“Can Someone Tell Me Who Was President?”: Thinking Historically About Evangelicalism

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Over at The Anxious Bench, historian Tim Gloege (see his visit to the Author’s Corner here) begins his discussion of what he calls the “evangelical paradigm” with a great Mark Noll story:

Twenty years ago, I sat in a Wheaton College classroom with a half-dozen other students, awaiting my first real history seminar. For a recent Bible School graduate, the book-a-week workload seemed daunting, but I was excited to be working with Mark Noll and committed to learning the craft. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The seminar subject was Pentecostalism, a religious tradition of which I knew little. Yet I was eager to impress and dove headfirst into a conversation that turned almost immediately to doctrine. As the theological weeds grew deeper, we pressed forward, constructing intricate taxonomies of spirit baptism and genealogies of faith healing.

After about twenty minutes of this, Noll finally cut in with a simple question. “When did the Pentecostal movement begin?”

Silence enveloped the room, interrupted only by the sound of frantically flipping pages. Finally, someone offered a tentative response: “Around 1900?”

“Alright, that sounds fine. Now, someone tell me what else was going on.”

Silence.

“Cultural trends? Social movements?”

More silence.

“Can someone tell me who was president?”

Uncomfortable fidgeting. Embarrassingly, this basic sort of historical contextualization hadn’t occurred to me (or, apparently, to anyone else at the table). Raised a conservative evangelical, these things just didn’t matter. Sure, theology may have developed, but it was directed by God, right?

I slouched lower in my seat.

“Come on, you’ve got to know this. We’re doing history, not theology. The question we need to answer is why 1900? Why not 1870 or 1930? What changed and what caused that change?”

Read the rest of the piece here, including Gloege’s take on how to move evangelical historiography forward.

One thought on ““Can Someone Tell Me Who Was President?”: Thinking Historically About Evangelicalism

  1. To be fair–maybe too fair, I don’t know–I doubt I knew who was president in 1900 until I was a year or so into graduate school. My undergrad education, while very good, left me with a lot of lacunae, and US political history was one.

    Part of that was due to the enthusiasm for social history at the time (1970s-80s), and in the department, which was quite aggressive, and went out of its way to denigrate political and intellectual history, in particular.

    In my undergrad survey of US history, the professor ignored politics–and especially the presidency–to the point that one of the students actually asked him about it. The professor made a kind of snorting sound, recounted how he had himself memorized the presidents for his PhD exams, and hadn’t even been asked about any because “no one cares about that stuff anymore.”

    It would have taken a very dedicated and skeptical undergrad student–and one with extra time on his or her hands–to say, in response to that, “I’m going to assume my professor doesn’t actually know what’s important in history and what isn’t, so I’m going to memorize the presidents on my own even though I have a million other things to do and no one’s ever going to ask me about them and will laugh at me if they find out I did.”

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