- The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus by David Burns
The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus provides an intellectual and cultural history from the mid-1800s to World War I of the Jesus imagined and promoted by writers, freethinkers, unionists, socialists, anarchists, and other varieties of left-wing activists who were socially conscious advocates of the working class. Burns is careful to note that the radical Jesus’s visage seldom engaged the interest [End Page 639] of African Americans, mainline Protestants, and Roman Catholics. But despite this, he argues, historians must “rethink standard cultural categories and recognize the influence that radical religionists exerted on Gilded-Age and Progressive-Era America as unconventional thinkers who believed that imagination could produce truths as valid and viable as those generated by the intellect” (p. 13). Specifically, Burns suggests that proponents of the radical historical Jesus (1) contributed to the spread of religious modernism outside seminary gates and into the homes of working Americans and (2) were among the individuals and structures fomenting the “overall secularization of American society” between the Civil War and World War I by creating a climate in which secular scholars came to wield an authority on certain topics that was previously the sole possession of theologians and ministers.
As works such as Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus (New York, 2003) and Richard Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America (San Francisco, 2004) have shown, the figure of Jesus has—more than any other—been imagined in multiple ways that reflected the desires, characteristics, and hopes of those Americans doing the imagining. In that respect, one could argue that those Gilded-Age and Progressive-Era individuals and groups who envisioned and promoted a proletarian, anticapitalist, and even anticlerical Jesus were in many ways similar to the fundamentalists, evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, and new religious-movement participants that engaged in the same sort of creative imaginings. Although Burns does not dwell on such comparative analysis, his most sustaining contribution is the historical trajectory of the “revolutionary carpenter.” Burns deftly traces how the radical historical Jesus emerged in the 1860s, took on various similar yet unique guises in the writings and speeches of proponents, and declined markedly in stature at the onset of World War I when it was replaced by the dominant image of a masculine and militaristic Jesus that supported war efforts. Burns, for the most part, focuses on particular figures and their writings to tell this historical, change-over-time narrative. He begins with Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus (New York, 1863) and follows its initial influence into the works and activities of such well-known American figures as Robert Ingersoll, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Bouck White, and Eugene Debs. The chapters on White, the radical minister and author of Call of the Carpenter (Garden City, NY, 1911), and Eugene Debs, the Midwestern activist who came to see Christianity and socialism as inseparable, are especially detailed and useful for readers interested in these figures.
Although the arguments made by Burns become clearer in the book’s epilogue, the introduction—as well as the introductions to each chapter—could have benefited greatly from the inclusion of clearly articulated thesis arguments. In addition, Burns uses terms such as radical, conservative, and secular without ever defining them. Given that these words have histories of multiple and contested meanings, attention to their definitions as intended for this work would have been useful. Despite these issues, The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus is a solid contribution to American studies, American religious history, and American labor history. [End Page 640]