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Grant Wacker

The Historian's Historian

On George Marsden.

On the Mount Rushmore of living American religious historians, four people hold a secure place: Martin Marty, Mark Noll, and George Marsden. (Borrowing a line from Marty, I haven't decided on the fourth one yet.) So it is altogether fitting that American Evangelicalism seeks to honor Marsden's achievement by tracing the capacious contours of his work in the field. The volume's editors have divided it into five sections corresponding to Marsden's five most influential books.[1] The first focuses on his biography of Jonathan Edwards, spanning the first half of the 18th century. The second covers his narration of the New School Presbyterian experience, unfolding across the middle third of the 19th century. Next up is Marsden's study of the secularization of American universities in the four decades flanking the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. The fourth section tracks Marsden's treatment of the rise of fundamentalism in the first third of the 20th century, and the final one takes up his history of Fuller Theological Seminary, centering in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Each of the five sections opens with a chapter on the "state of the field" when Marsden started to research it, followed by one on the book itself. The final chapter or chapters address subjects that Marsden did not cover but raised for others to explore. Most of the chapters were written by Marsden's former doctoral students, and the rest by historians strongly influenced by him.

American Evangelicalism showcases additional features. These include a foreword aptly titled "George Marsden as Scholar, Christian, and Friend," by four slightly younger colleagues in the guild (Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, Harry Stout, and me). A wide-ranging introduction by the volume's editors offers a synthetic analysis of Marsden's lifetime achievement as an author, mentor, and Christian public intellectual. Mark Noll's concluding chapter probes the reasons that Marsden's Edwards likely won more prizes, both secular and Christian, than any other history book ever published. A complete bibliography of Marsden's monumental corpus of books and articles, a full listing of his doctoral students, and copious endnotes for the individual chapters are worth the price of the volume, outrageous as it is. Not the least of the tome's contributions is a recent frontispiece photograph of Marsden: chiseled face, graying beard befitting the academic vocation, and eyes so piercing they could suffice for hunting bears.

In reviews of long, meticulously documented, tightly argued books, one often reads that a short (or even long) review cannot do justice to the subject. Same here. My grandma would have said, even more so. Still, a quick look will offer at least a hint of its riches.

First, American Evangelicalism reveals the astonishing chronological and substantive scope of Marsden's publications. They range from the early 17th century to the present and include biographical, denominational, high intellectual, popular cultural, and institutional genres of history. He has written books, including a couple of very fat ones, along with a never-ending output of chapters, articles, encyclopedia entries, and magazine essays. And decade after decade he's hit the academic stump circuit like a learned traveling preacher.

Most if not all of Marsden's books advance the same underlying argument: history is complicated. To be sure, Marsden has worked in a larger framework of "soft providentialism," as Noll puts it. But most of the time, Marsden suggests, all that humans can see is a play of lights and shadows. That plain fact manifests itself in paradoxes (unexpected pairings), or in ironies (unexpected outcomes), or both. The complexity of history permeates his books so thoroughly that one could speak of a recognizable "Marsden outlook."

Paradox turns up conspicuously, for instance, in Marsden's exposition of Edwards, who looked back to medieval theology and forward to Enlightenment philosophy, revered the moneyed aristocracy yet found his true calling in preaching to ordinary folk, upheld slavery yet devoted precious resources to the defense of Native Americans. In Marsden's hands paradoxes of similar complexity marked fundamentalism, which proved simultaneously doctrinal and experiential, Reformed and Wesleyan, insider and outsider.

The irony theme appears most strikingly in Marsden's analysis of the secularization of the university. Here, Protestantism proved to be its own "gravedigger." In the 19th century, Protestants hitched their wagon to the star of mainstream culture's authority. When in the 20th century mainstream culture sold its soul to science and democratic social ideals, rather than historic Christian orthodoxy, the universities followed suit. The result was the systematic exclusion of religious points of view (albeit not religious people) from the seminar table.

Marsden has written relatively little about method, but his working principles are easy to discern. Everything began of course with meticulous research. His work "smelt of the candle." Yet he was not a mere chronicler. Rather he insistently tried to figure out what the facts meant in their own day and what they mean for us today. That aim required narratives that gripped readers' imagination. Marsden showed by example that old-fashioned storytelling was not washed up, as more than a few quantitative and postmodern historians would have us believe.

Stories about the past place a premium on empathy, understanding the past in its own terms. That approach does not require approval of actors' views and actions—Edwards' defense of slavery being a case in point—but it does require a determination to see how actors saw themselves—what they thought they were doing—before moving on to critique.

Then too Marsden's writing style formed no small part of his method. He demonstrated the enduring power of clear, crisp sentences, mercifully free of jargon, packed with strong active colorful verbs. He knew too the power of the choice quotation, along with the spice of wit. Marsden quipped that Henry Ward Beecher never read a book all the way through, except, presumably, the ones he wrote.

Marsden's forthright embrace of perspectivalism merits comment. Many religious historians, believers and otherwise, have written without acknowledging their point of view, as if it did not matter. In contrast Marsden has always made clear that he writes from a Reformed (more precisely, Kuyperian) perspective. He sees history as a ceaseless tug of good and evil. The only enduring solution lies in a theistic vision of redemption. Yet Marsden presents his theological judgments in nonsectarian language and in a manner that many secular realist historians can affirm.

Marsden's perspectivalism has not escaped criticism. At best, some critics have accused him of reading history through Reformed eyes. At worst they've accused him of presentism (for historians, the unkindest cut of all). At the same time others have scored him for the opposite reason: succumbing to the academy's rules of engagement. For such critics, asking Christian questions of the materials was not enough. They wanted Marsden to come clean and give Christian answers by saying where God's hand had and had not written.

Each of Marsden's books formed a landmark on the field of American religious history. Some readers differed with his conclusions, but none could afford to ignore them. Throughout, Marsden spoke with authority. One had to read a lot of pages before stumbling on locutions such as "I think" or "it seems to me." Yet the authority of the prose gained gravity precisely from the humility of the voice, which former students have repeatedly noted.

Another recurring theme in this volume is Marsden's uncanny sense of timing. Publishing his fundamentalism study in 1980, just when the Christian Right was beginning to loom large, is a case in point. There is not an antiquarian bone in Marsden's body. Over the course of his long career, he discerned the questions people were asking at the time. The result was often so compelling that one reader would say, "I've found the book that explains me to myself."

American Evangelicalism makes clear that no one in the guild, living or gone, has exercised greater influence on other historians. Marsden trained nearly thirty doctoral students of his own, served on scores of dissertation committees, and read papers sent to him from undergraduate and graduate students around the world. Likely no name (except perhaps Marty's) turns up in more "Acknowledgments" than his.

Yet that is in a sense only the surface narrative. The deeper story of Marsden's influence lies in the accounts of how he treated his students and colleagues. Rather than just saying "I enjoyed your paper," he showed friendship by taking others' work seriously enough to offer sustained critique. Everyone knew that he aimed to foster clearer writing, sharper analysis, and tighter arguments.

Many of the best historians in the business—I won't name them since the list is long and I am sure to leave someone out—got their start in Marsden's seminar room or over a brew at "the meetings." And many of us—note, I switch to the first person—might not be self-professed Christian historians today if Marsden had not helped show the way.

In short, Marsden has been a mentor through his example of rigorous research, soaring imagination, courage to stand by his convictions, and humane collegiality in an academic world not known for an excess of humane collegiality. "If you want to change things," he once said, "do so by example."

Philip Goff, a prominent historian not in this volume, once captured the heart of Marsden's legacy with an offhand remark: "George constantly did things for others that he did not have to do." American Evangelicalism stands as a testament to the truth of Goff's insight.

Grant Wacker is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Christian History at Duke Divinity School.

1. These volumes are Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003); The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (1970, new ed. 2003); The Soul of the American University (1994); Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism (1980, new ed. 2006); and Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (1987). Marsden has written or edited ten additional books (and dozens of journal articles and book chapters), but these five books form the spinal column of American Evangelicalism.

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