More “Abundant History”

history-and-presence-199x300Earlier today I posted some thoughts on the first few chapters of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence.  I did a little more digging and found some of Orsi’s early thoughts on the subject in a 2007  American Scholar essay titled  “When 2+2=5.”

The imagined story of Orsi’s grandmother in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderful illustration of the difference between “presence” and “absence.” It further illuminates Orsi comment about museums in my previous post.

This difference of theological interpretation is fundamental to the identities of these two divisions of the Christian world (the history of the Orthodox faith is another matter), and it is the pivot around which other differences, other identifications, accusations, lies, and hatreds have spun (and in some places at some times still spin). Catholics in the United States in the middle years of the 20th century, for instance, claimed that Protestant support for birth control was yet another expression of corrupted and disembodied Protestant modernity. What do you expect from people who think the Host—the Communion wafer, which is, for Catholics, the real presence of Christ—is nothing? Catholics I have spoken to who grew up in Catholic towns in rural Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s told me they were deeply ashamed of their large farm families because they knew the children in nearby Protestant towns made fun of their parents’ fecundity, associating Catholics with the body and sex in a nasty schoolyard way. Catholic statues weep tears of salt and blood, they move, they incline their heads to their petitioners; recently in the diocese of Sacramento, California, which is near bankruptcy as a result of sexual abuse lawsuits, the eyes of a statue of the Blessed Mother leaked what believers saw as blood. Religious historians in the last decade or so have taught us that Protestant popular culture is also replete with images and objects and that there are divisions among Protestant churches over the meaning of the Eucharist. But still the basic differences between a religious ethos that is based on the real presence and one that is not are deep and consequential.

This divide between presence and absence, between the literal and the metaphorical, between the supernatural and the natural, defines the modern Western world and, by imperial extension, the whole modern world. Imagine one of my Italian Catholic grandmothers going to see a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She climbs the museum’s steep steps rising up from Fifth Avenue and pushes through the crowds and into the rooms of medieval art, where there are many lovely statues of the Blessed Mother, whom my grandmother knows and loves. My grandmother wants to touch the statues. She wants to lean across the velvet ropes to kiss their sculpted robes or to whisper her secrets and needs. But this is not how modern people approach art. For them, the statues are representations, illustrative of a particular moment of Western history and the history of Western art, and are to be admired for their form and their contribution to the development of aesthetic styles over time. There’s nothing in them, no one there. The guards rush over and send my grandmother back out to the street.

This is a parable of two ways of being in the world: one associated with the modern (although this is complicated, clearly, since my grandmothers lived in the modern world after all, and you can find believers in cathedrals throughout the world today petitioning statues); the other with something different from the modern. One is oriented toward presence in things, the other toward absence. As the guard rushing over shows, the difference is carefully policed—as carefully policed as the difference between Jesus in the bread and wine and Jesus not in the bread and wine was policed on that August morning in Paris or at the base of Campion’s scaffold—although with less dire consequences. Certain ways of being in the modern world, certain ways of imagining it, are tolerable and others are not. Especially intolerable are ways of being and imagining oriented to divine presence.

Read the entire essay here.

A Historiography With the Gods as Agents

Back in August we featured Orsi’s History and Presence in the Author’s Corner.  You can read that interview here.  Over the last few weeks I have finally gotten a chance to dig deeply into this book.  I am taking it slowly.  It is a thought-provoking work.

Orsi wonders what the practice of history might look like if “the transcendent broke into time.”  How might we envision a historiography in which “the gods” are active agents and we, as historians, make an effort to try understand what they are doing.  What intrigues me the most about this suggestion is that it comes not from David Barton or some other providential historian of the Christian Right that we criticize here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but from a Professor of Religious Studies and History and the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University.

Unlike the aforementioned providential historians, Orsi is not suggesting that we try to discern the workings of Providence in the world.  Instead, he starts with the assumption that God and the gods are present and have been present to millions of people in the past.  (He draws the word “presence” from the Catholic doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist).  He writes: “I am inclined to believe that presence is the norm of all human existence, including in religion, and absence is an authoritative imposition” (p.6). He is asking his readers “not to make the move to absence, at least not immediately, not to surround presence with the safeguard of absence, but instead to withhold from absence the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual prestige modernity gives to it, and to approach history and culture with the gods fully present to humans.” (p.8).history-and-presence-199x300

Orsi calls for an “Abundant History” that rejects the secular inclination to interpret “presence”–such as a Marian apparition or a pilgrimage to a shrine or a vision–according “to the authorized interpretive categories” of the political, sociological, ideological, technological, scientific, and economic.  He urges us to avoid explaining religious phenomena as social constructions.  Orsi adds:

In an intellectual culture premised on absence, the experience of presence is the phenomenon that is most disorienting, most inexplicable.  This puts that matter of “translation” and “bracketing” into a new light.  Constraints on the scholar’s imagination become, by means of his or her scholarship, constraints on the imaginations of others, specifically those whose lives the scholar aims to present and understand. There is a double intellectual tragedy here, for once their reality is constrained by ours, they no longer have the capacity to enlarge our understandings of our imaginations.  This is the price of ontological safety. (p.64).

Orsi concludes this chapter by wondering:

The past may act upon us in such a profound way as to erase our intentions of remaining outside of it.  This is the vertigo of abundant history.  It comes upon historians as a result of their training and disciplining.  But it may be that this is what abundant historiography is: approaching events that are not safely cordoned off in the past, that are not purified, but whose routes extend into the present, into the writing of history itself.

I am about halfway through the book and it is giving me a lot to think about.  I recently took a break from reading and listened to Ed Linenthal‘s interview with Orsi on the Process Podcast produced by the Organization of American Historians.  You can listen to it here.

There is one section in the podcast in which Orsi talks about museums as places where “figures of presence are gathered.”  These sacred objects–Orsi gives an example of a Buddhist deity–are meant to be touched and spoken to, but the practice of museum protocol means that they must remain behind glass walls.  This, Orsi notes, enforces a “code of absence” in the museum.

The conversation with Linenthal is fascinating since he is not only the outgoing editor of The Journal of American History, but he also has a background in religious studies and has written a lot about sacred spaces in American civil religion.

Orsi admits that there is “little tolerance” in academia for the kind of abundant history he is talking and writing about.   He claims that he doesn’t know how to convince his colleagues that this kind of “real presence” is part of the “empirical world.”

I’ll keep reading.  Stay tuned.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Orsi

 

history-and-presence-199x300Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.  This interview is based on his recent book History and Presence.

JF: What led you to write History and Presence?

RO: Whenever I’ve said in a lecture that I believe religious history and contemporary cultures are constituted as webs of relationships between human beings and the various special figures of their respective religious traditions (gods, saints, ghosts, ancestors, the dead, etc.) present to each other in the circumstances of domestic and political life, with the special beings as agents in their own right, invariably the question arose what such a historiography would look like. History and Presence is my response to this question.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of History and Presence?

RO: History and Presence makes two interconnected arguments: The first is historical, (1) that the lived reality of special religious beings, their efficacious presence (in wartime, for example, or within families, or as agents of social discipline or of resistance), has been not only a bitterly contested matter since early modern debates between Catholics and Protestants over how Jesus is “present” on earth after his ascension into heaven; it has been constitutive of modernity itself, with the parties of presence—Catholics and those with Catholic-like understandings of relationships between humans and gods—relegated to the past of the species and the infancy of each individual. The second (2) offers a historiographical theory of presence and then uses it to explore how a concept of the “real presence” of the gods (an intentional borrowing of a Catholic theological term for theoretical purposes) provides an alternative to normative modern epistemologies and ontologies for the study of religion and history.

JF: Why do we need to read History and Presence?

RO: The critique of secularism as a religious project has inexplicably (to me) coexisted with the failure to conceptualize “religion” in any way other than on the terms of the normative modern or the secular. The normative modern/secular is like a finger trap; there seems to be no way of getting out of it, and the more we struggle, the tighter it gets.

I ask readers of History and Presence to try the thought experiment with me of approaching history and culture through what I call a “matrix of presence,” to see how such a perspective may surface and challenge their methodological and theoretical “unthought knowns,” the deepest level of their understandings of what the real is, and perhaps be generative of new insights in their respective areas of inquiry or reflection. This is explicitly to repurpose a concept (“real presence”) that was essential for establishing hierarchies and boundaries in modernity, among peoples, for instance, between civilizations, races, and classes, and among ways of being in the world, as a theoretical wedge to pry open those boundaries and disrupt these hierarchies.

If we do not examine the fundamental role of the denial of “real presence” in constituting so many domains of modern knowledge and practice, among them constitutional law, conceptualizations of religious freedom, strategies and disciplines of nation building, approaches to art and hermeutics, as well as the study of history and religion, then we will be destined to reproduce these limits and hierarchies over and over again, in this way contributing to the normative work of modernity in endless repetition.

If we already always know that religion: 1) is a medium of social coherence, although in “cult” or “sect” form occasionally media of social disruption; 2) that certain ways of being religious are irrelevant to the study of modern history other than as data; 3) that special religious beings are figments or fragments of something else but unreal; 4) that religion’s historical and cultural role is functional and that religious practice and experiences grids neatly onto other social categories (race, class, gender among them as well as the public/private distinction)—then why bother studying it?

This is another answer to question one: I wrote History and Presence because I was frustrated by the always already known quality of so much writing about religion, history, and culture (although there are exceptions), their utter predictability.

The theory of abundant presence offered in History and Presence may contribute as well to altering the place of religious studies and theology in the humanities and social sciences, from being always the dependent variables to disrupting the unthought knows of these various domains of inquiry and in this way produce new knowledge about history, experience, and culture.

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

RO: I’m a scholar of religion in history and contemporary practice with Catholicism as my case study for developing theoretical approaches to history, religion, human subjectivity, and culture. Pretty quickly it became apparent to me that Catholicism was a potent vantage point from which to look at modern history and religion more broadly. Catholics are surprisingly absent from US history.  A recent history of New Orleans, of all places, references Catholicism only on a couple of pages and ignores the role of Catholic orders of women and men, such as the Ursulines and the Jesuits, in the making of the city. This is hardly anomalous: although Catholics comprised the largest populations of modern US cities, they are all but absent in histories of US cities and theories of urbanism. This absence, as I argue in the book, is one of the long enduing consequences of those early modern debates about real presence, as Catholics and others whose religious imaginations resembled the polemical version of Catholicism, were written out of history. But again to look out from this place offers a revealing perspective on what is always already known in the study of modern history and culture, and to challenge it.

What is your next project?

RO: As of September for the academic year 2016-2017, I will be a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, where I will be working on a study of the implications of real presence in the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up in modern Catholicism, looking in particular at how many (not all) men and women abused by priests—who in Catholic theology are closely aligned with the real presence of Jesus, Mary and the saints—struggle with this ontology over their lifetimes. This extends the work I begin in the last chapter of History and Presence, called “Events of Abundant Evil.” (The Catholic author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, once wrote that if there are demons, there must be angels, and I go on the assumption that the reverse is true as well.) I want to set the CSA crisis in relation to wider historical, cultural, sexual, theological, and religious environments, again not to fit it snugly into them, but rather to see how it may complicate what is already known about religion and sexuality, for instance, the boundaries and excesses of religious bodies, the sexual understanding of children and adolescents in 20th century US history and in Catholicism, and the place of the gods in sexual and religious violence.

JF: Thanks Bob!

Teaching Old Historiography

MorganI love Joe Adelman‘s piece today at The Junto: “The Significance of Old Historiogaphy in American History.”

Adelman, who teaches American history at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, writes about trying to teach fresh new perspectives on American history when his students do not know the older work upon which the authors of these new perspectives are building.

Here is a taste:

The issue arose this week in my Native American history course when we read and discussed Drew Lipman’s article on the murder of John Oldham and the saltwater frontier…As part of his historiographical discussion, Lipman distinguishes his definition of “frontier” from that of Frederick Jackson Turner’s.[2] When this came up in our conversation, I paused and asked how many students were familiar with the Turner thesis. Only three students were, only two had read Turner’s essay in a college classroom—and they both read it in an English course (the same one). That seemed a little embarrassing to me as a teacher.

On a certain level, though, that level of engagement makes complete sense to me. Why should they have read it? Very few people conceptualize the “frontier” in the same way that Turner did 125 years ago, nor do they feel a need to respond directly to his argument as part of the historiography. It is, in many ways, totally outdated, more a primary source for views about Native Americans and the West in the 1890s (that’s how my two students read it in their English course, paired with something by Teddy Roosevelt) than a work of historical scholarship that requires engagement. At the same time, however, the Turner thesis or frontier thesis had such an enormous impact on historical scholarship for decades that it still matters on a certain level, enough so, for example, that cutting-edge, Bancroft-worthy research published within the last decade still name-checks Turner. So maybe students should encounter it, or at least have passing familiarity with it.

So I wonder–is it possible to teach both new perspectives and older historiogaphy in the short time that we have with our students each week?  I think it can be done. Let’s take my British Colonial America course, for example.

In this course, I largely stick with the classics.  I still, for example, have students read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery/American Freedom.  We read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives and Jon Butler’s seminar article “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretation Fiction.”  I have assigned Richard White’s The Middle Ground and Dan Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country.

Most of these interpretations, of course, have been challenged by more recent scholarship. I am aware of this and use my class time to discuss these texts and get my students to think about the ways these particular works have been challenged.  Sometimes I even hand out bibliographies of scholarly works that have engaged with these classics or offer a different take on the subject matter. For example, when we discuss Morgan, I also want them to know something about the work of Kathleen Brown and Rebecca Goetz, among others.

In other words, don’t judge a course by its reading list.

But I imagine that one could turn this approach to teaching American history on its head by assigning the most recent work in a particular field and using class time to talk about the older works that made these new interpretations possible.

Whatever approach is taken, we want students to be exposed to historiography and historiographical development over time, multiple interpretations of the past,  and the process by which new interpretations are created.

Thanks, Joe.  This post is making me thing.

Historians of Canada Have Been Studying Loyalists for a Long Time

loyaliststamp

Because history is often written by the winners, Whigs and patriots have long dominated the study of the American Revolution.  Loyalists–or those men and women who supported the Crown during the Revolution–have thus received sort shrift in the narratives that historians write about this era.

Are early American historians rediscovering the Loyalists?  Yes and no.  While many historians in the United States are trying to bring more complexity to the story of the American Revolution by bringing Loyalists into the mix, others–particularly scholars who focus on Canada and “North America” more broadly–have been studying Loyalists for a long time.

This is the argument of University of New Brunswick historian Bonnie Huskins in a recent piece at Borealia.

Here is a taste:

It has been gratifying to see the number of recent Borealia blog posts on the loyalists – Sources for Loyalist Studies, Loyalists in the Classroom: Students reflect on historical sources, The Future of Loyalist Studies, and Let’s Play Again: Recovering “The Losers” of the American Revolution (Part I). However, it is sometimes a tad frustrating to hear references to the loyalists as an ‘overlooked’ people. Perhaps this is the case in the context of American historiography, but I would like to interject with the reminder that scholars of British North America/Canada have been studying the loyalists for a long time. This is articulated in Jane Errington’s 2012 review essay “Loyalists and Loyalism in the American Revolution and Beyond” as well as Ruma Chopra’s “Enduring Patterns of Loyalist Study: Definitions and Contours.” I realize that many scholars of early America are more interested in examining the loyalists in situ. Indeed, one of the most interesting directions in loyalist studies is the analysis of loyalist reintegration into the United States being pursued by historians such as Rebecca Brannon. Nonetheless, I still hold that the literature written about loyalists and loyalism in a Canadian and Atlantic World setting are useful for American researchers. Perhaps this is a transitional moment, as Chris Minty suggests in The Future of Loyalist Studies. As scholars and public historians engage with the loyalists who returned to the United States, or never left, it is hoped that they will do so in the spirit of collaboration.

Read the rest here.

Losing the Revolution

loyalistsWe have mentioned Borealia here before.  It is relatively new blog devoted to early Canadian history.  Not only is the blog attractive, but it has also been putting out some really good content.  In the past couple of months Keith Grant and Denis McKim have published some thoughtful posts on the history of loyalism during the age of the American Revolution.

A case in point is Taylor Stoermer‘s recent piece, “Let’s Play Again: Recovering ‘The Losers’ of the American Revolution.”

I like how Stoermer frames his post.  Here is a taste:

Much has been made lately of the rediscovery of the American Revolution by scholars as a series of questions that remain unresolved.  Both veteran historians and those new to the field (although those groups aren’t mutually exclusive) are, through conferences and colloquia and online forums, exploring this ostensibly transformative event of the late eighteenth century on something close to the level of those who lived through it, now that we are in a “post-Atlantic” historiographical moment.  Mostly gone are the debates that left the study of revolutionary history somewhat moribund, as neo-whigs and neo-progressives, even a neo-tory or two, marched away from the field without a decisive victor, as their concerns were abandoned like an unnecessary baggage train, in favor of shifting interests towards exploring discrete groups in provincial America, the Early Republic, and what was left of British North America.  But now revolutionary history is in the midst of something of a renaissance, which as a historian of the Revolution, I can only applaud, even as I watch with no small wonder as historians largely dismiss the work of older, yet still very much relevant, scholars in favor of their new pursuits of intellectual happiness.

Nevertheless, it is an exciting moment for those of us who still find the American Revolution a puzzling and exciting field of inquiry, especially because, as one looks more closely at it, the more it resembles an exercise in fauvism, devolving into tiny points of colorful interest that reveal patterns missed by earlier observers.  The danger, of course, is in remaining so focused on the small points that the larger picture is lost, as happens in so many micro-histories, as valuable as many of them are in recovering the stories of the heretofore unsung men and women who made most of the history of the period.  After all, as Henry David Thoreau reminded us in his reflections on “Revolutions” that “The hero is but the crowning stone of the pyramid—the keystone of the arch…. The most important is apt to be some silent and unobtrusive fact in history” (Journal, 27 December 1837).  And such an approach helps us to avoid the pitfall, into which many of us can trip, of considering whatever happened in eighteenth-century North America that divided the British world from an American one, as part of a grand, impersonal scheme of processes and mentalities, almost Calvinistically predetermined by the forces of social change that led inexorably from the colonial to the early national period of U.S. History (leaving Canada, unfortunately but conveniently, out of the picture).

But there remains that pesky question of just what was so revolutionary about the period in between the colonial era and the Early Republic, what we call the American Revolution?  The fact that it now seems to be an open question for scholars, perhaps for the first time, whether sitting at a university or in an armchair, is invigorating enough.  The first historians of the Revolution, such as Mercy Otis Warren and John Marshall, never doubted for a moment that there was something transformative about it.  Their primary concern, however, was not whether such a transformation took place, but who was responsible for it, and therefore could define it for contemporaries and posterity.  That we can freshly approach the people and events of the period, without being weighed down by the ideological baggage of centuries, but also without ignoring it, should drive an entire new era of scholarship that puts the colorful points, many of which have only dimly been perceived, back into the broader picture.

For me, the overlooked people who are most interesting are the loyalists, and properly defining them, as my work seeks to do, along with that of other historians with similar interests, can reveal a whole new revolutionary history, one that not only breaks down our understanding of the period’s freighted language, like “patriot” and “tory,” but that might make us entirely redefine what we mean when we say “the American Revolution.”

Read the rest here and stay tuned to Borealia for the second part of Stoermer’s piece.

Why Teach Historiography?

keep-calm-and-study-history-36When I first began teaching American history at the college-level I wanted my students to learn historiography because I thought I was preparing them for careers as historians. Every good early Americanist must know how historians have differed about the origins of the American Revolution or the rise of capitalism.  They needed to know the difference between the Gordon Wood and Gary Nash on the revolution or James Lemon and James Henretta on the roots of American capitalism.  I thought I was in the business of training historians who would one day become just like me–an American history professor.

Over the years my approach to teaching historiography has changed.  I still teach it, but my motives are different.  I am no longer as concerned about whether my students remember the particular interpretations of the past the we discuss in class.  A few of them who head off to graduate school will remember the names of authors and the essence of their arguments, but most will not.

So why do I still teach historiography?

I think Jeffrey T. Manuel, a historian at Southern Illinois University and the author of a recent piece at Process on teaching historiography, has the best answer to that question. In his report on a recent session on teaching historiography at the 2015 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Manuel writes:

The roundtable began with a discussion about the importance of incorporating historiography in introductory classes. There was immediate consensus that historiography was valuable to students because it humanizes history, allowing them to see the individual historians behind each analysis. Jason Stacy noted that partway through the semester his students began identifying journal articles by the author’s last name, a sure sign that they were connecting interpretations with specific authors. By focusing on historiography in introductory classes, students come to see history as a boisterous conversation—an argument, at times—about the past and its meaning. Roundtable speakers agreed that once students recognize history as a conversation, they feel much more comfortable entering that debate with their own arguments and interpretations.

History is indeed a conversation.  By teaching historiography to students we get them to see that there are multiple sides to every human story.  In the process we develop citizens who know how to think more deeply and critically about the stories that they are presented with every day.

 

Brantley Gasaway: Diversity and Debates With the Social Gospel Tradition

GasawayBrantley Gasaway of Bucknell University offers another dispatch from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta.  See all  of his AHA 2016 posts here.

While historians devote much of our time to critically examining the past, we also ask critical questions about the ways in which previous scholars have interpreted this past. As a result, numerous sessions at professional conferences such as this one are devoted to historiographical issues, re-examining familiar narratives, concepts, and interpretive categories. The first session I attended on Thursday was devoted to reassessing the concept and history of “culture wars.” Today, a panel of historians presented papers that sought to “Rethink the Social Gospel(s).”

In the earliest historiography, scholars portrayed the Social Gospel as a movement developed and led by elite white Protestant liberals, popular primarily in urban centers, concerned most with the deleterious consequences of industrialization and urbanization, and ebbing in influence after the 1930s. In recent decades, however, historians have challenged this characterization by showing how the theology of Social Gospel was adopted and adapted by a variety of religious and racial activists in many different locales and for many different purposes. Today’s panel continued this trend.

Curtis Evans, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, delivered a paper that examined the efforts of the Federal Council of Churches’ (FCC’s) Department of Race Relations as a manifestation of the Social Gospel. This initiative was founded upon one of the Social Gospel’s core theological principles concerning “the fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man.” As an ecumenical and cooperative organization of liberally-inclined Protestants, the FCC inherited the Social Gospel tradition and, from the early 1920s through the 1950s, extended their commitment to address social problems to racial injustice. Through the participation and leadership of African-American ministers, the FCC developed concrete programs designed to change not only individual attitudes but also systemic racism as embodied in economic, educational, and legal structures. Because the FCC concluded that the realization of the Kingdom of God required the eradication of racial injustice, Evans concluded, the work of the Department of Race Relations deserves a place in narratives about the Social Gospel.

Arlene Sánchez-Walsh of Azusa Pacific University focused on the labor activism of Emma Tenayuca and the 1938 strike of Chicana pecan shellers in San Antonio. The vast majority of the workers were Catholic, while a sizable minority were converts to the Assemblies of God tradition. Nevertheless, both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Assemblies of God leaders opposed the strike for a variety of reasons, including labor leaders’ association with communism. As a result, Tenayuca, who had indeed joined the communist party, and other workers were forced to draw their inspiration and justification from sources outside of traditional religious institutions. As Sánchez-Walsh explained further during the discussion period, she found no influence of the traditional “Social Gospel” theology and liberal Protestants in her case study.

Paul Putz, a Ph.D. student at Baylor University, focused on two controversies during the Gilded Age in the Midwest. In 1894, the commencement address given by Christian Socialist George Herron at the State University of Nebraska created public debates concerning the Social Gospel’s legitimacy and limits. In 1900, Charles Sheldon, author of the classic Social Gospel novel In His Steps (that introduced the question “What Would Jesus Do?”), assumed editorial responsibility for the leading paper of Topeka, Kansas for one week and pledged to run it according to Social Gospel principles. Despite their initial enthusiasm, local black leaders criticized Sheldon for virtually ignoring issues of racial injustice. For racial minorities, attention to racial problems represented the sine qua non of Social Gospel activism. Thus, Putz concluded, historians must pay attention not only to familiar leaders such as Herron and Sheldon but also to other Social Gospelers and their priorities.

Cara Burnidge of the University of Northern Iowa gave the final paper and offered the most explicit reflections on Social Gospel historiography. Her paper analyzed how Social Gospelers’ theology concerning the “brotherhood of man” led Washington Gladden, Lyman Abbott and other leaders to support the United States’ international interventionism and participation in World War I in order to spread the democratic ideals vital to social salvation. Burnidge urged historians to focus not only on Social Gospelers’ goal of social salvation but also upon the diverse means they championed in their efforts. In her case study, she highlighted leaders’ desire to work through the United States and its foreign policies to realize the Kingdom of God as a global reality. As such, Burnidge concluded, Christian interventionism in global affairs represented an important impulse of the Social Gospel movement.

Heath Carter, a professor at Valparaiso University and author of the recently published Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford, 2015), responded to the panelists by asking how their research contributes to historiographical accounts of the Social Gospel. With so much diversity and internal debates, is it still useful to talk about the Social Gospel, or is it better to describe Social Gospels? Is the Social Gospel best understood as a “movement,” a “tradition,” or a set of emphases?

While much of this discussion lies beyond my specialization, I left with a sense that it is most useful to differentiate between the self-conscious Social Gospel movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the practices of many Christians in a wide variety of contexts who drew upon Christian principles in diagnosing and redressing social problems. Perhaps this latter category is best characterized as “Social Christianity” in order to distinguish it from “the Social Gospel”—a suggestion made during the audience discussion by Mark Edwards (based upon, I think, the work of Gary Dorrien). I look forward to seeing how this session’s participants and other scholars write about the Social Gospel in the coming years.

Joshua Rothman on the New History of Slavery and Capitalism

CottonIn the last several years American historians have been calling attention to the connections between slavery and capitalism. I must at admit that I am not completely up to speed on this literature, but I do have books by Ed Baptist and Sven Beckert on my nightstand.  I am hoping to get to them during the remainder of my sabbatical.

In the meantime, I found Joshua Rothman’s summary of this new literature at Aeon to be useful.  Rothman is the Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Of course, given the historical significance of slavery in the US, its links to capitalism are hardly the only issues worth considering. Like all scholarly waves, the current one will eventually crest and trough. But the evidence mustered in recent studies is not likely to lose its import any time soon and, ultimately, the larger point made by scholars bringing that evidence to bear is not that capitalism is a system of inherent evil. It is that capitalism without limits can produce nearly unfathomable human misery as it produces wealth for a select few. Indeed, the abolitionists, most of whom were hardly enemies of capitalism, nevertheless understood that capitalism without limits can and will make property of man. In the US, the Civil War and the age of emancipation was a moment when the nation tried to draw a clear line delineating what can and cannot be legitimately sold in a capitalist system. Historians of slavery and capitalism today remind us that when that line blurs, we fail to sharpen it at our peril.

 

The State of Loyalist Studies

Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History continues to produce solid content.  For example, today I read Christopher Minty’s post on the future of loyalist studies.  As someone who does not write too much about loyalists, I found it to be a short and very useful overview.

Here is a taste:

Defining “loyalist” is difficult for a number of reasons. Many of the problems relate to grouping loyalists together. Those white and black men and women who, at one stage, opposed America’s revolutionaries had different backgrounds. Their stories were rarely comparable, and contrasting impulses underpinned their allegiance. Furthermore, many loyalists were not really loyalists at all. As one contemporary noted during the Revolutionary War, people “wait[ed] to go with the stronger.” That is, they sided with the strongest military, or political, presence. Their ideological or political beliefs mattered less than their lived reality.[3]
Definitions are tricky, of course, but some have been quick to criticize when one is not offered. Philip Ranlet, in a 2014 article in The Historian, criticized Jasanoff’s George Washington- and National Book Critics-prize-winning Libertys Exiles for not providing a rigid definition of “loyalist.”[4]
Back in Nova Scotia, in answer to the question on defining “loyalist,” I remarked that a tiered framework could be useful. I have developed this idea, in an episode of The JuntoCast. The number of tiers would vary, but it would work like this: those who were committed loyalists, individuals dedicated to the restoration of British rule, would be a “Tier 1” loyalist. Those who changed sides, people like Peter Van Brugh Livingston, Jr., would be further down the scale.
This could be a workable tool for teaching purposes, but I do not think it can be used to further scholarship. If one adds too many tiers with hopes of understanding how the Revolutionary War affected ordinary people, then the term “loyalist” becomes meaningless—if everyone was, at one point, a “loyalist,” no one was a “loyalist.” Simply put, by asking what a “loyalist” is indefinitely, we run the risk of missing the forest from the trees.
Where, then, do we go from here? Like Brendan McConville, I do not have an open-access Manifesto for Loyalist Studies. But, like Woody Holton advocates, a return to microhistorical, comparative studies might offer a new direction. Indeed, a focus on the lived reality of people during the Revolutionary War, individuals who, for whatever reason, did not support America’s revolutionaries, could trigger a new direction in loyalist studies. That is to say, by focusing less on “what is” and focusing more on “what happened, and why,” we might begin to understand the contrasting local impacts of war, investigating how and why it affected people in distinct, though related, ways.

Ian Clary on Evangelical Historiography and Christian History

Evangelical Quarterly is running a nice essay on evangelical historiography by Ian Clary of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies in Louisville. The piece is titled “Evangelical Historiography: The Debate Over Christian History.”

Clary summarizes some of the literature on doing history as a Christian–the kind of stuff we explored in both Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation and Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Read Clary’s essay here.

Narrative History

I want to write narrative history, but I still struggle to shake off the graduate training that has conditioned me to write analytically.  In my forthcoming book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I dabble a bit with narrative, but often find myself coming back again and again to the kind of arguments that might appear in a traditional historical monograph. (My readers will have to decide whether my book works as a narrative history).


Don’t get me wrong, I think that a book focused on analysis and argument can still be written in a way that is accessible for a general reader. This is what I tried to do in parts of The Bible Cause. But I do think that narrative is a more effective way of reaching lay readers.

With all of this in mind, I am looking forward to the conversation on narrative scheduled to appear this week at The Junto.  Here is a taste of Tom Cutterham’s introductory post:

Should historians embrace the art of narrative, or treat it with more suspicion? In his review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton back in July, USIH’s Kurt Newman argued that “the book-length narrative” is not “the proper form for the presentation of a historical argument.” Narrative, he wrote, involves too much selection, too many authorial choices hidden from the reader. “Most importantly,” Newman suggested, “constructing a narrative is almost always tied up with some telos or end,” a teleology that serves as expression or conduit of ideology, pulling us towards the outcome we imagine fits. Narrative, in other words, is something more than reasoned argument. It enlists desire to shape the way we think.

For the rest of the week here at The Junto, we’ll be holding a round-table event on narrative in historiography, and we invite you to join in in the comments. What makes something a “book-length narrative,” or what distinguishes narrative history from any other kind? Are there alternatives to narrative that we should be adopting? How does narrative work—or fail—in journal articles and other non-book forms? We would love to hear about your favourite examples of narrative and non-narrative historiography. We’ll be sharing some of our own this week too.

The Author’s Corner with Jay Green

Jay Green is Professor of History at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.  This interview is based on his new book Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions (Baylor University Press, 2015)

JF: What led you to write Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions
JG: The book is in many ways a culmination of more than twenty years of thinking about and wrestling through the relationship between faith and history in my own life and work.  I’ve been teaching our survey of Historiography (required course for junior-level majors) for about a decade, and working within a Christian institution means dealing squarely with the implications of faith for historical study as a necessary component of the class.  Over the years I began to develop the five-part typology I explore in the book as a template to get my students to think about the fact that different people have meant a variety of different things when they aspire to do history “Christianly.”  It occurred to me that laying this out in a more formal way might make for a useful book. 
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Historiography?
JG: There is no such thing as a single “Christian interpretation of history.”  Instead, a series of sometimes conflicting, sometime complementary “versions” of Christian historiography have developed among contemporary scholars and writers during the past few generations, some of which are more worthy of emulation than others. 
JF: Why do we need to read Christian Historiography?
JG: I hope that the book finds an audience among Christian laity, students, history teachers, or working historians striving at some level to reconcile their identities as both believers and interpreters of the past.  To the extent that historiography is species of intellectual history, I think a good many non-Christian observers might also have an interested in becoming better acquainted with the contours of this rich and varied conversation on faith and history.  It’s my hope that the book will serve as a kind of primer that offers a “lay of the land” for how contemporary Christian historians have worked through the challenges of their dual identities.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JG: I was obsessed with American history since the day my grandmother gave me a picture book of American history when I was five years old.  It was always my favorite subject in school, and I never really seriously considered majoring in anything else when I got to college.  I studiously avoided the path of teacher certification in college, making graduate school almost inevitable.  Meanwhile, I began to note the lifestyle of my Taylor University professors who seemed to fill their days with reading books, talking with one another and with their students about books, and writing books.  It wasn’t until then that the “historian’s vocation” really became clear in my mind.  While I never once took it for granted that I would ever become gainfully employed doing this sort of work, I became convinced that it was a path that I wanted—even needed—to follow. 
JF: What is your next project?

JG: I am working on a new book that looks at Christian dimensions of public history.  It explores the centrality of memory in Christian experience, theology, and practice, the transcendent features of public commemoration, the religious significance we impose on material artifacts, and our moral and religious obligations to preserve, interpret, and recount collective memories in publicly accessible ways.  
JF: Thanks, Jay!

Eric Foner Talks Reconstruction

In case you hadn’t seen it yet, the current issue of Jacobin is running an extensive interview with Eric Foner.  The Columbia University historian reflects on his career and his work on the Republican Party, the Civil War, and, of course, Reconstruction.


Here are my two favorite parts of the interview:

Q: So what’s this story we’ve heard about an argument you had with your eighth-grade history teacher about Reconstruction?

This was a long time ago, probably 1957 or ’58 — it was tenth or eleventh grade. And yeah, it was American History class, in Long Beach, Long Island, and the teacher was basically giving us the old, traditional Birth of a Nation view of Reconstruction. She said the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, was the worst law in all American history.
So I raised my hand and I said, “I don’t agree with you, Mrs. Berryman, I think the Alien and Sedition Acts were worse.” I don’t know where I got that from. And she said, “Alright, Eric, if you don’t like the way I’m teaching, you come in tomorrow and you give a lecture on Reconstruction.” Which I did — my father was a historian, Du Bois was a friend of the family, we had Black Reconstruction at home. So we used that.
I came in and I gave my presentation, and at the end of the class the teacher says, “All right, we’re now going to have a vote as to who’s right: me or Eric.” Well, she won by a landslide, let’s put it that way

Q: I wanted to talk about Karl Rove, who is apparently a big fan of your book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, on antebellum Republican ideology.
He said he learned how to build a political coalition from that book.
A student came up to me one year and said, “You might not approve of this, but I’ve got an internship in the White House working for Karl Rove this summer.” I said I don’t disapprove, they need all the help they can get down there. He said, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and he whipped out his copy of my Reconstruction book and said, “Mr Rove asked if I could get you to sign this for him.”

Brendan McConville on the Professional Study of the American Revolution

Brendan McConville of Boston University, a friend and fellow Jersey boy, delivers one of his usually stirring lectures.  This one is at the American Revolution Reborn 2 Conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.  McConville pulls no punches.  It is one of the best lectures I have heard in a long time, and I agree with most of it.  I know that Brendan has been taking a lot of heat for this lecture, but some of these things needed to be said.

Here are some provocative quotes:

“If you add the word “Atlantic” or “world” or “global” or “continental” or “race” to a study, it does not necessarily make it any more interesting or comprehensible. At this point they have become cliches rather than offering insight or direction.”

“By privileging novelty over mastery,  we have reached a strange impasse.”  If you want to hear Brendan really riff on this point, fast-forward to the about twenty-minute mark.

“We have run out of oceans to call ‘worlds’…and have run out of “borderlands.”

“Digital humanities does not exist….we need to stop worshiping the tool box.”

I also noticed that Brendan’s graduate school adviser Gordon Wood is in the audience.  I have no doubt he loved this speech.

Keeping Up With Work on Capitalism and Religion

Over at the blog of the American Society of Church History, Northwestern graduate student Jeffrey Wheatley has a useful historiographical post on some recent scholarship at the intersection of American religious history and the history of capitalism.  Here is a taste:

Not to be left behind, scholars of Christianity and religion generally have also been especially interested in business, wealth, and trade. This interest, of course, is not unprecedented, but I want to list some of the more recent works for this post. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, which was noted in The New York Times article, explores the rise of “Wal-Mart Moms” and the political impact of their faith in God and market. Kathryn Lofton has already given us Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, which explores the relationship between modern American religiosity and consumerism. She is also working on a project that does something similar with the financial practices at the Goldman Sachs Group. Thomas Rzeznik’s Church and Estate revels in the Gilded Age by looking at the intersection of religious claims and business practices among the Philadelphia elite. Christopher Cantwell’s essay over at Religion & Politics sketches out some of the links between big capitalism and big Christianity in Illinois.

George Marsden Reviews "Confessing History"

I have been meaning to post this review of Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.  I think I speak for Jay Green and Eric Miller when I say that we are grateful to George Marsden, one of the greatest American religious historians of his generation and the winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Merle Curti Award, for this very kind review.  The review appeared in a Volume 44 of Fides et Historia and is not available online.

Confessing History is an exceptional collection that I recommend to anyone concerned with the vocation of a Christian historian.  Although the editors set up the volume as an effort by mostly younger scholars to go beyond the older generation, or “current consensus, as represented, for instance, in the work of George Marsden” (9), I see this “going beyond” as almost entirely helpful elaborations of themes of which I heartily approve.  I find relatively little in the volume with which to disagree (although in some instances authors contradict each other, thus sadly limiting my potential agreeability). In most cases the authors’ suggestions are ones that I wish I had made, or made more clearly, or practiced more adequately.

The main theme that ties many of these essays together grows out of the question of whether in our efforts to overcome marginalization in the mainstream academy we have become too beholden to professionalism.  As co-editor Eric Miller puts it in his introductory essay, “Was being peripheral to the secular academy itself a noble and worthy end? (8).  That seems to me to be a fair enough question. Specifically, does gaining success in the eyes of the mainstream profession require us to compromise the radical claims we are making when we say that experiencing the reality of the triune God should have a profound impact on everything else that we think and do?

Mark Schwehn, who has mentored some of these younger historians in such matters, states the case with his characteristic grace in arguing that Christians can improve on the standards of the profession by adding Christian virtues, such as charity and humility.  Thomas Albert Howard elaborates a similar point, arguing that virtue ethics ought to characterize Christians’ engagement with the profession.  He suggests that the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are still valuable guides for the life of the historian.  Bradley J. Gundlach adds that we can also benefit from the moral insights of the essential secular academy, and cites the work of Jackson Lears, Christopher Lasch, and Robert Bellah (less secular, I think) as examples.

Beth Barton Schweiger argues particularly strongly for a Christian ethical approach to history that is an alternative to the usual expectations of the profession.  Schweiger’s essay is also a model of how Christian reflections on doing history can benefit from being well informed theologically (a characteristic of many of the essay).  Rather than using knowledge as power, Schweiger argues, we should use it with charity.  We should love our historical subjects and treat them with generosity. The professional, however, does not reward charity or virtue, but treats knowledge as power and as the basis of promotion.  The emphasis on charity is a good one, and Schweiger illustrates how it might apply to the classroom.  In writing history, it seems to me, a similar emphasis might be put on loving one’s audience and trying to serve it though what one writes.  I agree with Schweiger entirely when she says we should flee careerism and embrace Christian vocation.  She aptly cites Miroslav Volf to the effect that Christians need to keep a distance from the professional culture, even while they do not leave it.

Most of the contributors make very helpful suggestions as to how we might maintain the priority of our Christian vocations while being in but not of the world of professional historians.  John Fea, for instance, describes how in teaching about Abraham Lincoln we have to first get students to take Lincoln seriously on his own terms (through techniques honed in the profession) and then we move on to our Christian evaluations  Lendol Calder reminds us that our professional assumptions can get in the way of loving our students and of thinking about their needs  Will Katerberg argues that the professional ideal of objectivity or detachment turns history into a commodity and that “historians should consider advocacy and utility to be legitimate scholarly professional concerns.” (113).  At the same time he emphasizes that we must balance such concerns with faithfulness to the sources and honest analysis so that we do not just use the past for our own agendas.  Una M. Cadegan offers a classic Roman Catholic sacramental way of dealing with this two-sidedness. The particularities of history that we study with the usual historical methods point to the glory of God and higher mysteries.  Thus an attitude of worship in doing history counters the disenchantment of the world characteristic of most of the profession.

All these (and others that I do not have the space to mention) are helpful insights that strike me as variations on the ancient Christian theme of commandeering “the spoils of Egypt” for Christian purposes.  Professional history involves a highly valuable and useful craft or set of skills.  A worthy Christian calling is that of the historian who practices that craft.  Doing that almost necessarily involves becoming associated with the contemporary academic profession of history, since a Ph.D. is the license almost necessary to do history for a living.  Like most things, the profession of history has some very good qualities and some not so good.  The tenure system that disproportionately rewards narrow specialization for advancement is particularly problematic  So are many of the ideologies and naturalistic epistemological assumptions that have been prevalent in the profession. Christians can learn many things by studying the standards of the profession, but they have to view them critically and to borrow from them selectively.

The one exception to such critically selective approaches that characterize this volume is the essay by Christopher Shannon.  Rather than making distinctions between what is useful in the historical profession and what is not, Shannon equates the profession with all its worst vices.  That provides him with an either/or choice between a radical Roman Catholicism and working within the profession, which he identifies with adopting worldview naturalism and betraying any announced intention that faith must precede understanding.  This dichotomizing provides him with strong rhetorical weapons, but leaves him with only the bluntest analytical tools.  That leads him to some false conclusions  One I can speak to with authority is that he equates my views with those of Thomas Haskell and then concludes that “both see any kind of providentialism or confessional history as inviting a return to the barbarism of the Crusades and the Inquisition.”  (183).  I am not quite sure how to respond with charity to such a distortion that is so contrary to what I think and have written.  I will say that Shannon’s earlier rhetoric on this topic helped flag some important issues to which this volume provides some fine responses.  Helpfully, the editors follow Shannon’s essay with an excellent and balanced reflection on “preaching through history” by James LaGrand, which in effect both answers Shannon and helps set the record straight.

Among the most important reminders in this volume is that made by Robert Tracy McKenzie to “Don’t Forget the Church” and seconded by Douglas Sweeney concerning our vocation to the priesthood of believers.  A crucial question, especially regarding the writing of history, has to do with the audience and for Christians the church is their most natural audience.  I think McKenzie may underestimate how many professional historians write books, including some popular ones, for church audiences or who teach Sunday school.  But it is important to do these things.  Mark Noll, who is presented in this volume as part of the old guard, has been a model in serving the church. Most of his books, like his recent Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (2011), are written for church audiences and/or for Christian academics and classrooms  Others have been more monographic and have met the standards of the profession sufficiently for him also to be regarded as at the top of his field.  Even these have been more concerned about Christians’ behavior in the modern world than about any secular or professional cause. These books have, however, allowed him to extend his vocation to the mentoring of Ph.D students, a worthy professional enterprise.  If I may speak of my own case, since I am so often referenced in this volume, I have not done as well as Noll in writing books addressed just to Christian audiences.  But I have thought of my primary vocation as a historian serving the church, and most of my books have been addressed to church audiences as much as or more than they were for secular professional colleagues . I can easily understand that in my efforts in other books to explain Christian scholarship to the mainstream academy my views might seem to concessive.  And perhaps they are.  Perhaps in this post-secular age Christian scholars can be increasingly bold.  In any case it is a great and genuine pleasure to see a generation of Christian historians, of whom this book provides just a sampling, who are dedicated to improving this enterprise and to carrying it beyond what others of us have been able to do.