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George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father

Thomas Kidd
Published by Yale University Press in 2014

America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation

Grant Wacker
Published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in 2014

Rick Kennedy is the secretary of the Conference on Faith and History and Professor of History at Point Loma Nazarene University. His The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather is to be published by Eerdmans in the spring of 2015.

“Hagiography” is a term that college professors transformed into a pejorative. No reputable academic press, it was agreed, should publish “hagiography,” a believer’s biography—a trusting and apologetic biography—of a holy person. In the rising and confident universities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, biographers were supposed to be aloof and objective. But being aloof and objective is no longer a tenable position for biographers in the twenty-first century. Undergraduates are now taught to laugh at any scholar who pretends not to be mentally embedded in his or her scholarship. The sterile pieties of “critical thinking” no longer hold as much water as they used to. Call it post-modernism, call it a return to classical, medieval, and renaissance humanism, call it simply a practical recognition of the human condition, whatever you call it, new academic sensibilities demand new methods of thinking and writing, and publishers need to follow the new trends. Christian historians are now exploring new methods of thinking and writing about holy people. A new academic hagiography is developing. Two new biographies of American revivalists, published by major academic presses, chart a new and responsible course and are helping to revive an important sub-genre of historical writing.

Thomas Kidd, in his new biography of the eighteenth-century revivalist George Whitefield, notes that “historians today know that none of us is fully objective” (4). He therefore thinks it is important to tell his readers that he is an evangelical Christian writing from within the tradition Whitefield helped create. He promises to be academically responsible, but he confesses up front to believe alongside of Whitefield. Grant Wacker’s new study of Billy Graham opens up by noting that most of the academic-minded writers on the evangelist have been overly critical. He, however, counts himself “a partisan” of Graham’s “evangelical tradition” (3). He writes an academic study for an academic press, but he is going to apply a historiographical method that he thinks is “simply fair.” This means that when push comes to shove, he is going to give Billy Graham “the benefit of the doubt” (3). In the book’s epilogue, Dr. Wacker, holder of an endowed chair at Duke Divinity School, past-president of the American Society of Church History, and widely respected scholar, tells a remarkable story—remarkable because it is beautifully human and unexpected in an academic biography. He writes of visiting the aged Billy Graham at his home in the mountains above Montreat, North Carolina. As their conversation comes to an end, Wacker indicates to his readers that he hesitated, then “remembering that I did, after all, teach in a divinity school, I offered to pray with him. Billy Graham said, ‘I would like that very much,’ and extended his hand” (314).

Obviously, we are not looking at your father’s Oldsmobile. Kidd and Wacker are exploring more explicit ways to be academically responsible while being religiously authentic to one’s tradition, one’s readers, and most importantly to one’s subject. The hope of all is that understanding by all will be enhanced when a biographer writing for an academic audience does not try to keep at arm’s length a holy person who communicates with God, who is used by the Holy Spirit, and through whom thousands and millions of people experience radical life-changing experiences. In this New Hagiography the author must try to analyze methodically while believing. Unthinking piety has to be avoided, but reasonable empathy, even responsible apology, is encouraged. No longer compelling are the old methods of analysis based upon suspicion or psychological theories. Experiments with new methods are encouraged. “I decided,” writes Grant Wacker about his search for a method, “that I would have to proceed as my grandmother proceeded onto freeways: buckle up, close your eyes, and just do it” (3).


Of course there is good precedent for this emerging genre. Of the old academic biographies of holy persons I have read, the one in which the author stretches most to relate himself to the subject is Kenneth Murdock’s Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan, first published by Harvard in 1925, then republished in 1966. Murdock declares that Mather would not have approved of “my creed,” but the facts have led him to the conclusion that Mather “has often been misjudged.” Murdock strives for both a “sympathetic and scholarly” approach. “I should not choose to live in Puritan Boston,” he wrote, “but I have yet to discover any facts which deprive me of my respect for many of those who did.”1

Murdock represents the best of the older academic tradition, but something new has been developing in the last decade. In 2003 George Marsden won the Bancroft Prize—the academic historian’s Holy Grail—for his biography of Jonathan Edwards, a biography in which he began by stating: “As one committed to a Christian faith in a tradition that is a branch of the same Augustinian and Reformed tree, I find some of Edwards’ emphases awe-inspiring.” He further noted that he would “employ that sympathy in providing readers clear accounts of his thought, usually without arguing with him.”2 Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor and former president of the Conference on Faith and History, began his 2008 biography of Francis Schaeffer by noting the “profound effect” that Schaeffer’s books had on him and his generation of Christian scholars. He writes how Schaeffer inspired him in college and helped him “think self-consciously about Christian worldview development.”3 In 2009 John Wigger, professor of history at the University of Missouri and now serving a term as the president of the Conference on Faith and History, made no overtly personal statement in the introduction to his American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists, but his quiet reverence for Asbury runs throughout the book’s narrative and analysis. Wigger argues against earlier, more wooden, scholarship and defends his assessment of Asbury as an “American saint.”4 Similarly not wooden, but from the Presbyterian side, is Paul Gutjahr’s 2011 biography of Charles Hodge. Gutjahr, a professor at Indiana University, writes with deep empathy and appreciation for Hodge. I do not know anything about Gutjahr’s religious beliefs, however, as a reader I sense deep belief in him. “This biography,” Gutjahr writes,

is based on the simple premise that few Americans can match the depth, breadth, and longevity of Hodge’s theological influence, and perhaps no single figure is better able to help one appreciate the immensely powerful and hugely complex nature of conservative American Protestantism in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries than the deeply pious, keenly intelligent, and yet largely forgotten Charles Hodge.5

Barry Hankins and Edith Blumhofer, long-time director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and professor of history at Wheaton, offer an instructive contrast that helps us date the line between the older style and the beginnings of the New Hagiography. In her 1993 biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, Blumhofer offered no information about her personal investment in writing about the evangelist. Hankins, in his 1996 biography of J. Frank Norris, the Baptist firebrand, went out of his way to tell readers that he was not a Baptist at the time he began writing although some might “presume” that he was. “My interest in [Norris],” Hankins wrote, “was primarily an extension of my interest in fundamentalism and American culture and the interplay between religion and politics.”6

Their later biographies are quite different. In Blumhofer’s 2005 biography of Fanny Crosby, she offers several heartfelt paragraphs on her lifelong engagement with her subject. “I cannot recall a time,” she writes, “when I did not know Fanny Crosby’s name, nor do I remember when I did not know a Crosby hymn or two.”7 Hankins in 2008 expresses his generation’s appreciation for Schaeffer and writes to understand the man who changed his own and so many other’s lives. Something happened historiographically between 1996 and 2005—it was most prominently the publication in 2003 of Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards.

This line between the old and the new is further supported by looking at D. G. Hart’s study of J. Gresham Machen published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1994. Hart was well known at the time for being deeply sympathetic to Machen; however, Hart, as a writer, followed the cold authorial ways of his academic predecessors. His biography is every bit as intellectually powerful as Gutjahr’s biography of Hodge and follows the same path of explaining, rather than criticizing, the conservative mind, but Machen is mostly portrayed as “an intelligent curiosity within the academic community.”8

So the New Hagiography appears to have sprouted into view in 2003 with Marsden’s award winning and much discussed biography of Edwards. However, Marsden had his own precursor—an exception to the norm before the turn of the century— in Grant Wacker’s first book, a book not well known nor widely read: Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness (1985). Wacker writes in the introduction—an introduction in which he notes his debt to George Marsden—that

I think it fair to acknowledge that I was first attracted to Strong because the questions that troubled him are pretty much the same questions that trouble me. At the same time, the answers Strong eventually settled on, imperfect as they may be, are pretty much the answers that I, too, have come to accept.9

So it appears that Grant Wacker and George Marsden, mentors and models to many of today’s Christian historians, both in cahoots with each other, are the central figures, one more hidden than the other, in the development of this new academic genre. These scholars, along with Blumhofer, Hankins, Wigger, and Gutjahr, are the forerunners to what flourishes in Kidd’s biography of Whitefield and Wacker’s study of Graham. In all of the new biographies by these scholars the tools of the trade are well applied. The scholarship is well regarded, even award winning, within secular academia. Five years ago, in 2009, the American Historical Association noted in its Perspectives that religious history is growing as a specialty among all types of historians and that religious history courses are now considered essential aspects of a good education.10 Rising academic interest calls for reassessment of methods and offers encouragement to innovators.11 The New Hagiography of Kidd and Wacker explores innovative ways of academic writing appropriate to professional academicians. Their work on Whitefield and Graham model new methods of handling appreciative tone, epistemological populism, responsible critical analysis, and expected reader emulation.


The principal development in the New American Hagiography has to do with tone. Certainly good biographies have long tried to be empathetic as authors try to get into the heads of their subjects. But what characterizes Kidd’s and Wacker’s books is a reverent tone that God really is at work in the life of the subject. When Kidd writes of Whitefield’s youthful struggle with sin and search for vocation, he writes simply: “God was faithful to Whitefield,” and “God disclosed his plan to Whitefield” (18). Writing of Graham’s belief that God had called him to be a preacher, not a theologian or social reformer, Wacker notes matter-of-factly that “Graham did not make this up. Looking back, he saw numerous signs sprinkled throughout his life that confirmed that God had called him to be an evangelist” (69-70). Kidd and Wacker know quite well that many university-trained readers will be skeptical and suspicious, but neither feels obliged to use skepticism or suspicion as the default viewpoint of an academic book.

Suspicion that Whitefield did not fully understand himself or what was happening during his preaching was the tone of Harry Stout’s 1991 biography: The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. I remember dinner table and hallway conversations full of frustration with the book back in the early 1990s at national meetings of the Conference on Faith and History and the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. We all recognized the book to be excellent as an academic biography. But its tone seemed overly suspicious. Harry Stout, a graduate of Calvin College who had become the Jonathan Edwards Professor of History at Yale, assumed that his readers were academically minded and gave them the biography that such a person wanted. He ignored the attributions to the power of the Holy Spirit and encouraged readers to assume that Whitefield’s influence over crowds was an outcome of skills he had early on learned, but later renounced, as a theater actor. Stout’s biography undercut Whitefield’s own autobiography. Kidd quotes the pastor-scholar John Piper describing Stout’s book as “the most sustained piece of historical cynicism I have ever read” (259).

Billy Graham has had more than his share of cynical biographers. Wacker refers to these, especially William G. McLoughlin’s 1960 biography Billy Graham: Revivalist in a Secular Age, as overly critical and as having such a secular tone that they lose sight of the real Billy Graham. Just as Kidd relies heavily on Whitefield’s autobiography, Wacker relies on Graham’s. Both believe that they should not try to outsmart their subject’s own self-understanding. Wacker praises McLoughlin, a longtime historian of American religion at Brown University, for trying to be fair, but characterizes him as “generally an unfriendly biographer of Graham” (152). Wacker, with tongue in cheek, notes that in 1957 McLoughlin forecasted: “If history is a guide, Graham’s popularity has about two more years to run” (25).

Good biographers always try to be fair, but there is usually a tone that accompanies the fairness. In previous academic biographies of Whitefield and Graham, it was hard for authors to reconcile critical thinking with the holiness of their subjects. An autobiography was assumed to be hiding something. The biographer had to distrust any self-disclosures in order to know a holy person better than the holy person knew him or herself. In the New Hagiography, the tone is different. Trust leads most often to understanding. An autobiography is a window into realities, not a house of mirrors to outsmart.

The most extreme of the New American Hagiographies comes not from the evangelical Christian tradition but from Mormonism. In 2005 Richard Bushman, a Mormon who is a much-respected emeritus historian at Columbia University, published Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling in which he, throughout, keeps a tone of reverence. He hopes to recover Smith as “the prophet” as “a revelator” in communication with God. He writes in the introduction that, if the reader feels the need, the reader can insert a “purportedly” in front of any statement implying that God communicated through Joseph Smith.12 As for Bushman, he, himself, will write as a believer. “The Smiths,” he writes, “have been diagnosed as a dysfunctional family that produced a psychologically crippled son;” however, it is probably better, he writes, to think of the family struggles endured by Joseph Smith having instead “prepared him for leadership.”13 Incredible as the stories of translating gold plates are, Bushman notes, “hunting for deception can be a distraction.” Cynicism throws us off the track of Joseph Smith the Prophet. “In devising a story of a charlatan, we lose sight of the unprepossessing rural visionary who became a religious leader admired by thousands.”14 In the New American Hagiography, a tone of reverence and a lack of cynicism can now be recognized as an academic asset.

Epistemological Populism

More than just a tone, the New Hagiography applies methodological strategies differently. Most importantly, benefit of the doubt—and there are always doubts—is not weighted to favor the individual critical thinker. Running throughout the New Hagiography is an epistemological populism that encourages readers to think that the religious masses are astute and intelligent rather than easily duped. The best trends in modern academia recognize that common sense, the wise and discerning common-sensibility of credible people, demands intellectual respect. If thousands—and in Graham’s case, millions—of credible people experience the spirit world communicating through the preaching of a revivalist then that experience should not be, or at least need not be, dismissed by mere reference to the tired modernist orthodoxies of what George Marsden called “established nonbelief.”15 Kidd and Wacker expect their readers to be open-minded and sophisticated. Readers are not required to believe, but they are expected to understand that there is academic warrant for belief and much of that warrant is derived from the testimony of crowds—crowds of people dead and alive who have shared the same experiences and have reasonably come to affirm a tradition of knowledge. The best trends in the academic epistemology of the humanities are increasingly open to a wider range of social evidence. There is in academia a revival of the longstanding Aristotelian belief that you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.16 There is a reasonableness to belief in long popular traditions of divine communications, spiritual awakenings, and astonishing events. The importance of Whitefield and Graham does not come from their individuality. They were made into great revivalists by the thousands and millions who affirmed their claim to being used by the Holy Spirit. The best evidence of the Holy Spirit being at work is in the crowds. There is a rolling, accelerating, enlarging snowball to both men’s work that increases the credibility of divine activity in the revivals they preached. Whitefield and Graham are members of a long and continually successful tradition of evangelical thought and experience. Whitefield helped form it, and Graham helped take it global. To dismiss the spiritual dimensions of the lives of Whitefield or Graham is to pit oneself against the collective experience of a whole American tradition full of credible evangelicals.

For Kidd and Wacker, the message of Whitefield and Graham put them at the populist center of a burgeoning evangelical tradition. It becomes the responsibility of the biographer not only to describe the essentials of the evangelical tradition, but to offer light apology for it. Readers need to be introduced, in a positive way, to the essential tenets of what Whitefield and Graham preached because crowds of listeners have affirmed these tenets through time.

Wacker writes that Graham’s message can be summarized in “something like a dozen words: Bible, God, sin, Jesus Christ, new birth, growth in grace, second coming, reward (or punishment), and mission” (33). Whitefield had already pioneered plain-style preaching of this core message, and Kidd writes that Whitefield was “the most important popularizer” of the concept of “new birth” in Anglo-America (48). The “new birth” was the central feature of revivals and could be manifested in wild ways. The New Hagiography is not taken aback by populist wildness. Wigger calmly notes that “Methodists were comfortable with the idea that the revival was a cooperative effort between God and his people.”17 Kidd describes a revival full of shouting, fainting, and shrieking. Whitefield, himself, “was overcome with emotion and entered a trancelike state, sweetly lying ‘at the feet of my Jesus’” (116). Kidd had noted earlier: “To Whitefield, Christianity was not for the faint of heart” (39). Whitefield, Kidd tells us, was not afraid of being tainted by the charge of “enthusiasm.” Whitefield believed that “every Christian, in the proper sense of the word, must be an enthusiast—that is inspired of God, or have God in him” (74). Wacker tells the story of Graham preaching at Evangel College, “the flagship school of the Assemblies of God,” where “just before the benediction one member of the audience stood and delivered a message in unknown tongues (glossolalia). Immediately afterwards another person stood and interpreted the message in English” (188). Wacker explains that, in the aftermath, Pentecostal leaders seem to have misinterpreted the level of Graham’s support for Pentecostalism, but at the same time Wacker notes that Graham fully affirmed glossolalia as a gift of the Spirit and had no problem embracing Pentecostals as part of his evangelical following.

Populist enthusiasm comes with the territory of being a revivalist, and new hagiographers are allowed to believe along with the revivalist. It is obvious to the reader that Kidd and Wacker are not out to undermine in any way the evidence of the Holy Spirit working in the crowds that make up evangelical tradition. In the manner of a New Hagiography, Kidd and Grant offer themselves and their subjects to readers as models of reasonable belief.

A light apologetics also undergirds discussions of what others earlier might have used against Whitefield or Graham. Kidd, when trying to explain how “the robust spiritual egalitarianism” of Whitefield and evangelicals could still allow for slavery, writes that “unless we understand…the conviction that heaven and hell are utterly real, we will struggle to fathom their apparent callousness toward slavery. A slave headed for heaven, Whitfield believed, was better off than a king headed for hell” (115). George Marsden, in his biography of Jonathan Edwards, is a model in the way he forthrightly wrote of Satan so as to help the reader begin to understand a “crucial point” in the thought of Edwards: “Satan was a historical figure, one of the chief actors and causal agents shaping the human drama. God in his unfathomable redemptive councils had permitted the evil rebellion to go on, and every human life was touched by it.”18 For Graham, Wacker thinks it necessary to understand that the Bible “established the final rule of measurement for everything Christians should believe and practice.” The whole of the Bible taught a good news that Graham founded his life upon and Wacker wants to state clearly for his readers: “Things were broken, but God offered a solution. Humans needed only to reach out and take it” (33).

Biblical authority is a major issue in all these biographies, as it should be in our times. With so many Christians so prone to wander from biblical authority, these academic biographies present clear thinking about the issue. Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer has, of course, a section devoted to the subject. “At stake,” Hankins quotes Schaeffer, “is whether evangelicalism will remain evangelical.”19 Kidd tells us the Bible was Whitefield’s “chief source of guidance” and that he would also “read the Bible kneeling” because it “helped him maintain a properly submissive attitude” (33). Gutjahr, of course, returns to biblical authority often in his study of Hodge. One of the most astute minds of modern Christian tradition, Hodge “saw no end to the evils of German biblical criticism.”20

Important to note, as empathetic biographies, these studies try to help readers understand the issues and do not simply fall into polemic. Gutjahr points out that Hodge upheld the term “infallible” but did not think in terms of the starker “inerrant.”21 Wacker tells us that the pragmatic and eclectic Graham used various words such as “authoritative, infallible, and trustworthy more or less interchangeably” (italics in original). As for the term “inerrancy,” Graham did not like it because it was not “elastic” like “inspiration.” Ultimately, Graham wanted to use whatever words were best to communicate that “God, not human ingenuity, ultimately stood behind the writing, transmission, and proper interpretation of all of Scripture” (37).

Responsible Critical Analysis

Being allowed a favorable tone and populist epistemology, the new hagiographers are still required to analyze flaws in their subjects, what Wacker calls “cracks in the marble” (291). There are, of course, many of these. Saints are sinners too.

Kidd follows throughout his biography Whitefield’s rather slippery thinking about slavery. At one point when Whitefield purchases slaves, Kidd well-describes unsavory ambiguities of American evangelicals in relation to slavery and abolition. Whitefield’s position is especially problematic, because he had the benefit of official residence in Georgia where antagonism to slavery was one of the colony’s founding principles and slavery was officially illegal. Kidd notes, however, that available evidence indicates that Whitefield’s Bethesda orphanage relied on the labor of at least five black slaves before slavery was legalized in Georgia. Whitefield had, apparently, been buying slaves under-the-table while living in the one southern colony that did not permit slavery (209).

Wacker, throughout his biography, follows Graham’s use of “editorial assistants,” what can also be called “ghost writers.” Wacker believes that Graham has “obscured the truth” on this issue (159). Graham has only admitted “ghost writers” with his newspaper column—a column written under his byline. There are archival records that Wacker discovered showing that from 1951-1974 Graham had an assistant that performed “research and writing.” His wife was an excellent writer and also seems often to have helped her husband at various levels. But overall Graham remains insistent that he is the author of all that is written under his name. This is not that big a deal since Wacker assesses his writings as unmemorable and soporific. “Sometimes,” Wacker wryly notes, Graham’s writing “seemed to turn wine back into water” (32). On the other hand, concerning ghost writers Wacker states clearly:

Common sense tells us that no person possibly could have drafted at least 1,600 different sermons, produced innumerable civic addresses, traveled eight months a year, preached in nearly one hundred countries, appeared at scores of press conferences and talk shows, produced a daily syndicated question-and-answer column, and written thirty-two books, as well as countless articles on countless topics. Clearly Graham had help. (159; italics in original)

Authorship is also a critical issue in Barry Hankins’s biography of Francis Schaeffer. Hankins notes that Schaeffer was no scholar. He read mostly magazines. His great influence among aspiring Christian intellectuals in the 1970s and early 1980s was largely based on an image that was both complex and somewhat creatively encouraged by InterVarsity Press. Schaeffer “wrote” twenty two books which were actually stitched together from lectures and re-written by transcribers, ghostwriters, and editors.22 At InterVarsity Press, James Sire was a vigorous editorial assistant/ghost writer for Schaeffer.

Among the new hagiographers, Hankins has the most interesting authorial role because he must work hard to remind his readers why they should care about Francis Schaeffer. Hankins is obligated to deconstruct Schaeffer’s image while at the same time show how much his influence inspired young scholars who soon passed him and left him behind. Hankins accomplishes this by isolating two different Francis Schaeffers, one who lived in Europe, created L’Abri, and was a mentor to a generation, while the other, when visiting his homeland in America, fell in with Fundamentalists who were rather crabbed and close-minded. In the former manifestation Schaeffer encouraged healthy engagement with modern literature, philosophy, and art, while in the latter he became a polarizing politico. In the conclusion, Hankins can uphold both the honorable purpose of the evangelical scholarship that Schaeffer helped create while at the same time help evangelicals have a proper appreciation for their history and one of their saints.

The new hagiographers are not spared the duty of critical analysis. In this they are the most different from the old hagiographers. What remains the same, however, are recommendations of emulation—even if not stated openly or precisely.

The New Emulation

The Oxford English Dictionary has the term “hagiography” first appearing in the early nineteenth century as a special category of biography, the writing of a life of a saint. The most popular and influential early American hagiographies appeared before the term was coined: Cotton Mather’s The Life of the Renowned John Eliot and Jonathan Edwards’ An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd. Both of these biographies uphold to the reader the interior life, the home life, the church life, and the missionary work of two extraordinary Christians. Mather called Eliot an “evangelical hero” and advised his readers to emulate his life.23 Edwards wrote: “There are two ways of representing and recommending true religion and virtue to the world, the one, by doctrine and precept; the other, by instance and example.”24 Edwards meant for his life of Brainerd to be an instance and example of true religion. Wigger reports that when Francis Asbury read the biography of Brainerd he declared “my soul…longs to be like him.”25

I read my fair share of nineteenth-century Protestant hagiographies when I wrote an undergraduate senior thesis on circuit-riding ministers on the American frontier. I read about ministers on snowshoes, ministers crossing flooded rivers, ministers outsmarting wild animals, and besting feisty unbelievers. Unlike those circuit-rider hagiographies, the narratives in the new hagiographies are less heroic and burdened with academic paraphernalia; however, to read Kidd’s Whitefield, Wigger’s Asbury, Blumhofer’s Crosby, Gutjahr’s Hodge, Wacker’s Graham, and even Hankins’s Schaeffer is to be inspired by models of faith, endurance, and sustained belief under pressure. In each, the Christian who seeks to answer God’s call and perseveres to the end gets to be called a good and faithful servant. The academic credentials of each book are manifest in extensive notes and bibliographies along with the weighty credentials of their authors, but the hope of Christian instruction in each of these books is palpable. The authors want their readers to imitate the Christian character of their subjects. Wacker and Kidd expect readers to admire the way Graham and Whitefield were not motivated by financial profit, did not treat their fame as an opportunity for sexual conquests, and believed in human equality in the sight of God. Unstated but clearly communicated to evangelical-minded readers are recommendations to emulate the daily disciplines of Bible study and prayer practiced by Whitefield and Graham. Evangelical readers of Kidd and Wacker will be pleased to be part of a movement founded by Whitefield and expanded by Graham. Wacker notes that there was a time when “being an evangelical meant not only liking Graham but also being like Graham” (176).

Christian Scholar Professionalism

One more thing, there is an institutional matter to note. The professional historians mentioned here—Wacker, Kidd, Marsden, Blumhofer, Hankins, and Wigger—are members of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH), an affiliate of the American Historical Association dedicated to encouraging Christians to think about historiographical issues. If we see among these academic biographers a new, more methodologically sophisticated, more humanistically thick way of handling the life and work of Christian holy persons, it is in part due to the networks of intellectual discussion and mutual support fostered in the regular meetings and the journal of the Conference on Faith and History. Within that organization and within certain universities is the wide-angle Christian professionalism that has nurtured academic critique and innovation. Kidd and Wigger were students of Marsden at Notre Dame. Wigger dedicates his biography of Asbury to Marsden and Nathan Hatch, Hatch being his dissertation advisor and another one of the early leaders of the Conference on Faith and History. Hatch and Marsden were early mentors to Wacker. Hatch and Blumhofer have been instrumental in the great work of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton. Blumhofer, Wacker and Hatch were recently featured at the ceremonial closing conference of the ISAE.26 Outside of the Lake Michigan nexus, Barry Hankins was a student of Robert D. Linder at Kansas State. Linder was the founding editor of the CFH journal Fides et Historia and there is a long string of Christian historians who look to Linder as a mentor. Hankins writes “I am convinced there is no place where I could have received better scholarly training than in the history department at K-State under Bob Linder.”27 Kidd and Hankins now work together at Baylor, Protestantism’s best partner with Notre Dame in the work of leading Christian scholarship into the twenty-first century.

If administrators at Christian academic institutions need evidence for the value of supplying travel funds to conferences and the value of promoting and supplying time and funds for faculty research, look to the development of this new sub-genre of academic biography. The quarry from which such a successful turn in academic writing was dug is the fellowship of Christian scholars, funded by their home institutions, meeting yearly at conferences, and reading their professional organization’s journals.

Cite this article
Rick Kennedy, “The New American Hagiography: Academically Responsible Biography of Holy Persons—A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:3 , 293-305


  1. Kenneth B. Murdock, Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925, reprint New York: Russell & Russell, 1966), viii-ix.
  2. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 6.
  3. Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), xi.
  4. John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), see especially 3-5, 417.
  5. Paul Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 5.
  6. Barry Hankins, God’s Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1996), 1-2.
  7. Edith L. Blumhofer, Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), xx. See also her Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1993).
  8. D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 57.
  9. Grant Wacker, Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), xiv. Barry Hankins suggested I check out this book. In the first version of the book, as in Wacker’s 1978 Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard, there is no self-disclosure. In an email (November 19, 2014) Hankins commented broadly that “All this self-disclosure started, I think, with Marsden’s 1980 Fundamentalism and American Culture, but I think you are correct it has reached new heights in recent biographies.”
  10. Robert B. Townsend, “A New Found Religion: The Field Surges Among AHA Members,” Perspectives in History: Magazine of the American Historical Association (December, 2009),
  11. John Wigger, in an email (December 1, 2014), offers an interesting note about the younger generation of scholars and possibly the decline of the New Hagiography as a phase of Christian scholarship: “For several years I have, like you, sensed a subtle change in what is possible in academic writing regarding religion. I think I can see this in the way that my colleagues, most of whom rarely think of evangelicalism except as part of the ‘religious right,’ have come to accept and value the work of my graduate students. It helps that my students are quite talented and a lot smarter than me, but it is still a remarkable shift. I don’t think that the younger generation of Christian scholars feel as compelled to declare their faith at the beginnings of their books, perhaps because the question of whether or not faith is legitimate in the academy no longer seems so contested.”
  12. Richard Lyman Bushman with the assistance of Jed Woodworth, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), xxi.
  13. Ibid., 55.
  14. Ibid., 58.
  15. See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  16. For the best and most influential of these see Alasdair MacIntyre’s trilogy: After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988); and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). For the Aristotelian history of this see Rick Kennedy, A History of Reasonableness: Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester, 2004).
  17. Wigger, American Saint, 324.
  18. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 167.
  19. Hankins, Francis Schaeffer, 144.
  20. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge, 83.
  21. Ibid., 275.
  22. Hankins, Francis Schaeffer, 79-80, 144.
  23. Cotton Mather, The Life of the Renowned John Eliot (Boston: 1691), republished in Magnalia Christi Americana (London: 1702), reprint in 1852, vol. 1, 580.
  24. Jonathan Edwards, An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend Mr. David Brainerd (Boston: 1749), see the first page of
  25. Wigger, American Saint, 114.
  27. Hankins, God’s Rascal, vii.

Rick Kennedy

Point Loma Nazarene University
Rick Kennedy is Professor of History at Point Loma Nazarene University.