Celebrating the Career of Grant Wacker at the 2015 Meeting of the American Society of Church History

Those of you who have been following our coverage of the annual meetings of the American Historical Association and the American Society of Church History (ASCH) are familiar with Mandy McMichael.  You can read here previous posts here.

Mandy is a former student of Grant Wacker, the esteemed historian of American religion at Duke Divinity School who is apparently retiring soon.  As I joked on twitter a few days ago, it seemed like every session on American religious history at the ASCH last weekend was somehow devoted to Grant’s career.  And Mandy was at them all!  Enjoy her post.  –JF

“Salvation comes in many forms. Today is one of them,” concluded Grant Wacker at the end of Saturday’s lunch in his honor.

The meal was one of several events organized during ASCH to commemorate Wacker’s upcoming retirement. Featured speakers included three of Wacker’s students (Philip Goff, Lydia Hoyle, and David Weaver-Zercher), his daughter, Laura Wacker Stern (Associate Pastor, Millbrook United Methodist Church, Raleigh), and Mark Noll. All of the speakers were phenomenal. Noll had the audience rolling within moments. “What has Wacker Whacked?” he asked. Answers included everything from academic pretense to excessive adjectives. Goff, Hoyle, and Weaver-Zercher told stories of Grant’s fashion choices (shorts, black socks, and sandals) and his grading practices (once typing comments on post-it notes). Stern recounted her years as the daughter of an academic, regaling us with stories of her father pulling off the side of the road on family vacations to read historical markers and the uselessness of her budding theological vocabulary on the playground. Speakers allemphasized the generosity, thoughtfulness, and compassion of Wacker as a scholar, mentor, and friend. After Wacker’s final remarks, he received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Back row (L to R): Philip Goff, David Weaver-Zercher, Front Row: Lydia Hoyle, Laura Wacker Stern, Grant Wacker

After the lunch, most of the room proceeded en masse to the panel, “BelievingHistory: In Celebration of Grant Wacker’s Contributions to American ReligiousHistory.” I snagged a seat in the back, but another standing room only crowd eventually filled the room. (Unfortunately, this happened a lot at this meeting.)

Nathan Hatch presided over the panel, which included Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, Kate Bowler, and Laurie Maffly-Kipp. Noll’s paper tracked Wacker’s approach to historical knowledge throughout his career from acknowledging the dilemma to setting aside philosophical questions to a kind of “aw, shucks” methodology. He praised Wacker’s later “belief inflected history” as “just as responsible” as other approaches. Noll posed a few questions to Wacker including one about what caused this shift. Joel Carpenter’s paper, “Getting Real with Grant Wacker,” noted Wacker’s penchant for conveying the thoughts of everyday people and “probing the questions that really matter.”

Kate Bowler, herself a “Wackerite,” delivered “The Wackerites: An Ethnographic Account of a North Carolina Sect.” She joked that many Wackerites shared the feeling of being “plucked from obscurity” by their beloved mentor. Their “testimonies” followed a predictable narrative arc and their sect abided by three Latin phrases that formed their “creed.” In English these are translated, “In charity, truth,” “In friendship, meaning,” and “Without clarity, death.” Wacker expected his students to employ a hermeneutic of charity in their work, to work well with others, and to write clearly. “Family comes first, but grammar comes second.” Wacker modeled each of these things in his own life as a scholar and mentor, gaining respect not just from his students, but from his colleagues. Indeed, he is thanked in the acknowledgments of more than 100 books in the field.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s paper, “The Stealth Sarsaparilla: Mentorship as Scholarship,” suggested there is a method to be gleaned from Wacker’s interactions with others. Wacker, she noted, trained and shaped a community of scholars that have benefited the field. She explored some of his processes to discern how his results might be replicated. His “generosity of spirit and acts of kindness” from reading and commenting on works in progress to always paying for the coffee provided one clue. Wacker also possessed the unique ability to “gather people together.” He managed to forge relationships and make connections. He practiced, she argued, an “embodied model of scholarship” that anyone would do well to emulate. Maffly-Kipp even suggested that Wacker offers us a “subversive method of constituting an academic career” though she was quick to note that he probably never thought anyone would describe him as subversive. He is a successful scholar not afraid to help other scholars achieve success. Indeed, he seems to enjoy it. “No one cheers…quite like Grant does.”

As his student, I agree. I never imagined that my advisor would care about me outside my academic performance. And yet, Grant saw all of us as whole people. He knew our spouses, met our parents, and welcomed our children. He touted our successes in good times and helped us “reimagine” new life through the bad. In short, he allowed us space to be more than just his students. I count it an honor to call Grant my mentor and friend. What a privilege to celebrate with him and my fellow “Wackerites” this weekend!

Erin Bartram on Day Three at AHA 2015:

The American Converts Database
Here is Erin’s final post from AHA 2015:–JF
Now that I’m home and sifting through the pile of handouts, pamphlets, and business cards I picked up over the last few days, it’s time to write my final dispatch from AHA.
The morning began with my own panel, “American Religion Online: How Digital Projects Can Change How We Teach, Research, and InterpretReligious History.” I was presenting alongside Kyle Roberts and Chris Cantwell, with comment by the illustrious John Fea himself. I have to say, it was an absolute pleasure listening to Roberts and Cantwell talk about their projects. Roberts presented both the Jesuit Libraries Project, a recreation of the late 19th century library of St. Ignatius College, and the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project, which explores ownership markings and annotations in the books that remain from that original library and makes them available on Flickr.  Cantwell’s Faith in the City: Religion and Urban Life in Chicago, 1870-1920 is a sprawling project mapping the religious geography of the city at the turn of the century, complete with digitized sources.  Portions of the project are still in the building phase, but Cantwell let us preview some of the maps, and the whole thing was pretty spectacular. Both Roberts and Cantwell echoed a sentiment that I’d heard a lot in the Digital Pedagogy Lightning Round the day before, which was later reiterated by John in his comments: let your students dig in and build these projects with you.
After the panel, I headed downstairs to check out the first poster session. I saw a lot of great projects, but I’ll just mention a few. One of the most interesting things I saw the poster and Prezi for “Spreading the Light in New York: 1880-1882,” by Rob Allen of Auckland University of Technology. He had this Prezi (set up on a touch screen, something I’d never really seen before). His argument about radical ideas moving through informal networks of friends as opposed to simply moving through unions, clubs, and other organizations resonated with my own work. You can view the Prezi or read more about the project here
Next, I talked with Damayanthie Eluwawalage of University of Wisconsin-Stout about her project on penal attire in the 18th-century British Empire. In particular, she focuses on how prisoner uniforms were designed to divide and humiliate prisoners through the use of color and stamped slogans and emblems. She had a photo of one of the only surviving copies of a specific parti-colored uniform which I remarked looked very silly, almost like a harlequin costume. She said that was reserved for the worst criminals.
Working my way down the line, I was immediately drawn to a really well–designed poster by Katie Lambright, a graduate student at Minnesota. In her project “Cleanliness, Clutter, and Working Women: Fashioning Gender and Class in Sitcom Set Design,” Lambert examines the “choreographed clutter” of three sitcoms – Roseanne, Murphy Brown, and The Cosby Show – in order to think about the arguments made in the 1980s about domestic spaces, class, gender, and personal responsibility. She points out that Roseanne and  Murphy Brown might be different in many ways, but both come home to cluttered houses of one variety or another, while Claire Huxtable “has it all,” with a family, financial security, and a neat and tidy house.
Finally, I visited Sarah Purcell and had a grand chat about that perpetual bridesmaid Henry Clay, whose coffin and funeral procession were the subject of her poster. I encourage you to read her full article on the subject, as she does a marvelous job using Clay’s death to examine many facets of a particular moment in the antebellum period.
After that, I grabbed a quick lunch with a friend of mine from Northeastern and was off to the train station. It sounds like I missed some good stuff in the afternoon, but all of the twitterstorians helped me feel like I was still there. If it’s possible to feel intellectually drained and energized at the same time, that’s where I am right now, but I’m looking forward to letting what I’ve absorbed over the past few days shape my research and teaching in the coming weeks and months.

American Religion Online

Kyle Roberts of Loyola’s Jesuit Libraries Project (left)

This morning (Sunday) I had the privilege to chair and offer a comment on an American Society of Church History session entitled “American Religion Online: How Digital Projects Can Change How We Teach, Research, and Interpret Religious History.” Below is a rough version of what I said:

Good morning.  I am John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College outside of Harrisburg, PA.

Conversations about the changes digital technology has brought to the study of church history often emphasize the Web’s most dramatic transformations. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the decline of academic publishing, and the rise of virtual museums dominate the debate. These developments are, of course, real, and they are changing the study of religion. But to focus only on such contested issues overlooks other valuable ways that digital applications and methodologies have changed the work we do as scholars, educators, and curators. The Web may be transforming higher education and scholarly communication, but it is also revolutionizing how we research, teach, and interpret American religious history.

This panel proposes to bring together three scholars of religion to talk about their innovative digital projects.  I think these projects reveal the opportunities as well as the challenges of the digital turn. The panelists have experience in both academic and other public history institutions. Their projects address a range of audiences, from scholars to students to the general public.  And they utilize a variety of different digital applications — databases, maps, and virtual library systems — to show how traditional source material can be collected, analyzed, and shared in dynamic and new ways.

NOTE:  The above two paragraphs were written by the conference organizers–JF

This panel seeks to be as practical as it is theoretical. Each presenter will briefly describe their project, share the process by which they were created, and reflect upon their implications for the future work of religious historians.  In the spirit of collaboration that defines digital and public history, we hope to leave plenty of time for questions and conversation.

Our first presenter is Erin Bartram:

Erin is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Connecticut. Inspired by work on cultural and physical borderlands, her dissertation, “Jane Minot Sedgwick II and the World of American Catholic Converts, 1820-1890,” examines the role of friendship in the religious choices and lives of elite nineteenth-century American women. She is writing the dissertation under Richard Brown.  But most importantly for our session this morning, she is co-founder and co-investigator (along with Lincoln Mullen) of the collaborative American Converts Database website.  You can connect with her on Twitter @erin_bartram

Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Public History and New Media in the History Department at Loyola University. He teaches courses on public history, digital humanities, religion, and North America and the Atlantic World in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. As a postdoctoral fellow at Queen Mary, University of London from 2009-2011, he worked with a team of researchers, archivists, and technical advisors to create Dissenting Academies Online: Virtual Library System, an innovative reconstruction of the holdings and borrowings of the leading English dissenting academies. He is the Director of the Jesuit Libraries Project and the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project. His first monograph, Evangelical Gotham: Religion and the Making of New York City, 1783-1860 (University of Chicago) is forthcoming.  Twitter @kylebroberts

Christopher D. Cantwell is an Assistant Professor of Public History and Religious Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Before joining UMKC, Cantwell was the Assistant Director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago where he administered a number of scholarly programs and curated several digital exhibits. His work has appeared in Fides et Historia, International Labor and Working-Class History, and he is currently co-editing a collection of essays titled Between the Pew and the Picket Line: Working-Class Christianities of the Industrial Age (University of Illinois Press, 2015). He was co-director of a three-year NEH Bridging Cultures grant on integrating the study of America’ religious diversity into humanities classroom, and has led numerous seminars on labor, religion, and the urban landscape. His digital projects include Pullman: Labor, Race, and the Urban Landscape in a CompanyTown (2011), Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America (2013), The Civil War in Letters: A Newberry Transcription Project (2013), and the forthcoming Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity, 1893 (2014). Twitter: @cdc29

Here are the projects that were discussed in this session:

Erin Bartram: The American Converts Database
Kyle Roberts: The Jesuit Libraries Project and the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project
Christopher Cantwell: Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity, 1893


A few introductory remarks:

I am not part of the DH community. I have never been to a THAT Camp. And I do not know how to code.

I have used digital tools in my courses.  Last Spring I taught a course on Pennsylvania History. Students were asked to use Omeka to construct online exhibits related to the history of the greater Harrisburg area

As chair of the Messiah College History Department I have been a strong advocate, even a cheerleader, for digital history.  I led the reform of the department’s new public history concentration, which contains digital history coursework.  I have also been an advocate for Digital Harrisburg–an online digital project housed at Messiah College.  Digital Harrisburg explores the history of this Pennsylvania city in the first several decades of the twentieth century.

I am probably too old to learn new tricks.  Any kind of future work I do in digital history will require partners who can help with the “digital” and technological work.

I have constructed my comments today with the membership of the American Society of Church History in mind. If you are an experienced DHer, most of what I have to say will not be new.  After attending ASCH conferences for close to twenty years, I think I am safe in saying that the members of this organization are rather conservative and traditional when it comes to innovative approaches to scholarship.  On the other hand, you have decided to attend an ASCH session on digital history.  This means that you may be curious about the subject.  Hopefully this session will inspire you to, at the very least, stick your scholarly toe in the digital history water.

Some themes from the three papers:

American religious historians should see digital history as a form of public history and community engagement.

  • Digital history is a rapidly growing field with a energetic community of practitioners.  The DH community has interfaced with the vibrant field of public history.  American religious history is a very hot field right now, but there is little conversation taking place between American religious historians and digital/public historians.
  • Digital history can be a form of service to the community.  DHers are public intellectuals. Kyle Roberts’s work is contributing to the Catholic identity of Loyola.  Chris Cantwell’s work has the potential of providing the Chicago religious community with a more historically-informed understanding of contemporary pluralism.  Erin Bartam’s database of religious converts has the potential of reaching religious people who might be interested in the stories of converts as a form of spiritual inspiration.


  • These papers also show quite clearly that digital historians work collaboratively. Faculty work with students.  Faculty work with scholars outside of their departments, including librarians, archivists and IT staff.  Scholars often collaborate with professors at other institutions.  Kyle Roberts has brought together different constituencies across the Loyola campus.  Erin Bartram’s database of converts is designed to cultivate a scholarly community interested in the history of religious conversion.  In fact, the database itself stems from collaborative efforts with Lincoln Mullen of George Mason University.
  • Traditional historians are not used to working this way.  We gain credit and accolades for individual work.  As Erin Bartram notes in her paper, scholars are not used to sharing their archival findings.


  • Question for panelists:  To what extent do you use these projects in your own pedagogy?  How do they enhance or strengthen the content of the American religious survey?
  • Opporunities for extra-curricular teaching abound. Kyle Roberts’s Jesuit Libraries Project employs student interns.  At Messiah College, the Digital Harrisburg project has energized students.

    Personal Research

  • How has working on these DH projects influenced your personal research?  I see three models here:.  In the case of Kyle Roberts, the Jesuit Libraries Project is not connected in any way with his scholarly work on evangelicals in early New York.  Erin Bartram’s converts database is directly related to her dissertation work.  Christopher Cantwell’s Chicago pluralism project illuminates the larger context of his dissertation work on religious utopian communities in Chicago.
  • How have these digital projects helped you think about your current and future scholarly agendas?

    How might digital history reshape the field of American religious history?

  • We have not even scratched the surface of the ways GIS mapping can enhance the field of American religious history.  This kind of mapping makes books like Edwin Gaustad’s Atlas of Religion in America  look like a dinosaur.  Thanks to Christopher’s work, religious pluralism in late 19th-century America is no longer an abstract idea.  Chicago’s historic pluralism can now be visualized.
  • While digital religion projects can be global or national in scope, it is more practical, especially in terms of teaching and service to the community, if they are local in nature.  Would a digital turn in American religious history coincide with a renewed emphasis on local or micro-history? Kyle Roberts’s project stems from a university archive.  Chris Cantwell’s project focuses on one city. Erin Bartram’s project focuses on one particular kind of religious person.  (And it has a certain New England flavor).   In other words, all of these projects are manageable. What does all of this mean in light of recent conversations about so-called “big history.

Let me close with an exhortation.  If these digital projects have peaked your interest, perhaps you are ready to start a small project of your own. Take the archivist at your institution out for a cup coffee to discuss the stuff in special collections. Find someone in IT who might have an interest in a small digital project.  Attend a THAT Camp.  Learn some basic digital tools.

I think you might be surprised at the sources that are right in front of you. At my college—a school affiliated with the Brethren in Christ Church–we have a very rich denominational and college archive.  Several nearby county historical societies have religious records.  The state archives are just down the road in Harrisburg.  The records of the Diocese of Harrisburg are also available.  And you will be surprised how many religious congregations house their own records.

Does a digital project sound too ambitious?  Then consider incorporating a digital assignment into one of your traditional courses.

It is time that the American religious historians start embracing digital history.  Our panelists today are paving the way. DH can enhance our teaching, serve our communities, and give us a greater understanding of our field.

Whither the History Major?

Boyer Hall: Home of the Messiah College History Department

On Sunday afternoon I attended AHA session #186: “Whither the History Major?”  Here is the session description: 

Where is the history major headed? Is it losing ground or at the leading edge of humanistic teaching and learning? Perhaps it is possible for both propositions to be true. This panel–comprised of award winning teachers, department administrators, key players in the AHA’s history curriculum tuning project, and digital historians from a variety of colleges and universities–will consider the past, present, and future of the history concentration all with an eye toward pointing out the challenges and opportunities the major is likely to face in the generation to come.

As a department chair, I was encouraged by the session.  While I am still concerned about the future of the history major, I was happy to learn that Messiah College History Department was fairly well “tuned.” I also realized, as is always the case, that we still have some things to work on, especially in the area of digital history.

See my storified tweets and comments here.

More From Christian James on the Digital History and Library/Archive Front

New York Public Library
For Christian’s previous AHA 2015 post click here.–JF

Later Friday, I attended two panels about important historical research issues in the digital era.

The first, Session #42: “Digital Tools: From the Archive to Publication,” presented case studies, suggestions and perspectives on how to use software to manage archival sources. Ashley Sanders started off the panel by giving a broad overview of digital history and tools and resources such as Zotero, Omeka, Evernote, and H-Net Commons and Crossroads. (Sanders is a PhD candidate in History and a Network Developer for H-Net.)

 Nancy Brown and RachelKantrowitz discussed specific software applications further in depth. Brown talked about her creation of a keyword taxonomy to organize piles of image scans in Adobe Lightroom. Kantrowitz discussed using Devonthink Pro to make her scanned documents searchable through optical character recognition (OCR) and cross-reverencing her scans while writing using Scrivener.

 Nora Slonimsky put the panel in a sort of meta-historical perspective by sharing some of her research in intellectual property concepts and laws of the early American republic. In this historical context, there was a clearer distinction between the labor of authorship and intellectual content; this pitted copyright disputes between the “indolent compilers” and the “industrious authors.” Slonimsky’s implication for digital scholarship seems to be that clearer distinctions such as these would give historians greater flexibility to share the process (i.e. source files) and products of their research.

 The question of sharing research almost dominated the ensuing roundtable and audience discussion, at the prodding of panel chair Leah Weinryb Grohsgal. Grohsgal asked panelists if they would not share their research to collaborate with libraries and archives and help other historians, while the panelists and some audience members shared reservations. (The sharing of research files is becoming a significant aspect of academic research in the natural and physical sciences, a comparison I would have liked to have seen discussed.) Another contribution came from Rosenzweig Center forHistory and New Media Director Stephen Robertson, from the audience, who pointed out that the work described here enables further digital scholarship, principally text mining. Sharing the panelists’ research could therefore enable new paths of inquiry.

 After checking into my hotel and having dinner with a friend, I stopped by the late evening plenary session on the “New York Public Library Controversy and the Future of the American Research Library.” I typically don’t attend events like this, opting to turn in early or socialize instead. At 8:30pm the dim lights made me a bit drowsy, but the intense panel conversation easily kept me awake.

 Joan W. Scott led the panelby diving directly into her active efforts to “save” NYPL, prompted by The Nation magazine’s articleslamming the Central Library Plan (CLP) to close Manhattan branch libraries and remove research collections from the famed 42nd Street branch. Her recap was a blow-by-blow account, but unfortunately, given her position as an eminent scholar, presented more of the controversy and less reflection on the future of library research.

 Michael Kimmelman, New York Times architectural critic, gave a very nuanced account of events as he tried to judge the CLP on its own merits and intended goals. He nonetheless reached a similar conclusion to Scott: that the Plan benefited real estate developers at the expense of researchers and New Yorkers.

 NYPL had a chance to respond. President Anthony Marx, who was not listed as a speaker on the online program, was the next panel speaker. Marx admitted that the CLP did not work and that NYPL responded to public outcries by stopping it. (A major part of this admission, though, was the recognition that 42nd Street renovations would go over-budget.) Marx still wants to keep more, not less, print books on-site and increase programming for a range of constituent demographics. Association of Research Libraries’ Elliott Shore also responded by putting NYPL’s woes in a continent-wide crisis of funding. In this context, Shore thinks that old, nostalgic visions of research libraries like 42ndStreet are historically-constructed and can no longer be institutionally supported.

 There was little time for audience discussion following the panel’s presentations, but the Q&A tone seemed to both acknowledge the possibilities of digitization while doubling down on the need for collaboration between stakeholders and the preservation of on-site research collections. The audience also seemed unclear on Shore’s proposed solutions, perhaps because, as Scott pointed out, his references to consortia and other collaborative initiatives as ‘meta-librarianship’ sounded unintelligible to the audience. Perhaps more work explaining (or debating) these solutions and their utility to cash-strapped libraries is needed.

 Joan W. Scott referenced a forthcoming book (Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library), by Scott Sherman, due June 2015) on the CLP controversy. At the end of the panel, free copies of Simon Verity‘s book of cartoons on the controversy were given out. This episode is now, literally, in the books. But as I saw in these two panels yesterday, the future of historical research is yet to be written.

What I Saw/Learned On My Stroll Through the AHA 2015 Book Exhibit

I decided to take an hour or so this morning to stroll through the AHA book exhibit. For those of you who care, here is what happened:

  • I bought some books:

  • I did not find a lanyard for my name badge.
  • I had a nice chat with the new politics editor at The Atlantic.  I can’t tell who this person is until next week.
  • I saw this:
I did not see this: