Saturday, 7 January 2012

Rewriting American Religious History--The New England Soul

I am currently in Chicago, attending the AHA/ASCH conferences and enjoying every minute of it. The book exhibit provides the ultimate academic bookstore experience and many of the paper presentations have provoked thoughtful discussion on the craft of historical research and writing.

My favorite session so far was "Harry Stout's New England Soul after 25 Years," which took place in the morning on Friday, January 6. The only disappointment of note was the small venue. The program committee clearly did not realize the popularity of this session since chairs had to be quickly assembled outside the conference room, extending several feet beyond the entryway. Mark Noll, Catherine Brekus, James Byrd, Thomas Kidd, and Ken Minkema paid tribute to one of America's leading religious historians.

I have been dwelling on an insight that Stout gave in his parting comments. He explained that after spending over a year of research and writing several hundred pages of the original manuscript, he scrapped his work and started over again. He came to the conclusion that his initial probing into Puritan religious history was simply derivative of Perry Miller's magisterial The New England Mind. In order for Stout to break away from Miller's immensely important work, he would have to approach his research from a new perspective and, more importantly, utilizing a different methodology. Stout ultimately determined to write The New England Soul using the laborious method of reading thousands of manuscript sermons, as opposed to limiting his sources, as Miller had done, to published sermons. Thanks to Stout's painstakingly tedious endeavor, he has re-written religious history, dismantling Miller's declension theory of Puritan theology, instead proposing that there was continuity in the sermons of colonial divines from the seventeenth century into the eighteenth.

The lesson I drew from Stout's talk was to examine religious history from new perspectives, using fresh techniques and methodologies. If religious historians limit their research to the same primary sources as previous scholars, there is little chance of developing an authentically viable new thesis. A historian who is unwilling to look at unappreciated sources will almost assuredly never write pioneering works of broad interest.

Jonathan Yeager

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