I was going to include this in my MAGA evangelicals post this morning, but I decided to save it for a separate post.
The Falkirk Center at Liberty University just tweeted a video of an Eric Metaxas speech:
Almost everything Metaxas says in this clip is wrong. The defenders of Metaxas might say I am taking the clip out of context. I am not. This speech comes from Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It, a book that I have reviewed in six long blog posts back in 2016. I summarized that six part series in a Religion News Service article. You can read it here.
But today I offer an even more pointed critique, based on the claims he makes in the aforementioned clip. The Falkirk Center was right to pick this clip, because it really reveals the deep historical problems with Metaxas’s view of American history and, by extension, American identity.
Metaxas says crime went down in Philadelphia after Whitefield preached in the “1740, 1750s, and 1760s.” Indeed, Whitefield preached several times in Pennsylvania from 1739 to 1769. But his claim that crime dropped in the city is not supported by evidence. Jack Marrietta did meticulous work on crime rates in colonial Pennsylvania. Marrietta found 7 homicides in the colony in 1740. That number had almost quadrupled by the 1760s. The homicide rates also rose in the city of Philadelphia over this period. The number of violent assaults in the colony also rose. Whitefield’s preaching did nothing to stop crime in Philadelphia.
Metaxas also seems unaware of the fact that the Great Awakening badly divided the Christian community in colonial Pennsylvania. As I argued in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, many of the Awakening’s most ardent supporters apologized later for their divisive behavior during the height of the awakening. Gilbert Tennant, the evangelical itinerant and Whitefield wanna-be, is the best example of this.
Metaxas says, “everything bad decreased” after Whitefield came to town. This is not true in the least. For example, I am assuming that Metaxas thinks slavery and the slave trade was bad. (As he reminds us every day, he wrote a book about William Wilberforce). Both slavery and the slave trade increased steadily in Philadelphia during the years Whitefield visited despite the pleas of Quakers and some anti-slavery evangelicals to end the practice. (Whitefield, I might add, was not one of those anti-slavery evangelicals).
In 1780, Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition act, but slavery remained legal in Pennsylvania until 1847. I could also write several more paragraphs about how the abolitionist community was not welcome in Philadelphia during the early 19th century or the successful attempt to disenfranchise free blacks in the state in 1837-1838 even as the so-called Second Great Awakening was raging in the United States. (You tend to learn such things when you teach a regular course on Pennsylvania history).
Metaxas says that “domestic abuse,” “alcoholism,” and “gambling” decreased in Pennsylvania and the other colonies after Whitefield arrived. He has no evidence to support any of these claims, but it sure fires up the base and gives him evangelical street cred as a “historian.”
Metaxas says that “there is no America without the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He adds that this statement is true “historically” and “ideologically.”
Would the American Revolution have happened without Whitefield and the Great Awakening?
While a few historians still cling to the notion that there are ideological connections between the Awakening and Revolution, I don’t know of any historian who would claim that the American Revolution was dependent upon the First Great Awakening. Metaxas, once again, is manipulating the complexity of the past to promote his own political agenda. I critiqued Metaxas more fully on this point here.
Much of the evangelical MAGA movement, promoted by the likes of David Barton, Eric Metaxas, and Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, is built on an irresponsible and unsustainable view of American history. There are few days that go by in which Eric Metaxas does not push this erroneous vision of the American founding.