Interview with Thomas Kidd
Thinking in Public
November 7, 2011
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line
theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your
host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: It is no accident that so much about intellectual activity is invested in thinking about history. It’s also no accident that we have so many conversations with historians because they are often those who in the academy are dealing with the most interesting ideas, not only in retrospect, but in terms of the contemporary meaning of these things. I’m looking forward to this conversation with Thomas Kidd. Thomas S. Kidd is Associate Professor of History at Baylor University where he also serves as senior fellow of The Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of several very well received and respected academic works in American History, starting with The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism published in 2004 by Yale University Press, and his most recent work, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, published in just recent days by Basic Books. Professor Kidd, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Kidd: Thank you for having me on.
Mohler: You know, I have to begin with one of the biggest questions in terms of American religious history, but perhaps even American history. Are we right when we talk about what we often call, The Great Awakening? Are we actually talking about something real or is this something that historians have invented?
Kidd: Well, that’s a controversy that really emerged in the 1980’s. Until that point, I think most historians had just assumed that the Great Awakening was a critical event at least in American religious history if not American history generally, but then a Yale historian named John Butler said that the Great Awakening had been invented by later Christian historians and that the Great Awakening really wasn’t all that great. In fact, he said that is basically didn’t exist. And I think that that was helpful about the discussion about what do we really mean by the Great Awakening? But I also think that it was greatly exaggerated by him because even at the time in the 1740’s people knew that something incredible and unprecedented was happening in terms of revivals all over the American colonies and also in Britain, Scotland, Wales and the continent.
Mohler: Well, I think it’s very helpful that you point out that it was a trans-national if not international kind of experience. I think you also point right to the issue and that is that the people even at the time felt that something was happening. And we’re talking here especially about those events that took place between the years of 1740 and 1743. Why do we talk about it in terms of an awakening? What was awakened?
Kidd: Well, you know that is a phrase that they would use at the time, but they would say that there is a great awakening happening in Boston or something like that. I think that we can understand that they didn’t immediately realize, oh this is the Great Awakening. That is a historical kind of term, but what I think was new and unprecedented and what was awakened was the kind of, I think especially in New England, the original faith of the puritan colonists had probably become a little more distracted or limited in its intensity of those founding pioneers who had come here to preserve their faith, to be able to practice their faith in freedom. Now you’re getting into say the third and fourth generations and the level of religious commitment was mixed. And I think that especially when the revivalist George Whitfield arrived beginning in 1739, to America, he brought a new passion and intensity to the preaching of the gospel with laser focus on the message that people needed to be born again. And I think it brought a kind of fervor and simplicity to the preaching of the gospel that brought people out of this sort of complacency that they just attended church and tried to live virtuous lives and this sort of thing. There was something else to Christianity, in fact the center of the Christian faith which was the conversion experience. And that’s what helped to awaken America.
Mohler: Well, let’s get technical for just a moment. In terms of the inherited understanding of the Great Awakening and of especially Christianity in the colonies during this period, it’s often said that the Great Awakening came out of, well a basic understanding of those churches as belonging to either new lights or old lights with the new lights being basically those who led the Great Awakening and encouraged and supported the Great Awakening. But you are suggesting that there really ought to be at least a three-fold understanding as I understand your presentation of the Great Awakening of this period between new lights and old lights and then perhaps on the far left some rather radical evangelicals. Could you explain that?
Kidd: That’s right. I think it’s better seen as a kind of continuum of opinion. I mean, it’s easier to talk about the anti-revivalists who are what we call the old lights, the people who just thought that the revivals were religious frenzy, and they were leading to really no good at all. But then among the evangelicals there was a real range of opinion about what the awakening should lead to, what their character should be. And among the moderate evangelicals there was certainly a commitment to a focus on the experience of the new birth and preaching and, you know, they were glad for Whitfield’s arrival in general. But they were concerned about some of these, what you call leveling effects of the revival. I mean, the revivals gave a lot of people new ideas about who might be able to speak in church, new theological developments attacking, for instance, the established state churches, suggesting that some of the established state ministers might not even be converted themselves. And this more radical movement is where the new separate Baptist movement comes from, beginning in New England which is where much of the American Baptist tradition comes from. I mean, Baptists have been there in the colonies before the Great Awakening, but the Baptist movement is so energized by the Great Awakening that it’s effectively a whole new movement. And so there’s some real disagreement among evangelicals that is as strident as the difference between the evangelicals and the anti-revivalists
Mohler: Well, I want to trace that out just a bit with you, but before leaving this kind of understanding of a continuum, I think it’s probably instructive for us to consider those who were on the more radical fringe. What was it about the more radical revivalists that concerned some of the more established churchmen?
Kidd: Well, you know in colonial America, religion in general before the Great Awakening, I mean, you had pretty formal religious meetings where you would have the pastor sometimes giving as long as two hour sermons and the pastor was very much, the preaching was very much the center of attention. And in these revival meetings to critics it just seemed like sometimes chaos. I mean different people were able to speak in the meetings, uneducated men, sometimes women, African American slaves, Native Americans who are able to testify about their experience in the Lord and this just seemed disconcerting to a lot of people to have this kind of multiplicity of voices in the church. But with regards to the Baptist movement in particular, you have a large number of actually uneducated men, people like Isaac Backus who had no college education, asserting their right to preach, and then theological novelty as it would seem to Congregationalist or Anglicans in the sense that they refuse to baptize infants anymore. So there were theological novelties, but there were also novelties in the way that church life was being practiced and it seemed very dangerous to a lot of critics of the Great Awakening.
Mohler: You know, I think looking back as I especially read your book, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, I look at the debates that were very much current at that time and it seems to me we are still in many of those same debates.
Kidd: We are, and I think that if you look at my book I think you see some of the debates that are resonate, the difference between charismatic and non-charismatic evangelicals, the role of the Holy Spirit in church life, the way that some church meetings will be very, very emotional and drawn out and some are very orderly, but you know I think that for me as Baptists we, on one hand we have to remember that church cannot go on year after year after year in just sheer chaos, but at the same time, there’s a very important development that came out of this kind of radical fridge of the evangelical movement which is the belief that baptism is for believers, and also that just having credentialed education is not necessarily enough to make someone a good preacher.
Mohler: Well, I certainly join you in that Baptist understanding and at the same time looking at what you’ve produced in terms of research and some have characterized your approach as sort of post-revisionist, if Butler and others of his particular worldview are the revisionist than you are coming along and revising the revisionist. But when you talk about the issues there it sounds very much like some of the very contemporary debates over low church and high church models of evangelicalism, debates in evangelicalism about the relative importance of education, and of course even of creeds and confessions as sometimes put over against experience and enthusiasm. So we are right where evangelical Christianity began and in one of your essays you wrote this, “The evangelical movement in America had been born,” speaking of the Great Awakening, “and once born, rhetorical protests could not stop it. The more compelling question was, what kind of movement would evangelical Christianity become?” So you’re arguing that question was already front and center in terms of the 1740s.
Kidd: Oh, I think that’s right, and I think that when you look at Jonathan Edwards who I think went along with almost all students the Great Awakening is really the great theologian of the awakening. He is, among other things, I think a great theologian of emotion, the emotional experience in the life of a believer and you think of Edwards as a kind of head guy, all intellect and rational, sober preaching, but when you look at Religious Affections, one of his most famous writings, he talks about the proper role for emotion in the life of a believer, the life of the church. And I think that that’s one of the reasons why I admire Edwards so much is that here is this deeply, deeply learned man about the history of theology and doctrine and so forth and yet he knew that there was a place for an emotional reaction, especially to the grace of God for sinners; that is you don’t have some kind of emotional reaction to that you probably haven’t gotten the gospel. And so I think that is the kind of perennial debate that we have to have as Christians is the tension between head and heart level Christianity.
Mohler: Help us to draw some lines of connection, then. So if we go back to the mid- eighteenth century with what we call the Great Awakening and then we come to the early decades of the twenty-first century, and we look at contemporary evangelicalism, as a historian, what would you suggest are the lines of continuity there and where, perhaps, should we note some discontinuity as well?
Kidd: Well I think that one of the concerns that I know you have and I have too is that there has been a real dumbing down of evangelical theology. I mean I refer to Isaac Backus as an uneducated man, but he is deeply learned in theology and, of course, they are familiar with the great creeds of the faith, great doctrines that Christians had long believed and certainly since the Reformation. So I think that your average evangelical believer, though even among the radicals who were having very intense emotional, spiritual experiences in the revivals you would also see a level of theological sophistication that I think would put lots and lots of laypeople and maybe even some ministers to shame today in the evangelical movement. And, of course, I think there’s a discontinuity in the sense that so much of evangelical Christianity today tends to be focused on the therapeutic and sort of coping with life and this sort of thing and I think that Christianity should help us cope with life, that’s a good thing, but I think to the extent that theology and the great doctrines of the church has been de-centered in evangelicalism I think that would be a turn away from what eighteen century evangelicalism was like.
Mohler: Well, it seems to me that in your work you also offer some rather helpful, I wouldn’t say instructions because you are writing as an historian, but nonetheless, some very helpful reminders at least of how, during this period some of the more extreme demonstrations of the Great Awakening as undertaken by the more radical evangelicals, that they were brought into some check. In terms of the evangelicalism that would have survived the Great Awakening into the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It had to settle with some of these issues, it had to deal with some of these excesses.
Kidd: Well, that’s right, and I think you have a sort of cyclical process where, for instance the separate Baptists, you know, in their early years I think very much looked like the kind of thing you would see in Pentecostal churches today, just this intense spiritual experiences of visions and healing and things like this that were being reported. But in say thirty or forty years they had become much more stable, I guess you might say, and they were beginning to put more of an emphasis on education, founding the College of Rhode Island which becomes Brown University is in the 1760s for the training of Baptist pastors which some said, oh we don’t need no education, we’re Baptists. You know, some people disparaged that, but the Baptist movement sort of becomes more rational, stable. And then out of that becomes sort of new radical French movements that want to, in their views, sort of re-energize the passion of gospel preaching, the experiences with God, out pouring of the Holy Spirit for revival. So I think there’s a kind of waxing and waning of that throughout evangelical history, and I suppose in a way that continues through today.
Mohler: Now your first scholarly book was entitled, The Protestant Interest: New England After Puritanism published by Yale University Press in 2004. I really found that book particularly fascinating because I don’t know any other similar monograph or book that has dealt with that period the way you do. In that book you really kind of set the stage for what came before the Great Awakening.
Kidd: Yeah, I do. I think that after the Glorious Revolution which comes to America in 1689, among other things this leads to fifty years and more of imperial war between Britain and France and the American colonists saw this as a great struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism. And by the 1720s and 30s because of the conditions of war, because of ongoing conflict with Native Americans, because of feelings of fear about theological innovation and what they would call liberalism at the time they had a strong sense that their culture was really becoming decayed and at risk of becoming really ungodly. And this is the context in which pastors began to call on lay people to pray for revival, to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit for revival, and starting in the mid-1730s they get answers to their prayer. So the Great Awakening is born out of a spirit of a desperate sense of cultural crisis.
Mohler: Your work has been rather thoroughly reviewed among secular scholars. You have received academic honors such as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, your work is rather well known, published especially by major American university presses. How do secular historians grapple with this now? As they look at America, say, well in our time, in the twenty-first century, when they look back to the periods that you cover most intensely in terms of colonial and revolutionary America, when they look at something like the Great Awakening what do they see, or what do they think they see?
Kidd: Well, I think that there was an older version of some studies of the Great Awakening say the 1960s and 70s that would have seen it as some kind of psychosis or maybe guilt rising out of capitalism or something like that, you know anything other than it’s real religious experience. But I actually think that now these days religious history is really in pretty good shape in the academy even and even among people, I mean I have friend in the business who I know are secular or even atheists themselves, but somehow they know, maybe it’s because of what they see going on the news or so forth that religion is important, religion can’t just be reduced to, you know some kind of economic motivation class interest or something like that. And so I think that we have seen a kind of revitalization of the study of religious history. Even in the kind of secular academy there was a study that came out from the American Historical Association the past year that said that now the most common sub-discipline identified by most historians in America is religion. It’s above politics or economics or culture or anything like that, so lots and lots of dissertation students are covering it. So I think it’s exciting, but I think it remains to be seen as a constant struggle to know how believing historians talk about religious history in the secular academy and to talk about it in a way that is accessible both to secular people and to believers. And I think my doctoral advisor, George Marsden, I think was one of the real pioneers on knowing how to do this rightly; top quality history, but from a Christian point of view and that’s something that I’m trying to do as well.
Mohler: Well, and that’s why we’re having this conversation and even in the course of this conversation two things came to my mind. And the first was a conversation that I had with a Canadian theologian just a few years ago, we were talking about religion in Canada and Canadian history and comparing that with religion and Christianity in particular in America and then American history. And this theologian just said, just remember in Canada we never had anything like a Great Awakening. We never had a single earthshaking religious event in the nation, in Canada’s history that really produced the unquestionable reality of Canada today. And then I look across and I see perhaps those on the more secular left in the United States who do acknowledge that something happened in America that we would call the Great Awakening and they would see it not as something that was positive and felicitous and encouraging but something that nonetheless does explain things today. I think of someone like Richard Hofstadter and the anti-Americanism and the anti-Intellectual history of America, that tradition that some of them rooted right back into the Great Awakening.
Kidd: Well, yeah and I think that there are secular historians too that see that the Great Awakening has this kind of democratic impulse within it too. They may say, well I don’t get all this stuff about Christianity, but to the extent that the Great Awakening feeds into some of the key principles of the revolution about all men are created equal, that there’s a new appreciation for human equality coming out of the Great Awakening, I think in a secular sense there are even historians, secular historians who appreciate the role of the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening among other things leads to the disestablishment of the state churches in America and helps to foster real religious liberty in America. So I think that there are ways to make the case to even very secular people that eighteenth century religion has some really beneficial effects in American History.
Mohler: And to be honest, I think the more fair-minded have been there for some time and I think it is, as you said, something of a significant turn in the academy that there is now so much interest in these things, and I account that as a positive intellectual and academic development.
Kidd: Right, I do too.
Mohler: Historians, both those with and without religious commitments tend to understand that you cannot talk about American history without a very heavy investment in America’s religious history, and in particular, looking at those seminal events such as the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century. That is why this conversation is so important. It also reminds us the discipline of history is an ongoing conversation. To talk about historical revisionism and even post-revisionism is to acknowledge that we are indeed constantly about the task of reinterpreting the past. We need to do so in ways that are most credible and most honest, understanding the limitations of historical investigation, and also the absolute necessity of asking these questions over and over again.
Mohler: Thomas Kidd is also the author of the new book entitled, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots as published by Basic Books and quite frankly it’s one of those biographies that needs to be on your reading list right now. Professor Kidd, how did you come to write on Patrick Henry?
Kidd: Well, Patrick Henry shows up in my book on the Great Awakening and also my book God of Liberty and Religious History of the American Revolution because Henry was influenced deeply by the Great Awakening in Virginia. As a teenager he went to revival meetings led by, especially Samuel Davies, the great revivalist in Virginia. And even though we don’t know for sure whether or not Henry had a conversion experience and he stayed an Anglican, early traditional Anglican his whole life, he was deeply influenced by the evangelical movement, I think in his religious beliefs, but also in the kind of speaker that he was. People know, I think, in general that Henry was the most dynamic orator of the patriot movement, but they may not know that part of the reason is because, it seems clear to me, that he mimicked the style of the evangelical revivalists and people at the time, especially as critics would say, oh that’s Henry, he just talks like a preacher, and they meant to insult him by saying that, but I think it accounts in large part for his power as a political orator. And so my interest in Henry is in him as serious Christian among the major founders in his belief in the need for public morality, or what he would call, virtue. And I’m also interested in Henry’s politics, leader of the Revolution, but then, ironically, perhaps, from our perspective, he became one of the greatest opponents to the Constitution and anti-federalists. So that accounts for my interest in Henry.
Mohler: I think when it comes to historical figures like this most of us who at least try to read and keep up with such things have a knowledge of Patrick Henry that includes his revolutionary fervor, his, of course, oratory, his Christian commitments, even his anti-federalism, but I don’t know of anyone who has put that together in the kind of narrative you have with historical skill. Perhaps before I go further, I just want to ask you, why has Patrick Henry received, perhaps less attention than some of the other major figures among the founding fathers?
Kidd: Well, in some ways I think Patrick Henry is kind of the anti-Jefferson and in fact he and Thomas Jefferson had a very bitter rivalry starting especially in the 1780s. I think Thomas Jefferson detested Patrick Henry in fact.
Mohler: After having admired him as a very young man.
Kidd: Yes, that’s right. I think that they got sideways on the issue of religious liberty in Virginia. Henry proposes that you continue state support for the churches of Virginia in the 1780s while Jefferson and James Madison propose the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom and so they’re opponents on that issue. Madison and Henry are opponents on the Constitution. And so I think that there’s a way in which some people may view history as having passed Henry by after the liberty or death speech which is the one thing that if you know anything about Henry you know the liberty or death speech. But I think past biographers even, even people who have written full length books on Henry tended to say, well he sort of lost his way in the 1780s when he got opposed to Madison and Jefferson, but I actually see a real consistency in Henry’s beliefs, both about religion and about the Constitution that I think helps us really to understand the core of what the patriot movement was about. I think many of us, when push comes to shove, would disagree with him on religious liberty and on the Constitution, but I think his example is so fascinating and instructive.
Mohler: Well, indeed and as you point back to his speech in 1775 there at St. John’s Church in Richmond to speak to the Virginia convention in which he did declare, “give me liberty or give me death,” most American school children who still, we can hope, learn something about American history will recall those words, but as you say, few of them, then draw the trajectory to the Patrick Henry that opposed the Constitution and was an ardent anti-federalist and for the very same reason. In other words, he felt that the Constitution was itself a great threat to American liberty, those liberties that had been very hard won in the Revolution.
Kidd: Well that’s right and it’s not hard to understand the logic there. Henry says we just fought the Revolution against the great consolidated political power, the British monarchy and parliament, we were subject to the risk of tyranny from a very powerful centralized government, and now here we are ten years later seeking to put the same government over ourselves, consolidated government instead of a state based government. He said this is a threat to our liberty just as the British system was. And I think that there’s a certain consistency and logical clarity to that that it’s very easy to understand why the anti-federalists which was very close to fifty percent of the people participated in the ratification process, why they felt that way. Anti-federalism led in a large part by Henry was a very serious, credible, intellectual position to take.
Mohler: I think some people hearing this might think then that Patrick Henry was something of an anarchist, but of course he didn’t want no government, he just wanted a very limited and very local government.
Kidd: Well, that’s right, and he thought that if you disperse political power as much as you can among the states, among a very small national government, among localities, that that would thus protect people’s political liberties. And he thought that to the extent that you make government more powerful, the people are that much more at risk of losing their liberty. He said at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, I thought that we were trying to create a Republic that would defend people’s liberties, not to create an empire. You know this is a pointed criticism when you consider the context of 1776 and why the Americans were declaring independence from the Great British power.
Mohler: And quite frankly you can draw, again a rather direct line, at least in terms of the issues being discussed, contemporary America and political context. We heard the question of empire and all the rest comes back again with some of the very same concerns.
Kidd: Well, that’s right and reading Patrick Henry’s speeches at the Virginia Ratifying Convention he says, this government will become a monster, there will become a day when this government will burst all bounds of size and scope and intrusion into people’s affairs and running all over the world doing whatever it wants. And I think at every point Henry, not that it took a long time for us to get there, but I think Henry is right. It’s a fool’s game to say what would the founders do today? But I’m willing at least to risk and say that Henry would just totally disapprove of the massive, just mind-boggling scope of the American government today.
Mohler: Well, it makes you wonder if you were to go back, for instance, to the debates that are in the Federalist Papers what either side would think of contemporary America because there were those who warned with some false and some very true observations overtime what America would become under this Constitution. And then there were the federalists who pledged that some of the things that very actually quickly did happen would never happen. So it would be fascinating to be able to have a conversation with these principles, but nonetheless, the best we can do is the kind of history that you have so marvelously done. First of all, in your book on the revolution and I want folks to know about that. The title of the book is God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution and that by Basic Books and then the biography of Patrick Henry also by Basic, just out First Among Patriots. There are two questions about Patrick Henry that I want to direct to you, Professor Kidd. The first of them has to do with Patrick Henry not just in terms of the power of his oratory, not just in terms of his revolutionary fervor, not only in just in terms of his Christian commitments, the very deep passionate Christian commitments, but how did he understand the role of virtue as very necessary to a republican government and the people who would be able to conduct themselves according to such a government.
Kidd: Well, the founders, and Henry was one of the leaders on this, they talked routinely of the need for public virtue and that’s a term that we would probably use words like morality or ethics, public spiritedness is another one that they would talk about. They saw that as absolutely indispensible to the survival of the republic. That if you’re going to have a system in which the people are sovereign, then the people have to be willing to look out for the public good and be committed to morality and ethics or that the republic would eventually descend into chaos and probably set the stage for the rise of an autocrat or tyrant to control the people. This was a standard belief among people like Henry, Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, and very common among the patriot movement. And I think that when we hear those things today, secular critics would think, well you’re just talking about these hot button moral issues of today like homosexuality or abortion or something like that. And I always point people to what has just happened in the financial meltdown that we have just had where there is massive malfeasants going on the financial sector, these credit default swaps and bogus mortgages and so forth that are being sold out of a spirit of greed, not public spiritedness and that is largely to blame for the economic meltdown. And I think most Americans would agree that there is a perfect instance that when you get widespread lack of pubic virtue it’s bad for the republic.
Mohler: The other question I wanted to ask you was really going back not only to the American Revolution, but to the period you cover in your first book, The Protestant Interest. You argue in Protestant Interest that the Protestants in America during this period after the Glorious Revolution but before the American Revolution saw the specter, perhaps of Roman Catholicism in terms of the future of the colonies, colonial religion and of the new nation at least during the period you write there of the Protestant Interest during the colonial period. But then if you fast forward to your biography of Patrick Henry and into your work on the American Revolution you make clear that there were a good many among the founding fathers, and mothers for that matter, who were very concerned about deistical religion, in particular the kind of deism represented by France in the post-revolutionary period and perhaps in the United States represented by no one more publically than Thomas Jefferson. Can you draw a line to those concerns?
Kidd: Sure, I mean in the Colonial Period there were these great imperial wars and the memory of the Reformation was very, very strong, and the wars of religion in Europe. And the protestant colonists were constantly afraid of Catholic conflict. It happened in France where the protestant movement was destroyed violently by the French monarchy in the 1680s and they were always afraid that this would happen here. And that fear continues right on into the American Revolution. George Washington, commander of the American army has to put down a Pope’s Day celebration, which is actually November 5th, and he said we’re not going to have these burnings of the Pope in effigy and so forth in the army because we need to have an alliance with the French and so you can’t be doing these kind of things, these kind of anti-Catholic displays. But as time went on, anti-Catholicism remains, but in the 1780s and 90’s, I think it is challenged and some ways replaced for people like Henry by a fear of deism. And Henry believed, and many other American patriots believed that if you turn away from traditional Christianity there will be no principles or spiritual power for the kind of virtue that the republic needed. So in the 1790’s Henry becomes very vocal in his attacks on deism, on the deism of the French Revolution and of Tom Paine. In particular, he sees this now as probably the greatest spiritual, cultural threat to the American republic. Paine is very popular as a deistic writer in the 1790s and Henry begins in the last year of his life, turns to an appeal to traditional Christianity to counter that deistic threat.
Mohler: Now, does that also explain why Patrick Henry was so concerned about the disestablishment of the church in the colonies that indeed this kind of virtue and this kind of Christian culture and civilization required an established church?
Kidd: Yes, absolutely. I mean, he’s not alone in this belief. George Washington believed that we should continue state support for churches, John Adams believed that. And, again, the logic I think is quite simple. If religion is the greatest source of virtue in the Republic and if virtue is indispensible to the life of the republic then the government should support religion. And we should remember, too, the churches are a source of education, a source of public welfare at the time in the absence of welfare state the churches were really the key agencies for that. And so, if you need to have virtue in the republic, Henry believed, then the churches deserved government support. Madison and Jefferson argue that if you get the government out of the business of supporting one denomination in particular that religion will actually end up being stronger, and I think that the facts on the ground, especially the advent of the Second Great Awakening in the immediate aftermath of disestablishment, to me, tends to prove Madison and Jefferson right on that question.
Mohler: Well, it just goes to show that sometimes you can have the right concern, but have the wrong prescription for how to serve that concern. And I certainly think that Patrick Henry had very good instincts when it came to the necessity of very clear commitments to virtue and not only public virtue as he was also concerned for no small amount of private virtue among the citizens. I think he was right to tie that to the restraining and constraining and culture-shaping power of Christianity. But perhaps as awkward as it is to say, I think I have to go with Jefferson on the actual policy that ensures that outcome.
Kidd: That’s right. And especially for Baptists and Methodists, disestablishment was absolutely essential so they could go from being tiny denominations in the era of the Revolution to the largest Protestant denomination at the time of the Civil War. And I think that has a lot to do with disestablishing state churches.
Mohler: And just looking at it even pragmatically, if you go back and you look at established religion and the established churches in the respective colonies that had them, you have to remember that that meant in some cases that other ministers were committing illegal acts in preaching the gospel and at the very least there were privileges given to one church that were not given to others. So we can look back sometimes a bit sloppily, I think, at this era as some contemporary Christians may be want to do without recognizing that the liberties that we now know were hard won and hard fought, not only during the revolution, but for quite a while thereafter.
Kidd: Well, that’s right and the Baptists in particular had experienced terrible persecution even up to the eve of the Revolution there were Baptist preachers who were in jail in Virginia for illegal preaching. And Baptists obviously were terribly concerned about this, but Madison himself, I think, learns the principles of religious liberty from watching the persecution of the Baptists. And so if we wonder why evangelicals and Baptists in particular are driving the movement for disestablishment in the Revolutionary period it is because of their memory of being persecuted by the State Church and the authorities backing them.
Mohler: I have two final questions for you and the first has to do with the Christian intellectual responsibility to come to terms with history. Just ask you to speak to that, you are an historian, you are also a believer, you’re teaching at a research university, you are published at very prestigious American academic presses. Speaking to evangelicals, some within and many without academia, what is our Christian intellectual responsibility when it comes to the understanding of history?
Kidd: Well, I think that history helps us to certainly get better light on current challenges. Throughout our conversation today, we’ve been saying, doesn’t it have immediate relevance to issues that we are struggling with today with the church and politics? And I think that observing the lessons of history help to give us a sense of the accumulated wisdom of the past, the great saints and heroes of the past. I mean I’m still one who believes in historical heroes, that we can have people in the past that we admire as exemplars of virtue and integrity, wisdom, intelligence on all kinds of issues relevant to Christians. And so I think that to the extent that we don’t know about those heroes, people like Jonathan Edwards, people like Patrick Henry, I think that we’re missing out as part of our Christian intellectual and historical heritage. And so I think that in an age of infinite distraction and novelty and sensationalism, I certainly think it’s worth taking a look at our past as Christians and learning the lessons that are available to us there.
Mohler: Lastly, I think I can draw a line. We’ve been speaking about drawings lines, I think I can draw one from your first book The Protestant Interest to Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, your latest book. And I just have to ask you, where does the line go from here? What are your current research interests and, I realize that it may be a lot to ask an author that is just celebrating a release of his newest book, but I think I know you well enough from conversation and from reading your material to know that you’re already working on something else. What would that be?
Kidd: I am, I am. I’m working on a biography of George Whitfield, the great revivalists of the eighteenth century and key revivalist of the Great Awakening, and I am going to do that with Yale University Press. You know Whitfield’s three hundredth birthday is in 2014 so we’re going to time the release of this biography for Whitfield’s three hundredth birthday.
Mohler: Well, I’ll look forward to that. In the meantime, let me express a sincere word of thanks for all that you have contributed to our discussion not only in this conversation, but in your many books. It will be a privilege to talk with you once again once that new book comes out.
Kidd: Thank you very much.
Mohler: And thus the conversation is never just about an individual, even an individual such as Patrick Henry, the subject of the biography by Thomas S. Kidd just published as Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Now when it comes to Patrick Henry, Thomas Kidd has done what he has done in other subject areas, he has begun a conversation, it’s a conversation that will be fascinating to follow in the months and years ahead.
Mohler: This conversation with Professor Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University reminds us of the important of history just in terms of our contemporary self-understanding. We are narrative beings. It is impossible to describe ourselves without beginning to tell a story about when we were born and where and why it matters and where we went to school and who we married. These are all parts of our story and if it is true for us as individuals, it is also true for America as a nation. And if it is true for America as a nation, it is also true for American Christians and especially perhaps for this conversation in terms of American evangelicals and our own self-understanding. The narrative of evangelical history which is just hand and hand with the narrative of evangelical self-definition goes right back to the Great Awakening. It goes back further of course, but it is impossible to talk about contemporary evangelicalism and the issues we face in this generation without seeing the parallels to those very early conversations that took place in the high energy of the Great Awakening and in the other very important events that followed. This conversation with Professor Kidd reminds us that we have to go back again and again. But even as historians, both secular and those with religious commitments go back and review these issues, go back over the same historical terrain over and over again and ask these questions. It is especially important that those with Christian commitments go back and ask the questions that are not only important for our understanding of history but for our understanding of ourselves and of our understanding of evangelical Christianity, its convictions and its mission. We look at the shape of many contemporary controversies; controversies of such things as creeds and confessions and theological accountability; conversations and controversies over enthusiasms and certain aspects of religious experience. And you recognize that many of the headlines that would be very much the fodder for everyday press and conversation among evangelicals today are the very issues that frame the debates going back to the mid-eighteenth century. We cannot understand ourselves without asking the questions about from whence we come and that is not an easy question. Another thing a conversation with an historian like Thomas Kidd reminds us of is that history doesn’t just come to us easily, it requires a great deal of work, that is why we need academic historians who are doing the kind of work that Professor Kidd is doing and are engaged in the kind of conversation that we also get to join. You look at the contributions of historians to our understanding of the Great Awakening just over the last half century and in particular you look back to the historical investigations undertaken by many evangelical historians in terms of not only this period, but of the periods that follow and you recognize that we now have the privilege of having a conversation that is much better informed than those understood by previous generations of evangelicals just over the last century or so. We as evangelical Christians need to encourage the development of the genuine historical conversation, an authentic academic conversation in the academy. We need to be thankful for even those secular historians who are directing their attention to these issues that are of such importance to us. We need to continue the conversation about the obligations of a believing historian who understands these things not only in terms of historical progress and the historical fact and historical interpretation, but also in terms of its meaning, the meaning of these things for our Christian faith and pilgrimage and discipleship. One of the things that I hope comes out of a conversation like this is an increased interest, perhaps an interest sparked even in the particular era of Professor Kidd’s historical investigation and to go and enter the conversation by getting some of these books and reading them yourself and thinking through these issues on your own.
Before signing off I want to invite you to start making your plans to be here at Southern Seminary for our annual Give Me an Answer Conference for college students. The event will be held in 2012 on February the 17th and the 18th. The theme of the conference is Radical. Join me along with David Platt, Kevin DeYoung and Russell Moore as we consider how the gospel of Jesus Christ lays claim upon our lives. For more information visit sbts.edu. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.