God's Country

by Randall Stephens

Religion in American History contributing editor John Fea has written an insightful piece on contemporary Christian providential views of history. ("Thirty Years of Light & Glory," Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, July/Agust 2008. Thanks to Don Yerxa, my colleague here at ENC, for pointing me to the review.) Fea highlights the work of Peter Marshall, son of Peter Marshall the famous chaplain to the United States Senate. Peter the younger has reportedly sold nearly a million copies of his 1977 book The Light and the Glory, co-authored with David Manuel. (I'm green with envy. Why don't people care this much about southern pentecostals?) Like Hal Lindsey's mega-selling apocalyptic romp, Late Great Planet Earth, or Rick Warren's soulfood for hungry Christians, The Purpose Driven Life, Light and the Glory does not come up on the radar screens of academics. Yet...

Here's Fea:

It is easy to understand why on the The Light and the Glory has had such staying power in the Evangelical world. While mainstream texts treat American history as if God did not exist, Marshall and Manuel offer a narrative of early American history focused on the sovereignty of God. The authors also tell their story in compelling prose. They occasionally inject their own voices into the narrative to explain how they crafted their argument through research and prayer.

Fea also observes:

Because Marshall and Manuel sought facts from history that seemed to fit their thesis, their narrative is dominated by the story of early New England.Jamestown is covered and dismissed in one chapter, and other colonies (such as William Penn’s experiment in Pennsylvania) and religious movements (such as the Baptists and Anglicans) that shaped early American life are ignored.

I emailed John and asked how Lord Dunmore's revolutionary proclamation freeing slaves who would fight for the Brits would fit into this story. Or, what are Christians in Virginia to make of the deadly combo of tobacco and slaves that so boosted the flagging Chesapeake colony? The triumphalism and selective literalism of so much providential history should warn off Christians. In addition to that one must acknowledge that things change over time. Old Scratch at work in late 17th century Salem is not the same devil that many Christians believe in today. And what made sense to 18th or 19th century Christians might seem utterly wrong or immoral to today's evangelicals. All that doesn't seem to bother providentialists. Certainly, the history writing of D. James Kennedy, Newt Gingrich, David Barton, and others is a creative endeavor. Many conservatives, Christians and others, are looking for a usable past. (See this Harper's reading I posted on my Early Republic syllabus site: Mark A Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, America's Porvidential History.) Such efforts still seem senseless to the uninitiated.


The Light and the Glory is one of the books that got me so interested in American history. Of course, after I started grad school I realized that our history wasn't quite so cut and dried...is was much messier. I didn't learn about the messy stuff in high school (or in college, for that matter).

I do think, though, that it is possible to like this book and to still be a critical historian. They don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. I think you are correct in your statement that they do focus heavily on New England, but the "spirit" of the book--the idea that God cares about humankind--still rings true. Slavery and our nation's treatment of native peoples aren't something to be laughed at or trivialized, but their existence doesn't mean that God was (or is) uncaring and that he doesn't direct our daily paths. At least that's how I see it.
Brad Hart said…
I especially liked Marshall's account of the Native Americans being nothing more than, "God's miraculous provision" for the Pilgrims. Marshall telling the story of Squanto's kidnapping and the death of his entire tribe from disease as being a "providential" blessing is priceless! Another lovely example of Christian Nationalism at its best!