When you visit the edges of the Christian pseudo-intellectual world, you’ll come across some hilariously embarrassing fringe nuttiness. As a historian by training, I’ve encountered a good many interpretational frameworks, several of them really bad. As a Christian by faith, I’ve seen a plethora of these erroneous understandings hitch their wagons to religion. I had the distinct displeasure of spending an entire class having arguing over “providentialist” history and its antagonists (which is just about every historiographical school on the field). Take for example Peter Marshall, David Manuel, and Stephen Keillor, a veritable triumvirate of nincompoops.
You would be wise to say, “Mr. Adulescens, it seems that your youthful vigor has gotten the better of you here. Where is your intellectual and Christian charity?” I can answer with confidence and frustration that hours upon hours of fruitless class discussion have caused me to conclude something quite revolutionary: that the most loving and kind thing to do is put down this academic mongrel. I label providentialist history as a “mongrel” since it could only have come to be in the Christian intellectual ghetto, with some crossbreeding of Rushdoonyite Reconstructionism, over-reaching Calvinism, and confident fundamentalism. In The Light and the Glory, Marshall and Manuel try to argue that God has special, unique plans for America as a nation (as if He didn’t for the other countries as well). Every step since Plymouth Rock has been a resolute march toward what could be a godly, free, virtuous, and Christian (read: Protestant) republic, full of wholesomeness and family values. Yes, it bears an uncanny similarity to the aforementioned Whig history from my other essay. However, the separation of church and state is not high on the list of debate priorities, since the United States seems to take on the role of Old Testament Israel while steering clear of medieval Constantinian Catholicism.
God intervenes directly with the American people as they develop into a nation, bringing about weather, plague, and prosperity to suit His ends. But beware! Worldly wretchedness resides in the American soul: that cesspool of immoral profiteering called Jamestown set a different path which other portions of Murca follow. Thankfully, revivals, other outpourings of religious fervor, and 1800s moralizing helped bring us to greatness. Here is the kicker for the whole situation: God uses blessings and punishments to judge the colonies and later the United States. He wants the Constitution to happen, but He’ll slap the wrist of anyone straying from the Puritan ideal to the Enlightenment. The task of the historian then is one of prophecy: to trace the hand of God in history as He doles out the carrot and stick.
Stephen Keillor carries out a similar task in his worthless book, God’s Judgments in History. As an academic, he adds “nuance” to the argument. This means he says the exact same thing as Marshall and Manuel, but inserts maybes and perhapses so that he’s not actually arguing in absolute terms. With that in mind, the only thing the man has going for him is his fraternal bond with Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame. A specialist in American history (yes, it’s hard to find providentialists from other parts of the world), good Stephen posits that the War of 1812 was God inflicting hardship on America for the Deism of its leaders. Keillor’s more careful approach even garnered him a introduction by Mark Noll (disagreeing, of course, but still meriting attention). Providentialists have rushed to Keillor as a paragon of scholarship. He uses the language necessary to give the idea evangelical credibility. If “evangelical credibility” was ever actually worth anything before (I tend to think not), it certainly displays its intellectual bankruptcy by entertaining Keillor’s thesis.
Perhaps the most hilarious effect that providentialist history has on its adherents is that now any opponent seems an impious monster. My Machiavellian side appreciates the rhetorical flair of the theory. From the inside looking out, anyone who attacks the providentialist thesis seeks to make God somehow less sovereign, less active, more distant, and less righteous. Arguing with a convinced providentialist thus takes on an infuriating character as he accuses you of irreverence and condescendingly mentions he’ll pray for your soul.
What providentialists don’t want to admit is how their theories run in direct contradiction with the Scriptures they hold so dear. Job and Ecclesiastes give dire warning against such predictions and judgments. Their particular spiritual arrogance in marking the waggling finger of Providence at every historical event should give us pause. Have we learned nothing from the problem of evil? Were Boethius, Augustine, and a host of other divines blotting their pages in vain when they wrestled with how evil exists with an all-powerful good God? So much is hidden from us here below; God’s purposes are His own (again, remember Job). Who hath known the mind of God? Well, an elite cadre of pious historians, evidently!
When arguing with providentialists, I begin to think that maybe these same folks should look into polytheism. At least then they could blame the lightning bolt as the judgment from Zeus and Fate. The problem of evil one finds in monotheism is far too hard and inconvenient for the academic restrictions that limit their vain theorizing.
Which leads me to conclude with a most damning accusation: providentialist historians are slothful. A lunatic I can stand for a little while; mental flabbiness is too much. A historiographer deals with issues of time, memory, and the human narrative; he’s going to have to do philosophy and, in the case of Christians, theology. Even a short glance at church historians shows that the providentialists decided to take their academic fate into their own hands, only to run into the Charybdis of speaking for God when He has been silent. When a writer shovels this historical horse manure onto the church’s lap—even into the minds of children—he compels anyone with a shred of honesty to abandon this waste of our lives. For time is precious, too brief to be spent on these hot-winded exhalations.