Thursday, November 19, 2020

The year was 1921. We remember Peter Ruckman, the fundamentalist preacher. The reading is an excerpt from Robert Farrar Capon's "Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment."

It is the 19th of November 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I'm Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1921.

The year started in the United States with the inauguration of Warren Gamaliel Harding of Blooming Grove, Ohio as president. After a tumultuous decade, the country turned to the taciturn Buckeye, who promised a "return to normalcy." However, the world didn't cooperate. The 1920s are known for anything but a return to normalcy. Harding wouldn't see much of the twenties or even the end of his first term as he died of a heart attack while in office. As a very popular president, there was a national mourning. Harding died while in San Francisco he was taken back to DC by Train, and hundreds of thousands of Americans lined the tracks from coast to coast to get one last sight of their beloved president.

The Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 was initially supposed to go to Sinclair Lewis for his work “Main Street,” but it was rejected on account of its political nature. Instead of Lewis' work, which, generally speaking, condemned the old in favor of the new, the book they eventually awarded the prize to took the opposite tack.

That book was Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence." On its face, it appeared the opposite of Lewis' work as it seemed to hold up the tradition and the past as the antidote to modernity. The reader can decide just how much irony Wharton was employing. Nevertheless, it won because it appeared to embrace the past. When the wheels of history begin to whirr, it is common to see ideas pool around the more extreme conservation and progress positions. It should be less surprising in this context to see the Fundamentalist/Modernist split occur in this decade.

As far as the church in America, we understand the year's context in the broader century by looking at both death and birth. 1921 was the year that BB Warfield died. A giant of conservative Presbyterian theology, he was the last of the old Princeton theology representatives. That same year saw the birth of John Stott, one of the premier defenders of Evangelicalism in the late 20th century. It was a period that saw a robust conservatism in the church devolve into Fundamentalism. Stott would be amongst those new Evangelicals that would revive the old Princeton spirit to combat that erstwhile-ism in the second half of the century.

Extremism ran rampant as the world looked for a "return to normalcy," politically, theologically, artistically, intellectually, etc. And today, we remember one of the very curious characters in the church in the 20th century, a man who spawned his own "-ism." It was on this, the 19th of November in 1921, that Peter Ruckman was born.

Ruckman's life reads like many 20th century fundamentalists, a rough and rowdy younger life, service in the military, despair, tent meeting, the sinner’s prayer, starts own ministry, criticized for heresy, he doubles down and opens a bible college.

"Ruckmanism" became a pejorative in particular parts of the church. It could be used to refer to a kind of gruffness in speech and fascination with the esoteric. Among his more outlandish beliefs was his insistence on belief in UFOs, and that there would be no women in heaven. (He believed everyone would become a 33 1/2-year-old man.) He taught conspiracy theories about the government conducting secret animal-mutant experiments. Ok, all of this should be enough for us to designate him a Dr. Gene Scott All-Star and move on. But Ruckman's teachings on the King James Bible created heat amongst the Fundamentalist crowd that rejected Ruckman (or Ruckmanism, as they call it) but held similar views to him about the primacy of the King James translation.

"King James Only-ism" can be as tame as "for the sake of our heritage we choose to use the same translation and vocabulary as our forebears" to the idea that "newer Bibles are based on the texts from Alexandrian cult which only appear to be more trustworthy." Ruckman went a step beyond this, claiming that the 1611 translation should be considered an advanced revelation, that is, the supposed "errors" determined by modern Bible scholarship were corrections made by Yahweh through the agency of Englishmen in the 17th century.

While much of the Evangelical church would breeze past Ruckman's ersatz theology, many Fundamentalists (including Jack Chick of Chick Tracts!) sought to disparage Ruckman while still holding to a variation of King James Only-ism. In the deep bowels of 20th-century Fundamentalism, these are the kind of battles that took place. Peter Ruckman, the fundamentalist preacher in a denomination of one, scandalized and titillated. Dying in 2016, he saw and embodied just a bit of 20th century American Evangelicalism, a movement he embraced, even if from the fringe. Born on this day in 1916, Peter Ruckman died at 94.

Today's reading comes from the patron saint of those struggling with the demands of Fundamentalism and moralism in the church. This is Robert Farrar Capon's "Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment."

"Confession has nothing to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness; it is the after-the-last grasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it's dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have… We are not forgiven, therefore, because we made ourselves forgivable or even because we had faith; we are forgiven solely because there is a Forgiver."

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 19th of November 2020 brought to you by 1517 at The show is produced by a one-time member of the less popular "New Living Translation-only" crowd, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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