Joshua Guthman is Julian-Van Dusen Chair in American History at Berea College. This interview is based on his new book Strangers Below: Primitive Baptists and American Culture (The University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Strangers Below?
JG: The Primitive Baptists’; music, their singing. See, I heard the Primitives before I knew a thing about them. I heard a keening voice begging God for deliverance, a voice answered in long sonorous swells by others, all of them unspooling a modal melody, and the hymn itself sung so slowly as to melt its text into an incantatory strain that sounded to me like people calling up spirits. It struck me dead. I had never heard anything like it. It was beautiful. Those sounds possessed me and puzzled me and would not let me go.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Strangers Below?
JG: I argue that the Primitive Baptists, a contrary sect of antimissionary and antirevivalistic evangelicals, shaped two seminal moments in American history’ the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century and the post-World War II folk music revival while mounting what they saw as a defense of Calvinism, the nation’s oldest Protestant creed, from the forces of evangelical greed and enthusiasm. I tell that story through the often turbulent lives of black and white Primitive Baptists, lives that reveal the fractious origins of the southern Bible Belt and allow us to trace a key strain of Calvinist experience across the nineteenth century, where it was reshaped by newly emancipated African American believers, and into the twentieth, where, unmoored from its original theological underpinnings, it emerged in southern roots music as an enigmatic lonesome sound that appealed to popular audiences searching for meaning in the drift of postwar American life and the shaky days after September 11, 2001.
JF: Why do we need to read Strangers Below?
JG: Because you need—absolutely positively need—to readjust your ideas about the birth of the Bible Belt and the complex fate of American Calvinism.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JG: I never had that one decisive moment. There were, however, early sparks. Here are two: as a nineteen-year-old, when I took seminar on technology and American culture with Carl Smith, who taught me a new way of thinking about the past, and a moment in a bookstore in Encino, California nearly twenty years ago when I stumbled upon Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, a book that was both revelation and confirmation. I found a kinship with Carl and Bob because each had deep imaginative connection to the past. Neither of them is what you would call a down-the-line historian, but each conjured the past in ways that seemed magical to me.
JF: What is your next project?
JG: I want to tell a story about the worlds seething beneath what we still glibly call the Second Great Awakening. That’s what I’m working on. I guess you could call it a narrative history, but that’s a pallid term. Writing historical stories—true stories that entertain and enlighten—is the most exciting challenge for me right now. And this Jew from Los Angeles has found a happy home in the religious hothouse of the early nineteenth century, so that’s where these stories will unfold.
JF: Thanks, Joshua!