God’s Hand in History

Why the secular notion of luck should not replace providence.

While conducting doctoral work at the University of St. Andrews, I was challenged to ponder the factors that influenced the church’s theological and institutional development within a secular history department. During that time, I observed that while the cause of historical events was primarily attributed to human action, the mysterious role of fortunate circumstances or “luck” also factored into historical explanations on occasion.

I first became aware of this rationale when grading a freshman history paper, which claimed that Cortez’s conquest of the Incas was successful due to luck. This explanation surprised me, particularly in a culture supposedly moving toward the disenchantment of the world, or Entzauberung, as scholars of secularism purport.

With new eyes, I began to see the offhand comments about luck in all manner of sources. It soon occurred to me that “luck” had become the “providence” of secular culture: that force beyond human comprehension, which could not be ignored, bringing about opportune circumstances for some and not for others at particular moments.

If Tertullian were alive today, he might ask, “What do Christians have to do with luck?” For a believer and an historian of the church and theology, luck is not the ultimate explanation.

I am reminded of a powerful scene in the 1982 movie Gandhi in which Gandhi and a clergyman were walking on the sidewalk together. According to the custom in India at the time, Gandhi was expected to walk in the street. Despite the presence of threatening men, he refused. When the confrontation did not lead to violence, the clergyman—clearly shaken—turned to Gandhi and exclaimed, “Well, that was lucky!” To that, Gandhi pointedly replied, “Ah, but I thought you were a man of God.”

At Wheaton College, we have the precious freedom to integrate faith and learning in the classroom. In my discipline, there are ways to do this responsibly. While we cannot determine God’s will with ease—particularly when considering issues of theodicy—we can be confident in God’s mysterious providence at work in our world and in the course of history without resorting to the secular rhetoric of “luck.”

Moreover, human history reveals many remarkable events from our past, but none can compare to the singular event of Christ’s incarnation in our world. Napoleon’s remarks on the unique power of Christ are worth reflecting upon:

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself have founded great empires, but on what did those creations of our genius rest? Upon force . . . . But Jesus Christ by some mysterious influence, even through the lapse of 18 centuries, so draws the hearts of men towards him that thousands at a word would rush through fire and flood for him, not counting their lives dear to themselves.”

Understanding the ongoing “mysterious influence” of Christ in our world is not a search for luck, but for God’s hand in history.

Dr. Jennifer Powell McNutt, Assistant Professor of Theology and History of Christianity — Wheaton Magazine, Spring 2009

Thumbprints in the Clay

Luci Shaw, in her newly released book, Thumbprints in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Roder and Grace (2016), traces the “thumbprints” of an endlessly creative, ever-creating God. ShawInterspersing poetry with autobiographical essays, Shaw writes, “I knew I had to make this writing the centerpiece, the birth announcement of my spiritual liberation and purpose in God.”

In addition to her reflections, Shaw includes moving reminiscences of her friendships with novelist Madeleine L’Engle, with whom she wrote several books, and mentor Clyde Kilby, her beloved and highly influential English professor at Wheaton College.

Thumbprints in the Clay is published by InterVarsity Press. The papers of Luci Shaw, Madeleine L’Engle and Clyde Kilby are archived at Wheaton College.

 

The Greg Livingstone Story

Greg Livingstone is a pioneer missionary to unreached Muslim peoples. His love for the millions of Muslims who had no opportunity to hear the gospel led to the founding of Frontiers, a mission agency specializing in church planting among Muslim nations and communities. LivingstoneFrontiers oversees 1,300 workers in 50 countries of Africa and Asia. Livingstone tells his story in You’ve Got Libya: A Life Serving the Muslim World (2014). The following passages relate his experiences as a student at Wheaton College in the late 1950s.

At Wheaton, I met for the first time real Christians who weren’t Baptists. I initially confused Plymouth Brethren with Jehovah’s Witnesses, because they used different church vocabulary than I’d known. But I figured that since Wheaton grad Jim Elliot, who had been killed two years earlier as a missionary in Ecuador, had been Plymouth Brethren, they couldn’t be that bad. Even more riveting to me was my discovery of Bible-believing Presbyterians. They seemed to love God with their minds!

Unlike me, most of the other students at Wheaton came from evangelical families. They’d heard it all before — sometimes ad nauseum. Far too many students were at Wheaton at the insistence of their families, who feared secular universities. Wes Craven, a suitemate during my freshman year, later became a director of horror films in Hollywood, despite spending his first twenty-two years imbibing sound biblical teaching.

In my quest to hang out with the spiritual guys, I got acquainted with an unknown Wheaton graduate, Bill Gothard, who was organizing Bible clubs in high schools. He asked me to oversee a group in Roselle, near Wheaton. Later, I became his assistant as he developed a new ministry. He would often use clever chalk illustrations to explain biblical concepts. Lugging his chalk board from church to church, we visited pastors to explain the principles that were later incorporated into his Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts. Gothard’s ministry was helpful to many young people.

My experiences at Wheaton College were certainly formative and preparatory for the rest of my life. Daily, we sat in chapel listening to some of the greatest bible expositors of the time. I was stunned when the British pastor Alan Redpath spoke on Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares. I worried that I might be chaff — that I wasn’t really born again. I ran back to my room, dropped to my knees, and prayed, “Lord, if I am not really converted, if I am not really yours, I submit to you right now as my Lord and Savior.” I’ve never had to bring up the question again.

You’ve Got Libya is endorsed by George Verwer of Operation Mobilization, Don Richardson, author of Peace Child, Professor John Frame of Reformed Theological Seminary and many others.

A Twisted Wheaton College Love Story

The Day Book, January 11, 1912, published the following tragic story:

Sylvester E. Adams, 717 S. Winchester Ave. married, shot and killed Miss Edith Smith Young, Wheaton College graduate and teacher of the co-operative school near Wheaton, and then committed suicide, Wednesday afternoon, in the Wheaton school house. Adams’s illicit love for Miss Smith, which she spurned because Adams was a married man, was the cause of the tragedy. Miss Smith had been acquainted with the Adams family for five years and often visited Mrs. Adams, with whom she was very friendly. The shooting occurred just after school had been dismissed and some scholars were still leaving the building and were witnesses to the tragedy. Adams entered the schoolroom and walked up and spoke to Miss Smith. He grabbed her by the wrist. She struggled. Then Adams shot her through the brain.  He turned the weapon on himself and inflicted a similar wound. Both died instantly.

Letters which led to the crime, and which indicate how Miss Smith rejected the advances of the married man — The girl’s letter, found in Adams’ pocket:

Chicago, Dec. 26, 1911 — Mr. Adams: I always thought that you were a gentleman, but I am almost persuaded that you are not. I cannot and will not meet any married man in any place without his wife’s consent, and Mrs. Adams, being a friend of mine, makes it even more sure. Take my word for it, I have respected your honor more than you have mine. If you wish my respect you must stop this pestering me. I have not told any one about you, and it will be yourself that will be the first to blacken your reputation. No talk with me will help either of us. So please let me think as well of you as I can. I can overlook the past, but I may not the future. You must be a man for your wife’s sake. May God and the angel friends help you. Respectfully, E.

In the same pocket was a crumpled envelope bearing the name of Miss Smith, and inside was Adams’s reply. This reads:

If you do not meet me something is going to happen. A.

Mrs. Adams says, “I know that poor girl was not to blame. My husband must have lost his mind. He must have lost his mind. Mr. Adams and I were married nine years ago. He has always been attentive to me. Our neighbors called us ‘lovers.’ I can’t understand it. He must have been insane.” Mrs. Adams exhibited a letter from Miss Smith in acknowledgement of a Christmas gift received from the widow. In this the school teacher sent Mrs. Adams her love, but did not mention Adams. “This,” said Mrs. Adams, “was the first time the girl had not spoken of the dead man.”

A Wheaton College Love Story

The Rock Island Argus, September 19, 1922, published the following delightful love story:

 A romance that endured through half a century approaches its climax at Evanston today, when Mrs. Ella H. Ellis, 73, of Evanston, and Edward F. Fox, 76, of Albany, Oregon, exhibited a marriage license. They were sweethearts when they attended Wheaton College together in 1868 and became engaged then, but Mr. Fox left to finish a college career at the University of Michigan. Then he went west. They drifted apart until both married others. The wife of Edward Fox died two years ago. When he came out and called on his old sweetheart while passing through Chicago, he learned that her husband, John Ellis, a Congregational minister, died 13 years ago. Old memories were rapidly recalled and other events forgotten. “There’s nothing half so sweet in life as love’s young dream,” Mrs. Ellis quoted as they planned their honeymoon.

“I shall wish that I was able to leave the country.”

We think that we may live in a time of deeply partisan politics with a heightened pomposity. However, the fear of the wrong candidate winning is not a new fear.

Just prior to the election of 1880 Maria Bent Nichols wrote to her sister Mary Bent Blanchard. Her letter discusses the general niceties of 19th-century correspondence but then moves to the upcoming election. Looking forward to Garfield’s victory, Nichols feared a win by Winfield S. Hancock.

“I am exceedingly anxious to see the triumph which has begun in Indiana go on till Garfield is seated in the White House. If Hancock is elected I shall wish that I was able to leave the country. I should feel that we were given over.”

We are not told in this letter the cause of Nichol’s fear, but if Hancock won she felt that the country would have been “given over” which is likely a reference to being “given over to Satan” not unlike the troubles sent upon the biblical Job. Maybe Nichols feared for the stability of the economy. A key element of the 1880 presidential campaign was a return to the gold standard for the country’s currency. This was good for fighting inflation, but very bad for those with heavy debts.

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This and other letters to and from Jonathan and Mary Blanchard can be found  housed at the Wheaton College Archives of Buswell Library at Wheaton College.

When You Reach Me

Miranda, the saavy sixth-grade protagonist of Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (2009), continually references her all-time favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time, as she faces her own baffling — and potentially deadly — time-travel conundrum in 1979 New York City. When You Reach Me is the 2010 winner of the Newbery Medal for Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for ChildrenStead. Stead writes in the Acknowledgments:

Every writer stands on the shoulders of many other writers, and it isn’t practical to thank of them. However, I would like to express my special admiration for the astonishing imagination and hard work of Madeleine L’Engle, whose books captivated me when I was young (they still do), and made me want in on the secrets of the universe (ditto).

Further commenting on the influence of L’Engle, Rebecca Stead says in an interview with Amazon.com:

I loved A Wrinkle in Time as a child. I didn’t know why I loved it, and I didn’t want to know why. I remember meeting Madeleine L’Engle once at a bookstore and just staring at her as if she were a magical person. What I love about L’Engle’s book now is how it deals with so much fragile inner-human stuff at the same time that it takes on life’s big questions. There’s something fearless about this book.

It started out as a small detail in Miranda’s story, a sort of talisman, and one I thought I would eventually jettison, because you can’t just toss A Wrinkle in Time in there casually. But as my story went deeper, I saw that I didn’t want to let the book go. I talked about it with my editor, Wendy Lamb, and to others close to the story. And what we decided was that if we were going to bring L’Engle’s story in, we needed to make the book’s relationship to Miranda’s story stronger. So I went back to A Wrinkle in Time and read it again and again, trying to see it as different characters in my own story might (sounds crazy, but it’s possible!). And those readings led to new connections.

The papers of Madeleine L’Engle are housed at the Wheaton College Special Collections in Wheaton, Illinois.

 

The Power of Self Command

Today it is common for public speakers to adopt informal methods of delivery. Contemporary audiences  might see the speaker slouching before them wearing bleached blue jeans with a loose, untucked Hawaiian shirt. In some instances, the speaker might even sit cross-legged on the stage, attempting to establish a friendly bond with his hearers.  Straw4However, the notion of excessively easygoing oratory delivered before an expectant auditorium was unfathomable when Dr. Darien Straw (1857-1950), Professor of Rhetoric and Logic and Principal of the Preparatory Department of Wheaton College, published Lessons in Expression and Physical Drill (1892), a consolidation of his classroom wisdom.

He emphasizes that proper posture, efficient gesticulation and precise elocution contribute immeasurably to the intellectual development and future success of the sensibly educated young man or woman. Outward order merely reflects inward stability. “Helping young people to discover ill temper in the voice, carelessness in the walk, selfishness in the bearing and laziness in the words,” writes Straw, “and giving them facility to avoid these, avails more than business proverbs and social precepts.” Throughout the book Straw offers helpful examples.

Straw2This gentleman stands in the drill position. “Heels together,” writes Straw, “toes turned out from 45 to 90 degrees apart, knees straight, body erect, head well back, chin slightly curbed, chest expanded, arms down at the side with the edge of the hand forward. A good test of erect positon is to stand with the back against a door or other vertical plane so that you can touch it in four places — with the heels, the hips, the shoulders and the head. If you find it difficult to do this there is the more reason for perservering in an erect position.  Once the drill position is properly maintained, the student can practice his vocals. Avoid any attempt at loudness,” warns Straw, “but listen to the tone to see if it is correct.”

Straw3Straw later discusses the calculated use of the prone hand and the supine hand. “The primary meaning of the Prone Hand is repression or covering. It is the reverse of the Supine hand, the palm is turned down. It has a great variety of uses, but all related to this primary meaning. The idea of the snow spread upon the earth contains also the idea of a covering. The idea of peace, quiet or stillness contains at the same time suppression of noise or movement and may be expressed by the Prone Hand. There is a gradual shading of this position to that of Averse hand, as we would repress an action or thought disagreeable. As our emotions shade into one another, so our action combines different expressions.”

 

“This, then,” writes Straw, “is an effort to help teachers in giving to pupils the power of self command.”

 

The Story of an Old Town, Glen Ellyn

Wheaton College, founded by Methodist abolitionists, was long rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.  However, precise documentation was lacking. At last the rumor was verified in 2009 by historian Dr. David Maas while reading a regimental history noting that freed slaves were, indeed, aided and assisted by friends on the college campus before moving on to the next station. This intriguing entry from Ada Douglas Harmon’s The Story of an Old Town, Glen Ellyn (1928), a history of Glen Ellyn, adds a few details:

1853: Illinois Institute (Wheaton College) founded, first president, Prof. Lucius Matlack. It was one of the underground railway stations for runaway slaves, as well as the old Barnard or Filer home. Also Israel P. Blodgett’s home in Downer’s Grove. Mr. Blodgett would often conceal as many as eleven slaves in his attic, feed and clothe them and send on to the next station, the Illinois Institute. Here they were again hidden in an attic by President Matlack, till it was safe to send them on, perhaps to the Filer house on Crescent, where they were hidden in the barn. From there the slaves were taken to Chicago, one of the stations being the old Tremont House, and from there to Canada and safety. The slaves were transported in farm wagons loaded with produce under which they were concealed. All those local links with the past give a reality to the thrills Uncle Tom’s Cabin used to send quivering through one’s system. 

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Merry Christmas!

These Wheaton College girls, possibly gathered in a Williston Hall dormer, pause during a Christmas celebration to pose for this photo from the early 1900s. A sketch of Abraham Lincoln, wearing Roman robes, glowers down on the somewhat somber party, though the young lady sitting front and center seems a bit more relaxed, if not downright mischievous. The woman in the striped skirt appears to be wearing an elf cap, or perhaps some form of traditional seasonal headdress.

Christmas