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Quaker Theology #12 Fall-Winter 2005-2006

Reviews

Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, Americaís Providential History, Including Biblical Principles of Education, Government, Politics, Economics, and Family Life. Charlottesville, Va.: Providence Foundation, 1991; 2nd ed. 294 pp. $16.95

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

At a superficial level, Americaís Providential History seems to be a textbook: a large format paperback, it looks like a text; it has the feel of one; and it has wide enough margins for the interested student to make copious notes on its pages. Moreover, the authors claim, in the first sentence of their "Introduction," that their goal is to "examine the history of America from a Christian perspective (p. vii)."

Quakers are rarely mentioned in these pages, and then, as we shall see, often inaccurately. The book commands attention here, however, because it is evidently widely used in conservative Christian homeschooling; the publisher claims that over 100,000 copies have been sold. The Amazon.com webpage for it quotes the Conservative Book Club as declaring, "This volume seems destined to become one of the best selling Christian books of our time."

A bit closer look, however, reveals that this work is not your usual textbook. Despite the announcement on the back cover that "thousands of people" have used this book in private and public schools, it is not clear that it was meant to be put into the hands of students at all, at least those whose teachers seek for them a knowledge of the American past.

A longer look, a more careful perusal, indeed, will reveal that this is an extended essay designed to peddle a point of view; it is not really a history text. It might be useful to reassure unsure instructors or private school textbook screening committees, but real life students are more likely to be driven up the nearest wall by its heavily laden message, the twisting and turning that is necessary to drive the interpretation forward.

The second sentence of the "Introduction" serves to make this thesis specific: "Since God is the author of history and He is carrying out His plan in the earth through history, any view of the history of America, or any country, that ignores God is not true history."

That sentence, which uses "since" rather than the more correct "because," also underscores how the book falls far short of honoring even the most elementary rules of good usage. Run-on and incomplete sentences, such as the ones on pp. 226 and 249, and "itís" used as a possessive (for only five examples, see pp. 109, 110, 200, 214, 243) dot its pages. Apparently the bookís publishers, who brought the book out first in 1989, did not employ a copy editor. Or, if one was available, that person graduated from the same unknown institute as the bookís principal author, Mark Beliles, identified only as a "senior pastor" in Charlottesville, Virginia, and as president of the self-same foundation that published the book. Hence there is more than a little hint of a kind of academic incest here.

We should stick, however, to the content of the book rather than permitting its egregious misuse of the language to distract us; as it likely will many of those "thousands" of impressionable students.

The book might be useful for those already well-grounded in the nationís history, so that they may encounter an overly idiosyncratic interpretation, but there its value ends. Its authors put greatest stress on the colonial and revolutionary periods (indeed, more than half the work is devoted to these two periods) and constantly assert that God works through events and so uses even sinful people for his purposes, even when they intend otherwise.

They thus wish to rebut what they called a "humanistic" or "man-centered" view of the past. To replace it, they believe that the concept of divine providence should demonstrate that Godís overruling power governs in the affairs of human beings.

Their view is a profoundly conservative oneĖnot conservative in the sense of trying to preserve the good of the past, but a more modern one that preaches the virtues of limited government, free enterprise capitalism (to which they devote an entire chapter), and statesí rights. They bolster their perspective with some fascinating exegesis of biblical passages. For example, they aver that Genesisís Tower of Babel expressed the human desire for a "counterfeit Messiah," to which God responded by scattering the builders and hence preventing an early humanistic effort to establish a one-world, centralized government (p. 21).

Beliles and McDowell have clearly adapted a modern-day political agenda to promote this world-view, one they work overtime and throughout their book. They do not hide their intent, frankly stating that they are "working in this way to change the face of America and the world." (p. viii) Or to put it in terms that became common after their book was written, they are like contemporary politicians who promote ideas designed to appeal to those in so-called "red states."

Hence they parade around a quotation from Benjamin Franklin, the "founding father," who in the last decade of his life referred to himself as a "thorough deist." They found this quotation footnoted in a book by another evangelical writer; such heavy lifting of quotations indicates that they have not read the corpus of the revolutionary Franklin, just as they choose to ignore the collective writingsĖnot to mention the contextĖof most of the others they cite.

"He who shall introduce into public affairs," they quote Franklin as writing, "the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the earth" (pp. viii, 1). Regardless of what Franklin may have meant by "primitive Christianity," arguably even the practice of communism as described in Acts 2, our authors apparently want readers to infer that "primitive Christianity" will surely change the earth in the direction they seek, toward their stated ideal for the United States, capitalism and statesí rights.

(For the record, I checked the thirty-seven volumes of the papers of Franklin and did not find this suspect quotation. If they had bothered to look at such a source, they would have found Franklin writing to a friend in 1780, "If Christian preachers had continued to teach as Christ & his Apostles did, without Salaries, and as the Quakers now do, I imagine [religious] Tests [for public office] would never have existed: For I think they were not so much invented to secure Religion itself, as the Emoluments of it." [Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Barbara B. Oberg, ed., {New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997}, XXXIII, 390.] One must wonder what the old man would have said about preachers who publish books, via tax exempt organizations, like this one.)

This use of Franklinís quotation is typical: Beliles and McDowell base their book on almost no primary sources or research in the documents that most historians use to uncover the past. The reader will find references and quotations to founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address, as well as carefully chosen quotes from political and religious leaders, but the actual citations come almost exclusively from late nineteenth and twentieth century compilations that few historical scholars would favor.

For example, one frequent source is Rosalie Slaterís Teaching and Learning Americaís Christian History, the Principle Approach, published by the Foundation for American Christian Education in 1980, a work and publisher hitherto unknown to me but probably a seminal volume for those who move in the small world of their variety of true believers.

A check of the website for Slaterís foundation ( http://www.face.net/  ) yielded some revealing nuggets. For Slater, the outline of Godís "providential" design for the U.S. was laid out by Arnold Guyot, a "Christian geographer"at Princeton in the 1850s, who argued that various continents have been given specific roles in Godís unfolding plan:

( http://www.face.net/leadingideas.htm ). In this scenario, Asia was the "continent of beginnings," Europe the "continent of development," but North America was the continent of "the most complete expression of Christian civilization (Psalm 72:8)." Slater is clear that: "God had reserved America for a Bible-reasoning, Bible-writing people who would educate their children and write their documents of government according to Godís Word." Evidently God neglected to inform the several million Natives already there that they were trespassing on this "reservation"; but too bad for them.

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