Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Gilbert Tennent & the First Great Awakening

Whenever I get an e-mail from the Christian History Institute that is pertinent to American history, I like to pass it on. This one deals with the life of Gilbert Tennent, one of the premier preachers of the First Great Awakening. Here’s that account:

Tennent arrived in America from Ireland at the age of fourteen. His father, William, founded a “Log College” to train ministers. Following his father into the ministry, Gilbert was ordained in 1726. He had little success at first. However, following a deep illness, he recovered and preached with a new zeal that brought many conversions.

His fiery faith also placed him at the center of a split in the Presbyterian Church. A friend of evangelist George Whitefield, Tennent hoped to see revival in America. He was convinced the nation’s religious stagnation was the fault of its clergy.  In a scathing sermon preached at Nottingham, he had said, “The reason why congregations have been so dead is, because they have had dead men preaching to them; for I am verily persuaded the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ.”

That “generality of preachers” complained in return that his meetings were too emotional. Feelings ran high. The Presbyterian synod reproved Tennent. With several other preachers, he withdrew from the association. For almost two decades, the Presbyterians were divided into New Lights and Old Lights.

From 1743 onward, Tennent pastored a church in New Jersey but continued to travel and evangelize, too. Once he held revival services for three months in New England. Thomas Prince, founder of the first religious journal in North America, described the results: “By his arousing and spiritual preaching, deep and pungent convictions were wrought in the minds of many hundreds of persons in that town; and the same effect was produced in several scores, in the neighboring congregations.”

In later years, Tennent’s sermons became milder. He pastored with success at Philadelphia until he was very old. Around 1749, he published a sermon titled Irenicum Ecclesiasticarum (Peace in the Church) and later a pamphlet titled The Pacificator in which he pleaded for a restoration of unity. These helped heal the breach between the Old Lights and the New Lights that his words had done so much to precipitate.

In a sermon preached shortly after Gilbert Tennent’s death, Dr. Samuel Finley, President of Princeton College, said:

He had an habitual, unshaken assurance of his interest in redeeming love, for the space of more than forty years; but, eight days before his death, he got a more clear and affecting sense of it still. And though he lamented that he had done so little for God, and that his life had been comparatively unprofitable, yet he triumphed in the grace of Jesus Christ, who had pardoned all his sins, and said his assurance of salvation was built on the Scriptures, and was more sure than the sun and moon.

It’s important to learn about those who have gone before us. They provide a combination of inspiration and, at times, caution, as we attempt to infuse our culture with the truth of the faith.

Nikki Haley & Mature Conservatism

I’ve been impressed by Nikki Haley for quite some time: first, as governor of South Carolina, and now as our UN ambassador. What I read about her today has only increased my appreciation for her as a spokesperson for mature conservatism.

Yesterday, she spoke to the High School Leadership Summit, a conference for conservative teenagers. In discussing what leadership means, she told them they had to take a more responsible, reasonable approach to those with whom they disagree. Her words:

Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to “own the libs.” I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this. Are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?

She contrasted that in-your-face approach with real leadership; she called it the exact opposite, then explained how real leadership works:

Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s about bringing people around to your point of view. Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.

Think about it. Shouldn’t that be the goal rather than feeling good that you just let someone really “have it”?

Haley demonstrated the Christian spirit beautifully. While reading about her comments, it reminded me of why I’ve been so drawn to Whittaker Chambers and Ronald Reagan.

Chambers wrote his masterpiece, Witness, as a plea to show people truth and get them to change their thinking. Yes, he condemned the system of communism that he once thought would change the world for the good. Yes, he called out some of the truly evil people involved in that system.

Yet there is a pathos to Witness that is its most appealing feature for me. Chambers doesn’t hate those who are in error; he appeals to them to rethink. Even when testifying against Alger Hiss, he didn’t want to divulge everything; he sought Hiss’s repentance instead so that he might be saved from his sins and errors. Only when Hiss proved arrogant and stubborn did Chambers reluctantly come forward with all of his evidence.

When Reagan read Witness, for the first time he saw why communism had a certain appeal to those who embraced it. His response to it transformed from simply being “against” something to seeking to free people from its chains.

Reagan could speak forcefully against wrong ideas (mature conservatism doesn’t mean pulling back from truth-telling) but he always reached out to those on the other side of the ideological divide. He sought to develop a relationship with House Speaker Tip O’Neill despite the latter’s constant diatribes against Reagan.

He sent letters to every Soviet leader, wanting to explain to them why they misunderstood the US; he finally found one who would listen (although he might not have if Reagan hadn’t taken a firm stand against Soviet aggression).

“Speaking the truth in love” is how it’s described in the New Testament. Nikki Haley, Whittaker Chambers, and Ronald Reagan show us how that’s done. I’ve been dismayed by the devolution of the conservatism I’ve always espoused. I hardly recognize what passes for conservatism in the past few years.

Those of you who call yourselves conservatives, I appeal to you to consider what I’ve written today. I think it’s important for the future of genuine conservatism and for the future of our nation.

Reagan & Trump: The Dishonesty of the Moral Equivalence Defense

If you’re going to say anything to help explain why evangelicals are so on board with Donald Trump, at least don’t be dishonest about it. The dishonesty rears its head particularly when comparing Trump to Ronald Reagan.

It happened again recently on Fox News when the Rev. Robert Jeffress stated that Reagan was a “known womanizer” also. Jeffress continued, “The reason we supported President Reagan was not because we supported womanizing or divorce. We supported his policies.”

I can try, I suppose, to give Jeffress the benefit of the doubt that he is merely ignorant. I hope that’s the case.

Lou Cannon, one of Reagan’s chief biographers, when asked about this claim, commented,

Reagan dated widely after his divorce before he met Nancy. I don’t think he looked at another woman after that. Neither of his wives ever accused him of infidelity. Definitely NOT a womanizer.

Well, what about the divorce? Doesn’t that make him the same as Trump?

William F. Buckley, a close friend of Reagan’s, shared that when someone told Reagan, “Well, you got divorced,” the response came back, rather heatedly, “I didn’t divorce anyone. She divorced me.”

All who have studied Reagan with more than a passing glance are well aware of how deeply hurt he was by that divorce. He didn’t want it; he had been completely faithful to his wife, actress Jane Wyman. She was unfaithful to him.

Consequently, from a Biblical standpoint, he was guiltless regarding that divorce. When he married Nancy in 1952, he was steadfastly faithful to her for their entire 52 years together. He loved her with all his heart, as everyone who knew them can attest.

The moral worlds of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump don’t align; rather, they clash.

So, if you are one of those who tries to equate the morality of these two men, seeking to provide a rationale for why it’s fine to look the other way with respect to Trump’s many infidelities and other major character flaws, I respectfully ask you to change your tactic. This one is a dead end.

C. S. Lewis Loses His Joy

On this day, July 13, 1960, C. S. Lewis lost his wife, Joy, to cancer. It was a devastating loss for him; their very short marriage he considered the apex of his life. Here’s how I wrote about it in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact:

“The blow has fallen,” Lewis informed [his friend Chad] Walsh in October 1959. News that Joy’s cancer had returned was a shock. Prior to receiving this bad news, they had planned a May trip to Greece. Neither had ever been there, but for Joy, in particular, seeing Greece was an unfulfilled passion. Now they had to wonder if those plans should be canceled.

She resisted; they went anyway, even knowing that it could drain the last drops of energy from her. Lewis wrote of it to Walsh shortly after they returned, wherein he remarked that though, at first, he doubted she would be able to make the trip, it turned out wonderfully. They had no regrets for making the trip. Lewis considered Joy “divinely supported” the entire time. She had been granted a lifelong desire and was grateful.

Death—the last enemy the Christian faces before being ushered into the presence of God—came to Joy Lewis a few weeks later on 13 July 1960. Lewis wrote of it to many of his correspondents, but the letter to Walsh probably provides the greatest insight into her last moments.

“It was a wonderful marriage,” Lewis confirmed to Walsh. “Even after all hope was gone, even on the last night before her death, there were ‘patins of bright gold.’ Two of the last things she said were ‘You have made me happy’ and ‘I am at peace with God.’”

Shortly after Joy’s death, Lewis began recording his feelings. Out of those daily jottings came an honest little book full of anguish, pain, and questioning of God’s ways, yet ultimately coming to the conclusion that one must put one’s life in His hands and allow Him to bring the healing, both now and in eternity.

A Grief Observed was published in 1961 initially under a pseudonym, N. W. Clerk, which was a pun on an Old English term for “I know not what scholar.” In those eighty-nine pages (more of a booklet than a book), we find Lewis struggling emotionally. Intellectually, he knew the answers to his questions, but he needed to work through the inner conflict that was making him doubt God’s goodness.

Lewis’s faith held. He lived only three more years, and was in bad health most of that time. By the end, he was fully resigned to death, even anticipating it. His understanding of his own faith, and his grasp of the door that opens into the next world, was enhanced by his relationship with an American, Jewish, former atheist, former communist woman who became the love of his life.

Here’s the scenario: the culture is in decline due to a loss of Biblical principles; beliefs based on those principles that used to hold the society together are attacked as bigoted, narrow, and intolerant; the government is increasingly dysfunctional and policies, despite the best efforts of honest and caring representatives, move further away from Biblical norms.

What’s someone to do about this, especially when one feels called by God (to some, that’s a rather presumptive and/or arrogant statement right there) to warn of the decline and the loss of a proper perspective on life?

One can choose to rail against this decline. After all, it is Biblical to warn sinners of the error of their ways. Purely on the governmental side, one can continually point out the false ideologies, hypocrisies, and evil deeds of our generation.

Pointing out the problems is something that must be done. However, there is a limit; after a while, if all one does is constantly harp on the negatives, one runs the risk of being a Johnny-one-note that people begin to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice the down side of some conservative commentary. While the commentary is most often true, depicting accurately the perfidy, the dishonesty, and the radical agenda of progressivism, one gets tired of hearing nothing but angst.

I’ve also noticed that some of those commentators are far more shallow in their thinking than I at first realized. They have certain talking points they repeat, and that’s all the farther they go. The repetitive nature of that approach makes it easy to tune them out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I’ve gained a lot of understanding through the words of Whittaker Chambers in his wonderful/tragic autobiography Witness.

Once Chambers left the communist underground and got a position writing for Time magazine, he eagerly used his position to try to point out the communist threat he knew from personal experience. He was so committed to warning about it that people got tired of hearing his warnings. He was kept from writing anything on the subject.

That seemed like a defeat. As Chambers relates,

My tacit exclusion from writing Communist news at first exasperated me, for I saw no one around me (except the Communists, of course) who knew anything at all about the subject.

He could have protested this treatment. He could have caused a ruckus and further divided the staff over his actions. But he kept calm and came to a new realization about tactics:

But gradually I welcomed the ban. I began to see that the kind of sniping that I had been doing was shallow and largely profitless; anybody could do that.

That last sentence is all too true. Anyone with an axe to grind or an ability to channel anger can do that. There are multitudes of those kinds of people. Chambers tried a new approach, one that more fully reflected the Christian spirit he was developing at that time in his life:

It seemed to me that I had a more important task to do, one that was peculiarly mine. It was not to attack Communism frontally. It was to clarify on the basis of the news, the religious and moral position that made Communism evil.

I had been trying to make a negative point. Now I had to state the positive position, and it was a much more formidable task than attack.

It’s deceptively easy to mount attacks. What Chambers now understood was that he had to do the harder job: help readers grasp the underlying Christian viewpoint of what constituted “good” and contrast that with the evil in communism.

It meant explaining simply and readably for millions the reasons why the great secular faith of this age is wrong and the religious faith of the ages is right; why, in the words of the Song of Roland, the Christians are right and the heathen are wrong.

This affected Chambers’s character in a positive way as well:

This change in my mood and my work reflected a deepening within myself.

The challenge before those of us who might take on the mantle of cultural warrior is perhaps to learn how to conduct the battle in a different manner. We need to leave the tactic of shallow anger and dull repetition and move on to deeper reflections on the nature of God, man, and His principles, and thereby help others gain a greater understanding of the battlefield.

That has always been my intent in this blog—hence its title, Pondering Principles: Reflections on God . . . Man . . . Life. My commitment to that goal is refreshed today.

A New Federalist Party?

Throughout my thirty-year teaching career, speaking to students about history, government, and politics, I’ve never had much good to say about third parties in the American political system. More often than not, they have caused a problem, their adherents allowing someone—usually not the right one—to win the presidency.

Third-party platforms are then absorbed into one of the two major parties and that third party ceases to exist.

For any new political party to rise up and be a major factor in the long term in our system, one of the current parties needs to be on its way out. That’s happened only once in American history.

After the demise of the first two-party arrangement, for a while there was only one party. We’re talking about the 1820s. Yet, as a testimony to differences of opinion, that one party was “one” in name only. In 1824, four men vied for the presidency within the supposed one party. John Quincy Adams emerged the victor, but the rancor following his win (decided only after a vote in the House of Representatives) led to Andrew Jackson leading his newly named Democrat party to dominance afterwards.

Those who opposed Jackson finally were able to organize sufficiently to call themselves a party, designated Whigs. The name was symbolic historically—Whigs in Britain opposed monarchs who stepped over the line. American Whigs saw Jackson as a wanna-be monarch, as highlighted in this particular political cartoon of the era:

The Whigs were basically an anti-Jackson party. Any party built primarily on a negative will not survive, and that’s what happened to the Whigs. Jackson passed from the scene eventually, and those who had assembled under its banner found themselves divided on issues, particularly slavery.

By the early 1850s, the Whigs were in rapid decline. It took that type of decline for a new party to arise—the Republicans.

Some are convinced that our present two-party arrangement is in decline as well, particularly conservatives devoted to the rule of law and the Constitution. They see the Republican party as only a shadow of its Reaganesque self; they want a new party to arise and take its place.

There is such a new party in the making. It’s called the Federalist Party of America, drawing its name not so much from the first Federalist party as from the term itself, which means that political power is to be divided properly among national, state, and local governments.

This new party is attempting to build from the grassroots, and aims not merely at getting a certain person elected president, but starting instead at the local level, seeking to gain a reputation by winning those elections.

All too often, third parties aim at the top and don’t take the time to form a solid foundation. Some came into being only to promote a charismatic candidate rejected by a major party—hence the quick rise and equally quick fall of the Progressive Party of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

The Federalist Party of America hopes to do things differently. What does it want to achieve? Its goals are clearly laid out:

  • The strength of America lies in its people, not in its government.
  • Government solutions, when necessary, should be pursued at the lowest level of government possible, that closest to the people they affect.
  • America has one overarching set of laws authorized directly by The People: The Constitution of the United States of America. That supreme governing document stands as is unless and until amended.
  • An ever-encroaching federal state threatens the general welfare of current and future generations of Americans. That encroachment can and must be reversed by democratic means.
  • A 28th Amendment to limit the number of terms that members of Congress may serve is necessary and justified to restore restrictions on federal powers as intended by our nation’s founders and delineated in the Constitution.

Except for that last one on term limits—a concept I’ve never before endorsed but am willing to reconsider—I like the goals.

But are we really at the place where a third party such as this can rise up to take over one of the two major spots in our system? Is the Republican party truly in demise?

Frankly, I don’t know. However, if the new Federalist Party has any chance of succeeding, it must follow the strategy of starting at lower levels and showing the electorate that its candidates can be trusted to carry out these goals.

This blog post today is not an outright endorsement, but I thought it important to make you aware of what is bubbling beneath the surface. I, for one, would welcome this challenge to a Republican establishment that has all too often offered only lip service to its stated principles.

So, Federalist Party of America, what will make you different? How will you ensure that your candidates will do more than talk a good talk? I’ll be watching—and hoping—that you are for real.

In the Fog between Legend & History: The Tale of St. Brendan

Historians must always be careful not to accept too readily what may appear to be fantastical accounts. We are trained to check sources for confirmation of stories that may be more legend than actual history.

Yet sometimes those legends come about because they are based on real events. Such, perhaps, is the legend of St. Brendan. Here’s the story, received today in an e-mail from the Christian History Institute. See what you think about the accuracy of what we consider a legend nowadays.

ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR BOOKS of the Middle Ages recounted the travels of an Irish monk, St. Brendan. Brendan was a missionary who planted monasteries in northwest Europe. Many places are named after him and when he died at ninety-three, he was buried at the town of Clonfert in County Galway. However, we remember him today as possibly the first European to reach America.

Some of the details of the Brendan legend became incredible over the years—crystals floating in water, islanders bombarding the monk and his crew with flaming rocks, a whale mistaken for an island. Brendan is said to have offered communion each Easter while he was at sea on the back of a friendly whale. On a wet rock, he supposedly found a remorseful Judas chained and suffering. Demons carried off one of his sailors. He and his companions observed sheep as big as stags. Fallen angels in the guise of birds appeared to them. All these cheerful inventions caused scholars to dismiss the whole account as fantasy. Nonetheless, Christopher Columbus—who believed that Brendan followed a southern route—invoked the story to inspire his captains and crews.

Twentieth century historian Tim Severin studied nautical maps and became convinced a northern route fit Brendan’s description better. He and a handful of companions built a hide-covered curragh (a small, round boat with a wickerwork frame) such as Brendan would have sailed, christened it Brendan, and set sail in 1976 to learn whether an Irish craft could have made a voyage to the new world.

Proceeding from Brandon Creek, Ireland, the historian and his small team sailed northward to the Hebrides Islands and on to the Faroes (Brendan’s “Island of Sheep”)—from which one can see Brendan’s “Paradise of Birds,” named for the many which nest in the neighborhood. The next stop was Iceland. Along the entire journey, whales sported alongside, even swimming under the curragh as if to vindicate Brendan’s tale.

The curragh weathered frightful storms, leaking very little. Because of bad weather, the Brendan had to winter in Iceland inside an airplane hanger. The volcanic island was quiet at the time, but has been known to fling flaming sulfur and rock into the sky, another indication that parts of the legend had a basis in reality.

is a fascinating look at other prominent Celtic Christians who shaped the world.

In 1977, the five men resumed their voyage. Now they saw icebergs riding like shiny crystals in the sea and eventually entered a fog such as Brendan’s tale described. Soon afterward, they found themselves in pack ice. The curragh proved ideal for creeping through the pack, its hide-covered frame able to flex where the ice would have crushed a wooden or steel hull. About two hundred miles from Newfoundland, ice punctured the skin of the boat. Fortunately the hole was near enough to the surface that the crew could repair it.

On the evening of this day, 26 June 1977 Brendan made landfall in Newfoundland. “And the legend had looked more like the truth with every mile,” as Tim Severin noted. His replication of Brendan’s voyage did not prove it happened, but it did show that fifth-century Irish technology was capable of making the dangerous voyage and reminded us that those Irish monks were men of strength and courage.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Irish monks in the early centuries of Christianity. A book I read many years ago still stays with me: How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. That story, which is historically accurate, rests on the shoulders of many of those faithful Christians of that early era.

How much of the St. Brendan legend is true? Well, I’ll discount finding Judas on the voyage, but much of the rest does seem to rest on fact, albeit explained in a more fantastical way.