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, Andrew 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: 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.

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Writing for the public and tenure

Failure and humility

Value voters and Trump

Trump and poor white people

History is hot right now.  How do we keep it hot?

Sometimes jealousy motivates scholars to write for public audiences.

The Quebec Act and the British Empire

The fractured republic

People of African descent as fugitives in American history

Religious freedom and the American interest

The recent Democratic Party and racial justice

A new film on Civil War enlistees

The motels of Wildwood, New Jersey

W.E.B. Du Bois on not voting

 A Catholic church and social change in Pittsburgh

How to turn your dissertation into a book

What is Jerry Falwell Jr. Doing?

U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. during a campaign event in Sioux City Iowa

Jerry Falwell Jr. is still riding the Trump Train.  This time he has turned to the op-ed pages of The Washington Post to make his case for the GOP nominee.  The talking points are the same. Falwell Jr. chides Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party for their missteps, but he does not make a positive case for his candidate apart from the dubious historical analogy that Trump is the next Winston Churchill.  He warns that if we don’t vote for Trump we will all suffer “dire consequences.”

I am not sure what Falwell Jr. thinks he is doing.  Does he think that his endorsement of Donald Trump is going to help make Liberty University the world-class evangelical institution that he and his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., envisioned?  I know, I know, he claims that his endorsement of Trump is personal and he is not  making it on behalf of Liberty University.  That’s all well and good on paper, but I doubt most Americans grasp the subtle distinction.  In the past six months I have talked with three parents who said that their kids chose another school partially based on Falwell Jr.’s support of Trump.  Two of them were the parents of high school seniors and the other one was the parent of a student who is transferring to another college this Fall.  Three parents hardly make a movement. Perhaps these three parents are not representative of most Liberty parents.  Or perhaps they are more representative of the kinds of evangelicals with whom I engage in political conversation.  But all three of them were troubled by Falwell’s endorsement and the politicization of evangelical faith taking place on the Liberty campus.

It is easy to criticize the president of the largest Christian university in the country for throwing his support behind a serial liar, a nativist, a race-baiter, and an adulterer.  But let’s consider the fact that Falwell Jr. is also the president of a Christian university. Universities are places of learning.  They are places where students try to see the world from the point of view of others and engage unfamiliar viewpoints with graciousness and respect.  They are places where students learn to think and make arguments based upon credible evidence.  They are places where students learn to listen before casting moral judgement, where they learn to exercise restraint in their speech, and where they learn that the answers to some of society’s most pressing questions are often complex and thus require nuanced thinking.  Donald Trump’s presidential campaign represents none of these things.  Yet he has won the endorsement of a president of a university!

Frankly, I wonder just what kind of authority Jerry Falwell Jr. actually has to shape the opinion of evangelical voters.  Most of the Liberty students I have met, talked with, or engaged via social media (and I confess that I have not spoken to many, maybe about a dozen or so) do not support Donald Trump (or at least did not support him during the GOP primaries).  In the Virginia primary Trump finished fourth  in Liberty’s precinct. Liberty’s student body president and vice president supported Marco Rubio.

I am guessing that many Liberty students and employees who backed another candidate in the primaries have now turned to Trump because of his promise to deliver the Supreme Court.  But I doubt that they made this decision because of Falwell Jr.’s endorsement.

So again I ask, who is listening to Jerry Falwell Jr.?  Are there people who take his political opinions seriously?  It seems as if his endorsement of Trump is doing more harm than good to Liberty University.

“The Mystery of the Liberal Arts”

9e36b-boyerEarlier this week I gave a short talk to the members of the Messiah College Admissions staff during their Fall retreat.  I spoke about the value of history and the humanities and hopefully gave them something to think about as they head off to college fairs around the country.

I introduced the group to this blog and our “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series.  I hope that some of them will come back and read a few things here.

If they do come back, I hope they find a post at The Anxious Bench blog written by my friend David Swartz, a history professor at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky.  It stems from a talk he gave to first-year students about the importance of the liberal arts.  It is great.

Here is a taste:

A few years ago as an incoming student at a college very much like this one, I sat in an auditorium during orientation like you are right now and contemplated my future. On one level, I was engrossed with the immediate future, the future driven by my stomach, hormones, and nerves. But I also thought long-term. As I recall, my goals clustered around two concerns. One had to do with practicality. I wanted training for a career, one that would pay off my student loans and one that would provide for a comfortable living. The other had to do with answers. I wanted to be able to defend my beliefs and pin down my opponents. I wanted to know the correct interpretation of classical and biblical texts, the right answer to the calculus problem, the precisetreatment we should offer to someone suffering from an ailment.

To be sure, there is great virtue in precise medical treatments and in financial solvency. But I wish I had wished for more. And my wish for you, during your college orientation, is that you can expand the notion of education beyond the calibrated metrics and language of input, output, and quality control that characterized my own conception. For the next few minutes, I want to speak to you about the role of mystery as you pursue a life of inquiry here.

There is considerable pressure on you to follow a safe narrative, to view college and your major only as job preparation. You may feel this pressure from yourself, your parents, from society to live predictable lives in which you follow a script of moving along from kindergarten to high school to college syllabi to a job to a retirement of shuffleboard and early-bird specials in Florida.

But it’s possible to be too practical, to train for a job that might not exist in a decade. One of the strongest defenses of the liberal arts is that it teaches you to think, write, and have imagination. This prepares you for many kinds of jobs. But beyond this practical critique of practicality, I imagine that we should be open to the possibility of sources of inspiration beyond spreadsheets, sources like tradition, morality, passion, and mystery.

Read the entire piece here.

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1. Some Early Tweets on Alan Jacobs’s Essay “The Watchmen”
  2. David Barton’s List of Safe Colleges and Universities
  3. Karl Barth on the Olympic Games
  4. Katie Ledecky: Springsteen Fan
  5. Were the Neo-Evangelicals Public Intellectuals?
  6. The Christian Democratic Option
  7. What Readings Do I Assign in My American History Survey Course?
  8. Why the Founding Fathers Wanted to Keep Ministers From Public Office
  9. Another Piece From the Randall Stephens Collection
  10. The Author’s Corner With Julie Holcomb

“An Outrage”: A Forthcoming Documentary Film on Lynching in America

Some of you may recall that in the Fall 2015 I taught an online graduate course on Colonial North America through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  I was invited to teach the course by Lance Warren and had the privilege of working closely during the filming of the course with Lance and his spouse Hannah Ayers.

Since then Lance and Hannah have left Gilder Lehrman to pursue their passion for documentary film work. They are in the final stages of a project on lynching in America. Lance and Hannah spent most of the summer traveling thousands of miles conducting interviews with historians and activists and talking with descendants of people who had been lynched in the Deep South.

The title of the film is “An Outrage.”  You can read more about it here or follow the film’s Twitter account @AnOutrageFilm

A few hours ago Lance and Hannah released the first minute of the film.  Here it is:

“An Outrage” will premiere in early 2017.  Stay tuned.

Revisiting Ted Cruz’s Dominionism

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville

Ted Cruz, left, speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville, Tennessee, on February 26, 2016. 

Earlier this year I wrote a few things that connected Ted Cruz to the Christian political philosophy known as dominionism.  In a piece I wrote for Religion News Service which was published in The Washington Post, I suggested the Cruz’s campaign for POTUS was “fueled by a dominionist vision for America.”  A few months later I wrote a piece for Christianity Today titled “The Theology of Ted Cruz.”  If my e-mail box is any indication, a lot of Cruz supporters were not happy about these articles.

Cruz, of course, did not get the GOP nomination and I moved on to other things.  But this conversation about Cruz’s ties to dominionism will no doubt resurface if he becomes the GOP candidate for POTUS in 2020 or 2024.  If Cruz does run again, Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates and an observer of the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) dominionism that often informs the rhetoric and policy of the Christian Right, will be ready.

In a very thorough and extensively researched report titled “Dominionism Rising: A Theocratic Movement Hiding in Plain Sight” Clarkson offers an introduction to the dominionist movement and how it is shaping GOP politics.  Clarkson draws on some of my stuff on Cruz and on an excellent book by Florida State University professor Michael McVicar titled Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).  Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will recall our Author’s Corner interview with McVicar.

Here is a taste of Clarkson’s piece:

All of this was pretty hot stuff and dominionism would no doubt have become more of an issue had Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign lasted longer. But Cruz is 45 years old in 2016 and appears to have a bright—and perhaps historic—political future. He won statewide office on his first try and has benefited from being underestimated. Since arriving in the Senate in 2103, he has made a show of sticking to his principles, much to the chagrin of his colleagues. But following his presidential run, Cruz is now one of the best known politicians in the country and possible heir- apparent to the Reagan revolution. No small achievement for a freshman senator.

Meanwhile Cruz and other national pols comprise the tip of a very large, but hard to measure political iceberg. There are untold numbers of dominionist and dominionism-influenced politicians and public officials at all levels of government and who even after leaving office, shape our political discourse. Roy Moore, the elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has been a rallying figure for dominionists of all stripes for the better part of two decades. Most recently, he has led efforts to exempt Alabama from federal court ordered compliance with marriage equality, citing his view of “God’s law.” Moore’s fellow Alabaman, Justice Tom Parker, has been on the court since 2004, and has employed theocratic legal theorist John Eidsmoe as his chief of staff.15 Others at the top of recent American political life have included Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee,16 and Newt Gingrich.17 Other prominent elected officials in the dominionist camp include Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-TX),18 Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS),19 Sen. James Lankford (R-OK),20 and Rep. Steve King (R-IA).21

Prominent politicians’ involvement in dominionism is certainly the most visible evidence of the movement’s advances over the past half-century, but it’s not the only result. Dominionism is a story not widely or well understood. Because this is so, it is important to know what dominionism is and where it came from, so we can see it more clearly and better understand its contemporary significance.

Read the entire thing here.


“The Christian Century” on the 200th Anniversary of the American Bible Society

Bible Cause CoverCheck out Celeste Kennel-Shank’s piece on the 200th anniversary of the American Bible Society.  I was happy to contribute.

Here is a taste:

As the American Bible Society marks its 200th anniversary, and after a series of leadership changes and a recent move to Philadel­phia, its leaders are looking to the nation’s past in planning for the future.

“When you turn 200 and you’re looking at another century, you ask really big questions,” said Geof Morin, senior vice president for ministry mobilization.

One question is, Who in the world today cannot read scripture in their own language?

There are about 1,800 languages in which scripture does not exist, Morin said. The ABS estimates it will take about ten years to provide scripture to them.

While translation has always been part of the society’s work, there is now “a sharpened focus” on it thanks to current president Roy Peterson, Morin said. Peterson, who spent decades working on Bible translation, joined the ABS in 2014.

The mission of the organization remains what it was in 1816: making the Bible available to all people in a way they can understand and afford. But “the work of doing that is slightly different in 2016 than it was in 1816,” Morin said.

The ABS continues to distribute Bibles, currently through partnerships in 200 countries and territories.

After 199 years in New York City, the society moved last year to new headquarters in Philadelphia, with a 25-year lease on two floors of a building shared with Wells Fargo.

The building is just off of Indepen­dence Mall, which attracts 2.5 million visitors each year. The society has been getting to know its Jewish neighbors: on one side of the building is the National Museum of American Jewish History and on the other Congregation Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuously meeting synagogue in the United States.

Albert E. Gabbai, rabbi of Mikveh Israel, shared with the ABS an idea he first had about 25 years ago, a few years after he became the leader of the congregation: to create a Religious Heritage Trail, like the Freedom Trail in Boston. Nearby Christ Church, where many revolutionary leaders attended, would be a another stop on the trail.

Read the rest here.


The Bible Cause in The Wall Street Journal

Bible Cause CoverCheck out Darryl G. Hart’s review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in today’s Wall Street Journal!

Here is a taste:

For the past 50 years or so, the Bible—the collection of sacred Jewish and Christian texts—has taken a back seat in American politics. To be sure, various political leaders and many citizens have desired public recognition of Holy Writ as a source of truth and morality. But since the Supreme Court ruled in A bington v. Schempp (1963) that prayer and Bible reading were unconstitutional in public-school opening exercises, public officials and government agencies have understood that to invoke, endorse or promote the Bible for official purposes is to invite contempt—and a legal challenge. This situation obscures an older history of Bible politics, a time when officials of Western nations not only relied on biblical norms in executing their tasks but also adopted policies to ensure that their subjects and citizens had access to sacred texts.

The granddaddy of state-sponsored Bibles was the King James Version (1611), an English translation commissioned by King James I in response to petitions from Puritans for wider access to Scripture. In authorizing a translation, James facilitated religious uniformity and delicately handled biblical material that his political opponents might use to challenge his authority, such as the narratives of Israel’s monarchs that feature divine judgment for abuses of royal power. Yet in shoring up his rule, James also put his stamp on the English-speaking world. For more than three centuries the KJV was unrivaled in use on both sides of the Atlantic by politicians (think William Wilberforce) and church leaders (remember Billy Graham?).

Readers unfamiliar with this intertwined history of politics and proselytizing may regard the cover of John Fea’s “The Bible Cause,” which features a man holding a Bible in one hand and waving a U.S. flag with the other, as nostalgic, creepy or worse. The man pictured is an agent of the American Bible Society (ABS), the organization whose history Mr. Fea narrates from its founding in 1816 to its bicentennial celebration this year. The society’s initial goal was to place a Bible in every American home, a target that prompted four major printing and distribution campaigns as the nation’s population grew during the 19th century. ABS also sent Bibles overseas: Between 1875 and 1916, it distributed roughly 21 million copies among the Chinese. Even so, the ties between the wide distribution of the Bible and America’s evolving self-definition are much stronger than even the cover’s image suggests.

The rest of the review is behind the Wall Street Journal paywall, but if you really want to read it (and I know you do!) head to your local news stand and pick-up a copy.

Hart asks a brilliant question–one that I wish I had thought about.  “What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial?”