David D. Hall on Why I Became a Historian

[Cross-posted from the HS blog]

Randall Stephens

I first read David D. Hall's work when I was a grad student at the University of Florida. David Hackett taught a wonderful course on Religion and American Culture, which familiarized students with the big themes
in religious history.

Hall's study of the religious world of 17th-century American Puritans challenged my uniformed ideas of what it meant to be a "puritan." His writing on "lived religion," especially intrigued me. He described it as "a shorthand phrase that has long been current in the French tradition of the sociology of religion (la religion veçue) but is relatively novel in the American context." It was "rooted less in sociology than in cultural and ethnographical approaches to the study of religion and American religious history that have come to the fore in recent years." It involved "the study of 'daily life,' especially among Protestant laity [and a] reflection on 'practice' as the center or focus of the Christian life." (Hall, ed., Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice [Princeton University Press, 1997], vii.)

Hall has edited and authored a number of books and articles on American religious history, including: The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century (Omohundro Institute, 1972); Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Harvard University Press, 1990); Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology (Princeton University Press, 2004); Ways of Writing: The Practice and Politics of Text-Making in Seventeenth-Century New England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); and, most recently, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (Knopf, 2011).

Hall has had a major impact on the fields of religious history and religious studies in recent decades. As such, he's a great fit for the new HS blog series "Why I Became a Historian." I caught up with him last week at the American religious history group meeting at Boston University. In the video embedded here I ask Hall why he was drawn to history and he responds by describing his early interest in the past, his reading of history at a young age, and his later college and grad school pursuits.

Hall's comments make me wonder if most historians had an early affinity for history through family, location, and a curiosity about all those things that had come before us.


Curtis J. Evans at: October 3, 2011 at 12:09 PM said...

thanks for posting this interview. Seeing David brought back so many fond memories of my time at Harvard. I owe David a profound debt of gratitude for being my advisor at a transitional moment after Bill Hutchison retired, with whom I originally intended to work. Apart from learning immensely from the classes that I took with him and his careful attention to reading texts, it was his course (for which I was a teaching fellow while preparing for my comprehensive exams) on the emergence of diverse social movements and Liberal Protestantism in the 19th century that planted the seeds for some of the ideas that later came out in the first chapter of my book (Burden of Black Religion). Conversations with David eventually led me to think through themes that formed the core outline of my book. I also owe David gratitude for the excellent way he taught one of my first seminars at Harvard, Radical Religion in England and New England, which eventuated in my publishing an article in an obscure journal (on an early Puritan figure writing about Sabbatarianism). David was and is a kind and humane person to whom I am greatly indebted. My only regret is that I was not able to make it to a conference some years ago which honored his scholarship and legacy.

Tom Van Dyke at: October 3, 2011 at 1:05 PM said...

Hall's comments make me wonder if most historians had an early affinity for history through family, location, and a curiosity about all those things that had come before us.

I wonder about the apostate quotient as well, anti-affinity as it were.

Jim Bennett at: October 4, 2011 at 10:12 AM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Bennett at: October 4, 2011 at 10:15 AM said...

Thanks, Randall, for posting this interview. David Hall is single handedly responsible for my career as an historian of American Religion. My last quarter of college I stumbled into his class on colonial America, while he was a visiting professor at UCLA. He took me under his wing and opened a new world to me. Unlike David, I did not grew up in a place or context that had a strong sense of the past. But David opened the past to me, and sensing my interest worked with me and guided me in making that new passion my vocation. I remain ever grateful David for that. Since he was the central figure in my own decision to become a historian, it was fun to hear him tell his own story.

Randall at: October 4, 2011 at 11:19 AM said...

Curtis and Jim: Great to hear about how Hall had an influence on both of you!

Edward J. Blum at: October 4, 2011 at 1:18 PM said...

Still one of, if not best, titles in our discipline: Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment!

Lynne Gerber at: October 11, 2011 at 10:49 PM said...

Thanks for posting this. David is a huge reason why I do this work as well. His seminar on Lived Religion would not leave me, even as I tried to leave the study of religion for another career. That course, and his teaching, is a touchstone for me. It's a joy to hear him talk about his work.

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