Did America Have a Christian Founding? by Mark David Hall

 

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For me, the issue was settled back in 1975 when I first started reading about the Calvinistic influence on American history.  There was a history professor at our local community college who was the most scholarly teacher on staff and a thorough-going Calvinist.  A friend told me to take his class because “he teaches the Five Points of Calvinism, and you need to know that for American literature.”  She was right, for American literature is a tug of war between Calvinists (beginning with the Puritans) and those retreating from Calvinism (from Hawthorne to Twain to Crane to Hemingway).

Since 1975, the issue has been raised in a number of ways regarding the question of America’s founding.  Did America have a Christian founding?  By founding, do we mean colonial America or the independent American Republic?  What does it mean that America did or did not have a Christian founding?  And, what difference does it make now?

I am guessing that I have read or heard over 100 full length books, essays, and lectures on the topic of Christianity and America.  I even gave a few of those lectures and have written on it myself in my book.  So,  Mark David Hall’s newest book Did America Have a Christian Founding?, published by Nelson Books, is a welcome guest to the discussion.  But Dr. Hall is not a late arrival to the party.  He has written and contributed to more than a dozen books on the relationship between religion and politics.  These studies include a thorough study of Roger Sherman, who is often overlooked among the Founders and yet was a solid believer.  This book, therefore, is not an author’s exploration of new ground, but rather the scholarly contribution of one who has combed the sources repeatedly.

I will not at this time attempt a chapter by chapter survey of the book, but will instead focus just a bit on the opening chapter.  The issue is Deism.  I once heard someone say, “Whether history repeats itself is not clear, but historians repeat each other.”  Both specialized books and monographs and history textbooks assure us that by the time of the American War for Independence and the writing of the Constitution, Deism had supplanted Christianity as the prevailing religious and philosophical worldview.  And, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and a few other key figures were all basically card-carrying Deists.

This whole contention is problematic.  (I have long waited to use that stuffy word “problematic.”)  There was not a denomination or church group that adhered to the title Deist, but that is not the real issue.  The language attributed to Deism and that attributed to Christianity is identical at points.  I might say, “It is going to rain today.” One might interpret that to mean that I believe that the falling of rain is not the direct intervention and providential control of weather by God, but is the acting of laws of nature that God created, but doesn’t direct minutely.  Should I say, “God is going to send rain today”?  Nothing wrong with that.  As James 4:15 points out, we ought to couch all of our language in terms that indicate God’s present, active control.

I don’t think James is giving us a directive so that we have to be this mechanical.  But there should be an underlying presupposition, a worldview, a philosophy of life, that indicates and reinforces our conviction of God’s presence.  Yet, the Founders were not writing about an “it” or a force or laws of nature.  They used terms like Providence, Governor of the Universe, Architect of the world, and so on.  This language was no more denying orthodox Christianity than my saying “Jesus is Lord” denies the Trinity.

A few people of the time did prescribe to Deism.  These included such men as Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine.  Allen, best known now for his name being attached to furniture, played a minimal role (heroic though it was) in the war.  Paine was a brilliant, quirky wordsmith with erratic tendencies.  The “best known” Deists, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were either the two worst Deistic hypocrites of all time or were personally inconsistent in their practice.  R. J. Rushdoony demolished the myth of Franklin’s and Jefferson’s Deism for me when I read the first of This Independent Republic decades ago.

Dr. Hall begins each chapter with a list of quotations from prominent historians and sources that go against his theses.  He provides more quotes and references in the ample endnotes to the book.  Then, he begins systematically answering and refuting the claims.  There are no strawmen here.  The best and most reputable scholars only are allowed in the ring in these matches.

I highly recommend this book.  If you are a history teacher or student, get it immediately.  If you are a pastor, get it quickly.  If you are a patriot, get it soon.  If you cannot buy it right now, ask your personal Santa Claus for the book.  Don’t end 2019 without this work in your hands and on your shelf.

 

October Book Ends

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October is such a beautiful month, but it was not the most successful month of reading and reviewing books for me.  With a combination of books that I am bound to review, readings for my college class, readings for the classes I teach, and readings that are just things I want to read, the overall results fell short.  But I will post a few details of some of the books that some of you might like.

Joseph Minich first showed up on my reading radar a year or so ago.  He is part of a coterie of mostly young, all brilliant, and terribly serious theology and philosophy scholars who make up the Davenant Institute.  They pour out a book or two or three a month, either indidually or as group efforts.  I have read and reviewed several of them, and I have a stack of others that I need to work through.

For a good while, I shied away from this book Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism.  I am more prone to run into someone who is a fan of Lyndon Johnson than I am to run into an atheist.  The intellectual arguments and the apologetics responses are of mild interest.  I slightly envy those who battled in their own hearts and minds over whether or not God exists and then found themselves “dragged kicking and screaming” (in C. S. Lewis fashion) into theism and from there to Christianity.

Even before my sister pointed to house after house and told me that God was there, I believed in God.  I was 5 or younger when that event occurred.  I reckon that I am not a very deep, critical, or philosophical thinker.  I just don’t doubt God.  So, the challenge of atheism is not a primary issue.  But then along comes Joseph Minich.  He and I had been “friends” on Facebook for a good while.  He was, to me, one of those Davenant smarties who was working on a dissertation on something, somewhere.

He never “liked” or commented on any of my Facebook posts, and I rarely acknowledged his.  Then one day, I caught him in a grammar error.  It was the old “him and I–objective pronouns” problem.  I messaged him, rebuked him thoroughly, and pronounced that there was little hope for him unless he changed.  He repented of his grammar sins, and we became, in my opinion, fast friends.  Now, I count him among my favorite chums.

But what about the book?  This book is a short read, but it is not a breezy read.  Among other favorable attributes, Minich references a number of serious Christian scholars who deal with topics relatings to atheism, belief, secularism, the buffered self, and more.  Along with that, he also references other authors and books, such as John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies.  And in what is the ultimate test in our day and time, Minich quotes and references Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the books of James K. A. Smith amply.

Bottom line:  Belief is reasonable.  The challenge of modern atheism is more than matched by the response of modern belief.  The generation of Plantinga and Wolterstorff is passing away, and a new age of Christian thinkers is emerging.

Further note:  This is a book of a short enough length to get through quickly, but it does call for slowing down and re-reading.  Also, it is very affordably priced.

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The River of Immaculate Conception is published by Wiseblood Books.

As a collection of poetry,  The River of the Immaculate Conception by James Matthew Wilson, has one major flaw.  The book is really short.  The poems, however, are rich.  Reading modern poetry is a challenge because of the abandonment of the traditional forms along with the abandonment of the foundational truths that underlay poetry and poets of the past.

James Matthew Wilson goes against the tide.  These poems have historical and theological connections, and they are rooted in Wilson’s faith and vision.  “The Agnus Dei of Jacques Marquette” is a lengthy and beautiful work about the French Catholic explorer.  Usually, Marquette is paired with Louis Joliet, and together they explored and mapped much of the Mississippi River.  On the national level, the French were looking for the Northwest Passage as well as lands to claim and colonize.  In the broader providence of God, Marquette was bringing the Christian faith to the Native Americans.

Narrative and heroic poems have tended to be a thing of the past.  If an historical figure is the subject of a poem, he or she is an object of irony with subtle undertones dismissing their accomplishments.  Maybe the old type of Longfellow poetry hailing a Paul Revere does not need reviving, but then, maybe it does. I opt for the latter.

As is the case with many short collections of poems, one can read through these seven poems in one sitting and mark the book as read.  But in reality, these poems call for re-reading, ponderous reading, slow, aloud reading, and faith-filled reading.

Key quote to remember:  “Let crosses be upraised and idols downward hurled/  That all shall see his peace restored into the world.”

If you haven’t already discovered the poetry and essays of James Matthew Wilson, there is still time to be on the ground floors of his rise to literary fame.

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One of my recent night-time readings was Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It is at night, from a dangerously high stack of bedside reads, that I usually read histories and biographies.  I have acquired several of Goodwin’s biographical and historical books over the past several years.  She is a very popular and successful historian, although one who is also very conventional according to the tastes of our times.

In this book, she deals with four of our past Presidents and shows how they led the country during difficult times.  The subjects were Abraham Lincoln during the War Between the States and particularly the events related to the Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt upon his sudden ascension to the Presidency and his handling of the coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt and the First Hundred Days, and Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act.

The book consisted of three parts, each of which devoted a chapter to the four Presidents.  The first part was their childhoods, which were radically different due to Lincoln’s and Johnson’s humble and poor beginnings contrasted with the two Roosevelts who were born to wealth and prominence.  The second set of chapters dealt with early setbacks for the leaders.  The most fascinating account here was that of FDR’s battle with polio which crippled him and could have ended his political career.

The last section of the book dealt with how each leader handled a major crisis or two after they became Presidents.

I am certain that many would rush in to tell me a few or a lot of things wrong with each of these men.  I think I started studying them a good while ago, so I am not unaware of their faults or bad views or bad actions.  I wanted to see how they exercised leadership.  The book was helpful here.

A personally troubling thing about this book was my realization that none of these four men lived past age 64.  As I approach that age, I am increasingly aware of how little I have accomplished.

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Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Discerning the Times by Os Guinness is published by IVP.  

Carpe Diem begins with 14 pages of great quotes from all manner of past and recent thinkers from a wide variety of countries and cultures.  This is a book about time.  The concept of time itself is a philosophical and theological idea.  And then there is our use of it and our limited amount of it.

Os Guinness has written a number of books.  His best books include Dust of Death, The Call, and Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.  If I stumble across a book by him, I buy it and read it.

His writing is full of good references and stories.  In this book, a few of those stories are from his own dangerous background in China during World War II.  He is not overly theological or not exegetical at all in dealing with topics, but he is always unmistakably Christian.

This is a fine read for both devotional studies and serious thought.

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