By / Apr 7

When describing the relationship between the church and state, I often turn to the great language of John Leland: “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has to do with the principles of mathematics.” The quote is a reminder that the government has no authority to intervene in the religious opinions of citizens, just as it cannot dictate the rules of algebra or calculus. Leland was a relentless advocate for religious liberty, dedicating his life to the protection of this first liberty. He was also an eccentric figure, providing a massive ball of cheese to President Jefferson upon his inauguration, for example. Eric Smith, in the first biography of Leland titled John Leland: A Jeffersonian Baptist in Early America, gives us a window into the world and life of a man, in all his complexity, who spent his life defending the rights of all to live in accordance with their consciences. Smith recently joined us to talk about this new biography of this eccentric early Baptist leader.

Alex Ward: John Leland (1754–1841) lived across an incredibly dynamic period of American history. You point out that he could remember the coronation of King George III of England as well as the election of William Henry Harrison as the ninth president of the United States. He also would have grown up in the environment shaped by the First Great Awakening and lived to see Charles Finney’s revivalism of the Second. How did this affect Leland?

Eric Smith: Leland spent over 60 years in public life, in an era of unprecedented change in American culture. As an old man, he came to think of himself as a kind of Rip Van Winkle: had he fallen asleep before the Revolution, and then awakened in the 1840s to the age of steam trains and American political parties, he would not have recognized the same world! 

Leland’s long and eventful life intersected so many of the important changes that swept America from 1760–1840: the rise of popular, revivalistic religion; the disestablishment of religion in America and progress of religious freedom for all people; the increasing individualization of American society; the growth and sophistication of Baptist Christianity; the emergence of a popular political culture and the participation of evangelicals in partisan politics; the decline and modification of Calvinistic theology in America; the complicated journey of evangelicals and slavery; the rise of voluntary evangelical alliances to influence American politics and culture, and more. 

Leland celebrated many of these changes; others he fought kicking and screaming. In either case, his biography provides a unique vantage point from which to view the transformation of early America.  

AW: The word that so often comes to mind reading your biography to describe Leland is “individualistic.” He was a man who was led by his conscience and would not allow for another’s authority over him, even to the point of balking at ordination requirements in the Baptist church. Beyond just a strong personality, what led to his deep sense of individualism?

ES: Leland’s individualism defined his life, motivating his legendary efforts for religious freedom, as well as his more eccentric practices. He not only resisted the state-established church, but also ordination, settled pastorates, the use of historic creeds, denominational life, and even the Lord’s Supper. Without a doubt, Leland’s own, quirky personality lay behind much of this. But he also found his individualistic inclinations confirmed in his private reading of the New Testament, where God saves, leads, and judges men and women as individuals. If God called men to account as individuals on the last day, Leland reasoned, then each man and woman had the responsibility, and should be granted the freedom, to prepare for that encounter as best he or she knew how. 

The greatest historical factor in Leland’s individualism is the radical revivalism of the Great Awakening, which he imbibed from an early age in the “New Light” hotbed of Grafton, Massachusetts. Along with many of his neighbors in the 1760s, Leland exchanged the traditional, church-centered piety of Puritan Congregationalism for a highly individualistic brand of new birth religion. Along with the paramount experience of the new birth, Leland’s New Light spirituality involved the individual’s direct communication with God through charismatic phenomena, such as dreams, visions, “Bible impulses,” and prophetic premonitions.  

AW: When you describe Leland’s definition of religious liberty, you say that he “spoke fluently the revolutionary language of liberty, albeit with a Baptist accent.” How did these two strands work together in Leland’s thought? 

ES: Leland lived the majority of his life in Massachusetts, but spent his most formative, young-adult years in revolutionary Virginia. There, from 1776–1790, Leland absorbed and engaged with the religious freedom arguments of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Neither man could be considered a traditional, orthodox Christian. But both Madison and Jefferson maintained that the state and religion both flourished when individuals were left free to believe (or disbelieve) according to their own consciences. Leland would frequently quote and allude to the arguments of the Virginia statement for the rest of his life. 

But Leland also saw many New Testament principles at work in their reasoning. The individual’s responsibility before God at judgment; the theological distinction between the church and the state under the New Covenant; the necessity of a personal, supernatural conversion to be made right with God; and the inherent power of the gospel to change hearts all compelled Leland to argue for a policy of full religious freedom for all. After Leland returned to his native Massachusetts in 1791, he utilized a powerful combination of biblical and Jeffersonian arguments to contend for disestablishment and full religious freedom, in sermons, speeches, tracts, editorials, and in a brief term in the Massachusetts state legislature. 

AW: Leland was not the only prominent Baptist advocate of religious liberty at this time. Isaac Backus, though a generation older, was an important figure for New England Baptists in their struggle against the Congregationalist state church. How were these two Baptists similar, and how did they differ when it came to church-state relations? Did the views of one or the other “win” in the Baptist tradition?  

ES: Backus had been the leading Baptist religious liberty spokesman for several decades when Leland came along, and the two men collaborated with and appreciated one another. But while Backus fought religious discrimination and compulsory religious taxes, he also believed that the state should promote religion in a general way. Leland spoke forcefully of “disentangling” or “divorcing” the church and the state, while Backus favored what he termed a “sweet harmony” between the two. For example, Backus had no trouble reading government-appointed fast day proclamations from his pulpit and did not object to the requirement of general religious test-oaths for state office-holders. 

Leland, more influenced by Jefferson and Madison, believed such “entanglements” of church and state ultimately damaged both. Church-state unions harmed the state by violating the consciences of law-abiding citizens, creating a frustrated and unstable populous. Church-state unions corrupted the church by filling it with nominal Christians who had not truly been converted. Leland thus drew a stricter line of separation between the church and the state than did Backus. They made common cause in the fight for disestablishment, but after this goal was achieved, the tension between their two positions became more apparent among American Baptists. Generally speaking, Backus’s view won out among mainstream Baptist leaders in New England and more urban areas, while Leland’s view held sway in more rural and frontier regions of early America. 

AW: How do we reconcile Leland’s strict separation between church and state and his willingness to baptize the argument of Jefferson and Madison, stump for political parties, and also preach before Congress? Is there a contradiction there for Leland? 

ES: Jefferson coined the famous phrase, “a wall of separation between church and state,” in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, on the same day that Leland delivered the famous “mammoth cheese” to Jefferson at the White House. Yet it is interesting to note that neither Leland nor his fellow New England Baptists utilized Jefferson’s “wall” metaphor. Precisely what Jefferson meant by this image remains debated: did he intend to create a radically secular public square, or did he envision a more “neighborly wall,” in which religion was safe to flourish beyond the reach of government meddling? 

Whatever Jefferson intended, Leland clearly favored the latter vision. He labored to distinguish the church and the state, and to “dissolve any unnatural connection” between the two, so that both could prosper in America. The government’s role was to protect the basic rights of all its citizens, regardless of their personal convictions. This meant refusing to privilege or “establish” any particular church. It also meant preserving citizens’ rights to the “free exercise” of religion. Citizens should be allowed to not only practice their personally-held beliefs, but to try and persuade (not coerce) their neighbors of the same. Leland believed that if the state would simply preserve these freedoms, the gospel would triumph over all rival belief systems of its own power.  

AW: Leland is probably best remembered for his religious liberty advocacy. But he was not restricted to that issue. One way he is often portrayed, incorrectly you argue in the book, is as a proto-abolitionist. Is that a fair depiction of him over the course of his life? How did his views change?

ES: Like many evangelicals over this period, Leland took a journey regarding slavery. In the 1780s, he ministered to slaves in the “Great Revival,” when thousands of black Virginians poured into Baptist churches. In the wake of this revival, Leland and other Virginia Baptists began to publicly denounce the evils of slavery, and called for its eventual eradication. Leland’s powerful arguments stirred the wealthy planter Robert Carter to liberate over 400 of his own slaves. 

While this is remarkable, it is also important to note that Leland was more “anti-slavery” than “abolitionist.” Rather than calling for an immediate end to the institution (as abolitionists in the 1830s would), he acknowledged the complexity of emancipation and urged Virginia legislators to find a solution “consistent with good policy” as soon as possible. After leaving Virginia in the early 1790s, Leland said little about slavery, and his Virginia Baptist colleagues also pulled back from the issue. As Leland identified more closely with the Jacksonian Democrats, he shared President Jackson’s criticisms of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. In the end, there existed little difference between Leland’s position and that of his political hero, Thomas Jefferson (who also lamented slavery, but offered no solutions).

AW: Recent polling has shown a sharp decrease in religious attendance and identification, especially among Gen Z. Out of this fractured sense of shared moral consensus, an ever-increasing competition of voices in the public square are seeking to define what is good for culture and society. What does Leland have to offer for modern Christians, and particularly Baptists, in how he interacted with the culture around him? 

ES: Leland is best remembered for a handful of splashy historical episodes, like his delivery of a 1200-plus-pound wheel of cheese to Thomas Jefferson, or his purported negotiations with James Madison to include a Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. But Leland was first and foremost an evangelist. He spent the majority of his life preaching the gospel up and down the Atlantic coast as an itinerant revivalist and was proudest of the 1,524 converted individuals he led into the waters of baptism. 

Leland engaged in politics largely to ensure that Americans would enjoy the freedom to preach and to respond to this gospel. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not want the state’s assistance in establishing churches; he also did not fear the changes in American society, or the diversification of the American population. To the end of his life, Leland maintained that if the gospel is simply turned loose in a free marketplace of ideas, it will prove itself compelling, time and time again. I think Leland encourages us to spend less time wringing our hands over the state of the culture, and more time sharing the gospel with confidence in its power to change hearts. 

AW: What stands out to you as the most important factor of Leland’s life for modern Christians? Are there any ways that we can especially learn from this unique and idiosyncratic preacher? 

ES: Leland is not a perfect model, and he knew it. He liked to say that, “Christ did not trust his cause to the goodness of his followers, but rested it on his own shoulders.” But we can learn from both the strengths and the weaknesses of historic Christians. As for his foibles, Leland’s hyper-individualism led him to devalue the role of the church in the believer’s life. I find this to be a most relevant warning for modern American Christians. 

Yet there is also so much to admire about Leland. He was a courageous, passionate, single-minded preacher of the gospel. As an itinerant evangelist, he repeatedly sacrificed his own comfort and safety to tell early Americans about the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ. He stood out from many of his contemporaries in his ability to communicate the good news to ordinary people in an accessible and engaging manner. He also never forgot that he needed the gospel as much as any of his listeners. “Let the preacher view himself as a brother-sinner to his hearers,” Leland advised, “and view sin as a great misfortune, as well as a crime; and, out of pity and love, persuade, and pray the sinner to be reconciled to God, if he wishes to do him good.”

By / Sep 28

When news from the Middle East and Near East regions of the world begin to fill my screen, there’s one reporter that I want to read: Mindy Belz. 

I’ve known about her work as an editor and war correspondent with WORLD magazine for over 15 years, but her 2016 book, They Say We Are Infidels, was instrumental in shaping the way I understand this part of the world, revealing its rich Christian history. Her relationships with international churches and believers have provided her decades of insight into these predominantly Muslim parts of the world. 

As Christians in the West consider today’s international crises, as well as reflect on the impact of 9/11 20 years ago, Belz shines a light on both the histories and cultures of these far-off nations, shares her reasons for going into hard places, and points us to the eternal things that should guide our lives.

Jill Waggoner: Can you help us zoom out and understand the cultural landscape of the Middle East and the significance of Afghanistan?

Mindy Belz: Afghanistan commonly gets lumped into the Middle East because of the wars after 9/11, but it’s technically considered part of the wider Near East or Central Asia. That’s important, because Afghanistan is somewhat of a bridge. It has a lot of the Islamic elements that have bedeviled the United States and the Middle East (in Lebanon with Hamas and Iraq with al-Qaida and ISIS). But it also has this history of being under the thumb of the Soviet Union. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and subsequent occupation set the stage for the American engagement there. It began as a Cold War engagement, and then it moved into what we know today, an engagement over terrorism that had its base in Afghanistan. That history is significant to how it came onto the American radar, but of course, 9/11 propelled it there to stay. 

I traveled to Sudan in 1998, 1999, and in June of 2001. Sudan was engaged in this war that pitted Christians in the South versus Muslims in the North. It was a precursor to what we would see after 9/11. Christians have been like a footnote in these conflicts, and yet, to me, they were an important piece because what Christians experience is often a precursor to what the entire population is going to face. When we look at the war that was happening in Sudan in the 1990s, we see this dramatic and atrocious conflict between a jihadist government in the North and the Christian population in the South. That set a pattern for what we saw repeated in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, where this concept of “conquering infidels” came into play with really deadly force. 

JW: How did 9/11 change U.S. engagement in this region of the world?

MB: It had been a Cold War engagement up until that point, very much based on our national interests in keeping dominance over the Soviet Union, Russia, and its breakaway republics after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 9/11 changed it dramatically because then it became about U.S. survival. It was an attack on the U.S. homeland. Nothing like that had happened in modern memory. It was no longer war at a remove; it was war up close. 

Significantly, that moment built on the Cold War alliances. NATO, within days after 9/11, invoked Article 5. This was the first time in its history, putting NATO on a war footing in support of the United States. Among the victims of 9/11, there were more than 90 nations represented. We had tremendous international support for our response to it.  

JW: How would you help a younger audience think about 9/11?

MB: 9/11 is possibly the largest event of the century and certainly one of the landmark moments in U.S. history. 

It is important to go beyond the headlines and the 10-minute recap you see on the news. You can visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum site or go to the museum and see the names. It’s such a powerful reminder of the ordinariness of the people who died. They had no intention of stepping into a war zone when they were going to work that day. I would encourage anyone to read some of the original sources on the 9/11 Museum site. Find the 911 calls on YouTube. Not everyone wants to go down that road, but I think it’s valuable to get a real sense of what people went through.

It is also important to generally appreciate what the terrorists’ goals were. I’ve had the 9/11 Commission Report on my shelf at the ready for years. It is a thick book, but mine is so well thumbed now. Parts of it read like a novel. It helps you understand all the players and what was happening from the FBI, CIA, and military standpoint. You understand what was happening in Washington and New York. It describes what ​​al-Qaida was planning and the hijackers’ stories leading up to that day. Original sources are what we have to rely on, especially as we see misinformation surface. 

I’ve [also] really enjoyed reading about the millennials whose whole generation has been shaped by how our country changed after 9/11. I have much encouragement and hope as I see how many of my children’s peers committed themselves to military service or aide or nongovernmental organizations. When I covered the refugee crisis, I saw many 20- and 30-somethings that dropped everything to help these refugees coming across the Mediterranean. That defines the generation to me. I have great hope because of how this generation has been shaped by really sobering, hard events. 

JW: How would you encourage the Western church to think about and understand the Christian church in the Middle and Near Eastern parts of the world?

MB: I went to Iraq to cover the war early on and discovered the Christians along the way. There was this rich history there outside of what many think of as the Holy Land. I was going in churches that were built in the 300s. Their liturgy was in Aramaic. They were holding on to traditions because they were precious to them, not because they were following rote tradition. Everywhere I went, I was having my own presuppositions exploded. 

I met people whose resilience drew me to them. They had a patience about the Christian conflict with Islam and a determination about it that seemed to be lacking in the American public. The U.S. eventually wanted to turn away from the conflict and commitments in Iraq, as we are seeing now in Afghanistan. One of the reasons these wars have ended in such disarray and with such tragic consequences is that we never engaged them on the terms in which we said we were. We failed to understand that this is an age-old conflict. We failed to look at the really good examples of how people from outside of Islam have engaged with Islam.

On my journeys, I [saw] great examples of people coexisting and also being great witnesses, and in some cases being martyrs. The Old English definition of a martyr is a witness. They were being martyrs on a daily basis, and sometimes with their own lives, in order to stand and to give testimony to the Muslims that they lived alongside. 

JW: Recently, my 10 year-old son got in my car as I was listening to the news. He asked what it was, and I told him. As I turned it off he said, ‘Why are you listening to that? Aren’t bad things happening?’ I wondered how you would answer that question. In a world where ‘bad things’ are happening, why should we pay attention?

MB: Because the love of Christ compels us to. We can all have a sense of discouragement and helplessness in the face of any days’ bad news, but we know Christ came to enter into bad news, bringing life and the good news of the gospel. 

Our life in the United States gives us so much material comfort and grace that we lose sight of the consummation of all things. We might be tempted to think that the consummation is like our day to day: the sun shining, peace with our neighbors, a grocery store nearby. Our current reality dulls our sense that there is a future — where Christ is reigning and has reconciled all things under his feet — that is beyond what we can imagine right now. We can be tempted to lose sight of that chapter of the gospel narrative. I have a sense that the Christians who went before me had a much clearer view of what is to come that compelled them through the hard things of any day. 

JW: Many people have had trauma in the last two years. I imagine that your journeys have allowed you to see things that I’ve never seen, creating difficulties for you on a personal level that might extend beyond the experience. Do you have a personal word for those who are dealing with trauma? 

MB: It is definitely a real thing and something that I’ve struggled with from time to time. I have faced life and death moments. Because I’m still here after those moments, I can say they propel us to the feet of Christ and into the arms of God. 

Sometimes I dread going into a place where there’s a lot that’s unknown. There also have been times where I felt like I knew the situation, but when I was walking down the street, I could feel the tension and feel how much things had changed. This happened to me in 2019 in Syria, and I knew I was not in a safe place. Within 30 minutes, a bomb went off right across the street from me. I’ve been in moments where all I know to do is pray and trust that God has me where he wants me. That might be a place of death or a place of witness — seeing something that’s really, really hard. 

I come back to this fraternity that we have with Jesus. In those moments, we see in a new way what he endured, and what he was willing to endure, for us. We also see our own weaknesses and shortcomings. We’re brought face to face with the fact that we’re not Jesus. We quake and have fear and sometimes we run away, and that’s okay to do. 

The only way I know to process those things is in community. The community that I have with my husband, first of all, is the only reason that I have been able to continue this work — his support, patience, and willingness to hear the things [I’ve experienced]. Also, I process with my church community, pastors, and friends who are good counselors. We have to process these things in community, but we also have to process them as a way of recognizing our weakness and the profound sacrifice that Jesus made. 

By / Apr 27

Editor’s note: John Stott would have turned 100 this year. And to celebrate his life and legacy, we wanted to share this article about Stott’s life from Tim Chester’s book Stott on the Christian Life.

1. Stott had multiple careers.

I wonder who you think John Stott is. You may know him as the evangelist who preached at student missions around the world. You may know him as a careful exegete whose contributions to the Bible Speaks Today series remain invaluable guides. You may know him from his preaching and the way he let the text itself shape the sermon so that you felt God himself addressing you. You may know him as a defender of evangelical orthodoxy against the threat of liberal theology. You may know him for his commitment to the Church of England and his famous confrontation with Martyn Lloyd-Jones after Lloyd-Jones had urged British evangelicals to leave their denominations to create a pan-evangelical body. You may know him as an advocate of social involvement who exhorted Christians to serve within the secular world. You may know him as a supporter of Christians leaders from the Two-Thirds World and the founder of the Langham Partnership. But did you know about all these facets of his ministry? It can sometimes feel as if Stott lived a dozen lives.

2. The main influence on Stott’s preaching was someone he never met.

The culture into which Stott was converted was one where preaching was only loosely related to the Bible. Yet a few years later, his preaching was electrifying congregations with sermons that gained their power from the text itself. Stott had spent the intervening years at university in Cambridge, and I believe it was a Cambridge preacher who transformed his preaching: Charles Simeon, the vicar of Holy Trinity. But Stott never met Simeon because Simeon was preaching in the 19th century—a century before Stott went to Cambridge. Stott met Simeon only through Simeon’s writings. “Simeon’s uncompromising commitment to Scripture,” Stott once wrote, “captured my imagination and has held it ever since.” In his London apartment Stott had various pictures on his wall of some of the places that had been significant in his life, but he had only one portrait—a portrait of Simeon.

3. Stott belonged to only one congregation.

Stott’s father was a doctor and lived in Harley Street, the area of London traditionally associated with the medical profession. The nearest parish church was All Souls, Langham Place, and it was there that Stott was taken as child. Stott spent his school days at boarding school and it was at Rugby School that he was converted. After graduating from Cambridge University, he was ordained and became a curate, or trainee pastor, back at All Souls under the then-rector Harold Earnshaw-Smith. But within months, Earnshaw-Smith had suffered a heart attack and Stott was largely left in charge. Five years later Earnshaw-Smith died and in September 1950, Stott became the new rector. Though not entirely without precedent, it was unusual for a curate to move straight to the senior role in the same parish. Stott remained at All Souls as Rector and then Rector Emeritus for the rest of his ministry. Only in the last few months of his life did he move to a retirement home outside London.

4. Stott was a successful student evangelist.

In November 1952, Stott returned to Cambridge, the university where he had studied, to be the main speaker at the triennial evangelistic campaign of its Christian union. Attendance was so great that at the final meeting, people had to be turned away. For the next twenty-five years, Stott spoke at numerous university missions all round the world before returning to Cambridge for his final university mission in 1977. The substance of his addresses, honed in many different contexts, became his book Basic Christianity, first published in 1958. It has sold over 2.5 million copies and been translated into over fifty languages, becoming the standard evangelistic book for a generation of Christians.

5. Stott was a pioneer in lay mobilization.

It’s pretty normal for churches today to organize people into home groups and mobilize them for evangelism. But Stott was one of the pioneers of this. In the 1950s and 1960s he began applying the approaches he had learned from student missions to the local church. In the 1950 issue of the All Souls church magazine that announced his appointment, Stott wrote: “The task [of evangelism] is beyond the power of the clergy. . . . There are only two alternatives. Either the task will not be done, or we must do it together, a task force of Ministers and people thoroughly trained and harnessed as a team for evangelism.” Stott introduced a regular guest service to which people could invite friends and launched a six-month training program (with a written exam at the end). Later he published his ideas along with their rationale in his book One People: Clergy and Laity in God’s Church (1969).

6. Stott was a major influence in changing evangelical views of sanctification.

I’m the chair of the Keswick Convention. Originally founded in 1875, it’s one of the oldest conferences in the world. People often associate the Convention with the “holiness movement”—a movement characterized by the belief that the power of sin can be overcome through an act of surrender to God. It was a dominant view throughout evangelicalism in the first half of the 20th century. This association of the Keswick Convention with the “holiness movement” is kind of correct. It’s just fifty-five years out of date! For in 1965, John Stott addressed the Convention, expounding Romans 5-8 in his characteristic clear, careful fashion. 

The Convention had never, in fact, been monolithic and it was beginning to change. But Stott’s address marked a decisive turning point that impacted not only the Convention but evangelicalism more broadly. His key point was that, while our union with Christ makes sin incongruous, it does not make it impossible. It’s because sin is not impossible that Paul calls on us to count ourselves dead to sin—to live in a way consistent with our new identity in Christ (Romans 6:11). In The Contemporary Christian Stott describes sanctification as a process involving “ruthless repudiation” and “unconditional surrender.”

7. Stott wrote the Lausanne Covenant.

Over 2,500 delegates met from the Lausanne Congress in 1974 in an attempt galvanize evangelicals toward the task of world evangelization. But Lausanne also did much to provide theological coherence to the evangelical movement and was an important milestone in placing social action firmly on its agenda. The resulting Lausanne Covenant is a key document in the history of 20th-century evangelicalism. Though agreed by the Congress as a whole, it was Stott who had the unenviable task of bringing the perspectives expressed in the Congress together in one document.

8. On the one hand . . . on the other hand . . .

Stott believed in what he called “BBC”—“balanced biblical Christianity.” He refused to polarize if he could avoid doing so, but neither did he opt for a docile version of the middle ground. We need to develop this balanced, biblical Christianity, Stott wrote, “by combining truths which complement one another and not separating what God has joined.” So a common feature of his writing are the twins phrases: “On the one hand . . . ” and “on the other hand . . .”. He would identify two contrasting approaches before combining the best of both. 

For example, he would often refer to “holy worldliness.” He rejected two extremes: living in a religious ghetto that ignores the surrounding world on the one hand and being shaped by the world around us on the other hand. Instead he combines both: a deep involvement in the world for the sake of mission combined with an uncompromising commitment to God’s Word.

9. Stott saw over 2,500 different species of birds.

Stott was a passionate ornithologist. At first his interest in natural history was focused on butterflies. But, when a cushion landed on his butterfly collection in the midst of a sibling squabble, he switched to birds. At school he started a natural history club. Later, when he started being asked to speak overseas, the church council at All Souls agreed to this wider ministry as long as Stott always added on a few days of bird-watching to his trips. A life-time later, Stott had spent time bird-watching on every continent—ticking off the final continent when friends gave a bird-watching trip to Antarctica for his 70th birthday. By the end of his life he had seen over 2,500 different species (out of an estimated total of 9,000).

10. Stott’s great ambition was Christ.

A TV reporter once asked Stott, “You’ve had a brilliant academic career; first at Cambridge, Rector at twenty-nine, Chaplain to the Queen; what is your ambition now?” Stott replied, “To be more like Jesus.” Stott’s classic presentation of the gospel in Basic Christianity starts not with humanity’s need (which forms part 2) or with Christ’s saving work (which forms part 3) but with the person of Christ. This is what Stott found compelling about Christianity. As we see Christ’s glory, we want to serve him; as we see his beauty, we want to imitate him. This is the repeated refrain of one of Stott’s final books, The Radical Disciple

If Christian maturity is maturity in our relationship with God, in which we worship, trust and obey him, then the clearer our vision of Christ, the more convinced we become that he is worthy of our commitment.

So if we want to develop truly Christian maturity, we need above all a fresh and true vision of Jesus Christ.

If only we could see Jesus in the fullness of who he is and what he has done! Why then surely we should see how worthy he is of our wholehearted allegiance, and faith, love and obedience would be drawn out from us and we would grow into maturity. Nothing is more important for mature Christian discipleship than a fresh, clear, true vision of the authentic Jesus.

For the discipleship principle is clear: the poorer our vision of Christ, the poorer out discipleship will be, whereas the richer our vision of Christ, the richer our discipleship will be.


Content adapted from Stott on the Christian Life by Tim Chester. This article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.

By / Apr 15

If you were a child of the evangelical 1980s and 90s, you likely saw a VHS tape containing a morality tale. Whether it was McGee and Me, Quiggly’s Village, or a plunger-headed cucumber fighting rumor weeds and fibs from outer space, you were told tales of the dangers of lying, envy, and other numerous sins with the help of cartoons, puppets, and animated vegetables.

I don’t remember all the plot lines of such shows, but I do have vivid memories of great tragedy befalling the protagonists when they committed various vices that spun out of control.

While there’s a place for discussing the merits and drawbacks of such entertainment, the aim of cultivating virtue—and warning against vice—is very appropriate. It smacks of the philosophy of the Proverbs. You might say Proverbs was written, among other things, as a warning to young people against vices. The sage tells the young man to avoid joining gangs for a false sense of belonging. Wisdom creates a hedge for the youth against the deadly allure of illicit sex.

Now this is important. Stories cultivate moral sensibility. In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior makes this case deftly: when we read books well, we practice moral judgments and further develop our own moral convictions. Stories reduced to mere morality tales are not good literature, but all narratives when told truthfully will develop our understanding of virtue.

How much more does history, when told truthfully, serve us—and our kids—with the formation of virtue.

History is full of women and men who exhibit virtue. And unlike morality tales, these history-shaping men and women live in a very real world, a world like our own. To quote Voltaire, “History doesn’t repeat itself. Man always does.”1Quoted without source attribution in Barabara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), xiv. No matter what era we study, we are still gripped by our shared imago Dei. Our humanity connects us with figures across history. Indeed, humanity gives us access to models of virtue, and examples of vice.

For every virtue has at either extreme a vice. If the path of virtue is a road, then on each side is a ditch. Virtue is about staying on the road, and not walking into either ditch. If virtue is about keeping to the center, vice is found in among the cattails.

Arius’ overgrown ambition

History has many figures among the cattails. One of them was a man named Arius, and there are three things you should know about him:

First, he was handsome, gifted, and a golden-tongued teacher. He was an influencer. If Twitter was a thing back in 300 A.D., Arius would have had the blue check.

Second, Arius is an example of the failure of temperance. Arius served under Alexander, the man who held office as the bishop of Alexandria, arguably the most important church office in the ancient world at the time. Arius wanted that office, and his ambitions birthed in him a jealousy that eventually overtook him.

Third, in his jealousy, Arius began making up lies about Alexander. And then things got really out of hand. Consider gathering your kids in the family room, or my favorite—around the campfire—and telling them this tale: 

The young jealous Arius dug up an old heresy, one we now call modalism, and he accused Alexander of denying that God is one in three persons. Alexander tried to reason with Arius. This first charge was an easy charge for Alexander to defend, but Arius’ jealousy carried him to the next phase, and the rumor weeds grew. 

Next, Arius stirred up other bishops and the people. Arius began to explicitly teach that Jesus was not God from eternity. He famously said, “There was a time when the Son was not,” effectively denying Christ’s full deity and saying the Son was a created being. Then, Arius went even further and said that the Spirit was not God.

And as if this wasn’t enough, Arius worked hard to recruit allies to his cause. He used his gifts to gather around himself a group that aligned with Arius’s innovative teaching. To complicate matters, all this took place during the rule of Constantine, the newly converted Christian emperor. Constantine had hoped to use Christianity to reunite the faltering Roman empire. The last thing Constantine wanted was for his Church to split over what he saw as a petty theological issue. 

So what began with Arius’ unbridled ambition and jealousy grew into an enormous political controversy. Constantine called a meeting, inviting 1,800 bishops from across the empire, representatives from the Christian East and West. 

The meeting took place in modern day Iznik, Turkey, a city that was then called Nicaea. Roughly 300 bishops actually came, which is a rather good turnout considering how costly and time consuming such a journey would have been in those days.

The meeting was long. We’re talking March-to-August long. The council determined that Arius had indeed diverged from the Church’s teaching, and they affirmed a statement from which the Nicene Creed we recite today originated. Arius, along with his followers that wouldn’t yield, were banished. 

Now, if only that were the end of the story. The trouble is that the Council was unable to fully uproot Arius and his followers’ vices. The proud man and his adherents regrouped, and many (though not Arius) found ways to wiggle back into church fellowship. They used clever words, avoiding language that was condemned at Nicea, without actually changing their heretical theology.

Athanasius against the jealousy weed

Just five months after the Council of Nicaea, Alexander died, and a young man named Athanasius was elected as his successor. He had served as Alexander’s assistant, and he’d played a critical role at the council. 

Athanasius was a man of virtue. He wasn’t a brash man but was known instead for being gentle and pastoral in his approach. And yet he took the Arian threat seriously. He held tightly to the truth of the Scriptures and the deity of Christ without yielding to the political pressure to merely keep the peace. 

Athanasius’s commitment to truth made him a problem for Arius and his followers. They saw him as an enemy to be thwarted. But because of Athanasius’ virtue, they were hard pressed to find an accusation that would stick. Nevertheless, they tried.

One of the factions of Arius’ followers went so far as to fake a man’s death, hide him in another city, produce a severed hand (probably from a real corpse), and then claim that Athanasius had maimed and killed the man with sorcery. This attempt to remove Athanasius from power only failed when authorities were able to produce the alleged victim and reveal that he was still alive with two hands!

This wasn’t the end of the story. Arius and his tribe were successful in their attempts multiple times. He was forced into exile on five different occasions by four different emperors.

But when we take a close look at how Athanasius withstood these trials, we see the role of virtue in his life. One critical virtue he demonstrated was fortitude. His commitment to truth was resolute. He endured in faith in spite of banishment and fleeing for his life. Despite these continuous trials, he stayed the course, maintaining his conviction in the deity of Christ and his commitment to the true God made flesh. 

There is some scholarly debate, but most likely Athanasius’ magnum opus, On the Incarnation, was written during his first exile. Those who argue against it being written at this time point out that Arius isn’t mentioned in this work. I think it’s more likely Athanasius had his eyes set on a different prize—the purity of the Church. 

Athanasius wanted God’s people to know the beauty and majesty of the God who saw fit to dwell among us. He wanted the world to know that the exalted God who created the universe came to dwell on earth as a human. To paraphrase a lengthier passage from On the Incarnation: Just as the prestige of a city is raised when a great king dwells in it, how much more is the human race, when the God of the universe takes on flesh.2Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 69. In his writings, Athanasius was clear, and he shows us where true virtue is found—only when we are rooted in Christ. 

Athanasius wasn’t alone in his biblical convictions about the person of Christ. There were many other leaders and fellow believers who gave him aid and shelter in his exiles, but the well known phrase Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world,” is fitting because it captures the gravity of the pressure he faced and the virtue with which he stood.

Meanwhile, Arius—our man caught in the cattails of vice—who enviously desired the throne of Alexandria, found himself at the end of his life upon another more ignoble throne. While Arius’ case was under consideration for his readmittance and welcome into the fellowship of the church, he experienced a pain in his bowels, entered a public latrine, and immediately died upon the toilet. 

When Constantine heard this news, he immediately concluded that Arius was a scheming liar, because—in his view—no man of God would die such an ignoble death.

Arius, in his jealousy, sought fame and influence at the expense of virtue, and it led to his destruction. By contrast, Athanasius, a man of Christ-centered virtue, suffered intrigue and exile but found a prize more valuable than rubies. Nothing could take him away from the pearl of great price he found in Christ. 

Just as Arius serves as a somber warning against the dangers of unchecked vanity, envy, and pride, so also Athanasis serves us and our kids as an example of Christlike humility and a tenacious and humble refusal to compromise on the truth. 

Passing along church history from generation to generation

In Psalm 78, Asaph tells us of the importance of passing down the story of the faith from generation to generation. The psalm focuses on telling children about acts in history “so that our children should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God (v. 7).” 

Often when we cite this passage, we think about passing down the stories of our faith that we find in the Bible. But it’s also wise to tell our children about the works of God throughout the history of the church, of the men and women who endured many trials with faithfulness and of those who failed by giving into vice.

We need resources to help us do this well. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Christian History Made Easy by Timothy Paul Jones. Covering the span of church history this book has full color pictures and illustrations. It also includes the fun stories and legends that kids love (like the tall tales of “Saint Nick” punching Arius in the nose).
  • Light Keepers is a fantastic series that tells the stories of historical figures through the lens of childhood in a way that captures kids’ imaginations. 
  • Super Heroes Can’t Save You. Todd Miles cleverly breaks down Trinitarian and Christological heresies into gripping stories from history, and clear explanations of doctrine—using superheroes! If you think church history and theology are boring, check out Miles, he’ll change your mind. 

Let’s tell our children stories from our shared Christian history. When we tell them the story of Arius’ jealousy and Athanasius’ fortitude, we aren’t just telling kids morality tales of vice and virtue. We are giving them a framework for how to view the entirety of history through the lens of God’s grace. In the stories of men and women who lived lives of virtue, we’re teaching our kids about how God has shown himself faithful across hundreds of years. When we tell them about the works God has done through men and women with Christian virtue, we are strengthening their hope in the God who gives grace to the humble and fortitude to those who depend on him. 

  • 1
    Quoted without source attribution in Barabara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), xiv.
  • 2
    Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 69.
By / Apr 14

The fight against abortion is a hearts-and-minds campaign.

Pro-life advocates rightly pursue legislative and judicial means to end the evil of legal abortion, but a large part of our struggle is persuasive in nature. And we need all kinds of arguments in our tool belt as we seek to persuade people both inside and outside of our faith communities that unborn life ought to be defended. We should appeal to Scripture to demonstrate the dignity of all human life, including life in the womb. We should appeal to science to show the undeniable truth that unborn human life is indeed both human and living. We should appeal to philosophy to show the capriciousness of denying human personhood to a particular class of human beings.  

Jesus at conception and the dignity of the unborn

But there are also theological arguments that we can marshal in our fight against abortion. As Christians around the world celebrate the seasons of Advent and Christmas over the next several weeks, it is worth considering a specifically Christological argument that can buttress our belief in the dignity of unborn human life.

Consider that the central claim of the Christian faith is the belief that God the Son—the eternal Second Person of the Godhead—became a human being in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As the classic Christmas carol “O Come All Ye Faithful” puts it, “God of God, Light of Light; Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb!” God the Son became a human being by taking to himself a complete human nature: a true body and a rational soul (see the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon, AD 451).

And the New Testament makes it clear that this assumption of a human nature began at Christ’s conception, not at his birth. This is evident from Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary concerning the miraculous nature of Christ’s conception (Luke 1:26-37). The “power of the most High” would come upon Mary and would “overshadow” her, as the Spirit once hovered over the waters of creation (Gen. 1:2) and as the presence of God hovered over Israel of old like an eagle over its young (Deut. 32:11).

Christ, then, was “conceived by the Holy Ghost” and “born of the Virgin Mary,” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it. (We could also point to the parallel account of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception and his capacity for Spirit-filled joy even in the womb of his mother Elizabeth; Luke 1:15, 44)

The problem with denying personhood at conception

To fine-tune this argument a bit, consider the Christological implications of denying the truth that the Son’s assumption of a human nature began at the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb. Consider what must be the case if the Son assumed his human nature at some point after conception—perhaps at birth or at some later point during the pregnancy of Mary.This position would entail that there was an already existing human nature, independent of its personal assumption by the Son, which was at some later point taken by the Son in personal (hypostatic) union.

So what was the status of this human nature before its assumption by the person of the Son? Did it constitute a human person on its own right? If so, then this position would entail the ancient heresy of Nestorianism, the view that there are actually two persons in Christ: the person of the eternal Son and the human person of Jesus, who was adopted by the Son at some point in his life.  

If the human nature in Mary’s womb did not constitute a distinct human person, then what was it? Did it have a soul as well as a body? The nature and timing of “ensoulment” is an interesting and somewhat debated issue in the history of Christian theology, but the most compelling position maintains that the human body and soul come into existence simultaneously (see, for example, the arguments of St. Maximus the Confessor against the Platonic idea of preexistent souls). This body-soul composite is what constitutes a human person.

But what if ensoulment (and thus personhood) occurs at some point after conception? This would entail a heresy of its own when applied to Christ. If the human nature in Mary’s womb existed for a time without a human soul, then we are left with another Christological heresy: a kind of “temporary Apollinarianism,” as Oliver Crisp puts it, in which the Son’s human nature was temporarily incomplete, being comprised of a body without a soul. All of these Christological problems can be avoided, if we attend more closely to the church’s traditional understanding of the Son’s incarnation.

The historic position of the Christian church

The historic position of the Christian church is that the human nature of Christ was “without a person” (anhypostatic), in the sense that it did not constitute a human person distinct from the person of the Son. Instead, the human nature of Christ was personalized (enhypostatic) by its assumption by the person of the Son. So there was never a moment in the history of the human nature of Christ when it was not assumed by the person of the Son.

When we are confronted with Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels, there is no person there other than the eternal person of the Son of God in his incarnate state. This is precisely what makes the redeeming work of Christ efficacious for the salvation of the world. Nor was there some impersonal human nature (whatever that would mean) that was assumed at some point after it came into existence. No, the human nature of Christ was assumed by the person of the Son at the very moment of its conception.

So, at least in the case of the incarnate Christ, personhood began in the womb. If we assume that Christ’s experience was paradigmatic for human personhood, then the same would apply to all human beings: human beings in the womb are human persons. And, thanks be to God, it was for the sake of fallen human persons that the divine Son of God abhorred not the Virgin’s womb, but took to himself a human nature “for us men and for our salvation.”

This article originally published on December 21, 2015.

By / Dec 7

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Augustine is often called the founder of the just war tradition. This is only partly true, and requires at least two caveats. First, Augustine did not write a treatise or essay on war or even on civil government: his comments on the state and its lethal violence are scattered throughout his sermons, letters, and other works, written over the course of decades. It can be difficult to say with certainty that the Augustine who wrote the City of God still agreed with the Augustine from 20 years previously. Augustine seems to have followed a similar course in his life that Western Christendom would travel over the course of a millennium: from an optimistic belief in the righteous possibilities of Christian imperial power to a chastened vision of “conflicting purposes, of uncertainties of direction, of divergent loyalties and irresolvable tensions,” in which “political power has become a means of securing some minimal barriers against the forces of disintegration,” in the words of one scholar.1Markus, “Saint Augustine’s Views on the ‘Just War,’” 10. See also Henrik Syse, “Augustine and Just War.”

Second, the just war tradition that followed Augustine’s line of thinking—a paradigm that treats war as an act of loving punishment—essentially ended in the 17th century, replaced by the Westphalian paradigm. Augustine can rightly be called the founder of one tradition that recognized him retroactively as its founding influence. In fact, what is sometimes called “just war theory” (and should be called just war doctrine) unfolded in three traditions: the Augustinian, the Westphalian, and the Liberal. The Augustinian just war tradition is an application of the political theory of Medieval Christendom; the Westphalian, of the early modern Enlightenment; and the Liberal, of the broader commitments of classical liberalism. 

What is the Augustinian tradition of just war doctrine, and how does it differ from its successors? 

Different traditions of just war doctrine

The Augustinian tradition

The Augustinian tradition of just war thinking was an application of Medieval political theory with roots in antiquity that matured into its classic expression during the Wars of Religion. This pre-Enlightenment political theory rested on the idea that natural law exists and should guide human social and political order to fulfill natural human moral aspirations; that sovereignty means responsibility for the common good; and that justice should guide states to use force to defend and uphold the common good. In that context, just cause for war was understood to include not merely self-defense, but the defense of justice and peace, defense of the innocent, and punishment of the wicked—as defined by the commonly accepted, teleological standards of natural law. 

Statesmen, in turn, were expected to wage war to defend the common good and, broadly, uphold peace and justice. And statesmen were to fight war with the right intention: out of love for one’s neighbor and one’s enemies, not for glory, honor, revenge, or profit. Fighting to uphold justice and to prevent the wicked from perpetrating justice was understood as the duty Christian love required of statesmen.

The Westphalian tradition

The Westphalian tradition arose after the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia (1648). It moved away from the Augustinian tradition in three respects. It was a tradition of legal reasoning, not political theology; its conception of natural law was descriptive, not teleological; and it tended to focus on procedural justice, not substantive justice. Together these innovations amounted to a change in the fundamental orientation of just war thinking. The Westphalian tradition left behind much of the theological background that had given the Medieval tradition its content and meaning.

Just war was never an isolated exercise in military ethics; it was originally an argument about the rights and purposes of the state, about natural law, and about justice

The vestigial language of “just cause” and “right authority” remained, for example, but with transformed meanings. Because natural law jettisoned its teleological aspect, Westphalian thinkers also had a different notion of justice, and therefore of just cause and sovereignty: sovereignty evolved from defense of the common good to defense of international borders; and just cause consequently shrank to encompass only territorial self-defense. The right authority for the use of force was understood unproblematically to rest with the state, regardless of how the state chose to use it or for what purpose. 

The Liberal tradition

The embryonic Liberal tradition has arisen since World War II in an effort to rectify the weaknesses of the Westphalian tradition and, since the end of the Cold War, address new and emerging security concerns, often by borrowing and reinterpreting Augustinian concepts shorn of their theological commitments. Concepts like human rights and accountable governance do the work that natural law and justice did in the Augustinian tradition: external standards outside and above the state used to judge the state’s legitimacy. War is just when it vindicates rights, including the rights of states whose security has been violated, of course, but also the rights of individuals. The Liberal just war tradition allows war to vindicate the rights of individuals suffering under a humanitarian emergency, insists on respecting individual rights in how war is fought, and understands the vindication of individual rights a crucial part of ending wars justly. 

The emerging Liberal tradition is right to highlight weaknesses of the Westphalian tradition, and that there is a fundamental compatibility between the Augustinian and Liberal traditions. The central organizing concepts of the Augustinian tradition (love and the common good as external standards outside and above the state) can and should be recovered and worked into the Liberal tradition, for which human rights serves the same function. The Augustinian tradition of just war thinking argued that the right intention of warfare was love for our neighbors and for our enemies. It further argued that the defense, not of self, but of the common good, was the lived embodiment of such love. Much the same can be said with the idiom of human rights: the right intention in war is to vindicate rights, and just cause in war is to defend and uphold a system of ordered liberty for allies and enemies alike. 

The purpose of just war doctrine

Just war was never an isolated exercise in military ethics; it was originally an argument about the rights and purposes of the state, about natural law, and about justice. Even in its Westphalian guise, just war was an argument against theocracy and universal empire. The early modern Augustinians argued that wars for religion were utopian, inconsistent with humanity’s sinful nature, doomed to achieve the opposite of the justice it professed, and violated the state’s God-given jurisdiction. The same body of political theory—the theory of secularized Christendom—gave birth to classical liberalism and, eventually, to what we today call the liberal international order. Like the just war traditions, classical liberalism also argues that there are limits on the state’s jurisdiction; that sovereignty is not unlimited; that there should be no coercion in matters of belief; and that universal empire is a dangerous ambition. 

If we are to be faithful to the political theology of the just war traditions, we should by the same logic be faithful to the political theology of classical liberalism. Similar principles animate both. Indeed, the kinship goes so far that, if it is a just cause to oppose universal empire, we might just as well say that the defense of classical liberalism is a just cause. It is a just cause to defend a system designed to prevent universal empire, to guard against theocracy or ideological totalism, and to enforce limits on government’s jurisdiction: that system is what we today call the liberal order. 

This view draws on the Augustinian tradition’s surprisingly expansive view of the self whose defense justifies war. War is just when fought in the defense of our individual selves, our states, our allies, our neighbors, but also of innocent victims of oppression, and even the commonwealth of all mankind when it is threatened by grievous crimes against nature. Ordered liberty is the common good, the defense of which is just and the preservation of which reflects love for our neighbors and for our enemies. 

Is a war ever just?

When is war just? The violent disruption of ordered liberty is the “injury” in response to which force may be used and war may be justly waged. This obviously covers cases of defense against invasion, but it also covers humanitarian intervention. The Augustinian tradition at its zenith (from the early 16th to the mid-17th centuries) explicitly addressed the problems of what today we call state failure, armed non-state actors, and humanitarian intervention. These thinkers argued that the sovereign had just cause to wield force against non-state actors and, even, to redress conditions of state failure, although typically with strong qualifications. These writers rested their arguments on an underlying philosophical framework: war, they believed, was an extension of the sovereign responsibility to defend the common good (itself an extension of a prior and more fundamental duty to love all humanity), and under extreme conditions love demands intervention to punish the wicked and defend the innocent, even when that involves crossing international boundaries. 

Second, what does justice require? Justice requires the vindication and restoration of ordered liberty in, through, and after warfare. War requires victors to make right the wrongs that prompted the war; make right the wrongs of war (the destruction of combat), and prevent the recurrence of such wrongs in the future. The upshot is that while just cause is more expansive than is conventionally understood, the responsibilities of post-conflict restoration are commensurably far higher. Taken together, this Augustinian Liberal approach to just war thinking permits intervention but increases international responsibility for what intervention entails, and thus should dampen any enthusiasm for intervention that might otherwise exist.  

  • 1
    Markus, “Saint Augustine’s Views on the ‘Just War,’” 10. See also Henrik Syse, “Augustine and Just War.”
By / Nov 2

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Religious freedom is among the most precious things in existence. At its core it is both a theological and political proposition. Theologically, to defend religious freedom is to recognize that every person is accountable to God as an individual. No one has the right to decide who or how another person worships. Politically, to defend religious freedom is to recognize that the state has no role in determining what a person holds as ultimate.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” Religious freedom is critical for human flourishing because it preserves for every person the right to decide for themselves the things they hold as sacred. 

As an evangelical Christian, I believe that there is only one true God and that he exists eternally as three persons. Moreover, I believe that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus, the Son of God, who came to earth to save sinners through his life, death, burial, and resurrection. But I also believe that saving faith must always be authentic; it cannot be compelled or coerced. As the Baptist minister Isaac Backus once quipped, “Christ will have no pressed soldiers in his army.”

But beyond the nature of saving faith, I also believe that the state is neither capable nor competent to command the religious beliefs and spiritual duties of its citizens. And because of these things, I stand in the long tradition of Christians who support and defend religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all people. 

But where does one begin in order to gain an understanding of religious freedom? In recent years many excellent volumes have been published covering various aspects of this important topic. A few worthy of mention include Free to Believe by Luke Goodrich, which covers contemporary debates about religious freedom in the United States, and First Freedom, a volume from a number of Baptist scholars dealing with the history, application, and current challenges to religious freedom. And of course to truly appreciate the value of religious freedom one would benefit from reading about religious persecution. For this you might consult Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or Steven D. Smith’s recent work Pagans and Christians in the City.

Yet for a single volume exploring the roots and significance of religious freedom, few books hold more value than a recent work by Robert Louis Wilken titled Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom.

Tracing Christianity and religious freedom

Wilken’s book is helpful for a number of reasons, but one of them is perhaps less obvious than it should be. In his work, he labors to show that religious freedom is actually a Christian idea. Some may wonder why Christians, with our very specific beliefs about salvation, would support religious freedom? After all, Christians believe that heaven and hell hang in the balance based on an individual’s beliefs. Why then would Christians support a doctrine that would allow so many people to embrace false beliefs that Christians not only reject but understand to have the most dire of consequences?

Religious freedom is critical for human flourishing because it preserves for every person the right to decide for themselves the things they hold as sacred. 

The answer, however, isn’t complicated. As Wilken notes at the book’s opening, Christians have always believed that saving faith must be genuine faith; it cannot be coerced. He quotes Tertullian of Carthage, the third-century theologian, on this theme: “It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.” Wilken explains that it is precisely because Christians believe salvation can only be accomplished through an individual’s earnest repentance of sin and faith in Jesus that they embrace and defend the idea of religious freedom. As he states, “religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force” (1).

Unfortunately, religious freedom later fell out of favor among Christians for several centuries. At its inception, the Christian movement was essentially a very small religious sect that many considered to be a temporary offshoot of Judaism. But as the movement spread and drastically increased in number during the several centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, Christians ultimately amassed a great deal of cultural and political power.

A good example can be found in Saint Augustine, the famed bishop of Hippo and author of Confessions and The City of God, who lived in the fourth century. During the Donatist controversy, Augustine insisted that the power of the state be wielded to suppress heretical views (notably, Augustine would ultimately intercede on behalf of the Donatists after witnessing their cruel treatment at the hands of the Romans). From the Gospel of Luke, Augustine offered a justification for “compelling” non or errant believers to embrace orthodox beliefs. And according to Wilken, some continued to appeal to Augustine’s justification of religious coercion as late as the 18th century (32).

This brings us to another reason Wilken’s book serves as such an excellent primer. As he tells the story of religious freedom, he demonstrates how this crucial doctrine was present from the earliest days of the Christian faith and how it was essentially lost for a time, but his focus throughout most of the book is upon how religious freedom was recovered as a central doctrine among believers. From the Protestant Reformation through the Enlightenment, Wilken narrates the rebirth of religious freedom among Christians in Western Europe.

Wilken’s treatment of Martin Luther and his contribution to the recovery of religious freedom is particularly excellent. As he articulates the story of Luther’s struggle against the corruption and excesses of the medieval Catholic Church, Wilken focuses on Luther’s appeal to conscience and sets his story alongside a faithful band of Fransciscan sisters who made a similar stand on behalf or their convictions. Wilken recounts the words of Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521,

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

On the subject, Wilken notes that for Luther and his belligerents, “Conscience was the voice of God, and freedom was found in obedience” (52). 

Similarly, Wilken’s chapter on English Separatists is worth the price of the entire book. He examines the work of the early Baptist pioneer Thomas Helwys titled The Mystery of Iniquity. As a Baptist pastor in England during the 17th century, Helwys and his flock were under constant threat of persecution. And as Wilken points out in The Mystery of Iniquity, he defended rights of conscience for all people including Jews and Muslims and appealed to King James I for religious freedom for all of his subjects. Helwys believed that “as a matter of justice the ruling authorities must grant liberty of conscience no matter what faith people held” (141).

Likewise, he features the voices of other English dissenters including John Murton and Roger Williams. Wilken highlights that it was Williams who first introduced the idea of a “wall” separating the spiritual and civil realm (147). 

Beyond these examples, there is much more to commend in Wilken’s work. His discussion of Calvin, Beza, and Zwingli, as well as his treatment of John Locke and John Owen, all offer substantial insight not merely into the role of each man in the story of religious freedom but of their broader contributions to Christian history. Liberty in the Things of God does more than trace the roots of religious freedom; it lays bare the vital importance of this most crucial doctrine and connects its history to the story of Christianity itself. As Wilken states in the epilogue,

“It was early Christian teachers who first set forth ideas of the freedom of the human person in matters of religion; it was Christian thinkers who contended that conscience must be obedient only to God; and it was the dualism of political and spiritual authority in Christian history that led to the idea that civil government and religious beliefs must be kept separate” (187).

Religious freedom is a critical and thoroughly Christian doctrine. It is sacred and must always be protected. Wilken’s work provides an excellent reminder of these truths and offers a fantastic entry point for readers to learn about the long history of religious freedom.

By / Oct 26

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

For much of history, Christians have understood the church and the state as two orders given as good gifts by God. Rightly relating the two is no easy task. Historically there are two temptations regarding the proper relation of the church to the state. 

Absolutely apart? 

First, some are tempted to hold church and state absolutely apart. In doing so, they tend to conflate the relationship between church and state with the relationship between religion and politics, extending to political life a strict separation from religious convictions. This view aspires to a vision of secularism which sees the task of living together peacefully as requiring political discourse to be areligious. It may even see institutional religion as toxic to the preservation of a well-functioning pluralist society. 

Some Christians may even embrace this view, holding that we ought not bring our religious convictions with us into the public square. They may do so out of the belief that arguing for policies or visions of justice framed directly from our Christian commitments may inappropriately compel others to accept religious beliefs against their will.

Other Christians may possess a vision of the Christian faith as a fundamentally private affair, which has very little bearing on the construction of a political order. After all, did not Jesus himself state, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17, ESV)? 

The problem with this view is that it holds that political arrangements can be constructed from a neutral standpoint of reason, without recourse to religious conviction. Secularism is often self-possessed of such naivete, failing to recognize that secularism is often a shroud for a thinly veiled religiosity itself. In fact, its religious convictions about human reason or even identity being are sacred sources of truth in themselves. It is a religion of an imminent order, seeing no place for reference to a transcendent God.

Accordingly, when we seek to answer how the church and state ought to be related, we must start from the belief that religious convictions are fundamental and prior to the shaping of any worldview.

Too closely together? 

The second pull regarding the relation of church and state is to hold them too closely together. Again, this is to conflate the religious and the political with the church and state, though this position sees politics as rightly ordered only when it is subservient to the church. This was the predominant temptation of Christians for over a thousand years of Western history.

This position rightly sees the Christian faith as having a direct bearing on the shape of our civic life. However, it wrongly sees the church as possessing the God-given authority to dictate to the state what this should be. 

Our Christian convictions certainly ought to play a pivotal role in our approach to political life. Subsuming the state under the power of institutional religion misunderstands the nature and scope of the church’s earthly authority, taking for itself the power to compulse by force that which belongs to King Jesus alone, when in reality its public power is to compel.

How should we seek to navigate between these twin pulls toward secularism and ecclesialism? Saint Augustine can help us avoid both pitfalls by leading us to ask, “What are we, as humans?” and “What time is it, in God’s telling of history?”

Augustine on worship and sacred history

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, is almost unparalleled in the breadth of his influence on Christian thought. His theology, however, was hardly systematic, and his approach to social order was highly complex.

In his Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Robert Markus provides one of the most lucid and helpful summaries of Augustine’s understanding of social order. In the book, Markus’ aim is to explore what Augustine thought about the nature and purpose of society and how the church should understand its relation to it. 

To have a sense of the paradigm Markus proposes, it is helpful to have a cursory understanding of Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God. Written over the course of 16 years at the beginning of the fifth century, Augustine’s book is part defense of the Christian faith against pagan critics, and part argument for how Christians ought to understand God’s history in the world and Christians’ place in it. At the heart of the work lies his belief that human beings at their most basic level are worshipping creatures. They are made to worship God, but because of sin they worship elements of creation as idols. 

Because Christians are never fully sanctified until the final resurrection, the city of God can never be fully realized here and now. Christians will always live as pilgrim citizens of the heavenly city as they go about their lives in the earthly city.

When we look at the whole of human history there are really only two groupings of people, each constituted by its ultimate love. The city of God is defined by the love of God, and its citizens are all those who have been born again by his grace, and therefore can properly order their affections toward him. The earthly city is really an anti-city, a shadow arrangement characterized by disordered love and idolatry. Neither city is fully synonymous with any one particular grouping of people in history, but both exist alongside one another in any given time and place.

Because Christians are never fully sanctified until the final resurrection, the city of God can never be fully realized here and now. Christians will always live as pilgrim citizens of the heavenly city as they go about their lives in the earthly city. As sojourners seeking to be good neighbors in the earthly city, Augustine calls Christians to understand what we as humans fundamentally are (i.e., worshippers), and to use God’s creation in a way that exhibits and leads to increasingly more worship of him. 

This forms the initial foundation of Augustine’s social though. To complete it, Markus argues that we must also understand Augustine’s approach to history and its ultimate meaning. For Augustine, there are two types of history: sacred and secular history. 

Sacred history includes all of God’s work in the world concerning the coming of Christ, his work of redemption on the cross, his resurrection and his imminent return. The events of sacred history are the only historical happenings which bear ultimate meaning, and the reason for this is that these events are the only ones which come to us with authoritative interpretation of their significance through God’s self-revelation in Scripture. We can know why they happen and what purpose God is working toward in them because God has told us so. 

Secular history includes everything else, all occurrences of ordinary human life. Secular history only has significance in reference to sacred history, and this characteristic impels us to ask, “What time is it, in relation to sacred history?” We now live in the in-between time after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and before his second coming. Because there are no defining markers of sacred history to give meaning to the present age, and because it is one which Scripture makes clear the city of God and the earthly city will exist co-mixed until Christ’s return, ours is an age marked by radical ambiguity. We cannot point to specific events or to political arrangements and pronounce an authoritative explanation of their meaning and purposefulness in God’s plan.

Church and state in the saeculum

How then is the church to understand its relation to political orders in the present saeculum, an ambiguous age between the Christ events? As Markus argues, for Augustine the church is not to see itself as synonymous with the state and its authority to wield coercive power, which for now rests in the domain of the earthly city, nor is the church to see itself as unrelated to it. Rather, the church is to see itself as uniquely concerned with the cultivation of the spiritual lives of the citizens of the city of God. 

Likewise, the state ought not to see itself as serving at the behest of the church or inaugurating Christ’s earthly end-times kingdom in the same way as the church. Instead, the state’s purpose in God’s plan is to preserve social order for all, citizens of the heavenly and earthly city alike. Therefore, while its grounding is religious, as any sense of justice must appeal to God and the proper worship of him, its operation cannot be to further any one religion, and thus recreate the earthly city prematurely into the heavenly one by force.

Augustine’s career as a church leader may throw doubt on the degree to which he held to this understanding, such as when he drew on state power to put down disruptive elements of the Donatist church faction. Markus argues, however, that his actions operate with some form of internal coherence in which he saw Christian individuals, rather than the offices of the state they held, as leveraging their influence to direct actions which would be seen as a blurring between matters of church and state.

Regardless, the imperative in Augustine’s thought is clear: in this time between the times church and state should remain clearly apart in their authority and social responsibilities. However, because Christians are to fill the offices of the state in order to uphold justice and enact laws for the common good, religion and politics must always be intermixed and mutually influencing. The state’s job is to ensure there is freedom to do so, while the church’s job is to fill society with the type of Christians who give guidance on the proper use of such freedom.

By / Jul 21

July 21 marks the anniversary of the verdict in one of the most important court cases in American religious history: The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, or as it is commonly known, “The Scopes Monkey Trial.” This trial—which brought attention to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee—was an open and shut case of guilt. So what attracted so much attention? The trial was a visible clash of the fight raging within Christian denominations at the time between modernist and fundamentalists centered around the teaching of evolution. 

On one side was the fundamentalist, former secretary of state, and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who argued that teaching evolution was contrary to Scriptures. On the other side was self-proclaimed agnostic Clarence Darrow and the American Civil Liberties Union, who saw this case as a chance to roll back the influence of religion in education. The court case, especially when Bryan took the stand in defense of the fundamentalists, was an encapsulation of the ongoing struggle within American Christianity over how literally to interpret Genesis and just how to integrate Christian doctrine with new scientific information. The modernists saw no problem between the two or were willing to change Christian doctrine to fit the new information. The fundamentalists saw this as an attack on true Christianity. 

It was in the courtroom of a small town in Tennessee that these sides squared off for their most visible confrontation, and neither side walked away truly victorious. 

Background

The conflict between fundamentalists and modernists had raged since the late 19th century. At the core of the debate was how to integrate the supernatural claims of the Bible with new criticism coming out of scientific inquiry. New scholarship raised doubts about the authorship of biblical texts, the timeline of their writing, and the details provided. Many of these revisions were attempts to maintain Christianity’s relevance and also find agreement between science and the Bible. Thus, rather than completely abandon the Bible, they choose to reinterpret it, often by disregarding the supernatural elements such as miracles or a virgin birth or a physical resurrection. 

Another point of controversy was in the creation account of Genesis 1-2. Higher criticism raised questions about Mosaic authorship, arguing that there were in fact different accounts of creation that had been woven together by different authors and a final editor. Further, when compared with modern scientific findings as made famous by Charles Darwin and others, it was impossible to square the age of the earth with a literal seven-day creation account. Though there were some Christians at the time—such as Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary—who saw no problem in accepting a theistic evolution account, many fundamentalists saw this as an attack on the special place of humanity in the cosmos. These critics often asked how humanity was unique in God’s design if men and women were descended from apes. 

At the state level, this reached a crescendo when the Butler Act was passed in 1925 in Tennessee outlawing the teaching of evolution in schools. The ACLU offered to defend anyone who broke the law in an attempt to get it overturned. There has been considerable research which has shown that locals in Dayton, hoping that the trial would attract attention and business to the town, encouraged a local teacher known to teach evolution to challenge the law. He was subsequently fired and tried for breaking the law.

Important figures

John Thomas Scopes: Scopes was the defendant in the court case and a high school biology teacher and football coach. As a young, unmarried man who was not a local in the area, he had little to lose in being the ACLU’s test case. Also, there was never a question of his guilt. Scopes would go on to lose the trial and eventually receive a fine of $100 for the misdemeanor of teaching evolution. The fine was later overturned on appeal. 

William Jennings Bryan: Bryan was a staunch fundamentalist Presbyterian and progressive candidate (a not uncommon combination at the time). As a staunch Prohibitionist and anti-evolution crusader, Bryan often found himself seeking to save the conscience of the nation. He was a three-time unsuccessful candidate for president who served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson before returning to his social and legal advocacy. As a lawyer for the prosecution in the trial, he is best known for taking the stand and being questioned by Darrow as to the scientific accuracy of the Bible. 

Clarence Darrow: Darrow was the lawyer for the defense and vocal critic of religion. As the child of an atheist and a self-proclaimed agnostic, Darrow saw this is as a chance to attack the fundamentalist movement and the way he felt it was overstepping the role of religion in the public square. Darrow was famous before the trial for his role as defense attorney in the Leopold-Loeb murder trial. By the end of the trial, his questioning of Bryan on the witness stand had helped to humiliate the fundamentalist movement before the wider culture as he pointed out supposed contradictions in the biblical text.

H.L. Mencken: Mencken, journalist for the Baltimore Sun, is perhaps the person best known for describing the trial to the outside world. His columns portrayed the Bryan and the fundamentalists, not to mention Southerners in general, as backwoods yokels. His writing and depiction of Southern fundamentalists was what helped the modernists win the larger culture war, even as they lost the specific court case.

Events of the trial

At the heart of the trial was not a question of guilt. Scopes did not hide that he had taught evolution. He was guilty under the Butler Act. However, the ACLU argued that the law itself was unconstitutional because it violated Scopes’ free-speech. Bryan, arguing for the prosecution, asserted that the people of Tennessee who paid for the school and Scopes’ salary had a right to dictate what was taught, especially when it was something like evolution, which he claimed undermined the Christian faith. However, both sides, especially Darrow and Bryan, came to see the court case as unconcerned with free speech and a death match between science and religion. 

Thus, the most memorable moment of the trial came when Bryan took the stand in defense of the Bible as an expert witness. After asking a series of questions meant to illustrate the use of figurative language in the Bible (i.e., Jesus describing his followers as the salt of the earth in Matthew 5), Darrow attempted to get Bryan to agree that the earth was only 6,000 years old (a theory popularized by Anglican archbishop James Ussher). As historian Baryr Hankins recounts, Darrow interrogated Bryan about world religions, modern science, and even biblical criticism, showing that he was not an expert in any of these fields. Further, Bryan was not even a literal creationist: Bryan believed that the six days in Genesis weren’t, by necessity, 24-hour days, but rather time periods.  

Bryan was shown to be woefully ill-informed and was summarily humiliated. At the same time, Darrow’s attacks, though in agreement in the conclusion by the broader culture, were not all well-received, even by liberal theologians who saw them as attacks against any faith, not just fundamentalism. By the end of the day, both men found themselves ill-composed, shouting at one another and threatening violence against one another. The judge adjourned for the day, and when the case resumed the following day, both sides agreed that the jury should be brought in and deliver their verdict, which they did in a matter of minutes with a verdict of guilty.

Lasting influence

Scopes lost the trial, but fundamentalists lost the broader culture war. Because there was no doubt that Scopes had taught evolution, this was never about his guilt. The jury quickly determined that Scopes was guilty of breaking the law and was subsequently fined $100. This fine was later overturned on appeal. However, for the fundamentalist movement, this trial served to humiliate them on the national stage, largely due to the writing of journalist H.L Mencken. After being cast as uneducated rubes, many chose to retreat and create their own institutions and subculture rather than interact with broader society. 

Although historians such as Daniel Williams and Darren Dochuk have complicated this narrative by showing that though they did not enjoy the larger cultural influence they possessed previously, they did not entirely disappear. Rather, they laid a foundation for what would emerge in the middle of the 20th century as the evangelical movement, encapsulated in figures such as Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, and eventually the Religious Right of the 70s and 80s.

However, the trial in Dayton, Tennessee (which is reenacted every July), set the stage for the larger culture wars between fundamentalists/evangelicals and their theologically liberal counterparts over issues such as abortion, the feminist movement, and eventually the LGBTQ movement that would shape the 20th century.

Further reading

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson: Larson’s Pulitzer winning book is one of the most thorough and readable accounts of the trial and its enduring impact on the role that science and religion play in the public square, as well as evangelicalism’s relationship to science and education. 

Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars by Barry Hankins: Hankins’ book looks at the entire decade of the roaring 20s, and he devotes an entire chapter to the court case which represented the high point of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden: Marsden is the preeminent historian of fundamentalism, and his classic work places the movement in the broader sweep of American religious history. 

Clarence Darrow Papers & Court Transcript: The Court Transcript of Bryan’s testimony and Darrow’s line of questions beginning on day six of the trial can be found in Darrow’s papers contained in the University of Minnesota School of Law.

By / Feb 27

It is impossible to separate the story of Christianity from the history of Africa. The early theologians of the church were from Africa, and some of the oldest communities of Christianity began in Africa. In honor of African-American history month, I am highlighting some individuals that you may not know who have been influential in the story of Christianity. These include men, women, theologians, monks, preachers, poets, and political activists.

The work that African-Americans have done to shape Christianity and remind their white counterparts of the truths of Christianity are powerful reminders that this is not a white religion, but rather a religion of a Middle Eastern man crucified as a criminal. And it spread throughout Africa, the far east, and Europe. Multiethnic from the beginning, it is indebted to the lives listed below.

The early church and Africa

Tertullian: Tertullian was born in Carthage in northern Africa during the second century and became one of the most influential of the early church leaders. He is noted for his immense writing on theology and his apologetic works against the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Also, he is the first to use the term “New Testament.” Perhaps most important were his early attempts to defend the doctrine of the Trinity (a term which he was the first to use in writing) by arguing that God exists as one “substance” (substantia) in three distinct “persons” (personae).

Origen of Alexandria: Living at roughly the same time as Tertullian, Origen was an early Church Father whose writings would set the parameters of much of later theological works. His work On the First Principles was an early systematic approach to Christian theology. Like Tertullian, he is noted for his writings against ancient heresies. He also produced the Hexapla, which placed the Hebrew text of the Bible next to five different Greek translations for comparison. He was persecuted under the emperor Decian and died several years later from the effects of the torture.

Athanasius of Alexandria: As the Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius served as a leader in the Christian church during some of its most contentious times. He contended against the heretic Arius, who argued that Jesus was a created being, rather than the eternal son of God. In his most famous work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius argued that if Jesus was not fully the son of God, then he could not redeem humanity. Athanasius would hold to this position no matter the cost. He was exiled a number of times and endured persecution under different Roman emperors who favored the teaching of Arius. However, Athanasius’ teaching would eventually be stated as Christian doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

Augustine of Hippo: Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most important theologian in the history of Christianity. Augustine, like Tertullian, was a native Berber of Carthage in northern Africa. His defense of Christianity after the fall of Rome in The City of God has shaped Christian theology throughout history. His autobiography, The Confessions, give us a glimpse of his conversion and his teachings on the life of the Christian and ordering of the soul toward its ultimate goal, God. His influence is not limited to the early church, though; it was an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, who was a key influence in the start of the Protestant Reformation.

African-Americans and Christianity

Phyllis Wheatley: Phyllis Wheatley was the first African-American female poet to be published. Born in West Africa and sold as a slave at a young age, she was purchased by the Wheatley family in Boston. They taught her to read and write. Her poetry is filled with Christian themes, and her most famous poem was her elegy of George Whitefield, the great evangelist, in 1770. Her writings reflect one who understood the truths of the gospel and looked forward to the day when she and all other Africans would be freed: “Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you; Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due; If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road, You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.”

George Liele: George Liele was the first African-American to be ordained as a Baptist minister in America. He was also the first missionary to come from America, leaving for Jamaica in 1782 (several decades before Adoniram Judson). Recognized as a gifted preacher and also a founder of several all-black churches, his master freed him. Liele chose to go to Jamaica rather than remain in America after the Revolutionary War because he feared being enslaved again. There, he continued the work of planting churches among enslaved persons and preaching the gospel.

Richard Allen: Born into slavery, Richard Allen would go on to found the first independent black denomination in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). As a result of his success in founding the Bethel AME church and its impressive growth, he was ordained as the first African-American Methodist minister by Francis Asbury in 1799. He would later unite with other all-black congregations to form the AME denomination in 1816. He also served as the denomination’s first bishop.

Jarena Lee: Jarena Lee was the first woman recognized by Richard Allen formally as an evangelist. Though she was initially rebuffed because she was a woman, she refused and evangelized outside the formal church often speaking in town squares or open fields. Eventually, Allen would grant her the ability to speak inside the structure of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). She is an example of the ways that the Second Great Awakening had changed the nature of America Christianity. As a woman and African-American, she was doubly stigmatized. Her autobiography of her faith was the first to be published by an African-American woman in the United States.

Martin Luther King Jr.: No list of influential African-American preachers would be complete without Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., King would go on to be the most visible face of the Civil Rights Movement. He and other pastors would found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which worked through nonviolent protest to end racial segregation. At a time when much of (white) American Christianity saw no problem between their faith and the horrors of Jim Crow, King confronted them with the teachings of justice and equality from the Scriptures.

For further reading

These men and women are only a few of the figures from Africa or of African descent who have shaped the story of Christianity. There is not space to write here of others such as the kingdom of Aksum (the first Christian nation), Moses the Black (an early ascetic leader), Clement of Alexandria, the Coptic church, the National Baptist Convention, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, or gospel singer Aretha Franklin. These men, women, and organizations are evidence of the diversity and importance of Africa on the story of Christianity. Here are some works that you may find informative:

  • For an examination of the religion among enslaved persons and its changes over time see Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South.
  • For a study of the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement see Charles Marsh’s God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith & Civil Rights.
  • Any of the narratives of enslaved persons such as Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northrop, and Olaudah Equiano
  • Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years does an excellent job of showing the importance of Africans in the life of the early church.