Many of the best academic historians of evangelicalism and fundamentalism grew up as part of an evangelical church. Indeed, among academic historians in general, since the 1960s it has been seen as a big plus to have a personal background with the group(s) we study.
It’s not universal. As far as I know, Matthew Sutton didn’t. Molly Worthen didn’t. Tanya Luhrmann didn’t. And if they did, it is not a big part of their public persona. In other words, they write as scholars of evangelical religion, not necessarily as evangelical scholars of evangelical religion.
This is more than just “PC” cliquishness. Historians are sobered and humbled by their own history. Though African American historian WEB DuBois clearly debunked the dominant but false histories of Reconstruction way back in the 1930s, white historians didn’t catch up until the 1960s.
With fundamentalism in particular, non-evangelical historians did a terrible job. Until the 1970s, mainstream historians told us that fundamentalism died after the Scopes Trial of 1925. It had done nothing of the sort, of course. A new generation of evangelical historians such as Ernest Sandeen and George Marsden knew it hadn’t, since they had grown up with it.
Having a background in the world of conservative evangelicalism gives historians an ear for the language and a feel for the connections between groups. When I was stumbling through my graduate work at Wisconsin, for example, my mentor Ron Numbers was able to point me toward super-rare creationist documents from the 1930s. How did he know about them? They were written by his grandfather!
That sort of connection is something we outsiders can never acquire.
As outsiders, though, we non-evangelical historians enjoy some benefits. For us, there are no pre-existing good guys or bad guys. We aren’t embarrassed by the rhetorical excesses of 1920s fundamentalists. They don’t have anything to do with us! We don’t feel a need to demonstrate how different such hellfire preachers are from our own intellectual roots. To us, it’s all archival material.
In short, evangelical historians will always have insights I lack. But they will also have hang-ups and assumptions I’m free from.
Recent discussions on this blog have pointed out the continuing importance of these questions. When I noted the recent visit of Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit to the scenic campus of Wheaton College, I was mostly interested in the turbulent historical relationship between the two schools. At least one commentator, however, accused me of trading in “guesswork and gossip.” I didn’t mean to suggest that BJU was somehow “moving toward neo-evangelicalism.” Many readers within the world of fundamentalism and evangelicalism have very strong feelings about such things. I don’t.
As I plow forward with my new book about conservative evangelical colleges and universities, I need to keep these issues in mind. I need to remind myself that I might be missing out on subtleties of tone or implication that are obvious to those raised within this tradition. I need to watch for connections that are not made explicit to outsiders, but are nevertheless glaringly obvious to those in the know.