Interview by Todd C. Ream
The Dean of Christian Scholars
Would you walk me through the process you undertake in developing a book project?
Most of the books I have written have been requested or suggested by other people. I probably have written no more than three or four books that were my own idea. Usually there is a sense of a problem I'm interested in exploring. With Princeton and the Republic, it was about how believing, confessional, theologically oriented people got along when the landscape shifted so dramatically from being a colony of the British Empire to being an independent nation.
I'm working on what I hope will be this set of histories on the Bible in American public life. One book came out this fall. If I can do the next one in two or three years, I'd be really grateful. But that project started after a conference at Trinity College in 1977 or 1978. We had a little conference of young evangelical historians I was getting to know, and somebody suggested a project examining the uses to which people put the Scriptures—at a time when the evangelical world was being tied in knots disputing over the character of the Bible. It was not surprising that at a luncheon with historians somebody said, "Wouldn't it be great to study how the Bible is being used rather than simply what people say the Bible is supposed to do?" Everybody immediately said, "Yes." Nathan Hatch was there and said, "I think I know Bob Lynn at the Lilly Endowment well enough that he might give us a small grant." Bob then did. We had a conference at Wheaton in 1979, "The Bible in American Culture," and a book of essays from that conference came out in 1982. I'm still trying to work on that larger project to this day.
Of all the historical figures you have explored, which ones have proved to be the most intriguing or inspirational?
I have certainly been privileged to do research on a lot of interesting people. Working on the College of New Jersey or Princeton, I found John Witherspoon, the president, and then his successors, Samuel Stanhope Smith and Ashbel Green, intriguing for very different reasons. Like many people, I have butted up against the impenetrable personality of Abraham Lincoln and very much enjoyed doing that. I don't think I ever want to write a book on Lincoln because we have such good scholars like Allen Guelzo who have done such splendid work on Lincoln. But I very much enjoyed trying to factor Lincoln into broader subjects. He played a fairly significant role in America's God and will figure in the 19th-century coverage of The Bible in American Public Life. He is so intriguing and so complex. Abraham Lincoln would be right at the top of my list.
The question about the most inspirational character is also a good one. I very much enjoyed working with my friend Carolyn Nystrom on a book profiling significant non-Western Christian leaders from the fairly recent past. We thought it was a good idea for Western Christians to learn about them, though given the paltry sales of the book that resulted, book buyers did not think it was as good an idea as we did! But work on that project introduced me to some really admirable people.
One who sticks in my mind is Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah, the first Anglican Bishop in India, who was a second-generation Christian trained at Anglican schools. He was active in the YMCA and became a very well-rounded bishop in the southern part of India. He was an educator as well as an evangelist, concerned about various forms of human development. His wife helped with women's education and reaching out to the Dalit, or the untouchable population. She was active in public life and a genuinely admirable person.
I've learned to think hard about historical figures from my colleague here at Notre Dame, Brad Gregory. He has helped me come to a greater appreciation for people willing to be killed for their faith, but also in some ways to kill for their faith.
In what ways has the study of American religious history changed over the course of your career?
The greatest change would be a shift in the center of gravity from church history to American religious history. When I was younger, the main names in our field were people like Sydney Ahlstrom, Robert Handy, Winthrop Hudson, John Wilson at Princeton, and Martin Marty—all of whom were really good historians, coming from church institutions, and all with a deep interest in theology. They were exemplary, I thought, particularly because they were able to thoughtfully relate historical incidents in the church to external, political, religious, and social contexts. To this day, I am very pleased to call myself a historian of Christianity.