Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Celebrating the Career of Grant Wacker at the 2015 Meeting of the American Society of Church History

Those of you who have been following our coverage of the annual meetings of the American Historical Association and the American Society of Church History (ASCH) are familiar with Mandy McMichael.  You can read here previous posts here.

Mandy is a former student of Grant Wacker, the esteemed historian of American religion at Duke Divinity School who is apparently retiring soon.  As I joked on twitter a few days ago, it seemed like every session on American religious history at the ASCH last weekend was somehow devoted to Grant's career.  And Mandy was at them all!  Enjoy her post.  --JF


“Salvation comes in many forms. Today is one of them,” concluded Grant Wacker at the end of Saturday’s lunch in his honor.

The meal was one of several events organized during ASCH to commemorate Wacker’s upcoming retirement. Featured speakers included three of Wacker’s students (Philip Goff, Lydia Hoyle, and David Weaver-Zercher), his daughter, Laura Wacker Stern (Associate Pastor, Millbrook United Methodist Church, Raleigh), and Mark Noll. All of the speakers were phenomenal. Noll had the audience rolling within moments. “What has Wacker Whacked?” he asked. Answers included everything from academic pretense to excessive adjectives. Goff, Hoyle, and Weaver-Zercher told stories of Grant’s fashion choices (shorts, black socks, and sandals) and his grading practices (once typing comments on post-it notes). Stern recounted her years as the daughter of an academic, regaling us with stories of her father pulling off the side of the road on family vacations to read historical markers and the uselessness of her budding theological vocabulary on the playground. Speakers all emphasized the generosity, thoughtfulness, and compassion of Wacker as a scholar, mentor, and friend. After Wacker’s final remarks, he received a standing ovation from the crowd.


Back row (L to R): Philip Goff, David Weaver-Zercher, Front Row: Lydia Hoyle, Laura Wacker Stern, Grant Wacker







After the lunch, most of the room proceeded en masse to the panel, “BelievingHistory: In Celebration of Grant Wacker’s Contributions to American ReligiousHistory.” I snagged a seat in the back, but another standing room only crowd eventually filled the room. (Unfortunately, this happened a lot at this meeting.)

Nathan Hatch presided over the panel, which included Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, Kate Bowler, and Laurie Maffly-Kipp. Noll’s paper tracked Wacker’s approach to historical knowledge throughout his career from acknowledging the dilemma to setting aside philosophical questions to a kind of “aw, shucks” methodology. He praised Wacker’s later “belief inflected history” as “just as responsible” as other approaches. Noll posed a few questions to Wacker including one about what caused this shift. Joel Carpenter’s paper, “Getting Real with Grant Wacker,” noted Wacker’s penchant for conveying the thoughts of everyday people and “probing the questions that really matter.”

Kate Bowler, herself a “Wackerite,” delivered “The Wackerites: An Ethnographic Account of a North Carolina Sect.” She joked that many Wackerites shared the feeling of being “plucked from obscurity” by their beloved mentor. Their “testimonies” followed a predictable narrative arc and their sect abided by three Latin phrases that formed their “creed.” In English these are translated, “In charity, truth,” “In friendship, meaning,” and “Without clarity, death.” Wacker expected his students to employ a hermeneutic of charity in their work, to work well with others, and to write clearly. “Family comes first, but grammar comes second.” Wacker modeled each of these things in his own life as a scholar and mentor, gaining respect not just from his students, but from his colleagues. Indeed, he is thanked in the acknowledgments of more than 100 books in the field.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s paper, “The Stealth Sarsaparilla: Mentorship as Scholarship,” suggested there is a method to be gleaned from Wacker’s interactions with others. Wacker, she noted, trained and shaped a community of scholars that have benefited the field. She explored some of his processes to discern how his results might be replicated. His “generosity of spirit and acts of kindness” from reading and commenting on works in progress to always paying for the coffee provided one clue. Wacker also possessed the unique ability to “gather people together.” He managed to forge relationships and make connections. He practiced, she argued, an “embodied model of scholarship” that anyone would do well to emulate. Maffly-Kipp even suggested that Wacker offers us a “subversive method of constituting an academic career” though she was quick to note that he probably never thought anyone would describe him as subversive. He is a successful scholar not afraid to help other scholars achieve success. Indeed, he seems to enjoy it. “No one cheers…quite like Grant does.”


As his student, I agree. I never imagined that my advisor would care about me outside my academic performance. And yet, Grant saw all of us as whole people. He knew our spouses, met our parents, and welcomed our children. He touted our successes in good times and helped us “reimagine” new life through the bad. In short, he allowed us space to be more than just his students. I count it an honor to call Grant my mentor and friend. What a privilege to celebrate with him and my fellow “Wackerites” this weekend!