Colin Chapell is Instructor of History at the University of Memphis. This interview is based on his new book, Ye That Are Men Now Serve Him: Radical Holiness Theology and Gender in the South (University of Alabama Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Ye That Are Men Now Serve Him?
CC: I’ve always loved getting to explore how people’s beliefs change how they see the world. Whether it is how Social Gospellers understood race or how Antebellum Southern writers understood their plantations, how people construct their identities and make sense of the all that’s around them fascinates me.
As I started on this project, though, I was amazed at the fact that there were very few works that seriously considered how religious belief altered the construction of gender identity. There are, of course, excellent works that examine how different gender roles and different institutional authority is divided among men and women. However, with only a very few exceptions, how faith and theology alter conceptions of manhood and womanhood had been largely left out of the scholarly discussion. I wanted to find out more and start to fill that gap.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Ye That Are Men Now Serve Him?
CC: Religious belief has a profound effect on how people understand manhood and womanhood. In other words, theology matters not only to the roles people can take in institutions, but in the very foundations of how they understand personhood and what it means to embody masculinity and femininity.
JF: Why do we need to read Ye That Are Men Now Serve Him?
CC: I think that this is an important book for a couple of audiences. First are those folks who do not think that religious belief is an authentic source of identity. They, perhaps, feel that it is a veneer that covers over other, more reasonable in their minds, influences and interests. The second group of people are those who feel that gender is a static and ahistorical category – what is manly today was manly 200 years ago and in all other cultures. My book addresses both of these by arguing that religion and theology has a significant, indeed a defining, influence on how people perceive what femininity and masculinity means.
Of course, all historians want their work to be relevant to the people around them, but I think that my work does have implications for our current culture. So many people think that if others do not see the world as they do, then they must be WRONG. What is often lost in this, is any attempt at understanding where other people come from or why they see the world differently. If a few readers come away with the idea that they should attempt to understand why people see the world differently, then I will be really happy.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CC: I am one of the nerds who has known that I wanted to teach since about 8th grade. Exactly which subject changed year to year as my favorite teachers changed subjects. But, by the time I went to college, I knew I wanted to teach American history. Then, as a freshman, I took one of Jay Green’s courses at Covenant College and found out how much I enjoyed research and writing as well as teaching. All that’s to say that I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be a historian.
I was, and am, fascinated by the ways in which the same events could be told from different perspectives and how different identities and different interests could radically alter how participants experienced it. Additionally, I love getting to explore the foreign country we call the past. Getting to know people through the sources they’ve left behind in archives, papers, letters, and diaries is fascinating. Somedays, the archives can be a slog, but then, every once in a blue moon, you’ll hit that trove that completely opens up new ideas and fresh insights for you. I think that being a historian is an incredible calling.
JF: What is your next project?
CC: I am in the very earliest stages of my next project, which looks at the ways in which people in the Holiness movement understood and performed their identity as sanctified individuals and as part of a community of perfect love. I will be examining the ways they made connections across regional and racial lines in the U.S., as well as how they connected with their co-religionists in the English Keswick Movement and the Welsh Revivals of the early twentieth century.
JF: Thanks, Colin!