Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell Jr.by B. Dwain Waldrep
Recovering the Margins of American Religious History, a celebration of the life and work of David Edwin Harrell Jr., brings together essays from Harrell’s colleagues, peers, and students that explore his impact and legacy in the field of American religious studies.See more details below
Recovering the Margins of American Religious History, a celebration of the life and work of David Edwin Harrell Jr., brings together essays from Harrell’s colleagues, peers, and students that explore his impact and legacy in the field of American religious studies.
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Recovering the Margins of American Religious HistoryThe Legacy of David Edwin Harrell Jr.
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESSCopyright © 2012 The University of Alabama Press
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Chapter OneDavid Edwin Harrell Jr. American Religious Historian Samuel S. Hill
"All history writing is autobiographical." Not quite, not exactly. But that statement, hardly indisputable truth, does lead us toward some insight into the dynamics of the historian's practice of his craft.
My respect for David Edwin Harrell Jr. is too great, and my sensitivity too genuine, I trust, for me to claim exhaustive knowledge of why he writes as he does. But I have both right and responsibility to ponder the outlines of his imagination. What is the Harrell appetite? What are the patterns of his reflection; what are his fascinations? Imagination, appetite, fascinations. My goal here is to put a stethoscope to the authorial heartbeat of this friend and colleague.
What is the range of the Harrell published corpus? In no particular order of significance, several categories loom, beginning with the history of his own brotherhood, the Churches of Christ. His first two books marked a turning point in the study of that movement and, I may say, in the young and growing, now massive, enterprise called American religious history. Quest for a Christian America and Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ, 1865–1900 were examinations of the tradition in hard-nosed historical fashion. His most recent publication returns to that general theme but is a very different kind of book. The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey's Personal Journey of Faith is much more limited in scope and more focused in interest than Harrell's original historical studies. And it seems that Harrell by now was so drawn to key figures, to shapers of religious currents, that he saw fit to let such a person help guide the reader through the story of the denomination's historical developments. It's worth noting that making one book of two studies registers editorial decisions by The University of Alabama Press, not a program of action that Harrell had firmly in mind or insisted on—notwithstanding his being one of three editors of the series published by Alabama that includes this book.
In All Things Are Possible, Harrell next explored the history of Spirit-driven, Protestant-concerted ministries and revivals from the end of World War II to 1974. This book also ventured into territory that was largely foreign to mainstream historical scholarship. Not many scholars or readers gave much respect or attention to the healing revivals of a pretty motley crew of zealots—charlatans in the eyes of more than a few—who perpetrated these excitements and bromides on an unthinking, working-class public, as so many judged. As careful historian that he always intends to be and as listener to the stories of leaders and followers, Harrell explored two stages of this effervescence: the first, healing, modulating into a second, the charismatic. Not all gatherers of data on this general topic would so perceptively have seen the distinction between healers and charismatics, and certainly would not have had the wit to formulate the distinction as a modulation. Partly in consequence of his undeniable salesmanship capacities, a major house, the Indiana University Press, brought this book to the public, doing well for itself and encouraging scholarly interest for these "sectarian" causes.
Biographical studies comprise a third arena of Harrell's interest. Indiana University Press issued Oral Roberts: An American Life in 1985. I am guessing that this achievement tops the list of the general readership's knowledge of Harrell's work. That supposition comes from several factors, of course, not least the exhaustive research represented by the six-hundred-page tome. Perhaps it was only bad luck that the next book, also a biography, did not push Oral Roberts to second position. What if Pat Robertson had been the Republican Party nominee for the presidency in 1988—and been elected to the highest office in the land? "What if " ruminations aside, Harrell published Pat Robertson: A Personal, Religious, and Political Portrait with Harper and Row in 1987. Obviously, biography as a genre is in there somewhere, filling some corner of that vital Harrell imagination, impelling some of those appetites.
Sectarian phenomena are a fourth category prominent in Harrell's work. He has been at that since White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South appeared in 1971. There he did some pioneering labor, or more accurately, saw some rarely recognized sights as his scrutinizing eye scanned the screen of Protestant life in parts of the southern highlands region near which he had lived as a professor at East Tennessee State University and at the University of Georgia. In the setting of the civil rights movement, it was easy to forget, also invigorating to note, that some of the most "backward" movements among pentecostals and holiness people had been putting into practice for several decades what the front-page efforts of the liberal religious establishment were aiming, at considerable cost, to make happen. Racial integration was, in fact, no great rarity among sectarian people, where black members sat beside white members; black and white testifiers gave God the glory with spirit and freedom of expression during the same church services. Women and men of European descent and African origin together glorified God without restraint and with boundless joy. I am not aware that Harrell's effort registered much impact, probably because in part the crusade to open the society was directed at the central public institutions and policies of the South and the nation. Never mind that intelligible strategy enacted by mainstream churches, the job didn't need doing through out all of Dixie's congregations and denominations. Some of the churches had come upon that achievement without developing any strategy at all, just through responding to the divine spirit at work.
Harrell persisted with this theme in several essays published between 1981 and 1988. During the season when the enterprise of "southern religion" was gaining momentum and achieving identity, he was one of a small cadre of scholars regularly showing up at conferences and symposia, a company that included rather predictably John Boles, Wayne Flynt, Charles Wilson, Donald Mathews, and me, sometimes joined by such outlanders as Edwin Gaustad and Martin Marty. Each of us seemed to have a slot, Harrell's standard assignment being to tell us about regional sectarians who, even that late, were out of sight or beyond the range of serious examination. There is a Harrell glossary for the phenomena that consumed his attention; in addition to "sectarian," he wrote of the "underside" of regional religious life, minorities, nonconformists, and even "fanatics on the fringe." Treatment of bodies so described, of course, became the subjects of the first two Harrell books, his own people hailing from the southern, Stone-descended wing of the Stone-Campbell restoration movement. In that sense, "sectarian" phenomena deserve no truly special classification, being the subject of virtually all the religious groups he has studied. We need only to be sure to acknowledge that these sorts of Christian bodies were worth the scholar's time and that Harrell looked them over.
The year 1981 saw the publication of Varieties of Southern Evangelicalism. Harrell was the editor of this collection of essays; indeed, The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) symposium in 1979 that generated this body of work was very largely of his doing. It is a fine study and was an early airing of the broad range of religious constituencies in the South. The literature on denominations had long been with us, and historical and sociological interpretations of the interaction of church and society had been gaining a hearing. But here, driven by the Harrell predisposition to attend to the other 30 or 40 percent, we read about the social gospel of the South, black folk religion, Billy Graham, a breakdown of types of piety, and of course, Harrell's piece on the South as "seedbed of sectarianism." Some of the regulars appeared behind that UAB lectern, but so did Martin Marty, Joseph Washington from the University of Pennsylvania, and William Martin from Rice University. I repeat: that is a fine collection of essays, to this day one of the best composite studies of religion in the region. I remember admiring Harrell's willingness to use "Evangelicalism" as the blanket title term, since he deigned or decided to include the Churches of Christ, notably his branch off that trunk, under that title. Few observations that I have made in writing have been quoted more of ten than my "typology" of southern evangelicalism in an essay of that book. Harrell noted in his introduction that we learn in my contribution what Sam Hill likes and what he doesn't like, an un-compliment given with a grin and no dagger.
Clearly, Harrell's published work is extensive, has been carried on for more than four decades, and may be said to feature: Churches of Christ history, the historical tracing of special kinds of Spirit-infused movements, biography of religious leaders, and work on outside-the-mainstream sectarian bodies and perspectives. What do these lines of inquiry have in common? One historian has produced them all; the broad reaches of these investigations strike the reader of samples of each. The approach is always historical. Interpretation is present, certainly classification. But never—some demur over that absolute—does Harrell stray from the canons of his guild. He is a faithful, rather old-fashioned collector of data, recognizably a social historian, one who is dedicated resolutely to the documentation of what he presents. He is not a C. Vann Woodward sort of cultural historian, nor a member of the Dan Carter school of historiography. Harrell and Joel Williamson are very far apart indeed. He does not share Edwin Gaustad's love of ideas nor Martin Marty's passion to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and to bring everybody together. Conversations with Harrell disclose thoughtful reflection on meaning and reveal considerable wisdom. He listens with respect and responds with engaging interest. Yet he has been known to come down hard on scholars' expressions of opinion about or preference for particular points of view.
I mention two incidents in illustration of this point. Harrell tells me that when speaking to Muslims who are scholars of Islam, as he has done of ten in South Asia, he begins by telling them, straight out, that they are wrong, that Islam is misguided. Not just that he disagrees, but that they are wrong. From that point he "negotiates," in the sense of inviting dialogue, aiming thereby to achieve fairness that engages, listens, and goes somewhere. That tack elicits some respect from me, that is, the straightforward approach is legitimate and may well evoke elementally human interaction. This is a fine Harrell skill. But in this discussion of his historiography, the issue becomes Harrell's high standards of "getting it right," being accurate. Those who subscribe to false teachings are to be challenged.
This attitude is perfectly consistent with the philosophy of truth that Harrell spelled out in his 1966 Reed Lectures. There he espoused Francis Bacon's doctrine of "double truth," the philosophical bifurcation of reality common in Enlightenment thinking most famously associated with Immanuel Kant. The Bacon affirmation summarizes as: "philosophy should be kept separate from theology." He readily acknowledges that this perspective is a kind of schizoid view of truth. In any case, revealed truth is knowable, knowable with the precision and infallibility that characterizes our knowledge of the natural world through science. There is truth and there is error, just as much in religious belief as in physics.
A second incident took place during a breakfast conversation at an annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association about 1982. I pulled out the old chestnut; let's compress our respective philosophies of life to one word. I said, "meaning"; he said, "obedience." You have just learned something about the speaker and the one whose work is being spoken about. Harrell, the self-characterized religious legalist, and the eminent scholar are the same person. That's a compliment, in the first instance, and in the second, it assists our understanding of his regarding "objectivity" as something attaining near-fetish proportions.
There is a lightness of being in Harrell as everyday father, husband, friend, and colleague that is not so evident in either his religious bearing or his scholarship. I confess to taking pleasure from reading his personal sketch in John Boles's book of autobiographical reflections by several southern religious historians. Distinctions are drawn there that I had not seen in the normativist inclinations present in religious conversations or near the surface in his historiography. "Obedience," his one-word summary of "what makes him tick," transfers rather readily, it seems to this observer, to religious legalism and total dedication to objectivity in the practice of the historian's craft. Incidentally, I seem to have noticed that many biblical scholars from this tradition are more drawn to linguistic study than to theology, to examination of parts and pieces more than to broad themes or the whole. Please note that I celebrate the truth that it takes us to begin to deal adequately with the biblical material. The point I put forward is that there may be a similar mentality, in the form of an epistemology, linking such biblical scholarship and the kind of historical work that Harrell does. Perhaps even between Alexander Campbell's "gospel facts" and historical data.
The latest full-length book publication of course is The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey's Personal Journey of Faith, a study that has been greeted with general acclaim and some spirited opposition. What has this book to do with the absence of lightness of being, to "obedience" writ large, as I have just ventured to interpret, in other words, to Harrell's high dedication to objectivity as historian? Honestly, this outsider to the Churches of Christ is far from certain. I am unable to decode the symbols of this brotherhood (and, by the way, of the Episcopal Church that I chose to join thirty-one years ago). One may have to be born to some system of symbolics in order to grasp them. But it is clear that some other professional historians judge that this book stacks the deck, is markedly unfair, indeed erroneous, falls short of the sought high standards. I raise this issue, not a pleasant one, because you are scholars within the brotherhood, and need to come face to face with who did what to whom in the twentieth century. Perhaps the book's second title, printed appositively to the first, namely, Homer Hailey's Personal Journey of Faith, has contributed to the sharp difference of interpretation.
Earlier I made reference to Harrell's addressing Islamic audiences in South Asia. To a greater degree than almost all scholars of my acquaintance, he has been involved in and given leadership to overseas cultures. Preoccupation with a person's publications may cause us to overlook other features of that scholar's career, contributions, and achievements. In the case of this scholar, the oversight is dramatic. From reading his curriculum vitae and from engaging him in conversation, I have become aware of his exceptional service to this country, to international affairs, and to interfaith understanding. I commend to you these facts: From 1993 to 1995 Harrell directed the American Studies Research Centre in Hyderabad, India. Earlier he had been Senior Fulbright Scholar in Allahabad, India. Cutting short a long list of offices and honors, I mention these: selection as a distinguished USIA lecturer; a special ambassadorial citation from the US Ambassador to India; and membership on scholarship selection committees here and in India. He has lectured in India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, and Egypt, also England and Australia. Harrell is a man of parts. Scholars do more than publish. This has been especially true of Harrell's career.
Possessing no powers of clairvoyance, I cannot predict what exactly from the Harrell corpus will last the longest, or will make the greatest positive contribution. But somewhere high on such a list will appear Unto a Good Land, an American history textbook published in 2005.11 Largely Harrell's brainstorm, this is not just another such book intended for college classroom use. It is, rather, a serious resource for grasping American history that adds religious history to the conventional elements: the political, the military, the economic, the literary, the social/cultural, and so on.
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