Christian historians and the “imago Dei”

Why Study HistoryEarlier today I posted on the politicization of the Judeo-Christian belief that human beings are created in the image of God.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in the imago Dei informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Historians are not in the business of studying God; they are in the business of studying humans. Those committed to the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God created us in his image. Human beings are the highest form of his creation and thus have inherent dignity and worth independent of their actions and behavior. Because we are made in the likeness of our creator and thus share, in some fashion, the divine image, human life is precious and sacred. There are no villains in history. While people have been created with freedom, and are thus capable of performing villainous or sinful acts, even the most despicable human subject bears the image of God and thus has value in God’s eyes.

The imago Dei should also inform the way a Christian does history. This doctrine should guide us in the kinds of stories we tell about the people whom we come across when visiting the “foreign country” that is the past. It should shape the way we teach the past, write about the past, and interpret the past.

An approach to the past informed by an affirmation of the imago Dei can make the Christian historian’s work compatible with some of the best scholarship that the historical profession has to offer. Let me illustrate this from my own subdiscipline, the study of colonial American history.

Lately, historians have been complicating the very definition of what we have traditionally called “colonial America.” Recent scholarship on the history of the North American continent between 1500 and 1800 has suggested that “colonial America” is a loaded phrase. For most of my students, “colonial America” is equivalent to the “thirteen colonies”–those individual settlements that came together in 1776 to rebel against England and form the United States of America. When I ask them why we should study the colonies, they inevitably answer by saying something about the importance of understanding the reasons for the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. For most of them, the purpose of studying the colonial period is to locate the seeds of their nation–as if these seeds were somehow planted in the soil of Jamestown and Plymouth, were watered through a host of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century events, and finally blossomed in the years between the resistance to the Stamp Act (1765) and the writing of the Declaration of Independence (1776). The colonial period thus becomes part of the grand civics lesson that is the American history survey course.

This approach to teaching history has demographic implications. Who are the most important actors in the stories we tell about the American colonies? Since the United States survey course has always been taught as a way of producing good American citizens, the most important people and events will be those who contributed to the forging of a new nation. In this view, the worth of particular humans living during this period, or the degree of prominence that these humans will have in the stories we tell about the period, is based on the degree to which they contributed to the creation of the United States rather than their dignity as human beings created in God’s image.

For example, we might give short shrift to humans living in North America who did not contribute in obvious ways to the founding of the American republic. We all know the usual suspects: Native Americans, women, slaves, and anyone not living in the British colonies. But if the colonial period is understood less as a prelude to the American Revolution and more as a vital and fascinating period worthy of study on its own, then these marginalized historical actors become more important and our teaching becomes more comprehensive, inclusive, and, according to recent scholarship, historically accurate.

Consider Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, a history of colonial America published in 2002. For Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the colonies should not be studied solely for how they served as the necessary forerunner to the events of the American Revolution. Rather, they should be studied for the story of European imperial expansion in North America and for the impact that such expansion had on whites, natives, and slaves. The changes that this expansion brought to the lives of ordinary people, Taylor argues, were the real “revolution” that took place on the continent between 1500 and the turn of the nineteenth century. For Taylor, European expansion did more to change the lives of the inhabitants of North America than did the hostilities between the British colonies and the mother country in the years leading up to 1776. This was a social revolution, not a political one.

Taylor turns the concept of the “New World” on its head, suggesting that the colonial expansion of Europe throughout the Atlantic (and Pacific) basin brought profound changes to the Indian populations who were already there, the Africans who would arrive as slaves, and even the Europeans themselves. The American colonies were diverse and “multicultural” places. Africans, Indians, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Russians in the Pacific Northwest encountered one another in this new world. And everyone involved in this encounter was forced to adjust and adapt. All of these groups helped to create a truly global economy and, conversely, were profoundly influenced by global economic trends. Slaves were shipped as commodities to the Americas. Indians and their wars had an effect on European markets for skins and furs, even as Indian culture itself was changed by access, if not addiction, to British, French, and Spanish consumer commodities. Such an engagement also had environmental consequences as both Europeans and Indians overworked the land. European disease changed the indigenous populations of North America forever.

As for the United States, the colonial period was important for the way all of these “colonies,” with their very diverse backgrounds and cultures, assimilated over time into one national story. The British colonies and their gripes with Parliament and the king were only one part, albeit a very important part, of this larger narrative.

Some might argue that Taylor’s analysis of the colonial period is driven more by politics than by good historical practice. By including the stories of Native Americans and slaves in his narrative, Taylor is engaging in political correctness. He is giving short shrift to the white Europeans who planted the American colonies. According to such a critique, American Colonies is just another example of the left-wing historical takeover of American history.

But what if we looked at the changes in the field of colonial American history, as portrayed in Taylor’s American Colonies, from a theological perspective rooted in the belief that we are all created in the image of God and thus have inherent dignity and worth? If we view colonial America, or any period in American history for that matter, from God’s eyes, then we get a very different sense of whose voices should count in the stories we tell. To put this differently, everyone’s voice counts, regardless of whether that person or group contributed to the eventual formulation of the United States.

Now, of course, certain white Europeans–such as the founding fathers–will appear prominently in our accounts of the American Revolution and its coming, but Whig history too often only celebrates the winners, the beneficiaries of liberty and progress, or the most privileged figures in the history of Western civilization. Whig history neglects anyone who does not fit this mold, and it fails to consider the imago Dei as a legitimate category of historical interpretation.

Theologian Miroslav Volf reminds us that “God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs.” What might this reality look like in our historical writing and thinking about the past? On closer examination, much of this new scholarship in colonial American history seems to be more compatible with Christian teaching about human dignity than the nationalistic narratives that have dominated much of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century and which still have influence today. A history grounded in a belief in the imago Dei will not neglect the elite and privileged members of society, but it will also demand a fundamental reordering of the stories we tell about the human actors we meet in the past.

How fast did news of American independence spread?

Declaration spread

I just ran across this Smithsonian piece from 2017. Fascinating:

It was the breaking news to end all breaking news—the fledgling British colonies of North America were committing treason and declaring independence. But in an era long before smartphone push alerts, TV interruptions and Twitter, breaking news broke a lot slower. How slow, though? Last year, a Harvard University project mapped how quickly the Declaration of Independence spread through the colonies based on newspaper archives.

A fascinating animation breaks down the dissemination of the news. The full text of the Declaration of Independence was first published in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6 in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress had been meeting to compose it. Other Philadelphia newspapers reprinted the document, including a German newspaper that translated it for the area’s large immigrant population, in the following days. (The same German-language newspaper also holds bragging rights for being the first paper to report on the Declaration of Independence.)

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with R.B. Bernstein

The education of john adamsR.B. Bernstein is a Lecturer in Political Science at the City College of New York and teaches in the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies at the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership. This interview is based on his new book, The Education of John Adams

JF: What led you to write The Education of John Adams?

RBB: I often tell people that the source of my desire to write a book about John Adams was the coincidence of a movie and a mentor. In 1971, I saw the movie 1776, and I was captivated by William Daniels as John Adams and the late Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams.  That movie got a lot of us into the history field from the generation who are now in their late 50s and early 60s. But that wasn’t enough. Was what was enough was a chance remark by my mentor, Henry Steele Commager. I was helping him with the proofs of his book Empire of Reason, a study of the European and American enlightenments in which John Adams played a prominent role. Suddenly he looked at me and said, “Young Bernstein you should write a book about John Adams.” I took it as a mandate, and I promised myself that I would fulfill it.  To be candid, there was a third cause. In 2001, I bought and read John Adams by David McCullough. And I was profoundly disappointed, in particular because it did not make sense to me that so large a book left his ideas on the cutting room floor. I vowed to do better.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Education of John Adams?

RBB: In understanding John Adams, we must understand his ideas and his character and how the two influenced each other. I have tried to write a biography that takes both aspects of his life seriously and that shows how they are related.

JF: Why do we need to read The Education of John Adams?

RBB: You should read my book on John Adams because I have sought to bridge the gap separating the two prevailing treatments of him. Most studies of John Adams look at his character without his ideas, and most of the rest look at his ideas without his character. I have tried to show how both his ideas and his character shaped and reflected each other. I have also written a concise book that will not put too many demands on the reader, a book that I also worked very hard to make as clear and direct as possible and as free from scholarly jargon as possible.

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

RBB: I have been interested in American history as long as I can remember. It was a matter not of choosing to be interested in history but of choosing which era of US history to be interested in and which kinds of issues and problems seemed to me most worth exploring. That is why I ended up as a constitutional and legal historian seeking to understand the era of the American revolution and the nation’s founding. I am pretty sure, for example, that I am the first biographer of John Adams with legal training and experience, which helped me to understand more deeply this man of law.

JF: What is your next project?

RBB: I actually have a few projects in view. I am writing two short books on Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson for the Oxford University Press series Very Short Introductions. After that, I will turn to writing The Man Who Gave Up Power: A Life of George Washington. That book rounds out a trilogy on the first three presidents of the United States. I also plan to write a modern biography of John Jay and a monograph on the First Federal Congress.

JF: Thanks, R.B.!

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

trump-with-evangelical-leaders

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Rudy Giuliani shares a tweet from a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center. Notice how Giuliani uses Jenna Ellis’s tweet of Psalm 27 to make a political statement. When he says “we all matter” I think we all know the message he is sending in the midst of our post-George Floyd moment. In a follow-up tweet, Ellis gives Giuliani an “Amen.”

As the coronavirus cases spike, Ellis retweets an anti-masker attacking California senator Kamala Harris:

Liberty University’s Falkirk Center does not understand history. It’s tweet today seems like a defense of Confederate monuments. I am guessing Russell Kirk is taken out of context here. As I argued in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, history is always created from a dialogue the between past and the present. Sometimes the past is useful in the present. Sometimes the past is a “foreign country.” Ironically, the Falkirk Center and the rest of the Christian Right activists who talk about the past, have mastered the kind of cherry-picking Kirk may be warning against here.

What is the relationship between the following tweet and Jenna Ellis’s anti-mask retweet above? It seems that “rights” are a form of self-fulfillment, while concern for others is a form of self-denial. John MacArthur’s lesson might be useful for evangelicals as they think about masks and the spread of COVID-19.

Florida is seeing record numbers of coronavirus cases. Paula White is opening her church:

Wow: This is an amazing tweet from Trump’s #1 court evangelical:

Tony Perkins is hosting a video conference called “Arise and Stand.” You can watch it here.

Here is Gary Bauer’s Facebook post:

Kudos to my good friend Vice President Mike Pence!

Vice President Pence stood firm in the face of the media mob this Sunday, as well as the mob in the streets, by refusing to repeat the divisive slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” He was pressed to do so during an appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Of course Black Lives Matter, as do Asian lives, Hispanic lives and Caucasian lives. That’s the truth. And it’s also a central Christian principle that the color of our skin is the least unique thing about us. What makes us special is that we are made in the image of God, and the vice president strongly believes that. 

Read the rest here.

I’ve said this before, this pivot toward “all lives matter” is simply a way for those on the Christian Right to avoid tough conversations on race in America following the killing of George Floyd. When Pence refused to say “Black Lives Matter” on television he was sending a message to the Trump base.

all lives matter cartoon

It’s all about the Supreme Court justices for Ralph Reed.

Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran have a nice response to Reed’s way of political thinking:

When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resources families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marion icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

Read the entire piece here.

Ralph Reed, perhaps more than any other member of the Christian Right, is responsible for what Hauerwas and Tran call a “failure of political imagination” among evangelicals.

According to Robert Jeffress, the “eventual collapse of our country” is now certain:

And last but not least, David Barton is on the Eric Metaxas Show today. When activists indiscriminately topple and deface monuments, it just provides ammunition and fodder for Barton’s Christian Right view of the past.

Barton defends a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a white supremacist who helped found the KKK. He seems to think that such a statue is essential to his ability to teach history. This comment even makes Metaxas squirm: “I think we all would agree that lines can be drawn, we don’t have a statue to Adolph Hitler.” In this sense, Metaxas’s obsession with Godwin’s Law serves a useful purpose.

When Metaxas says that debate over monuments is “complicated,” he reminds me of something I wrote at the end of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:

In 2010 the political commentator Glenn Beck devoted an entire television program to a discussion of George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century evangelical revivalist and the precipitator of the event known as the First Great Awakening. Near the end of the show, Beck’s conversation with his guests–two early American religious historians–turned to the topic of slavery. Beck wondered how Whitefield could inspire anti-slavery advocates in England such as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” while at the same time owning slaves. Befuddled by this paradox, and clearly at a loss for words, Beck turned to the camera and said, “Sometimes history is a little complex.”

Barton peddles an unbelievably dumb theory about the origins of slavery and race in America. He says “out of Jamestown” came “slavery and intolerance and classism and racism.” But out of Plymouth came “liberty and freedom and constitutional government, bills of rights, etc.” His source is an uncritical use of an 1888 wall map showing these “two strands of history, one bad and one good.”

Apparently, Barton has never studied New England’s Native American history or the intolerance the Puritans showed to the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. But wait, it gets better. Barton says that “both of those groups were Christian, but Jamestown was not biblical. They [just] professed Christianity. That’s much of what we see in America today. 72% of the nation professes Christianity, only six percent have a biblical world view.” Slavery started in Jamestown, Barton argues, because the settlers didn’t “know the Bible.” This is interesting, since during the early 19th-century Virginians used the Bible to justify slavery. I guess they were more biblically literate by that time. 🙂

Barton seems to suggest that New England did not have slaves. Wrong again. Even Jonathan Edwards, one of Barton’s heroes, a man who Barton would probably say had a “Christian world view,” owned slaves. Granted, New England did not have a slave-based economy, but slavery was not illegal prior to the American Revolution. If you want to learn more, see Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. and Joanne Pope Melishs’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860

Barton goes on to say that today “we look at past generations through today’s filter and today’s lens and you really can’t do that.” This is rich coming from a guy who has built his entire career around cherry-picking from the founding fathers and then applying such cherry-picked passages to contemporary Christian Right politics. (See my comments about the Falkirk Center’s tweet about Russell Kirk).

He then uses this argument to reject systemic and institutional racism. Here is Barton:

So all the notion that America is institutionally racist–you gotta see what the atmosphere was like in that day–we were leading the world in the right direction that day. Now we can look back where we are today and say we weren’t perfect…but we’re not the racist nation everyone is trying to make us out to be. When you know history, you see that all clearly.

Barton speaks as if the Civil War–a war over slavery in which 700,000 people died–never happened. Is this “leading the world in the right direction?” Heck, he sounds as if slavery never existed in the United States. He dismisses four hundred years of slavery and racism by saying, “yeah, we weren’t perfect.” Barton is not a historian. He only cares about the parts of the past that advance his political agenda. Read this recent post to see the depths of racism in the evangelical church or grab a copy of Believe Me.

And finally, Metaxas praises Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a great moment of national unity. He says that Lincoln showed “graciousness” toward his enemy. He said that because of this graciousness, Lincoln and Grant allowed the Confederate monuments to stand. Barton says that Lincoln’s “zealous” Christian faith is why he tried to reconcile with the South after the war. He says that Lincoln took seriously Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 about “reconciliation.”

There are so many problems with this part of the interview that it is hard to know where to start.

  1. Lincoln did want to the bring the Union back together and he tried to use his Second Inaugural Address to do it. But let’s remember that this address was delivered after victory in the war was all but secured. The Union won. Whatever reunion needed to take place, Lincoln believed, must happen on his terms. The idea that he would allow Confederates to continue to celebrate their slave-holding “heritage” with the erection of monuments does not make sense.
  2. Metaxas seems to think that these Confederate monuments were erected during the days of Lincoln. Most of them were built in the early 20th-century as a way of defending the Confederate’s “Lost Cause”–a commitment to white supremacy. Lincoln had nothing to do with them.
  3. Lincoln was not a Christian. Nearly all Lincoln scholarship is clear about this.
  4. 2 Corinthians 5 has nothing to do with the Civil War or nationalism.
  5. But most disturbing is the fact that Barton and Metaxas seem to be endorsing a white romanticized idea of reunion and reconciliation that left out African Americans. The best book on this subject continues to be David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Until next time.

Dr. Emma Hart is the New Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here is retiring McNeil Center director Dan Richter:

I’m delighted to announce that Dr. Emma Hart is being appointed as the next Richard S. Dunn Director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. If all goes as planned, her faculty appointment as a full professor in the University of Pennsylvania History Department will begin in January 2021. During the Spring 2021 semester, she will join me as co-director of the Center to ensure a smooth transition when I retire from the directorship on 30 June 2021.

Emma knows the McNeil Center well, having been in residence as a Barra Sabbatical Fellow in 2016–2017, and she and her work are equally familiar to most of you. She is the author of two well received books, Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (2010), and Trading Spaces: The Colonial Marketplace and the Foundations of American Capitalism (2019), and of numerous book chapters and articles, including publications in Early American Studies, The William and Mary Quarterly, and The Journal of Urban History.

Born in Edinburgh, she did her undergraduate work at Somerville College, Oxford, and received a post-graduate diploma in Fine and Decorative Arts from Sotheby’s Institute at the University of Manchester. After two years of work as a tracer of stolen art and antiques, she came to the United States to train for the Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University under the supervision of Jack P. Greene. For nearly two decades she has taught in the School of History at the University of St. Andrews, where, among many other things, she has served as Director of Postgraduate Studies and as a member of the Equality and Diversity Committee. She is currently President of the European Early American Studies Association and co-edits a book series for the University of Chicago Press.

As a scholar, administrator, and mentor, then, Emma is extraordinarily well prepared to assume leadership of the McNeil Center. I am confident that it will not only be in good hands but will thrive under her direction. She sends this brief message to our far-flung community:

“I am honoured, and incredibly excited, to be working with you all on writing the McNeil Center’s next chapter. As a community of early Americanists, much work lies ahead of us to make our field truly represent the diverse place that the Atlantic world itself was before 1850. Just as current events are a salutary reminder of the urgency of this work, the global health crisis has prompted us to create new ways in which we pursue it. I look forward to the rich conversations that await us as we continue together to research early America, its Atlantic and global contexts, and its foundational role for our contemporary world.”

Some of you may recall Hart’s visit to the Author’s Corner.

Congratulations!

The Author’s Corner with Chad Anderson

the storied landscape of the iroquoiaChad Anderson is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Hartwick College. This interview is based on his new book, The Storied Landscape of Iroquoia: History, Conquest, and Memory in the Native Northeast (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Storied Landscape of the Iroquoia?

CA: I started with the vague and lofty goal of wanting to write a different kind of book that could approach a familiar topic from a fresh perspective. My research began when I was reading accounts of Euro-American settlers in central New York, who traveled on trails created by the Haudenosaunee (the Iroquois Six Nations), sought clearings where the Haudenosaunee had farmed, and even commented on their crops—at the same time that ideas that Indians had done nothing to shape the land circulated in popular culture. Finding a contradiction is a great way to begin research because it demands an explanation and indicates that there is a more complicated story to tell. That piece of the puzzle is where I started because I knew that the blank canvas Euro-Americans imagined the “wilderness” to be wasn’t so blank. From there, I began to put together the big picture spanning the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. I found that Iroquoia (the homelands of the Haudenosaunee) was full of fascinating places and stories: ancient ruins, mysterious monuments, important villages, and so forth. I wanted to know how these sites continued to influence American culture, both Euro-American and Haudenosaunee, into the nineteenth century.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Storied Landscape  of the Iroquoia?

CA: The Haudenosaunee had shaped one of the most geographically significant homelands in North America, and for centuries layers of history had been written on their landscape. Central to the Euro-American conquest of Iroquoia was a significant, but ultimately contested and incomplete erasure of that Native imprint on the land.

JF: Why do we need to read The Storied Landscape of the Iroquoia?

CA: If we think of American history as a story, I believe historians have put forth a good effort to restore Native Americans to the plot, but the setting—and therefore important aspects of the characters’ lives—is often missing. This oversight is all-the-more striking when you recognize how much of North America remained Indian Country for hundreds of years after European colonization began. Nobody aimlessly wandered around early America. It was a well-connected place full of settlements where trade, diplomacy, and all sorts of exchanges happened. There was a significant Native American built environment, but that landscape was more than a collection of wood homes and farm fields. Memories connected to important places on that land. Ranging from ancient myths to recent events, that history created meaningful homelands. For the Haudenosaunee, like many Native nations in the East, the emergence of an aggressively expansionist American republic meant a dramatic reduction in their territory, which included many of those important places. However, a fundamental principle of historical scholarship is continuity and change. Even as Euro-Americans eventually conquered and re-settled most of Iroquoia, they could not entirely erase the land’s indigenous history and begin the country anew on a blank slate. And so, the story of that contested conquest and reinvention is really at the heart of the nation’s founding—a new republic built on North America’s old world. As such, I hope that readers with a wide-variety of interests will find something worth considering in the book.

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

CA: I always had interest in becoming a historian, but actually went to college as a business major because it seemed so much more practical. At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I ended up meeting and working with some excellent mentors from both the history and philosophy and religious studies departments. Those classes were when I really felt like I was doing what you were supposed to be doing at a university—examining complicated narratives, developing logical arguments, and so forth. I think back on my journey quite often, as I watch the decline (perhaps collapse) of history in higher education and wonder what experiences we want for our future undergraduates, who also want an education that is practical and meaningful. As for American history, I became interested in the early American republic because its people and dilemmas seemed both distant—the past as a “foreign country” that historians imagine exploring—and modern, with understandable and still relevant concerns. To a significant degree, I believe that my initial fascination informs my current work, which narrates the stories of people living in the 1820s and 1830s (for example, the Tuscarora historian David Cusick, the Prophet Joseph Smith), who looked to an ancient landscape in the midst of a modernizing America.

JF: What is your next project?

CA: “The Great Wolf Massacre,” a tale of hardship, scandal, the memory of America’s founding, and, perhaps, wolves.

JF: Thanks, Chad!

The Author’s Corner with Noeleen McIlvenna

Early American RebelsNoeleen McIlvenna is Professor of History at Wright State University. This interview is based on her new book, Early American Rebels: Pursuing Democracy from Maryland to Carolina, 1640–1700 (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Early American Rebels?

NM: All my work starts from the premise that the poor are not stupid. They know when they are being used and abused. But, in most eras on most continents, it’s very difficult to do anything about it. Power has all the weapons and they are relentless in their pursuit of more power and wealth. Working people have only numbers. And there is so much to fear: losing one’s livelihood, one’s health, the unknown future. So organizing ourselves to act collectively and then maintaining that solidarity over time and under varying pressures is a very tough road to climb. That’s why revolutions occur so rarely.

This is my third book on southern colonial history. As an immigrant myself, who grew up on one side of the Atlantic and crossed in my early twenties, I identify with the first generation of settlers along the North American coastline. I understand how one carries over cultural baggage and must adjust to a New World. So I write about those people: in North Carolina (A Very Mutinous People), in Georgia (The Short Life of Free Georgia), and now in Maryland.

Early American Rebels began as a prequel of sorts to A Very Mutinous People. While I was in the middle of the Georgia book, a genealogist contacted me and asked if I was aware that one of the Mutinous People protagonists had been in trouble in Maryland earlier. I was totally unaware; North Carolina historians had always felt that the first settlers came from Virginia. So when the Georgia manuscript had been sent to the publisher, I began to follow up, thinking I would write a small article about this story. But very quickly, I realized I had stumbled into a much bigger story: a whole network of activists had organized and organized and organized over two generations, struggling to establish a society based on Leveler ideals. Levelers were the radicals of the English Revolution: they wanted a society with a level playing field: no monarchy, no aristocracy; a vote for every man. Equality. We think of that as a basic American value, but it was revolutionary in the seventeenth century. And too often, Americans are taught that those ideals came from Virginia planters of the eighteenth century. But that is wrong. Poor indentured servants a hundred years before the American Revolution held those ideals and fought for them.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Early American Rebels?

NM: A network of settlers in the Chesapeake region fought for a say in their own governance in the mid-late seventeenth century. American democratic ideals are their legacy.

JF: Why do we need to read Early American Rebels?

NM: It is important for us to understand that we should look to those at the bottom of any society for leadership on how to change it. Early American Rebels gives us a guide on what it takes to create a more equitable world. It warns us how we might fail if the powerful separate us by race and make us compete for the crumbs. I hope you will get a sense of the playbooks of both the rebels and the elite.

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

NM: That occurred in several stages. The most important was the first day of eighth grade, back in Northern Ireland, when my new history teacher wrote the preamble to the Declaration of Independence on the blackboard and told us to copy it into our notebooks. When I got to the phrase, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish [their government],” I looked up and met his eyes. I repeated the phrase to him and he nodded, smiling. As a poor Catholic girl growing up during the Troubles, no one had really said that clearly to me and I knew immediately its significance. We mostly studied European history for the rest of high school, but I was hooked on understanding how some people came to have power and some did not. If someone had told me that there was such a job as an historian and that a poor Catholic girl was allowed to have that job, I would have signed up for it at age thirteen. But I had no concept that such a thing was possible.

I studied History as an undergraduate in Northern Ireland, but still did not grasp that I could become a history professor. No women taught history at that university. It seemed that a woman who loved history had one outlet: teach the subject at the high school level. Fast forward some years, an emigration or two and a few adventures and I was working at the University of Tennessee as a staff archaeologist. I saw lots of women professors and graduate students. When my boss told me I needed an MA and history was close enough to archaeology to suffice, I walked across the parking lot to the History department. The first graduate class I signed up for was Colonial America. That was that.

JF: What is your next project?

NM: I want to write an economic history from the bottom up. That is, how did the seventeenth-century Atlantic World economy function, starting at the workplace of an indentured woman in the Chesapeake and moving up and out until we finish with the King, politicians and financiers in London. We would see how much work she does to earn enough to eat, how the tobacco she works on, or whatever she produces gets sold and resold, who enjoys the profit at what stage and so on.

JF: Thanks, Noeleen!

*The Daily Princetonian* Remembers John Murrin

Rethinking AmericaHere is a taste of Edward Tian’s article in the Princeton student newspaper:

John M. Murrin, professor of history emeritus at the University, died at the age of 84 on May 2 at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton due to the novel coronavirus. He is survived by Mary Murrin, his wife of 52 years.

Murrin was the former president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, a prolific essayist and author of “Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic,“ and a beloved mentor in the scholarly community. 

“John was the life of the department,” said professor of history Sean Wilentz, who was a colleague of Murrin for over thirty years. 

“He was the most generous and open hearted mentor,” added James Dun, assistant dean of the college and a former graduate student of Murrin turned colleague in the history department. “He never wanted to be the smartest one in the room, in fact he would say that. But he always had insights that made everyone’s jaw drop.”

Murrin was so generous with his time that “he took as many or more graduate students than any other faculty,” said Dun. The reason he was able to do this: Murrin was “a man of many hyphens” — an “early-modern-anglo-american-historian” — and so well-read that he was a master of multiple fields.

In addition to his graduate students, many more historians called him a mentor, evident in an outpouring of support and condolences over Twitter this past week. 

“There’s a motto in academia — everyone here is smart; you can distinguish yourself by being kind. No one embodied this motto more than John,” tweeted Kevin Kruse, professor of history at the University.

Read the rest here.

Remembering John Murrin

Murrin

One of our great early American historians died yesterday, a victim of coronavirus.  Here is his obituary:

John M. Murrin, Professor of History emeritus at Princeton University, died May 2 at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton of corona virus. He taught at Princeton for 30 years and previously taught at Washington University, St. Louis for ten years. He had a B.A. from the College of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, the city of his birth, an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Murrin was an accomplished essayist on a variety of topics on the American colonial period, the American Revolution, and the College of New Jersey. Several of his more important essays were published by Oxford University Press in 2018 in the collection, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, with an introduction by Andrew Shankman.

He is survived by Mary, his wife of 52 years, brothers David and Michael, brothers-in-law John Roach, William Roach, and G.T. Buchman, and sister-in-law Jeannette Roach.

Services are private and under the direction of Mather-Hodge Funeral Home, Princeton.

John Murrin was brilliant. Someone once told me that if you gave John a date and a city from colonial America he could tell you who was walking down the street on that particular day. I can’t remember who told me this, but that person was only half joking.  I continue to use his essays in class and his thinking about early America continues to shape the way I teach.

I certainly did not know John as well as others in the early American history community.  I hope there will be other remembrances to come. But John did intersect with my life and career in several small, but important, ways. When I learned about his death, I felt moved to share a few of them.

I can’t remember when I first met John, but I am almost positive that my doctoral adviser, Ned Landsman, introduced me to him. (John was a mentor to Ned). Back in the glory days of the Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies (now McNeil Center for Early American Studies), doctoral advisers like John and Ned would drive down to the University of Pennsylvania for Friday seminars. It was through these seminars that I got to know several of John’s doctoral students, including Beth Lewis Pardoe and Evan Haefeli.

My first extended conversation with John came during a September 1998 McNeil Center event at Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s home along the Delaware River. Jerry Frost of Swarthmore College presented a paper on Penn historiography. I think the title was something like “Penn in Myth and History.” It was either my first or second event as a McNeil Center fellow. The Friday seminar was an anxiety-producing experience for many younger scholars. Nearly every major early American historian in the mid-Atlantic region attended these seminars–some more regularly than others. Papers were pre-circulated and the authors spent the entire two hours answering questions about their research. Richard Dunn, the director of the Center, urged dissertation fellows to ask at least one question during the seminar. Dunn sat at a table with the speaker at the front of the room and whenever he spotted a dissertation fellow raising his or her hand he would ignore the more established scholars trying to get into the conversation and call on the fellow.  Or at least this is how I perceived it.

At this particular seminar, I had formulated what I thought to be a good question for Frost. I raised my hand and Dunn called on me. But as I began to articulate the question I had a brain freeze. I lost my train of thought and couldn’t get back on track. Finally, red-faced and embarrassed, I had to say that I would try to remember the question and ask again later. (I did not). Asking a question at a McNeil Center event was a kind of performance. You needed to sound smart. So needless to say, I was horrified about what had just happened. I wanted to throw-up. I don’t think I heard another word spoken during the rest of that seminar. I was too busy concluding that my career as a historian was over. I didn’t belong with this group of scholars.

After the seminar, a picnic was held on the grounds of the manor. I remember getting a plate of food and sitting down at a wooden picnic table, probably with one or two other dissertation fellows. After a few minutes, John Murrin sat down next to me and started reflecting on the very subject I had tried to raise with my question. He did not reference my botched performance, but in his own subtle way he affirmed what he thought I was trying to ask. It was an important moment in my career. John was one of the world’s greatest early American historians. He did not have to encourage an unknown SUNY-Stony Brook graduate student in this way. But he did. I will never forget his compassion and empathy on that day.

During my year as a McNeil Center dissertation fellow, Joy and two-year-old Allyson were still living in Stony Brook where Joy was working in residential life at a local boarding school. Richard Dunn graciously allowed me to spend four days a week at Penn and take long weekends at home. I spent a lot of time on the train that year. Since we had very little money, I could not afford taking AMTRAK from Philadelphia to New York City. This meant that I had to take a Philadelphia local train (SEPTA) to Trenton and switch to New Jersey Transit. Once I arrived at Penn Station in New York I would take the two-hour Long Island Railroad trip out to Stony Brook.

After Friday seminars, John Murrin would occasionally ask me if I wanted to ride with him and his students from Philadelphia to Princeton. He would take me to the Princeton train station so I could spend less time on the train and save some money.  During one of those trips, after he dropped-off his graduate students, John gave me an impromptu automobile tour of Princeton. He knew I was writing about Philip Vickers Fithian (a 1772 Princeton graduate) and he wanted to make sure I understood the Princeton that Fithian experienced as a student. So there we were, driving around Princeton at ten o’ clock on a Friday night with John giving me a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Princeton, pointing in the dark to various buildings and landscapes, and regaling me with Nassau Hall trivia.

I often gravitated to John during the social events following McNeil Center seminars. He always remained curious about my height. On multiple occasions he told me that he couldn’t decide who deserved the honor of being the tallest early American  historian alive–me or his former student Danny Vickers. He also tried to recruit me, unsuccessfully, to play for the Princeton History Department softball team in their annual game against Penn. We talked a lot about New Jersey’s colonial and revolutionary history. In fact, one day he briefly mentioned that we needed a new history of the American Revolution in New Jersey.  I took him up on that suggestion. I hope to have my book on the subject out in the next year or two.

We also used to talk a lot about the Mets. John’s wife, Mary Murrin, was a big Keith Hernandez fan (I assume from her days in St. Louis when John taught at Washington University). My prayers go out to her in her time of grieving. I got to know her a little bit when she directed the grant program at the New Jersey Historical Commission.

I never talked about my Christian faith with John, but he knew I was an evangelical. I think this is why our conversations would occasionally turn to Nathan Hatch, another evangelical historian who studied under John during his decade on the faculty at Washington University. I was thrilled when John agreed to write a blurb for my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”: A Historical Introduction.  Here it is:

Committed evangelicals have had an outsized impact on early American history, earning respect from major historians who do not share their religious views. Nathan O. Hatch won a reputation that led to his selection as president of Wake Forest University. George M. Marsden and Mark A. Noll have both been recruited for professorships at Notre Dame, as has Harry S. Stout at Yale. John Fea is about to join their select company. His latest work addresses a problem that arose during the American Revolution and has emerged again today as an urgent issue rooted in a central dilemma: How explicitly  Christian can a nation be under a Constitution and a central government designed to uphold religious neutrality? Fea’s answers are searching, surprising, and profound. 

I am no Hatch, Marsden, Noll, or Stout, and I never will be. These men are giants.  But I can’t tell you what this blurb meant to me when I first read it in 2011.

Thanks again, John Murrin. Rest in peace.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Watson

George Washington's Final BattleRobert Watson is Distinguished Professor of American History at Lynn University. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington’s Final Battle: The Epic Struggle to Build a Capital City and a Nation (Georgetown University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write George Washington’s Final Battle?

RW: I have always admired George Washington and loved the capital city–the majestic government buildings, world-class museums, the National Mall, and the city’s history. However, I have always been surprised and a bit dismayed that most Americans know very little about the capital’s history, the difficult and unlikely story behind the location and design of our national seat of government, and Washington’s role in building the city that bears his name. Yet, it is an intriguing and inspiring story, one that mirrors the forging of the Republic.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington’s Final Battle?

RW: We know George Washington as many things–heroic general, first president, a man of honor and discipline, and so on, but too often we fail to appreciate that he was also a visionary and a man possessing formidable political skills (when he wanted or needed to deploy them, which was the case while building support for the capital city). Both these sides of Washington are on display in his struggle to build a grand capital city.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington’s Final Battle?

RW: In building a grand capital city along the Potomac, Washington not only realized a personal passion but helped strengthen the fledgling Republic and federal government, imbue his countrymen with a sense of national pride and American identity, and give the new nation credibility in the eyes of Europe.

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

RW: I grew up in central Pennsylvania, not far from Gettysburg and a Saturday drive away from Valley Forge and Philadelphia. Some of my earliest and most cherished memories were of visiting the many important historic sites in the area. So, I supposed it was through osmosis that I developed a passion for history. I know I picked the right occupation because I never tire of visiting museums, battlefields, and historic sites around the US and internationally.

JF: What is your next project?

RW: A book on the Civil War and another book project on the capital city.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Pilgrims and the 1625 London Plague

London Plague

Over at We’re History, early American historian Peter Wood writes about the London plague from the perspective of Plymouth Rock.  Here is a taste of his piece:

But in 1625, New England’s “hideous and desolate” isolation suddenly began to seem a God-given blessing in disguise. Captain Miles Standish had been sent back to England, aboard a ship laden with furs and fish, to negotiate with overbearing creditors for their “favour and help.” He went at “a very bad time,” Bradford related, for their home country was “full of trouble.” To his dismay, Standish found “the plague very hote in London, so no business could be done.”

Hot indeed. England’s plague had arrived, apparently from Holland, early in 1625, but it went undetected through most of March. George Wither, a poet who survived the epidemic, recalled how the stealthy sickness first approached London through the city’s “well-fill’d Suburbs” and spread there undetected for weeks…

By the end of 1625, the contagion had claimed nearly 70,000 lives across England. More than half the deaths had been in London. There, the disease had killed well over 35,000, in a city of fewer than 330,000 people. Many more may have been undiagnosed victims. One Londoner wrote that “to this present Plague of Pestilence, all former Plagues were but pettie ones.” Another lamented that no prior chronicle had “ever mentioned the like” for “our famous citie.”

As for Standish, he found the English adventurers who supported the Plymouth Colony were fearful in the midst of an economic collapse and a public health disaster. When the New Englander sought a loan, they could only offer him money at a whopping 50% interest rate.  As Bradford later summarized: “though their wills were good, yet theyr power was litle. And ther dyed such multitude weekly of the plague, as all trade was dead, and litle money stirring.”

In early April 1626, the Plymouth colonists welcomed Standish home safely, but his mission had been unsuccessful, and “the news he brought was sad in many regards.” Numerous English allies had been struck down financially and physically, “much disabled from doing any further help, and some dead of the plague.” Faced with such news and given “the state of things,” Bradford observed of his colonists, “it is a marvell it did not wholy discourage them and sinck them.”

Read the entire piece here.

Presbyterians in Love

Letter to Beatty

The first letter that Fithian wrote to Elizabeth Beatty, dated July 15, 1770. From the Fithian Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Courtesy of the Princeton University Library. 

I am glad to learn that Commonplace: The Journal of Early American History and Life is re-running my 2008 piece “Presbyterians in Love” at its new website. I love the subtitle they chose: “He was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion.”

I can’t I published that piece twelve years ago.

Here is a taste:

Can Presbyterians fall in love? Okay, everyone falls in love, but when people think of Presbyterians they normally conjure up images of stoic Protestants whose kids eat oatmeal and memorize the Westminster Confession of Faith. Reverend Maclean, the Montana minister and father figure played by Tom Skerritt in A River Runs Through It, comes to mind. Presbyterians don’t “fall” in love—they rationally, and with good sense, ease themselves into it.

This was my image of Presbyterians until I read the correspondence of Philip Vickers Fithian. Most early American historians know Philip Vickers Fithian. He was the uptight young Presbyterian who served a year (1773-1774) as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter, and wrote a magnificently detailed diary about his experience. For most of us, Fithian is valued for his skills as an observer. His journal offers one of our best glimpses into plantation life in the Old Dominion on the eve of the American Revolution.

But despite Fithian’s ubiquitous presence in the indexes and footnotes of contemporary works of Virginia scholarship, most of us know little more about him than the very barest facts: He was born in 1747 in the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich. He was the eldest son of Presbyterian farmers but left the agricultural life in 1770 to attend the College of New Jersey at Princeton. After college he worked for a year on Carter’s plantation and was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. In 1776 he headed off to New York to serve as a chaplain with a New Jersey militia unit in the American War for Independence.

Such chronicling—the stuff of encyclopedia entries and biographical dictionaries—only scratches the surface of Philip’s life. It fails to acknowledge the inner man, the prolific writer who used words—letters and diary entries mostly—to make peace with the ideas that warred for his soul. Philip was a man of passion raised in a Presbyterian world of order. He came of age at a time when Presbyterians were rejecting the pious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening for a common-sense view of Christianity. And while Philip was clearly a student of this newer rational and moderate Protestantism, he remained unquestionably Presbyterian. For he was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion. His struggle to bring these worlds together is seen most clearly not in his well-known observations of plantation life but in his letters to the woman he loved—Elizabeth Beatty.

Philip first met Elizabeth “Betsy” Beatty in the spring of 1770 when she visited the southern New Jersey town of Deerfield to attend her sister Mary’s wedding to Enoch Green, the local Presbyterian minister. It may not have been love at first site, but it was close. Philip was enrolled in Green’s preparatory academy, and Betsy was the daughter of Charles Beatty, the minister of the Presbyterian church of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, and one of the colonies’ most respected clergymen.

Betsy was a new face in Deerfield, a fact that made her especially enchanting to the town’s young men. Philip had spent enough time with Betsy while she was visiting to begin a friendly correspondence with her. In his first letter, written shortly after she returned to Neshaminy, Philip wrote, “You can scarcely conceive . . . how melancholy, Spiritless, & forsaken you left Several when you left Deerfield!” He hoped for a prominent place “in this gloomy Row of the disappointed.” Since Betsy had departed Deerfield he could not “walk nor read, nor talk, nor ride, nor sleep, nor live, with any Stomach!” The “transient golden Minutes” they had spent together, he added, “only fully persuaded me how much real Happiness may be had in your Society.” Philip was smitten.

Betsy did not reply to this letter, and Philip’s obsession waned as he headed off to college in the fall of 1770. While he was there Philip had more than one opportunity to see Betsy again. He joined fellow classmates on weekend excursions to visit Charles Beatty’s church at Neshaminy, and it was during these visits that he made his first serious attempts to court Betsy. Though Philip and Betsy would spend much time together over the course of the next several years, the establishment of a correspondence was equally important to the development of their relationship. Betsy had given Philip permission to write her, a clear sign that she approved of his desire to move the friendship forward. By February 1772 he was signing his letters with the name “Philander” (“loving Friend”), an obvious indicator of his affection for his new correspondent.

Though much of Philip and Betsy’s courtship was conducted through letters, the exchange of sentiments usually flowed in only one direction. Perhaps Betsy did not like to write. Perhaps she preferred more intimate encounters or feared the lack of privacy inherent in letter writing. Or perhaps she did not want to encourage her suitor with a reply. Whatever the case, women generally did not write as much as men, especially when it came to love and courtship letters. In other words, Betsy may simply have been following the conventions of her day.

Read the rest here. Or get the entire story here:

Fithian Book

 

 

Commemorating the Mayflower

plymouth

400 years ago this year the Mayflower landed on present-day Cape Cod. Over at The New York Times, Tanya Mohn writes about how the United States, England, and the Netherlands will commemorate the event later this year. A taste:

Paula Peters remembers the last major anniversary of the historic voyage in 1620 of the Mayflower from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Mass. It was in 1970. She was 12. “It did not go well,” recalled Ms. Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag TribeFrank James, whose Wampanoag name was Wamsutta, was invited to give a speech, but was prevented from delivering it because the event’s organizers “didn’t like what he had to say.”

This year’s 400th anniversary promises to be different. “It will include all the things Frank James wanted to say and then some. It’s an opportunity to take our story out of the margins and onto an international platform,” said Ms. Peters, who through SmokeSygnals, a marketing and communications agency, curated and consulted for exhibitions and programs on both sides of the Atlantic. “What’s most important to stress is simply that we are still here.”

The Wampanoag Nation, encompassing the federally recognized Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes, are equal partners in the yearlong commemoration with Plymouth 400 in the United States, Mayflower 400 in the United Kingdom, and Leiden 400 in the Netherlands, umbrella groups for museums and organizations that are hosting Mayflower-related events in their respective regions.

Read the rest here.

Has Christianity Always Led to White Supremacy?

Stockbridge

Jessica Criales is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University.  In her recently published piece at The Panorama she shows how native Americans used Christianity to fight white supremacy and racial prejudice.  Here is a taste:

Hidden throughout early American history are many other stories similar to the foundation of Holy Apostles, that defy the easy association of Christianity with white supremacy. My current research project focuses on Indigenous women who embraced Christianity as a tool of resistance to colonialism and racial prejudice in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Far from being white or conservative, these women used Christian identity to exert their own agency in defense of Indigenous sovereignty. Specifically, I study women who were members of “Christian Indian” tribes, such as Brothertown and Stockbridge in New York, both founded around 1785. When I explain my research topic, most people are surprised at the very existence of tribes that formed around Christian identity, not to mention the strong involvement of indigenous women. (In fact, women outnumbered men in the early decades of both tribes.) The next question is often: Why did these women so strongly identify as Christian?

For starters, I think Christian doctrine offered Native women a method of dealing with the psychological stress of colonization. For example, facing white settler expansion in New York, a portion of the Stockbridge tribe decided to move west to Indiana in 1819. A letter from a Stockbridge woman named Mary Konkapot demonstrates her belief that Christianity could help overcome the pain of being separated from family. “You do not love to have me go into this new country,” she wrote to her father, who had remained in New York, “but the same Lord is here that is there, and if you will pray every day, I will pray too, so we shall meet the same Lord together.” Through being supernaturally reunited with her family members through the Christian concept of resurrection, Konkapot expressed her hope that dispossession from their native lands would not be the end of the story for the Stockbridge.

Read the rest here.

Could we use the term “evangelical” to describe the Christianity that Criales describes?  If Darryl Hart is right, all pre-20th-century Protestants were “evangelicals.”

The Author’s Corner with Erik Seeman

speaking with the dead in early americaErik Seeman is Professor of History and History Department Chair at the University at Buffalo. This interview is based on his new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Speaking with the Dead?

ES: In my large lecture class, “Death in America,” Spiritualism is one of my students’ favorite topics. I had long wondered how a religious movement with such a specific starting point–the Fox Sisters’ communication with a ghost in 1848–could claim “millions” of adherents within a decade (leave aside for a moment that the claim was likely exaggerated).

So I started Speaking with the Dead with a simple question: Where did Spiritualism come from? But I quickly became dissatisfied with previous historians’ answers, which had focused on relatively marginal movements in the 1830s and 1840s: Shakerism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism. The deeper I dug, the more I found examples of people imagining communication with the dead, not only in the nineteenth century, but going back to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century England.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Protestantism is a religion in which the dead play a central role. From the Reformation forward, many Protestants have maintained relationships with the dead, a tendency that increased over time and culminated in what I call the antebellum cult of the dead.

JF: Why do we need to read Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Historians have long insisted – as in one recent account of the Reformation – that “Protestantism stripped religion of mediation and intimacy with the dead.” Speaking with the Dead offers countless examples from historical, literary, and material culture sources to demonstrate that such assertions must be revised.

To use categories formulated by the religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, historians have usually conceived of Protestantism as a religion of “absence,” in contrast to Catholicism, which is seen as a religion of the “presence” of supernatural beings other than God and Christ (saints, deceased loved ones, the Virgin Mary). In my account, Protestantism is very much a religion of presence.

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

ES: I went to college “in Boston” (as Harvard grads like to say, evasively). I was a History major but not at all on a path toward becoming a historian, until I started primary source research for my junior-year paper, sort of a mini-thesis. I started taking the T and the commuter rail to the Mass Archives at Columbia Point and the Essex County Courthouse in Salem. I couldn’t believe they handed over stacks of eighteenth-century wills and inventories and letters to an untested twenty-year-old. The next year I continued my research on the social history of the Great Awakening, expanded my geographic compass, and spent so much time in the archives that I got a D on my Icelandic Saga midterm. At that point I asked my Teaching Fellow, Mark Peterson, “How do I do what you do?”

JF: What is your next project?

ES: Continuing the Boston theme, I’ve just started a book I’m calling “The Pox of 1721: Boston’s Deadliest Epidemic.” It’s going to be a social history of the sort I started writing as an undergrad. This is the smallpox epidemic famous for the “inoculation controversy”: Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylston favored the new (or new to Euro-Americans) practice of inoculation, while William Douglass and others strongly opposed it. This controversy left an ample published record that has drawn lots of scholarly attention. But what about ordinary people? How did this epidemic play out among the unfree as well as the free, the poor as well as the well-to-do? We’ll see if I’m able to unearth enough sources to tell that story.

JF: Thanks, Eric!

The Author’s Corner with Sarah Pearsall

Polygamy An Early American HistorySarah Pearsall is University Senior Lecturer in the History of Early America and the Atlantic World at the University of Cambridge. This interview is based on her new book, Polygamy: An Early American History (Yale University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Polygamy?

SP: When I started working on this project, fierce debates over same-sex marriage erupted at the center of U.S. politics, and marriage controversies also kept emerging in my research and teaching. In the course of research on my first book about Anglo-Atlantic families, I started to notice a negative version of the ideal marriage: the harem, supposedly ruled only by lust, greed, and fear, never true love. In an undergraduate course I was teaching on early American travel narratives, depictions of polygamy appeared over and over again. Why were people so fascinated—and sometimes so horrified— by other people marrying in what they felt was the wrong way? What did differences over marriage highlight about society and politics? Polygamy seemed a good way to open up these vexing issues. Yet I could find few books about it, and none focused on colonial America. With a few notable exceptions, most studies of early American colonialism treated disputes over polygamy as something like mere local color in the background of a borderlands drama. Yet sometimes different ideas about households were not the backdrop; they were the drama. I wanted to know more about this drama, and the women and men who shaped it.

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

SP: Most Americans, even (early) American historians, presume the history of polygamy in North America only really began with Western controversies surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the nineteenth century. In fact, I argue that what happened to the Mormons was near the end, a decisive battle in a long-standing war for monogamy which reveals a great deal about women, men, households, and power in early modern encounters.

JF: Why do we need to read Polygamy?

SP: This book places women and men, and their intimate, sometimes physical, relations, at the center of an analysis of colonialism and nationhood. This somewhat unusual perspective yields some compelling surprises and fascinating stories. Many of the major actors in this narrative were Native American or African American. I hope that the book prompts readers to question their own assumptions about this allegedly “backwards” form of marriage. Even more significant, though, is that readers take away that centering marriage changes how we think about major events and processes, including the Pueblo Revolt (which I first discussed in an article in the American Historical Review), King Philip’s War, and even the American Revolution. The book ranges widely but deeply across many times and places, so even specialists should learn something new. Finally, one friend jokingly suggested that displaying a copy would make the reader look hip and attractive, but I could not possibly comment on that.

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

SP: Strangely, I became an American historian when I left the United States and went to study in England. I came to Cambridge University as a master’s student to study British history. While there, I increasingly felt the pull of early American history. An exceptional high school teacher, Melinda Hennessey, as well as many amazing teachers at Yale had already ignited my passion for history. I was fortunate to be able to return to the U.S. to do my PhD in early American history at Harvard with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, with a strong interest in British and Atlantic history. My first book reflects those joint interests. In the end, I fell in love with early American history because it is at once familiar and alien. It also involves so many rich and dynamic encounters between different people; for better or worse, these contacts continue to shape our world. I hope my new book gives a flavor of them.

JF: What is your next project?

SP: I have enjoyed working on this topic so much that I am now writing a global history of polygamy with a long temporal span. I also have a project on the American Revolution in the works, as well as one on slavery and marriage.

The Author’s Corner With Kelly Ryan

RyanKelly A. Ryan is Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of History at Indiana University-Southeast.  This interview is based on her new book Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Everyday Crimes?

KR: When I was researching my first book, I ran across records of abused wives in the revolutionary era and early republic who had the courage to report their husbands to a local justice of the peace. I was surprised by the activism of these women as we know that reporting abuse often leads to greater violence. I wondered about the resistance of slaves and servants –  two other groups categorized as legal dependents – and whether or not they had more or less success in stymying the violence of their masters. Focusing on these groups and newly freed African Americans from the colonial era through the early republic allowed me to get a glimpse of whose voices were privileged and the many ways that legally and socially subordinated individuals fought for their human and civil rights in a society that did not value them as highly as their social superiors.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Everyday Crimes?

KR: Everyday Crimes argues that the resistance of wives, servants, slaves, and free African Americans to violence expanded their human and civil rights.  Although it was dangerous to contest assaults, legal and social dependents obtained greater access to legal rights to sue and offer testimony, expanded divorce and separation options, saw alterations in slave codes, and the emergence of emancipation statutes.

JF: Why do we need to read Everyday Crimes?

KR: In the past few years, our society has grappled with whose voices are privileged in cases of assault and murder. Everyday Crimes shares stories of the victims of violence and the ways our legal and social system indemnified some prosecutors of violence from condemnation. It’s important for Americans to understand how our history is a legacy that continues in the modern era, even as African Americans, women, and children have access to civil rights. We must keep searching for ways to better protect Americans and prevent violence.

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

KR: Like most historians, my interest in history stems from amazing teachers in high school and college. Maryknoll High School in Honolulu, Hawaii had passionate instructors of United States, European, and Asian history who taught history as a way of understanding our modern world. I was interested in a great number of things when I arrived at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia as a first year student, but the history professors there, most importantly Lawrence Levine and Howard Smead, made history relevant to everyday life and taught with such great joy. It was infectious. Moreover, I felt that history allowed me to continue focusing on my love of art, anthropology, and literature because all are sources of inspiration and research for historians.

JF: What is your next project?

KR: After 15 year of being a professional historian, I have so many stories connected to sexuality and violence in early America that I have not been able to tell as part of my previous scholarship.  I’d like to bring more of a biographical focus to the men and women who have encountered our criminal justice system. I’m really interested in sharing some of the information I’ve gathered about how early constables and police have been victims of and prosecutors of violence. I also have two forthcoming chapters in planned series edited by other scholars in the Routledge History of American Sexuality and the Cambridge History of the American Revolution.

JF: Thanks, Kelly!

North Carolina General Assembly Session Records Are Now Online

NC Map

“History for All the People,” a blog of the State Archives of North Carolina, recently announced that the state’s General Assembly session records are now online.  Here is a taste of the post:

After three years, The General Assembly Session Records digital collection is now online!

This digital collection covers the session records from 1709 to 1814, located in the State Archives of North Carolina. The physical collection includes records that extend to 1999, but we wanted to highlight the history of colonial North Carolina and the days of early statehood. The documents include Senate and House bills, joint resolutions, propositions, filed grievances, boundary disputes, and petitions that typically discussed divorces, inheritances, name changes and emancipation.

Learn more.

Muslims Were in America Before Protestants

Portrait_of_Ayuba_Suleiman_Diallo_1050x700

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, called Job ben Solomon (1701-1773) in African dress, with the Qu’ran around his neck via Wikimedia Commons
 

Yes, as Sam Haselby reminds us, this is true.  Here is a taste of his piece at Aeon: “Muslims of Early America“:

The writing of American history has also been dominated by Puritan institutions. It might no longer be quite true, as the historian (and Southerner) U B Phillips complained more than 100 years ago, that Boston had written the history of the US, and largely written it wrong. But when it comes to the history of religion in America, the consequences of the domination of the leading Puritan institutions in Boston (Harvard University) and New Haven (Yale University) remain formidable. This ‘Puritan effect’ on seeing and understanding religion in early America (and the origins of the US) brings real distortion: as though we were to turn the political history of 20th-century Europe over to the Trotskyites.

Think of history as the depth and breadth of human experience, as what actually happened. History makes the world, or a place and people, what it is, or what they are. In contrast, think of the past as those bits and pieces of history that a society selects in order to sanction itself, to affirm its forms of government, its institutions and dominant morals.

The forgetting of early America’s Muslims is, then, more than an arcane concern. The consequences bear directly on the matter of political belonging today. Nations are not mausoleums or reliquaries to conserve the dead or inanimate. They are organic in that, just as they are made, they must be consistently remade, or they atrophy and die. The virtual Anglo-Protestant monopoly over the history of religion in America has obscured the half-a-millenium presence of Muslims in America and has made it harder to see clear answers to important questions about who belongs, who is American, by what criteria, and who gets to decide.

What then should ‘America’ or ‘American’ mean? With its ‘vast, early America’ programme, the Omohundro Institute, the leading scholarly organisation of early American history, points to one possible answer. ‘Early America’ and ‘American’ are big and general terms, but not so much as to be nearly meaningless. Historically, they are best understood as the great collision, mixing and conquest of peoples and civilisations (and animals and microbes) of Europe and Africa with the peoples and societies of the Western hemisphere, from the Greater Caribbean to Canada, that began in 1492. From 1492 to at least about 1800, America, simply, is Greater America, or vast, early America.

Read the entire piece here.