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.

Lewis: Knowing the Past for the Sake of the Present

Politics. Is there anyone else besides me who wishes he/she could turn it off for a while? I’m a professor of American history, though, so it’s important for me to keep up with political developments and provide analysis—for my students, of course, but I also feel a responsibility to help others understand the principles we need to follow.

There is a temptation, though, to be so immersed in politics that one sees it as all-consuming. C. S. Lewis recognized that temptation. In his day, WWII was one of those potentially all-consuming events. Some people, at that time, were saying that all other activities, including Lewis’s own profession as a professor, should be set aside so that all thought and energy would be concentrated on the war.

Lewis said no to that. One of his most enlightening essays, “Learning in War-Time,” addressed the complaint that some had about allowing normal day-to-day activities to continue uninterrupted.

Lewis wanted to be sure he was not misunderstood: the war was a righteous one and every citizen had a duty to support it. “Every duty is a religious duty,” he believed, “and our obligation to perform every duty is therefore absolute.”

Rescuing a drowning man is a duty, he continued, and if we happened to live on a coast, perhaps we should be well prepared as lifesavers. But even such a laudatory effort as lifesaving needs to be seen as only part of one’s overall duties.

If anyone devoted himself to lifesaving in the sense of giving it his total attention—so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim—he would be a monomaniac.

The rescue of drowning men is, then, a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for.

Lewis then opined that all political duties were like that. Politics is not the sum total of life. Seeking to put the right people in political office is a worthy endeavor, but it should never consume one’s life.

He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.

For Lewis personally, God had charted a course for his life that pointed to intellectual activity, something that was not to cease simply because a war was going on. One of his most famous quotes comes from this essay: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

He then offers me, as a historian, this encouraging word:

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

There continues to be a “great cataract of nonsense” in our day. The America of 2018 suffers from a type of myopia, forgetting what has gone before, never learning from the past. History offers us tremendous lessons if we are willing to learn from them.

The reason I am so focused, at times, on the current political situation, is that I am disturbed by our ignorance of the past and our apparent unwillingness to correct what we have done wrong previously. We think we are charting a new course that will lead us to some type of utopia when, in fact, we are simply following some of the same old ruts that have caused misery before.

Lewis concludes his essay with what WWII should teach his generation. His conclusion applies to our generation as well if we think political programs or putting the right person in office will be our savior:

If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.

We must never forget that we are pilgrims on this earth, and that the pilgrimage goes on regardless of what happens in politics and government.

A Supreme Choice Tempered by Moral Equivalence

Give thanks today for an organization known as the Federalist Society, which vets potential federal court nominees for President Trump. The latest Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, even with a few question marks in the eyes of some conservatives, seems to be a solid choice.

Of course, Democrats were poised to oppose whomever Trump nominated; it didn’t matter who it was. This political cartoon makes the point rather well:

Pray for Kavanaugh—he is about to go through one of the worst experiences of his life:

If he survives it, we will (hopefully) have a Supreme Court more likely to adhere to constitutional principles. Alito and Roberts (the latter for the most part) began the move back toward constitutionalism—along with the stalwart Clarence Thomas—and the addition of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh should strengthen that move.

Trump made a good choice with Kavanaugh.

I also have to come down on Trump’s side when certain FBI agents made it quite clear that they had an agenda against him as they pursued the Russia investigation. The bias of the two agents, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, can’t legitimately be downplayed.

Yet Democrats, when Strzok appeared before the House committee, did their best to ignore the evidence. That particular hearing highlighted the deep polarization of our politics perhaps more than anything else recently:

Yet Trump has a problem in that he cannot seem to distinguish between the fact of Russian meddling and the investigation into possible collusion. Proving the former does not prove the latter, but he always wants to conflate them.

I seriously doubt that he colluded. But when he says that the Mueller investigation is only a witch hunt and that there is no real evidence that Russia tried to meddle in the election, he raises questions as to why he is so insistent on that. It makes one wonder if there’s some truth to the collusion after all.

No matter what one thinks of that investigation, keep in mind it has not indicted Trump at all; it has fingered the Russians who were involved, and that’s important to know even if they never are brought to justice. We need to learn from what happened.

Putin says there’s no truth to the investigation or the indictments. And we should believe him? Why? Because this dictator, invader of Crimea, and strong-armed murderer of opponents is entirely believable? Really?

Trump’s now-infamous press conference with Putin, in which he said he saw no reason to believe Russia was involved, and in which he cast equal blame on America for problems with Russia, was cringe-worthy.

The reaction wasn’t just from the nether regions of the Lunatic Left. His own Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, felt he had to go public with a statement that the meddling was a matter of fact. Coats, by the way, if you are unfamiliar with him, is a Christian man of high integrity. He would not have made that statement if he didn’t believe it is true.

Others have noted that conservatives in the intelligence community, who are not anti-Trump, feel betrayed by their commander in chief.

Trump played the moral equivalence game—America is just as bad as Russia. At the very least, it diminished him as he stood next to Putin.

Some of his best advisors helped him see he had to walk that back. His statement the next day, though, was just as problematic because he attempted, rather awkwardly and not very authentically, to say he didn’t really mean what he said. The whole thing looked forced, and he ended by saying that while the Russians might have been involved, there might have been others as well.

It didn’t help.

I would have welcomed a President Pence, Cruz, Rubio, or Walker with greater assurance that they all have a deeper understanding of constitutionalism and principles of government than Trump. Republican primary voters, though, opted instead for this.

It’s the hand we’ve been dealt. We have to make the best of it.

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.

Why Read Old Books? C. S. Lewis Tells Us Why

“Every age has its own outlook,” C. S. Lewis instructed. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Amen to that. “We all, therefore,” he continued, “need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Was Lewis saying that only old books are worthwhile? Was he so anti-modern that he believed nothing written in the last century could conceivably offer us wisdom? After all, in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, he famously referred to himself as a “dinosaur,” one of the last specimens of those who live comfortably in their native land of previous epochs.

That’s hardly his intention. What he was doing in this quote was attacking the oh-so-modern fallacy (found in every age, by the way) that we have progressed so far that we understand things much better than previous ages and generations.

I teach historiography. Part of the course delves into different schools of historical interpretation. One common mistake for historians is to believe that progress is inevitable, that each succeeding generation is wiser than the last one.

I ran into this perspective in my doctoral program. One book used in a course on American colonial history was infused with a sneeringly condescending attitude toward those so-called primitive early Americans. They were just so backward, the book implied. Not like the new generation that has come so far.

Of course, in the view of that author, to “come so far” meant that we have set aside all those outmoded ideas about God that seemed to drive many of the early settlers. The hubris in the book was astounding.

All Lewis was saying in this quote is that each era has its truth emphases and each also has its own characteristic mistakes and/or falsehoods that it believes. How do we guard against this arrogance? Return to the thoughts and beliefs of earlier times and keep in mind that whatever faults they had, they also might have contained truths that we, in our pride, have foolishly abandoned.

The “old books” are not error-free, but they do put a check on our runaway love affair with ourselves. They remind us of things we may have forgotten as a society.

There is one old book, though, that is error-free and never leads us astray. If we take it seriously, our pride is leveled and we recognize our true place in the universe.

As I survey the mess our current society has devolved into, I’m reminded of another Lewis quote: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse.” If we are disturbed by what we see happening morally in our day, we must acknowledge the real reason for this development. We have allowed our Christianity to be compromised to the point that it no longer is the salt and light it was intended to be.

We must return to the one Old Book that puts things right again.