I missed Carlos Eire’s address last night, so today was my first taste of the 2012 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. I missed the 2010 version, but my sense is that this gathering is larger than the one in 2008 at Bluffton University.
Some highlights from some of the papers I heard this morning and afternoon:
In the morning panel on American Anabaptist identity, I heard lots of echoes of the themes I tend to encounter in the history of Pietism (chiefly, the tensions of “hybrid” identity, particularly when evangelicalism makes up part of the mix). I’d love to ask Tim Erdel (Bethel College, IN) more about Pietism as one of five traditions (with Anabaptism, Wesleyan and Keswick Holiness, and Evangelicalism) shaping The Missionary Church (and its Bethel College). I learned from Philipp Gollner (who is going to be a great teacher, if he’s not one already as a graduate student at Notre Dame) that Mennonites historically distanced themselves from Sunday School, viewing it as an instrument of American nationalism. Which is interesting, but makes me even more nervous about teaching 4th graders this Sunday — already bad enough to being teaching without my wife, who’s in Iowa for a college reunion, but now I’m going to spend the hour wondering if I’m unconsciously inculcating ten year olds in American exceptionalism… Finally, it was good to hear more on the Brethren in Christ from one of our April colloquium speakers, Devin Manzullo-Thomas (BIC Historical Society). If you haven’t yet, check out Born-Again Brethren, the website on the BIC and neo-evangelicalism that he played the leading role in producing. It’s a nice model of public history, one that I fully intend to rip off shamelessly in some fashion as we look to present Bethel’s history for a digital age.
After a coffee break, I picked the next session primarily in anticipation of hearing a paper on the Federal Council of Church during World War I. But while that speaker wasn’t able to attend, it meant that I got to experience one of the occasional joys of academic conferences and listen to a talk on a topic I know nothing about that nonetheless proved fascinating. It came courtesy of Rachel Cope (Brigham Young University) whose paper on Shaker women permitted a reflection on how historians approach religious experience and belief. Against the more typically modern “hermeneutics of doubt” (or suspicion), she proposed a “hermeneutics of trust.” In the ensuing Q&A, two in the audience wondered if she hadn’t gone a bit too far and sought a middle ground between doubt and trust, so Cope helpfully referred us to Stuart Parker’s “hermeneutics of generosity” or “empathy,” proposed in a recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History. (Stumbling into her talk also led me to a pair of fascinating posts by Dr. Cope at the blog The Juvenile Instructor: one on her intellectual autobiography, and another on discerning her calling to teach religion at BYU.)
After lunch with a Bethel alum who recently took a job at Gordon, I arrived at what proved to be the most entertaining panel of the day. I’m going to blog separately about the papers by Rondall Reynoso (Graduate Theological Union) and Daved Anthony Schmidt (Princeton Theological Seminary), which both helped me to understand just how little I really know about fundamentalism. The first was more in my line, Andrea Turpin (Baylor) revisiting the theme of “secularization” in the history of American higher education. Though her focus is earlier in history than mine, I like that she recentered student experience (rather than evergreen debates about denominational affiliation and chapel requirements) and brought gender into the story, proposing that changing responses to the growing number of women entering college were bound up with the shift from evangelical to modernist Protestantism.
Finally, a ‘Well done!’ to Ben Wright (Rice) for his paper on denominationalism, conversion, and social reform in the 19th century. It’s totally outside of my realm, but I was happy to have the chance (the first in my career) to watch a former student present a paper at a professional conference. I only had a chance to teach Ben in one course — our senior seminar — so I can’t claim much of a role in making him the bright young historian he’s become, but I’ll still take pride in his work.
I’m about to head off to the evening banquet, to be followed by an address by CFH president Tracy McKenzie (Wheaton). I’m looking forward to hearing McKenzie’s remarks, having recently led a discussion among our department’s faculty about his proposal that Christian historians recover their calling to serve the church (first presented at an earlier CFH meeting, then published last year in Confessing History, eds. John Fea et al). Expect a report on that and the Saturday sessions (including my own panel, at 10:30am — for CFH readers) tomorrow afternoon, with my weekend links recap appearing on Sunday afternoon.