Scholarly Location and the Writing of American Religious History

I was planning to blog on this essay by Christopher Grasso when I read it this morning, but both Paul Harvey at Religion and American History and his student Brad Hart at American Creation beat me to it. I encourage you to check out their thoughts.

Having said that, I can’t help but say a few words:

Grasso has a great project here. To put it simply, he wants to bring religious skepticism more fully into the narrative of early nineteenth-century American religion. I am eager to see what he comes up with. So far he has offered an excellent piece on deism in the Journal of American History.

But even more interesting, at least to me, is Grasso’s personal reflections about how he came to this topic. Ironically, he became more sensitive to the place of religion in American life (and the role of faith in scholarship) while studying with religious mentors in graduate school and more sensitive to the place of religious skepticism in America while teaching at a church-related college in the Midwest.

He writes:

…No research is completely unconnected to personal experience. That doesn’t mean religious history, any more than other kinds of history, entails one of those confessional prefaces in which the author discloses his or her personal relationship to the faith tradition being examined. Perry Miller’s atheism and George Marsden’s evangelicalism no doubt influenced each man’s studies of the Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards, but the evaluation of their books should aim at the cogency of their interpretive arguments in relation to the available evidence rather than at the scholars’ biographies. The historian’s own religious belief or doubt is one of many factors shaping his or her particular perspective, a point of view that provides moments of both blindness and insight when trying to imagine the past. My own perspective as this project developed has been at least as powerfully shaped by my understanding of the disciplinary field I entered and the communities in which I learned and taught.

In graduate school I became convinced that the history I had learned previously had too blithely ignored the religious issues and experiences that were so vital to so many people in the American past. I imagined myself going off to teach in a public university, and in my own courses and scholarship, at least, doing something to rectify that imbalance. Instead, my first teaching job was at a small midwestern college that was committed at once to the liberal arts, a global and multicultural perspective, and to being “a school of the Church.” Faculty didn’t have to sign a confession of faith but were asked on job interviews about their view of the school’s religious mission; faculty meetings began with a prayer and teachers were encouraged (though not required) to attend daily chapel. The most ardent supporters of the college’s religious identity manifested an ecumenical tolerance toward diverse religious points of view but a subtle—and at times not so subtle—unfriendliness to secular humanism. Just as working with religiously committed scholars in graduate school had deepened my appreciation for the intellectual depth of perspectives rooted in faith, my experience at that Christian college helped me more easily imagine the closeted lives of skeptics in the early republic. I hope these experiences help me to write sympathetically and critically about religious skeptics and people of faith.

This piece got me thinking about how my work at a church-related college has shaped my scholarship and if my work would be any different if I taught at a secular university. I am not sure I have answers yet, but I am grateful that Grasso is willing to reflect on these questions.