The Author’s Corner with Kenneth Noe

Kenneth Noe is Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. This interview is based on his new book, The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Howling Storm?

KN: Growing up in the Virginia mountains, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on our farm. Weather forecasts were vital, as we had to know if it was time to get the animals in the barn before a snow storm, or if we needed to bale newly-mown hay and store it in the loft before rain set in. Once I planted a field of corn only to watch it die in a drought. So I grew up in a household where weather was central. Yet I never really made the connection between weather and the Civil War until years later when I agreed to write a history of the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky. Weather—in this case a devastating late summer droughtsoon became as important a character as Braxton Bragg. Soldiers arrived at the field dehydrated and sick from drinking mud and bacterial puddles, and the fighting itself began over possession of a spring. Working on that book left me attuned to other moments in the war that were shaped by weather, such as the flooding that characterized Fort Henry, Shiloh, and the Peninsula Campaign earlier in 1862. More and more I included information about weather when I taught, and I told my students for years that “someone needs to write a book about Civil War weather.” When no one did, I abruptly decided one morning a decade ago to give it a try myself.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Howling Storm?

KN: We will not fully understand the Civil War—on the battlefield or on the home frontuntil we take the war back outside and immerse it in wartime weather and the physical environment. Those weather conditions generally favored a Union cause more industrially and intellectually able to cope with it while undermining Confederate agriculture and arms.

JF: Why do we need to read The Howling Storm?

KN: I’ve read about the Civil War since I was a boy, and I’ve studied it professionally for thirty-five years. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Yet researching and writing this book has forever altered how I understand the war. I never knew that it took place in an unusual weather environment, for one thing, shaped by both the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Heavy late winter rains and summer droughts in the Confederacy in 1862 and 1863, as well as in Virginia in 1864, created serious food shortages that forced the government in Richmond to prioritize feeding soldiers or civilians. Civil War historians talk all the time about the internal issues that conceivably doomed the Confederacy without understanding that the foundation of all those divisive policies such as impressment and the tax-in-kind are to be found in bad weather and stunted crops. At the same time, northern agriculture faced problems after 1862 due to early frosts in 1863 and drought that year as well as in 1864. Good or bad weather played major roles in the outcomes of battles and campaigns, more than I ever grasped. Once I added weather to the equation, I began to alter my opinions of the leaders too. Abraham Lincoln was a magisterial president in so many ways, but he also could be the prototype of the worst kind of snarky armchair general, unable or unwilling to grasp what it took to move 100,000 men through muddy red clay. And I also marveled at the suffering that common soldiers endured. We think about them dying in battle or in hospitals, but not regularly alongside roads due to heat exhaustion, drowning in floods, freezing to death on picket, or being struck by lightning. I hope that taking the war back outside into the environment, away from our air conditioners and the tired clichés we grew up with, will have the same effect on readers.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KN: My grandfather was a great storyteller, and history was always my favorite class in school, right through college. And growing up in Virginia, it was impossible to ignore the Civil War. When I was five, for example, we all went to the Manassas battlefield and my father illegally hoisted me on top of the Stonewall Jackson statue. To be honest, though, I got pretty tired of the war. I gravitated toward European history in college, and my MA thesis actually is about the Irish Rebellion of 1916. But during the year after I graduated, as I tried to find a job and ended up cutting timber on the farm, I started thinking about the history of our land, and of my home town. Then I ran across a paperback copy of Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground, and there I was, intellectually back in Southwest Virginia in the nineteenth century. Eventually that led me back to grad school.

JF: What is your next project?

KN: In the short term, surviving a year of Zoom teaching. After that? Ten years of working on The Howling Storm—which turned into quite a thick book—and I should be done with Civil War weather. Yet I keep musing about issues that I had to leave out due to length, such as the wartime experience in coastal forts, where weather often was the main foe. I’m also an Appalachian scholar, and I also have an unfinished, long-term project on the identity of Appalachian Civil War bushwhackers that a few folks really want to me to finish finally once I can get back to Washington.

JF: Thanks, Kenneth!

Out of the Zoo: Do Better

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie considers lessons she has learned from studying the history of dueling in early America—JF

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about Alexander Hamilton’s “deathbed conversion.” Ten and a half months later, I’ve returned to researching the faith of our ten-dollar founding father. I’m particularly fascinated by the religious implications of dueling–the means by which Hamilton met his tragic end. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, dueling was an established method by which men could settle their disputes and restore their honor. Though it was illegal in many places, challenges were still made and accepted. Men still perished on the dueling grounds–including Hamilton’s own son Phillip. Christian ministers often spoke out against the practice. One minister, Reverend Benjamin Moore, even denied Hamilton’s initial request for communion from his deathbed, solely because he had fought in a duel.

This past week, I’ve been sorting through Lyman Beecher’s sermon, “The Remedy for Dueling.” The sermon is extensive–55 pages in length–and cannot be easily summarized in a few sentences, or even a 600 word blog post. Beecher equates dueling with murder and exhorts all who practice it to change their ways. Further, he calls Christians to take a stand against the cult of honor by refusing to vote for duelists. He voices his distress regarding the flawed character of public men, but also chides Americans for not encouraging them to do better. Beecher writes, “But how has it come to pass (if true) that so many public characters are immoral men? It is because we, the people, have not even requested them to behave better. We have never made it necessary for them to be moral.” Beecher condemns the behavior of duelists, but his sermon does not end there. He concludes by challenging men of honor to change their evil ways. He spurs his congregation–and even the duelists themselves–toward love and good deeds.

A couple summers ago, I worked my first summer at a traveling day camp called Springhill. Every day–and sometimes twice a day–all of our campers gathered for high-energy large group sessions. We danced, sang songs, played games, and ended each session with a skit. The heroes of the story that year–Agent M and Double J–were top-secret spies on a mission in the jungle; they wore badges and carried blasters. Meanwhile Dr. Con–the villain of the story–tried to keep Agent M and Double J from finishing their mission. Dr. Con spoke in a nasally voice and wore a yellow polo shirt–complete with white knee-high socks, glasses, and a fake mustache. 

As counselors, my coworkers and I tried to make large group sessions as exciting as possible. We yelled and danced and jumped around, and interacted with the skit so our campers would be engaged.  So at first, we thought it might be a good idea to boo Dr. Con whenever he shuffled onstage–after all, he was the bad guy. It didn’t take long for our campers to catch on and start booing with us. But things quickly got out of control–the boos got so loud that they distracted from the important gospel story the skit was supposed to tell. Some kids gave up booing entirely and just started screaming–so loud that no one could hear any of the lines. It was obvious that something needed to change. So, instead of booing Dr. Con, we decided to shout “Do better! Do better Dr. Con!” I can’t say the booing immediately ceased, but soon enough our campers began to follow our example. Instead of screaming whenever Dr. Con showed up, they called him to do the right thing rather than continue in his old devious ways–to choose good instead of evil.

It might seem rather strange to compare an early 19th century sermon with a skit from a summer camp written over 200 years later, but I think both can speak into the moment we’re in right now. It’s now the middle of October, and the 59th Presidential election is less than three weeks away. It seems like almost every commercial that pops up on my television is a political advertisement. I’m still waiting for my absentee ballot, but millions have already voted. Many Americans see a clear hero and a clear villain in this chapter in our country’s story, while others aren’t too thrilled about either of the men on the ballot.

Yet before we sulk that “so many public characters are immoral men” we should ask ourselves if we “have even requested them to behave better.” Have we really called for change, or are we enabling complacency? Does character really matter to us? Do our votes reflect that? At the same time, even if there is a clear “bad guy” in our personal political narrative, we should not boo them off the stage. We shouldn’t yell so loud that we can’t hear anything they have to say. Instead, we should offer encouragement. We must urge them to do the right thing rather than continuing in their old ways, to choose good instead of evil. Instead of “boo,” let us say, “Do better!”

The Author’s Corner with Carla Pestana

Carla Gardina Pestana is Professor of History, Department Chair, and Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World at the University of California, Los Angeles. This interview is based on her new book, The World of Plymouth Plantation (Belknap Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: The simple answer, and one I allude to in the book’s acknowledgements, is that I participated in an NEH funded workshop at the living history museum Plimoth Plantation some years ago. During that multi-day meeting, I was struck by how Plymouth appears isolated from the wider world. Immediate interactions, especially those with the area’s original residents, received the focus of attention in conversations there and, I subsequently realized, in the literature around Plymouth as well. I felt inspired to think systematically about what connected Plymouth to a world beyond the neighboring Wampanoag peoples and the immediate location.

On another level, this project represents a return to my roots. My original research centered on New England; and though I have kept it in my sights in a number of more broadly framed projects, this is the first time I have returned to consider the region on its own. This return had not occurred to me, until a number of friends pointed it out.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: Plymouth Plantation was connected from its inception to other places, and those connections shaped its early history in ways both basic and profound. (That is one!)

JF: Why do we need to read The World of Plymouth Plantation?

CP: I realize this is my chance to make my own case, but I am not sure I would use the word “need”! (Obviously, I could be better at self-promotion.)

The World of Plymouth Plantation offers a readable account of everyday life as well as of what we might call their world view. It is organized around some basic categories that have shaped Atlantic history, specifically things, ideas, and people that circulated into and through the outpost. It uses those categories to shape 18 short chapters that each begin with a vignette (although not the usual ones) and consider an element from one of the three categories. So, it’s organized in an interesting (if subtle) way. It also reflects knowledge gained from many years of teaching and researching, without being didactic about it. My intended readers are not only scholars and students but also the wider public, so it is relatively short, not to mention nicely illustrated and written in an accessible style.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CP: I stumbled into the study of history in that I went to graduate school largely on the recommendation of my undergraduate faculty and without a clear idea of what I would find there. As an undergraduate, I had felt especially drawn to early American history so I continued in that vein, making me technically an American historian since the colonial period is treated as the first (and often least significant) chapter of US history. I stumbled across the Quaker executions in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the first months of my graduate career and quickly became obsessed with explaining them. I wanted, on the most basic level, to understand how Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: From Colony to Province and Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down could both be legitimate representations of an era (and some closely connected people during it) when their subject matters and findings seemed so vastly at odds. In a way, my dissertation and first book were an attempt to answer that question.

Since that time, I have wandered out into Atlantic, Caribbean, and even British topics, but I have always taught early American history. I continue to consider myself a historian of early America, even though now I am interested in that and more.

JF: What is your next project?

CP: Sadly, I am uncertain. Like most historians, I am missing the access to archives and libraries brought on by the pandemic. I want to get back into the Jamaican archives to answer some questions left hanging from a previous book. I want to think more deeply about maritime topics, and I would have been in the National Records Office in Kew looking at High Court of Admiralty records this summer had that been possible. I may put together an edited collection of articles by other scholars on the early modern global Caribbean, since I have been facilitating conversations around that topic for some time.

JF: Thanks, Carla!

The Author’s Corner with Hannah-Rose Murray

Hannah-Rose Murray is Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the creator of a virtual Black Abolitionist tour of London, highlighting six important sites where African American activists made an impact on the UK landscape. This interview is based on her new book, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The book developed from my PhD project, which focused on Black abolitionism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century. When I first started my research, I collated thousands of newspaper articles about Frederick Douglass’ visit to Britain and Ireland between 1845-1847, and after reading the pioneering works of Richard Blackett and Audrey Fisch realized that there was a wealth of material and sources to search through and uncover the larger story behind this transatlantic movement. I was fascinated to learn why Douglass was so famous and I developed a framework, adaptive resistance, which explores the reason why some activists were more successful than others: broadly, it’s a triad that rests on performance, antislavery networks and exploitation of print culture. For example, one of the reasons why Douglass was so successful in 1845 was due to his oratorical skill, his connections to William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery movement and friends across Britain and Ireland, who in turn befriended newspaper editors and published pamphlets and materials to maximise support for Douglass and the abolitionist cause. Others, like Moses Roper, were maligned in the press by newspaper correspondents and by some abolitionists; he often had to make his own way around Britain without such concrete networks of support. Through excavating British newspaper articles, I could analyze their performances, their testimony and how they were received by the press and public across the nineteenth century, and how certain events–like the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the American Civil War impacted their missions. Additionally, I created a mapping project that attempts to record as many African American speaking locations as possible. So far, I’ve mapped 4,700 sites in 1,550 locations across Britain and Ireland. As well as being a handy visualization tool for my research, it also presents numerous analytical patterns: why certain activists spoke in some locations rather than others and even how some followed early railway routes for ease of transportation. This filtered into the book too.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Advocates for Freedom?

HM: I argue that by sharing their oratorical, visual, and literary testimony to transatlantic audiences, African American activists galvanised the antislavery movement and highlighted not only their death-defying escapes from bondage but also their desire to speak out against slavery and white supremacy on foreign soil. Using a framework I term adaptive resistance, I uncover the reasons why some activists were more successful than others, why they visited certain locations, how they adapted to the political and social climate, and what impact their activism had on British society.

JF: Why do we need to read Advocates for Freedom?

HM: The politicized and radical journeys undertaken by African Americans to the British Isles are crucial to understanding their testimony and future careers, but also the antislavery movement and the Black Atlantic as a whole. For the first time, my book reveals new testimony and archival discoveries surrounding the stories of Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson (to name a few) and uses digital mapping to analyze their antislavery missions as well as a theoretical framework to determine why some activists were more successful than others. In this detailed study, I examine how in Britain and Ireland, thousands of slave narratives and abolitionist pamphlets were sold, petitions were signed, hundreds of pounds were raised for societies or given directly to help purchase individuals or their family members from slavery. Thousands more attended meetings at chapels, town halls, school rooms and lecturing halls, who often queued for hours beforehand and millions of words were written in response to Black activists and their stories of slavery. These activists challenged misconceptions of slavery, advanced the cause of abolition and mobilized public opinion. Through their interventions with the press, correspondents published Black abolitionist letters, speeches and commentaries, and their message was spread often beyond their immediate reach or where they had lectured. Their tireless activism often created and sustained antislavery momentum across the transatlantic, and their international missions inspired further action as well as apoplectic rage in the United States.

My work is also timely: as the Black Lives Matter protests continue to take place around the world, it’s important to recognize that the activists I discuss were declaring that their Black lives mattered nearly two centuries ago. It’s well documented that the movement has strong historical roots, but my chapter on Ida B. Wells’ lynching campaign in Britain in 1893 and 1894 is particularly prescient when we consider the modern lynchings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The book highlights not only the trajectory between activists in the c19th and today, but also how far we still have to go to accomplish their anti-racist missions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

HM: I have always loved learning about U.S. history since I was a teenager and was very lucky to visit America a few times when I was studying in secondary school. I started working on Frederick Douglass’ experiences in Britain ten years ago, achieved my PhD in 2018 and haven’t looked back since! My work centres around the rediscovery and amplification of African American testimony–including from Frederick Douglass–to ensure that their lives, histories and memories are no longer invisibilized. Their testimony can also shine a new light on their courageous and inspiring activism on both sides of the Atlantic and remind us that antislavery agitation had a fundamental transatlantic element. Activists like Douglass believed that their missions abroad would have very real consequences for enslavers, proslavery defenders, and racists back home.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: I envision Advocates of Freedom as part of a trilogy: this current work is quite broad and extends from the late 1830s to the early 1890s, so the project I’m working on now is a focused study between 1840-1870. I’m studying the ways in which African Americans used visual and performative testimony in the British Isles to convince the transatlantic public about slavery. For example, Moses Roper exhibited whips, chains and manacles on the Victorian stage and even demonstrated how they worked to his audiences. Henry ‘Box’ Brown, the infamous activist, lecturer and entertainer who escaped slavery by posting himself in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia, starred in a play based on his own life in Kent, England. Other activists like James C. Thompson wrote his own poetry and performed it to his audiences and exhibited paintings of his life in slavery. It’s fascinating to consider how activists used growing technological and visual mediums to inform audiences and entice them to their lectures.

The third book in this ‘trilogy’ (if it does get that far!) will focus on African American postbellum activism in the British Isles. Activists continued to travel to Britain and Ireland and followed in the footsteps of their forebears to raise awareness and educate transatlantic audiences on global racism. Additionally, they campaigned around the fact that, contrary to popular belief, U.S. chattel slavery had never actually died. Instead, its foul spirit had mutated and evolved into practices such as lynching and the convict lease system, which preserved the legacies of centuries of oppression. While antebellum slave narratives and speeches distinctly served the purpose of abolition, post-war testimony–particularly in oratorical form–was specifically shaped around abolition’s broken promises. They continued to denounce white supremacy, challenge Lost Cause narratives and white domestic terrorism up to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Hannah-Rose!

Out of the Zoo: Coronavirus Diary

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie gets us up to speed on coronavirus at Messiah University—JF

A month and a half into the semester, Messiah University has settled into a new kind of normal. We’re getting used to shouting answers to discussion questions so that others can hear us from behind our mask. We know now to check our emails regularly in case a professor decides to meet over zoom last minute–due to COVID exposure or otherwise. We’ve become unphased by the strange microphone headsets our professors wear, relatively unconcerned with the ever-fluctuating number of students who tune in to class remotely. We’re finding creative ways to connect with our families and friends when we can’t go home over fall break or see them in person. Certainly none of these situations are ideal, but we’re getting used to them anyway.

After a spring and summer of live-streaming church, I’ve finally returned to in-person worship. The church that I attend when I’m at school has been holding all of its services outdoors in a huge field, which makes social distancing much easier to maintain. While this season has shown me that the Church is so much more than a place, it felt good to be back, singing with other believers and listening to a sermon in church clothes instead of pajamas. Doing Young Life ministry this year has been challenging in many ways, but my team has been making it work. We’ve been hosting all our Young Life events outside–at parks, around campfires, and in backyards–and require students to bring a mask. We’ve lucked out in terms of weather so far, but we’re making preparations for when the weather gets colder and we may not be able to gather in large groups. 

We’re expecting to get an email sometime this week about changes to Messiah’s COVID restrictions. There have been 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus since the beginning of the year–17 students and 2 employees. Our numbers are still relatively low, but the slight uptick in cases has many on edge. Nonetheless, we’re still hoping that Messiah will keep loosening-up the rules to give us more things to do on campus. Since we can’t go into each other’s apartments or dorms right now (even with masks on) students have been taking trips off-campus to hang out. We’re all hoping that Messiah will decide that increased visitation is the lesser of these two evils.

In the meantime, Messiah’s campus has been abuzz with political fervour. Some students are certainly more passionate than others, but political conversations abound nonetheless–before class, during meals, and on social media. We talk about the issues that are important to us–issues like criminal justice reform, abortion and education. We talk about the pandemic. In other discussions, I listen to my friends and mentors express their concern about a lack of empathy and understanding on both sides of the political spectrum. We reveal our voting plans too, whether we’re voting by mail, in-person, or hand-delivering our envelopes on election day. I’ve been checking my mailbox periodically for my absentee ballot. My sister (who studies journalism at Northwestern University) got hers last week, so I think mine will come soon. I’m excited to vote in my first Presidential election, even though I won’t get a patriotic  “I voted” sticker to show for it.

Last Tuesday, I watched the first presidential debate. My housemate Chloe (another history major) and I shared a bag of popcorn as we watched Trump and Biden duke it out on stage, the script of the Declaration of Independence’s Preamble displayed on a blue backdrop behind them. Our housemate Rebecca, who grew up overseas, joined us too. She was born in the states, but had never watched a presidential debate. I told her she should at least watch the first 10 minutes of the debate so she would be able to understand Saturday Night Live’s parody video of it a few days later. To my surprise, she watched the whole thing. “It’s just so fascinating!” she said.

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic and a month and a half into school, much remains uncertain. Will COVID cases go up any more on campus? Will my friends continue to stay healthy and safe? Will we be able to keep Messiah open for the rest of the semester? Will I still be able to connect with my Young Life students when it’s too cold to meet in someone’s backyard? Will my absentee ballot come on time? If I’ve learned anything about this COVID-19 season, it’s that every answered question will be replaced by a new unanswered one. We grow, we adapt, we adjust, but there’s always one new thing to get used to. Uncertainty has become the new normal, change a strong and constant force.

The Author’s Corner with Louis DeCaro, Jr.

Louis DeCaro, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church History at Alliance Theological Seminary. He has also kept a blog on John Brown since 2005. This interview is based on his new book, The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper’s Ferry Raider (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The short answer is that I have been a student of the life and letters of John Brown for over twenty years and in 2018 it was announced that a popular movie was being produced about one of John Brown’s black Harper’s Ferry raiders, Shields Green. Originally, I intended only to write an article in advance that I hoped to have published when the film was released. When I began to gather my sources, things began to catch my eye that I had overlooked, and the first draft of my “article” turned out to be nearly one hundred pages. This led to a conversation with the amazing Clara Platter at NYU Press, who encouraged me to consider a book. The funny thing is that the movie, “Emperor,” which was finally released not too long ago, ends with a fictive conclusion about Shields Green’s son writing a book about his father. So while the fictional story in the movie brings forth a book, the movie itself prompted me to write a real book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: The story of John Brown has been misunderstood and misrepresented in conventional histories, but even sympathizers have overlooked his young raiders, especially the black raiders. The black raider Shields Green is the most challenging to find in the historical record of the Harper’s Ferry despite his storied role and yet his legacy provides insight into depth of racism in the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read The Untold Story of Shields Green?

LD: This work offers layers of historical consideration: (1) what it means to try to reconstruct a man’s story based on scattered and limited evidence; (2) what the story of Shields Green reveals about a kind of self-made black abolitionist, even as historians are starting to appreciate the antislavery story that is more appreciative of black leadership; (3) what Shields Green as a both a protagonist of justice and a victim of injustice reveals about the real nature of the United States in the antebellum era; (4) a challenge to the hackneyed, conventional narrative of John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid; (5) a consideration of the significance of how black people were portrayed in Brown’s time, especially Shields Green, whose image only survives through sketches made by white men; and (6) a consideration of how Green’s story was stylized, first by Frederick Douglass, and then relayed by historians down to recent history.

JF: When did you decide to become an American historian?

LD: From childhood I was always enamored by history, especially in biography (and particularly that of Abraham Lincoln), and I suppose the most compelling biographies for me were “American” stories (with the exception of my extended flirtation with the life of the Renaissance monk, Girolamo Savonarola). However, my academic and seminary training was largely centered upon European history and Reformed theology. What brought me back to the history of the United States was a passionate interest in African American history and racial justice, especially the study of Malcolm X, which yielded my first publications. Ultimately, Malcolm made me think about “American history” again, and in a sense, pointed me toward John Brown.

JF: What is your next project?

LD: I’m not sure. I’m in conversation with my editor about that now. Certainly, I intend to revisit John Brown, especially his role in Kansas and possibly prepare a narrated collection of his letters and primary documents. But I have other irons in the fire that reflect my interests in history and religion.

JF: Thanks, Louis!

The Author’s Corner with Paul Matzko

Paul Matzko is Editor for Tech and Innovation at the Cato Institute. This interview is based on his new book, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Radio Right?

PM: The idea came to me while reading Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors for a graduate seminar. I realized that many of the Southern Californians in her book had unmentioned ties to a fundamentalist radio preacher in New Jersey named Carl McIntire. As it so happened, I lived in Philadelphia at the time and McIntire’s archives were housed just up the road at Princeton Theological Seminary. As I started digging in, I realized that McIntire was just one part of a very large, informal network of right-wing radio broadcasters who sprung up almost overnight on national airwaves by the early 1960s. The story of their sudden rise to political significance—as well as the surprising lengths to which their political and theological opponents were wiling to go to silence them—has never been fully told before.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Radio Right?

PM: Conservative, religious broadcasters in the 1960s played a vital but mostly overlooked role in the creation of the New Right. The best indicator of their influence is the sweeping censorship campaign organized against them by the John F. Kennedy administration, the Democratic National Committee, and the National Council of Churches.

JF: Why do we need to read The Radio Right?

PM: It challenges the over-intellectualized, male-focused, top-down, received narrative of the rise of the New Right. You’ll read about suburban housewives boycotting Polish ham imports, a protest ‘funeral’ for free speech conducted in Revolutionary Era garb on the green behind Independence Hall, a converted World War Two minesweeper blasting pirate radio off the coast of Cape May, and an Oval Office tape linking the sitting president to the most successful censorship campaign of the past half century. 

I would also argue that historians of the period tend to overweight personalities and underweight the importance of structure, the submerged political, economic, and cultural institutions which create the incentive structures that then drive human behavior. To borrow Marx’s terminology, I wanted to focus on the phenomenal rather than the epiphenomenal. Thus this book emphasizes shifts in the supply of conservative ideas rather than, as is more common, changes in the demand for conservative ideas.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PM: In college, I intended to become a Byzantinist specializing in imperial interactions with crusaders. (I blame an early teenage reading of Robert Payne’s lovely The Dream and the Tomb.) A glancing encounter with Greek and French instruction convinced me I didn’t have the requisite linguistic aptitude. 

But while at Temple University, a professor challenged me to not run away from my past when looking for research projects, that my odd background could be an asset to be mined rather than a problem to be avoided. “Write what you know,” he said, and what I knew was the history of American fundamentalism and conservative politics. That was the same semester as the grad seminar where I read McGirr and made the McIntire connection. 

JF: What is your next project?

PM: I would like to write a sequel to The Radio Right. One of the people named on the Oval Office tape I mentioned above—and thus implicated in the anti-Radio Right censorship campaign—was US Senator John Pastore. Pastore is perhaps best known for chairing the congressional committee hearings in 1969 where Fred Rogers testified in favor of government support for public media. There’s a connection, to put it bluntly, between the creation of National Public Radio / Public Broadcasting System and the censorship campaign I’ve already described. And while in this book I teased the importance of radio to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, there’s much more to be written about how the Carter and Reagan administrations’ demolition of the Fairness Doctrine led to the rise of conservative talk radio in the 1980s.

JF: Thanks, Paul!

Out of the Zoo: Joan of Arc

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reports on her class on the trial of Joan of Arc—JF

I loved The Lord of the Rings movies growing up. I watched them for the first time with my mom in elementary school–she skipped all the parts that were too scary or gross. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I watched them again a few years later I understood more. After that, the Lord of the Rings saga became a staple in our family–for sick days, movie nights and especially long car trips in our Dodge minivan with built-in television screens. My cousin Abby, who is now a children’s librarian in the Grand Rapids area, even took my siblings and I to see a midnight showing of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug when we were in eighth grade.

One of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings movies is a scene from The Return of the King. As Frodo and Sam draw ever nearer to Mount Doom, Legolas, Gimli, and several other familiar faces are left to defend Minas Tirith from a giant army of orcs. In the middle of the heated battle, the evil Witch-King shows up and picks a fight with Eowyn, a noblewoman from Rohan who disguises herself as a man to defend Middle Earth. “You fool, no man can kill me,” the Witch-King rasps, with Eowyn in a choke-hold. “Die now.” A few seconds later, Eowyn escapes from the his grasp and rips off her helmet to reveal long golden hair. “I am no man!” she exclaims, thrusting her sword forward and striking the Ringwraith with a fatal blow.

As a self-proclaimed tomboy in elementary and middle school, I wanted to be like Eowyn when I grew up. I probably could have quoted her battle scene in my sleep. She was bold and strong and brave–the ultimate example of girl power. I think I liked watching Eowyn because I saw some of myself in her–but I also saw the kind of person I wanted to be.

At Messiah University this semester, I’m taking a class about a young woman who reminds me a lot of Eowyn–Joan of Arc. She wasn’t a noblewoman from Rohan, but a peasant girl from Domrémy, France. To be frankly honest, I didn’t know much about Joan before my class started, and I still  have a lot to learn. But in the month that I’ve studied her thus far, I’ve encountered a devout, loyal, fearless young woman who cast aside gender norms, listened to God’s voice, and tirelessly sought the greater good of France. Like Eowyn, Joan was brave, and she wore men’s clothes into battle too! There’s no magic ring or Witch-King in Joan’s story, but she did live in a world that looks a lot different from our own. To someone who loves history–and even to someone who doesn’t–Joan’s life is just as intriguing as a fantasy novel. Like Eowyn, I see some of myself in Joan of Arc–in her stubbornness and her passion for justice. Yet in Joan I also see the kind of person I want to become–someone who is bold, courageous and full of faith.

I am grateful to my professor, Dr. Joseph Huffman, for introducing me to Joan of Arc this semester. As we progress through the transcript of her trial in the coming weeks, I hope I will better comprehend with greater fullness the woman she was–a task which may never be completely achieved. Because unlike movie characters, historical figures are complex and ever-changing. They can’t be easily captured in a few words on a page or a few minutes on a movie screen. Nonetheless, we still have lots to learn from them.

The Author’s Corner with Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin T. Arrington is Site Manager at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, The Last Lincoln Republican: The Presidential Election of 1880 (University Press of Kansas, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Last Lincoln Republican?

BA: Well, the simplest answer is that the University Press of Kansas asked me to write it. They first approached a friend/colleague/mentor of mine, Heather Cox Richardson, to see if she’d be interested in writing it. Fortunately for me, her plate was already full, and she was kind enough to send them my way.

I was excited to take on the project for a couple of reasons. First, I knew about the University Press of Kansas’s excellent series on presidential elections and had long hoped they would get one out about 1880, when James A. Garfield ran as the Republican candidate. I’ve lived and breathed Garfield for over eleven years now while working at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.

Secondly, I was intrigued by the prospect of having a format to work out the thesis I’d been developing for a while about Garfield as the last of the original, “first generation” Republicans to be elected president and what that meant for where the Republicans were going as a party and where it might have taken the country had Garfield lived.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Last Lincoln Republican?

BA: The Republican and Democratic parties were both in transition in 1880. James A. Garfield represented the last of the original Republicans who viewed their party as one dedicated to civil rights and at least some degree of equality—racial, economic, political—for all.

JF: Why do we need to read The Last Lincoln Republican?

BA: James Garfield is, like a lot of post-Civil War presidents, considered little more than a footnote in American history. I hope people will read this book and get a better sense of who he was and what he stood for, and why he might have been a great president had he lived.

The loss of Garfield was of course tragic for his family, but I think it was tragic for the nation as well. The Democratic Party at this point was all-in on re-establishing white supremacy in the South, and voters rejected that vision for the country’s future (albeit very narrowly) in 1880. So what Garfield—vocally anti-slavery before the Civil War, a Union general during it, and a longtime advocate for the civil rights of the formerly enslaved while in Congress—might have been able to accomplish to keep the country moving forward on civil rights instead of regressing is, to me, one of the greatest “what ifs” in American history. He had all the makings of a strong and excellent president.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BA: I am an American historian, focusing on nineteenth century politics and especially the early Republican Party. I got very interested in history as a teenager because of where I grew up: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. History was the only subject in school that interested me or in which I had any talent at all. I went to college as a history major, but frankly unsure what I wanted to do for a career. In the summer of 1994, between my junior and senior years of college, I did a fulltime, unpaid internship at Gettysburg National Military Park in my hometown. From that day on, I knew I wanted a career in the National Park Service, which I’ve been lucky to have now for the past twenty-one years. For the first ten years of that career, I worked at a park in Nebraska, where I was very fortunate to have a boss who encouraged me in my effort to get a Ph.D. in history. So, while working I also attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and got my doctorate.

History is still the only academic subject that really grabs me and for which I have any aptitude. My children know that I’m of no help when they have questions about science or math homework; fortunately, my wife is much smarter than me and can help in those subjects. I’ve loved my career in the National Park Service and as an American historian and can’t imagine doing anything else.

JF: What is your next project?

BA: I’m not sure yet. I’ve been thinking about tackling a new birth-to-death biography of James A. Garfield. The last one was published over forty years ago (Garfield, by Allan Peskin) but is still quite good. I’ve also toyed with the idea of a project that explores how different parts of the country mourned Garfield after his death.

JF: Thanks, Benjamin!

Out of the Zoo: The Stoning of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reflects on the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and how some evangelical responded to news of her death. —JF

On Friday evening, my phone buzzed. I was in the middle of writing a book review of Speaking of Siva, but I was glad for a distraction. “Did you see about rbg??” My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. I searched “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” on my phone, even though I knew deep down what probably happened.  It didn’t take long for Google to confirm my worst suspicions. The infamous 2020 had taken another life.

I went upstairs and shared the news with my roommate Rachel, who had been reading Henry V for her Shakespeare class on one of four couches in our upstairs living room. When my housemates Emily and Chloe got back from a late night Walmart trip, we mourned the nation’s loss together. An hour later, the four of us cuddled up in blankets and watched On the Basis of Sex together in her honor. We had a discussion afterward about the barriers that we will never have to overcome because she knocked them down for us. We talked about the challenges women in our country still face.

Whenever the world loses a celebrity, the internet gets a rapid facelift. I still remember when Robin Williams died in 2014 and Facebook was plastered with sketches of a tearful Genie hugging a cartoon Robin with the caption reading “We ain’t never had a friend like you.” Just a few weeks ago, the world said goodbye to King T’challa and beautiful artwork depicting Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther dominated the web. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death proved no exception to this phenomenon. Yet between what seemed like hundreds of photographs, quotes, and condolences in her honor, I scrolled past a Facebook post that caught me off guard.

The status update, which had nearly 5,000 comments and twice as many shares, held nothing back in calling down God’s wrath on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and the American Christians who supported her). Peppered with scripture, the post compared her to King Herod and Hitler. For her support of abortion, her rulings on homosexual marriage, and her apparent attack on religious liberties the post names her Jezebel, a woman who suffered “on a sickbed that GOD himself threw her on!” Towards the end of the post the author writes, “Ginsburg has now discovered that there is a court higher than the one called ‘Supreme’ and she does not sit in the seat of the judge, but as the defendant… The justice of God knows no delay, and the law of God knows no limits.”

I choose to believe that the man who wrote this post comes from a place of sincerity. He seems to disagree with many of the decisions that have defined Ginsburg’s career—and he has the right to.  He genuinely sees her as the personification of everything that is unrighteous and ungodly, a true and worthy enemy. In many ways I do agree with what he wrote. While I recognize the issue is incredibly complex, I am unashamedly pro-life. I affirm a traditional view of marriage. Like the author of this post I believe that God cares deeply about justice. I believe that we will all have to stand before the judgement seat of God someday. Without the saving grace of Jesus covering my sins, I know that the Judge would certainly not rule in my favor. Yet I will not pass judgement on Ruth Bader Ginsburg because it is not my place to do so.

It is not my place to pass judgement on a woman God created. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is hardly my enemy, but there’s no denying that many Christians view her as such. However as I understand it, the Bible doesn’t say to damn your enemy, call her Jezebel, and rejoice when she draws her last breath. It says to let God, the king and author of the universe, be the judge. It reminds us to forgive, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. There’s a story in the Bible—in John 8—about another woman a lot of religious people didn’t like very much. Except she wasn’t the second female justice on the Supreme Court–she was an adultress caught in the act. When defending this woman from the Pharisees who were about to stone her to death, Jesus himself said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Minutes later, every stone dropped to the floor.

Out of the Zoo: 2,254 COVID Tests

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about the recent COVID-19 testing at Messiah University—JF

The mass email came on a Monday afternoon, right before my last class of the day. “Did you see that they’re doing mass COVID testing?”  a housemate asked a few minutes before I logged into zoom for “Theology and American Culture” with Dr. David Weaver-Zercher. “We all have to get tested? When? Why?” another housemate asked. I didn’t have time to read the email blast before class started, but I thought about it throughout the whole zoom call. Was there an outbreak or something? I thought. Should I pack an emergency bag just in case? Question after question filled my mind like air in a balloon. Even after class was over and I got the chance to read through the announcement, uncertainty still swirled in the pit of my stomach.

It didn’t take long for rumors to consume Messiah University like a raging wildfire. Some said the apartments designated for quarantining students were already almost filled to capacity. Others were convinced Messiah wouldn’t be open for much longer. A Messiah student I follow on Instagram even posted a picture with a friend holding up lyrics to a Taylor Swift song. In plastic red script the letterboard read “I think I’ve seen this film before… and I didn’t like the ending” with #covidsucks in the caption. Even though Messiah only had five confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the time, horror stories coming from other universities–of hundreds of positive cases and thousands more students in quarantine–had us all on edge. But can you blame us?

At the Harbor House—Messiah University’s special interest house for members of the honors program—we were particularly apprehensive. Because we are considered the biggest “nuclear family” on campus, all twelve housemates needed negative test results in order for us all to avoid an impromptu two week quarantine. We hoped and prayed against positive cases as testing approached, but an ominous sense of unease still hung in the air. “I have a feeling at this time next week things will be a lot different,” my housemate Emily Decker predicted grimly.

Messiah University’s staff did what they could to put students at ease. All week, professors let us know that they were praying for us. They checked in at the beginning of class and offered comforting words. They let us know they were available for us if we needed anything–even if we just needed someone to talk to. President Kim Phipps sent out a video message on Thursday morning–the day testing was set to begin–with encouragement and clarification. She assured us that no, Messiah was not on the verge of closing and no, the swabs the nurses were going to use would not go all the way up to our brain. Over the next few days Messiah students made their way to Brubaker Auditorium during their assigned time slot. On a normal year chapel services would be held in Brubaker twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Instead of rows of chairs and drowsy students, Brubaker showcased lines of X’s, spaced 6 feet apart, two giant jugs of hand sanitizer at the doors, and busy nurses donning lab coats and masks. Heading to the auditorium last Thursday morning felt both familiar and strange, but mostly just strange.

A few days after testing was completed, we received another email blast. “Check your mass emails!!” Emily Decker texted in our house group chat. “2,254 tests and only one positive!!!!!!” The bricks that had been weighing on my shoulders all week clattered to the floor. After a week of tension and uncertainty and strangeness, I could finally breathe again. Only one positive out of over two thousand tests–nothing short of a miracle. All the girls in my house were safe and healthy, and none of us even had to quarantine. God is so good.

Out of the Zoo: Building Bridges

Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about her church’s journey toward racial reconciliation—JF

On June 14, 2020, I logged into my laptop and connected it to my family’s living room television for our weekly Sunday morning church live stream. Nibbling on my strawberry toaster strudel and trying not to drip the icing on the journal I use for sermon notes, I watched the pre-service announcement slides cycle-through on the screen. My parents settled into their usual spots on the couch as we waited for the five-minute countdown to reach zero. I was still in my pajamas. It seemed like a regular Sunday.

The break from normalcy came after the first worship set came to close. Pastor Bryan Tema took the stage, but the typical table he usually uses during sermons was replaced by two armchairs. “Today is a very unique day in that we are going to have a conversation,” he explained. Pastor Michael Brown, the CEO and President of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, would be joining us to talk about what’s been going on in the news–but not about politics or the coronavirus pandemic. Pastor Brown, Tema explained, would be leading the congregation in a conversation about race.

Pastor Brown had given sermons at gracespring before, but this time he spoke words I never expected to hear at my church in the middle of Michigan suburbia. He talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, explaining that using the term “All Lives Matter” is like spraying a fire hose on a whole neighborhood when only one house is burning. Pastor Brown shared his own weariness, expressing that people of color in the United States are just plain tired of the way they’ve been treated. He pointed out that in order for meaningful change to take place, we’re going to have to shake things up. We’re going to have to leave our comfort zones.

At the end of the service, Pastor Tema offered a next step. Whoever was interested in learning more about racial reconciliation was invited to participate in a virtual book club led by my old youth pastor, Kenneth Price and his wife Monica. I signed up the very next day. Over the next several weeks, we progressed through Latasha Morrison’s book, Be the Bridge. Like during Pastor Brown’s sermon, in the book club I heard words–like “white privilege,” “microaggressions,” and “whitewashing”–that I never thought would be uttered at church. Three generations of congregants gathered over Zoom every Wednesday night to learn how to lament our nation’s racist past, confess our own stereotypes and complacency, repent and seek reconciliation. We learned how to build bridges of racial reconciliation and even talked about how our church, our “family” as Kenneth puts it, can continue to build more bridges in the weeks, months, and years to come. 

This is what the Church is supposed to look like. Brothers and sisters in Christ coming together with open hands and open hearts, ready to listen and learn. Believers seeking justice instead of passively accepting injustice. Christ-followers refusing to shy away from conversations because they’re uncomfortable or because the work of reconciliation is too hard. Family members celebrating diversity, seeking understanding, and spurring one another toward love and good works.

Ten weeks later, my Be the Bridge book club has finally come to an end. I actually finished the last two weeks of the study from the basement of Messiah University’s Harbor House. I’m not sure what my next major steps will be on this journey, but until I do I’ll keep studying history and reading The Hate U Give. I’m not sure what the future holds for gracespring either, but I pray this summer will prove a catalyst for a family-wide journey towards racial reconciliation.

The Author’s Corner with Francis Bremer

One small candleFrank Bremer is Professor Emeritus of history at Millersville University. This interview is based on his new book, One Small Candle: The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write One Small Candle?

FB: As we approached the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower and the settlement of the Pilgrim colony, I realized that for a long time scholars had neglected the religious dimension of the story. Anticipated new studies were going to examine the impact of the settlement on the lives and cultures of the indigenous people, and the contributions the settlers made to the political structure of the region. What was most important to the people themselves, their faith, was in danger of being ignored.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of One Small Candle?

FB: The congregation of believers commonly referred to as the Pilgrims was formed and shaped by English lay men and women of faith who moved first to the Netherlands and then to New England in order to continue their search for a further reformation. The example and advice they provided to the early settlers of Massachusetts determined the character of the new England Way of puritan church practice.

JF: Why do we need to read One Small Candle?

FB: Despite the best efforts of many scholars the popular perception of puritans is that they were steeple-hatted killjoys with dreadful fashion-sense who persecuted dissenters, and executed witches. These assertions are all exaggerated to various extents, but the fact is that most attention to the puritans (including the “Pilgrims”) focuses solely on the negative aspects of their beliefs and practice. In terms of legacy they are mistakenly portrayed as the source of modern evangelical conservative politics. While acknowledging the warts, I wanted to explore some elements of the story that are worth our consideration. Their belief in lay empowerment contributed to forms of participatory government in congregations, towns, and other political entities. Their belief in the importance of reading scripture led them to require all–men and women, servants and slaves–to be taught to read. Their openness to “further light” made them less dogmatic than most of their religious contemporaries, though not as open to diversity as we are. Their commitment to the welfare of the larger community as opposed to individual self-advancement provided a model social gospel, though one limited to their own small society.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

FB: I have been interested in stories of the past for as long as I can remember. Short summer vacations in New England when I was a child focused my interest on that region. When I developed a taste for theology as an undergraduate at Fordham University, that, combined with my New England interest, made puritanism an attractive field of study. While I have taught courses on numerous aspects of American History, I consider myself a religious historian of the early modern Atlantic world. I have been studying, restudying, lecturing and writing on puritanism in the Atlantic world for over fifty years. Most of my teaching was directed at undergraduates and in my books I have tried to explain complex notions in a way accessible to ordinary readers, because I believe that knowing about and thinking about the past helps us to be better citizens.

JF: What is your next project?

FB: In recent years I have found myself reconsidering some of the assumptions about early New England and puritanism that I had adopted from the work of earlier scholars and promulgated myself. The results have been reflected in some of my recent works. In keeping with this revisiting of familiar views, I am reconsidering the role of women in the development of puritanism. While the “virtuous wives” written about by Laurel Ulrich and the radicalism of figures such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer are part of the story, I am more interested in the women who formed congregations by attesting to covenants, who helped other believers understand the state of their own souls by sharing their professions of faith, who prophesied in formal and informal church settings, who wrote religious treatises, who voted in congregational meetings, and–in England–actually preached publicly.

JF: Thanks, Frank!

The Author’s Corner with Eric Smith

Oliver HartEric Smith is Senior Pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, Tennessee and Adjunct Professor of Historical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. This interview is based on his new book, Oliver Hart and the Rise of Baptist America (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Oliver Hart?

ES: I wrote Oliver Hart and the Rise of Baptist America mostly because I wanted to tell the story of Oliver Hart, arguably the most important evangelical leader of the pre-Revolutionary South, whose thirty-year ministry in Charleston transformed Baptist life in the region. I also wanted to tell the understudied story of American Baptist transformation across the long eighteenth century; Hart provides a particularly useful window into that narrative. 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Oliver Hart?

ES: My book argues that Oliver Hart played a pivotal role in the rise of Baptist America in the second half of the eighteenth century by practicing a singular and understated style of religious leadership. Through his earnest piety, relational skills, and ability to integrate Baptist precisionism with the evangelical revivalism of the Great Awakening, Hart became Southern Baptists’ most important pioneer and a key contributor to Baptist ascendancy in America. 

JF: Why do we need to read Oliver Hart?

ES: My book is the only biography of Oliver Hart, Southern Baptists’ most important pioneer and one of the most important evangelical leaders of the eighteenth century. If you read my book, you will also discover how American Baptists began the eighteenth century a small, scattered, disorganized sect, but ended it a large, rapidly growing, increasingly sophisticated, and relatively unified denomination in the young republic.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?

ES: I have always been fascinated by the past! As a child in West Tennessee, I grew up enchanted by American history–exploring Shiloh National Military Park, listening to stories about Davy Crockett, watching the Ken Burns Baseball documentary on PBS with my dad, reading presidential biographies–and I’ve just never gotten over it. I’ve also always loved to write. So as a historian, I get to pursue the sheer joy of learning for myself, and then try to share what I’ve learned by telling the very best story I can to others. I’d love to produce for readers the kinds of informative and enjoyable stories about the past that I’ve benefited from through the years. My work so far has focused on Baptists, an important but relatively understudied group in American religious history. Since this is my own tradition, I have a personal interest in understanding how the Baptists have lived, worshipped, and participated in the larger American story (for good and for bad) through the centuries. Along the way, maybe I can shed some light on the Baptists for others, too. 

JF: What is your next project?

ES: I have completed a biography of the eccentric but highly influential Baptist John Leland, which is currently under consideration with a publisher, and I have begun work on a critical biography of the nineteenth-century Southern Baptist leader John A. Broadus.

JF: Thanks, Eric!

Out of the Zoo: Trying Our Best

IMG_20180904_195550199Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reflects on the challenges of teaching and learning in a pandemic.  —JF

I remember how excited I was to work out at Messiah’s Falcon Fitness Center for the first time. Brand new, nearly 15,000 square feet, and decked out with state-of-the-art equipment, Messiah’s gym was a serious upgrade from my high school weight room. Plus, I heard on a campus tour that you could use the screens on the treadmills to play Netflix or Hulu while you exercise. As a freshman and a sophomore I remember going to the gym nearly every day–sometimes twice, if my fitness class was meeting–to lift weights and run. Needless to say, I finished several seasons of The Office, Brooklyn 99, and New Amsterdam over the past two years, all while getting my steps in. 

Due to recent circumstances, I don’t go to the fitness center as much this year. In fact, I haven’t been there at all since I moved in a week and a half ago.  Don’t get me wrong, the fitness center staff has implemented and enforced strict social distancing guidelines to keep Messiah’s community safe from COVID-19. Many students are comfortable going to the gym right now, but I’m just not there yet. So for now I’m getting up early to run a couple miles around the block before everyone is out and about on campus–with a mask hanging around my neck just in case. It looks like I might need to find another time to watch Netflix this year. 

It’s hard to be a college student during a pandemic. Classes, internships, volunteer opportunities, even exercise routines have been hastily interrupted, altered, or cancelled altogether. Names are more difficult to remember, friends harder to connect with. Every additional rule and extra responsibility feels like another weight added to an already-heavy backpack. The fear of an impromptu fourteen-day quarantine is ever-looming. We’re encouraged to have a suitcase of essentials packed to take with us if we start showing symptoms or have been exposed to someone with the virus. 

I’m sure it’s hard to be a professor during a pandemic, too. Technological difficulties arise. Masks muffle students questions and make conversations challenging to facilitate. At Messiah, classes are often held in two different rooms and professors are expected to teach students in both classrooms simultaneously. Even the most experienced teachers are thrown for a loop, apologizing to students when they feel they have not been able to deliver their usual caliber of education.

There are plenty of angry voices out there claiming they know what’s best for students and teachers alike during this season. “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!” a typical Facebook post reads. “CLOSE DOWN CAMPUS!” someone else writes on Twitter. They don’t ask. They don’t empathize. They just shout. They don’t listen or show compassion. They just politicize the millions of students trying to learn and teachers trying to teach in the midst of a world turned upside-down. 

Before you post,  before you reprimand a student or teacher or school board for the decisions they’ve made, please keep the following in mind. This year we are juggling what feels like a thousand things at once. It is a hard time to be a student, and it is a hard time to be a teacher. We are trying our best, and our educators are doing the same. We are all doing what we can. Instead of criticism, instead of hatred, some of us could really benefit from an encouraging word or two right now. And like always, we could all use a little bit of grace.

The Author’s Corner with Baird Tipson

Inward BaptismBaird Tipson is Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Gettysburg College. This interview is based on his new book, Inward Baptism: The Theological Origins of Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Inward Baptism?

BT: The two and a half centuries following the Reformation (c. 1500-1750) saw critical changes in how people understood Protestant Christianity. For many, a religion that had once occurred largely invisible sacraments presided over by an ordained clergy became located primarily in the individual conscience and–for many–in perceptible experiences of the inward activity of the Holy Spirit.

 JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inward Baptism?

BT: Inward Baptism argues that accepting Luther’s fundamental insights would eventually shift the balance from encountering the divine in clerically-controlled church services to encountering the divine in personal, largely interior, experience. Where Luther urged Christians to draw assurance of their being in God’s good graces from their having been baptized as infants, Wesley insisted they must–as adults–perceive the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts.

JF: Why do we need to read Inward Baptism?

BT: I hope I can convince conscientious readers of two things (1) the enormous differences between a sacramentally-oriented Christianity and one based primarily on knowing Jesus as a Christian’s personal savior, and (2) the possibility that evangelical Christianity is not some recent aberration but a virtually inevitable result of Protestantism’s commitment to justification by faith.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of Inward Baptism.

BT: Since this is a work of historical theology, I worked chiefly in printed sources, primarily the writings of individual theologians. (I did use a few manuscript sources as well). Since for the most part I was working beyond my own areas of specialization, I tested my interpretations against a raft of secondary sources. In the first three chapters, the printed sources were rarely in English, so I compared my own translations with those of other scholars wherever possible. Fortunately, much of my source material is available digitally, particularly in Early English Books Online and on the website of the Post-Reformation digital library.

JF: What is your next project?

BT: I am presently working on differing understandings within the Anglican tradition of The Book of Common Prayer. Recent scholarship has demonstrated to my satisfaction that Thomas Cranmer’s two prayer books (1549 and 1552) were transitional products that reflected his evolving theological commitments; had he lived and circumstances permitted, he would undoubtedly have made further modifications. But the Anglican tradition has come to understand The Book of Common Prayer as reflecting something called “Anglicanism,” in the process gliding over areas where Cranmer’s language was purposely imprecise. I am particularly interested at the moment in how participation in the sacraments does or does not “assure” the worshipper of God’s favor

JF: Thanks, Baird!

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Blythe

blythe-cover (2)Christopher Blythe is Research Associate at the Maxwell Institute’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University. This interview is based on his new book, Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Terrible Revolution?

CB: I have a deep interest in how different communities have interpreted the Book of Revelation for their times and situations. Obviously, throughout the history of Christianity there have been varied interpretations of millennialism–what I tried to do was zero in on this particularly last days minded church and see how these ideas develop and circulate. I noticed that treatments of Latter-day Saint apocalypticism focused almost exclusively on the Church’s leadership and official statements. So, I set out to discover the voices of the laity and by the end of my research, I had collected hundreds of diaries and letters that included lay prophecies, visions, dreams, and so on. It presents a very different and more complete story.

Terrible Revolution is based on a dissertation I completed five years ago under the supervision of John Corrigan at Florida State University. His encouragement also led me to research this topic and write this book.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Terrible Revolution?

CB: Terrible Revolution argues that nineteenth-century apocalypticism developed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in response to a hostile relationship with the federal government of the United States. The Church hierarchy encouraged an emphasis on apocalyptic judgments during this period, but following Utah statehood, they came to carefully police these ideas when propagated publicly by members of the laity.

JF: Why do we need to read Terrible Revolution?

CB: If this was 2019, I would say that the greatest contribution of Terrible Revolution is its study of lay Latter-day Saints and how they have come to reserve some ideas and experiences to a private sphere. In 2020, I think people need to read this book because it shows how many Americans use an apocalyptic lens to make sense of widespread anxiety. This is certainly true of the current pandemic, but it has been true of earlier moments as well. For those who do want to read it, for the next several months, it can be purchased for 30% off when ordering from Oxford University Press with the code: AAflyG6.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CB: As a teenager in the mid-1990s, I began to read diaries from the Latter-day Saint past collected on a website–just for fun. I can remember how excited I was to find that I could lay out multiple sources for the same event and see how perspectives varied. A big part of my own passion for history is because I think the process is so rewarding and enjoyable. I decided to direct my work towards “lived religion” or “vernacular religion” after discovering Robert Orsi’s Thank you St Jude and David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder; Days of Judgment. Orsi and Hall beautifully modeled how to write about the way religious belief played out in individual lives.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: I’m working on a couple books right now, but the one I am most excited about at the moment is a reception history of George Washington’s vision. This vision was first written during the Civil War as a fictional account of Washington’s encounter with an angelic guide at Valley Forge. The angel would show him the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and a future foreign invasion on American soil. This short text has re-emerged numerous times among American religious groups, who often assumed this was an actual account of Washington’s experience. I look at how this vision was embraced by Catholics, Pentecostals, Latter-day Saints, and others, who each found their own meanings within the story, while also buttressing their American identities. 

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Out of the Zoo: Back to School

IMG_20200825_145436125Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes  about her return to Messiah University. —JF

“Our primary goal is to keep campus open.” 

The weighty words hung in the air like dust near a sunny window. My housemates and I gathered in our basement as Wyatt Sattazahn, our Assistant Resident Director, hosted a mandatory back-to-campus meeting on Zoom. Along with the typical exchange of contact information and the reminders about parking passes and roommate agreements, Wyatt explained Messiah’s reopening plan. He talked to us about proper mask-wearing techniques and emphasized the importance of social distancing. There will be no visitation in any capacity (for at least two weeks), no large gatherings, and no unmasked interactions (outside of “nuclear family” units). Wyatt’s addendum didn’t catch me by surprise, but it did remind me of the sacrifices my peers and I will need to continue to make in order for Messiah University to remain open for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Whether we like it or not, sacrifices are vital in order for communities to flourish. We Messiah students have been reminded of this fact several times this year already. But we learn the same lesson from history, and from the Christian faith. In the eighteenth-century, when American colonists thought Britain had burdened them with an unjust tax, they banded together and sacrificed their preferences for imported British luxury goods. Two centuries later, in order to strike an important blow against segregation in Alabama, Montgomery’s black community sacrificed the convenience of riding the city bus for over a year.

Additionally, as followers of Christ, we know from Philippians 2:4 that we are not to look out for our own interests only, but also for the interests of others. We are called to put others’ needs before our own. We do this not because it is easy or fun or comfortable, but because it’s the example that Christ has set for us. May 2020 will be remembered as the year we sacrificed our own preferences for the health and safety of others.

My life “Out of the Zoo” will look a lot different this year. Messiah’s campus, once plastered with posters advertising Union dances, free concerts and festivals, is now decorated with one-way signage and reminders about social distancing. Instead of dealing solely with the “syllabus shock” that normally comes with the first week of classes, I now have a global health crisis to worry about. Young Life, which largely involves attending high school sporting events and large gatherings of students, will have to continue to be creative about finding a safe and healthy way to bring the gospel to kids. There will likely be fewer visiting speakers, movie nights, and history club events for me to write about and reflect on for this column. |

Yet with everything that’s changing, some things will remain the same. I am confident that my professors will continue to offer high-quality teaching, guidance, and relationships despite circumstances that are far from ideal. I will continue to learn–from my classes, from my experiences, and from my friends. I will dive deep into the study of the past and seek to understand how it informs this tumultuous present. And as we all learn, grow, and make sacrifices for the common good, the Lord will continue to be faithful.

The Author’s Corner with William Hart

For the good of their soulsWilliam Hart is Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College. This interview is based on his new book, “For the Good of Their Souls”: Performing Christianity in Eighteenth-Century Mohawk Country (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: I wrote my book, “For the Good of Their Souls,” in order to complicate our understanding of indigenous “conversions” to Christianity. Historians have begun to realize that the term “conversion” is inadequate to explain how and why Native peoples negotiated their relationships with missionaries and Christianity. I wanted to examine a nation that historians have long thought was nearly wholly Christian. Hence, my decision to study the Mohawks, who until not long ago, were commonly referred to as the “faithful Mohawks,” a term that carries a double meaning: Christian and loyal (to the English). In graduate school, I found the scholarly conversation among ethnohistorians about how to write about Native communities in contact with missionaries when the documentary evidence is so one-sided fascinating and challenging. My book is the first book to re-examine Mohawk Christianity in over eighty years.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: I argue that most baptized Mohawks, which in time constituted a majority of that population, did not convert to Christianity (although some did), but rather “performed” Christianity–especially Protestantism–in order to continue to survive as Mohawks in a rapidly changing world. Performing Church of England Protestantism enabled many to acquire literacy, to attain social standing in their communities, to receive more favorable diplomatic and trade relations with the English, and for some to live by a new moral code.

JF: Why do we need to read “For the Good of Their Souls”?

WH: My book, the first full-length study of Mohawk Christianity since 1938, reveals the myriad ways baptized Mohawks controlled, manipulated, and shaped according to their needs their relationship with English missionaries and schoolmasters. My research revealed that such relationships were complicated and usually did not meet the expectations of their assigned missionary. Rather most baptized Mohawks–but not all–
“performed” the rites and rituals of Protestant Christianity situationally in the presence of English surveillants. In the process, they “translated” Protestant Christianity to fit their needs and understanding.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of “For the Good of Their Souls.”

WH: My research drew heavily upon documents, Haudenosaunee culture, and scholarly research. My primary documentary sources included the Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (manuscripts), the foreign missionary society founded in 1701 affiliated with the Church of England, which contains voluminous correspondence and reports exchanged between Anglican missionaries in the British colonies and the Society in London; the multivolume records for the colonial history of New York, which contain the correspondence of civil and ecclesiastical leaders in the colony; the fourteen volume collection of the Sir William Johnson Papers; and calendars of the Dutch Reformed Church, and late eighteenth–early nineteenth-century records for early Canada. I also used evidence gleaned by anthropologists, historians, genealogists, material culturalists, linguists, archaeologists, and scholars of comparative religion, among others.

JF: What is your next project?

WH: I am interested in understanding the choices that racially marginalized people made living in the “Others’” hegemonic world in order to survive and thrive, which is the abiding theme of the Mohawk book. My next book project–“I Am a Man”: Martin Freeman, Race, Manhood, and the Cant of Colonization–examines the American Colonization Society through the life of Martin Freeman (1826-1889), a graduate of Middlebury College (salutatorian, Class of 1849), who became the first Black president of an American College–Avery College near Pittsburgh (1856-1863)–and who migrated to Monrovia, Liberia, in 1864 to teach at and become president of Liberia College. The book will take a microhistorical approach to colonization in that the details of Freeman’s life before, during, and after Middlebury will illuminate the larger cultural debate around the place of free Black Americans in nineteenth-century American society that informed the relationship between American colleges and the ACS.

JF: Thanks, William!

The Author’s Corner with Kate Moran

The imperial churchKate Moran is Associate Professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University. This interview is based on her new book, The Imperial Church: Catholic Founding Fathers and United States Empire (Cornell University Press, 2020).

JF: Why did you decide to write The Imperial Church?

KM: I grew up Catholic in California, and have long been interested in the complex place Catholic history occupies in public culture. Studying U.S. history in graduate school, I was also surprised to learn that—despite the demographic significance of Roman Catholicism in the United States—Catholic history is still often treated as a confessional sidetrack. I was inspired by a vibrant group of scholars of history, religious studies, literature, and American studies who were pushing back against that marginalization.

Specifically, in this project I set out to challenge two historiographical tendencies. One is the tendency to tell the history of Catholicism and American culture primarily as the story of a rise and fall of anti-Catholicism. The other is a tendency to see nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Catholic history as a largely Atlantic-facing story of immigration. I became curious about what to do with the many examples of non-Catholics talking about Catholicism in ways that didn’t fit a presumption of hegemonic anti-Catholicism. And I wondered what those conversations looked like well beyond the eastern seaboard cities that dominated the scholarship.

Ultimately, looking in these directions led me to something that scholars have noted in a piecemeal way, but neither named nor charted: the emergence, between the 1870s and the 1920s, of popular, cross-confessional efforts to celebrate historical Catholic missionaries as regional and even national founding fathers.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Imperial Church?

KM: The Imperial Church traces a widespread re-evaluation of the place of Roman Catholicism in U.S. history and culture during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: alongside and against powerful anti-Catholic currents, many American Protestants began to celebrate Catholic missionary histories. In the upper Midwest, Southern California, and the U.S. colonial Philippines—in journalism and travelogues, poetry and plays, monuments and pageants—American Protestants joined their Catholic compatriots in commemorating and celebrating historical Catholic missionaries as gentle and effective agents of conquest, uplift, and economic growth, as founding fathers who could serve both as origins of, and models for, the U.S. empire.

JF: Why do we need to read The Imperial Church?

KM: Speaking as an academic, I would say that The Imperial Church brings the study of U.S. religion—and particularly of Protestant-Catholic relations—together with the study of U.S. empire in new and transformative ways. It demonstrates the importance of Catholicism to the rhetoric of U.S. empire, and it demonstrates the importance of the category of empire to the history of U.S. Catholicism. It encourages us to think critically about what can sometimes be simplistic and celebratory narratives of the eventual inclusion of American Catholics into some sort of American religious “mainstream.” The cross-confessional celebration of Catholic missionaries as American heroes was absolutely an embrace of Protestant-Catholic toleration and unity; it was also predicated on the fantasy of a common white Euro-American Christianizing and “civilizing” project.

Speaking as a person living through the current moment, I would also say that The Imperial Church can help us understand vital contemporary debates about how to remember the violence and colonialism of the U.S. past, and how to reckon with its legacies and its persistence. One of the central figures of my book – the Spanish Franciscan missionary to California, St. Junípero Serra—is one of the people whose statues are currently being toppled and removed, to the relief of some and the horror of others. Part of what this book does is explain why we have so many public monuments to Serra, and to other historical Catholic missionaries, in the first place.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KM: It was a gradual decision. I’ve long been interested in–to crib from Joan Didion–the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. I came to focus on intellectual and cultural history, and American studies, because those modes of inquiry gave me tools to examine the stories people in the past told themselves about who they were and what mattered most to them. As I began teaching, I realized that good teachers of U.S. history and American studies are always encouraging students to critically engage with some of their own inherited stories: about what kind of country they think this is, and what role they want to play in its future. I feel quite honored to be part of students’ work in this regard, and to be working alongside them.

JF: What is your next project?

KM: It’s in the early stages, but I’m putting together a project on the San Francisco Magdalen Asylum. The asylum was founded in 1865 by Irish immigrant Sisters of Mercy as an attempt to provide refuge for women fleeing forced prostitution in post-Gold-Rush San Francisco. Within a few decades, the asylum also became a state-sponsored carceral institution: girls sentenced by county courts to confinement in San Francisco’s Industrial School, for crimes such as vagrancy and “improper conduct,” were sent instead to the Magdalen Asylum. As a result, the asylum was the subject of at least two lawsuits, both of which accused the county of unlawfully contracting its public duties out to a religious institution. I’m interested in using the history of this asylum to continue to explore some of the themes I worked on in The Imperial Church: the religious history of the U.S. West and Pacific; intersections of (Catholic) church and state; and the global dimensions of U.S. religious history. More specifically, I want to explore what research into the work, ideas, and charism of the sisters—entwined with what I can unearth about the work, ideas, and goals of the girls in the asylum—can tell us about the development of women’s and children’s incarceration in the United States.

JF: Thanks, Kate!