A Trip to NYC and an Interview with Randall Balmer on Teaching American Religious History

Randall Stephens

So, I took the train down to NYC last week. Not to see Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party (which looks hilarious), but rather to present my work to the Columbia University Seminar on Religion in America. (I love trains and seminars. Better than plains, rowboats, and/or webinars any day.) The seminar, founded over ten years ago, “explores the role of religion in American society from cross-disciplinary perspectives, including history, anthropology, literature, sociology, theology, and material culture.” In a posh faculty house that looked like a country club, minus the golfers, I talked about my paper, “‘A great many theologians’: Premillennial Authorities and Modern American Evangelicalism.” I benefited tremendously from some wonderful critique and q and a. The questions that historians and religious studies scholars ask can be quite different. So, it’s always a plus to take in the advice of those in other, related fields. Some wanted to know how representative are the evangelicals my co-author and I focus on. Others wondered about what makes a given leader an “expert” or an “authority.” Was all very good food for thought. Dinner afterward—food for stomach—offered a nice chance to get to know those in attendance. (One of them, Daniel Vaca, a PhD student at Columbia, was a fantastic host.)

While in NYC, I also had some time to catch up with a close friend who works at Cooper Union and pop into McSorleys. In addition I had the pleasure of attending Randall Balmer’s survey course on American religious history at Barnard College. If you teach American religious history, you probably don’t have too many opportunities to bounce ideas off others who teach the same, or get new light on old topics from colleagues in the field. (Though, this is one of the most amazing benefits of the Young Scholars in American Religion program.) I
enjoyed hearing and seeing how Balmer conducts his class. It was filled with about 100 students from Barnard and Columbia. He covered the rise of utopian communities in the 19th century, bringing in the Shakers and the Oneida Perfectionists (the Shakers’ polar opposite? I wonder if any Shakers ever went over to John Humphrey Noyes’s unbuttoned camp). Then he concluded by showing part of Ken Burns's elegiac classic, The Shakers.

After the class, I sat down with Balmer in his office to ask him some questions about teaching the American religious history survey and to pick his brain about other courses he's offers. The interview here is divided into two parts (part 2 is here). Balmer speaks about drawing students into the story. He also describes some new courses he’s taught in recent years and focuses in on what he’s learned from a new course on Mormonism. His comments got me thinking a little bit about how teaching new courses can lead to surprising, new research interests. My course on America in the 1960s has certainly led me in some surprising directions. (I still have not perfected my plans to teach that class on Rosicrucian Trapeze Artists in Late-19th-Century Pennsylvania. There's always next year!)


Christopher said…
What an awesome interview, Randall. Thanks for making it available, and obviously, thanks to Randall Balmer for taking the time to sit down with you and answer your questions. I'm particularly intrigued by his observation in part 2 of the interview about Mormonism constantly reinventing itself as a sign of the religion's Americanness.
Randall said…
Thanks Christopher. I had wondered how that would strike historians of Mormonism. I've seen the Mormonism-as-American-Religion argument before, but wasn't sure what to make of it.
Christopher said…
Yeah, noting Mormonism's Americanness is pretty common, but highlighting the religion's constant reinvention as indicative of it struck me as insightful. I've linked to your post and included a transcript of part of the interview over at the Juvenile Instructor in hopes of generating discussion among historians of Mormonism on that point.

Also, just out of curiosity, was your comment that "it does seem for Mormon historians it’s fascinating to recapture that adversarial, or … the conflict in those early years" an indirect reference to Spencer Fluhman's work? That's what I thought of when you said that.
Randall said…
Christopher: Thanks much for the cross-post. I think you're right about what Balmer probably meant concerning his observation at the tail end of the interview.
Steven P. Miller said…
Great interview. I'm teaching a Religion & the Civil Rights Mvt. course right now (modeled on Dennis Dickerson's incredible course at Vanderbilt). It's very fun to teach. But like Randall Balmer, I was surprised by how much basic background material I've had to cover, even about King and other iconic figures.