Pastor, Professor, Patriot: An Interview on Ministry and National Identity with John D. Wilsey
When John D. Wilsey met David Puckett as a seminary student in 1996, he never expected Norton 234 to be his own office one day. Puckett taught church history at Southern Seminary for seventeen years and his mentorship and friendship helped spur a young Wilsey to earn a PhD and begin his own seminary teaching career.
Now occupying the same desk as one of his ministry heroes, Wilsey teaches Boyce College and Southern Seminary students modern church history, history of Western thought, American patriotism and theology, history of the Black church, and American religious history. He’s also an expert on Christian nationalism, a topic that has engulfed Christians since 2016 but has historical roots.
Following the celebration of American Independence Day, Wilsey shared his expertise and pastoral wisdom to help Christian ministers assess competing visions of national identity—a topic he will address more fully in an upcoming book. He also encouraged aspiring college, graduate, and doctoral students to study American church history to serve the church.
Here are Wilsey’s answers to three questions Christians face today.
Should patriotism matter to Christians?
Patriotism matters a great deal. Patriotism is, to put it simply, love for country, for home, for one's own people and heritage. Love for country, like all loves, belongs on a hierarchy. Love for God is the highest love. Love for family is second to love for God. Love for country fits on that hierarchy of loves after love for God and family. Love for the gospel and for the church is part of our love of God. But love of country, while it is lower on the hierarchy of loves, does not war against love for God or family. Love for country fits coherently in a rightly ordered set of loves, and Christian leaders should model it, teach it, and extol it.
Is it necessary for church leaders to study the American founding?
Yes, because the American founding represents one significant part of who we are as Americans. The American experiment is, in prominent respects, an experiment in religious freedom. As leaders in the church—pastors, teachers, missionaries, counselors, and parents—we have the privilege of exercising religious freedom every day as we model the truth of the gospel through precept and example. People who know history know that things were not always as they are. The American founding is a landmark event in the history of the church, and to ignore it is to take religious freedom for granted in some way.
Patriotism reflects gratitude to God for the good gifts He has given us. We hope in the mercy of God in all things and recognize that every good and perfect gift flows from him (James 1:17). Our country, though by every measure not perfect, is a good gift that the Father has bestowed on us. Central to who we are as followers of Christ is the knowledge that life is worth living, that the human person is of inestimable value, and that gratitude expresses dependence on God and his everlasting mercy. Allowing us to be beneficiaries of such a bountiful land and broad freedoms to raise our families, fulfill our callings, and grow in spirit, intellect, and body is a tremendous blessing from the Lord. Patriotism is not just acceptable for a Christian. I think it is a Christian duty.
Why should students consider further study in American church history at Southern Seminary?
The purpose of seminary is primarily for the training of pastors, counselors, missionaries, and teachers for the benefit of the church. It is also aimed at training scholars who seek to edify the church through research and writing. The fields of biblical studies and theology are the most intuitively obvious fields for further study in seminary, but history is often overlooked. This is a great tragedy because it is a liberal inclination to be contemptuous or dismissive of history. But history is central to our faith because our faith is rooted in history. And the study of American history is so needed among rising Christian scholars because the advancement of the gospel is central in American historical studies. So, if you are interested in studying American history on the doctoral level, Southern is the place to do it!
Wilsey’s books include One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, an abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic 1840 work, Democracy in America: A New Abridgment for Students, and God’s Cold Warrior: The Life and Faith of John Foster Dulles.
He is an elder at Kenwood Baptist Church at Victory Memorial in Louisville. His wife Mandy and their two daughters, Caroline and Sally, bring joy to him each day.