When Canadian Methodists erased women evangelists from their history

Check out historian Scott McLaren‘s interesting piece at Borealia, a blog about early Canadian history. McLaren, the author of Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada, explores the ways early Methodist historians erased “the dramatic roles women played in Methodism’s early proselytizing success.”

Here is a taste of his post, “The Disappearing Daughters of Jerusalem”:

It is impossible to know, because evidence of this kind is so sparse, how often the male writers seamlessly and without vestige erased the roles women played among Methodists and other denominations in these early years. From a methodological perspective, what is particularly striking about these three narratives is that only the last – the version in which Methodist women play no role at all as active agents in the conversions – was ever published. The other two – the first from Bangs’s 1805 journal and the second from his undated autobiography – are available only to those with access to original archival documents held at the United Methodist Archives at Drew University in the United States. One can only wonder at how many other narratives like these lie dormant in the enormous bulk of handwritten narratives, journals, diaries, and letters left behind by both the men and women who lived in the years preceding Methodism’s determined rise to denominational dominance and social respectability in North America.

Read the entire piece here.

David Bratt Remembers Edith Blumhofer

BlumhoferDavid Bratt was the late Edith Blumhofer‘s editor. Over at the blog of Eerdmans Publishing, Bratt remembers the Wheaton College religious historian.

Here is a taste:

I like to tell people that Edith Blumhofer is just your basic, average, Harvard-educated German Pentecostal Wheaton College professor from Queens. It’s a fun way of saying that I’ve never met anyone quite like her. But it’s a lot less fun now, because I have to use the past tense. At age 69, far too soon, Edith Blumhofer has lost her battle with cancer.

Edith was well known for her work in running the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, which she directed for fifteen years until its closing in 2014. She was good at being in charge of things; in addition to her work with the ISAE, she also served as president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (the first woman to do so) and served as administrative director for Martin Marty’s public religion project at the University of Chicago. More recently she stepped in to lead the board of the Overseas Ministries Study Center through a time of acute financial challenges.

But she did more than enable others’ scholarship. Edith’s achievements are obvious to anyone who can search the websites of Amazon and the Library of Congress. She was the author of five books—including two with Eerdmans—and the co-author, editor, or co-editor of several more. Her two books for Eerdmans were biographies of important but sometimes overlooked women in American religious history: Aimee Semple McPherson and Fanny Crosby. Her work helped make it seem natural to pay attention to women in American religion—something that wasn’t natural enough in the field for far too long. And she had a gift for biography: she could tell a subject’s story in a way that appealed to lay readers as well as people with advanced degrees, to insiders who love her subjects as well as to scholars who study them.

Read the rest here.

Women Leaders of the Christian Right

Johnso nOver at Nursing Clio, Lauren Macivor Thompson interviews Emily Suzanne Johnson, author of This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right.  Here is a taste:

Lauren: How did you become interested in the conservative women’s movement? Who were your historiographical influences?

Emily: Michael Lienesch’s Redeeming America (about the politics and rhetoric of the New Christian Right) and Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors (about conservative women’s grassroots activism in the 1960s) piqued my interest. Both fascinated me — I loved their deep dives into the logic and language of these movements, which were not well understood at the time, at least in the academic world.

My personal history was also part of what drew me to this subject. I grew up in a left-leaning Canadian family, but I also have very conservative, evangelical relatives in the United States. I felt like I had an interesting perspective on the American religious right, since I had a deep personal understanding of the movement while also understanding why it can seem so illegible to people outside of it.

As I kept reading histories of this movement, one thing that was missing was the history of women’s leadership within it. We have great studies on male leadership and on the importance of women’s grassroots support, but relatively little acknowledgment of the movement’s reliance on female leaders at the national level. There are women whose names would come up frequently, but they were generally treated as anomalies or paradoxes in a movement otherwise led by men.

My book argues that although this movement focused on a particular idea of “traditional gender roles,” it was fundamentally shaped by women leaders, who helped to formulate its rhetoric and mobilize supporters.

Lauren: The book examines Marabel Morgan, Anita Bryant, Beverly LaHaye, and Tammy Faye Bakker as historical figures — what strikes you as the major differences or threads of similarity that bind these conservative activists together?

Read the rest here.

Have Evangelicals Ignored Women’s History?

Women praying

Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr makes a strong case in a recent piece at The Anxious Bench.

Here is a taste:

Just last Spring, Chesna Hinkley published an illuminating article about how poorly evangelicals have preserved the history of women. After examining every issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society from 1988-2018 as well as the conference proceedings across the same years, Hinkley found women were included in just 2% of all history content. As she writes, “In contrast to the mere 29 articles, book reviews, and conference presentations on women in the whole history of the church, over the same period I counted 137 articles on Jonathan Edwards alone.”  Likewise, in her study of 15 evangelical seminaries, she found that women constituted only 2.2% of the subject matter. “Men who train at these schools learn nothing about women academically, leaving them with the impression that women have been unimportant–indeed, unnecessary–throughout Christian history.”

Not only are evangelicals failing to preserve women’s history, we are failing to teach it to our male leaders.  Without courses or content on women’s history, as Hinkley writes, “men are never asked to interact with the ways in which women” do not conform to complementarian theology. …

I have a mug in my office which bears the slogan, “Write Women Back Into History.” Isn’t it time we wrote women–as leaders, teachers, and preachers–back into evangelical history? Isn’t it time we demanded our seminaries use textbooks that include women? Isn’t it time we use Sunday School and Bible Study curriculum that also includes women in church history? Isn’t it time we recognized women as leaders in the church in the same way that Paul did in Romans 16? Isn’t it time we demanded our pastors and church leaders include women just like Jesus did? Isn’t it time we made sure our church leaders learned about women’s history too?

Read the entire piece here.

American religious historians have made great strides in the last several decades in bringing women into the story of American Christianity.  I am thinking here of historians such as Catherine Brekus, R. Marie Griffith, Dana Robert, Kate Bowler,  Kristin Kobes Du-Mez, Emily Clark, Edith Blumhofer, Matt Sutton, Allan Greer, Lori Ginzburg, Gerda Lerner, Claudia Bushman, Laurel Thatcher-Ulrich, Anthea Butler, Robert Orsi, Amy Koehlinger, Margaret Bendroth, Judith Weisenfeld, Marilyn Westerkamp, Janet Moore Lindman, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Kathy Sprows-Cummings, Rebecca Larson, Nancy Hardesty, Susan Juster, Julie Byrne, Ann Little, Gail Bederman, Carol Karlsen, Amanda Porterfield, Elizabeth Reis, and others.  But I am not sure that the work of these historians has found its way into the stories many evangelicals tell about the past.  As I read Barr’s piece I was reminded of Anne Braude’s wonderful essay: “Women’s History is American Religious History.”

The Author’s Corner with Cassie Yacovazzi

9780190881009.jpegCassie Yacovazzi is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. This interview is based on her new book Escaped Nuns: True Womanhood and the Campaign Against Convents in Antebellum America (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Escaped Nuns?

CY: I was initially interested in anti-Catholicism in early America. As a person with a religious background, I wanted to know more about how nationalism, popular culture, and patriotism could shape who was considered religious insiders and outsiders in America. In my research, I kept coming across brief references to Maria Monk, an escaped nun and the listed author of Awful Disclosures of Hotel Dieu. Her convent exposé of 1836 was a phenomenal success, selling over 300,000 copies before the Civil War. But Monk was a fraud, having never lived in a convent as a nun or otherwise. I wanted to know more about why this book was so popular, what it revealed about anti-Catholic bias, what debates the book sparked, and who the real Maria Monk was. I set out to write a book about Maria Monk, but as I researched, I realized opposition to nuns was a much larger phenomenon. I came across dozens of escaped nun books, learned of various convent attacks, noticed denunciations of convent life littered throughout anti-Catholic materials, and found significant overlap between antebellum reform movements, such as abolition, the common school movement, urban reform, and anti-Mormonism and the campaign against convents. I realized there was a story there, and I wanted to learn and tell that story.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Escaped Nuns?

CY: The campaign against convents in antebellum America was a far reaching movement, as popular as abolitionism, the common school movement, urban reform, and anti-Mormonism. While anti-Catholic and nativist impulses propelled this campaign in part, nuns’ nonconformity to female gender norms of true womanhood—their rejection of marriage, motherhood, and ideals of domesticity—rendered them conspicuous targets of attack among the vanguards of accepted behavior.

JF: Why do we need to read Escaped Nuns?

CY: The history of anti-Catholicism in America is well documented and established. The animus against nuns and convent life, however, has often simply occupied a paragraph or footnote in this history. Yet nuns served as a barometer of American attitudes toward women. For many, the veiled nun represented a waste or corruption of womanhood; as Mother Superior she embodied the wrong kind of woman, masculinized by her position of authority. This image proved stirring enough to lead men into action to “liberate” women from their “captivity” and expose and demolish convents or “dens of vice.” In doing so, many Protestant Americans believed they were protecting women and Protestant American civilization. In the face of rapid urbanization and western expansion this mission appeared imperative. Escaped Nuns traces the facets of anti-convent sentiment, shedding light on a major contest for American identity at a time of rapid demographic and cultural change.

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

CY: For me deciding to become an American historian was a gradual decision rather than a single moment thing. I loved my history courses in high school and especially in college. I majored in Liberal Arts, focusing on History, Philosophy, and English, not really knowing what subject in which to specialize. When it came time to graduate, there was something in me that wanted to stay in academia and continue to pursue the life of the mind. I had found a sort of “home” there. But what would be my focus? I chose history because I thought I could incorporate my other loves of philosophy and literature. I also chose history because it was the subject that best helped me place my worldview, beliefs, and values in context. While in graduate school at Baylor University and then the University of Missouri, history became a way of life. Through acting like a historian I became one. It was in some ways accidental, but I feel comfortable, challenged, and inspired in this role.

JF: What is your next project?

CY: My next project is in some ways a big change from my first. The topic for my next book is Mary Kay—the woman and the cosmetics empire. I’m exploring Mary Kay’s personal story, the growth of her company, and the subsequent Mary Kay culture in the context of women in business, the history of beauty, the feminist movement, and the intersection of gender, capitalism, and religion.

JF: Thanks, Cassie!

There is a Copy of a John R. Rice Book at the Bottom of the Ohio River

bobbedOver at Baptist News Global, Molly T. Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, writes about the time she took a copy of Baptist fundamentalist John R. Rice‘s book Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers and tossed it into the Ohio River.

This piece caught my eye because I spent a lot of time reading Rice’s newspaper, The Sword of the Lord, for my M.A. thesis on separatist fundamentalism.  Those were some long days at the microfilm reader in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Rolfing Library.  If I remember correctly, I was working right next to a large bust of evangelical theologian Carl F.H. Henry.  (Hey current TEDS students–is that bust still around?) And thanks to my sometimes online nemesis Darryl G. Hart (some of you on Twitter now him as Old Life) for serving as a reader on that thesis! 🙂

Here is Marshall:

I was a Master of Divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1973 to 1975. As regularly occurred with women students, I had been admitted to the School of Religious Education. Yet, I enrolled in all M.Div. courses because I had some burning theological questions.

I then had to talk my way into the School of Theology with the dean of the RE school. He was not easy to persuade; however, he approved the transfer. I was one of only a handful of women, even though in the early ’70s mainline seminaries were beginning to welcome many women.

One day I was in the library looking for resources to assist in my quest to learn about what the Bible really teaches about the role of women in ministry. I stumbled across the nefarious concoction of an over-achieving fundamentalist, John R. Rice. I was incensed at the title: Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers. Of course, I had experienced gender discrimination all my life as a Southern Baptist – at my home church, in college, in churches I had served as youth minister – but the sheer contempt of this book startled me.

I did what any self-respecting woman called to ministry would do: I flung it into the Ohio River as I crossed the big bridge heading into Indiana. (You recall that throwing things into the river has a venerable history in Louisville; that is where Muhammad Ali tossed his Olympic medals in protest of the racism of America.) I considered it an act of prophetic resistance (of course, I would not sanction destruction of seminary property now).

Read the rest here.

Doug Sweeney Reviews “Sarah Osborn’s Collected Writings”

OsbornYale University Press recently published Catherine A. Brekus’s edited volume, Sarah Osborn’s Collected Writings. Check out Sweeney‘s review at the website of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

A taste:

This lightly annotated edition of selected Osborn manuscripts arrives as a companion to the highly-acclaimed monograph on Osborn Brekus published back in 2013, which we reviewed here.

Brekus, who teaches at Harvard, is a specialist in the religious lives of women in early America. And Osborn (1714-1796) is one of the few colonial American women–religious or otherwise–whose writings were preserved. More than 2,000 pages of her manuscripts survive (out of nearly 15,000 Osborn penned altogether), in addition to a book published anonymously by Osborn (with the help of a local clergyman) and material by Osborn published shortly after she died (by two of her admirers). Several other scholars have treated Osborn before, but only now is she receiving the attention she deserves, thanks in large part to Brekus.

Read the rest here.


Call for Papers: Women and Religion in the Early Americas


Mary Maples Dunn

Ann Little, aka Historiann, is co-editing a special edition of Early American Studies in honor of the late Mary Maples Dunn.  Here is the call for papers:

Call For Papers: Women and Religion in the Early Americas

For a special issue in honor of the life and career of Mary Maples Dunn, Early American Studies seeks article-length contributions from scholars working on the history of women and religion in the early Americas. Mary Maples Dunn (1931-2017) was a leading practitioner of women’s history, as a scholar, as a teacher, and in her life as a university leader. She worked in a variety of fields from early American women’s history; to colonial Latin American history; to the history of religious women; to the history of women’s education as well as, of course, the worlds of William Penn and early Philadelphia.

The editors invite essays that consider the history of early American women, early American religion (or both) and are especially interested in work that makes cross-cultural comparisons or integrates multiple Atlantic orientations: North and South (French, British, Dutch, Spanish and/or Portuguese) East and West (from European and/or African links to Native American perspectives). We are interested in both formal article-length contributions (10,000 words) and in shorter essays on “Notes and Documents” that highlight innovative or creative ways of reading/using primary-source documents (3,000-5,000 words).

To submit, please email a 3-page CV and a 1,000 word summary of the contribution you propose to write by September 30 to Ann Little (ann.little@colostate.edu) and Nicole Eustace (nicole.eustace@nyu.edu). Please use the subject line “Mary Maples Dunn Special Issue Submission.” We will notify you of your preliminary acceptance by October 31, 2017 and final essays are due on April 30, 2018. Articles are to be published, subject to peer review, in 2019.

Women Could Not Vote in 1872, But They Could Run for President and Have Visions


Victoria Woodhull ran for President of the United States in 1872 as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party.  Frederick Douglass was her running mate although it is not clear if he ever agreed to serve in the position.

Woodhull was on the ballot in twenty-two states and, as  Jessa Crispin points out in her recent piece in The Baffler, she did not receive any electoral votes.  But she was a fascinating presidential candidate nonetheless.  In addition to being a female candidate for the highest office in the county in a political world dominated by men, Woodhull worked as a clairvoyant and was an adherent of Spiritualism.

Here is a taste of Crispin’s piece:

When Victoria was fifteen, she married Canning Woodhull, and by the time she left him after ten years of marriage, her radicalization was well under way. Taking Woodhull’s name, their two children, and not much else, she did what she had to do to survive, as the saying goes. Sometimes that was telling fortunes. Other times, that was working as a prostitute. And as she established herself in the arena of social reform, that was writing radical tracts about the importance of education for girls and women, labor rights, and family planning.

Under the circumstances, trying to raise a mob of women willing to fight and die for their rights was even harder than raising spirits. Defying fathers and husbands meant defying God himself. (Woodhull was freer than most from the Calvinist hold. Neither her visionary mother nor her criminal father could be described as God-fearing.) Though women like Mary Greeley—the wife of New York Tribune founder, anti-women’s-suffrage campaigner, and future presidential hopeful Horace Greeley—would go on to become important allies, for the time being they were stuck. Greeley was pregnant again and again, and five of her seven children died young.

Spiritualism offered people a different story about both life and death. Those dead children were not in hell; they were still within reach. They could be communicated with. Perhaps more important, Spiritualism got rid of sin. In the Spiritualist world, there was no “fall” of mankind, and it certainly wasn’t orchestrated by Eve. Preachers had been using that old story since the beginning of the church to express the devious nature of woman and warn against their rebellious, destructive ways.

Determinism was another target. In Calvinism, everything is already decided; you are marked from birth with damnation or salvation. What, then, is the use of trying? Everything, including your own suffering, is God’s will. The Spiritualists replaced this idea with the concept of spiritual evolution. The more you progressed as an individual, the higher into the spheres of heaven you could ascend. That progression depended on your behavior here on earth, on how you treated your fellow man and woman. That was something worth fighting for. Spiritualism, in the words ofRadical Spirits author Ann Braude, “presented an extreme case of the rejection of Calvinism that pervaded women’s culture” at the time.

Read the entire piece here.

Want to read more about Woodhull?  I recommend Amanda Frisken’s Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America .


The Author’s Corner with Kristin Kobes Du Mez

A New Gospel for WomenKristin Kobes Du Mez is Associate Professor of History at Calvin College.  This interview is based on her book, A New Gospel for Women: Katherine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write A New Gospel for Women?

KKD: I have to go back many years to answer this one. Back when I was searching for a dissertation topic I was frustrated with the fact that so little had been written about the history of women in American Christianity. There were a few good denominational studies, a couple of well-researched histories of women and fundamentalism, of Puritan women, and of African American women, but I wanted to get a better sense of the lives of Christian women behind (or beyond) those well-worn narratives. And so I began an extremely unscientific search of archives and footnotes, casting a wide net for Christian women doing interesting things. That search led me to a study of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Methodist women. I inadvertently became a historian of Methodist women simply because they were doing such amazing things. Katharine Bushnell was one of these women.

When I first encountered Bushnell’s writings, I was stunned. Here was a woman I’d never heard of who had written a sophisticated feminist theology, as radical as anything I’d ever read. Her work turned much of Christian tradition on its head as far as what the Bible had to say about women and men. Most remarkably, she achieved her revisions through retranslation, while remaining staunchly committed to the authority of the Scriptures. For this reason her work speaks compellingly to Christians today who hold a high view of scriptural authority. 

When I set out to write this book, I knew that Bushnell needed her own biography. Still, from time to time I was plagued with doubt. She had been an internationally-known figure in the late nineteenth-century, yet because she had been largely (but not entirely) forgotten by subsequent generations, I felt the pressure that many historians of women feel—to demonstrate the significance of my topic in light of a long history of neglect.

Thankfully, Oxford recognized her significance, and when people read the book, the most common response I hear is: “How could I have not heard of her before?”  I’ve had “secular feminists” share that they might not have abandoned their faith had they come across Bushnell earlier in their lives; I’ve had elderly conservative Christian women ask me to write a version of the book accessible to high school girls, so their granddaughters can learn a different theology than they did. Bushnell’s theology, and her story, really can be life-changing, and it’s really been a privilege to give Bushnell’s teachings a second life.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A New Gospel for Women?

KKD: To understand Christianity and feminism we need to look to the past (long before the 1970s), but we need to do so without depicting either Christianity or feminism as static constructs, or with the simplistic purpose of addressing a contemporary agenda (i.e. trying to prove that Christianity and feminism are—or are not—compatible). A New Gospel for Women doesn’t simply tell the story of a remarkably influential and wrongly forgotten Christian woman, but it also examines the factors that contributed to her historical neglect—and both of these aspects are essential to gaining a better understanding of Christianity and feminism today.

JF: Why do we need to read A New Gospel for Women?  

KKD: Bushnell became a theologian in response to her activism. She was a social purity reformer, or in modern parlance, a Christian anti-trafficking activist. She was compelled by her faith not only to “rescue” and “reform” prostitutes, but also to advocate for laws and practices that protected the rights of “fallen women” (a term she rejected, by the way, unlike the majority of her Victorian counterparts). She first worked in the lumber camps of northern Wisconsin and Michigan, and then she turned her attention to the British empire. There she worked on behalf of Indian women who suffered egregious abuses in British military brothels (and later on behalf of women trafficked in Hong Kong, Singapore, and on the West Coast of America). Over the course of her career, however, she was increasingly disturbed to find Christian men opposing her at every turn. This happened so frequently that she concluded that something within Christian theology itself must be to blame. It wasn’t simply that a few men were being bad Christians, but rather that Christian theology itself engendered the abuse of women.

It was this conviction that turned her to the study of theology. With meticulous attention to detail, she demonstrated how male bias had distorted centuries of biblical translation and interpretation. It was male bias, then, and not the word of God, that had declared women the weaker sex, instituted patriarchal marriage, and commanded women to be silent and to submit to men. Indeed, she translated the Scriptures in such a way that such teachings represented man’s rebellion against God; redemption, then, was linked to women’s liberation, in this world and the next. I spend 2½ chapters in A New Gospel for Women providing an overview of her revolutionary theology, and this is really my favorite part of the book.

Why should we read it today? First, it’s a great story. More importantly, Christians continue to struggle with many of the issues Bushnell was addressing a century ago: inequitable and unrealistic expectations of female purity; connections between Christianity and patriarchy, and patriarchy and the sexual abuse of women; the authority of women to preach and to lead. Because her analysis of these issues is rooted in a deep study of and respect for the Christian Scriptures, the answers she provides are compelling even today.

For Christians who are troubled by the prevalence of domestic abuse in Christian circles, for Christians wondering how sexual abuse could be condoned (or ignored) at Christian colleges, for Christians who cannot reconcile patriarchy with the spirit of the Gospel, Bushnell provides a resource for reform from within. Hers is not an attack on Christianity; rather, she offers a compelling and even revolutionary reinterpretation of the Christian Gospel, for women and for men.

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

KKD: I always loved languages and visiting other countries. However, growing up in a small town in Iowa, the world wasn’t exactly at my fingertips. And so in high school I became an exchange student to Germany with the Congress-Bundestag program. I attended a German Gymnasium (high school), and I later worked in Germany, and also in Ukraine. All of these experiences helped shift my understanding of American culture. At a certain point I stopped comparing other cultures against an American standard, and instead became more and more curious about the aberration my own country seemed to be. And that led me to American history.

JF: What is your next project?

KKD: Right now I’m working on another religious biography of a progressive Methodist woman—Hillary Clinton.

 What sets this apart from other writings on Hillary’s faith is that it’s a religious history—it situates her firmly within the context of American religious history, and I employ traditional historical methods. (Lately I’ve been rummaging in rusty file cabinets in church basements and sifting through dusty boxes in church closets.)

At the same time, I can pick up the phone and conduct an interview at the drop of a hat. With Bushnell, every piece of information I was able to recover was a valuable source. With the Clinton project, it’s dizzying simply trying to keep up with the daily news cycle, let alone familiarizing myself with everything that’s already been written about her (over 70 books at last count). So I try to discipline myself to spend much of my time digging into the records of the past—that’s really where the fresh insights come from. And what I’ve been finding thus far is fascinating—clues that help us understand Clinton herself, and also stories that bring to light the often neglected story of progressive Christianity in recent American history.

JF: Thanks, Kristin

Paul Putz Reports From AHA 2016 on American Religious Biography

OsborneThe reports from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta keep rolling in here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Paul Putz is  Ph.D student in American history at Baylor University writing a very interesting dissertation on the history of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  Paul reports from a session on the writing of religious biography.  –JF

My first trip to the winter AHA/ASCH meeting was a whirlwind of activity. One of the best aspects was getting to meet many of the historians I’ve gotten to know online through twitter and blogging. It really seemed like many of the conversations we’ve had online seamlessly transitioned to the offline world.

Of all the sessions I attended, I took my most detailed notes on the Thursday afternoon panel, “New Approaches to Religious Biography: Reexamining American Protestant Life-Writing.” It had a stellar cast of participants: Sara Georgini, David Mislin, and Elizabeth Jemison presenting, David Holland commenting, and Catherine Brekus as the chair. Brekus’s Sarah Osborne’s World is one of my favorite religious biographies, so I was very pleased to see her involved.

Just before I made my way to Atlanta last week I read Slate’s study of popular history books, so I had biographies on my mind. Not surprisingly, Slate’s report found that the vast majority of trade press biographies published last year (71.7%) were of men. In that regard, the all-male biographical subjects featured on the panel would have fit right in. On the other hand, two of the three presenters on the panel were women, markedly different than the disparity between men and women when it comes to authorship of trade press biographies.

Sara Georgini, PhD candidate at Boston University and assistant editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, was up first. Her paper, part of a larger dissertation project on the religion of the Adams family from 1583-1927, featured the travels/pilgrimages of Charles Francis Adams Sr. (son of John Quincy Adams), looking at how they contributed to his spiritual development. Georgini also connected Adams’s experiences and reflections with the broader story of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism’s place within the United States.

Next, Clemson professor of religion Elizabeth Jemison used the autobiographies of Lucius Holsey and Isaac Lane, two late-nineteenth-century Colored Methodist Episcopal Church ministers, to explore the intersection of religious and racial identities in South. She provided sharp insights into the surprising ways that those identities could merge and interact, and their part in the social construction of race in the post-emancipation South. Unlike the other two papers, Jemison’s was not part of a larger biographical project, but rather stemmed from her dissertation-turned-book-project, tentatively titled Protestants, Politics, and Power: Race, Gender, and Religion in the Post-Emancipation Mississippi River Valley, 1863-1900.

The last paper came from David Mislin, a professor at Temple University who recently published his first book, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Cornell University Press). Mislin’s paper featured late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden. Gladden is often viewed as a leading figure in the shift towards liberal theology and social reform in establishment Protestant churches, but Mislin focused instead on Gladden’s work as a pastor, looking at how he was connected to and shaped by the everyday needs and experiences of his congregation. The paper was a small part of a new biography of Gladden that Mislin hopes to publish in the next couple years.

The three papers were excellent, and I look forward to reading the larger projects once they hit the market. That said, I was a bit surprised that the papers didn’t really address questions of methodology. Rather than discussing new approaches to writing religious biographies, they were new religious biographies. Harvard Divinity professor David Holland helped to fill that void with his comments. Holland found commonalities in the approaches taken by the three papers – like any good biography, he said, all three turned on a surprise. And all tended to be sympathetic, listening closely to what the subjects of study said about themselves.

But even if they were sympathetic, Holland noted that the papers did not entirely escape the tendency to emphasize contemporary interests rather than those of the biographical subjects. Citing Perry Miller, Holland spoke of how biographers often “amputate” from their subjects what they don’t like or what they find unimportant to present concerns. This, Holland said, is an almost inescapable problem. So, too, is the tension between the uniqueness of the single biographical subject and the need to make big arguments or grand claims for the importance of one’s subject. In Holland’s view, biographies exist in tension between the “historicized particularity” and the “quest for significance” – and in that sense, the three papers did not necessarily offer markedly new approaches, but rather wrestled carefully with the age-old problems of the biographical angle.

All in all, it was an insightful and thought-provoking panel, one that I am very glad I attended. I also suspect that TWOILH’s fearless leader may have a thought or two about these questions and issues, given the subject of his first book.



Reflecting on Religion and Citizenship in Chattanooga, Part Two: Speaker Roundup

Yesterday morning I posted about my experience at the “Religion and the Making of American Citizens” teacher’s institute in Chattanooga.  I spent most of that post discussing Tracy McKenzie’s talk on the role of religion in the history classroom.  Though I found McKenzie’s talk to

be the most engaging, there were other excellent presentations during the two-day event.  I don’t have the time or space to address the content of all of the sessions, but here are a couple worth noting:

On Friday night, following McKenzie’s talk, the teachers were treated to a lecture by Daniel Dreisbach of American University.  He discussed the ways the Founding Fathers used the Bible in their revolutionary-era discourse. Dreisbach made a compelling case that the Bible was very important to the founding generation as one of the sources (along with Whig political thought, Enlightenment thought, the classics, etc…) that influenced their political ideas. They quoted it, referenced it, and even appealed to its language without directly referencing it. Dreisbach did not dwell on whether or not the Founders used the Bible correctly (at one point he said that their constant appeal to the Book of Deuteronomy was “tortured”), but that was not his assignment.
On Saturday afternoon, Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina challenged the teachers to pay more attention to women, especially religious women, into their courses.  After tracing the dominant role that women have played in American religious history, she offered Jarena Lee, Lottie Moon, and Catholic sisters as examples of women who teachers might incorporate into their lessons.  Worthen is a phenomenal public speaker and I could tell that the teachers were engaged with her presentation.  A very interesting conversation ensued during the Q&A period about complimentarianism and egalitarianism. It allowed Worthen to draw on her extensive knowledge of American evangelicalism (including interviews of women professors at Dallas Theological Seminary!).  I am now even more eager to read her new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.
I was flattered to learn that the students were given a copy of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction as part of their course materials.  My talk focused on the religious beliefs of some of the major American founders.  (Although I felt very guilty doing this with Daniel Dreisbach in the room, since he has done so much to call our attention to the religious beliefs of the so-called “Forgotten Founders.”).  I argued that while the personal religious beliefs of the founders were certainly interesting, it was perhaps more important, in light of the conference theme on citizenship, to think about how they saw the relationship between religion and public life regardless of what they believed in private.  
Thanks again to Jonathan Yeager, Lucian Ellington, and Wilfred McClay for inviting me to spend part Common Core.  (This may merit a separate post).
of the weekend with this great group of teachers.  I have already had a few post-institute connections with some of them.  Today I even shared a few things I learned from them in informal conversations with my Teaching History class at Messiah.  I especially want to thank the guys at my table on Friday night who enlightened me to some of the issues they are facing with the