“Doctrine according to need”: John Henry Newman and the History of Ideas

By guest contributor Burkhard Conrad O.P.L.

Any history of ideas and concepts hinges on the observation that ideas and concepts change over time. This notion seems to be so self-evident that the question of why they change is rarely addressed.

Interestingly enough, it was only during the course of the nineteenth century that the notion of a history of ideas, concepts, and doctrines became widespread. Ideas increasingly came to be seen as contingent or “situational,” as we might phrase it today. Ideas were no longer regarded as quasi-metaphysical entities unaffected by time and change. This hermeneutic shift from metaphysics to history, however, was far from sudden. It came about gradually and is still ongoing.


John Henry Newman in 1844, a year before he wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (portrait by George Richmond)

The theologian and controversialist John Henry Newman (1801–1890) must be regarded as one of the intellectual protagonists of this shift from metaphysics to history. An eminent intellectual within the high-church Anglican Oxford Movement, Newman decided mid-life to join the Church of Rome, eventually to become one of the foremost voices of nineteenth century Roman Catholicism in Britain. Newman exerts an influence well into our time with figures such as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) paying tribute to his thought. Benedict eventually beatified Newman in 2010.

Rarely quoted in any non-theological study in the history of ideas, Newman’s work is eminently important for understanding both the quest for a historical understanding of ideas and the anxious existential situation of those thinkers who found themselves in the middle of a momentous intellectual revolution. In Newman’s day, it was not uncommon for such intellectual and personal queries to go hand in hand.

In Newman’s case, this phenomenon becomes particularly obvious when we look at his contribution to the history of ideas. In 1845, during his phase of conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Newman wrote his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I wish to focus on two of Newman’s central claims within the Essay. Firstly, he states that it is justifiable to argue that doctrines and ideas change over time. Confronting a more “scriptural”—i.e. Protestant—understanding, Newman affirms that ecclesiastical doctrines hinge not only on the acknowledgement of divine, biblical revelations, but also on a tradition of teaching that has evolved since the early church. Newman writes in one of his sermons that “Scripture (…) begins a series of development which it does not finish; that is to say, in other words, it is a mistake to look for every separate proposition of the Catholic doctrine in Scripture” (§28). He complements this thought by adding in the Essay that “time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas” (29), which is to say that doctrine is not something given only once, but rather possesses a dynamic quality.

But why does doctrine evolve in the first place? Why is it important to speak of a history of ideas? It is remarkable that Newman answers those questions in much the same way as we would do today. Doctrine, according to Newman, is ever-evolving because there is a need for such transformation. Ideas are simply “keeping pace with the ever-changing necessities of the world, multiform, prolific, and ever resourceful” (56).

Newman speaks of “a gradual supply [of doctrine] for a gradual necessity” (149). The logic behind doctrinal change may thus be explained as follows: a given or conventional doctrine comes into contact with or is challenged by alternative expressions of doctrine. These alternative expressions come to be regarded as false, as heresy. Hence, an adequate doctrinal reaction is necessary. This reaction may take the form either of a doctrinal change through the absorption of novel thought, or of a transformation through counter-reaction. Hence, Newman is even able to rejoice in the fact that false teaching may arise. He writes in the aforementioned sermon: “Wonderful, to see how heresy has but thrown that idea into fresh forms, and drawn out from it farther developments, with an exuberance which exceeded all questioning, and a harmony which baffled all criticism”(§6).


Hans Blumenberg © Bildarchiv der Universitätsbibliothek Gießen und des Universitätsarchivs Gießen, Signatur HR A 603 a

The necessity for doctrinal development, hence, is born within situations of discursive tension. These situations—the philosopher Hans Blumenberg once called them “rhetorical situations” (Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, 417)—demand a continuous, diachronical stream of cognitive solutions. The need has to be answered. As Quentin Skinner once noted, “Any statement (…) is inescapably the embodiment of a particular intention, on a particular situation, addressed to the solution of a particular problem, and thus specific to its situation in a way that is can only be naïve to try to transcend” (in Tully, Meaning and Context, 65). The need for development and change, thus, is born in distinctive historical settings with concrete utterances and equally concrete counter-utterances. That is why ideas and concepts change over time: they simply react. “One proposition necessarily leads to another” (Newman, Essay, 52). This change is required in order to come to terms with new challenges, both rhetoric and real.

To be frank, Newman would hardly agree with Skinner on the last part of his statement, namely, that statements are never able to transcend their particular context. For all his historical consciousness, Newman was, like most his contemporaries, fixated on the idea that, despite its dynamic character, the teaching of the Church forms a harmonious, logical and self-explaining system of thought, a higher truth. He writes, “Christianity being one, and all its doctrines are necessarily developments of one, and, if so, are of necessity consistent with each other, or form a whole” (96).

Newman was also convinced—again contrary to Quentin Skinner—that the history of theological ideas had to be looked at with a normative bias. He identified certain “corruptions” in the history of theological ideas (169). It was important to Newman to be able to distinguish between “genuine developments” and these “corruptions.” A large part of his Essay is devoted to setting out apparently objective criteria for such a normative classification.

Who is to decide what is genuine and what is corrupted? Newman’s second claim in the Essay deals with this question. According to Newman, the only true channel of any genuine tradition is found within the Roman Catholic Church, with the pope as the final and supreme arbiter. Newman could not do without such a clear attribution of doctrinal decision-making power. It was necessary “for putting a seal of authority upon those developments;” that is, those which ought to be regarded as genuine (79).

In consequence, Newman mobilized his first claim about the dynamic nature of doctrines with regard to his second claim, the idea of papal infallibility in deciding matters of doctrine. It was clear even to the nineteenth-century theologian that the notion of papal infallibility was not explicitly contemplated by anyone in the early Church. But, according to Newman, the requirement for an “infallible arbitration in religious disputes” became more and more pronounced as centuries of doctrinal disputes passed (89). And Newman says of his own century that “the absolute need of a spiritual supremacy is at present the strongest of arguments in favour of the fact of its supply” (89). The idea of infallibility thus came into existence because, according to Newman, it was needed to settle doctrinal uncertainty within his own time.


Cardinal John Henry Newman, painted in 1889 by Emmeline Deane

Having admitted the pope’s supremacy in matters of doctrine, a consequent existential decision by Newman had to follow. He had no choice but to leave Canterbury for Rome. It is only fair to say that Newman required the idea of a final arbitrator, someone to decide on genuine doctrinal development, in order to fulfill his own need for certainty and a spiritual home. Even a sympathetic interpreter like the historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan had to concede “that here Newman’s existential purpose did get in the way of his historical vision” (Development of Christian Doctrine, 144).

And so Newman’s account of a history of ideas developing according to need was born as much out of an intellectual interest in the history of theological ideas as it was triggered by biographical motives. But which twenty-first-century scholar in the humanities could claim that his or her research interests had nothing to do with personal circumstances?

Burkhard Conrad O.P.L., Ph.D., taught politics at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is now an independent scholar working for the archdiocese of Hamburg. Among his research interests are political theology, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Oxford Movement. He is a lay Dominican and writes a blog at

On The Pinkster King and the King of the Kongo: An Interview with Jeroen Dewulf

Interview conducted by editor Derek O’Leary

Jeroen Dewulf is the Queen Beatrix Professor in Dutch Studies and an Associate Professor of German Studies at UC Berkeley, where he also directs the Institute of European Studies. His new book, The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), departs from a study of nineteenth-century Pinkster, which has generally been considered a syncretic Dutch-Afro performance clustered in the formerly Dutch colonial territories of New York. Through a careful excavation of these rituals, he resituates an apparently local story in a much broader and deeper Atlantic context. His study casts light on the origins of Pinkster in a very different syncretism–of Iberian and African cultures on African soil–and the crucial role of mutual-aid associations in its transmission and promotion. For students of the intellectual and cultural history of the Atlantic, it provides a compelling model for circum-Atlantic history (to borrow from David Armitage’s typology), while encouraging us to reconsider our understanding of syncretism.

Dewulf_cover copy

Derek: If we look at the longer trajectory of popular and scholarly impressions of New Netherlands and Dutch heritage in the US, there seems to be something especially malleable about how people have understood the Dutch. This ranges among the extremes of Washington Irving’s burlesque notions of the Dutch in the early nineteenth century, to Holland Mania later that century, to obliviousness at various times of the Dutch presence in North America. Your book takes as point of departure certain nineteenth-century misperceptions of Pinkster as an originally Dutch and African syncretic phenomenon that the Dutch gradually lost interest in. Such misperception seems due, in part, to the fact that the Dutch and their descendants rarely told their own history of the life in North America. Could you talk about why this is the case?

Jeroen: It is important to highlight the topic of language as such. Even within the Dutch community in America, preserving Dutch attachment to the language is an interesting topic, and you see as a general rule that as soon as people of Dutch descent achieved positions of power, their attachment to the language tended to disappear. And those who held on to Dutch were often farmers or rural inhabitants, which has consequences on the way the story is told.

On top of language, we have the matter of religion, another important element here. The Dutch had their own religion in a way: the Dutch Reformed Church. And having your own religion isolated the Dutch community from others. And then you also clearly see a division within the Dutch community, between those who abandon this history as soon as New Netherland becomes New York, and those who hold onto it. And those who hold onto it are not necessarily those who write. So, you have relatively few documents in which you hear a Dutch voice commenting on Dutch traditions in America.

As a result of this, the way we have told the history of New Netherlands is one heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon perspective, which would look at this Dutch heritage and make it correspond to a perception that they already had of it. It is also very important to keep in mind that there was no such thing as Dutch newspapers, so the voice of the media was an English voice.

Derek: Your study explores a sort of “double erasure” in this context, of both Dutch voices and members of the Afro-Dutch community.

Jeroen: Who is aware that in the mid-eighteenth century that about 10-15% of blacks in New York still spoke Dutch? The Dutch and African linguistic heritage of the region are similarly forgotten. Little attention has been given to the fact that African-American history is a multilingual history, and not just in the sense of bringing different languages from Africa.


Middle panel of 1733 painting by John Heaton of Van Bergen farm near Albany, NY: One of the few images depicting African American slaves on a Dutch-owned farm at a time when about 10-15% of the slaves living in the states of New York and New Jersey spoke Dutch.

Derek: Ironically, then, the erasure of Dutch voices from the nineteenth-century record seems to contribute to the erasure of the African and Portuguese origins of Pinkster. Your book takes a phenomenon—Pinkster– that has also, like this Dutch-American history, been interpreted in a very malleable way, and pulls it from a local context into a much more complex Atlantic context. In the process, the long-imagined Dutch influence on this Afro-American phenomenon recedes, and it becomes much less a story of the Dutch legacy in America. Much of the past few decades of historiography on the Dutch colonies in the Western Hemisphere have sought to reinsert them into both US and Atlantic history, so in an interesting way your book departs from this—indeed, it distances Dutch influence from a circum-Atlantic phenomenon of Pinkster, and directs us to see its roots elsewhere.

Jeroen: The book didn’t take me in the direction I was planning to go, and in a certain sense the book wrote itself. Originally, I thought this would be about performance culture, but it ended up being much more about mutual aid and solidarity and community-building. I also expected it to be a much more Dutch book, which it did not turn out to be. That was a surprise to me in the sense that what became clear is that we are speaking about a time period when Dutch Atlantic history was starting, and as a newcomer you naturally don’t build things out of nowhere: You build on what is already there. Especially when it comes to the process of slavery, we see how strong the continuation of Iberian model was among those who took over from the Spanish and Portuguese in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I felt that this element has been underestimated by people who write about Atlantic History.

pinkster in 1800We still have this assumption that scholars choose “their” nation, and then tend to give too much importance to the colonizer of a specific area: If you focus on New Netherland you focus on the Dutch, if you write about New England you focus on the English, etc. But especially when you focus on a field such as slavery, its Atlantic complexity forces you to use a perspective that tries to capture this vast area, and you realize that holding on to this one-nation perspective is just not providing you with the answers to the challenging questions that manuscripts raise. Pinkster is a good example of this. It has traditionally been reduced to a “syncretic Dutch-African” tradition, which is true in the sense that there certainly are Dutch and African elements to be found in the tradition, but to say that something is syncretic doesn’t mean much. In fact, Pinkster is so much more complex than just a “mixture of Dutch and African” elements.


Jan Mosatert, Portrait of an African man, circa 1525-1530: An early connection between the traditional Pinkster (Pentecost) celebration in Dutch culture and Africa is this painting, depicting a unidentified black man from the sixteenth-century who wears in his hat a badge that indicates a visit to the Black Madonna of Halle, who is honored every Pentecost with a procession

Concerning Pinkster, I think we see this performance in New York, see Africans participating, and immediately jump to the explanation that it is a Dutch-African syncretic process. When it comes to African-American traditions, it is much too easy to remain superficial and assert the usual things (e.g. they are honoring their ancestors) while avoiding more challenging questions, such as how ancestor worship would vary by region, for instance. Also, when we think about syncretism, we make a mistake in limiting syncretism to the Americas and the Caribbean, and do not apply the notion to Africa.

Syncretism in a way can correct the traditional approach, whereby you would assume clear boundaries between cultures, as syncretism forces you to look at two cultures producing something new. But even that is too simple, because those two cultures are themselves full of syncretisms.

Derek: In the comparative study of empire in the Atlantic, though, I think that we are still inclined to see a certain Dutch exceptionalism–that it was basically different than the other European colonial projects there. Indeed, as you note, there may have been a particularly Dutch colonial capacity to adopt the techniques and technologies—and, as we see here, integrate the customs—of other colonial projects in the Atlantic. But your study is also intriguing because it suggests we can look around the Atlantic, within other colonial projects, and find more complicated stories of syncretism as well. Was there something about the Dutch Atlantic project that made it more open to such transmission of culture and ideas?

race on the ice

King Charles Racing on Ice.
 “Artist’s conception of Charles, the Pinkster king, winning a nightly horse racing competition for his master Volkert Petrus Douw against General Philip Schuyler. In Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 62 (March 1881)” (Dewulf, 64).

Jeroen: There were definitely certain elements that the Dutch brought to the Atlantic that singled them out, including religion. When you see how the Dutch initiate slavery in their colonies, initially the way slavery is handled is similar to how it was handled by the Portuguese and Spanish, but soon you see that because of their different notions of religion, they start to change these practices. The example I give is baptism and the consequences of welcoming someone to your church, as the Dutch notion of Christianity and freedom was different than the Iberian notion, which led the Dutch to change their slave policy. In fact, the Dutch Reformed Church initially baptized slave children, similar to how the Iberian Catholic Church did, but stopped doing so after slave owners began to fear that once these children were admitted to the Church, they would no longer be able to sell      them as slaves.  Had this earlier process continued, I’m convinced that Pinkster would have disappeared, because the mutual-aid traditions out of which the African Pinkster celebrations developed would have been incompatible with Calvinist morality and mutual aid would have been provided within the context of the Church anyway. But it survived because at one point the church came under pressure from slave owners who opposed baptism, which gave those communities no other choice but to organize mutual aid on their own, for which they naturally used a brotherhood structure they were familiar with. Which also then explains the demise of the tradition, when the first black Christian churches come into existence in the nineteenth century and a Protestant morality becomes dominant within the African-American community. So, there was some form of Dutch exceptionalism in the Americas, but it developed only gradually, they had to learn to be an Atlantic power.

When people use the term “exceptionalism” and link it to the Dutch, there is a tendency to link it to pragmatism and tolerance. But what I’ve tried to highlight is that we would make a mistake if we assumed that the existence of Pinkster was solely there because the Dutch were so tolerant to allow it to happen. There clearly was within a slave community a strategy used to make the Dutch realize that it was in their own interest, so it appears as pragmatism, but it is not something that would have happened without pressure from the slave community.



Fête de Ste. Rosalie, Patrone des négres by Johann Moritz Rugendas: Pinkster is far from being the only example where members of the slave community elected and celebrated their ‘king’ with a procession; this illustration from Rugendas shows a slave king procession in 19th-century Brazil


King processions by brotherhoods still today exist in rural parts of Latin-America. This example comes from Pernambuco, Brazil.

You do find such examples of pragmatism, but I would be careful of explaining this as a natural Dutch instinct, as has been done in books about Dutch exceptionalism. But, as a general observation, you can state that compared to the Portuguese and Spanish, the Dutch were more focused on profit and reluctant to share their culture, language, religion and identity with Others. In this respect it was not a problem for the Dutch to have a large community around them who did not share their language and church, which was unthinkable for the Portuguese and Spanish. Indonesia is the clearest case of this, where the Dutch used a local language—Malay—as the lingua franca of their colony.

Derek: A common feature of many works of Atlantic History is that the Atlantic world—however we define it—forms a distinctive space in which innumerable hybrid identities are possible, rather than strictly national ones. Syncretism is crucial to this, and your book is a careful excavation of the syncretic process behind Pinkster. Though in our teaching and writing it can be easy to deploy this term rather casually. Has this study led to any general guidance or framework you would propose to other scholars seeking to understand syncretism in the Atlantic beyond the generalizations we tend to use about it?

Jeroen: Saying that something is syncretic is in a way saying nothing. Because, then what is it? You see this reflected in the way how we study black identity in the diaspora. In the old days, the nineteenth century, African elements were simply neglected. In the forties, you see a shift in which scholars become more interested in signs of African cultural “survivals,” which ultimately leads to a boom in the search for “Africanisms”—traces of African identity in the Americas. The important question I raise in this book is:  How African are such Africanisms? There has been a clear tendency to equalize Africanisms with indigenous African elements. What the book made me realize is that indigenous African element certainly were there, but I highlight the fact that it would be wrong not to realize that long before the first slaves arrived in North America, a syncretic process had already started on African soil. So, when you look at performance traditions, you see that in certain parts of Africa – such as the Kingdom of Kongo –  certain performances had already been influenced by European music, dance, musical instruments, clothing, etc. before coming to the Americas and the Caribbean.

To come back to Pinkster: Dutch elements were certainly in Pinkster performances, but ultimately they were less important than earlier Afro-Iberian ones. Obviously, we are forced to an extent to speculate on matters of African heritage. Mine is not the final word on Pinkster, but a new perspective that helps us rethink the history of this phenomenon. It is also another approach to the study of syncretic processes that is truly Atlantic in the sense that you avoid the mistake of looking at the powers – including African powers – of the Atlantic as pure entities with clear boundaries between them.

My suggestion when using the term syncretism, is not to see it as an answer to your question, but as a stepping stone to begin answering the question of what this syncretism consists of and how it came into being. After all, every cultural manifestation in syncretic in nature, so it would be wrong to limit the notion to the Americas and the Caribbean. I’m not the first one to do this; there are many other studies that raise such questions, but somehow in the field of performance studies there seems to be a reluctance to accept that some of the performance traditions enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were not indigenous in nature but rather characterized by inter-African and Afro-European syncretism. In the field of linguistics, for instance, there are plenty of studies that show us the important influence of Portuguese on the languages that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Americas. So, if language was influenced, why not dance, parades or certain musical instruments?  My only explanation for this is that many of those working in the field of performance studies are deeply influenced by the idea of black resistance against oppression that grew out of  the Civil Rights movement ideology, and are perhaps therefore reluctant to recognize that already in African, Africans voluntarily adopted certain elements of European culture and religion in their own cultural and religious traditions.

Derek: Importantly, you depict that the Afro-Catholic syncretism behind Pinkster took place at a moment when Africans and Europeans were on more equal terms in Africa, as compared to in the Americas.

Jeroen: Which makes me wonder if it makes sense to use the same term both in the context of colonial oppression and in an era when Africans were still firmly in control of the African continent. We call that syncretism in general. I do feel there is a difference. One thing is integrating elements of a foreign culture into your own when you are in a situation of power; one very different thing is you adopting foreign elements when you are a slave. Nevertheless we use the term syncretism for both.

Derek: You’ve mentioned brotherhoods and other voluntary organizations as a motive force in propelling this performance around the Atlantic and across centuries.

Jeroen: What this book taught me is that when you want to learn about matters of identity and culture, you need to ask how the community organized mutual aid. We as twenty-first-century people have perhaps forgotten this because we have all these services provided. This is a key question: how did a community organize mutual aid? This crucial question leads us to the fields of performance, but also language and religion. I often see in studies of religion a limitation to questions of spiritualism, and much less a focus on questions of material support and solidarity within the religious community. In fact, one of my most surprising conclusions in this book is that, originally, there was little difference between the way slaves in North America organized themselves from the way slaves in Latin-America did. Crucial differences only then start to develop when slaves in North America embrace Protestantism and begin to organize mutual aid as part of a community with (Afro-)Protestant norms and values.

Derek: How has this project influenced your research interests?

Jeroen: This led me to look at black performance traditions elsewhere in America, and naturally I became interested in the case of New Orleans. And to my surprise, I learned that all major contemporary performance traditions related to the black community in New Orleans can be traced back to mutual aid societies. I wrote an article about this for the Louisiana Historical Association (“From Moors to Indians: The Mardi Gras Indians and the Three Transformations of St. James”), which they selected as the best article of the year 2016. In the article I ask how we can link the dances in Congo Square in New Orleans to carnival traditions such as the Mardi Gras Indians, and I show that the missing link is the existence of black mutual aid societies in New Orleans. Societies that, unlike in the case of Pinkster where they disappeared in the context of the “Second Great Awakening”, are still there in New Orleans. I decided to expand it, which is now leading to a new book to be entitled From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square, and to be published in the coming months by the University of Louisiana Press.


The First of Nisan, The Forgotten Jewish New Year

by guest contributor Joel S. Davidi

It is late March and the weather is still cold. The sounds of Arabic music and exuberant conversation emanate from an elegant ballroom in Brooklyn New York. No, it’s not a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. A Torah Scroll is unfurled and the cantor begins to read from Exodus 12: 1, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’” The reading is followed by the chanting of liturgical poetry based on this Torah portion, “Rishon Hu Lakhem L’khodshei Hashanah”… Yom Nisan Mevorakh….” “The first month shall it be for you for the months of the year… the month of Nisan is blessed.”As they leave the event, men and women wish each other “Shana tova,” happy new year.

Something seems off. It is a Monday night and Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year, is still six months away. Why the celebration and talk of a new year? This ritual is very familiar, however, to the members of Congregation Ahaba Veahva, a Synagogue that follows the Egyptian-Jewish rite. It is a vestige of a very ancient, almost extinct Jewish custom called Seder Al-Tawhid (Arabic, Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew, the ritual of the unity). This ritual takes place annually on the first of Nisan. The name denotes a celebration of the unity of God and the miracles that he wrought during this month surrounding the Exodus from Egypt. The way the congregation celebrates it and how this custom survived illuminates important dynamics of how Jewish ritual has been standardized over time.

Ahba Veahva’s members celebrate Rosh Hashanah in September like other rabbinic Jews. The Seder al-Tahwid, however, is a remnant of an ancient custom of the Jews of the near East (variably referred to as Mustaribun or Shamim) to commemorate the first day of the Jewish month of Nisan as  a minor Rosh Hashanah as per Exodus 12:1. On their website, Congregation Ahaba Veahva explains the celebration as follows:

The Great Exodus of Egypt:
On Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month of Nisan), beni Yisrael (the children of Israel) heard the nes (miracle) that they were going to be redeemed on the night of the 15th, later in that very month. We hold this evening to remember the miracles and the hesed (kindness) that Hashem (God) does for His nation.
“In Nisan we were redeemed in the past, and in Nisan we are destined to be redeemed again.” (a midrashic quote (Exodus Rabbah 15:2) asserting that just as the Exodus from Egypt took place in Nisan so too will the ultimate messianic redemption)
We hold this evening to put everyone in the correct spiritual mindset- to realize with all their might that this could be the month of the Geulah (messianic redemption).


The Alexandrian pamphlet describing the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy.

The only printed version of the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy is found in an anonymous 10 page pamphlet printed in Alexandria. The prayers focus on many themes found in the Rosh Hashana prayers such as blessing, sustenance and messianic redemption in the year to come. The liturgy is found in a somewhat longer form in a tenth century manuscript fragment from the Cairo Geniza, the  repository of documents found in the late nineteenth century in the synagogue in old Fustat.

The celebration of al-Tahwid begins with special liturgy on the Sabbath closest to the day and on the day itself the community refrains from unnecessary labor similar to intermediate days of Jewish holidays. They also recite a Kiddush (a prayer that sanctifies a day, recited over a cup of wine) followed by a festive meal and the recitation of liturgical poetry. One such poem presents a debate among the twelve months to determine which one will have primacy. In one stanza, for example, Nisan argues that the following month of Iyyar cannot be chosen since its zodiacal sign is Taurus, the same species as the golden calf that Israel made in the wilderness. The concluding stanza is a triumphal declaration from Nisan: שליט אנא וריש על כול”ן”
literally, I am the ruler and the head of all of you.
תקיפה עבדי פרוק לעמיה ובי הוא עתיד למפרוק יתהון
or, “A deliverance of slavery did I [Nisan] impart upon the nation and in me [Nisan] is he [God] destined to deliver them [again]” (as per BT Rosh Hashanah 10B). Other prayers more explicitly cast the day as the beginning of the new year. One liturgical poem begins:  יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוהינו ואלוהי אבותינו…שתהיה השנה הזאת הבאה עלינו לשלום, translated as, “May it be your will lord our god and the god of our fathers…that this coming year should come upon us in peace.”

The celebration of the first of Nisan as the beginning of the new year is rooted both in Biblical and Talmudic sources. Exodus 12:1-2 states that Nisan is the first month in the intercalation of the new year and the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1 describes the First of Nisan as one of the four beginnings of the Jewish New Year:

There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle. … On the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for release and jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables…. On the first of Shevat is the new year for trees…

In an article on the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy, liturgical scholar Ezra Fleischer postulates that the Kiddush ceremony on the holiday was based on an earlier Mishanic-era institution. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah 2:7 describes how the Sanhedrin, the high religious court of Talmudic-era Israel,  consecrated the new month by declaring “it is sanctified”, at which point the entire assemblage would respond in kind, “it is sanctified, it is sanctified”. This declaration was performed with pomp and publicity in order to make it clear that the final word in the intercalation of the Jewish calendar belonged to the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael and no one else. In the context of the Seder al-Tahwid this ritual serves to highlight Nisan’s role as the first month of the Jewish lunar year, the beginning of this process of sanctifying the new moon.


If the first of Nisan is such an important date to both the Bible and Talmud then, why is the day celebrated today only by this small Jewish community? To answer this question we must look to the Geonic period of jewish history, corresponding roughly to the second half of the first millennium. Over  the past decade, historians increasingly see this period  as one in which a number of variations of Judaism were vying for supremacy. These included several schools of Jewish jurisprudence based in different geographic constituencies across the Mediterranean Diaspora. Two of the most prominent were the Babylonian (Minhag Babhel, based in Baghdad) and Palestinian (Minhag Eretz Yisrael) rites, as well as Karaite Jews who did not follow the Rabbis at all but formed their own, non rabbinic madhab or creed.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was abolished in the 5th century by Byzantine decree. Its various successors could not recapture its prestige and the Rabbis of Eretz Yisrael gradually lost their power to sanction the new moon. The Karaites developed their own system of intercalation but within the rabbinic tradition, in the absence of the Sanhedrin, the Babylonians and Palestinians often found themselves at odds.

The most notorious controversy between the two schools involved the often-confrontational Saadiah ben Joseph Al-Faumi, the head of the Babylonian Academy better known as Saadiah Gaon, and Aharon ben Meir, the head of the Palestinian Academy. In 921-923, the two engaged in an extended and very public argument regarding the sanctification of the Hebrew year 4682 (921/22). While the core of this debate surrounded the complicated methods of calculating the Jewish calendar, it became a referendum on which academy and by extension rite would become authoritative in the diaspora. Saadiah emerged victorious (historians Marina Rustow and Sacha Stern argue that his authority on these matters may have resulted from his mastery of Abbasid advances in astronomy).

In Palestine, however, the Jewish community, based in Jerusalem, continued to follow the Minhag Eretz Yisrael, which also exerted influence on other Near Eastern Jewish communities such as Egypt. The heads of the Jerusalem academy still often insisted that the right to intercalate the year rested solely with them. As late as the 11th century, Rabbi Evyatar Ha-Kohen, the head of the Palestinian Academy (partially in exile in Cairo) would declare:

The land of Israel is not part of the exile such that it would be subject to an Exilarch (a title often applied to the head of the babylonian academy) and furthermore one may not contradict the authority of the Prince (a title at times applied to the head of the palestinian academy), on the word of whom [alone] may leap years be declared and the holiday dates set according to the order imposed by God before the creation of the world. For this is what we are taught in the secrets of intercalation.

ארץ ישראל אינה קרואה גולה שיהא ראש גולה נסמך בה, ועוד שאין עוקרין נשיא שבארץ ישראל, שעל פיו מעברין את השנה וקובעין את המועדות הסדורים לפני הקב”ה קודם יצירת העולם, דהכי גמרי בסוד העיבור

In a continuation of this post, I will elaborate as to how the Seder al-Tahwid was likely maintained as well as suppressed during the geonic period, similar practices that are preserved among non rabbinic communities and the ritual’s reception today.

Joel S. Davidi is an independent ethnographer and historian. His research focuses on Eastern and Sephardic Jewry and the Karaite communities of Crimea, Egypt, California and Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Exiles of Sepharad That Are In Ashkenaz, which explores the Iberian Diaspora in Eastern Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He blogs on Jewish history at

Rescuing the Eighteenth-Century Church of England from the Enormous Condescension of Posterity

by Emily Rutherford

I think I’ve found the biggest gap in the secondary literature of all time. As long ago as 1860, the Oxford priest and historian Mark Pattison noticed that historians tended to overlook the Church of England in the eighteenth century. English Reformation, Civil War, Restoration, Glorious Revolution? Fine. Victorian evangelicalism? Fine. Eighteenth-century Dissenters, such as Methodists, Baptists, and Quakers? Fine. Catholic emancipation at the turn of the nineteenth century, followed by the Oxford Movement? Fine. But the yawning chasm of scholarship on the eighteenth-century established church is so wide that even the stacks of excellent seminary libraries skip neatly from 1688 to about 1830, with just a handful of books in between.

This is peculiar, given that other eras in the Church of England’s history have been extensively treated by confessional and secular historians alike. Why did it happen? I have a couple hypotheses. The first is that the eighteenth-century established church is not so sexy: as a church-published general history of Christianity in the British Isles puts it, “the main defining characteristic of the Church of England in the 18th century” was that the Church was a “via media,” defining itself in opposition to the two radical poles of Methodism and Deism. It stood for the establishment, for following the authorized forms of worship set out in the Book of Common Prayer and prescribed by law, and for a moderate-conservative form of politics that supported the monarchy, the state, and the social order. As such, the established church was neglected by a generation of social historians who focused on class conflict as constitutive of the early Industrial Revolution: EP Thompson famously portrayed the effects of Methodism on the formation of working-class consciousness as negative in The Making of the English Working Class, but he didn’t even bother with the established church. The established church, the literature suggested until quite recently, pertained to bishops, Oxford theologians, and Parliament, while Methodism was the ordinary people’s Christianity.

It looks to me as if this started to change when historians began to push back against the conflictual picture Thompson and others had painted of eighteenth-century society and suggest instead that there was much more unity and support for the establishment. In 1985, J.C.D. Clark wrote English Society 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice During the Ancien Regime, a controversial conservative revision of the left-wing social history which stressed continuity in the social order over the “long eighteenth century” and the strength of the monarchy and aristocracy. He emphasized the role of the established church in constituting a “confessional state”: a polity that didn’t make distinctions between religious and secular realms. Later, Linda Colley’s Britons took a different approach to the same problem. Focusing on culture rather than high politics, she nevertheless argued that over the course of the eighteenth century a unified British national identity formed that was founded in large part on a shared Protestantism. In their different ways, both Colley and Clark called historians’ attention to religion as a central aspect of how eighteenth-century Britain should be understood—though in Clark’s focus on high politics and Colley’s invocation of a common Protestantism that obscures the intensity of conflict among Anglicans and Dissenters and the status of the Church in Scotland, both leave much unsaid. Were laypeople actually attending the parish churches that existed in every community in England? How did they worship? In what ways did the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer factor in their lives? What was the role of clergy in local communities? How significant a threat did Dissent really pose to the day-to-day operations of the established church? When and how did notions of internal, individual belief develop? Answering these questions offers a route to taking the church seriously as a social and cultural presence, and to negotiating the relationship between large-scale pan-European intellectual-historical themes (secularization, Enlightenment) and the ways that people who were not part of the Republic of Letters might have thought and reasoned about the same issues.

The single historian who has made steps in recent years in this direction is Carolyn Steedman, whose extraordinary 2007 book Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age is written also against Thompson’s resistance towards taking religion seriously as a social force. Very unlike Clark’s or Colley’s work, though, Steedman’s book is a microhistory of one eighteenth-century West Yorkshire clergyman with a massive archive, and her central question is how it is that this priest—against the notions of morality we might expect him to hold—continued to employ and support a female domestic servant who became pregnant out of wedlock, and came to love and care for her child. Steedman’s sparkling, moving prose ranges across the importance of the Yorkshire landscape, changes in work and social structure, institutional and theological aspects of the Church, and what it is that this clergyman, John Murgatroyd, might really have believed about doctrinal issues or the more elusive experience of God’s grace. Ultimately, Steedman suggests that Murgatroyd’s diaries, sermons, notes, and library show that the Enlightenment had come to West Yorkshire—but that it was a much more Anglican Enlightenment, with a much closer relationship to God, than one might expect.

In some ways, Steedman doesn’t know how to handle religion any better than Thompson. She admits that she can only guess at what it might be like to believe in God, and I wonder if in her speculation about the affective lives about John Murgatroyd and Phoebe Beatson, she writes the familiar, sympathetic characters she would like them to be, rather than long-dead individuals whose ways of looking at the world might in some ways be incommensurable with our own. As beautiful and compelling as her account is, too, and as important a move it makes in connecting Enlightenment sentiment so closely to established religion, there is still a certain chasm between her work and that of scholars writing from a present-day Church perspective who see an essential continuity between eighteenth-century theology and liturgy and their own—and an experience of faith that does not necessarily have to be explained to the reader.

This is a chasm that has to be traversed, a gap that has to be filled. Before the 1830 repeal of the Test Acts, when the Church of England really did define the terms of civic life, it needs to be an essential aspect of how all historians, not only those writing from a Church perspective, understand the past. Moreover, as Steedman suggests, intellectual history looks rather different when it turns to the thoughts, beliefs, and experiences of those who are not philosophers, writers, or even diocesan bishops. Steedman tells us that John Murgatroyd had an unconventional and largely autodidactic education, that he read and reacted to theology, philosophy, and classical learning but not always in the most up-to-date or predictable ways. There must be many others like him, troubling the extent to which it is possible to offer a single narrative about either secularization or the “confessional state.”

[Correction: Stuart Jones pointed out on Twitter that Pattison actually drew attention to the dearth of work on the eighteenth-century church in 1860, not in the 1880s as I originally wrote.]