The Author’s Corner with Eric Smith

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

JF: What led you to write Oliver Hart?

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

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

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

JF: Why do we need to read Oliver Hart?

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Eric!

Night four at the 2020 DNC convention

Biden nominee

It was a great night for the Democratic Party. I don’t think they could have done this convention any better. Frankly, it may have been more effective than a traditional arena convention. The GOP has a tough act to follow.

Below are a few thoughts, based on some of my live-tweeting.

Let’s start with the segment on Biden’s Christian faith:

A few thousand white evangelicals from Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona might decide this election:

But here is a way that Democrats can keep more white evangelicals after November 2020:

Delaware Senator Chris Coons gave a good speech that echoed yesterday’s Fox News op-ed on Biden’s faith. But Coons did not address anything I wrote about in the tweets above. If Biden can address these issues between now and November he could win a record number of white evangelicals. He could easily connect his platform to a real conversation about abortion. The religious liberty stuff will be a little more difficult without offending the left-wing of the party.

Let’s move on to history.

I am still waiting for someone to tell me when the last time a historian spoke in a prime time slot at a political convention.  Jon Meacham was excellent:

So please take the following tweet in that context:

My historian students–both at Messiah University and the Gilder-Lehrman
“Princeton Seminar”–know that the roots of the United States are located in more than just the British settlements.

And as long as we are talking about history:

You can also do a lot of other things with a history major.

The segment with Biden’s Democratic primary rivals was amazing. I could have watched another hour of this conversation. As Cory Booker said, it was like the show with all the contestants “voted off the island” on “Survivor”:

A quick thought on Michael Bloomberg’s speech:

Not all evangelical celebrities support Donald Trump:

Biden gave a great speech. I appreciated his call to find one’s “purpose” in life.

The exact quote was: “As God’s children each of us have a purpose in our lives.”

And the following:

I was also pleased to see this speech seasoned with the words “hope,” “humility,” and “history.” I feel like I’ve heard those words before. 🙂

Here is the Seamus Heaney quote from “The Cure at Troy” that Biden used in the speech:

History says,

Don’t hope on this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme

The next verse (which Biden did not use in the speech) reads:

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Read Biden’s entire speech here.

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Pearl

conceived in crisisChristopher Pearl is Associate Professor of History at Lycoming College. This interview is based on his new book, Conceived in Crisis: The Revolutionary Creation of an American State (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At face value, that question seems simple, and people ask me that question a lot. But, at the same time, it is hard to answer succinctly. So, I apologize for this rather lengthy response.

If I had to sum it up, I think it started out of simple interest–I wanted to understand the causes and consequences of the American Revolution. I love the literature on the American Revolution, but always debated how the interpretations of the more imperial centered histories and domestic revolutionary histories worked together (a rather standard starting place, for sure). We have an extensive body of literature that interprets the causes of the American Revolution through an external lens, particularly through the dispute between the British Parliament and the colonial legislatures over constitutional issues, especially sovereignty. Then, we have another excellent vantage point looking at domestic problems rooted in the intersection of economics and politics. Adding to that, we have a vibrant history of the frontier and the racial, economic, and political motivations for dissent and revolution there, which often bridge the divide between imperial and domestic origins. And then we have investigations of the revolutionary war that see that period as dynamic for the foundation of the United States. I wanted to understand how all of those issues and periods intersected.

I think the other motivation for this book is my interest in governance–both how people in general experience power as structured in a particular government and how they understand what a government should do on the ground. We have a rich history about how early Americans thought about the limits of government, but, the other question, I think, is asking what early Americans thought about the place of government in their daily lives, or, quite simply, what government should and could do?

My book is an attempt to bring those questions together by looking at the structure of government, the practice of governing, and how people wrote and thought about both. I tried to do that in one colony turned state, Pennsylvania (sometimes on a very mundane level). For example, how do debates over the structure of the local courts or the regulation of fishing, hunting, lotteries, wagon wheels, oysters, bread, leather, the quality and price of consumer goods, or something as large and significant as land and property ownership (to name just a few) reveal essential aspects of early American visions of government and governance, and how did that understanding of government and governance shape the causes of the American Revolution and the states that were birthed in that moment? I try to address those questions directly in my book, showing how the dialogue about colonial and imperial governance shaped both the causes of the revolution and how the new states were formed and governed.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Conceived in Crisis?

CP: At a basic level, Conceived in Crisis argues that the American Revolution was not just the product of the Imperial Crisis, brought on by the British Parliament’s attempt to impose a new idea of empire on the American colonies. To an equal or greater degree, it was a response to the inability of individual colonial governments to deliver basic services, which undermined their legitimacy. Factional bickering over policy, violent extralegal regulations, and the dreadful experiences of conducting an imperial war while governing a demographically growing and geographically expanding population all led colonists and imperial officials to consider reforming the colonial governments into more powerful and coercive entities. Using Pennsylvania as a case study, my book demonstrates how this history of ineffective colonial governance precipitated a process of state formation that was accelerated by the demands of the Revolutionary War.

JF: Why do we need to read Conceived in Crisis?

CP: I think my book is important for its investigation of how problems of governance at the localist of levels helps explain the causes of the American Revolution and how colonies became states. Moreover, I think my book is important because it makes us grapple with how revolutionaries understood the basic principles of governance during a foundational moment for the United States. As I look out at the political landscape, I am continually struck by how many Americans don’t quite understand or have a very narrow conception of how the founding generation understood government. We tend to focus on “the founders” and the limits of government rather than how that generation envisioned what governments do and why they do it. I think my book is essential in filling that gap.

Despite my confidence in what I just laid out, I want to emphasize that my book is an attempt. I think more needs to be done to understand the myriad of ways that governments and the governed worked out the basic contours of governance in the revolutionary era.

Happily, many of the issues I see as intimately intertwined with what I tried to do are being done or have been recently done. I think recent works by Brian Philips Murphy, Robert Parkinson, Alan Taylor, Jessica Roney, Cole Jones, Patrick Spero, Ryan A. Quintana, Whitney Martinko, and Max Edling, coupled with some anticipated books by Hannah Farber, Susan Gaunt Stearns, Michael Blaakman, and Matthew Spooner, for instance, are and will be really important. The collective history here, I think, tells a significant story about the revolutionary era in a way that should make us rethink standard narratives, and through that, the thrust of history in the United States. As scholars, we all have individual focuses, and sometimes we disagree, but taken together our work tells a rich history and I think we are in an excellent moment for a new understanding of the revolutionary era.

As I look out at the new and coming literature on the American Revolution, I am energized. It has made me appreciate something Thad Tate wrote about the field in 1977. For Tate, the bicentennial of American Independence influenced scholars, from a host of directions, who tried to come to grips with the American Revolution. Surveying the scholarly scene, Tate thought that “the results were so impressive as to appear to leave limited room for additional work in the immediate future.” Time, Tate concluded, was necessary to digest and make sense of it all. I think that we are in the early stages of something similar, and I am excited.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the sources material you worked with in the writing and researching of Conceived in Crisis.

CP: I wanted to understand the practice of governing in the revolutionary period, so I started by creating a database of petitions to Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature from 1740 to 1775, trying to find common complaints and requests. Through that, I focused on public petitions, or, rather, petitions signed by multiple people asking for legislative action. Once there, it became readily apparent that there was a severe disconnect between how the government and the governed understood the basic elements of governance. Tracking the dialogue between “the people” and the government in other sources, such as court records, legislative minutes, statutes, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and private papers framed the book as it now exists. I think it all came together when I started to see the same requests over and again demanding reform of the judicial system and regulatory policies. Those were key reform issues throughout the eighteenth century. As Laura F. Edwards demonstrates in her book, The People and Their Peace, local legal institutions had a significant impact on the lives of all people in early America. The way they functioned shaped everyone’s economic existence and the security of their communities. In essence, courts and regulatory policies at the most local of levels, shaped by colonial, and, eventually, statewide laws, represented the totality of governance for most early Americans. When I found that those local grievances started to make their way into a wider public political dialogue in the 1760s and 1770s, essentially linking something disparate into something far more oppositional, and then the same ideas for change informed the state constitutions and subsequent legislation by the state governments during the revolutionary war, I knew I had an interesting thread to track down and write about.

JF: What is your next project?

CP: I am currently working on a book project that analyzes the development of American executives during the American Revolution by looking at the wartime tenures of the fledgling state governors, presidents, and plural executive councils of five states–Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Such a study seems both timely and necessary considering the prevalence of modern discussion concerning the proper reach and remit of executives (of all stripes) as well as recent trends in the scholarly literature reemphasizing the importance of the war years to the development of the United States. Through this project, I am trying to understand how the war years shaped how executives acted, but more importantly, how people on the ground perceived and debated executive powers. I want to tease out how early Americans, from all walks of life, envisioned and experienced executive power. I think this new project will show how executive action and the public dialogue that it instigated had a lasting impact on a particularly American variety of executive power during the early republic and beyond. Thankfully, I will be a research fellow at The David Center for the American Revolution and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies next year to help complete the project.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Bernard Bailyn, RIP

bernard-bailyn-1060x530

Here is Harvard historian David Armitage:

Here is an excerpt from Bailyn‘s memoir, Illuninating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades:

MY PARENTS WERE complicit in this addiction, and they had an expert to advise them. Hartford’s biggest and best bookstore, which once had sold books to Mark Twain, was then owned by a friend of theirs, Israel Witkower, an émigré from Vienna.

He knew about books of all kinds, in several languages, and visiting his store, with its deep central corridor crowded with books, its alcoves, and its jumbled bargain basement, was an adventure.…

History was of no special interest, but I recall two books…that I read before high school and that I later realized were historical in essence. I read and reread them, and I never forgot them. One was a big coffee-table book with a deeply embossed purple cover, published, I think by the Collier’s magazine company, largely consisting of close-up photos of the great men and events of the early twentieth century. The pages were printed in the brownish, “rotogravure” process, but to me they were vivid, and the commentary was readable. The faces of the presidents and other celebrities were intriguing. But it was the battle scenes of World War I that mainly gripped my imagination.…The comments were innocuous, but the scenes were fearful and unforgettable.

The other book of those pre-high-school years that was so memorable and implicitly historical contained a series of comparisons on facing pages of towns in England and in New England that bore the same names. Thus there were photos with comment on the towns of Biddeford, Devon, and Biddeford, Maine; of Bath, Somerset, and Bath, Maine; of Portsmouth, Hampshire, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire; of Newhaven, Sussex, and New Haven, Connecticut; and of Hartford, Hertfordshire, and my own town, Hartford, Connecticut. It was only later that I would understand that these were mainly towns of England’s West Country and south coast, and why their names would have carried over to New England. But it was enough for me, then, to search for the similarities and differences of these towns on either side of the Atlantic, and to puzzle about how that could have come about.

Bailyn’s students include Fred Anderson, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Richard Bushman,  Richard D. Brown, Ed Countryman, Philip Greven, Robert Gross, Sally Hadden, David Hancock, James Henretta, Peter Hoffer, Michael Kammen,Stanley Katz, Pauline Maier, Gary Nash, William Nelson, Mary Beth Norton, Jeff Pasley, Jack Rakove, Gordon Wood, Peter Wood, and Michael Zuckerman

There were two of the first books I read in graduate school:

Ideological Origns

Voyagers

Read The New York Times obituary here.

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

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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!