The Benefits of Autobiography (Religious or Otherwise)

Trevor Burrows

A few weeks ago, Michael Utzinger posted about a course he is working on concerning religious autobiography, and about using of Eboo Patel's Acts of Faith for the course.  As it happens, I have just finished taking part in a two-part graduate seminar on using autobiography/life-writing in historical research.  For the first section, the reading portion, we read through a range of theoretical literature concerning life-writing and considered the potential problems and benefits that come with using these types of sources.  The second section, the research component, was based on a straight-forward yet difficult challenge: pick an autobiography (or set of autobiographies) and use it as the core of your primary source base for a standard seminar-length essay.  It was a helpful, challenging exercise in source criticism that pushed us to test the limits of a single extended source, and to think more seriously about the nature of historical sources in general.

Surprisingly, little of the theoretical literature we reviewed discussed religion or spirituality at all.  In Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, the authors list fifty-two “genres” of life-writing; where one might expect to find religion listed as an explicit theme, such as under the “conversion narrative” heading, the genre’s description is kept broad and capacious, focused more on a narrative of transformation that specifically religious or spiritual conversion.  The only genre to be overtly linked to religion is the “spiritual life narrative,” very similar to the conversion narrative, which “typically unfolds as a journey through sin and damnation to a sense of spiritual fulfillment and arrival in a place of sustaining belief.”  Although a very helpful text otherwise, Smith and Watson don’t take us very far in considering the distinctive qualities of religious or spiritual autobiography, nor do they (or other scholars) pay especially close attention to religious themes within life-writing generally.

Nevertheless, I’ve become something of an advocate for life-writing’s historical usefulness.  I ultimately focused my own work on early-twentieth century liberal Protestant autobiography.  Although my research relied primarily on Harry Emerson Fosdick’s autobiography, The Living of These Days, I worked through a range of texts from the period, keeping the “liberal” category pretty fluid, in order to try and trace similarities between each text and the life and experiences each portrayed.  I was especially interested in the presentation of conversion or transformation narratives describing the path from the “traditional” Christianity in which they were raised to the liberal stance they espoused later in life.  I got sidetracked along the way, however, by Fosdick’s text, and it seems to me to be an excellent example of what autobiography can do for the careful historian.

Fosdick’s text jumped out at me for a few reasons.  First, it really asks for Fosdick’s life narrative to be read in at least three ways: as didactic, where Fosdick’s life is held out not necessarily as something to emulate absolutely, but as a life that one can learn from; as representative, where Fosdick’s life doubles as the story of modern liberal Protestantism; and as apologetic or defensive, where Fosdick articulates his own understanding of liberal religion and clarifies it against a variety of criticisms.  In the Preface of the text, Fosdick suggests that the problem of his age was the question of how “to be an intelligent modern and a serious Christian.”  This dilemma becomes a central theme of the text and is infused into each of the three narratives pursued above.  By keeping an eye on each of these readings - by reading them alongside and against each other - the autobiographical text is transformed from a repository of factual content that will have to be verified, to a dynamic intersectional text whose value far transcends the mere facts it it might contain.  Style, structure, themes, voice - all become attributes that can be mined for further meaning.

In Fosdick’s text, what has stood out to me - and what has directed my research - is the way that Fosdick
writes his life’s story, and thus the story of liberal Protestantism, as a very American story, even a traditional one.  He spends a great amount of time establishing his genealogical bona fides, claiming early colonial ancestors from the 1630s.  He traces “a strong tradition of nonconformity” on both sides of his family, recounting how one relative was expelled from New England church - “probably for reading heretical Anabaptist books,” and how other relatives challenged religious and social norms of their times.  He goes out of his way to praise nonconformity and “rugged individualism” as distinctly American virtues.  And these themes resurface throughout his own story and are even tied into the text’s structure, so that his own embrace of liberal faith becomes a story of nonconformity, of rugged individualism, and of tolerance across peculiarities of belief.  Although I am still working on pulling these themes out and making sense of them historically, I don’t think that Fosdick is idiosyncratic among the liberals of his time in his attempt to craft a distinctly American identity.  The question is why - why does Fosdick go out of his way to do so? - and it’s a question that I’m not sure I would have thought to ask without engaging the period’s autobiographical literature.

Read openly but critically, Fosdick’s autobiography becomes a node of cultural intersections, a measure of both the time he was writing in (the 1950s) and the span of his life.  This is a value unique to life-writing, I think, one that emerges from something inherent in the autobiographical act itself.  Paul John Eakin has suggested that as we tell stories about our selves, we actually create our selves; we construct our identities through the elaborate and complex narratives we weave.  For the historian, the trick is to read such texts from multiple angles, to try and unlock the identity that the autobiography holds and to gauge its historical value.

What religious autobiographies have you found useful in your research or teaching?


Mark T. Edwards said…
Wonderful reflections here, Trevor!

How much of Fosdick's "American-ness" was a post-WWII creation? In my own research, liberal Protestants during the interwar years were fairly at odds with American culture, only to be reconciled during/because of WWII and the Cold War. Reinhold Niebuhr's journey is instructive here as well.
Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks Mark! I think that you are right to point to WWII and the Cold War as influences behind Fosdick's emphasis on his American-ness, absolutely, and I've thought of your work a lot while working with Fosdick's text. I also wonder if we might read that emphasis as evidence of the deep effect that the controversies of the '20s left on folks like Fosdick. He weaves his American lineage and character together with a more subtle genealogy of "traditional" American evangelical faith in a way that allows him to portray traditionalists/fundamentalists as the real deviants, in terms of both culture and faith. What's fascinating about the book, I think, is how its apologetic aspect seems to address itself to multiple audiences. On the surface, he speaks very explicitly to contemporary liberal critics like Niebuhr (a good portion of one of the book's closing chapters is dedicated to this task); on the other, he is still speaking to the fundamentalists he battled with in the '20s. It certainly gives one a lot of material to work with and think about, especially while keeping in mind the context of the period he was writing in.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Yes, great point about the "deep effect" of the 1920s FMCs. Shailer Matthews's Faith of Modernism (1924?) strikes me as a similar effort--at one point, he traces the "modernist" lineage back to D. L. Moody! Interestingly, I think 1950s "postfundamentalists" came to a similar conclusion with Fosdick about fundamentalist "deviancy" or "un-Americanness." Edith Schaeffer's autobiography of her family does that sort of work against Carl McIntire.