A July 4th (and beyond) Reading and Listening List


Check out this very nice collection from Cara Burnidge at Religion in American History.   Here are a few of her suggestions:

Declaration of Independence

Frederick Douglass, “What To The Slave Is the Fourth of July? ” (1841), Black Perspectives

Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, 1848

Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” (1883); Steve Macone, “The New ‘New Colossus‘” (2017)

Irvin Berlin “God Bless America” (1918; 1938); performed by Kate Smith 

Langston Hughes, “I, Too, Sing America,” 1926 [poem only]; with analysis from Smithsonian historian David Ward

Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” [with images]; [read by James Earl Jones]

Allen Ginsberg, “America” (1956; performed ?)

Read the rest here.

Summer in the Archives


I will be in the archives this summer.  If all works out as I have planned it, I hope to be spending some time at the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton.  Stay tuned.

Over at Religion in American History, Cara Burnridge has collected some of that blog’s “‘greatest hits” on American religious history archives.

Here’s a small taste:

Now that RAAC2017 has come and gone,* summer is in full swing. For me, and I suspect many readers too, that means it’s time for archival research. Fortunately, we’ve accumulated a quite a few posts for those who might be researching for the first time or heading somewhere new. Here’s a round-up of what we’ve posted previously.

Read the rest here.

The American Bible Society and the Art of History Writing

Bible Cause CoverOver at Religion in American History blog I have responded to reviews of my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

Here is a taste:

I am extremely grateful to Lincoln Mullen and the Religion in American History blog for holding a symposium on The Bible Cause. I also want to thank two scholars whose work I admire—Elesha Coffman and Candy Gunther Brown—for taking the time to review the book.

I have seen the Bible Cause as an experiment of sorts. As many of the readers of the Religion in American History blog know, I wrote 120 blog posts tracking my progress on the book. This was also the first book (and it will probably be the last) I have written to commemorate an important anniversary in the life of an institution. Since The Bible Cause required that I build a relationship with the ABS, I had a unique set of challenges to deal with. How would I maintain my scholarly integrity and academic freedom while at the same time providing the ABS with a book worthy of its bicentennial? Though I never talked to George Marsden about this project, I tried to use his book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism as a model for writing this kind of institutional history. Finally, I wanted to write a narrative history of this important American institution. While I had scholars in mind as I wrote, and I hoped that this book would contribute to our knowledge of American history and find its way into academic libraries, I also had in mind the thousands of Christian laypersons who were affiliated with the ABS as donors and participants in the Bible Cause.

Read the rest here.

Candy Gunther Brown Reviews *The Bible Cause*

The forum on my The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society continues at the Religion in American History blog with a review by Candy Gunther Brown of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University and the author of The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880.

It is a pretty negative review of the book.  I am looking forward to responding to it.

Here is a taste:

The Bible Cause presents a largely affirmative portrayal of the ABS and its agents. Fea reports that “the American Bible Society has never lost touch with its cultural mandate: to build a Christian civilization in the United States and, eventually, around the world” (3), concluding that “as the Bible Cause in America enters its third century, the future looks bright, but the challenges ahead are great” (316). Although noting examples of “nationalism” (96) and “imperialism” (117), the book does not offer sustained analysis of the ABS’s cultural agenda. It relies primarily on ABS sources and makes relatively scant use of secondary scholarship, for instance post-colonial theory and critical renderings of U.S. nationalism, exceptionalism, and policies aimed at the assimilation of Native Americans and non-Protestant immigrants, and of institutions like the ABS as agents of cultural imperialism abroad and social control of the working classes and people of color domestically.

The book foregrounds ABS perspectives and seems to accept the claims of ABS agents and authors at face value. Citing ABS publications as the only source of evidence, Fea reports that seamen were “notorious for vice, irreligion, and congregating together in urban areas where they gambled, visited prostitutes, and drank their fair share of alcohol,” but they “found comfort in the Bible,” and “it was common for sailors to return to port desperate to replace a Bible lost at sea” (38). Similarly, “the urban poor . . . spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble” until rescued by Sunday Schools (55). Bible sales reportedly “brought an intense spiritual interest among the Cherokee . . . . One Cherokee woman was so overwhelmed upon receiving an ABS Bible that she wrapped it in silk and carried it close to her chest at religious meetings” (55). As to the ABS’s positive impact on soldiers, “the evidence is overwhelming. Stories abound of soldiers reading the Bible in their tents before bedtime.” The “overwhelming” evidence cited consists exclusively of ABS reports that “filled the pages of the Bible Society Record,” such as the claim of one ABS agent that “ ‘I have not seen one New Testament thrown away or otherwise misused’ ” (81–82). The analysis could have been enriched by considering how ABS agents might have heard or seen what they wanted or expected to encounter and how their portrayals functioned as rhetorical strategies that served ABS purposes such as fundraising. Similarly, the text could have contemplated editorial decisions about what kinds of reactions to ABS overtures to publish, which parts to include and which to exclude, and how to frame them, and devoted more attention to negative responses.

Read the entire review here.

“The Bible Cause” Symposium at Religion in American History Blog

Bible Cause CoverAs many of you know, I got my start as a blogger writing for Religion in American History.  I was there in the early days. Actually, I was Paul Harvey’s first regular contributor to what has become a must-read-blog for American religious historians.  (Here is my first post–written on July, 7, 2007).

So needless to say I was thrilled when Lincoln Mullen, one of the many contributors to the Religion in American History blog, informed me that he would be facilitating an on-line symposium on my new book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  Mullen recruited three scholars to write reviews of the book.  After those reviews are published, and I get a chance to read and process them (I have not seen them in advance), I will write a response.

The first review comes from Elesha Coffman, a church history professor at Dubuque Theological Seminary and the author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline.

Here is a taste of her review:

Institutional histories are tricky to write. I know this because I wrote one, and also because John Fea admits as much in his new book The Bible Cause: A History of American Bible Society. Institutions are not people, about whom page-turning biographies can be written, or ideas, with which a writer can wrestle. The sheer mass of them, and of their archives, limits the writer’s mobility. “It is extremely difficult to write popular reading material about the ABS,” noted ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor, who commissioned a one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary history of the society that was slated for 1966 but never completed. Fifty years later, having hit the deadline for the society’s two-hundredth anniversary, Fea concurs, observing that “institutions do not usually make for the most thrilling reading” (5).

This is not to say that The Bible Cause lacks drama. Weaving the tale of a venerable benevolent institution with two hundred years of American and, in several chapters, overseas history means covering many conflicts big (e.g., war) and small (e.g., divided responses to the line drawings in Good News for Modern Man). Fea also highlights personalities as much as possible. In the latter task, Fea is aided by the zest for adventure exhibited by ABS colporteurs and published in ABS periodicals. John Thorne, for example, recalled being pelted by peanuts and assailed by chickens while distributing Bibles in China in the 1870s and 1880s. When Chinese opposition to Western imperialism produced the Boxer Rebellion a few years later, white ABS officials managed to flee the country, but many Chinese colporteurs died, some crucified on trees (140). Fea’s is by no means a bloodless story.

Read the rest here.

RiAH 3.0

In the coming days there will be some changes over at Religion in American History.  It will include a new look and a new schedule of writers.  I will let Paul Harvey, RiAH’s chief blogmeister and founder, explain:

The blog has taken some performance-enhancing drugs to help us with this: Kelly will soon roll out our new blog “style” (it’s the “Espada” style in blogger, for you techno-geeks out there), which is a style that tries to make blogger look as much like WordPress as possible. Yes, I know WordPress is better, but we’re too old to change now.

And more importantly, as of today we will be experimenting with a new blog schedule, with most of our contributors on the blogroll making contributions once and month, a few others less frequently, and a few free spirits just randomly posting whenever they feel like it. And we will still have occasional guest posts and the like. The motto for this changeover is: less Paul Harvey, more of everyone else. I figure, if Kobe would learn to pass the ball more, his team would be better, and the same goes for the blog (although Tebow rather than Kobe is probably the better analogy).

 So, if all goes as planned, you can plan for an incredible variety of contributions, and contributors, each month. We still invite interested writers who want to post here to contact us and send us your posts for consideration; many of our contributors here started with a guest post sent randomly to me, and quickly worked their way into the starting lineup.

My name is still listed as a contributor over at Religion in American History, but I rarely post over there.  I am hoping that Paul is including me in the category of “free spirits” who “randomly post whenever they feel like it.”

Actually, I like to think of The Way of Improvement Leads Home as a RiAH spinoff.  This blog is The Jeffersons to Paul’s All in the Family, the Laverne and Shirley to Paul’s Happy Days, the Mama’s Family to Paul’s Carol Burnett Show, the Frasier to Paul’s Cheers, the Knots Landing to Paul’s Dallas, The Rhoda to Paul’s Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dr. Phil to Paul’s Oprah, and the What’s Happening Now? to Paul’s What’s Happening?