Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Jon Butler on God, Gotham, and Max Weber

Last weekend I got some time to watch this great lecture by Yale's Jon Butler on religion in modern Manhattan.  Contra Max Weber, Butler argues that Manhattan is an "enchanted" city.  I assume that the lecture stems from Butler's forthcoming book on the subject.  Butler's lecture is worth your time.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #52

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Yesterday was another slow day on the ABS project.  I had to deal with some pressing matters at work.  

I am still trying to land a publisher, but I think we are making some headway.  Stay tuned.

I am back in New York for three more days--my last research trip of the summer.  

"Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Thanks to Charles Cohen for using Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction  in his University of Wisconsin-Madison seminar, "The American Revolutionary Settlement of Religion."

If you are using Was America Founded? this semester I would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #51

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I wish I had something more exciting news to report today, but I spent most of the day in meetings at Messiah College. However:

1.  I did get some time to organize my notes for the third chapter
2.  I had a fruitful e-mail exchange with a publisher.
3.  I cleared some space for a final summer visit to the ABS archives later this week

Stay tuned...

What Am I Teaching This Semester?

I am glad you asked.

I am slated to teach three courses this semester at Messiah College

HIST 141: United States History Survey to 1865 (3 credit hours)
James Oakes, et. al, Of the People
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography
Assorted primary sources

HIST 099: Introduction to History (1 credit hour)
John Fea, Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

HIST: 399:  History of American Evangelicalism
Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason
Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity
Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist
George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture
Joel Carpenter, Revive us Again
Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross

I am looking forward to the semester.  I am also thinking about focusing the Fall episodes of the Virtual Office Hours on the American Evangelicalism course. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 18, 2014

More From Buddy Hocutt on Using Your History Degree in the Marketplace

Buddy Hocutt is a 2014 graduate of the Messiah College History Department.  Some of you may recall that we recently interviewed Buddy as part of our "So What CAN You Do With a History Major?" series.  

Over at Reckless Historians, Buddy gives us an update on how things are going.  He landed a good job right out of college and continues to use the skills he learned as a history major in his work as a web content writer. Here is a taste of his excellent post, "History for Your Future."

I graduated in May with a history degree from Messiah College. I chose not to teach and not to work in a museum and I am doing just fine. In fact, I was employed before I graduated. A novel idea for most, but true all the same. While completing the second semester of my senior year I started the process that most college seniors do – searching and applying for jobs. Thanks to some due diligence and blessings from above I was able to find a job as a web content writer for a commercial kitchen supply company.

If you think that job has nothing to do with history you would be wrong. It has everything to do with history! In the course of the average day I do the three things absolutely critical to historical study: analytical thinking, research, and most of all, writing. History is certainly more than just those things, but boiled down, that is what you get. The names and dates provide all-important context for the analytical thinking, research, and writing, but facts do not define the discipline.

The job of undergrad historians looking for work is learning how to shift the perspective of potential employers past the objective parts of history and get them to focus on the transferable skills historical study teaches. I worked terribly hard at that and it paid dividends (not actual dividends, I am only entry level, after all, but it did score me a full time job with salary and benefits!). I convinced my interviewers (now bosses) that history is so much more than what they gave it credit for.

For starters, I told my employers that at its core history is the study of people. To do good history you have to connect with your subject on a deeper level; really get into their mind. Why did they act the way they did? What were they thinking? That idea applied directly to my job. As a content writer, I write all of the text you see on our website – blog posts, articles, and product descriptions. The goal of all of those is to connect with potential customers. I get my paycheck because people buy things from our company. If I can really connect with them about a product – understand why they might want something and how it will enrich their lives, then I am doing things correctly. I have to understand how and why people think what they think and capitalize on it.

Then I sold my employers on the concrete skills that history cultivates. Most people fail to realize that history involves a lot of writing. In fact, in terms of work, that is really all a historian does. And researching. Lo and behold, writing and researching are major facets of my job. On an average day, I do heavy research on the product I’m given to learn everything there is to know about it. Then I write a detailed, informative description of it. If that’s not history, then I don’t know what is!

I just completed my two month probationary/training period and at each of my progress report meetings I was commended for my researching and writing abilities. As I said, that is a direct result of studying history in college. My boss, a former English major, even told me she prefersto hire history majors. That is a working professional in a medium-to-large sized business specializing in kitchen supplies giving solid evidence for the usefulness of studying history. It might take some time for the majority to come around on history, but there is no reason your history degree should scare away employers. In fact, your history degree should push you above and beyond other applicants. It’s up to you to understand what historical study allows you to do and convince potential employers of its worth.

Glad to see that Buddy has joined Rachel Carey and Phil Strunk at Reckless Historians.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #50

Mark Twain visited the ABS in 1867
Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

Before I get started today, I want to thank the hundreds and hundreds of you who have been following these posts.  This series has become one of the most popular things we have ever done here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

With another partial week in the American Bible Society archives complete, I need to start refocusing my work life.  The new semester at Messiah College is almost here and as the chair of the History Department there is a lot of work to do before the students arrive later this month.

So what does this mean for the ABS project?  It means that I am facing some unique challenges as I try to balance steady work on this book with my numerous responsibilities as a teacher and an department administrator.  This will probably mean some very early mornings.  It will be essential that I get in several hours of writing and research a day if I want to meet the May 1, 2015 deadline for delivering the manuscript to a yet-to-be-determined publisher.

Last week I spent three productive days in New York.  Chapter Three, tentatively titled "A Bible for Every American," is ready to be written.  So is Chapter Four: "The Bible is the Religion of Protestants."  I am hoping to get a few more days in New York this week to finish the research for Chapter Five: "A Bible House Divided."  Finally, all the research for chapters on the late 19th century are complete.  Thanks again to Katie Garland for her work on this period.  

Stay tuned.  We are making progress but at this point it is hard to tell if we are making good progress.

The Author's Corner with Ann Marie Plane

Ann Marie Plane is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This interview is based on her book Dreams and the Invisible World in Colonial New England: Indians, Colonists, and the Seventeenth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Dreams and the Invisible World?

AMP: After I finished my first book (Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England, Cornell Univ. Press, 2000), I was looking around for a new project, something different.  I thought I might do a short article relying on a bunch of sources that seemed to have been overlooked—dream reports.  Since most of the reports were in well-known diaries or tracts, I was intrigued by these phenomena “hiding in plain sight” as it were.  I also thought I could probably use them to explore some new approaches to the history of the emotions, which had always been an interest of mine, but which seemed to have fallen out of mainstream historical discourse.  I never dreamed that I would also be writing a book that engaged with the history of lived religion.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Dreams and the Invisible World?

AMP: Dreams and the Invisible World argues that dreams and dreaming were far more important to the history of colonization of New England than has been recognized by scholars.  Both colonists and Native Americans paid careful attention to their dreams, and engagement with dream materials motivated action both for individuals and among groups during the seventeenth century, even though both societies differed in their understanding of where dreams came from and what they might require of the dreamer. 

JF: Why do we need to read Dreams and the Invisible World?

AMP: This book tells a largely unknown story, using previously little used records, and recasts the colonization of early New England as a colonization that proceeded as much in the realm of cognition and emotion as in the realm of economics or military conquest.  The religious conflicts that lay at the heart of seventeenth century New England can be seen in the varying approaches to dreams and dreaming, but these dream texts also shed new light on seventeenth-century colonial experience.  While the Mathers may have condemned Quakers for their “credulous” use of dreams, Cotton Mather and his wife engaged in acting out at least one important dream experience; and at least one previously unknown revitalization movement on the Maine frontier was centered on a Native American visionary.  Resistance to colonization among Indians—even after conquest—continued and was centered around potent dream experiences. 

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

AMP: I always loved American history, even from the time I was a little girl and my family took me to museums and historic sites all over the eastern seabord.  However, after toying with interests in linguistics and classics and contemplating a career in history museums, I decided to focus in on scholarship on the seventeenth century, and in particular, on seventeenth-century New England.  I came to that topic through my work as an interpreter at Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum of seventeenth-century society in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

JF: What is your next project?

AMP: Right now I have two projects—one is a study of Frank Speck, the early twentieth century anthropologist, and the nature of his relationships with Native Americans in southern New England.  The other, longer term, is on anger and violence in colonial New England. Right now I envision a book that looks at anger in a variety of ways—domestic, societal, and metaphorical.  I am not sure if I will work on dreams again, but I may.  

JF: Thanks, Ann Marie!

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author's Corner.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

Jill Lepore on writing

Matthew Stewart talks about Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic

Robert Tracy McKenzie on the liberal arts

An interview with Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, author of The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

An interview with Mark Cheathem, author of Andrew Jackson, Southerner

Where do history majors get jobs?  Inside Higher Ed reports on it here

New Robert Livingston document

James Oakes on abolitionism

Kristof:  Don't dismiss the humanities

John Turner reviews Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

William Deresiewicz responds to his critics

Republicans vs. the AP U.S. History exam

Religious faith and educated people

Is college doomed?

Historic house museums

Are we spending more money on bagged ice than ALS research?

The Wonder Years: An oral history

Conan Takes the Ice Bucket Challenge

I am still confused about this ice bucket challenge.  If I understand it correctly, the people who dumped ice water on their head were faced with a choice.  They could either dump a bucket of ice water on their head or DONATE $100 TO ALS.  If this is true, then the folks dumping the ice on their head are doing so in order to avoid donating the money.  What am I missing here?

Friday, August 15, 2014

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #49

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I ended my day in the archives yesterday with sore eyes.  I was reading letters from ABS field agents to New York headquarters during the period of the General Supply (1829-1831).  The script was small and the handwriting was bad.  I have one more box to read through today.  

Having said that, I am finding these letters helpful for getting a sense of the way the ABS promoted the General Supply (a Bible for every family in the United States) at the grassroots level.  The state and local auxiliaries were responsible for distributing Bibles to the “destitute,” but the agents organized the efforts of these societies, started new ones, and represented the ABS on the frontier through preaching and presentations.  Today I read the letters of ABS agents from Illinois, Arkansas, Virginia, and Ohio.

It was another good day on the publishing front.  I got an e-mail from a commercial press expressing very strong interest in the book.  Stay tuned on this front.  I hope to make an announcement soon.

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

1.  On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #47
2.  Why Reading Matters
3.  The Morality of Football
4.  Is America a Christian Nation?: A Conversation with Bruce Etter and John Wilsey
5.  The Author's Corner with Barry Shain
6.  The Author's Corner with Kathryn Gin Lum
7.  Wisdom from Wendell Berry
8.  On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #45
9.  Good Will Hunting and the Evolution of the Market Economy in the Southern Colonies
10. A New Kind of History Department

Thursday, August 14, 2014

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #48

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I am back in New York for a few days continuing my research at the American Bible Society.  When I was at the ABS last month I was reading letters and documents about the ABS and slavery.  I hope to return to that material by the end of the day today or tomorrow.  But yesterday I revisited the period of 1829-1831, the time of the ABS “General Supply.”  As I have written in previous posts, the “General Supply” was the ABS’s attempt to provide a copy of the Bible for every American family.  And did I mention that they wanted to do this in two years?  

Since I am in the process of writing my chapter on the General Supply I am combing the archives reading every piece of documentation I can find from that two-year period.  This includes letters from state and local Bible societies (auxiliaries), letters written by specially appointed ABS agents as they traverse the country distributing Bibles, and official records and meeting minutes of the ABS that focus specifically on the General Supply. 

On the publishing front I had some good news and bad news yesterday.  I got a very strong bite from a commercial/trade/religious press.  But my proposal was turned down by a literary agent and a university press.   My guess is that literary agents think it will be difficult to sell an institutional religious history to a major trade press.  Most university presses are very interested in the project, but are just not equipped to deliver a book in one year. 

Sometimes I wonder why I took on this project.  Who is crazy enough to write an accessible scholarly history of a 200-year old organization in one year?  I am enjoying the work, but I wish I had more time. 

The Author's Corner with Kathryn Gin Lum

Kathryn Gin Lum is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University in Stanford, California. This interview is based on her book Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction  (Oxford University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Damned Nation?

KGL: The bewilderment and bereavement of dealing with a loved one’s passing drove me to research the history of death as an undergraduate. I was surprised by how much has been written on death in comparison to what comes after. I found that I was less interested in death and more interested in how people’s ideas about the afterlife shape the ways they live in the here-and-now. Personal experience with the consoling and terrifying aspects of American Protestantism, and curiosity about the simultaneously ethnocentric and equalizing nature of the Protestant hell, also influenced my decision to write on the subject.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Damned Nation?

KGL: Americans in the first century of nationhood were not just the millennial optimists they are often depicted as: they were also deeply worried that they might be damned instead of saved, in need of redemption instead of a “redeemer nation. American evangelicals connected their own eternal welfare to their ability to save others, driving revivals, missions, and reform movements, even as the threat of hell also spurred others to adopt or create alternative beliefs. 

JF: Why do we need to read Damned Nation?

KGL: Few historians have taken hell seriously, tending to dismiss the subject as arcane and verging on the bizarre--and yet hell was a subject that early Americans took with deadly seriousness. Many today continue to do so. Damned Nation treats the fear of hell as a powerful motivating belief, on par with the political and economic ideologies much more commonly treated by historians. The threat of hell touched people in all walks of life, including those disenfranchised due to their physical appearance, gender, and/or age. Damned Nation lets ordinary people speak for themselves in diaries, letters, and memoirs, alongside the published writings of the more famous, like Samuel Hopkins and Charles Finney.

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

KGL: To be honest, I thought American history was boring in high school: it was only a couple hundred years long and every US history topic under the sun had already been covered by historians anyway. It wasn’t until I took a series of amazing college courses on colonial and 19th century America, and on American religious history, that I began to see the richness of the subject. A summer program with the Gilder Lehrman Institute confirmed my interest. Behind-the-scenes archival visits and candid interviews with US historians convinced me that there could be no better job.

JF: What is your next project?

KGL: My next project was inspired by my location in the Silicon Valley, where faith in technology's ability to improve human existence goes almost uncontested. I trace this faith back  to the nineteenth century, when many Euro-Americans believed that technology and Protestant commitment went hand-in-hand, and hoped that both would save the world. I'm interested in how technological development became a sign of religious difference, defining the "progressive Protestant" against the "stagnating pagan." And I want to know what residues of these assumptions continue to color our interactions with so-called "developing" and "emerging" nations.

JF: Great stuff! Thanks, Kathryn!

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author's Corner.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society--Update #47

Immigrants and ABS agents at Ellis Island
Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I am back at the American Bible Society archives in New York City. Yesterday was a travel day, but I did manage to get some work done on the ABS book project.  First, I had a good meeting with my research assistant Katie Garland.  If you have been reading these updates you know that Katie is working on the history of the ABS between 1865 and 1918.  In the course of our meeting we developed several important themes that we want to cover in this period.  They are:

  • Race, Reconstruction, and the development of a "colored" Bible society in 1901
  • The ABS strategy for dealing with urbanization and immigration at the turn of the 20th century
  • The ABS and the West, with particular focus on outreach to Chinese immigrants
  • Changes in the governance and structure at the ABS that reflect larger American patterns of nationalism and active government.
  • Bible translation issues
We do not think that we will have a chapter for every one of these themes, but all of them will certainly be covered in one way or another.

Katie and I also talked about whether the book should cover every detail of the history of the ABS or focus instead on  a few major themes without trying to be comprehensive.  I think we are going to go for the second option. Stay tuned.

Second, there were more developments on the publishing front today.  Things are looking good at the moment.  I hope to have something to announce on this front very soon.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is America a Christian Nation?: A Conversation with Bruce Etter and John Wilsey

Last November I sat down with Bruce Etter and John Wilsey to talk about everything from Christian nationalism to the founders' view of the office of the presidency.  The conversation was part of an "Omnibus" course sponsored by an organization called Veritas Press.  Veritas provides curriculum for homeschooling families who are interested in a classical Christian education.  Bruce is an instructor with Veritas Press and John Wilsey teaches history and theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Houston, TX.  Wilsey, as some of you know, is the author of One Nation Under God?: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America.

Here is our conversation on the question: "Is America a Christian Nation?"

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #46

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I did not do any writing yesterday, but I did work on several important things related to the ABS project. First, I established a working title: The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  This title is bound to change, but it is the one I used in my book proposal.  My only concern with this working title is that the word "Bible" appears in both the title and the subtitle.  I am going to need to work on that.

Second, I sifted through my notes on chapter three.  This chapter focuses on the so-called "General Supply," the attempt of the ABS between 1829 and 1831 to provide a Bible for every American family. This was an amazing and bold undertaking that does get enough attention from American religious historians and historians of the early American republic.   As I write about the General Supply I also want to include some material on the local work of ABS agents, the role of women, and the ABS's use of a burgeoning American infrastructure of roads, rivers, bridges, canals, etc...  This is a lot to cover in one chapter and I am not sure I will be able to squeeze it all in.  

Third, I received more responses from agents and publishers.  Two agents turned me down stating that my book was "just not right for our list."  Another agent was very excited to receive my full proposal. A few university press editors acknowledged receipt of the proposal and a few others responded to my initial e-mail query.  (I usually don't send a proposal without a short e-mail query).  One university press editor was concerned that the ABS might try to persuade me to write in a less-critical way about the organization and wondered what this might mean for the scholarly integrity of his/her press if it should publish the book (Nevertheless, she/he was eager to see the full proposal).

I am guessing that tomorrow's update will be pretty sparse.  I have meetings at Messiah College all morning and then I will be heading off to the archives for the rest of the week.  Stay tuned.

BOSS: The Biannual Online Journal of Springsteen Studies

The first issue of this exciting new journal is here. It includes scholarly articles, book reviews, and a section on archival and library collections related to Springsteen.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Wisdom from Wendell Berry

I found this article at Relevant Magazine.  It is entitled "12 Wendell Berry Quotes That Will Give You a Fresh Perspective."

And here they are:

On Sacred Space

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
― Given

On Knowing Which Way to Go

“It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

On How to Approach Every Day

“So, friends, every day do something that won't compute ... Give your approval to all you cannot understand ... Ask the questions that have no answers. Put your faith in two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years ... Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts ... Practice resurrection.”
― The Country of Marriage

On Nature's Memory

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
― Endorsement statement for The Dying of the Trees

On What Is and Isn't 'Christian'

“Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus' commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective 'Christian'”
― Blessed are the Peacemakers: Christ's Teachings of Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness

On Peace

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound...
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
—“The Peace of Wild Things”

On Understanding Your Past

“If you don't know where you're from, you'll have a hard time saying where you're going.”

On Why God Made the World

The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it.
What Are People For?

On Organized Religion

“As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.”
― Jayber Crow

On the Fear of the Unknown

“Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.”

On Teaching

“The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.”
— What Are People For?

On the Lord's Prayer

“This, I thought, is what is meant by 'thy will be done' in the Lord's Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God's will may not be the same. It means there's a good possibility that you won't get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.”
— Jayber Crow

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #45

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I took a blogging vacation last week, but my work on the ABS project continued.  I managed to put the final polish on Chapter One: "The Bible Cause in America" and Chapter Two: "Towards a Christian Nation."  Those chapters have been sent off to publishers and agents.  Responses are beginning to roll in.  So far nearly every university press editor who replied has been very enthusiastic about the project, but made it clear that they would not be able to deliver a published book by May 2016.  It usually takes 12 months for a university press to bring a book into print, but this does not include the review process.  University presses are required to send the manuscript out to academic reviewers (peer review) before offering a contract.  The review process could take at least three months.  This means that it takes, at minimum, a total of fifteen months to bring a completed manuscript into print.  It will be impossible for me to deliver a manuscript for peer review by January 2015.

I still have several more university presses to hear from, but I am not optimistic about this publishing option. I do wish I had more time to deliver this manuscript because some very, very good university presses have shown serious interest.

All this means that I will probably need to go with a trade or commercial press.  Some trade presses require a literary agent.  As I have written before, a few agents have expressed interest in the project.  I have had a few nice bites from trade presses that do not require an agent.   Only time will tell.

In the meantime I am in the process of working on Chapter Three and preparing for a few more days at the ABS archives.  Stay tuned.

The Author's Corner with Barry Shain

Barry Shain is Professor of Political Science at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. This interview is based on his book The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context: American State Papers, Petitions, Proclamations, and Letters of the Delegates to the First National Congresses  (Yale University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context?

BS: I was motivated to write this book, in the main, by three goals: 1) to attempt to adjudicate between radically divergent claims concerning the standing of the Declaration of Independence’s briefly articulated political philosophy in leading the colonies to separate from Great Britain, in shaping American founding constitutional traditions, and in helping form America’s incipient political institutions; 2) to challenge the methodology, frequently encountered in political theory, in which historical documents are selectively chosen and mined to produce favored outcomes; and, 3) to begin a process of re-assessing the place of democratic republicanism in the thinking of those attending America’s first three continental political bodies.

JF: What is the central argument(s) of The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context?

BS: I hoped to show (and believe I have) that the colonies’ separation from Great Britain was not intended by the majority of the delegates attending America’s first three continental congresses, and that most delegates outside of many from New England and Virginia continued to view constitutional monarchy, as developed in Great Britain, as a preferred form of government and republicanism, at best, as a necessary evil.  Additionally, I have tried to show that the dispute between the colonies and Great Britain was between them (including many subjects who would choose to remain loyal) and the British Parliament (not the king), and was constitutional in nature and not predominantly novel, nor theoretical or philosophical.  Finally, I’ve argued that the colonial delegates, as well as their parliamentary counterparts, failed to solve two pressing constitutional conundrums and, accordingly, the Declaration of Independence’s political philosophy with its republicanism and hostility to monarchy was, for most in these three congresses, something that fit poorly with all that they had strived and had dedicated themselves to doing for the preceding 12 years and, in truth, was a tragic outcome with enduring untoward theoretical repercussions.

JF: Why do we need to read The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context?

BS: This work provides the reader with a more nuanced (and, in truth, more interesting) view of a fabled American historical event than does the dominant, historically flawed, master narrative.  This, in turn, will aid the reader’s understanding of the often -- likely closer to always -- necessarily unintended consequences of political movements, even those viewed favorably, and their messy and difficult to control natures.  In short, a better and truer understanding of the Declaration of Independence and the history that led to its adoption, might help delimit the hubris with which Americans view their founding history and, possibly too, their confidence in their ability to control contemporary international events.  A more parochial outcome might be the limiting of the reach of political theory as a body of study, and its replacement with history, with all its nuance and inadvertence.  For those who favor the instructive nature of history and its inherent complexity as a learning tool on how best to approach life, this is all to the good.

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

BS: My academic background is in vocational education, philosophy, and political theory.  I slowly came to recognize, as with life, most of what we do as individuals and as peoples is less guided by tightly scripted philosophical narratives, often exploited and imposed after the fact, than by historical contingencies and, far too often, even accidents.  Accordingly, studying the American late-eighteenth century in search of consistent and enduring political theories, in my experience, proved fruitless.  I came to history with all of its complexities and lived-character, in particular the changing meaning of words over a relatively short span of time and space, as a consequence.

JF: What is your next project?

BS: Over the past several years I have been working, on and off, on two projects: one is making sense of The Federalist by reading it as a whole rather than essay by essay so that it can provide us with the metrics with which to judge its often contradictory arguments.  The second, and more demanding and longer one, similar to what I’ve done with the Declaration and the thought of the delegates to three continental congresses, is an assessment of a circumscribed body of documents, in this case the 231 political pamphlets written or republished in the colonies between 1764 and 1776 (in Britain, for the same period and on the same topics there were some 1200).  My sense is that the preeminent interpreter, Bernard Bailyn, of these documents, or at least the dozen or two he discusses (at best half dozen or so are regularly read or discussed by others), has, through a selective sampling of the texts, greatly overemphasized their consistency and their authors’ commitment to republicanism.

JF: Thanks, Barry!

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author's Corner. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Summer Break at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

We are going to take a short vacation here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  We will be back next week with our continuing ABS updates, new posts in the Author's Corner series, and a whole lot more.

Monday, August 4, 2014

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society--Update #45

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I spent about two hours this weekend on the ABS project.  The writing and editing process continues. 

I did not reach my goal to have the first two chapters complete so that I could send them off with a book proposal by the end of last week.  This week I am technically "on vacation," but I still hope to get some writing done. Stay tuned.

Image of the Day

It is gratifying to see how carefully the teachers in my Gilder-Lehrman Summer Seminar last week read The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  This comes from a middle-school teacher at a school in Washington D.C.:

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday Night Odds and Ends

A few things online that caught my attention this week:

The interns on Capitol Hill do not always have their facts straight

Gordon Wood reviews Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality

The wealthiest Americans by state

How to avoid being published in an academic journal

George Bernard Shaw defended public libraries

Why scholars overintellectualize religious belief

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Jonathan Israel vs. Lynn Hunt on ideas and the French Revolution

What should you do if you hate your Ph.D program?

World War I posters

Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow

Atlanta's oldest African-American church is being torn down

Jonathan Yardley reviews Elizabeth Mitchell, Liberty's Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty

Visualizing 19th century Presbyterianism

Public intellectuals have style

Charles Marsh on Bonhoeffer

2014 Gilder-Lehrman "13 Colonies" Seminar: Day Six Recap

Friday was the final day of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute seminar for K-8 teachers on "The 13 Colonies."  We had a discussion of The Way of Improvement Leads Home followed by a lecture on the First Great Awakening and a lecture on the anglicization of colonial America.  In the afternoon the teachers presented their lesson plans to Nate McAlister and each other.

I am always amazed at the way people respond to Philip Vickers Fithian's story in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  One teacher from West Palm Beach, Florida said that she finished the book at Starbucks and was so moved by the ending that she started to cry.  She told me that she immediately called her daughter to tell her about the book. 

After dinner on Friday night I went out for a drink with Nate and we reflected on ways that we could improve on the seminar if Gilder-Lehrman asks me to do it again next summer.  

It was a great week in Princeton and I am honored to have been able to work with such a gifted group of K-8 teachers.

If you want to know what happens at one of these seminars head over to our Twitter feed.

Here are a few of those tweets:

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Preserving the Religious Life of Early America

At least five of the teachers in Princeton for the Gilder-Lehrman "13 Colonies" seminar brought this New York Times article to my attention earlier this week.  Historians Margaret Bendroth and James Fenimore Cooper Jr. are traveling throughout New England trying to persuade local churches to turn their records over the archives and libraries so that they can be preserved and digitized.

I was so glad to hear about this effort.  I have done a lot of work with church records and have had many conversations with stubborn local church officials who refuse to give their records over to archives because they believe that they should remain with the church in the church building.

 Here is a taste of Michael Paulson's article:

Now, in a regionwide scavenger hunt, a pair of historians is rummaging through New England church basements and attics, file cabinets, safes and even coat closets, searching for these records of early American life. The historians are racing against inexorable church closings, occasional fires, and a more mundane but not uncommon peril: the actual loss of documents, which most often occurs when a church elder dies and no one can remember the whereabouts of historical papers.

“I have seen them be destroyed, lost, covered with mold or just forgotten,” said the Rev. Janet Leighninger, the pastor of the Federated Church of Sturbridge and Fiskdale here. “And as finances get tighter, as they are everywhere, and as congregations shrink, and they are doing that in many places, it becomes a matter of, ‘Do we do the ministry we are called to do, or do we preserve the past?’ ”

The historians — James Fenimore Cooper Jr., a professor of history at Oklahoma State University, and Margaret Bendroth, the executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston — are trying to persuade small town church leaders to turn over their records for digitization and preservation. They are focusing largely on Massachusetts because the record keeping there was especially careful, and on congregational churches, or their successors, because those were the official churches in colonial Massachusetts.