U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On the Relationship Between Our Analytic Vocabulary and Our Subjects’ Vocabulary

Having just gotten back from this year’s wonderful S-USIH conference, I’m thinking about the many terrific papers I heard and stimulating conversations I took part in, in and out of sessions.  I’m still feeling too close to the event to issue many general thoughts about the conference, the state of S-USIH today, and what I hope that the next year will bring, for the conference, Society, and of course, this blog….beyond simply noting that, while there’s certainly things we might be doing better (especially as regards involving more historians whose focus is on anything prior to 1945), I came away from our conference filled with energy and gratitude for the opportunity to spend a few days each year with such an incredible group of scholars and people.  Kudos to conference committee chair Allison Perlman for putting together such a fabulous program and keeping everything running so smoothly.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference in Indianapolis

Rather than draw general conclusions today, I thought I’d share one stray moment from the conference that seemed particularly interesting and that, I hope, might spur some conversation on the blog.  On Saturday, I attended a roundtable session entitled “Is ‘Evangelical’ an American Word? Mapping an Elusive Concept.”  As in any successful roundtable, the four participants provided very different takes on the subject. As a listener whose work is very far from the roundtable’s specific topic, I was struck by a general issue that the discussion raised about the way we historians choose our analytic vocabulary in relation to the vocabulary of the subjects of our work.

Molly Worthen, of the University of North Carolina, opened the panel by proposing an analytical definition of “Evangelical” based on not on a set of doctrines, but rather three areas of concern that, she argued, links Evangelical Christians across time and place, despite many internal disagreements about how to address them: grappling with the relationship between faith and reason, exploring how the individual might know God, and reconciling faith with an increasingly secular public sphere.  Worthen admitted that this use of “Evangelical” is very much an historians’ definition, not a believers. But nonetheless she feels that it serves a valuable analytic purpose.

Mark Edwards from Spring Arbor University (and, incidentally, co-chair of next year’s S-USIH Conference) spoke about liberal Evangelicals and the ways in which they have contested the meaning of the term.  Although relatively few people identify as “liberal Evangelicals,” Edwards argued that a diverse group of thinkers from within the Evangelical tradition worked to make their faith, in one way or another, more progressive.  Among those he mentioned were Horace Bushnell, Henry Ward Beecher, Walter Rauschenbusch, John R. Mott, Harry Emerson Fosdick, E. Stanley Jones, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Although some of these figures actively contested the term “Evangelical,” especially after the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which was founded in 1942, began to firmly connect the term, as used in public discourse, with more conservative forms of Christianity, Edwards’s larger point was that these liberal thinkers worked to liberalism a particular Christian tradition from within, not as antagonists outside of it.

Markku Ruotsila of the University of Helsinki spoke about the International Council of Christian Churches, an ecumenical organization of conservative sects. Though the ICCC consists largely of churches that, in this country, might be labeled “Fundamentalist” (a designation that Ruotsila considers a subset of Evangelical Christianity), outside the United States, the terms “Evangelical” and “Fundamentalist” were not at all salient for the churches in the ICCC. Indeed, there seemed to be no term that linked them. Nonetheless, while not attempting to provide a precise analytical definition of the term “Evangelical,” Ruotsila did not seem prone to foreswear its use by historians.

Not so Bowdoin College’s Laura Premack, who studies Christianity in Nigeria and Brazil. In neither country, argues Premack, is the word “Evangelical” particularly significant. And, when it is used, it has rather different connotations from its use in the United States.  Moreover, the reasons that people in Nigeria and Brazil join churches, in general, and churches that represent versions of Protestantism that, in the U.S., would be labeled “Evangelical,” in particular, are varied, local, and frequently concrete rather than doctrinal.  Both how the religions are practiced and what is preached from the pulpit reflect local issues.  In stressing these local factors, and rejecting the argument that Protestantism, especially in Latin America, simply represents a form of U.S. cultural imperialism, Premack feels that, given its lack of local significance, the term “Evangelical” simply has no analytic role to play in the historical analysis of Christianity in either country.

As I say above, I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. But the discussion made me think about how we intellectual historians choose our analytic vocabulary and the tricky tradeoffs involved in adopting (or not adopting) the often-contested words of our subjects as our analytical tools.  In the U.S. context, “Evangelical” is clearly a very, if protean and contested, important word.  Should we–or, better, in what contexts should we–historians, make it a key analytic term in understanding American Protestantism? And if we refine “Evangelical” into a usable historians’ term, how problematic is it that our usage will, almost by necessity, be out-of-line with the way any believer uses the term?  This is, in fact, a question of far broader importance than the place of the term “Evangelical” in the history of religion.  Intellectual historians need to listen to—and take seriously—the vocabulary that our subjects use. But especially if a particular word is contested or protean, ought we to avoid using it analytically in order to recognize (and respect) that contestation?  Do we otherwise find ourselves, in effect, either picking sides in our subjects’ own terminological disputes or adopting a broad definition of the term in question that encompasses all our subjects, but would be recognized by none of them?  Does using terminology based on such contested words do most justice to the words (and ideas) of our subjects or does avoiding the analytic use of such contested words do so?

I suspect that the best answers to these questions vary both by project and by word.  U.S. historians of religion might be able to abandon the word “Evangelical” as a term of analysis. But I cannot imagine that, for example, we historians of U.S. political thought can stop using “liberal” analytically simply because, like “Evangelical,” it is often both contested and protean in our primary sources.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks, Ben, for this recap—and the additional thinking.

    Several years ago I was tasked—or rather accepted the assignment—of writing an encyclopedia entry on ‘Evangelicals’ in the 1920s.* The reference book was titled the Encyclopedia of the Jazz Age (ME Sharpe, 2008), and the final entry was titled “Evangelicals and Evangelical Christianity.”

    In writing that piece I had address the very problem tackled by this panel. I don’t have access to my final write-up as a post this comment, but I remember doing something along the lines of Molly Worthen’s suggestion. I came up with what I saw as educated hypotheses about common traits over time (total centrality of scripture, focus on evangelization, etc.), and actually had to reach out of the Jazz Age to reference the inaugural 1942 meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals as point for solidification of the term’s meaning.

    As for your discussion addendum, Ben, I think that we just have to define our meaning of the term *for the period about which we’re writing*. I’m not saying that definitions are totally relative, but one should reference larger meanings and make specific clarifications within one’s text. If we do that, we’re doing the ‘historical thinking’ thing by making are arguments more explicit via terminology. I would think that this kind of chronological caveating would have to apply from 1880-Present, at the very least.

    *I also wrote entries on “Catholics and Catholicism” and the “Ku Klux Klan.” It was very fun and enlightening for me, at the time.

  2. Tim, I wonder if what you are suggesting is easy said than done. Take, for example, the term liberal today. Liberal means something different to the political left and to the political right. There is classical liberalism, neo-liberalism, and liberal as a pejorative. If one were to write about liberal politics at the beginning of the 21st century which definition might you chose – or would you start by writing a chapter on the different definitions and their origins of those definitions? So terms are so heavily contested that to offer a definition (or several) might be misinterpreted as endorsement of one or another definition. This might be a greater challenge for those terms that are more hotly contested but any term of identification can have its own supporters and detractors.
    Of course, not engaging in these discussions might prevent a lot of us from doing much of anything.

    • Bryn: I agree absolutely that what I suggested is easier said than done. And your citation of liberalism is a great complicating example—though an intense, perhaps extreme one. But your last sentence hit the nail on the head. We have to hazard definitions, however, to forward the/a narrative. On evangelical, there are least some strong, long-term anchors in Christian writing (e.g. reaching out with the faith—proselytizing).

  3. Historians of Sexuality and Queer Theorists have grappled with these very same issues. The meanings ascribed to certain behaviours have changed drastically over time and depend on who is describing. For instance, in popular LGBT, identity-based discourses there has been a move to “reclaim” certain historical subjects and locate them within a queer past. Yet, as scholarship devoted to LGBT or Queer subjects increases there has been a move to historicise our terms of analysis and let actors speak for themselves. David Halperin’s How To Do the History of Homosexuality is a good place to start for radically historicising ourselves. In my own work, the label “homosexual” was applied by surveillent authorities in 1960s Florida, but was not adopted by the men involved. I settled on using “homosexual” to describe specific behaviours while deploying Queer to describe the non-heteronormativity of the men’s lives.

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