is remarkable how efficient these scholarly are. Rick Sher once told me that it took him ten years to revise his Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment (1985), and in the preface of his award-winning, The Enlightenment and the Book (2007), he states that he began research for the book in the early 1990s. I think John Wigger said something similar, that it took him about a decade to write American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (2009).

What I find interesting is that some authors do not need to write multiple monographs to become leaders in their field. Rick Sher, John Wigger, and George Marsden serve as evidence of this fact. Sometimes, all that is needed is one ground-breaking book to catapult a person to literary stardom. Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture was a runaway success that permanently etched his name into the annals of Christian scholarship. A second example is Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, which has been cited as one of the best monographs on religious history in America. The lesson to me is: although it is impressive to produce multiple books in a decade, it only takes one seminal monograph to make a dramatic impact in the academy.

Jonathan Yeager

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Books Keep Piling Up!

My reading list continues to grow. I just received Timothy Larsen's A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford, 2011)--props to Andy Tooley for being mentioned in the intro for his "expert knowledge in the field of nineteenth-century British studies"--and David Hall's A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Reforming Transformation of Public Life in New England (Knopf, 2011) in the mail. I ordered both books at a discount during the 2012 AHA meeting last month in Chicago. So many books... so little time!