The Author’s Corner with Ben Wright

Ben Wright is Assistant Professor of History at The University of Texas at Dallas. This interview is based on his new book, Bonds of Salvation: How Christianity Inspired and Limited American Abolitionism (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Bonds of Salvation?

BW: My life project—the question that wakes me up in the middle of the night and that I plan to address with all of my future work—is studying how Christianity inspired people of faith to confront, or sadly too-often perpetuate, white supremacy. Exploring the abolitionist movement was an obvious starting point.

This specific project began when I kept encountering white Christians who privately attacked slavery yet never took any organized antislavery action. Understanding this seeming hypocrisy led me the ideologies of conversionism and purificationism, and then tracking the development and consequences of these ideologies gave me my narrative.

Finally, I will admit that history is a conversation between the past and present, and I absolutely used the process of writing this book to work through some of the moral failings of the evangelical world in which I grew up. Those interrogations took on a different tenor after the 2016 election.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Bonds of Salvation?

BW: Bonds of Salvation is the story of how Protestant Christianity, and its ideologies of conversionism and purificationism, both inspired and limited the development of American abolitionism. Dreams of expanding salvation formed some of the most powerful forces in creating the American nation and then only a few decades later, tore the country apart.

JF: Why do we need to read Bonds of Salvation?

BW: Perhaps it’s Midwestern humility or enduring imposter syndrome, but I’m wincing at the word “need.” One could certainly have a happy and fulfilling life without reading my book.

But… I do think my book attempts to address some very important questions about Christianity and American history: What does the kingdom of God look like? How do our religious communities balance looking within and without, salvation and holiness, evangelism and discipleship? How do we balance our desires for unity and our seeking justice? And ultimately, to invoke Frederick Douglass, what is the difference between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ?

On a more specific note, Bonds of Salvation makes a few historiographical interventions. First, it challenges the distinction in antislavery studies between gradualism and immediatism and instead offers a framework of conversionism and purificationism. Second, it argues for the centrality of conversionist Christianity in creating denominational bodies that fostered and nearly destroyed the American nation. Third, it centers missionary debates in the debate over the American Colonization Society, the national organization that sought to solve the problem of slavery and expand salvation by resettling Black Americans in Liberia.

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

BW: I had many outstanding mentors. To name just a few: Diana Magnuson at Bethel University foregrounded historiographical change in her undergraduate classes. The realization that history was not the recounting of dry facts but rather an invitation to an evolving conversation ignited something in me. Randall Balmer, then at Columbia, rescued an overwhelmed and outgunned MA student, and made me believe that I was capable of doing meaningful work. John Boles at Rice set an example of diligent scholarship and generous collegiality. The best advice I ever received about wanting to become a historian was, “don’t do it.” Only after really understanding the difficulty of the work and the obstacles of a nearly impossible job market did I realize that I needed to at least try to find a career reading, writing, and teaching history.

JF: What is your next project?

BW: My next monograph will build on the work I’ve done on the colonization movement and delve more deeply into how British and American missionaries crafted visions for empire that led to colonization in West Africa.

I also stay pretty busy maintaining (and hopefully soon extending) my textbook project, The American Yawp. I’m really interested in both the intellectual implications and practical applications of the digital humanities. Joseph Locke (my American Yawp co-editor) and I have a piece that underwent an open review from the AHR about those issues (see ahropenreview.com). We hope to extend that analysis in some other works.

And in honor of this excellent blog’s founder, I’ll admit that, at least in my head, I’m frequently humming “Reason to Believe” and rewriting a series of essays on religion and Bruce Springsteen.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

Anyone interested in buying Bonds of Salvation can use the promo code 04READHOME for 40% off from The Louisiana State University Press.

The Author’s Corner with Richard Boles

Richard Boles is Assistant Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. This interview is based on his new book, Dividing the Faith: The Rise of Segregated Churches in the Early American North (NYU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Dividing the Faith?

RB: My interest in this topic and the primary research questions for Dividing the Faith developed from my work as a Park Ranger at the Boston African American National Historic Site. The African Meeting House, which was constructed in 1806 as the place of worship for Boston’s first African American church, is the centerpiece of this National Historic Site. I knew enslaved Africans were brought to Boston as early as 1638, so I wondered about African American church attendance throughout the colonial era. I was unsatisfied with the existing scholarly explanations for African American religious practices in New England before the African Meeting House opened. I also noticed some African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century who attended predominantly white churches instead of the Black Baptist or Methodist congregations. I wondered why some African Americans chose to affiliate with mostly white churches. In subsequent years, Professor David Silverman taught me the importance of including Native Americans in any analysis of racial categories in early America, which broadened my research scope. I eventually surveyed the records of more than four hundred congregations looking for racial notations to answer these questions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Dividing the Faith?

RB: African Americans and Native Americans regularly affiliated with a range of eighteenth-century northern churches, which means that these churches were more interracial than historians have assumed and that when they divided along racial lines, churches implicitly gave moral sanction to the widespread segregation in northern society by the 1830s. The origins of African American and Indigenous forms of Christianity were diverse and multifaceted as these peoples often participated in Congregational, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed churches and not merely revivalist Baptist and Methodist ones.

JF: Why do we need to read Dividing the Faith?

RB: This book is the first to recover so fully the history of African American and Native American affiliation in Protestant churches across the entire northern region. How Sunday morning became “the most segregated time” in American life was not simply a linear story of declension. Rather, it was a complex and dynamic history replete with fascinating individuals, including Phillis Wheatley, Lemuel Haynes, Samson Occom, William Apess, and many less-well-known people, who made religious choices that defied the common patterns and assumptions of American society. By scrutinizing similar and dissimilar experiences of Blacks and Indians, this book also contributes to the growing historiography on the construction of racial identities in early America and shows the need to treat churches as influential social institutions, not just religious ones. The construction of racial identities in churches affected and reflected broader social changes. The extent of interracial interactions in northern churches challenges truisms about northern states that have fed into Americans’ racial consciousness, and so this study furthers the reintegration of northern churches within the history of racism in America. 

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

RB: As far back as I can remember, I have always loved learning and reading about American history. My mother was a history major, and when I was young, my family and I often visited museums and historical sites across different regions of America. By the time I enrolled at Boston College, I knew I wanted to study history, but I was unsure what I would do next. After finishing my BA and MA degrees in American history, I began working in historic preservation and part-time for the Park Service. While giving history walking tours of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail as a Park Ranger, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching and explaining the stories of remarkable Americans such as David Walker, William C. Nell, Maria Stewart, and others.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: My next project will examine the ways African Americans and Native Americans frequently influenced the religious practices in each other’s communities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The field of American religious history and explanations for the origins of African American and Native American churches usually have privileged Euro-American missionaries. Despite the challenges of limited source materials, I see this project as an opportunity to focus on diverse religious lives and choices of African Americans and Native Americans.

JF: Thanks, Richard!

The Author’s Corner with Evan Haefeli

Evan Haefeli is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. This interview is based on his new book, Against Popery: Britain, Empire, and Anti-Catholicism (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Against Popery?

EH: I was inspired to put this book together after working for years on the history of religious tolerance in early America. I came across so much more anti-Catholicism than tolerance that it became clear we needed a book to draw our attention to its significance and pervasiveness. Early American anti-popery was so deeply rooted in the British tradition that you cannot understand the one without the other. Moreover, it is such a big topic that no single person can account for the whole, so I recruited an interdisciplinary group of people from (and working on) both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Against Popery?

EH: The two sentence argument of the book: Anti-popery was a Protestant prejudice against Roman Catholics but also an unstable ideology of liberty. Its rejection of the political and religious example of the pope favored Protestant cultural hegemony across the Anglo-American world until the mid-eighteenth century, when efforts to enhance imperial authority provoked anti-papists in America to start a revolution that, ironically, increased liberty for Roman Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: Why do we need to read Against Popery?

EH: You should read this book because we need to incorporate anti-popery as an essential key for understanding early America and the British Empire. It is already recognized as an important issue in early modern English history, but it was truly inseparable from the religion, popular culture, political ideals, ethnic relations, racism, gender expectations, patriotism, intellectual habits, and art of all corners of what I call the British-American world. The book is also an argument for changing the way we approach the histories of early America, Britain, Ireland, and the first British Empire. Currently, those are separate fields of study based on different national histories, but certainly for the period before 1783 they must be understood as an integrated whole. How it then fell apart remains a problem in need of explanation. Anti-popery was fundamental to understanding both what held the British-American world together and then broke it apart.

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

EH: I was drawn to study American history at the end of college, when I discovered how little we knew about the Native American experience and how fascinatingly complex early America was. I was inspired to go to graduate school to expand our knowledge of Native America and develop an inclusive approach to American history that can account for, and be accountable to, its diversity — the coexistence as well as the conflicts that bind us all together.

JF: What is your next project?

EH: I have a lot of work coming down the pipeline. In February I have a book coming out on the origins of early American religious pluralism with the University of Chicago Press. It traces the establishment of the remarkably diverse range of colonies created, from Massachusetts and Maryland to Rhode Island and more, to the religious politics of early modern England to argue that what we got by the time the foundation of the modern Church of England was laid in 1662 was the unintentional result of conflicting impulses. There was no plan to make colonial English America a religious refuge or lay a foundation of religious pluralism, but that is exactly what happened, hence the books title Accidental Pluralism. Now I am writing about the even more important period after 1660, when the really diverse colonies that deliberately authorized religious toleration, like New York, Pennsylvania, and Carolina, were created. Their origins lie in the very different religious politics of Restoration England, hence my tentative title Pluralism with a Purpose. I have also begun writing a history of the Iroquois Confederacy and how it made peace with its many Indigenous enemies in colonial America, transforming the diplomacy of the eastern woodlands. Then, of course, I will have much more to say about the role of anti-popery in early America, which I am currently developing in several different articles along with a study of the religious politics of colonial Virginia.

Overall, these works are part of a bigger effort to change our understanding of religious, political, and constitutional history of the colonies, the empire, and the early United States to show that we did not easily come by the values we cherish, like religious freedom, nor can we rely on them to persist as somehow intrinsically American qualities. Their origins were fragile, conflicted, and not inevitable, just like the origins of America itself.

JF: Thanks, Evan!

Episode 76: Howard Thurman: Theologian, Mystic, Activist

Howard Thurman was a mid-20th century theologian, writer, activist, and mystic who had a profound influence on the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Thurman’s writings–especially his 1949 work Jesus and the Disinherited–provided an intellectual and spiritual guide to those trying to make sense of an era of racial and social unrest. Our guest in this episode is historian Paul Harvey, the author of Howard Thurman & The Disinherited: A Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2020).

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Marilynne Robinson and the history of American Christianity

Casey Cep of The New Yorker has written the best piece on Marilynne Robinson I have ever read. As some of you know, Robinson has a new book out in her “Gilead” series. It is titled Jack.

In these excerpts, Cep writes about the ways the history of American Christianity has shaped Robinson’s literary imagination.

Robinson’s own religious imagination took shape during her sophomore year of college, when a philosophy professor assigned Jonathan Edwards’s “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended.” The treatise contains a footnote that changed her life; in it, Edwards observes that although moonlight seems permanent, its brightness is renewed continuously. Believers often say that God meets them where they are and speaks to them in voices they can understand, so perhaps it is fitting that Robinson found her own revelation in a seldom read yet much maligned two-hundred-year-old book. An eighteenth-century evangelist articulated what she had always felt: that existence is miraculous, that at any moment the luminousness of the world could be revoked but is instead sustained.

Another truth revealed itself in that encounter: that history is not always a fair judge of character. Edwards had been reduced in the popular imagination to the censorious preacher of a single sermon, but the man who once called us “sinners in the hands of an angry God” spent a lifetime pointing out that we are creatures in the embrace of a tender and generous one, too. Likewise, Robinson came to see Edwards’s fellow-Puritans not as finger-wagging prudes but as radical political reformers who preached, even if they did not always live up to, a social ethic with strict expectations around charity—a tradition of Christian liberalism and economic justice rarely acknowledged today.

And this:

“Mother Country” also helped determine the future of Robinson’s fiction. After the Sellafield lawsuit, she sought solace in historical examples of people whose moral clarity was disregarded by their contemporaries. She read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, then turned her attention to the life and work of abolitionists in the United States. The year after “Mother Country” was published, Robinson accepted the job in Iowa, and, once in the Midwest, began exploring a constellation of colleges those abolitionists had built, among them Grinnell, Oberlin, Carleton, and Knox. Many of these institutions were integrated by race or gender or both—an egalitarianism so radical that a century later it took federal courts and the National Guard to enforce it elsewhere—and Robinson wondered what had happened to the visionary impulses behind them. The Second Great Awakening began as a broad movement for social and moral reform and spread across the entire frontier, only to be snuffed out after a single generation and misremembered today as nothing but an outburst of cultish religious enthusiasm.

What puzzled Robinson was not the moral clarity of the abolitionists but how the communities they established could so quickly abandon their ideological origins. This was Jonathan Edwards all over again: historical figures, flawed because they are human but full of promise for the same reason, who are maligned, underestimated, or forgotten. We often say that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but that suggests that all we can learn from history is its errors and its failures. Robinson believes this to be a dangerously incomplete understanding, one that distorts our sense of the present and limits the possibilities of the future by overstating our own wisdom and overlooking the visionaries of earlier generations. “It is important to be serious and accurate about history,” she says. “It seems to me much of what is said today is shallow and empty and false. I believe in the origins of things, reading primary texts themselves—reading the things many people pretend to have read, or don’t even think need to be read because we all supposedly know what they say.”

This conviction was evident in Robinson’s seminars at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and remains so today in her lectures around the world. She has assigned Calvin and Edwards when teaching Melville, read all of Sidney in order to talk about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and constructed her critiques of modern scientism from close readings of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud. She pursues the same project at her Congregational church, where she advocates for the reading of texts like John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” while also calling for more outreach to immigrants and multilingual carols for children.

Read the entire piece here.

When Canadian Methodists erased women evangelists from their history

Check out historian Scott McLaren‘s interesting piece at Borealia, a blog about early Canadian history. McLaren, the author of Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada, explores the ways early Methodist historians erased “the dramatic roles women played in Methodism’s early proselytizing success.”

Here is a taste of his post, “The Disappearing Daughters of Jerusalem”:

It is impossible to know, because evidence of this kind is so sparse, how often the male writers seamlessly and without vestige erased the roles women played among Methodists and other denominations in these early years. From a methodological perspective, what is particularly striking about these three narratives is that only the last – the version in which Methodist women play no role at all as active agents in the conversions – was ever published. The other two – the first from Bangs’s 1805 journal and the second from his undated autobiography – are available only to those with access to original archival documents held at the United Methodist Archives at Drew University in the United States. One can only wonder at how many other narratives like these lie dormant in the enormous bulk of handwritten narratives, journals, diaries, and letters left behind by both the men and women who lived in the years preceding Methodism’s determined rise to denominational dominance and social respectability in North America.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Francis Bremer

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

JF: What led you to write One Small Candle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Frank!

The Author’s Corner with Eric Smith

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

JF: What led you to write Oliver Hart?

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Oliver Hart?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Eric!

GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Blythe

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

JF: What led you to write Terrible Revolution?

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

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Terrible Revolution?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Author’s Corner with William Hart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, William!

The Author’s Corner with Kate Moran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Kate!

Placing John MacArthur’s decision to open his church in historical context

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Get up to speed on this story here.

Messiah University alum Morgan Lee interviews historian Daniel Williams for Christianity Today’s “Quick to Listen” podcast. Here is a taste:

Lee: Thoreau’s vision of civil disobedience, and even that of the Civil rights movement, was primarily nonviolent. Was there a turning point of people thinking that protest was dominantly nonviolent? Or was there a time when protest was just seen as inevitably becoming more violent?

Daniel K. Williams: The whole idea of political protest is something that I’m not sure was conceivable to people in the early church in the way that it is today. I think in the New Testament, the way that these stories were told was part of a package of proclaiming Jesus as the sovereign Lord over all of the earth. And Caesar, as well as every other king, of course, was far below that.

That was the framework. It wasn’t the idea that the government of Rome needed to be challenged or changed. It was rather that the government of Rome had no legitimate authority over Christians, except for that authority that God had given to that power. And so that’s the framework in which I think Christian martyrdom occurred for the first few centuries.

Thoreau had a very different framework. His was the framework of the new American Republic and the idea that this is a government that has been created contractually. It’s a Lockean framework. Well, if that’s your framework, at what point did nonviolent protest take hold instead of violence?

And I guess I would say that with the American Revolution, it started nonviolently. The early demonstrations in the 1760s and even very early 1770s against British power were not directly violent. They involved a lot of petitions, pamphlets, street theater, and that sort of thing. And violence only developed.

And I guess I would say the same thing with Thoreau. He was an advocate of nonviolence and he believed that this could be done nonviolently. Within a decade, others like John Brown thought differently over the same issue and most of the rest of the country was beginning to think differently.

There, of course, are those who’ve drawn a firm line between nonviolence and violence. And there’s, of course, a strong Christian tradition on that side. One could look at the Quakers and find many examples of creative ways to nonviolently challenge slavery or other injustices.

For others, it’s been a less firm line. And many people started out as advocates of nonviolence—Frederick Douglass would be one example—who then became willing to accept at least one form of violence. Sometimes people would differentiate and say they might accept state violence through war, but not necessarily private violence around the lines of John Brown.

Read the entire interview here.  I would disagree with Williams on one point here. The coming of the American Revolution in the 1760s and 1770s was actually very violent.

The Author’s Corner with Wendy Raphael Roberts

awakening verseWendy Roberts is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Albany, SUNY. This interview is based on her new book, Awakening Verse: The Poetics of Early American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Awakening Verse?

WR: When I began to study American poetry seriously in graduate school, I simply could not believe that early evangelicalism would have had no impact on verse in early America; yet, it seemed absent from most of the conversation. When it was there, it was a discussion primarily about hymns. I wondered if people involved in the early revivals wrote non-hymnal poetry and what function it served. It turns out they did—a lot of it—and that it was central to their experience and to the development of both American history and literature.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Awakening Verse?

WR: Awakening Verse, which is the first history of non-hymnal poetry in British North America, argues that early evangelicalism must be understood as a central aesthetic movement of the eighteenth century; and that to understand early evangelicalism as it first took shape requires sustained attention to its prolific poetry. I show that verse was foundational to evangelical belief and culture because it infused believers with the emotions and feelings necessary for a close relationship with Christ, for living out tensions in theology and society, and for performing lay ministries.

JF: Why do we need to read Awakening Verse?

WR: I think most people will be surprised at the extensive role of poetry in early America. Trying to understand early American culture, and especially evangelicalism, without attention to poetry is akin to trying to understand the last decade without acknowledging the influence of social media. Because the book helps break down a split between “secular” literature and religion, and between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” literatures, it reveals that literature and religious experience are deeply entwined, and that entanglement is important to American history. Even further, this book is important to read now because it shows how revival verse produced evangelical feelings that reinforced certain classed, raced, and gendered structures. Evangelicals have prided themselves on creating a less hierarchal and a more accessible version of Christianity. Yet, the actual history is much more complicated. Right now white evangelicals are reckoning with their complicity with white supremacy; this book can help with that endeavor.

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

WR: I have always loved poetry and analyzing words and rhetoric. But I think that my own experience at an evangelical university and then a secular university made me hyper-aware that textual analysis is crucially tied up in history. At the same time, you cannot get to those meanings outside of the words. To me this pointed toward a beautiful messiness that I thought could produce respectful dialogue between Christian and non-Christian perspectives. This motivated me to study literary history.

JF: What is your next project?

WR: I have two projects: one seeks to answer the question of what the evangelical long poem, which became popular in the eighteenth century, tells us about the relationship of settler colonialism and evangelicalism. The other is a history of the poetic coteries with which Phillis Wheatley, the first Black American woman to publish a book of poetry, interacted.

JF: Thanks, Wendy!

The Author’s Corner with Jeffrey Einboden

Jefferson's Muslim Fugitives Cover PhotoJeffrey Einboden is Presidential Research, Scholarship and Artistry Professor at Northern Illinois University. This interview is based on his new book, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives: The Lost Story of Enslaved Africans, their Arabic Letters, and an American President (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives?

JE: Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives marks the culmination of an archival search spanning the past decade, during which I sought to recover Arabic writings by Muslims enslaved in early America. Crucial to my search’s first years was a 2011 NEH Fellowship, supporting my translation and teaching of such lost manuscripts by enslaved West Africans. To my surprise, I experienced best success in locating these rare and rich sources among the papers of some of the most prominent figures of the early Republic: professors, politicians, and ultimately a U.S. president. This ironic facet of my research process also shapes the book’s narrative, which not only reveals extraordinary acts of authorship by enslaved Muslims, but recounts the improbable dissemination of their Arabic writings, ascending to even the highest halls of U.S. power.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives?

JE: Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives uncovers the astonishing story that surrounds a date now wholly lost to U.S. history: October 4, 1807–the day that Thomas Jefferson was handed Arabic writings penned by two African Muslims resisting captivity in rural Kentucky. Straddling borders of race, religion and region, the book argues that these Arabic manuscripts formed a vital part of the President’s life-long engagement with Islam, while embodying a broader tradition of literary exchange between enslaved Muslims and the early American elite that has remained largely hidden for two centuries.

JF: Why do we need to read Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives?

JE: Accessible in style and narrative in structure, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives reveals for the first time a range of historic sources that hold urgent contemporary relevance. Straddling polarities–America and Islam; captive West Africans and a U.S. President; the history of slavery and Arabic literacy–the book sheds new light on the fraught legacies of a Founding Father, while also uncovering lost witnesses to a profound heritage of African American authorship. Interweaving manuscript images into its readable account, the book offers direct access to its landmark findings, exhibiting the Arabic sources circulated by Jefferson and his contemporaries, including a previously unseen document from 1788 Georgia, which I identify as the earliest surviving instance of Muslim slave writings in the newly-formed United States.

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

JE: Looking back, my journey to the field of American History now seems somewhat unlikely. My fascination with the national past was fostered internationally, first sparked during my undergraduate years in Toronto, Canada, and deepened during my graduate work in Cambridge, England. I was most drawn to the field not by traditional topics, but by what seemed lacking in accounts of early America, especially the pivotal but overlooked role played by Middle Eastern languages and literatures in the life of the young Republic. Ironically, it was my early language learning–studying Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian during my degree programs–that proved most decisive for my later pursuit of American historiography, permitting recovery of crucial archival sources that have gone unnoticed precisely due to their Middle Eastern idioms.

JF: What is your next project?

JE: I’m currently working on two books, each of which form differing sequels to Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives. The first is a study of Jefferson and Native American languages, revealing the critical role played by Orientalism in shaping Indigenous philology, as well as the Middle Eastern interests that infuse the first Cherokee and Dakota newspapers during the decades following Jefferson’s death. The second book is a history of Islam’s startling impact on Civil War-era rhetoric, with Muslim idioms and identities helping to define Lincoln’s own life and legacy specifically. Recovering neglected Arabic manuscripts and military records, the book interweaves Civil War memorials of Muslim slaves and soldiers together with the Orientalist portraits of President Lincoln which pervaded U.S. newsprint at the very height of the nation’s defining struggle.

JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!

Pandemic Religion

pray-faith-bible-religion-preview

John Turner, a religion professor at George Mason University, introduces us to a very interesting new digital archive called Pandemic Religion. Over at The Anxious Bench, Turner introduces us to this new database:

Two months ago, Lincoln Mullen (my colleague at George Mason University) and I created pandemicreligion.org, a digital archive dedicated to collecting materials about American congregations during the COVID-19 pandemic…

Pandemic Religion continues to solicit contributions from congregations and individuals. Contributors can write narratives, but they can also contribute any media files: photographs, .mp4 digital sermons, and anything else. Please consider sharing this call for contributions with members of your community.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Alexander Ames

Ames-CoverAlexander Ames is Collections Engagement Manager at The Rosenbach, a historic house museum and special collections library affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book, The Word in the Wilderness: Popular Piety and the Manuscript Arts in Early Pennsylvania (Penn State University Press, 2020). Learn more about The Word in the Wilderness, and listen to Cloister Talk: The Pennsylvania German Material Texts Podcast, at https://www.wordinwilderness.com/.

JF: What led you to write The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: The Word in the Wilderness began with the first substantial research paper I wrote after matriculating in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum in 2012. Shortly after arriving at Winterthur, I became fascinated by the various German-language illuminated devotional manuscripts with Pennsylvania provenance that dotted the walls and lined the hallways of the museum. While I soon learned that the documents, commonly called “Fraktur” in Pennsylvania, were well-loved and much-studied as a form of early-American folk art, I never felt quite satisfied with common explanations as to why early German-speakers in Pennsylvania engaged in the manuscript arts. Why deploy Frakturschrift calligraphy as a spiritual enterprise? What texts did scribes write on the artworks, and why? How were the documents actually used by readers? These questions gnawed at me. So, quite naturally, the project grew from a term paper into a master’s thesis, and then into a doctoral dissertation, carrying me from the archives of rural Pennsylvania to Switzerland, Germany, New England, and many other stops along the way.

The project soon focused on two closely-aligned tasks: situating Pennsylvania German devotional manuscripts within broader eighteenth-century German Pietist religious culture, and contextualizing the documents within the general manuscript-making practices of the period. Since beginning my career in special collections libraries, I have made good use of the opportunity to mine Philadelphia-area collections for even more books and documents that shed light on the manuscripts’ meaning. I have reveled in the opportunity to employ the interdisciplinary fields of book history and material culture studies as theoretical foundations for this work—and highlight intriguing artifacts of early American religious history along the way.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: From approximately 1750 to 1850, the German-speaking residents of southeastern Pennsylvania wielded calligraphy and manuscript illumination as central tools for their Protestant faith practice. The fascinating, if at times seemingly inscrutable, visual and textual artifacts these people left behind allow us to trace the flowering of a rich Christian devotional world in early Pennsylvania, one in which individual believers exercised considerable agency over their spiritual and intellectual lives by means of reading and writing ritually ornamented holy texts.

JF: Why do we need to read The Word in the Wilderness?

AA: The Word in the Wilderness challenges all historians to consider that primary-source documents are not so much clear windows into past worlds as they are richly-textured canvases, on which historical actors inscribed the meaning they found in the world around them. This is an apt metaphor when studying Pennsylvania German illuminated devotional manuscripts, seeing as the documents were intentionally designed as visual artworks. But viewing all books, manuscripts, and other documents simultaneously as texts and material artifacts helps us rethink how the stories of the past come down to us in material form. I hope that my book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the religious, intellectual, and cultural history of early America, but it should also appeal to scholars who wish to explore the potency of material culture and book history as methods of historical analysis.

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

AA: I vividly remember the moment that I first visited a special collections library as a researcher. By the time I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, I had already decided on a career in libraries, but when visiting a local historical society to do some research for a speech I had been asked to give, I realized that I could pursue a career that simultaneously affirmed my passion for libraries and allowed me to immerse myself in my lifelong love of history. The “stuff” of history and the collecting work of cultural heritage institutions have always fascinated me, so I pursued graduate study in public history, material culture, museum studies, and American civilization.

Looking back at my childhood, it seems I was destined for a career in history, though it was far from a given at the time. I had a poster of Winston Churchill hanging above my bed at my family home, and it’s still there today, looming over piles of history books that haven’t accompanied my on my various moves and are probably in need of a good dusting. However, I feel very lucky to have landed on a way to forge a career in museums and libraries that allows me to indulge my passion for historical research.

JF: What is your next project?

AA: While writing The Word in the Wilderness, I did a fair amount of comparative research, unearthing religious and other manuscripts made in communities across the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Atlantic World. Some examples of these documents appear in the book, but I have become convinced that a much more expansive story remains to be told about penmanship, calligraphy, and manuscript culture in the early modern period and beyond. In my next project, I hope to use The Word in the Wilderness as a starting point for a broader comparative study of manuscript culture in the Atlantic World.

JF: Thanks, Alexander!

Remembering Donald Dayton

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Theologian and church historian Donald W. Dayton has died.

While I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School pursuing an M.A. in American church history, I read a lot of Dayton. As a young evangelical, I was passionate about exploring the roots of the movement that I embraced as a sixteen-year-old kid. I read Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage as well as his unpublished essays that circulated among evangelical scholars and graduate students.

One of those unpublished pieces was a paper Dayton read in January 1988 at the Wesleyan/Holiness Study Project First Fellows Seminar at Asbury Theological Seminary. It was titled, “An Analysis of the Self-Understanding of American Evangelicalism With a Critique of its Correlated Historiography.” The paper criticized what Dayton believed was a Reformed bias in evangelical historiography.

At the time I encountered Dayton’s work in the early 1990s, Reformed historians such as George Marsden and Mark Noll were at the height of their scholarly game. Their books and articles were shaping our understanding of American evangelicalism in profound ways. Dayton did not have the funding Marsden and Noll enjoyed. He did not publish his work in places that would have been respected by the larger academy. But he was relentless. He insisted that modern evangelicalism was a Protestant movement with roots in the Pietist, Wesleyan, and Holiness traditions. Evangelicals, he argued, were abolitionists, feminists, reformers, and defenders of social justice. While Marsden and Noll wrote about Jonathan Edwards, revolutionary-era Calvinists, Old and New School Presbyterians, common sense realism, Princeton theologians, and J. Gresham Machem, Dayton called attention to Jonathan Blanchard, Charles Finney, Theodore Weld, the Tappan brothers, Phoebe Palmer, and A.B. Simpson. Much of his work provided a historical foundation for the Evangelical Left.

To be fair, Marsden’s work on fundamentalism and evangelicalism did take into consideration the revivalist tradition. His books covered D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and the Keswick Movement. (I seem to remember hearing or reading a story somewhere about Dayton giving Marsden a bag of books on Holiness and Wesleyan church history as he was writing either Fundamentalism and American Culture or his history of Fuller Theological Seminary, Reforming Fundamentalism). But I always thought Dayton’s work did not get the attention it deserved. While Marsden and others privileged a Reformed interpretive lens, Dayton tried to imagine what the story might look like if told through a Pietist/Wesleyan/Holiness lens. Dayton believed that this lens offered a clearer vision of the subject at hand.

Much of this debate is covered in Doug Sweeney‘s 1991 Church History essay, “The Essential Evangelicalism Dialectic: The Historiography of the Early Neo-Evangelical Movement and the Observer-Participant Dilemma” (now republished in this book) and in a 1993 issue of the Christian Scholars Review. At the time of Sweeney’s essay (which drew heavily on his own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School M.A. thesis–Sweeney was a few years ahead of me at TEDS), I was corresponding with Dayton about my thesis on separatist fundamentalism. At the moment, I do not have access to that correspondence (no time to find a box of correspondence in the basement for a blog post), but I was able to dig up a July 14, 1991 handwritten letter on Northern Baptist Theological Seminary stationary:

John,

I just got your letter of June 23. I’m in the Orient most of the summer, but was back for a couple of days, before [I’m] off again ’til about Aug. 8. Hence this hurried, informal response.

You have permission to quote my paper. I’ve enclosed a copy plus a couple other articles along the same line. I plan to finish  in Aug. or Sept. a major statement in critique of George’s history of Fuller. I’ll try to remember to send you a copy.

I’ve mixed feelings about Doug Sweeney’s published essay. I liked the thesis better. I wonder if [Carl] McIntire is as “Reformed” as you indicate. Certain features (revivalism, premillennialism, no-smoking, drinking, etc.) would not be as classically Reformed, would they? 

I’ll be back August 8 or so–and would be glad to get together sometime.

Don Dayton

A few notes on this letter:

  • I asked Dayton for permission to quote from the aforementioned “An Analysis of the Self-Understanding of American Evangelicalism….”
  • Dayton’s response to George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism eventually appeared as “The Search for Historical Evangelicalism: George Marsden’s History of Fuller Seminary as a Case Study,” Christian Scholars Review, 23 (1993).
  • Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire played an important role in my M.A. thesis. Dayton was trying to get me to see him as a more complex theological figure.
  • Dayton never elaborated on why he liked Doug Sweeney’s Trinity M.A. thesis more than his Church History article.

Nine years later, we resumed our correspondence while I was a post-doc in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.  I wrote Dayton after a Monday afternoon colloquium devoted to a discussion of Alan Wolfe’s October 2000 Atlantic cover-story titled “Opening the Evangelical Mind.” I was interested in how the road to evangelical “openness” (to use Wolfe’s term) ran through Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper and the broader Reformed tradition. At the time of Wolfe’s piece, the discussion among evangelical academics (especially among historians) had shifted from the debate over the theological roots of fundamentalism/evangelicalism to the state of evangelical thinking and the implications of Mark Noll’s 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Noll, Marsden (his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship was part of the discussion), and others advocating for a renewal of the evangelical mind were building their case on the assertion that American evangelicalism–at least in its 19th and 20th-century manifestations– was a a largely anti-intellectual movement. American evangelicalism, Noll argued, had been so focused on personal piety, activism, evangelism, and acts of social justice that it ignored or downplayed Christian thinking. To me it seemed that in order for these Reformed evangelical historians to make a case for the revival of an evangelical mind, they needed to embrace Dayton’s historiography.

In an October 2000 e-mail, I asked Dayton if he thought the 19th-century Pietist/Wesleyan/Holiness tradition had become the bogeyman for what Wolfe described in The Atlantic as the “opening of the evangelical mind.” I wondered if the current Reformed push for a renewed intellectual life among evangelicals meant that Dayton had won the historiographical battle. In other words, evangelical thinking was necessary in 1994 because 19th-century evangelicalism was defined by the people, ideas, and actions that Dayton had always put at the center of his story. Evangelicalism was more about Finney, Palmer, and Weld than it was about Edwards (and his theological descendants), Warfield, and Machen and this is why renewed Christian thinking was now necessary.

Here is Dayton’s response to my e-mail, sent from his Drew University e-mail account:

I was intrigued by your note and wished I could have been present for your discussion. I tried to call last night and left a message on your voice mail. I may try again. I just saw the Wolfe article as I passed through the airport over the weekend and just read it late last night.

As you probably know, I resist the word evangelical not only because it usually carried the “reformed” connotations but because it fails to convey the historical and sociological reality of what seems to me is really going on.

For me it is noteworthy that we have had pentecostal seminaries only for a couple of decades and holiness seminaries only a generation before that (Asbury took off after WW II, followed by the Nazarenes, Anderson, Western Evangelical, etc.). Part of the issue is whether to see the evangelical seminaries in that line and revealing a similar dynamic of constituencies moving into the middle class (like Pentecostals) and needing a seminary. This is clearly true for Trinity (carried by the Evangelical Free Church–and holiness-like founder [Rev. Frederick] Fransen), and I would argue Gordon (rooted in the ministry of holiness Baptist A.J. Gordon, a major figure in the development of “faith healing”), and even for Fuller, as I argued in my dialogue with Marsden in Christian Scholars Review. If this is true, it seems odd to me to compare the emergence of these very young traditions of theology and intellectual activity with Reformed and Lutheran [which have] half a millennium of university theological tradition. I don’t even know how to dialogue with people like Wolfe who don’t seem to me to see what is going on.

Nor do I know how to enter a discussion with people like Mark Noll (his SCANDAL book). It seems very odd to me to stand in a college that was founded by the Wesleyan Church in the Holiness Movement (ala Jonathan Blanchard), to claim that it is the best available, and then blame the holiness movement for the fact that it is not better. [Noll was at Wheaton College at the time]. The holiness folk founded a majority of the Christian College Coalition schools–especially the better ones (Wheaton, Seattle Pacific, Azusa, Houghton, Gordon–both branches, etc.)  Mark [Noll], Rich Mouw and others were raised in baptistic fundamentalism, went to holiness schools and then grafted themselves into the Reformed tradition (Princeton Theological Seminary for Mark,  CRC & Kuyper for Rich) to do their intellectual work. I understand this; my own theological formation is essentially Barthian and I teach Calvin regularly. But I do object to reading these personal pilgrimages back into the history and confusing genealogy with teleology (Marsden on Fuller or the usual interpretations of the history of Wheaton, emphasizing Blanchard’s Presbyterianism and ignoring the fact that it is “Oberlin Perfectionism” that is at issue).

It is the failure to understand “evangelicalism” historically that leads to such strange claims as those of [Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary theologian] David Wells that there is an intellectual “decline” in “evangelicalism” since Edwards that has not been recovered. But here again we are comparing apples and oranges–Yale and Princeton with “new” schools founded in the 19th and 20th centuries that have NO historical or theological continuities except as products of the latter engraft themselves into the theological traditions of other cycles of theological tradition to enter the intellectual world to achieve a sort of intellectual respectability that involved the betrayal of both their class interests and their theological traditions in which they were reared and/or educated! 

Whatever one thinks about this letter, it was classic Donald Dayton. He was less concerned about defending the theological convictions of the Pietist-Wesleyan-Holiness tradition than he was about getting the history correct. He did not hesitate to call out other scholars for their supposed ambition. This latter claim was the reason why so many Christian academics saw Dayton as a real pain in the ass (and I say this as compliment). The debate continues.

Here is a reflection on Dayton’s life from his former Drew University student Christian Collins Winn:

On May 2, the theological world lost one of its most unique voices, the Wesleyan Methodist Church lost one of its most ardent sons, and hundreds of students and colleagues lost one of their fiercest friends.

Donald (“Don”) W. Dayton was by all accounts brilliant, a voracious reader and lover of books, and one of the foremost interpreters of American religious history. Very few scholars produce work that shapes their generation, even fewer break genuinely new ground that has the potential to shape generations to come. Dayton’s work rose to this level of significance. As a scholar, his contributions in both the historiography of evangelicalism and in the historiography and theological interpretation of the Holiness Movement and Pentecostalism have fundamentally altered our interpretation of American religious history.

Not without controversy—in keeping with the nature of any truly groundbreaking perspective—Dayton had a striking genius for reading against the grain of accepted scholarship, unlocking alternative construals and opening up new pathways for interpretation and appropriation often taken up by later scholars. Many of his early proposals were rejected by established scholars, only later to be embraced; others continue to wait for the academy to catch up. Don also made major contributions through his extensive ecumenical work, where he advocated for marginal voices and traditions to be taken seriously and given a seat at the table. Moreover, his influence can be discerned in the lives and ongoing scholarship of the hundreds of students whom he mentored with his hallmark generosity and loving patience.

Read the rest here.

Rest in peace, Don.

The Author’s Corner with Gracjan Kraszewski

Catholic ConfederatesGracjan Kraszewski is Director of Intellectual Formation at St. Augustine’s Catholic Center at the University of Idaho.  He is also Instructor of Construction and Design at Washington State University. This interview is based on his new book, Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South (The Kent State University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Catholic Confederates?

GK: My personal story, geography, and a lifelong interest. In respective order, I am a Catholic and so I suppose a lot of people find it natural to write about something from their own daily, lived experience. Secondly, I attended grad school in the South, in Mississippi, and the Civil War is, still, omnipresent in this region, and the archives and sites close by facilitate undertaking such a project. Third, growing up in Pennsylvania I think I must have visited Gettysburg more than ten separate times as a boy, minimum. I was always fascinated by the Civil War. These things in tandem produced a perfect storm, and made my topic something of a no brainer. (Plus, super fun too!).

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Catholic Confederates?

GK: You do not have to wait until the 20th century, until JFK and the Second Vatican Council and ethnic identity-leveling suburban sprawl, to see evidence of Catholic assimilation into American life. During the Civil War, Southern Catholics ‘Confederatized’ (‘Americanization’ via the Confederacy) into their surrounding society with ease—supporting secession and the war as fervently as their more well known Protestant neighbors—and found this devotion returned, winning the approbation of Confederates elite and common alike, serving in key posts throughout the conflict, and remaining at the epicenter of events, a fact often buried in historiographical obscurity.

JF: Why do we need to read Catholic Confederates?

GK: Because not enough Civil War historians know about the role Catholics played in the Confederacy, not enough scholars of American Catholicism know enough about the South—let alone the Civil War South—and the general body of American Catholics (and Protestants as well) too readily accept that anything ‘Catholic’ and ‘American’ must revolve exclusively around issues, problems and people like ‘the North,’ immigration and demographics, Humanae Vitae, Boston, New York, Vatican II, Chicago, John Paul II, Pope Francis. Few would ever consider that Catholics might have been visible and important in the 19th century ‘Bible Belt;’ American Catholics just don’t know this part of their own history. This book remedies all three of these blind spots simultaneously.

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

GK: My father is a poet and a literature professor. And I love my father. So I think I always associated the academic life, the teaching and the writing, with what grown-ups do because my dad did that and I grew up with it. The American history specificity probably has a lot to do with those Gettysburg trips, but also that from a young age I was ‘good at history.’ Memorizing the dates, knowing who was who and who went were, that stuff kind of came natural to me. I was reading Civil War books as a ten year old and I never thought that was weird, like ‘why don’t I pick up some comics or something?’ I liked history then and have never stopped liking it.

JF: What is your next project?

GK: There’s two taking shape at the moment. I’m working on, nearly done with, a maximalist, absurdist-comedy novel that is set around the year 2100 (although it is not, in any way, science fiction; never, haha) that treats the American pursuit of happiness in a post-postmodern world. It’s centered around a progressive academy in the New Mexican desert— ESSNWNAU-AL: East Southwestern South Northeastern West North American University of the Arts and Logic—and is parts philosophical, theological, economic and atomic, i.e. scientists who build something much more powerful than the Tsar Bomba and so, what now? It’s pretty long already (more than 300,000 words) and has been appearing via short story excerpts in publications the past few years, most recently in the Canadian journal Riddle Fence this month. The second book stems from my work as Director of Intellectual Formation at the Univ. of Idaho’s St. Augustine Center. Each month I give a 30 min. lecture—on Catholicism and politics, Catholicism and sports, contrasting superheroes and saints, etc.—and we’re hoping to compile what will be essentially a collection of essays into a book sometime next year, maybe summer 2021?

JF: Thanks, Gracjan!

Digitizing New England Church Records

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Here is Jeff Cooper at the blog of the American Antiquarian Society:

For the past fifteen years, New England’s Hidden Histories (NEHH), a project of the Congregational Library & Archives in Boston, has sought to locate, digitize, transcribe, and publish online New England’s earliest manuscript church records. The project, which was featured on the front page of the New York Times, has already made available documents from nearly one hundred local churches.

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the American Antiquarian Society has partnered with Hidden Histories to digitize some of the most exciting and illuminating documents in the AAS’s vast manuscript collections. The current pandemic, which has forced virtually all research institutions in New England to close, underscores the importance of digital initiatives, and the online accessibility provided by these kinds of projects. Already the two institutions have collaboratively digitized and published online an early manuscript draft of Congregationalism’s foundational document, the 1649 Cambridge Platform, along with the church elders’ responses to lay objections to the document. Early New Englanders referred to the Platform as their “constitution” of church government…

Other significant documents slated for digitization include the papers of the Reverend Thomas Shepard, one of the key members of the founding generation, and the one thousand-page diary of Increase Mather. Collections of local church records scheduled for online publication include those of Worcester, Holden, Shrewsbury, and several others. Hidden Histories has transcribed many of the documents in its collections and is always looking for volunteers to assist.

The thousands of pages of historically significant documents to be published online by the AAS and New England’s Hidden Histories will provide scholars and the general public with an unprecedented opportunity to study seventeenth and eighteenth-century church and community life in the region.

Read the entire post here.