A contretemps over Phyllis Wheatley raises important issues about the ways historians communicate with the publicHistorians in the News
tags: evangelicalism, Phyllis Wheatley
John Turner is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University.
Related Link Some Misunderstandings About “Evangelical Historians” and the Study of History By John Fea
I am not among the Twitterati, so this post is rather far outside of my field of expertise.
But when former contributors and blogmeisters of The Anxious Bench face criticism and get swept up in controversy, one has a certain responsibility not to shrink from the field of, er, bloggle.
Last week, Jonathan Merritt took issue with a post written by Thomas Kidd, our founder who later apostatized left for The Gospel Coalition.
Kidd wrote about Phillis Wheatley, an eighteenth-century slave and African-American poet. He notes at the outset that many scholars have overlooked the anti-slavery sentiment in some of Wheatley’s writings, probably in part because in one poem she referred to God’s “mercy [which brought me from my Pagan land / Taught my benighted soul to understand.” Kidd points to a line in Wheatley’s most famous poem, an Elegy to George Whitefield shortly after the famed evangelist’s death. She implores Africans to take Jesus as their Savior. “If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road / You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.” Kidd observes that in a variant edition of the poem, it instead ended with “He’ll make you free, and kings, and priests to God.” “This undoubtedly reflected Wheatley’s desire for her fellow slaves,” Kidd concludes.
It was, I think, the headline of Kidd’s post that bothered Jonathan Merritt: “An Evangelical and the First Published African American Poet.” The title is a bit misleading. The point of Kidd’s post isn’t that Wheatley was an evangelical, though it does lead with that assertion. The point really is that an evangelical African American, enslaved poet was more anti-slavery than some think.
I do not know all that much about Merritt. I’ve read about him on occasion, and I’m predisposed to like anyone who titles a book Jesus is Better Than You Imagined because it’s better than any of my book titles and he’s certainly correct about Jesus.
Merritt suggested that it was “weird” to claim Phillis Wheatley as an “evangelical” “at a time when the movement wouldn’t have her.” He then suggested that Kidd “might need to think on this [the definition of evangelicalism] some more.”
Others soon jumped in, including John Wilson and John Fea. The latter had a full write-up at the indispensable The Way of Improvement. At least in some quarters, this became not a discussion of the definition of evangelicalism, or whether evangelicalism can be defined across the centuries, but a discussion of how academics and non-academics should interact with each other. The ensuing conversation became and partly remains rancorous.
There are a few separate issues here:
1) What’s the definition of “evangelical?” John Wilson suggested that the proper response is zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. He’s not wrong about that necessarily, but defining terms is a responsibility for scholars.
I happen to have Kidd’s biography of George Whitefield three feet away from my home office desk. Here’s his explanation, which I believe exceeds Twitter’s character limit: “Whitefield and legions of other evangelical pastors and laypeople helped establish a new interdenominational religious movement in the eighteenth century, one committed to the gospel of conversion, the new birth, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the preaching of revival across Europe and America.” Kidd likes the “Bebbington quadrilateral,” but he thinks “it does not account for the enormous weight that evangelicals such as Whitefield put on the Holy Spirit’s ministry.”
I’ve written a number of posts here about the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism.” I will spare you a regurgitation, but I am less convinced that a coherent evangelical movement emerged in the eighteenth century and persisted through the twentieth century. I try, whenever possible, to stick with people’s self-definitions, and pay attention to the ways they were described by others. For individuals in the 1740s through 1770s, I rather like Doug Winiarski’s label of Whitefieldians.
2) Was it appropriate for Kidd to associate Phillis Wheatley with this movement? The simplest answer to this question is that Wheatley herself did so. Whether or not it makes sense to label Wheatley an “evangelical,” she definitely was a Whitefieldian, as in, a totally fervent Whitefieldian. And she certainly fits “evangelical” as defined by either Bebbington and Kidd. Certainly not “weird” to suggest that she was an “evangelical.”
3) To what extent should non-academics defer to academic historians on matters of history? John Fea faulted Merritt for being snarky and dismissive (“maybe you should think some more”) to a historian who has written books about precisely the subject matter at hand. Rather attempt to define the word “evangelical” on Twitter, Kidd recommended that Merritt “check out my books on the topic, including my definition of evangelicalism.” Good idea!
I’ve of two minds here. If someone told me that I should think more about whether Mormons are Christians, I might point him or her to my book on the subject. On the other hand, the recommendation of one’s books as an answer to a question rarely goes over well.
We definitely have a problem in our culture by which people who know very little about a given subject (whether that’s tax policy or the environment or history) dismiss experts who have spent years studying things. On the other hand, Merritt knows a bit about evangelicalism. My sense is that once this conversation got started poorly, it got worse.
I love the massive prestige that comes with a Ph.D. and university position, but I also love the democratic nature of history. It’s not an esoteric discipline, though I think the education that one gets in graduate school is enormously helpful (was to me). But unlike quantum mechanics, for instance, ordinary people can engage in discussions about history. (I’m not suggesting John Fea in anyway believes otherwise — quite the contrary given his public engagement). Anyone can identify a historiographical argument and sift through evidence for and against it. But it works best to insert oneself into conversations after one has done a fair amount of that sifting.
4) When it comes to Twitter etiquette, there’s always room for improvement. Actually, that’s already happened.
Update: Merritt retweeted John Wilson’s message about the Advent issue of the Englewood Review of Books (okay, it can’t have hurt that the ERB chose Merritt’s latest as its Book of the Year).
More on the Advent issue of the @ERB: the mag's Book of the Year is @JonathanMerritt Learning to Speak God from Scratch (@ConvergentBooks). Best Theology: @matthewkaemingk Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (@eerdmansbooks).— John Wilson (@jwilson1812) December 17, 2018
Update #2: Merritt expressed his appreciation for TK’s clarification on the word “evangelical” in the mid-eighteenth century.
Helpful clarification here, TK. I appreciate you sharing it. https://t.co/NjZsgjWtTr— Merritt and bright (@JonathanMerritt) December 17, 2018
Merritt and Fea haven’t mended fences yet, but, hey, there are still five days until Christmas. Miracles remain possible.
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