Monday, 19 December 2011

Timothy Larsen on the Victorian Bible

An interesting extended review of A People of One Book has just appeared in Reviews in History, along with a response from Larsen himself.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The TLS & the scandal of the Evangelical mind

This week's TLS makes great reading for anyone interested in Christianity and History. Tom Wright has a two page spread on new studies of Jesus by Joseph Ratzinger (aka the Pope), Maurice Casey and Bruce Fisk. Anthony Kenny has a characteristically fair-minded review of a history of philosophical thought on the soul written by two Christian philosophers. The classicist Kate Cooper considers Peter Leithart's provocative study, Defending Constantine. David Martin reviews a book on secularisation.

Back in 1995, the historian Mark Noll lamented the scandal of the Evangelical mind. This week's TLS suggests that the health of the Evangelical mind might be improving (as Noll himself admits in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind). Exhibit A is Tom Wright, the world's most renowned New Testament scholar; he reviews Bruce Fisk, who teaches at Westmont College, and presents a clever popularisation of recent work on the historical Jesus; the philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro (whom Kenny reviews) have both been involved with the Evangelical Philosophical Society; Peter Leithart is a Reformed theologian with a voracious intellectual appetite; the opening review engages with The Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science, co-edited by David Livingstone FBA, who has worked closely with Noll on the Evangelical response to Darwinism; and the book on secularisation is co-edited by Timothy Shah, a scholar of foreign relations who has been leading a two-year project on 'the opening of the Evangelical mind':

This is not bad for a single issue of the TLS, and it shows how British and American Evangelicals (of various stripes) are producing first-rate scholarship in biblical studies, philosophy of religion, the history of science, sociology and foreign affairs.

Wright's review of the Pope's Life of Jesus can be read online:

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Open Peer Review: a glimpse of the future ?

Dipping one's toe tentatively into the new world of Open Peer Review, a draft paper of mine on archbishop Michael Ramsey is now available for comment and criticism at the History Working Papers Project. The idea is that HWPP can re-create the interchange of a seminar online, with readers commenting on the paper as a whole and on individual paragraphs, with an opportunity for the author to respond, and post revised versions for subsequent rounds of review. More on the HWPP project is available here, and there is some interesting thinking about the direction in which peer review might go by Jane Winters of the IHR.

I am sure that the creators of the HWPP would be delighted to have as many scholars as possible, from every specialism, try to use the site and let them have any feedback.

This particular paper examines the petitions that were made to Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, to call a national day of prayer. It considers the grounds upon which the petitions was made, and the Church’s official reactions to them. In doing so, it sheds light from an unaccustomed angle onto attitudes towards petitionary prayer among some of the British public, on understandings of the role of the archbishop as leader of the nation’s religious life, and of the recent providential history of the nation, particularly during the 1939-45 war.

Monday, 26 September 2011

CHF November Conference: Beyond 1611

The next CHF day conference will be held at St Peter's Vere Street on Saturday 12th November. Our subject is 'Beyond 1611: How the Bible Shaped British Culture'.

The quatercentenary of the King James Bible has focussed largely on the creation of this famous translation. But in recent years, historians and literary scholars have been making exciting new discoveries about the impact of the English Bible on British political and literary culture. This conference showcases some of this new research. The four lectures by experts in the field tell the story of how the Bible captured the British imagination from the seventeenth-century revolutions to the Victorians and beyond. A closing roundtable discussion will consider what contemporary Christians can learn from the Bible’s reception history.

10:30: Tea and Coffee
10:50 Welcome from John Coffey

11.00: Nick Spencer (Research Director, Theos): The Political Bible
12.00: Prof John Coffey (University of Leicester): The Abolitionist Bible

1.00-2.00 Lunch

2.00: Dr Jon Roberts (University of Liverpool): The Romantic Bible
3.00: Dr Mark Knight (University of Roehampton): The Victorian Bible

4.00-4.45: Roundtable: The Use and Abuse of the English Bible

The conference fee is £7.50 (or £5 for students, retired, non-salaried)
To book a place, please email John Coffey at or write to him at School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH. Cheques should be made payable to 'Christianity and History Forum', though it is possible to pay on the day.

Sir Herbert Butterfield

Readers of this blog will no doubt know of Herbert Butterfield's lectures on Christianity and History, originally published in 1949. The Cambridge professor (and Methodist lay preacher) has been the subject of a number of studies, including C.T. McIntire's Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter (2004), but his public image will never look quite the same after Michael Bentley's new work, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield (CUP, 2011). Bentley has unearthed a set of private letters written by the historian to a woman with whom he had a passionate affair in the mid-1930s. The biographer resists the temptation to sensationalise his subject, and offers a sympathetic account of his religious and historical thought. By contrast, Stefan Collini's review in the TLS (19 and 26 August 2011) is kinder to Butterfield's adultery than to his providentialism.

As Collini points out, Butterfield's reputation as an historian has been in sharp decline. His Christian readership has also shrunk, certainly when set aside the immense popularity of his contemporary, C.S. Lewis. Lewis's childlike sense of wonder enjoys a greater appeal than Butterfield's world-weary cynicism. Yet Bentley makes the case for revisiting Butterfield's thought, for taking it seriously, and he deserves a fair hearing.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Evangelicals and the Church of England in the 20th century

Slightly belated, I note the excellent conference that happened at Wycliffe Hall last month, organised by Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden. Whilst declaring an interest, in that I gave a paper myself, it would be fair to say that it was an unusually coherent conference, and which pointed the way towards signficant reinterpretation of the Keele conference and of the relationship between Anglican evangelicals in England and those in the wider Anglican Communion. It also served as a call to serious, nuts-and-bolts work on evangelicalism in the parishes: an investigation that has hardly begun, but for which Mark Smith gave some important signposts.
See also David Ceri Jones' rather fuller reflections on his own blog.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

John Stott

I thought it might be useful to collect together a few of the various tributes to (the late) John Stott that have appeared so far. Very happy to add to this over time.

Useful media files, photos and reflections from the funeral service are available from the Langham Partnership site.

Notices in the religious press
Church Times and Christianity Today

In the broadsheet press and mainstream media
BBC website, Guardian and Independent. I guess the Times has had one too, but as one needs to pay for it, it isn't listed here. For a limited time, also listen to the BBC's Last Word obituary programme.

Personal reflections
From others connected with All Souls Langham Place: Mark Meynell and Richard Bewes. Jim Packer's sermon from a memorial service for Stott in Vancouver is available on YouTube, and a similar one from Peter Jensen here.

Although it won't remain forever, the activity on Twitter is also very interesting, under the hashtag #johnstott. Hopefully more permanent, and surely a new type of source for historians, will be the online remembrance book here.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The language of cloning

I note details of an interesting article by Eric Jensen of Warwick on the current debate about human cloning, at It first appeared in 2005, but is now available online.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

An instructive dispute

An instructive dispute concerning Jane Shaw's recent book Octavia, Daughter of God on the Panacea Society, and more specifically the review of it by Frances Stonor Saunders in the Guardian. Bartholomew's Notes seems to clear the matter up, perhaps more so than the author's own response on the Guardian site.

Whilst not being anywhere near as dramatic as some others of the comments on the article suggest, it does show the pitfalls of research being funded by the (heterdox) organisations, the history of which the work concerns.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Evangelical Millennialism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1500-2000

It's a pleasure to note this new book from Crawford Gribben, some of which was presented at the 2008 'Heaven and Earth' CHF event. More details on the Palgrave Macmillan site.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Hamburger Index

I note an intriguing unpublished paper by Mark Hutchinson of the University of Western Sydney, using the online catalogues of the Library of Congress and the British Library as a means in and of themselves of tracing evangelical concerns between 1960 and 2010. The hamburger index is borrowed from economists looking for an index of currency fluctuation, based on the price of a Big Mac. Similarly, Hutchinson points to an intriguing way of tracing attitudes of those who describe themselves as evangelicals or refer to them, thus to a degree sidestepping all the many difficulties of definition. The use of national libraries suggests one way of doing comparitive work over time and between national communities; and is an example of digital history - of work either impossible or too time-consuming without online catalogues.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Reflections on the Dark Side of Christian History

CHF's recent day conference on the "The Dark Side of Christian History," was attended by over 80 participants. The conference was organised by Stephen Tuck (Pembroke College, Oxford), and here he offers his own review and reflections on the problem of evil in the history of the church.

I once spent an unsettling evening with a former head of the Ku Klux Klan. The meeting was part of my research for a book on the American civil rights movement - a subject that I'd chosen
to study, I now realise, because it was full of Christian heroes of social justice. What was unsettling about that evening was not so much meeting the Klansman (I was prepared for that), but the discovery that he had been a deacon of his local Baptist church at the time.

For Christopher Hitchens in his influential recent book, God is Not Great, such Christian villains throughout history are proof positive that Christianity is not only wrong, it is dangerous. (If you haven't read the book, the subtitle, How religion poisons everything, gives the gist). Hitchens trots through history, in characteristically entertaining fashion, lambasting Christian atrocity after atrocity. It's a deeply flawed book, rehashing an old argument. Some of the history is bogus, and many of the extrapolations are tenuous. Every Christian hero in Hitchens' telling is really a humanist (even Rev. Martin Luther King); every atheist villain is really religious (even
Stalin). Hitchens' main section on the civil rights movement fails to mention the prayer meetings, the (sadly, belated) condemnation of segregation by the mainstream churches, or the fact that if anybody switched sides because of their Christian faith, it was segregationists who moved to support civil rights, rather than vice versa.

But - and it's a big but - there were also plenty of racists who remained convinced that God was on their side. The Klan donated embossed bibles to local churches. And across history, there has been a dark side of Christian activity: missionaries spreading the gospel of empire, evangelical factions killing Catholics, 'Amazing Grace' composer John Newton continuing as a slave trader post-conversion. One could go on. Or as a colleague said to me, 'just a day conference?'

So how to respond?

One way is to 'reach for Wilberforce,' and list the positive influence of remarkable Christians. Or we can do a reverse Hitchens - any good done in the past is true Christianity, any evil done is because people didn't live Christianly enough. There is truth in both approaches. But on their own they ignore a very real question that some have, and a gospel-blocking presumption that most have. They also pass up a chance to learn lessons as believers, and build bridges with sceptics.

At the recent Christianity and History forum, we tried to consider the darker side of the Christian past openly and honestly. For precedent, we have the bible, which does not exactly shy away from the failings of God's people. Christian historians spoke on the subjects of Early Modern violence, the Holocaust, Apartheid, and the roots of past complaints about Christian (mis)behaviour.

The forum brought to light Christians who failed (or were late) to stand for what's good, or
sometimes advocated what's evil; through fear, neglect, apathy, wrong theology, or simply failing to let biblical standards challenge society's norms. Oh that they had lived differently, so that their good works then might earn more of a hearing for the gospel now. (And oh that we might today...)

Clearly, then, there is much to confess. Quite what that might mean in practice is a harder question, not least for church leaders. But for individuals, a starting point is to admit this past
in conversation - and, we will find, it opens up conversation. Having done so, we can begin to set the record straight. Hitchens' book carries power because so many already believe what it says about Christian atrocity after atrocity -- but such beliefs are propaganda rather than fact. We can go on about the dark side of Christian history, but not on and on.

Moreover, recognising the dark side of Christian history reminds us of the dark side of all history. The church should have done far more to oppose the holocaust and apartheid. But so should everyone. People may find solace in films like Schindler's List and heroes like Nelson Mandela. But we forget that many of Hitler's executioners were everyday folk seeking a pay increase, and many of apartheid's supporters were mothers who just wanted better opportunities for their children. People like us. What's striking is how often those who have
condemned Christianity loudest in the past have done so by showing how far it falls short of Christian ideals, rather than by appealing to other codes of behaviour. (Often, it seems, such critics have felt let down personally). What's striking, too, is that Christian wrongdoing has so often been corrected by reformers from within the Church, rather than critics from outside. In other words, we need God's standards to understand evil, and God's teaching to correct it. In sum, we need a God who is good - who won't tolerate the dark side of Christian action. We can startle people that there is One who hates the evil done in His name far more than Hitchens' does. And we need a God who is merciful - all people, not least Christians, need forgiveness. In other words, reflecting on the past, on human behaviour, should take us to the Creator and the Cross.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Patrick Collinson

Those readers who are members of the Church of England Record Society may already have received a copy of The History of a History Man, the memoirs of Patrick Collinson; the volume being a supplement to this year's record volume. It makes for very interesting reading about Collinson's own religious background and his formation as a historian of Christianity, or as perhaps a Christian historian. It is also available directly from Boydell and Brewer.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Offa House conference: 13-15 April 2011

The next in our biennial series of residential conferences will be held at Offa House in Warwickshire starting at 4pm on Wednesday 13 April and finishing with lunch on Friday 15 April. Speakers will include Terry Barringer, Dominic Erdozain and John Wolffe, and there will also be a panel session and extended discussion around the practical vocation and experience of Christian historians.

As in previous years, we warmly welcome and encourage offers of short papers (which may be of an informal ‘work in progress’ kind), lasting up to 20 minutes. These can be on any historical topic: we greatly value contributions that offer a Christian perspective on ‘secular’ historical themes, as well as papers on church/religious history subjects. If you would like to offer a paper please contact John Wolffe ( by 31 January 2011.

Offa House is the Coventry diocese retreat and conference centre, located in a peaceful rural/village setting, but a short taxi ride from Leamington Spa, which has good rail connections to most parts of the country. The food and hospitality are excellent. The cost of the conference will be in the region of £100, with some concessions possible for students, and those presenting papers.