God calls us, Frederick Buechner has observed, to a life of service at the intersection of our heart’s passion and society’s need. “The place God calls you to,” as he put it so eloquently, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” If Buechner’s definition is correct, then it would be accurate to say that I write out of a sense of God’s calling. I am a Christian by faith and an academic historian by vocation, and my heart’s desire is to be in conversation with other Christians about the interrelationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the study of the past.
This has not always been the case. When I began graduate study at Vanderbilt University some thirty-two years ago, I genuinely felt “called” to be a Christian historian, but my vision of what that might look like was limited and self-serving. I intended to teach a college Sunday School class, be open about my faith, and even witness to unbelieving students occasionally. Beyond that, I would simply strive to be the most successful historian that I could be—as the secular Academy defined success. This meant letting the Academy define the questions that would be important to me and dictate the audience that would matter.
I’m sad to say that I accepted this direction uncritically, almost unconsciously, for I loved what I was doing and I initially reaped great satisfaction and fulfillment from it. It might have been different had the path not been so easy, but God blessed me with a wonderful job at an outstanding university in a beautiful city. In addition to the privilege of working with great colleagues and able students at the University of Washington, during my time there I reaped most of the tangible rewards that the secular Academy can offer: tenure, promotion, awards for teaching and scholarship, even an endowed chair. But at the same time, God was gradually reorienting my thinking. Over time I arrived at the conclusion that part of the calling of the Christian historian was to be a historian for other Christians, not just for the Academy.
It was because of this evolving sense of calling that I left the University of Washington after twenty-two years in order to join the faculty at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts institution just west of Chicago. It’s entirely possible to be a faithful Christian scholar at a secular university, but I was convinced that a school like Wheaton would open more doors for conversation with Christians outside the Academy than my current post. The same burden and vision also redirected my scholarship and led me to try to write for the first time for a broader audience. In 2013 I published a book aimed at non-academic readers: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.
Finally, this same sense of calling—along with the encouragement of my technologically savvy daughters—prompted me to try my hand at a blog. Generally, I try to post an essay about once a week that deals in some way with what it means to think Christianly about America’s past. I hope that you will find what I have to share interesting, informative, and challenging.
God has given me a passion to be in conversation with other Christians outside the Academy, so perhaps this is one way to further that aim. God knows, and time will tell. Thanks for reading.