Interview by Todd C. Ream
The Dean of Christian Scholars
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.