Monday, 26 December 2011

Will the Real Patrick Henry Please Stand Up

I just finished Thomas Kidd's new book, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (Basic Books, 2011). This is the sixth book in Kidd's astoundingly prolific career. Beginning with The Protestant Interest: New England After Puritanism (2004), Kidd has also published The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (2007), The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents (2007), American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (2008), God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (2010), and has a contract with Yale University Press to write a biography of George Whitefield. With roughly only a decade of experience as a full-time faculty member at Baylor University, Kidd and his impressive list of works places him on par with some of America's most seasoned scholars.

Patrick Henry consists of ten chapters and an epilogue and reads more like a popular biography of the patriot than a typical Kidd monograph full of annotations. Besides as a casual bedtime read, I see this book as a useful supplementary text for American history survey courses. Henry's story is placed within the context of life in colonial Virginia, the revivalist preaching during the Great Awakening, the Stamp Act crisis, the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord, declared independence from Britain, the fighting of the Continental Army, organization of the new republic, and the French Revolution. Kidd successfully argues that Henry is an important American patriot throughout this time, and not simply an orator who shouted "Give me liberty or give me death" and then faded into oblivion.

While I prefer Kidd's more scholarly monographs, in terms of the amount of information offered, Patrick Henry demonstrates that Kidd can write a captivating biography for a popular audience that is interested in American history from a Christian historian's perspective.

Jonathan M. Yeager

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Bible, the Problem of Pleasure, and Victorian Religion

A recent review by David Bebbington of Dominic Erdozain's excellent book The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, Recreation, and the Crisis of Victorian Religion (2010) is available on IHR's 'Reviews in History' web page.

Also of note on the RiH web page is a review of Tim Larsen's A People of One Book: the Bible and the Victorians (2011)

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Humanities Jobs: Are they Worth It?

Lately, I have been confronted with the question of whether landing a humanities job is worth all the fuss. It seems that everyone around me earns a higher salary. I recall, for instance, walking to the local Sheetz gas station and noticing an advertisement for a needed assistant manager who would earn close to $50,000 with additional medical and retirement benefits. Christmas cards from distant relatives have been arriving, alerting me to recent job promotions and extravagant vacations. What is striking is that many of the cards are coming from people who are ten years younger. I remember these former tykes playing with Hot Wheels and Barbies as though it was yesterday.

I contrast the successes of friends and family with that of the humanities professor. The latter often goes into debt in order to attend graduate school. Perhaps he or she is lucky to receive free tuition and maybe a stipend to undergo postgraduate work, but even with a small income stream coming in, the PhD student lives below the poverty line during the multiple years of solitary confinement that it takes to complete a degree. This situation becomes even more complicated if the PhD candidate has a spouse and children. Little boys and girls do not understand why their daddy or mommy has to be locked up in a room or library all day instead of playing with them.

The payoff, of course, is that one day the PhD degree will be earned and lead to a tenure-track position at a reputable college, university, or seminary. Yet, as we all know, these jobs are illusive and securing one of these rare gems has been compared to winning the lottery. But suppose that one does land a tenure-track faculty position, what then? The reality is that you now have a job earning the equivalent salary of an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant. Even worse, the teaching post you accepted may require you to move to an undesired location far away from relatives (or civilization for that matter). The teaching load might be a 4-4, or worse, with responsibilities to teach entry-level general education courses full of unmotivated freshman. Sure, you are now "Dr. so and so," but is an additional prefix to your name worth all this?

In thinking about the potential disadvantages of the life of a humanities professor, it is only fair to point out the benefits as well. First, there is the joy of teaching. You get to engage (albeit sometimes sleepy) young minds on subject matter in your field. It may not be your specialty, but the information you go over at least in theory revolves around your knowledge base. Prodding students to think about interesting topics and relevant issues can be very rewarding, and even more so if you have the chance to teach an upper-level elective nearer to your specialty. A college professor teaches more mature students than the middle school or high school teacher, which means that classes have the potential of being the site of stimulating conversations and debates. Second, you have much more time off than most working adults. You have an extended summer vacation (and part of the spring off for that matter), a long Christmas break, and your own spring break, not to mention additional holidays. In the summer months while others are slaving away or bored at a Dilbert-type office environment you have the chance to do a number of things, including outdoor activities, research, and/or traveling. Third, you are paid to stay current with your discipline, which means that if you enjoy reading, you have the best of jobs. Academic presses send you free copies of books for you to review for journals or as potential classroom textbooks. Books push you to think about the accuracy of details in your lectures or offer new insights for research projects that you are working on. Fourth, there is a level of respect given to professors. Students in most cases call you "doctor" and the general public perceives that you are an intelligent person simply by the fact that you hold a faculty position. There are many additional perks that one could talk about, but these are some of the basics.

All-in-all the life of a professor is a good one. But not everyone would agree that the benefits outweigh the costs associated with this type of job. Anyone who doesn't enjoy reading, solitary research, teaching (obviously), and grading should not strive to be a professor. Furthermore, if you want to be wealthy and have an extravagant lifestyle, a humanities professorship is not for you. The benefits of a professorship is very much counter-cultural in that instead of leading a fast-paced life that utilizes high tech gadgets, the professor instead plops himself or herself into a chair and slowly and methodically reads (usually printed books), writes, and grades. In an age when most people seem to have a thirty-second attention span, professors are called to read thousands and thousands of pages on subjects that would leave most people yawning. The bottom line is that it is worth it to endure the challenges leading up to a full-time teaching position, provided that a person understands what that type of life entails.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Southern Menace

Patrick Mason's new book, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford University Press, 2011) is a lively read about the perception of Mormon missionaries in the South. Mason argues that white Protestants in the South greatly feared Mormon missionaries seducing their wives and daughters. He begins with the story about Parley Pratt who was hunted down and murdered by Hector McLean. A poor husband, McLean nevertheless felt the humiliation of losing his wife to a Mormon and sought revenge for the sake of his honor. Mason claims that anti-Mormon assaults, although not often ending in murder, were present in all southern states in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. But of the fourteen states comprising the Mormon Southern States Mission, Alabama and especially Tennessee were decidedly the most violent, with the 1880s documented as the worst years.

Mason shows that Mormonism only became a national concern in the 1850s after the establishment of what outsiders saw as a Mormon theocracy in Utah Territory and the Mormons' 1852 public announcement that sanctified plural marriage. Polygamy represented a significant danger to most nineteenth-century Americans because it challenged the traditional view of the ideal Christian home. As a result, Christian churches around the country preached out against "the Mormon menace," making polygamy a central concern in moral reform efforts. Missions and schools were established in Utah with the goal of reclaiming and educating people about the evils of Mormonism. Not until Mormons rescinded polygamy at the end of the nineteenth century, did American hostility toward them dissipate.

The unruly atmosphere of the nineteenth-century South proved to be a particularly dangerous area for Mormons to proselytize. Mason provides a key story about the murder of Joseph Standing that illustrates the kind of anti-Mormon violence that the South was capable of producing. What is remarkable in the story is that everyone knew who killed Standing, and yet none of the perpetrators were adequately tried or prosecuted. In looking at the episode of Standing and other accounts, one gets the feeling that parts of the South run parallel to scenes from the movie Tombstone, with roving gangs inflicting terror and brutality on anyone who they wished without any repercussion. Yet these vigilantes were not composed of the dregs of society, but more typically middling farmers or workers who had a stake in the community. Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians in the South often looked the other way as these atrocities were performed, believing that Mormon polygamists to be the bigger threat to the nation's health.

According to Mason, anti-polygamy helped many southerners find common cause with northern reformers, religious leaders, and politicians. Beginning with Rutherford Hayes, U.S. presidents played a prominent role in the fight against polygamy throughout the late 1870s and 1880s. In 1882, the Edmonds Acts declared polygamy a felony and eventually both Republicans and Democrats joined forces to stamp out this ungodly form of marriage. Pressure was so great on Mormons to abandon polygamy that LDS president Wilford Woodruff felt compelled to formerly announce the end of plural marriage in 1890. Apparently, American Christians objected less to Mormon doctrines than the practice of polygamy.

Although based on his doctoral dissertation, The Mormon Menace is surprisingly captivating, and at an affordable price (on Amazon it is around $26). The story of anti-Mormon violence in the South needed to be told and Mason should be commended for telling this tale in such a spirited and engaging manner.

Jonathan Yeager

Monday, 12 December 2011

AHA and ASCH Conferences at Chicago

I am getting excited for the upcoming AHA and ASCH conferences at Chicago from January 5-8. In looking over the program, I see a number of interesting sessions. The standout is the Friday morning session, "Harry Stout's The New England Soul after 25 Years." Chairing the session is Mark Noll, with panel contributors Catherine Brekus, James Byrd, Thomas Kidd, and Ken Minkema.

Other notable sessions include the Friday afternoon panel on "Edwin S. Gaustad (1923-2011): Reflections on His Influence," chaired by Grant Wacker and the Friday afternoon session "Habernas, the Public Sphere, and American Religious History." Capping off the conference is the Sunday afternoon panel, "After Edwards: Appropriations of the New England Theology," which is devoted to an upcoming book (Oxford University Press) on the legacy of Edwardsean theology, edited by Doug Sweeney. I look forward to seeing this book in print !

Jonathan Yeager

New Issues of Fides et Historia

The new issue of Fides et Historia (Summer/Fall 2011) is currently out, and it includes some interesting articles and book reviews. The first section is a forum on "Reconciling the Historian's Craft and Religious Belief," and includes essays by Brad Gregory, Mark Noll, Anthea Butler, David Hollinger, and Bruce Kucklick (among others). I found Noll's article to be one of the most interesting. He examines the work of the English philosopher F.H. Bradley and whether scholars should value accounts of the supernatural when writing history.

The second section is an interesting roundtable discussion on the book, Confessing History. I think that Jay Green's essay expresses the sentiment of many Christian historians who look up to the work of historians such as Noll and Marsden.

Finally, there are a number of good reviews. Steven Pointer writes about Alister Chapman, John Coffey, and Brad Gregory (eds), Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion. All religious and intellectual historians should read this book. Yours truly reviewed the superb new biography on Adam Smith by Nicholas Phillipson. Timothy Larsen nobly defends Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy from the criticism of Martin Marty and others. Thomas Kidd brings to light Laren Winner's A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia. And Richard Gildrie reviews Mark Valeri's latest book, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. I have an admitted bias for the eighteenth century, but many of these books would make welcome additions to the personal libraries of religious scholars.

I am a proud member of the Conference on Faith and History, and the current issue reaffirms to me that other historians have a similar outlook on how to do religious history.

Jonathan Yeager

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Highs and Lows in the Life and Times of Phillis Wheatley

Vincent Carretta's new biography, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011) is simply spectacular. Carretta, a professor in the English department at that University of Maryland, has produced an engaging book on America's first black author.

Wheatley was kidnapped from an unknown location in Africa and put aboard a slave ship to America. Arriving at Boston in July 1761, Phillis was sold to the wealthy evangelical merchant John Wheatley and his wife Susanna. Named after the slave ship that brought her to America, Phillis probably could not have ended up in a better home. The Wheatleys and their eighteenth-year-old twins, Nathaniel and Mary, treated Phillis like a family member as opposed to a slave or even a servant. She learned to read and write, and showed an affinity for classical literature and poetry. Furthermore, the Wheatleys gave Phillis unusual freedom to mingle socially with visiting guests. Carretta writes, "The Wheatleys' treatment of Phillis enabled them to publicize their status, piety, and charity. They also used her to display their commitment to evangelical Christianity. They demonstrated that they could afford to spare Phillis the drudgery one would expect to be assigned to someone in her condition. Very few owners granted slaves the 'leisure Moments' that would allow them to write poetry" (23). This freedom proved beneficial to a young precocious girl with a gift for writing.

Carretta does a fairly good job at introducing the ministry of George Whitefield and Methodism in general. He shows Methodism as a despised movement due to its perceived emotionalism and outdoor preaching that infringed on the territory of resident clergyman in America and Britain. Carretta also rightly notes that many people disliked the fact that Methodist itinerants preached to the lower ranks of society, including slaves. Of course the hypocrisy of Whitefield is apparent in the fact that he purchased slaves to support his Georgia orphanage after denouncing the institution. Nevertheless, Wheatley and other slaves of African descent were drawn to the Grand Itinerant, perhaps because of his energetic preaching and message that an oppressed person experiencing the "new birth" would enjoy heavenly bliss in the afterlife. Although there is no record of when Phillis first heard Whitefield, it is possible that she went to his sermon at the Old South Church at Boston on February 27, 1764.

Carretta's expertise in English literature adds to the storyline as he explains the context and significance of Wheatley's poems, both in manuscript and published form. Carretta's research shows that Wheatley's first poem was not the assumed missing piece, "On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell," but rather a four-line poem about the Thachers, a distinguished Boston Congregationalist family. Carretta also analyzes Phillis's published poems, including "On Virtue," which calls on readers to seek God's grace rather than human wisdom alone, "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty," which praises George III for repealing the Stamp Act, and her most notorious work, "On being brought from Africa to America," which seems to condone slavery at first glance. Carretta, however, dispels the notion that Wheatley justifies slavery. Carretta states, "Modern critics have accused Wheatley, or at least the primary voice in her poem, of rejecting her African heritage and engaging in racial self-hatred. But such critics confuse accommodation with appropriation. Like many authors of African descent who follow her, Wheatley repeatedly appropriates the values of Christianity to judge and find wanting hypocritical self-styled Christians of European descent. Theologically, Wheatley perceives her capture in Africa as leading to fortunate fall that allows her formerly 'benighted soul' to rise to embrace Christianity" (61). The poem that set off Wheatley's career is undoubtedly her elegy on Whitfield, written eleven days after his death. "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield" was widely read by Americans and Britons and catapulted Wheatley to stardom.

As Wheatley increased her literary output and mastered her craft, John and Susanna encouraged Phillis to produce a book of her poetry. Wheatley's first attempt at finding subscribers for a book intended to be published in Boston was not successful. However, her fortunes changed for the better in a second attempt, thanks to the support she received from the wealthy evangelical patroness, Selena, Countess of Huntingdon. Archibald Bell of London published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773 with a frontispiece of Wheatley that was unprecedented in its depiction of a female author of African descent.

To promote the book, Phillis left Boston for London with Nathaniel Wheatley as her traveling companion. Carretta raises the provocative argument that Phillis might have wanted to go to England in order to seek freedom. Her arrival at London in the summer of 1773 was on the anniversary of a landmark court case in which Lord Chief Justice William Murray, the first earl of Mansfield, ruled that a runaway Virginia slave named James Somerset captured in England could not be forced to return to the colonies as a slave. His judgment opened the door for self-manumission by colonial slaves residing in England. The timing of Wheatley's trip to London is suspicious to Carretta, who sees Phillis weighing her options. Carretta demonstrates that Phillis would have been familiar with Boston newspapers relaying the case (the same newspapers that printed her poems). Even more important is the fact that Wheatley's London tour guide was Granville Sharp, who backed Somerset, and almost assuredly would have talked about manumission with her. Carretta argues that "It is unimaginable that while Wheatley and Sharp were looking at caged African animals, as well as the emblems of British regal glory, Sharp would not have brought up the subject of his judicial triumph the preceding year in extending British liberty to enslaved people of African descent. Sharp considered himself ethically and morally bound to help people in Wheatley's condition" (128). While we don't know Wheatley's intentions, we do know that Nathaniel, who now ran the family's business, gave Phillis his word that she would be freed once she returned to Boston. The implication is that Phillis knew her options and Nathaniel virtually had no choice but to free her.

With her new found freedom, Wheatley was not necessarily better off. She returned to Boston on September 13, 1773 a free woman, but now had to provide for herself. John and Susanna Wheatley, although under no further financial obligation to help Phillis, apparently allowed her to live with them. But with Susanna's death shortly after Phillis's return from London, and John's five years later on March 12, 1778, Phillis, perhaps wanting a better social footing, married the purportedly notorious free black merchant John Peters in 1778. Carretta, however, questions the reliability of the information on Peters, particularly since one of the accounts unjustifiably portrays him as "the villain in a Dickensian narrative of the decline and death of a sentimental heroine" (176). Very little is known about Peters or about Phillis in the years following her marriage until her death in 1784. Within the limited data, Carretta discovers that Peters lost a lawsuit which effectively ruined the couple financially.

Phillis tried to publish a second book, printing proposals in 1779 for a substantial work of three hundred pages and priced between nine and twelve pounds. The poor timing of this book and its extraordinary price doomed it from the start. Her proposed project never saw the light of day. Wheatley continued to publish occasional individuals poems, but never produced a second book. She died on December 5, 1784 and was placed in an unmarked grave.

Coming from someone who normally does not appreciate poetry, I was captivated by Carretta's biography. He does not over-analyze the rhetorical composition of Wheatley's poems, nor does he ignore the context of Wheatley's surroundings. Carretta writes like a historian, asking critical questions on points that others have assumed to be true. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in eighteenth-century evangelicalism and religious history.

Jonathan Yeager