That Feeling when Academic Historians Get Ordained to the Ministry

That Feeling when Academic Historians Get Ordained to the Ministry July 2, 2019

These reflections come in the context of finishing a manuscript on the spiritual life of Benjamin Franklin. Of all the debates that surround the Christian character of the American Founding and the faith of the nation’s original statesmen, most academics have little trouble disposing of Franklin within the ranks of the faithful. The Bostonian who grew up in New England Puritanism and then relocated to Philadelphia and went through a Deist phase, married an Anglican woman and made his peace with organized religion by living and moving and having his being on the margins of colonial Protestantism. Franklin’s early Deistical writings, siring an illegitimate son, and a string of flirtatious relationships with women not his wife are not the stuff of genuine Protestant conviction for most historians. Not even Franklin’s proposal for a prayer at the Constitutional Convention — sort of a hail Mary pass for divine assistance during a stormy session of debate — could turn him into evidence for American’s Christian founding.

I understand this and hope to explain the nooks and crannies of Franklin’s place among colonial British Protestants.

What I wonder about is the ease with which historians (and even preachers) can conclude that Franklin was not fit for inclusion in a Christian communion but then turn around and classify other figures from the past, without the slightest hesitation, as genuinely Christian.

Not to pick on him (I did read his posts while wrapping up my conclusion of Franklin), but James Bratt gave examples precisely of what I have described — even with Franklin in view. In one post, Bratt described going to Easter services at Christ Church, Philadelphia, the Anglican parish where the Franklin family attended when the did worship:

It was an unusual Easter sermon, to say the least. At least unusual for this well-trained CRC boy. We were worshiping at Christ Church in the old center of Philadelphia, a venerable Episcopal parish founded in 1695 and claiming all sorts of historic figures on its rolls. Many of these were Christians. Others were, well, like Ben Franklin. So maybe an Easter sermon off the well-worn West Michigan path was to be expected. I didn’t expect, however, that it would culminate with Marian Anderson.

Notice, there went Franklin with those names in the category “other” than Christian.

But not so for Marian Anderson, the famous African-American vocalist from Philadelphia, who was the subject (in part) for the homily Bratt heard:

But first, how did her story become central to an Easter sermon? Well, as the good rector said in an effective connection to his congregation, Marian Anderson’s is a Philadelphia story. She was born and reared in South Philly to a family one generation removed from slavery. She discovered her talent at Union Baptist Church there, and she persevered in developing it against racist policies in the local schools and conservatories. With any number of black jazz and classical musicians, she finally had to go to Europe to get the audience and make the living that she deserved. For her belated coming-out party at the Lincoln Memorial she faced logistical difficulties due to segregated transportation and lodging facilities. Even had the DAR allowed her to sing at Constitution Hall, she would not have been allowed to use the restroom there, it being designated for whites, and city law at the time prohibiting mixed-use bathrooms. Which kinda rings a bell, right, North Carolina?

Ok, a moving Philadelphia story, but what’s the connection to Easter? The sermon got around to that at the very end. Maybe that’s effective homiletics, maybe not—I’ll leave it to Twelver Scott Hoezee and other experts in the field to weigh in on that. Marian Anderson, the pastor said, was living out of something hoped for, by the conviction of something not yet seen. That is, she was living by faith (Heb 11:1) along with all the other saints of that chapter.

That’s an agreeable rendering but even Anderson herself in her autobiography conceded that although she was on good terms with God she was not active in church.

So what makes it easy to turn Ben down for inclusion in Christianity but let Marian in?

Bratt engaged in a similar assessment a few weeks later when he posted about FDR:

Roosevelt was a loyal birthright Episcopalian, low-church in liturgy, undemanding in theology, but vigorous in the social ethics of the Gospel. Start to finish, he believed that the universe was in the hands of a good God who has instituted a moral order for human flourishing, and who calls us to advance that order and flourishing as we are able. His was a “very simple faith,” his wife Eleanor observed; yet his confidant and speechwriter Robert Sherwood judged that “his religious faith was the strongest and most mysterious force in him.”

So far, FDR sounds a lot like Ben Franklin in his prime.

But then:

the key turning point in Roosevelt’s life—also in his spiritual life—came when he was paralyzed by polio (some now say Guillain–Barré syndrome) at age 39. Up to this point everything in life had come so easily for him that he struck many as just a glib son of privilege. His paralysis cast him into deep darkness, and upon his deepest resources. Roosevelt emerged with a more tested faith, with a greater sense of dependence on others, and with a greater sense of gratitude and empathy. He invested much of his personal fortune into making Warm Springs, Georgia the site of a premier facility for the treatment of paralysis, emphasizing the emotional and human-relational as well as physical aspects of the process. He roved the Georgia countryside in a customized automobile and got to know poor dirt farmers as he never would have otherwise. Put simply, his disease turned FDR into a mensch of ready compassion which his political genius could then turn into public policy.

Bratt concludes:

Religion comes in many shapes and sizes. Perhaps we can best judge its quality exactly as Jesus prescribed: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Okay, then why not Ben?

Does it come down to the personal preferences of a historian or priest? Those characters we admire we want to include in the Christian camp? Those less estimable we don’t mind leaving outside that camp?

Even more poignant is the question of what allows academics, people who are supposed to be somewhat impartial and very scholarly, to identify with a religious tradition sufficiently to judge who qualifies as a genuine adherent of that religion. Isn’t that something, even if you are a Christian scholar, you leave to those whose pay grade (or ordination) it is to make that judgment?


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