“Fellow Citizens, We Cannot Escape History”

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An attack on a Puritan settlement, King Philip’s War (1675-78). Seventeenth century New England Puritans interpreted such events as God’s chastisement for sin.

These were among the closing words of Lincoln’s December 1, 1862 Annual Message to Congress. In that message, Lincoln proposed a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution that would provide for a gradual and compensated abolition of slavery by January 1, 1900. Furthermore, Lincoln proposed that Congress would encourage colonization efforts to locate former slaves in Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

This address was one of many issues we covered and discussed last night at Phil Sinitiere’s religious history course at the College of Biblical Studies (see here). The students were interested, engaged, and curious about the development of American exceptionalism between the 1600s and the 1800s. They were particularly interested in how to apply providence to the interpretation of events–this question came up when I was going over the Puritan use of the jeremiad during the late 1600s, particularly around the time of King Philip’s War (1675-1678).

This question comes up a lot in my own classes at Southwestern Seminary, and it comes up even more when I speak in churches. It is a question having to do more with theology and philosophy of religion than it is a historical question. The very best explanations I have seen on the question of providential interpretation of history are in Mark Noll’s Civil War as a Theological Crisis, John Fea’s Why Study History, and Robert Tracy McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving. The short answer is that, absent special revelation concerning God’s mind on any particular event, any word we could ever give on God’s providence in history is pure speculation. Because speculating on things residing in the mind of the Creator is so intellectually and morally problematic–and dangerous–it’s best not to give in to that temptation. McKenzie gives Christians a good word when he says that trying to find God’s purposes in particular events actually “reflects a low view of Scripture” (McKenzie, 177). When we resort to providentialism, we are neglecting Scripture as divinely inspired and trusting in our own ability to discern with certainty God’s purposes absent His revealed word. No biblical prophet or apostle dared anything approaching presumption of this sort. If they didn’t, we shouldn’t.

Phil started off the class with a fascinating lecture on the history of Islam and Hinduism in the United States–he played a recording of the Islamic call to prayer and included a transliteration so that we could follow along. He also played an 1893 recording of a speech given by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. You can listen to it here, and find a transcript of the speech here.

After the break, I started my lecture. I began by discussing the English origins of American patriotism, exceptionalism in particular. We began with a recording of the closing of the Proms in London (see here), which set the table for the rest of the evening’s lecture and discussion. We talked about the theological, political, exegetical, and historiographical roots of American exceptionalism before discussing the assigned primary readings from John L. O’Sullivan’s “Great Nation of Futurity” and Lincoln’s Annual Message.

It was a great evening, and a thrilling opportunity for me to get to join in on what Phil is doing at CBS. Thanks again, Phil. I look forward to this fall when you will come and teach on race and religion for my Issues in American Culture course at the Darrington prison!

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