Big Oil, Little Oil, Big Presbyterians, Tiny Presbyterians

Darren Dochuk’s new book, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, continues his study of American Protestantism’s financial profile. A very simple way of putting his findings is to say that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil financed mainline Protestant organizations and J. Howard Pew (and other small oilmen) sustained evangelical Protestantism. In his own words:

By the late 1940s, Howard was not only bitter about major oil’s global expansion at the cost of U.S. domestic production (and with Washington’s privileging of that trend), but also about how the Rockefellers were reshaping society with their mammoth charity. John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his sons were, by now, heading a multifaceted foundation that sought to provide humanitarianism and economic development on an international scale. In Pew’s mind, it was the Rockefellers’ brand of ecumenical, interdenominational and internationalist (“monopolistic”) Protestantism, and its prioritizing of science and structural reform over personal matters of the soul that was responsible for the nation’s secular slide. Determined to offset the Rockefellers’ modernistic gospel, in 1948 Pew helped his siblings incorporate the Pew Memorial Trust to “help meet human needs” through support of “education, social services, religion, health care and medical research,” then christened his own, the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, whose charge was even bolder: “to acquaint the American people with the values of a free market, the dangers of inflation, the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people” and “promote the recognition of the interdependence of Christianity and freedom.”

That stance in opposition to Protestant modernism and ecumenism prompted Pew to be a major backer of the neo-evangelicals (later just plain evangelicals) at institutions like Fuller, Christianity Today, Billy Graham (Inc.), and Gordon-Conwell:

the Pews rigorously protected personal liberty in theological terms. Howard continued that tradition in the Cold War years. While serving as chair of the National Lay Committee in the National Council of Churches, he agitated against the “collectivist” drift in Presbyterianism and America’s Protestant mainline.

He found another way to push back by funding pastors, seminaries and lobbies associated with “new evangelicalism,” the loosely coordinated movement that would lay the groundwork for the religious right. In one respect, new evangelicals sought simply to continue a fight against liberal “modernist” trends in American Protestantism and society that self-identified “fundamentalists” had waged in the previous half century. Thanks to the unmatched financial support of independent oilmen Lyman and Milton Stewart, the brother tandem at the helm of Union Oil Company of California (whose own hatred of the Rockefellers knew no bounds), fundamentalists had proved highly successful at constructing an alternative infrastructure of churches, missionary agencies and schools that resisted progressivism’s pull. Yet new evangelicals, unlike fundamentalists, wanted to engage rather than recoil from mainstream society—they sought to redeem it rather than run from it. The number of institutions within the new evangelical orb that would benefit from Pew’s millions would be spectacularly large, including illustrious representatives such as Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals and evangelist Billy Graham. Graham and his friends were known to lean on the “big boys” of southwestern oil for financing, among them the superrich Sid Richardson and Hugh Roy Cullen. But J. Howard Pew was the biggest backer among them.

The thing is, confessional Protestants fell between the cracks of categories like liberal and evangelical Protestants, but also sometimes drew fire from oilmen like Pew. (Machen actually preached at the union congregation in Seal Harbor, Maine, at the invitation of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the place where the Machens and Rockefellers worshiped while on vacation.)

When the OPC began, its original name was the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with “in America”). That was a bridge too far (aside from the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions) for mainline Presbyterians. In 1935 while J. Gresham Machen and other board members belonged to the PCUSA, opposition to conservatives could use ecclesiastical courts. But once Machen was convicted of breaking church law and excommunicated, the only recourse to stop his efforts was the civil courts. And so, the PCUSA brought a civil suit against the new Presbyterian communion and asked the judge to force the new communion to change its name. Here was part of the PCUSA’s reasoning (humor warning):

It is impracticable and impossible for the plaintiff church to recover in damages what it has suffered and is likely to suffer from the aforesaid acts done and threatened to be done by and on behalf of the defendant church. The plaintiff church is powerless to prevent the resulting injury to its property and enterprises, or to avoid the resulting loss in donations and financial support which may be diverted from it, which injuries are immediate, continuous and irreparable, and incapable of computation or estimate. (Bill of Complaint, reprinted in Presbyterian Guardian, Sept. 12, 1936)

To put readers’ laughter in perspective, here are some figures to keep in mind for comparison between the PCUSA and the original OPC:

At its first General Assembly the [OPC] counted only thirty-four ministers, with roughly thirty congregations and 5,000 members. Funds were so scarce that the minutes of the first five General Assemblies do not even include financial reports. No doubt the ministers themselves bore most of the expenses of the denomination and its proceedings, with help from congregations. The only mention of finances at the third General Assembly, for example in 1937, was in connection with the costs for printing the minutes and agenda, and the budget of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Printing costs were $137 and the receipts from churches and ministers were only $122, leaving a deficit of $15. Because the Committee on Home Missions was the only agency with a real budget, the delegates passed along the rest of the bill to Home Missions. But that committee was not exactly flush. Their expenses for the first year came to just short of $13,000, with receipts totaling a little more than $13,000. In fact, the Committee on Home Missions’ budget was the OPC’s denominational budget. In addition to picking up the expenses of printing the General Assembly’s minutes, the Committee also footed the bill for renting the hall where the Assembly met. Thus, by the end of its first year the OPC’s total assets, if the balance of the Committee on Home Missions’ bank account is any indication, were $221.54.

In contrast, the PCUSA’s wealth and stature were truly staggering. In their complaint against the OPC the officers of the mainline denomination listed their resources to show how much they had to lose if a new church came along with a similar name. The PCUSA had close to 9,000 congregations, with just under 2 million church members, and 9,800 ministers. The church had approximately 1,600 home missionaries with an annual budget of $2.5 million and trust funds totaling just over $33 million. The PCUSA’s efforts in foreign missions were also large. They counted 1,300 missionaries with an annual budget of $2.9 million and trust funds totaling a little more than $18 million.

The [OPC] did not even send out their first foreign missionaries until 1938 and then could only manage support for eight, a number figure that included wives. (DGH, “Why the OPC: The History behind the Name)

What does this have to do with big oil or J. Howard Pew? The first two names on the Bill of Complaint were:

THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA By (Sgd) HENRY B. MASTER, Moderator

TRUSTEES OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA By (Sgd) J. HOWARD Pew, President.

This does not mean that Pew was aiming for Machen and the OPC. He likely signed this complaint as part of his responsibilities as an elder in the PCUSA.

But, the man who funded so much of the neo-evangelical world, the friend of so-called conservative Protestants, was right there in the legal proceedings against other conservative Protestants, the ones who were the most Presbyterian of all the Protestants (minus the Covenanters, and Associate Reformed). And one reason that Pew might have favored Graham et al and not had much regard for Machen was the the latter’s understanding of the mission of the church was not going to abet the political and economic policies that Pew wanted the federal government to pursue. Graham and the neo-evangelicals, sorry Mark Galli, wanted to be evangelicalism for the nation. That earned them Pew’s support.

Machen Day (eve) 2019

Theological liberalism is one thing, political liberalism is entirely different.

“A school, institute, class or course licensed as provided In this section shall be subject to visitation by officers and employees of the university of the state of New York.” See Laws of the State of New York, 1921, Vol. III, Chapter 667, pp. 2049-2051. This law is so broadly worded that it could not possibly be enforced, even by the whole German army in its prewar efficiency or by all the espionage system of the Czar. The exact measure of enforcement is left to the discretion of officials, and the citizens are placed in constant danger of that intolerable interference with private life which real enforcement of the provision about “courses of instruction in any subjects whatever” would mean. One of the exemptions is in principle particularly bad. “Nor shall such license he required:’ the law provides. “by schools now or hereafter established and maintained by a religious denomination or sect well recognized as such at the time this section takes effect.” One can certainly rejoice that the existing churches are freed, for the time being, from the menace involved in the law. But in principle the limitation of the exemption to the existing churches really runs counter to the fundamental idea Of religious liberty; for it sets up a distinction between established religions and those that are not established. There was always tolerance for established religious bodies, even in the Roman Empire; but religious liberty consists in equal rights for religious bodies that are new. The other exemptions do not remove in the slightest the oppressive character of the law. Bad as the law must be in its immediate effects, it is far more alarming in what it reveals about the temper of the people. A people which tolerates such preposterous legislation upon the statute books is a people that has wandered far away from the principles of American liberty. True patriotism will not conceal the menace, but will rather seek to recall the citizens to those great principles for which our fathers, in America and In England, were willing to bleed and die. There are some encouraging indications that the Lusk Laws may soon be repealed. If they are repealed, they will still serve as A warning that only by constant watchfulness can liberty be preserved. (Christianity and Liberalism)

David French is to Conservatism what Tim Keller is to Presbyterianism

This is a follow up and updates this in the light of even more chatter.

Sohrab’s Ahmari’s critique of French-ism, the outlook of the evangelical attorney and Iraq War veteran, David French (not to be confused with Moby), who writes for National Review was over the top. But it did capture a problem in French’s above-it-all-I-just-follow-the-Declaration-and-Constitution self-fashioning. That is one of putting convictions into practice and forming institutions to maintain them.

French says his outlook consists of:

“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The problem is, as William F. Buckley saw when he founded National Review, that holding up the ideals of classical liberalism requires taking sides. You nominate candidates, vote in elections, and decide on laws and policy. You may believe in the Bible, by analogy, but you need to interpret it, write a creed, institute a polity, and decide who may be ordained to ecclesiastical office. Simply saying that you believe in the founding or in the Bible without taking a side politically or denominationally is to fly in a hot air balloon above the fray — except that you’re receiving a pay check from either a magazine that has for over fifty years been taking the movement conservative side of interpreting the founding or a denomination that has identified for forty years with a American conservative Presbyterian rendering of the Bible.

Both French and Keller don’t want to be partisan or extreme which is why they reach for the high-minded origins of either the U.S. or Christianity. They don’t want to fight alongside others. They may employ their own arguments either in court or as a public theologian but having the backs of others in a particular group is not the way they seem to carry it.

No Machen’s Warrior Children here.

This is why Rod Dreher sees Ahmari’s point, namely, that French positions himself above the clamor of division or controversy:

I concede that I’m more of a classical liberal than I thought I was, in that I resist a coercive political order. I am willing to tolerate certain things that I think of as morally harmful, for the greater good of maintaining liberty. Not all sins should be against the law. Again, though, there’s no clear way to know where and how to draw the line. Sohrab Ahmari uses Drag Queen Story Hour as a condensed symbol of the degrading things that contemporary liberalism forces on the public.

I am a thousand percent behind Ahmari in despising this stuff, and I am constantly mystified by how supine most American Christians are in the face of the aggressiveness of the LGBT movement and its allies, especially in Woke Capitalism. I am also a thousand percent with Ahmari in his general critique of how establishment conservatism tends to capitulate to cultural liberalism.

But French has the virtue of being virtuous, which is why Alan Jacobs sees the National Review correspondent as merely being a good Christian:

I disagree with David French about a lot of things — especially what I believe to be his sometimes uncritical support for American military action — but I admire him because he’s trying. He’s trying to “take every thought captive to Christ.” I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly. Among Christians invested in the political arena, that kind of integrity is dismayingly rare.

Hey, Dr. Jacobs! I try too. But the day I see you come alongside confessional Presbyterians and say, “they are simply trying to live out the Christian gospel” I’ll book a flight to Waco and buy you a drink.

But Jacob’s reaction is precisely the problem. To regard French’s politics as simply trying to be consistent with Christianity — aside from being a violation of two-kingdom theology — is to ignore that politics requires getting dirty and making compromises. It is not a place to pursue holiness and righteousness — though it is an occupation worthy of a vocation.

So, while David French takes his stand with Burke, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jesus (as if those add up to anything coherent), French-ism is nowhere in Matthew Continetti’s breakdown of contemporary conservatism — trigger warning for #woke and Neo-Calvinist Christians who want their politics to come from either the prophets or the apostles:

The Jacksonians, Mead said, are individualist, suspicious of federal power, distrustful of foreign entanglement, opposed to taxation but supportive of government spending on the middle class, devoted to the Second Amendment, desire recognition, valorize military service, and believe in the hero who shapes his own destiny. Jacksonians are anti-monopolistic. They oppose special privileges and offices. “There are no necessary evils in government,” Jackson wrote in his veto message in 1832. “Its evils exist only in its abuses.”

…Reform conservatism began toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the publication of Yuval Levin’s “Putting Parents First” in The Weekly Standard in 2006 and of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party in 2008. In 2009, Levin founded National Affairs, a quarterly devoted to serious examinations of public policy and political philosophy. Its aim is to nudge the Republican Party to adapt to changing social and economic conditions.

…Where the paleoconservatives distinguish themselves from the other camps is foreign policy. The paleos are noninterventionists who, all things being equal, would prefer that America radically reduce her overseas commitments. Though it’s probably not how he’d describe himself, the foremost paleo is Tucker Carlson, who offers a mix of traditional social values, suspicion of globalization, and noninterventionism every weekday on cable television.

…The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.

The post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience.

For those keeping score at home, that’s Jacksonians, Reformocons, Paleocons, and Post-Liberal conservatives. None of them are “classical liberals.” History moves on and requires people to choose.

What Jemar Ignored

Details from Presbyterian church history about race relations in the United States are not pretty. Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, for instance, saw members and officers leave when Mariano Di Gangi, predecessor to James Montgomery Boice, preached about racial prejudice, opened the church and session to African Americans, and served on the mayor’s commission on civil rights. At the time, Tenth Church was still part of the Presbyterian Church USA and did not join the Presbyterian Church in America until 1982; but that denomination had hurdles of its own to overcome. Sean Michael Lucas’s history of the PCA’s founding, For a Continuing Church (2015), includes stories of Southern Presbyterian conservatives who defended racial segregation on biblical grounds and sought ways to guard the church from important figures regarded as having erroneous understandings of racial equality.

The OPC herself debated the merits of civil rights during the 1960s in the pages of The Presbyterian Guardian that showed opposition to political reforms designed to end segregation. A black pastor in the church, Herbert Oliver, wrote an article about the positive contribution the Christian church had made to social reforms in the past and that supporting Civil Rights for African-Americans was another instance when Christians could be instruments of social change. Letters to the editor indicated that Oliver had failed to persuade some Orthodox Presbyterians. E. J. Young, for instance, wrote a letter to the editors in which he objected to both a view of egalitarianism that was clearly unbiblical and an understanding of the church’s role in society that failed to highlight the ministry of the gospel. If these instances seem inconsequential, perhaps J. Gresham Machen’s 1913 letter to his mother, strongly objecting to the integration of Princeton Seminary, will show how much ideas of white supremacy afflicted conservative Presbyterians who contemporary Orthodox Presbyterians esteem. If a black man were to take up residence in Alexander Hall, Machen wrote, he would consider moving out, which would have been “a great sacrifice to me.”

The rest of the review of The Color of Compromise.

Kuyper in the Minor Leagues with Machen

Oliver O’Donovan, a favorite political theologian of many Protestants who may not be comfortable with Stanley Hauerwas’ anti-establishmentarian outlook but also want an alternative to the Religious Right (and won’t even consider the spirituality of the church), has a review of Abraham Kuyper and the returns are not good:

Kuyper’s manner is self-consciously didactic. He seems to speak from a pulpit with a Bible in hand and a congregation to wag a finger at. He luxuriates in general social observations rounded up with peremptorily declared conclusions, which can sometimes seem very arbitrary. Exaggerated oppositions, over-­compartmentalized classifications, silence on what others are thinking or saying (except where they can be dismissed with a wave of the hand)—these are the weaknesses that belong to his communicative strategy. And most trying of all is his confidence that whatever he says is proved at the bar of Scripture, though what he finds in a text and what he makes of a text are rarely distinguishable. The paths of argument are circuitous, and what appears to be firmly settled at one point may turn out to be surprisingly open to qualification later. All that, if we will read Kuyper, we must bear with patience. But if we will let him lead us by the paths of his own choosing, and alert us to the spiritual and cultural challenges he discerns, we shall find ourselves inducted into a vision of the world that deeply impressed its first readers. The list of interesting and distinguished twentieth-century figures who confessed a debt to Kuyper’s influence speaks for itself.

Kooky but influential. Isn’t that true of Donald Trump? This may explain why Jamie Smith spends much more time interacting with O’Dovovan than Kuyper.

And for those Kuyperians who look down on Old School Presbyterianism, O’Donovan’s estimate of Kuyper is even less kind — though it suggests spirituality of the church thinkers may need to spend more time with the former Dutch Prime Minister:

While insisting that Christ’s kingship must not be spiritualized, Kuyper says that it must not be politicized, either. For while his dominion has everything to do with public cultural endeavor in science, agriculture, poetry, education, and music, it has nothing to do with civil government (paradoxically the sphere of Kuyper’s own public endeavors!). In this way, Kuyper saves the face of a Reformed tradition that assigns the civil state to God the Father’s care, the Church to the care of the Son.

Is not the idea of a heavenly “king” without political authority a bad case of “spiritualizing” (a harsher term might be “mythicizing”)? It raises problems enough for the traditional political analogies, on which much of Kuyper’s rhetoric depends. It deprives him of the use of some of the most fruitful biblical material for reflecting on authority, that of the Hebrew kings. It raises problems for his own programmatic boast that there is “not a square inch . . . over which Christ does not say ‘Mine!’” And it raises problems for Christian politics itself, ambiguously placed among the spheres of Christian service.

And that is exactly where O’Donovan needs to pay attention to Kuyper and those outside ecclesiastical establishments like the Church of England. The Hebrew kings were good — well not really — for their time but when Jesus came the Hebrew monarchy took a different form, one in which the Son of David could say with a straight face, “my kingdom is not of this world.” At the same time, the Gospels present lots of material for thinking about political authority in relation to Christ — how he interacts with government officials, with Jewish authorities, how he answers questions about political rule or instructs his disciples (like telling Peter, “put the sword away”), how he went into exile during the slaughter of the innocents, how he submitted to Roman execution, how he claims all authority in the Great Commission.

Lots of biblical material there but I am betting it does not add up to Christendom, whether the Roman or Anglican version.

Methodists for Machen

Machen may have been ahead of his time, even before Barth and Brunner:

Half a century ago it seemed to many that the Protestant theological movement usually designated as “modernism” or “liberalism” was finally being overcome and that the only liberals remaining were relics of nineteenth or early twentieth century thought. Of course, many lay persons who had been nurtured on modernism by their pastors and Sunday School curricula had not been exposed to serious critiques of liberalism by younger or more theologically enlightened pastors. Nevertheless, it seemed that the tide had turned. Despite their differences, continental European theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner were giant slayers of liberalism, and it seemed that no one with a sound knowledge of biblical theology and Christian doctrine would take seriously the nostrums of liberalism. Nor did this mean the triumph of fundamentalism, a reaction to liberalism which had begun in the United States of America. The errors of both liberalism and fundamentalism were exposed, and serious Christians were engaged in a recovery of the apostolic and catholic faith albeit according to their own heritage—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, etc.

Today it seems that many so-called mainline Protestants somehow missed the overcoming of liberalism. They consider themselves to be “progressives,” and while their terminology, themes, and concerns are not exactly the same as those of liberals a hundred years ago, progressives are direct descendants of liberals. Their self-chosen moniker of “progressive” indicates a belief in an ideology of “progress” (a predestined future of human aims by human means), which is descended from liberalism. Because of the chastening of liberal thought by the Neo-Reformation theologians like Barth, perhaps many progressives are anxious to profess their allegiance to the authority of scripture and doctrines of the church, but their profession of orthodoxy is belied by key interpretations which convert the meaning of scripture and doctrine which have been characteristic of Christianity from the beginning.

Because of a potential similarity between liberalism and progressivism, it is worthwhile to revisit some of the critiques of liberalism. One of the most famous was Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) published by Macmillan Company in 1923 when Gresham was a New Testament scholar at Princeton University. While Machen was a sophisticated scholar who published many books and articles for peer review, this book was written for the general reader. It was intended to be a manifesto against the dangers of liberalism in order to persuade clergy and laity to defend historic Christianity.

While this book is still well-known in Reformed evangelical circles, it has been largely overlooked by Protestants in mainline Protestant churches. Because Machen was a ecclesiastical activist who was an ally of fundamentalists in the battle against liberals, many Protestants assume that Machen himself was a fundamentalist. He was a conservative Reformed scholar who adhered to the theological school of thought known as the “Princeton theology,” but he was no fundamentalist. The “Princeton theology” is represented by the systematic theology of Charles Hodge and his son and the views of Benjamin Warfield who adhered to the teaching of John Calvin and who advocated for a doctrine of the ‘plenary inspiration” of the scriptures. Machen was critical of most of the features of fundamentalism, such as its millennialism and its advocacy of a few selected ideas they regarded as “fundamentals” rather than a robust adherence to the full Christian creed. While Machen adhered to a particular Reformed version of the faith, in this book he primarily defends the apostolic and catholic faith—or what C.S. Lewis would call “mere Christianity”—against liberalism. It is instructive that he book is titled Christianity & Liberalism, not “Fundamentalism & Liberalism.”

Perhaps one reason that this book has caused offense to mainline Protestants, who think of themselves as broad-minded, is because Machen contends that Christianity and liberalism are two different faiths. Some of the theologians who were roughly contemporary with Machen also strongly attacked the errors of theological liberalism, but they did not say bluntly that liberalism is contrary to Christianity. In 1907, the Scottish Reformed theologian P. T. Forsyth, in Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, viewed liberal theology, “the theology that begins with some rational canon of life or nature to which Christianity has to be cut down or enlarged,” as a kind of theology which “works against the preaching of the Gospel.” In 1936, Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, I.1, The Doctrine of the Word of God, e.g. pp. 30-36, declares that “modernism” (or what he came to denote as “Neo-Protestantism”) is a “heresy” which is based on a false foundation but which still has the “form” of Christianity. Machen drew a harder line against liberalism as being in a different category altogether from Christianity. In the first sentence of his book Machen acknowledges that he takes the approach of making a sharp distinction between Christianity and liberalism so that the reader may be aided in deciding for himself between the claims of historic Christianity and liberalism. In all great contests of thought, there is always room for contestants to draw the lines as sharply as possible. After all, the most famous American liberal preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, had already taken the same approach in his polemical speech, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”…

Correcting liberalism takes more than Barthianism.

Orthodox Presbyterian Lady

At one point in our church life the missus and I were part of a missional work whose name we might have a hand in choosing. To avoid the common and somewhat tired names such as Redeemer or Calvary, I wanted to invoke the name of saints and was thinking especially of a set of Presbyterians with the name John — Muether, Machen, Witherspoon, Knox, and Calvin. To claim their names, I wanted to use Sts. Johns Church, a name that reflected a debt to these Presbyterians and that also acknowledged the Protestant conviction of the sainthood of all believers.

Needless to say, Sts. Johns was an epic fail.

A recent sermon on 2 (two?) John reminded me of this old idea. The epistle begins with this odd construction:

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, 2 because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever

Our pastor plausibly argued that this was not an individual communication between the apostle John and a certain woman in the early church. Instead, “lady” was a word synonymous with a congregation or set of congregations in a city. (I also perked up that John referred to himself as an elder — “hey, that’s my office!”)

The last two verses of the epistle also make sense of this rendering of “lady”:

12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

13 The children of your elect sister greet you.

If John were simply writing to one person, then this would be an odd communication to reach the status of canonical writing. And if it were also about one lady, then John was apparently writing to a set of sisters akin to Jane and Cassandra Austen.

So if lady does refer to a church, then it’s time (#metoo) that we put the word to ecclesiastical use.

Machen Did Not Own Slaves

But Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Hodge and Ben Franklin did.

Philip Jenkins helps us cope:

we need to recall that prior to quite modern times – the mid-eighteenth century, say, mainly after 1770 – campaigns against slavery as an institution are sporadic, scarce, and deeply ambiguous. In the Roman world, for instance, anyone who could afford to own slaves did so without qualms. That included the holders of vast landed estates, but also quite small time people whom we might think of as lower middle class. The overwhelming majority of people who left writings that survive into later times were of the class that owned slaves, even if we can’t point to individuals and definitely assert that they did so. Among other people, that statement includes most of the prominent Christians that we know before (say) the sixth century, and most of the Fathers. If we can’t clearly show that a particular individual in that era did not own slaves, then we should assume that they did. . . .

If that statement sounds controversial, let me elaborate. Delving into Patristic literature produces quite a few sentiments that appear hostile to slave holding or the slave trade. But before reading these through the lens of Victorian-era abolitionism, we need to consider other possible interpretations. Generally, such ancient comments demand a humane and decent approach to slavery, rather than its abolition, or the construction of a slave-free society.

Early Christians advocated plenty of things that would, if implemented, have vastly improved the conditions of slaves. Very, very, few advocated the ending of slavery, or even conceived of such a world, except in an apocalyptic or messianic context. Nor do we have much idea of how widely, if at all, such specific recommendations were out into effect.

Now, we can point out here that slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world was a very different animal from what existed in the Early Modern Atlantic, and that boundaries between slave and free were much more permeable. Ancient slaves were likely to gain freedom in various ways, and had a great deal of latitude to operate on a fairly independent level. But slaves they were. Should we avoid commemorating or celebrating any ancient thinkers or writers who lived in slave societies, and who presumably participated in that slavery system? Which as I say, was basically all advanced societies in that era.

The same comment about the pervasive impact of slavery would also apply to (for instance) all Islamic societies up to very modern times, and many advanced African communities. The Prophet Muhammad often praised the virtue of liberating slaves, which he cited as an act that gave special pleasure to Allah. We should not read that as a warrant for abolitionism. If we are ever attempted to sidestep Euro-American heroes and heroines and replace them with figures from other civilizations, we would be hard put to avoid slave owners, or people who never thought to confront the slavery they saw all around them.

Either the outrage over the past just started or the outraged need to get out of the history business.

Machen Death Day 2019

I wonder if Timothy Isaiah Cho saw this (or thinks Jewish American who admire Machen are racist):

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years debating who’s a Jew, but we’ve neglected to ask the thornier question: namely, what is Judaism? It’s a question that belongs with theologians, a scholastic class that, in our tradition, is sadly more likely to focus on offering a close reading of some sacred scrap of text than on addressing the fundamental relations between the tenets of faith and the earthly soil in which they’re rooted. It’s a shame—we need this sort of inquiry more than ever now that every social-justice warrior fashions our creed into a banner under which to march into battle.

For inspiration, then, we ought to look to our Christian brothers. In 1923, American Christendom received a master class in doctrinal clarity when a perfervid Presbyterian named John Gresham Machen wrote a short book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Too many of his contemporary faithful, he argued, have come to look at their religion as a blank screen on which to project the values of progressive liberalism. They’ve come to see Christ as a metaphor, not a deity, a gentle reminder to always be good and kind because kindness and goodness were just, you know, right. They read the Bible for affirmation, not for instruction, and they were always ready to ignore its teachings if those clashed, however mildly, with modernity’s latest edicts. Liberals who could not abide by Christianity’s essential truths, Machen argued, were many wonderful things, but they were not Christians. And everyone, the fiery theologian concluded, would be better for it if they stopped pretending that their values corresponded in any but a tangential way with those of the core Christian faith.

You can imagine how well Machen and his ideas were received. Rejected and dejected, Machen quit his perch at Princeton and was soon thereafter altogether defrocked of the ministry for his refusal to compromise his beliefs. He traveled extensively to minister to the few who still supported him, and died on one of those journeys, on New Year’s Day of 1937, in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was 55. On his grave was inscribed, in Greek, the motto that captured him best: “Faithful Unto Death.” In a warm obituary several weeks later, H.L. Mencken advised his readers that the deceased “fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works.”

What fun Machen would have had, then, had he stuck around long enough to witness Judaism today and see it turned, by and large, into just such an enfeebled club. Had he walked into our shuls or read our publications, he would’ve despaired to hear so many of us speak reverentially of Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, as if it alone stood at the core of our ancient faith, or as if world-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, were anything more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect. Saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system, and that so many of us are so frequently unable to tell the difference is dispiriting.

How did we get here? It is, as you might’ve guessed, a complicated question. In part, it has to do with the fluidity of the terms we use when we talk about being Jewish. Ours, we agree, is not only a religion but also an ethnicity, a confluence that can confuse us into assuming Judaism is big enough for whatever multitude we wish it to contain. It’s not. As inviting as our tradition of dissent and divergent interpretations is, at its core, it is impossible to divorce from the concrete theological foundations on which it rests. Like divine election, for example: Whether you consider the Jews followers of a faith, members of a nation, or both, you can hardly ignore the historical and doctrinal truth that they became whatever they may now be one day long ago at the foothills of a mountain far away, when they accepted the strange burden of becoming God’s chosen children. Considered from a modern, cosmopolitan perspective, it’s an inconvenient truth, which is why you likely won’t hear it discussed very often in op-eds or sermons. Wrestling with the bond that ties us to the Creator is hard; preaching some gauzy nicety about embracing the Other is not.

Don’t get me wrong: I take no inherent issue with progressive values, nor do I believe that they’ve positively no place in Judaism. But progressive values—or conservative convictions, or libertarian streaks, or any other variety of ideological sentiments—have no place in religion unless they spring, exclusively and clearly and forcefully, from theology. Otherwise, the City of God and the City of Man become one and the same: a dull and loud place in which no spirit can ever soar.

A Stocking Stuffer?

This book may be too late to order for the date when some western Christians observe, celebrate, or get the day off for Christmas. If so, then be ecumenical and try the Eastern Orthodox Christmas, January 7, one of the few times the old Julian calendar comes in handy. The book is about the Gresham family in Macon and even has the sizzle of War Between the States references. From the publisher’s website:

Invalid teenager Leroy Wiley Gresham left a seven-volume diary spanning the years of secession and the Civil War (1860-1865). He was just 12 when he began and he died at 17, just weeks after the war ended. His remarkable account, recently published as The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865, edited by Janet E. Croon (2018), spans the gamut of life events that were of interest to a precocious and well-educated Southern teenager—including military, political, religious, social, and literary matters of the day. This alone ranks it as an important contribution to our understanding of life and times in the Old South. But it is much more than that. Chronic disease and suffering stalk the young writer, who is never told he is dying until just before his death.

Dr. Rasbach, a graduate of Johns Hopkins medical school and a practicing general surgeon with more than three decades of experience, was tasked with solving the mystery of LeRoy’s disease. Like a detective, Dr. Rasbach peels back the layers of mystery by carefully examining the medical-related entries. What were LeRoy’s symptoms? What medicines did doctors prescribe for him? What course did the disease take, month after month, year after year? The author ably explores these and other issues in I Am Perhaps Dying to conclude that the agent responsible for LeRoy’s suffering and demise turns out to be Mycobacterium tuberculosis, a tiny but lethal adversary of humanity since the beginning of recorded time.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was the deadliest disease in the world, accounting for one-third of all deaths. Even today, a quarter of the world’s population is infected with TB, and the disease remains one of the top ten causes of death, claiming 1.7 million lives annually, mostly in poor and underdeveloped countries.

While the young man was detailing the decline and fall of the Old South, he was also chronicling his own horrific demise from spinal TB. These five years of detailed entries make LeRoy’s diary an exceedingly rare (and perhaps unique) account from a nineteenth century TB patient. LeRoy’s diary offers an inside look at a fateful journey that robbed an energetic and likeable young man of his youth and life. I Am Perhaps Dying adds considerably to the medical literature by increasing our understanding of how tuberculosis attacked a young body over time, how it was treated in the middle nineteenth century, and the effectiveness of those treatments.

#woke beware.