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Interview by Todd C. Ream

The Dean of Christian Scholars

A conversation with Mark Noll.

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.

What teachers proved to have the greatest influence on your life?

I was glad that I was recently able to publish a memoir, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian's Discovery of the Global Christian Story, with Baker Books, because in that volume I could express public thanks for several teachers who left a deep impression. At Wheaton as an undergraduate, I had remarkable teachers. In that memoir, I mentioned Arthur Holmes and Clyde Kilby—both of whom were inspiring as teachers of subject matter but also inspiring as teachers of undergraduates. Frank Bellinger in the political science department was a practitioner, a member of the DuPage County board, and was for me a real eye-opener, since evangelicals in the 1960s and early '70s tended to be suspicious of political life (though soon thereafter we'd be in it head over heels). Frank took it in stride and was a good instructor. Bob Warburton in the English department was serious about literature—a really good critic. When I wrote a senior honors paper for him on the novels of Thomas Hardy as tragedy, his patience with a novice went far beyond the call of duty.

During the year I did comparative literature at the University of Iowa, a professor of German, John A. A. TerHaar, was the right kind of instructor for someone who was trying to read Schelling and other Romantic writers. I found out later he was an active supporter of the Christian group on campus and that made it even more meaningful.

At Trinity Seminary, David Wells was a major influence—a theologically minded person, very orthodox in his own Christian faith, who yet understood the importance of historical investigation. It was either my first or second year there when George Marsden came to do a visiting year at Trinity Seminary. George, David Wells, and I met for coffee almost weekly during that year, which in many ways served me as graduate school. Here were two really sharp people, two very seriously committed Christian people, who, as examples more than as preceptors, showed not just the value of the intellectual life, but some of the … I don't know what you would call it … perhaps the simple joy of intellectual life. I had known George for some time, but not too much really, and I had taken courses from David. Their combined influence was life-transforming. I don't think I have ever had better models or exemplars for what the Christian academic life might mean. With such teachers I have been genuinely blessed.

What scholars proved most influential in terms of how you understand and do history?

I remain deeply impressed with the first serious books I read on the Reformation—Roland Bainton's biography of Martin Luther, A. G Dickens' history of the English Reformation, Jaroslav Pelikan's writing on the Reformation and much else. When I shifted to early American history, I was really fortunate to come on the scene when Perry Miller's star was in its ascendency. Eventually I did come to see some of the weaknesses and blind spots in his work, but I have never ceased to be impressed by his dedication to the importance of ideas and to the importance of understanding these ideas in their cultural contexts.

I also feel extremely fortunate to work in a field where really good scholars have done great work on topics of interest to me. They were not necessarily Christian believers, though in some cases they were. Yet they all shared a real sensitivity to Christian convictions and the relationship of Christianity to broader social settings. I would put in that group Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, David Hall, Daniel Walker Howe, Henry May, and, in his own way, Richard Bushman. (I think Richard Bushman is two historians—one when he is writing about Mormon topics, and one when he is not writing about Mormon topics—both estimable but in different ways.) But these historians, some I have met and some I have never met, were to me great models of outstanding historical scholars. I then felt providentially fortunate to have peers like George and then Nathan Hatch, Harry Stout, Grant Wacker. They are terrific historians. The chance to work with them has been another great blessing.

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.

The field at large has been enriched by shifting toward "religion in American society"—people coming from sociology, anthropology, sometimes politics, sometimes religious studies. Their focus has been more on what religious developments in the US mean over and against US history. I have benefited much from that kind of scholarship.

You've written on The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and God and Race in American Politics. Are there historical insights that might be of use to us amid racial conflict today—perhaps ignored or distorted in much public discourse?

These books are substantially products of the larger effort I mentioned earlier, to study the history of the Bible in American public life. In that history, most of the really difficult questions have concerned Scripture and slavery or Scripture and race. That study has in some ways been extremely disconcerting, for as a Bible-believer myself it is painful to view deeply engrained cultural convictions eviscerate apparently straightforward biblical teaching. (If others whose faith is deeper than my own have, for example, used Scripture to condemn interracial marriage or have ignored the Golden Rule when considering the legitimacy of slavery, where do my own cultural convictions keep me seeing and following the way of Christ?) After so much study, I should have come up with more than two conclusions, but these are what I have: First, despite abuses of many kinds in putting Scripture to use, the biblical message of liberation in Christ has never faltered, especially among people for whom no one else cares. Second, danger lurks when I move from trusting the biblical message that brought me reconciliation with God to thinking I can definitely proclaim God's will for other people or the entire society. This danger need not necessarily lead to disaster, though it has far too often resulted in that outcome—and from both the conservative Right and the progressive Left.

If you were to offer a concise definition of evangelicalism, how might it differ from the working definition you started out with?

What has become clearer over time is what I think I was working with intuitively early on in my career. It was useful very early on to do a book of essays called The Gospel in America, where we tried to give a kind of thematic account of several aspects of evangelical life. At the time we were talking about groups that shared a certain code of beliefs and practices and shared also a certain historical background.

Subsequently, a great contribution came from David Bebbington and his full definition of evangelicalism, which works quite well for many purposes: 1) the Bible is supreme authority; 2) the cross is significant and foundational to theology; 3) conversion to Christ is essential; and 4) activity in living the Christian life, particularly with regards to the practice of evangelism. I still think, however, that any kind of programmatic, doctrinal, or behavioral definition of evangelicalism needs to have some sense of historical development.

At the present, and I'm delighted and witness it here at Notre Dame, there is a small minority of Roman Catholics who have all of the evangelical characteristics. Are they evangelicals? Well, from one angle, yes. Do they share the history from the Protestant Reformation to pietism through the evangelical revivals through the 19th century's more democratic mission enterprises? No, they don't. These days I'm not really too interested in trying to define things precisely, except as definitions are necessary for people to define their research projects.

In what ways, if at all, has your understanding of Christian scholarship changed over the course of your career?

I don't think much has changed, though my thinking has deepened over the course of a life in the academy. Certainly, beginning with David Wells and George Marsden, I had a very strong sense that there needed to be a serious commitment to the Christian faith itself, but also a discerning commitment to broader intellectual standards. That can be a tightrope that is difficult to walk. The element that has been added over time is an awareness that Christian scholars need to truly live as Christians in all aspects of their lives. That insight was present maybe in vestigial forms early on. But from our great friend from Canada, George Rawlyk, I think all of us associated with him learned about how important life was alongside scholarship. George was an outgoing Slav instead of a diffident Teuton and very much concerned about the personal lives, including the personal spiritual lives, of his historian friends. It was clear from what he said and what other people reflected on his career, after he had passed away in 1995, that he was a great Christian scholar partly because of the significance of his works, but just as much because of the significance of his life.

What do you have planned after your formal retirement in May?

Like so many people who "retire," I hope to keep on doing many of the things I've always done, with fewer restrictions on my time. I would like to finish the project on the Bible in American public life into the early 20th century. I also have ideas for projects having to do with hymnody and Canada, and several plots for novels are bouncing around in my mind. My wife would say, and I would agree with her, that I've got to do something with my books because I've got too many of them to move to a smaller accommodation.

I am also very concerned about the placement of PhD students. I feel extremely privileged to have worked with excellent students. But I am also aware of the terrific strain in finding regular employment. So I write a lot of letters of recommendation these days, and I expect to be doing that for quite a few years into the future as the Lord gives me health and keeps my mind sane. I'm very much committed to that enterprise and will not mind at all requests to write letters so long as I can handle a keyboard and have something rational to commend about students.

Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University and research fellow with Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book, Restoring the Soul of the University (with Perry L. Glanzer and Nathan Alleman), is scheduled for release in February by InterVarsity Press.

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