I have been reading through, bit by bit, some of the papers from the recent conference on American religious history held by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. It appears to have been a great conference with a lot of the big names in the field presenting talks.
This morning I read Jon Butler‘s talk, which was included in the conference under a session entitled “How Did We Get Here?” This session asked scholars to discuss the history of the relationship between humanities/social science disciplines and the study of American religion.
First, Butler shows how the historical roots of American religious history stem from the denominational histories of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Indeed, the goal of studying the religious past was to encourage the faithful and show the hand of God in sustaining particular denominations over time.
Second, Butler suggests that some of this “denominational history” still lingers in the work of American religious historians. Some religious historians today, Butler argues, are too “reverential” toward religion. The role of the historian is to study religion and its impact on society. It is not to affirm that “religion is good.” He chides those who reveal their religious convictions in the prefaces of history books. Butler wonders why this is necessary. Can’t a non-religious person write a good history of a particular religious movement without being somehow linked to that movement?
As someone who is a historian and a person of faith, I have always struggled with these questions and I still do not think I have come to a definitive answer. I am certainly attracted to religious topics because I am a believer, but good history is good history, regardless of the historian’s faith commitments or lack thereof.
I do think, however, that American religious historians can wear multiple hats and target their work towards multiple audiences. A historian with religious commitments might write a book for the academy or the history-reading public that is meant to advance knowledge of a given historical subject or help people understand their world in a deeper way. The church might also find this helpful, but the book I am describing here is not intended to encourage the religious person to commemorate God’s faithfulness in the past.
I am thinking here of the minor controversy surrounding the publication of Harry Stout’s The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Stout took a lot of heat from certain sectors of the evangelical Christian community for writing a book about their hero, George Whitefield, that explained his success in naturalistic ways. Stout suggested, as any good historian might, that Whitefield’s training in the theater and his ability to market himself had a lot to do with why the First Great Awakening happened the way it did. Some Christians had hoped that Stout might explain Whitefield’s success using providentialist categories. (Whitefield was a success because the spirit of God was upon him.) Stout defended himself as a historian in the modern sense of the word. While I know of many Christians who have benefited from reading Stout’s biography, his goal was not to encourage the church to a deeper spirituality by holding up Whitefield as an example.
But I also think that there are times when historians can use their expertise to help the church understand its identity. I even think that non-believing historians, or those who are not part of the church community in which the historian writes, might benefit from these books as well. For example, as many of my readers know, I am writing a history of the idea of America as “Christian nation.” The book is targeted to Christians. My goal is to get people in the pew to think historically about the relationship between religion and the American founding.
By writing such a book do I somehow cease to be an historian? I don’t think so. But I would also agree that this book is not a piece of original scholarship. I am not expecting it to be reviewed in The Journal of American History or The William and Mary Quarterly. The bottom line is that I cannot so easily separate my identity as a Christian from my identity as a historian. While my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, was written to a general audience of scholars and history buffs, this new book reflects my interest in writing a history that will benefit the church. As a result, my identity as a Christian who teaches at a Christian college will be important to this project and I will thus be clearly identifying myself as such. I wonder what Butler would think of such a project.
Third, Butler tackles the question of “theory” in American religious studies. He believes that far too much “theory-driven scholarship” is unreadable. It fails to connect with a wider audience. I could not agree more. Yet Butler also notes that everyone who writes historical scholarship is motivated by some kind of “theory.” In the Way of Improvement Leads Home I turned to agrarian writers and cosmopolitan theorists to help make sense of the tensions in Philip Vickers Fithian’s life between his local affections and his cosmopolitan ambitions. Yet I deliberately chose, for the most part, not to address this use of theory in the narrative of the book. Others might disagree with that choice, but I think it makes the book more readable.
Butler, as always, gives us a lot to think about.