Review: Recovering the Margins of American Religious History
B. Dwain Waldrep and Scott Billingsley, eds. Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell Jr. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012. 160 pp. ISBN 978-0-8173-5708-5.
These essays honor distinguished historian David Edwin Harrell Jr., longtime member of the Auburn University faculty, known to colleagues simply as Ed. Some chapters appeared as conference papers as sessions marking Ed’s retirement. The four comprising the first section focus on Ed’s scholarship. The three in the second, all by former graduate students of Ed, take concerns in his work in fresh directions. A foreword by Wayne Flynt, preface by Grant Wacker, and epilog by Beth Barton Schweiger complete the volume.
Some themes link the first four essays together. All praise Harrell’s work for its meticulous scholarship and attention to detail. Ed left no page unread nor source ignored. Because of this thorough research, Ed’s critical judgments were, these writers insist, fair and without bias, even when Harrell was a player in events about which he wrote.
In addition, all note that Ed pulled off a feat few have duplicated: he combined rigorous historical analysis with a deep religious faith, one informed by the Stone-Campbell restorationist tradition, more specifically by that associated with the ultra-conservative, non-institutional Churches of Christ. When pressed, Ed readily affirmed his commitment to the “Truth-with-a-capital-T” at the heart of this restorationist impulse.
This passion for the Truth of the faith that “was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3, KJV) may help explain the precision in Harrell’s scholarship. Discerning (and receiving) pure Truth demands accurate translation, interpretation, and understanding of Scripture. Imprecision hurls one into falsehood. It follows that attention to detail in historical inquiry yields the fairest results. Faith and history are thus united.
The opening essay by Sam Hill, another giant in crafting southern religious history into its own disciplinary endeavor, ponders what whets Harrell’s scholarly appetite, observing (as do other writers) that Harrell cultivated a sensitivity to phenomena on the margins of southern religion, whether his own Churches of Christ, Pentecostal healing evangelists, or sectarian movements that revealed ways race and social class shaped the region’s religious consciousness. Hill also notes the American history survey text that Harrell co-authored with three others, Unto a Good Land: A History of the American People (2005). In one sense, this work may be Ed’s most enduring achievement; it weaves the story of religion and its influence into the fabric of American history. In contrast, most survey texts ignore religion altogether.
James Goff, who studied with Harrell, emphasizes how Ed, although not Pentecostal, wrote with sympathy and clarity about the healing revivals in post-World War II Pentecostal and charismatic experience. Harrell took seriously what others treated as exotica. In the more than four decades since his All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America (1975) first appeared, trends have shown Harrell right in his assessment of the importance and ascendancy of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity that now dominate Christian life in some regions of the world. Goff also reviews Harrell’s biography of healing evangelist Oral Roberts (1985), whose theatrics brought scorn and dismissal from both religious leaders and scholars. Harrell used Roberts to illuminate the Pentecostal surge, crafting a model for religious biography in the process.
Richard Hughes—another of restorationism’s premier historians—explores the skill with which Harrell probed that tradition, from the two-volume history of the movement through the nineteenth century, A Social History of the Churches of Christ (1966, 1973), to his more recent book on Homer Hailey and the Churches of Christ in the twentieth century (2000). Reading the first volumes years ago, I concluded that they exemplified how denominational history should be done—emphasizing not triumphalism, but social and cultural context. Hughes concurs, noting that Harrell writes even-handedly about internecine controversies in which he was a player.
Charles Reagan Wilson echoes others who laud how Harrell found what others ignored. Wilson emphasizes Harrell’s insistence that social class mattered as much as race in energizing southern religion. Besides his histories of restorationism, Harrell’s early White Sects and Black Men in the Recent South (1971) expanded the boundaries of what got included in southern religious history. Harrell refused to refract southern religion solely through the lens of evangelicalism.
In his essay, Scott Billingsley moves beyond Harrell’s interest in Pentecostalism, race, and class adding an emphasis on gender in discussing Kenneth Hagin and his “Word of Faith” movement. Hagin did not attract media hype like Oral Roberts, but, Billingsley demonstrates, he left a deep imprint on popular Pentecostalism, influencing especially African American and female preachers. The Word of Faith’s “prosperity gospel” empowered both blacks and women to jettison race and gender bias. In addition, the thousands linked through Hagin’s Rhema Bible Training Center offer a cognate to the Churches of Christ—a “non-denomination” with the trappings of a nascent institution.
How the Churches of Christ function without denominational apparatus informs John Hardin’s discussion of B. C. Goodpasture. Analysts often suggest that the Churches of Christ has maintained structures holding the movement together, especially colleges and campus lectureships. Periodicals have also been vital. Hardin portrays Goodpasture, editor of the influential Churches of Christ Gospel Advocate from 1939 to 1977, as the effective power broker within a movement eschewing formal authority. Authors of articles carried his unofficial imprimatur of orthodoxy, while those aligned with other publications might not speak the Truth.
The final piece, by Dwain Waldrep, examines how northern fundamentalism infiltrated what became the Bible Belt. Using tools similar to those Harrell applied to the post-war healing revivals, he shows how the Bible conference movement, and then a network anchored in Dallas Theological Seminary, planted millenarianism in the region, succeeding in part because southern millenarianism had no “siege mentality.”
Drawn to figures and movements on the margins of American—especially southern— religious life, Ed Harrell took the presumably peripheral and showed how important it really was. These essays testify to how groundbreaking his work remains. Together they tell a story of one who is mentor, friend, and scholar par excellence.