Last month I published a piece over at the Hog Blog on biblical and theological illiteracy among scholars — basically a summary of some recent work by Tim Larsen. I thought I had noted a few distressing examples there … but wow, did I just have a you-ain’t-seen-nuthin’-yet moment. 

This review in the WSJ of a new book on the hymn “Amazing Grace” set my spidey-sense a-tingling — or rather, one passage from it did. I’ve been on the wrong end of reviewers’ careless dispensing of misinformation, so when I read this: 

Mr. Walvin is compelling in his description of the deep presence of “Amazing Grace” in Anglophone, especially American, culture. He is less persuasive in some of his theological observations: I find it vanishingly unlikely that the famous 19th-century evangelist Dwight Moody “portrayed Christ himself as a sinner . . . with whom armies of ordinary people could identify.” The 18th-century Church of England did not consist of a “Latin-based priesthood” conducting “impenetrable Latin-based worship” — that had been decisively seen off 200 years earlier. 

— I thought, That can’t be right. The author, James Walvin — a pretty eminent historian (primarily of The Atlantic slave trade) from the University of York — simply can’t have said those things. But lo and behold, here he is describing the D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey revival meetings in England: 

Their down-to-earth style filled the largest of city venues wherever they appeared. They held 285 such meetings in London alone. Theirs was a style which, inevitably, was heartily disliked by the more solemn corners of British worship. When Ira Sankey performed in the parish church in the small Derbyshire town of Chapel-en-le-Frith, one parishioner was so outraged that he thought the local bishop “will have something to say” to the curate who had invited him.

Throughout, Moody portrayed Christ himself as a sinner, a person with whom armies of ordinary people could identify. If Christ could be saved, so too could the humble and ordinary people in the audience. Salvation was there for all. This simple, seductive point, a potent message for the poor in the late nineteenth century, was exactly what John Newton himself had pressed home, in his letters and hymns a century before. Salvation was available to all who repented. 

And about Latin in the Church of England? Yep:  

Throughout his teenage years at sea, John Newton had been an avid reader, buying books wherever he landed and struggling with the religious principles imparted by his devout mother. Elizabeth Newton had instilled in her son a highly disciplined love of reading — and worship. She read Bible stories to him, teaching him to respond to the catechisms and to memorize hymns and psalms, especially those written for children. Elizabeth loved the hymns of Isaac Watts and her son inevitably followed. They were hymns noted for their simplicity, using ordinary, comprehensible language and were quite unlike the impenetrable Latin-based worship of the Church of England at that time. Watts’s hymns were an aspect of the ongoing Reformation that wrenched worship free from an exclusive, Latin-based priesthood and relocated it among ordinary people, simply by using the common vernacular. 

A few comments, typed with quivering hands: 

  1. The reviewer, Priscilla M. Jensen, calls these “theological observations,” but they are no such thing: they are historical statements that are catastrophically, outrageously wrong — the equivalent of saying that Benjamin Franklin was a Buddhist and that Frederick Douglass was a native speaker of French. They are so wrong, and wrong about facts so elementary, that I couldn’t possibly trust one word of Walvin’s book. Nor should any of you. 
  2. If Walvin thinks that “Christ could be saved,” by whom might that be accomplished? If Jesus Christ is one of the saved, who is the Savior? Perhaps Walvin could reflect on that name “Christ” — does he think that it’s Jesus’s surname, and that especially respectful people would refer to him as Mr. Christ? 
  3. If “throughout” his evangelistic sermons D. L. Moody called Mr. Christ a sinner, I would love to see just one example of it. But there isn’t one. It is not, as Jensen said, “vanishingly unlikely,” it is impossible. Moody’s entire theology — like that of every other orthodox Christian — was completely governed by his belief that, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” 
  4. James Walvin appears to be a Briton, in any case has certainly lived a number of years in Great Britain, and moreover has received a doctorate in history. How can he not know that the English prayer book was composed, issued, and mandated — with the Latin Mass correspondingly forbidden — nearly two hundred years before John Newton’s birth? 
  5. As Tim Larsen noted in the essay that got me onto this subject, “It takes a village” to disseminate ignorance this gross: James Walvin wrote the sentences I have quoted, but no peer reviewer noticed anything wrong, no editor, no copy editor — not one person in the whole complex process at the University of California Press knew enough even to question the claim that an evangelical preacher regularly proclaimed that Jesus Christ is a sinner, or that the average Church of England parish in the eighteenth century featured priests mumbling prayers in Latin. Never at any point was it thought necessary to have a manuscript on an English Christian hymn looked at by someone with an elementary knowledge of English Christianity. 
  6. Finally: Why — why, oh why, oh why — do people (scholars especially!) insist on writing books on subjects that they cannot be bothered to learn the basic facts about? Write on something you’re sufficiently interested in to learn about, for heaven’s sake! 

P.S. People often ask, “Don’t these presses have fact-checkers?” No. No, they don’t. Many magazines have fact-checkers — the ones at Harper’s, for instance, work me like a dog to justify my every claim — but publishing companies, even academic presses, typically don’t. They hope that their copy-editors — almost always freelancers — will catch howlers, but that’s about it. Certain kinds of books, biographies for instance, will get read by lawyers, but that’s not about avoiding statements that are wrong, that’s about avoiding statements that are actionable. (When I was writing my biography of C. S. Lewis a lawyer-reader flagged a comment I made about Charles Williams’s habit of asking pretty young women to sit on his lap so that his eros could be transformed miraculously into agape — Might Williams take exception to this statement, I was asked. I replied that, since he died in 1945, I didn’t think it likely.)