The Author’s Corner with Peter Choi

ChoiPeter Choi is Director of Academic Programs at Newbigin House of Studies.  This interview is based on his recent book George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (Eerdmans, 2018).

JF: What led you to write George Whitefield?

PC: It was a seemingly simple question that got me interested in George Whitefield, especially his later years: “What happened after revival?” I wanted to understand the Great Awakening in all of its various stages, including what I call in the book “revival twilight”––that is, “the long, calmer, and cooler aftermath of the white-hot bursts” of revival. It seemed sensible that to understand the long trajectory of revival I should attempt a study of the lifelong arc of the most important revival preacher. For such a well-known figure, the second half of his life is a surprisingly neglected feature of works on his life. The more I encountered this phenomenon, the more I wanted to know what he was like as he got older. Other questions arose along the way, like, What were the long-term effects of a spirituality of revival on Christian communities? Crucibles rarely leave things intact, and so, how did spirituality and theology change as a result of the fires of revival?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Whitefield?

PCThe evangelical revivals and early leaders like George Whitefield were products of an imperial age. Describing how evangelical Christianity emerged from a culture of empire building is therefore essential work for understanding the development of Christianity in America.

JF: Why do we need to read George Whitefield?

PCWith so many questions swirling about the relationship between religion and politics today, and myriad questions surrounding evangelicalism in particular, my book is one attempt to go back to the beginning in order to offer a reexamination of nascent evangelicalism. The past informs our present, and I’m convinced that it’s impossible to understand the state of American Christianity today (and broader issues related to culture and politics for that matter) apart from an honest assessment of the early evangelicals and their entanglement in the British empire.

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

PCAs an Asian American interested in learning about the history of Asian American Christianity, I received helpful counsel early on to study a topic that was related yet distant from the questions in which I had a more vested personal interest. Because of the significant influence of evangelicalism on Korean-American Christianity in particular, I was drawn to a study of revival history more broadly conceived.

Also, in the course of pastoral ministry, I began to see that historical questions interested me as much as, if not more than, theological ones. Beyond doctrine and belief, I became more interested in how Christianity had changed over time.

JF: What is your next project?

PCI’m in the early stages of a project on Christianity and race in the 18th century, attempting to connect the work I’ve done on Whitefield and slavery to other early evangelicals and their relationship to broader processes of racialization occurring in their era. 

JF: Thanks, Peter!

The Author’s Corner with Molly Warsh

WarshMolly Warsh is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh.  This interview is based on her recent book American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (Omohundro Institute/University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Baroque?

MWI began working on a history of the early modern pearl trade as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. The project evolved and grew over the years, but the aspect of the story that hooked me at the beginning—the lived experience of the people who dived for pearls, traded them, and wore them—is what kept me passionate about the book until the very end. It was never a great love of pearls that drove me (although I like them!). Rather, it was a deep curiosity about people and the contours of their lives.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Baroque?

MW: Patterns of pearl cultivation and circulation reveal vernacular practices that shaped emerging imperial ideas about value and wealth in the early modern world. Pearls’ natural diversity and their subjective beauty (the word “baroque” is the English version of the Spanish term barrueca, used by taxation officials in the Caribbean fisheries to describe a misshapen pearl) posed a profound challenge to the imperial impulse to order and control, underscoring the complexity of the early modern world and informing the later use of the word “baroque” as a metaphor for unbounded and irregular expression.

JF: Why do we need to read American Baroque?

MWWell, I have to say that the book is full of good stories. But beyond that, I would like to think that it offers a valuable perspective on how embedded in global context the Americas were from the very beginning, and also how so many different people, in all walks of life and all over the globe, shaped and were shaped by the evolving parameters of the early modern world. American Baroque is a book about pearls, but it is really a book about people and the fundamental independence of thought and action, even in the most constrained circumstances. Pearls offer a glimpse of people around the globe both caring for and exploiting one another and the natural world and its products. In doing so, they shaped emerging ideas about the nature and value of subjects as well as objects—in short, about the nature of empire.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

MWI wear a lot of hats now—world historian, historian of the Caribbean, historian of the Iberian imperial sphere, but I still consider myself an American historian on a deep level. People raise their eyebrows when say that, but it is true: I am someone who is deeply interested in the history of the Americas in the broadest sense of the term. I first fell in love with American history as a kid growing up on Boston. That love was cemented by wonderful history teachers at my public high school in Cambridge, MA and then by fantastic professors in college at Cornell. It wasn’t until I went back to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, after living in Madrid for several years, that I switched my focus from colonial British North America to the entangled histories of the continent and the world.

JF: What is your next project?

MWI’m calling my new project Servants of the Season: Itinerant Labor and Environmental Flux in Historical Perspective. The title is pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, I’m interested in the types of impermanent and semi-permanent arrangements that characterized people’s engagement with the world of work beyond the familiar categories of slavery and freedom. I’m particularly intrigued by how fluctuations in the natural world shaped these types of agreements, either coerced or voluntary. The project is still in its early stages, but I think I’m going to take a very broad approach to this new book and consider historical phenomena from circa 1500 to the present day.

JF: Thanks, Molly!

The Author’s Corner with Patrick Griffin

515zcPMhSNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Patrick Griffin is Madden- Hennebry Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. This interview is based on his new book, The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth-Century (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Townshend Moment?

PG: I started the book with nothing more than a hunch.  I had always been fascinated by the parallels and connections between Ireland and America in the eighteenth century.  And two British brothers, Charles and George Townshend, at the very same moment held important positions that helped determine the fate of each place.  Could their stories, if brought together, tell us more about Ireland and America and about the empire the brothers were responsible for?  I began scratching the surface, and I discovered that their entangled story suggested a deeper set of questions.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Townshend Moment?

PG:  At certain junctures of time and through contingent events, men and women come to believe they are living during critical “moments.”  Empire and revolution are born through such ways of thinking.

JF: Why do we need to read The Townshend Moment?

PG: We need to read this story because it reminds how complex the past really is and how we, as actors, try to come up with simple ways to bring meaning to that complexity and act on that meaning in the present with an eye toward creating the future.  The book offers on one level a dual biography of two larger-that-life characters who determined the fortunes of empire, as well as a comparative history of Ireland and America in the eighteenth century.  It also explores, in a new way, the relationship between imperial reform and revolution at the beginning of the “Age of Atlantic Revolution.”  Finally, it suggests how powerful people believe that they can comprehend and shape the forces of history and global processes of change to try to bring order to a system.  Of course, they soon learn that people far away have other ideas.  They, too, come to believe they can craft their own destinies, but ones often at odds with what those in power propose.  This is a classic tale of hubris, a drama in fact.

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

PG:  I became an American historian by dumb luck, contingency, or Providence.  I don’t quite know which. I was destined to be a Political Scientist.  I started my graduate career doing Comparative Politics.  I soon learned that I had talents in other areas.  In a graduate program for history, I followed my passions, and they led me to the eighteenth-centiry Atlantic.  I have been there ever since, and I imagine I will be there for a long time still.

JF: What is your next project?

PG: I am, speaking of hubris, working on a study of the Age of Atlantic Revolution(s).  The parentheses matter here.  I am not sure if the period gave birth to a singular event or to a plurality of events.  We shall see.  I am calling it, for lack of a better term, a provocation.

JF: Thanks, Patrick!

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 4

MetaxasWe are in the midst of a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

In this post we want to examine Metaxas’s understanding of the relationship between England and the thirteen American colonies, particularly as it relates to the concept of “liberty.”

As my students of colonial America are well aware, the so-called “13 Colonies” were very British at the time of the American Revolution.  In fact, much of what the colonists had learned about liberty and freedom stemmed from the fact that they were British subjects. Ironically, it was the British who taught the colonists how to rebel.  The British were the most liberty-loving people in the eighteenth-century world and they were proud of it. Their monarch was held in check by the people through Parliament, making them unlike nearly all other nation-states.  From the perspective of many of the founding fathers, the American Revolution was the correct and consistent application of British liberty to the imperial crisis over taxation.

But in order for Metaxas’s argument about American exceptionalism to work (we will discuss this in a later post), he must make a clear contrast between England and their rebellious colonies. For example, on p.19-20 Metaxas claims, in reference to the United States, that “back in 1776 and in the decades after, this nation was all alone” in embodying the idea of liberty and its “uniqueness at that time can hardly be overstated.”

On p. 9 Metaxas suggests that the role of “the people” in monarchical government would be “nonexistent.”  This may have been the case for France, Russia, or some other eighteenth-century European country, but it was definitely not true for England. Though the colonists portrayed the English government as tyrannical, it is way over-the-top to compare the eighteenth-century English monarchy to a “strongman dictator” like Saddam Hussein (p.18).

Metaxas uses the term “miracle” to describe the American idea of “self-government.”  He chides the Tories or loyalists, the nearly one-third of British-American colonies who did not support the American Revolution, for their “shocking” failure to embrace the cause of liberty.  He then continues to play the American exceptionalism card by asking : “After all, when in the history of the modern world had anyone entrusted its government to the people?” (p.20).  This is a fair point, but it assumes that the American founders had a much higher view of “the people” than they actually did.  In reality, most of the founders did not trust the people to govern themselves.  In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), Thomas Jefferson wrote that “government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.”  Alexander Hamilton called democratic government–rule by the people–a “disease” and a “poison.”

Did the idea of liberty develop in the United States in unique ways?  Of course it did.  But that is something that occurred over time.  It is difficult to draw a straight line between the eighteenth-century and today without taking into consideration the developments that existed in-between.  During the 1770s and 1780, the idea of an American monarch presiding over a new American nation defined by something similar to historic British liberties was still very much in play.

Stay tuned for our next segment in which we will discuss Metaxas’s view of the First Great Awakening and George Whitefield.

Call for Papers: "Empires of Liberty and the American Revolution"

Sons of the American Revolution: Annual Conference on the American Revolution
June 10-12, 2016, Pasadena, CA
Empires of Liberty and the American Revolution

In a 1780 letter to George Rogers Clark, Thomas Jefferson spoke of an “empire of liberty,” claiming that if Clark succeeded in his maneuvers in the Northwest, he would “add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country.”  Jefferson is not the only American to use the phrase.  In 1786, John Adams wrote that “It has ever been my hobby-horse to see rising in America an empire of liberty, and a prospect of two or three hundred millions of freemen, without one noble or one king among them.”  Others expressed similar sentiments.  In his last “Circular to the States,” General Washington noted that “the foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.”  Given the republican leanings of America’s founding generation, this imperial language is jarring, and perhaps paradoxical.   Even so, it reminds us that the American Revolution grew out of a crisis in the British Empire, and that the imperial problems the colonists faced in the 1760s and 1770s did not go away 1776.  In some ways, the difficulties they faced were those of reconciling empire with liberty in an independent America and in a world of competing empires.

This problem, even paradox, of “the empire of liberty” is the theme of the 2016 Sons of the American Revolution Annual Conference on the American Revolution.  The conference will focus on the crisis in the British Empire that led to the American Revolution, and the efforts after 1776 to resolve, or at least manage, the imperial problem or problems. 

In support of their Congressional mandate to encourage historical research, the Sons of the American Revolution invites paper proposals from graduate students and advanced scholars in history and political science on any aspect of the themes of empire or empires of liberty in the American Revolution.

The 2016 conference will honor Jack P. Greene for his years of distinguished service as a scholar of American history and mentor to so many students.  The subject matter of the conference pays tribute to Professor Greene’s deep study of the British empire in North America, and of the constitutional history of the American Revolution.

Publication of accepted papers in a published volume is anticipated.  The SAR will cover presenters’ travel and lodging expenses, and shall offer a $500 stipend.

Papers will be delivered in Pasadena, California, June 10-12, 2016.  Paper proposals should include a short, 250 word abstract of the proposed paper and a short CV, and be submitted to Richard Samuelson, (rsamuels@csusb.edu), Associate Professor of History, California State University, San Bernardino, by November 31, 2015.