“America’s Providential History, Including Biblical Principles of Education, Government, Politics, Economics, and Family Life,”* A Review

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

At a superficial level, America’s 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 “it’s” used as a possessive (for only five examples, see pp. 109, 110, 200, 214, 243) dot its pages. Apparently the book’s 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 book’s 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 nation’s 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 God’s overruling power governs in the affairs of human beings.

Their view is a profoundly conservative one–not 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 states’ rights. They bolster their perspective with some fascinating exegesis of biblical passages. For example, they aver that Genesis’s 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 writings–not to mention the context–of 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 states’ 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 Franklin’s 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 Slater’s Teaching and Learning America’s 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 Slater’s foundation ( http://www.face.net/  ) yielded some revealing nuggets. For Slater, the outline of God’s “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 God’s 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 God’s Word.” Evidently God neglected to inform the several million Natives already there that they were trespassing on this “reservation”; but too bad for them.

What is more infuriating about America’s Providential History is not so much the way its authors ignore primary sources and context, but the way they leap to conclusions about the meaning of what people say. For only one example–practically every page has at least one–consider that after quoting, from a secondary source, radical Christian revolutionary Samuel Adams at the approval of the Declaration of Independence (“We have this day restored the Sovereign to Whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven . . . from the rising to the setting sun, may His kingdom come.”), they conclude that the founders “saw in the establishment of America the first truly Christian nation in history” (p. 148).

Not only does the quotation fail to support their conclusion, but once they have affirmed a mistaken interpretation, they repeat it again and again, now as a clear truth. With no quotation needed, they make the same claim in summing up ratification of the Constitution in 1789 (p. 173).

Then when they come to religious liberty, they deny that the Constitution requires religious neutrality, even though the founders carefully failed even to mention the name “God” in their creation, one of the points of attack made by its opponents. Still, they argue it establishes a nation “under God,” words placed in quotation marks as though they are from the Constitution itself, rather than from the pledge of allegiance to the flag, revised in the 1950s.

Similarly, on the same page they suggest that the Constitution requires office holders to swear their oaths “with their hand on a Bible” (p. 179) a requirement that appears nowhere in the document. They stretch and strain to make the historical facts fit their thesis, and when they are unable to do so, Beliles and McDowell simply create what they need.

Let’s say it bluntly: they cannot be trusted.

They gleefully exclaim whenever they discover words like “virtue,” “learning,” or “piety” among the writings of the founders, concepts they claim meant morality, knowledge, and religion, which our authors convert to “Christian character,” “Biblical world view,” and “Christianity.” One of their problems is that deists like rationalist Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, could write honestly that “perusal of the sacred volume [the Bible] will make us better citizens” (p. 178)–always a central goal of those in positions of power and leadership–and still reject the miraculous content on which evangelical Christianity depended. (As Christian leaders from the seventeenth century, including Quaker George Fox and Baptist John Bunyan demonstrate, leafing through the Bible might also produce revolutionaries.) Let them encounter “providence,” and they gloat that the founders intended precisely what the authors did when they used a adjectival variety of that term as the title for this book two centuries later.

Their treatment of slavery is likewise skewed. (Abortion receives five times more entries in the Index than abolition.) “[E]very one of our Founding Fathers,” they confidently assert, “believed that involuntary slavery was an evil institution that needed to be abolished” (p. 226), yet the writers of the Constitution refused to act on their belief, allowing that sinful institution to flourish, ultimately defended by the “often unanswerable” states’ rights arguments of South Carolina’s Christian senator John C. Calhoun. Famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison merits not a single mention in the text, but John Brown, the fiery evangelical opponent of slavery who attacked the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, presents a problem for Beliles and McDowell. No matter how sincere and right Brown was to oppose slavery, he is reduced to “trying to do a good thing, but in an unbiblical way” (p. 230).

When they come to the Civil War–they actually prefer “War Between the States,” but they do deign to use the more common one–they are clearly torn. Both sides were religious, but the South, they assert, was “the center of true revival and the bastion of Calvinism and Christian character,” while “the North had drifted into Unitarianism and dead formalism.” Even so, “God could not allow [slavery] to continue and hinder his long-term destiny on America in the eyes of the world” (pp. 230-31). Counting a full page drawing of southern general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at prayer, they devote three pages to the “Christian character” of the South’s generals (p. 233), nary a word to any of those who brought piety from the North, especially commanders like Otis O. Howard, who became head of the Freedmen’s Bureau following the war and for whom Howard University is named.

As for the Reconstruction period, it gets a grand total of four brief paragraphs, a bit over half a page[!], the plight (and postwar achievements) of black Americans not a single word. Beliles and McDowell’s summation of the period is remarkable in its truncated and unhistorical view: to centralize power in the national government, Radical Republicans sought “to remove the force of Calvinism in America,” already established as having existed in the states that made up the former Confederacy, and destroy the South’s political power (p. 243). Thus they set the stage for the continued erosion of real constitutional authority on into the future.

Chapter 15 is the one section of the book that would be unfamiliar to many supporters of the policies of the country’s current president; it outlines “Christian Principles of Foreign Affairs.” More than in other chapters, this one consists mainly of nearly page-long quotations from sources that represent not the judgment of historians but rather those of obscure writers whose work comes from presses that are even more obscure.

Here the interested student, at least the alert ones, will find an implicit criticism of the incumbent administration and its never-ending “war against terror.” Written when most conservatives still condemned American intervention abroad, the book considers much of the foreign policy of the twentieth century to be, in its authors’ words, “a perversion” (p. 221). Rather than treaties and “entangling alliances,” they argue that American policy makers should rely instead on missionaries and Christian businessmen to export the nation’s ideals to the rest of the world. Although they ignore the Open Door policy–it is not even clear that they are aware of it and its significance–they represent a point of view that champions using trade to penetrate other countries for America’s benefit.

The remainder of the book fails even more miserably than the previous sections to cover the nation’s past. President Woodrow Wilson, a Christian Calvinist statesman (and Southerner) if there ever was one, gets only one sentence, and that a condemnation of his proposed League of Nations; up to this point, the authors have at least made a pretense of trying to cover the sweep of American history, but that effort now gives way to ideology.

The last two chapters and a conclusion represent an extended tirade against those who reject four primary doctrines: 1) that God created the world; 2) that God is Lord of heaven and earth; 3) that God gives breath to all that lives; and 4) that God is sovereign. Let not the wondering student think that the decline of America resulted from “conspiracies of men: humanists, the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], the big bankers, the Trilateral Commission, the New Age Movement, the World Council of Churches, the Homosexuals, the Feminists, the Communists, the Democrats, the Pope, etc.” (p. 245). No, we are told, it was not a conspiracy among these groups; the nation’s moral, constitutional, political, and spiritual fabric has frayed because Christians sat idly in their pews and failed to organize and take control of the nation. The book ends with a “Checklist for Reforming America” and of course a plea for contributions to the book’s publisher, the organization of which the authors are leaders.

America’s Providential History is a depressing work. The authors defend the long quotations that take up many chapters by explaining that they want to give readers a sense that writers of the past could turn out good, manly prose, but the effect is dreary at best. There are numerous illustrations, mostly line drawings, and no color at all–a fact that demonstrates how far removed the book is from modern texts.

Its physical make-up, bad as it is, is not the most depressing feature. The factual errors scattered throughout demonstrate that the authors know little of what they presume to write about. (One especially bizarre example is the way they twice hijack Quaker William Penn into the ranks of “clergymen” [pp. 90, 117], even though Penn’s sect considered members of the clergy as “hireling priests.”) As a text, it is masquerade; as a repository of knowledge, the well is empty; as a political handbook, it is one-sided, tendentious, almost unbelievable were it not that the same philosophy permeates the administration of George Walker Bush, a graduate of both Yale and Harvard.

If this book is an example of what passes for knowledge, research skills, and intellectual acumen on the fringes of the right wing of American political life, then the republic is not so much endangered as its citizens should be downright embarrassed.


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

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