Subscribe to Christianity Today
Stranger in a Strange Land: Mark Noll
In this issue we feature a guest column by Mark Noll, who serves as Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.
The last week of last September witnessed the death of two historians who left an abiding imprint on their chosen profession, but who also contributed substantially to the invigoration of distinctly Christian concerns in the understanding of American history. Eugene Genovese, who died at age 82 in Atlanta, and Henry May, dead at age 97 in Oakland, were as different in personality as they were similar in historical achievement and biographical trajectory. Genovese never lost the rough edge of his Sicilian immigrant heritage. May was no less active or earnest, but he communicated openness and civility that bespoke his genteel origins and long life in relatively laid-back California.
The common personal trajectory was a move from the Left toward (and in Genovese's case, to) the Right. During his undergraduate days at Berkeley, then during distinguished military service and at Harvard for doctoral study, May went through what he later described as "my long involvement with 1930s-style Marxism." For his part, Genovese became notorious in the spring of 1965 when at a Rutgers University teach-in he spoke as a "Marxist and a socialist" to affirm that "he did not fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it."
By the mid-1960s, May was further along the trajectory that Genovese would soon follow. Charles Capper, in an illuminating blog post memorializing his former teacher, reports that an advocate of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement once burst into a class taught by May to announce that the important thing now (!) was to protest the napalming of Vietnamese. May's response was to shout: "Wrong—what is important at this hour in this room is [Jonathan] Edwards."
May's career as a historian remained fixed on the intersection of modernity ...