Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Gerald McDermott Rebuffs Alvin Plantinga

At lunch today I started to go through the newest issue of Books and Culture, but I didn't make it very far. I was captivated by a letter to the editor on page 3 by Gerald McDermott, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College in Virginia, who took issue with Alvin Plantinga's article, "Bait and Switch," in the January/February issue.

McDermott quotes Plantinga in the article as saying that Jonathan Edwards argued that God is the "only real cause of whatever happens," which implies that God is the real cause of all sin. McDermott goes on to explain that although Edwards believed that God upholds the whole of the created order in every moment (or, as McDermott says, in "every nanosecond"), this does not mean that humans are not held responsible for sin. Rather, because of our "natural necessity" and "moral necessity" (key terms in Edwards's Freedom of the Will) we have only ourselves to blame when we sin, even if God is in complete control of all that happens in the world. McDermott closes his letter by stating, "So is God, for Edwards, the 'only agent'--and therefore the only real cause--of the Holocaust, as Plantinga alleges? No and no."

If anything, McDermott's letter to the editor should be taken as a warning to even the brightest scholars who want to talk about Jonathan Edwards. With so many Edwards aficionados out there--and in a broad range of disciplines including history, biblical studies, theology, and sociology--one should be very careful in trying to articulate (particularly) Edwards's thought. Plantinga may still believe that he properly interpreted Edwards, but it would be difficult to remain firm on that conclusion when the coauthor of an 800-page tome entitled The Theology of Jonathan Edwards thinks that you have misunderstood "America's theologian."

New Issue of Jonathan Edwards Studies

The new issue of Jonathan Edwards Studies is now available online.

In the Historical Documents section, you will see my "Unpublished Letter from John Erskine to Jonathan Edwards."

While I was researching at the Howard Gottlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, I discovered a letter by John Erskine to Jonathan Edwards. Most scholars have assumed that no letters from Erskine to Edwards have survived. I believe that the reason why this letter has remained unknown is that it is listed in the archive's catalog as addressed to Thomas Foxcroft, rather than Edwards. Since there has been very little scholarship on Foxcroft (and thus very few people have probably consulted his manuscript collection), it has remained unpublished, and presumably unknown.

After Jonathan Edwards Studies was launched, I noticed that there was a section in the journal for historical documents. I then contacted Ken Minkema to ask if the journal would be interested in my annotated transcription of the letter. I'm glad to see it now published, as it represents one of the last letters written to Edwards.

Here is my abstract:

In roughly a year before Edwards’s death, the Scottish minister John Erskine wrote to Edwards informing him that Freedom of the Will was being misappropriated in Scotland in order to affirm Lord Kames’s views on liberty as expressed in his Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1751). Encouraged by Erskine to write a response that could be published, Edwards explained the differences he had with Kames’s Essays in a letter on July 25, 1757. Erskine’s first attempt to convince an Edinburgh bookseller named “Miller” to publish Edwards’s letter was not successful, and so he looked to Glasgow to get it published using the connections of John Witherspoon and Thomas Walker. Eventually Edwards’s July 25 letter to Erskine appeared in 1758 as Remarks on the Essays, on the Principles of Morality, and Natural Religion. In a Letter to a Minister of the Church of Scotland. Besides giving an update on his collection of subscriptions for Edwards’s forthcoming book on Original Sin, Erskine also relayed information in his letter on the latest prophetic musings by the Scottish evangelical minister David Imrie of St. Mungo in Dumfriesshire. As this is the only known extant letter from Erskine to Edwards, it provides a rare opportunity to hear from his most frequent Scottish correspondent.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Spring ASCH Conference in Portland, OR

A draft of the spring conference of the American Society of Church History in Portland, Oregon, April 4-7 is now available to download on the ASCH website. I haven't been back to the Pacific Northwest since my graduate school days at Regent College in Vancouver. It will be fun to visit with some of my friends who now live in the Portland area.

I am putting the finishing touches on my paper, which will be in Session V, from 1:45pm-3:30pm on Saturday, April 6:

Revivalism and Religious Change
Chair: Dale E. Soden, Whitworth University

David M. Powers, Independent Scholar
Preaching on the “Western” Frontier: What the People of Springfield, Massachusetts Heard in the 1640s

Keith Lyon, University of Tennessee
Sacredness and Sociability in God’s Brush Arbor: Camp Meeting Culture, 1800-1860

Jonathan Yeager, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
A Pelican in the Wilderness: Charles Nisbet on Pennsylvania Frontier Life

Keith E. Beebe, Whitworth University
Setting the Record Straight: Evangelical Redactions of Religious Experience in Scotland’s First Oral History Project

Respondent: Dale E. Soden, Whitworth University

After researching for my book on John Erskine, and putting together the excerpts for Early Evangelicalism: Reader, I continue to be intrigued with Charles Nisbet, a Scottish minister who emigrated to Carlisle, Pennsylvania in the mid-1780s to become the first principal of Dickinson College (For information on Nisbet's emigration, including Erskine's and Benjamin Rush's role, see my book, Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine, chapter 7, "The Friend to America") .

Unlike his friend and older colleague John Witherspoon, Nisbet's experience in America was anything but enjoyable. I have read nearly all Nisbet's one hundred plus extant letters, and I would conservatively estimate that he complains in about 90% of these, with caustic references pertaining to American politicians, the economy, the trustees of Dickinson College, the students, his family (his son became an alcoholic in the years following his emigration to Pennsylvania), the food, the weather, and the intellectual culture. I can't think of any subject related to America that Nisbet holds back from criticizing.

The irony is that while living in Scotland Nisbet was an outspoken supporter of the colonists during the American Revolution. At one time during the conflict, he supposedly delivered a sermon from Daniel chapter 5 in which Nisbet compared the divine message of judgment to the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin," with Britain's oppressive government. In my paper, I intend to offer a reason for why Nisbet changed his opinion about America, and further why he chose to use the medium of letters to vent his frustrations. We'll see how it goes. I'm currently finishing up some background reading on Scottish emigration to America in the eighteenth century. I intend to draft a longer version of my paper into a journal article that is suitable for submission.

Production Schedule for Early Evangelicalism: A Reader

 OUP recently proposed a production schedule for Early Evangelicalism: A Reader, that includes the copyediting and typesetting stages.

Based on the schedule the firm has proposed, I anticipate a summer 2013 launch of the book.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Wilfred McClay: First LeRoy Martin Lecturer of 2013-14

I'm happy to announce that Wilfred McClay is the first person scheduled as a speaker for next year's LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecture Series.

Since 1999 Dr. McClay has held the Sun Trust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at UTC, and has had a long history of distinguished scholarship and teaching. He has taught at Georgetown, Tulane, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Dallas. He is currently a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C., a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C., and member of the Society of Scholars at the James Madison Program at Princeton University. In 2002, he was appointed to the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Dr. McClay also serves on the editorial boards of First Things, The Wilson Quarterly, Touchstone, Historically Speaking, Fides et Historia, and University Bookman.

His book, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (UNC Press, 1994) won the Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history. He has also written The Student's Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books, 2001), edited Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America (Woodrow Wilson Center/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).

McLay is currently working on a book-length project on guilt and history. It is this topic that he will be speaking on at UTC, sometime in October or November in the fall of 2013. Having heard him speak once on this subject, I look forward to hearing his formal presentation in the fall, followed by Q & A from the audience.

I am currently finalizing a second speaker for the 2013-14 academic schedule. Stay tuned for that announcement.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Faculty Job

UNIVERSITY OF NORTH DAKOTA. The Department of Philosophy and Religion invites applications for a one-year Assistant Professor (non-tenure track) position, effective August 2013. The teaching load is 3 courses per semester. AOS: Global Christianity with any combination of: Contemporary Christianity; Post-colonial Theory and Religion; Gender, Sexuality and Religion; or Methods in Religious Studies. AOC: Any combination of Death and Dying; Hebrew Bible; New Testament; or World Religions. Candidates who already hold a PhD preferred, but ABD candidates will also be considered. Teaching experience is required. Review of applications will begin immediately and will continue until the position is filled. The deadline for applications has been extended to March 28, 2013.

For full consideration, candidates should submit a complete dossier, including: CV, three letters of recommendation (at least one of which ought to address teaching), a statement of teaching philosophy, a statement of research interests, and a writing sample to: Dr. Charles William Miller, Department of Philosophy and Religion, University of North Dakota, Merrifield Hall Room 201, 276 Centennial Drive, Stop 7128, Grand Forks, ND 58202-7128. For more information, please call 701.777.2705, or send an email to:

For more information about the Department of Philosophy and Religion, the University of North Dakota, and the Grand Forks, ND community, visit: The Department of Philosophy and Religion seeks to attract an active, culturally and academically diverse faculty of the highest caliber. The University of North Dakota is an Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity Employer and women and minorities are encouraged to apply.

Friday, 22 February 2013

The John Erskine Letterbook, 1742-45

Last week I received the pdf proofs for my annotated transcription of the John Erskine Letterbook, 1742-45, which will be published in a forthcoming volume of the Miscellany of the Scottish History Society.

The manuscript is housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society and consists of a series of letters most likely sent to the Boston minister Thomas Prince with the intent that all or part of them be published in The Christian History. The final edition of The Christian History, however, came abruptly to an end on February 23, 1745, which predates Erskine's letterbook by a few weeks. Besides an initial letter written presumably to Prince, the manuscript also contains letters addressed to William and Samuel Cooper of Boston, Philip Doddridge of Northampton, and four young divinity students at Edinburgh University.

One of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript is Erskine's description of the Cambuslang and Kilsyth revivals that took place in western Scotland in the summer and fall of 1742. To give you an idea of the significance of these revivals, contemporaries estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 people gathered at Cambuslang alone during each of its two communion services. Nearby Glasgow, which would have been the largest town in the region, had only about 17,000 residents.

At the time that he witnessed these awakenings, Erskine was a young university student preparing for a career as a barrister. But from witnessing several people who "melted into tears," and hearing the preaching of George Whitefield and the Scottish ministers Thomas Gillespie of Carnock, John Maclaurin of Glasgow, William McCulloch of Cambuslang, James Robe of Kilsyth, and Alexander Webster of Edinburgh, Erskine determined to change career paths and become a clergyman in the Kirk. His sometimes vivid depiction of Cambuslang and Kilsyth offers a fresh perspective on these revivals from a previously unpublished source.

Here is a taste of my transcription:

I went to Cambuslang on Saturday.  The place where there tent was is, the most commodious for hearing ever I saw.  Tis much in the form of an amphitheatre.  It was reckoned there were 20,000 there that day, but I’m certain a voice near as good as Mr Whitfield’s could have reached a greater number had they been there.
Mr Webster preached first from Luke 2:11 and then Mr Whitfield from Zechariah 12:10.  There was little crying but a more attentive audience I never saw, and the bulk of them seemed much affected with both sermons... On the Monday Mr Whitfield preached from Philippians 2:5; and when he was insisting on the devotion, humility, resignation &c. of Christ, and at the end of every head pressing his hearers to examine their own hearts, and try if they felt these dispositions there, about 30 were so much affected that they could not restrain themselves from loud outcries, and I believe there was but a small number amongst all the multitude that were not more or less concerned...  I went in after sermon to Mr McCulloch’s dining room, and ere I was a quarter of an hour there, about 20 were brought in under the deepest distress.  It was impossible for any that saw them to doubt the reality of their concern...

I went to Kilsyth with Mr Webster and [Robert] Trail on Tuesday July 13.  Mr Mclaurin had been preaching there.  They were singing the last Psalms as we came in, but the reader’s voice was almost drowned with the cries of those in distress.  On Wensday Mr Gillespie preached to them from Malachi 4:2 and Mr Webster from Ephesians 1:7.  God was with both ministers and people in a more remarkable way then ever I was witness to before.  Mr Webster put a question to his audience, suppose they could be saved by their own works as they could not, yet if they would not renounce them, and be content to be saved in that way which would most abase themselves, and bring to God the greatest revenue of praise.  There was then an uncommon melting in the congregation, and the looks of numbers testified by their eagerness and joy, how much they had it at heart, that the Lord alone should be exalted, and have all the glory of their salvation.  ‘Tis impossible to any but an eye-witness to frame a notion of what I saw in that blessed place.  The best direction I can give is, that such as cannot go there should read over those prophecies, that relate to the plentiful effusion of the spirit in the latter days, and from them attempt to frame some idea of it.  I can freely say one half was not told me...