Fruits of the Sabbatical

My 27th year of teaching at the college level begins today. I’m a little out of practice, though, after a year’s sabbatical. I’ll have to change my mental outlook and reorient myself.

The sabbatical year was a real blessing. When some people picture a sabbatical, they probably think of someone relaxing for a year, playing golf, etc. Well, I haven’t played golf since I was 18 (that was at least a couple of years ago) and for me, relaxation consists of reading, researching, and writing.

And that’s what I did for those many months.

What did I accomplish?

20141025_095359I researched at six presidential libraries—Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton—and at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College for a collaborative effort with a colleague on what we hope will be a book (books?) on spiritual advisors to presidents.

That research resulted in a mass of information in the form of letters, memos, etc., that still need to be examined more closely to decide what to use. Once a book contract for this is achieved, I’ll gladly let you know.

C. S. Lewis 5While at Wheaton, I delved into papers on C. S. Lewis at the Wade Center and came away convinced that a book should be written on Lewis’s influence on Americans. That turned into a major research project in which I read and took notes on all letters Lewis wrote to American correspondents.

As I was nearing completion of the book, I found an agent who is now working to place it with a publisher. As of this date, there is a bright prospect that one publisher is serious about it, but I’m still awaiting final approval.

Just last week, another breakthrough occurred. I had finished a book-length manuscript comparing the optimism of Ronald Reagan with the pessimism of Whittaker Chambers back in 2010. At one point, I had a publisher but had to withdraw from that contract. Now I have another contract on that one, and the book should be ready for the market either late September-early October.

El PradoSo, all in all, this has been a wonderful year of devotion to scholarly pursuits. I will always be grateful to Southeastern University for its confidence in me and the funding it provided for all those research trips.

My research deepened my own knowledge significantly. One of the fruits is a new course I will be teaching this semester on the influence of C. S. Lewis. That will be fun. Is it okay to have fun as a university professor?

So it’s back to “normal” life now. My spirit has revived and I’m ready to accept the teaching challenge once again. I thank God for the opportunities He provides.

The Eisenhower Decade

I am in Abilene, Kansas, researching at the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library. Spent all day there yesterday and will finish my research today.

Ike Library

It’s rather sad that Eisenhower is practically a forgotten president for the current generation. Of course, I’ve often commented that students today know next to nothing about American history, but what they do know spans only their lifetime, or a portion of it.

Ike StatueThe Eisenhower decade was really rather prosperous for America, and he kept the peace as we squared off with a hostile Soviet Union determined to bring us down. They knew they had to be careful dealing with Eisenhower because he was no fool. He had successfully navigated the plans for D-Day and brought Nazi Germany to its knees. He knew an enemy when he saw one, and he also knew what to do to keep an enemy at bay. Unfortunately, he was followed in office by a man with little to no experience on that front, leading to the Bay of Pigs, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Eisenhower, although not very religious throughout most of his life, became more attached to the Christian faith in his later years. Billy Graham played a central role, as did Eisenhower’s Presbyterian pastor in D.C., Rev. Edward Elson. Before he died, Eisenhower called Graham to his bedside one more time to be sure he understood the essence of salvation through Christ. I trust he died a convinced Christian.

This is my final presidential library stop for my sabbatical. It’s been quite a journey: the Reagan and Nixon libraries in California, the LBJ and George H. W. Bush libraries in Texas, and the Clinton library in Arkansas were my other destinations. I’ve amassed a ton of information in the form of personal correspondence between these presidents and the ones they looked to for spiritual guidance. Now it all needs to be manifested in a series of books. Please pray for my collaborator and me on this mission to publish this valuable information.

That’s the Country We Used to Live In

Sweet CakesAbout two years ago, a bakery in Gresham, Oregon, Sweet Cakes by Melissa, was the first to suffer from the demand that the Christian owners bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. It went to court, and now the owners, Aaron and Melissa Klein, have been fined $135,000, a sum that could bankrupt them.

But there’s no antagonism toward Christians in our nation.

The Kleins were ostracized from the community as photographers and florists who used to work with them broke all ties with the bakery. They had to close the shop and operate out of their home instead. Their car was vandalized and broken into twice.

Yet we need not fear that Christian beliefs are under attack.

As with the pizzeria in Indiana, people started a GoFundMe account to help them cover the cost of the fines. Homosexual groups objected vociferously and put pressure on the website to disallow the funding. The pressure worked, as the site caved, declaring that the campaign violated its policy against raising money “in defense of formal charges of heinous crimes, including violent, hateful, or sexual acts.”

As one commentator noted,

Seriously? Not baking a wedding cake for a couple who would have been perfectly welcome to come in and shop for cupcakes, donuts or any other treats in the store falls into a category with murder or rape? That one fails to pass the smell test by a country mile. What they really didn’t want to do was run afoul of a powerful political lobby from the Left.

Apple Watch Launch

I’m glad Christians are still free in this country to act on their faith without penalty.

Franklin GrahamFranklin Graham has now come to their aid, pledging to help them through his Samaritan’s Purse charitable organization. He is one Christian leader who has been bold in his declarations to stand by Biblical standards.

Anyone willing to venture a guess that Samaritan’s Purse will now be the subject of homosexual vengeance?

Fortunately, we live in a country where our government recognizes liberty of conscience and freedom to exercise religious beliefs without interference.

Well, that’s the country we used to live in, at least.

Sabbatical Update: Wheaton College

I’ve written previously in this blog about the blessing I’ve received for the coming academic year: a sabbatical to do research and writing. I also promised to provide updates. For the past week, I’ve been at Wheaton College in Illinois, delving into the papers of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and also materials relating to C. S. Lewis. I’ll talk about Lewis in tomorrow’s post; today, I’ll focus on Graham.

As a reminder, one of my projects during this sabbatical is to examine the relationship of presidents with their spiritual advisers. An obvious starting place for that is the life and ministry of Billy Graham, who has known each president from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Wheaton is the repository for the records of the BGEA. Those records are housed in a magnificent building called the Billy Graham Center.

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I want to offer my sincere thanks for all the help I received while burrowing through the mass of material for more than three days. The staff members are excellent. Their spirit of service is greatly appreciated.

The Center has a very interesting museum depicting the history of evangelism and how America fits into the overall picture of the spreading of the Gospel. It also has some valuable artifacts, such as a copy of the first Bible printed in America during the American Revolution:

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I was also gratified to see a prominent display on the significant contribution of Charles Finney to evangelism in the nineteenth century:

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Naturally, the last half of the museum concentrated on the ministry of Billy Graham, but the spirit of it was excellent, as the focal point was not really Graham himself, but the message he preached and the lives that were changed. The Gospel message was central, as can be shown by this beautiful crystal display of the crucifixion with the poignant Scriptural message underneath:

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My attempt to capture the solemnity and grandeur of the room with the crystal display doesn’t do it justice. There is a sense of awe as you enter that room. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross goes directly to the heart. If you are ever in Wheaton, you must visit this museum and come away inspired by what the Lord has accomplished through so many who have been faithful to His calling.

The Productive Year Ahead

Colonial Williamsburg--CapitolLater this week, I’ll begin showing students around some of Virginia’s best historic sites. I’ll be staying in Williamsburg, one of my favorite places on the planet. The historic colonial area always attracts me.

We’ll also tour Jamestown’s original site, the re-created Jamestown settlement, Yorktown, Monticello (Jefferson’s home), Mt. Vernon (Washington’s home), and sites in Richmond (Virginia capitol, John Marshall’s house, St. John’s church, where Patrick Henry delivered his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” oration).

That’s just the beginning of a year of travel for my sabbatical. I’ll be at Wheaton College in August to examine the Billy Graham papers. If I can, I also hope to squeeze in some time to at least begin looking at the papers of C. S. Lewis, also housed at Wheaton. Then I hope my collaborative colleague and I can make a trip to North Carolina in September to interview some of Graham’s family and associates.

October is the target date for the Reagan and Nixon libraries in California. On that trip, I may also have the opportunity to interview Michael Reagan and visit Reagan’s ranch. I’ve been to the Reagan library three times before, but all prior to the erection of the massive building that houses Air Force One, and also before the renovation of the museum. It will be like seeing all things new.

Air Force One

November provides a change of pace, as I’ve been invited to return to Puerto Rico to teach at a Youth with a Mission base. That’s always a highlight for me. Then I’m aiming for a Texas excursion in December. I have three presidential libraries to visit there: both Bushes’ and Lyndon Johnson’s. That will leave the Eisenhower library and any others I might be able to add (if the funding holds out) for 2015. Everywhere I go, I’m hoping to reconnect with friends and former students.

The goal for all these trips is to provide enough research to write a series of books on spiritual advisers to presidents. In addition to that, I’m collaborating with another faculty colleague on a book that showcases prominent individuals who switched from being political liberals to political conservatives.

This will be a full year, and a very productive one. I simply thank the Lord for this great opportunity.

The Preacher & the Presidents

Preacher & PresidentsIn preparation for my upcoming year of sabbatical when I will be doing some research at presidential libraries, I’ve been reading as much as I can about those who were spiritual advisors to presidents. The obvious first choice for study is Billy Graham. Recently, I finished a book that provided some really excellent and even profound insights into Graham’s relationships with presidents from Truman to George W. Bush. Elegantly written by journalists Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House is a treasure chest of information about how Graham saw his role as pastor to presidents and how presidents utilized him in their administrations.

I learned more about Graham than I expected. Personally, I’ve followed Graham’s evangelistic career since the mid-1960s. I remember vividly the telecasts of some of his crusades while I was still in high school, as well as reading his early autobiography. He played a significant part in my budding faith at that time.

Later, I branched out into other avenues for growing in my spiritual walk, but he was always there in the background. In the 1980s, when Graham went to China for the first time, a couple I knew at the church I was attending was connected with that endeavor. They turned to me to write a paper on the value of a market economy and freedom. That paper then went with Graham to China as part of his mission to the Chinese leaders. I felt quite honored to take part in that, even in a small way.

Graham-ReaganReading the book, I came away with a deeper appreciation for just how influential Graham has been in American society throughout his long ministry. His connections with presidents were often instrumental in forwarding the Gospel, particularly in many communist nations. That occurred primarily during Reagan’s tenure. Reagan was a great supporter of Graham’s ministry; he had known him personally since the early 1950s. One comment in the book intrigued me: Graham described Reagan “as the president he was closest to—and the one he would have liked to have known better. Nancy Reagan said her husband’s relationship with Graham deepened when he became president. ‘Their relationship was beyond political,’ she said in 2006. ‘Billy would keep in touch with Ronnie on all levels.'”

There were pitfalls along the way for Graham as he learned how to handle his fame and influence with presidents. His closeness to Richard Nixon also tied him to Watergate, even though he was in no way involved in that scandal. It taught him to be more cautious in future dealings, yet he never shied away from offering pastoral counseling and comfort to any president—and any other person—who sought him out.

Over this next year, I’ll not only visit presidential libraries, but I’ll travel to Wheaton College to examine Billy Graham’s papers. I also hope to make a trek, along with a colleague on this project, to North Carolina to interview Graham family members and associates. While it would be wonderful to get to see Billy Graham and talk with him, that probably won’t happen. His age and infirmities make that unlikely.

Graham’s ministry has ended now, for all practical purposes. He knows he doesn’t have much more time on this earth, but that doesn’t bother him. He has the assurance of an eternity with the One he has served faithfully all these years. It will be a pleasant experience to spend time this year getting to “know” him better.

The Sabbatical Year

I received a tremendous blessing recently: Southeastern University awarded me a sabbatical for the upcoming academic year. Once the current spring semester ends in May, I will have until the beginning of the fall semester in August 2015 to research and write. In tandem with a colleague in the college of religion, I will have the opportunity to delve into the subject of spiritual advisers to presidents. Our goal is to begin with a couple of articles on the topic, then, hopefully, into the authorship of a series of books, each one dealing with a specific president.

My task, as the historian, is to gather as much evidence as possible on those who had the ear of presidents and offered them spiritual advice. We will try to answer questions such as “How much influence did these individuals have on the presidents?” “Were they primarily pastoral in their dealings or did they in any way interact on policy issues?” “What is the proper role of a spiritual adviser?” “What are the pitfalls of being so close to political power?” “Did these spiritual advisers remain true to their calling or become too political?” “Were they respected advisers or merely being used by politicians?”

We can’t do all presidents, at least not for the moment. We’ve decided to concentrate on presidents after WWII. That seems a propitious place to begin for a couple of reasons: the public is more familiar with them; we have one huge example of a spiritual adviser during this era who touched the lives of every president—Billy Graham.

Reagan LibraryThe research cannot all be done via books, articles, and internet searches. Personal papers are essential to get to the heart of the matter; therefore, I will need to travel to a number of presidential libraries. My favorite, naturally, will be the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. I’ve been there twice before for research and rejoice at the opportunity to return. I’m also going to look into the possibility of visiting the Reagan Ranch while I’m out that way. I know this is supposed to be academic research, but I trust I’ll be forgiven for actually enjoying what I do.

While I’m in California, I’ll also need to go to the Nixon Library, which is not too far from Reagan’s. Other presidential libraries on the itinerary for the year are Eisenhower’s in Kansas and three in Texas: Lyndon Johnson’s, George H. W. Bush’s and George W. Bush’s. We’ve chosen to start with those particular presidents because Graham was closest to them.

Billy GrahamIt would be difficult to exaggerate the role Billy Graham played in the lives of those presidents. As I’ve begun my reading on his ministry and influence, I’ve been amazed at the access he had to them. So I’ll also need to examine Graham’s personal papers, which are housed at Wheaton College in Illinois. My colleague and I also entertain the hope of interviewing some of Graham’s children and associates in North Carolina.

This may sound like books just on Billy Graham’s relationship to the various presidents, but it won’t be. He’s merely a fine starting point. There are other spiritual advisers who will need our close attention as well. By the time we’re finished, we hope to have a well-rounded portrait for each of the presidents listed above. If all goes well with those, who knows, perhaps we can continue the series with others. I can overcome my own personal feelings about such men as Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy to continue this valuable research with them also. Personally, I’d eventually like to delve further back and deal with Abraham Lincoln and others who have evidence of Christian faith in their lives.

The next step is to get the funding to accomplish all the travel necessary to complete the research. We are in the process of applying for a grant, having identified a number of private foundations that typically fund research of this type. Prayer for success on this front is always appreciated. I pledge to keep regular readers up to date with progress reports from time to time.

How do I adequately express my excitement over the prospect of being able to devote my life over the next year to this project? Well, maybe I’ve already done that with this blog today. Thanks be to God for His many blessings.