In April we began a series of reviews on John Fea's recent book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016). The series contained two reviews, one review by Elesha Coffman and the other by Candy Gunther Brown. I'd also like to draw our reader's attention to a review of The Bible Cause by Paul Harvey (our own blogmeister emeritus) at Religion Dispatches. Harvey's thoughtful review responds to the reviews by Coffman and Brown, and is well worth reading alongside them.
In this concluding post, John Fea offers a response to his reviewers. I am glad that John agreed to this forum in the first place and has taken the time to offer us his thoughts. Now that you've read these three posts (four if you count Harvey's review) I encourage you to read The Bible Cause for yourself. —Lincoln Mullen
by John Fea
I am extremely grateful to Lincoln Mullen and the Religion in American History blog for holding a symposium on The Bible Cause. I also want to thank two scholars whose work I admire—Elesha Coffman and Candy Gunther Brown—for taking the time to review the book.
I have seen the Bible Cause as an experiment of sorts. As many of the readers of the Religion in American History blog know, I wrote 120 blog posts tracking my progress on the book. This was also the first book (and it will probably be the last) I have written to commemorate an important anniversary in the life of an institution. Since The Bible Cause required that I build a relationship with the ABS, I had a unique set of challenges to deal with. How would I maintain my scholarly integrity and academic freedom while at the same time providing the ABS with a book worthy of its bicentennial? Though I never talked to George Marsden about this project, I tried to use his book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism as a model for writing this kind of institutional history. Finally, I wanted to write a narrative history of this important American institution. While I had scholars in mind as I wrote, and I hoped that this book would contribute to our knowledge of American history and find its way into academic libraries, I also had in mind the thousands of Christian laypersons who were affiliated with the ABS as donors and participants in the Bible Cause.
It is hard to know how to respond to the criticisms that Coffman and Brown have made of my book. In the end, I think we will have to agree to disagree. For example, I do not agree with Coffman’s assessment that my argument about the ABS connection to Christian nationalism fades from view as the book develops. Actually, I wish Coffman was right about this. If my argument did indeed disappear it might have saved me some headaches. When representatives of the American Bible Society read an advance copy of the book they were bothered by the fact that this Christian nationalist thread was so prominently featured in virtually every chapter and complained about it to Oxford University Press.
Brown criticized the book for not giving due attention to women. Frankly, I don’t know how much more I could have said about the role of women in the ABS and still tell a story of an organization that has been dominated for two centuries by white middle-class men. Nevertheless, there is probably a lot more I could have said about some of the local women’s auxiliary Bible societies. Early in the project I had some correspondence with historian Anne Boylan about her work on these societies. Boylan wrote to me with an offer to share some of the research she had gathered while writing her excellent The Origins of Women’s Activism: New York and Boston, 17976, 1840. In the end, I could not incorporate all of this material (I declined her offer) because I only had so much space to tell a 200-year story. Having said that, I worked hard to integrate women into the narrative. Brown’s review makes it sound like I only spent five pages on women’s role in the history of ABS. This is just not the case.
Brown’s strongest criticism relates to what she perceives to be my failure to deconstruct the primary sources that I used to write the book and my apparent willingness to accept ABS language at face value. Am I guilty of scholarly malpractice because I do not make a “more explicit critique of ABS assumptions, language, and impacts?” I don't think so. But The Bible Cause is not a scholarly monograph. In order to produce a readable book for a wider audience I chose not to take theoretical detours into “post-colonial theory” and “critical renderings” of various subjects. I actually wanted people to read and enjoy the book and in the process learn something about the Bible in America, American religious history, Christian nationalism, and American history writ-large. In the process, I hope the readers who follow the story to the end of the book will also have learned some more general lessons about historical context, change over time, and historical contingency and continuity in the life of an organization. Sweeping narratives like The Bible Cause always lend themselves to these kinds of lessons in historical thinking.
In the end, I don’t think Brown really gets what I was trying to do in The Bible Cause. Actually, I think the book is filled with subtle critique, though I imagine that Brown wanted me to wield my moral criticism hatchet with a bit more force. I suggest that she read Paul Harvey’s review of the book at Religion Dispatches. Harvey does not agree with all of my interpretive choices, but he understands my approach—the approach of an historian. (I also reflected on the differences between the various genres of history writing here as part of a lively conversation among early American historians about writing for popular audiences).
I just learned that The Bible Cause will be the subject of an entire session at the November meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio. Something tells me that the kind of critique Brown has made of my book will not be going away anytime soon. It should be a fun session.