Sunday, June 28, 2009
Baldblogger (BB): I wonder if you can discuss the transformation of The Burden of Black Religion from dissertation to book manuscript? Also, what did you have to leave out of Burden that is relevant and interesting to the narrative you construct? Looking back, what about Burden would you rewrite, restate, or revise (if anything)?
Curtis Evans (CE): I had to leave out much of the material on the historiography of slavery and early studies of black religion in the 1970s. Although I talk about some of these in the footnotes in the book, much of this material was foregrounded in the dissertation. In some ways, I added material in the book or expanded sections that I did not have in the dissertation (for example, thinking more about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s attempt to ground varieties of black religious experience in a distinctive African psychology). There are several things I would do differently, but I state these tentatively because I am still unsure if this would have been the best way to go about framing the book. I would try to cut back on some of the many figures I treat. Some readers have complained about the vast number of figures and studies that I summarize and critically evaluate. I take that to be a call for more summary and critical analysis by heightening my own voice and stating more forcefully what all of this stuff means rather than narrating so many disparate voices. I have mixed feelings on how to respond to this because I wanted to give readers a sense of history in part by quoting disturbing voices from the past to unsettle our contemporary moment and to evoke the difference and pastness of the past. I include many voices because I wanted readers to be exposed to a variety of approaches to this broad topic, but more importantly, I hoped to convey dissenting voices that challenged a dominant paradigm. History is quite messy and takes many unexpected turns and so I did not want to silence or overlook voices that were relevant to the project at hand. Sometimes the only way to do this was to summarize, quote and analyze the work or ideas that addressed the topic under discussion rather than subsuming them to my interpretative voice.
There is also a concern about framing the relationship between the actual history of African American religion and churches and the ideas, interpretations and cultural images that I describe. Should I have intervened to point out how one person, for example, distorted history for a particular political agenda? How often should I try to intervene, if at all, and point the reader to the realities of what we know about African American religion at a particular moment? Should some of these voices, especially the disturbing ones, remain unchallenged? I tried to deal with this in part by presenting contrary voices from the same historical moment. My “intervention” would have been not only awkward, but of little use given that many of the presuppositions discussed I do not share. Still, I realize that many questions probably remain unanswered to some readers because I have left my narrative in its current form. How were these texts, ideas and cultural images received, appropriated or rejected by black church leaders and members? Why did I not address this process more fully? All of these are important issues and I struggled with them. Ultimately, I concluded that important as these concerns were and are, they would have made an already broad project even more unwieldy. The reader will have to judge if my choices were appropriate.
Perhaps I should have tried to link more explicitly how ideas related to institutions (black churches, universities as producers of knowledge about black culture, etc.) and the social and political worlds in which such ideas were being articulated. I am open to the criticism that I do not often enough ground the persons and ideas I discuss in local contexts and social networks. I am reminded of George Fredricksons’ remarks in the 1987 preface to his book, The Black Image in the White Mind (1971), in which he notes how he wanted to demonstrate how ideas become instruments of group advantage or domination (more clearly than he did in his first book). Though I think my topic made this easier in some ways, I take this comment as a challenge to my own work. Clearly, when I cite early psychologists and liberal Protestants asserting that black religion is pathological emotionalism and predisposes them to erratic actions and sexually aggressive behavior against white women, it takes little imagination to understand the accusatory and sinister meaning of this claim in the context of public debates about the prevalence of lynching in the South. In fact, some of the critics were quite explicit about the need for discipline and the restraining power of the state for such an allegedly emotional and unstable race. What these ideas or cultural images mean is quite often clear enough, but how they relate to or translate into reality or public policy is a different issue.
Doing intellectual and cultural history always runs the risk of slighting social, political and economic situatedness and giving the impression that ideas and cultural images have an independent or detached existence apart from lived experience and material reality. Although I did not adequately portray the interaction between culture and social structure, I tried to focus particular attention on debates that emerged at moments of cultural transition and the actual movement of blacks. Thus I made note of black mobility, black movement from the South to the North, the rise of black leaders who were able to take advantage of limited educational opportunities and use these as tools to critique pervasive racism in various disciplines, and proximity and distance in the spatial relationships between blacks and whites (a topic to which I have become especially interested since reading the works of Arnold Hirsch, Thomas Sugrue, and David Freund). I saw all of these issues as crucial in shaping the nature and intensity of debates about black religion and culture. Ultimately, however, I defend my general approach to the history I narrate by arguing that I wanted to insert or recover a missing element in an array of studies on black political, social and cultural history. I hope to heighten the salience of religion for critics of black religion and let readers see how on a deep cultural and theological level the division between blacks and whites was in some ways just as significant as legal and political forms of segregation (though recent scholarship is complicating even these neat distinctions between the political, legal, and cultural). I also wanted readers to imagine how this overlooked reality might shed some light on another level of separation that would persist even after legal segregation had ended: the enduring cultural divide, which in part is an outgrowth of this longstanding animus against black religion. The moral and religious critique of black culture has powerful and deep roots in American history and this requires attention from historians of the black experience. I wanted historians to ponder this as a serious and real concern even if it may not seem as important as economic, political and social concerns, which by their nature have a concreteness to them that is seemingly lacking in the moral and religious issues that I narrate and analyze.
I felt that the religious history of African Americans, though obviously much work remains to be done, had already been told in broad contours. Similarly, the development and nature of slavery, the history of the origins and evolution of legal segregation in the South, and the course and contested nature of the black freedom struggle and the civil rights movement—all of these topics have attracted lots of necessary attention and we have some excellent studies on most of them. I just did not feel a pressing need to retell these stories. Let me state this clearly: yes, much work remains to be done on many of these issues, but for my purpose, I wanted to insert a missing element into or provide a different angle on already existing narratives about African American history and culture and histories of Jim Crow segregation and race relations in the North. Although this may sound overly ambitious, I see my work as a supplement to the work of different kinds of histories: African American religious history, political and cultural histories on various facets of American history, and the history of race relations more generally. I deliberately made this a story of interracial debate, dialogue and fierce argumentation. All of these ideas about black religion involved back and forth debates and shared discussions between blacks and whites, though clearly blacks did not possess the power, cultural authority or the luxury of “dispassionate” inquiry as did their white counterparts. I am not making a claim of parity in these debates as though blacks were on equal terms with whites. No one who is aware of the history of violence in the South and North and the depth of racial oppression in America would take this view. Yet, I tried to show how blacks and whites, though often separated by space, power, and various institutional and informal forms of segregation in the South and North, were in actuality in an ongoing sparring match, with both of them trying to craft a more compelling narrative about the meaning of black religion and the cultural contributions and place of blacks in the nation. Sometimes these debates were face to face and directly dealt with black religion and thus involved some degree of mutuality and sharing. At other times, blacks were handed a narrative or had to deal with an imposed vision, which they tried in various ways to appropriate, amend, subvert, or reject. But they could not opt out of this debate because it was such a pressing one about the tortured and painful history of racial oppression and the future prospects of blacks and whites sharing in a multiracial democracy (which was envisioned by a small minority before the period at which my book ends).
BB: Discuss the book’s cover.
CE: There is nothing terribly significant about the book’s cover. It was taken from a reproduced image in Harper’s Monthly in 1865. Various other publications carried similar portrayals of black religious revivals. The cover shows the preacher delivering a sermon to a crowd of believers, mostly women, who are falling to the ground in religious ecstasy. These kinds of images were used to portray a caricature of black religiosity as excessively physical and emotional. Yet, this image can also be seen as that intense moment in the worship experience where blacks felt released from their burdens and sensed a palpable relief from the troubles and struggles that they endured through the week. It conveys one of the senses in which I mean the burden of black religion. I was casting about for a different cover to match more fully the title and subject matter of the book, but my editor favored and we settled on this one.
BB: You spend the first two chapters detailing the ironies and contradictions of white notions of Black religiosity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What are the most pertinent conclusions from this period about carrying the “burden of black religion”?
CE: First, I was especially interested in how debates about the nature and morality of slavery ended in terms of their reflections on slave capacities and ultimately the issue of what African slaves could perhaps contribute to American culture (particularly at a moment when discussions about American character and America’s relationship with Europe became so salient). My argument is that slave religion (as practice and cultural expression) was a crucial component in the national imagination about Africans’ potential place in the United States. Let me say a word about Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to develop this point. This work was written when the sectional conflict between the North and South was deepening and debates over slavery were raging. This was the first American novel to sell over a million copies. Regarding this influential and important work, historians and literary scholars rightly point to Stowe’s conflicted portrayal of black characters. Yet, I was particularly interested in how Stowe’s corporate conception of American black slaves and Africans rendered “poor Africa” as under God’s chastisement, groaning for relief from oppression and suffering. For Stowe, God had chosen poor Africa for some inscrutable reason to be put in the “furnace of affliction,” though she remained hopeful that this was a chastening work that would prepare Africans for a great work in the future (about which she did not offer specifics except to say that Africans would exhibit a higher and different kind of Christianity than whites were used to practicing). Because she was an antislavery activist, I do not mean to diminish Stowe’s powerful contribution to the critique of slavery as an institution. But I find it striking that suffering and affliction become for Stowe and other romantic racialists peculiarly suitable for Africans and are attached to their religious expression as though they are racial traits. Resignation under suffering is valorized as a distinctive contribution of Africans (and this view is forwarded at a historical moment of transition when some liberal and evangelical Christians bring graphic attention to the bodily pain of slaves and reject unmerited suffering as willed by God, as Elizabeth Clark notes). This puts American blacks into a cultural space in which they become exhibitors (as if on a stage) to whites of how to suffer and endure adversity. Ironically, suffering becomes a necessary condition for black religion to reach its highest potential. To link black religion to suffering and hardship has the effect (whether intended or not) of limiting reflection on its potential role among freed persons. It valorizes suffering and slaves’ religiosity in connection with it to such an extent that it is hard to imagine how one can forward a vision of free and independent persons if this suffering and dependency are so necessary. The black religious experience, which capaciously rendered is the entire black experience in America in all its tortured forms, becomes a cultural receptacle or the national unconscious repository in which are stored fears, fantasies, desires, and longings that come to the surface at moments of cultural stress. Talking about blacks then is a safe way to express deep fears, worries, and anxieties about issues that seem inappropriate or improper in polite conversation. Here we enter the realm of psychoanalysis and we are forced to reflect on the cultural work that is being performed by what Fredrickson calls the “black image in the white mind.”
Second, my first and second chapters try to detail the transition from debates over slave religion to perceptions of and discussions about the religion of the freed persons. Proximity is important here. The lofty language about the redeeming qualities of slave religion, and its putative softening influence and gentle beauty, disappears among the Northern Protestants working among blacks in the South following the Civil War. Many of these men and women made great sacrifices to work among blacks in the South and played a major role in establishing secondary and postsecondary institutions in the South. I want to note this fact because my comments about their views of black religion may give the wrong impression, that I am somehow depicting them as unfeeling racists who consistently denigrated black culture. That would be a simplistic and one-sided analysis of their relationship to Southern blacks. My argument is that if we pay careful attention to white Northern Protestants’ evaluations of black religious practice from the 1860s to the 1870s it appears that geographical proximity increased the degree of hostility against black religion. I am not certain if this is a controversial thesis, but it does lead me to disagree with Ed Blum, who argues in his impressively researched Reforging the White Republic that persistent interracial contact tended to melt whites’ stereotypes and prejudices. I should like to believe that Blum’s arguments are in fact true, but I just do not find evidence (on the whole) for his views, though it should be noted that one point of disagreement has to do with focus. Blum looks at private writings, journals and diaries, and he is more interested in the work of political figures. So his reading is broader than my focus on written and published missionary reports, newspapers, and Northern journals. My concern was the public discourse surrounding black religion, not private reflections. No one, it seems to me, has examined this material with such thoroughness as Blum has. Judging from his footnotes and bibliography, he seems conversant with all of the relevant secondary scholarship on this crucial period of transition. Therefore, I state the following point with some degree of hesitation: If we understand the formation of independent all-black churches as one of the most important social developments in the post-Civil War context and recognize the crucial role that churches and religious culture played among blacks in the South, would our understanding about the prospects of segregation emerging in the late 19th century change? If the churches were a central component of black life and were the object of such a powerful moral and cultural critique even among Northern Protestants who came to work among blacks, does this not add another layer of explanation to why race relations deteriorated in the late 19th century?
Perhaps I am making too much of this and it can be argued that I am exaggerating the importance of black churches. One has to acknowledge that other factors were at work and maybe other historians will say that these critiques of black religion, especially denigrations of black culture by white Southerners, were rationalizations for the oppression of blacks in the South. Perhaps, but it does not appear to me that there were any good “other” reasons for white Northern Protestants to make up rationalizations for black oppression if they are working to help blacks and engaged in a project of racial uplift. This is not to deny that Northerners often expressed sympathy for the alleged plight that white Southerners had on their hand or that they escaped ethnocentric biases against Southern white and black culture. My point is that if we take seriously their critiques of black religious and moral life then we can better appreciate how profoundly ambivalent was the legacy of Christianity for blacks. While a system of slavery separated black families and often allowed slave owners to sexually assault black women with virtual impunity, white Northerners apparently did not see the irony in criticizing black Christians for their alleged inability to honor the sacredness of marriage or to uphold proper sexual morality. Because of black professions of Christian faith, Northern and Southern whites judged blacks deficient in religious and cultural practice precisely because they shared a common Bible and (in theory) a common faith. The qualities for which black Christians were lauded in slavery (patience, fortitude, forgiveness, etc.) had lost their salience. Now, the abolitionists were just as concerned as slave masters of the late 18th century that Christianity was a disruptive force in that it inhibited slaves’ capacity to labor. In the post-Civil War context, however, thrift, industry, and discipline (variously called the Protestant ethic or bourgeois values) were seen as the necessary effects of Christianity and the crucial virtues that would lift freed persons from their slave past. Black Christianity was seen as a both a central part of their culture and as a signal failure in inculcating the virtues necessary for a free people. Christianity, in my view, was one of the central divides between blacks and whites, especially Northerners, in the late 1860s and the 1870s.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The next summer interview with Baldblogger comes to us from Chicago. The University of Chicago Divinity School's Curtis J. Evans will share his thoughts about scholarship, teaching, and his first book, The Burden of Black Religion. Please join us for this important conversation.
Evans has made some cyber rounds lately, engaging Georgia State historian David Sehat in a dialogue and discussion about Booker T. Washington and American religion in the Journal of Southern Religion. Read the concluding remarks here. Also, Paul Harvey recently posted a review of Evans's book at Religion and American History, and the University of Chicago Magazine published an on-line piece about Evans's new book in its May-June 2009 issue.
This is the first of several posts of my interview with Evans.
Baldblogger (BB): If you don’t mind, briefly trace your academic journey through your undergrad years and grad school. Any formative teachers? Why were they so influential?
Curtis Evans (CE): As an undergraduate at the University of Houston, I was forced to declare my major by the end of my sophomore year. I had taken a variety of courses, but I was still not sure about deciding on a particular major, though I knew that I had immensely enjoyed all of the courses that I had taken in the field of history. After I declared my major in history, which was partly just to satisfy the university requirement, I began taking almost a rough parity of courses in American and European history. The lectures, discussions and paper assignments in classes by Bailey Stone (a specialist on modern European history and the French Revolution), Richard Jackson (medieval history), and Hannah Decker (modern German history) all had a profound impact on my thinking about political, religious and social developments in the West. Decker’s readings on and discussions about the Holocaust indelibly affected my mental world and raised questions about how to explain and understand violence and oppression at particular historical moments. Probably no course had such a long-term effect on me more than Cheryll Cody’s “The Old South,” which was both a history of the Old South and a detailed analysis of historiography on antebellum Southern history. This was a small open honor’s class that had a heavy reading load, but I enjoyed few courses that were so demanding. Cody was passionate about the subject and brought us into a very different world through the readings and class discussions. Here was a person very fluent in popular culture and yet who was also immersed in the 18th and 19th century South. There was something about this white woman that was new and different. She walked around with her Coke in hand making odd remarks about Eddie Murphy’s jokes from time to time and yet she had full command of her subject. Coming as I did from a small town of about a thousand people (and we were living in the countryside among a few families amidst fields of cotton and soybeans!) and having had such a limited experience of the world before moving to Houston (which was overwhelmingly large for a country boy), Cody struck me as a person who did not fit the field of history as I had imagined it. Her very presence presented me with a different model of who is qualified to study and teach history, to the extent that I was self-conscious about my own aspirations to teach and study history one day. After all, I grew up on a small farm in Louisiana with a father who received a third grade education and a mother who had only completed the tenth grade. I was a first generation college student and had no model in my family or upbringing about the kind of work I was doing at the university. Though Cody served as a source of intellectual stimulation and personal inspiration (particularly through her feedback and encouraging comments on my papers), it was not until Hannah Decker and Gerald Goodwin (a historian of American religion) asked me to come to their office and gave me detailed advice and encouragement about going to graduate school that I began seriously thinking about becoming a historian.
BB: What inspired your interest in American history, and why race and religion?
CE: Taking courses in history at the University of Houston is what initially inspired my interest in history in general. I took courses in various areas: for example, I continued learning more about the Reformation when I took an independent study course on the Radical Reformation at Gordon Conwell. Decker and Goodwin helped me imagine a specific career as an American historian, but that immediate goal was postponed because I went off to seminary because of a number of personal issues that I will simply list here: a church split, stumbling toward and grasping for a broader theology in my personal life, and trying to find out precisely where I wanted to end up professionally. At seminary, I was unsure about what I wanted to do, though I think my wife felt I was training to be a pastor. Eventually, after acceptance and enrollment in Harvard’s doctoral program, I resumed my study of American history, though during my first year I was still not quite settled on precisely what my focus would be. I initially wanted to keep working on a topic that I had written on for my master’s thesis: how white neo-evangelicals, a group of second generation “reforming fundamentalists,” engaged race and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. [BB: see Evans's recent article on this topic in Harvard Theological Review.] After further study and conversations with my advisors, it was not clear to me that I had much more to say about this topic or if it warranted a dissertation-like study. I was particularly intrigued by a course taught by David D. Hall on the emergence of liberal Protestantism in the 19th century, especially as it related to New England prison reform, anti-slavery and women’s rights. The religious foundations of many of these reforms caught my attention. I went to David’s office to talk about a point that intrigued me in Daniel Walker Howe’s The Unitarian Conscience. I remember discussing with David Howe’s argument that the rise of organized philanthropy among New Englanders was related to the decline of the sacramental functions of the church. This led to a number of other discussions and I was trying to link this specific insight in Howe’s book to other topics in which I had an interest. Somehow that conversation led (apparently circuitously) to a suggestion by David that I look at sociological studies of black religion in the 1930s and 1940s, a period that was a heyday for the sociological study of black culture. David mentioned a few issues that were raised by these studies, but I was not all that interested in this specific literature. When I began looking at these texts, I was fascinated by what I saw as underlying worries among social scientists studying black culture that there were those who continued exaggerating the religiosity of blacks and that the notion of innate religiosity for blacks seemed to be an implicit assumption among some scholars and within realms of popular culture. Social scientists were distressed by these persisting ideas and it appeared to me that they were eager to discredit them. I wanted to know why. What began as an initial and hesitant probing of this literature led me to dig deeper into the specific sources that they cited to try to get a handle on the popular or cultural images of black religion that troubled them. What resulted was continued reading, trying to trace back in time how African American religion was understood and conceptualized. Eventually, it was not clear to me where to stop. How does one locate an origin of a particular discourse? David and I talked a bit about this problem of finding origins. Howe and George Frederickson in different ways wrote about romantic racialists and liberal New England Protestants who emphasized a religion of feeling and emotion and I found that many of these people had much to say about slave religion and seemed to particularly map feelings, affection, and a “religion of the heart” on slave Christianity. When I began talking to my advisors, I sensed I had a massive project on my hand, but our talks convinced me (though some of them were a bit worried about the size of the project) that I would have to engage in an analysis of the evolution of historical ideas, theories and cultural images of black religion if I were to make sense of the long-term historical trajectory of the kinds of issues that black sociologists and other social scientists were addressing in the 1930s and 1940s. In this way, my area of special interest became this complex intertwining of race and religion in American history. I am quite struck now by how much I took up issues that seemed to be addressed foremost in different ways in scholarly works of the late 1960s and into the 1970s: Winthrop Jordan, Fredrickson, Eugene Genovese, Lawrence Levine, and Albert Raboteau.
BB: What is a “typical” day for you as a professor, scholar, and writer? Similarly, I wonder if you can comment on moving from a state university (Florida State) to a divinity school (Chicago)—why the change and in what ways, if any, does the change modify how you teach?
CE: I am not sure any of us has typical days. During a regular quarter, teaching and leading seminars and class discussions occupy a great deal of my time. I spend much of the week meeting with students and reading and reflecting on lecture material because I give two lectures one day of the week and on another day we discuss the reading and topic of the week. At Chicago, we have the quarter system and teach two courses per quarter (that is, a total of four courses per academic year—my sympathies to all of you who have a much heavier teaching load. I am acutely aware that I am quite fortunate!). I am teaching some courses for the first time and these require lots of reading, attention to recent debates and new areas of research, and thinking about how to frame themes and central topics. But there are always “side” projects for me: trying to write an article here or there to address a longstanding concern or to engage in a more self-conscious analysis of what it is that we do as scholars (such as my recent debate with David Sehat in the Journal of Southern Religion), and attending regional conferences to see what leading and senior scholars are saying about our field and where we should be going from here.
One notable difference between FSU and UofC is that the latter has a lot of master of divinity students who are going into ministry and social work. They often have a different set of issues and concerns than doctoral students in history and religious studies. This is challenging for those of us trained as historians and who feel the effects of the older paradigm of objectivity and dispassionate inquiry (which I think was still an ideal based on some of the courses I took in history at the University of Houston). Although I did graduate work at a seminary, I am still wrestling with how to appreciate more explicitly theological questions students often ask or seem to have in their heads and how to address some students’ more urgent desire to acquire practical skills and tools from history to enrich their ministry or social work. I do not have any easy answers to these concerns and I find myself talking with senior colleagues and friends for advice about how to bridge the gap (if indeed it can be bridged) between a traditional approach to history, where we at the very least try to suspend questions about current applicability and contemporary relevance as we engage in our research and writing, and more practical questions about social and personal utility and relevance that seem to characterize ministry studies and social work.
I am not sure that my actual teaching has differed all that much, though, as noted above, the ministry student cohort does make me more aware of different reasons why people study history and religions and this very process is forcing me to sense the need for wider reading in what it is that defines our study of history and how it should or does differ from other fields such as constructive theology. Perhaps too this is another variation of the debate in the field of religious studies framed as a division between those who take a theological approach to the study of religious phenomena and those who engage religion from a social scientific perspective.
BB: You have an undergraduate degree in history, and you were trained in theological disciplines as well as religious studies. This gives your work a decidedly interdisciplinary character with considerable depth. How do these three fields overlap, interrelate, and/or otherwise manifest themselves in your work? What does the future hold in terms of interdisciplinary work on American religious history?
CE: I suppose my graduate study in a seminary context makes me more attentive to the salience of theological language and religious beliefs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s reading and citation of Scripture to reflect on blacks’ role in America and history, for example, cannot be understood without due attention to Protestant interpretations of Scripture in the 19th century and speculations about prophecy. Understanding Stowe’s theological worldview is absolutely crucial, but it is just as important to understand how Stowe is drawing upon contemporary racial theories to formulate her conceptions of blacks. Making sense of a complex figure like Stowe requires close scrutiny of theological language, historical analyses of developing racial theories and ethnology, and tracing the nature of incipient debates about challenges to received understandings of the Bible. This latter point is especially important when attending to Stowe’s contrast of Uncle Tom’s simple faith with Cicero as a representative of literate whites who are struggling with the truth and veracity of the Bible as a result of emerging questions in historical criticism and textual analysis, to which Stowe would have been acutely attuned in part because her husband, Calvin, taught Sacred Literature at Andover Seminary. A broad angle and some knowledge of different areas are required to get a firmer grasp on some of the figures in my book.
Perhaps also my recognition of white Northern Protestants’ constant critiques of black religious practice as deficient in adherence to the Ten Commandments is due to my familiarity with the significance of these normative theological commitments even for many Protestants who had moved beyond traditional or orthodox Christianity. My attention to theology also made me more attuned to a shift from a specifically theological and normative Christian critique of black Christianity to the language of psychopathology in the late 19th and early 20 centuries, which, while still normative and grounded in moral concerns, lacked the theological and moral specificity of Northern Protestant critiques propounded in the 1860s and 1870s. I think that my work in religious studies and history and my training at a seminary heightened my recognition of the intersection of changes in language (when theology figures less significantly) with the rise of the disciplines as generative of new questions and issues, and of different conceptions of religious practice as they emerged and impinged on interpretations of black religion. Perhaps my training made me more open to exploring not just change over time and how ideas and debates evolved in different historical and local contexts, but also to cast a broader net in placing professional sociologists and anthropologists alongside clergymen, activist critics of churches, and cultural productions such as plays and novels on African American religion (though I am not sure if this is because of formal study, temperament and inclination or the nature of the subject matter). In other words, the study and analysis of African American religion were never solely or primarily confined to any one discipline or field of study, but black religion was debated and discussed in a host of changing historical contexts, especially during moments of cultural stress and transition, and within a number of venues and settings (universities, churches, novels, plays, etc.). One then is required to be interdisciplinary by the very nature of the subject matter and also because black religion as an object of analysis was addressed by blacks and whites. This was so in part because it was broader than just religion (though religion figured centrally, in my view, in these discussions) and these issues were crucially about the place of blacks in America. One finds oneself grasping for a broader set of tools, different angles and a variety of approaches to come to terms with this kind of study.
I do not think that I am in a position to make confident predictions about the future of interdisciplinarity in the field of American religion. This topic was a major part of a recent discussion at a conference on Religion and American Culture. My good friend Lin Fisher has blogged about this conference on Paul Harvey’s Religion in American History site. There was not much consensus, as I recall. David Hall and others suggested that European historians (particularly British historians) have practiced a form of social and interdisciplinary history that has no comparable American parallel. The few examples given of interdisciplinary work were not only those written by European historians, but also about topics that were in another era in Europe (for example, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars was cited by Dennis Dickerson). In general, I sensed that people were quite content with disciplinary boundaries, though open to doing discrete interdisciplinary projects.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Baldblogger (BB): Can you discuss a bit of the history of writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home, in short the evolution of this project? What was your experience transforming the dissertation into a book? Any advice for those of us who are in the process of getting the dissertation manuscript-ready
John Fea (JF): The Way of Improvement Leads Home is not a revision of my doctoral dissertation. I wrote my dissertation on religion in the West Jersey colony. In that dissertation I had a chapter entitled “The Rural Enlightenment” which included a lot of material on Fithian. This was the best chapter of the dissertation so I shopped it around as an article and it was eventually published by the Journal of American History in 2003. I got a lot of feedback from that article thanks to the editor’s decision to use it for the “Teaching the JAH” feature. After the article was accepted, I decided to scrap plans to publish my dissertation and write The Way of Improvement Leads Home instead. There was much anxiety in this decision, but I knew that this was the book I wanted to write. So between 2003 and roughly 2006 I went to work on the book. I am thus not sure if I am the best person to give advice about turning a dissertation into a book. It seems to me that most dissertations will eventually find their way into print. This, of course, is no guarantee that people will read them or be able to afford them. Some young professors rush their first book into print because they want to beat the tenure clock. Or else they are so sick of the project that they just want to publish it and get on to something else. I fully understand the need to take this route. I am fortunate enough to teach at a place that values and supports scholarship, but does not require a book for tenure. As a result, I could take my time with the project and write the book I wanted to write. There was something quite liberating about this.
BB: What are some important things that modern readers can take from the life of Philip Vickers Fithian? Why does he matter for today?
JF: I try to speculate on this a bit in the conclusion of the book. For me, Philip’s story is an American one. He reminds us that Enlightenment cosmopolitanism always existed in compromise with local attachments. We Americans still pursue self-betterment through higher education. We travel around the globe and boast about our world citizenship. But we also long for the passions, love, and faith that bring meaning, in a transcendent way, to our lives. We are mobile people, but we also search for roots as part of our attempt to connect to particular pasts or places. We cherish unlimited progress even as we prepare ourselves for death. It seems to me that these tensions have always defined the American experience. In other words, many of us hope that our “way of improvement” will lead us “home.” Philip’s life has made me think about how I live my own life. When I started a blog [BB: and a Facebook group!] to help promote the book I realized that it was hard to separate Philip’s eighteenth-century story from my own convictions about life. Those familiar with my blog know that sometimes it is unclear when I am blogging about my own thoughts about place, cosmopolitanism, self-improvement, or ambition and when I am describing Philip’s story in The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I am not sure if this lack of detachment makes me a bad historian, but I just can’t ignore the fact that many of Philip’s convictions and struggles are also my own.
BB: Can you discuss the cover of the book?
JF: The cover is a colorized version of an 1800 black and white engraving of Fithian’s home town of Greenwich, New Jersey. I, and the folks at Penn Press, think it turned out pretty well.
BB: It has been a bit over a year since the publication of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. If you could revise or refine or rewrite parts of the book, what would you change (if anything)? You’ve traveled on the speaking/lecture circuit discussing your book. It is quite an achievement to write a scholarly book that non-scholars read with great interest; how has the book been received by non-academics?
JF: This is a tough question to answer. When I speak to popular audiences about the book I wish that the title was not so academic-sounding. I wish that I had written it more for the popular audiences that seem to be fascinated with Fithian’s life. They want to know more about his love affair (and love triangle!) with Betsy or his work as a chaplain with Washington’s army. They love hearing stories such as the one about how Fithian almost slept through Washington’s retreat at the Battle of Long Island or how a wild dog soiled his newly laundered clothes during his visit to the Susquehanna Valley. Yet I always remind myself that this is also an academic monograph—an attempt to prove myself as a historian. As I go around the region speaking about The Way of Improvement Leads Home I have become convinced that any future books I write will be written with a more popular audience in mind. I want my Mom and Dad—who are not college graduates or history buffs-- to enjoy my books. From now on I am going to save the scholarly stuff for journal articles and try to write books for general readers.
BB: What are your present and/or forthcoming projects?JF: I have a lot of half-baked projects going at the moment. I often have a hard time focusing on one project at a time. I tend to be intellectually curious about too many things at once. This summer I am working on completing a book titled, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: An Historical Primer for Christians.” If everything goes well it will be out in January 2011 with Westminster/John Knox Press. Sometime next year Notre Dame University Press will publish Confessing History: Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. It is a collection of essays on faith and history that I am co-editing with Eric Miller and Jay Green. Contributors include Mark Schwehn, Wilfred McClay, Doug Sweeney, Tal Howard, Lendol Calder, Christopher Shannon, and Beth Barton-Schweiger. I also have six of nine chapters written on a book about the history and memory of a 1774 “tea party” in the town of Greenwich, NJ. Those of you who have read The Way of Improvement Leads Home know about Fithian’s involvement (or lack of involvement) in this event. I do not know if this project will ever see the light of day because I am still looking for a publisher, so if there are any acquisition editors out there please drop me an e-mail! My next big project, which I worked on during last year’s sabbatical and continue to work on, is tentatively entitled “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.” This should keep me busy for a while.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Today we begin with the first part of an interview with John Fea, Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College, regular blogger at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and regular contributor to Religion and American History.
I first met John in 2004 at the Student Research Conference of the Conference on Faith and History Bi-Annual Meeting at Hope College. As I recall John gave a fantastic plenary talk at the Student Conference about growing up in Jersey in a working-class family, faith and the life of the mind, and life as a historian and intellectual. Then in 2007 I reconnected with John through the Religion and American History Blog. We've communicated regularly since then and he's been a great conversation partner about various matters relating to American religious history, publishing, and faith and scholarship. All reports indicate he's a fabulous teacher, and I can attest that he's a great writer and historian as well. And speaking of writing and history, let's get to the interview about his first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.
Baldblogger (BB): If you don’t mind, briefly trace your academic journey through your undergrad years and grad school. Any formative teachers? Why were they so influential?
John Fea (JF): Where do I begin? I really learned how to be a historian in, of all places, a divinity school. I entered Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL thinking that I might go into the ministry. (I did earn a Master of Divinity degree). But while I was there I learned that my real passion was history. I took an M.A. in Church History and did most of my coursework with John D. Woodbridge. While I was a student at TEDS Woodbridge was also teaching intellectual history at Northwestern in Evanston and was working on a monograph on French intellectual history In other words, he was not your average seminary church history professor. Through his courses I learned how to think historically and historiographically. I learned that there was always something at stake in the study of the past. When I got to graduate school in American history I found that I was more equipped than many of my fellow incoming graduate students.
BB: What inspired your interest in American history, and why religious, social, and cultural history?
JF: I focused on American history for several reasons. I grew up the grandchild of Italian and Slovakian immigrants. We were a Catholic working class family from northern New Jersey. I was thus always attracted to American history because it helped me to get a better understanding of the country to which my grandparents migrated. My family converted to Protestant evangelicalism when I was a teenager (that is a whole other story!) and I found myself immersed in a religious subculture that was very strange to me. (And still is!). When I got to Trinity I started reading the works of the so-called evangelical mafia: Mark Noll, George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, etc… I was fascinated by the way these historians were writing scholarly histories of the evangelical movement I had entered as a teenager. I wanted to know more about this movement, which ultimately led me to history as a means of making sense of my spiritual sojourn. By the time I got to graduate school I was more interested in thinking about American religion in its broader social and cultural context. Ned Landsman proved to be a wonderful advisor and early American history a wonderful field to study. I continue to work in this field because it allows me to think about the way religion informs culture and everyday life. I have always defined myself as an early American historian first, and an American religious historian second.
BB: What is a “typical” day for you at Messiah College?
JF: Teach, teach, and teach some more! During the academic year I am usually in my office at Messiah about four days a week. I try to teach all my classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and meet with students on Thursday afternoons. I also make every effort to take one day a week for writing and I often spend additional time writing on weekday mornings if I have some pressing deadlines. This past semester I sat on three very active committees, so my late afternoons were normally taken up by committee work. I try not to work at night so I can spend time with my wife and two daughters, but I will occasionally sneak back into the study for a few hours after everyone is asleep. We do a lot of teaching at Messiah, but the college has given me plenty of release time to support my scholarly work. I am happy here and have, over the past seven years, developed a sense of loyalty to the place.
BB: What are the best things about being a history professor?
JF: I feel privileged to get to do what I do. (I wrote about this in a Thanksgiving article in a November 2008 issue of Inside Higher Ed). I love working with students, although I sometimes wish I had more time to spend with them. Over the years I have had some great students who have gone on to do wonderful things. I enjoy staying in touch with them and watching them grow in their vocations as teachers, historians, lawyers, international relief workers, graduate students, and museum curators. I even have a former student with an M.A. in American studies who is a yoga instructor! As a kid from the working class, I have never been entirely comfortable as a member of the so-called “thinking class,” but at the same time I relish the opportunity to think, write and spend time talking—in and out of the classroom—about things that interest me.
BB: You identify your work on Fithian as a biography, and vividly intertwine the theoretical and pedagogical reasons for it (pp. 4-5). What is the best thing about composing a biography of someone who lived in the eighteenth century, and what are some of the limiting aspects or the most pressing difficulties of this genre? Did you take a previous biography (or biographies) you read as a model—or, what were some of the theoretical considerations you contemplated writing the Fithian biography?
JF: The Way of Improvement Leads Home is really hard to categorize. Yes, it is a biography and many of my readers are attracted to Fithian’s story. It traces, in rough chronological fashion, the course of Fithian’s short life. We learn about his school years, his love interest, his two years at Princeton, his travels to Virginia and the backcountry, and his involvement as a chaplain in the American Revolutionary War. Yet, I take so many detours from Fithian’s life story that some have described the book as “microhistory.” For a while I wanted to write something similar to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Midwife’s Tale, but I am not sure that my finished product comes close to what Ulrich did with the diary of Martha Ballard. Believe it or not, I actually got inspired by David McCullough’s John Adams. McCullough had come to Messiah College a few years ago and I drove him to the airport after his lecture. We talked about writing a lot and this prompted me to pick up his biography of Adams. While I cannot hold a candle to McCullough as a writer, his prose inspired me when it came time to write some of the accounts of Philip’s relationship with Betsy and his experiences with Washington’s army in the summer of 1776. If you read the book carefully, you will notice that some of the later chapters are written in a more of a narrative form. I think this may be McCullough’s influence.
BB: I find it very interesting that you refer to your subject as Philip, whereas most biographers seem to refer to their subjects with some “distance,” identifying them by a last name (at least this is my impression). I wonder if you can elaborate on this?
JF: I debated this one for a long time. In the end I decided that since I was writing about the inner-life of this young man, particularly his inner struggles to reconcile his ambition with his love of home, I would call him “Philip” so that my readers would feel a connection to him. So far it seems to have worked.
BB: Often biographers talk about putting their subjects on the proverbial psychologist’s couch—an allusion to an author’s psychoanalysis of his/her subject. Was this an exercise in which you engaged writing the book on Fithian?
JF: I don’t know if I would put it this way. Many who know me well have said that in writing Philip’s story I was actually, in some ways, writing autobiography. Much of Philip’s struggles have been similar to my own struggles as a working class kid trying to come to grips with an academic life. I think my experience as a first-generation college student, a Christian, and someone who has tried to reconcile my own ambition with my roots has actually helped me to better understand Philip. So I probably spent more time putting myself on the coach than I did Philip. In the process I became quite attached to this man’s story, although I can’t say that I ever really “liked” or “disliked” the guy.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Monday, June 01, 2009
Felipe was one of my closest comrades in graduate school (along with LKH). We took a number of classes together, and ended up defending our dissertations on the same day. Felipe studies Latino/a religion, and wrote a dissertation on race relations, identity, and the Mennonite church. Felipe and I are also on a panel about American religious history as world history at this month's World History Association annual meeting in Salem, Massachusetts. I'm also happy to report that Felipe accepted a position in the history department at Texas A&M University. (Two other friends who graduated in May with Ph.D.s, Derek Hicks (religious studies) and Luke Harlow (history), both of Rice University, accepted teaching positions at Lancaster Theological Seminary and Oakland University, respectively.)
I won't be too far down the road from Felipe. Last week I accepted a Visiting Assistant Professor position in the history department at Sam Houston State University, about an hour's drive from Texas A&M. I received my B.A. and M.A. in history from SHSU, and am absolutely thrilled to return as a professor.
The last few weeks have been a time of reflection. They have also been a time of planning for the next stage in life. Ten years ago this summer I was preparing for my final semester as an undergraduate. Now I prepare to enter the university classroom on the other side of the lecturn.
I started doctoral studies in the fall of 2002, and spent grad school registered as a part-time student as I simultaneously taught history at a college preparatory school from the fall of 2001 until just last week. I can say that I really did enjoy graduate school. I remember with great affection my graduate seminars, have vivid recollections of my comprehensive exams, and of course will not forget my dissertation defense for years to come. It was a journey, and I have many people to thank who helped make it possible.
But, I'm glad it's over, too. I'm looking forward to the next chapter.