Introducting Pietist Schoolman Travel

Pietist Schoolman Travel

Do you want to take a trip to Europe with historian Chris Gehrz, aka the Pietist Schoolman?  Check out his new venture: “Pietist Schoolman Travel.”

Here is a taste of Chris’s latest post describing the new venture:

As announced here two weeks ago, I’m going to lead an eleven-day tour of England, Belgium, France, and Germany next June: “The World Wars in Western Europe.” There are still openings, but I’d suggest that you apply sooner than later: Bethel University will be mentioning the trip next month in its alumni e-newsletter.

For the most part, leading this trip just feels like an extension of what I already do as a teacher and scholar. In January I’ll lead a couple dozen students on a three-week World War I travel course, the fourth instance of that trip; and I write and speak about World War I and World War II fairly often.

But preparing to lead this trip — and thinking ahead to other trips I might lead in summers to come — has forced me to do something I never imagined doing: I’ve started my own business. Pietist Schoolman Travel, LLC will never have all that much overhead or all that many employees, but it does have a bank account, an IRS number, and a need to get its name before potential customers in a market place with no shortage of competitors.

I’ll try my best to make it worth your while. I’m in the process of walking through the June trip, each day sharing some photos from some of the sites we’ll be visiting. And I’ll keep posting other photos, reading excerpts, video clips, and links related to the world wars. And even if you’re not interested in the World Wars trip, following the page will make it easier for me to reach people with news about future trips. (I’ve already floated the idea of doing a summer 2020 trip to Germany around the themes of the Reformation and Pietism.)

So if you’d like to learn more about the trip — or if you can just help boost our public presence — please start following our PS Travel page at Facebook. I started small over the weekend, inviting a few family, friends, coworkers, and former students to click Like. But I’d certainly be happy to add blog readers to that number.

The Mayor of a Midwestern City Takes a Civil Rights Tour


Jim Throgmorton, the mayor of Iowa City, Iowa, recently took a tour of major Civil Rights Movement sites in the South.  Here is a taste of his brief reflection at the Iowa City Press-Citizen:

After departing the parsonage, we visited the recently opened Legacy Museum in Montgomery. A “narrative museum,” it tells the history of black Americans from enslavement, through the Jim Crow era of lynching and racial segregation, through the heroic actions of the Civil Rights Movement, to the present moment of mass incarceration and retrenchment.

Again, imagine yourself with us. Shortly after you enter the museum, you turn down a darkened pathway lined with replicas of slave cages. Looking into the first of the cages, you see a hologram of an enslaved black woman waiting to be sold at the nearby auction block. She begins speaking directly to you. You feel like you’ve just encountered the ghost of a mother who was about to lose her husband and children. It is an emotionally shattering experience.

Every American would benefit from exploring it slowly and telling friends about what they learned.

Read the entire piece here.

As some of you know, I took a similar tour in June 2017.  It inspired the final chapter of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Our First Summer “Patrons-Only” Episode is Here


Todd Allen

If you are a patron of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, you have heard from producer Drew Dylri Hermeling this morning about how to access our first patrons-only summer mini-episode.

Our guest on the episode is Todd Allen, the new assistant Special Assistant to the President and Provost for Diversity Affairs at Messiah College.  Todd is a scholar of the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and wrote his doctoral dissertation on museum interpretations of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.

For more than a decade Todd has led “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Bus Tour,” a premier Civil Rights bus tour that takes participants to nearly every major historical site associated with the Movement.  Stops on the tour include Greensboro, NC; Atlanta, GA; Albany, GA; Montgomery, AL; Birmingham, AL; Memphis, TN; and Nashville, TN.  The tour combines historical site and museum visits with lectures, conversations with major Civil Rights Movement veterans, and documentary films.  I took the tour in June 2017 and wrote about it here.

In this episode, Todd talks about the origins of the tour, Civil Rights Movement tourism, his building of relationships with the veterans of the Movement, and a whole lot more.

We are thrilled to share this special episode with our patrons and send it along to all future patrons as well.  Please consider becoming a patron by visiting our Patreon page and making a pledge.

On the Mission of Colonial Williamsburg


The Editorial Board of The Virginian-Pilot has something to say about this:

A taste:

If that core mission is some variation on being a “tourist attraction,” an entity that helps support the local Williamsburg economy, that touts “a preserved Colonial neighborhood with musket echoes, horse carriage rides and actors playing the roles of early settlers,” as recounted in The Pilot last week, then it probably will slowly die.

And should. This was never the idea.

It only became the idea, in part, when so many people began showing up in the post-World War II era. That’s when much of the commercial growth occurred in areas surrounding Williamsburg. That’s when the collective mentality began to shift toward making money.


Now that the crowds have thinned and appear unlikely to return in grand numbers, this may be an opportunity to restore the purposes of the restoration, which was, in the words of John D. Rockefeller, Colonial Williamsburg’s great benefactor, so that “the future may learn from the past.”

What does that mean?

It means a style and approach to public and civic education unique to Colonial Williamsburg, that involves — first and foremost — seriousness of intent and technique.

It means providing a safe haven for scholars and professionals, ensuring that the passing whims of the foundation’s leadership do not come at the expense of the people who have given their careers to the study of early American Colonial life, meaning the ones who do the research, the writing and the instruction that effectively sets the foundation apart from some half-baked tourist draw.

It means less fixation on the needs of the local Williamsburg economy and vastly more on the civic needs of America and the extension of democratic ideals throughout the world.

It means that nothing — virtually nothing — occurs within the historic area of Williamsburg that has the effect of trivializing or diminishing the values that long distinguished the foundation’s work.

It means making Colonial Williamsburg “important” once again, by drawing to its historic venues authors and public figures who reflect the same civic excellence and commitment of those who first inhabited Williamsburg, brought it international fame and locked it into history.

Does that mean engaging and illuminating the American Revolution as both an historic and political event? You bet.

Read the rest here.  Sounds good to me.

How We Got Our Historical Markers


Over at, Kevin Levin, the proprietor of the excellent blog “Civil War Memory,” gives us a history lesson on historical markers.

Some of you may recall that it was a Levin blog post that triggered our recent post “Is Jimmy Carter a Lost Causer.”  Levin mentions this again in his Smithsonian piece.

Here is a taste:

Historical markers are a ubiquitous presence along many of the nation’s highways and country roads. You can spot their distinctive lettering, background color, and shape without even realizing what they commemorate. And their history is more fraught than you might think.

States have celebrated their pasts since the United States was born, but it took more than a century—and the creation of modern roads—for roadside markers to become a tool for public memorialization. Virginia’s historical marker program is one of the oldest, beginning in 1926 with the placement of a small number of signs along U.S. 1 between Richmond and Mount Vernon. A small number of markers were erected in Colorado, Indiana and Pennsylvania even before this date. By 1930, Massachusetts had 234 markers along its roads—and these early tallies don’t include markers placed by local individuals, organizations and larger heritage groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The largest number of state-sponsored programs, however, followed World War II.

In the two decades after the war, American families took to the roads on vacations that had as much to do with pleasure as a desire to explore and embrace historic sites that reflected the country’s national identity and democratic values. In 1954 alone, around 49 million Americans set out on heritage tours of the United States, including Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These sacred places allowed Americans to imagine themselves as members of a larger community bound together by common values—and encouraged good citizenship at the height of America’s ideological struggle against the Soviet Union.

These pilgrimages also reinforced a traditional historical narrative that catered specifically to middle-class white America. Stories of Pilgrims and Puritans, Founding Fathers, westward-bound settlers, and brave American soldiers dominated this consensus-driven picture of the nation’s past. The vast majority of historical markers reinforced these themes on a local level, pointing out important events or notable residents—most of them white and male—as travelers wound their way to their final destinations.

Read the entire piece here.

What is Going on at Colonial Williamsburg?


Don’t forget the hatchet-throwing site, Jim!

Colonial Williamsburg appears to be in trouble.  The mecca of American history tourism is laying off workers and outsourcing its operations.  Last year it lost $148,000 a day.

Here is a taste of the AP report that American Historical Association Director Jim Grossman references in the tweet above.

The foundation that operates the eastern Virginia attraction is in final negotiations with four companies that will manage its golf operations, retail stores, much of its maintenance and facilities operations and its commercial real estate, President and CEO Mitchell Reiss said.

“For a variety of reasons – business decisions made in years past, less American history being taught in schools, changing times and tastes that cause us to attract half the visitors we did 30 years ago – the Foundation loses significant amounts of money every year,” he wrote in a letter shared publicly.

The foundation’s operating losses last year totaled $54 million, or $148,000 per day. It also borrowed heavily to improve its hospitality facilities and visitors center and ended 2016 with more than $300 million in debt, Reiss said.

Combined, those factors put pressure on the foundation’s endowment, with withdrawals reaching as high as 12 percent per year. At that rate, the approximately $684 million endowment could be exhausted in just eight years or perhaps sooner.

Reiss said in an interview that the foundation’s financial straits meant its mission of historic preservation “was at risk, quite frankly.”

Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum, with costumed interpreters who re-enact 18th century life amid more than 600 restored or reconstructed original buildings.

Read the entire piece here.  We asked this same question back in October.

I am not expecting a search for Philip Vickers Fithian anytime soon.


Some Suggestions for a History-Related Vacation This Summer


Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington D.C.

Over at Time, several historians have suggested “U.S. historic places that are actually worth visiting.”

Michael Beschloss: President Lincoln’s Cottage

Ken Burns: The Lincoln Memorial

Eric Foner: Beaufort, SC Reconstruction Site

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham: Boston’s Black Heritage Trail

Erik Larson: Gettysburg

Patty Limerick: Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail

James McPherson: Shiloh

Edna Green Medford: The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Lynn Novick: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Julie Reed: Hiwasee River Heritage Center


History is Good for Business

MorristownMorristown National Historical Park in New Jersey, the place where George Washington and the Continental Army spent part of the winter of 1777 and most of the winter of 1779-1780, makes a lot of money for Morristown and the surrounding Morris County region.

In 2016, 252,500 visitors came to the park.  They spent $15 million dollars in the region.

American history does not just help us become better citizens, but it is also good for the economy.

Read more here.


Gumby at Mount Vernon

I love this!  This Gumby figurine was found during an archaeological dig at Mount Vernon.  Read all about it here.

A taste:

Have you ever accidentally left something behind on a vacation or field trip? That might explain how a small, red, plastic Gumby ended up in the upper layers of the midden. Created by Art Clokey, the lovable clay figure Gumby first appeared in 1957 in his own animated television series. The original show lasted until 1968, but many spin-offs and revivals have occurred since then. Even with the many variations of the TV show, Gumby was never red, he was always green—Clokey’s favorite color. As with many popular TV shows and movies, merchandising spread the material culture of Gumby into homes around the world. The merchandising was so successful that objects featuring Gumby and his friends were sold long after the show was cancelled. Figurines were manufactured for gumball vending machines in many different colors; ours is one of the red gumball Gumbies.

These vending machine toys are an example of the long history of children at Mount Vernon. George and Martha Washington were always generous in inviting children into their home. They made room for Fanny, Martha Washington’s niece, and for Martha’s grandchildren, Washy and Nelly. Many other children stayed with them for shorter periods of time. Today, children visit Mount Vernon to see where George and Martha Washington lived. These young visitors have left many interesting items, like red Gumby, which we can use to interpret their cultural history.

Touring the Burned-Over District

If you are an American religious history buff and like to visit historical sites, then you need to take a tour of the Burned-Over District of upstate New York.  As Philip Jenkins writes today at The Anxious Bench, the region is filled with interesting historic sites all located in rather close proximity to one another.  Here is a taste of his post:

If you have the slightest interest in American religious history, then it’s difficult to find a more evocative landscape than the burned-over district of western New York state. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, this was the seedbed of many explosive movements, of Mormonism, Adventism, Spiritualism, Utopianism, of new forms of Revivalism. Older Shaker communities now counted Fourier Socialists among their neighbors. Underlying these very disparate phenomena were common questions about how to live in a radical new secular and spiritual order – fundamental questions about gender and family life, about the bases of just political power, even about diet and dress.

Most amazing  is the geographic concentration of key sites in a very short space. An easy day allows you to take in Palmyra (Mormon beginnings), Hydesville (Spiritualism and the Fox sisters) and Seneca Falls (the Women’s Rights convention). But the sites do not speak to each other in any meaningful way. Seneca Falls is the setting for a beautifully organized Women’s Rights National Historical Park, centered on the Wesleyan Chapel that hosted the first convention in 1848. By any measure, this movement grew from religious roots, and many of the participants were deeply involved in other spiritual movements of the day. The Park exhibits do acknowledge that context, particularly the Quaker role. Badly underplayed, though, is the radical religious upsurge still in progress in the immediate vicinity at that time and for many years previously. 

This would make for a great group tour.  Anyone interested?

Barack Obama’s New Tourism Initiative and American History

If President Obama is serious about enhancing tourism in the United States, then he should also be serious about promoting American history.

Last Thursday Obama went to Disney World to announce a “new national tourism strategy” focused on creating jobs and making the United States the “top tourist destination in the world.” He reminded his audience about the Travel Promotion Act, a bill that he signed into law two years ago that resulted in a nonprofit organization called Brand USA.  By making it easier for
foreign tourists to visit the United States, the President envisions a boost to our economy.  It is a great idea.

I hope that Obama’s new plan to increase tourism does not forget our most treasured destinations: historical places and the organizations that promote them.  I wonder if he knows that a key product in “Brand USA” is not doing very well right now.

In the last couple of years, the federal government has made drastic cuts to American history programs.  For example, “Save America’s Treasures,” a program that offered grants to rescue local historical buildings and artifacts in jeopardy of being lost, was eliminated.  So was the Preserve America Grant Program, an initiative designed to support heritage tourism and historic preservation.

Similarly, funding for the Institute of Museums and Library Services, an organization with a mission of inspiring libraries and museums to foster civic and cultural engagement, was cut by $44 million.  The Teaching American History Program, which provided support for the strengthening of American history in schools with the goal of creating a generation of young people who would be engaged with our past (and might even spend money some day on history tourism), has been recently eliminated.  

In my own backyard, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the state agency commissioned to promote the Commonwealth’s history, continues to struggle to fulfill its mission after massive funding cuts. Over one hundred employees were furloughed.  The Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg is now opened only four days a week.  Other historic sites were forced to close or drastically reduce operating hours.  Some are being run entirely by volunteers.

One of the largest sectors of tourism in the United States is in utter disrepair.  The President’s bold, new initiative will be useless unless something is done to fix our broken historical infrastructure.  International tourists will not come if the destinations they hope to visit are closed.

I am sure that places like Independence Hall. Gettysburg National Park, and Faneuil Hall will continue to attract visitors.  But less popular sites, scattered across the American landscape and currently struggling, should also be part of the story that we tell to visitors.

While I am optimistic that Obama’s plan to target foreign tourists will help our economy, we also need to make visits to historical sites and parks a more attractive option for American citizens. As baby boomers reach retirement age, many of them will be looking for opportunities to learn new things, stimulate their minds, and keep busy. Many will accomplish this by visiting historical places and, in the process, spending money on hotels, restaurants, and visitor fees.

But there is an even greater reason why the promotion of history tourism could help America.  History serves a civic function. Without history, our collective identity is erased. We look to the past to understand who we are in the present.

At the same time, history teaches us that the past is sometimes like a foreign country – a place where they do things differently.  By learning about the lives of people who lived in this foreign country we can develop a deeper appreciation of people in our contemporary lives with beliefs or lifestyles we do not understand.  When everyone has this kind of empathy, society improves.  We learn to listen and understand before casting moral condemnation on those with whom we differ.  Barack Obama used to talk about these kinds of things.

When we take it seriously, history teaches us to see ourselves as part of a human story that is larger than the moment in which we live.  It cultivates citizens – active participants in our local, state, and national  communities. A visit to a historical site or museum, where visitors get to experience the past first-hand, is a wonderful way of promoting this kind of democratic culture.