How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 5 (The Revolutionary Age)

This is the fifth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? The series has moved from Thursdays to Saturdays. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Revolutionary Age.”

I approach this week’s episode of How Should We Then Live with trepidation. Halfway through his sweeping ten-episode story about “the rise and decline of western thought and culture,” Francis Schaeffer has now arrived at historical territory that I can consider really mine: the early United States. That means the temptation to embark on a detailed fact-checking of his work is going to be strong.

And let me tell you, this episode has some major opportunities for fact-checking.

But the larger problems with Schaeffer’s story are already familiar. In “The Revolutionary Age,” Schaeffer continues to compress and stretch time according to the needs of his argument. He crowds complex experiences under simple labels. He passes reductive judgments on entire societies and civilizations. He shows little interest in historical study as such; he embraces it just to the extent that it serves his evangelistic or political purpose. And he seems determined to see the best in the past people he identifies with his own evangelical Protestant faith, and the worst in those he doesn’t.

Unfortunately, while sharing its basic flaws with the previous episodes, “The Revolutionary Age” lacks their crucial redeeming element: It does little to cultivate appreciation for the visual art, music, and other cultural monuments of the societies it discusses. As this series moves into the modern age, I’m worried that Schaeffer is losing interest in ushering his viewers into the bygone social world.

Léo-Paul-Samuel Robert, Justice Teaching the Judges, ca. 1905 (thumbnail image from the Musée Historique Lausanne, 2010)

However, we do spend some time with one work of art. Francis Schaeffer begins this episode on location in Lausanne, Switzerland, inside the Palais de Justice de Montbenon, the sometime seat of Switzerland’s supreme court. Here we see a huge mural painted at the beginning of the 20th century. It depicts justice as a woman clothed in white and gold, holding scales and a sword, pointing at an open book labeled “the law of God.”

Schaeffer describes this evocative painting as a reminder for Swiss judges headed into court: that “the Bible gives a basis not only for morals, but for law.”

He adds:

This was the sociological basis and legal base for law in northern Europe after the Reformation. As the Reformation emphasis that the Bible is the only final authority took root, the ordinary citizen was increasingly freed from arbitrary governmental power.

Now, to me, it’s hardly obvious that the divine law book in Paul Robert’s allegorical image was meant to represent the Bible, per se. It may have represented some combination of natural law, conscience, portions of the Bible, etc.

In any case, this is surely a tendentious way to begin an episode that will focus on events around the turn of the previous century. And of course, Schaeffer is treating one city’s 20th-century artistic fantasy as if it somehow expressed all the actual legal traditions of Protestant countries over the previous 400 years. This is not a promising start.

Nor is it encouraging that Schaeffer jumps immediately back to a 17th-century Scottish Presbyterian theologian named Samuel Rutherford, an arguably important—but very idiosyncratic—participant in the English Civil Wars.

(“Who?” you may be asking.)

Unknown artist’s portrait of Samuel Rutherford, 17th century (Wardlaw Museum, University of St. Andrews)

During ridiculously complicated multi-way conflicts in the British Isles during the 1640s, Samuel Rutherford contended against many of his fellow Protestants, including, for example, the great writer John Milton, who was an important theorist of the nature of religious liberty. In 1661, after the British royal family’s restoration to power, Rutherford probably would have been executed for treason (again, by Protestants) if he had not died of other causes first.

Schaeffer, however, says nothing about this context.

Instead, Schaeffer gives the very false impression that Rutherford was the constitutional theorist of European Protestantism. He also makes the extraordinary claim that Rutherford’s 1644 book Lex, Rex—a defense of Scottish Presbyterian revolutionary violence in a specific corner of the Protestant world—offered the people of Britain “freedom without chaos” in a constitutional order on the basis of biblical law.

Far from this being true, Rutherford’s political theology offered neither freedom, as we understand it, nor relief from chaos to his political opponents in the mid-17th century. Revolutionary Britain was a political shambles and a seething stew of apocalyptic religious intolerance. And contrary to what Schaeffer implies, Lex, Rex was an argument based on natural law and Scottish tradition, not on the Bible alone.

As I feared, I’m already getting lost in the details of Schaeffer’s argument, and we’re barely two minutes into the episode. But Schaeffer’s claims about the importance of Samuel Rutherford are widely believed among Reformed evangelical apologists in the United States today, and the fundamentally ahistorical nature of the claim irks me tremendously.

Anyway, it’s true that Samuel Rutherford was one of countless Protestants debating the proper basis of government in post-Reformation Europe. And it’s true that many of them grounded their arguments in Protestant ideology—although that is virtually a tautology. It’s also true that social contract theory, an important part of the basic worldview of British dissidents in the 18th century, was popularized partly by many different 17th-century Calvinist theologians like Rutherford.

What definitely isn’t true is that any of this means the Bible (or anyone’s interpretation of the Bible) was “the basis” for law in northern Europe.

Alas! Schaeffer now makes the problem worse. Skipping ahead more than a full century, Schaeffer gives Samuel Rutherford much of the credit for founding the United States. “Samuel Rutherford’s work, and the tradition it embodied,” Schaeffer says, “had a great influence on the American Constitution, even though modern Americans have largely forgotten him and his influence.”

Unknown artist’s portrait of John Witherspoon, copying work by Charles Willson Peale (Princeton University Art Museum)

Schaeffer explains his reasoning this way: The American founder John Witherspoon, he says, “followed Samuel Rutherford’s Lex, Rex directly.”

What does that claim mean—“followed” it? I truly don’t know. (Elsewhere, Schaeffer would write that Witherspoon “knew and stood consciously in the stream of Samuel Rutherford,” which is equally meaningless.)

What I do know is that I can’t find Rutherford’s name, or the words lex rex, anywhere in a four-volume edition of the Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon. I also know that that Witherspoon, the only clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence, was not present at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 at all. As for the people who were, I’ve been able to find just two offhand references to Samuel Rutherford (alongside other political theorists) in the three-volume Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Rutherford wasn’t entirely unknown to the founders, but he was hardly crucial to the American founding. And Witherspoon was not involved in writing the Constitution.

As far as I can tell, Francis Schaeffer is simply free-associating when he links Rutherford, Witherspoon, and the U.S. Constitution.

Meanwhile, actual scholars have invested enormous effort into understanding the intellectual influences of the American revolutionaries and the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review (March 1984), table 3

An important 1984 study by the political scientist Donald S. Lutz, for example, reviewed thousands of texts written between 1760 and 1805 to identify the European thinkers most often cited by American founders. You have probably already guessed that Rutherford didn’t make the top of Lutz’s list. In fact, Rutherford didn’t appear anywhere in Lutz’s list of the 36 most-cited thinkers of the American founding. Many of the people who did make that list definitely weren’t evangelical Protestants. Most, indeed, were classical, medieval, or Enlightenment writers Schaeffer would undoubtedly label “humanists.”

(Lutz did find that the Bible—especially the book of Deuteronomy—was mentioned often during that period, particularly during the Revolution. That shouldn’t be surprising if you know the all-around literary importance of biblical language and the importance of sermons as political texts in the 18th century. But when he looked specifically at the debates around the creation of the U.S. Constitution, Lutz found that “the Bible’s prominence disappear[ed]” from the writings of the Constitution’s supporters, “which is not surprising since the debate centered upon specific institutions about which the Bible had little to say.”)

Or as the evangelical historian Mark Noll, an expert on early American religious life, would put it in a letter to Schaeffer in 1982, “it is very difficult to see explicit biblical influence on the founding documents of the United States or in the political thinking of even the evangelical Founders like John Witherspoon.” Even Witherspoon’s political philosophy, Noll would write, drew mainly from the Enlightenment—and drew nothing from Samuel Rutherford.)

All right. I’m still only three minutes into this program. This isn’t going well! Let me try to speed up.

After his spurious claims about Rutherford and Witherspoon, Schaeffer at least admits that “not all men who laid down the foundation for the United States were individually Christians. For example, Thomas Jefferson. However, he lived within the circle of what the Christian consensus brings forth.” (Perhaps this is true? But it would also be true of the people who opposed the American founding.)

(As his biographer Barry Hankins comments sarcastically on page 170 of Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, “It seems that for Schaeffer, when a Christian utilized non-Christian thinking, the product was sub-Christian, but when a non-Christian used Christian influences, the product was thoroughly Christian.”)

Francis Schaeffer in front of Independence Hall in his home city, Philadelphia

Then Schaeffer claims more specifically that the Reformation, because it emphasized the fallen (fundamentally sinful) nature of humanity, had provided a basis for the checks and balances that went into the design of the U.S. government, following the examples of Switzerland and Britain.

You know what? For the sake of time, I’ll let that one go. He’s not entirely wrong there, although his account of how it happened is wrong.

For instance, Schaeffer claims that Great Britain established its constitutional form of government, with its supposedly Protestant checks and balances, through “the bloodless revolution of 1688.” That claim not only ignores a long history of English and Scottish legal development in the centuries before the Protestant Reformation; it also ignores complicating factors like the extremely bloody civil wars waged by various factions of Protestants just four decades before the so-called Glorious Revolution. Checks and balances were not, in the end, the distinguishing features of those years.

Now Schaeffer skips to the French Revolution of 1789.

“When the French Revolution tried to produce English conditions,” Schaeffer says, “but without the Reformation base, which gave freedom without chaos, using Voltaire’s humanist Enlightenment base, the result was a bloodbath”—here we see footage of a guillotine in action, sans victime—“and a rapid breakdown to the authoritarian rule of Napoleon.”

Schaeffer offers a simple history of the French Revolution in its various phases, charting its evolution from a bourgeois liberal constitutional uprising to the violence of the Terror. He claims the French lost control of their revolution because they lacked a Protestant biblical basis for it, elevating human reason over Christianity. “These results”—the guillotine, etc.—“were not from outside,” Schaeffer says; “they were the product of a humanist Enlightenment base.”

Now Schaeffer skips to the revolution in Russia some 130 years later. Here, in an assertion likely to stagger anyone familiar with the period, he claims that the French Revolution was not “related” to the American Revolution of just a few years earlier. “In reality,” he says, “the American Revolution is related to the English bloodless revolution” of 1688, while the French Revolution “is very much related to the Russian Revolution.” He illustrates this claim by placing a portrait of Voltaire next to portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx, then covering Voltaire’s portrait with a picture of Napoleon, whom he likens to Lenin as an autocrat.

“Related” how? Certainly, communists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed their movements were a continuation of a long process that involved the revolution in France decades earlier. But Schaeffer’s notion of “relatedness,” coming from someone who presumably does not subscribe to the Marxist view of history, seems to be another free-association game rather than anything I can take seriously as a historical claim about the 1790s.

Now Schaeffer embarks on the story of the Bolshevik takeover during the Russian Revolution, condemning communism as necessarily repressive because of its supposedly humanist assumptions. (This means Schaeffer is again stretching the concept of “humanism” out of all specificity, using it to describe virtually everything except his understanding of Protestant biblicism. But that’s nothing new.)

At this point, we’re halfway through the episode, and I’m honestly losing patience with the fractured nature of this narrative. Schaeffer’s “age of revolutions” is now a good 250 years long, as far as I can tell.

But now, for unclear reasons, Schaeffer jumps back to the late 18th and 19th centuries to address the topics of African slavery and industrial-age exploitation of workers.

In a strange piece of special pleading, Schaeffer confesses that transatlantic slavery is an outrageous affront to the values that he has been associating with European Protestantism, but he insists that it is simply a terrible exception to the Protestant rule—unlike the cruelties that he believes are characteristic of competing ideologies. “There were various areas,” he says, “where the Bible was not followed as it should have been.” In the matter of chattel slavery, for example:

Slavery based upon race, and racial prejudice, are wrong. We must acknowledge that often both were present when Christians had much more influence on the consensus than they have today, and the church, as such, did not speak out sufficiently.

And as for industrial change:

If industrialization had been accompanied by a compassionate use of accumulated wealth, and an emphasis on the dignity of each individual man, both of which are stressed in the Old and the New Testaments, the Industrial Revolution would have been a revolution for good indeed. But unhappily, there was too often silence on these two crucial points. There were acts of individual charity—help to the poor. But the church often was simply silent on the Bible’s command for the compassionate use of wealth, both in England and in other countries.

Basically, Schaeffer’s argument seems to be that non-Christian ideologies of the 19th century couldn’t defend human dignity, and this should discredit them; while Christian ideologies often didn’t, but could have, and this should be counted in their favor. As I said: special pleading.

But really, Schaeffer is directing this argument not at skeptical audiences, but rather at viewers who are already his fellow evangelicals, urging them to take political and social action in the 1970s to avoid such glaring inconsistencies in their own time.

Basically, I think, this part of the episode is actually about abortion.

Near the final minutes of the episode, in fact, Schaeffer provides a specific model for evangelicals of his own day: the European (especially British) Protestants who did speak out against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. He singles out the evangelist John Wesley; John Newton (a slave trader who “became a Christian, and he quit the trade, and spoke out against it”); the Anglican minister’s son Thomas Clarkson; and the evangelical member of parliament William Wilberforce, a particularly powerful champion of abolition. Such people, Schaeffer suggests, embodied true Christian principles.

Let me say that I’m deeply ambivalent about this final point about 19th-century evangelical abolitionism.

To its credit, “The Revolutionary Age” takes slavery very seriously as an affront to Christian values, as Schaeffer understands them. He makes no effort, as far as I can tell, to downplay slavery’s horrors for the sake of improving the image of the early United States or early modern Christians. (Some fundamentalist apologists have done that.) No, Schaeffer’s hatred of slavery is unsparing. This is good and important.

On the other hand, Schaeffer definitely underestimates the ties between Christianity and chattel slavery in the early modern world.

Until the late 18th century—that is, for the first 300 years of the Atlantic slave trade—white Protestants in Europe and the United States mostly didn’t see slavery the way Schaeffer sees it. During the mid-18th century, the way toward modern antislavery views was led by Quakers, not by Christians whom Schaeffer would understand as orthodox and evangelical. The figures Schaeffer identifies with British evangelical ideology were relative latecomers, albeit important ones, to the Christian antislavery movement.

The Anglican (Methodist) minister John Wesley, for example, didn’t publish his Thoughts upon Slavery until the eve of the American Revolution, when he was about 70 years old. His colleague George Whitefield, an even more important Methodist evangelist in Britain and America, actually held people in bondage and justified slavery, despite his own qualms, as an instrument of Christian conversion. Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, for all the force of their convictions, entered the antislavery cause as young men after the American Revolution was already over. Much worse, the “Amazing Grace” hymnwriter John Newton—contrary to a deeply cherished myth among American evangelicals today, and contrary to what Schaeffer says in this episode—became a slave trader after his Christian conversion. When Newton left the business, it was for practical reasons, not due to religious conscience; he did not write against the Atlantic slave trade for more than three decades afterward; and in fact, he never condemned slavery itself at all. (For more on this, see, for example, Irv Brendlinger’s free article “John Wesley and Slavery: Myth and Reality.“)

Also, since Schaeffer brought him up earlier, let me mention that John Witherspoon, his favorite founding father, enslaved human beings and used his political influence to support the continuation of slavery in his own state of New Jersey.

None of this is to deny that Christian convictions, and specifically evangelical Protestant convictions, played a crucial role in the Anglo-American antislavery movement. Indeed, the transatlantic movement to abolish slavery is probably the greatest worldly success evangelical Christianity can claim. But it was primarily a movement of the 1800s—in other words, the fourth century of that brutal institution. And even in the 1800s, the antislavery movement faced enormous opposition from equally devout evangelical Protestants who endorsed slavery.

For hundreds of years, the dominant view of devout white Protestants in Europe and the United States was that African slavery was a tolerable evil or even an outright positive good. And they had the Bible verses to prove it.

Thus, Schaeffer’s story is not entirely wrong. But a more detailed understanding of this history does not have the easy moral lesson Schaeffer wants it to have: that consistently “believing the Bible” gave Europeans the correct view about slavery. Most of the time, for a very long time, it didn’t.

It’s probably relevant that (to my knowledge) nobody on Francis Schaeffer’s team of consultants as he wrote How Should We Then Live had been trained in American history.

I don’t want to stress this point unfairly. Historians routinely have to work on projects outside our areas of true expertise. We usually have the skills to do so responsibly. But it’s conceivable that a historian of the United States could have persuaded Schaeffer to modify some of his less plausible arguments.

Advertisement in the Stamford Advocate, Oct. 22, 1977

As it is, the young scholar credited as Schaeffer’s chief historical researcher, my former pastor Jeremy C. Jackson, had been trained in early modern Francophone history. He was technically a social rather than intellectual historian, but his doctoral dissertation on Lausanne, the Protestant Swiss city visited at the beginning of this episode, reasonably qualified him as an expert in topics related to revolutionary French republicanism.

I don’t think it’s an accident that this episode’s treatment of French history is, in my view, somewhat stronger than its treatment of British or U.S. history, though it’s still very far from perfect.

When Jeremy Jackson ventured into early American history himself, from what I can tell, the results looked a lot like Schaeffer’s argument in this episode. As part of the 1977 publicity tour for the film series, for example, he was scheduled to present three lectures in Stamford, Connecticut, on the religious history of New England. These lectures were billed as discussions of “the basis and effects of Biblical thinking from the dawn of the Protestant Reformation to the current crises,” and they were presented as reflections on a clearly rhetorical and very Schaefferian question, “What’s left of true Christianity in American life?”

I must admit a certain amount of skepticism about what these lectures may have contained.

All these things considered, where does Episode V leave us?

Frankly, I’m worried. Now that How Should We Then Live‘s narrative has arrived in the modern age, and especially in the United States, I sense that 1970s partisan politics may be driving the details, not just the broad themes, of the story more than ever before. And nothing in this episode is likely to engage the audience in appreciating the products of different worldviews. I sense that we’re on the verge of sliding into a much more open culture war than I detected in the previous episodes, the vehemence of Schaeffer’s anti-Catholicism in those episodes aside.

If I’m right, then I think we can expect Episode VI, “The Scientific Age,” to be even more troubling. But that’s a problem that can wait until next week.

3 thoughts on “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 5 (The Revolutionary Age)”

  1. Like you could have, I’m getting hung up on this crazy… “Schaeffer describes this evocative painting as a reminder for Swiss judges headed into court: that “the Bible gives a basis not only for morals, but for law.”
    He adds:
    This was the sociological basis and legal base for law in northern Europe after the Reformation. As the Reformation emphasis that the Bible is the only final authority took root, the ordinary citizen was increasingly freed from arbitrary governmental power.”

    Recently I had the opportunity to read the writings and transcripts of my religious ancestors, the Anabaptists… The notion that the pre-Protestant, ie Catholic authorities weren’t basing their laws/etc on the Bible before the Reformation… is ludicrous. In the court transcripts, in letters and tracts showing the dialogue back and forth between Anabaptist and their opponents (ie Christendom’s law makers and enforcers) the Bible was preeminently used by both sides, sometimes almost exclusively! (Sometimes even irritatingly so… because I can’t imagine the authorities didn’t voice some other (more humanist) reasons sometimes…yet the text didn’t show it – they were so stuck on proof-texting from the BIBLE!) I happen to believe the reformers had a more logical or grounded interpretation than the Catholic authorities, but those authorities were very explicit about using the Bible as a basis for their actions… A little bit of study would reveal this to anyone… Did Schaeffer or his advisors, et al, not read primary sources for this era or did he choose to ignore that in order to set up a pet point for him and his audience?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Schaeffer’s reading was never terribly systematic, as far as I can tell, and he simply wasn’t a historical researcher himself. I don’t have access to the notes his researchers gave him, so I don’t know where they pushed back against his claims and where they didn’t … but I don’t think we should underestimate the tendency even of good scholars to see what they’re looking for and not see what they aren’t.


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