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The Perils of Providential History
by John Fea
For most baby boomers, the name Peter Marshall triggers memories of the straight man who kept Paul Lynde and Charlie Weaver in line as the host of the 1970s game show Hollywood Squares. But a baby boomer raised in the Evangelical subculture might recall Catherine Marshall’s book A Man Called Peter, the biography of her husband, a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister who served two years as chaplain to the United States Senate before his death in 1949 at the age of forty-five. The story of Peter Marshall’s journey from Ellis Island to Washington, and the faith that sustained him along the way, has inspired Evangelical Christians for half a century.
Though his life as a local pastor contains none of the drama or tragedy of his father’s, the Marshalls’ son, also named Peter, may now be even more famous in the Evangelical world than his father. With his friend David Manuel, he is the author of The Light and the Glory, one of the most widely read nonfiction Christian books of all time, with sales close to one million since it was first published by Fleming H. Revel & Co. in 1977.
A Christian Nation
The fact that The Light and the Glory is a book about early American history makes its sales total even more impressive, but what makes the book worthy of reflection, more than thirty years after its publication, is its impact on hundreds of thousands of Christians, including students in home schools and private Christian academies, in promoting a “Christian view” of American history. It was not the first (or the last) book to declare that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” but it has certainly been the most influential.
It is easy to understand why The Light and the Glory has had such staying power in the Evangelical world. While mainstream texts treat American history as if God did not exist, Marshall and Manuel offer a narrative of early American history focused on the sovereignty of God. The authors also tell their story in compelling prose. They occasionally inject their own voices into the narrative to explain how they crafted their argument through research and prayer.
The idea of a book about God’s providential plan for the United States was conceived when Manuel, an editor at Doubleday Books, first heard Marshall speak on the topic at a Cape Cod church in the mid-1970s. Evangelicals were then beginning to awaken from a long political slumber. Jerry Falwell had formed the Moral Majority to win the country back for God, and his armies of pastors were preparing for a culture war.
History would be one of the primary theatres in this war. As America celebrated its bicentennial, conservative Christians seized on the nation’s newfound historical consciousness. The time had come for an alternative version of United States history, one that placed God at the center.
On this particular evening, Marshall was delivering an old-fashioned Puritan jeremiad. America had sinned. Abortion on demand, pornography, divorce, and unethical business practices offered indisputable evidence of moral decay.
These social problems, he argued, were the inevitable product of a faulty view of America’s historical identity. Citizens had failed to remember that the United States was one nation under God. If only Christians could recover God’s special destiny for this country, America could be saved from divine punishment.
The book that resulted asserted that God deals with nations corporately, in much the same way that he dealt with Old Testament Israel. The United States, from the time of its first settlement, was founded to show the rest of the world how to love God and neighbor. God had made a special covenant with this country, not unlike the covenant he made with the children of Jacob.
Throughout its short history, America has occasionally lived up to this covenant, but at other times it has not. The study of the past presents a constant reminder of this unique and ongoing relationship between God and the United States and the role that all Americans, but especially Christians, play in making sure that divine favor rests on this land.
From Columbus to the Pilgrims
Marshall and Manuel begin with the story of Christopher Columbus, the “Christ bearer.” Drawing from the spiritual musings recorded in his private writings, the authors conclude that Columbus was appointed by God to bring the gospel to the “heathen lands” of America. They begin with a question: “What if Columbus’s discovery had not been accidental at all?” Indeed, what if he had “been called by God to found a Christian nation?”
Unfortunately, Columbus’s personal sins—greed and the lust for power and fame seem to be the most glaring—prevented him from carrying out this mission in the way that God had hoped he would. His quest for New World gold consumed him to the point that he turned a blind eye to his men’s rape and murder of thousands of Native Americans.
In the end, because of Columbus’s numerous spiritual failures, God would have to look elsewhere for someone to prepare the way for his “New Promised Land.” The real work of fulfilling the covenant was assigned to those whom God directed to the soil of New England.
It was here that the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay developed a holy commonwealth, a “city on a hill” as Governor John Winthrop put it. The early Pilgrims were “locked in a life-or-death struggle with Satan himself. For this was the first time that the Light of Christ had landed in force on his continent, and if he did not throw them back into the sea at the beginning, there would be reinforcements.”
Seventeenth-century New England Calvinists built communities with churches at their center. They celebrated family and were willing to sacrifice personal interest for the greater good. While it was necessary at times to remove divisive and arrogant members of their community, such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, such exclusion was needed to maintain spiritual purity. (The chapter on Williams and Hutchinson is entitled “The Pruning of the Lord’s Vineyard.”)
The Pilgrims and Puritans were not perfect. Their cosmic engagement with the forces of evil often got the best of them. The City on a Hill faced a major crisis when second- and third-generation Puritans did not convert to Christ. Satan, at times, used witches to torment them.God punished them for their sins with earthquakes and Indian wars.
But God was always faithful even when the Puritans were not. In the end, despite the ever-present threat of evil and the much-to-be-expected consequences of human sin, God was carrying forth his plan. It was only a matter of time before Puritan New England became the United States of America.
Because Marshall and Manuel sought facts from history that seemed to fit their thesis, their narrative is dominated by the story of early New England. Jamestown is covered and dismissed in one chapter, and other colonies (such as William Penn’s experiment in Pennsylvania) and religious movements (such as the Baptists and Anglicans) that shaped early American life are ignored.
The Light and the Glory argues that God was and is always on the side of freedom. The key Bible verse the authors use to support this view is Galatians 5:1: “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Such liberty, interpreted by the authors to mean freedom from political tyranny, is a God-given right that all human beings must fight to preserve.
The American Revolution was not only a just cause, it was the culmination of God’s covenant relationship with America. Christian leaders such as George Washington became instruments to carry out God’s will. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, documents based on Christian principles, were the means by which Americans re-entered their covenant with God.
During the war, God intervened on numerous occasions to protect American forces from defeat and preserve the Continental Army against what appeared to be insurmountable odds. For example, God saved the army from certain death during the “miracle” of the Valley Forge winter. For Marshall and Manuel, there is a direct connection between Washington’s Christian faith and the survival of the troops at Valley Forge:
This, then, was the miracle at Valley Forge. That the men endured was indeed amazing to all who knew of their circumstances. But the reason they endured—the reason they believed in God’s deliverance—was simple: they could believe, because their General did believe.
Moreover, General Charles Lee’s disagreement with Washington over how to attack the British army was not merely a dispute over military strategy but an example of how Lee served the cause of Satan. “As long as Satan has men who have made total commitments to the magnification of their egos,” the authors write, “he seldom has to intervene directly. Here, there was no need for satanic intervention at this crucial moment. . . . Charles Lee was doing just fine.”
Marshall and Manuel want us to see the hand of God at work in history. They seem to know when he is working and when he is not, based on what their sources—largely Puritans and Christian patriots—say. In this, they fail to exemplify the historian’s necessary detachment from his subject.
Just because historical actors believed something about the providential purposes behind the events they experienced does not mean they were correct in discerning the divine will. This would be the equivalent of future historians arguing that the events of September 11, 2001, were a punishment from God because their sources—certain prominent television preachers—said so.
For example, Marshall and Manuel interpret the fog that rose in the East River on the morning of August 30, 1776, as God’s direct intervention to aid George Washington’s midnight retreat from the British assault on the Continental Army’s position on Brooklyn Heights. They describe the fog’s rising as “the most amazing episode of divine intervention in the Revolutionary War.” They believe this because Washington, members of his staff, and many Continental soldiers described this event in terms of God’s special protection of the army.
Was God’s providence evident in this event? American Christians certainly believed that it was, but I doubt whether an English Christian would have thought so. Who had the better insight into God’s purposes?
This is why it is so difficult to write providential history. An appeal to providence in a historical narrative like that of the East River fog of 1776 fails to help us better understand what happened on that day, and to aid our understanding is one of the historian’s primary tasks.
Can a Christian claim to know God’s purposes in history in the way that Marshall and Manuel suggest he can? I remain skeptical. If God’s rule extends over all of history, and his providence subsumes all events, then how can we say that some events—such as those that led to the development of the United States—are more providential than others?
For example, many eighteenth-century Protestants (as well as many contemporary Protestants) believed that God intervened in human history on the side of Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers. Is this true? Perhaps.
But to suggest that the Reformation was an example of God’s providential intervention in the affairs of mankind is to also suggest that God was not overseeing human history before he had to “intervene” at Wittenberg in October 1517.
Similarly, does it really help our understanding of the Revolutionary War to claim, as Marshall and Manuel do, that during the American invasion of Canada, “Divine Providence, it seemed, was dispensed—or withheld—in direct relationship to how close an individual or body of men was to the center of God’s perfect will?” Can God’s providence be “withheld”? What is God’s “perfect will” in matters such as this?
A Dark History
For Christians who believe in divine providence, the study of history certainly presents a conundrum. As believers, we want to know God’s will for our lives. We spend time in prayer and meditation trying to discern what he is calling us to do in the circumstances of our lives. We often look back on our lives and reflect on the way the Lord has led us.
So if we try to discern providence in our own spiritual lives, what is wrong with trying to do the same thing with the most important events of the past? This is a tough question indeed.
Writers such as Marshall and Manuel must be willing to reconcile their certainty about God’s plan for America with St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.” Books like the Light and the Glory often offer a simple and direct providential reading of American history that assumes an understanding of the secret things of God, things that sinful men cannot fathom outside of the Scriptures.
St. Augustine is helpful here. In Book 20 of The City of God Against the Pagans, he reminds us what Christians can and cannot know about God’s work in the world. We can be confident, from what the Scriptures teach us, in the hope of Christ’s return and final judgment. History will end with the glorious triumph of the Son of God.
But as we live with this hope, we must be cautious about trying to pinpoint the specific plan of God in history. We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible because our understanding is so limited. As Augustine writes,
There are good men who suffer evils and evil men who enjoy good things, which seems unjust, and there are bad men who come to a bad end, and good men who arrive at a good one. Thus, the judgments of God are all the more inscrutable, and His ways past finding out. We do not know, therefore, by what judgment God causes or allows these things to pass.
Thirty-one years after its original publication, The Light and the Glory maintains a prominent place on the bookshelves of Evangelical Christians. But it must be read with caution. Perhaps Ambrose Bierce best described Marshall and Manuel’s approach when, in his Devil’s Dictionary, he defined providence as an idea that is “unexpectedly and consciously beneficial to the person so describing it.”
The definition may appear harsh when applied to The Light and the Glory, but it also says much about Christians’ ill-conceived propensity for trying to discern with certainty the purposes of a sovereign God in the past and then using such conclusions to serve present-day political or cultural agendas. As Gilbert Meilaender has reminded us in The Way That Leads There, his recent study of Augustine and the Christian life,
What God is accomplishing in that period stretching from the time of Christ to the final judgment is largely hidden from us. Our task, then, is less to look for signs of the times than to be patient, to wait for God—and, along the way, to carry out our duties faithfully.
Christian historians would do better to approach their task with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand the Almighty’s plans for the nations. We should again take comfort in the words of Augustine: “When we arrive at that judgment of God, the time of which in a special sense is called the Day of Judgment . . . it will become apparent that God’s judgments are entirely just.”
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) and writes for the weblog Religion and American History (www.usreligion.blogspot.com).