BY JOHN TURNER
My reasons for teaching and studying American religious overlap with those mentioned by Ed, Kelly, and Kathryn: I want to know what's going on underneath the surface of sainthood; I'm sometimes frustrated by historians who ignore the obvious centrality of religion in various aspects of American history; and simply because it's fascinating! For both drama and colorful detail, it's hard to top the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for instance.
However, to be more honest and less academic about this meme (and that's the first time I've ever employed that designation), I became interested in American religious history through my own Christian faith. As a child, I was fascinated by the historical narratives of the Bible. I would sit in church, not terribly interested in the service, and read the pew Bible, especially the historical books of the Old Testament (we didn’t call it the Hebrew Scriptures), the Gospels, and Acts.
Although I wouldn't have articulated it at the time, I wanted to understand how the church (and ultimately, my church) got from Acts to the suburbs outside of Rochester, New York. So at some point in high school, I started reading church history, focusing especially on the Reformation. Roland Bainton's biography of Martin Luther remains one of my favorite history books. The reformers, especially Luther, became my historical heroes.
At some point, I realized it would be too expensive and difficult to travel to Europe to do research, so I switched to American religious history. In a nutshell, then, I'm cheap! More academically, I was fascinated with evangelicalism's role in contemporary American politics and wanted to understand the historical developments that had shaped American evangelicalism. I started graduate school intending to study Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. [Fortunately, I wasn't wedded to that notion since my advisor, George Marsden, was just completing his biography of Edwards and one of his other students was laying the groundwork for a refreshing new overview of the Great Awakening]. Instead, I ended up studying Campus Crusade for Christ, probably because parachurch groups like InterVarsity and Young Life had been so formative in my own spiritual life and because my sister had been heavily involved in Campus Crusade and had met her husband on a Crusade mission trip to Estonia.
I am relieved to be at least temporarily done studying my own tradition, partly for the some of the issues that Kathryn raised. Now I'm satisfying my curiosity about other traditions, feeling out of my depth but enjoying the journey!