Thursday, January 22, 2009

Faith Works 1-24-09
Jeff Gill

Two Visitors At the Church Door

If you’re looking forward to Feb. 12, 2009, just because I’ll quit talking about it on the 13th, I guess that’s fair.

The combined 200th anniversary of the birth of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin is worth some extra reflection and contemplation for myriad reasons, first and foremost because they are people whom any educated person ought to know about.

As with the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1826, both on July 4th (and precisely on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence they both brought into being), some coincidences make us marvel, and wonder, and consider . . .

People of faith particularly note with a smile the usual ironic comment that as John Adams was dying, his last words were “incorrect,” saying on his deathbed “Thomas Jefferson still lives,” when hundreds of miles away at Monticello his friend had passed on some hours earlier.

Or was Adams ironically wrong? Did the dying man somehow see, or know, that the questioning, seeking, challenging Jefferson was, in fact, at that moment “alive”?

Granted, Thomas Jefferson is no evangelical’s idea of an ideal founding father, clipping Bibles during late nights in the White House, pasting together an “improved” version without the miracles and commentary. He loved Jesus, but on his own terms . . . well, that’s a common problem many of us have.

But then we have Abe and Chuck, born on the same day in two different hemispheres, going on to change the world in ways that are still debated to this day. Now, I’m acutely aware that I may yet manage to annoy or upset every friend I still have who reads this column through, but make no mistake about it – I think Charles Darwin is one of the most fascinating, idealistic, and faith-full people I’ve ever read umpteen biographies about.

Oddly, to say you admire Lincoln won’t get many rocks thrown at you by the most conservative of Christian believers, but a compliment for Darwin and his work are likely to get you peculiar stares even on a good day – for some, “them’s fighting words.”

What they both have in common, though, was a sincere desire to find their place in the faith communities of their day, and a reaction to being told “fit in THIS way and you’ll be fine.”

Quite frankly, their scruples and hesitations are very, well, modern – this is the worst of historic heresies, but they’re recent enough that I think this comment is fair.

Lincoln watched his father and step-mother get caught in the frontier warfare not between settlers and Native Americans, but between denominations competing for adherents. The “heresy” trials of southern Indiana and Illinois of their day had less to do with Calvinism and Arminianism (note for future column!) and more to do with earthly competitiveness between pastors and organizations.

Lincoln actively supported the organization and building of churches in Springfield for the Catholic faith, for the Campbellite heresy that his parents were accused and acquitted of, and the Presbyterians – everyone but the Methodists, whose leader, Peter Cartwright, ran against him for Congress and hence would have nothing to do with him, nor would he let him aid fellow Arminians.

Which is too bad, because Lincoln’s writing showed him to be much more Arminian than Calvinist in his understanding of God’s will and the human capacity to respond. But those doors were closed to Lincoln for social more than theological reasons.

So Lincoln died never having been a member of any church, though his wife was a staunch Presbyterian. Sound familiar to anyone today?

Likewise Darwin had a very religious wife, who raised their children in the church that anchored their small village south of London. A member of the vestry, or church board, Darwin wrestled with his doubts and questions more openly than most, and had a parish pastor who was sympathetic while affirming the creeds and teaching of the historic Christian confessions.

Then a new pastor came in who was upset that Darwin’s wife led a program, funded by Charles’ inherited income, that did what we would call “adult education” and a sort of “GED” program in the church hall. This fellow, whose name I use as an expletive (Ffinden, if you need something to shout when you hit your thumb with a cleaver), worked hard to get all of the poor relief and underprivileged education programming out of church buildings altogether, and Darwin ultimately removed himself from any connection with the church after losing that conflict with the parson.

What would have happened if Rev. Innes had stayed, or if Ffinden had a clue about what faithfulness to the Gospel really meant? We’ll never know, but the state of Darwin’s heart and soul may not be quite what you think.

And yes, I’ll return to this subject for one more week! Next Saturday, the faith of Charles Darwin. It might surprise you. At any rate, do you start to see in Lincoln and Darwin the kind of challenge that the churches of today still struggle with? Men who want to know if it’s alright to ask questions, who are weary of denominational politics and competition . . . what would your church say to Abe or Chuck if they were married to women active in your congregation?

Because they very well might be.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at

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