From Global to Local: Teaching American History

DR. GINA A. ZURLO

CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY


This semester at Gordon-Conwell I’m teaching History of Christianity in America. What might a global Christianity scholar have to say about American Christian history? The course description is as follows:

“Christianity has played a role in the United States from the establishment of the colonies to the 2021 storming of the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters. Much of the history of American Christianity has been told from the perspective of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male leaders and their institutions. This course covers that history but also analyzes the history of Christianity in Native American, Latino/a, and Black communities as well as highlights the important role of Christian women throughout history. The course provides an overview of the development of Christianity in America from the early seventeenth century to the present day. Students will be exposed to institutional historical facts and details while also engaging with major theological trends, denominational histories, and the relationship between Christianity and American cultures, past and present. Attention will be given to a selection of important themes such as slavery, Puritanism, revivalism, immigration, evangelicalism, and politics. Class meetings will involve lectures, student presentations, and discussions.”

I decided to teach this course this semester to help globalize theological education. Christian history, a core part of any theological degree, is far too often taught solely from Western perspectives. In 2020, 67% of all Christians lived in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (the global South). This is a dramatic change from 1900, when only 18% of Christians lived in the global South. However, despite this population shift in Christianity, there still are so many other aspects of the global church that have not shifted from their Western trappings.

One of those aspects is history. I much prefer the term “Christian history” over “church history” to include social history with institutional history. While anyone can Google names, dates, and events in American history, one cannot easily figure out the intentions, emotions, motivations, and personal experiences of people in the past. This is the deeper level of history that I want to expose my students to.

But whose history? For decades, historian and World Christianity scholar Andrew Walls has called for the de-Westernization of theological education. As a globalist, I cannot with good conscience teach a version of Christian history that sanitizes the Puritans merely as poor migrants fleeing evil Europe with a vision of a “City Upon a Hill” and who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a utopia for religious freedom. No, students need to know the full history – that some of the Puritans pushed Native Americans off their land, codified slavery in 1641, hanged Mary Dyer for being a Quaker, and excommunicated Anne Hutchinson because she claimed to be a vessel of God’s revelation. Students need to know that the historical narrative changes when you put other people in the center of the story (cf. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz), and that the often-told narrative is not always the most important one.

We are beginning Black History Month in a time of heightened awareness of the systemic racism in the United States. More and more people are coming to terms with the fact that white Christians have done a great deal of harm to Black Christians, intentionally as well as unintentionally. By “reimagining the past,” to cite historian Catherine Brekus, my students will hopefully see a fuller, more accurate history that helps them to press into a better future to more fully reflect the global vision that Jesus has for his followers.