We are Getting Close to the Election of 1800

Back in the day POTUS elections were about competing ideas.  Right?

Not really.

Today Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump a racist.  Trump responded by calling Clinton a bigot.

We are getting close to the rhetoric of the campaign of 1800, although it is worth noting that little of the language in this video came directly from the mouth of the candidates–John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

No Empathy for Trump?


Darryl Hart of Hillsdale College has been on my case ever since I announced that I signed Historians Against Trump.

First, let me say that I have great respect for Darryl as a scholar and a historian and I have a lot of fun engaging with him.  He may not remember this, but in 1992 he served as the outside reader on my church history M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I am grateful for his recent review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in last week’s Wall Street Journal.  I appreciate the attention he shows to my work, especially what I write at this blog.

In today’s post at his blog, Old Life, Hart wonders why I have not criticized Hillary Clinton as much as Donald Trump.  He is not the only one who has brought this up.

Here is what Hart wrote today in response to my recent post on Trump, evangelicals and the Supreme Court.

Shouldn’t historians, because they have seen this stuff before, not be surprised or outraged by Trump? Might they even imagine through empathy what it feels like to find Trump attractive? Not saying I do, mind you. I just like to point out how one-sided his opponents can be and how they don’t seem to learn the lessons of history. Like this?

But can evangelicals really trust Trump to deliver on his Supreme Court promises? According to the bipartisan website PolitiFact, 85 percent of the claims Trump has made on the campaign trail (or at least the statements PolitiFact checked) are either half true or false. (Compare that with Clinton, at 48 percent).

Of course many evangelicals will respond to such an assertion by claiming that at least they have a chance to change the court with Trump. Though he may be a wild card, evangelicals believe that Clinton would be much more predictable. A Clinton presidency would result in a crushing blow to the Christian right’s agenda — perhaps even a knockout punch.

So this is where many evangelicals find themselves. They want the Supreme Court so badly they are willing to put their faith and trust in someone who is nearly incapable of telling the truth.

Let’s remember that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

Fair enough. But when oh when will that point also be used against Hillary who seems to have a little trouble with the truth?

The people are calling. Historical understanding doesn’t seem to be answering.

I think Hart is right about this, but a few things are worth noting:

It is indeed true that I have criticized Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.  I plead guilty.  But I hope Darryl and others will show some empathy for my explanation.

First, I pick on Trump because many of my readers are evangelicals, I myself still identify as evangelical (although it is getting harder every day), and I study American evangelicalism. Sometimes I write in an attempt to understand why so many of my fellow evangelicals are flocking to Trump.   Sometimes I write in an attempt to challenge my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply, perhaps more Christianly, about their support of Trump.  I am very interested in evangelicals and politics–past and present.  When massive numbers of evangelicals start supporting Hillary Clinton I will write about it.

Second, as a historian I have some serious issues with the Trump campaign. (I also have issues with the Clinton campaign, which I referenced here).  It seems to me that Trump’s campaign is built upon an appeal to the past.  He wants to “Make America Great AGAIN.” Such a campaign slogan invites historical reflection.  Clinton’s campaign also operates within a historical narrative.  It is basically the same progressive view of history Barack Obama has been teaching us over the course of the last four years.  We need to unpack that as well.  (Or at least call attention to it since academic historians have done a pretty good job of unpacking it in virtually everything they write).

But it does seem that conservative candidates (if you can call Trump conservative) are more prone to historical error than progressive candidates.  This is because conservative candidates tend to run on the language of reclamation and restoration.  They are interested in the past as something more than just a thing to overcome.

I thus oppose Trump as an evangelical Christian and as a historian.

As an evangelical Christian I understand why my fellow evangelicals support him.  I empathize with the moral logic behind the endorsements of Trump made by James Dobson, Wayne Grudem or Eric Metaxas.  It makes sense to me.  I just don’t agree with it or sympathize with it.

As a historian I think we need to consider what Sam Wineburg has described as the difference between history and historical thinking.  Some of my historian colleagues oppose Trump because they see in him and his candidacy dark traits from the past. Trump is the new Hitler.  Trump is the new George Wallace.  Trump is the new Andrew Jackson. Sometimes these analogies are useful and interesting, and they should definitely continue to be made, but historians must be careful and cautious when comparing people living in a different era with people  living today.  The past is a foreign country.  Any historical analogy will be imperfect.  As a historian I am not opposed to Trump because I have special knowledge of the past that can be easily applied, in a comparative fashion, to 2016 presidential politics.

But having said that, let’s remember that historians think about the world in a way that should lead them to consider Trump’s candidacy reprehensible. Historians make evidenced-based arguments, they realize the complexity of human life, they are aware of the limited nature of historical knowledge, and, yes, they practice empathy.  As a historian, I oppose Trump because he uses his platform to strengthen the idea that historical thinking–the kind of mental work that we spend our lives defending because they believe it is good for American civil society and democracy–is irrelevant.

So back to Trump and empathy.  Yes, let’s try to understand the historical and cultural factors that prompt people to support him.  Darryl Hart may or may not be happy to know that I have two good books on my nightstand right now.  They are J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.  I should also add that nearly all of my extended family–parents and siblings-are voting for Trump.  I get it. Maybe, like Vance, I need to write a bit more about my own background.

My Daughter Will Not Be Picking a Major This Year

Blank signpost with six arrows - just add your text. (Clipping path included)

As regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, my oldest daughter will be starting college classes next week.  She has yet to pick a major. In fact, we advised her not to pick a major for some of the reasons discussed in a recent study conducted by the Education Advisory Board, a research and consulting firm based in Washington D.C.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Carl Straumsheim reports:

Most students — as many as 80 percent in some surveys — will switch majors at one point during their time in college. According to the report, students who made a final decision as late as the fifth term they were enrolled did not see their time to graduation increase. Even one-quarter of the students who landed on a final major during senior year graduated in four years, the EAB found.

Neither did settling on a final major during the second through eighth terms of enrollment influence students’ graduation rates. Students who declared a new major during any of those terms posted a graduation rate of between 82 and 84 percent.

Read the entire piece here.

Peter Powers, Dean of Humanities at Messiah College (and my boss!) says it best:

I cannot overstate my belief that what we do to high school kids and college freshmen in making them believe they have to know and choose their major before they get to college is very nearly educational malpractice. In my view it increases student anxiety about education, and causes them to make poor decisions about their academics and their ultimate vocations, to say nothing of making them wary of curiosity and intellectual exploration.

Does the Way of Improvement Still Lead Home?


After a fifteen month sabbatical I have returned to my day job.  Earlier this month I resumed my role as chair of the Messiah College History Department.  The week has been filled with meetings related to this charge.  On Tuesday I return to the classroom.  The wheels of academic teaching and (low-level) administration–committee work, meetings, planning department social events, writing syllabi, holding office hours, etc.–are always churning.  I have yet to hear about a reentry program for faculty who have been on leave.  (If you know about one I would like to enroll!).

As I prepare for the new academic year at Messiah College I revisited an essay I published in The Cresset back in 2011 titled “Does the Way of Improvement Lead Home?: Rooted Cosmopolitanism and the Church-Related College.”

Here is a taste:

So is cosmopolitan rootedness possible in the academy? Can the way of improvement lead home? Can we think of our vocation and our work in terms of serving an institution? Our natural inclination is to say something similar to the comments in the aforementioned blog discussion. I can be loyal to an institution as long as the administration of the institution remains loyal to me. Fair enough. Administrators must be sensitive to the needs of their faculty, realizing that institutional loyalty is something that needs to be cultivated over time. But this kind of rootedness also requires faculty who are open to sticking it out because they believe in what the institution stands for—whatever that might be. (This, of course, means that the college or university must stand for something greater than simply the production of knowledge). It requires a certain form of civic humanism—the ideological opposite of Lockean contractualism—that is willing to, at times, sacrifice rank careerism for the good of the institution.

So what does this have to do with Christian scholar-teachers and students at church-related institutions? What is it about a church-related college that might lead a professor to remain loyal? Or, to ask a related question, one that transcends the professoriate, what is it about being a Christ-follower that might lead one to want to pursue an intellectual life in a particular place?

Church-related colleges are by nature rooted in a particular Christian tradition. At many of these colleges, the religious tradition is palpable, and this informs the sense of place. It is hard to be at Valparaiso University very long without breathing the Lutheran air. At my own institution, Messiah College, a school rooted in a mix of evangelicalism and Anabaptism, the confessional and liturgical air is not as thick, but a clear sense of place manifests itself in the praise songs emanating from the chapel during Thursday night “Powerhouse” worship or the feeling around campus each Spring when 2,800 students take a day off from classes to perform acts of service in the surrounding community. The absence of an American flag speaks volumes about the kind of place that we are. The prayers and devotional thoughts before class give the college a sense of distinctiveness.

Of course, at many, if not most, church-related colleges the intellectual life of the community is grounded in a particular theological understanding of the world. When at their best, church-related colleges offer a truly Christian education that combines the spiritual, liturgical, and theological commitments of a tradition with the life of the mind. The interaction between deeply held religious conviction and the pursuit of knowledge brings vibrancy to the educational experience of students and the intellectual lives of faculty. Church-related colleges are places where the tensions between particular loyalties to faith and the cosmopolitan pursuits of learning result in much creative energy.

Yet at times, the religious convictions that inform the missions of our institutions can become suffocating, especially for those faculty or students who may not share in the so-called home tradition. Commitment to a place defined by a specific way of thinking about the world can be stultifying.  This is why church-related colleges need people from outside the tradition. For some colleges and universities, this might mean having non-Christians who are good citizens and sympathetic to the school’s mission add their perspectives to the mix. For other church-related colleges or universities, it may mean faculty who come from Christian traditions that are different.

For those rooted in the tradition, these “outsiders” can help the confessional insiders think more deeply about their core convictions. For those who are not from the tradition, there is much to learn from the so-called religious guardians of the place. I have learned a lot from the members of the Brethren-in-Christ Church and other Anabaptists who teach at Messiah College. The Anabaptist flavor of the place has shaped the way I think about and teach American history, a subject that by its very nature raises questions of nationalism, war, and justice. I have become a more thoughtful Christian and scholar by imbibing as much as I can from the religious convictions that inform the place where I teach. There is a level of intellectual engagement that I am not sure I would find at a non-church-related school. Cosmopolitan rootedness can make the church-related college a vibrant and energetic place to work.

Over the course of the last few days I have been wrestling with the ideas in this piece.  Do I still believe them?  And if so, to what extent?

Perhaps readers may find the piece helpful as the new school year gets underway and we once again start to think about our relationship to the institutions in which we teach and serve.

Announcing Season 2 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast

podcast-icon1After a successful first season that included some very high-powered guest interviews, The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast will return in September!

Some of you may remember our  Season 1 guests:

Jim Grossman (Executive Director of the American Historical Association

Daniel K. Williams (Historian and author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Prof-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade).

Yoni Appelbaum (Washington Bureau Chief for The Atlantic)

Sam Wineburg (Stanford University scholar of historical thinking and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts)

Tim Grove (Director of Education at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum)

Nate DiMeo (Popular history podcaster and host and producer of The Memory Palace

Paul Lukas (ESPN’s historian of sports uniforms)

Annette Gordon Reed and Peter Onuf (Award-winning Jefferson scholars and author of The Most Blessed of Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination).

Marc Dolan (English professor, cultural critic, and author of Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll)

We are currently in the process of booking guests for Season 2.   Once again, I will be joined in the WVMM studios by our producer, Drew Dyrli Hermeling.  We will also be announcing a new member of our team shortly.  Stay tuned.

If you are unfamiliar with The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast now is a great time to get caught up on past episodes.  You can listen to them here or download episodes at ITunes.  If you like what you hear please consider writing a review at ITunes.

The Author’s Corner with Rebecca Barrett-Fox

God HatesRebecca Barrett Fox is Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University.  This interview is based on her recent book God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University of Kansas Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write God Hates?

RBF: I graduated from Juniata College, in rural central Pennsylvania, in 2000. During my time there, I was spent a lot of time visiting and observing conservative churches, many of which were very worried with the upcoming turn of the century and Y2K. We giggle at that now, but, at the time, people were concerned enough to stockpile supplies. I knew people buying land in the area and building bunkers and cabins in preparation for the impending end of the world. I found it just fascinating. And so, when I moved to Kansas to pursue graduate school at the University of Kansas, I knew I had to add one of the country’s most conservative and fringe churches to my list of observations. In hindsight, I should have been more intimidated than I was, because the theology was relatively unfamiliar and also because the church is frequently the target of vandalism as well as violence.

I wasn’t prepared for the level of vitriol coming from the pulpit. I’d seen it on the picket line, but I didn’t expect it in sermons, which are, after all, directed at people who presumably share your beliefs. I didn’t understand why someone would keep coming back, and I wanted to figure that out. So, first, this was a project micro in scope, focusing on the interaction of church members and how the church worked. Very quickly, though, I saw the need to put it in the bigger context of American religious history and culture. It is easy to dismiss Westboro Baptists as lone weirdos. But they are actually within a long line of American religionists. Fred Phelps, the founding pastor, liked to say that the church hadn’t changed–America had changed. And he was, to a great extent, right about this. I wanted people to understand that this kind of thinking and behavior didn’t come out of nowhere. I wanted to help people see that none of our beliefs really do, even the ones that seem bizarre.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of God Hates?

RBF: Westboro Baptist Church, a church of under 100 people, nearly half of them children, has outsized influence on conversations on how Christians do and should engage with questions of queer sexuality and LGBTQ rights–and not because they are so loud, media savvy, and resilient (though they are). The part of this book that is about Westboro Baptist Church is interesting (especially for those of us who geek out on religious history and theology), but the more important part is about how people who see themselves as much more civil, kind, faithful, and loving respond to Westboro by invoking a more civil and kind but, in the end, just as damning, rejection of LGBTQ people.

JF: Why do we need to read God Hates?

RBF: Westboro is often used as a foil by Christians who do not want to fully welcome or include queer people in civil or religious life, people who say, “We’re not like those Westboro Baptists” but can do even more harm to LGBT people because they are more respected in our society. Every Christian who sniffs at Westboro and says, “They’re not a REAL church” or “They’re not REAL Christians” should read this because, I hope, the book lays out the argument that Westboro Baptists occupy a line in America Christianity that is very old and that continues to share much in common with more mainstream Christianity.

I hope, too, that the book humanizes the members of Westboro Baptist Church, many of whom are kind, gentle, generous people who genuinely believe they are doing the work of God. These two parts of the story–that this church is not unique in American history but rooted in it and that its people are, by and large, wonderful, with the huge exception of when they are absolutely terrible–is a reminder to me that it is very easy for many of us to do awful things in the name of our religious traditions. Many of us hold opinions and prejudices that hurt people–we’re just not as committed to living them out as Westboro Baptists are. I hope this books helps some of us to be a bit more self-aware.

JF: When and why did you decide to become a scholar of American religion?

RBFThe summer between fourth and fifth grade. I’m fairly sure it was just to get out of the house, but my mother sent my siblings and me to every Vacation Bible School in a 15 mile radius. I hated Vacation Bible School, but I was intrigued by why there were so many different churches in a place that seemed so homogenous. (Of course, I didn’t know the word “homogeneous” at the time. I just knew that some of my friends were Methodists and some Presbyterian and some Mennonite and that they were all my friends but went to churches that saw themselves as distinct.) I was at VBS at Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church, which had been founded in 1727, and I thought, “I want to know why people have been going to this church for 250 years.”

JF: What is your next project?

RBF: I’m working with Dr. John Shuford, the director of the Hate Studies Policy Research Center, to edit The Encyclopedia of Hate: A Global Study of Enmity, Forgiveness, and Social Change, which will provide an overview of the major hate groups operating in the world today as well as essays on the state of hate studies today. I’m also editing a special issue of The Journal of Hate Studies, which is housed at the Institute of Hate Studies at Gonzaga University. My focus remains on religion and hate–specifically in conservative and fringe Christian groups, with an interest in gender and sexuality. For example, I’m currently an investigator on a grant from the National Institute of Justice to study the online presence of the Army of God, a violent anti-abortion effort. My next book-length project will focus on the place of women and families–and especially white womanhood–in religiously-inspired hate groups and extremist movements. And I remain interested in how those extremist groups overlap with more mainstream groups, especially in theology and politics.

JF: Thanks Rebecca!

And Some Evangelicals Still Trust Him…

Donald Trump appears to be softening his immigration policy.

Politicians flip-flop all the time in order to win elections and fulfill their ambitions. But Trump is not merely shifting on some tangential issue or moving more to the center in order to win in November.  Trump rode his hard stand on immigration all the way to the GOP nomination.  Don’t forget his appeal to Operation Wetback.

Frankly, I don’t think Trump really cares one way or the other on immigration.  He just wants to win the White House.  At this point his only hope is to harness anti-Clinton sentiment.  If he softens on immigration he just might get more anti-Clinton voters to back him in November.

I hope evangelicals are watching closely.  Can those evangelicals who support Trump because he will appoint conservative Supreme Court justices really trust him?  Something to think about.

Here is what I wrote on that topic a couple of weeks ago:

But can evangelicals really trust Trump to deliver on his Supreme Court promises? According to the bipartisan website PolitiFact, 85 percent of the claims Trump has made on the campaign trail (or at least the statements PolitiFact checked) are either half true or false. (Compare that with Clinton, at 48 percent).

Of course many evangelicals will respond to such an assertion by claiming that at least they have a chance to change the court with Trump. Though he may be a wild card, evangelicals believe that Clinton would be much more predictable. A Clinton presidency would result in a crushing blow to the Christian right’s agenda — perhaps even a knockout punch.

So this is where many evangelicals find themselves. They want the Supreme Court so badly they are willing to put their faith and trust in someone who is nearly incapable of telling the truth.

Let’s remember that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

Read the entire piece here.

I’m Not Teaching This Year

BurnsMy sabbatical is over and I will be back in the classroom next week, but I will not be teaching. I am just going to show my students a video or something on YouTube. Since I am a member of the “higher education cartel” it is obvious that any attempt at actual teaching will only get in the way of real student learning.

Scott Jaschik explains it all at Inside Higher Ed:

U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (at right), a Wisconsin Republican in a tough re-election battle against Democrat Russ Feingold, used an appearance on Thursday to say the “higher education cartel” is raising prices and preventing reforms that would help college students learn at affordable prices.

He criticized accreditors and tenured professors for blocking reforms. He said that he favored “certification,” in which people could demonstrate competency or skills in certain areas through testing rather than earning degrees. (The University of Wisconsin is a leader in competency-based education, in which students earn degrees sometimes in ways similar to the path Johnson suggested.)

Johnson also said the education system could become much more affordable by changing the role of instruction.

“We’ve got the internet — you have so much information available. Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play very well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need disruptive technology for our higher education system,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

By the way, this is the second time in the last month I have heard the “it’s all on the Internet” approach to higher education.

If you are reading this in Wisconsin you may want to think seriously about voting for Russ Feingold.

How Do Americans Decide Where to Worship?


The Pew Research Center has just released a new study entitled “Choosing a New Church or House of Worship.” Here are some of the findings I found interesting:

  • 49% of U.S. adults have looked for a new religious congregation at some point in their lives.
  • When searching for a new congregation, Americans value (in order of importance): quality of sermons, feeling welcomed by leaders, the style of the service, the location of the service, the education option for kids, congregations where friends or family attend, and volunteer opportunities.
  • 85% of people who choose a new house of worship make their decision after attending a service.
  • Most people look for a new congregation because they have moved.
  • 75% of Catholics choose a new parish based on location.
  • Most Americans, (70%) say that finding a new congregation was “easy.”
  • 59% of adults under 30 use online resources to help them find a church
  • Evangelicals, more than other religious group, do the most church shopping.
  • 39% of evangelicals, more than any other religious group,  have looked for a new church within the past five years.
  • 59% of Catholics, more than any other religious group, have “never looked for a new congregation.” Catholics are followed closely by members of historically black churches.
  • When it comes to choosing a church, the quality of the sermon is most important to evangelicals and members of historically black churches.
  • For mainline Protestants the quality of the sermon and the feeling of welcome that they receive at the church are equally as important in choosing a congregation.
  • When choosing a church, mainline Protestants are more concerned with location than other Protestants.
  • Members of historically black churches value religious education for their kids, volunteer opportunities, and friends in the congregation more than any other religious group.
  • Historically black churches place the most value on staying within their denomination when choosing a new congregation.  They score higher than Catholics in this category.
  • Compared to Protestants, Catholics have the least problems finding new congregations.

Read the entire report here.

Of course religious consumerism or “church shopping” has been around for a long time in the United States.  If you want to think historically about this theme (as you should!) I recommend the following works:

Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)

Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992)

R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Chris Beneke, “The Free Market and the Founders’ Approach to Church-State Relations,” Journal of Church and State 52 (Spring 2010), 323-52.

E. Brooks Holifield, “Why Are Americans So Religious?” The Limitations of Market Explanations,” in Religion and the Marketplace in the United States ed. Jan Stievermann, Philip Goff, and Delef Junker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 33-59.

Defining the “Founding Fathers”


Were the men in this image the only “founding fathers?”

A recent piece I wrote on religion and the framers of revolutionary-era state constitutions received  a small amount of criticism from folks who said that the writers of these constitutions were not considered “founding fathers.”  I didn’t give much thought to the criticism, but it crossed my mind again when I ran across this 2015 piece at The Journal of the American Revolution titled “How Do You Define ‘Founding Fathers’?”

The editors asked historians of the American Revolution to answer this question. Contributors include Thomas Fleming, Ray Raphael, Benjamin Carp, John Ferling, J.L. Bell, Don Hagist, James Kirby Martin, and Michael Hattem.


Read the entire piece here.

National Council of Public History Announces New Executive Director

Stephanie-2015A little public history news this morning.  The National Council of Public History has just announced that Stephanie Rowe is the organization’s new Executive Director.

Here is the press release:

August 22, 2016 – Indianapolis, IN—The National Council on Public History (NCPH) announced today that Stephanie Rowe has been named Executive Director of the organization, effective immediately.

Rowe has served as Interim Executive Director at NCPH for the past year and a half since the departure of John Dichtl who left to take the position of President and CEO at the American Association for State and Local History. Rowe first joined NCPH as Program Manager in 2012 and was named Associate Director in 2015.

“The task facing our board and search committee seemed monumental: finding a new Executive Director who respects and understands the complex history of NCPH, but who also recognizes that the organization is undergoing tremendous change and growth,” said Dr. Alexandra Lord, NCPH Board President and Chair and Curator, Medicine and Science Division, National Museum of American History. “Given the scope of this task, it shouldn’t be surprising that it took us a year and a half to find a new Executive Director. The surprising thing is that we found in Stephanie Rowe a candidate who not only meets, but exceeds these expectations.”

“Stephanie brings multiple strengths to this position, including the fact that she spent several years as a practicing public historian before coming to NCPH. A graduate of one of the nation’s premier and oldest history museum studies programs, she possesses strong academic credentials. And, of course, having worked for NCPH as its Program Manager and Associate Director for four years, she has an in-depth understanding of the organization, its mission, the challenges it faces, and, perhaps most importantly, its members,” said Lord. During Stephanie’s tenure with NCPH, conference attendance has almost doubled, and membership increased by forty-five percent.

“NCPH provides a unique home for practitioners who work both within and outside of the academy, supporting all public historians in their efforts to put history to work in the world,” said Rowe. “As Executive Director, I am excited to further the reputation of the organization, working with the board, staff, committees, and membership to build an even stronger bridge between academic public historians and practitioners in the field. As we advocate for the fields of history and public history, it is our goal to cultivate a more diverse field and organization and to expand the capacity of the organization to keep pace with the steady growth of our membership and our annual meeting.”

As part of the appointment, Rowe will also serve as an Academic Specialist on the History Department Faculty in the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at Indiana UniversityPurdue University Indianapolis, NCPH’s host institution. Rowe said, “I look forward to making even stronger the excellent relationship between NCPH, the History Department, and the IU School of Liberal Arts. IUPUI has been NCPH’s home for over twenty-five years, and I see a long future ahead as we work together to advocate for the field of history, and the value of liberal arts education.”

About Stephanie Rowe:

Stephanie Rowe holds an MA in History Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program and a BA in Social Studies with honors from Ithaca College. Rowe began at NCPH as Program Manager in 2012, and was promoted to Associate Director, then Interim Executive Director in 2015. Prior to joining the NCPH staff, Rowe was Program Coordinator for Museumwise, now the Museum Association of New York (MANY), and served as the Southcentral Regional Archivist for the New York State Archives’ Documentary Heritage Program. 



Are You Going to the 30th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History?


The 30th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History will be held October 19-22 at Regent University in Virginia Beach. This year’s theme is “Christian Historians and the Challenges of Race, Gender, and Identity.”  I am not sure if I will be there or not, but I am intrigued by several sessions as well as the keynote addresses by Thomas Kidd, Jay Green, Kate Bowler, and Veronica Gutierrez.

Here are just a few of the many sessions that caught my eye:

Reflections on the Nature of American Identity with John Wilsey, Robert Tracy McKenzie, Jonathan Den Hartog, and Seth Bartee

Unlikely Sources for Understanding Race and Slavery: Church, Tradition, Catechisms, and British Activists in Antebellum America with Ben Wright, Luke Harlow, Paul Gutacker, Tammy Byron, and Ryan Butler

Gender, Christianity, and Popular Culture in 20th-century America with Elesha Coffman, Andrea Turpin, Mandy McMichael, Hunter Hampton, and Paul Putz

The Uses of Denominational History: A Roundtable Discussion with Lincoln Mullen, Margaret Bendroth, Barry Hankins, Thomas Kidd, and Robert Pritchard

Evangelicals in Brazil with Eric Miller, Joel Carpenter, Pedro Feitoza, Henrique Alonso Perieria, and Ronald Morgan

“On the Pilgrims Way” : Writing Religious Biographies of Women with Timothy Larsen, Kritin Kobes Du Mez, Karen Swallow Prior, and John Fry

Roundtable Discussion on Edward Blum’s Reforging the White Republic with Edward Blum, Tracy McKenzie, Karen Johnson, Luke Harlow, Paul Putz, and Robert Elder

Christian Historiographies: Rival Versions and Future Prospects: A Roundtable Discussion of Jay Green’s Christian Historiographies with Donald Yerxa, Elesha Coffman, Michael Hamilton, Wilfred McClay, and Jay Green

Love, Land, and Reform in the 20th Century U.S. with Doug Sweeney, Matthew Stewart, Eric Miller, and Andrew Baker

Telling the Truth About History: Race, the University, and Public History with Trisha Posey, Dale Soden, Anderson Rouse, and Patrick Connelly

Learning to be Christian: Print Culture and the Formation of Religious Identity with Josh McMullen, Skylar Ray, Adina Johnson, and Brady Winslow

Race, Gender, and Identity in the Classroom with Lendol Calder, Loretta Hunnicutt, Trisha Posey, and Glenn Sanders

The Significances of America’s Racial Past in the Present with Beth Barton Schweiger, Melissa Harkrider, Rusty Hawkins, and Karen Johnson

Read the entire program here. Learn more about the Conference on Faith and History here.


Song of the Day

The lyrics are worth adding on this one:

Well now on a summer night in a dusky room
Come a little piece of the Lord’s undying light
Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon
In his mother’s arms it was all the beauty I could take
Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make
In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused
Searching for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof

I put my heart and soul I put ’em high upon a shelf
Right next to the faith the faith that I’d lost in myself
I went down into the desert city
Just tryin’ so hard to shed my skin
I crawled deep into some kind of darkness
Lookin’ to burn out every trace of who I’d been
You do some sad sad things baby
When it’s your you ‘re tryin’ to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things
I’ve seen living proof

You shot through my anger and rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars

Well now all that’s sure on the boulevard
Is that life is just a house of cards
As fragile as each and every breath
Of this boy sleepin’ in our bed
Tonight let’s lie beneath the eaves
Just a close band of happy thieves
And when that train comes we’ll get on board
And steal what we can from the treasures of the Lord
It’s been along long drought baby
Tonight the rain’s pourin’ down on our roof
Looking for a little bit of God’s mercy
I found living proof

Georgia on Her Mind


Does Hillary Clinton have a chance to win Georgia in November?  Her husband, Bill Clinton, was the last Democrat to win it.  He did that in 1992.  At the moment Clinton and Donald Trump are running even in the state.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Joseph Crespino, a history professor at Emory University, puts a possible Clinton victory in some historical perspective.

Here is a taste:

Atlanta — Recent polls show something that has caught even the most optimistic liberals by surprise: Hillary Clinton is tied with Donald J. Trump in Georgia, catching up with him in South Carolina and generally showing strength in traditionally Republican parts of the South. It seems like the Democratic dream come true — demographic changes are turning Southern states purple.

But this story has less to do with the future than the past, and both parties run a risk in misreading it. Mr. Trump’s racially charged hard-right campaign reveals a fault line in Republican politics that dates from the very beginning of G.O.P. ascendancy in the South.

The Republican’s Southern Strategy is one of the most familiar stories in modern American history: Beginning in the 1960s, the party courted white racist voters who fled the Democratic Party because of its support for civil rights.

But things were never quite so simple. Yes, racial reaction fed G.O.P. gains in the 1960s and ’70s. And yes, Barry Goldwater called it “hunting where the ducks are.”

What did that mean? Goldwater’s detractors understood it to mean that he was going after Dixiecrats, the Southern Democrats who had abandoned the party in 1948 over civil rights. Goldwater, however, maintained that he was going after college-educated white collar professionals who were building the modern Southern economy.

That was the vision he described in his speech at the Georgia Republican Convention in May 1964. G.O.P. success in the South, he argued, stemmed from “the growth in business, the increase in per capita income and the rising confidence of the South in its own ability to expand industrially and commercially.” Southern Republicanism, he said, was based on “truly progressive elements.”

Read the rest here.

Early African Americans and Consumerism

hardesty frontOver at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society, Jared Hardesty of Western Washington University has a fascinating post about how the eighteenth-century consumer revolution influenced African Americans in Boston.  Hardesty is the author of Unfreedom:: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.

If you want to learn more about this book check out our April 2016 Author’s Corner interview with Hardesty.

Here is a taste of his post:

Pasted onto the pages of the nineteenth-century bound volume were eighteenth-century town crier documents kept by Arthur Hill. Hill’s records consist of lists of goods lost and found, or “taken up,” by Boston’s residents between 1736 and 1748. Required to submit these records to Boston’s selectmen, Hill seems to have had someone else keep records for a few years before taking over for himself in the early 1740s. Most importantly for our purposes here, people of African descent found a large number of the lost items recorded by Hill. Even more to the point, if we read this list in the context of both the rest of Hill’s records and eighteenth-century Boston, they provide insights into the everyday lives and lived experiences of early African Americans.

First, though, it is important to understand the function of a town crier during this period. Town criers were fixtures in early modern English towns, including those in the Americas. They would make public announcements, but also served as a sort of lost and found, collecting items people found and spreading word about items lost. Of course, this function was all for a fee. Although it started as an official, elected government position in Boston, by the time Hill became a town crier, the position had been largely privatized. As J.L. Bell describes in a series of blog posts (here, here, and here), men like Hill would apply to the selectmen for a license to be a crier. In return for permission and a promise to record all transactions, the licensee kept and recorded all the lost and found goods and charged a finders’ fee for his public announcements. That said, Hill seems exceptional in the sense that he kept such extensive records of items lost and found. His lists of goods are the only ones contained in Boston’s early town records, despite a number of criers operating during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

All told, Hill’s extant records list 380 items that were lost or found. Records for goods found dwarf the items reported to Hill as lost (368 found vs. 12 lost). Let’s look at the records for goods found as it provides a much larger sample for analyzing this list. Hill made fairly meticulous notes as to who found what goods. He recorded occupation and relationships. He also recorded race, often using the term “Negro” to describe people of African descent who took up lost items. Under that or related terminology (“Negro Fellow,” etc.), Hill recorded 36 items found by black Bostonians. That would mean they found 9.8% of the total items recovered, similar to Boston’s black population during this time period, which was roughly 10-12% of the total population. Of course, there is also evidence that Hill did not always record race, such as numerous references to “Maid,” “Man,” “Servant,” or “Boy.” Without racial nomenclature, however, I will err on the side of caution and only use the 36 men and women Hill explicitly recorded as black.

Hill provides little information about these 36 individuals. Of the 36, 31 are simply listed as “Negro,” while there is one described as “Neagar,” two listed as “Negro Woman,” one as “Negro Man,” and a “Negro Fellow.” Hill did, however, provide information about their masters. Indeed, most entries describe these men and women by demonstrating ownership, such as listing one “Negro Woman” as “Capt. Alexr Sears Negro Woman.” Only one entry does not have an owner listed, suggesting the other 35 were enslaved. It is also safe to assume that 34 of the 36 were men, especially considering Hill went out of his way to record “Negro Women” in the other two entries.

If these documents do not tell us much about the biographies of these men and women, what do they explain? At the very least, Hill revealed that people of African descent had quotidian and pedestrian interactions with quasi-officials at the most intimate levels of government. They had access to and participated in local institutions, in this case reporting lost goods they found. Black Bostonians were not socially dead, but part of a vibrant world of material goods and exchange.

These lists, then, help to open up the material worlds of enslaved and free blacks in early Boston. During the eighteenth century, Boston and most other British colonies in the Americas underwent a consumer revolution. Fueled by early industrialization in England, the colonies became dumping grounds for cheap consumer products such as cloth, pottery, clothing accessories (buttons, buckles, pocketbooks, and the like), and silverware amongst many others. Colonists purchased these goods and began associating consumption to class and social status. While scholars have long studied this phenomenon for white colonials, only recently have they started to pay attention to the consumption inhabitants of people of African descent.

Read the entire post here.

Did Andrew Jackson Say He Wanted to Shoot Henry Clay and Hang John Calhoun?

Some of you may remember that a couple of weeks ago Donald Trump said this:

Many interpreted his remarks about “Second Amendment people” to mean that he was calling gun owners to take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton becomes POTUS.

Historians have been wondering whether Trump’s remark is tame in comparison to the time Andrew Jackson said “My only regrets are that I never shot Henry Clay or hanged John C. Calhoun.”

But did Jackson really say this about his political rivals?  J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 fame is on the case.  Here is a taste of his post:

The anecdote about Jackson’s regrets is quite widespread. Robert V. Remini, the leading Jackson biographer of our time, cites the story in his biography of Henry Clay. Harry Truman told it multiple times, including at a public dinner in 1951.

On the other hand, I found that authors split on when Jackson made that remark. Some say he said it on leaving the White House in 1837. Others date the statement to Jackson’s final illness in 1845. So that’s a red flag.

The earliest recounting of the remark that I could find through Google Books is an address titled “Precedents of Ex-Presidents,” delivered to the Nebraska Bar Association by George Whitelock in 1911. He said, “Old Hickory had had his drastic way, except, as he sadly lamented when departing for the Hermitage near Nashville, old, ill and in debt, that he had never got a chance to shoot Henry Clay, or to hang John C. Calhoun.” It’s notable that that’s not a direct quotation, just an expression of sentiment.

So did Jackson say it?  Read Bell’s entire post here and find out.

Is History Hot?

Anxious-Bench-squareOver at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz responds to Jason Steinhauer‘s recent piece for Inside Higher Ed about how history can contribute to public life.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s piece:

I’m glad that more and more of us seem to take an interest in helping the public to think historically about the past. (All the more so when one alternative is a politician encouraging frightened voters to think nostalgically about the past.) This is no accident: in many corners of the guild, we’ve received encouragement to move out of our comfort zones and use new and old media to communicate with wider audiences.

Indeed, Steinhauer has elsewhere urged at least some historians to take on the role of “history communicators” and

advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Indeed, blogs like The Anxious Bench have sprung up in large part because more and more historians want to “communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal….” As many of us continue to wrestle with Alan Jacobs’ widely-discussed Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen,” I’d point to AB colleagues like Philip Jenkins, Tommy Kidd, and John Fea as sustaining a (vanishing?) tradition of “serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage.”

At the same time, I also think it’s important that historians and other Christian intellectuals continue to take up what Tracy McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church.” In my Trump post, I quoted John Hope Franklin’s famous claim that historians can serve as “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” By the same token, I think Christian historians might sometimes serve as the “conscience of the church,” helping fellow believers to confess and learn from those moments when we fall short of our calling as the Body of Christ. For example, Justin Taylor has been doing a nice job of this at the new Gospel Coalition history blog he shares with Kidd, writing multiple posts on racism and segregation in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A lot of good stuff here.  Read the entire piece.

And Gerhz is right when he says that some of us “continue to wrestle” with Alan Jacobs’s Harper‘s essay “The Watchmen.”  I hope to get some posts up on the Jacobs piece soon.  Stay tuned.

It All Seems So Unnatural

eacac-fithian2bbookMy daughter left for college last week.  So did most of her friends.  A group of kids raised in a central Pennsylvania town who have spent their lives together in church, on the athletic field, in the classroom, and at weekend backyard bonfires are suddenly, in a blink of an eye, ripped from that environment and sent off to various locations around the country to pursue higher education and find themselves as “individuals.”

It all seems so unnatural.

I understand why we send our kids to college.  We want them to chart their own path, become independent, and learn things about the world that we cannot teach them. We don’t want them to be too provincial or parochial.  I get it. I am paid to initiate students into this modern way of thinking.  I also understand that much of what I am writing here is born of the sense of loss I feel right now.

This whole process–a relatively new one in the annals of human history I might add– can come with gut-wrenching pain for parents and homesickness for the child.  It might even prompt us to wonder whether such an initiation into modern life is really worth it.

The historian Gordon Wood, writing about the eighteenth-century, perhaps put it best: “local feelings were common to peasants and backwards peoples, but educated gentlemen were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world.”  To be too wedded to our local attachments is a “symptom of narrow-mindedness, and indeed of disease.”

As I said in my last post, I wrote a lot about all of this in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I know that my telling of Philip Vickers Fithian’s story was shaped by my own experience as a first-generation college student.  Now I am starting to see the story I told from the eyes of a parent.

As an eighteenth-century first-generation college student from rural southern New Jersey, Philip Vickers Fithian struggled with homesickness every day.  Even after he graduated from the College of New Jersey at Princeton in 1772 his longing for home, family, the social connections of his youth, and the very soil of the place where he was raised remained strong.  “Strong & sweet are the bands which tye us to our place of nativity,” he wrote from his bedroom on Robert Carter III’s Virginia plantation where he found post-graduate work as the family tutor.  “If it is but a beggarly Cottage,” he added, “we seem not satisfied with the most elegant entertainment if we are totally separated from it.”

During his stay in Virginia, Philip suffered acute bouts of homesickness.  He felt “uneasy,” “bewildered,” and “haunted” about his decision to leave Cohansey.  He made a habit of gazing out the window of his room and then turning to his diary to write about home. “I went to the window before I was drest….I could not help casting my Eyes with eagerness over the blue Potowmack and look homewards.”  Today kids who have such pangs of homesickness usually find their way to the college counseling center where they are told that time will heal all the wounds of homesickness brought on by the first days and weeks of their college experience.

But for Philip, living in an eighteenth-century world still on the cusp of modern life, time spent away from home did not seem to help.  For example, the longer he stayed in Virginia, the more intense his homesickness became.  One cold Sunday morning in January 1774 Philip skipped church services and wrote, “I feel very desirous of seeing Home; of hearing good Mr. Hunter Preach; of seeing my dear Brothers & Sister; Indeed the very soil itself would be precious to me!–I am shut up in my chamber; I read a while, then walk to the North window, & look over the Potowmack through Maryland towards Home.” Some would say that Fithian was sick.  He had a case of homesickness that probably needed a few more counseling sessions.  Maybe.

Philip knew he was now an educated gentleman–a Princeton graduate.  Such longings for home were irrational and not fitting with the cosmopolitan outlook he had learned in class with Princeton president John Witherspoon.  “This may seem strange,” he wrote in June 1774, “but it is true–I have but very few acquaintances [in Virginia], & they easily dispense with my Absence–I have an elegant inviting apartment for Study–I have plenty of valuable & entertaining Books–and I have business of my own that requires my attention–At home my Relations call me proud and morose if I do not visit them–My own private business often calls me off & unsettles my mind…All these put together, when they operate at once, are strong incitement to divert me from Study.  Yet I love Cohansie!  And in spite of my resolution, when I am convinced that my situation is more advantageous here, yet I wish to be there–How exceedingly capricious is fancy!  When I am Home I then seem willing to remove, for other places seem to be full as desirable–It is then Society which makes places seem agreeable or the Contrary–It can be nothing else.”

By August 1774 Philip had come to the point where he was “low Spirited” and could not “eat nor drink” because he was thinking “constantly of Home.”  He even felt, using the theological language of his Presbyterian upbringing, that “Sometimes I repent my having come into this Colony.”

If Joseph Fithian, Philip’s father, felt the pain of losing his eldest son to the modern world we do not have his thoughts in writing.  We know that we was skeptical about Philip going off to school.  He needed his son on the family farm and had to be convinced that Philip’s break with a tradition was a good thing.

But this was not the case with Philip’s mother Hannah Fithian.  As Philip tried to fit into the intimidating and foreign academic culture of the College of New Jersey he found comfort in Hannah’s letters.  She did her best to sympathize with her son.  “I suppose you are uneasy about your Gown,” she wrote (Philip did not yet have this essential part of a Princeton student’s daily wardrobe), but “this is perhaps a small Cross & you must my dear Son take your Cross Daily & follow Christ if you will be his disciple.”  Hannah had great affection for her oldest son. “I hope that the Lord hath Work for you to do in the World,” she prayed, “O that he would furnish you with every necessary Grace & Qualification for his Service.”

Hannah also maintained a constant concern for Philip’s soul–exhorting him to remain pious amid the worldly distractions of college life. “Youth is a dangerous Time,” she wrote, and “it is not possible for you to know it until Experience teaches you…flee youthful Lusts.”  She also feared that Philip’s exposure to book learning might puff him up and jeopardize his spiritual relationship with his Savior.  She urged him to recall the moment of his conversion and God’s providential care for his life. “It is easy to profess Religion,” she wrote to Philip at Princeton, “but it is hard to be a Christian.  Without holiness no Man Shall see the Lord…Remember what the Lord hath done for you & let it humble you.”  This is how one eighteenth-century parent dealt with homesickness and the pain that comes with their son’s initiation into modern life.

I should probably end this post by saying that my daughter is a bit homesick and anxious, but she is doing fine.  She is probably doing a lot better than I am.

It all seems so unnatural.

On Homesickness: Then and Now

62a78-fithian2bbookI was thinking about homesickness today.  And of course it had nothing to do with the fact that my oldest daughter recently left for college. (OK–it had everything to do with this!)

As I wrote about Philip Vickers Fithian in The Way of Improvement Leads Home (the book, not the blog) I tried to empathize as fully as possible with the sense of homesickness he felt in 1770 as he left his father’s farm in the South Jersey countryside and headed off to the College of New Jersey at Princeton.  Here is what I wrote:

...as Philip basked in his newfound participation in the republic of letters, he still cound not detach himself from passionate longings for his Cohansey home.  The fostering of cosmopolitan affection was harder than he thought it would be.  As he neared the end of his study at Princeton, Philip reflected with uncertainty about his life after college, wondering wistfully if the way of improvement he was traveling would ever lead him home.  He began to feel “stronger than ever” about his “obligations” to his family no doubt a reference to the work required on his father’s farm.  He longed to “see my near Connections” in Cohansey.  During this period of homesickness Philip, as he would do time and again along his way of improvement, took solace in his faith.  He tried to convince himself, as Witherspoon was teaching him, that true happiness came not from a particular place, “nor is it the Presence nor Abscence of Relations & Friends, tho’ most near & tender to us, that can give us, for any length of Time, either substantial joy, or Grief.”  Philip instead found comfort in “the favoring Presence of our Common Father, who is the Almighty God.”  God alone, Philip believed, could serve his deepest human needs, especially if he had to remain removed from his beloved homeland for an extended period of time.  He was beginning to learn that a life of improvement often came with a measure of loss–a condition cured only be placing his trust in an omnipresent God who transcended any particular locale.

There is a lot more about homesickness in the book.  Philip was often plagued by it.  But after my daughter left for college I began to think about Philip’s leaving home (which I call a betrayal of eighteenth-century “family values”) from the perspective of his parents–Joseph and Hannah Fithian.  I was not thinking about if from this perspective when I wrote the book, but it now seems quite relevant.