Michael Limberg on Day 2 and Day 3 of the Spring Meeting of the American Society of Church History

Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota
Michael Limberg, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut and a seasoned correspondent for The Way of Improvement Leads Home (check out his posts from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association), is in Minneapolis this week for the Spring Meeting of the American Society for Church History.  Here is second and final post from the conference.   You can read his first post here.  –JF

It’s been a busy couple of days at the American Society for Church History Spring Meeting.  Between the graduate student reception and practicing for my presentation last night, I didn’t have a chance to write a post for Friday.  I won’t try to recap all the panels from the last two days, but here are a few notes on interesting developments from the panels and conference events.

Missions, race, and immigration have been recurring themes in the sessions I’ve attended.  Many of the papers on missions have been concerned with figuring out a new historiographic paradigm for missionary work, somewhere between celebrating missionaries as heroic figures and castigating them as exploitative agents of imperialism.  In every panel on overseas missions, the comments pushed for more inclusion of sources that would convey the voices of the missionized as well as the missionaries.  Papers in my panel by Andy Dibb and Andrew Russell took good steps in that direction by including voices from a series of revival movements in Africa and a Swedenborgian church movement started by black South Africans.  Many of the papers, ranging from early American topics to contemporary church movements, focused on how and why churches reached out to racial outsiders.  Phillip Gollner’s paper on Swedes participating in the anti-Mormon movement during the late 1800s and Mark Grandquist’s work on Lutheran churches in Minnesota working with African immigrants were two of a number of examples.  Immigration history was tied into that question.

A brown-bag lunch on Friday with Robert Ellison and Keith Francis introduced an expanding set of resources for pursuing sermon studies as a growing sub-field with the help of online databases.  (Marshall explains what the term and field include and accomplish here).  They argued for the importance of sermons as a way to understand events or trends in the larger society, but acknowledged the difficulty of sorting through the haystack of published sermons.  Ellison demonstrated the capacity of the searchable database with links to digitized sermons he will soon launch through the Marshall University’s Center for Sermon Studies.  Clearly this is a project that will require some crowdsourcing to begin to encompass all the possible sources, so look for the website to go live soon and look for a call to help expand the catalog.

James Laine’s plenary session on meta-religion and Christianity looked very interesting, but I skipped it in favor of a different kind of exercise in church history.  After my panel on Saturday morning, I heard about an ecumenical service for victims of the Armenian Genocide taking place at the St. Paul Cathedral.  I’ve been writing about the Armenian Genocide and the U.S. humanitarian response this spring as part of my dissertation, so I took the chance to go.  Archbishop Nienstedt  spoke, as did the leaders of a number of other Twin Cities denominations.  It was a moving service.   I got the chance to step back from my academic historian perspective and get a different look at this tragedy. The Cathedral is another of my favorite places to visit in the Twin Cities, so I took a few minutes to wander around and admire it again as well.


I won’t be attending the conference events today, so this marks the end of my first ASCH meeting.  I appreciated the welcome I received.  Getting to talk early twentieth century missions and religiously-influenced social movements with Christopher Schlect, Paul Putz and others gave me some new ideas for my research.  I also heard a little of some ongoing informal discussions about the future of ASCH.  The rapid rise of religious scholarship connected to other historical fields (such as the “religious turn” among foreign relations historians that helped bring me to this conference) means that ASCH is no longer as unique and might need to rethink its specific identity or mission.  However those discussions play out over the next months, I hope to attend another ASCH meeting soon.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #67

Did Adoniram Judson’s wife own a $1200 coat?

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

Days like these are rough.  I am trying to get in 3-5 hours a day on the ABS project, but some days my schedule at Messiah College makes it difficult.  For example, today I had an 8:30am meeting, which means I had to get up an hour earlier to do my ABS work.  I have not yet had a cup of coffee.

My morning was spent on two tasks:

1.  Organizing my notes in preparation for writing my chapter (Chapter Four) on the “General Supply” (ABS attempt to provide a Bible for every American).

2.  Reading through The Reformer, a religious periodical published by a Philadelphia anti-mission Baptist (or at least I think he is a Baptist–not completely sure yet). 

I would have never been aware of the existence of this periodical if an ABS agent in frontier Illinois did not mention it in an 1828 letter. The publisher of The Reformer, James Rakestraw, is staunchly opposed to benevolent societies and missions organizations that are interdenominational in nature. He is particularly hard on the American Bible Society because he thinks the ABS is only concerned with making money from the sale of Bibles.  There is a strong populist flavor to The Reformer.  The writers publish scathing attacks on Christians who they believe have succumbed to wealth and materialism.  In one issue I read this morning the editors attacked the wife of missionary Adoniram Judson for wearing a coat from India which they believe was worth $1200.

The Reformer was popular among Primitive Baptists in the Midwest during the 1820s.  These Baptists often hindered ABS attempts at supplying the region with Bibles.  Stay tuned.

OAH Panel Wrap-Up: Religion and Transatlantic Print Culture in the Early Republic

Noah Webster: Anti-Jacobinist

This morning I had the privilege of chairing a session on “Religion and Transatlantic Print Culture” at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Actually, I was pinch hitting for Kyle Roberts of Loyola University-Chicago, who could not make it to the conference.  My responsibilities? Introduce the panelists and read Roberts’s comments.

I expected a solid panel, but I did not anticipate learning so much.

Jonathan Den Hartog of Northwestern College (St. Paul) began the festivities with a paper on religion, Anti-Jacobinism, and print culture.  (For those unfamiliar, Anti-Jacobinists were 1790s intellectuals who opposed the political ideas associated with the French Revolution). From a religious perspective, Anti-Jacobins opposed French irreligion, Paine’s Age of Reason, and the dangers of the Illuminati.  Den Hartog focused on four American Anti-Jacobin writers: grammarian Noah Webster, clergyman Timothy Dwight, printer William Cobbett, and novelist Sally Sayward Wood.

Lily Santoro of Southeast Missouri State presented a paper on the ways in which American Protestants used British texts across the Atlantic “border” to shape a distinctive discussion of science and religion in the early republic.  She focused on intellectuals such as Yale professor Benjamin Silliman and Baptist minister Thomas Staughton who used the study of the natural sciences to support their republican and Christian faith.

Ashley Moreshead of the University of Delaware (both Ashley and Lily are/were Christine Heyrman students) talked about British contributions to American missionary periodicals.  Missionary magazines created a sort of imagined community of Protestants that transcended national boundaries.  Her paper reminded me of the work by Susan O’Brien, Frank Lambert, and others who have written similar things about the First Great Awakening.

(I hope these descriptions do some justice to the three papers).

I should also add that this panel was a model for how to present complicated ideas in a compelling, passionate way.  There were no bells and whistles (Powerpoints, handouts, etc…), but all three papers were presented in a way that was very accessible to the non-specialists in the room.  I don’t think I have ever heard names and phrases such as “William Paley,” “Edmund Burke,” “natural religion,” and “heathen millions” uttered in such an enthusiastic way.

In his comments, Kyle Roberts asked Den Hartog to think harder about how (and if) less popular Anti-Jacobin works were disseminated.  He wondered whether Santoro’s intellectuals and science writers were distinctly “American” in nature.  And he asked Moreshead to examine how magazine editors repurposed European content to suit their needs.

Den Hartog, Santoro, and Moreshead are doing some great work.  I look forward to reading their forthcoming works.  Happy to be a pinch-hitter. (I have always been a big fan of Manny Mota and Rusty Staub).

L.D. Burnett on "Secular Academic Homiletics"

L.D. Burnett is one of the more thoughtful and dedicated writers in the history blogosphere today.  I have no idea how she manages to work on her dissertation in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas and still write such compelling posts at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, but I enjoy reading what she writes. 

In her recent post, entitled “Secular Academic Homilitecs 101,” Burnett reports on Washington University’s inaugural Danforth Distinguished Lecture.  The lecturer was noted Berkeley historian David Hollinger and the topic was his current project on evangelical missionaries.  Jon Butler, Darren Dochuk, and Molly Worthen responded to Hollinger’s lecture and Hollinger offered a rejoinder.

You can read all about the lecture here, but I particularly enjoyed Burnett’s description of Molly Worthen’s comments:

There was nothing static about conservative American evangelical missions in Molly Worthen’s telling – nothing static about the evangelicals, and nothing static about how Worthen brought them to life.  Instead of delivering her remarks from her seat at the table, Worthen took the podium.  And then she took the room.  Her argument about the vitality and complexity of evangelical thinking about missiology was not only clear in her prose but mimetically instantiated in her delivery.  Molly Worthen didn’t just give a talk; she preached it, in the fullest and best sense of the word.  Everyone in that room, from the distinguished historians at the front to the junior scholars at the back, saw and heard in Worthen’s contribution a pitch-perfect match between style and substance, argument and audience.  She has studied Billy Graham, but she clearly could have schooled him too.  Like both Butler and Dochuk, Worthen brought a smart, strong challenge to Hollinger’s argument, and she delivered with clarity and confidence that gave listeners every confidence that she knew exactly what she was talking about.  That had to be a hard act to follow.

This is the same Molly Worthen I experienced only a few days earlier in Chattanooga and it is the same L.D. Burnett I have been reading for several years now.  Excellent.

Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya

I know Bill Svelmoe from our days grading AP U.S. History exams in San Antonio.  He is a fine scholar of American religion at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, IN. 

But I had no idea that he was a novelist!

Over at Religion in American history, Jonathan Den Hartog reviews Svelmoe’s novel Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya.  It describes life on the mission field in the Philippines during the late 1970s. 

(It is also good to see that Den Hartog has joined the ranks of the Religion in American History bloggers!)

Here is a taste of Den Hartog’s review:

Even more uproarious is the fun Svelmoe has with a guest speaker at the mission, the Rev. Randy Rothooft, a Christian Reformed Church pastor who, after a Pentecostal experience, comes away a “Spirit-baptized pre-tribulation rapture dispensational Calvinist”—who also believes he is a prophet. This resulted in oddly phrased sermons, in which he challenged missionaries to sacrifice for Christ (while they sit ensconced in the middle of the Philippine jungle). The experience also encouraged his wife to write “evangelistic” songs, such as taking the Beatles “Hey Jude!” and modifying the words as the “outreach song” “Hey Jew!” (“Don’t keep bein’ bad/Take your sad heart and make it better/Remember to let Jesus into your heart.”)

And yet, the book is not only satirical. It has moments of beautiful description and serious reflections on weighty themes. Svelmoe is able to identify both the moving and the tragic elements of the movement represented by these missionaries far from home in a rather homogenous setting.

Svelmoe shows respect for the missionaries he writes about. He recognizes a real selflessness that would take individuals halfway around the globe to care for the bodies, souls, and cultures of indigenous groups that can give little in return. Further, as one character observes, these flawed missionaries are the only ones doing such works. Among the missionaries, Philip finds thoughtful individuals, true wits, and genuine piety. They reflect, at their best, a community that Philip aches to be a part of. Further, he finds this community at its richest at the Communion table. When this community becomes shut off, it truly is a matter of tragedy. Also, Philip finds a christocentric faith. Reading the Gospels carries Philip back to the focus on Christ, one of the wellsprings of traditional evangelicalism.

Yale Divinity School Is Digitizing Missionary Records

More good news for historians.  The Yale Divinity School’s Day Missions Library is in the process of digitizing 1500 volumes of annual reports from missions agencies.  The reports date from 1850-1950.  The new database will be searchable, but it is not clear if it will be available online.

The digitization project, funded through a 2009 grant from the UK-based Arcadia Foundation, focuses on early annual reports of missions agencies in the Day Missions Library and marks the first time the Library has digitized portions of its own collections.  Once digitized, the documents have searchable text capabilities.

Many of these documents, totaling some 1,500 volumes, are more than 100 years old and in particularly fragile condition. Most date from 1850-1950, a time when the foreign missions enterprise was in its heyday and when tens of thousand of missionaries sailed from North America, Britain, and Europe to Africa, China, and many other distant locales. Taken together, they weave an intricate tapestry of the day-to-day activities of missionaries, not only in relation to their own activities in evangelization, education, and medical work, but also about political unrest, plagues, local customs, and other cultural phenomena.

A report of the Foochow Missionary Hospital, for example, describes a cholera epidemic spreading through Foochow in 1919, and efforts to fight child slavery and child labor. The staff was traumatized when a young father sold his four-year-old daughter assuming he would need money for treatment of an ulcer on his foot, which the missionary hospital ended up treating free of charge. Buried deep in the report is a short mention of “guerilla fighting” in the countryside, the only mention of the social unrest that would usher in the communist revolution.

Another report, from the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society at the beginning of World War II, chronicles the struggles of hospitals and schools in the Yenping Conference, under threat of Japanese bombs or Communist raids.  The report gives credit to the churches for instituting reforms against foot binding, child-marriage, concubinage and slavery, as well as moral reforms against drinking and gambling, even as it warns that war may soon shutter the schools and hospitals.

Does Africa Need God?

I was struck today by a piece in the London Times by columnist and self-professed atheist Matthew Parris. Parris believes that God may be the answer to the host of problems facing Africa. “Missionaries, not aid money,” Parris writes, “are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem–the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset.”

For Parris, religion, particularly Protestantism, liberates. He writes:

We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

Parris challenges the notion, apparently popular among “Western academic sociologists,” that the African tribal situation is generally “good” for the African people. Here is his dissent:

I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Once again, Protestantism is the way to counter such tribalism:

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

As a student of religion in the United States I am often critical of the so-called “liberating” power of American Protestantism. The Protestant emphasis on individualism, liberty, and freedom has always been connected to political and cultural values that we might call “American,” but they can also be taken to unhealthy extremes that lead to materialism, self-interest, and the undermining of authentic community. In this context, as I argued indirectly in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, tribalism or local attachment or “place” may offer an alternative moral vision to the Protestant, cosmopolitan, universal, individualistic, ambitious idea of “America.”

I am no expert on Africa or its tribal system, and I am probably going out on a limb here, but I am inclined to say that when it comes to Africa I would withdraw this harsh critique of Protestant individualism If Parris is correct, tribalism in Africa has led to tyranny. In this sense, the liberating power of the message of Protestant missionaries may be the answer in Africa in the same way that John Paul II’s Catholicism, a brand of Catholicism that was also critical of American individualism and consumer capitalism, was partly responsible for the fall of communist tyranny in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.