274 A Model Historian: Rick Kennedy

 During the 42 years I taught in Nazarene universities I was privileged to work alongside some truly gifted scholars who lived out their calling as Christian professors.  Dr. Rick Kennedy, a professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University who received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, was certainly one of these—combining commitments to teaching and research, conscientiously upholding the orthodox Christian tradition, working winsomely with students, and actively worshiping in San Diego’s First Presbyterian Church.   In addition, he has for years worked diligently within The Conference of Faith and History and now serves as that organization’s secretary.  In a laudatory review of Kennedy’s latest work, Thomas Kidd, a prominent professor of history at Baylor University, commends him as “a formidable academic historian” who has written “many serious books and articles on American intellectual history.”  

Kennedy  has recently added to his list of publications a fine biography, one of an excellent series of religious biographies edited by Mark Noll, entitled The First American Evangelical:  A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 2015).  “In this book,” Kennedy says, placing Mather (the son of Increase Mather, an equally significant Massachusetts clergyman) in his historical milieu, “I will focus on Cotton and his self-conscious desire to tug against the slide of genteel Protestantism” (#152).  And as the title indicates, he wants to identify Cotton Mather as the “first evangelical”—a position usually assigned to leaders of the First Great Awakening such as Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian, and George Whitefield, the wondrously winsome itinerant English evangelist.  Two decades before the Great Awakening broke out in the 1730s, many of its elements emerged under Mather’s ministry in Boston:  “Thousands of people and a large number of churches rallied to the way Cotton Mather articulated and modeled what he called an ‘all day long faith’ and described as a way of walking ‘to the very top of Christianity’” (#162).  

Along with many Puritans, Mather refused to be labeled a “Calvinist” and selected the term “Eleutherian” (a Greek word for freedom), to denote his singular commitment to the New Testament message, for as St Paul declared to the Galatians:  “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!”  In the 1690s, he led a small band of “Eleutherians” who where committed to the “evangelical interest,” a more intense form of discipleship and piety than was then evident in Boston.  He became “a standard-bearer for a my-utmost-for-his-highest type of Christianity, which moderates saw as too extreme” #1733).  Thus to  Kennedy:  “Herein lies the birth of the evangelical tradition in America:  A coalition of ministers and laypeople rallied to Cotton Mather’s call to a zealous, freedom-loving, Bible focused Protestantism that was open to spiritual activities and communications” #1748).  

Born in Boston in 1663, Cotton was the “oldest child of Increase Mather and Maria Cotton.  Both of his grandfathers, Richard Mather and John Cotton, were revered founders of the colony, powerful ministers, and model Puritans” (#338).  But young Mather witnessed “the last decades of Puritan Boston” while preparing (through the Boston Latin School and Harvard College) to join his father in pastoring Boston’s prestigious North Church, “probably the largest and richest Protestant congregation in America” (#1090).  He soon demonstrated prowess as a preacher as well as effectiveness in pastoral visitation, working with small prayer groups, launching jail ministries, promoting missions to the Indians, and fervently praying both publically and by himself in his study.  “‘My life is almost a continual conversation with heaven,’ Cotton wrote in 1713” (#770).  Still more, he sought to follow “‘the advice of the ancients:  If you wish to be always with God, always pray, always read’” (#480).  

He devoutly pursued a scholarly life, acquiring a vast library (believing “his study was a kind of holy ground”) and writing prolifically on a variety of subjects.  Above all he loved and lived in the Bible, continually seeking to understand and expound it.  Attuned to intellectual currents in Europe, he “was the first important scholar in America to realize that a battle for the Bible was brewing among Protestant scholars” (#2268).  Many were taking a highly critical approach (manifest in the rationalism personified by Spinoza) that disregarded the Supernatural.  To effectively defend the traditional, orthodox commitment to the Bible’s trustworthiness—indeed its infallibility—he embraced and articulated the philosophical “reasonableness” (rooted in Aristotle’s Topics) akin to the “courtroom jurisprudence” that Professor Kennedy has effectively emphasized throughout his publications.  

For Cotton Mather, such reasonableness mines a multitude of sources, so the testimonies of the Christian tradition, preserved in its classic texts, merit respectful attention.  He considered himself an historian—the study of which is “‘one of the most needful and useful accomplishments for a man that would serve God’” (#2101)—and Kennedy argues he was “the greatest American historian of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (#1532).  “In the pulpit he upheld the Bible as divine testimony.  In a book he titled Reasonable Religion, he declared that Christians are not reasonable ‘if we don’t receive that book which we call the Bible or, the Scripture, as a Divine Testimony’” (#612).  Similarly, credible witnesses to miracles (whether in the Bible or in history) should not be dismissed merely because they  testify to supernatural events.  In that spirit he wrote “a religious and political history of New England called Magnalia Christi Americana, the “Great American Deeds of Christ,” a work that made him “an internationally known historian” when it was published in 1702 (#1542).  Indeed, he had become “the most famous American in the British Empire” (#1758).  

Sadly enough, few Americans today could identify Cotton Mather.  If they’ve heard of him, they likely remember a minor incident—his peripheral role in the notorious Salem witch trials.  When he heard reports of girls engaged in witchcraft, he urged they be brought into “the kind of healing program that had worked for” some disturbed girls he’d worked with in Boston.  Secular officials intervened, however, and the trials were held.  One of the judges, “Samuel Sewall later declared to his church that he was willing to ‘take the blame and shame’ of the trials upon himself.  In his history of New England, Cotton agreed that the executions proceeded from mistaken principles” (#1367).  Though he is frequently “associated with the witch trials,” he never attended them; “nor did he have any authority within the situation” (#1367).  The extent of his influence was urging leniency in dealing with the accused.  

As Thomas Kidd indicates, this biography of Cotton Mather is a “gleefully revisionist” treatise.  Professor Kennedy seeks to show his subject in a positive light, quite different from the dour portraits drawn by more muckraking writers.  Committed to his understanding of  “reasonableness,” Kennedy is as open to Mather’s reports of God’s providential and miraculous workings in New England as Mather was open to the same realities in both Scripture and history.  The book’s thesis, identifying Mather as the “first American Evangelical,” will certainly engender scholarly debates, but it seems reasonable to me to find the same spiritual hungers and convictions cultivated by Cotton Mather in New England in 1715 surfacing with more clarity and power in the First Great Awakening in the 1730s.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Professor Rick Kennedy has long pondered the proper way to research and reason, to think and write and teach history—especially as it comes to bear on the Christian Tradition.  Early on in his career he published an excellent article entitled “Miracles in the Dock:  A Critique of the Historical Profession’s Special Treatment of Alleged Spiritual Events” in fides et historia, XXVI:2 (Summer 1994), wherein he mounted a vigorous attack on David Hume’s flawed rejection of miracles and called historians to recover an earlier, better way of doing history.  Kennedy then expanded that argument in a scholarly monograph titled A History of Reasonableness:  Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (Rochester:  University of Rochester Press, c. 2004).  

He began his treatise with a story John Locke told in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  A 17th century King of Siam (modern Thailand) refused to believe a Dutch ambassador’s description of ice!  Having never seen frozen water he could not imagine such could exist.  He refused to believe a report because his personal experience negated it.  John Locke himself, trying to find reasons to believe others’ experiences as well as his own, suggested that tentatively accepting the testimonies of credible witnesses make sense.  So the King of Siam should have at least taken the ambassador at his word and subsequently sought to see if other reports confirmed his assertion.  For Kennedy this story “gets at the deep traditional issues of testimony and authority in the art of reasoning” and gives us a segue into a  discussion of their historical development. 

To rightly reason on the basis of testimony and authority is no minor matter!  Unless we can do so much that holds us together grows tenuous.  “For leaders to act, for juries to decide, and for history to teach, people have needed to trust testimony and authority” (p. 4).  From Aristotle on, as Kennedy shows by examining an impressive number of important textbooks used during the course of 20 centuries, thinkers and teachers concerned with education took seriously the role of testimony and authority.  And inasmuch as Aristotle set forth many important definitions and distinctions in his Topics, we may take him (joining St Thomas Aquinas) as “The Philosopher” since he stands at the heart of the “classical tradition” so central to Western Civilization.  

There is a marked difference between what we “know from within ourselves and what we learn from others” (p. 13).  Gifted children quickly become proficient in mathematics, seeing clearly what simply must be true.  An adolescent can become a world-class mathematician or chess master, but few would want him to be the nation’s president!  That’s because the things we learn from others, such as history and wisdom, must develop throughout a life rightly lived and are learned through dialectic (dialogical reasoning) and rhetoric (writing and speaking effectively) rather than logic and geometry.  “Aristotle ingeniously created an intellectual device that served this and other purposes.  He called it topics” and it became basic to “the liberal arts curriculum for two thousand years” (p. 13).  

Much that we learn, Aristotle insisted, comes from others by way of testimony and authority.  It is a form of “social” knowledge and is essential for “social” creatures such as ourselves.  Throughout the past, a multitude of thoughtful human beings have discovered truths regarding God, man, and the cosmos that we can quickly appropriate by believing them, accepting their authority.  He set forth the “pattern followed by most of the textbook writers discussed in this book, a pattern of writing about testimony from the perspective of honest people giving and receiving the best information available to them” (p. 16).  Such knowledge, of course, is not nearly as self-evident and certain as Euclid’s axioms or sense experiences, and we must take care to be neither overly gullible nor dogmatically skeptical.  But without such knowledge and capacity to reason well we would live seriously circumscribed and intellectual impoverished lives.  

Influential educators, especially Cicero and Quintilian in ancient Rome, simplified, synthesized and prescribed the principles set forth in Aristotle’s Topics.  Then Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, Boethius, and Cassiodorus, preserved this tradition of carefully evaluating and trusting testimony and authority; their works were used in schools throughout the Middle Ages.  During the Reformation, Luther’s close associate Philipp Melanchthon “reached deeply into the works of Aristotle, Augustine, and the best Medieval theologians in order to strengthen not only the role of dialectic as the foundation to all aspects of the liberal arts curriculum but also as the foundation of a Christian reasonableness in general” (p. 117).  

Things began to change, however, when 17th century thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes charted new directions more suitable to the budding scientific approach to truth that was concisely summed up in the newly-established Royal Society’s motto, “Nullius in verba” (On no one’s word).  Bacon specifically sought to surpass Aristotle’s “common sense” philosophy, and Descartes endeavored to confine all knowledge to mathematical strictures.  Thus Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (along with Newton a co-founder of calculus) could imagine settling “all disputes” through “computation” (p. 197).  In the hands of David Hume, this approach easily led to the denial of most all testimony—especially when applied to miracles.  Important textbooks, notably The Port-Royal Logic, certainly tried to maintain a balance between truths discerned mathematically and truths delivered through historical witnesses.  And gifted disciples of Aristotle, such as Richard Henry Whatley and John Henry Newman, eloquently upheld his views and emphasized “the reasonableness of Christianity.”  But during the past four centuries the measured rejection of Aristotle’s Topics is quite evident.  

Consequently, C.S. Lewis’s lament in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”) describes the plight of modern education.  Philosophers following Immanuel Kant reduced knowledge to what can be subjectively discerned.  The autonomous self stands alone, determining what is true, or good, or beautiful.  In America, John Dewey insisted one learns singularly through personal experience, through “doing.”  Reflecting the influence of such thinkers, today’s teachers  promote “Critical Thinking,” encouraging even the youngest scholars to stand defiantly alone and decide for themselves what is true or good or beautiful for them.  Rarely are they taught to trust authorities or historical testimonies or “common sense” traditions.  

In the book’s final paragraphs Professor Kennedy reflects on his own intellectual pilgrimage.  Growing up in California in the 1960s, he embraced the bumper sticker philosophy:  “Question Authority.”  Throughout his many years in school, culminating in his doctoral studies, he was urged to become an independent, “critical” thinker.   Historians, he learned, were to be ever-vigilant, doubting rather than trusting sources, subjecting everything to one’s personal judgment.  Fortunately, he worked with a number of “good teachers who modeled what they did not preach” (p. 310).  So he began to appreciate the wisdom of pre-modern thinkers such as Aristotle and Augustine.  And he has come to believe, along with John Locke, that the King of Siam should have believed the Dutch ambassador’s words regarding the existence of ice in northern climes.  And he thinks, as did Locke:  “We should do well to commiserate our mutual Ignorance, and endeavour to remove it by all the gentle and fair ways of Information” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV, xvi.4).  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Jesus, History, and Mt. Darwin:  An Academic Excursion (Eugene, Oregon:  WIPF & STOCK, c. 2008), Rick Kennedy invites readers to join him in thinking about the discipline of history while climbing (with his two young sons and a good friend) one of the peaks in California’s Evolution Group in the Sierra Nevadas.  The book is by design a very personal account:  “Back in the 1970s, I learned to love university life.  I eventually became a professor of history.  I started out a Bible-trusting Christian and have not lost my faith.  This book is about the reasonableness of biblical Christianity in universities.  By reasonableness, I mean the warranted credibility, if not the persuasiveness, of Christian claims about ancient history” (p. 1).  He thus follows Aristotle, trusting various sources, not the questioning Socrates, and provides, in easily-read form, the basic argument set forth in his History of Reasonableness

While climbing Mt. Darwin, Kennedy also ponders the “natural history” set forth by Charles Darwin which is, at times, posed as a rival to biblical faith since he “then inferred that since the creation of new species did not need God, then it is best to assume that God was not involved” (p. 1).  While he thinks “Darwin’s theory works within the boundaries of credibility that are standard to Natural history,” he doesn’t “think it is true to the extent that it should influence the core of Christian history” (p. 26).  There’s simply a sharp difference between studying pre-historical rocks and human history preserved in documents.  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Twenty years ago, a decade into his professorial career, Rick Kennedy published a fine treatise entitled Faith at State:  A Handbook for Christians at Secular Universities (Downer’s Grove:  InterVarsity Press, c. 1995).  Though designed for students at state institutions, the book can be read by students and professors wherever they study and teach.  Still more:  it reveals Kennedy’s deep commitment to the importance and worth  of higher education.  Universities, Kennedy insisted, need Christians on campus, for the academy influences our culture and the Christian voice needs to be heard therein.  He cited the oft-quoted statement of Charles Malik to emphasize this point:  “‘At the heart of all the problems facing Western civilization . . . lies the state of mind and the spirit of universities’” (p. 13).  The university at its best may be portrayed as the “Academical Village” Thomas Jefferson envisioned for the University of Virginia.  Kennedy likes the “village” image because universities provide relaxed environments enabling folks to find “time to chat, gossip or take a walk” (p 19).  They are—or should be—comfortable, nurturing communities.  They provide the facilities where learning takes place.  And Christian students should seize advantage of every opportunity to learn!

     To help students attain their goals, Kennedy introduces them to the essentials of university life.  “There are lots of good faculty members at every school,” he says.  “The job of the student is to seek out the good ones and avoid the bad ones” (p. 35).  There are peers with whom one can discuss and thereby learn.  There are nearby Christian churches and on-campus organizations which can assist students (Kennedy himself was encouraged by both the Navigators and the Church of the Nazarene in San Luis Obispo, California).  There are great books—the Bible and the writings of wonderful Christian thinkers from St Augustine to John Henry Newman will help Christian students integrate their faith with what they are learning.

     Above all, Kennedy calls Christian students to help recall universities to their original mission:  the search for truth.  Most universities still have (sadly ignored) mission statements of a deeply religious character.  Christians on campus can urge professors and students to remember and live out that mission.  They can also discover the excitement and joy of thinking!  Reason itself, Kennedy says, brings its own rewards.  Readable, thoughtful, buoyantly celebrating the love of learning, Faith at State is a book one should give students who are embarking on their academic voyage.  

# # #