Teaching U.S. Religious History

This fall, one of my courses (as I pointed out below), is “U.S. Religious History,” which I sometimes refer to as “Religion in American History.” This is one of my favorite courses, and I’ve seen really great results come from the course. Students usually find themselves challenged, but I know the material sticks with them. (For instance, my students always find out who the Niebuhr brothers were. Oh, that’s H. Richard and Reinhold, in case you were wondering.)

I had a chance to reflect on my teaching content and methods this month over at the Religion in American History Blog. (hint: follow the link!)

Maybe you’ll want to pick up some of the books I mention. And maybe you’ll just have to encourage someone you know to come to Northwestern and take the course from me!

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The Guns of August

While posting that title, I’m immediately struck by how many uses of guns in the month of August there might be. Even now, we might be talking about current fighting in Iraq or the Ukraine.

This time, though, I’m pointing back to the Guns of August 1914. In our remembrance of World War I, we should point out that the initial attacks and invasions occurred throughout August 1914. I have always been fascinated both by the German attempt to sweep through Belgium into France according to the Schlieffen Plan and then the France final stand at the Battle of the Marne. These gripping moments make an appearance in my lectures on World War I for both European and American History.

The phrase “the guns of August” was popularized by the historian Barbara Tuchman, who wrote a book by that name about August 1914. Last year, I reflected on Tuchman’s writing, both content and style.

(However, if that’s too serious, I can also say that the topic was parodied by Stan Freeberg, in his United States of America, volume 2.)

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Fall Semester, 2014

It’s the first day of classes at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, Minnesota, and in an hour I’ll be tramping out of my office for my first class of the year.

Inspired by several posts I’ve seen (such as this one), I thought I’d identify what I’m teaching this semester. I have three full-semester classes, with plenty of reading in each of them:

1. Honors History of Western Civilization

Augustine, Confessions, trans. Garry Wills, (NY: Penguin Classics, 2008).

John Locke, 2nd Treatise on Government (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980).

Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche and the Death of God (Boston: Bedford/ St. Martins, 2006).

John Olin, ed. A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto (NY: Fordham University Press, 2000).

Thomas West and Grace S. West, eds., Four Texts on Socrates (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Course Packet with LOTS of Primary Sources.

2. U.S. History to 1877

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (NY: The Modern Library, 2004).

John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).

David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (NY: Oxford University Press, 1994).

David Harrell, Jr., et. al, Unto a Good Land, Vol. I, To 1900 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

George Marsden, A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

LOTS of Primary Sources.

3. American Religious History (aka, Religion in American History)

Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (NY: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Edwin Gaustad and Mark Noll, eds., A Documentary History of Religion in America, 3rd edition, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

George Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (NY: Basic Books, 2014).

Mark Massa, Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team (NY: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1999).

Chaim Potok, The Chosen (NY: Fawcett, 1987).

I’m excited for each class in its own way. I know from experience that each of them has the potential to be a great–even transformative–experience.

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John Jay, Prudence, and Duty

I’m just wrapping up a great writing day in which I was working through John Jay’s political conclusions from his experience with the French Revolution. In the course of my writing, I came across a quote which I think is too good not to share. This strikes me as as applicable today as it was in 1807:

“Things are as they are, and we must make the best of them; as travellers do or ought to do, well knowing that in the course of a long journey, they cannot expect to have every day fine weather, good inns, good roads, and good company. Nothing remains for us but to do our duty to our country with prudent and unabated zeal; to enjoy with gratitude and cheerfulness the good we have; and to bear with decency and dignity the ills which cannot avert or remove. What may be our duty will depend on the circumstances of the day.”

-John Jay to William Beers, April 18, 1807


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Summer Reading and Going Clear

One of the great joys I have in the summertime is the (slight) increase in the flexibility about what I can read and think about.

This summer, one of my “outside the box” reads was Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright.

I found the book fascinating. It was well worth my time, and I would suggest it would be well worth yours. If you have ever been curious about Scientology, ever known some Scientologists, or just wondered what was happening with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, this book gives great insights.

I wrote an extended review of the book at the Religion in American History Blog.

In addition, I was able to work in a shout-out to Adina Johnson, a University of Northwestern-St. Paul History Major now at Baylor University.

Check it out!

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Two Historical Anniversaries

Keeping up the theme of “backward-looking blog posts on Friday,” this week let me direct your attention to 2 historical anniversaries in the last two months.

June 6th saw the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. This would be a great opportunity to reach for a Stephen Ambrose book, maybe his Band of Brothers. Also commemorating the event was my friend Sean Brennan, who blogged about some research he’s been doing on a Catholic Chaplain who was at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Later in the month of June, we witnessed the centennial of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Franz Ferdinand was the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a reformer. In June of 1914, he traveled to the city of Sarajevo near the border of the Empire. Waiting for him was an assassination plot devised by the “Black Hand,” a secret organization controlled by the Serbian government. Riding the crest of nationalism, Serbia believed that Sarajevo and its surrounding Bosnian countryside should belong to it (after all, the area contained many ethnic Serbs).

File:Archduke Franz with his wife.jpg

On the morning of June 28, 1914, one attempt had been made on the Archduke’s life: a bomb had been thrown at the motorcade. Though the Archduke and his wife were unhurt, others of their party were injured and were taken to the hospital. Later in the morning, wanting to visit the hospital, the Archduke’s motorcade got backed up in the streets, stopping right in front of a cafe, where another plotter, Gavrilo Princip, was sitting despondently. Princip immediately seized his chance, jumped to the car’s running board, and fired fatal shots directly at the Archduke and his wife.

More than just an individual tragedy, the assassination of the Archduke set in motion the diplomatic steps that would drag Europe into World War I by the end of the summer. Though the summer of 2014 was beautiful in Europe, behind the scenes were doings that would create unforeseen destruction. This centennial summer, we might plot the steps, as Austria conferred with its ally Germany, Germany gave them the blank check to attack Serbia, and then the German command prepared for the war it knew it would fight with both Russia and France.

The assassination of the Archduke was thus the boulder that started an avalanche that would bury Europe’s 19th century ideals and open the door to the horrors of the 20th century, including the rise of Nazism and, eventually, the Allied invasion on D-Day.

As time allows, I hope to blog more this summer about how we might remember World War I, through several significant books on the topic.

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Christianity and the “enlightenment” in America

For a Friday in July, this is a good article to flash-back to.

Back in May, I wrote up a blog post on “Religion and American Enlightenments” and posted it to the Religion in American History site.

The piece grew out of a presentation I had heard this spring, in which some academics attempted to describe the “enlightenment”* in America, while bracketing religious belief in the period. This seemed to me the wrong way to go, and I think the post became a little cantankerous–and maybe more entertaining to read–as a result.

[*The term "enlightenment" is itself problematic, and I'd be happy to explain why, at length, to anyone interested.]

After I posted the piece, I was alerted to a recent article published by Douglas Sweeney on “The Biblical World of Jonathan Edwards” (for those curious, it’s in Jonathan Edwards Studies 3, no. 2 (2013): 221-268). Sweeney argues that Edwards’s ideas were deeply shaped by his Biblical study. Edwards was no simple reader of the Bible but instead used all of the linguistic, exegetical, and even historical tools at his disposal to explicate the biblical text. Edwards owned over 800 works relating to the Bible and theology. Edwards was truly a cosmopolitan reader, keeping up with the intellectual trends of Britain and the Continent. With his own contributions, Edwards was part of the transatlantic republic of letters. In fact, Edwards was “central to what some now call the religious–or the Christian–Enlightenment” (Sweeney, 263). A Christian Enlightenment?!? It’s almost as if those categories need to be brought together, contra the champions of the European Enlightenment as skeptical and humanistic.


Sweeney’s piece is well worth reading and does expand on the points I was trying to make. And for those who want to go really deep, his footnotes 108-135 are well worth mining. He’s demonstrating the vast literature undergirding his claims about Edwards and the intellectual world of the 18th century. It’s almost as if there was an academic blindspot at the previous conference.

So, if you missed my piece earlier this spring, here’s some meaty material for the middle of July!

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