My Morning with the Fundraisers

This morning I got a chance to do something new.  I gave a talk about history, the humanities, and civility to the staff of the Messiah College Office of Development.  It was entitled “Beyond Glenn Beck: The Public Responsibility of the Christian Historian.”

I was invited to speak to this group at their annual retreat to discuss my recent run-in with Glenn Beck and talk about my vocation as a historian.  Since the folks on the fundraising side of the college had to deal with a lot of angry phone calls in the wake of the Beck incident, Jon Stuckey, the Director of Development, wanted his staff to put a name to a face and hear some of my thoughts on the relationship between humanistic learning and civil discourse in a democratic society.

First of all, the fundraising and alumni relations staff at Messiah College are a great group of people.  I had a lot of fun being with them today.  During their informal breakfast together they watched a tape of a recent Messiah alum competing for cash and valuable prizes on The Price is Right!

Second, I definitely saw the value in doing this kind of thing.  During the Q&A I got to learn a little bit about the challenges that the Office of Development faces in raising funds for the college. And I hope that they realized that professors who write controversial articles, op-eds, and blog posts are real human beings who can be passionate about the mission of Messiah College.

I think faculty at smaller colleges need to do these kinds of things more often.  It turns out that I had a lot in common with our fundraising staff.  I even learned about another book by Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite spiritual writers.

Tuesday Night at Redemption Church–Gilbert, AZ

Tomorrow night (Tuesday, July 12th at 7pm) I will be at Redemption Church in Gilbert, Arizona discussing Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.  The event is part of Redemption’s “Hot Summer Nights” series.  Instead of a usual book talk or lecture, I will join one of the leaders of the church in a conversation about the book. 

If you are in the Phoenix area I hope you will consider stopping by.  The event is being held in the church “commons” at 7pm.

Now all I need to do is get out of O’Hare airport!

An Afternoon With the Sons of the American Revolution

I spent the afternoon with the Continental Congress Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution at the York Country Club in York, PA.  They invited me to speak about Philip Vickers Fithian and The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

My favorite moment of the afternoon was when a woman seated next to me during the business meeting leaned over and whispered:

I can trace my ancestry to 17 soldiers who fought in the American Revolution.  How many Revolutionary War soldiers are in your family history?

I answered:   “None.”

The look on her face was priceless–as if I was somehow an imposter at this event.

Nevertheless, it was a fine afternoon with a very engaged group of American Revolutionary War buffs.  Thanks to chapter president Joe McMullen for the invitation.

First Annual Messiah College Faith and History Lecture

If you are in the area join us for the First Annual Messiah College Faith and History Lecture.  The speaker will be yours truly.  I will be trying out some new ideas for a possible book on the way Christians study the past.  The title of my talk is: “The Power to Transform: A Christian Reflection on the Study of the Past.”  Here is a synopsis:

How do Christians approach the study of the past?  This talk will affirm, but move beyond, the notion that a Christian studies the past with certain theological presupposition about the nature of human beings . It will also affirm, but move beyond, the notion that a goal of historical inquiry is to ethically judge the people and events of the past.   Instead, this talk will offer Christians a slightly different approach to thinking about the past.   It will argue that the study of history can help us mature spiritually.  

The lecture will be held on the Messiah College campus in Boyer Hall, room 131 at 4:00pm.  Refreshments will be served.

More on Valpo Lecture

From the

VALPARAISO | More than 200 scholars from across the United States are at Valparaiso University this week focusing on how colleges and students are being affected by changing notions of place, community and higher learning in the 21st century.

John Fea, associate professor of history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and a former Lilly Fellow, focused Thursday on the challenges and benefits of “rooting” one’s vocation in a particular community and place.

He said a church-related college can offer a truly spiritual education, but it also can be suffocating for those who don’t share that passion. He talked about the importance of being loyal to an institution.

Jennifer Miller, who graduated from Valparaiso University in 2003 and began a two-year Lilly Fellow teaching in Christ College at VU, said Fea’s message impacted her professionally and personally.

“It really spoke to me,” she said. “Finding a space where you can call home and develop your career is a tension I see in my own life. My husband and I have two small children. We lived in Minnesota, and made a number of connections then we uprooted and came here. It makes me think about the connections between Christian faith, professional identity, scholarship and teaching.”

Mel Piehl, Dean of Christ College, said he hopes conference participants walk away understanding the importance of deepening and strengthening Christian higher education.

The Valparaiso-based Lilly Fellows is the largest ecumenical organization working to advance the future of church-related higher education. This is the Lilly Fellows Program’s 20th anniversary national conference, which will feature a variety of speakers and sessions. It concludes Sunday.

Lessons We Might Learn From History

I recently gave a short book talk on The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the Harrisburg area chapter of the Daughter of the American Revolution. Just the other day I received a thank-you note from the vice-regent who asked me if I might suggest a book for this group to read together. Here is the pertinent part of her e-mail:

This leads me to a question which may be pertinent. When I mentioned that as the new Regent beginning in May, I was considering having an ongoing theme, “The lessons for today that we can learn from history” or a similar more concise statement. One member gave me the name of a book she had read and enjoyed, “The Five Thousand Year Leap, 28 Great Ideas that Changed the World” by W. Cleon Skousen. As I read the reviews, I realized that it was definitely from a very conservative perspective and could not stand alone as a guide. If you could recommend any book from an opposing view, I would appreciate your suggestion.

I am turning to my readers for help. Can anyone think of a book that the ladies at the Harrisburg DAR might read together related to their theme: “The Lessons for Today That We Might Learn From History?”

Appearance on WIFT Radio Smart Talk

Does participating in a radio program count as an “appearance?”

If you live in the Harrisburg, PA area tune into WITF Radio Smart Talk at 9:00am on Tuesday, March 31st. I will be part of a panel discussing the place of history in the state of Pennsylvania. Much of what I have to say will stem from my recent Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, “State is Erasing Its History.” If WITF streams the program on the web, I will let you know.

A Busy Day on the Local Circuit

It has been a busy day.

This morning I heard a great talk on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by my colleague Jim LaGrand. Jim was delivering a plenary address to the 700+ students taking Messiah’s first year CORE class–“Created and Called for Community.” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one of the required readings in this course. (Yesterday I taught Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” for the first time. I loved it! Tomorrow is Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.”)

Then it was off to the West Shore Country Club to do a book talk and signing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home with the Harrisburg-area chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Thanks to Karen Schmidt for the invitation. The audience was very receptive to the story of Philip Vickers Fithian. During the Q&A we had a great opportunity to talk about the importance of history and how it is being presented and taught in public schools. (One woman even asked about the controversy in Texas). Many books were sold and signed!

After eight years of teaching at an Anabaptist college that does not fly an American flag, I could not help but notice the contrast between the culture of Messiah College and the culture of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The meeting today began with prayer, followed by the pledge of allegiance, followed by the recitation of a creed proclaiming American greatness, followed by the joint singing of the Star Spangled Banner. It has actually been a while since I have been around this kind of intense patriotism.

I then returned to my office at Messiah where I had three very productive and enjoyable meetings with students. One was with a non-traditional student taking my Created and Called for Community course. (I love non-traditional students–they are so much more motivated than the normal undergraduate). Another was with a student who will soon be working for me as a research intern. And the last was with a student writing a senior honors thesis under my supervision.

I finished the day at Bethany Village talking about George Whitefield as part of a panel on the history of American Methodism.

Overall not a bad day. Now it’s time to catch up on some college basketball. Spring Break starts Saturday!

Seton Hall Lecture

On Wednesday I will be giving a lecture on The Way of Improvement Leads Home at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ (the birthplace of my father!). If you are in the area it will be good to see you or meet you.

ADDENDUM: I have now received two e-mails about this so let me set the record straigjt. I am going to Seton Hall to give a lecture. It has nothing to do with Seton Hall’s search for a new early Americanist. I am not a candidate.

"The Way of Improvement" Hits the Road and Other Assorted Activities

After an intense Fall speaking schedule we are looking forward to a much lighter load during the Spring.

Later this week I head down to Louisville to present a talk to a gathering of scholars who have recently received funding from the Louisville Institute,, a center that supports the study of American religion. I will be speaking on my Christian America research and responding to a talk by a Catholic theologian who is writing a book on the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit.

At the end of the month I will be in the friendly confines of Boyer Hall at Messiah College giving a talk on Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University to faculty teaching in Messiah’s freshman CORE course: “Created and Called for Community.”

In early February I head to South Orange, New Jersey, the birthplace of my father, where I will be a “2009-2010 President’s Advisory Council Distinguished Guest Lecturer at Seton Hall University. I will give lectures on my work on Philip Vickers Fithian and discuss the role of religion in the American Revolution.

Finally, on March 11, I have two local speaking gigs. I will be doing a lunch-time book talk and signing of The Way of Improvement Leads Home in Camp Hill at the March meeting of the Harrisburg, PA Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Then, in the evening, I will be talking about George Whitefield and American evangelicalism as part of a panel on Methodist history at Bethany Village in Mechancisburg.

With such a light speaking load, I will be able to devote more time to finishing my book manuscript on Christian America (now overdue) , teaching a section of “Created and Called for Community” and a course on Immigrant America, writing a couple of contracted essays for edited collections: one on evangelical historians and Anabaptism and another on New Jersey during the American Revolution, and trying to figure out what the next big project will be.

I will also be able to concentrate more on coaching my daughter’s third grade basketball team to victory (actually, we don’t keep score) and watching my other daughter travel all over south-central Pennsylvania on her sixth-grade travel team.

And finally, I have officially been appointed chairperson of the history department at Messiah College. (I say this with much fear and uncertainty). My four year stint begins Fall 2010.

A Nice Plug from the David Library of the American Revolution

Patrick Spero, the historian at the David Library of the American Revolution, mentions a nice note from one of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Maria Fisher came to my book talk and signing at the library last summer and wrote to the DLAR with this comment:

Last summer there was a lecture at the David Library featuring John Fea and his book, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” It was not as well attended as some of the other lectures maybe because it was held in July. I just wanted to recommend this book for those who may have missed out. It’s about Philip Vickers Fithian’s life and rural enlightenment in Early America. One gets the sense of how radical and important the changes were in that period of history through the life and mind of an ordinary man. In addition, it’s a beautiful story. It comes at a perfect time as many Americans seem to be losing touch with what makes us uniquely American.

Thanks to Maria for the comment and to Patrick for posting it to the DLAR blog.

Milwaukee Lecture on Children in Colonial America

Regular readers of the blog may remember that I was in Milwaukee last month working for Gilder-Lehrman with teachers from the Milwaukee Public School district on the subject of “Women and Children in Colonial America.” Part of my job was to give a lecture to 400 middle school and high school history students on the subject of “Children in Colonial America.” This was a tough lecture to deliver–my audience consisted of students ranging from 10 to 18 years of age. There were 5th graders AND high school seniors in the auditorium!

Well, the folks at Milwaukee Public Schools have written a blog post about my visit and posted a short audio clip of the lecture that includes the introduction and part of my discussion of Puritan childrearing. Here it is:

Lecture at the University of Richmond

Last night I was at the University of Richmond where I gave a lecture on Philip Vickers Fithian to the American Revolution Roundtable of Richmond. The University of Richmond is a beautiful campus. Since I got there early I was able to stroll around a bit.

The crowd at the lecture was very knowledgeable and curious about Fithian and what I have been calling the “Presbyterian Rebellion.” I even managed to sell a few books during the signing period after the lecture.

I also experienced “a first” last night. The Q&A session following the lecture had to be cut short because a seventy-eight year old man in the audience fainted! It was VERY warm in the room (I was sweating through the entire lecture) and this gentleman was simply overcome by the heat. Fortunately, there was a doctor in attendance and after a few minutes the man was fine.

Thanks to Bruce Venter for inviting me to speak and Bill Welsch, a fellow native New Jerseyan, for helping me find my way to Route 95 following the lecture.

The American Revolution in Huntsville

This is my first trip to Huntsville, Alabama. As I mentioned in my last post, I came here to conduct a Gilder-Lehrman Institute Junior Historian’s Forum on the coming of the American Revolution. My audience was 175 high school students from area schools.

Several highlights from the short trip:

1). I had forgotten that Huntsville was the home of the US Space and Rocket Center, the famed “Space Camp,” and a host of other NASA-oriented facilities and centers.

2). The students from the Huntsville schools were VERY impressive. They were by far the best prepared students I have ever taught in one of these forums. Kudos to their teachers. I am guessing that some of these bright students are the sons and daughters of real rocket scientists

3). It was a pleasure working with Kathy White of Gilder-Lehrman, my host for the lecture. We were supposed to work together in Boca Raton last December, but things did not work out. It was good to finally meet her.

4). I had a wonderful ride to the hotel with Rhonda, a secretary in the school district. We had a great chat about her experience as a member of the Church of Christ denomination.

My Gilder-Lehrman work is now over for the fall, unless of course the phone rings between now and December. I now have a book to finish!


I spent two great days with history teachers and history students from the Milwaukee Public School District. Thanks to the indomitable Anthony Napoli for once again inviting me to do a session on women and children in colonial America for the Gilder-Lehrman Institute. I also want to thank Tina and Jennie, the coordinators for the district’s Teaching American History grant, for being great hosts.

Yesterday we had a morning session with about 30 or so teachers and this morning I spoke to about 500 kids, grades 5-12, on the what it was like to be a kid in colonial America. The session was held in the Weasler Auditorium at Marquette University.

During the talk I offered five possible options for what life would have been like for my audience if they lived in British North America prior to the American Revolution. Here were their options: Child of the Covenant, Tobacco Kid, Tender Plant, Native Son or Daughter, and Children of Slaves. I even managed to get some Philip Vickers Fithian into the lecture!

I was very impressed with the attention span of the students. Kudos to the 5th grade classes sitting in the front 6 or 7 rows who really asked some thoughtful questions.

Colonial Women and Children in Milwaukee

Today I am in Milwaukee doing a Gilder-Lehrman seminar for school teachers on women and children in colonial America. I am going to be focusing on native American, African, and European women and children in the Chesapeake, the Middle Colonies, and New England.

Tomorrow I am doing a “Junior Historian’s Forum” on the same subject with over 500 students from the Milwaukee area.

Stay tuned…

Cape May County Library

I spent the afternoon in Cape May, New Jersey where I was part of an author’s roundtable at the Cape May County Library. The panel included an eclectic group of authors, including a writer who specializes in poems about love, a photographer who worked on a book about Holocaust survivors in South Jersey, and an English teacher who wrote a novel about the leader of a New Jersey rock band whose mother murdered a former Nazi.

And then there was me and Philip Vickers Fithian!

Back at Bethany Village

I was in familiar territory tonight with the good folks at Bethany Village in Mechanicsburg. I have been speaking there once or twice a year for about five years now. My topic tonight was “George Washington, the Cherry Tree, and Other Myths About the Father of Our Country.” I focused on four prominent myths about Washington:

1). The myth of Washington and the cherry tree
2). The myth of Washington praying at Valley Forge
3). The myth of Washington the evangelical Christian
4). The (partial) myth of Washington the civic humanist

During the Q&A many of them wanted to call attention to Washington’s greatness as a counterweight to the content of my talk, but they also understood that my talk was more about the construction of Washington as “father of our country” than it was about the character of the man during his lifetime. As one might imagine, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about Mason Locke “Parson” Weems.

The residents of Bethany Village are a great audience. During the refreshment time following the talk I was entertained with stories about George Washington’s teeth (from a retired dentist who also gave me four tubes of toothpaste to bring home to my family), a childhood play in which a resident once played George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and multiple stories of visits to Mount Vernon. As usual, I left with a plate of cookies and some potential topics for another talk. It was great night.