America’s Evangelical Founding Father: A Conversation about George Whitefield with Historian Thomas Kidd

MOHLER: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

It is no accident that so much of our intellectual activity is invested in thinking about history. It’s also no accident that we have so many conversations with historians because they are often those who in the academy are dealing with the most interesting ideas, not only in retrospect but in terms of the contemporary meaning of these things.

I’m looking forward to this conversation with Thomas Kidd. Thomas S. Kidd is the associate professor of history at Baylor University where he also serves as senior fellow of the institute for studies of religion. He is the author of several very well reviewed and respected academic works in American history, starting with The Protestant Interest: New England After Puritanism, published in 2004 by Yale University Press and his most recent work Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, published just in recent days by Basic Books.

Professor Kidd, welcome to Thinking in Public.

KIDD: Thank you for having me on.

MOHLER: You know I have to begin with one of the biggest questions in terms of American religious history or perhaps even American history. Are we right when we talk about what we often call the Great Awakening? Are we actually talking about something real or is this something that historians have invented?

Kidd: Well, that’s a controversy that really emerged in the 1980s. Until that point, I think most historians had just assumed the Great Awakening was a critical event in American religious history if not American history generally. But then a Yale historian named Jon Butler said that the Great Awakening had been invented by later Christian historians and that the Great Awakening wasn’t really all that great. In fact, he said it basically didn’t exist. And I think that that was helpful about the discussion about what do we really mean by the Great Awakening, but I also think it was greatly exaggerated by him because even at the time in the 1740s, people knew that something incredible and unprecedented was happening in terms of revivals happening all over the American colonies and also in Britain, Scotland, Wales, and the continent.

MOHLER: Well, I think it’s very helpful that you point out that it was a transnational if not international kind of experience and I think you point also right to the issue, and that is that the people even at the time felt that something was happening. And we’re talking here especially about those events that took place between the years of 1740 and 1743. Why do we talk about it in terms of an awakening? What was awakened?

KIDD: Well, you know that is a phrase that they would use at the time but they would say there is a great awakening happening in Boston or something like that. I think we can understand that they didn’t immediately realize, “Oh, this is the Great Awakening.” I mean that is a historical kind of term but what I think was new and unprecedented and what was awakened was especially New England that the original face of the Puritan colonists had probably become a little more distracted or limited in its intensity of those founding pioneers who had come here to preserve their faith, to be able to practice their faith and freedom. Now you’re getting into the third and fourth generations, and the level of religious commitment was mixed.

And I think that especially when the revivalist George Whitefield arrived beginning in 1739 to America, he brought a new passion and intensity to the preaching of the gospel, laser-focused on the message that people needed to be born again. And I think it brought a kind of fervency and simplicity to the preaching of the gospel that brought people out of this sort of complacency that they just attended church and tried to live virtuous lives and this sort of thing. There was something else to Christianity and, in fact, the center of the Christian faith which was the conversion experience. And that’s what helped to awaken America.

MOHLER: Well let’s get technical for just a moment. In terms of the inherited understanding of the Great Awakening of especially Christianity in the colonies during this period, it’s often said that the Great Awakening came out of a basic understanding of those churches as belonging to either new lights or old lights with the new lights being basically those who led the Great Awakening and encouraged and supported the Great Awakening. But you’re suggesting that there really had to be at least a threefold understanding as I understand your presentation of the Great Awakening between new lights and old lights and then perhaps on the far left some rather radical evangelicals. Could you explain that?

KIDD: That’s right. I think it’s better seen as kind of a continuum of opinion. I mean it’s easier to talk about the anti-revivalists or what we call the old lights, the people who just thought that the revivals were religious frenzy and they were leading to really no good at all. But then among the evangelicals, there was a real range of opinion about what the awakening should lead to, what their character should be. And among the moderate evangelicals, there was certainly a commitment to focus on the experience of the new birth and preaching. And they were glad for Whitefield’s arrival in general, but they were concerned about some of the what you’d call levelling effects of the revivals.

The revivals gave a lot of people new ideas about who might be able to speak in church, new theological developments, attacking for instance the established state churches, suggested that some of the established state ministers might not even be converted themselves. And this more radical movement is where the new separate Baptist movement comes from beginning in New England which is where much of the American Baptist tradition comes from. I mean Baptists had been there in the colonies before the Great Awakening, but the Baptist movement is so energized by the Great Awakening that it’s effectively a whole new movement. And so there’s some real disagreement among evangelicals that’s as strident as the difference between evangelicals and the anti-revivalists.

MOHLER: Well, I want to trace that out just a bit with you. But before leaving this kind of understanding of a continuum, I think it’s probably instructive for us to consider those who were on the more radical fringe. What was it about the more radical revivalists that concerned some of the more established churchmen?

KIDD: In colonial American religion in general before the Great Awakening, they had pretty formal religious meetings where you would have the pastor sometimes giving as long as two hour sermons and the pastor was very much—the preaching was very much—the center of attention. And in these revival meetings, to critics, it just seemed like sometimes chaos. Different people were able to speak in the meetings—uneducated men, sometimes women, African Americans, slaves, Native Americans—who are able to testify their experience with the Lord. And this just seemed disconcerting to a lot of people to have this kind of multiplicity of voices in the church.

But with regard to the Baptist movement in particular, you have largely uneducated men, people like Isaac Backus, with no college education, asserting their right to preach. And then theological novelty as it would seem to Congregationalists or Anglicans in the sense that they refused to baptize infants anymore. So there were theological novelties but there were also novelties in the way that church life was being practiced and it seemed very dangerous to a lot of critics to the Great Awakening.

MOHLER: Looking back as I especially read your book The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, I look at the debates that were very much current at that time. And it seems to me, we are still in many those same debates.

KIDD: We are. I think that if you look at my book, you see some of the debates that are resonant in the difference between charismatic and non-charismatic evangelicals, the role of the Holy Spirit in church life, the way that some church meetings will be very emotional and drawn out and some are very orderly and staid even. But I think that for me as a Baptist, on one hand, we have to remember that church cannot go on year after year after year in sheer chaos. But at the same time, there was a very important development that came out of this radical fringe of the evangelical movement, which was a belief that Baptism is for believers and also that just having a credentialed education is not necessarily enough to make someone a good preacher.

MOHLER: Well I certainly join you in that Baptist understanding and at the same time, looking at what you’ve produced in terms of research, and some have characterized your approach as post-revisionist, if Butler and others of his particular worldview are the revisionists then you’re coming along and revising the revisionists. But when you talk about the issues there, it sounds very much like some of the contemporary debates of Low Church and High Church models of evangelicalism, debates in evangelicalism about the relative importance of education, and of course even of creeds and confessions as sometimes put over against experience and enthusiasms. So we’re right where evangelical Christianity began.

And in one of your essays, you wrote this: “The evangelical movement in America had been born (speaking of the Great Awakening), and once born, rhetorical protests could not stop it. The more compelling question was what kind of movement would evangelical Christianity become? So you’re arguing that that question was already front and center in terms of the 1740s.

KIDD: Oh I think that’s right. And I think that when you look at Jonathan Edwards who I think, along with almost all students of the Great Awakening, is really the great theologian of the Awakening. He is, among other things, a great theologian of emotion and emotional experience in the life of a believer. And you think of Edwards as a head guy, all intellect and rational, sober preaching. But when you look at religious affections, in one of his most famous writings, he talks about the proper role for emotion in the life of the believer and in the life of the church.

And I think that’s one of the reasons why I admire Edwards so much is that here’s this deeply learned man about the history of theology, doctrine, and so forth. And yet he knew that there was a place for an emotional reaction, especially to the grace of God for sinners and that if you don’t have some kind of emotional reaction to that, you probably haven’t gotten the gospel. So I think that’s a kind of perennial debate as Christians is the tension between head and heart level of Christianity.

MOHLER: Help us to draw some lines of connection then. So if we go back to the mid-18th century with what we call the Great Awakening, and then we come to the early decades of the 21st century and we look at contemporary evangelicalism, as a historian, what would you suggest are the lines of continuity there? And where perhaps should we note some discontinuity as well?

KIDD: I think that one of the concerns that I know you have, and I have too, is that there has been a real dumbing down of evangelical theology. I referred to Isaac Backus as an uneducated man, but he was deeply learned in theology and of course familiar with the great creeds of the faith and great doctrines that Christians had long believed and certainly since the Reformation. So I think that your average evangelical, among the radicals who are having intense emotional experiences, in the revivals you would also see a level of theological sophistication that I think would put lots and lots of laypeople and maybe even some ministers to shame today in the evangelical movement.

And of course, I think there’s a discontinuity in the sense of so much of evangelical Christianity tends to be focused on the therapeutic and sort of coping with life and this sort of thing. And I think Christianity should help us cope with life. That’s a good thing. But to the extent that theology and the great doctrines of the church has been decentered in evangelicalism. I think that would be a turn away from what 18th century evangelicalism was like.

MOHLER: It seems to me in your work, you also offer some rather helpful—I wouldn’t say instructions because you’re writing as a historian—but nonetheless some very helpful reminders at least of how during this period, some of the more extreme demonstrations of the Great Awakening as undertaken by the more radical evangelicals, that they were brought into some check in terms of the evangelicalism that would have survived the Great Awakening into the later 18th and early 19th centuries. It had to settle some of these issues. It had to deal with some of these excesses.

KIDD: That’s right. I think you have a sort of cyclical process where, for instance, the separate Baptists in their early years think very much look like the kinds of things you would see in Pentecostal churches today of intense spiritual experiences and visions and healings and things like that that were being reported. But within 30 or 40 years, they had become much more stable, I guess you might say. And they were beginning to put more of an emphasis on education, founding of the College of Rhode Island which becomes Brown University is in the 1760s for the training of Baptist pastors. Which some say, “Oh we don’t need no education. We’re Baptists.”

Some people disparaged that, but the Baptist movement does become more rational and stable. And then out of that comes sort of new, radical fringe movements that want to, in their views, reenergize the passion of gospel preaching and the experiences with God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for revival. So I think there’s kind of a waxing and waning of that throughout evangelical history, and I suppose in a way that continues through today.

MOHLER: Now your first scholarly book was entitled The Protestant Interest: New England After Puritanism, published by Yale University Press in 2004. I really found that book particularly fascinating because I don’t know of any other similar monograph or book that has dealt with that period the way you do. But in that book, you kind of set the stage for what came before the Great Awakening.

KIDD: I do. I think that after the Glorious Revolution, which comes to America in 1689, among other things, this leads to 50 years and more of imperial war between Britain and France. And the American colonists saw this as a great struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism. And by the 1720s and 30s, because of the conditions of war, because of ongoing conflict with Native Americans, because of feelings of fear about theological innovation and what they would call liberalism at the time, they had a strong sense that their culture was really becoming decayed and at risk of becoming really ungodly.

And this is the context in which pastors begin to call on laypeople to pray for revival and pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit for revival. And starting in the mid-1730s, they get an answer to their prayer. So the Great Awakening is born out of the spirit of a desperate sense of cultural crisis.

MOHLER: Your work has been rather thoroughly reviewed among secular scholars. You have received academic honors such as a national endowment for the humanities fellowship. Your work is rather well known, published especially by major American university presses. How do secular historians grapple with this now? As they look at America—say well in our time in the 21st century—when they look back to the periods that you cover most intensely in terms of colonial and revolutionary America, when they look at something like the Great Awakening, what do they see or what do they think they see?

KIDD: Well I think that there was an older version of the study of the Great Awakening in the 1960s and 70s that would have seen it as something about psychosis or maybe a guilt out of rising capitalism or something like that, anything other than its real religious experience. But I actually think that now these days, religious history is really in pretty good shape in the academy and even among—I mean I have friends in the business who I know are secular or even atheist themselves but somehow they know, maybe it’s because of what they see going on in the news that religion is important. Religion can’t just be reduced to some kind of economic motivation or class interest or something like that.

So I think that we’ve seen a kind of revitalization of the study of religious history even in the secular academy. There was a study that came out from the American Historical Association in the past year that said that now the most common sub-discipline identified among professional historians in America is religion. It’s above politics or economics or culture or anything like that. So lots and lots of dissertation students are covering it. So I think it’s exciting. But I think it remains to be seen as this constant struggle to know how believing historians talk about religious history in the secular academy and to talk about it in a way that’s accessible both to secular people and to believers. And my doctoral advisor George Marsden, I think was one of the real pioneers on knowing how to do this rightly: top quality history but from a Christian point of view. And that’s something that I’m trying to do as well.

MOHLER: And that’s why we’re having this conversation. Even in the course of this conversation, two things came to my mind. The first was a conversation that I had with a Canadian theologian just a few years ago. We were talking about religion in Canada and then Canadian history and comparing that with religion and Christianity in particular in America and in American history. And this theologian said, “Well just remember that in Canada we never had anything like a Great Awakening. We never had a single earthshaking religious event in Canada’s history that really produced the unquestionable reality of Canada today.”

And then I look across perhaps those on the more secular left in the United States that do acknowledge that something happened in America that we would call the Great Awakening and they would see it not as something positive and felicitous and encouraging but something that nonetheless does explain things today. I think of someone like Richard Hofstadter and anti-Americanism and the anti-intellectual history in America, that tradition. Some of them root it right back into the Great Awakening.

KIDD: Yeah, and I think that there are secular historians that see the Great Awakening has this kind of democratic impulse within it too. They may say, “Well I don’t get all this stuff about Christianity.” But to the extent that the Great Awakening feeds into some of the key principles of the Revolution, about all men are created equal, and that there’s a new appreciation for human equality coming out of the Great Awakening, I think in a secular sense, there are even historians who appreciate the role of the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening, among other things, leads to the establishment of the state churches in America and helps to foster real religious liberty in America. So I think that there are ways to make the case to even very secular people that 18th century religion has some really beneficial effects in American history.

MOHLER: And to be honest, I think the more fair-minded have been there for some time. And I think it is as you said something of a significant turn in the academy that there is now so much interest in these things. I count that as a positive influential and academic development.

KIDD: Right, I do too.

MOHLER: Historians, both those with and without religious commitments tend to understand that you cannot talk about American history without a very heavy investment in America’s religious history, in particular, looking at those seminal events such as the Great Awakening of the mid-18th century. That’s why this conversation is so important. It also reminds us that the discipline of history is an ongoing conversation. To talk about historical revisionism and even post-revisionism is to acknowledge that we are indeed constantly about the task of reinterpreting the past. We need to do so in ways that are most credible and most honest, understanding the limitations of historical investigation and also the absolute necessity of asking these questions over and over again.

Thomas Kidd is also the author of the new book entitled, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. It’s published by Basic Books, and quite frankly, it’s one of those biographies that needs to be on your reading list right now. Professor Kidd, how did you come to write on Patrick Henry?

KIDD: Well Patrick Henry shows up in my book on the Great Awakening and also my book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution because Henry was influenced deeply by the Great Awakening in Virginia as a teenager. He went to rival meetings led by especially Samuel Davies, the great revivalist in Virginia. And even though we don’t know for sure whether Henry had a conversion experience, and he stayed an Anglican—fairly traditional Anglican—his whole life, he was deeply influenced by the Evangelical movement, I think in his religious beliefs, but also in the kind of speaker that he was. People know, I think, in general that Henry was the most dynamic orator of the patriot movement, but they may not know that part of the reason is because, it seems clear to me, that he mimicked the style of the Evangelical revivalists. And people of the time, especially his critics, would say, “Oh that Henry, he just talks like a preacher.” And they meant to insult him by saying this, but I think it accounts in large part for his power as a political orator. And so, my interest in Henry is in him as a serious Christian among the major founders in his belief in the need for public morality, or what he would call virtue. But I’m also interested in Henry’s politics—leader of the Revolution, but then ironically, perhaps, from our perspective, he became one of the greatest opponents of the Constitution, an anti-federalist. So that accounts for my interest in Henry.

MOHLER: I think when it comes to historical figures like this, most of us who at least try to read and keep up with such things have a knowledge of Patrick Henry that includes his revolutionary fervor, his of course oratory, his Christian commitments, even his anti-federalism. But I don’t know of anyone who has put that together in the kind of narrative you have with historical skill. But perhaps before I go further, I just want to ask you why has Patrick Henry received perhaps less attention than some of the other major figures among the Founding Fathers?

KIDD: Well in some ways I think Patrick Henry is kind of the anti-Jefferson. And in fact, he and Thomas Jefferson had a very bitter rivalry starting especially in the 1780s. I think Thomas Jefferson detested Patrick Henry in fact.

MOHLER: After having admired him as a very young man.

KIDD: Yes, that’s right. And I think that they got sideways on the issue of religious liberty in Virginia. Henry proposes that you continue state support for the churches of Virginia in the 1780s, while a Jefferson and James Madison proposed the Virginia bill for establishing religious freedom. And so they’re opponents on that issue. Madison and Henry are opponents on the Constitution. And so I think that there’s a way in which some people may view history as having kind of passed Henry by after the “Liberty or Death” speech, which is the one thing if you know anything about Henry, you know the “Liberty or Death” speech. But I think past biographers, even people who have full-length books on Henry, have tended to say, “Well, he sort of lost his way in the 1780s when he got opposed to Madison and Jefferson.” But I actually see a real consistency in Henry’s beliefs, both about religion and about the Constitution, that I think it helps us really to understand the core of what the patriot movement was about. Now I think many of us would, when push comes to shove, would disagree with him on religious liberty and on the Constitution. But I think his example is so fascinating and instructive.

MOHLER: Well indeed. And as you point back to his speech in 1775 there at St. John’s Church in Richmond, a speech to the Virginia convention in which he did declare, “Give me liberty or give me death,” most American school children who still, we can hope, learn something about American history will recall those words. But as you say, few of them then draw the trajectory to the Patrick Henry who opposed the Constitution and was and ardent anti-federalist and for the very same reason. In other words, he felt that the Constitution was itself a great threat to American liberty—those liberties that had been very hard won in the Revolution.

KIDD: Well that’s right. And it’s not hard to understand the logic there. Henry says, “We just fought the Revolution against a great, consolidated political power, the British monarchy and parliament. We were the subjects to the risk of tyranny from a very powerful, centralized government. And now, here we are ten years later seeking to put the same sort of government over ourselves—a consolidated government instead of a state-based government.” And he said, “This is a threat to our liberty, just as the way the British system was.” And I think that there’s a certain consistency and logical clarity to that, that it’s very easy to understand why the anti-federalists, which was very close to fifty percent of the people who participated in the ratification process, why they felt that way. Anti-federalism, led in large part by Henry, was a very serious, credible, intellectual position to take.

MOHLER: You know I think some people hearing this might think, then, that Patrick Henry was something of an anarchist. But of course he didn’t want no government, he just wanted a very limited and very local government.

KIDD: Well that’s right. And he thought that if you disperse political powers as much as you can among the states, among a very small national government, among localities, that that would best protect people’s political liberties. And he thought that to the extent that you make government more powerful, the people are that much more at risk of losing their liberty. And he said at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, “I thought that we were trying to create a republic that would defend people’s liberties, not to create and empire.” And this is a pointed criticism when you consider the context of 1776 and why the Americans were declaring independence from the great British power.

MOHLER: Oh and quite frankly you can draw again a rather direct line, at least in terms of the issues being discussed, to contemporary American political context, where the question of empire and all the rest comes back again, and with some of the very same concerns.

KIDD: Well that’s right. Reading Patrick Henry’s speeches of the Virginia Ratifying Convention, he says, “This government will become a monster. There will come a day when this government will burst all bounds of size and scope, and an intrusion into people’s affairs and running all over the world,” and whatever it was. And I think at every point, Henry—now it took a long for us to get there—but I think Henry is right. And it’s a fool’s gain to say, “What would the Founders do today?” But I’m willing at least to risk and say that Henry would just totally disapprove of the massive, just mind-boggling scope of the American government today.

MOHLER: Well it makes you wonder, if you were to go back, for instance, to the debates that are in the Federalist Papers, what either side would think of the contemporary America, because there were those who warned us with some false and very true observations of our time, what America will become under this Constitution. And then there were the Federalists who pledged that some of the things that very actually quickly did happen would never happen. And so it would be fascinating to be able to have a conversation with these principles. But nonetheless, the best we can do is the kind of history that you have so marvelously done.

First of all, in your book on the Revolution—and I want folks to know about that, the title of the book is God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution and that by Basic Books, and then the biography of Patrick Henry, also by Basic, just out, First Among Patriots, there are two questions about Patrick Henry that I want to direct to you, Professor Kidd. And the first of them has to do with Patrick Henry, not just in terms of the power of his oratory, not just in terms of his revolutionary fervor, not even just in terms of his Christian commitments, very deep, passionate commitments, but how did he understand the role of virtue as very necessary to a republican government and the people who would be able to conduct themselves according to such a government?

KIDD: Well the Founders, and Henry was one of the leaders on this, they talked routinely about the need for public virtue. And that’s a term that we would probably use words like “morality” or “ethics;” “public spiritedness” is another one that they would talk about. They saw that as absolutely indispensable to the survival of the Republic. That if you’re going to have a system in which the people are sovereign, then the people have to be willing to look out for the public good and be committed to morality and ethics, or that the Republic would eventually descend into chaos and probably set the stage for the rise of an autocrat or a tyrant to control the people. This was a standard belief among people like Henry, Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, and very common among the patriot movement. And I think that when we hear those things today, secular critics would think, “Well you’re just talking about these hot-button moral issues today, like sexuality, or abortion, or something like that.” And I always point people to what has just happened in the financial meltdown that we’ve had, where there’s massive malfeasants going on in the financial sector—these credited default swaps and bogus mortgages and so forth that are being sold for out of a spirit of greed, not public spiritedness—and that is largely to blame for the economic meltdown. And I think most Americans would agree that there’s a perfect instance that when you get widespread lack of public virtue, it’s bad for the Republic.

MOHLER: The other question I wanted to ask you is really going back not only to the American Revolution but to the period you cover in your first book, The Protestant Interest. You argue in Protestant Interest that the Protestants in America during this period after the Glorious Revolution but before the American Revolution saw the specter perhaps of Roman Catholicism, in terms of the future of the colonies and colonial religion, and of the new nation, at least during the period you write there of the Protestant Interest during the colonial period. But then if you fast forward to your biography of Patrick Henry and to your work in the American Revolution, you make clear that there were a good many among the Founding Fathers—and Mothers, for that matter—who were very concerned about deistical religion, in particular the kind of Deism represented by France in the post-revolutionary period, and perhaps in the United States, represented by no one more publically than Thomas Jefferson. Can you draw a line of those concerns?

KIDD: Sure. In the colonial period, there were these great imperial wars and the memory of the Reformation was very, very strong, wars of religion in Europe. And the Protestant colonists were constantly afraid of Catholic conquests. And it happened in France, where the Protestant movement was destroyed violently by the French monarchy in the 1680s, and they were always afraid this would happen here. And that fear continues right on into the American Revolution. George Washington as the Commander of the American Army has to put down a Pope’s Day celebration, which is actually November 5. And he said, “We’re not going to have these burning of the Pope in effigy,” and so forth because we need to have an alliance with the French, and so you can’t be doing these things, these anti-Catholic displays. But as time went on, anti-Catholicism remains, but in the 1780s and 90s, I think it is challenged, and in some ways, replaced for people like Henry by a fear Deism. And Henry believed, and many other American patriots believed, that if you turn away from traditional Christianity, that there will be no principles or spiritual power for the kind of virtue that the Republic needed. And so in the 1790s, Henry becomes very vocal in his attacks on Deism, on the Deism of the French Revolution, and of Thom Paine in particular, and he sees this now as probably the greatest spiritual, cultural threat to the American Republic. Paine is very popular as a deistic writer in the 1790s, and Henry begins the last year of his life turns to an appeal to traditional Christianity to counter that deistic threat.

MOHLER: Now does that also explain why Patrick Henry was so concerned about the disestablishment of the church in the colonies, that indeed this kind of virtue and this kind of Christian culture and civilization required and established church?

KIDD: Yes, absolutely. And he’s not alone in this belief. George Washington believed that we should continue state-support for churches; John Adams believed that. And again, the logic, I think is quite simple: if religion is the greatest source of virtue in the Republic, and if virtue is indispensable to the life of the Republic, then the government should support religion. And we should remember, too, the churches are a source of education, a source of public welfare at the time, in the absence of welfare state, the churches were really the key agencies for that. And so, if you need to have virtue in the Republic, Henry believed, then the churches deserved government support. Madison and Jefferson argued that if you get the government out of the business of supporting one denomination in particular, that religion will actually end up being stronger. And I think the facts on the ground, especially the advent of the Second Great Awakening in the immediate after math of this establishment, to me tend to prove Madison and Jefferson right on that question.

MOHLER: Well it just goes to show that sometimes you can have the right concern but have the wrong prescription for how to serve that concern. And I certainly think that Patrick Henry had very good instincts when it came to the necessity of very clear commitments to virtue, and not only public virtue, but as he also is concerned for no small amount of private virtue among the citizens; I think he was right to tie that to the restraining and constraining and culture-shaping power of Christianity. But perhaps, as awkward as it is to say, I think I have to go with Jefferson on the actual policy that best ensures that outcome.

KIDD: That’s right, that’s right. And especially for Baptists and Methodists, this establishment was absolutely essential, so that it could go from being tiny denominations as they are in the Revolution to the largest Protestant denominations at the time of the Civil War. And I think that has a lot to do with this establishing the state churches.

MOHLER: And just looking at it even pragmatically, if you go back and you look at established religion and the established churches in the respective colonies that had them, we have to remember that that meant in some cases that other ministers were committing and illegal act in preaching the Gospel. And at the very least, there were privileges given to one church that were not given to others. So we can look back sometimes a bit sloppily at this era as some contemporary Christians maybe want to do without recognizing that the liberties we now know were hard won and hard fought, not only during the Revolution, but for quite a while thereafter.

KIDD: Well that right. And the Baptists in particular had experienced terrible persecution. Even up to the eve of the Revolution, there were Baptist preachers who were in jail in Virginia for illegal preaching, and Baptists obviously were terribly concerned about this. But Madison himself, I think, learns the principles of religious liberty from watching the persecution of the Baptists. And so if we wonder why Evangelicals and Baptists in particular are driving the move for disestablishment in the Revolutionary period, it’s because of their memory of being persecuted of being persecuted by the state church and the authorities backing them.

MOHLER: I have two final questions for you. And the first has to do with the Christian intellectual responsibility to come to terms with history. I just ask you to speak to that. You are an historian, you are also a believer, you’re teaching in a research university, you’re published by very prestigious American academic presses. Speaking to Evangelicals, some within and many without academia, what is our Christian intellectual responsibility when it comes to the understanding of history?

KIDD: Well I think that history helps us to certainly get better light on current challenges. All through our conversation today we’ve been saying doesn’t this have immediate relevance to issues that we’re struggling with today, both in the church and in politics. And I think that observing the lessons of history help to give us a sense of accumulated wisdom of the past, the great saints and heroes of the past. I’m still one who believes in historical heroes, that we can have people in the past that we admire as exemplars of virtue and integrity, wisdom, intelligence on all kinds of issues relevant to Christians. And so I think that to the extent that we don’t know about those heroes, people like Jonathan Edwards, people like Patrick Henry, I think that we’re missing out as part of our Christian intellectual and historical heritage. And so I think that in an age of infinite distraction and novelty and sensationalism, I certainly think it’s worth taking a look at our past as Christians and learning the lessons that are available to us there.

MOHLER: Lastly, I think I can draw a line. We’ve been speaking about drawing lines; I think I can draw one from your first book, The Protestant Interest, to Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, your latest book. And I just have to ask you, where’s the line go from here. What are your current research interests? And I realize that it may be a lot to ask to an author who is just celebrating the release of his newest book, but I think I know you well enough from conversation and from reading your material to know that you’re already working on something else. What would that be?

KIDD: I am, I am. I’m working on a biography of George Whitfield, the great revivalist, eighteenth-century, and key revivalist of the Great Awakening. And I am going to do that with Yale University Press. You know Whitfield’s three hundredth birthday is in 2014, and so we are going to time the release of this biography for Whitfield’s three hundredth birthday.

MOHLER: Well I will look forward to that. And in the meantime, let me express a sincere word of thanks for all that you have contributed to our discussion, not only of this conversation, but in your many books. It will be a privilege to talk with you once again once that new book comes out.

KIDD: Thank you very much!

MOHLER: And thus the conversation is never just about an individual, even an individual such as Patrick Henry, the subject of the biography by Thomas S. Kidd just published as Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Now when it comes to Patrick Henry, Thomas Kidd has done what he’s done on other subject areas. He has begun a conversation. It’s a conversation that will be fascinating to follow in the months and years ahead.

This conversation with Professor Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University reminds us of the importance of history, just in terms of our contemporary self-understanding. We are narrative beings. It is impossible to describe ourselves without beginning to tell a story about when we were born, and where, and why it matters, and where we went to school, and who we married. These are all parts of our story. And if it’s true for us as individuals, it is also true for America as a nation. And if it is true for America as a nation, it’s also true for American Christians, and especially perhaps for this conversation, in terms of American Evangelicals and our own self-understanding.

The narrative of evangelical history, which is just hand-in-hand with the narrative of evangelical self-definition, goes right back to the Great Awakening. It goes back further, of course, but it is impossible for us to talk about contemporary evangelicalism and the issues we face in this generation without seeing the parallels to those very early conversations that took place in the high energy of the Great Awakening and in the other very important events that followed. This conversation with Professor Kidd reminds us that we have to go back again and again. But even as historians, both secular and those with religious commitments, go back and review these issues, go back over the same historical terrain over and over again and ask these questions, it is especially important that those with Christian commitments go back and ask the questions that are not only important for our understanding of history, but for our understanding of ourselves, and of our understanding of evangelical Christianity, it’s convictions, and its mission. We look at the shape of many contemporary controversies—controversies over such things as creeds and confessions and theological accountability, conversations and controversies over enthusiasms and certain aspects of religious experience—and you recognize that many of the headlines that would be very much, well, the fodder for everyday press and conversation among evangelicals today, are the very issues that frame the debates going back to the mid-eighteenth-century. We cannot understand ourselves without asking the questions about from which we’ve come, and that is not an easy question.

Another thing a conversation with an historian like Thomas Kidd reminds us of is that history just doesn’t come to us easily; it requires a great deal of work. That’s why we need academic historians who are doing the kind of work that Professor Kidd is doing, and are engaged in the kind of conversation that we also get to join. You look at the contributions of historians to our understanding of the Great Awakening just over the last half-century, and in particular, you look back to the historical investigations undertaken by many evangelical historians, in terms not only of this period, but of the periods that followed, and you recognize that we now have the privilege of having a conversation that is much better informed than that that was understood by previous evangelicals just over the last century or so. We as evangelical Christians need to encourage the development of a genuine historical conversation, an authentic, academic historical conversation in the academy. We need to be thankful for even those secular historians who are directing their attention to these issues that are of such importance to us. We need to continue the conversation about the obligations of the believing historian who understands these things not only in terms of historical progress and historical fact and historical interpretation, but also in terms of its meaning—the meaning of these things for our Christian faith and pilgrimage in discipleship.

One of the things that I hope comes out of a conversation like this is an increased interest, perhaps an interest sparked even in the particular era of Professor Kidd’s historical investigation, and to go and enter the conversation by getting some of these books and reading them for yourself and thinking through these issues on your own.

Before signing off, I want to invite you to start making your plans to be here at Southern Seminary for our annual “Give Me an Answer” Conference for college students. The event will be held in 2012 on February the seventeenth and the eighteenth. The theme of the conference is “Radical.” Join me, along with David Platt, Kevin DeYoung, and Russell Moore, as we consider how the Gospel of Jesus Christ lays claim upon our lives. For more information, visit

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.