The Author’s Corner with Heather Martel

Deadly VirtueHeather Martel is Associate Professor of History at Northern Arizona University. This interview is based on her new book, Deadly Virtue: Fort Caroline and the Early Protestant Roots of American Whiteness (University Press of Florida, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Deadly Virtue?

HM: I needed to understand how it is that a people with such a violent history of colonialism, slavery, and environmental destruction can think of themselves as good and think of that history as a narrative of exceptionalism. To understand, I looked back at the first Protestant engagements with the environment and Indigenous people of the Americas. The story of Fort Caroline, Florida, is one episode in this history in which we can see that the commander of this group of French Calvinists had a vision of creating a Protestant empire under the leadership of an Indigenous king. This fantasy surprises a 21st Century reader who is expecting to find racial hatred from the very beginning. The images and accounts of the colony are full of beautiful, admirable Indigenous characters and fascinating, sometimes darkly funny stories. Of course, the French Calvinists who attempted to create this Protestant empire were burdened with cultural baggage and incapable of understanding, respecting, or accurately representing the Indigenous people they met. Their aspiration of a cross-cultural alliance against Catholic Europe died with most of the French Huguenots at Fort Caroline, which failed disastrously—through mutinies, starvation, a hostage crisis, and a war with the Indigenous people. In the end, most of the French were wiped out by a Spanish massacre facilitated by a hurricane. Critics of this failure interpreted the tragedy as a message from their god that he was displeased by the Huguenots’ vision of allying with Indigenous people against the Holy Roman Empire. Those who came after adopted the well-remembered separatist strategy of the New England Puritans. In order to understand how this separatism developed into whiteness—with its obligation to colonialism, heteronormativity, patriarchy, and the racialized violence of American white supremacy—as a means for expressing obedience to their god, I looked at their science of the body, humoralism, which described the body as fluid and subject to the environment and encounters with other cultures. I wondered how bodies they believed were fluid became fixed into the biogenetic identity that became American whiteness. The answer seemed to lie in Protestant ideology.

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

HM: The failure of Fort Caroline Florida indicated to early Protestants that their god wanted them to remain separate from other cultures and that they were obliged to dominate, domesticate, and discipline all those where were not among their god’s elect. In looking for the visible signs of who their god had graced with elect status, they organized bodies into a biogenetic racial hierarchy founded on Protestant morality and patriarchal gender norms, producing American whiteness.

JF: Why do we need to read Deadly Virtue?

HM: For those surprised at the resilience of white supremacy in American society, this book explains how a misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-transgender, homophobic, racist, environmentally destructive populism might be compelling for so many white Americans who believe themselves to be good humans.

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

HM: When I was in college, it was the historians who helped me to make sense of current events. I remember feeling despair and confusion when we entered the first Gulf war in 1991. The history faculty held teach-ins. In a wonderful way, they parented us—and guided me to find the intellectual and historical perspective that has served me ever since. I declared a history minor. Things we read in college history classes transformed me and remain important in my scholarship today, like Barbara J. Fields’s discussion of the “slogan of white supremacy.” I caught the fever for the work of the historian doing research for my first major undergraduate paper, on the early history of abolition and women’s suffrage. I was inspired by one professor in particular, Dr. Stephanie McCurry, who taught that class, as well as the history of Irish and Asian immigration to the U.S. and U.S. Women and Gender history at UCSD.

JF: What is your next project?

HM: For my next project, I will take up a question that arises from the work of Andrea Smith in Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. She argues that it was necessary to eradicate all alternatives to Christian heteropatriarchy in order to colonize the Americas. By examining Christian representations of the diversity of gender systems and arrangements of power in the early Atlantic, in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, I hope to understand this history and introduce readers to the history and theory of gender and colonialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

JF: Thanks, Heather!

The Author’s Corner with Owen Stanwood

The Global RefugeOwen Stanwood is Associate Professor of History at Boston College. This interview is based on his new book, The Global Refuge: Huguenots in an Age of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Global Refuge?

OS: My first book examined Anglo-American politics and religion during the late-1600s, and when I was conducting research I noticed that everyone was talking about Huguenots–the French Protestants who scattered around Europe in response to persecution by Louis XIV during the 1680s. Some of these refugees came to England and America, but beyond that, English people at all levels of society seemed obsessed with French persecution. This puzzled me because I knew that there were relatively few Huguenots in colonial America, and they had far less demographic staying power than other groups like Germans or Ulster Scots. I wanted to find out what made them so prominent, but I soon learned that to answer the question I would have to move beyond colonial America or even the British empire. So I expanded my gaze not just to Europe but to the global Huguenot diaspora, which included British America but extended to the Caribbean, South America, South Africa and the Indian Ocean. By taking a global approach I finally began to understand why (and how) the Huguenots played such a key role in imperial history.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Global Refuge?

OS: The Huguenots distinguished themselves in a world of empires by simultaneously promoting themselves as religious martyrs and potential producers. They played up their status as chosen people who had suffered under Catholic persecution — which appealed greatly to Protestant leaders — but they sealed the deal by discussing their skills and aptitudes in making things like silk and wine, which made them especially desirable settlers on imperial frontiers.

JF: Why do we need to read The Global Refuge?

OS: When I started writing this book almost a decade ago I had no idea how relevant it would be to our own political moment. Obviously refugees are in the news a lot now, and this book offers a great primer on an era when much of political discourse of refugees originated. (The word entered common English usage in the seventeenth century to describe the Huguenots.) In particular, it shows us that in previous eras, some leaders not only considered it a religious duty to help the Huguenots; they also believed that accepting these newcomers would be an economic windfall. As one political economist noted at the time, sometimes charity and self-interest can go together.

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

OS: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history. I grew up in a small town in Washington state that was especially proud of its past, and I worked as a teenager with local museums and preservation organizations. This interest in local history eventually transformed into curiosity about how North America developed over the longue durée. I love history because it simultaneously allows me to recover lost worlds while also understanding the real world that I live in a bit better.

JF: What is your next project?

OS: I am sticking with the Huguenots but moving back in time more than a century to the 1560s. A group of French Protestants attempted to establish a colony in Florida, which sputtered along for a few years before being wiped out by the Spanish. Despite its short duration I think it was quite important in establishing some of the patterns that would characterize the next few centuries of American colonialism. It also demonstrates how America was linked to the twin processes of Renaissance and Reformation that transformed sixteenth-century Europe.

JF: Thanks, Owen!

The Author’s Corner with Paul Kemeny

9780190844394Paul Kemeny is Professor of Religion and Humanities at Grove City College. This interview is based on his new book, The New England Watch and Ward Society (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The New England Watch and Ward Society?

PK: In reading William Hutchison’s The Modernist Impulse, I was struck by his fascinating chapter on how Fundamentalists like J. Gresham Machen and humanists H.L. Mencken shared some common critiques of liberal Protestants. I was already familiar with Machen’s criticisms but did not know much about Mencken’s. So I started reading everything I could get my hands on by Mencken Reading Mencken was enjoyable because he’s such a delightful writer. More importantly, I was far more captivated by Mencken’s critique of Protestant anti-vice activism than his theological criticisms of liberal Protestants. The question that intrigued me was this: why would New England’s leading liberals—Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Unitarians—formed a vice squad? This action certainly clashed with the popular image that liberal Protestants, especially in Boston, were progressive, urbane, and tolerant.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The New England Watch and Ward Society?

PK: The New England Watch and Ward Society provides a new window into the history of American Protestantism during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. By seeking to suppress obscene literature, gambling, and prostitution, the moral reform organization embodied Protestants’ efforts to shape public morality in an increasing intellectually and culturally diverse society.

JF: Why do we need to read The New England Watch and Ward Society?

PK: I can offer three reasons. First, The New England Watch and Ward Society offers a panoramic historical review of mainline Protestant efforts to provide a unifying public morality for American public culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While focusing on the Boston-based New England Watch and Ward Society, my book explores the larger mainline Protestant establishment’s efforts to shape public morality. It describes late nineteenth-century Victorian American values about what constituted “good literature,” sexual morality, and public duty and explains Protestants’ efforts to promote these values in a rapidly changing culture. I examine censorship of allegedly obscene material as well as efforts to suppress gambling and “white slavery” (prostitution).

Second, the work explains why the Watch and Ward Society collapsed in the 1920s. The Watch and Ward Society’s sudden and very public fall from grace offers a new perspective on why mainline Protestantism’s efforts to impose a common civic morality upon American culture failed. 

Third, the study draws upon a treasure trove of previously-unpublished archival and printed sources and tells a number of fascinating stories about the suppression of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the sometimes nefarious tactics that publicly upstanding Protestant elites used to stamp out vice, such as planting eavesdropping devices in the Boston District Attorney’s office to gather evidence of his criminal activity.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

PK: While I was in seminary, I grew interested in the history of America Protestantism during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. This interest gradually grew into a healthy obsession and after doing a Th.M. at Duke, I decided that I wanted to get a Ph.D in American religious history.

JF: What is your next project?

PK: I am currently in the throes of co-editing with my colleague Gary Scott Smith The Oxford Handbook of Presbyterians for Oxford University Press. We have assembled more than thirty-five scholars to contribute essays on Presbyterian history, theology, worship, ethics, politics, and education.

JF: Thanks, Paul!

Mark Noll: “Martin Luther Where Are You?

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Mark Noll

Writing at LaCroix International, a Catholic website, Villanova theologian Massimo Faggioli argues that the “political legacy of the Reformation” has been “absorbed largely by white evangelicalism, which has given political support and theological justification to Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ platform.”

Midway through the piece Faggioli refers to the work of evangelical historian Mark Noll:

In a sense, if there is an American problem today that is embodied by Donald Trump, there is also a problem of American white Protestantism in Christianity. The German pastor and theologian (and martyr of Nazism), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famously defined the religious culture of the United States in 1939, during and immediately after his time in America, as “Protestantism without Reformation”. 

But European theologians of one century ago are not the only ones who have identified the genetic mutation of Protestantism into what is known today as American evangelicalism. There are also white evangelicals in the United States today who publicly acknowledging this. 

One of their most important intellectuals to do so is Mark Noll. He is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of several seminal books that deal with the intellectual crisis of evangelicalism, the relationship between Christian theology and racism in the Civil War, and many other issues. 

It was during a panel discussion of Noll’s 2005 book (co-authored with Carolyn Nystrom), Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, that I witnessed the most powerful indictment of contemporary American evangelicalism. It took place ten years at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta (Georgia). 

In his response to the panel, Noll emphasized that the problem of the Reformation was no longer concerned with Catholicism. He said the Reformation has succeeded to some extent by making Catholicism more evangelical. But the problem, he said, is that it still not clear if American Protestantism has remained faithful to the Reformation. 

Noll gave a quick description of what continues to pass for American Evangelicalism. It is a declared or undeclared theology of the “prosperity gospel”, an aberrant theology that teaches that God rewards faithfulness with financial blessings. Noll concluded his remarks with the powerful question – “Martin Luther, where are you!?”.

Read the entire piece here.

Protestantism in America

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I was honored when one of my favorite historians, Jon Butler, asked me to write the entry on “Protestantism in America” for Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History.  I hope my piece does justice to the subject.  Here is a pre-edited excerpt that Oxford has posted to the site:

The theological and religious descendants of the Protestant Reformation arrived in the United States in the early 17th century, shaped American culture in the 18th century, grew dramatically in the 19th century, and continued to be the guardians of American religious life in the 20th century. Protestantism is not monolithic. In fact, the very idea at the heart of Protestantism—the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages so it can be read and interpreted by all men and women—has resulted in thousands of different denominations, all claiming to be true to the teachings of scripture.

Protestantism has flourished in America because it teaches that human beings can access God as individuals, rather than as members of a particular church or religious body. During the period of British colonization, especially following the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, Protestantism went hand-in-hand with British concepts of political liberty. As the British people celebrated their rights-oriented philosophy of government and compared their freedoms with the tyranny of France and other absolute monarchies in Europe, they extolled their religious freedom to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Following the American Revolution, this historic connection between political liberty and Protestant liberty proved to be compatible with the kind of democratic individualism that emerged in the decades preceding the Civil War and, in many respects, continues to define American political culture.

Protestantism is first and foremost a religious movement. The proliferation of Protestant denominations provides the best support for G. K. Chesterton’s quip that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” Spiritual individualism, a commitment to the authority of an inspired Bible, and the idea that faith in the Christian gospel is all that is needed to be saved from eternal punishment, has transformed the lives of millions of ordinary Americans over the course of the past four hundred years.

The entire 8000-word entry will be posted soon.