Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Three Kinds of Holy Men in Late Antiquity: An Article Review

Kirschner, Robert. "The Vocation of Holiness in Late Antiquity." Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984): 105-124.

At the time this article was published, Robert Kirschner taught in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. More recently, he has become the Director of the Skirball Cultural Center Museum in Los Angeles.


Kirschner begins his article by asserting that the transition from the world of classical antiquity to that of late antiquity marks a shift from the individual as a cell in the body politic to a more autonomous individual. This change created an atmosphere in which the distinctly holy man, the personification of a connection between heaven and earth, became more common. With that in place, Kirschner states his purpose: "The present paper discusses the vocation of holiness in late antiquity with reference to the pagan philosopher, the Christian ascetic, and the rabbinic sage. It seeks to describe the basic dimensions of each model of holiness" (105).


The "pagan vocation of holiness" was founded upon paideia, a good classical education (106). Pagan holy men tended to come from the circles of independently wealthy people who had plenty of time for study and contemplation. Yet, they were also ascetics who embraced things like celibacy and vegetarianism (106). Such discipline brought to them extraordinary powers, and, in fact, the consummate philosopher might be regarded as the son of a deity (107). Typically, the status of the philosopher showed up in his physical appearance. There was something about his face, eyes, manner, etc. that was different.


By contrast to the philosopher, who lived in the society of the governing class, Christian holy men lived in the place of anti-culture, the desert (109). This can be seen as the philosopher's renunciation taken to an extreme. While the pagan philosopher did not indulge, the Christian ascetic completely cut himself off. While the philosopher might identify demons, the Christian ascetic engaged them in battle (109). The hermit rejected society, which led to apatheia, the absence of feeling, so that one could adequately deal with the demons. The ascetic's power became equal and even superior to that of demons. The physical accomplishments of the hermits were astonishing (111). One way in which the monk was like the philosopher is that both were familiar with the illustration of the athlete in training (111-12). Also, as with the philosophers, "the Christian holy man's personal conduct and demeanor were carefully observed by his disciples" (112). In fact, for the disciple to see the holy man was, in itself, a significant part of the training he sought (113-14). "Having passed beyond human society and the human condition, the Christian holy man spoke powerfully to both. By departing from the flawed orbit of ordinary men, but waging heroic battle against the demons, he recovered the primeval perfection of Adam that existed before the fall from grace. His arduous and unearthly vocation made him visibly holy" (114).


Unlike the pagan philosophers and Christian holy men, rabbis of late antiquity did not have biographers. Thus, in order to make any comparisons the historian is forced to sleuth other kinds of sources, like the Mishnah, Tosefta, the two Talmuds, and the Midrashim. Because these texts are typically juristic, they are unlikely sources of biographical information. Nevertheless, they do relate that the rabbis became much more significant after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It was then that the rabbis concluded that the authority of Judaism's priesthood, which could no longer function, had been handed over to them (115). Study of the Torah and Mishnah became paramount and made the sages invincible. Attachment to the rabbinic sage, in the minds of some, superseded the disciple's first loyalty to his own father. The student's father brought him into this world, but his rabbi ushered him into the world to come (116). One difference between the Jewish holy man and the other two types is that, in this case, asceticism was rare and mild. Rabbis married, fathered children, lived in houses, and enjoyed good food and drink, albeit kosher. One pattern of continuity is that, with the rabbis as with the other two types, the holiness of the person was visible and important (117). In Judaism, the desire to witness the rabbi in every phase of life was sometimes taken to odd extremes.
A student might follow the rabbi into "the bathroom" to see how he took care of his business there. Another would hide under the rabbi's marital bed to learn about his teacher's love-making. (One can only imagine how the rabbi's wife felt about that). The point is that even the rabbi's private actions and gestures were considered instructive and normative. He was in all phases of life the conduit of the divine revelation.


In the classical era, someone becoming holy, or a divine being, was truly exceptional. "[B]ut in Hellenistic and Roman society it was the aspiration of every poet, thinker, and artist to be divinized, to become a 'man of the Muses' " (119). The rabbinic sage, although he represents a separate tradition, "crystallizes a crucial attribute of the holy man: the paradigmatic impact of his person. Down to every detail of his being, the holy man is a divine revelation" (120).

This article is a succinct, concise survey of its topic. It is well written and contains a large number of interesting quotations from primary sources.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Glimpse of What Historians Actually Do

Farge, Arlette. The Allure of the Archives. Translated by Thomas Scott-Railton. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

First published in French in 1989, this book is now available to English readers thanks to what appears to be a very fine translation by Thomas Scott-Railton. As the "Forward" by Natalie Zemon Davis explains, author Arlette Farge is a social historian who has focused on eighteenth-century France. But this book of hers is not another historical monograph. It is, instead, a book about the experience, value, and proper uses of archival research. In other words, in The Allure of the Archives, Farge does not practice her craft so much as she elegantly describes and reflects on it.

The author's approach is to toggle back and forth between descriptive, analytical chapters and brief, autobiographical sections--which tend to reveal how petty and annoying some people in the archives can be, and how one easily distinguishes between veterans and rookies. Along the way, Farge puts in a good word for the necessary task of transcribing old, handwritten documents. Though tedious, she insists that there is something essential and rewarding about such work (15-17).

In a section titled "Her Presence," she notes that if traditional histories often omit women, the archives never do: "In every popular expression of emotion, in groups large and small, women were on the scene and dove in headfirst into the action" (39).

Farge is convinced that the prime way of getting at social history is to focus on conflict: "Why not choose to take a deliberately provocative position on this, and assert that society's character manifests itself through antagonisms and conflicts? It is more important to say this than ever, because today there is a tendency to doubt the centrality of conflict" (43).

In another memorable section, the author describes how it is that some manuscripts are much easier to decipher when they are read out loud: "Nothing looks like anything, unless it is articulated, and the tongue delivers the writing from incomprehensibility" (60). Yet, people in reading rooms are supposed to work silently.

Farge also notes several pitfalls associated with archival research. For example, "you can become absorbed by the archives to the point that you no longer know how to interrogate them" (70). She observes that another common trap is to identify a thesis too early, thereby ensuring that you will "find" exactly and only what you were looking for in the first place.

Nearing the end, the author raises and responds to the question of the relationship between truth and written history. She takes a mediating approach, one that says that, while no historian every produces "the definitive truthful narrative," no historian worthy of the name can ever disregard truth, or fail to care about what is true (95-96). 

Here, I noticed a correspondence between Farge's book and one by Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis titled, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford, 2002). Gaddis notes that, on the one hand, historians have always known that arriving at historical consciousness means you have learned "that there is no 'correct' interpretation of the past" and that "the act of interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience" (10). On the other hand, he rejects the extreme conclusion that because "we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space" we therefore "can't know anything about what happened within them" (34). Both Farge and Gaddis would agree, I think, that historians can and should identify many things that are true, while at the same time recognizing that one's interpretation of a set of facts is just that, an interpretation.

Monday, September 07, 2015

G. W. Bowersock on the Making of Martyrdom

Bowersock, G. W. Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

This book began as the series of Wiles Lectures delivered at Queen's University in Belfast in 1993. The author, G. W. Bowersock, taught Classics and History at Harvard University from 1962 to 1980. Then, from 1980 until his retirement in 2006, he was Professor of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

The central thesis of this book is that the terms martyr and martyrdom should not be associated with pagans who were willing to die for a philosophy, or with Jews who were willing to die for their faith. Why? Because, strictly speaking, those terms originated with and belong especially to Christians who lived in the Roman Empire during the second through fourth centuries. Bowersock offers a set of arguments rooted in philology and history in order to show that in the Roman Empire martyrdom meant something very specific.

In Chapter I, "The making of martyrdom," Bowersock attempts to reveal the precise definitions of martyr and martyrdom. Of course, there were accounts of non-Christians in the ancient world who "provided glorious examples of resistance to tyrannical authority and painful suffering before unjust judges." So, then, what was different about true martyrdom per se? Bowersock answers that there were two things. First, starting with the Christians of the second century in their imperial Roman context, such courage was "absorbed into a conceptual system of posthumous recognition and anticipated reward." Second, and related to the first point, "the very word martyrdom existed as the name for this system" (5).

Chapter II, "The written record," sets out to corroborate the argument of the first chapter along the lines of literary analysis. Bowersock notes that the distinctive literary form called martyrology bears little resemblance to Jewish stories from the Old Testament book of Daniel, or from the second and fourth books of Maccabees. Instead, judging from their narrative technique and literary style, the Martyr Acts most closely resemble "pagan historical fiction" (26). The author concludes that "like the very word 'martyr' itself, martyrdom had nothing to do with Judaism or with Palestine" (28). Furthermore, Jewish martyrology sounds nothing like pre-Constantine Christian martyrology. In those accounts, for example, the victims are asked, according to formula, if they are ready to change their minds. Such inquisitions have a "distinctively Roman character" (37).

Chapter III, "The civic role of martyrs," begins with the simple observation that the martyr acts "take place in the greatest cities of the Roman world" (41). Why was this the case, and why is it significant? Bowersock explains that, from the Roman side, major cities included the deadly legal authority of provincial governors as well as the crowds who would gather for "spectacles of blood sport in the amphitheater." From the Christian side, "martyrdom in a city provided the greatest possible visibility for the cause of the nascent Church, and it simultaneously exposed the Roman administrative machinery to the greatest possible embarrassment" (42). Under these circumstances, pagans and Jews would unite publicly against Christian martyrs, a fact that underscores the author's thesis that martyrdom was a uniquely-Christian phenomenon vis-a-vis imperial Rome.

In Chapter IV, "Martyrdom and suicide," the author describes the eagerness, good cheer, and even laughter of some early martyrs. In many cases, their dispositions reveal a desire for martyrdom that amounted to suicide by state official (59-61). Because of this development, some Christian theologians examined the distinction between martyrdom and suicide. On the one hand, Tertullian argued that if some pagans voluntarily died for false and foolish notions, how much more should Christians be willing to die for the truth of the gospel? On the other hand, Origen and Clement of Alexandria spoke against all forms of voluntary self harm. The debate reached all the way to the time of Augustine, who argued at length that it is wrong to kill oneself or to provoke someone else to kill you, even for what is true. Augustine's verdict combined with the effects of the Constantinian revolution to bring to an end to this major chapter of Christian history (73-74).

Four Appendixes, a "Select Bibliography," and an index round out this book. Each appendix is a commentary or extended footnote on one of the points in the text. The book could have used a map of the Roman world and a few illustrations. At any rate, Bowersock's lectures assert and advance a provocative thesis. One might quibble with a point here or there. Nonetheless, this book is a tour de force that no student interested in the topic should ignore.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Holy Whine" at Pulpit Rock: Connecticut Connections to the Bible-Belt South

Born in Boston in 1706, Shubal Stearns lies buried more than 600 miles to the south and west, in the little town of Staley, North Carolina. Between those two places--at Tolland, Connecticut--Stearns underwent a spiritual transformation. The changes he embraced in Tolland led him to lay part of the foundation of a well-known feature of our modern American religious landscape: the Bible-Belt South.

The Stearns family moved from Boston to Tolland in 1715, when Shubal was still just a boy. An active member of the Congregational church, in 1727 he married a local girl, Sarah Johnson. Years later, his life forever changed with the coming of what we now call the First Great Awakening.

By the 1730s, Puritan churches seemed stale and formalistic. Preachers of the Great Awakening challenged the status quo with emotional sermons that called hearers to a vibrant, all-consuming faith. Stearns heard the most famous evangelist of them all, George Whitefield, when he preached in Connecticut in 1745. Immediately, Stearns identified himself as a New Light, someone who welcomed the message of the revivalists. Even more, he sided with the Separates, radical New Lights who felt they could no longer be members of their spiritually cold and lifeless congregations.

With no church facilities, Separates had to decide where they would gather for worship. In Tolland, they met in the Stearns home on Charter Road. Stearns himself served as minister of the congregation, which grew through the years. But in 1751, the group divided. Some, like Stearns and his family, embraced the Baptist teaching that church membership is only for those who have experienced believers' baptism, adult immersion upon a profession of Christian faith. Soon after he was immersed, Stearns organized a "Separate Baptist" church in Tolland.

Charter Road in Tolland, Connecticut
Weather permitting, people would sometimes gather at Pulpit Rock in Tolland, where they listened to the evangelist preach. Stearns was small in stature. But when preaching, what he lacked in height he more than made up for with over-sized gestures, a piercing gaze, unrestrained emotion, and a sing-song delivery some called "the holy whine." Many listeners who at first didn't care for his style eventually warmed up to his obvious sincerity and devotion.

Three years after his conversion to the Baptist persuasion, Stearns concluded that he should take his message to the colonies that lay south and west of Connecticut. His brother-in-law, Daniel Marshall of Windsor, was also a Separate Baptist preacher. In 1754, the two men moved their families to Cacapon, Virginia, near present-day Winchester. After working for months with only moderate response, they received word that people living in the Piedmont section of North Carolina would ride long distances just to hear a sermon. So it was that in late 1755, a company of fifteen people, mostly Stearns and Marshall and their families, migrated to Sandy Creek in what is now Randolph County, North Carolina, where they immediately began a church.

Pulpit Rock in Tolland, Connecticut, one-time gathering place for Separates.
Shubal Stearns sometimes preached here.
With Sandy Creek as his home base, Stearns traveled through parts of North Carolina and Virginia preaching sermons, training evangelists, and planting Separate Baptist congregations. In effect, the migration of the Stearns and Marshall families transplanted the First Great Awakening from New England to the southern back country.  By the time Stearns died in 1771, there were 42 Separate Baptist congregations served by 125 ministers in North Carolina and Virginia.

According to the late Sydney Ahlstrom, a Harvard professor and the unofficial dean of American religious historians, those few Separate Baptists who came from north central Connecticut were critical to "Baptist expansion throughout the South and the Old Southwest." That's no small difference considering that the dozens of Baptist groups in America today constitute the nation's largest Protestant family.

In a later post, I'll say a bit more about the connections between Separate Baptists in the South, like Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall, and the American Restoration Movement, associated with names like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell.

Some Sources

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. See Chapter 20, "Evangelical Expansion in the South," especially pp. 317-24.

Bowden, Henry Warner. Dictionary of American Religious Biography. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993. A brief entry on Shubal Stearns appears on p. 514.

Garrett, Paul E. Where Saints Have Trod in the Expansion: Volume One. Barberton, OH: Garrett Publishing, 2009. See especially pp. 21-23.

Hughes, Arthur H. and Morse S. Allen. Connecticut Place Names. Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1976. This unique, outstanding resource does not include a listing for a Pulpit Rock in Tolland. Yet, it does list Pulpit Rocks in other towns, indicating that some of them were gathering places for religious activities.

Humphrey, Carol Sue. "Stearns, Shubal." In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 20:597-98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Waldo, Loren P. The Early History of Tolland. An Address Delivered before the Tolland County Historical Society, at Tolland, Conn., on the 22nd day of August an 27th day of September, 1861. Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Company, 1861.

A Note of Thanks

Historians publish their writings under their names. But as we see in the "Acknowledgements" sections of their books, they never carry out nor complete the work all by themselves. When it comes to communicating history, we should not imagine that the job gets done by Lone Rangers. Instead, we should recognize that collaborative networks of people make it happen. Thank you to George Caruthers for taking me to Tolland, and also to Carl Sallstrom who listened to my story about Pulpit Rock and who eventually located it. Today, the land on which Pulpit Rock stands is owned by Lloyd Bahler and family. Lloyd was nice enough, on the spur of the moment, to show the three of us around the Bahler family property. Thank you!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Who's Who? Identity and Peasant Life in Early Modern Europe

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

In this book, Natalie Zemon Davis retells the often-told story of Martin Guerre. But as the extensive bibliography and notes suggest, this is the thoroughly-researched, historian's version of the tale (pages 127-57). It is offered, in part, as a reflection on "the significance of identity in the sixteenth century" (viii).

Zemon Davis relates the story as follows: Martin Guerre was a peasant who lived in "the Pyrenean village of Artigat" (vii). In 1538, he was married to Bertrande de Rols, who was also from Artigat. At the time of their wedding, Martin was about fourteen years old, and Bertrande was either nine or ten (16, n.). Apparently, the marriage remained unconsummated for several years. During that time, Martin was subjected to public ridicule due to his impotence. However, several years later Bertrande gave birth to a son named Sanxi (21). In 1548, ten years after the wedding and when Martin was around 24 years old, he was accused of stealing grain from his father. Humiliated for years, and now embarrassed and afraid, Martin abandoned his family and the place he had always known.

Eight years later, "in the summer of 1556," a man presented himself "as the long-lost Martin Guerre. Previously he had been known as Arnaud du Tilh, alias Pansette" (34). Interestingly, the villagers, including Bertrande, welcomed du Tilh as though he were Martin Guerre. Soon, he settled into a peasant's life filled with farm work and family obligation. By all accounts, he and Bertrande enjoyed a blissful relationship. She became pregnant twice more. One of the children, a daughter, survived infancy.

Trouble came four years after the return of "Martin," when he proposed the sale of some of the land that was part of his inheritance, a violation of the Basque norms that his family had always observed. Martin's Guerre's uncle and Bertrande's stepfather, Pierre, had sometimes been uncertain about the identity of the imposter. Once questions about land and money entered the picture, Pierre became the man's determined nemesis. With Bertrande now on his side, Pierre brought the accusation that generated both civil and criminal charges against the impostor.

At his trial, in 1560, the dozens of witnesses were divided on whether the accused was Martin Guerre. However, the impostor was found guilty. On appeal, that decision was nearly reversed. Arnaud du Tilh as Martin Guerre defended himself in what must have been one of the greatest court performances in legal history. Playing up the obvious conflict of interest of Pierre and his family, the impostor was able to provide answers and recite details regarding matters that, seemingly, only the real Martin Guerre would know. For every question, he had a plausible, even cogent, response.

But as fate would have it, just as the appellate court was about to reverse the original decision, the real Martin Guerre appeared. Having "had his leg shot off at the battle of Saint-Quentin" fighting for Spain, Martin Guerre now had a wooden leg (82). Of course, the impostor's charade came crashing down. Having been spared an incorrect judgment, the court  then found Arnaud du Tilh guilty of "imposture and false supposition of name and person and of adultery" (86). Within days, he was hanged in front of the Guerre home in Artigat, and his body was burned.

Zemon Davis takes up the question of how the reunited couple might have managed in the years that followed the execution of the impostor. She notes that both of them were culpable: Martin had abandoned his wife and child, and Bertrande had played the wife of a man she must have known was not her husband.

The author concludes with this reflection: "The story of Martin Guerre is told and retold because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible. Even for the historian who has deciphered it, it retains a stubborn vitality. I think I have uncovered the true face of the past--or has Pansette done it once again?" (125).

Monday, June 29, 2015

Meta Chestnutt Makes it to Indian Territory

Meta Chestnutt, c. 1888
Meta Chestnutt’s first night in Indian Territory was not what she had imagined it would be. Perched on top of a trunk during the wee hours of the morning, she stared down at the floor of her room.

Her “room” was actually a lean-to attached to the side of a makeshift hotel in a upstart rag town they called Oklahoma City. A hole in the wall served as a window. Beneath the floor, a mama wolf had given birth to a litter of seven pups. Earlier that evening, a few of the leading men of the town, including the mayor and the marshal, had tried to evict the new mother and her babies. But all such attempts had been angrily rejected. Afterwards, no one above or below the floor got much sleep as mama wolf yipped and howled through the night. 

The next day, September 6, 1889, W. J. Erwin, a former U. S. marshal who had served in Texas, accompanied by his young daughter, Grace, picked up a load of lumber in Oklahoma City. Then, they picked up their new school teacher recently arrived by train from North Carolina. Grace and “Miss Meta,” as they came to call her, climbed onto the lumber stacked on the wagon and rode the many hours to Silver City, Chickasaw Nation, a trip that included a crossing of the Canadian River swollen to its banks by recent rains. 

It was no doubt during that trip that Meta discovered what the lumber was for. Mr. Erwin would build on the side of his house another lean-to. This one would be Meta’s living quarters not for one night, but for the next seven years. Little did she realize that during those years, when dry spells came, for weeks on end she would eat nothing except corn meal moistened with a bit of milk.

Two days after she arrived in Silver City, on her twenty-sixth birthday Meta Chestnutt began teaching. The tiny community had prepared for her as best they could. Fifty years later, Meta described that first schoolhouse they had waiting for her. It was built, she said, 

by a few cowmen and some of the “nesters” down near Silver City cemetery. It was a frame building 24 by 36 feet, with a log rolled up to the door for a step. Rough cottonwood lumber was nailed up for seats and desks. Three twelve-inch boards four feet long were nailed together for a blackboard and painted black. Pieces of chalk were chipped from a large lump and served as crayons with which to “cipher.” 

W. J. and Annie Erwin and children. Meta Chestnutt, back right.
Meta began by announcing, “The first thing we will learn today is the ‘Golden Rule.’ We will memorize it and then we will begin to learn how to live it.” At that point, she had only seven students. Before the first school year was over, there were thirty-seven. This was the beginning of thirty years of teaching and school administration. Through it all, the conviction that sustained her was that she had come to Indian Territory by the will of God; that her work was not merely educational, but missionary and redemptive. In 1895, she wrote that her goal was “to fix firmly the standard of King Immanuel.” 

And, the mission was not hers alone. This was church work. “Our battle,” she continued, “has been a fierce one all along the line, and our burden a heavy one, but the Lord has blessed us in all our fiery trials. Our little band has grown from two to fifty or sixty. Some zealous brethren belong to our band now. It is a glorious sight to see whole families coming to service, one in Christ Jesus. At our regular Lord’s day service our attendance sometimes runs to seventy-five, and our Bible readings on Lord’s day night are well attended."

About four or five times a year, the congregation would hear the sermons of visiting preachers like R. W. Officer, J. H. Hardin, Volney Johnson, and D. T. Broadus. On Sundays when they had no preacher, Meta would “teach the Bible” and “spread the Lord’s table.” In time, the church of Christ that met in the schoolhouse would grow to well over one hundred in attendance.

Over three decades, Meta taught, and impacted the families of some 2500 students. Several of her former students went on to become political and business leaders in the new State of Oklahoma. In recognition of her life's work, in 1939, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. In short, Meta Chestnutt was one of the most successful bio-vocational missionaries in the history Stone-Campbell Movement.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Religious Travelogue at its Best: American Evangelicalism in Recent Times

Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In the prologue to his classic study of conservative Protestantism in late twentieth-century America, Randall Balmer writes: "This is a book about popular evangelicalism, a kind of travelogue into the evangelical subculture in America, a subculture that encompasses fundamentalists, charismatics, and pentecostals" (4-5). With that, he launches into a series of chapters, each one taking him to a different place, each one offering him a different slice of his topic. A few highlights:

Chapter 1, "California Kickback," recounts a 1987 visit to Calvary Chapel, an evangelical mega-church in Santa Ana, California. Under the leadership of pastor Chuck Smith, the church took off in the 1970s when leaders began preaching to washouts from the hippie counterculture in Southern California. As Balmer describes it, the church seems to have taken on certain aspects of the counterculture. At least some long-time members of the congregation are "Jesus people" from the 70s. Yet, Calvary Chapel attracts a remarkably wide variety of folks, attesting to the fact that the church is something much more than a big group of "hippies for Christ."

The setting for Chapter 5, "Adirondack Fundamentalism," is thousands of miles from Southern California: Word of Life Fellowship on Schroon Lake in upstate New York. Balmer describes Word of Life's summer Bible camp for teens in the summer of 1987. He chronicles some of the awkward, anxious religious lives of kids growing up in a devout Protestant home. He also discusses the historic issue of transmitting a vibrant faith from one generation to the next.

Chapter 14, "Oregon Jeremiad," tells the story of Balmer's 1986 visit to the Oregon Extension of Trinity College. Trinity is located in the suburbs of Chicago, while the small Western extension school is in Lincoln, Oregon, at a former logging camp in the Cascade Mountains. The extension and small church there, as Balmer describes the community, is a refuge for smart but sort-of-odd people who wouldn't fit in very well in one of the power centers of American evangelicalism, and who wouldn't want to.

Chapter 15, "Prime Time" was written in 1998, ten years after Jimmy Swaggart's public fall from grace following the discovery of his voyeuristic involvement with more than one prostitute. Balmer visited the Family Life Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Swaggart's church. According to the author's description, Donnie Swaggart, the son of the evangelist, became contentious when Balmer told him he was there on assignment to write an article for Christianity Today magazine. By contrast, Jimmy was very gracious and likable. (After the worship service, Balmer accidentally met up with the Swaggarts at a nearby restaurant). Balmer describes what the church and college campus looked like then. Only about 45 students attended Swaggart's college. Not many people attended the church services, and the sprawling campus of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries was poorly maintained.

Those were, in my opinion, some of the more engaging chapters. But there are over a dozen more. In the "Afterword: Twenty-Five Years Later," written in 2014, Balmer revisits some of the places he'd gone to and people he had spoken with a quarter century before. It's an interesting version of "Where are they now?"

I suspect that Balmer's work has appealed to so many readers through the years because it smoothly and consistently brings together four qualities: vivid description, historical context, penetrating analysis, and the author's own personal reflections.

There was one thing that I, involved with Churches of Christ all of my life, wondered about. In recent years, some scholars have asked about the degree to which Christians with roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement might be described as evangelicals. Along that line it might be significant that this wide-ranging book in which the author, a historian of American religion, often draws connections between history and his contemporary subjects, the following names and terms do not appear in the Index: Campbell, Churches of Christ, Restoration, and Stone. I don't believe that's a mistake. Restorationists, Campbellite Disciples, Stoneite Christians, whatever you want to call them, are in a real sense not evangelicals. It appears that perhaps this book provides indirect evidence to support that conclusion.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Demographic Change in Clay County Arkansas and Numerical Decline in the South Thornton Church of Christ, Piggott

Back in June and July of 2014, I put up a couple of posts that tell just a bit about the history of the South Thornton Church of Christ in Piggott, Arkansas. I was blessed to be the preacher at South Thornton from October 1988 until August 1993, and will always be grateful for that opportunity and challenge. (I was a mere 25 years when we first came to Piggott). To say the least, I will always be thankful for the good people of that congregation and what they have meant to me and my family.

Here, I want to establish and discuss some of the local contextual factors that have contributed to the numerical decline of the congregation during the second half of the twentieth century. But first, just a bit about what this means.

Anytime a church increases or decreases numerically, there are a number of contributing factors. In other words, church growth and decline are complex. To quote Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No County for Old Men, it's never just the one thing. To understand change over time, it's important to look at what are called "local contextual factors." That phrase simply refers to changes in a community that impact the church.

For example, let's say that a small town gets absorbed by a nearby growing metropolis, as McKinney, Texas has recently been absorbed by the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. New homes and stores pop up quickly. The local population soars from 5,000 to 50,000 in a matter of a few years. Given that local contextual factor, it would not be surprising to find that several churches in the one-time small town started to see a large number of visitors. Those churches would likely attract several new members. That would be a case of numerical church growth strongly tied to a local contextual factor: a rapid growth in population. My question is, How did such factors impact the history of the South Thornton Church of Christ during the twentieth century?

Available census and demographic figures indicate that Clay County, including the town of Piggott, became smaller and older beginning around 1950. For example, in 1990, the population of the county stood at 18,107. That was down from 20,188 in 1980. At the time (the early 90s), some residents of Piggott were encouraged to see that, according to the 1990 census, the town was one of two communities in Clay County that grew in population between 1980 and 1990. But those figures were misleading since, during the 1980s, Piggott annexed one or more surrounding communities. Thus, the town's small increase in population during the decade of the 80s resembled swelling more than growing. Also during the 1980s, the population grew older, with the median age of the town at over 42 years old in 1990. To add a bit of perspective, consider that in 1990, out of 3777 residents of Piggott, nearly 1000 were at least 65 years old.

As the population grew smaller and residents of the town grew older, predictably, the congregation also grew smaller and older. In other words, the demographics of the church mirrored those of the community. To get a feel for the numeric decline of the South Thornton Church, I put together the following table. Having spent countless hours compiling these numbers, I can assure you that they are reliable. The first column in the table gives the year. The second column is the average Sunday-morning Bible class attendance for that year. The third is the Sunday-morning worship attendance average. Finally, the fourth column gives the average of the two averages. This is called the "composite" number. I figured and posted the composite because church analysts tell us that it is actually a better number to look at if you want to gauge the numeric strength of a church over time. Thus, if anything, the figure at the extreme right is the most significant:

Year       Sun Class Avg        AM Worship Avg        Composite        

1963                328                             376                           352
1964                304                             371                           338
1965                305                             370                           338
1966                302                             372                           337
1967                305                             371                           338
1968                290                             368                           329
1969                273                             345                           309

1970                261                             338                           300
1971                265                             341                           303
1972                260                             342                           301
1973                252                             338                           295
1974                255                             329                           292
1975                271                             323                           297
1976                274                             342                           308
1977                281                             349                           315
1978                283                             360                           322
1979                268                             336                           302

1980                282                             348                           315
1981                273                             343                           308
1982                266                             338                           302
1983                252                             323                           288
1984                247                             301                           274
1985                250                             304                           277
1986                246                             304                           275
1987                227                             282                           255
1988                223                             276                           250
1989                225                             281                           253

1990                226                             285                           256
1991                213                             265                           239
1992                215                             281                           248

A few observations about the numbers in the foregoing table. Notice that from 1963 to 1992 the composite number drops from 352 to 248. Occasionally, the numbers remain stable or increase moderately over several years. Nonetheless, the basic trajectory is downward. Significant to our investigation is that, if you were to draw a line graph of the population of Clay County during these years, and then drew another line representing the composite numbers given in the table above, you would see two lines that were basically parallel to each other. Most people would assume that the numerical decline of the congregation and the increasing age of its members were directly related to the same phenomenon in the local context. They would be right to come to that conclusion.

Not long after I began my work with the South Thornton congregation in 1988, one thing became absolutely clear to me: long-time members of the congregation were dismayed by the church's obvious numerical decline over the years. Most of them had one or more theories about why the church was not so large and vibrant as it had been in decades gone by. One thing that was especially remarkable about all of this is I don't recall one person ever suggesting to me that the numerical decline of the congregation might be related to the numerical decline and the rising age in the local population. This was true in spite of the fact that many of those I talked to had actually lived through that decline and understood it first-hand.

Those who study church dynamics agree that anytime a church grows smaller it also grows older. (Conversely, as churches grow in number they tend to grow younger as well). Smaller and older was the trend in Piggott, and in that part of Arkansas for that matter. But most members of the South Thornton congregation had theories about congregational decline that did not include these demographic facts. Instead, when it came to the long, slow decline of the congregation, most of the reasons that were offered had something to do with leadership: the preacher and the elders.

The foregoing is offered not as an excuse or full explanation for anything. I put this out there because I have compiled these facts and have thought about these matters for many years now, and also because the South Thornton Church in Piggott is not alone. Similar stories, thousands of them, have unfolded in many parts of the U.S over the past 75 years or more. We should think and talk about those stories.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Historiography of the English Reformation (Part 3)

The previous post described how "Whig-Protestant" historians of the English Reformation agreed that Protestantism took hold in England rather quickly in the sixteenth century. Some historians, like G. R. Elton, said this was a result of decisive action at the highest levels of government. Yes, it was assumed, the English people wanted religious reformation. But Elton emphasized that change came about as a result of an act of state. Other historians, like A. G. Dickens, said that religious change came because the Reformation was immediately embraced by the majority of the people. In other words, while Elton argued for a top-down English Reformation imposed by government, Dickens said that the movement was bottom-up, a popular phenomenon.

Continuing on with Christopher Haigh's characterization of the historiography, a third group of scholars presented yet a different picture. Like the first group, they were confident that reform came from above. Yet the authorities were able to produce only slow, gradual change. Pointing to earlier works, Haigh noted a 1941 book by A. L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall, and an essay by Roger B. Manning, published in 1970. [1] In Tudor Cornwall, Rowse had in a real sense anticipated revisionist historians of the English Reformation. Just as Christopher Haigh's 1975 book focused on Lancashire, for example, so Rowse, a third of a century before, had focused on Cornwall, the southwestern tip of England. In his study of the county, Rowse wanted to explore several related questions: “what was the Reformation when you come to study it under the microscope? what did it mean? what did it do and how did it work? what were its effects upon the development of our society?” [2] Again, as Haigh would later reveal about Lancashire, so Rowse produced evidence that Cornwall had stoutly resisted reformation and that Catholicism had survived there. But, again, the question of the extent to which Cornish Catholics might reflect the rest of England outside of London and its environs was not completely answered.

In his 1970 article, “The Spread of the Popular Reformation in England,” Manning began with a simple observation. Although many scholars like G. R. Elton had assumed and asserted that the English Reformation was a successful act of state, they tended to overlook that while laws are one thing, enforcement and compliance are something else entirely. Manning theorized that “the social conditions that facilitated the diffusion of popular Protestantism did not fully ripen until the reign of Elizabeth.” Along the way to making his point, he provided a critical and helpful set of distinctions. As he put it, we should think of the English Reformation as “a conglomeration of several movements.” First, there was official reformation, associated with the state and featuring names like Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. There was also, secondly, theological reformation, which highlights places like the White Horse Inn at Cambridge and people like William Tyndale, Thomas Cromwell, and the Marian exiles. Finally, said Manning, there was popular reformation, a name that points to the untold number of common people who first turned anti-papal, and only later, Protestant. [3] Regarding official reformation, he suggested that “the reason for the failure of Protestantism to spread more extensively in the mid-Tudor period is the frequency with which the various religious settlements were made and unmade.” For example, much of the Edwardian Reformation involved religious leaders doing more or less what the state instructed them to do. Tellingly, when the Marian restoration came about, those same leaders followed opposite instructions. [4]

But the heart of Manning’s interpretation relates to popular reformation. There were, he said, a good number of reasons why the movement was slow in taking root. The evidence of wills suggests that outside of London and the southeastern part of the country, it took a long time for reforming impulses and directives to make a real difference in much of England. Many clergy of the sixteenth century were conservative. Sometimes, dueling Protestant spokesmen, because they could not get along, gave the movement a bad name. In Wales, the spread of Protestantism foundered simply for lack of ministers who could speak Welsh. In general, the clergy were poorly supported. Most had received minimal training, if that. Some were downright ignorant. For many years, schools were not Protestant, but continued as they had before with chantry priests doing what they had always done. The system remained broken until change began to come as a result of legislation like the 1570 Act for the Ministers of the Church to be of sound Religion. [5] Only then did universities begin to train a sufficient number of learned preachers to accomplish the protestantization of England. Thus, England had to develop a Protestant educational system before anyone might have expected ideas and sentiments to change. [6] In addition to the universities, wrote Manning, the rise of Puritanism generated any number of ad hoc seminaries that were often conducted in homes. Some well-to-do Puritans endowed lectureships. These factors, combined with the astonishing mobility of many Puritans, led to greater dissemination of Reformation teaching and ways. [7]

Finally, according to Haigh, a fourth quadrant of the field of interpretation advanced what might be called a slow-from-below point of view. Scholars and their books representing this position included Patrick Collinson’s 1967 work, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, which was a revision of the author’s 1957 doctoral dissertation. Noting that there is a difference between “real” reform versus the merely “formal,” Collinson said that the history of Puritanism during the reign of Queen Elizabeth was a history of frustration. As Puritans saw things, the Reformation in England “had been arrested halfway.” Of course, there were a few, separating Puritans who were uninterested in any attempt to reform the Church of England. They devoted themselves, instead, to the reconstitution of the church of Christ on strictly biblical grounds. By contrast, non-separating Puritans fully intended to reform the existing church so as to complete the English Reformation. But, said Collinson, they were deflected by Elizabeth and some of her archbishops. From this vantage point, one would surmise that the Puritans had tried and failed. Nor did the Elizabethan settlement settle everything. Thus, Collinson asserted, “English protestantism was a gathering force from the mid-sixteenth century far into the seventeenth.” [8]

Collinson expressed the hope that his survey might be followed by a number of focused, local studies which could offer more detail and fill in the specifics that his work simply could not include. [9] Presumably, these would reinforce his thesis. His wish partly describes a 1974 book by Margaret Spufford, Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The contrasting communities about which she writes are Chippenham, Willingham, and Orwell, villages of Cambridgeshire in East Anglia, each one lying on a significantly different topography. The book includes dozens of maps, tables, graphs, and even facsimiles of a few handwritten wills from the period. Together, these reflect a tremendous amount of painstaking research and provide an instructive level of detail. Convinced that villagers of the period had been overlooked or simply caricatured by historians, Spufford says that her book “represents an attempt not merely to give an account of the way the villager lived his life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but also his literacy and religious attitudes, his reactions and beliefs.” She wants to present a picture of how it was that “the microcosm of the village reflected, and often interpreted after its own fashion, intellectual and doctrinal movements higher in society.” [10]

In “Parishioners and their Religion,” the last major section of her book, Spufford explores what was then a mostly unanswered question regarding the social status of people who became religious nonconformists. How did Cambridgeshire villagers respond to religious ideas that circulated between 1500 and 1700? By the mid-seventeenth century, in Cambridgeshire there were Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Muggletonians. How did such a variety emerge? Had these various believers been converted by the great rhetorical power of evangelists? Or was growth more a matter of grassroots support from the time that these persuasions first arrived? Spufford answers that radical religious ideas were actually fairly common in Cambridgeshire at a relatively early time, and that adherents to these views included people of humble background. Strangely, though, at this juncture she makes no reference to the possibility of the survival of Lollard ideas and impulses in Cambridgeshire. Spufford concludes that religion was often an extended-family affair. Thus, her thesis includes the idea that religious persuasion does not have to do so much with what one knows. It is, instead, more a matter of who one knows. This matches up nicely with the fact that there is no statistically-significant evidence to show that schooling and dissent went together. Spufford intimates that the adoption of the Reformation and nonconformity in Cambridgeshire has every appearance of having been a slow, organic process. Moreover, that someone could read and perhaps even write does not seem to have made him or her more likely to accept some version of Word-oriented Protestantism.

Still another title that Haigh mentioned in this category was W. J. Sheils, The Puritans of the Diocese of Peterborough, 1558-1610, published in 1979, a book that began as a doctoral thesis written under the guidance of Patrick Collinson at the University of London. As the author explains, the broad subject of his book is the inherent tension within Puritanism between “the ‘democratic’ tendencies of local initiative” versus the impulse to order and to develop Christian life within a solid ecclesiastical structure, a church of Christ worthy of the name. [11] As this story unfolds, readers discover that by the 1580s Puritanism had put down strong roots in the diocese. Yet, the movement was not well organized and consistent at first. It was, instead, heterogeneous. Although the Sheils’s topic is Elizabethan and early Stuart Puritanism in a particular diocese, for our purposes his work reveals the slow progress of Protestantism in Peterborough, where the movement was not well-represented before Elizabeth’s accession in 1558. Again, tellingly, in 1982 Haigh remarked that this fourth quadrant seemed to be “the natural conclusion of trends in recent historiography.” [12] In short, in opposition to the Whig-Protestant view, a “revisionist” school of interpretation had been conceived and born. Next, it would rapidly grow.

[1]  Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation.” Historical Journal 25, no. 4 (December 1982), http://www.jstor.org/stable/2638647 (accessed February 11, 2015).

[2] A. L. Rowse, Tudor Cornwall: Portrait of a Society (London: Jonathan Cape, 1941), 9.

[3]Roger B. Manning, “The Spread of the Popular Reformation in England,” Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies 1 (January 1970): 35-36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 37-40.

[6] Ibid., 43-44.

[7] Ibid., 46-50.

[8] Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 12-15.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10]  Margaret Spufford, Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London: Cambridge University Press, 1974), xxii-xxiii.

[11] W. J. Sheils, The Puritans in the Diocese of Peterborough 1558-1610 (Northampton: Northampton Record Society, 1979), 3.

[12] Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Historiography of the English Reformation (Part 2)

In the previous post on this topic, we introduced the old Whig-Protestant reading of the English Reformation, some version of which, reaching back all the way to the sixteenth century, was dominant. Sometime in the late twentieth century, however, the dominance of this version of the story of the English Reformation began to unravel, giving way to what would eventually be called the revisionist school of interpretation.

In 1975, a former student of G. R. Elton’s, Christopher Haigh, published an expansion of his Ph.D. dissertation under the title Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire. Using public records and private papers he found in six English archives, Haigh was able to create a portrait according to which the county of Lancashire was hardly impacted at all by Lollardy, and remained happily isolated from most of the reforming influence and pressures of the sixteenth century. Historians had always known, wrote Haigh, that Lancashire had especially resisted reformation. There, “religious change was a slow and far from unimpeded process.” He acknowledged that things were different in other parts of England. However, he suspected that “the contrast is between Lancashire and what the conventional wisdom tells us happened elsewhere, rather than between Lancashire and what actually took place in the rest of England." [1] Naturally, such a comment provokes the question of exactly how representative Lancashire, with all of its admitted differences, might be. At any rate, remarking on Haigh's title, Peter Marshall recently observed that the book had rather more to say about resistance than reformation. At the same time, Marshall acknowledged that Haigh forcefully argued that “the church before the 1530s commanded very widespread allegiance,” that “Protestantism only ever made a small number of converts,” and that “Catholic practices long continued in defiance of the law.” Consequently, Haigh’s 1975 book did much to generate new interest in and discussion of the historiography of the English Reformation. [2]

In the early 1980s, J. J. Scarisbrick joined the campaign against the standard view with the publication of The Reformation and the English People. As Scarisbrick explains, his book represents the series of Ford Lectures which he had delivered at Oxford University in 1982. Using testamentary records and the accounts of churchwardens among other sources, he argues that the Reformation in England was “implemented from ‘above’ by statute, proclamation and royal commission.” Moreover, “on the whole, English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came." [3] Scarisbrick acknowledges that though some parishioners were godly and devout, not all of them were. Yet, he says, we should recognize a distinction between indifference and hostility, and the impressive construction and refurbishment of churches during the early decades of the sixteenth century suggest widespread approval and support of England’s traditional religion. 

As early as 1982, the same year that Scarisbrick delivered his lectures, Haigh published a landmark article in which he set out to explain what was then “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation.” The article was especially significant for two reasons. First, Haigh accounted for a wide range and large number of works that had been published during the previous half-century. Second, he provided a template according to which those books and articles might be organized. The various interpretations could be grouped, he said, “in relation to two matrices.” The first of these related to “the motive force behind the progress of Protestantism.” Haigh observed that “at one extreme, it could be suggested that Protestant advance was entirely the result of official coercion, while at the other extreme it could be said that the new religion spread horizontally by conversions among the people.” The second matrix related to the pace of religious change. While some scholars had concluded “that Protestantism made real progress at an early date and had become a powerful force by the death of Edward VI,” others asserted that very little had changed in the first half of the sixteenth century and that “the main task of protestantizing the people had to be undertaken in the reign of Elizabeth." [4] In what was surely an oversimplification, and yet a helpful one, Haigh went on to identify four sectors of the interpretive field. First, there were those scholars who saw what they believed was rapid, top-down reform. This traditional interpretation, he wrote, was best represented by G. R. Elton. In his book, Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558, and in an earlier title, the 1972 work, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell, Elton emphasized the effectiveness of Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief minister. A great statesman, Cromwell so masterminded the Henrician Reformation that by the time of the Act of Supremacy of 1534, England was closer to being a Protestant country than anything else. [5]

It was A. G. Dickens, the aforementioned author of The English Reformation, who served in Haigh’s formulation as the best representative of a second quadrant in the field. This was the place where interpreters agreed with the first group that the Reformation came quickly to England. Yet, again, scholars like Dickens identified religious sources of the rapid Reformation. Haigh noted against this view, however, that then-recently revealed evidence seemed to indicate the existence of a traditional religion in England that was not “moribund, dispirited and repressive." [6] This was a telling clue. It suggested that a newly-recovered body of evidence would open up a new future for the historiography of the English Reformation.

[1] Christopher Haigh, Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), vii-viii.

[2] Peter Marshall, “England,” in Reformation and Early Modern Europe: A Guide to Research, ed. David M. Whitford (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2008), 251.

[3] J. J. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984), vii and 1.

[4] Christopher Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation,” Historical Journal 25, no. 4 (December 1982), http://www.jstor.org/stable/2638647 (accessed February 11, 2015).

[5] G. R. Elton, Reform and Reformation (1977) and Policy and Police: Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).

[6] Haigh, “The Recent Historiography of the English Reformation,” 998.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

See Larkin Graduate!

With Michele at Larkin Davis Johnson's graduation from Texas Tech School of Law last Saturday, May 16th. We're all so proud!