Harry S. Stout: memory and imagination in American Christianity

Ray Waddle

Harry S. Stout, Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity, isn’t terribly impressed by the excesses and extremes of contemporary culture. As a historian, he takes the long view. Political gridlock, financial recklessness, high levels of religious non-belief – America has seen it all before, he says.

Harry StoutStout’s current book project, for instance, involves the multi-generational dramas of the Anderson clan who lived in Ohio and Kentucky in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their influence as landowners, soldiers, legislators, or diplomats stretched from colonial revolutionary times into the Civil War and beyond. The family patriarch crossed the Delaware with Gen. Washington. Descendants fought in the Civil War, won and lost fortunes in land speculation, argued over religion, or died of yellow fever while pursuing adventures abroad.

“None became presidents, so you’ve never heard of them,” says Stout, whose immersion in Anderson family research has included some 1,600 letters housed at the Huntington Library in California. He was awarded a senior fellowship at Huntington for 2011-12.

“But their story combines history, religion, economics and politics. They were up to their eyeballs in land speculation and got badly burned. They hated the courts, hated politicians. It’s an American story. Gridlock? Greed? We’ve always had these things.”

Stout is an award-winning author who teaches both graduates and undergraduates at Yale. He also directs the Jonathan Edwards Center at YDS.

“I try to instill in students the idea that American history is a library of discrete books telling their own stories but sharing a common shelf. A student’s most important skill is not memory but imagination. Can you imagine yourself in a different time? Can you imagine passing as a native of that time and place?”

To great acclaim, Stout reimagined the moral climate and turbulence of the Civil War in his most recent book, Upon the Altar of the Nation (Viking, 2006).

In that book and in other writing projects, he has conveyed the unusual spiritual character of Abraham Lincoln and the moral impact of his famous speeches. In a war where both sides vehemently claimed God’s favor, Lincoln’s words often struck a remarkable note of humility and sense of tragedy. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address declared, “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” To Stout, the Second Inaugural in March 1865 stands as the great conciliatory exception to the religious fragmentation of a bloody war.

Some, if not all, realized it at the time.

“Right after Lincoln spoke his words, Frederick Douglass came up to him and congratulated him: ‘Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort.’ The clergy, though, were irritated because they weren’t invited onto the podium. And reporters were more interested in the antics of Vice President Johnson, who was clearly inebriated. Lincoln discreetly commanded: ‘Don’t let that man speak!’ ”

Interest in the spiritual character of Lincoln’s writing and thinking has lately been on the ascent after going underestimated or undetected by historians for generations. Stout says this represents a striking turnaround in his discipline in the last decade: Like never before, historians are examining the religious dimension of historic events and personalities.

The surge in interest in religion among historians has specific professional causes and—Stout hopes—specific social effects.

One reason for the quickened interest in religion, he says, is the sheer pressure of real-world 21st century events.

“Secularism was supposed to triumph, but clearly the resurgence of religion, notably fundamentalism, has served notice that this factor can’t be ignored. You might not like it, but it cannot be ignored.”

Another reason: Since the 1960s, the rise of religious studies departments has cultivated new generations of scholars who’ve brought sensitivity to religious themes. Also, notably in the 1990s, U.S. Supreme Court decisions ruled that schools are free to teach about religion without proselytizing.

And he cited the emergence of wealthy foundations – Pew, Lilly, Luce and others – that offer book fellowships and other research opportunities in areas of religion and its relation to social and historical movements.

“With the considerable rise of religious history generally, all things religious are being examined by historians,” Stout says.

“We can hope that a sense of tolerance and ecumenism rises when people understand the various religious arguments from history. That’s what we need. The greatest threat we face around religion is ignorance, the ignorance of other religions. Ignorance causes fear, and fear leads to violence.”

Stout grew up in Philadelphia, where he attended a religiously strict grade school. He wasn’t particularly fond of it, but he did get an early exposure to theology and Bible. It also gave him a beginning understanding of New England puritanism, which became a lifelong research interest. His first book, after receiving his Ph.D. from Kent State, was The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford University Press, l986), a Pulitzer Prize nominee.

His work at the Jonathan Edwards Center promotes the legacy of the nation’s preeminent theologian, who drew deeply on Puritan heritage. The center’s online project, The Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, allows the world free access to a collection of Edwards’ works and manuscripts.

“We’ve discovered that Jonathan Edwards is a global phenomenon,” he says. “People want to affiliate with us. We hear from researchers in Hungary, South Africa, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Tokyo.”

Edwards (1703-1758) is attractive for various reasons, he says. He’s a theological father at assorted evangelical seminaries. He wrote in English, which is an advantage for students globally where English predominates, as opposed to Luther’s German or Calvin’s Latin or French. Edward’s doctrine of sin is considered a tough-minded corrective to naïve contemporary optimism or despair.

Stout is also the editor of the forthcoming Library of America volume on Edwards. His other books include The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Eerdman’s, 1991), which won the Critic’s Award for History.

After he finishes writing on the Anderson family, he says he’d like to turn attention to a biography of civil rights activist Virginia Durr (1903-1999).

“It takes me a decade to write a book. Some historians spend their whole life mining one subject. I move around, each book requiring a slightly different methodology.”

The goal is always to bring imagination, empathy and clear-minded evaluations to a contentious, far-ranging discipline.

“The aim is not to trash America but not worship it either. I’m interested in the sober assessment of American history – the nation’s strengths and its weaknesses.”

Date Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2013 - 10:00am