In recognition of Veterans/Remembrance Day, Fletcher Warren and I are proud today to unveil the final version of Bethel at War, 1914-2014: A Digital History of a Christian College in a Century of Warfare.
Whether you’re a Bethel alumnus, student, or employee, a member of its denomination, someone who’s interested in the histories of higher education, Christianity (especially its Baptist, evangelical, and fundamentalist branches), and/or warfare, or perhaps a historian or archivist seeking to use digital tools to tell institutional stories, I’d strongly encourage you to explore bethelatwar.org.
My original idea for the project was that it would serve as an “impressionistic survey” of how one Christian college in the American Midwest has experienced and been affected by warfare in the hundred years since World War I began — with 1914, coincidentally, also being the year Bethel permanently relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Fletcher (having finished his junior year at Bethel) and I received an Edgren Scholarship to enable us to spend the summer of 2014 conducting research and starting to build the website. (In the process, we also kept a project blog. More on that below…) But by the time Fletcher had to leave for his fall studies at Oxford, it was becoming clear that this would be no mere sketch. In the process of telling the story of war, we also encountered many other topics; for example, I ended up writing about everything from immigration to prohibition to missions to the experience of some of Bethel’s first students of color. And even as I enjoyed throwing myself back into original, archival research for the first time in far too long, we wrestled with the limitations of historical evidence, primarily at one end of the time period and the other.
As 2014 turned to 2015, we didn’t get a lot done; Fletcher was getting set to graduate and I was gallivanting around preaching Pietism. But then this summer and fall we buckled down and started writing… and writing. Mostly Fletcher, who contributed something like 100,000 words to his essays on Vietnam and the War on Terror (including one deconstructing the very notion of a “war on terror“).
With my world war pages and Fletcher’s Vietnam mini-opus completed, we had a kind of soft launch last month for Bethel’s Homecoming. Now we’re ready to share the entire work.
Rather than try to pull out any more highlights, let me reprint my closing thoughts from the project — adding a bit of commentary:
Like Fletcher, I hope that this is but the beginning of a renewed wave of interest in the institutional history of Bethel and its denomination. (Not only for the sake of this community, but for other historians. As a recent, justly acclaimed history of the Baptists in America has demonstrated, even gifted scholars still find it too easy to overlook the distinctive experience of Converge Worldwide and its university.) If we’re at the cusp of something, I hope also that we’ve set a good example.
First, in the way we’ve engaged in the practice of institutional history. Historians often summarize their distinctive approach to thinking about the past in terms of “5 C’s.” But while the concepts of change over time, context, causality, complexity, and contingency run through this project, an institutional history like this one ought to add at least three more C’s to the list.
• While we trust that our research and analysis makes some contribution to larger histories of education, religion, and war, a project of this sort is written by and for members of a particular community. One author is a Bethel professor; the other was a Bethel student when the project started and became an alumnus as it finished. Moreover, the digital nature of the project enabled us to solicit helpful feedback from other alumni and employees, whose comments and anecdotes have enriched and reshaped the story we told.
• At the same time, because we were committed to telling that story in all its complexity, we inevitably came to moments that demanded something like confession. Much as an institutional history ought to commemorate a community’s past and to celebrate its accomplishments, it ought also to reflect an honest, critical assessment of shortcomings. The history of any human endeavor involves iniquity, and a Christian community is as likely as any other to compromise its values, to resist or embrace change too quickly, to have conversations poorly or not at all, and to treat some of its members less well than others. For better and worse, all such faults are brought to harsher light by the pressures and conflicts of wartime, which has always inspired as much vice as virtue.
• But to the extent that this project was written about Bethel in a way that reflects its religious convictions, then even our criticism should be tempered by compassion. For history is one of the humanities — a disciplined contemplation of the experience of creatures made in the image of their Creator.
These are themes I’ve been thinking about since I moderated a Conference on Faith and History panel on historians and institutional change back in the fall of 2014. This project has only deepened my conviction that these ideas — community and confession inspired, respectively, by Devin Manzullo-Thomas and Dave Bruno — are central to this kind of historical storytelling.
Second, in the use of digital history to tell such stories. As things worked out, the heart of this work consisted of a set of fairly traditional interpretive essays. But in terms of how research was conducted and how findings were made available, I think that we’ve tapped into some of the potential of digitization. As Bethel approaches its 150th anniversary, I suspect that a series of digital exhibits would more widely and more powerfully communicate Bethel’s history than would another booklet or book chapter.
More than I expected when I first conjured the idea for this project, we ended up writing much like we would for a journal article or monograph. (Well, Fletcher did. I was a bit breezier, but much of what Fletcher did, especially on Vietnam, would fit comfortably in a more formal academic publication. More on that before I conclude!) But this remained distinctively a work of digital history in at least three respects:
The use of digital sources. Now, my favorite part of the research involved going through correspondence in the Bethel archives and rediscovering misplaced volumes of the Bethel Bulletin. But long as this project took, it would have gone twice as long had it not been for our ready access to Bethel’s excellent Digital Library. We can’t possibly thank digital library manager Kent Gerber and archivist Diana Magnuson enough for the pioneering work they’ve done with digitization. (Indeed, one of the reasons Fletcher initially came to mind as a collaborator was that he had worked with Kent on digitizing materials like the Baptist General Conference magazine The Standard.) Wherever possible, we linked back to those materials in our endnotes, allowing readers to interact with primary and other secondary sources themselves.
- Our production of a project blog, primarily during the summer of 2014. I’ve written about this before, but briefly… The blog served as a kind of “preargument” or “nonargument” scholarship: a chance to share research with our audience (including curios that might never make it to prime time), to think aloud about interpretation, to begin to build an audience and solicit comments from it, and to preserve a record of the project. Read more here, where you’ll find a few ways to explore the blog itself.
- Our presentation of findings. Even the otherwise traditional narrative essays are open to amendment and improvement, in a way that would have been impossible for previous institutional historians of Bethel. But modest as our use of digital tools was (though we considered it, we opted against hosting the domain ourselves and using the more powerful WordPress.org), I’m glad that visitors to the site can also use a map and timeline to explore our project. They allow a bit more of a “choose-your-own-adventure” feel to the story, with some links even leading down rabbit holes to fascinating material that didn’t make the final cut for the essays.
Then one final excerpt from my share of the project afterword:
Finally, in the collaboration between teacher and student. This project originated with a program named for Bethel’s founder, John Alexis Edgren, who aspired for Bethel teachers and students to relate to each other with “real friendship and helpfulness, remembering that One is our Master, and we are all brethren.” It’s been a joy to experience that principle lived out in the shared labor of historical scholarship — while the idea for this project originated in the intersection of my interests, the result is more a tribute to Fletcher’s abilities than mine — and I pray that the same spirit will animate the writing of new chapters in the history of Edgren’s school.
I should add here that the two most recent institutional histories of Bethel — a 125th anniversary booklet and a chapter in recent history of the Baptist General Conference — were written by G.W. Carlson and his former student-turned-colleague Diana Magnuson. So this kind of collaboration has deep roots in Bethel historiography. (The 75th anniversary history of Bethel Seminary was another kind of collaboration — between father Adolf and son Virgil Olson.)
And I can’t imagine a better collaborator. Indeed, this experience proved what I already suspected: Fletcher is at least my equal as a researcher and writer and surpasses me as an analyst.
If nothing else, I hope that some professor or editor reads what Fletcher did here and takes note: for grad school admission or later publication. It’s that good. Indeed, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that his work here is the most significant scholarship on the history of the Baptist General Conference — critically assessing that oft-overlooked denomination and its college and seminary in light of larger debates about Christianity, education, and American politics and society.
That said, I know he and I are both tired and ready to move on to other projects. So we’re happy to release all this into readers’ hands. Please take some time to sample Bethel at War — and let me know what you think!