Interacting with Authors
by Chris Schlect
Fellow of History
There is more to a book than what you can discover from reading it. Most scholars write books in order to engage other books; any good scholarly monograph is just one voice in a conversation, and one contribution to a library. Beyond its covers there are tales to tell about research travel, new discoveries, troubling doubts, editorial wrangling, and hard decisions. Just ask the author who wrote it.
Books and their backstories figure prominently in my elective course on the history of American Christianity. Students in this course read and discuss books; they discuss other books that critique those books, and reviews of those other books, and so on. An important feature in the course is face-to-face interaction with scholars. Students interact with authors to see how the sausage of historical scholarship is made.
Our readings this year included Jennifer Thigpen’s important study of 19th century missionary encounters in Hawai’i. In Island Queens and Mission Wives (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), Thigpen focuses on interactions between missionary women from New England and Hawai’i’s royal women. She argues that these interactions secured a lasting presence for both Christianity and Americanization in this crucial island hub in the Pacific. On September 8, Dr. Thigpen visited our seminar and gave us two generous hours of her time. She offered a personal account of her research and writing process, and detailed how her conclusions took shape over many years of hard work. Students asked her about doing fieldwork in Hawai’i, dealing with editors, and engaging scholars of varying perspectives. Thigpen eagerly addressed the students’ own reactions to her book, and the students came away with a new appreciation for the historian’s craft.
Later in the term, students read Matthew Avery Sutton’s recent book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Harvard University Press-Belknap, 2014). Sutton is an internationally-renowned scholar with many important publications and awards to his credit. American Apocalypse is the first scholarly survey of 20th century evangelicalism in a generation, and challenges scholars to rethink important aspects of this story. Judging from the reviews that continue to appear, Sutton’s latest book has definitely given scholars much to talk about.
Sutton also joined our seminar to talk about American Apocalypse as well as his other work. Among other things, he discussed his biography of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (Harvard University Press, 2007), which was featured in a PBS documentary. He also regaled us with archival stories from his current project, FDR’s Army of Faith: Religion and Espionage in World War II, which will be published by Basic Books in 2019. In this new project, Sutton looks at the roles played by missionaries and religious activists in espionage and covert operations during the war. Students enjoyed hearing about Sutton’s new discoveries about cloak-and-dagger intrigues and spy craft that implicated many missionaries.
Students interacted face-to-face with a third author when they read my own work-in-progress, Onward Christian Administrators. My project describes how, in the early twentieth century, American Protestants systematized their religious activities, placed administration at the center of their religious lives, and exalted organizational efficiently as a preeminent Christian virtue. I argue that fundamentalism emerged as an illustration of this administrative impulse and not simply a conservative reaction to theological modernism. I did my best to assure the students that I would reward insightful critiques, yet they remained generous in their assessments. I appreciated their thoughtful reactions. They got to see that there is more to my history obsession than what they typically see when I stand in front of a classroom.
This is less about historical information than about scholarly methods and arguments. It offers advanced lessons in how to read, and how to find what authors are really up to.