What’s Going On in Moscow, Idaho?
Every year more people move to this small college town where something special is happening.
In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, the Morrill Act established what we have come to call the land grant university. These were universities that were established from the proceeds of the sale of federal lands, and one of the downstream ramifications of this act was that an informal American layout for a typical university education developed. Instead of being planted in major cities, it became fairly common for major universities to be located in small towns. For those familiar with the ancient settings of Oxford and Cambridge, this might not seem all that unusual, but considering the size of our country, and the number of our states, the results were really quite striking. Parents were invited to send their students off for four years to the masthead university of their particular state, but all conducted in a bucolic setting.
The University of Idaho is numbered among these land grant universities, and is located in the panhandle of Idaho, in a small town called Moscow. Eight miles to the west is Pullman, Washington, where Washington State University is located, yet another land grant university. And in 1971, my father Jim Wilson moved here in order to establish a Christian literature ministry in these two university towns. He did this with an eye on the strategic importance of all such places. Where could one go in this country that would provide opportunities for high-impact ministry? A Naval Academy graduate, he knew that in any battle a decisive point needed to be simultaneously strategic and feasible. The universities made these towns strategic, and the size of the towns made them feasible.
That was a decision that was made well upstream, in the early seventies. An awful lot downstream has happened in this small town since that time, but they are all traceable in some measure to my father seeing the great opportunities for strategic evangelism unwittingly created by Justin Smith Morrill in the middle of the previous century.
Before explaining any of the thinking behind how we got here, it might be helpful to explain what “here” actually entails. I have to be careful in this because certain critics, of the Southern Poverty Law Center variety, have more than once breathlessly announced that all these things are part of my “empire,” establishing kind of a Taliban of the Palouse, and that I am currently engaged in buying up real estate in downtown Moscow, all while making off-putting piggy sounds. But alas, the only substantial assets I own downtown would be the books at my office and an F150 pickup truck.
Now, in order to describe what is occurring here, I have to first note the context. Moscow is a small college town with about 25,000 residents. Pullman, just across the border, has almost 30,000. Around these two towns are many miles of rolling Palouse wheat fields, and, a little to the east, vast tracts of forest.
Moscow has nevertheless become a thriving center of evangelical activity, most of which is also Reformed and Presbyterian. And when I say Presbyterian, I hasten to add that we are talking about throwbacks to the seventeenth century, back when Presbyterians believed the Bible. Not Lesbyterians, in other words.
Because we believe that the worship of God needs to be the central driver of everything else we attempt to do, I should begin by mentioning the churches. Christ Church, where I am the pastor, meets in five services—two where I preach, two downtown, and one in a nearby smaller town. We have also planted two other local churches, Trinity Reformed and King’s Cross, both of which meet in two services. And so, taking one thing with another, our community has grown to about ten percent of the town’s population.
Our first forays into activities outside the worship services were in the realm of education. Logos School (K-12) was planted in 1981 and currently enrolls 644 students, which for a town our size is simply enormous. Logos was the flagship for the renewal of classical Christian education in the United States, and the Association of Classical Christian Schools now has over 500 member schools around the country (and world), along with its office here in Moscow. Our community also has hundreds of homeschooled students, various services for homeschooling parents (Logos Online, Kepler), and a school for special needs students (Jubilee). In addition to all of this is New St. Andrews College, a four-year fully accredited liberal arts school. In short, there is no way to see Moscow as anything other than a Christian education boom town.
In the late eighties, we established Canon Press, which has grown through different iterations into a formidable outlet for our varied publications. Canon promotes teaching on the biblical family, advances Reformed theology, and champions Christian involvement in literature and art. When we first started, our catalog consisted of exactly one book, and financial resources to match. But now Canon is in a position to shape national conversations, as recently happened with Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism. As part of the promotion of my recent book Mere Christendom, we also flew a “Christ Is Lord” banner over the San Diego Pride Parade—to go with “Christ Is Lord” billboards all over the country.
And Canon+, our new streaming platform, has been a key part of equipping families and churches across the nation. A growing horde of Canon+ subscribers have helped us to “Cancel the Darkness” by: producing five seasons of Man Rampant and five No Quarter Novembers (watch the video, thus far we’ve burned a couch, a field, a truck, a boat, and an office); funding original documentaries like Eve in Exile, a critique of feminism, Sage Against the Machine, on the life of George Gilder, It’s Good to Be a Man featuring Michael Foster, and more; launching our own children’s animation studio (first project: Blah Blah Black Sheep, an original animated series); starting The Wade Show with Wade, a weekly news and comedy show; filling up Canon+ with thousands of audiobooks, podcasts, lectures, conferences, and video resources for men, women, and children who love Christ and who also prefer meat over pabulum. And more content is dropping every week.
The Canon Press mission is to be “Outfitters of the Reformation,” providing content for a new Christendom. It turns out that this means getting into trouble with the elites—but a lot of our new friends are entirely up for it. Whether we are talking about books or views, Canon Press has now moved the decimal point and broken the informal embargo that was applied to our content for many years. Between printing physical books on our own press, many more printed out of house, and our prodigal distribution of content-rich ones and zeros, the word that best describes this output is “torrent.” By the standards of some, we are still a small media company, but we truly believe it is our responsibility to punch above our weight (Zech. 4:10).
Also in the late eighties, we started and ran a hard copy magazine called Credenda Agenda. This was the vehicle that first put Moscow on the national map, and it ran for twenty years or so until it was overtaken by the digital revolution. Now the space that Credenda used to occupy is taken up with my blog, Blog and Mablog, along with a number of features from Canon. When these other nimbler platforms became available, that older platform was retired with honors.
Another important feature of life here would be the rhythm of conferences, attracting people from all over tarnation. For example, Christ Church hosts a missions conference, Logos School sponsors a teacher training conference in the summer, New St. Andrews sponsors a conference for the training of music instructors, and in addition hosts two weeklong back-to-back worldview conferences (with the name of Called) for high school students. The largest conference, the Grace Agenda, is sponsored by Christ Church and is timed to coincide with NSA’s convocation. All in all, over the course of a year, thousands of people come through Moscow in order to be equipped or encouraged or both. This last year, one attendee was in line at a coffee shop and someone asked him about his lanyard. The question was, “Oh, is this kind of a thing?” And he said, “No, this is an enormous thing all over the world except right here.” The capstone of all of this is what we call the Block Party, the last night of Grace Agenda. Main Street is closed off between Third and Sixth, and thousands of people descend on it for free food, psalm singing, dancing, live music, and more free food. The tri-tip is unbelievable.
Because New St. Andrews College has purchased two buildings downtown, this became something of a catalyst for the revitalization of downtown—which prior to all this was obviously starting to fade. Some of the revitalization is the work of some of our adversaries who are trying to head off a “takeover,” so hats off to them, but most of it is simply the result of many of our members demonstrating what might be called a Huguenot approach to hustle. Entrepreneur is a French word, after all. This is an obvious feature of what is happening in Moscow, but it is also something of an optical illusion. The members of our community need to make a living just like everybody else does, and so that is what they are doing. These enterprises are not owned or controlled by the church in any way. But our people are a characteristically hard working and inventive group, and the end result is that our small downtown is graced by multiple restaurants, publishers, studios, coffee shops, and so on, connected in various ways to our community.
One last aspect of all this needs to be mentioned. Much has been written about the “Big Sort,” where Americans are relocating in massive numbers on the basis of what might be called worldview considerations. Over the last three years, we have observed this phenomenon happen over and over as hundreds of Christian families and individuals have relocated here. The reasons vary—chased here by a blue state governor, abandoned by their pastors and elders back home, looking for educational opportunities for their kids, and so on—but all of them fit under the general heading of what clown world has done to the disparities to be found in U-Haul rates. The cost of Moscow to Portland will be strikingly different than Portland to Moscow. Athanasius once stood firm, and he let it be known that if the world was against Athanasius, then Athanasius was contra mundum. One of the central reasons why so many sensible Christians are attracted to Moscow is because it became evident that we were standing contra mundum nugosum—against clown world.
That something really unusual is happening here is by this point undeniable. Over the years, I have been reluctant to talk about it too much because the human heart is always prone to confuse the sheer grace of God with some kind of grasping after merit or credit. I never want to be caught trying to explain to anybody why it is that we are so wonderful. The Pharisee praying in the Temple in the Lord’s story gave all the credit to God—technically—but still went home unjustified. We really do know that we don’t deserve any of what is happening here, and we also know that there are any number of times through the years where we came within a whisker of screwing it all up. But the blessings of God’s kindness to us have now become so apparent that at some point it becomes insolent not to speak of it.
So with that said, the grace of God should not be confused with sheer accident and chance either. The sovereign God uses means, after all. Some thinking went into all of this, and I believe some of the following areas have had something to do with what is happening. I have noted eleven of them.
The primacy of worship: I have already mentioned the importance of worship in our thinking. The late Andrew Breitbart used to argue that culture was upstream from politics. This is exactly correct, but we would also add that worship is upstream from culture. Henry Van Til once said that culture was religion externalized. If that is the case, as we believe it is, then America is currently worshiping some pug-ugly gods. As we work on our response to all of this, we distinguish the church from the kingdom. To use the metaphor of a medieval town, the church is at the center of the town, and the kingdom would be all the shops and homes. The church is the ministry of Word and sacrament, but the worship conducted there shapes and informs everything else. Church and kingdom are distinct, but they are all under the authority of Christ and His Word. And worship on the Lord’s Day is the most important aspect of our lives.
Biblical absolutism: We have rejected the Enlightenment project, root and branch. We do not want the Bible to occupy a position of authority that is limited to some private devotional space. We want that at a minimum, of course, but we also believe that the Word brings everything under judgment, which means that we do not subject it to our judgments. Human reason is a gift from God, but reason has to be understood as the rods and cones of the eye, and not as the source of light. Reason sees light, but does not create it. Our reason enables us to search out what God is telling us through His Word, and through the way He created the world. Eyes can see a flashlight without aspiring to become a flashlight.
Chestertonian Calvinism: Our desire is to learn how to take the truth of God seriously without taking ourselves seriously. What we are after is historic Reformed theology, but with a crisp citrus-like aftertaste.
Not wilting under criticism: It probably does not come as a shock to discover that not everyone thinks we are wonderful. Some of what we get is good faith criticism, which we always want to welcome, and want to answer in kind. But many of the incoming attacks are bizarre, outlandish, off-the-chain, and slanderous. We welcome this kind also, but mostly because Jesus requires us to (Matt. 5:11-12). And what this has actually done is create a very robust immune system for us. As mentioned earlier, many people have decided to move here, and in order to do so now they almost always have to wade through a torrent of abuse that has been directed at us. That means that those who sign up have already seen all sorts of allegations. The fact that we have weathered this kind of hostility, and the fact that it is taken in high good humor, has been particularly attractive to those Christians who discovered over the last three years that their pastors and elders had the ecclesiastical equivalent of a glass jaw.
Practical Christian living: We have sought to imitate the pattern that the apostle Paul used in his epistle to the Ephesians. There are the first three chapters that are crammed full of indicative statements, which we believe embody the fullness of Reformed theology. What we find there is credenda—things to believe. But with that foundation poured, the apostle goes on to instruct the saints on how to live. The last three chapters of Ephesians provide the agenda—things to do. Pursue unity. Love one another. Husbands, love your wives. Wives, respect your husbands. Children, obey your parents. The end result is rich doctrinal teaching that has a very practical bent.
Emphasis on thoroughgoing Christian education: From the earliest days of our ministry here, we have emphasized the importance of Christian education for our covenant children. The result of this emphasis is that virtually no children in our community are in the government school system, and approximately 30 percent of the children in our entire town are receiving a private Christian education. One goal, and it is not an outlandish goal considering, is to see government education drop below 50 percent.
Worldview thinking: Owen Barfield once said of C.S. Lewis that what he thought about everything was contained within what he said about anything. That is as succinct a definition of worldview thinking as anyone could ask for. We believe that everything is connected under the Lordship of Christ, and we seek self-consciously to make those connections in our minds as we engage with the culture around us. We want people to remember that they are Christians all the time, and there is never an appropriate time to “switch it off.” As Abraham Kuyper once claimed, there is not one square inch of the universe over which the Lord Jesus does not lay authoritative claim.
Postmillennial optimism: One unique doctrinal characteristic of our community is the eschatological optimism. Most evangelicals in North America are premillennial in their convictions, which means that it is often assumed that when the surrounding culture goes to blazes, this is only to be expected, and is yet another sign that the end is near. But our understanding of scriptural prophecy is different, in that we expect that before the Lord returns, the world will be successfully evangelized, and that includes America. The earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). This is the reason why clown world doesn’t have us quite as discouraged as it does some others.
A biblical aesthetic: We believe that Christians need to do better than to cultivate merely two-thirds of the triad of “truth, goodness, and beauty.” Christians historically have contributed a great deal to the treasury of the world’s aesthetic glories—from the music of Bach, to the lines of Salisbury cathedral, to the poetry of George Herbert—but we believe that for the last century or so, we have unfortunately started to mail it in. We believe that Christians need to be called back to their responsibility to see aesthetics as an essential part of our apologetic to the world. The reformation and revival we pray for will absolutely need to include a reformation of the arts. So much of the modern and postmodern world is just mud-fence ugly.
Masculine authority: Because we are not taking our cues from the world’s egalitarianism, but rather from Scripture, we believe that God’s pattern for life between the sexes is that men are to provide for and protect their wives and families. The husband is to serve as the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 5:25). And in the church, the Bible absolutely forbids women to teach or to exercise authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12). Not only do we accept all of this on Scripture’s authority, we are also resolved not to feel the least bit sheepish about it. What this has resulted in is that our men are not made to feel ashamed of their masculinity, but rather are exhorted to pursue the honor of Christ with it, and to use it as an instrument with which they love their families.
Feminine glory: Far from this resulting in downtrodden women with exasperated looks on their faces, this has had the effect of liberating our women, not from the men, but from the lies of feminism. Scripture teaches that when husbands love their wives sacrificially, the end result is that the wives flourish in loveliness. The husband is the head, but the wife is the crown. But we do not believe that feminine loveliness is of the porcelain doll variety, but rather is a Christian version of the sort that knows how to “make a dress out of a feed bag, and make a man out of you.” It turns out that women are much happier striving to be first-rate women, rather than trying to struggle along as third-rate men. And the same truth, flipped around, applies to the men also.
I have indicated this in various ways throughout, but it does bear mentioning again. We know and understand that we have been privileged to taste the goodness of the grace of God. He has been very kind to us.
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“For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
This naturally raises the question in the minds of many observers. How much of this can be duplicated elsewhere? The beating heart of it can most certainly happen elsewhere. In fact, God commands that it should. He should be worshiped from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same (Mal. 1:11). True worship in the new covenant is in no way location specific. And wherever covenant children are living, there should be a Christian education that is provided for them. So ministries like that can and should be duplicated, and we stand ready to help as we can. But it is not necessary for every place to have a Christian media company, or to establish a Christian college. The things that transfer well are meant to transfer, and the things that need not be duplicated are kind of obvious.
But wherever we live, wherever we go, it is necessary to remember that God is good, all the time.