Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History: Part 3

Click here for Part 1 of this series.  Click here for Part 2 of this series.

The roundtable on David Bebbington’s Quadrilateral at the 2014 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History gave me a lot of food for thought.  I think I am going to use what I learned in a Sunday School class I am teaching this month.  I also spent a lot of time reporting on this session to my History of American Evangelicalism course at Messiah College.   

The Bebbington roundtable also set the stage for a session on the 25th anniversary of Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture.  While Bebbington, Noll, Worthen, and Dochuk tried to define evangelicalism, those who were part of this panel, including Balmer himself, discussed what it was like to experience evangelicalism.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, here is a short blurb from the fourth edition:

Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is an insightful and engaging journey into the world of conservative Christians in America…From Oregon to Florida, and from Texas to North Dakota, Balmer offers an immensely readable tour of the highways and byways of American evangelicalism. We visit a revival meeting in Florida, an Indian reservation in the Dakotas, a trade show for Christian booksellers, and a fundamentalist Bible camp in the Adirondacks.

Those of us who study evangelicalism know Balmer’s story.  (His memoir is entitled Growing Pains: Learning to Love My Father’s Faith).  He was raised in an evangelical home in the Midwest. His father was a minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America.  He attended Trinity College in Deerfield, IL, the college of the Evangelical Free Church.  He then did an M.A. in church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the evangelical seminary located across the street from the college.  Somewhere along the way Balmer became disillusioned with his childhood evangelicalism. (During the session he described his intellectual frustration when seminary professors would try to harmonize the various gospel accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry).  After finishing his seminary degree he did a Ph.D in American religion at Princeton University.  His dissertation was eventually published as A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies.  The book remains the definitive work on eighteenth-century Dutch religion in early America.  I read it in graduate school and consult it regularly.

After Princeton Balmer landed a prestigious job in the Religion Department at Columbia University. (He is now at Dartmouth College).  It was here, as a pre-tenured assistant professor, that he decided to write Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. As Balmer mentioned at the session in Malibu, he had always been fascinated by travel literature and was particularly inspired to write the book after reading William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America, a travelogue that spent 42 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 1982-83.  

Balmer funded his trips through evangelical America with the $2500 he received from his advanced contract with Oxford University Press and a $2500 grant from the American Council for Learned Societies.  When he told his department chair at Columbia that he was writing this book, the chair warned him against it, suggesting that the publication of the book would be “professional suicide.” Fortunately, Balmer’s A Perfect Babel of Confusion appeared three weeks before Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.  As a result he received tenure based on the former book, also published with Oxford. During the session Balmer noted that “things might have turned out differently for me” if Mine Eyes, a book not rooted in traditional academic scholarship in the field of religion, had appeared before A Perfect Babel of Confusion.  From this point forward, with tenure secured, Balmer set out to write for the general public.

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory was an instant hit.  A PBS mini-series based on the book and hosted by Balmer himself catapulted the young Columbia religion professor into what several panelists in Malibu called “rock star status.”  Jana Riess, a Balmer Ph.D student, told a story about a friend who was envious that Jana got to study with Balmer because he was so handsome and often wore “acid-wash jeans.”  Todd Brenneman, the author of the recent Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism, started his talk by announcing “I want to be Randall Balmer when I grow up.”  He praised Blamer’s “prophetic voice” in Mine Eyes Have Seen the GloryEd Blum of San Diego State talked about how Balmer, with his good looks, wavy hair, and attractive physique came to embody evangelicalism for his PBS audience. (At one point Blum asked why Balmer is the poster-boy for evangelical historians and not George Marsden. Why do people want to look at pictures online of Randall and not George?).

Balmer, in essence, was the story.  Blum called him “an enduring icon.” He was a professor, a rock star, and a “commodity.”  As Balmer openly struggled with evangelicalism, both in the book and in front of the camera, he connected with others who had taken or were taking a similar religious journey. Brenneman put it best when he said “I am part of the public of Mine Eyes.” 

By inserting himself into the history of American evangelicalism, Balmer was taking the study of this movement in a whole new direction.  Riess compared Balmer’s approach with that of Marsden, whose Fundamentalism and American Culture remains Oxford University Press’s best selling book in the field of American religious history.  
Both men came from Protestant fundamentalist backgrounds, but Balmer was interested in stories and places, while Marsden was interested in things like Baconian inductivism and common sense realism.  Of course Mine Eyes and Fundamentalism and American Culture cover two different periods of evangelical history. They also represent two different genres.  Marsden wrote an academic monograph.  He was an intellectual historian.  Balmer wrote a piece of travel journalism seasoned with some historical reflections.

This was a fascinating session.  Balmer seemed to enjoy the attention that he and his book were getting. He balked at the “rock star” label, suggesting that his kids would find this monicker to be “hilarious.”  Yet I think the general thrust of this session was on the mark.  Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory humanized evangelicalism for thousands of people.  While Marsden, Noll, Bebbington and others tried to define the movement based on what its adherents believed, Balmer described a unique subculture that ordinary people experienced.  

As a new convert to evangelicalism in the 1980s, both schools of evangelical interpretation were immensely helpful to me as I tried to find my way in the movement.