Potpourri of the day: Civil War evangelists, Pool of Siloam and ancient monks’ cells discovered, the sublime Angelico, Christianity & European culture, and “the abbot and the pendulum”


Here’s another one of those “candy bowls” containing brief news items on Christian-historical topics. I compiled this one for issue 88 (on C. S. Lewis) of Christian History & Biography:

Living History
Compiled by Chris Armstrong

The War for Souls

With its own national association (www.cwreenactors.com) and magazine (www.campchase.com) serving an estimated 50,000 re–enactors in the U.S., Civil War re–enactment thrives today. However, until a few years ago, the re–enactors who worked so painstakingly to replicate each detail accurately often overlooked an entire group of participants. On the battlefields and in the camps, these men fought a different war—the war for souls—and some paid the ultimate price. They were the roughly 1,200 to 1,400 Confederate chaplains, 3,000 Union chaplains, and 5,000 Christian Commission volunteers.

Alan Farley won’t let reenactors forget the chaplains or the faith that animated them. Farley, an evangelist who began attending these events as a child in 1984, now portrays General Lee’s chaplain—and presents the gospel—at Virginia reenactments. Over the years, Farley and The Re-enactor’s Missions forJesus Christ (www.rmjc.org) have successfully pushed for Sunday morning worship services at re-enactments. They argue that any accurate Civil War portrayal must include the deep currents of Christian devotion and revival in both sides’ armies.

Dear to Farley’s heart is the National Civil War Chaplains Research Center and Museum, a 10,000-square–foot exhibit space projected to open at Liberty University in Lynchburg in fall 2007.

Pool of Siloam discovered

In fall 2004, workers repairing a sewage pipe in the old city of Jerusalem discovered the edge of an ancient poo1. Israel Antiquities Authority officials believed it to be the biblical Pool of Siloam&mdashwhich John’s Gospel names as the place where Jesus cured a blind man. Now further excavations have uncovered a much more elaborate pool and water system than previously believed. This substantiates the site as the Siloam Pool of Jesus’ time—a large freshwater reservoir that served as a gathering place and focus of religious pilgrimages for Jews.

“Scholars have said that there wasn’t a Pool of Siloam,” says New Testament scholar James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary. These scholars have argued that John, whose Gospel is known more for spiritual than historical content, had simply chosen the name to illustrate a point. “Now, we have found the Pool of Siloam … exactly where John said it was.

The website www.bibleplaces.com/poolofsiloam.htm provides photographs and a brief account of the excavation, and hazards the “wild prediction” that “this will be the archaeological discovery of the decade for biblical studies.”

He painted like a saint

Recently beatified (a step toward sainthood) and declared the patron of artists by Pope John Paul II, the Dominican friar Era Angelico (1390/5—1455) will now be the subject of a landmark exhibition at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visitors will see 75 of the artist’s paintings, drawings, and manuscript illuminations. But they will not see some of the works that have made Era Angelico famous: untransportable large altarpieces and frescoes like those on the dormitory cells at Elorences convent of San Marco. Born Guido di Pietro, the artist’s better–known moniker is an English translation of his Latin handle, pictor angelicus, the Angelic Painter. He is best known for his psychologically penetrating, compellingly realistic portrayal of human forms and dramatic stories.

Oldest monks’ cells

The birthplace of the Christian monastic movement is marked by the soaring, Coptic-cross-topped towers of St. Anthony’s Monastery, one hundred miles southeast of Cairo, Egypt. The monastery’s centerpiece Apostle Church dates back only to the 15th century, but excavation beneath the church’s floor has revealed a far more ancient treasure: the oldest monastic cells ever discovered. These date back to the fourth century— perhaps from the very lifetime of St. Anthony of Egypt, the man considered the first Christian monk, who died some time around 356 or 357.

Father Maximous Elantony of Saint Anthony’s made the discovery as he searched under the Apostle Church’s floor for ritual basins his predecessors used to build into their church floors. With the help of contractors, Father Maximous found first one basin, then a deeper, older basin. This second find turned out to belong to an eighth-century church whose foundation lay intact beneath the Apostle Church.

Further digging beneath this older foundation revealed the ancient cells. One contains a brick cooking stove; another, a basin used for soaking the palm fronds from which the monks weaved mats or baskets. The cells are so well preserved that one observer remarks, “It is as if someone just lifted off the roof.” Father Maximous wants to restore the cells, then cover them with a glass floor so that, while the church continues to be used for prayer, worshippers may see these ancient “closets” where some of the world’s first Christian monks prayed.

The abbot and the pendulum

This October, the Italian town of Bologna recreated Foucault’s Pendulum, one of history’s most famous scientific experiments. The French physicist Jean Bernard Foucault first performed it in Paris’s Pantheon in 1851, setting in motion a heavy weight on an 11-meter-long line. The gradually twisting path of the pendulum proved that the earth rotates as it moves through space.

Bologna was Foucault’s hometown, but the city also sponsored this event for another reason: Researchers have shown that 61 years before Foucault’s experiment, a monk of that city demonstrated the same principle by a different method. Abbot Giovanni Battista Guglielmini scaled Bologna’s 78-meter Torre dei Asinelli and dropped 16 balls to show that they would fall to earth at a point slightly eastward from the point of release.

Although the abbot’s calculated deviations were wrong, the balls did consistently fall millimeters to the east. Guglielmini had proved decisively the fact of the earth’s rotation. But no one understood his difficult explanation of the experiments! So the title of “prover of the earth’s rotation” was reserved for Foucault.

Guglielmini was only one of many monastics who advanced the sciences from the scientific revolution onward. In 1851, the year of Foucault’s experiment, a young monk named Gregor Mendel began the university studies that launched him into the study of genetics. He was sponsored by St. Thomas Monastery, in Brno, the Czech Republic, whose friars taught philosophy, mathematics, mineralogy, and botany and conducted research in a scientific library, mineralogical collection, botanical collection, and herbarium.

A new tale of two cities

Why did the Christian West undergo the 17th-century scientific revolution when China and the Middle East had been so much more advanced scientifically in the medieval period? Where did the ideas for freedom of thought and the accountability of rulers originate? Why were universities started, hospitals founded, and slavery abolished?

Christian Heritage (http://www.christianheritageuk.org.uk), based at the 12th- century Round Church in Cambridge, England, addresses these questions on its twice-weekly walking tours of Cambridge University. Walkers visit the buildings where Cranmer, Cromwell, Milton, Newton, and Wilberforce lived and studied, and learn about these and other Christian leaders. Those who take the tour experience vividly the truth that, despite the culpability of the church in wars, persecutions, and much else, Christianity made many positive cultural contributions that undergird modern, secular Europe.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, a talk with former World Team European director Kermit Horn (www.worldteam.org) might just net you and some friends a Christian history walking tour in Paris. Horns less frequent and less formal walks (currently once a month) began as a personal quest to “see if I could find any footprints of God in Paris.” In a story line that includes both Christian contributions to French and European culture and Enlightenment reactions to corrupted Christianity, Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, William Farel, Jean Calvin, and Blaise Pascal make their appearances along with Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Derrida. Experiencing this story as living history, says Horn, “strengthens and encourages the faith of struggling Christians in post-Christian Europe who have been educated to believe that the God they love has brought no good to the countries and cultures they love.”

If European tours remain out of reach for you, two books to read on the continents Christian heritage are Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture and Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery.

Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History magazine.

2 responses to “Potpourri of the day: Civil War evangelists, Pool of Siloam and ancient monks’ cells discovered, the sublime Angelico, Christianity & European culture, and “the abbot and the pendulum”

  1. For a quick and interesting read, you could also check out:
    What Has Christianity Ever Done For Us? How it Shaped the Modern World, by Jonathan Hill (InterVarsity Press, 2005).

    • Thanks for this, Kyle. Hill also wrote Faith in the Age of Reason, which I use sometimes in teaching the history of Christianity in the era of the Enlightenment. I recommend the series of small, gorgeously illustrated IVP history books of which Hill’s is a part, though not all of the books in that series are written by historians. In fact, I use several of them as a sort of multi-part textbook in my HS503 (the entire history of the church in 10 weeks!), in Bethel’s SemPM program.

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