Rewriting History — The History of America Mega-Conference: Part Three, “Religious Liberalism” And Those Magnificent Mathers
HA note: This series is reprinted with permission from Ahab’s blog, Republic of Gilead. For more information about Ahab, see his blog’s About page. Part Three of this series was originally published on July 7, 2013.
Also in this series: Part One: First Impressions | Part Two: Doug Phillips on God in History | Part Three: “Religious Liberalism” And Those Magnificent Mathers | Part Four: Kevin Swanson Is Tired Of Losing | Part Five: Messiah States and Mega-Houses | Part Six: Doug Phillips Rages Against the 20th Century | Part Seven: Christian Vikings, Godly Explorers, and Strange Bacon | Part Eight: Closing Thoughts
On Wednesday, July 3rd, I took in two workshops at Vision Forum’s History of America Mega-Conference: “The Rise of Religious Liberalism” and “Puritanism and the Multigenerational Vision of the Mather Family”. The first was a swipe at progressive Christianity and 19th century spiritual movements, while the latter praised Cotton Mather and his forefathers for their piety and devotion to family life.
On Wednesday morning, Col. John Eidsmoe of the Oak Brook College of Law and Government Policy presented “The Rise of Religious Liberalism”. The workshop was a polemic look at the rise of Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and other forms of “religious liberalism” in 19th century America.
Eidsmoe spoke warmly of early Americans who celebrated Christianity. The Constitutional Convention, he claimed, had mostly Christians in attendance and involved God in their work. He dismissed the deist Founding Fathers in attendance as “outliers”. He discussed the message of 18th century preacher George Whitfield, who did much to unite Americans under a common faith, he claimed.
Eidsmoe also smiled upon Benjamin Franklin for praising Christian preaching and social endeavors, suggesting that the Founding Father appreciated Christianity. However, I found his portrait of Franklin to lack nuance. While Franklin did celebrate the Puritan virtues of his upbringing and respect preachers such as George Whitefield, he also referred to himself as a Deist in his 1771 autobiography, embraced Enlightenment ideas, endorsed religious pluralism, and spent time at a London Unitarian congregation.
In the 1800s, despite the Second Great Awakening, America sees the emergence of Unitarianism. Eidsmoe pointed out that 19th century Unitarians were different from today’s Unitarian Universalists, describing them as “strongly moral” people who revered the Bible but did not believe in the Trinity.
The 1800s also saw the emergence of Transcendentalism, which Eidsmoe described as a belief in God’s presence within nature and humans. Transcendentalists, Eidsmoe stated, believed that all humans have a divine spark within them, and that by getting in touch with that divine spark, they can become godlike. According to Eidsmoe, Transcendentalists rejected the idea of original sin and did not see the need for a savior, thus contrasting them to Christians.
Eidsmoe didn’t seem to think highly of Transcendentalists, sneering at failed Transcendentalist projects such as Fruitlands commune. He briefly discussed major Transcendentalist thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emmerson, who drew inspiration from German thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Buddhism, and the Bhagavad Gita. Eidsmoe also discussed Henry David Thoreau in unfriendly terms, scoffing at Thoreau for trumpeting his return to nature inWalden while eating meals at his parents’ house and drinking coffee in town. Thoreau defended civil disobedience in his classic essay, but Eidsmoe claimed that this was actually a Biblical concept rooted in obedience to God over obedience to civil authority. (For a more in-depth, non-polemical look at Transcendentalism, click here.)
Practice eisegesis much? I thought.
Transcendentalism led to the rise of “religious liberalism” by leading Americans away from Biblical Christian principles, Eidsmoe argued. While he praised Albert Schweitzer for his scholarly and humanitarian work, he disagreed with his “liberal” view of Jesus in Quest for the Historical Jesus. Eidsmoe also disagreed with the work of Julius Wellhausen, who theorized that the Pentateuch was written by four authors in different time periods rather than Moses (later known as the documentary hypothesis or Wellhausen hypothesis). Wellhausen’s theory was rooted “squarely upon evolutionary thought”, Eidsmoe insisted, even though Wellhausen was not the first scholar to speculate that someone other than Moses penned the Pentateuch. Eidsmoe frowned upon the Wellhausen hypothesis, seeing it as an attack on the divinity of Jesus himself who acknowledged Moses as the author of the Torah. Finally, Eidsmoe was also disdainful of the alleged Darwinist worldview, which he caricatured as positing that humans started in the “slime” and evolved, rather than being created by God with moral responsibility.
These 19th century forces contributed to religious liberalism, which exerts influence even today, Eidsmoe argued. He criticized modern “open-minded” liberalism as being closed-minded to anything evangelical, and caricatured religious liberalism as having five characteristics:
- Denial of absolute truth in favor of a view of truth as relative, subjective, and evolving.
- Emphasis on man rather than God, with God as a servant of man instead of vice versa.
- “Presumption against the supernatural” and miraculous.
- Optimism about progress, public education, medicine, and democracy heralding a new dawn, before events such as World War I and World War II casts shadows on progress.
- A belief that the Bible is accurate in its conclusions but not its details, or the belief that parts of the Bible are divinely inspired but not inerrant.
The fact that this does not accurately describe progressive Christianity, past or present, seemed to have escaped him. Progressive and moderate people of faith would not describe their beliefs as such, which also seemed to have escaped Eidsmoe.
Eidsmoe listed several alleged dangers of religious liberalism, including the supposed lack of a basis for morality, the supposed lack of basis for evangelism, and the reduction of Jesus to a mere man or to one path to truth among many. Religious liberalism supposedly leaves no room for freedom, he claimed, since it reduces humans to evolutionary animals rather than moral agents accountable to God. He accused religious liberalism of having no means of maintaining Christianity or perpetuating the faith, claiming that liberal Christian denominations are losing members. (Perhaps he forgot that many mainline denominations and religious schools are losing members too?) Germany serves as a model for what can go wrong with religious liberalism, he insisted, claiming that one-hundred years of liberal German thought gave rise to Hitler and the Holocaust. In short, Eidsmoe demonized religious liberalism, using straw man arguments to grossly misrepresent what liberal Christians actually believe.
Eidsmoe concluded the workshop by warning listeners that religious liberalism could seep into their churches. He urged the audience to stay alert for liberal trends in their churches and seminaries, and to stay faithful to belief in Biblical inerrancy. In short, his workshop was not so much a tour of 19th century religious thought as a polemic against non-fundamentalist Christianity, complete with caricatures, oversimplification, and fear.
On Wednesday afternoon, Scott Brown presented “Puritanism and the Multigenerational Vision of the Mather Family”. Brown, a pastor at Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, NC and the director of the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches, praised the Mather family as a model of piety.
Brown’s workshop focused on three men in the Mather family — Richard, Increase, and Cotton Mather — whom he praised for the “fruitfulness”, citing John 15:5-8 and John 15:16-17. Three generations of the family “cried out for a rising generation”, Brown observed, celebrating the Mathers as a “beacon of light” for families.
According to Brown, the Mathers resolved to bring everything into obedience with the Bible. Every member of the family was dedicated to God and lived for something beyond themselves, he claimed. By looking to scripture alone, the Mathers knew who they were and what role they were to play in life, rather than asking “who am I?”
Brown delved into the individual histories of Richard, Increase, and Cotton Mather, with emphasis on their religious lives and concern for the next generation. I noticed anti-Catholic bias in Brown’s description of Richard Mather when he noted that Richard’s father almost allowed Catholic merchants to fund his education. The Catholic merchants “coveted” Richard’s gifts, and Brown considered it pivotal in Richard’s development that he was not educated by Catholic. Brown then drew parallels to modern times, when “great pagan institutions” allegedly “pickle” children’s brains by pouring “paganism” into them.
Okay, you guys keep throwing around the word ‘pagan’. I don’t think it means what you think it means, I thought.
Brown observed common themes of moral decline in the preaching of Increase and Cotton Mather. For instance, Increase scoured the Old Testament for patterns among the prophets regarding God’s blessing and judgment, Brown said. Increase was reportedly concerned about the “onslaught of wickedness” in his society, and preached sermons on the importance of teaching piety to the next generation. Likewise, Cotton Mather was said to be watching his society decline, and encouraged cultivation of piety in children, Brown stated. Cotton Mather taught parents that children belong in church and are part of the congregation, a belief that Brown seemed to admire.
Brown devoted much of his discussion to Cotton Mather’s admonishments for parents on the spiritual upbringing of children. According to Brown, Cotton urged parents to set good religious examples for their children, concern themselves with their offspring’s spiritual state, and “plead God’s promises” to their children. Moreover, Cotton penned a list of twenty-one resolutions for fathers, including praying for their children, preaching to the family, encouraging children’s self-reflection on their souls, and “marrying” their children to Christ.
At the conclusion of the workshop, Brown listed six lessons that families can derive from the Mathers’ example. Modern Christian families, like the Mathers, must strive to be families (1) dedicated to future generations, (2) possessing clear visions of home life, church life, and civil life, (3) aware of the times and responsive to them in both public and private ways, (4) dedicated to the prosperity of the church, (5) determined to honor each other even as they disagree, and (6) crying out for their sons.
In his haste to praise the piety of the Mather family, Brown ignored the dark side of that piety. He neglected Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, a 1689 treatise on the dangers of witchcraft and demons that was widely read in late 17th century New England. Some historians speculate that Cotton Mather’s writings on witchcraft contributed to the anti-witchcraft hysteria that spawned the Salem Witch Trials. He ignored Cotton Mather’s zeal to convert black slaves to Christianity in The Negro Christianized: An Essay to Excite and Assist that Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity. The 1706 treatise encouraged slave owners to convert their black slaves to Christianity, assuring them that Christianity permits slavery and will not bring about slave’s liberty. The transmission of piety to young generations must be done in a spirit of self-reflection, lest that piety lead to destructive ends as it did with Cotton Mather.
I can accept the idea that the Mathers longed to do well by their children and grandchildren, striving to raise them well and encouraging other parents to do the same. Given Increase and Cotton Mather’s ties to witchcraft myths and the Salem Witch Trials, however, I draw a different conclusion from their lives. When parents teach their children spirituality, that spirituality must also include empathy, humanity, and critical thinking. Piety without these elements can devolve into fanaticism, with unsettling results.
Stay tuned for more on the History of America Mega-Conference!
To be continued.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am but a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.” -St. Paul
Why does no one listen to Paul anymore, unless he’s talking about the subjection of wives (which somehow turned into women) and children?
Everything eventually devolves into Hitler and the Holocaust for fundies.
I’ve been reading HA for a while and I’m a big fan.
As a student pursuing a graduate degree in American religious history, I get a bit unsettled when people misrepresent the past. With the likes of Doug Phillips I don’t know whether to laugh (it’s soooo dreadful) or cry (he claims to be what I am: a conservative as opposed to liberal Christian) and then get angry. Thing is, though, I think we can overcompensate (an understandable reaction considering Phillips’ venom) and get the past wrong, which is where I have a point of contentious with this article.
I haven’t kept track of recent developments in liberal theology, but historically speaking the likes of Henry Ward Beecher, Lyman Beecher, Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Shailer Mathews (to name but a few of the grandaddies of liberal theology), would all shrug their shoulders and say, “Yes, and…?” to those final three characterizations of liberal/progressive theology which you say are distortions: 1) they were all highly critical if not outrightly opposed to the idea of miracles and 2) they were very optimistic about progress: worldwide democracy would usher in a golden era of peace and brotherly love (Thy Kingdom come!). Granted, WWI put a bit of a damper on things, but the hope endured.
These liberals also 3) rejected Scriptural inerrancy, which is no small matter since the nature of Scripture rests at the heart of Christianity. J Gresham Machen sharply criticized liberals about this, and though his book Christianity and Liberalism has become a favorite among some crazy fundamentalists, it’s worth keeping in mind Machen’s theological perspicuity and forcefulness won the praise of none other than the arch-secularist H L Mencken, who wrote a glowing obituary of Machen, which stands in sharp contrast to the downright caustic obituary he wrote of William Jennings Bryan.
Much (if not most) has certainly escaped Phillips, who is truly an odious fellow, but to claim that three of his characterizations of liberal/progressive Christianity do “not accurately describe progressive Christianity, past or present” doesn’t square with the historical record. But that shouldn’t fluster liberal Christians if they value the insights of their intellectual predecessors.
But this all makes me curious, has liberal/progressive Christianity started whistling a different tune in recent years?
Historical questions aside, thanks for writing this article and keeping us aware of the madness.