Monday, July 11, 2016

Fea: "Review of Eric Metaxas, 'If You Can Keep It': Part 5"

From Dr. John Fea here. A taste:
.. The reason why so many historians tread lightly when connecting the evangelicalism of the Great Awakening to the American Revolution is because there is limited concrete evidence that the founding fathers, or the people for that matter, were specifically drawing upon evangelicalism as they articulated their political resistance to England.

Metaxas is basically trying to argue for the evangelical origins of the American Revolution. The New Birth, he suggests, melted away all other forms of identity–ethnic identities, local political identities, religious identities–into a unique and exceptional “American” identity.  He offers a Whig interpretation of the American Revolution on steroids.  It fails to explain the persistence of ethnic identity in the decades following the Revolution.  It fails to explain the states-rights and local orientation of the Articles of Confederation.  It fails to explain denominationalism as it developed in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.  And it highly exaggerates the influence of Whitefield, evangelicalism, and the Great Awakening on colonial life.  Metaxas fails to realize that religious belief was not particularly strong at the time of the American Revolution.

Finally, let’s remember that the First Great Awakening was a transatlantic spiritual movement.  Whatever unity among evangelicals that Whitefield helped to create was not unique to the British-American colonies.  Whitefield preached the same gospel message in England, Wales, and Scotland.  The people in the British-American colonies who embraced the New Birth saw themselves as part of a movement that was transatlantic in nature.  In other words, the Great Awakening made the religious and cultural relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies stronger, not weaker.
Yeah it's fairly ridiculous to single Whitefield out and try to credit him as Metaxas does. One thing America was at the time of the Revolution and Founding was diverse in a sectarian sense. The kind of Christianity that Whitefield preached by no means spoke for the viable theologies at that time in America in general and those that drove the Revolution in particular.

It did not predominate. 

Indeed, arguably the direct enemies of Whitefield's theological movement drove the revolutionary sentiment more so than Whitefield's faith did. Revs. Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy were not orthodox evangelical types. They were proto-unitarian and universalist and quite theologically liberal for their time, which was the era of "classical liberalism."

I'm not in the business of saying who is a "real Christian." I do know that sectarian division often leads to finger pointing of the lines of "I'm a Christian and you are not."

So even conceding that Mayhew and Chauncy are "Christians" as they identified (though with questionable orthodoxy), there was as much difference, if not more so, between their faiths and Whitefield's than as between Billy Graham's and Bishop Fulton Sheen's.

I use the latter two for a particular reason. The sectarian diversity and consequent religious liberty that the American Founders worked hard to establish permitted us to live in an age where Graham and Sheen in their heyday of the 1950s could vie for the role of "America's Popular Preacher" of their age.

Yes, Whitefield was popular. Ben Franklin liked him; they were friends. But when they spoke to one another, they talked like they believed in two different theologies. How to define Franklin's personal creed is debatable. If he can be called a "Christian," his creed was much closer to Mayhew's or Chauncy's than to Whitefield's. Though, Franklin was arguably less identifiably Christian than Mayhew or Chauncy.

No comments: