Monday, October 31

Hallowmas or Halloween

Christians have celebrated All-Hallows-Eve or Hallowmas since about the 8th century as a night of prayerful preparation before All Saints Day.  But, the pagan associations of Halloween with the day are actually much older—and perhaps more deeply entrenched.
Many of the ancient peoples of Europe marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter by celebrating a holiday in late autumn. The most important of these holidays to influence later customs was Samhain, observed by the ancient Celts. Samhain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next.  According to their tradition, the spirits of those who had died in the preceding year roamed the earth on Samhain evening. The Celts sought to ward off these spirits with offerings of food and drink. They also built bonfires at sacred hilltop sites and performed rituals, often involving human and animal sacrifices, to honor Druid deities.

When the Celts were eventually absorbed into the Roman empire, many of their traditions were adapted by the conquerors as a part of their own celebrations. In Britain, Romans blended local Samhain customs with their own pagan harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit trees—from which the game of bobbing for apples was derived. In many places such as Scotland and Ireland, Samhain was abandoned only when the local people converted to Christianity during early Medievalism. But even then, pagan folk observances were linked to a number of Christian holidays.

Thus, many of the old Samhain traditions thought to be incompatible with Christianity often became linked with Christian folk beliefs about evil spirits in the celebration of Halloween. Although such superstitions varied a great deal from place to place, many of the supernatural beings now associated with the holiday became fixed in the popular imagination during the Renaissance. In British folklore, small magical beings known as fairies became associated with Halloween mischief. The jack-o’-lantern, originally carved from a large turnip rather than a pumpkin, originated in Medieval Scotland.

As belief in many of the old superstitions waned during the late 19th century, Halloween was increasingly regarded as a children’s holiday. Beginning in the 20th century, Halloween mischief gradually transformed into the modern ritual of trick-or-treating. Eventually, Halloween treats were plentiful while tricks became rare.

Alas, the idea of the day being a prayerful preparation for All Saints Day is even more rare.

Sunday, October 30

Luther's Gospel Cry

From depths of woe I raise to Thee

The voice of lamentation;

Lord, turn a gracious ear to me

And hear my supplication;

If Thou iniquities dost mark,

Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,

O who shall stand before Thee?

To wash away the crimson stain,

Grace, grace alone availeth;

Our works, alas! are all in vain;

In much the best life faileth:

No man can glory in Thy sight,

All must alike confess Thy might,

And live alone by mercy.

Therefore my trust is in the Lord,

And not in mine own merit;

On Him my soul shall rest, His Word

Upholds my fainting spirit:

His promised mercy is my fort,

My comfort, and my sweet support;

I wait for it with patience.

What though I wait the livelong night,

And till the dawn appeareth,

My heart still trusteth in His might;

It doubteth not nor feareth:

Do thus, O ye of Israel’s seed,

Ye of the Spirit born indeed;

And wait till God appeareth.

Though great our sins and sore our woes,

His grace much more aboundeth;

His helping love no limit knows,

Our utmost need it soundeth.

Our Shepherd good and true is He,

Who will at last His Israel free.
From all their sin and sorrow.

Saturday, October 29

Until the Nation Pays Homage

On this day in 1907, the entire nation of the Netherlands celebrated the seventieth birthday of Abraham Kuyper. A national proclamation recognized that "The history of the Netherlands, in Church, in State, in Society, in Press, in School, and in the Sciences the last forty years, cannot be written without the mention of his name on almost every page, for during this period the biography of Dr. Kuyper is to a considerable extent the history of the Netherlands."

The boy who was born in 1837 was at first thought to be dull, but by the time he was twelve he had entered the Gymnasium. Years later he would graduate with highest possible honors from Leyden University.  In short order he earned his masters and doctoral degrees in theology before serving as minister at Breesd and Utrecht.

The brilliant and articulate champion of Biblical faithfulness was called to serve in the city of Amsterdam in 1870. At the time, the religious life of the nation had dramatically declined. The church was cold and formal. There was no Bible curriculum in the schools and the Bible had no real influence in the life of the nation. Kuyper set out to change all of this in a flurry of activity.

In 1872, Kuyper founded the daily newspaper, De Standard.  Shortly afterward he also founded De Heraut, a weekly devotional magazine. He continued as editor of both newspapers for over forty-five years—and both became very influential in spreading the winsome message of a consistent Christian worldview.

Two years later, in 1874, Kuyper was elected to the lower house of Parliament as the leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party—and he served there until 1877. Three years later he founded the Free University of Amsterdam, which asserted that the Bible was the foundation of every area of knowledge.

Following a stunning victory at the polls, Kuyper was summoned by Queen Wilhelmena to form a cabinet and become Prime Minister of the nation in 1902—a position he held for three years. A number of politicians were dissatisfied with Kuyper’s leadership because he refused to separate his theological and political views separate. To him, they were identical interests since Christ was king in every arena of human life. He believed that Christ rules not merely by the tradition of what He once was, spoke, did, and endured, but by a living power which even now, seated as He is at the right hand of God, He exercises over lands, nations, generations, families, and individuals.

Kuyper was undoubtedly a man of tremendous versatility—he was a noted linguist, theologian, university professor, politician, statesman, philosopher, scientist, publisher, author, journalist, and philanthropist. But amazingly, in spite of his many accomplishments and his tremendous urgency to redeem the time, Kuyper was also a man of the people.

In 1897, at the 25th anniversary of his establishment of De Standaard, Kuyper described the ruling passion of his life: "That in spite of all worldly opposition, God's holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school, and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to God."

Friday, October 28

The Battle Hymn of the Reformation

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;

Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;

His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;

Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:

Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;

Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;

The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,

His kingdom is forever.

Wednesday, October 26

The Fundamental Orders

On this day in 1633, the little Puritan and Pilgrim congregation at Newton, in the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Colony—since renamed Cambridge—held a day of fasting and prayer at the end of which they chose Thomas Hooker as their pastor. Hooker had only arrived in the colony the previous month, but his zeal for the doctrines of grace and his pastoral qualifications had been amply demonstrated in years of difficult service in England.

Born in 1586 in Leicestershire, Hooker studied theology at Cambridge University and became a popular lecturer and an able assistant to the rector of the parish church in Chalmsford. Though Hooker accepted the most of the doctrines of the Church of England, he did not believe its liturgy or ecclesiology was Biblical—in other words, he was a dissenter when it came to worship and church government. Accordingly, in 1630 he came under the discipline of Archbishop Laud—a fierce persecutor of nonconformity. When he was summoned to appear before the dreaded High Commission, Hooker fled to Holland where he preached to exiled Puritans in both Delft and Rotterdam. He became an assistant to the renowned theologian, William Ames and wrote a pamphlet entitled, A Fresh Suit against Human Ceremonies in God's Worship.

In 1633, Hooker, along with the Puritan preachers John Cotton and Samuel Stone, fled to America aboard the Griffen. When the three prominent men arrived in Boston in September, several Puritans quipped that they now had "Cotton for their clothing, Hooker for their fishing, and Stone for their building." It was not surprising that the Newton congregation so quickly chose Hooker as their pastor.

In Massachusetts, however, Hooker began to question the form of government established by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He questioned the validity of a church covenant forming the basis for a civil government. Hooker did not believe that participation in the government should be limited to church members. Rather, he asserted that all civil government should be based on voluntary submission to some kind of civil covenant, just as the churches were established on a covenant in spiritual things. The foundation of government, he thought, lay in the free choice of the people, who were to choose public officials according to God's will and law. Hooker's views on government were much more democratic than those espoused by the leaders of the Massachusetts Colony.

Because of these differences, Hooker peacefully left Massachusetts with a number of members from his Newton congregation and established the town of Hartford in Connecticut. In 1638, three of the Connecticut towns met to form a government. In a sermon preached to the General Court at that time, Hooker maintained that the foundation of government authority is "laid in the free consent of the people, that the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God's own allowance." The text from which Mr. Hooker derived his sermon was Deuteronomy 1:13, "Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you."
The resulting government which was formed, The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, was the first written Constitution in America.

Tuesday, October 25

St. Crispin’s Day

Two legendary battles, both immortalized in English literature, took place on this day, the Feast of St. Crispin.  

The first, in 1415, was the great Battle of Agincourt.  England’s King Henry V and his long bow archers defeated the overwhelming force of French Army in the fields of northern Normandy.  Vastly outnumbered, weary from a long and difficult campaign, hopelessly trapped against the coast, with no possible retreat, Harry deployed the heretofore untested technology of the long bow to stunning effect.

The feat inspired Shakespeare’s famous monologue in his epic drama, Henry V:

If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss; 
And if to live, the fewer the men, the greater share of honor.
God’s will, I pray thee, wish not one man more.
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by 
From this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; 
Be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us
On St. Crispin’s Day.

The second battle, in 1854, was the Charge of the Light Brigade at the climax of Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War. The battle which has been long regarded as one of the most famous military blunders in history, pitted an allied Anglo-French army and a Russian force commanded by General Liprandi.

The Light Brigade consisted of five regiments totaling 661 men.  The men were ordered to attack a well-entrenched Russian force—it was a certain slaughter but due to confused communications and conflict within the officer corps, the men advanced into a withering line of fire.  The charge lasted less than twenty minutes.  When the brigade was mustered afterwards, there were only 195 mounted men left.

Though the maneuver seemed to be a complete disaster, the men actually achieved their objective.  General Liprandi was deeply impressed by the unflinching composure of the British horsemen. And, the moral effect on the Russians of the discipline, courage, and resolve of the Light Brigade was immense. For the rest of the war, the Russian cavalry refused direct, pitched combat with the British, even when vastly superior in numbers.

Long afterwards, the fact that a single, under-strength brigade of light cavalry had captured a battery of guns and driven off a far larger body of Russian horses was the admiration of Europe.

This battle also inspired a work of great literature, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Monday, October 24

All Heaven and Earth

‎"When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night—there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean." Christopher Morley

Sunday, October 23

God's Victory

Three days after French troops under the command of Jean Baptiste de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, and the Marquis de Lafayette helped George Washington's ragged forces defeat the British Army, the men celebrated the formal surrender of Lord Cornwallis.  The British band played the popular song "The World Turned Upside Down" as they stacked up their arms. 

The last major fighting of the American War for Independence had somehow ended in a resounding American victory.  Washington and the others could not help but recognize God's hand in the victory. Indeed, it was when the American forces were at their weakest, that victory had finally come.  Accordingly, Washington issued orders to the army that "Divine service is to be performed in the several brigades and divisions. The commander-in-chief recommends that the troops not on duty should universally attend with that seriousness of deportment and gratitude of heart which the recognition of such reiterated and astonishing interpositions of Providence demand of us."

That celebration of God's good providence occurred on this day in 1781.

Saturday, October 22

Texas: A Whole Other Country

On this day in 1836, former Tennessee congressman, senator, and governor, Sam Houston was inaugurated as the first constitutionally elected president of the Republic of Texas.

Friday, October 21

Let There Be Light

On this day in 1878, Thomas A. Edison invented a practical incandescent lamp in his laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey.  "The longer it burned," he said, "the more fascinated we were…there was no sleep for any of us for forty hours."

Thursday, October 20

On the Nightstand

Johnson's Latest

In 2003, when Paul Johnson published his massive and magisterial Art: A New History, he announced it would be his last book.  Since then, he has published by my count, eleven new books.  Thanks be to God.  The new books have mostly been shorter biographies--in his Brief Lives series.  This morning I finished the most recent of these: Socrates.  Since I'm lecturing on the world of Antiquity this year, this new contribution from my favorite living historian is most welcome.  And as always, Johnson is witty, insightful, and provocative.  This is the application of the old discipline, Moral Philosophy, at its best. I am so glad that Johnson just couldn't help himself from writing--long after he'd decided to stop writing! We're all the better for it.

Wednesday, October 19

The Louisiana Treaty

The United States Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase Treaty by a vote of 24-7 on this day in 1803.  The vast region encompassed more than 800,000 square miles of territory and comprised present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota west of the Mississippi River, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, nearly all of Kansas, the portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains, and Louisiana west of the Mississippi River as well as the city of New Orleans.  At the time of purchase, Thomas Jefferson was concerned about the constitutionality of making a land acquisition without adding a covering amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The law of the land, however, did give the president treaty-making power, and the Louisiana Purchase was ratified into law as a treaty by the U.S. Senate. The Louisiana Purchase stands as the largest area of territory ever added to the U.S. at one time.

Tuesday, October 18

From Depths of Woe

William Cowper (1731-1800), the pastoral English poet, collaborated with the curate John Newton in publishing the Olney Hymns—a classic collection of Evangelical and Reformed hymns.  Cowper who generally wrote about simple pleasures of country life and expressed a deep concern for human cruelty and the suffering of the innocent, was born in Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire.  Though he suffered periods of acute depression he lived with the evangelical cleric Morley Unwin and his wife, Mary. In 1773 Cowper was seized by a severe despondency, rooted in religious doubts and fears that plagued him all his life. It was apparently the care of Mrs. Unwin, who encouraged him to compose poetry, that enabled him to recover. 

And thus, out of the depths of woe was the church given the great gift of his verse.

Monday, October 17

Better to Be Underestimated

Known for his witty style, the amazingly prolific author G. K. Chesterton wrote in many genres, including fiction, biography, poetry, theology, history, as well as a myriad of essays. He was one of the most beloved writers in England during the first part of the 20th century.

On this day in 1912, biographer Hugh Lunn interviewed Chesterton for the Hearth and Home magazine.  He began with a description of the great man, “Everyone knows Mr Chesterton's appearance, a good portly man, i' faith, and a corpulence, like Falstaff. His writings, too, have become familiar, winning many disciples, especially among the young. At Oxford the Chestertonian and the Shavian are well-known types: the Shavian enthroned above human emotion is clever, but a prig; the Chestertonian, less brilliant, is more likeable. He doesn't care for advanced ideas, but he would like to combine wit and probity. So he welcomes a writer who defends old modes of thought with humor, and attacks modern thinkers on the ground that they are antiquated bores in disguise.”

Lunn was soon to discover that, with Chesterton, there was much more than met the eye—despite the fact that his rotund figure was sufficient to fill the eye.  With a glint of good humor, Chesterton began with characteristic words, “I am always ready to be interviewed, for I hold the theory, nowadays completely forgotten—as forgotten as this matchbox was still this moment (fishing a box out of a bowl on the mantelpiece)—the theory that the Press is a public agora. I should not refuse an interview even to a paper owned by one of those capitalist millionaires, whom I hate. Nowadays the Press merely echoes the powerful; its real aim should be to give the public a chance to state its views.”

Lunn could hardly get a word in edgewise, so the interview turned into something of a monolog—a forum for the great man to hold forth on all manner of ideas, much like his writing, “And now what do you want me to talk about? I am ready to give my opinion on any question, whether I know something about it or not. No, I'm not an Imperialist in the modern sense; the only theory of Imperialism that seems to me sound is Dante's. He defended the Roman Empire as the best human government, on the definite ground that the best human government would probably crucify God. Caesar had to be lawful; because Christ had to be killed by law.”

With that, he paused with a smile to ask Lunn what questions he really wanted to put upon the table. He should not have bothered, before he could reply, Chesterton was off again, “I do not believe in Cosmopolitanism, you know: nowadays it's either run by financiers for their own profit, or it's the product of Atheistic Socialism, as in Germany. Christ didn't come to bring peace among the nations. When He said that a man should turn the other cheek, I fancy He meant that a man, when attacked, should humiliate his enemy by treating him with sudden and unexpected contempt.”

And so it went for nigh on an hour.  Lunn had to admit afterward, “I had altogether underestimated the tornado of thought and creativity and imagination that the jolly figure of Chesterton contained.”  To which Chesterton later retorted, “It is always better to be underestimated than overestimated—that way, all good things are taken as if by surprise and are therefore all the more appreciated.”  Appreciated, Chesterton surely is.