A Christian America? Thomas Kidd Delivers Julius B. Gay Lectures

Travis Hearne — February 16, 2024

Noted historian and professor Thomas Kidd delivered three lectures at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as part of the Julius B. Gay lecture series, February 13–14. After serving as a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, Kidd now serves as a Research Professor of Church History at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the John and Sharon Yeats Endowed Chair of Baptist Studies. He has authored numerous books including Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale University Press, 2022) and Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press, 2019).

Kidd’s lectures, “A Christian Nation? Faith and the American Founding,” covered three topics relating to the role of Christian faith in the founding generation.

1. Were the American Founders Christians?

In the first lecture, Kidd directed the audience to the writings of patriots such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, and documents such as the Declaration of Independence to show that America’s founding generation had complex views about God and Christianity. These early American figures utilized the language of Scripture to sanction the American Revolution but were met by the challenges of forced taxation to support established religion and slavery.

“Americans in 1776 were quick to seek divine approval of the Revolution,” Kidd said. “But that didn’t necessarily mean that those asking for God’s blessing were Christians. Many patriots were Christians, but several top-tier founders weren’t Christians in the sense that the Great Tradition of Christian theology would recognize as believing in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.”

2. What is the Jefferson Bible?

In the second lecture, Kidd explained Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of Christian theology by focusing on the private cut-and-paste bible he kept of Jesus’s teachings known as the Jefferson Bible. Kidd stressed that Jefferson cultivated a devout faith and considered himself to hold to the Christian ethic, but Jefferson’s views of Scripture and orthodox theology placed him outside the scope of historic Christianity.

“Jefferson illustrated a vast gulf between those who believed in the Bible’s entire God-inspired veracity and those who see themselves as subjecting the Bible to the withering glare of contemporary academic and elite cultural discourse,” Kidd said. “The former seeks a divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God which sits in judgment over the reader. The latter seeks to sit in judgment over an allegedly man-constructed and timebound bible, by the standard of human rationality and contemporary ethical values.”

3. What Role did the Second Great Awakening play in forming Christian America?

In the third lecture, Kidd zeroed in on the controversial figure of Charles Finney and explained how the church planting and revivals of the Second Great Awakening forged America’s Christian identity.

“America was far more churched and Christian in 1831 than it was in 1776,” Kidd said. “But the changes sometimes came with a price. Finney and his supporters crafted a pragmatic theology of revival, a doctrine that worked to produce conversion that matched the voluntarist mood of Jacksonian America. The problem was, wittingly or unwittingly, Finney crossed a vast theological gulf in Protestant history between original sin and human freedom.”

The Julius B. Gay lectureship is among the seminary’s most prestigious and oldest
lectures. It was endowed in 1894 by William Gay in Montgomery, Alabama, to honor his
late father, Julius Brown Gay.

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