Interview by Todd C. Ream
The Dean of Christian Scholars
Perhaps no living Christian intellectual defies the standard measures of one's legacy more than Mark Noll, who retired last spring as Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Noll began his career at Trinity College (Deerfield, Illinois) in 1975, leaving three years later for his alma mater, Wheaton College, where he would spend the next 27 years. In 2006, Noll left Wheaton for Notre Dame.
One could try to quantify Noll's legacy by tallying up the number of articles and books he has written. Doing so would not tell the whole story and, given their sheer volume, may exceed my mathematical skills. Another way to try and gauge Noll's legacy is by recounting the awards he received over the course of his career, including the National Humanities Medal in 2006. Perhaps the best way, however, is to turn to colleagues who have come to know him first and foremost as a friend.
In thinking about his former teacher, Timothy Larsen, the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College (the chair Noll once held), said, "I cannot think of another scholar who has reached such extraordinary heights of recognition in the secular academic [circles] who has also given so much of his time and attention to serving the church and speaking explicitly to a lay Christian audience. I also cannot think of another scholar who has been as highly honored and successful in the secular academy, who has also given of himself so freely, generously, thoughtfully, and attentively to his students, his colleagues, and even to random strangers soliciting his advice and input."
Recognition of Noll's influence is felt by senior and junior scholars alike. Bruce Kuklick, the Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that "Mark Noll was a great gift to me. He is an outstanding historian, and the class of the historians of faith. Most of all he has been a model for me because he lives the exhortation to walk humbly with one's God."
Molly Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offered that "More than anything, I think of Mark as a mentor—one of the most generous spirits in the academy, unfailingly openhanded with his time and insight, even to bumbling graduate students who show up out of nowhere to seek his advice (I should know; I was one). Mark has taught us all that while the historian's vocation may sometimes feel like a monastic enterprise, it is really a collaborative 'community of saints.' "
Perhaps Thomas S. Kidd, Distinguished Professor of History and the associate director of the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University, summed up these sentiments best when he contended: "Mark Noll has set the pace for what a forthright and humble evangelical witness in academia should look like. He is the epitome of a 'Christian scholar,' with equal weight on both of the words in that oft-used term."
In an effort to try and capture some of why Noll has become so important to so many people, I sat down with him in his office in Notre Dame's Decio Hall just prior to the start of his last semester of collegiate teaching.
At what point did you realize you possessed an abiding interest in history?
I read history from the time I started to read and then probably read as much history during my career as an English major in college as I did English. But I'm old enough now that when I studied English, the task of setting literary works in historical context was a central task—that was before the new historicism, and before deconstruction. My interest in literature, reading, and writing was both literary and historical. As long as I have been able to read I have been interested in what happened in the past.
Is there a particular figure (or event) from your childhood that you can remember reading about who you found more captivating than others?
I remember going to the library in probably the second, third, or fourth grade, and reading all the sports books I could find. But then reading about Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, or Ty Cobb seamlessly transitioned into reading about D-Day, Abraham Lincoln, the founding of the United States, World War I, and World War II. I really can't remember a time when reading like that was not just something that I did.
At what point did you realize history was your life's calling?
Certainly at some stage I knew I wanted to make my living dealing with words. Lecturing and writing articles and books thus came along pretty naturally. I applied to do literary studies in graduate school and was accepted at some graduate programs. I went on to study comparative literature at the University of Iowa, but it became clearer as my own sense of Christian faith developed that I was most interested in things that the Protestant Reformers did and most interested in the historical context of literary questions. When I finished the MA in comparative literature at Iowa, I thought I should study church history. I wanted to understand the faith, and it seemed like history was the obvious way to help me do that. And then you can get into graduate school and, lo and behold, you find out you can get paid for work on such material. I'm sure I could have changed at some point if doors had closed, but by following inertia I ended up being a historian.