Remembering John Murrin


One of our great early American historians died yesterday, a victim of coronavirus.  Here is his obituary:

John M. Murrin, Professor of History emeritus at Princeton University, died May 2 at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton of corona virus. He taught at Princeton for 30 years and previously taught at Washington University, St. Louis for ten years. He had a B.A. from the College of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, the city of his birth, an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Murrin was an accomplished essayist on a variety of topics on the American colonial period, the American Revolution, and the College of New Jersey. Several of his more important essays were published by Oxford University Press in 2018 in the collection, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, with an introduction by Andrew Shankman.

He is survived by Mary, his wife of 52 years, brothers David and Michael, brothers-in-law John Roach, William Roach, and G.T. Buchman, and sister-in-law Jeannette Roach.

Services are private and under the direction of Mather-Hodge Funeral Home, Princeton.

John Murrin was brilliant. Someone once told me that if you gave John a date and a city from colonial America he could tell you who was walking down the street on that particular day. I can’t remember who told me this, but that person was only half joking.  I continue to use his essays in class and his thinking about early America continues to shape the way I teach.

I certainly did not know John as well as others in the early American history community.  I hope there will be other remembrances to come. But John did intersect with my life and career in several small, but important, ways. When I learned about his death, I felt moved to share a few of them.

I can’t remember when I first met John, but I am almost positive that my doctoral adviser, Ned Landsman, introduced me to him. (John was a mentor to Ned). Back in the glory days of the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies (now McNeil Center for Early American Studies), doctoral advisers like John and Ned would drive down to the University of Pennsylvania for Friday seminars. It was through these seminars that I got to know several of John’s doctoral students, including Beth Lewis Pardoe and Evan Haefeli.

My first extended conversation with John came during a September 1998 McNeil Center event at Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s home along the Delaware River. Jerry Frost of Swarthmore College presented a paper on Penn historiography. I think the title was something like “Penn in Myth and History.” It was either my first or second event as a McNeil Center fellow. The Friday seminar was an anxiety-producing experience for many younger scholars. Nearly every major early American historian in the mid-Atlantic region attended these seminars–some more regularly than others. Papers were pre-circulated and the authors spent the entire two hours answering questions about their research. Richard Dunn, the director of the Center, urged dissertation fellows to ask at least one question during the seminar. Dunn sat at a table with the speaker at the front of the room and whenever he spotted a dissertation fellow raising his or her hand he would ignore the more established scholars trying to get into the conversation and call on the fellow.  Or at least this is how I perceived it.

At this particular seminar, I had formulated what I thought to be a good question for Frost. I raised my hand and Dunn called on me. But as I began to articulate the question I had a brain freeze. I lost my train of thought and couldn’t get back on track. Finally, red-faced and embarrassed, I had to say that I would try to remember the question and ask again later. (I did not). Asking a question at a McNeil Center event was a kind of performance. You needed to sound smart. So needless to say, I was horrified about what had just happened. I wanted to throw-up. I don’t think I heard another word spoken during the rest of that seminar. I was too busy concluding that my career as a historian was over. I didn’t belong with this group of scholars.

After the seminar, a picnic was held on the grounds of the manor. I remember getting a plate of food and sitting down at a wooden picnic table, probably with one or two other dissertation fellows. After a few minutes, John Murrin sat down next to me and started reflecting on the very subject I had tried to raise with my question. He did not reference my botched performance, but in his own subtle way he affirmed what he thought I was trying to ask. It was an important moment in my career. John was one of the world’s greatest early American historians. He did not have to encourage an unknown SUNY-Stony Brook graduate student in this way. But he did. I will never forget his compassion and empathy on that day.

During my year as a McNeil Center dissertation fellow, Joy and two-year-old Allyson were still living in Stony Brook where Joy was working in residential life at a local boarding school. Richard Dunn graciously allowed me to spend four days a week at Penn and take long weekends at home. I spent a lot of time on the train that year. Since we had very little money, I could not afford taking AMTRAK from Philadelphia to New York City. This meant that I had to take a Philadelphia local train (SEPTA) to Trenton and switch to New Jersey Transit. Once I arrived at Penn Station in New York I would take the two-hour Long Island Railroad trip out to Stony Brook.

After Friday seminars, John Murrin would occasionally ask me if I wanted to ride with him and his students from Philadelphia to Princeton. He would take me to the Princeton train station so I could spend less time on the train and save some money.  During one of those trips, after he dropped-off his graduate students, John gave me an impromptu automobile tour of Princeton. He knew I was writing about Philip Vickers Fithian (a 1772 Princeton graduate) and he wanted to make sure I understood the Princeton that Fithian experienced as a student. So there we were, driving around Princeton at ten o’ clock on a Friday night with John giving me a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Princeton, pointing in the dark to various buildings and landscapes, and regaling me with Nassau Hall trivia.

I often gravitated to John during the social events following McNeil Center seminars. He always remained curious about my height. On multiple occasions he told me that he couldn’t decide who deserved the honor of being the tallest early American  historian alive–me or his former student Danny Vickers. He also tried to recruit me, unsuccessfully, to play for the Princeton History Department softball team in their annual game against Penn. We talked a lot about New Jersey’s colonial and revolutionary history. In fact, one day he briefly mentioned that we needed a new history of the American Revolution in New Jersey.  I took him up on that suggestion. I hope to have my book on the subject out in the next year or two.

We also used to talk a lot about the Mets. John’s wife, Mary Murrin, was a big Keith Hernandez fan (I assume from her days in St. Louis when John taught at Washington University). My prayers go out to her in her time of grieving. I got to know her a little bit when she directed the grant program at the New Jersey Historical Commission.

I never talked about my Christian faith with John, but he knew I was an evangelical. I think this is why our conversations would occasionally turn to Nathan Hatch, another evangelical historian who studied under John during his decade on the faculty at Washington University. I was thrilled when John agreed to write a blurb for my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”: A Historical Introduction.  Here it is:

Committed evangelicals have had an outsized impact on early American history, earning respect from major historians who do not share their religious views. Nathan O. Hatch won a reputation that led to his selection as president of Wake Forest University. George M. Marsden and Mark A. Noll have both been recruited for professorships at Notre Dame, as has Harry S. Stout at Yale. John Fea is about to join their select company. His latest work addresses a problem that arose during the American Revolution and has emerged again today as an urgent issue rooted in a central dilemma: How explicitly  Christian can a nation be under a Constitution and a central government designed to uphold religious neutrality? Fea’s answers are searching, surprising, and profound. 

I am no Hatch, Marsden, Noll, or Stout, and I never will be. These men are giants.  But I can’t tell you what this blurb meant to me when I first read it in 2011.

Thanks again, John Murrin. Rest in peace.