Gordon Wood on Bernard Bailyn: American Religious History and ‘An Honest Picture of the Past’

by Kristin Du Mez.

[This piece originally appeared as a guest contribution to Religion in American History. The first portion is republished here with permission of the author.]

I wasn’t going to write on Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn. I’m not a colonialist. It’s been years since I’ve read their work, which in my recollection is far and away more brilliant than anything I’ve aspired to in my far more limited career. And after all, there’s something noble about a former student, illustrious in his own right, going to bat for his renowned mentor.

But ever since my social media newsfeed lit up with references to Wood’s February 23 Weekly Standard article, I haven’t been able to let it go. After all, what’s at stake here isn’t just colonial history, but American history more broadly. And I think the issues raised have special relevance to historians of American religion.

Here’s the gist of the argument. In a review of Bailyn’s latest collection of essays, Wood comes to the defense of his former teacher–strange as it may seem, since of course Bailyn has won not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, and a Bancroft Prize.

Yet despite this enviable collection of awards, Bailyn’s work has of late met with criticism among academic historians. Wood chalks this critical reception up to the “changing fashions of academic history-writing.” As he puts it, “It’s as if academics have given up trying to recover an honest picture of the past and have decided that their history-writing should become simply an instrument of moral hand-wringing.”

What sort of moral hand-wringing? The obsession with “inequality and white privilege.” As Wood explains, “the inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.”

Ouch.

[Read the rest of this post on the Religion in American History blog.]

 

Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism was recently published with Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kkdumez.

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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