Stephen Berry is Associate Professor of History at Simmons College in Boston. This interview is based on his first book A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World (Yale University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write A Path in the Mighty Waters?
SB: The initial idea came from reading a number of autobiographies in Grant Wacker’s American Religious Thought class. I kept noticing that figures such as Charles Hodge behaved differently when they traveled aboard ship. For example, during Hodge’s voyage to Europe he had lengthy discussions with a Roman Catholic priest, an encounter at variance with his normal conversation partners in Princeton. So I kept asking myself, “What was it about ship life that facilitated this sort of interaction?” So I tucked the idea away as my “crazy dissertation idea,” originally thinking that I might write about the role of steamboats in the spread and development of frontier Christianity. Peter Wood, my mentor in the Duke history department, pulled me back into the eighteenth-century Atlantic crossing with its longer voyage times and more diverse range of encounters. After graduate school, I spent a great deal of time redeveloping the project to give it a narrative structure, which my committee had suggested since a voyage has a natural story arc. The problem I encountered was figuring how to break up the chapters without making the divisions seemed arbitrary and artificial. Thankfully, I was able to participate in the Munson Institute at Mystic Seaport, which gave me a needed crash course on all things maritime. That summer I began to see the Atlantic Ocean not as a single, solitary place but rather possessed with its own geography. The Bay of Biscay, the Tropics, the Gulf Stream each exercised a particular effect on passengers and shaped of their practice of religion. Although I have worked on this project for a long time, the manuscript that Yale University Press just published was really born that summer.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Path in the Mighty Waters?
SB: Aboard a ship with no particular established religion, travelers normally divided by geography, religious affiliation, or social protocol reconstructed their religious beliefs and practices to make sense of their new surroundings and to pass the time over the months of the passage. The ship accustomed travelers to the religious flexibility and independence that life in America would require of them and anticipated the American approach to denominationalism, involving mutual acceptance and competition, openness and exclusivity.
SB: Because it tells a good story, and who doesn’t like to read a good story. Seriously though, we need a better understanding of what an eighteenth-century voyage entailed as both a physical and spiritual experience. The book addresses a gap in several overlapping fields of study. Maritime histories of this era usually focus on the experience of sailors or life aboard specialized types of ships such as naval or slave vessels. Scholars of American religion have overlooked the ship’s role in shaping Christian beliefs and practices as they were transferred from Europe to America, particularly in regards to the development of religious toleration. The emerging field of Atlantic history ironically often neglects the ocean itself and people’s experiences upon it. Ships served as kind of petri dish. Eighteenth-century voyages combined divergent and competing worldviews in a relatively open, non-institutional atmosphere that reveals the particular mentalities of the participants and their belief systems.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SB: Growing up between Nashville and Franklin, I was conscious from an early age that the Civil War hung over the landscape, and I scoured the maps in Bruce Catton’s Picture History of the Civil War hoping to discover my yard depicted on the battlefield. So I always loved history, but over time my interests shifted from military to cultural history. I struggled initially as an undergraduate history major at Vanderbilt largely because I had never really learned to read for argument, but then suddenly things began to click. I was in way over my head in a graduate level class on British history taught by James Epstein, where we were assigned these massive books for each week. One week we discussed E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and after a semester of silence, I held my own in a class discussion as we debated the impact of Methodism on the social consciousness of laborers. After my enthusiasm that day (full disclosure, our class met in the campus pub that day and my sudden loquaciousness might have been alcohol induced), one of the doctoral students encouraged me to keep studying religious history. And so I guess I took his advice. In seminary, I wrote several research papers on the role of Christianity in the American South, which led to my first publications. After working as an archivist and librarian for a couple of years, my wife Dana encouraged me to pursue my doctorate and the rest is, as they say, history.
JF: What is your next project?
SB: I have begun to work on a couple of ideas but nothing has achieved critical mass yet. I spent so much time learning maritime history to supplement my formal training in American religion, I feel compelled to pursue another project combining the fields. I currently hold a joint fellowship at the Boston Athenaeum and the Congregational Library, which I am using to research American seamen’s encounters with world religions. As independence opened new markets to the United States, American sailors circumnavigated the world as part of the early republic’s quest for commercial success. Mariners provided rich portrayals of the religious practices witnessed in foreign ports with the observer’s situated understandings of their underlying belief systems. This project will uncover what these pathfinders imported to their new nation about world cultures even as the nation began to export Christianity through its own missionary movements (also made possible because of ships).