Jul 21, 2016

One last look

Tom Waits always knows what to say.

Jun 29, 2016

A Methodist and the mission of prohibition

Things were getting hot for the moonshiners of Middle Tennessee in the summer of 1922.

There was raid after raid on the stills of Jackson County, 80 miles northeast of Nashville, where the Cumberland River curved and curved again. Prohibition agents seized the oldest operating still in the county. They seized a new still that hadn’t even been used yet. They seized the biggest still anyone in the area had ever seen and they seized the hidden little ones too. The “wildcatters,” as they were called in Tennessee newspapers at that time, kept getting raided.

This was all the work of one man: a born-again Methodist on a mission.

Read the rest of the story at Evangelical History: "A Born-Again Methodist Who Died Fighting for Prohibition in 1922."

Jun 19, 2016

A purple Jesus

Art from a German Protestant Sunday school class.

May 23, 2016

May 11, 2016

Jack Chick really means business

If there's one theological argument that drives evangelical Christian publishing, it's probably Charles Finney's point that a revival is not a miracle.

"There has long been an idea prevalent that promoting religion has something very peculiar in it," Finney famously said, "not to be judged of by the ordinary rules of cause and effect; in short, that there is no connection of the means with the result, and no tendency in the means to produce the effect. No doctrine is more dangerous than this to the prosperity of the church, and nothing more absurd."

Publishing is a business, even if it's understood as ministry too. Evangelical publishers have frequently explained this by talking about the "ordinary rules of cause and effect." Good business is good ministry. 

They have also just published Finney, which makes the same point quite efficiently. At least eight evangelical publishers have packaged and sold Finney's sermons on prayer and revival, making them widely available. Besides biographies and autobiographies, several have published more than a dozen titles bearing Finney's name as author.

In the early 1970s, one of these books founds its way into the hands of a young and recently born-again Jack Chick. He understood about revival not being a miracle and took it to heart. 

As he recalled later, he was eating his lunch and reading his Bible in his car. Then, "an old welder gave me a copy of Power from On High."

Chick said, "That book pushed my buttons."

May 4, 2016

Evangelicals against democracy

Evangelicals have thrown themselves quite publicly into the political process in the last 50 years. But they have other options, theologically. 

Evangelicals can, for example, embrace the anabaptist theology proposed by the late John Howard Yoder:

While evangelicals across the country struggle with the democratic process in 2016, will some of them turn to the anti-democratic theology of Yoder?

They might.

The idea, ecclesiology-instead-of-politics, seems especially attractive to younger evangelicals. It could feel like a viable, faithful alternative to Donald Trump.

May 3, 2016

Writing about Left Behind

The first time I tried to write about Left Behind, I spent a lot of time, a LOT of time, trying to explain the theological background of the story. Premil vs. postmil. John N. Darby and 19th century evangelicalism and Plymouth Brethren. C.I. Scofield and his Bible commentary. Literalism, when "literal" means "metaphorical." I just had to get the basics out of the way, so I could talk about what I wanted to talk about with the novel. And it took forever.

I later realized: you can cut all that.

People get the basics. They know what "the rapture" is. The book sold 65 million copies and the theological background is now common pop-culture knowledge.

People who watched The Simpsons understood enough to get the joke. So people who read academic work about evangelical fiction get enough to follow an argument.

Lesson: it's OK to trust your readers a little bit. They know a couple of things.

Apr 27, 2016

Teaching Religion and Politics in the United States

Religion and Politics in the United States examines the relationships between Americans' ultimate values, beliefs, and practices and Americans' involvement in public affairs. We will look at different ways that relationship has been conceptualized, historically. We will look at different ways it has been lived, too. The class will explore the historical conflicts and complications, the interactions, intersections, and inter-connections of religion and politics in the United States.

Syllabus available here.

Apr 15, 2016

Eisenhower's Bibles

A memo detailing the Bibles Dwight D. Eisenhower would use for his oath of office during his first inauguration:

The handwritten note at the bottom says: "PS -- I shall suggest releasing this on Sunday. I shall talk to you about it." 

Apr 10, 2016

How a Bible gets made

Crossway, the publisher of the ESV Bible, is offering a look at the production of the Bible, showing how the material object is made. This video documents the production process at Royal Jongbloed, a Netherlands Bible bindery founded in 1862.

Apr 8, 2016


Tim Ross, Independent Christian Church minister, in the Scottish Highlands.

Mar 30, 2016

Evangelicals changing on immigration

Americans are generally supportive of immigration. White evangelicals are the exception. 

Evangelicals are the one group, according to a new Public Religion Research Institute survey, where a majority says accepting newcomers into the country "threatens traditional American customs and values."

This does not simply mean white evangelicals are opposed to immigration, though. While 53 percent say immigration is a cultural threat, 54 percent support reform, and like the idea of a path to citizenship.

There's also a big difference between younger evangelicals and older evangelicals. The numbers suggest a major generational shift: younger evangelicals' opinions on immigration are closer to black Protestants than to their elders. Fifty-five percent say immigrants are good for America and opposition drops by 20 points.

It would seem there's a significant change underway within white evangelicalism.

Mar 22, 2016

Easter women

At a Methodist church in Texas in 1943:

This photo was among the more than 8,000 John Vachon took for the United States Farm Security Administration, documenting American life during the Great Depression. Many of these photos are made publicly available by Yale.

Mar 11, 2016

'With respect to the Jews'

In a letter to President Harry S. Truman, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower discusses the Zionism of the Jewish refugees of Europe after World War II:

The letter was written in Sept. 1945.

Truman was a Baptist, and had long supported Jewish immigration to Palestine and the possible formation of a Jewish state. When he became president, this was a contentious issue. Many in his administration, including Secretary of State George Marshall, were opposed to a Jewish state. From Marshall's point of view, supporting Israel was bad foreign policy. It was also not great domestic policy. Not many Americans supported the idea. Even American Jews were generally against it.

According Richard Holbrooke, one of the president's political advisors, Truman was committed to Israel anyway.

Partly this was because of his religious beliefs.

"He was a student and believer in the Bible since his youth," Holbrooke recalled. "From his reading of the Old Testament he felt the Jews derived a legitimate historical right to Palestine, and he sometimes cited such biblical lines as Deuteronomy 1:8: 'Behold, I have given up the land before you; go in and take possession of the land which the Lord hath sworn unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.'"

Partly, too, Truman was influenced by those Zionist refugees that Eisenhower wrote about. They, like the faithful saints of Hebrews 11, did "not desire to look upon their present location as any form of permanent home."

Feb 29, 2016

To all points of the fair

Assaulting Satan:

A man dressed as Satan is play-assaulted by two Bible-weilding women, one of them dressed as an angel, as he tries to enter the 1940 New York World's Fair. It is not clear why. The picture comes from the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library.

Feb 25, 2016

Tim LaHaye's call to action

Tim LaHaye gives the standard religious-right pitch for political involvement:

"I believe the reason we're in some of the problems we're in is because Christians have not participated in past elections," LaHaye says in the 2012 video. "I really believe that we can turn this country around. And the reason I say that is, we did, back in 1980, when Jerry Falwell called me and invited me to be one of seven signers of the Moral Majority and help him move across the country. We had the worst president in the history of America. And it was thousands of ministers that participated in their churches that helped us do this. We can do that again."

Feb 19, 2016

Billy Sunday backs women's suffrage

From the Washington Herald on Jan. 9, 1918:

Sunday was holding a revival in Washington D.C. in the winter of 1918 and rallying American support for World War I. He railed against the Germans. He promised to fight the devil until hell froze over and then keep fighting on ice skates. And he said women should have the vote.

The famed evangelist agreed to say an opening prayer at the United States House Congress before a vote on women's suffrage. He took the opportunity to reiterate his support for women's participation in the political process.

"I see no reason why the men and women of the nation should not walk side by side," Sunday said, according to the newspaper, "in the matters of law enactment as well as in the home and social life."

Sunday also cited the war effort as reason to give women the vote. "Without their co-operation," he said, "the war could not be waged to a successful conclusion."

Sunday was not alone among evangelicals (or those who might today be called evangelicals) in supporting extending the franchise to women. William Jennings Bryan -- of Scopes trial fame -- wanted women to vote. One of the largest groups of advocates on the issue was the Women's Christian Temperance Union, social activists who used scripture reading and prayer and sang hymns like "Jesus the Water of Life Will Give." Both the Southern Baptist Conference and the Southern Methodist General Conference were in favor of women voting. This wasn't a universal evangelical position, by any means, but Sunday's stance wasn't uncommon.

The House passed the 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote, by the necessary two-thirds majority. The Senate voted against the Amendment later that year.

Feb 12, 2016

Not of yourselves, it is the gift of God

A white Lutheran minister with his mostly black confirmation class in 1926:

From a collection documenting African-American Lutherans in the Schomburg General Research and Reference Division of The New York Public Library.

Feb 8, 2016

From the German presses of early America

A German edition of the Psalms, published in Philadelphia in 1762:

This edition was printed by Nicolaus Hasselbach, who learned his trade from Christopher Saur. Saur, a Pietist, was the first to print with the German-Fraktur typeface in North America. He was competition for Benjamin Franklin, who had a monopoly on the the German-language print market until Sauer got a press and type from radical pietists in Germany. He is known for printing the first German-language Bible in America.

Hasselbach started his business in Philadelphia, where he was part-owner of a print shop in Chestnut Hill and an investor in a paper mill in Germantown. He moved to Baltimore in 1765, a few years after printing this psalter. He set up in business for himself and was Baltimore's first printer in any language. Hasselbach printed a number of almanacs and possibly some religious tracts, including one called Zwey wahrhafte von gantz besondrn Himmels-Zichen (Two true, very special Heaven-Signs), an apocalyptic text which has been attributed to him on typographical evidence. 

Hasselbach died only four or five years after getting started in Baltimore. On a business trip back to Europe, he was died at sea. His widow sold the printing shop to William Goddard, a New Englander, who used it to print Baltimore's first newspaper in 1773, The Maryland Journal.

The book of psalms sold at a New York auction last week. It brought $938.

Feb 5, 2016

Obama preaches about fear

The full speech at the National Prayer Breakfast can be seen here.

Feb 3, 2016

An atheist's questions for presidential candidates

As presidential candidates spent weeks in Iowa, many of them let their religious flags fly high. Donald Trump brought out the Bible his mother gave him. Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton both spoke about their faith. Even Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t participate in organized religion, spoke up about his personal beliefs.

One voter wondered where all this God talk left Americans who were not religious. What about atheists and other nonbelievers? So he decided to ask the candidates.

Justin Scott, a self-employed photographer and Iowa native, spoke to every major presidential contender and more than a few of the minor ones. At pizza parlors and coffee shops, meetups and rallies, Scott asked the candidates about atheists. He asked them if they support the separation of church and state and why an atheist voter should vote for them.

Political observers parsed the answers, speculating on how they would play with various religious voters. But what about atheists?

I spoke on the phone to Scott, who lives in Waterloo, Iowa, a few hours before the caucuses began on Monday.

The interview can be read at the Washington Post: "Meet the atheist who quizzes presidential candidates about their faith."

Jan 27, 2016

The spiritual challenge of a political campaign, 1948 edition

Harry S Truman's campaign advisors were thinking in religious terms in 1948. Winning was a spiritual challenge. 

Much like the Republican Party today, the Democrats of Truman's time faced serious internal divisions. There was a strong anti-establishment movement. 

The political scene, Truman's advisors said in an undated campaign memo, was "one unholy, confused cacophony." 

Henry Wallace, the New Deal champion whom Truman replaced as Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president, had attacked Truman from the offices of the New Republic and now was running a progressive third-party challenge. Southern Democrats, meanwhile, were splitting off into a different third-party challenge, these traditionally reliable votes rebelling with the segregationist Dixiecrat Party. The Democratic Party seemed to be cracking up.

On top of that there was the Republican opponent, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who appeared unstoppable to many.

Truman's advisors looked at all this. They decided Truman nevertheless had some advantages. People believed he was personally a moral man and they had some faith in the authority of the White House.

"The Presidency," the memo said, "possesses the only platform authoritative and creative enough to be of political and spiritual significance in the chaos of 1948."

The President just had to find his prophetic voice.

Jan 22, 2016

Puritans, capitalists and acts of God

Life wasn’t going too well for John Hull. The 17th century Boston merchant had a cargo of furs going to Europe and the entire load was lost at sea. Then news came he had lost a second shipment too. Dutch pirates had seized the ship and taken Hull’s furs.

It was a big loss, but Hull was a pious man—a Boston Puritan. He comforted himself with the thought his personal economic disaster was part of a larger plan. These were “acts of God.”

Read the full essay at the Washington Post: This is why your insurance company calls blizzards an 'act of God'

Jan 19, 2016

In the early days of the religious right

Pat Robertson tried to obscure his religious beliefs and background to run for president in 1988, according to this contemporaneous news account:

Jan 15, 2016

The political road of repentance

"The Road Back," a cartoon by Charles Ramsay, a cartoonist for the Pentecostal Evangel for 43 years, was published in 1936.

Jan 11, 2016

Bigger the church, smaller the tithe

Per-person giving declines as a congregation grows.

The numbers say that the more people who go to a church, the less each of those people give. It's not obvious why this should be true, but that's the data from the latest National Congregations Study, which has tracked religious groups across America from 1998 to 2012.

In evangelical churches, for example, a congregation of 100 adults collects an average of $175,000 per year, or $1,750 per person. A 400-member congregation, in comparison, gets an average of $1,480 per person. The survey found that across the board, 100-member groups get 18 percent more per person than 400-member groups.

When an evangelical congregation reaches 1,000 people, giving goes down to $1,140. That means individuals in these big churches are giving, on average, one-third less than individuals at smaller churches.

Using the numbers from the congregational study, an average evangelical church with 1,000 people collects about $1.14 million in tithes and gifts. If people at big churches gave at the same rate as people at the smaller churches, though, the 1,000-person churches would collect $640,000 more than they do.

The authors of the report do not have an explanation for this. They write:
"We do not know if there is something about larger congregations that causes people to give less than they would give if they were in a smaller congregation, or if people inclined to give less are drawn to larger congregations. Perhaps members of smaller congregations perceive (rightly or wrongly) that their congregations have more financial need than people in larger congregations perceive. Or perhaps larger congregations require less financial commitment from their members because they are more efficient. Perhaps members of larger congregations are somehow less personally invested in their congregations, or perhaps they are just as invested, but a particular level of commitment translates into more financial support for a smaller congregation than it does for a larger congregation. Whatever the dynamics behind this relationship, it is clear that people in smaller congregations give more to their churches than do people in larger congregations. Not incidentally, other research shows that people in smaller congregations also participate more in the life of their congregation than do people in larger congregations."
Larger religious groups, it would seem, have weaker individual commitments. This is an interesting bit of data to connect to the broader story of the trends of weakening religious connections.

The National Congregations Study, directed by Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, can be viewed here.

Jan 8, 2016

Jesus Died for Both

A 1927 ad for interracial Lutheran schools:

From a collection documenting African-American Lutherans in the Schomburg General Research and Reference Division of the The New York Public Library.