What Will American Religious Historians Say About the 2010s?

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Over at The Anxious Bench, historian Philip Jenkins asks, “what will future scholars of Christianity highlight when they write the history of the 2010s?  What tremors reshaped the landscape of faith?”

Here is part of Jenkins’s answer:

I would start with the papacy of Francis in the Roman Catholic church, with all that has meant for controversies within the church, and the struggles for an against reform.

Within the United States, I would include, for instance:

-The Rise of the Nones, people admitting no religious affiliation, and what that might mean for secularization trends.

-The 2016 election and the conflicts within evangelicalism: charges that white evangelicals follow conservative politics at the expense of religious principles. See: a great many posts at this blog by multiple authors.

-Growing calls for women’s leadership within many churches, especially among evangelicals. See: a great many posts at this blog by multiple authors.

-The establishment of same sex marriage as mainstream social orthodoxy (the Obergefell decision 2015), with all the actual and potential clashes that sets up for churches, and for individual conservative Christian believers.

-Activism and concern about climate issues and global warming becomes a leading cause for US churches.

Read the entire piece here.

In addition to Jenkins’s mention of women leadership, I would add the influence of the #MeToo movement in evangelical churches and denominations. (Bill Hybels, Paige Patterson, John Crist, etc.)

It also seems that white churches are coming to grips with questions of structural racism like never before.

Religion in the Early Republic at *The Panorama*

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Mary Kupiec Cayton of Ohio State and Will Mackintosh of Mary Washington University will be editing a series on religion in the early republic at The Panorama, the blog of The Journal of the Early Republic.  This looks great.

Here is Cayton:

When The Panorama’s editor, Will Mackintosh, asked me late last spring whether I might be interested in working with him to put together a digital roundtable on Religion in the Early American Republic, I found the idea intriguing. I had long thought that it made sense for religion-related topics to have more visibility among scholars of our period.

We also live in very curious times as far as religion is concerned. Over one-third of younger Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, report that they have no religion. At the same time, religion’s role in the public square has seldom been more consequential. What are the topics of interest that this dissonance generates among scholars of religion in the early American republic? How do contemporary attitudes that we bring to the secular study of religion change, disrupt, or complicate the stories we’ve inherited? I was excited by the opportunity to use the Panorama’s digital platform to try to get a better fix on how scholars who are currently working in this area are answering these questions.

We began by compiling a list of the scholars currently working on religion-related topics in the early American republic. We looked for early- and mid-career and senior scholars, as well as scholars who write about diverse faith traditions and identity positions. We looked for those exploring the connections between religious beliefs, groups, institutions, or values on the one hand, and other aspects of life in our period on the other—politics, foreign affairs, social structures and movements, families, business and economics, gender identities and roles, racial and ethnic identities, regional and class cultures. We asked all who agreed to participate the following questions:

  • How does your most recent scholarship (or current scholarly project) involving religion in the early American republic speak to contemporary questions of religion in the public sphere? OR
  • How does that scholarship speak to important dimensions of the American past that have been overlooked or neglected in mainstream narratives of the period?

Read the entire post here.

Exploring Religious Disestablishment: State by State

DissentI am glad to see the release of Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833. Carl Esbeck of the University of Missouri and Jonathan Den Hartog of Samford University have edited a very useful book for anyone interested in the relationship between church and state in early America.  Authors include Evan Haefeli, James Kabala, Shelby Balik Kyle Bulthuis, Brian Franklin, and John Witte.  By the way, some guy from Messiah College who has a blog wrote the essay on New Jersey.

Over at the Age of Revolution blog, Den Hartog introduces us to the themes of the book.  Here is a taste:

The American Revolution came about through a sequence of fractures in the ties between the colonies and Great Britain. One of those fractures arose from an important call from the Continental Congress. On May 15, 1776, Congress approved a resolution urging each of the colonies “to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”[1] This invitation immediately called into question the charters and habits under which the colonies had been operating in a British constitutional and legal regime. It thereby forced the new states to question and modify long-standing arrangements, potentially transforming many aspects of American life.

One key element of those reconsiderations was the public place of religion for the states. In 1776, various forms of church establishment stretched from Georgia and South Carolina to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Although “establishment” has often been used to mean financial support for the official church, in reality, these establishments often connected with many other aspects of colonial life, property holding, and governance.[2] It was in the states that Americans experienced the most issues around “church and state.” The states thus provide the best location in which to examine how Americans pursued religious liberty in a revolutionary moment. Although much ink has been spilled about the First Amendment, even more significant change occurred at the state level.

The process of religious disestablishment in the states provides a fascinating story in political and legal innovation. It transformed conceptions of ties between religion and politics, religion and the law, and the citizen’s relationships and duties. It produced a unique American model of religious liberty for all, voluntary support of the churches, and non-sectarianisn (non-preferentialism) in governmental approaches to denominations. It’s a story that needs to be told.

In order to examine religious disestablishment at the state level, Carl Esbeck and I recently co-edited a volume entitled Disestablishment and Religious Dissent: Church-State Relations in the American States, 1776-1833(University of Missouri Press, forthcoming November 2019). We recruited twenty-one scholars to analyze how establishment and disestablishment operated at the state level. These scholars—historians, political scientists, and legal experts—brought their distinctive insights, as they each took up one specific state. The range of investigation took in the original thirteen states, along with other early-admitted states such as Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Contributors also examined the special cases of Ohio (admitted from the Northwest Territory), Louisiana and Missouri (additions from the Louisiana Purchase), Maine (carved out of Massachusetts), and Florida (gained from Catholic Spain).

Read the entire piece here and then buy this book for your personal and university library.

The Author’s Corner with D.L. Noorlander

Heaven's wrath.jpgD.L. Noorlander is Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Oneonta. This interview is based on his new book, Heaven’s Wrath: The Protestant Reformation and the Dutch West India Company in the Atlantic World (Cornell University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: The project started when I was a graduate student at Georgetown University. I was reading a lot of colonial history for my classes and exams, and I noticed that British and Spanish topics tend to dominate the field. I had had an interest in Dutch history for a long time, partly because of my own family ties to the Netherlands (Noorlander is a Dutch name) and partly because I had lived there for two years and spoke the language, which is pretty rare in the United States! When the time came to propose a dissertation topic, there really wasn’t much question about doing something on the Dutch in early America.

At this point I honestly don’t remember how I came to focus on the Calvinist influence in the Dutch West India Company, but that’s what happened. In reading about New Netherland and other Dutch colonies, I think I just came to believe that American historians had paid a lot more attention to the former than it probably deserved, given its place of relative unimportance in the Dutch empire. And I came to see that historians had written a lot about Dutch commerce, but they had done less social, cultural, and intellectual history.

To give credit where credit is due, I think my eyes were also opened to all the rich opportunities in Dutch research by reading books like The Reformed Church in Dutch Brazil(F.L. Schalkwijk), Fulfilling God’s Mission(Willem Frijhoff), and Innocence Abroad religio(Benjamin Schmidt). They are very different books, but they all contained wonderful surprises regarding Dutch ideology, Dutch religion, and Dutch activities in West Africa and South America. The same company that oversaw New Netherland oversaw Dutch forts and colonies in these other places, too, so it just made sense to study them together.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: The Dutch Reformed Church and West India Company forged a close union, with significant consequences throughout the seventeenth century. Certain of those consequences were, from the Calvinist point of view, positive; but the union also encouraged expensive, destructive military operations and divisive campaigns against sinners and religious nonconformers in colonial courts.

JF: Why do we need to read Heaven’s Wrath?

DN: In my experience, Americans tend not to know just how active and influential the Dutch were in early America and the Atlantic world. Because they ultimately lost Brazil to the Portuguese and New Netherland to the English, it’s easy to forget that the Dutch once had an impressive Atlantic empire. Their endless attacks on the Spanish and Portuguese may have inadvertently assisted the English and French, as well, because the Dutch kept their enemies so occupied that they (the Spanish and Portuguese) couldn’t resist and quash competitors with the same vigor and capacity they would have had without having to fight the pesky Dutch for so many years.

In short, readers of my book will learn about a people who did far more than trade: They were pirates and privateers, they waged wars, they founded colonies — and yes, despite their reputation for pragmatism and tolerance, they pursued religious goals and exhibited the occasional streak of zealotry and intolerance. I’m not the only historian noticing and writing about these things today. But Heaven’s Wrath is unique, I think, as a history of the whole West India Company, no matter where it operated, and the book is unique in using the topic of religion to reveal and explore these diverse colonial goals and methods.

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

DN: I was an English major as an undergraduate student. I was a senior before I finally realized that, as much as I love literature, I was also reading a lot of history and a lot of biographies, even more so than fiction. So I took a year off after I graduated and I applied to an MA program in history. And I liked it enough that I decided in the end to pursue a PhD.

The more profound answer is this: I love stories, but sometimes the non-fiction variety of story is more fascinating than the made-up variety, maybe because with fiction, no matter how good and profound it can be, there’s always the slightly disappointing knowledge that “this didn’t really happen” and “this doesn’t involve real people” (except in the vague sense that fiction writers draw upon human experiences and the human condition). I also love the mystery and challenge of putting my “story” together, meaning searching it out in the archives and using scattered sources to reconstruct what otherwise isn’t clear. It requires a lot of patience and detective work and, yes, even a bit of imagination.

JF: What is your next project?

DN: Readers of Heaven’s Wrath will sometimes encounter a poet, lyricist, and colonist named Jacob Steendam. Over the course of his life he lived in Europe, Africa, America, and Asia. I’ve been collecting sources on Steendam for years, and I’m now going to write a whole book about his travels and writings. Because he’s such an obscure figure, it won’t be a simple biography. But I’m going to use him and his poetry to explore the many “worlds” of the Dutch Golden Age, meaning the places he lived and the less tangible worlds of early modern writing, publishing, music, and their place in colonial life and colonial thought.

JF: Thanks, Danny!

The Author’s Corner With Christopher Cameron

Black FreethinkersChristopher Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Northwestern University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Black Freethinkers?

CC: Like countless scholars of African American religion, I began this project after reading Al Raboteau’s classic book Slave Religion. Toward the end of the work, he mentions that not all slaves “too solace in religion” and some could not believe in a just and all-powerful God who would allow his people to suffer under slavery. Raboteau’s discussion of atheism and agnosticism occupies just two pages yet was incredibly intriguing to me, as I’d encountered no other historians who explored religious skepticism in nineteenth century slave communities. This discovery led me to begin searching for examples of black freethinkers, both in the era of slavery and in the twentieth century, and what I found convinced me that black freethought was much more prevalent and important than scholars have realized.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freethinkers?

CC: African American freethought began as a response to the brutality of the institution of slavery and developed in tandem with movements such as the New Negro Renaissance and Black Power. While freethinkers have constituted a small segment of the black population, they have nevertheless played critical roles in African American intellectual and political life since the mid-19th century.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freethinkers?

CC: Probably the most common response I get when discussing this book with people is “I didn’t know that person was a freethinker.” This is the case when discussing lesser-known figures such as Louise Thompson Patterson or more well-known freethinkers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Black Freethinkers demonstrates that religious skepticism was prevalent among some of the most prominent voices in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Huey Newton. And these were not simply intellectuals and political activists who happened to be freethinkers but rather people whose political ideology/activism and literary production were profoundly shaped by their religious skepticism. Black Freethinkers thus helps us to more fully understand the intersections between religion and African American literary, intellectual, and political history, especially in the twentieth century.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for the book.

CC: Following up on the discussion of atheism among slaves in Raboteau’s book, I began the research for Black Freethinkers by reading dozens of slave narratives. While historians have used these sources to document various aspects of slave religiosity, they are also useful sources to document the presence of religious skepticism in southern slave communities. For later chapters of the book, novels, poetry, memoirs, newspapers and other periodicals were key sources. I likewise found archival sources such as letters, unpublished memoirs, sermons, and records of liberal congregations such as the Harlem Unitarian Church to be incredibly valuable in writing the book.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I have two projects in the works right now. One is an edited collection (with Phillip Luke Sinitiere) entitled Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter: Essays on a Moment and a Movement. The second is a monograph entitled Liberal Religion and Race in America that explores African Americans engagement with liberal sects such as the Unitarians and Universalists from the revolutionary era to the creation of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism in 2015.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Waldman: Immigration is Making the United States a More Christian Nation

latin evangelicalsSteven Waldman, author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedommakes a very interesting point in a recent piece at Talking Points Memo.  After mentioning Trump’s anti-immigration policies and his defense of Christianity, Waldman writes: “It’s a stance we’ve come to expect, but there’s an irony to this.  At a moment when more and more Americans are unaffiliated with religion, immigration is providing a counterbalance.”

Here is a taste:

Beyond that, it is well known that for the past few decades Latino immigration has energized, and in some ways saved, the Catholic Church in the United States. About 40 percent of American Catholics are Hispanic, and they’re more likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives than white Catholics.

What’s less acknowledged is that Latinos have also bolstered evangelical communities. Some 16 million evangelicals are Hispanic, and about 15 percent of all immigrants are evangelical.

Beyond the specifics, I’d argue that immigration has been a key factor in strengthening religious freedom in the U.S. New immigrants are more likely to be religious and to say it’s important in their lives than the general population.

Read the entire piece here.

Doug Winiarski on Teaching the Jerks

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Image accessed at douglaswiniarski.com

Doug Winiarski, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian and author of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England, teaches the jerks.

He explains at the Uncommon Sense: The Blog:

Most of these texts eventually found their way into my January 2019 WMQ essay, “Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival.” But when the project was finished, I felt as if there was more to be said, more to be researched. My students agreed. At one point while working on “Seized by the Jerks,” I taught the Great Revival in a first-year seminar at the University of Richmond. I provided the class with excerpts from Youngs’s journal andedited transcriptions of important manuscript descriptions of the jerks; they pored over Early American Newspapers, Early American Imprints, the American Periodical Series, and other print sources looking for published accounts. The results were astonishing. Students uncovered dozens of new reports of the jerks, some dating from the years of the American Civil War. Over the course of the nineteenth century, no revival phenomena elicited more commentary—positive or (mostly) negative. Today, the strange convulsive fits are remembered as a curiosity, a backwater eddy in the main current of American Protestantism, the road not taken in the development of the southern Bible belt. But a century ago, the jerks and other bodily exercises dominated conversations about the Great Revival. 

If my students’ fascination with the jerks is any indication, historians of religion in early America might benefit from spending a little more time in this peculiar world of twitching bodies, signs and wonders, and continuing revelation. Focusing on the jerks reorients our understanding of the Great Revival away from older debates over the decline of Calvinism and toward what really mattered to its participants: the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in taking direct possession of lay men and women during the process of conversion. It’s an ideal laboratory for exploring popular religion, religious practice, and the history of the body. 

Recently, I’ve been working with digital humanities colleagues at the University of Richmond to create a digital sandbox for students and scholars. “History of the Jerks: Bodily Exercises and the Great Revival (1803–1967)” contains more than 200 tagged, searchable primary texts and images. The digital archive includes excerpts from published accounts of the jerks by familiar figures, such as Peter Cartwright and Barton W. Stone, alongside rare manuscript letters and journals, newspaper articles, sermons, medical treatises, and autobiographies. Visitors can explore the items chronologically or browse by author, religious denomination, genre, type of bodily exercise, state, or territory. The site features an introductory StoryMap based on “Seized by the Jerks,” an interactive map, seminar discussion questions, and a bibliography of secondary literature. 

Read the entire post here.

Have Evangelicals Ignored Women’s History?

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Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr makes a strong case in a recent piece at The Anxious Bench.

Here is a taste:

Just last Spring, Chesna Hinkley published an illuminating article about how poorly evangelicals have preserved the history of women. After examining every issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society from 1988-2018 as well as the conference proceedings across the same years, Hinkley found women were included in just 2% of all history content. As she writes, “In contrast to the mere 29 articles, book reviews, and conference presentations on women in the whole history of the church, over the same period I counted 137 articles on Jonathan Edwards alone.”  Likewise, in her study of 15 evangelical seminaries, she found that women constituted only 2.2% of the subject matter. “Men who train at these schools learn nothing about women academically, leaving them with the impression that women have been unimportant–indeed, unnecessary–throughout Christian history.”

Not only are evangelicals failing to preserve women’s history, we are failing to teach it to our male leaders.  Without courses or content on women’s history, as Hinkley writes, “men are never asked to interact with the ways in which women” do not conform to complementarian theology. …

I have a mug in my office which bears the slogan, “Write Women Back Into History.” Isn’t it time we wrote women–as leaders, teachers, and preachers–back into evangelical history? Isn’t it time we demanded our seminaries use textbooks that include women? Isn’t it time we use Sunday School and Bible Study curriculum that also includes women in church history? Isn’t it time we recognized women as leaders in the church in the same way that Paul did in Romans 16? Isn’t it time we demanded our pastors and church leaders include women just like Jesus did? Isn’t it time we made sure our church leaders learned about women’s history too?

Read the entire piece here.

American religious historians have made great strides in the last several decades in bringing women into the story of American Christianity.  I am thinking here of historians such as Catherine Brekus, R. Marie Griffith, Dana Robert, Kate Bowler,  Kristin Kobes Du-Mez, Emily Clark, Edith Blumhofer, Matt Sutton, Allan Greer, Lori Ginzburg, Gerda Lerner, Claudia Bushman, Laurel Thatcher-Ulrich, Anthea Butler, Robert Orsi, Amy Koehlinger, Margaret Bendroth, Judith Weisenfeld, Marilyn Westerkamp, Janet Moore Lindman, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Kathy Sprows-Cummings, Rebecca Larson, Nancy Hardesty, Susan Juster, Julie Byrne, Ann Little, Gail Bederman, Carol Karlsen, Amanda Porterfield, Elizabeth Reis, and others.  But I am not sure that the work of these historians has found its way into the stories many evangelicals tell about the past.  As I read Barr’s piece I was reminded of Anne Braude’s wonderful essay: “Women’s History is American Religious History.”

Bancroft Prize-Winner Douglas Wisnarski Talks About His Latest Project

Douglas Winiarski won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for his masterful interpretation of evangelical religion in New England titled Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England. (See our interview with Winiarski here).

 

His latest project is titled “Shakers & the Shawnee Prophet: A Microhistory of Religious Violence on the Early American Frontier, 1805–1815.”  Over at History News Network, Winiarski talks with Elisabeth Pearson about the project.  Here is a taste:

Your previous work focused on the religious history of New England. What prompted you to shift to studying the American frontier for this project? 

This project actually predates my work on popular religion in eighteenth-century New England. I first starting thinking about the pacifist Shakers’ unusual relationship with the militant followers of Tenskwatawa, the notorious Prophet and brother of the famed Shawnee war captain Tecumseh, more than two decades ago. As a graduate student at Indiana University, I was fortunate to study with two outstanding mentors: Stephen Stein, a leading historian of Shakerism and new religious movements in America, and David Edmunds, who had written the definitive biography of Tenskwatawa. They were colleagues and knew each other, of course, but had never discussed the intriguing connections between their scholarship. Steve’s definitive Shaker Experience in America makes only a brief reference to the Shakers’ 1807 mission to the Indians of the Old Northwest; David’s Shawnee Prophet relies on the Shaker missionaries’ journals but doesn’t explain why those sources existed in the first place. As I read their books side by side, I realized that both scholars were working around the edges of a fascinating, untold story. 

I started poking around with some of the primary sources from the period and was stunned by what I found. The Shakers produced dozens of journals, letters, and speeches documenting their meetings with the Prophet and his followers. They provisioned the Prophet’s villages and invited Tecumseh to visit their communal settlement at Turtle Creek, Ohio. During a three-day meeting during the summer of 1807, in fact, the Shakers and Shawnee danced together in front of an astonished and horrified audience numbering in the hundreds. Then the frontier erupted into violence. The Prophet faced relentless pressure from all sides, native and American. The Shakers suffered intimidation, theft, and arson. In 1811, the Prophet’s movement was nearly destroyed at the Battle of Tippecanoe; one year earlier, an armed mob threatened to raze the Shakers’ entire village. It’s an amazing story, but also a tragic one. I always planned to come back to this project after I had completed Darkness Falls on the Land of Light.

Read the rest here.

More on the Billy Graham Archives Move from Wheaton to Charlotte

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Religion News Service is running another piece on the Franklin Graham’s decision to move the Billy Graham Archives from Wheaton College to the Billy Graham “Library” in Charlotte.

Back in March, I weighed-in as part of another RNS piece on this topic.  At that time I said this: “By taking the papers away from Wheaton, where access is open, Franklin Graham and the BGEA can now control access and can thus control the narrative of his father’s life in terms of who gets to read them….Evangelicals must come face to face with both the good side and bad side of their history by taking an honest look at people like Billy Graham.  I am not sure this will happen in Charlotte.  The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte is not a library.”

I also wrote a post here.

Here is a taste of Tim Funk’s recent RNS piece:

This week, at Wheaton College in Illinois, specially trained movers will begin organizing, preparing and packing 3,235 boxes of paper items, 1,000 scrapbooks of news clippings dating back to the 1940s and more than 1,000 linear feet of videos, cassettes, reels, films and audio.

All of it documents the life and ministry of evangelist Billy Graham, the Christian college’s most famous alumnus. And soon, all of it will be headed to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, N.C., Graham’s hometown.

The big transport trucks that will haul the valuable cargo won’t make the nearly 800-mile trip until mid to late June. But the controversy over moving the Graham materials all began more than two months ago. That’s when it was announced that, after June 1, the materials would no longer be housed at Wheaton’s highly regarded Billy Graham Center Archives.

Since it opened with Billy Graham’s blessing in 1980, more than 19,000 scholars, journalists and other researchers from around the world have spent 67,000 hours doing work there.

The BGEA’s Charlotte site does include the 12-year-old Billy Graham Library, but it was not designed as a research facility. Instead, it is a presidential-like museum celebrating the life of Graham, who died last year at age 99, and is a brick-and-mortar continuation of his worldwide evangelism efforts.

“The so-called (Billy Graham) Library is not a library,” said Edith Blumhofer, a longtime history professor at Wheaton who is now completing a study of the music of the Billy Graham Crusades. “It has no archives. It has no archivist.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

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

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

Historian Kevin Schultz on the “Judeo-Christian Tradition”

10 Commandments 2

Schultz is the author of Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postward America to its Protestant Promise.  In his recent piece at The New Republic, he traces the American history of the phrase “Judeo-Christian.”  Here is a taste:

In the suddenly charged atmosphere of 1960s-bred cultural confrontation, conservatives—most particularly the nascent religious right—grabbed the mantle of Judeo-Christianity. It served as an admirable bit of spiritual shorthand that made them seem tolerant while also underlining their identity as serious men and women of faith. For the left, the tradition had served its purpose as a tool of religious pluralism, but by the 1960s, other forms of diversity seemed more important: The civil rights movement was blossoming and racial equality became the priority for secular and believing liberals alike.

With the left finding the invented tradition of Judeo-Christianity less useful for its preferred style of moral and political mobilization, the term quickly became a rallying cry for the right. Battles over sex education in American middle- and high-school textbooks brought on a flurry of right-wing pamphlets bemoaning the imperiled state of spiritual self-regulation in America. One such broadside said, “To the vast majority of Americans, the terms ‘values’ and ‘morals’ mean one thing, and one thing only; and that is the Christian-Judeo morals.” In its argument against abortion, the conservative magazine Christianity Todaysaid the practice ran afoul of the Hippocratic oath and Judeo-Christian ethics. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan wooed cultural conservatives by talking about the enormous challenges he saw facing “traditional Judeo-Christian values.”

The politically charged sense among conservative believers that secular values were overtaking putatively religious ones prompted the adoption of “Judeo-Christian” as a catchphrase of first resort on the religious right. Again, preserving “Christian values” would have sounded menacing in a religiously diverse nation that had just defeated Hitler. Far better to simply steal the “Judeo-Christian tradition” from the left and advocate on its behalf.

Still, what the right meant by “Judeo-Christian” was, not surprisingly, a very different thing than what the religious left had in mind. Their enemies weren’t the KKK or the Nazis; instead this new cohort of moral crusaders identified their spiritual opponents as liberal secularists and other advocates of tolerance and pluralism—i.e., the Judeo-Christians of just a few decades earlier.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Quincy Newell

Your Sister in the GospelQuincy Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. This interview is based on her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: The most immediate spur was a conversation with a staff person at the LDS Church History Library. She knew I was working on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons, and she told me that she had recently run across a mention of Jane James in the diary of one of Brigham Young’s wives. The diarist recorded that Jane James had stopped by and that told her that Isaac James (Jane’s husband, another African American Mormon) had left Jane for a white fortune teller. My jaw dropped—all I wanted to do for the next three days was scour the Salt Lake newspapers to see if I could figure out who that fortune teller was! That was the rabbit hole that finally convinced me I should write Jane James’s biography: I kept trying to write about African American and Native American Mormons more broadly, and I kept getting sucked into Jane James’s story. I joke that I made a deal with her: I would write her biography, if she would leave me alone. We’ll see if she keeps her end of the bargain!

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: Your Sister is a biography and might best be classified as narrative history, so there is not an overt argument in the text. The implicit argument, though, is that racial identity, gender identity, and religious identity all shape one another in powerful and often underappreciated ways, so we have to keep all of these aspects of identity (and more) in mind in order to understand the past.

JF: Why do we need to read Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: First of all, Jane James is a fascinating historical figure in her own right. So you need to read it because her life is just so interesting. My hope is that it is a relatively easy read—I wrote it for a broad audience with the aspiration of producing a book that might interest general readers, not just my academic colleagues.

But aside from having a good story, the book helps deepen our understanding of American history in four ways. First, it illustrates some of the less-frequently-trod paths open to African American men and women in the nineteenth century. Jane James lived in places that didn’t have large African American populations—rural Connecticut, western Illinois, Utah. And she joined religions that we also don’t typically associate with African Americans—Congregationalism and then Mormonism. Second, it helps us think in a more nuanced way about American religious history: James’s story gives us a totally different perspective on the development of Mormonism than the standard narrative, which takes the white male subject as normative. I sometimes explain James as “the Forrest Gump of nineteenth-century Mormonism” because she knew all the important people and was in the background for many of the most important moments. Because she was black, though, her experience of those events gives us a new angle of vision on them. Third, James’s life broadens our sense of nineteenth-century American women’s lives. James’s entire life was shaped by her identity as a woman and the struggle to conform to the gender norms of her community. Her experience demonstrates how those norms constrained her opportunities and made her vulnerable to attack, even as they offered some kinds of support and community not available to men. And finally, James’s story improves our understanding of the history of the nineteenth-century American West by increasing our knowledge of African Americans’ lives in the region. Grappling with James’s presence in Utah also helps us acknowledge the ways race shaped western societies: her experience demonstrates that even when those societies were overwhelmingly white, they still wrestled with the construction and meaning of whiteness and other racial identities.

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

QN: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the early religious history of Oregon, and I think it was that experience that really gave me the religious history bug. I vividly remember sitting in the Oregon Historical Society reading room, plodding through 1830s Methodist meeting minutes. I couldn’t believe that the OHS would let me touch these—they were over a hundred and fifty years old!—but I was also incredibly bored. The minutes were handwritten, sometimes barely legible, often badly spelled, and just plain tedious. But then I got to the bottom of one page and found a doodle: an elaborately drawn hand, in a frilly cuff, pointing to the next page. I realized that the poor guy taking the minutes was just as bored as I was reading them—and something about that connection, that shared boredom across the centuries, got me hooked on archival research.

JF: What is your next project?

QN: I’m getting back to the project from which Your Sister distracted me: an examination of the religious lives and experiences of nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. W. Paul Reeve has shown quite convincingly in his Religion of a Different Color that the LDS Church was “struggling for whiteness” in the nineteenth century; I want to understand what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint of color during that time period.

JF: Thanks, Quincy!

Doug Sweeney is the New Dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School

Sweeney

Congratulations to Doug Sweeney!  He moves from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois to Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Doug replaces founding dean Timothy George.  Here is the press release:

Douglas A. Sweeney has been named the new dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham effective July 1. 

Sweeney is only the second dean to serve the interdenominational seminary, which was established in 1988 with Timothy George as the founding dean.

Sweeney’s appointment follows a national search to replace George, who is retiring as dean at the end of the current academic year. 

“I am absolutely delighted at the choice of Dr. Doug Sweeney to be the next dean of Beeson Divinity School. He brings to this role superb scholarly credentials along with a deep love for Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, the Lord’s church and God’s mission in the world,” George said. “The future of Beeson Divinity School is as bright as the promises of God, and I look forward to welcoming Dr. Sweeney as our friend, colleague and leader.” 

A world-renowned scholar of American theologian Jonathan Edwards, Sweeney comes to Beeson from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, where he is the Distinguished Professor and Chair of Church History and the History of Christian Thought and founding director of the Jonathan Edwards Center. 

Having served on Trinity’s faculty since 1997, Sweeney was the founding director of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity, 2000–2012. He raised nearly $4 million for the center, supervised staff, collaborated with boards, and hosted conferences and lectures. 

Prior to his tenure at Trinity, Sweeney served at Yale University where he edited The Works of Jonathan Edwards and was a lecturer in church history and historical theology.  

Samford Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs J. Michael Hardin said, “Dr. Sweeney brings together internationally renowned scholarship, academic administrative experience and a deep love and commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ.”

Samford President Andrew Westmoreland said, “Dr. Sweeney is ideally prepared to provide wise, visionary leadership for Beeson. His commitment to the relevance and authority of Scripture, his strong record of scholarship, his devotion to equipping those called to ministry and his engaging, irenic spirit will serve him — and Samford — well.”

Gary Fenton, former longtime pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, Birmingham, and senior advancement officer at Samford, is delighted by Sweeney’s appointment, having personally benefited from his book, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement.

“Dr. Sweeney is an outstanding evangelical scholar, who is committed to excellence of the mind, spiritual depth and Christ-like passion,” Fenton said. “He is an excellent choice to build on the rich theological foundation that Dean Timothy George has provided for this school. I am so grateful for the school’s past and excited for its future.”

Sweeney is an active member of St. Mark Lutheran Church, an evangelical Lutheran church affiliated with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, serving as both an elder and vice president. A former Baptist, he is a longtime Sunday School and Bible teacher, whose ministry extends into many other churches.

Sweeney holds degrees from Vanderbilt University (Ph.D., M.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.) and Wheaton College (B.A.). He and his wife, Wilma, have one adult son.

“I consider it a great honor and privilege to serve as the next dean of Beeson Divinity School. I have long been an admirer of Dean Timothy George, and think that Beeson is the best-conceived and cultivated divinity school in all of North America,” Sweeney said. “My approach to theological education meshes well with Beeson’s guiding confessional documents, academic culture and personal approach to teaching and mentoring students. In fact, for me, moving to Beeson is like moving to a school that was designed to facilitate the kind of academic work, ecumenism and ministry I have done all my life. These are exciting times in which to serve the Lord together at Samford. Please pray with me that God will guide us firmly into the future.”

The Author’s Corner with Dale Soden

Outsiders in a promised landDale Soden is Professor of History and Director of Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith and Learning at Whitworth University. This interview is based on his book, Outsiders in a Promised Land: Religious Activists in Pacific Northwest History (Oregon State University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Outsiders in a Promised Land?

DS: I decided to research and write Outsiders in a Promised Land after publishing a biography of the most influential religious figure in the first half of the 20th century in the Pacific Northwest—the Reverend Mark Matthews (University of Washington Press, 2001). Most historians had neglected the role that religious activists, including Matthews, had played in the Northwest largely because of its reputation as the least-churched region of the country. However, it became evident, that beginning in the mid-19th century, religious activists played key roles in trying to shape the culture of the Northwest through the establishment of schools and colleges as well as lobbying for the passage of laws that would shape behavior. They led the way in the struggle for not just the prohibition of alcohol, but as the century wore on, the advocacy for civil rights and other issues of social justice. All of this was largely untold by previous historians.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Outsiders in a Promised Land?

DS: The argument for Outsiders is that in the period between the mid-19th century and the 1930s/40s, religious activists (Protestants, Catholics, and Jews) exercised outsized influence on the culture of the region as they tried to mitigate the early influence of largely young adult males who were mainly interested in gambling, prostitution, and alcohol. The second half of the book is focused on the cultural war between largely conservative and liberal elements within the middle class after mid-century; this war largely focused on whether more conservative social values should prevail within the Northwest or whether more liberal values that emphasized pluralism and social justice should predominate.

JF: Why do we need to read Outsiders in a Promised Land?

DS: Outsiders helps us understand two fundamental questions: What was the role of religious activism in the history of public life in the Pacific Northwest, and secondly, Outsiders helps explain the larger trajectory of religion in public life not just in the Northwest but in the context of the larger American story. This book is unique in the sense that it should help reveal how a region of the country can express elements that are unique to that region, but also elements that are familiar across the American landscape. As we attempt to understand the culture wars that continue to dominate many of the country’s political dynamics, having a better understanding of how these culture wars evolved from the mid-20th century to the present should be helpful perspective.

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

DS: I decided to become an American historian several decades ago in graduate school. It was only after I taught a couple of courses in American history that I decided to make that my emphasis. In general, I was drawn to American history because of how evident it was that my father, who had lived through the Depression and fought in World War II, had such a different experience that I who was living through the ‘60s with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. I wanted to understand him and myself more fully.

JF: What is your next project?

DS: I’m currently working on a comparative study of the role that predominately African-American churches and pastors played in the struggle for civil rights on the West Coast. I’m looking at churches and pastors in Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I’m most interested in how these pastors, many of whom went to school with Martin Luther King Jr., or knew him directly, navigated the influence of Black Power on their own ministries and efforts to work for social justice.

JF: Thanks, Dale!

Meeting George Marsden

Marsden and Ally

Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog will recognize the name George Marsden.  He is the author of many award-winning books on American religious history and higher education including Fundamentalism and American CultureReforming FundamentalismThe Soul of the American University,  The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (winner of the 2004 Bancroft Prize), and The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.  He spent his academic career teaching at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School, and the University of Notre Dame.

I did not study with Marsden, but his books and work are part of the reason I entered the historical profession.  When I think of a Christian historian, I think of George Marsden.  The opportunity I had a few years ago to share the stage with Mark Noll and George remains one of the highlights of my career.  Since then, he has blurbed one of my books and I have had the honor to blurb a couple of his.

Yesterday, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Calvin Theological Seminary  in Grand Rapids, Michigan (where George now does some teaching in retirement) honored his life and career by having one of his former students, James Bratt, do a public interview with him.

Since George moved back to Grand Rapids after his retirement from Notre Dame he has attended a few Calvin College women’s volleyball games and has become a fan of the team.  As many of you know, my daughter Allyson, a history and psychology double-major at Calvin, plays on the volleyball team.  Whenever George would tell me that he attended a game I would pass the news along to Ally.  (“Hey Ally, a famous historian came to your game last night!”).

So when I learned about the event at Calvin Theological Seminary I sent a text to Ally:  “George Marsden has come to your volleyball games.  You need to return the favor and go to this interview.”  I did not expect her to attend (what college student listens to her father when he tells her to go to a lecture on campus!), so needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that she not only attended but also introduced herself to George and asked for a photo with him! Very cool.

George, if you’re reading this, thanks for being so gracious with Ally!  And Ally, I hoped you learned something by attending this event!  🙂

5 “Must-Read” Books on Anti-Semitism in America

FordThese recommendations come from Brandeis University’s Jonathan Sarna, one of the foremost authorities on American Judaism.  (Back in 2012, I reviewed Sarna’s excellent book When General Grant Expelled the Jews).

Antisemitism in America
By Leonard Dinnerstein

And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank 
By Steve Oney

Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate
By Neil Baldwin

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton 
By Jerome Karabel

The Temple Bombing 
By Melissa Fay Greene

Read Sarna’s annotations on these titles at the Brandeis University website.

The Author’s Corner with Steven Green

the third disestablishment

Steven Green is the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of History and Religious Studies at Williamette University. This interview is based on his new book, The Third Disestablishment: Church, State, and American Culture, 1940-1975 (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Third Disestablishment?

SG: Many things led me to write The Third Disestablishment.  I have written extensively about the ongoing dynamic of religious disestablishment in the 18th and 19th centuries.  My thesis has been (and continues to be) that there were various levels of disestablishment — political, institutional, legal, cultural — and that they occurred in incremental steps and at different times.  In essence, disestablishment was not perfected with the enactment of the 1st Amendment and, quite clearly, there was never a consensus on what it meant.  The Third Disestablishment brings this narrative forward to the mid-20th century where the Supreme Court formally embraced separation of church and state as the meaning of the Establishment Clause.  The book examines the cultural forces behind this embrace.  I felt that this was a story that had not been fully told before.

I also wrote the book in order to explore the background of the ongoing controversy over whether separation of church and state is/was the correct model.  The book also seeks to address why separationism arose, then fell into disfavor, at least as a legal principle.   Finally, on a personal level, in my earlier career as a 1st Amendment lawyer, I encountered several of the figures and organizations discussed in the book, though in their much later years.  This motivated me to examine the initial dynamic that led them to become involved in this issue.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Third Disestablishment?

SG: The book responds to more recent interpretations that maintain that separation of church and state became a legal and popular construct in mid-century due chiefly to residual Protestant suspicions of Catholicism.  It also maintains that even in its heyday, church-state separation was a contestable and indeterminate concept, and that its demise both legally and culturally began much earlier than has otherwise been maintained.

JF: Why do we need to read The Third Disestablishment?

SG: While numerous books have been written on the development of church and state, this book provides a fresh perspective by interweaving the cultural and legal developments of the period into  comprehensive narrative.  It examines the cultural backdrop to the Court’s adoption of its modern church-state jurisprudence.  It explores the roles of leading figures of the time, including Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, Paul Blanshard, Cardinal Francis Spellman, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, John F. Kennedy, and several consequential Supreme Court justices.

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

SG: I have been interested in the interaction between religion and politics/law in US history since undergraduate school.  I made the decision to enter a history PhD program after practicing law for 4 years.   Since then, I have had an amazing career that has allowed me to do legal advocacy, teaching, and scholarship in the area of religion, law, politics and history. 

JF: What is your next project?

SG: I am writing a book for Cornell University Press in its religion in public life series on–you guessed it–the development of church-state separation in American history.

JF: Thanks, Steven!

The Author’s Corner with Adriaan Neele

before jonathan edwards

Adriaan Neele is the Director of the Doctoral Program and Professor of Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What inspired you to write Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: In Before Edwards I seek to balance the recent academic attention to the developments of intellectual history after Jonathan Edwards. On the one hand, the recent rise of Edwards scholarship and eminent reflections on Edwards’s “uniqueness” in American religious history, his Puritan sermon style and substance, and the appropriation of his thought in the courses of New England theology gave me to pause to offer another study on the preacher, theologian, and philosopher of Northampton. On the other hand, the rise of another scholarship—at the same, that on Protestant scholasticism and Reformed orthodoxy of the early modern era rarely coincides with studies on Edwards but offers consideration to re-assess and re-interpret Edwards’s theological relationship to the early modern era. The publication After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology by Oliver D. Crisp and Douglas A. Sweeney— “a groundbreaking study of a neglected topic,” however, became a further stimulus to embark on a more comprehensive study of providing a broader background of Edwards’s use of Reformed orthodoxy and Protestant scholastic sources in the context of the challenges of his day. The longstanding trajectories of classical Christian theology are indispensable to discern continuities and discontinuities of his theological thought.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: The theological and philosophical sources of the early modern era have contributed to Edwards’ thought through his resourceful appropriation in biblical exegesis, formulation of doctrine, polemical response, and explication of practical aspects of Christian theology.

JF: Why should we read Before Jonathan Edwards: Sources of New England Theology?

AN: This volume will present the first comprehensive study of Jonathan Edwards’s use of Reformed orthodox and Protestant scholastic primary sources in the context of the challenges of orthodoxy in his day. It will look at the way he appreciated and appropriated Reformed orthodoxy, among other topics. The book studies three time periods in Edwards’s life and work, the formative years of 1703–1725, the Northampton period of 1726–1750, and the final years of 1751–1758. A background of post-Reformation or early modern thought, but with particular attention to Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706)—Edwards most “favored” theologian, is offered for each period enabling readers to assess issues of continuity and discontinuity, development and change in Edwards. Since there has been limited research on Edwards’s use of his primary sources this study analyses the theological ideas of the past that found their way into Edwards’s own theological reflections. The book argues that the formation, reflection, and communication of theological thought must be historically informed. The teaching, preaching, and practice of theology must be rooted in the classical curricula, methods of preaching, and systema of theology. Inherited theology must be evaluated on its own terms, historically and theologically, so that meaningful answers for the present can be constructed. Tracing Edwards’s discerning engagement with past ideas exemplifies how theology unfolds in an era of intellectual, religious, social, and political transition.

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

AN: My training in Protestant scholasticism, Reformed orthodoxy and concentration in the early modern era of ca. 1565 – 1750, and my work at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University offered an opportunity to examine the writings of the sage of Northampton, and situates Edwards in a world more European, classical, and biblical-theological than the one taken for granted by most of his interpreters.

JF: What is your next project?

AN: Book: Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706): Text, Context, and Interpretation (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2019)

Chapter: Early Modern Dutch Biblical Exegesis: Renaissance and Reception (UPenn, 2019)

Chapter: The Reception of Jonathan Edwards in Africa (OUP, 2020)

Book: The Reception of Medieval Rabbinic exegesis in Reformed Orthodoxy (2020)

Chapter: The Reception of Jonathan Edwards in the Netherlands (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2020)

Chapter: Jonathan Edwards and Prolegomena (T&T Clark, 2021)

Article: Hyleke Gockinga (1723-1793): A Woman, A Bible Commentator, and A Translator of Puritan Work in the Dutch Republic (2019)

JF: Thanks, Adriaan!