The ABS and the Art of History Writing

In April we began a series of reviews on John Fea's recent book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society
(Oxford University Press, 2016). The series contained two reviews, one review by Elesha Coffman and the other by Candy Gunther Brown. I'd also like to draw our reader's attention to a review of The Bible Cause by Paul Harvey (our own blogmeister emeritus) at Religion Dispatches. Harvey's thoughtful review responds to the reviews by Coffman and Brown, and is well worth reading alongside them.
In this concluding post, John Fea offers a response to his reviewers. I am glad that John agreed to this forum in the first place and has taken the time to offer us his thoughts. Now that you've read these three posts (four if you count Harvey's review) I encourage you to read The Bible Cause for yourself. —Lincoln Mullen

John Fea

I am extremely grateful to Lincoln Mullen and the Religion in American History blog for holding a symposium on The Bible Cause. I also want to thank two scholars whose work I admire—Elesha Coffman and Candy Gunther Brown—for taking the time to review the book.

I have seen the Bible Cause as an experiment of sorts. As many of the readers of the Religion in American History blog know, I wrote 120 blog posts tracking my progress on the book. This was also the first book (and it will probably be the last) I have written to commemorate an important anniversary in the life of an institution. Since The Bible Cause required that I build a relationship with the ABS, I had a unique set of challenges to deal with. How would I maintain my scholarly integrity and academic freedom while at the same time providing the ABS with a book worthy of its bicentennial? Though I never talked to George Marsden about this project, I tried to use his book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism as a model for writing this kind of institutional history. Finally, I wanted to write a narrative history of this important American institution. While I had scholars in mind as I wrote, and I hoped that this book would contribute to our knowledge of American history and find its way into academic libraries, I also had in mind the thousands of Christian laypersons who were affiliated with the ABS as donors and participants in the Bible Cause.

It is hard to know how to respond to the criticisms that Coffman and Brown have made of my book. In the end, I think we will have to agree to disagree. For example, I do not agree with Coffman’s assessment that my argument about the ABS connection to Christian nationalism fades from view as the book develops. Actually, I wish Coffman was right about this. If my argument did indeed disappear it might have saved me some headaches. When representatives of the American Bible Society read an advance copy of the book they were bothered by the fact that this Christian nationalist thread was so prominently featured in virtually every chapter and complained about it to Oxford University Press.

Brown criticized the book for not giving due attention to women. Frankly, I don’t know how much more I could have said about the role of women in the ABS and still tell a story of an organization that has been dominated for two centuries by white middle-class men. Nevertheless, there is probably a lot more I could have said about some of the local women’s auxiliary Bible societies. Early in the project I had some correspondence with historian Anne Boylan about her work on these societies. Boylan wrote to me with an offer to share some of the research she had gathered while writing her excellent The Origins of Women’s Activism: New York and Boston, 17976, 1840. In the end, I could not incorporate all of this material (I declined her offer) because I only had so much space to tell a 200-year story. Having said that, I worked hard to integrate women into the narrative. Brown’s review makes it sound like I only spent five pages on women’s role in the history of ABS. This is just not the case.

Brown’s strongest criticism relates to what she perceives to be my failure to deconstruct the primary sources that I used to write the book and my apparent willingness to accept ABS language at face value. Am I guilty of scholarly malpractice because I do not make a “more explicit critique of ABS assumptions, language, and impacts?” I don't think so. But The Bible Cause is not a scholarly monograph. In order to produce a readable book for a wider audience I chose not to take theoretical detours into “post-colonial theory” and “critical renderings” of various subjects. I actually wanted people to read and enjoy the book and in the process learn something about the Bible in America, American religious history, Christian nationalism, and American history writ-large. In the process, I hope the readers who follow the story to the end of the book will also have learned some more general lessons about historical context, change over time, and historical contingency and continuity in the life of an organization. Sweeping narratives like The Bible Cause always lend themselves to these kinds of lessons in historical thinking.

In the end, I don’t think Brown really gets what I was trying to do in The Bible Cause. Actually, I think the book is filled with subtle critique, though I imagine that Brown wanted me to wield my moral criticism hatchet with a bit more force. I suggest that she read Paul Harvey’s review of the book at Religion Dispatches. Harvey does not agree with all of my interpretive choices, but he understands my approach—the approach of an historian. (I also reflected on the differences between the various genres of history writing here as part of a lively conversation among early American historians about writing for popular audiences).

I just learned that The Bible Cause will be the subject of an entire session at the November meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio. Something tells me that the kind of critique Brown has made of my book will not be going away anytime soon. It should be a fun session.


Tom Van Dyke said…
In the end, I don’t think Brown really gets what I was trying to do in The Bible Cause. Actually, I think the book is filled with subtle critique, though I imagine that Brown wanted me to wield my moral criticism hatchet with a bit more force. I suggest that she read Paul Harvey’s review of the book at Religion Dispatches. Harvey does not agree with all of my interpretive choices, but he understands my approach—the approach of an historian.

There should be a place for historians restricting themselves to history.
Charlie McCrary said…
I might be misreading these posts (and I haven't read the book), but on my reading it seems like there's some miscommunication. John seems to be using two different senses of "critical" somewhat interchangeably. I don't think Candy was calling for more forceful use of a "moral criticism hatchet," to point out on some theological or moral grounds why the ABS did bad things. But, at any rate, that's one way one could be "critical" of the ABS.

Candy's charge, I think, is rather that John is reading sources uncritically. So, the call is not for a moral critique but just for a critical reading. John addresses this too, but his response is basically that uncritical reading is OK because it's not a scholarly monograph, and critical reading is a "detour."

We're talking about two different senses in which the book lacks "critique," and I think only the second one was explicitly alleged (again, that's just on my reading). I'm asking for clarification because this seems like a conversation people want to have, but I'm just not following it. John points us to Paul's RD piece, but the framing at the end of that piece confuses me too. Paul contrasts deconstruction with "reflect[ing] and explain[ing] the views of their subjects." But it seems to me the reflecting and explaining aren't the same activity but almost opposites. How is the mere reportage of some group's views an explanation? For explanation (and critique), we interrogate sources, ask why they were written, what assumption informed them, etc. And that seems like the foundation of a historical argument, not a "detour."

That's where I see the tension in John's response. I read him as defending his work by saying both that 1) it isn't scholarship and 2) it is history. It doesn't seem fair or reasonable to make both arguments simultaneously. I'm laying this out not necessarily as an accusation, but as a request for clarification, because I assume I must be missing something here.
Elesha said…
Perhaps, Charlie, rather than a binary--critical or uncritical, scholarly or popular, history or something else--it would make more sense to think of a continuum. At one end would be the perspective from Bruce Lincoln that Mike Altman quoted on Facebook, with reference to these ABS pieces:

"When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one's interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between 'truths', 'truth-claims', and 'regimes of truth', one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship."

Call that the "question everything" end of the continuum, which more aptly describes (some) religious studies work than (very much) historical work. At the other end, you'd have an "accept everything" posture that would be more like PR cheerleading than scholarship of any sort. Critical reading of sources is not, as you note, synonymous with moral critique, but they do often go together. Over on the "accept everything" end of the continuum, there's neither critical reading of sources nor moral criticism of whoever generated those sources. On the "question everything" end, you get both kinds of criticism.

All three reviewers of Fea's book place it between those extremes, but we differ a bit on where to place it. To use your terms, I see the book doing more reflecting and less explaining than I'd like, but I do see it doing both. I don't see those two activities as necessarily antithetical. When I think of doing history, I think first of letting sources speak (reflecting?), then talking back to them (critical work), and ultimately giving myself the final word (explaining?). Where I think this hastily sketched model diverges from Lincoln is that I give historical sources the first word, rather than starting with my interrogation. Does that make any sense?
Edward J. Blum said…
I've been fascinated by the conversation and disassociation of the disciplines "history" and "religious studies" since I was in graduate school. At conferences, I hear time and again mentions of "historians do this" while "religious studies people do that." Or, I hear people who clearly delve into historical topics comment, "I'm not a historian." It all seems strange to me. There are so many scholars approaching her or his topics in so many different ways that I'm not sure all this pigeon holing reflects our realities. Along with this, there seems to be a binary assumption of "clear prose" versus "complicated ideas." I find it all very dissatisfying because I've always tried to do both. I see myself as a historian and as someone writing in religious studies; I see myself as trying to write clear prose and incorporate complicated concepts. And, to be honest, I think most of us feel the same ways about our scholarship.
Charlie McCrary said…
I think we agree, Elesha. Some of these differences come down to style of writing and what the final product looks like. What's more important, in some ways, is the process that comes beforehand. There, my model for doing history is pretty much the same as yours. And I think Lincoln's is similar too. He always starts with a text and then tries to map out or graph (often literally) what's going on in and around the text. That analysis is critical work, and it's the final word. So, pretty much the same process. I share Ed's frustrations and confusion at some boundary-drawing, and I didn't mean to invoke a religious studies versus history thing, because I have no interest in that. I agree that most of us probably think of our work as "trying to write clear prose and incorporate complicated concepts." If that's not what we're doing, then what? Mostly, my response here was to ask John for clarification, since he seems to be claiming not to do that. If critical reading is a distraction, if incorporating any theoretical framework is a detour, then what is he doing? And if the answer is indeed "not scholarship," then, fine, but don't simultaneously defend it as the "art of history writing."
Edward J. Blum said…
i agree with your questions and logic, Charlie.
Unknown said…
In response to Charlie's initial question and the ensuing conversation, I am indeed calling for more critical reading, analysis, and interpretation of sources, as well as more engagement with secondary scholarship, rather than more wielding of a "moral criticism hatchet." The former (but not the latter) is, in my view, the work of historians as well as religious studies scholars (I consider myself to be both).

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