It is the 23rd of August 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1838.
It was the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation. The 18-year-old was initially named Alexandrina after Tsar Alexander I, her godfather. The second longest-reigning monarch in British history had been fifth in line to the throne. But a series of untimely deaths led to her reign, and the “Victorian” moniker would dominate the 19th century.
In that same year, the SS Great Western became the first steamship, built explicitly for transatlantic crossings to make the voyage from England to New York. In 1838, in New Jersey, Samuel Morse demonstrated for the first time publicly his telegraph machine. It would be six years before the first official telegraph would go out on the new national telegraph line.
In 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Lyceum address. It was also the same year that Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, and John Wilkes Boothe was born.
1838 also saw the tragedy of the Trail of Tears begin. After Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, many indigenous groups in the new American south were forcibly exiled west. The Cherokees were most affected, with an estimated one-third of their 15,000 members dying. The 1838 Trail of Tears was just one of many southern land grabs by an expanding white majority. But not everyone was on board with the cruelty and sought to either improve the situation or to justify it.
The church had always sought to preach to and convert the natives. But a dangerous corollary was the idea that to convert them wasn’t enough; the idea was that they had to be “civilized’ as well. This could cause tension between frontier evangelists and native audiences. Like most times, it was a time of profound cultural divides, well-meaning people doing more harm than good, and a reminder that even the best-intentioned still have to deal with human folly. And it is in this context, of evangelizing on the frontier, the Trail of Tears, and the bedeviling human condition, that we remember the Presbyterian pastor, evangelist, and sometimes enigma, Gideon Blackburn who died on this day in 1838.
Blackburn was born in Virginia in 1772 and moved to Eastern Tennessee with his family as a boy. He studied for the pastorate and was ordained into the Presbyterian church in 1794. Blackburn was soon serving two churches in Tennessee and had established a farm and distillery. Serving as a chaplain during the Indian Wars, he decided to spend his post-war years serving the Cherokee people. After meeting with Thomas Jefferson to secure funding, Blackburn founded a mission and school. However, Blackburn and his family also used their location and position to ship whiskey through Creek territory illegally. This, combined with the heavy-handed cultural imperatives, led to an anti-missionary sentiment amongst many of the local tribes.
Blackburn and his family were forced by circumstances to move to Kentucky, where Gideon served as a pastor, teacher, and fundraiser for various causes. One such was ironically, prohibition. He was a powerful speaker and personality who found himself on the conservative side of the cultural spectrum while also embracing the more progressive New School Presbyterian theology. His most lasting contribution was to help raise funds for a local seminary. Blackburn Theological Seminary was established in 1837, a year before his death on this day, in 1838.
The reading for today comes from Luci Shaw. This is her “The Foolishness of God.”
or perish. Thrust out now
the unseasonal ripe figs
among your leaves. Expect
the mountain to be moved.
Hate parents, friends, and all
materiality. Love every enemy.
Forgive more times than seventy-
seven. Camel-like, squeeze by
into the kingdom through
the needle’s eye. All fear quell.
Hack off your hand, or else,
unbloodied, go to hell.
Thus the divine unreason.
Despairing now, you cry
with earthy logic – How?
And I, your God, reply:
Leap from your weedy shallows.
Dive into the moving water.
Eyeless, learn to see
truly. Find in my folly your
true sanity. Then Spirit-driven,
run on my narrow way, sure
as a child. Probe, hold
my unhealed hand, and
bloody, enter heaven.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of August 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher ... --. … Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true… Everything is going to be ok.