ARTICLES

In a Field in Williamstown, the Wittenberg Door of American Evangelical Missions

In the summer of 1806, several dedicated young men attending the Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, began to gather regularly to pray and read reports of the burgeoning work of Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and the new Baptist Missionary Society in England.

On one occasion, while meeting in a field adjacent to the college campus, the students, trapped by a thunderstorm, took shelter in a haystack. Haystacks in 1806 were not the manicured and tightly bound variety that are arranged neatly as viewed from the 21st century roadside.

Rather, these were the versions piled as high as a human could assemble with only a pitchfork and a sundown deadline. Thus, like a quickly assembled snow fort, the young men of Williams dove into and carved out a hay-lined shelter to continue their meeting. What they found, though, was far more rewarding than had they discovered a missing needle.

The “Haystack Prayer Meeting” resulted in the dedication of these young men to personal participation in the global missions task, and the ensuing years led to the entry of a formal American participation with the sending of Adoniram and Ann Judson along with several others to the East.

Herein, we can see a dotted line from 1806 to the present, for the Haystack Prayer event is, in many ways, the Wittenberg Door of American evangelicalism’s awakening to the need and universal call for all believers to support, organize, and send many for global gospel proclamation.

Famously, the Judsons would change from Congregationalists to Baptists en route to Burma, and through them and the aid of Luther Rice, the Baptist Board for Foreign Missions was formed. Now mobilized toward sending and supporting world evangelism, Baptists in America saw and had a need to form a national denomination, and did so in 1814, in what would become known as the Triennial Convention.

This is no small point for our denominationally averse age to miss: the reason why Baptist churches sought to cooperate at a national level, with all of its necessary machinery, politics, stresses and strains, was for the purpose of uniting to send the gospel to those who have never heard (Rom 15:21).

Three decades later, due to the tragedy of many Baptists in the South defending the practice of slavery, this national denomination divided in two, and the Southern Baptist Convention began and, eventually, also the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). But, even through tragedy, the connection to the Haystack remained.

Likewise, many other evangelical denominations can trace their entree into global mission advocacy back to that meeting in the fields behind Williams College, and that is what makes that location and that moment in 1806 so meaningful. For, in that sense, it is right to connect the sending today of any American evangelical missionary to those college students praying during a thunderstorm 213 years ago.

Recognizing the significance of that 1806 prayer meeting, later missions supporters dedicated in 1867 The Haystack Prayer Monument on the grounds of Williams College, where it still resides in the College’s Mission Park. [1]

And this week, the Midwestern New England Study Tour convened in Williamstown to see the monument and to reflect on the 1806 event and to consider the idea of the Haystack Prayer Meeting as the Wittenberg Door for Amercian Great Commission engagement.

In recent years, we have rightly remembered the 500th anniversary of the actual Reformation events the door in Wittenberg helped to launch, events that would encourage the later formation of Williams College and many Protestant churches in New England.

Therefore, in the spirit of the Reformation’s gospel recovery, it is good and right also to consider the impact of a group of praying students, heirs of Wittenberg themselves, on the modern missions movement of global gospel proclamation.

Here we stand (and pray) with them.

The Midwestern Seminary & Spurgeon College New England Study Tour gathered at Williams College, May 14, 2019.

Photos: Ronni Kurtz.

[1] The monument reads, “The Field is the World. The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions.” The selection of the phrase, “The Field is the World,” is an intriguing one, but not unique given the time and missionary context. Taken from Matthew 13:38 and the Lord Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, the correlation of the harvest field to the world appears first as merely background information, a description of the stage on which the parable would take place. However, as many would rightly note, the acknowledgement that the boundaries for the proclamation of the gospel are global is good and significant news for all dwellers in time and space distant from the land of Israel in the era of the New Testament. An example of how a missionary minded preacher interpreted and applied Matthew 13 in the mid-nineteenth century is Gardiner Spring (1785-1873), and his sermon “The Extent of the Missionary Enterprise” (1840).

The Particular Baptists’ Most Important Convert

Henry Jessey (1601-1663) rose to prominence as pastor of the “Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church” [JLJ] in Southwark in early seventeenth-century London during the time when Baptists in England were undergoing their initial formalization.[1]

Jessey never married, wrote extensively, played key political roles during the Interregnum, and preserved the early history of the English Particular Baptist movement, which would grow to shape Baptists around the world.

Further, as the pastor of the church out of which the early English Particular Baptist movement would form, Jessey was a late adopter of the Baptists’ practice of believer’s baptism by immersion.

This immersion came better-late-than-never given his growing prominence and influence as the sustainer of these early Baptists. So much so, many have dubbed Jessey “the most important convert won by the Particular Baptists” in the seventeenth century. [2]

Yet, rarely has Henry Jessey been the subject of dedicated study, despite his mention in almost every text devoted to Baptist history.[3]

This need is why I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to contribute a chapter on Jessey in the revised edition of the recently released first volume of The British Particular Baptists.

My chapter examines one aspect of the life and thought of Henry Jessey for the purpose of  providing further understanding of the historical and theological development among seventeenth-century English Baptists.

To accomplish this, I provide:

  • A survey of Jessey’s conversion and his later adoption of believer’s baptism.
  • An exploration of how Jessey’s understanding of baptism affected the rest of his ecclesiology, or what I call his “mixed” ecclesiology, which would influence John Bunyan and then, even, C. H. Spurgeon.
  • An evaluation of Jessey’s mixed ecclesiology and those it influenced.

Here is more information about this new book:

The British Particular Baptists, Vol 1, Revised Edition

Edited by Michael A. G. Hayin & Terry Wolever
Particular Baptist Press, 2019.


  • British Particular Baptist Biography by Michael A. G. Haykin
  • Thomas Patient (1591-1666) by Dennis Bustin
  • John Spilsbury (1593-ca.1662/668) by James M. Renihan
  • Benjamin Coxe (1595-ca.1676) by Samuel Renihan
  • Hanserd Knollys (ca.1599-1691) by Barry H. Howson
  • Henry Jessey (1601-1663) by Jason G. Duesing
  • Christopher Blackwood (1605-1670) by Malcolm B. Yarnell, III
  • William Kiffen (1616-1701) by Michael A. G. Haykin
  • Edward Harrison (ca.1618-ca.1673) by Jeremy Walker
  • Henry Danvers (ca.1619-1687/88) by Tom James
  • Thomas Delaune (ca.1635-1645-1685) by Andy Compton
  • John Bunyan (1628-1688) by Ben Rogers
  • Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) by Tom J. Nettles
  • Andrew Gifford, Sr. (1641-1721) by Robert Strivens
  • Hercules Collins (a.1647-1702) by Steve Weaver
  • David Crosley (1669-1744) by Jonathan Arnold
  • John Piggott (ca.1670-1713) by Steve Weaver

[1] The JLJ church is common designation for London’s first congregational church established in 1616. It received this name after the first initial of its first three pastors, Henry Jacob (1562-1624), John Lathrop (1584-1653), and Henry Jessey.

[2] Murray Tolmie, The Triumph of the Saints: The Separate Church of London 1616-1649 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 59.

[3] In the centuries following Jessey’s death, many have labored to preserve his legacy, in part, as various accounts of his life were recorded soon after his death. For an analysis of these works see Jason G. Duesing, ed., Counted Worthy: Readings from the Life and Writings of that Ancient Servant Henry Jessey (Memphis, TN: Borderstone Press, 2012) and Jason G. Duesing, Henry Jessey: Puritan Chaplain, Independent and Baptist Pastor, Millenarian Politician and Prophet (Mountain Home, AR: Borderstone Press, 2016).

Coming in 2021: Historical Theology for the Church

I am delighted to share that in 2021 the great team at B&H Academic will publish a new volume called Historical Theology for the Church.

I have the joy of working again with Thomas White and Nathan A. Finn as co-editors and, together, we are joined by a stellar lineup of contributing authors.

What is Historical Theology for the Church (HT4C) ?

HT4C is intended to be used primarily as a general textbook suitable for Historical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Church History classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Pastors with a college or seminary education will also be helped and may decide to use the textbook as a resource for teaching historical theology to their congregations.

HT4C will treat the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook intends to show the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations.

Here is an excerpt from my introduction to the volume that presents a retrospective survey of the history of historical theologies with a view toward articulating the prospects of the pursuit of the task of crafting historical theology for the church.

Who are the contributing authors for HT4C?

Introduction – Jason G. Duesing
Theology in the Patristic Era, AD 100-500
Chapter One – The Trinity, Luke Stamps
Chapter Two – Jesus Christ, Steven A. McKinion
Chapter Three – Scripture and Tradition, Stephen Presley
Chapter Four – Salvation, Dongsun Cho
Theology in the Medieval Era, AD 500-1500
Chapter Five – The Church, Zach Bowden
Chapter Six – Salvation, W. Madison Grace II
Chapter Seven – Scripture and Tradition, William M. Marsh
Theology in the Reformation Era, AD 1500-1700
Chapter Eight – Scripture, Matthew Barrett
Chapter Nine – Salvation, Stephen Eccher
Chapter Ten – The Church, Thomas White
Theology in the Modern Era, AD 1700-2000
Chapter Eleven – Scripture and Authority, Nathan A. Finn
Chapter Twelve – Creation and Humanity, TBD
Chapter Thirteen – The Trinity and Jesus Christ, Matthew J. Hall
Chapter Fourteen – The Holy Spirit and Salvation, Owen Strachan
Chapter Fifteen – The Church, Jeremy M. Kimble
Chapter Sixteen – Last Things, Malcolm B. Yarnell III
Conclusion – Editors

When will HT4C be available?

Our projected date of publication is February, 2021. Check back here for updates and more information in the months ahead.

Christian Living–In Our Heads, In Our World

This week I had the opportunity to spend some time with faculty, students and friends at the great Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. In addition to meeting with students to talk about what it would look like for them to continue their education at Midwestern Seminary #forthechurch, I spoke twice in chapel.

In two messages, I aimed to help students think through (1) how to live the Christian life when we face internal challenges and temptations in our minds and then (2) how to live when we face external challenges and temptations in the surrounding culture.

The answers to these questions are ones I first learned, in part, as a new believer in my undergraduate years, but, candidly, am still learning. In part, these were two messages I needed to revisit and review this week, and I am glad Cedarville gave me the opportunity to do that.

Here is the first message, “The Most Important Discipline I Learned in My 20s: Conquering Sin by Remembering and Reminding” (Ephesians 2:11-13).

Here is the second message, “Is this a dream? No, It’s far worse … and better” (Psalm 73)

I’ve been thinking through these themes for a few years and, thus, you can read some earlier thoughts in article form on each message here and here.

Cedarville University has risen to the top as one of the best schools in Christian Higher Education in their theological commitments, integration of the Bible throughout the curriculum, and overall campus community and campus life. In addition, they have a near 100% job placement rate for graduates to career employment. Cedarville University is a wonderful place for future students to consider for their undergraduate studies.

The Most Important Discovery I Learned in Seminary

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is one of the greatest novels, and for good reason. Melville writes in such a way that you have to stop just to marvel at the way he crafts a sentence.  Even Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Marylinne Robinson, is left without many words when describing Melville,

“What can we say? He had a gift.” [1]

Yet, to read Moby-Dick is to encounter many new areas of knowledge that appear tangential or skippable. There are chapters that cover biology, geography, nautical intricacies, and more information about whales and the use of whales in the 19th century than you might imagine.

It is said, if you want to learn about 19th century sewer systems, read Les Misérables, if you want to know all there is to know about whales, read Moby-Dick. [2]

Yet, while in the middle of reading, it may seem tangential, the details all serve a purpose—Melville is driving you toward a final battle with the White Whale, and one cannot appreciate the magnitude of that battle, in full, without first going on his instructional journey. 

In the same, yet even more majestic and glorious way, is the use and value of the Old Testament.

When one reads through the Old Testament, inspired as it is by God Himself, one often needs to stop just to marvel at the words and the One they describe—his might, his mercy, his mystifying patience—his character.

What can we say, He is a gift. 

Yet, to read the Old Testament is to encounter many new areas of knowledge that might appear tangential or skippable. There are chapters on genealogy, indices of laws, detailed descriptions of movements of people, lengthy poetry and prophecy—instructions we may not fully understand. 

Yet, when “reading through the Bible,” while some parts may seem tangential, they do serve an ultimate purpose.  God, through his authors, is driving you toward His Christ—and one cannot appreciate the magnitude of His life, death, and resurrection, in full, without first going on this instructional journey.

This journey is one I started while in seminary and it is where I learned my most important discovery: I absolutely love and treasure the Old Testament.  

Last year around this time, I preached a message in Midwestern Chapel I called “The Most Important Discipline I Learned in Seminary,” which followed from my 2017 message The Most Important Doctrine I Learned in Seminary.”

This year, I returned to this theme with “The Most Important Discovery I Learned in Seminary.” For this discovery of my love for the Old Testament proved (and still proves) to be one of the greatest sources of joy, comfort, correction, and illumination I have found in living the Christian life.

Using the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10:11, I aimed to show:

  1. The Old Testament was written for us to see God’s character
  2. The Old Testament was written for us to read God’s instructions
  3. The Old Testament was written for us to see God’s Christ

To hear the entire message with further explanation along with my suggestions for how to put this discovery into practice, you can watch this recording from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary & Spurgeon College:

[1] Drew Bratcher, “Reading Moby-Dick with Marylinne Robinson,”  The Gospel Coalition May 1, 2018.

[2] For more introduction to the reading of Moby-Dick see Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? (Penguin Books, 2013); R. C. Sproul, “The Unholy Pursuit of God in Moby-Dick,” Tabletalk, August 1, 2011; James Hamilton, “Tenants, Traps, Teaching, and the Meaning of Melville’s ‘Moby Dick,’” For His Renown, June 14, 2011; Connor Grubaugh, “James and Melville, Two American Minds,” First Things, February 2, 2018.

The Silver Chair and the Solas

C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair begins just like the three preceding Narnia books.[1] Following a suspenseful event, children in England find themselves transported to the magical land through an extraordinary doorway. Yet what makes the story of The Silver Chair unique is what happens when they arrive.

In this story, the cousin of the children in the earlier tales, Eustace Scrubb, and his friend, Jill Pole, are talking at school and Eustace tells her about this land to which he has traveled and together they start calling Aslan, the Lion lord of Narnia, to ask if they can return. As they are talking, they are chased by some other schoolmates and they run to a door and open it only to find they are in Narnia.

There they find they are in a forest at the edge of a cliff and, long story short, after a moment, Eustace falls off the cliff, and before Jill knows what happened, the lion Aslan appears and doesn’t roar or speak, but rather breathes—and he, in effect, breathes wind strong enough to capture Eustace and send him further and safely into Narnia. Bewildered, Jill turns and encounters the Lion, who gives her a task and then explains that he will send her into Narnia via his breath, just as he sent Eustace.

Aslan commands, “Walk before me to the edge of the cliff.” So the girl walks to the edge with nothing between her and the depths but a powerful Lion. “But long before she had got anywhere near the edge, the voice behind her said, “Stand still.” And Aslan reminded her of his instructions.

Lewis then explains that as the Lion’s voice grew softer, “To [Jill’s] astonishment she saw the cliff already more than a hundred yards behind her, and the Lion himself a speck of bright gold on the edge of it. She had been setting her teeth and clenching her fists for a terrible blast of lion’s breath; but the breath had really been so gentle that she had not even noticed the moment at which she left the earth [and] floating on the breath of the lion was so extremely comfortable. She found she could lie on her back or on her face and twist anyway she pleased, just as you can in water.”

Jill Pole was passive, along for the ride on the vessel or bridge of the breath of a Lion. She was delivered by word-speaking-breath alone to Narnia. She would never think of boasting that she crossed that cavern of air on her own strength, yet she traveled in responsive obedience to the Lion’s command. Further, she was sent to do good works, but her good tasks were the fruit of what she would do after she was transported by breath alone, not the cause.

Aside from acknowledging the journey across the divide, she did not conclude that she had nothing more to do once she arrived—far from it. She didn’t set off following her own desires or sit and do nothing. Rather, it was clear she was transported for a purpose. Further, she could receive no praise for delivering herself to Narnia, all credit clearly had to go to the Lion.

Aslan’s delivery of Jill to Narnia is a helpful picture of what the Bible articulates as saving faith and what the Protestant Reformers called sola fide or faith alone. What is more, for those of us living in the twenty-first century, how one understands the relationship of their faith in Christ and their obedience to Christ makes all the difference for living a life of joy and God-glorifying freedom.

Thinking through this idea of “Faith Alone” was my assignment for a chapter in the new book edited by Jason K. Allen, Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church (Moody Press, 2019).

In that chapter, I explore first what the Bible says in Romans 1:16–17. Next, to provide historical context and illustration, I examine how faith alone played an instrumental role in the conversion of a Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther. Finally, I summarize how faith alone serves the believer well for all that God asks of us in the present day.


Here is more information about this new book:

Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Reforming the Church

Jason K. Allen, General Editor
Moody Press, 2019.

Available from Amazon & Moody.


  • Foreword – Tony Merida
  • Introduction – Jason K. Allen
  • Scripture Alone – Jason K. Allen
  • Grace Alone – Jared C. Wilson
  • Faith Alone – Jason G. Duesing
  • Christ Alone – Matthew Barrett
  • Glory to God Alone – Owen Strachan
  • Conclusion – Jason K. Allen

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (MacMillian, 1953).

In the Fog, There are Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts –2 Thessalonians 2:16–17

G. K. Chesterton called Charles Dickens the poet of fog.[1] In A Christmas Carol the fog of London serves as a backdrop from which characters emerge with lamps, light.

When Scrooge is first greeted by the caroling of “God bless you merry gentlemen,” he responds such that “the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog.”[2]

Of the fog in Dickens, Chesterton remarks that fog is not used as dismal or dark, but rather something that draws in and, in the case of Scrooge, corners.  Fog  “makes the world small, in the same spirit as in that common and happy cry that the world is small, meaning it is full of friends.”[3] The fog of London brings Scrooge messengers and eventually sees him return to friends.

In this sense Chesterton picks up on the theme of comfort in Dickens. For comfort, he says, “belongs peculiarly to Christmas; above all it belongs pre-eminently to Dickens.”[4] The fog draws Scrooge inward to a place of comfort. For inside there are fires and feasts. Chesterton explains:

“The beauty and the real blessing of the story do not lie in the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or improbable; they lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything round him.”[5]

In our day, we live in a fog. Current events and the conflict of culture pervade our streets and the airwaves in which we live and move. Yet, often when burdened by this fog and darkness we fail to see it as a reminder to move us to places of comfort. Places with fires and friends. Places that arrive naturally at this time of year.

George McDonald said Christmas Day is the “one day that blesses all the year.”[6] This is because at the heart of Christmas day is a message of comfort. Sung and proclaimed is a declaration of kingly coronation, the heralding of a kingdom that brings “tidings of comfort and joy.”

The promise of a Messiah-King came in a blessing from the patriarch Jacob to Judah that through him a king will reign (Gen 49:10). Chris Bruno explains, “It was into this broken family line that God promised the scepter of kingship, the ruler’s staff. But the descendant of Judah would not only be the king of Israel, he would also be a king over the nations.”[7]

After hundreds of years, the people of God saw part of this prophecy fulfilled with the rise of King David about whom the prophet Nathan declares that the Lord “will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:13). Yet, this ruler revealed only, in part, what was yet still to come.

As Andreas Köstenberger reminds, “The Old Testament ends with the messianic promise unfulfilled,” and “The entire New Testament begins with a verse that declares Jesus to be the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the long awaited Messiah!”(Matt 1:1)[8]

Thus, when the angel of the Lord brought to the shepherds the “good tidings of great joy,” (Luke 2:10), they were marking the end of years of intertestamental silence about the coming messiah. Into the darkness of night emerged a lamp, a light. Jesus Christ came as King and reigns as King.

Pontius Pilate would ask Jesus about his monarchy and Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37).

This life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is what J. I. Packer calls the message of Christmas:

“The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity–hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory–because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross. It is the most wonderful message the world has ever heard or will hear.”[9]

As a commentary for early Christians to understand this further, the author of the biblical letter to the Hebrews would connect the Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah-King to Jesus explaining that God the Father said of God the Son, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom” (Heb 1:8, Ps 45:6).

And John declares Jesus is “the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev 1:5). In our day, he rules at the right hand of the Father (Eph 1:20-23) though we do yet see “everything in subjection to him” (Heb 2:8).

Yet, though already reigning King, Jesus will come again to rule and reign in full. Into our world of darkness of fog, he will return and dwell with us and reign over us. Then “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

Just as Dickens used fog as a backdrop in which to drive Scrooge to light, friends, comfort–God uses the fog of darkness in our own day for good. Indeed, Chesterton’s final description of Dickens’s work serves as a fitting description of our own day, and our own future in Christ:

“The story sings from end to end like a happy man going home; and, like a happy and good man, when it cannot sing it yells. It is lyric and exclamatory, from the first exclamatory words of it. It is strictly a Christmas Carol.”[10]

The story of the reigning and returning Messiah-King, our Lord Jesus Christ is the Christmas Carol. May this bring tidings of comfort and joy, into the fog, this Christmas.


——

As I’ve been thinking about these ideas this month, I sought to incorporate them into our family Christmas card through this sketch.

Merry Christmas to you and yours and a Happy New Year.

——


[1] G. K. Chesterson, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (Dodd Mead, 1910), 169.

[2] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Puffin, 1843 [2014]), 13.

[3] Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 168-169.

[4] Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 165.

[5] Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 173.

[6] George MacDonald, Within and Without (Scribner, 1872), 125 cited in Timothy Larsen, George MacDonald and the Age of Miracles (IVP, 2018), 21.

[7] Chris Bruno, The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses (Crossway, 2015), 52.

[8] Andreas J. Kӧstenberger and Alexander E. Stewart, The First Days of Jesus (Crossway, 2015), 38-39.

[9] J. I. Packer, “The Son’s Gift,” in Knowing God Through the Year (Hodder, 2017), 29.

[10] Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 173.

Mr. President, Can You Tell Us About Your Relationship With Jesus Christ?

I’ve spoken only to one U.S. President. 22 years ago this week, I asked George Herbert Walker Bush (1924-2018) a question. 22 years later, during the week of his passing, I find myself still thinking about the kind and gentle answer he gave.

As a Speech Communications major at Texas A&M University, I was invited to hear President Bush give a lecture on presidential rhetoric December 2, 1996 titled “Presidential Leadership and the Management of International Crises.” A well-attended event, this presentation was a part of the lead up to the forthcoming 1997 dedication of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Center and the Bush School of Government & Public Service.

Those were heady days in College Station, Texas. Jersey Street, one of the main and well-known thoroughfares in town, at least since the time my father and sisters went to school there, was renamed in honor of Bush.  The small regional airport now welcomed dignitaries and other former presidents. Thus, to get to hear this president on the eve of so much of the world coming to our college town was special, hard to take in, and comprehend.

Bush gave his lecture in a stadium-seating auditorium and a classmate of mine and I sat half-way up, behind the faculty and other noted guests, in a crowd totaling nearly a thousand. I remember marveling at the dignity and grace of President Bush, something we all know well now and have recounted this week in a myriad of tributes.

At the time, Bush was popular in College Station, but the books on his presidency had yet to be written and an assessment of his life had not yet come into full view for the world, and certainly not for me. He spoke of the challenges of leadership and, true to form, used self-deprecating humor, even playing clips of the comedian Dana Carvey’s caricatures. It was a great event and a great day.

At the conclusion of Bush’s lecture, there was time for students to ask questions. My heart started beating faster as I was not known as an “asker of questions,” but I had come prepared. To the surprise of my friend, I got up and asked George Herbert Walker Bush, “Given all you have seen and the crises you have managed, can you tell us about your relationship with Jesus Christ?”

At one level this was a sincere question—no aim at snark or gotcha. I was given the opportunity to ask a question, and I wanted to know what he thought. At another level, this was a test.  Not for President Bush, but for me.  A test of my new faith and my trust in God.

I had only been a believer in Christ Jesus for eighteen months at that time and would, in the next few days, receive baptism from the local Southern Baptist church I was attending.

Perhaps it was preparation for baptism that had me thinking about the public profession of my faith, I am not sure. But I remember thinking and praying before the event started and concluded that if there were time for questions, I wanted to ask President Bush about his faith and the role it played in his presidency. The test for me was whether I was willing to stand in public and ask such a question. Was I willing to run the risk of running the gauntlet of the crowd’s opinions and critique? Was I willing to stand and declare Christ openly?

Once I asked my question, the hundreds of people sitting between me and President Bush, including my professors, all turned and stared, and some glared, at me. There was a silence in that loud auditorium that seemed to last for five minutes, though I am sure it was only seconds.

In response, President Bush smiled. He then gave a gracious, self-deprecating explanation of his faith and, as a part of that, did affirm his faith in Christ.  There was an Episcopalian joke in there, too, and as someone reared in that tradition, I felt a connection, a bond, instantly with this man.

I now know Bush’s answer to my question was a response he gave elsewhere and to others.  His biographer, Jon Meacham, reported that the former president once was asked if he was “born again.” Bush replied, “If by ‘born again’ one is asking, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ then I could answer a clean-cut ‘Yes.’ No hesitancy, no awkwardness.”[1]

But to me, in that auditorium, as someone trying to work out my newfound faith, it was quite inspiring.

After the event concluded, I remember leaving and my friend saying “I. can. not. believe. you just asked that question!”  I don’t recall what I said, but I remember smiling and trembling.

I went back to my apartment also stunned that I had just asked a former President of the United States any question at all. I kneeled by a chair where I had started a new practice of reading the Bible daily and I read this from Psalm 8:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3–4 ESV)

I prayed and wondered who am I that God is mindful of me? I wondered at God’s helping me to even ask President Bush that question in public, and I wondered at President Bush’s kind, gentle answer.

Seeing President Bush laid to rest in College Station, Texas has stirred my mind and heart to remember that day 22 years ago.

Looking back now, I see a new believer still working out the questions of life and his place in the world. I also see a kind, gentle President giving a gracious response and testifying in public to his faith in Christ.

 

Jason G. Duesing is the author of Mere Hope: Life in An Age of Cynicism (B&H Books, 2018) and serves in academic leadership at Midwestern Seminay & Spurgeon College.

[1] Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Random House, 2015), 298.

Historical Theology for the Church?

This week I am in Denver, Colorado for the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society where I presented a paper reviewing the past and present of historical theology while considering what it would mean to do historical theology for the church. What follows is an excerpt from the first half of that paper. The entire paper will function as an introduction to a new volume, Historical Theology for the Church, from B&H Academic, of which I am serving as co-editor with Nathan A. Finn and Thomas White.

The Lord’s Remembrancer

When David Levin set out to describe the early years of the life of Cotton Mather (1663-1703), he dubbed him “the Lord’s Remembrancer.”[1] This title is, no doubt, taken from the oldest functioning judicial position in England, the King’s Remembrancer. Established in the twelfth century, this clerk serves the monarchy by reminding of previous business recorded. Yet, bestowing Mather with this honorific comes with some controversy given his role in the Salem witch trials. That chapter in Mather’s life often overshadows his prodigious work as historian, biographer, and biblical commentator.

Mather’s magnum opus, the Magnalia Christi Americana, is an example of his careful work and is the primary reason why Levin gives Mather the title of the Lord’s Remembrancer. Written to provide an ecclesiastical history of New England, Levin praises Mather for his faithful historical work stating that his “strength as a historian grows out of the range and number of his examples, and the persistence of his theme – the piety, the faith, the struggle, the perplexity, and the resignation in dozens of actual lives.”[2]

Such is a fitting description of the task of the historical theologian—a servant of the church who reminds present and future readers of previous actions and theological developments from earlier eras in the history of Christianity. As the Lord’s Remembrancers, faithful historical theologians have the opportunity of serving the church present and future, but what does that entail? How is this work done? This paper will present a retrospective survey of the history of historical theologies with a view toward articulating the prospects of the pursuit of the task of crafting historical theology for the church.

What is Historical Theology?

Before examining the past or considering the future, one needs first to ask whether it is possible even to arrive at an evaluation of theology in history? C. S. Lewis, as one answering this question, remarked that most history cannot be known, and asserted that “A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded.”[3] Lewis was not saying nothing from history can be known for he recognized that “important parts of the past survive.”[4] Therefore, what is recorded is worth knowing and analyzing, and from that one can discern truths about the past to the degree that comparisons to other eras can be made, and one can track the way the authors understood various doctrines in their own time and context.

If studying the past has value, and truth from the past can be ascertained to formulate a field of study called history, what then is historical theology? The next section will examine the history of historical theology, how long historians have been studying the development of theology in history, and who are the primary figures, but for now this section aims to arrive at a common definition. Essentially, historical theology is a process of historical inquiry that serves and supports other distinct but compatible disciplines.  On the way to arriving at a definition of historical theology, a helpful approach is to set historical theology in relief against these other disciplines.

First, historical theology complements systematic and biblical theology by providing a historical context for classical doctrines whether they find their organization by a collection of biblical references across the Bible (systematic) or through each book and from the cannon as a facet of the story of the Bible (biblical).

Second, historical theology complements church history by providing a repository for the historical development of doctrines alongside the development of the people, places, events, and social factors that comprise the story of the history of Christianity. Church history reviews the history of the theologians while historical theology investigates the theologians’ ideas.

Alister McGrath notes that this teaching function of historical theology as a pedagogical tool is unique to the field.[5] The study of historical theology allows Christians and churches to make sense of what they have inherited as well as to receive instruction from those who have lived in other times and who persevered through other trials. McGrath explains, “It is virtually impossible to do theology as if it had never been done before. There is always an element of looking over one’s shoulder, to see how things were done in the past, and what answers were then given. Part of the notion of ‘tradition’ is a willingness to take seriously the theological heritage of the past.”[6]

To illustrate this function, consider what happens when a person walks up to observe two other people playing the game of Chess. The two opponents started the game some time previous and thus the onlooker is forced to survey the Chess board, make an assessment of what has happened, who is winning, whose turn is next, and who has the advantage. The onlooker observes a game in progress and, depending upon her knowledge of the game, is forced to put the pieces together in order to appreciate what is happening. The more one knows the game, the more one can adapt to this quickly, but anyone would prefer to have observed the game from the beginning to appreciate the match in full.

Second to that, the onlooker would find help if the opponents paused their game to explain to her how many moves had occurred, what mistakes had been made, and what each player was thinking at the time. A third level of intrigue and complexity could occur should one of the players leave his game and ask the onlooker to take over and play for him. At this point, for the onlooker to have a chance, she would have to have knowledge, experience, and a sense of not only what she has inherited, but also what she should do next.

Such it is with the study of historical theology. Christians of the present and future, once they start their journey in the Christian life, either as individuals or in local churches, are put in the position of the onlooker. Christians before them are playing or have played many Chess games with the Christian tradition, each developing their skills with the doctrines of the Bible as well as contributing new understanding to how the Christian life is lived in each era and under unique circumstances. The onlooker is helped if she has the opportunity not only to study and learn in community the rules of the game, that comes through the study of the Bible, but also to learn from and observe other Christians, nearby and in previous ages, how they have done the same.

Further, often in local churches or in families, the onlooker is asked to take over a game when they are brought into a church tradition, or move to a new community, or join a new Christian family. The discipleship that comes through the study of historical theology can aid the onlooker in understanding her new surroundings, what has taken place before, and how to know what should take place next. Historical theology is the pedagogical tool to aid Christians with these situations they will encounter.

In terms of formal definitions of historical theology as a discipline, this paper presents three of the most common to show a mutual understanding before concluding with an original definition.

Timothy George (1986) defined historical theology as “the study of what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the Word of God.” [7]

Alister McGrath (1998) defined historical theology as “the branch of theological inquiry which aims to explore the historical development of Christian doctrines, and identify the factors which were influential in their formulation.”[8]

Gregg Allison (2011) defined historical theology as “the study of the interpretation of Scripture and the formulation of doctrine by the church of the past.”[9]

This section concludes with the following working definition: historical theology is the study of the development of Christian doctrine and tradition from the Bible, by the church, and for the church.

[1] David Levin, Cotton Mather: The Young Life of the Lord’s Remembrancer, 1663-1703 (Harvard, 1978).

[2] Ibid., 262.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “Historicism,” in Christian Reflections ([Eerdmans, 1967] Harper Collins, 2014), 132.

[4] Ibid., 134.

[5] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology (Wiley-Blackwell, [1998] 2012), 12.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Timothy George, “Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church,” in Review & Expositor 4 (Fall 1987), 703.

[8] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology, 9.

[9] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology (Zondervan, 2011), 23.

Don’t You Stir A Step: The First Californian Believer’s Baptism

This week, I am traveling to California for some meetings related to my work at Midwestern Seminary. As I was born in the Golden State, I always enjoy returning there.

In particular, I’ve been interested in the history of Christianity in California, and especially the development of my own Baptist tradition—for such history is not that old.

As I was traveling today, I recalled this short overview I wrote a few years ago that gives a brief account of the start of the Baptists in California and a reflection on how this history can give us hope for the present and future.

In November 1848, Osgood Church Wheeler, serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jersey City, New Jersey attending the regular Minister’s Meeting at the First Baptist Church of New York. While there a messenger from the American Baptist Home Missionary Society pulled him aside and asked him to meet with the Secretary who promptly stated, “We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary.” Wheeler immediately declined having only served in Jersey City for less than a year and despite repeated requests in the coming weeks, maintained his belief that he was not to go.

The Society continued their requests making daily contact for sixteen days. The president of the Society, and current pastor of FBC New York, S. H. Cone, spoke at length to Wheeler attempting to convince him of the greatness of the work and the need for Wheeler to see this as an assignment of personal duty. But then Cone turned and said, “But do you know where you are going my brother? I would rather go as a missionary to China or Cochin-China, than San Francisco. Don’t you stir a step, my brother, unless you are prepared to go to the darkest spot on earth.”

Wheeler recounted, “on the morning of the sixteenth day, after a night of prayer, without sleep, and at the close of an unusually earnest and agonizing season at family devotions, a burden as distinct as that which rolled from the shoulders of Bunyan’s Pilgrim, at the foot of the cross, was removed from my shoulders, and my wife and I arose simultaneously, and without the interchange of a word, both broke out in the song:

To God I am reconciled;
His pardoning voice I hear;
He owns me for His child,
I will no longer fear.

An hour later, Wheeler sent word to the Secretary and despite doubts of ability and schedule, found he and his wife on a steamer departing for San Francisco on December 1, 1848.

After enduring great hardship and trials both in the westward journey and in the early months in California, Wheeler managed to establish a place of ministry and worked steadily among the many people who had taken the same path to the west in search of gold. One such individual was Col. Thomas H. Kellam, of Virginia, who arrived in March 1849. As the Religious Herald reported, Kellam, like the prodigal had traveled “in pursuit of the shining dust of the earth,” but in the course of his journey “found the gold tried in the fire, the pearl of great price.” Kellam, in a letter home wrote, “It is my privilege to communicate the intelligence that will be pleasing to you and to all my friends who love the Savior. I now thank my Heavenly Father I am able to inform you I have found peace in Jesus, and have all confidence in Him, that he is able to save me.”

Wheeler recounted that Kellam’s first task upon arrival in San Francisco was to find the missionary and request baptism and membership with the church—as he was well acquainted with the Baptists and desired to identify with them. Wheeler brought him before the church and after hearing his experience, the church voted to bring him as a candidate for baptism.

Wheeler presented the events of Kellam’s baptism:

“On the following Sabbath morning—it was the 21st of October, 1849, one of those lovely mornings that characterize San Francisco climate in autumn; clear, still, warm and cheerful to the fullest extent, we assembled at our humble sanctuary, on the north side of Washington street, one door east of Stockton.

“We had such a congregation as perhaps never assembled at any other time or place. The other churches in the city suspended their morning service. Their pastors with their officers and the body of their congregations were present and joined in the procession […]

“We formed with due deference to the rank and standing of our guests, and marched down Stockton street to Union, to Powell, to North Beach, where the water was shallow with sandy bottom. There was no wind that morning, and the water was clear and calm as a pond in the country.

“The whole train, from the church to the beach (about three quarters of a mile), marched with decorum and precision you would expect to see in a platoon of the regular army or nave on dress parade. At the water each department of the long and numerous procession took its assigned position in silence, and gave to all the exercises the most undivided attention.

“Rev. S.H. Willey, of the Presbyterian mission at Monterrey, who had been a fellow passenger with me from New York to that place, was on my left and, at my request, read portions of Scripture and announced they hymn. He was deeply moved, having never before witnessed the ordinance of baptism in the Bible mode, though born, reared and educated in New England and New York. Rev. Mr. Hunt of the Congregational Church was on my right and offered the baptismal prayer […]

When all was ready, the candidate, a noble specimen of man, 6 feet 2 inches tall and finely proportioned, took my hand, and we walked about 100 yards before reaching a depth of water sufficient for the ordinance. While we were thus going ‘down into the water,’ according to previous arrangement, the hymn was announced and the first two stanzas sung by the whole concourse; the last two were ‘coming up out of the water,’ (after the baptism in the scriptural form).

“And such singing I never elsewhere heard. It seemed as though every professional and every layman, every soldier and every marine, every officer and every subordinate, every citizen and every foreigner of the vast throng was suddenly and specially inspired by the holy grandeur and the spiritual significance of the divine ordinance which we were administering, to sing for that once, if never again on this side of heaven, with the fullness of both his spirit and his voice.

“And as we neared the shore and the song rang out the mighty paean of the last stanza, it seemed to evoke responsive strains from before the ‘great white throne,’ which, as they rolled over the battlements of the New Jerusalem, came down to mingle with and sanctify our best efforts to ‘Magnify the Lord’ in songs and praise to the Great Jehovah.

“The hymn was that inimitable effusion, written by Dr. Adoniram Judson, to be sung at the first baptism in the Burman Empire, at the beautiful pond on the bank of the Irrawaddi, at Rangoon, June 27, 1819, reading as follows:

“Come, Holy Spirit, Dove Divine
On these baptismal waters shine,
And teach our hearts, in highest strain
To praise the Lamb for sinners slain

“We love Thy name, we love Thy laws
And joyfully embrace Thy cause;
We love Thy cross, the shame, the pain
Oh, Lamb of God, for sinners slain.

“We plunge beneath Thy mystic flood,
Oh, plunge us in Thy cleansing blood;
We die to sin, and seek a grave
With Thee, beneath the yielding waves.

“And as we rise, with Thee to live,
O, let the Holy Spirit give
The sealing unction from above,
The breath of life, the first of love.”

Thus, on October 21, 1849, in the bay of San Francisco, Thomas H. Kellam was the first to undergo believer’s baptism on that coast of the Pacific.

Since that day, testimonies arising from scores of churches all over the Golden State represent the Kingdom fruit of the gospel sown over the last 170 years. And yet, like a small pebble thrown into a large lake, this legacy began when O. C. Wheeler responded to the call of, “We want you to go to California as our pioneer missionary.”

Today, I pray and wonder whether God might continue to expand his Kingdom through a similar call to many other willing missionaries like Wheeler. For cities like Toyko and Dhaka, or for nations like North Korea or Somalia, men and women are needed who won’t “stir a step” unless they are prepared to go to the spiritually darkest spots on earth.

If our Lord delays his return, perhaps in 170 years there will be another O. C. Wheeler seeing the first baptism from the unreached peoples coming to Christ in some of these cities and nations.

While to our minds and hearts that might seem like an insurmountable task, as I walk daily among some of the brightest gospel-minded college and seminary students this nation has seen in generations, I can joyfully say this is my eager expectation and hope (Phil 1:20).

Adapted from O. C. Wheeler, The Story of the Early Baptist History in California (California Baptist Historical Society, 1888)