Category Archives: News

Edwards texts return to Yale

They’ve been checked out for about 150 years, but now a dozen boxes of Jonathan Edwards texts are being returned to the library at Yale Divinity School.

The books were borrowed by Edwards Amasa Park, a professor at Andover Theological Seminary, in the mid 1800s. The exact date is unclear. Park apparently intended to write a biography of Edwards. He was interested especially in Edwards’s writings on natural philosophy. Park has been called “the last Edwardsian,” though there are surely some today who would dispute that. A Congregationalist theologian, Park also happened to be married to one of Edwards’s descendants. Perhaps it felt like the books belonged in the family. When the theologian died 1900, the books he’d borrowed just stayed at the Massachusetts seminary.

More than a century later, they’ve been returned.

As the New Haven Register reports, the small-but-significant collection is being reunited with the larger Yale collection. Andover Newton, struggling with the declines hitting many mainline seminaries in the U.S., formed a partnership with Yale several years ago. Part of the partnership is the merging of theological libraries, including the Edwards collection.

“It brings great relief,” Ken Mikema, director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale told to the New Haven paper. “I sleep better at night knowing these things are all reunited again.”

–Daniel Silliman

Pennington Award goes to Edwards scholar

This year’s prestigious James W.C. Pennington Award is going to Harry S. Stout, the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale Divinity School and the General Editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards.

The Heidelberg Center for American Studies and the Faculty of Theology of Heidelberg University give the annual award to one outstanding scholar who has done stellar work on the African-American experience in the Atlantic world. The award is named for the escaped-slave-turned-abolitionist who received a doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1849. The award is funded by the With financial support from the Manfred Lautenschläger Foundation. The first recipient was Albert J. Raboteau. Subsequent awards have gone to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, William L. Andrews, and John With, Jr. Stout is the sixth recipient.

Stout has written a number of books of interest to Jonathan Edwards scholars, including The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England, published in 1986 and The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, published in 1991. He has also edited a numerous critical volumes in the study of American religious history, including The Jonathan Edwards ReaderJonathan Edwards and the America Experience (co-edited with Nathan Hatch), Benjamin Franklin Jonathan Edwards, and The Representation of American Culture, (co-edited with Barbara Oberg), Reading in American Religious History, (co-edited with Jon Butler), and Stories of Faith, Stories of America: Religion in United States History (with Randall Balmer and Grant Wacker).

Stout will be speaking at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies on May 17, at 6:15 p.m. The title of his talk is “Lincoln’s God and the Emancipation Proclamation.” The talk is free and open to the public.

Edwards scholar speaking in Heidelberg

Mark Valeri will be lecturing at 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7 at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. The title of the lecture is, “Free Conscience, Conversion, and Social Realities in Eighteenth-Century America.”

Valeri is the Reverend Priscilla Wood Neaves Distinguished Professor of Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. He also works at the Danforth C. Center on Religion and Politics. He specializes in religion and social thought, especially economics, in early America. He’s done extensive research on the thought, context, and legacy of Jonathan Edwards, and he edited vol. 17, Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733 of the Works of Jonathan Edwards.

His award-winning book Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America analyzes social transformations in the American views of the economy from the early 1600s to the 1740s. Valeri charts a change in Protestant thinking, from when Puritans argued personal profit should be subordinate to the common welfare to when they increasingly celebrated commerce as an unqualified good.

The talk is a part of the Winter Baden-Württemberg Seminar and is open and free to the public.

New book looks at Edwards and print culture

Scholars of Jonathan Edwards have explored Edwards’ writings and legacies from seemingly every angle. Yet, a new monograph published by Oxford University Press has revealed a blind spot: print culture. In Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture, Jonathan Yeager, UC Foundation Associate Professor of Religion at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, fills this lacuna.

JY bookThis book is grounded in extensive research. In four Appendices, Yeager provides a table of Edwards’s published works in chronological order up to 1800, a graph showing the most fruitful years for his publications, their prices and formats, and subscription lists for his most successful work, The Life of David Brainerd. But this work is no mere collection of data. Yeager unpacks a compelling narrative and advances an important thesis: “I argue,” he writes, “that Edwards’s printers, publishers, and editors shaped the public perception of him in the way that they packaged and marketed his publications” (xi).

Yeager has two intended audiences. First, he wants to help historians of print culture better understand the religious dimensions of the trade, and second, he guides scholars of religion through the critical connections between religious history and the history of the book. He has five chapters detailing the reception of Edwards’s writings, his relationship with his publishers and their impact on his public perception, and the role of those in the late eighteenth century who continued to publish Edwards’s writings to advance their own objectives.

Yeager also helpfully underscores the transatlantic dimension of evangelical publishing networks and its role in shaping the public identity of figures like Edwards. Not only did Edwards’s evangelical contemporaries like John Wesley and Isaac Watts in England help advance his publications, but so did his heirs, including his son Jonathan Edwards Jr. and the New Divinity men in New England, John Erskine in Scotland, and Baptists in England such as John Ryland Jr.

The German reception of Edwards’s Faithful Narrative is of particular interest, with two groups translating and appropriating Edwards’s work in 1738, but in different ways. On the on hand, Johann Adam Steinmetz packaged Edwards’s work as reinforcing a Lutheran approach to revivalism. On the other, a group of German Reformed Pietists embraced Edwards’s Reformed inflections in their translation, and catered it to a more uneducated and popular readership (23-24).

This book is a much-needed resource, and students and scholars of religious history and print culture will benefit greatly from it.

–Ryan Hoselton

Cotton Mather gets the YA treatment

The ghost of Cotton Mather has made another appearance in modern America: this time in a Young Adult novel about bullying.

Adriana and Cotton Mather How to Hang a Witch is the debut work of Adriana Mather, a Mather of the Mathers.

Adriana identifies as a descendent of the famous Puritan and says she learned about her Mather lineage and Cotton Mather from her great-grandmother, a teacher and amateur historian who “catalogued everything from our family.”

Now she’s turned her personal history into a bit of fiction. The heroine of the new novel How to Hang a Witch is also a Mather of the Mathers. The 15-year-old protagonist moves to Salem, Mass. with her stepmother, only to discover that her family’s connection to the witch trials make her a target of the witches who dominate her school.

Also there’s a ghost boy and a whisper about a Mather-family curse.

A sample:

“‘Not having a good first day at Salem High?’

“I shake my head. ‘Have you noticed a group of girls in my grade that wear all black—rich goth types?’

“‘The Descendants?’

“I venture a look at Jaxon. ‘What?’

“‘Like that?’ He nods toward a guy and a girl entering the room. The guy wears an expensive–looking black button-down shirt, black pants, and black loafers. And she has on a floor-length black dress with a tailored black blazer. Her hair is a perfect bob.

“‘Yeah, exactly like that.’

“‘There are five of them in our school. He’s the only dude. They’re descended from the original witches. Everyone kinda love-hates them. People think they can curse you if they want to. I think it’s total bull.’

“‘You’re kidding, right?’ But I can tell from his expression that he’s not.”

Publisher’s Weekly says the novel is “an entertaining story that draws intriguing parallels between the 17th-century trials and modern-day bullying, as well as the fears and mob mentalities behind both.”

Adriana Mather said she wanted to show how the mob-mentality of the witch trials were not as outdated as one might think. “We look at the Salem Witch Trials,” she said in a promotional interview, “and think, ‘How could they ever let something horrible like that happen?’ But it’s not that different for the people who suffer from bullying now.”

Mather’s ghost thus provides pop culture another modern lesson in how not to be a bully.

–Daniel Silliman

Unlocking the Cotton Mather treasure trove

Prof. Jan Stievermann’s new book is “the most important book ever written on biblical scholarship in early American history,” according to Douglas Sweeney, Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity looks at how Cotton Mather struggled to read the Hebrew Bible as Christian scripture in the early modern era in a way that seemed intellectually honest and also, at the same time, spiritually satisfying. Prof. Sweeney says the work is “simply must reading for all who work on early modern Christianity.”

Ryan Hoselton, who is working with Prof. Stievermann on a dissertation on Mather and Jonathan Edwards, sat down with him to ask him a few questions about his work on Cotton Mather:

Hoselton: Some readers may find it curious that a German has devoted so much time and energy to studying Cotton Mather, and American religious history in general. What drew you to this field?

Stievermann: Some of it is biographical coincidence. Studying American literature and culture, I was lucky enough to have good teachers who believed in the crucial importance of religion, and especially New England Puritanism, for understanding the cultural and social life of the U.S. So reading the Magnalia and other texts by Mather was very much part of my training as an Americanist.

Later my fascination deepened for different reasons. Studying the Puritans and their different heirs gives you a very wide range of modern Protestant thought and culture, from strict Biblicism, creedal conservativism, revivalism to ultra-liberal. Mather’s religious and intellectual life is incredibly complex and complicated and well-worth studying.

Hoselton: What is the Biblia Americana project and what fruit has it yielded so far?

IMG_1573Stievermann: The “Biblia Americana: The Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testament Illustrated” was supposed to be Cotton Mather’s magnum opus of biblical interpretation. Because he couldn’t find the necessary patronage, his manuscript was left unpublished. It’s more than 4,500 folio pages. Mather’s heirs bequeathed the manuscript to the Massachusetts Historical Society after the the American Revolution. It has slumbered
in the archives almost untouched for more than two centuries.

Since 2010, Mohr Siebeck has started to publish what will be a 10-volume scholarly edition, amounting to about 10,000 pages in print. The scholarly edition is not only making the “Biblia Americana” readily available in transcription for the first time, but also, by virtue of extensive introductions, annotations, and translations, is facilitating access to its rich contents. In the past, the work had been largely unapproachable to most modern readers. Mather frequently uses early modern forms of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and he was engaging in dialogue with very specific, now often forgotten, debates and traditions.

Led by Reiner Smolinski (General Editor) and myself (Executive Editor), the Biblia Americana edition thus resembles an archaeological project in early American religious and intellectual history. An international team of experts is recovering and piecing together, shard by shard, the lost world of Mather’s biblical interpretation. We’re attempting to bring his thoughts back to life by placing the Biblia Americana within its larger discursive environment.

Four volumes have been published so far: Genesis (2010, ed. Reiner Smolinski), Joshua-Chronicles (2013, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema), Ezra-Psalms (2014, ed. Harry Clark Maddux), and now Proverbs-Jeremiah (2015, ed. Jan Stievermann). There has also been a collection of essays on Cotton Mather and the “Biblia America” (2010) that came out of a conference marking the launch of the editorial project. The positive reception of the published volumes is an encouraging sign that the scholarly community is beginning to recognize the importance of the “Biblia Americana” manuscript as a great untapped resource.

Hoselton: There’s been much attention given to Jonathan Edwards’ exegesis, recently. Why does Mather’s biblical interpretation deserve our consideration as well?

Stievermann: Now that Edwards’ exegetical writings are published in the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, his biblical interpretation has finally received the attention it deserves, including in Douglas Sweeney’s 2015 monograph, Edwards the Exegete. We hope to see the same for Cotton Mather. The “Biblia Americana” is a treasure trove, not only for early American studies, but also for scholars interested in the development of Protestant theology and biblical interpretation during a decisive period of intellectual change in the early modern Atlantic world.

The “Biblia” holds special potential since it’s the first serious engagement of an American exegete with critical-historical methods in biblical scholarship. With surprising breadth and depth, Mather discusses, among many other things, questions regarding the inspiration, composition, transmission, canonization, and historical realism of the biblical texts.

As one of the very first theologians in the British colonies, he pondered the quintessentially modern questions surrounding the Bible. He tackles issues that continue to concern those who seek to harmonize academic inquiry with a traditionalist faith. Mather was fully convinced that his “Biblia” offered just such a harmonization and effectively defended the authority and unity of the canon as well as the basic legacy of 17th-century Reformed theology.

Mather’s commentary is also an early attempt to reconcile a traditional Protestant biblicism with the emerging natural sciences and the philosophical challenges of the early Enlightenment. The “Biblia” pioneered a highly learned but apologetically-oriented type of biblical criticism especially invested in a new kind of factualist evidentialism, which would later flower among evangelicals. Thus, the “Biblia” can contribute much to a deeper understanding of the transformations of New England Puritanism into early evangelicalism.

Hoselton: What is the main argument of your monograph, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity, and what does it contribute to the findings of the Biblia Americana project?

IMG_1576Stievermann: In the simplest terms, this book is about Cotton Mather’s struggle to read the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture in ways that he thought were intellectually justifiable as a highly-educated scholar and which also felt satisfying and nurturing as a devout believer.

The book draws on fresh material from volume five (the one I edited), which contains the sections on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles (Song of Songs), Isaiah, and Jeremiah. It examines in detail Mather’s annotations on these biblical books and discusses specific subjects and hermeneutical problems that figure prominently there. At the same time, I undertake the first interpretative synthesis and overall appraisal of Mather’s engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures.

It introduces the reader to the main characteristics, recurring topics, and features of the “Biblia Americana.” The introductory section also ventures to provide a more comprehensive assessment of how Mather’s exegetical work can be situated in the history of biblical interpretation, specifically in the history of the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The title of this book, Prophecy, Piety, and the Problem of Historicity, alludes to what I regard as some of the most important issues with which Mather wrestled. Mather belonged to a generation of exegetes that was already confronted with far-reaching historical challenges to the authority of the Bible, and the Hebrew Scriptures in particular.

The basic legitimacy of time-honored methods of interpreting Old Testament texts as prophetically, typologically, and mystically prefiguring Christ and the gospel could no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, at least in intellectual circles, the problem of historicity was beginning to call into question the very status of the Hebrew Bible as the Christian Old Testament. Although Mather himself had not the slightest doubt about this status, he, like many other theologian-scholars of his generation, felt the need to make new apologetical arguments in support of the traditional view. He was ready to make some significant compromises, however, where the scholarly arguments appeared compelling to him.

Besides more specific questions relating to authorship, the provenance of the biblical texts, apologetically-oriented critics like Mather faced one very fundamental issue: Although for very different reasons than in earlier centuries, they saw the necessity of defining and defending what rightful uses could be made of the Hebrew Scriptures for Christian faith and piety.

Hoselton: How does Mather’s biblical interpretation fit into his early American cultural and transatlantic intellectual context?

Stievermann: The book emphatically confirms the assessment of revisionist scholars who have contested the still wide-spread belief that Mather propagated some early form of apocalyptically-inflected American exceptionalism. No entries in the “Biblia Americana” have been found where Mather does this. The long-held assumption that Mather somehow partook in an extension of the bounds of traditional typology to the realm of secular history that allowed him to identify New England as the latter-day surrogate of Old Israel is insupportable in the light of his “Biblia” annotations. On the contrary, Mather’s use of typology is quite conventional Protestant fare. Even in his reading of Canticles as a predictive history of the church culminating in the millennium, New England is not inserted into the narrative even once. The fact that this reading is derived from the German-Dutch Reformed Pietist Johannes Cocceius is emblematic of Mather’s very transatlantic and transdenominational orientation. The “Biblia” thoroughly defies the stereotypes of parochialism and the tribalist mentality that are too often still associated with Puritan theology. It also undercuts conventional readings of Mather and his work that primarily view them in terms of their American-ness.

One of the guiding assumptions of much of the older scholarship was that the key to understanding Cotton Mather and his significance could be primarily found in his relation to the future nation and its ideological formations. The “Biblia” commentaries make it unmistakably clear that Mather has to be studied as a figure whose thinking was not so much inward-looking as intensely transatlantic in orientation. Beyond a vast array of sources from across the British Empire, Mather drew upon work from his contemporaries and the generation preceding them in the Dutch, German, French, and broader European academic theological contexts. This is significant because it demonstrates that Mather and the British Colonies in North America, although geographically distant, were nevertheless very much involved in the European debates.

If Mather is still to be viewed as the archetypical Puritan forerunner of later trends in American cultural life at all, he should be seen as an early example not of intellectual nationalism but of a religiously inspired, utopian cosmopolitanism. For besides the many other things that Mather was—Reformed theologian, early evangelical pastor and reformer, Enlightenment philosopher, and naturalist experimenter with medical vaccinations—he, despite his location in a remote outpost of the British Empire, always aspired to be a Christian citizen of the international republic of letters.

Hoselton: Rick Kennedy’s recent biography on Cotton Mather labels him the “first American evangelical.” How does Mather’s biblical interpretation fit into the early evangelical historiography?

Stievermann: It’s a very complicated and loaded issue. Mather doesn’t use the term himself. He says “revivalism.” Constructing  historical genealogies for modern groups or movements is a problematic endeavor that involves a lot of ideology and theology. We must not identify eighteenth century figures and their ideas with current positions or assume that one directly leads to the other. There are radical discontinuities between what we now call evangelicalism and pro-revivalist theologians of the Great Awakening like Edwards. But there are continuities, too.

The “Biblia Americana” offers plenty of new material that strongly affirms this assessment of Mather as an early evangelical. You also see how Mather drank deeply from medieval traditions, from the devotion moderna to alchemical lore to his vitalist cosmology. The “Biblia Americana” is really a treasure trove.

New book takes page-turning approach to Salem witches

Just in time for Halloween, there’s a new book out about the Salem witch trials.

It’s not clear  we needed a new book about the Salem witch trials, but it’s coming anyway. The Witches: Salem, 1692, is due out from Little, Brown and Company on Oct. 27. The book is written by Stacy Schiff, who has previously penned popular works on Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Véra Nabokov, Benjamin Franklin and Cleopatra. She won a Pulitzer for Véra: (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) and achieved bestseller status with Cleopatra: A Life. Now she turns her attention to Puritan New England.

The jacket copy promises a book that is “as psychologically thrilling as it is historically seminal,” and says “the first great American mystery” will be “unveiled fully for the first time.”

Schiff, for her part, acknowledges a lot of historical work has been done on Salem, but says she wanted to take a different approach.

“Most of the really good books,” Schiff told Publishers Weekly, “are thesis driven: it was geographic hostility, or it was the trauma of Indian warfare, or it was conversion disorder. I felt that was cheating. The whole point is that you want readers to want to turn the page—you don’t want to tell them, here’s what you should be thinking . . . I wanted the reader to pick up the hints and put them together. Only at the end do I say, oh, yes—if you saw this and this and this, that’s how the pieces fit together.”

Some early reviews have been critical on exactly this point.

41+p60iyA1L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Library Journal Review reports that “Schiff’s goal appears to be creating a complete accounting—it’s hard to tell, though, because the work is weak in structure and organization and lacks a solid thesis.”

Kirkus faintly praises the book for being “intelligent and reliable,” but generally dismisses the effort. According to its review, “While Schiff has marshaled the facts in neat sequential order … she doesn’t have anything new to say or at least nothing that would come as a revelation to even general readers, until the final pages.”

Others found the narrative approach to the story of the Salem witches more compelling. Booklist Review, for example, calls Witches “a compulsively readable slice of Americana that will appeal to both book clubs and a wide variety of
individual readers.”

Some reviewers are also arguing that Schiff’s work is very thesis-driven, even if she doesn’t come right out and declaim it.

In the Minneapolis, Minn. Star Tribune, reviewer Hamilton Cain writes that “Schiff nimbly connects Salem’s fatal mania to subsequent witch-hunts, such as McCarthyism and the rise of Movement conservatism, revealing how close we remain to the specters and demons that stalked the Bay Colony more than three centuries ago.”

At the Atlantic, reviewer Adam Goodheart reports that Schiff re-tells the witch trials as befits “our own peculiar cultural moment.” She places the children at the center of the story, not unlike what one finds in wildly popular young adult fiction, like Harry Potter and Twilight. She also connects the hysteria to, among other things, problems of media and the uneven distribution of knowledge. Demonic possession is imagined as a matter of memes.

“The whole scholarly infrastructure of the 17th century—books, universities, learned societies—helped disseminate accounts of witchcraft and its dangers to the far ends of the Christian world,” Goodheart writes. “The judges in Massachusetts, and probably also some of the accusers, were deeply influenced by accounts of a witch outbreak in distant Sweden some years earlier. Witchcraft was science, and vice versa.”

Readers can judge for themselves at the end of the month. Or, for a sneak peak, check out the extended excerpt of Schiff’s book in the New Yorker.

“In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes,” Schiff writes, setting the scene. “New Englanders lived very much in the dark . . . The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented.”

Just in time for Halloween.

— Daniel Silliman

Write about Jonathan Edwards, win $500

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity has announced the annual graduate student paper competition. The winner receives $500 and publication in Jonathan Edwards Studies.

The paper must focus on Edwards, his contexts, or his legacies. It must be original work, written in English by a full or part-time graduate student, and not pledged for publication elsewhere. The deadline is May 15.

Papers should be submitted to Prof. Douglas A Sweeney at dsweeney@trin.edu.

New documentary on David Brainerd

A new documentary on Puritan missionary David Brainerd has been put out by Church Works, a group that publishes worship music and devotional material.  The documentary, featuring interviews with scholars and pastors, looks at how Brainerd’s devotional life has been an inspiration over the years. An accompanying devotional on Brainerd’s life is also available.

Jonathan Edwards in Oklahoma

Jonathan Edwards didn’t know of Oklahoma. The word wasn’t even coined until 108 years after he was dead. But do Oklahomans know Jonathan Edwards?

The question is surprisingly controversial at the moment.

A Republican Oklahoma state representative named Dan Fisher, who is also pastor of a Baptist megachurch, has proposed a bill that would defund the teaching of Advanced Placement United States History courses in Oklahoma high schools. AP classes are taught to about 500,000 high school students every year in the US, putting them on the fast track to college education. The AP guidelines for teaching US history was revised in 2014 and Fisher, like many of conservatives, is critical of the new framework.

“Under the new framework, the emphasis of instruction is on America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters,” Fisher said. “Now certainly we all know that we have our blemishes, and we wouldn’t want to withhold those. But we don’t want only our blemishes taught and not have a balanced approach.”

Fisher says the biggest problem with the new curriculum is what is left out: “the heroes from American history are pretty much omitted.”

One of those heroes, according to Oklahoma House Bill 1380, is Jonathan Edwards. Fisher is afraid Edward, along with others, is being kept out of the US history classroom. The legislation would require that Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” be taught to advanced high school students, along with two other Puritan texts, John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and the Mayflower compact.

Fisher’s proposal was passed last week by the Oklahoma house’s education committee with an 11-4 vote on party lines. The news was met with considerable scorn and outrage. Many on the left see this bill as an example of the American right’s head-in-the-sand anti-intellectualism. Conservatives, it is alleged, can’t handle the truth of American history. They want a of national ideology to overwrite the complexities of what actually happened.

Michael Hiltzik, writing for the L.A. Times, says that “For the right wing, historical truth matters for naught; what’s important is the ideological narrative, and if it fails to match their vision of an America shining the light of freedom and plenty on the world.”

“Oh, that pesky history of ours,” writes John D. Sutter, a CNN columnist, mocking Fisher and his cohort. “Why not just take a big ole’ eraser to it?”

At the Guardian, Stephen W. Thrasher says that this is a perversion of education to political ends. “Holding our children’s futures hostage by refusing them the opportunity to learn both the good and the bad is simply an effort to secure future votes,” Trasher writes, “not help children learn.”

That’s a pretty cynical interpretation of Fisher’s bill. While these are cynical times, there’s nothing in the text of HB 1380 that supports the idea that Oklahoma Republicans would require high school teachers to leave some facts out of their education plans. There’s nothing in the bill that says teachers have to teach America’s greatness without including any voices critical of that national narrative. There’s nothing that says the goal of education should be instilling students with a belief in American exceptionalism.

If you actually read Fisher’s piece of legislation, it proposes that advanced placement history curricula in the state “shall include as part of the primary instruction” documents related to America’s founding. These are, in the main, defined quite broadly. The bill mentions “organic documents from the pre-Colonial, Colonial, Revolutionary, Federalist and post-Federalist eras,” and “United States Supreme Court decisions.” Where it gets more specific, the bill proposes requiring high school teachers to teach a varied list of historical texts in their advanced classes. Some of these certainly articulate conservative visions of America’s special place in the world, but not all. There are three Ronald Reagan speeches on the list, but two by Lyndon B. Johnson. This proposal would require students study women’s-rights activist Elisabeth Cady Stanton and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, John Steinbeck’s class warfare novel Grapes of Wrath and even the words of the black nationalist Malcolm X.

It’s silly to say this legislation would forbid the teaching of America’s dirty, conflicted and complicated past. While Fisher no doubt wants to reject a narrative where America is a “nation of oppressors and exploiters,” he has not proposed a curriculum that would suppress all accounts of oppression and exploitation.

If you read the bill, that’s just not what it says.

Of course, it’s not just Fisher’s critics who seem to struggle with basic reading comprehension. Fisher himself seems to wildly misunderstand the AP classes he’s criticizing. The AP framework doesn’t get into a debate about emphasizing or de-emphasizing “blemishes”; it doesn’t take a position on whether America is a force of oppression in the world or a city on a hill. It isn’t simply political. Instead, the guidelines for the advanced classes say the classes are to teach students how to wrestle with conceptual understandings of American history. The curriculum framework says “students should learn to use historical facts and evidence to achieve deeper conceptual understandings of major developments in U.S. history.”

The first part of this is the development of historical thinking skills. The skills are listed: chronological reasoning, comparing and contextualizing, crafting historical arguments using historical evidence, and interpreting and synthesizing historical narratives.

Something like “contextualizing” can, of course, be political. Historian Andrew Hartman writes that some of the influential historians who have advocated for transnational contextualization of history have had political motivations. In the “longstanding disciplinary efforts to place the American past in a transnational context,” Hartman writes, some have been “quite explicit that such an approach might soften how the nation projects its power to the rest of the world.” They believed that approach to history would have political ramifications. “An international perspective,” they thought, “would be a cure for an increasingly outmoded nationalist perspective.”

Most historians are more circumspect about the political potential of historiography. A more immediate and tangible reason to “internationalize” American history is that it provides perspective.

The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany is an example of this: One of the center’s objectives is to put Edwards in a transatlantic context. Prof. Jan Stievermann, the center’s director, has studied German Protestant receptions of Jonathan Edwards, looking at how the Puritan project was understood by its continental contemporaries. Others, including Prof. Peter J. Thuesen, of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who gave the keynote address at the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany’s inauguration, have studied how Edwards was influenced by Europeans. Edwards is best thought of, Thuesen said, in a “complex web of connections linking him to the British Isles and Continental Europe — connections involving economic, political, cultural, and intellectual life.”

It seems unlikely that these contextualizations would make anyone more or less conservative. They’re certainly not committed to getting anyone to love America more — or less. The focus, pretty simply, is on improving the understanding of Jonathan Edwards by doing the work that historians do. Fisher seems to think the AP framework, which focuses on teaching skills like contextualization, is incompatible with teaching texts like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” At least as the Jonathan Edwards Center Germany approaches it, this just isn’t true.

The second part of developing students’ “conceptual understanding” of American history, as outlined by the AP framework, involves organizing American history around big themes. The framework lists seven themes, which are quite broad. One is “Ideas, beliefs, and culture.” Another is “American in the world.”

A conservative might interpret some of these as politically objectionable. One is “Identity” and, according to the framework, that theme pays “special attention given to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities.” The first three segments of the Identity section, however, are given to very traditional debates about America’s national identity at the context of the founding and the new republic, the context of territorial expansion and Manifest Destiny, and the context of America’s involvement in two World Wars and the Cold War. Another section focuses on “economic, political, social, and ethnic factors on the formation of regional identities.” Another, migration and assimilation. This is hardly a leftist curriculum; there’s nothing honestly controversial here.

Making honest arguments, incidentally, is one of the skills the AP classes are designed to teach: “Based on their analysis of historical evidence,” the framework reads, “students should then be able to make supportable inferences or draw appropriate conclusions. AP teachers can expose students to a variety of sources to help them draw their own conclusions and inferences.”

To do this, AP teachers assume their advanced students come with a basic knowledge of American history. This seems to be Fisher’s biggest misunderstanding of the courses’ he has proposed to defund. There are not basic classes. These are not classes that every student has to have in order to graduate. They are classes for advanced students who know a little something about America’s history and are ready to be challenged to ask the kinds of critical questions that Fisher himself is trying to ask: How were these narratives constructed? What political influences were involved? How do different focuses change the narratives?

This was a point that several high school teachers who teach these AP history classes in the state have made.

“My job is to help students view multiple perspectives and evaluate what are the merits of each,” Matt Holtzen, an AP history teacher at Enid High School in Enid, Oklahoma, told Newsweek.

Janet Thomas, who teaches AP history at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa told the Tulsa World the new framework “requires a lot more critical thinking skills than the old test did …. It’s not just memorization of facts and dates. It allows students the opportunity to compare things across times in history and think critically about why certain things happened.”

If the framework doesn’t mention specific texts that Fisher wants to make sure are taught, that may be because they’re obvious to high school history teachers, according to Eugene Earsom, who taught in Oklahoma for 20 years before becoming the state’s Department of Education’s director of the social studies curriculum for seven years. Asked about Fisher’s proposal that advanced classes be required to teach John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards and a list of other canonical history texts, Earsom said, “I don’t know of any history teacher who is worth his or her salt that doesn’t teach all of these already.” Edwards might not be taught in the advanced history classes, but that’s because his most famous sermon has already been taught Oklahoma’s high schoolers.

The political question remains open in Oklahoma, as Fisher’s bill is currently being revised, following the backlash. The controversy has already answered another question, though: Oklahomans do know Jonathan Edwards.

— Daniel Silliman