This Week in Church History
I’ve been too busy lately and missed updating this series.
02 September 1784, John Wesley consecrates Thomas Coke as the first “bishop” of the Methodist Church. The title bishop is never used in the U.K., where Wesley still hopes for reconciliation with the Church of England, but is quickly adopted in the Americas. A tireless itinerant preacher, Coke crosses the Atlantic 18 times on missionary trips–all at his own expense.
02 September 1973, Oxford don, fantasy novelist (e.g., The Lord of the Rings) and devout Catholic, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) dies at age 81. His novels were one strong influence on my teenage self as I found myself fumbling toward Christian faith. In addition to the normal intellectual doubts I had as an adolescent, I found most of my experiences with Christians boring. Tolkien showed me that faith and imagination need not be enemies and this was enormously liberating to a teenager in the ’70s when churches throughout the U.S. South were organizing burnings of rock records (I didn’t participate) and were warning against the “paganism” of Star Wars! I confess that I memorized large sections of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before I was much good at memorizing Holy Scripture!
03 September 590, Gregory I (“the Great”) is consecrated pope. He is considered the creator of the Medieval papacy since Gregory was the first pope to have secular political power. “Gregorian chant” is named after him. He is the last of the 4 Latin “Doctors of the Church.” Gregory was to give the basic shape to the liturgy of the Western (Catholic) Church for the next thousand years or more. A former monk, he was also a great promoter of monasticism.
03 September 1894, H. (elmut) Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) is born. Often overshadowed by his older brother, Reinhold, H.R. Niebuhr was one of the most profound theologians in America in the 20th C.–and arguably the one with the longer legacy. Educated at Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and eventually earning a Ph.D. at Yale University, Niebuhr taught at each alma mater, staying at Yale for the rest of his life. A complex individual, different aspects of HRN’s thought influenced people as different as James Gustafson, Julian Hartt, Hans Frei, Diane M. Yeager, Stanley Hauerwas, Douglas Otatti, and Glen Stassen. Although I sharply disagree with HRN’s “binatarian” view of God, and largely agree with Yoder’s critique of his classic Christ and Culture (1951), I have been deeply influenced by HRN’s struggle to affirm the sovereignty of God in history and to deal with post-Troeltsch historical relativism in a constructive way. HRN’s motto that “history is the laboratory of ideas” is a major guide to my thought.
04 September 1965, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) dies in what is now the nation of Gabon, in western Africa. Schweitzer was a true polymath: A German composer and concert pianist, a theologian and New Testament scholar (most famous for the Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), but also equally influential with The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930)), and a medical missionary to Africa. His medical missionary work led not only to the founding of more than one hospital, but also to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.
05 September 1997, Mother Theresa of Calcutta(1910-1997), founder of the Missionaries of Charity order, and winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, dies in Calcutta, India–where she spent most of her adult life serving the poor.
06 September 1851, Olbadiah Holmes, a Baptist layman, is given 30 lashes with a whip in Boston Commons for “preaching without a license” from the established (Congregationalist) Church. He is so filled with divine joy, preaching during the beating, that he tells his tormenters, “You have touched me with rose petals.” This public flogging led one witness, Henry Dunster, the founding president of Harvard College, to convert to Baptist views and refuse to have his youngest child christened. (In turn, this decision led to the loss of Dunster’s post and Harvard’s first emergency search for a new president! Dunster spent the remainder of his life as a Baptist minister.) Holmes’ witness also helped sew the seeds against church-state fusions in America and to the founding of First Baptist Church of Boston.
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