Tag Archives: history

New book looks at Edwards and print culture

Scholars of Jonathan Edwards have explored Edwards’ writings and legacies from seemingly every angle. Yet, a new monograph published by Oxford University Press has revealed a blind spot: print culture. In Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture, Jonathan Yeager, UC Foundation Associate Professor of Religion at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, fills this lacuna.

JY bookThis book is grounded in extensive research. In four Appendices, Yeager provides a table of Edwards’s published works in chronological order up to 1800, a graph showing the most fruitful years for his publications, their prices and formats, and subscription lists for his most successful work, The Life of David Brainerd. But this work is no mere collection of data. Yeager unpacks a compelling narrative and advances an important thesis: “I argue,” he writes, “that Edwards’s printers, publishers, and editors shaped the public perception of him in the way that they packaged and marketed his publications” (xi).

Yeager has two intended audiences. First, he wants to help historians of print culture better understand the religious dimensions of the trade, and second, he guides scholars of religion through the critical connections between religious history and the history of the book. He has five chapters detailing the reception of Edwards’s writings, his relationship with his publishers and their impact on his public perception, and the role of those in the late eighteenth century who continued to publish Edwards’s writings to advance their own objectives.

Yeager also helpfully underscores the transatlantic dimension of evangelical publishing networks and its role in shaping the public identity of figures like Edwards. Not only did Edwards’s evangelical contemporaries like John Wesley and Isaac Watts in England help advance his publications, but so did his heirs, including his son Jonathan Edwards Jr. and the New Divinity men in New England, John Erskine in Scotland, and Baptists in England such as John Ryland Jr.

The German reception of Edwards’s Faithful Narrative is of particular interest, with two groups translating and appropriating Edwards’s work in 1738, but in different ways. On the on hand, Johann Adam Steinmetz packaged Edwards’s work as reinforcing a Lutheran approach to revivalism. On the other, a group of German Reformed Pietists embraced Edwards’s Reformed inflections in their translation, and catered it to a more uneducated and popular readership (23-24).

This book is a much-needed resource, and students and scholars of religious history and print culture will benefit greatly from it.

–Ryan Hoselton

Cotton Mather gets the YA treatment

The ghost of Cotton Mather has made another appearance in modern America: this time in a Young Adult novel about bullying.

Adriana and Cotton Mather How to Hang a Witch is the debut work of Adriana Mather, a Mather of the Mathers.

Adriana identifies as a descendent of the famous Puritan and says she learned about her Mather lineage and Cotton Mather from her great-grandmother, a teacher and amateur historian who “catalogued everything from our family.”

Now she’s turned her personal history into a bit of fiction. The heroine of the new novel How to Hang a Witch is also a Mather of the Mathers. The 15-year-old protagonist moves to Salem, Mass. with her stepmother, only to discover that her family’s connection to the witch trials make her a target of the witches who dominate her school.

Also there’s a ghost boy and a whisper about a Mather-family curse.

A sample:

“‘Not having a good first day at Salem High?’

“I shake my head. ‘Have you noticed a group of girls in my grade that wear all black—rich goth types?’

“‘The Descendants?’

“I venture a look at Jaxon. ‘What?’

“‘Like that?’ He nods toward a guy and a girl entering the room. The guy wears an expensive–looking black button-down shirt, black pants, and black loafers. And she has on a floor-length black dress with a tailored black blazer. Her hair is a perfect bob.

“‘Yeah, exactly like that.’

“‘There are five of them in our school. He’s the only dude. They’re descended from the original witches. Everyone kinda love-hates them. People think they can curse you if they want to. I think it’s total bull.’

“‘You’re kidding, right?’ But I can tell from his expression that he’s not.”

Publisher’s Weekly says the novel is “an entertaining story that draws intriguing parallels between the 17th-century trials and modern-day bullying, as well as the fears and mob mentalities behind both.”

Adriana Mather said she wanted to show how the mob-mentality of the witch trials were not as outdated as one might think. “We look at the Salem Witch Trials,” she said in a promotional interview, “and think, ‘How could they ever let something horrible like that happen?’ But it’s not that different for the people who suffer from bullying now.”

Mather’s ghost thus provides pop culture another modern lesson in how not to be a bully.

–Daniel Silliman

Jonathan Edwards in Oklahoma

Jonathan Edwards didn’t know of Oklahoma. The word wasn’t even coined until 108 years after he was dead. But do Oklahomans know Jonathan Edwards?

The question is surprisingly controversial at the moment.

A Republican Oklahoma state representative named Dan Fisher, who is also pastor of a Baptist megachurch, has proposed a bill that would defund the teaching of Advanced Placement United States History courses in Oklahoma high schools. AP classes are taught to about 500,000 high school students every year in the US, putting them on the fast track to college education. The AP guidelines for teaching US history was revised in 2014 and Fisher, like many of conservatives, is critical of the new framework.

“Under the new framework, the emphasis of instruction is on America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters,” Fisher said. “Now certainly we all know that we have our blemishes, and we wouldn’t want to withhold those. But we don’t want only our blemishes taught and not have a balanced approach.”

Fisher says the biggest problem with the new curriculum is what is left out: “the heroes from American history are pretty much omitted.”

One of those heroes, according to Oklahoma House Bill 1380, is Jonathan Edwards. Fisher is afraid Edward, along with others, is being kept out of the US history classroom. The legislation would require that Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” be taught to advanced high school students, along with two other Puritan texts, John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and the Mayflower compact.

Fisher’s proposal was passed last week by the Oklahoma house’s education committee with an 11-4 vote on party lines. The news was met with considerable scorn and outrage. Many on the left see this bill as an example of the American right’s head-in-the-sand anti-intellectualism. Conservatives, it is alleged, can’t handle the truth of American history. They want a of national ideology to overwrite the complexities of what actually happened.

Michael Hiltzik, writing for the L.A. Times, says that “For the right wing, historical truth matters for naught; what’s important is the ideological narrative, and if it fails to match their vision of an America shining the light of freedom and plenty on the world.”

“Oh, that pesky history of ours,” writes John D. Sutter, a CNN columnist, mocking Fisher and his cohort. “Why not just take a big ole’ eraser to it?”

At the Guardian, Stephen W. Thrasher says that this is a perversion of education to political ends. “Holding our children’s futures hostage by refusing them the opportunity to learn both the good and the bad is simply an effort to secure future votes,” Trasher writes, “not help children learn.”

That’s a pretty cynical interpretation of Fisher’s bill. While these are cynical times, there’s nothing in the text of HB 1380 that supports the idea that Oklahoma Republicans would require high school teachers to leave some facts out of their education plans. There’s nothing in the bill that says teachers have to teach America’s greatness without including any voices critical of that national narrative. There’s nothing that says the goal of education should be instilling students with a belief in American exceptionalism.

If you actually read Fisher’s piece of legislation, it proposes that advanced placement history curricula in the state “shall include as part of the primary instruction” documents related to America’s founding. These are, in the main, defined quite broadly. The bill mentions “organic documents from the pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary, Federalist and post-Federalist eras,” and “United States Supreme Court decisions.” Where it gets more specific, the bill proposes requiring high school teachers to teach a varied list of historical texts in their advanced classes. Some of these certainly articulate conservative visions of America’s special place in the world, but not all. There are three Ronald Reagan speeches on the list, but two by Lyndon B. Johnson. This proposal would require students study women’s-rights activist Elisabeth Cady Stanton and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, John Steinbeck’s class warfare novel Grapes of Wrath and even the words of the black nationalist Malcolm X.

It’s silly to say this legislation would forbid the teaching of America’s dirty, conflicted and complicated past. While Fisher no doubt wants to reject a narrative where America is a “nation of oppressors and exploiters,” he has not proposed a curriculum that would suppress all accounts of oppression and exploitation.

If you read the bill, that’s just not what it says.

Of course, it’s not just Fisher’s critics who seem to struggle with basic reading comprehension. Fisher himself seems to wildly misunderstand the AP classes he’s criticizing. The AP framework doesn’t get into a debate about emphasizing or de-emphasizing “blemishes”; it doesn’t take a position on whether America is a force of oppression in the world or a city on a hill. It isn’t simply political. Instead, the guidelines for the advanced classes say the classes are to teach students how to wrestle with conceptual understandings of American history. The curriculum framework says “students should learn to use historical facts and evidence to achieve deeper conceptual understandings of major developments in U.S. history.”

The first part of this is the development of historical thinking skills. The skills are listed: chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence, and interpreting and synthesizing historical narratives.

Something like “contextualizing” can, of course, be political. Historian Andrew Hartman writes that some of the influential historians who have advocated for transnational contextualization of history have had political motivations. In the “longstanding disciplinary efforts to place the American past in a transnational context,” Hartman writes, some have been “quite explicit that such an approach might soften how the nation projects its power to the rest of the world.” They believed that approach to history would have political ramifications. “An international perspective,” they thought, “would be a cure for an increasingly outmoded nationalist perspective.”

Most historians are more circumspect about the political potential of historiography. A more immediate and tangible reason to “internationalize” American history is that it provides perspective.

The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany is an example of this: One of the center’s objectives is to put Edwards in a transatlantic context. Prof. Jan Stievermann, the center’s director, has studied German Protestant receptions of Jonathan Edwards, looking at how the Puritan project was understood by its continental contemporaries. Others, including Prof. Peter J. Thuesen, of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who gave the keynote address at the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany’s inauguration, have studied how Edwards was influenced by Europeans. Edwards is best thought of, Thuesen said, in a “complex web of connections linking him to the British Isles and Continental Europe — connections involving economic, political, cultural, and intellectual life.”

It seems unlikely that these contextualizations would make anyone more or less conservative. They’re certainly not committed to getting anyone to love America more — or less. The focus, pretty simply, is on improving the understanding of Jonathan Edwards by doing the work that historians do. Fisher seems to think the AP framework, which focuses on teaching skills like contextualization, is incompatible with teaching texts like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” At least as the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany approaches it, this just isn’t true.

The second part of developing students’ “conceptual understanding” of American history, as outlined by the AP framework, involves organizing American history around big themes. The framework lists seven themes, which are quite broad. One is “Ideas, beliefs, and culture.” Another is “American in the world.”

A conservative might interpret some of these as politically objectionable. One is “Identity” and, according to the framework, that theme pays “special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities.” The first three segments of the Identity section, however, are given to very traditional debates about America’s national identity at the context of the founding and the new republic, the context of territorial expansion and Manifest Destiny, and the context of America’s involvement in two World Wars and the Cold War. Another section focuses on “economic, political, social, and ethnic factors on the formation of regional identities.” Another, migration and assimilation. This is hardly a leftist curriculum; there’s nothing honestly controversial here.

Making honest arguments, incidentally, is one of the skills the AP classes are designed to teach: “Based on their analysis of historical evidence,” the framework reads, “students should then be able to make supportable inferences or draw appropriate conclusions. AP teachers can expose students to a variety of sources to help them draw their own conclusions and inferences.”

To do this, AP teachers assume their advanced students come with a basic knowledge of American history. This seems to be Fisher’s biggest misunderstanding of the courses’ he has proposed to defund. There are not basic classes. These are not classes that every student has to have in order to graduate. They are classes for advanced students who know a little something about America’s history and are ready to be challenged to ask the kinds of critical questions that Fisher himself is trying to ask: How were these narratives constructed? What political influences were involved? How do different focuses change the narratives?

This was a point that several high school teachers who teach these AP history classes in the state have made.

“My job is to help students view multiple perspectives and evaluate what are the merits of each,” Matt Holtzen, an AP history teacher at Enid High School in Enid, Oklahoma, told Newsweek.

Janet Thomas, who teaches AP history at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa told the Tulsa World the new framework “requires a lot more critical thinking skills than the old test did …. It’s not just memorization of facts and dates. It allows students the opportunity to compare things across times in history and think critically about why certain things happened.”

If the framework doesn’t mention specific texts that Fisher wants to make sure are taught, that may be because they’re obvious to high school history teachers, according to Eugene Earsom, who taught in Oklahoma for 20 years before becoming the state’s Department of Education’s director of the social studies curriculum for seven years. Asked about Fisher’s proposal that advanced classes be required to teach John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards and a list of other canonical history texts, Earsom said, “I don’t know of any history teacher who is worth his or her salt that doesn’t teach all of these already.” Edwards might not be taught in the advanced history classes, but that’s because his most famous sermon has already been taught Oklahoma’s high schoolers.

The political question remains open in Oklahoma, as Fisher’s bill is currently being revised, following the backlash. The controversy has already answered another question, though: Oklahomans do know Jonathan Edwards.

— Daniel Silliman

#Whitefield300

After 300 years, George Whitefield is trending on Twitter! Or maybe not trending, officially, but there’s a tweet-a-thon celebrating the evangelist’s birthday and religious historians and reformed evangelicals alike are pumping Twitter with Whitefield quotes and the hashtag #Whitefield300.

The social media campaign is largely organized by historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University. Kidd recently released a biography of the famous revivalist of the transatlantic Great Awakening: George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, published by Yale University Press. On the group blog The Anxious Bench, Kidd notes that the excitement over Whitefield’s 300th anniversary far exceeds that of his 200th.

“Whitefield is being more thoroughly commemorated this year than he was in 1914,” Kidd writes. “1914′s commemorations were more muted. Of course, all of Europe was preoccupied with the outbreak of World War I.”

The growing attention to Whitefield over the past century parallels the increasing attention to Jonathan Edwards. The correspondence makes sense considering the fact that these two men co-pioneered the revivalist fervor in Britain and America in the early-to-mid eighteenth century. In recent years, historians (such as David Bebbington and Mark Noll) have attributed the emergence of evangelicalism in large part to their influence. Popular reformed evangelical pastors (such as John Piper and Steven Lawson) have commended them as exemplary ministers and spiritual guides.

George Marsden recounts the intriguing beginning of Edwards’s and Whitefield’s relationship in his biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. Edwards first wrote Whitefield in February 1740, inviting him to preach in Northampton. Whitefield accepted, and his preaching stirred Northampton just as it had in other parts of New England. Despite his excitement over his congregation’s response, Edwards had reservations about the genuineness of the enthusiasm. When Whitfield left, Edwards preached a series of sermons on the parable of the sower, warning the congregation to test their hearts and not facilely swing from religious zeal to indifference.

An imaginative recreation of Edwards and Whitefield's first meeting (from theblazingcenter.com).An imaginative recreation of Edwards and Whitefield’s first meeting (from The Blazing Center).

Whitefield was more comfortable than Edwards was with zeal and more eager to make use of the latest and greatest communications technologies. One can even imagine Whitefield making liberal use of Twitter and hashtags. Edwards, on the other hand, would more likely worry about the reliance on religious impulses and ecstatic experiences. The two men, despite their differences, advanced the same cause.

 

— Ryan Hoselton

Conference to honor Albert J. Raboteau

Of interest to those of us here at Heidelberg who had a chance to study with Prof. Raboteau last year, there is a conference at Princeton being held in his honor. Held at Princeton next month, the conference is called Reflections on the Study of African American Religious History. Talks are organized around the themes of roots, routes, and encounters.

Information on the conference can be found here.

Edwards in our time

Thinking about Jonathan Edwards in his own time is difficult enough. Grasping Edwards as a theological figure today presents its own sets of unique problems.

Understanding how Edwards figures on the contemporary landscape requires a lot of a kind of back-and-forth cultural translation: allowing but then also critiquing (but then also still allowing) reconstructions, appropriations, and reanimaitons, as one attends to how 16th century theology is made relevant and applicable in 21st century theology. It’s one part reception history, one part history of ideas, one part discourse analysis. And the added complication: one has to do history, but then also set it aside, too, as the figure of Edwards at work in contemporary theological thinking is decidedly ahistorical.

One good place to start, to get a sense of how Edwards is talked about theologically right now, is with these videos of Doug Wilson talking about Jonathan Edwards.

Wilson, a pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and one of the founders of New Saint Andrews, is a Reformed thinker who was described himself as ” advanc[ing] what you might call a Chestertonian Calvinism.”

From that position, Wilson argues with Edwards on some points (in particular having to do with Edwards connections to present-day evangelicalism) and praises Edwards and feels himself challenged by Edwards on other points (“This was a man absolutely marinated in scripture“).

Especially of interest to those trying to figure out Edwards present shape or form in theological thought is the last video, where Wilson connects Edwards’ thought with the theology of C.S. Lewis and John Piper, specificall with the theology Piper has promoted, Christian Hedonism.

As Wilson explains it, all three of these men, despite their very different times and contexts and varieties of Christianity, “emphasize … teach, point out, admit” that:

“Everybody chooses that which they believe to be good, and that which they believe to be good for them. Now there’s a way of doing it selfishly. The difference between good and evil is determined by what you call ‘good,’ not whether you pursue good.”

This is one of the main ideas of Edwards — as it’s used and understood and talked about in certain circles of contemporary American Christianity. In Edwards, one can find these ideas even in his very oldest extant sermon, circa 1720 or 1721, where he argued for a necessary link between Godliness and hapiness, starting from exactly this foundational psychological idea that all people seek happiness.

The first words of Edwards first sermon:

“Reasonable beings, while they act as such, naturally choose those things which they are convinced are best for them, and will certainly do those things which they know they had better do than leave undone. (And, indeed, who in the world could imagine that there were such unreasonable creatures in the world, as that at the very same time that they themselves know a thing to be much to their advantage, yet will not choose or do it?)”

For Wilson, as well as Piper and a circle of Reformed Christians in American today, this insight serves as a starting point for understanding and explaining Calvinism. This is a key way in which Edwards “lives,” theologically, right now.

Curiously, there’s another near-contemporary figure who starts from this same place and has this same “disciplined understanding of what makes human beings tick,” as Wilson describes it, but who ends up somewhere very, very different: Ayn Rand. She called it the virtue of selfishness.

Where Wilson says “Everybody chooses that which they believe to be good, and that which they believe to be good for them. Now there’s a way of doing it selfishly. The difference between good and evil is determined by what you call ‘good,’ not whether you pursue good,” Rand agrees, “Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.”

For her, though, starting with this idea that people do bad things only because they’re confused and think those things are good things, and if they truly understood what was good they would want that instead, ends not in the imperative, “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” but rather: Be selfish. Or, as her fictional spokesman John Galt declares, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

The ideas are not the same, of course. The trick is articulating why. Which is the history of ideas part of the back-and-forth cultural translation of the tricky business of trying to understand Edwards in our time.

 

— Daniel Silliman

The first James W.C. Pennington Award: Albert J. Raboteau

Albert J. Raboteau, recipient of the first James W.C. Pennington Award.

“I have been moved,” Albert J. Raboteau writes in an essay in A Fire in the Bones,  “by the pervasive faith of black Christians that God was acting in their own history.”

Studying that faith and that history has been Prof. Raboteau’s life work. The Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University, he is the author of the seminal book on Christianity among American slaves, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South. He has further explored the African-American history of faith in Canaan Land  and African American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture.

He reflected powerfully on his own relationship to that faith in  A Sorrowful Joy, where Raboteau speaks of his own spiritual journey, and A Fire in the Bones, which opens with a beautiful essay on how faith and history intertwine.

 “History is based on an act of faith, the faith that events are susceptible of meanings,” he writes. “I, as a historian and a believer, cannot but hope that our history is touched by the providence of God.”

Students at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies have had the special opportunity to explore that history with Raboteau this semester in a compact seminar on African-American religion.  Raboteau will also speak of this history in a free public event next week, focusing on the topic of “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement as Precedent for Religion in U.S. Politics.”

The lecture is open to the public: June 14, at 6:15 p.m., in the Atrium of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, Curt and Heidemarie Engelhorn Palais, Hauptstraße 120. Reception to follow.

Raboteau comes to the HCA as the first recipient of the James W.C. Pennington Award. The award strengthens the ties that bind  the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg to the United States and the international academic community. It was created in 2011 by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies and the Faculty of Theology, honoring the life of James W.C. Pennington. An African-American churchman, abolitionist and pacifist, Pennington received an honorary doctorate from the Ruperto Carola in 1849, the first black man to receive a degree of higher learning in Europe.

Pennington, who wrote what may be the first history of African Americans, The Origin and History of the Colored People, as well as his own autobiographical slave narrative, The Fugitive Blacksmith, holds a special place in the history of the University of Heidelberg, connecting the university to American and specifically African-American history. This award thus pays tribute to Pennington’s work.

The James W.C. Pennington Award is funded by the Dr. h.c. Manfred Lautenschläger Foundation, and is given to scholars who have done distinguished work on the African-American experience in the Atlantic world. The award fosters further research on topics important to Pennington.

The university and the HCA are honored to give the first award to Raboteau, who carries on the history and tradition of Pennington.

Pennington, writing his own history in 1849, the same year he was given an honorary doctorate in Heidelberg, noted exactly the kind of faith in history that has so inspired Raboteau:

“The limits of this work compel me to pass over many interesting incidents which occurred,” Pennington wrote. “I must confine myself only to those which will show the striking providence of God.”

— Daniel Silliman