Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Reflections on David Bebbington Occasioned by his 60th Birthday

David Bebbington’s 60th birthday was celebrated at a special dinner at Baylor University on 9 October 2009. Scholars who gathered there to honor Professor Bebbington included George Marsden, Philip Jenkins, Timothy Larsen, Tommy Kidd, Paul Fiddes, and one of Exploring the Study of Religious History’s regular contributors, Jon Yeager. Here is one of the tributes, by Timothy Larsen, that were given on that occasion.

Reflections on David Bebbington Occasioned by his 60th Birthday

It is not for me to assess David Bebbington’s career, but rather for him to assess mine, but I can bear witness to things that I have seen and heard.

I first studied the history of Christianity as a Wheaton College student in the 1980s. We were aware of a dynamic trio that was conquering the wider academy – Marsden, Hatch, and Noll. If you listened more closely, one learned that there were other members of this cohort in America such as Harry Stout and Grant Wacker. But in the evangelical mafia of historians—as they were often referred to back then—there was only one made-man in Canada, George Rawlyk—and only one in Britain, David Bebbington.

In Britain, as far as I can tell, David had to make his way without any directly applicable role models or mentors. There was no contemporary academic evangelical historiography in a British context, and American attempts were in their initial handful of years. David therefore, while still in his twenties, set himself the opening task of working out a distinctly Christian philosophy of history. The result was his first book, Patterns in History. It is still in print and we should celebrate it now as well, as it was published exactly thirty years ago or, to put it in the light of the official prompt for this celebration, half a lifetime ago. Once again, it needs to be emphasized that David did not have evangelical conversation partners to help him formulate Patterns in History. Instead, he needed to grapple with a Marxist historiography that loomed large at that time in Britain.

Having been educated at Cambridge, David had taken a position in the History Department at the University of Stirling. Stirling was a very young and determinedly modern university. Theology was not to be taught there, and its history department certainly did not think it would be incomplete without an ecclesiastical historian. In other words, unlike Noll and others who were able to develop as scholars in a confessional academic environment that encouraged Christian approaches, David had to make his way by demonstrating that he was a good historian despite rather than because of his interest in Christianity. Even when I defended my PhD thesis in 1997, the member of the department who was considered to be closest to what I was doing, and therefore the best choice for the internal examiner on my committee, was a historian whose philosophy of history was most indebted to the Marxist approach. Part of David’s response to this situatedness has been to develop two careers simultaneously, establishing himself as a well-respected political historian as well as an eminent church historian. Most notably, he is one of the foremost historians of the prime minister W. E. Gladstone. While it might be an exaggeration in one sense to say that this is the British equivalent to being a leading expert on Abraham Lincoln—given Lincoln’s unique position in American political and cultural history—nevertheless it is pointing in the right direction and, moreover, it is unquestionably true that mastering the primary sources is a vastly larger challenge when it comes to Gladstone than Lincoln. And David rose to the top of the field of Gladstone studies in parallel with rising to the top in the discipline of religious history.

In 1989 came David’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. I have demonstrated the extraordinary achievement and impact of that book in print already, so I will not rehearse that here, other than to underline once again that, as a mere preliminary to a magisterial work which brilliantly and provocatively connected religious history to intellectual and cultural history across three centuries, he generated the definition of evangelicalism which still has a near monopoly position – Google is just one search engine among many compared to the Bebbington Quadrilateral among alternative definitions of evangelicalism.

I should say a few words on David as a PhD supervisor. Put simply, David has a premier ability to turn his research students into professional historians. One very welcome part of his secret in this area is an extraordinary generosity of time and spirit. As I said in explanation of my dedication of Crisis of Doubt to David: “I have never heard anyone speak of their doctoral supervisor in a way that made me jealous, and I would not trade my time with David Bebbington for the mentoring of any other scholar.” David mentors his research students in a thoroughgoing way from the minutest details—it took me several years, but he did not let up for an instance until I was able to spot a split infinitive on my own—to the broadest and most ambitious issues regarding making one’s way in the profession at conferences, in publications, and as a member of a faculty. David, on behalf of all of your research students past and present, I want to say thank you for the way that you so routinely and effectively go the extra mile for us.

Finally, I should like to observe rather impertinently that David is, to appropriate a snide comment of Mark Twain’s, a man with no redeeming vices. He does not drink or smoke. He is not a greedy eater. I don’t think he even drinks coffee but, if he does every now and then, I am quite confident that he does not do it in the heroic, American way of four or more cups at any given sitting. In other words, I fully expect that there will be another such occasion on David’s 90th birthday when the table will be abuzz with talk about a recent monograph of his. I just hope that I somehow manage to live to be there as well.

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