The Author’s Corner with Ryan McIlhenny

To Preach DeliveranceRyan C. McIlhenny is an independent scholar living and working in Shanghai, China. This interview is based on his new book, To Preach Deliverance to the Captives: Freedom and Slavery in the Protestant Mind of George Bourne, 1780–1845 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write To Preach Deliverance?

RM: To Preach Deliverance is a substantial revision of my dissertation from the University of California, Irvine. I have had quite a diverse journeyman experience since completing my PhD in 2008, making it difficult for me to devote my time to the manuscript. A few years ago, however, I was offered an exciting opportunity to work in Shanghai, which has provided the much-needed time for research and writing. Within a couple months of relocating to the Middle Kingdom, historian James Brewer Stewart, a leading historian of abolition, author of Holy Warriors, and founder of Historians Against Slavery, sent me an encouraging email about a review I did of a new anthology on Wendell Phillips for the Journal of the Early Republic. Knowing that Jim, a Phillips scholar, was editor emeritus of LSU’s reputable “Antislavery, Abolition, and Atlantic World” series, I asked if he would be willing to get his thoughts on my work. He enthusiastically agreed and read it. This has led to a very fruitful correspondence over the last couple years. Jim’s very constructive suggestions encouraged me to rewrite the introduction and conclusion and include a whole new chapter (Chapter 1). Jim remained supportive throughout, as did historians Richard Blackett, Edward Rugemer, and Mark Noll.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of To Preach Deliverance?

RM: To Preach Deliverance is an intellectual biography, written in the mode of cultural history, of George Bourne (1780-1845), the pioneer of immediate anti-slavery as well as the pioneer of the anti-Catholic escaped-nun genre in American literature. Bourne’s radicalism, his uncompromising opposition to slavery, shaped by a conservative Protestant outlook that became increasingly hostile to Catholicism, allowed him to formulate a unique concept of liberty that rested not on evangelical revivalism, which had a profound impact on reformist movements, but upon historic-confessional Protestantism.

JF: Why do we need to read To Preach Deliverance?

RM: There are only two biographies on Bourne. One written by his son Theodore in the late 1880s and another by John Christie and Dwight Dumond in the late 1960s. These biographies, however, focus on Bourne’s antislavery activities, ignoring for the most part his anti-Catholic sentiments. Contemporary historians have, for the most part, dismissed anti-Catholicism as either irrational or symptomatic of some kind of paranoid style in American life. I find such explanations unconvincing. My work attempts to make sense of what may seem to be in the contemporary mind two conflicting issues: a battle against human chattel bondage with an equally virulent battle against Catholicism.

Bourne was a highly influential polymathic figure engaged in a variety of nineteenth-century American issues: slavery, race, and citizenship; the role of women in abolition; Christianity and republicanism; the importance of the Bible; and the place of the church in civil society. To Preach Deliverance provides a small window into the complexities of revolutionary liberalism, the place of the Bible in antislavery, and the centrality of religious tolerance to a free society. It peels back yet another layer of the complexities of religious reform in nineteenth-century America.

Another important goal of the book—as it is for most historical monographs—is to show the relevance of the past on the present. In one important sense, history has more to do with the present than the past. In the case of To Preach Deliverance, I want readers to consider the continued legacy (or perhaps the “unfinished” realities) not only of slavery, its existence in new forms, but also religious intolerance, especially anti-Catholicism, in American culture.

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

RM: I wish I could tell you that I had always aspired to become a professional historian. I’ve always been interested in a number of disciplines—the arts, theology, political science, history, and philosophy. I had an opportunity to choose graduate studies in at least three of these areas. I eventually chose a program that allowed me to combine most of my interests. Graduate school added to my interdisciplinarity in that I came to appreciate the material dialectics and cultural texts that produce both ideas and identity. Despite my success during those formative years in grad school, it wasn’t until my mid-30s, a few years after completing my PhD, that I finally understood what it meant to be a historian. And notwithstanding the challenges that many of us face in securing a tenure-track position, given the market’s (and neoliberal administrators’) aversion to all things humanities, I don’t regret becoming a historian, a cultural historian at that. Given the cultural/linguistic turn in scholarship that often conflates artifice with artifact, fact and fiction, the historian, I believe, is needed to sift through these distinctions today more than ever.

JF: What is your next project?

RM: I’m not sure how long I’ll be here in China; indeed, I look forward to securing a position at a college or university in the states. But, for now, life in Shanghai has afforded me the time to maintain a healthy schedule for writing. I’m working on a more focused study of Spiritualism in the antebellum period and another on some of the forgotten features of American pragmatism at the turn of the twentieth century, employing a similar methodology used in To Preach Deliverance. I’m also working on two larger works—one related to religious intolerance in American history, the other on the dialogue between religion and radicalism.

JF: Thanks, Ryan!

Back In The Zoo: Trust in the Valley

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Messiah students engaged in discussion at the latest Erasmus Club dinner with Dr. Bernardo Michael. Photo by Keanan Wolf

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 a recent discussion with fellow history major about COVID-19 –JF

How will COVID-19 be remembered in 50 years? What about 100 years? What about 500?

Will future generations condemn us for the way we handled the pandemic? Will they look down on us for not doing enough? How will the hardships we experience today compare to the sufferings experienced by the generations that came before us?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I’m not convinced anyone does right now. Yet, it is these questions, and many more, that we wrestled with at the history department’s Erasmus Club dinner earlier this month. We pushed two round tables together in Martin Commons, piled our plates with various dining-hall entrees and began our discussion. We were supposed to discuss the intersection of history and memory, but within minutes our conversation veered off course and steered toward the coronavirus. No one consciously tried to bring it up, but because COVID-19 was already on everyone’s minds the topic was inevitable. The Saturday before the dinner, I found out that the first two cases of coronavirus had been discovered in Pennsylvania. Now, three weeks later, there are a few thousand cases in Pennsylvania and my home state of Michigan is a week and a half into a stay-at-home order. It’s crazy how fast things change.

How will I remember COVID-19? Right now it’s hard to be sure. Cases are still rising, the markets are still plummeting, and it’s hard to tell just how big of an impact it will have on my life, and on the lives of the people I love. I have never experienced anything like this in my entire life, and neither have my parents or my grandparents. It seems like whenever I think I have a grip on what’s going on, things change yet again.

But in the midst of all the uncertainty, I am sure of one thing: I worship a God who is working all things out for my good and his glory. At the beginning of the year, I started reading this book called Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. My boyfriend and I started it as a kind of New-Year’s resolution for the two of us. The book is all about trusting that God is in control, even when bad things happen. Even when we lose our job, even when our vacation is rudely interrupted, even when death and disease run rampant, God is still sovereign and worthy of our confidence. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God doesn’t promise that bad things won’t happen. As long as we live on this side of eternity, there will be trials, there will be suffering, and there will be tears. But he does promise to be with us through it all. He promises us peace and strength to endure. He tells us that when our foundations are shaken, when the world falls apart before us, He still remains. Isaiah 41:10 says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” 

I hope that future historians will be able to look at this season in my life and see that I trusted God with everything. I hope they will see that I chose to trust God even when it wasn’t easy, even when I didn’t feel like it, even when my heart ached. I am not there yet, but I hope I will get there someday. Will you join me?

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

They Knew They Were PilgrimsJohn Turner is Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: A few years ago, I had finished writing the second of two books about the Latter-day Saints. I wanted to write about a new topic, but one that had some continuity of themes, namely religious persecution, exile, a quest for the true church. Obviously, the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and the founding of Plymouth Colony are well-worn subjects. But I discovered that most historians neglect the story of Plymouth after the first Thanksgiving, perhaps returning to the colony with the advent of King Philip’s War. I found that there was a great deal more to the story.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Americans inaccurately have praised the Mayflower passengers for planting the seeds of republicanism that bloomed at the time of the American Founding. I argue instead that we need to examine the debates about liberty–religious liberty, political liberty, and the enslavement–present in Plymouth Colony on their own, local, seventeenth-century terms.

JF: Why do we need to read They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: It’s not quite as essential as physical distancing during a pandemic, but… we think we know the story of Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower passengers are the most famous colonists in American history, their lives scrutinized by armies of genealogists. I did not realize how poorly I had understood them until I began the research for this book. I begin my book with Robert Cushman, who as of 1603 was an apprentice to a grocer in Canterbury. He was excommunicated for posting “libels” on church doors, dabbled with something akin to antinomianism in Canterbury, became a wool comber in Leiden, had a falling out with the other organizers of the colony, and preached a remarkable lay sermon during his very brief stay in Plymouth. If you think you know the Pilgrims, think again. I promise that what you’ll learn in this book will surprise you.

I also discovered that the seventy-year history of Plymouth Colony contains a host of remarkable episodes about a variety of peoples. If you read They Knew They Were Pilgrims, you’ll learn about an expanded cast of characters: an African American slave who became one of the first “English” casualties in King Philip’s War; the decades-long struggle of Quakers for religious liberty; a female sachem who held her community together for two decades amid war and dispossession. In addition to fresh material about seventeenth-century understandings of liberty, there are a lot of gritty human stories in this book.

JF: You have now written books with subjects based in the 20th century (Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ), 19th century (Brigham Young), and now the 17th century (Plymouth). What are the challenges of writing across such a wide historical spectrum?

JT: The foremost challenge is getting up to speed on the existing scholarship. Let’s face it – there’s a tremendous volume of books appearing on so many elements of American religious history. It’s a golden age for the field, from my vantage point. So many scholars are writing deeply researched and eloquently written books. It’s very hard to keep up! Just think about the deluge of titles published in the last decade on twentieth-century evangelicals or on the Latter-day Saints.

At the same time, though, I’ve found it very refreshing to immerse myself in new places and times. We require our students to study things with which they are unfamiliar, so it’s good for us to do so as well, at least from time to time. I also love meeting new people, both people from past centuries in archival sources and new scholars who work on various subjects.

My research strategy has always been to immerse myself as much as possible in a new subject and its sources. I really marvel at the many people in our field with the ability to trace a phenomenon or group across time and place. Many recent examples come to mind, such as Erik Seeman’s Speaking with the Dead in Early America, David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land, or to mention some slightly older but even more expansive and synthetic books, Colleen McDannell’s Heaven or Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries.

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m writing a biography of Joseph Smith. It seems that despite my penchant and preference for new subjects, I can’t quite get away from early Mormonism.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Brian Luskey

men is cheapBrian Luskey is Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University. This interview is based on his new book, Men is Cheap: Exposing the Frauds of Free Labor in Civil War America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Men is Cheap?

BL: My book illuminates three interests of mine–the importance of middlemen in the nineteenth-century American economy, the cultural conversation about bad businessmen in this era, and the economic history of ordinary people in the Civil War–and constitutes my attempt to show that these themes intersect with each other.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Men is Cheap?

BL: Fought to uphold the ideal of “free labor,” the war for Union encouraged Northern entrepreneurs, employers, and soldiers to envision their impending success through the accumulation of capital, and Yankees often sought the independence that capital purchased by employing laborers whom the war had made vulnerable. The war seemed to offer some Northerners opportunities to get rich because it clarified that other Americans were poor.

JF: Why do we need to read Men is Cheap?

BL: My book shows how the Civil War and the wage labor economy shaped each other. It is about labor brokers–failed businessmen, recruiters, officers, soldiers, and bounty men–who facilitated the movement of workers–Irish immigrants, former slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union soldiers and veterans–to work in the army and in northern households during the Civil War. The economic activities of these brokers and the cultural conflict about them reveal the nature and limits of free labor ideology as northern employers sought to benefit from the destruction of slavery and slavery’s capital during the war.

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

BL: I’ve been interested in American History since a family trip to the Gettysburg battlefield when I was eight years old. My parents bought me Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War and I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I was a student at Davidson College when mentors such as Vivien Dietz, John Wertheimer, and Sally McMillen taught me not only how to be a good historian but also that being an academic historian was a career option. I fell in love with historical research and writing under their tutelage, and the rest is history.

JF: What is your next project?

BL: Honestly, I don’t know what my next book will be about, but I’m preparing to write an article about the relationships Abraham and Mary Lincoln forged with laboring people and the ways the Lincolns served as labor brokers in the Civil War Era.

JF: Thanks, Brian!

Back in the Zoo: Life Interrupted

bob goff

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 coronavirus experience thus far.  She has also changed the title of her column from “Out of the Zoo” (Kalamazoo, MI) to “Back in the Zoo.” I love it! –JF

I left Messiah College at 5 A.M. last Saturday and began my nine hour trek home to Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had never made the drive by myself before, but it was actually much less taxing than I expected. My beloved college campus receded further and further in the distance as the sun rose from behind the Allegheny Mountains, turning the sky from black to grey to blue. I listened to several episodes of the “Love thy Neighborhood” podcast my sister recommended, which made the time pass quickly. With my cruise control set at 5 mph above the speed limit and a few breaks at rest stops along the way, before I knew it I was back home watching a movie with my family and my boyfriend for the first time in over two months. I love going to school at Messiah, but it felt good to be home. Little did I know though, I wouldn’t be coming back to Messiah College for the rest of the year.

I am one of the many million college students across the globe whose life has been hastily interrupted by COVID-19. My classes are moving online, which means I’ll have to get used to an entirely new routine and style of learning. My ministry with Young Life will look different for the rest of the semester as well, for while my team is still reaching out to our high school friends virtually, I can no longer spend my afternoons and evenings in Boiling Springs attending sporting events or hanging out with girls. Two and a half months of meals, conversations, and adventures with my friends, classmates, and professors at Messiah seem to have vaporized into thin air. Indeed, Coronavirus has interrupted my life in a way I didn’t see coming. 

Yet, despite these inconveniences, I know I am still privileged above many. I have a healthy, safe home to be quarantined in for the next three weeks. My family has a freezer full of food and our internet works. My dad still has a job and even though Michigan K-12 schools are closed, my mom still gets paid. No one in my family has died from, or even been diagnosed with, the coronavirus. There are many college students in the United States, and across the world, who are not blessed with these luxuries.

In times like these, when our lives seem to be so inconveniently interrupted, I think it’s also helpful for us to remember that 2020 is not the only year in which people’s lives have been impacted so. Countless lives came to a screeching halt during World War I and World War II as civilians and soldiers alike faced death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. On September 11, 2001 thousands of New Yorkers and millions of Americans saw the world as they knew it crumble before their eyes. Civil war in Syria, economic collapse in Venezuela, conflict in Somalia and South Sudan displaced (and continue to displace) thousands of refugees every day. While a catastrophic interruption of life may be new ground for most of my fellow American college students, it may be comforting to remember that the new land we tread is not completely foreign. 

Today Messiah students and staff go back to school–this time in a completely virtual format. We will, I’m sure, become all-the-more familiar with the way coronavirus interrupts our lives and learning in the days to come. As for me, I’m trying to keep my eyes on Jesus. I can’t go back to school, and at this point I’m not supposed to leave my house until April 13. But I can send an encouraging text, check in on my friends, and continue to love people in the best way I can. One of my favorite authors of all time is this guy named Bob Goff–if you need a book for your quarantine reading list, I highly recommend Everybody Always or Love Does. He offers a challenge fitting for this season, which I will leave you with: “Loving people the way Jesus did means living a life filled with constant interruptions. Bring it.”

Out of the Zoo: National History Day

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Messiah’s state qualifiers. Photo by Chloe Kauffman.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 experience at this year’s regional National Day competition–JF

National History Day is a non-profit organization that encourages thousands of kids to engage with the past each year. Students pick a topic connected to an annual theme, research it for several months, and then find some creative way to present their findings to the public–through an exhibit, performance, documentary, website, or paper. Students who put together a particularly excellent project can proceed to the regional, state, or even national levels of the competition. Every year, Messiah College hosts one of the 12 regional NHD contests in the state of Pennsylvania. Messiah students, professors, and community members all pull together to evaluate the several hundred projects that come through the doors in what feels like a big history pep rally. To read what I wrote about NHD last year, click here.

I love National History Day for a lot of reasons. For one, it gives kids the chance to research something they’re passionate about. Competing in National History Day also introduces students to the kind of history that involves active inquiry and detective work, rather than monotonous memorization of names and dates. It allows students to explore the past in a creative, active way. National History Day shows middle and high school students that history is not a closed issue–it is something that is continually done and redone, with real relevance to the present. On top of all this, NHD gives Messiah’s history department the opportunity to reach hundreds of members of our community.

National History Day also gives me a glimpse of what my life might look like in a few years. The day before Messiah hosted its History Day competition last week, I sat on my dorm-room floor and read through the eight junior (middle school) research papers that I would be judging. As I scanned each paper and wrote comments on my evaluation sheets, I imagined helping my students with their own projects someday. I imagined advising them on their topic choices, pointing them towards primary sources, and encouraging them to research what they’re passionate about. The next day, as students and their families buzzed around Boyer Hall and the High Center, I pictured corralling my students and making sure they get to their judging sessions on time. As one teacher excitedly knelt in the aisle to photograph his students when their names were announced at the awards ceremony, I imagined cheering at the top of my lungs in support of my own students’ success. 

Judging NHD is helpful for me–and for any future history teacher for that matter–because it reveals the many challenges students face when doing their own research. It allows me to brainstorm ways I’ll encourage and push my students to try their hardest and to engage in the historical process in the future. It forces me to think about what I’ll say to my students when they’re frustrated or discouraged or feel like giving up. I even started a list. It’s far from complete, but here’s what I have so far:

  1. Research is hard. It can be frustrating sometimes. Some days you will spend hours looking for a source that isn’t there. Other days you might spend thirty minutes rewriting the same sentence over and over again before it sounds right. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad researcher or a bad writer–it’s all part of the process.
  2. History isn’t just about reporting facts–it’s about telling stories and analyzing those facts.
  3. When you come to the end of a research project, you’re now the expert on your topic. You now know more about some area of history than 99% of the rest of the people in the world. No matter where you end up placing in the competition, that’s something to be incredibly proud of!
  4. And most importantly: practice makes perfect.

Out of the Zoo: “Just Mercy”

Just MercyAnnie Thorn is a sophomore 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 film Just Mercy. –JF

The best movie theater in the world is in Plainwell, Michigan. I might be a little biased, but I have yet to find a movie theater that can beat M-89 Cinema’s $2.50 ticket price for morning showings and $5 price in the evenings. M-89 even has popcorn buckets that you can refill for free on Thursdays and for just a few cents the rest of the week. Whenever I’m home on breaks from college I try to see as many movies as I can–over winter recess I went to M-89 four times. I saw Star Wars, Little Women, and Frozen II (twice).

I’ve found only one movie theater in Pennsylvania so far that’s cheaper than M-89, and that’s the one we have on campus at Messiah College. Every week there’s a different “Lost Film” (usually a movie that’s been in theaters for a while, but hasn’t yet been released on DVD) playing there for Messiah students to watch for free. This past weekend, hundreds of students flocked to Boyer 136 to see Just Mercy, a film that tells the story of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, a “nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.”

Anthony Ray Hinton, himself freed by the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, plugged Just Mercy a few times throughout his lecture at Messiah a couple weeks ago (read about it here). Inspired by Hinton’s lecture and determined to learn more about the EJI, I made plans with a few of my friends (most of them fellow history majors) to go see it Friday night. Parmer Cinema was packed. Those who couldn’t find an empty seat sat in the front below the screen, or leaned on the walls next to the side aisles. We all sat together for the next two hours, often in tears, and watched our nation’s all-too-recent history play out before us on the screen.

I left Parmer Cinema that night with the urge to do something. I’ve seen Hinton speak, and I’ve seen Just Mercy, so what now? Is there something, anything, I can do to help those wronged by the criminal justice system? I know men are still unfairly placed on death row across the nation (one such man is scheduled to be executed in Alabama tomorrow), but what can I do about it? I’m not a lawyer like Bryan Stevenson and I don’t plan on becoming one, so I know I cannot personally free innocent convicts from death row. I am not a millionaire with the ability to donate thousands of dollars to the Equal Justice Initiative, nor am I a legislator with the power to enact criminal justice reform.

I may not be a lawyer or a millionaire or a legislator, but there is still plenty for me to do. Because I am a historian, I can uncover stories like those of Anthony Ray Hinton and Walter McMillan. Because I am a future teacher, I can then share those stories with young people and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Because I am a United States citizen, I can vote for lawmakers who will protect the vulnerable members of society from injustice. Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I can pray and trust that one day, whether in this world or the next, all wrongs will be put right. Indeed, there is plenty of work to do. 

If you do nothing else, please go see Just Mercy. It will open your eyes.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Churchill

The underground railroad and the geography of violenceRobert Churchill is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hartford. This interview is based on his new book, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Underground Railroad?

RC: When writing my first book on the militia movement, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face, I came across some abolitionist responses to the rendition of Anthony Burns from Boston that argued that the state militia, rather than assisting Burn’s master in carrying Burns back to slavery, should have used force to release Burns and protect his liberty. Once the book was done, I began to read about the Underground Railroad, a movement by which I had long been fascinated, but which I realized I knew little about. Clearly Underground activists dedicated themselves to defying the law, in some cases by armed force, in support of what they saw as the higher cause of human freedom. How, I wondered, did the inhabitants of the North respond to this movement? How did those responses change over time?

As I began to read primary accounts of Underground operations, it became clear to me that violence was at the center of this story. Fugitives from enslavement fled the systemic violence embedded in the system of slavery and in the South’s culture of honor, a particular culture of violence that I refer to as the violence of mastery. That violence followed fugitives into the North, wielded by slave catchers who asserted a right to use whatever violence they saw fit to capture fugitives, intimidate sympathetic bystanders, retaliate against Underground activists, and carry African-Americans back to slavery.

How then did Northern residents and communities respond to this violence, which many found shocking and culturally alienating? It seemed to me that understanding these responses offered insights into the way the Underground Railroad operated and also into the politics of the fugitive slave issue and into the growth of sectional alienation. And the more I looked, the more it became clear that those responses followed a clear geographical pattern.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Underground Railroad?

RC: The Underground Railroad argues that the movement operated within a cultural geography of violence in which different regions of the North offered very different responses to the presence of fugitives and to the intrusions of slave catchers. These regions exhibited different cultural norms governing violence, and Underground activists adapted their organization and methods to these norms.

JF: Why do we need to read The Underground Railroad?

RC: The book offers insights into two questions that have bedeviled historians. It explains the remarkable regional variation in the organization and operation of the Underground movement. Historians have long noted the discrepancy between stories of tightly organized, stealthy nocturnal operations in some times and places and accounts of a much more open, even boastful approach in others. My analysis of the geography of violence explains these variations across time and place, and illuminates the Underground Railroad as a living organism responding to local stimuli. The focus on violence also explains why the sectional conflict over fugitive slaves proved so explosive and alienating. Shared norms of violence are fundamental to building and a sense of community. In discovering just how different their norms governing violence were, the North and the South began to view each other as fundamentally different peoples.

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

RC: I have known since high school that I wanted to be a history teacher. History just made sense to me, and I realized from tutoring my peers that I could explain it to others in a way that made it comprehensible. After college, I enrolled in a Masters in Teaching program and received certification as a public secondary school teacher. I then joined the faculty of Longmeadow High School in Longmeadow, MA. After four years, I decided that I wanted the chance to engage history on a deeper level, so I returned to graduate school and received my Ph.D. in early American history from Rutgers University.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: The Underground Railroad describes a process of sectional alienation. This leads to a fundamental question: given that by 1860 both the North and the South had in essence given up on each other, why did the project of peaceful secession fail? This is a question that rarely gets addressed in the narrative of American history, in which war seems to follow naturally from secession. But clearly there were some, and perhaps many, in the North who were willing to contemplate parting with the South. What deprived this option of a hearing? And, given the South’s actions during the secession winter of 1860-1861, was peaceful secession in fact their objective? In answering these questions, I hope to undertake a much more complete assessment of Northern public opinion than has been offered up to now, and I hope to investigate where peaceful secession stood vs. the lure of a “short victorious war” in the preferences of Southern policy makers.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Author’s Corner with Kevin DeYoung

The religion of john witherspoonKevin DeYoung is Senior Pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, North Carolina and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon: Calvinism, Evangelicalism, and the Scottish Enlightenment (Routledge, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: The book is a revised version of the dissertation I completed at the University of Leicester under John Coffey. My interest in John Witherspoon was first piqued while reading on the origins of religious liberty in America. I started reading more and more about Witherspoon, and quickly I wanted to read everything I could from Witherspoon. I’m fascinated by how getting to know this one figure has helped me go deeper in a variety of topics: from the theology of Reformed Orthodoxy to the history of the trans-Atlantic awakenings to controversies in the Scottish Kirk to the philosophy of the Enlightenment to the founding of America. In particular, I wrote this book to push back against the received narrative that presents Witherspoon as a confused thinker who capitulated to Enlightenment ideas once in America and infused a deleterious Common Sense Realism into the bloodstream of the colonies.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: John Witherspoon is known for many things—he was a thorn in the side of the Moderate Party in the Scottish Kirk, a successful president at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), an influential moral philosopher, the conduit of Scottish Common Sense Realism into the civic and ecclesiastical life of the American colonies, an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, and, most famously, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Most scholars, however—in overlooking his parish sermons, his treatises on justification and regeneration, his Lectures on Divinity, his student addresses at Princeton, his lifelong commitment to the Westminster Standards, and his work as a Presbyterian churchman in the United States—have failed to see that Witherspoon was not just a president, philosopher, and founding father, he was also an important theologian and Reformed apologist.

JF: Why do we need to read The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: John Witherspoon’s career and ministry can be divided into almost two equal halves. For twenty-five years—from his ordination in 1743 until he sailed across the Atlantic in 1768—Witherspoon was a minister in the Church of Scotland, serving two congregations (Beith and Paisley), both on the outskirts of Glasgow. After moving to America, Witherspoon labored another twenty-six years, still as a preacher, but now also as a college president and a founding father of a new republic. Witherspoon’s theology (not to mention Witherspoon the person) cannot be understood unless we see him not only engaged with the Scottish Enlightenment, but firmly grounded in the Reformed tradition, embedded in the transatlantic evangelical awakening, and frustrated by the state of religion in the Kirk. The focus in the book on Witherspoon’s Scottish career is intentional: those that know his Scottish context well tend to be less conversant with the nuances of Reformed theology, while those that show an interest in theology tend to mine the first half of Witherspoon’s career in order to set the stage for his more famous endeavors in America. Both groups are more interested in Witherspoon’s Enlightenment credentials than his Reformation roots. My contention is that Witherspoon’s ministerial career, and the theology that drove it, deserve scholarly inquiry of their own, quite apart from whatever the Scotsman would go on to accomplish in the New World.

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

KD: My first calling is to be a pastor, but as a local church pastor I also have the unique opportunity to teach history and theology at a nearby seminary. I’ve always loved old books and the detective work that comes along with digging through the past. As a Christian, I consider academic history to be an exercise in loving my (dead) neighbor as myself. While we never articulate the past in a pristine way free from all biases, I strive to understand the people, movements, and ideas from the past with the same intellectual honesty and sympathy I would hope to be looked at in the future.

JF: What is your next project?

KD: I have a lot of projects in the works, most of which are on a popular level. I’m finishing up a storybook Bible along the lines of my children’s book, The Biggest Story. I’m working with the same illustrator, Don Clark, to create a book of 104 stories drawn equally from the Old and New Testaments. The big project I’ll start next is a book compiling 365 short chapters on important theological topics and terms. My hope is that the book will be used by some as a daily devotional, by some as a reference guide, and by others as a mini-systematic theology. In the future, I’d also like to see Witherspoon’s theological works and sermons published for a wider audience, and eventually I’d like to write a biography.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

Out of the Zoo: “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”

Hinton_Photo

Anthony Ray Hinton

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 Anthony Ray Hinton‘s recent talk at Messiah College.  -JF

I love history, but sometimes the past makes me angry. Learning about Nazi concentration camps makes me angry. Images of chattel slavery, newspaper articles about lynching, and documentaries about Jim Crow all make me angry. No amount of historical exposure can prepare the human heart for the amount of sorrow, frustration, and rage that comes upon seeing images of slaves scarred by their masters, of innocent black men hanging from trees, or of Civil Rights protesters knocked down by fire hoses. Indeed, historians are no strangers to the fact that we live in a fallen world, broken by sin.

I came face to face with the fallen state of our world yet again last Thursday, when Anthony Ray Hinton delivered the keynote address of Messiah’s 2020 Humanities Symposium. Anthony Hinton explained that back in 1985, when two restaurant owners were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama, he was wrongly accused—and wrongly convicted—for the crime. As a result, Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit; those thirty years in a five-by-seven cell, Hinton explained, were nothing short of hell on earth. Now an ally of the Equal Justice Initiative and a New York Times bestselling author, Hinton travels around the world sharing his story at places like Messiah College. 

Hinton had every right to be angry about spending thirty years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, over and over again Hinton reminded his audience that we can’t let our anger get in the way of our compassion. Guided by his faith in Jesus Christ, Hinton forgave his oppressors, prayed for God to send him his “best lawyer” to reveal the truth, and shared the gospel with others on death row. Hinton even showed the love of Christ to Henry Hays, who was in prison (and eventually executed) for lynching a young black man. “No matter what anyone does, they still deserve compassion,” Hinton said. Even from hearing him speak for just a couple hours, I could tell Hinton lives out this truth each and every day.

Hinton’s lecture made me realize that sometimes I let my anger get in the way of my compassion—in my study of the past and in my everyday life. I find myself condemning people for their crimes, for their injustice and their hatred; I criticize others’ wrongdoing, and all too often forget that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. I forget that all people, guilty or innocent or wrongly convicted, are made in the image of God and invited to be in a relationship with him. I forget that Jesus died for everyone—not just the ones who have their lives together or sit in church every Sunday. Jesus died for liars, he died for murderers, and he died for slave owners. I think that we as historians, and as human beings, need to remind ourselves of this truth daily.

In the wake of injustice, we are to choose love instead of hate. We are to choose light instead of darkness. And then we must trust that the God of the universe will work all things out for our good. It’s okay to be angry about oppression, and to be saddened by sin. But we cannot let our anger get in the way of our compassion.

The Author’s Corner with Benjamin Park

CoverBenjamin Park is Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. This interview is based on his  new book, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: While I was a student at Brigham Young University, I had the chance to spend an entire semester in Nauvoo as part of their “Semester Away” program. While there, I fell in love with both the city and with history in general; it was that semester that I changed my major from pre-medicine to English and history. While my interests took me elsewhere for my dissertation and first book, I was drawn back to Nauvoo in 2016 when the LDS Church published the detailed minutes for the “Council of Fifty,” a clandestine and scandalous organization that Joseph Smith created the final year of his life with the intent to become the new world government. I decided that now was the time to use my new historical tools on my old fascination, and the book was born.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: We now take the concept of democracy for granted, but we often forget what a new and scary concept it was in the early nineteenth century. The story of Nauvoo—a city that appeared on the swampy shores of the Mississippi River in 1839 and grew to over twelve thousand residents within five years—reveals a moment when the democratic system failed, as both those within and without the city turned to extralegal and, in the end, violent measures to preserve the peace.

JF: Why do we need to read Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: Mormons are often treated as outliers to the American religious and political story—quixotic curiosities rarely deserving prolonged attention. But Kingdom of Nauvoo aims to show, through a fascinating story of political intrigue, sexual rumors, and conspired murder, that the story of Nauvoo tells us much about the central issues for understanding antebellum America, as well as the democratic legacies that remain with us today.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the primary sources you used for this project.

BP: Mormons were a record-keeping people, and this was especially the case in Nauvoo. I was fortunate to have hundreds of contemporary sources ranging from letters, diaries, and newspapers that flesh out the story of the thousands of people who lived in the city. Many of these, including the Council of Fifty minutes, were unavailable to historians until very recently, making this a story that could only now be fully known.

JF: What is your next project?

BP: I am privileged to be the editor of Blackwell’s A Companion to American Religious History, which features chapters from thirty brilliant scholars that demonstrate religion’s centrality to American history. The volume will be available at the end of this year. I am also just starting on a book about the role religion played in the rise of militant abolitionism during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

The Author’s Corner with Adam Domby

the false causeAdam H. Domby is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. This interview is based on his new book, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The False Cause?

AD: Honestly, I didn’t intend to write this book. Originally, I was just going to write a couple of articles before revising my dissertation for publication. I had found the Julian Carr speech that he gave at UNC while a graduate student. In the speech, Carr brags about whipping “a negro wench” during Reconstruction. I thought it was a neat source to use to discuss monuments and teach about Jim Crow. However, after a letter to the editor I wrote was published in 2011, activists mobilized my research, and really shifted public opinion about “Silent Sam.” In time, this made me realize that these speeches had an important power worthy of looking at more closely.

Meanwhile, I also stumbled upon evidence of pension fraud at the NC State archives. At first I thought I would just write an article about the extent of pension fraud. As I dug deeper it became clear to me that all of the increasing number of fabrications I was finding were not just about remembering the past in a positive fashion but about controlling contemporary politics. And I came to realize the stories told during monument dedication speeches were tied to the acceptance of fraudulent pensioners as legitimate. These were not separate side projects. I had started considering making it a second book project when then the election of Donald Trump occurred and I thought, a book about lies and white supremacy might be timely. Indeed, it became increasingly clear as I wrote that Americans were struggling to understand how lies, often lies that were obvious to everyone–even those who accepted them–functioned to erode democracy today. The creation and evolution of of the Lost Cause in North Carolina provides numerous parallels in examining how democracy is harmed by lies and how lies function to support white supremacist ideologies. So I put aside my dissertation based book on divided communities during the Civil War and Reconstruction (which I will one day return to) and set out to write this one.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The False Cause?

AD: That is hard but here goes: The book argues that the Lost Cause narrative of the past was not only shaped by lies, but that these lies served to uphold white supremacy and to justify the establishment of Jim Crow. Additionally, the book shows how these lies still influence how the public, and even some historians, remember the Civil War today, and still serve to uphold white supremacist world views.

JF: Why do we need to read The False Cause?

AD: I think it depends on who you are but most people will find something in this book of use. We live in a time when lies are being used to erode democracy and empower white supremacists. North Carolina in the 1890s-1900s can teach us a lot about white supremacists. Additionally, the Lost Cause remains a robust mythology that many Americans still believe to be an accurate reflection of the past. These narratives continue to uphold racist ideologies today. The evolution and creation of these narratives of history need to be better understood. If you believe the Confederacy fought for states’s rights and slavery had nothing to do with it, then you need to read this to understand why you were taught a false narrative. For historians of the Civil War the book makes the argument that historical memory and the study of fraud can also teach us about events during the war as well as the memory of the conflict. Historians of memory may find my methodology of focusing on lies and fabrication innovative (I hope). Political historians will hopefully find the analysis of how historical memory was used in North Carolina politics new and exciting. Commentators on contemporary race relations may gain a better understanding of how ideologies of white supremacy depend on false narratives of the past. If you are interested in Confederate monuments and flags The False Cause explains how they are tied to white supremacy. I like to think the book has something for everyone. I think every professor of American historian needs to be able to discuss many of the aforementioned issues with their students. This book provides the tools needed to talk about why lies, white supremacy, and rewriting the past are so relevant today. 

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

AD: When I got to college, I was a math major. That lasted one semester. I’d always been interested in history but had not considered it as a career. Some early classes, which I thought at the time would be electives, made me realize I loved research. You can blame Aaron SachsBob MorrisseyJohn Demos, and David Blight for me ending up a historian. I highlight those four because early on they took the time to teach me about doing my own research and showed me I could enjoy writing. They also made me realize how important the past was to the present. We don’t always realize how important a good teacher is in shaping where we go in life. Still, even as I graduated college, I was convinced I was going to be a Park Ranger and would never return to school. Only after a stint in politics did I return to graduate school and start to consider myself “a historian.” 

JF: What is your next project?

AD: I have a variety of projects. I will return to the book based on my dissertation eventually. That examines how divided communities were fractured during the Civil War, and their legacies long after Appomattox. It has arguments about both the Civil War and the postwar period. But first I am finishing a bunch of smaller projects. I have two coauthored projects; one on a rabbi who was also a conman and one on how public historians can better incorporate the experience of prisoners of war into the interpretive framework at historic sites. I have a smaller article project about the College of Charleston’s ties to slavery in the works that I am researching currently. Finally, I have been working with a graduate student of mine to create a geographic database of over 5,000 Confederate pay rolls that detail the impressment of enslaved people during the Civil War. We hope to have that available for scholars to use by year’s end. I like to keep myself busy.

JF: Thanks, Adam!

 

Out of the Zoo: “World War III”

World War IIIAnnie Thorn is a sophomore 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 challenges us to take war seriously.  -JF

About a month and a half ago, after President Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian government promised retribution, the internet briefly exploded with fears of a third world war. I remember opening twitter on my computer to see that  “#WorldWar3” was trending worldwide. American teenagers were the primary culprits of the trend, for they (in true Generation Z fashion) took to social media to express angst about their “impending doom.” They posted memes comparing Soleimani to Franz Ferdinand, and filmed tik-tok videos joking about how they and their peers would respond to a draft. It took me a few minutes of Google searching to be assured that the possibility of a third world war was rather unlikely; yet I was struck by how quickly young people like me turned to social media to craft fears of World War III into a budding internet trend. It was curious to me that my peers could so easily make light of an escalating national crisis, even one with a potentially devastating outcome.

This semester at Messiah College I’m taking a class on Europe in the twentieth century. Over the past week we’ve been reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a fictional story which details the experience of a World War I soldier through the eyes of its twenty-year-old narrator Paul Bäumer. Not much older than most culprits of the “#WorldWar3” social media trend, Paul witnesses the gruesome tragedies of war first-hand as a volunteer in the German army.

In one chapter Paul describes a man crying out from no-man’s land for days on end, never to be found despite several search parties. In another chapter Paul stabs a Frenchman who falls into his shell-hole. He is unable to escape his hiding place in the daylight and is thus forced to watch him die a slow, agonizing death. Later still, Paul gets injured and makes his way to hospital nearby, where men with amputated limbs, tetanus, lung wounds, abdominal injuries, and a host of other atrocities are carted off to the “death room.”  They never return. Paul and his comrades hearts’ are quickly hardened by the horrors of war—poisonous gas, trench rats, exploding shells and meaningless death after meaningless death. 

Did teenagers growing up in 20th-century Europe joke about World War I? Did they make light of international crisis by laughing about it with their friends? They didn’t have twitter or tik-tok, but did they too cope with wisecracks about their impending doom? There are several instances of humor woven throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, but for the most part the book reminds us that war is no laughing matter. It reminds us that World War I brought fear, death, and destruction on a scale wider than anyone expected. What went through the minds of nineteen-year-old boys when they volunteered for the war, or were drafted? Did they laugh? Were they hopeful, or were they just plain terrified?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, nor do I quite know how to reconcile my peers’ naive response to threats of world war with the actual experiences of young men and women whose lives were turned upside-down by global conflict just over a hundred years ago. But comparing the two certainly helps put things in perspective.

The Author’s Corner with Gregory Downs

the second american revolutionGregory Downs is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. This interview is based on his new book, The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Second American Revolution?

GD: A gnawing pit in my stomach and a sense of unfinished business and a golden opportunity. The gnawing pit was from a feeling that I hadn’t done what I genuinely intended to in my American Historical Review essay “The Mexicanization of American Politics: The United States’ Transnational Path from Civil War to Stabilization.” I began that research with an interest in the interaction between domestic/national politics and international events, in the way that events in other nations shaped the discourse around what was possible or probable, and I wanted to use this to show U.S. politics as less bounded than our received terms convey, to explore the mutual construction of what gets classed as national and trans-national history, and to capture the ebb and flow of ideas through particular domestic political contexts. In the process of following the inflow of ideas about Mexican crises to U.S. politics in the 1850s-1870s, however, I never got to the truly interactive nature of those connections, and so in some ways reproduced a domestic framework, in which the United States was influenced by cultural ideas about other nations. This made me uncomfortable, as I knew there was a great deal to the Mexican side of the story that I hadn’t explored, and it also gave me a sense of unfinished business: how could I go further in exploring the mid-19th century as a broad crisis in republican theory, in which calculations of how (and whether) republics survived were shaped by ideas and political actors moving from one nation to another. There was much more to be said about the relationship between the United States mid-century crises and those in other countries.

The opportunity came in the Brose Lectures which gave me a format and an excuse to explore ideas that were historiographically important but might not fit easily into a book. And as I began reading and thinking more deeply, I became more impressed with the ways that the literature was already working to incorporate a multi-sided view of the U.S.-Mexican influence (especially in work by Erika Pani and Pat Kelly and others) and also with a thread I had worried over earlier but not followed: the centrality of Cuba. By following Cuban revolutionary exiles, I was able to find a way to follow circuits into and out of different countries’ domestic politics and to explore the connection between the revolutionary remaking of U.S. political structures and a global revolutionary wave that rose and then fell in the mid-19th century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Second American Revolution?

GD: The Civil War was not merely civil–meaning national–and not merely a war, but instead an international conflict of ideas as well as armies. Its implications transformed the U.S. Constitution and reshaped a world order, as political and economic systems grounded in slavery and empire clashed with the democratic process of republican forms of government.

JF: Why do we need to read The Second American Revolution?

GD: The book examines the breadth of U.S. politics at a moment when we need to recover our sense of the bold and of the possible. Much of the book is dedicated to exploring those international currents I mentioned, and those have important (I believe) historiographical ramifications for U.S. history and potentially some interest for historians of Cuba and the Caribbean and 19th century Spain.) But the book also turns inward to examine the norm-breaking boldness of U.S. Republicans in the 1860s as they created new states, forced constitutional amendments through, marginalized the Supreme Court, and in other ways significantly altered the political system. Then, I argue, they covered their tracks in order to make their achievements seem moderate, and we have helped them do so by scolding them for their moderation. But in fact no political candidate offers solutions anywhere near as bold as “moderate” 1860s Republicans; no one matches John Bingham in threatening to dissolve the Supreme Court entirely if it doesn’t recognize the role it must play. Instead we have fallen into calling for respect for norms that are—as in the 1840s and 1850s—no longer respected. When faced with those norm violations, we tend to call for the referees. But there are no referees, other than the electorate. And to the electorate we make claims about broader failings but can’t offer plausible solutions; we tell them the political system is broken but don’t fix it. I think we need to recover our boldness and abandon our sense of futility. Rethinking the constitutional transgressions of the Civil War is one way we can expand our own political thinking to make it at least approach the boldness of allegedly moderate 1860s Republicans, and thus discover ways out of problems like the contemporary Supreme Court, the Senate, and other sticky but intractable problems of U.S. politics.

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

GD: As a child I was raised between Kauai and my extended family’s home of central Kentucky and my extended family’s eventual new home in Middle Tennessee, and I was from a young age fascinated by the differences between those places, by the way that race and politics and memory worked so differently in Kauai than in Kentucky, and by the shadow that events (the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy or the Civil War) continued to gnaw upon the present. I worked as a journalist and as a high school teacher, so I didn’t always know that I would be an academic historian, but I always believed that the study of the past was venerable, difficult, and essential.

JF: What is your next project?

GD: I am working on completing my friend Tony Kaye’s manuscript on Nat Turner, a project he was working on when he died. After that I have many projects I am contemplating and am enjoying the time to reflect on what I most want to do and most feel challenged by.

JF: Thanks, Greg!

The Author’s Corner with Heather Martel

Deadly VirtueHeather Martel is Associate Professor of History at Northern Arizona University. This interview is based on her new book, Deadly Virtue: Fort Caroline and the Early Protestant Roots of American Whiteness (University Press of Florida, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Deadly Virtue?

HM: I needed to understand how it is that a people with such a violent history of colonialism, slavery, and environmental destruction can think of themselves as good and think of that history as a narrative of exceptionalism. To understand, I looked back at the first Protestant engagements with the environment and Indigenous people of the Americas. The story of Fort Caroline, Florida, is one episode in this history in which we can see that the commander of this group of French Calvinists had a vision of creating a Protestant empire under the leadership of an Indigenous king. This fantasy surprises a 21st Century reader who is expecting to find racial hatred from the very beginning. The images and accounts of the colony are full of beautiful, admirable Indigenous characters and fascinating, sometimes darkly funny stories. Of course, the French Calvinists who attempted to create this Protestant empire were burdened with cultural baggage and incapable of understanding, respecting, or accurately representing the Indigenous people they met. Their aspiration of a cross-cultural alliance against Catholic Europe died with most of the French Huguenots at Fort Caroline, which failed disastrously—through mutinies, starvation, a hostage crisis, and a war with the Indigenous people. In the end, most of the French were wiped out by a Spanish massacre facilitated by a hurricane. Critics of this failure interpreted the tragedy as a message from their god that he was displeased by the Huguenots’ vision of allying with Indigenous people against the Holy Roman Empire. Those who came after adopted the well-remembered separatist strategy of the New England Puritans. In order to understand how this separatism developed into whiteness—with its obligation to colonialism, heteronormativity, patriarchy, and the racialized violence of American white supremacy—as a means for expressing obedience to their god, I looked at their science of the body, humoralism, which described the body as fluid and subject to the environment and encounters with other cultures. I wondered how bodies they believed were fluid became fixed into the biogenetic identity that became American whiteness. The answer seemed to lie in Protestant ideology.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Deadly Virtue?

HM: The failure of Fort Caroline Florida indicated to early Protestants that their god wanted them to remain separate from other cultures and that they were obliged to dominate, domesticate, and discipline all those where were not among their god’s elect. In looking for the visible signs of who their god had graced with elect status, they organized bodies into a biogenetic racial hierarchy founded on Protestant morality and patriarchal gender norms, producing American whiteness.

JF: Why do we need to read Deadly Virtue?

HM: For those surprised at the resilience of white supremacy in American society, this book explains how a misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-transgender, homophobic, racist, environmentally destructive populism might be compelling for so many white Americans who believe themselves to be good humans.

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

HM: When I was in college, it was the historians who helped me to make sense of current events. I remember feeling despair and confusion when we entered the first Gulf war in 1991. The history faculty held teach-ins. In a wonderful way, they parented us—and guided me to find the intellectual and historical perspective that has served me ever since. I declared a history minor. Things we read in college history classes transformed me and remain important in my scholarship today, like Barbara J. Fields’s discussion of the “slogan of white supremacy.” I caught the fever for the work of the historian doing research for my first major undergraduate paper, on the early history of abolition and women’s suffrage. I was inspired by one professor in particular, Dr. Stephanie McCurry, who taught that class, as well as the history of Irish and Asian immigration to the U.S. and U.S. Women and Gender history at UCSD.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: For my next project, I will take up a question that arises from the work of Andrea Smith in Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. She argues that it was necessary to eradicate all alternatives to Christian heteropatriarchy in order to colonize the Americas. By examining Christian representations of the diversity of gender systems and arrangements of power in the early Atlantic, in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, I hope to understand this history and introduce readers to the history and theory of gender and colonialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

JF: Thanks, Heather!

Out of the Zoo: The Divided States of America

Southern_Chivalry

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 what about how history helps put our “divided nation” into perspective. –JF

“The United States is more divided than ever.”

It seems like this trope becomes more popular every day. I see it in newspaper articles and read it in Facebook posts. I overhear it on radio broadcasts and in the hallways of my school. Distressed citizens paint dismal pictures of red and blue soldiers steadily marching in opposite directions, stretching the country thin between them. How long will this go on? How long until the once-United States shatters into a million pieces? Will our nation agree on anything ever again? These and many more questions seem to reverberate ever-louder in our ears. The events of the last few weeks–the impeachment trial and Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address–seem to provide dismal answers to such inquiries.

I won’t deny that the United States is divided. Our country is filled with people who don’t appear to have the word “compromise” in their vocabulary. Democrats and Republicans alike villainize their political opponents, all too often pointing out the speck in their enemy’s eye before first removing the log from their own. Venomous words seem to fly through the air like whizzing arrows hurtling towards a target. Yet despite all this, when people assert that the United States is more divided than it has ever been, I can’t help but chuckle.

As a student of history, I know that division in our country is nothing new. Before and during the Revolution, the colonies were split into loyalist and patriot factions. Soon after the war was over George Washington’s own cabinet diverged right before his eyes–feuds between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans resemble the political quarrels of today with striking similarity. 

As a student of history I also know that in terms of national division, things could be worse. They could be much worse. In the years leading up to the Civil War, slavery became such a divisive issue that physical violence often broke out on the Congress floor. For example, on May 22, 1856 South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with a cane, after Sumner scathingly criticized another South Carolina legislator for supporting slavery. In another instance, a fist fight between Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt turned into an all-out brawl with 30 participants. I need not remind most Americans that division over the issue of slavery contributed to the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives during the Civil War.

There’s a lot of things I love about history, but one thing I like most about studying the past is that it gives me scope for the present. It reminds me that things might not always be as bad as people say they are. Life is hard, and I’m not denying that fact. Every day we interact with people who go through hardships we’ll never completely understand. Our country is divided, and I’m not denying that either. But sometimes it’s comforting to know that the struggles we deal with now are not entirely new ones.

The Author’s Corner with Bruce Stewart

Redemption from TyrannyBruce Stewart is Associate Professor of History at Appalachian State University. This interview is based on his new book, Redemption from Tyranny: Herman Husband’s American Revolution (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Redemption from Tyranny?

BS: I first heard of Herman Husband’s role in the North Carolina Regulation movement as a young history buff growing up in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. I encountered him again as a Ph.D. student researching my dissertation (which became my first book, Moonshiners and Prohibitionists), when I learned that Husband also participated in the Whiskey Rebellion in southwestern Pennsylvania. Many years later, as I was going down a series of rabbit holes trying to find my next project, I searched for a biography of Husband and discovered that the only full-scale account of his life was published in 1940. While I later discovered an excellent unpublished Ph.D. dissertation on Husband written in 1982, I knew that the revolutionary American deserved more attention. And just like that, my next project was born.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Redemption from Tyranny?

BS: Influenced by personal experience, Western political thought, and radical Protestantism, Herman Husband viewed the Revolution as an opportunity to forge a new republic that promoted economic equality among white men. Only by preventing the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, he argued, could ordinary white Americans achieve economic independence, retain their political rights, and redeem the young nation from tyranny.

JF: Why do we need to read Redemption from Tyranny?

BS: Redemption from Tyranny uses the life of Herman Husband as a lens through which to explore how ordinary people shaped–and were shaped by–the American Revolution. Such a bottom-up approach complements recent scholarship that focuses on the experiences of common folk in the Revolutionary Era, allowing scholars to raise questions that broaden our understanding of the origins and nature of democracy in the United States. What did the Revolution mean to those who experienced it? How radical was the American Revolution? What role did evangelical religion play in politicizing ordinary people? In what ways did common folk demand not only political, but also economic equality, and which was most important to them? This final question remains relevant today, as Americans continue to debate the role that government should play in maintaining its citizens’ political and economic rights. Ultimately, because Husband’s vision of the young republic–one that stressed a more equitable economic system–represented an ideology shared by other common folk, his story enables us to gain fresh insight on the sources of agrarian radicalism, the obstacles that confronted reformers, and the mixed results of the American Revolution.

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

BS: I can’t recall the exact moment when I decided to become an American historian. Looking back, I have always been interested in history. As a child, I often accompanied my father to Civil War battlefields, so I credit him for instilling a love of history in me. My high school history teacher, Keith Walker, further sparked my fascination with history. I was by no means a stellar high-school student, but I enjoyed his class. When I got to college, I became a history major and by the end of my freshman year, I knew I wanted to be a professor of history (I credit those trips with my father to Gettysburg and other battlefields for leading me to focus on American history).

JF: What is your next project?

BS: My next project is co-writing a comprehensive study of Reconstruction in North Carolina. The last such history was written in the early twentieth century and contains–to put it nicely–major interpretation errors. My co-author and I are currently completing the research phase (I recently wrapped up most of my research at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection before the birth of my son at the end of 2019, and I plan on visiting Duke University’s Special Collections and the State Archives of North Carolina this year). Because of the enormous scope of the project, we don’t have a projected completion date yet.

JF: Thanks, Bruce!

The Author’s Corner with L. Benjamin Rolsky

the rise and fall of the religious leftL. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University and a part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: During my PhD program at Drew University, I stumbled upon the work of the non-profit organization People for the American Way. I knew that the organization was founded by television icon Norman Lear, a figure I was interested in already as a possible dissertation subject, but I had little to no idea of its origins. I later found out that it was formed in direct opposition to the “electronic church” and the televangelists who occupied them. To Lear and others, including Martin Marty and Father Theodore Hesburg, such evangelistic methods violated the very tenants of the faith the television preachers supposedly stood for. I also happened to stumble upon some primary material from The Christian Century and Christianity Today that included Lear in surprisingly provocative ways. In many respects, Lear lead the charge into the public square, and many mainline and evangelical church leaders knew it.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: I argue that television icon Norman Lear’s career in American media represents the most important characteristics of the Religious Left in both negative and positive senses. Dominant cultural influence ultimately came at the expense of political and electoral successes as progressives continue to find their rhetorical footing in the age of alternative facts and fake news.

JF: Why do we need to read The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: I think scholars of religion and American religious historians would benefit from reading this text because it both periodizes and theorizes the Culture Wars. It does so by foregrounding media in its tale of televisual conflict played out in primetime. It also applies an interdisciplinary approach in order to examine liberal and conservative actors and social movements in relation to one another. In these ways, interpreters of the recent past would better understand how cultural warfare has characterized American public life since the 1960s.

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

LBR: I was drawn to history as a high school student in Cave Creek, Arizona. I was encouraged by my AP History teacher, L. Mark Sweeney, to think about pursuing American history on the college level. He was also the first one to use my name and work alongside “an ivy.” From there, I worked on American history and religious studies as a double major at Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College. I then went on to do coursework at the Claremont School of Theology as well as Yale Divinity School in American religious history, politics, and public life. My present work as a historian is very much in the vein of a “history of the present,” or at least the recent past, in my attempts to better understand how liberal and conservative politics have shaped the last half century of American religious life. 

JF: What is your next project?

LBR: My next project is going to explore the ways in which conservative political interests took advantage of the latest marketing and advertising consultants in the 1970s to remake both the GOP and the nation at large. They did so through a fundamental restructuring of American conservatism itself as William F. Buckely and Firing Line were replaced in the conservative mind by the likes of George Wallace, Strom Thurman, and ultimately Ronald Reagan.

JF: Thanks!

Out of the Zoo: “I Am A Man”

I Am a Man

Annie Thorn is a sophomore 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 experiencing the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 through a virtual reality experience. –JF

“I AM A MAN, a virtual reality (VR) experience”

The subject of the mass email stood out from the rest in my inbox. Normally when I log into my college email I’m greeted by a host of messages–Canvas announcements, grade updates, etc.–but this one stood out from the rest. I had no idea what “I AM A MAN” meant, nor had I ever tried a virtual reality experience, but I was intrigued. A quick read of the email notified me that the “I Am A Man VR Experience” was going to be held in Murray Library during Martin Luther King commemoration week. The announcement promised that the experience would allow participants to literally walk in the shoes of the civil rights activists who organized the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Fascinated by prospect of VR history, and realizing that time slots for the experience were filling up quickly, I promptly reserved a session for myself.

On a brisk afternoon the following week I made my way to the Library’s Athenaeum, where the experience was being held. The room was divided in two, with a floor-to-ceiling curtain stretching down the middle. I made my way to the other side of the curtain, which was empty save for the virtual reality equipment and a small X taped in the middle of the floor. The experience attendant fitted my VR headset, twisting the dial in the back until the headpiece was snug against my brow. He showed me how to hold the controls, and as I slid my hands through the wrist straps he explained which buttons I would need to use throughout the program. Finally, he guided me to the X in the middle of the floor, where I waited for the experience to start.

For the next 15 minutes, I lived the life of someone else.  Surrounded by history, I saw the world not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of a black man deep in the throes of the civil rights movement. Scenes faded in and out, interspersed with narrative interludes explaining the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. One moment I stood in front of a beeping garbage truck backing down an alley, and the next I watched scores of men marching down the street holding signs that read “I AM A MAN.” In another scene I stood in the parking lot at the Lorraine Motel and waved at Martin Luther King standing on the balcony. Seconds later, a gunshot rang out and the scene faded to black. The darkness receded to reveal the same street that I stood on earlier, now in shambles. Forlorn-looking men stood scattered along the street; the signs they once held with pride littered the sidewalk. President John F. Kennedy spoke sorrowfully from a television inside a barred store window about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots. My heart started pounding when police car headlights pierced through the fog, and quickened further when the officer inside demanded angrily that I put my hands above my head.

I thought I knew what it meant to step into other people’s shoes. I thought that by studying history, by reading words and amplifying voices that I could effectively empathize with the struggle of others. Yet it was not until I literally stepped into an African American man’s shoes, until I literally saw the world through his eyes, that I was able to begin to feel what he felt–to comprehend the fear, stress and sorrow that people of color experienced in the 1960s and must still experience today. I thought I understood the struggle that marginalized people have faced throughout human history, but “I Am A Man” made me realize that I’ve only been scratching the surface.

The Author’s Corner with Shannon Bontrager

Book CoverShannon Bontrager is Associate Professor of History at Georgia Highlands College. This interview is based on his new book, Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921 (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: One of the significant memories I have from my childhood was my grandmother’s (Mary Ann Bontrager) funeral. I was 13 and hers was my first funeral and it was such a sad dreary December Michigan day. She was a lovely woman who would peel the skin of my apples with a knife and give it to me salted, she made the best pound cake and sauce of anyone around, and she sadly died from cancer in 1986. My grandparents had left the Amish faith long before my birth and they were shunned (especially my grandfather, Ben) for doing so. My grandfather’s Amish family attended her funeral and Ben’s Amish sister even oversaw the food preparation for the meal afterwards. I remember getting my food and sitting with my grandfather at the table to eat and I did not suspect anything was up. But I remember my grandfather finishing quickly and then getting up to leave while we all were still eating. Perhaps it was one of my uncles or my dad, but I recall someone saying grandpa had to leave so that the Amish family could sit down to eat. The implication being that although they attended the funeral and even prepared the food for my grandfather, they could not have the decency to eat the funeral meal in his presence. I was shocked and angry that the boundaries of the shunning remained in place while commemorating my dead grandmother. I thought my Amish kin were cruel. My anger, however, was misplaced, as later I found out from my dad who reminded me that my Amish relatives actually had defied their Bishop who had decreed that in order to enforce my grandfather’s shunning my grandmother’s funeral was off limits to them. Their presence and their preparation of the food was a collective defiance of authority and boundaries out of respect for my grandmother’s death and my grandfather’s grief. They were risking a lot of social capital to be there. But the memory never left me and I found myself returning to it as I began to study the American past in earnest. The number of ways that people in society could use the dead (particularly the war dead) to remember, manipulate, forget the past, and create the present continued to astound me. This was particularly clear when in the late 1990s the family of Michael Blassie, who had been buried as the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, identified their son using DNA evidence. They disinterred their son’s body from Arlington so that he could be closer to their home and so that the family could finally grieve after so many years of not being able to mourn truly. For me, the Blassie family signaled a moment as if the past had come back to confront the present in a similar defiant way that my Amish relatives defied their Bishop. To do what was right even if it meant crossing reinforced social boundaries. Did other people have to endure these kinds of experiences? As my research unfolded, I found the answer was often yes and it was often yes across the decades of time and was actually a central and critical theme of the American experience.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: Americans, since the time of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, have developed a collective memory of empire that could be hidden, particularly but not exclusively, in the rituals and traditions of commemorating the war dead. These imperial memories work incredibly hard to separate the past from the present and the citizenry from memory by hiding the practices and realities of American empire behind the cultural memory of democratic republicanism.

JF: Why do we need to read Death at the Edges of Empire?

SB: Americans are experiencing a particularly interesting time of flux and change. The past five years have given Americans multiple anniversaries to commemorate: from the 150 year anniversary of the ending of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, to the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, to the 75th anniversary of the Second World War. We are literally living at the crossroads of memory. These moments helped make the very institutions that Americans are now suspicious of and reconsidering. At a time when Americans are increasingly growing disillusioned with religious, government, and private institutions, we are commemorating the moments that made us embrace them. Such a moment of opportunity to reevaluate the present depends crucially on our willingness to let the past fill the present. It is vitally important that when we reassess institutions (and if we choose to keep some and discard others) that we make those decisions with the past fully penetrating the present. Only by making room in the present for the past to thrive, can we determine how we should commemorate the war dead, deal with Confederate monuments, address the health and welfare of U.S. veterans, define who gets access to American citizenship, and in general, frame the kind of institutions that we want and need in twenty-first century America. Death at the Edges of Empire seeks to open a conversation about the institutions and rituals Americans have built around the commemoration of the war dead, it charts how those rituals have changed over time and circumstance, and it signals that the institution of commemoration is now potentially unraveling in real time. By understanding how past Americans often tried to keep the present free from the past, we can better shape our own collective memories by bringing the past into the present.

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

SB: I lived and worked in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1994-95 right in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s attempts to help Jordan and Israel sign a peace treaty. Growing up in a small town in the rural Midwest, I thought these kinds of treaties were impossible. But now in Jordan, I was in the very place where history was happening. It was a time when I was not just witnessing history, I could feel it. Around about this time, my friends and I went to tour an ancient Crusader castle called Kerak Castle in al-Karak. I remember climbing the ruins and being overwhelmed with imagining what life might have been like for Christians and Muslims eight hundred years ago. They lived and fought in the very spot where I was standing. It was a transcendental moment and it was electric. I decided right then and there while sitting on the top of the wall of the ruined palace that I wanted to be a historian. After my year abroad I returned for my senior year in college to a newly developed major in history at my small religious college. I would have to take 8 history courses (I think 4 of them were centered on the U.S.) over my last two semesters to complete the degree but I did it and I nearly got straight As (something that previously was beyond my imagination). It was such a wonderful experience to do nothing but study history and the electricity I felt at Kerak Castle in Jordan continued to power my study of American history and still does.

JF: What is your next project?

SB: My next project is tentatively titled “The Affinity of War: Traveling Memory, the War Dead, and the American Empire in France.” It is a kind of volume 2, to Death at the Edges of Empire that focuses on the travelling and transnational memories of the Franco-American interwar and early WWII period (1923-1943). It examines how French and American people took their memories and exchanged them with each other as Americans toured or made pilgrimages to World War I memory sites in France. I conducted research at the French Foreign Affairs Archives outside of Paris a few years ago and I am able to take Franco-American collective memory up to and through the Vichy regime before the U.S. diplomatic staff was forced to escape France in 1943 leaving American cemeteries and monuments commemorating the war dead behind for local French people under Nazi occupation to tend and look after until the Second World War concluded. I think it could be an exciting topic to explore. I am now at the beginning of translating the French language documents into English and then I hope to complete this, my second manuscript.

JF: Thanks, Shannon!