Providentialism, Nationalism, and the Difficult Realities of History
Christian nationalism has ascended in our political discourse, moving from the fringes and into the pages of the New York Times, The Washington Post, and major evangelical publications like Christianity Today. These outlets, along with recent books by sociologists and political scientists lambast Christian nationalism as anti-democratic and a threat to the American constitutional order.
This article is not about whether Christians should adopt Christian nationalism as a guiding precept. Instead, it poses a historical question about how Christians think about the American nation and how that line of thinking can impact our political philosophy.
Indeed, a recent article at Baptist News Global appealed to its readers that a thorough grounding in the Baptist theological tradition would dissuade contemporary evangelicals away from Christian nationalism. The article cites Baptist historian Bill Leonard, who argues that Christians have “moved away from this sense of radical religious liberty based on the freedom of conscience toward Christian nationalism.” If Christians reflected on the Baptist commitment to “radical religious liberty,” Leonard contends, they would be dissuaded from the perils of Christian nationalism.
But history is far more complex and colorful—and one Baptist figure in particular throws a bit of a wrench in Leonard’s thesis.
B.H. Carroll was a significant Baptist theologian and minister throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in 1843, Carroll helped found Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, which continues to serve as one of the main institutions of theological education in the Southern Baptist Convention.
In May 1898, Carroll was invited to preach at a memorial service for both Union and Confederate veterans in Waco, Texas. The Spanish-American War had begun only a month prior, and since its outbreak, the United States achieved a stunning victory at the Battle of Manila Bay. Only one American lost his life while the Spanish Pacific fleet was destroyed. News of the victory spread across the United States, and religious leaders–like Carroll–viewed it as a providential sign of God.
Carroll began, reflecting lamentably upon his service in the Confederate Army–a soldier arrayed against the “United States Flag.” He recounted that he often heard the “echoes of the guns, the thunder guns, of the Civil War,” which had torn the nation asunder and entrenched Americans against Americans. Yet, according to Carroll, those echoes faded: “I cannot hear them now,” he preached. “It is the thunder of Dewey’s guns in Manila harbor, the thunder of Sampson’s guns in San Juan.” The spectacular victories in America’s war with Spain overcame the past memories of America’s Civil War. A nation united eclipsed the horrors of America divided.
For Carroll, this dramatic transition framed the selection of his biblical text for this address, which came from Ecclesiastes 3:3: “A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.” The Civil War marked a time of killing and breaking down–Carroll illustrated in grave detail the depth of death and razing wrought by the Civil War. Not only had America lost its “traditions of the past,” but the conflict left hundreds of thousands dead, and hundreds of thousands more wounded. He opined, “Not men only, but mothers, whose hearts broke; wives, whose souls sought exodus from the body to be at peace from the woes which came upon them; daughters that died in despair.”
That time–a time to kill and break down–had now come to an end, according to Carroll.
Time and forgiveness engendered healing; but Carroll also summoned his audience to patriotism, especially framed around America’s recent triumphs against the Spanish at Manila and San Juan. In Carroll’s sermon, memory nourished patriotism–memory especially of what Americans achieved in their war for independence. Carroll rhetorically queried how anyone living in 1898 could possibly divide what Americans from both the North and the South achieved together; neither Northerners or Southerners possessed a monopoly on the heroes and victories of that first conflict. Patriotism ought, therefore, to heal the scar left by the Civil War.
Carroll, however, added another reason to his list of reasons for why America entered a time to heal and build, namely, the providence of God. Carroll then outlined for his audience the specific providential acts of God that he believed undergirded the American story. God providentially steered Columbus’s fleet away from Virginia, paving the way for Protestant England to settle on its shores. In Queen Anne’s War, God’s providence, through the prayers of New England congregations, brought colonial victory over France. God’s providence secured American victory at Yorktown over the General Cornwallis. “And these providences could be multiplied,” Carroll explained. “If one had time to recite them, until a week would pass away in telling the names on the catalogue of the divine interpositions.”
It was, moreover, this providentialist view of American history that led Carroll to assert the need for an expansionist approach to foreign policy, especially within the context of the Spanish-American War. Cuba, as one example, languished under an oppressive rule, according to Carroll. God’s providential blessings that he extended to America demanded that the United States extend that blessing to others. Indeed, Carroll stated, “I cannot help speaking this, also, that the original title by which man holds a place on this earth, the God-given title, was that he should subdue the earth, that he should cultivate it, that he should develop its resources. That title has been forfeited 400 years in Cuba. That land must be developed; its resources must be developed.” America was, by Carroll’s estimation, divinely placed to fulfill this dominion mandate for Cuba and other Spanish territories throughout the world.
This manner of providential expansionism was not unique to Carroll nor the context of the Spanish American War. The concept of “manifest destiny” was rooted in similar theological justifications by John L. O’Sullivan in 1845. O’Sullivan justified the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico because, “The Mexican people are unaccustomed to the duties of self-government.” In other words, as John Wilsey noted, O’Sullivan held the common “racist position on the dominion mandate,” which marked expansionist fervor in the 19th century. The “dominion mandate” found in Genesis 1 was applied to western expansion and why America was providentially justified in its push towards the Pacific. John Quincy Adams, moreover, linked westward expansion and the annexation of Oregon Country with God’s command to subdue the land and cultivate it.
Carroll used similar rhetoric to celebrate American victories against Spain, rooting the war in a providential framework that demanded the United States extend its reach to uncultivated, suffering lands. Providence required this and the unthinkable victories at Manila and San Juan indicated God’s favor for the American cause of liberty and righteousness. “When a stream ceases to flow it stagnates. When a flower ceases to bloom it poisons. When a tree ceases to grow it begins to die.” The clear implication, according to Carroll, was that America must not be content with its present lot. On the contrary, God blessed the United States in a way he had blessed Israel: “God was using [Israel] as the depositary of great and widely diffusive principles, which must be circulated and propagated in order to the well-being of not one nation alone, but of all people.” This blessing, furthermore, was contingent upon faithfulness to God. As God promised to withdraw his blessing from Israel if they failed to uphold the covenant, so too, Carroll warned, did God’s judgment await the United States if it did not steward God’s providential blessings towards global liberty and justice.
Carroll believed the United States was up to the task. As he concluded his speech, he declared his love for the nation, stating, “I tell you there was never a time in my life that I can recollect that my heart did not throb with exultation at the record of the American people.” This love and hopeful expectation, moreover, led Carroll to the following conclusion: “There has come into my heart a deathless conviction that God means, through this nation as an instrument, to evangelize the whole world.”
For Carroll, this global endeavor, channeled through American expansion, also brought with it a traditional Baptist distinctive: religious liberty. He argued that as America spread its providential goodness across the oceans, so too must the bonds of tyranny be loosed. Where America placed its flag, let that signal the freedom of men and women to “accept God or reject God, free to pray, or free to lie down thankless; no coercion by any government, and no slave to stand anywhere.” This was to be the “genius of the American people.”
Regrettably, as Matthew McCullough chronicled in his book, The Cross of War, victory against Spain and providentialist excitement encountered the horrors of guerilla warfare and enormous strife, especially in the Philippines. What seemed a shining moment for God’s chosen nation declined rapidly in the aftermath of the war.
History humanizes us. It reminds us of our finitude–our inability to escape the realities of the Fall. Carroll, along with many American Protestants in the late nineteenth century, read into the American story a providentialism that, as McCullough surmised, called upon America, “with its distinctive moral character and providential favor… [to] act in ways not constrained by self-interest.” For Christians navigating any political context, a temptation exists that entices us to forget the realities of history or to concoct an idealized version of the past. This can become even more tempestuous when Christians evoke the doctrine of God’s providence and connect it to a national heritage, as seen with Carroll.
This is not to suggest that Christians should avoid all that Carroll exhibited. Surely love of country, patriotism, unity, the desire for religious liberty, and the hopes to see the world evangelized ought to mark Christians.
Yet, these qualities exist alongside the realities of a fallen world, marred by sin. If history is to teach us lessons, it must be the humbling lesson of human fallibility. In the end, therefore, history ought to draw us closer in our reliance upon God and his sovereign care, praying for his glorious return.