Who Wants to be a Church Historian?

Who Wants to Be a Church Historian?
by Elesha Coffman

In her presidential address at the recently concluded (and, by me at least, very much enjoyed) ASCH meeting in New Orleans, Laurie Maffly-Kipp pondered “The Burden of Church History.” This might sound like a down note on which to mark a scholarly society’s 125th year, but it came across more as a rallying cry, as well as a plea for church historians not to abandon their roots in pursuit of seemingly wider, wilder subjects such as “spirituality” or “religious studies.”

Maffly-Kipp acknowledged that the label “church history” feels burdensome to many ASCH members, herself included. It sounds stodgy and parochial. It suggests theologically oriented work written by and for the faithful. For these and other reasons, few scholars self-identify as church historians anymore, preferring to pass as cultural historians, religion scholars, or anything that doesn’t make them sound like octogenarians fondly recounting the accomplishments of long-dead bishops. A couple of years ago, there was a drive to change the name of the society and/or its journal, but this resulted only in the journal’s new subtitle, “Studies in Christianity and Culture.

 If the reasons to pull away from church history are manifest, what are the reasons to stay? Maffly-Kipp offered two:

1) Church mattered to the people we write about. In our historical moment, people are fleeing church in droves, and some churches are rebranding themselves as spiritual communities, but these are quite recent developments. Our sources, by contrast, present abundant evidence that churches gave people in the past identities and opportunities, joys and sorrows, places to make sense of the world. Even those lists of long-dead bishops were preserved for a reason. Historians who view the past with today’s skepticism toward churches, denominations, and institutions of any sort simply aren’t going to get the story right.

  2) What feels like freedom might be a new kind of entanglement. Maffly-Kipp made this complicated argument in a number of ways and with reference to figures as varied as C. Vann Woodward (whose 1960 book The Burden of Southern History inspired the title of her address), Marilynne Robinson, and Huffington Post blogger BJ Gallagher. The last example illustrates the point. Gallagher has affirmed “Burger King Spirituality—have it your way” as an antidote to the labeling that divides religious communities and the conflicts over power, ego, and money that infect them.

But how well does a corporate branding strategy serve as a challenge to labeling, competition, and obsession with money? Is consumer capitalism truly more liberating than Christianity? Gotta serve somebody, after all.

As I listened to this part of the address, I couldn’t help but think about why I consistently find ASCH/AHA more intellectually satisfying than AAR. It’s a smaller group of scholars (Maffly-Kipp likened the ASCH to a congregation), exploring a smaller range of methodologies and topics, but I find surprising richness in the stories they tell, and I feel like people there are talking to rather than past each other. Too many AAR panels cast a wide net in terms of approach and subject matter but quickly become yet another go-round on the question, “What is religion?” That’s an interesting question. It can’t be the only question.

 Maffly-Kipp did not only call for more church history in a traditional vein. She advocated comparative and international work, with a nod to the growth of Christianity outside the United States and Europe, and she also exhorted the ASCH to embrace a broader range of traditions, particularly Roman Catholicism and Mormonism. Most of all, though, the outgoing president asked her audience to keep the church in church history. And she said this as the chair of a prestigious department of religious studies. The field is not dead yet.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks so much for this report, Elesha! I know of at least two other panels in which the "Catholic question" came up--why, in "tri-faith Americs," do we still have such a hard time writing narratives that incorporate Protestants AND Catholics (Eugene McCarraher's Christian Critics a notable exception)?

Many of us are also waiting for your panels' answer to the question--are we "beyond the mainline?"
Paul Harvey said…
stay tuned for an AHA/ASCH report by Emily Clark that will post tomorrow I think!
Christopher said…
Fantastic. I'm sorry to have missed Professor Maffly-Kipp's address and appreciate you posting this report!
John Fea said…
So many Religion in American History writers were in the room for this talk--how did I not meet ANY of them?
Aaron Sizer said…
Thanks, Elesha, for a helpful dispatch from a meeting I was sorry to miss. To my ear, the phrase "church history" (like "denominational history") has the unfortunate trait of implying a preceding "the" or "our"; that is, it's harder to hear the term as "religious history that takes as its starting point communities whose institutional expression has been as churches" than as "the providentially inflected story of our own [usually Protestant] community." I do wish that we could find a syntax (for church history and denominational history, both) that communicated specificity without parochialism.
Elesha said…
In response to your question, Mark, here are the answers I gleaned from people at my panel.

Mark Silk: The mainline is such a shadow of its former self, demographically, that it makes no sense to approach it as an establishment--but to approach it as one "brand" of religion among many will yield interesting results.

Grant Wacker: You can learn some general characteristics about religious establishments by comparing the old liberal establishment with what we have now, established evangelicalism. In both cases, establishment involves wanting, and securing, a seat at the table where national conversation takes place. Only the old establishment meant, in Sam Hill's definition, knowing when to wear a necktie.

James Hudnut-Beumler: The mainline was (and in many ways, still is) an example of a liberal approach to being religious in the world. The mainline has also always included a lot of conservatives, and that influence is growing--a sort of evangelicalization of the establishment.

I asserted that the Protestant mainline and religious liberalism are two different categories with some overlap, and neither is "beyond" the other in terms of being significant, interesting, or worthy of study. I also, like Laurie Maffly-Kipp, argued that there's still life in institutional history.

Not exactly an answer to your question, I suppose, but it was a great conversation.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks, Elesha,

I gleaned from the live ASCH blog archives (thanks for these, Shaun!! that you enjoyed a great turnout and discussion. As we discussed, it's amazing that contemporary conversations about church history are still being framed by books written in the 1960s and 1970s (great books, yet hardly exhaustive). We need institutional histories such as yours (Christian Century), Curtis Evans (FCC), Kevin Schultz (NCCJ), Matt Hedstrom (religious presses), and others, just because there's so much we still don't know about those institutions--their composition, function, and impact.