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God Gave Rock and Roll to You

14 May
Services at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, 15 September 1946.

Services at the Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, 15 September 1946.

The television preacher Jimmy Swaggart became a Christian megastar in the 1980s broadcasting from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His popular crusades and regular services appeared on television sets across the United States and around the world. At its peak, his ministry was taking in over one million dollars a week. He had honed a brash, bold, loud style of preaching that made him a revered figure, both in the context of the Assemblies of God – a group of affiliated churches that formed the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination – and in the broader world of evangelicalism. Critics reviled his holier-than-thou pulpit posturing and his bellicosity. Some stations even took him off the air for his religious and cultural bigotry.

Like many other Pentecostal preachers – who were moving into politics at a rapid rate – Swaggart believed that the Holy Ghost emboldened him to witness the arrow-straight truths of the Bible. With his southern drawl, he thundered against Hollywood celebrities, evolutionary scientists, communists, homosexuals, Catholics, feminists, secular liberals and other ‘enemies’ of the faith. Americans had lost interest in the Bible, he warned with deadly seriousness. A reporter at the New York Times took note. The Reagan-era televangelist was ‘tapping some powerful resentments here; he is speaking to the disenfranchised’. The country rightly deserved God’s judgment, Swaggart assured his audience with fury.

In the summer of 1985, Swaggart was on the road, conducting one of his mass revival crusades in New Haven, Connecticut. Before the cameras and the glare of stage lights he paced back and forth, waving his arms like he was fending off a swarm of bees. He raised his Bible high above his head. He shouted at his audience about the moral degeneracy that dragged reprobates through the gates of hell. At one performance, he took aim at ‘the devil’s music’: rock and roll.

How had Christians made peace with this vile, hideous music, he asked with urgency in his voice, drawing out words like ‘pul-pit’ and ‘bye-bull’. The issue was a personal one for him, he confided, pausing for emphasis and lowering his voice before lunging at the crowd, finger pointed upward to drive home his jeremiad.

‘My family started rock and roll!’ he exclaimed in front of the silent assembly of thousands. ‘I don’t say that with any glee! I don’t say it with any pomp or pride! I say it with shame and sadness, because I’ve seen the death and the destruction. I’ve seen the unmitigated misery and the pain. I’ve seen it!’ His voice cracking with emotion, he railed: ‘I speak of experience. My family – Jerry Lee Lewis, with Elvis Presley, with Chuck Berry … started rock and roll!’ His claim served an obvious rhetorical point, but there was also much truth to it.

So begins Randall Stephens’ concise summary of the argument of his book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll (Harvard University Press, 2018). You may read his entire History Today piece here.

The Black Death in Venice and the Dawn of Quarantine

13 May
An aerial view of the lagoon of Venice.

An aerial view of the lagoon of Venice. DIDIER DESCOUENS / CC BY-SA 4.0

JUST BEYOND THE SHORES OF Venice proper—a city that comprises dozens of islands—lie two uninhabited isles with a rich history. Today these landmasses are landscapes of grasses, trees, and worn stone buildings. But once they were among the most important gateways to this storied trading city.

The islands, known as Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, are now yielding fascinating insights into Venice’s response to one of the most famous pandemics in history. In the mid-14th century, Venice was struck by the bubonic plague, part of an outbreak known as the Black Death that may have killed up to 25 million people, or one-third of the population, in Europe. This spread was just one of several waves of the plague to strike Northern Italy in the centuries that followed.

Venice, as a trading center, was especially vulnerable. “They saw that the only solution was to separate people, to take away the sick people, or suspected sick people,” says Francesca Malagnini, of the University for Foreigners, Perugia, who is herself a Venetian, linguist, and member of an interdisciplinary team researching Lazzaretto Nuovo. “This was the only way to protect everyone’s health and allow the economy to continue.”

So begins an Atlas Obscura reprint of a fascinating article by Sara Toth Stub on Venice and the origins of quarantine in Europe in the 14th century. You may read the entire article here.

A Trove of Sad, Funny, and Familiar Stories From the 1918 Flu Pandemic

5 May
"The package may be small, but you will know it does not need to hold the love I send, for that cannot be confined," Hildreth Heiney wrote to her fiancé in 1918. The man in the photograph, identified as John, may be her brother.

“The package may be small, but you will know it does not need to hold the love I send, for that cannot be confined,” Hildreth Heiney wrote to her fiancé in 1918. The man in the photograph, identified as John, may be her brother. UCLA BIOMEDICAL LIBRARY / PUBLIC DOMAIN

ON NOVEMBER 21, 1918, AN Indianapolis schoolteacher named Hildreth Heiney wrote to her deployed fiancé, Sergeant Kleber Hadley, about the sudden appearance of face masks in response to the global influenza pandemic. “Yes, I wore one, and so did everybody else,” she wrote cheerfully. “There were all kinds—large and small—thick and thin, some embroidered and one cat-stitched around the edge.” An order to wear masks in public had just taken effect in Indiana, and Heiney seemed to take it in stride. “O, this is a great old world!” she went on, poking fun at funny-looking mask-wearers. “And one should surely have a sense of humor.”

Heiney’s colorful letters are part of a remarkable collection of “personal narratives, manuscripts, and ephemera” about the 1918–1919 flu in the biomedical library of the University of California, Los Angeles. There are letters from California mayors about influenza death rates; Thanksgiving postcards written by children; and laconic Yankee diaries, such as this tragic entry from a Mrs. Slater: “Rained. Spent the day home. Veree Clark died of influenza. E.F. King’s wife funeral. Buzzed wood home.”

So begins Jessica Klein’s fascinating report on the influenza pandemic of 1918 materials at the UCLA Biomedical Archives. You may read her entire Atlas Obscura report here.

Who Defines Evangelicalism? An Interview with Mark Noll

29 Apr

President Donald Trump holds an Evangelicals for Trump rally at a Miami megachurch in January of 2020. (Adam DelGiudice/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty)

Now more than three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, amid the coronavirus pandemic and his run for reelection, the debate over his white evangelical base continues to rage. Columns and editorials have been written, pundits have clashed, friendships and family ties have been strained. Through it all, some basic questions have underwritten the exchange—What is an evangelical? To whom does the label apply? What policies and politicians should an evangelical support? Of all the recent books tackling these questions on American evangelicalism—and there are many—one stands out as complete and comprehensive.

Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden—all esteemed scholars of American religious history—have assembled an impressive line-up of contributors in their edited volume, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be. Bebbington, now retired from Scotland’s University of Sterling, is perhaps best known for outlining four main characteristics of evangelicalism. Marsden and Noll, who held the same chair in succession at Notre Dame, have also long explored the salient traits of evangelicals, including their role in higher education. In Noll’s 1994 book about the tension between his twin loves of intellectualism and evangelicalism, he famously wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

In this latest volume, Noll has helped bring together many minds to ponder different facets of the questions facing evangelicalism. Among them are names that have appeared in the pages of Religion & Politics and around the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, including Darren DochukMolly WorthenKristin Kobes Du MezJemar TisbyTimothy Keller, and Thomas S. KiddEric C. Miller spoke recently with Noll about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So begins a fascinating interview by Eric C. Miller of historian and evangelical Mark Noll about a new book on evangelicalism. You may read the entire Religion and Politics piece here.

The Five Oral History Commandments

27 Apr

QUESTION: While we’re all practicing social distancing, I thought this might be a good time to conduct an oral history with an elderly relative. Do you have any tips for someone who’s never conducted an oral history?

This is indeed a great time to conduct oral history. Take advantage of the accessories provided by platforms like Skype and Zoom; both offer recording features and it can all be done on your end, so there’s little pressure on your parents, grandparents, and loved ones to learn new technology skills.

As for tips on culling a narrative from someone, here are my Five Oral History Commandments, whether you’re doing it in person or on an online platform:

So begins Kate Dahlstrand’s advice on doing oral history interviews in this time of social distancing. You may read her entire piece–including her 5 commandments–at Contingent Magazine here.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM 1918 INFLUENZA DIARIES

13 Apr
Seattle police officers wearing masks in 1918

Seattle police officers wearing masks in 1918 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When Dorman B.E. Kent, a historian and businessman from Montpelier, Vermont, contracted influenza in fall 1918, he chronicled his symptoms in vivid detail. Writing in his journal, the 42-year-old described waking up with a “high fever,” “an awful headache” and a stomach bug.

“Tried to get Dr. Watson in the morning but he couldn’t come,” Kent added. Instead, the physician advised his patient to place greased cloths and a hot water bottle around his throat and chest.

So begins Meilan Solly’s introduction to selections from 1918 diaries during the Great Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. You may read her entire Smithsonian post here.

Why Telephone Companies Once Discouraged People From Chatting

13 Apr
During the flu outbreak of 1918, phone operators took precautions—and many companies asked people to stay off the line.

During the flu outbreak of 1918, phone operators took precautions—and many companies asked people to stay off the line. BETTMANN / CONTRIBUTOR / GETTY IMAGES

AS THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC CONTINUES to sweep across the world, putting billions in isolation, many people are scrambling to stay tethered to friends, family, and coworkers. More than 80 percent of people surveyed in the United States and United Kingdom report spending more time squinting at their phones and other screens, according to data published by the World Economic Forum. Those little screens have come to feel like a lifeline, offering a sense of community and a sliver of normalcy.

That’s not exactly new. Decades ago, Bell and AT&T ran ads exhorting people to “reach out and touch someone.” The ads promised that phone calls could collapse the physical and emotional distance between people. In one commercial from the late 1980s, a kid phoning his parents from college was able to picture his family’s routine—sister primping for a date, brother rushing in from soccer practice, dad rifling through the refrigerator just a few hours after dinner.

But, of course, it wasn’t always this way. The last time a pandemic of comparable scale stampeded around the world, in 1918, only around a third of American households had phones, The New York Times recently reported—and, obviously, those devices were much lower-fi. For decades, people with phones had been largely discouraged from using them for gabbing, ostensibly because some towns only had a few lines to serve everyone. Then, when the flu began to devastate communities, some phone companies begged people to keep their calls to a minimum, Fast Company reported. In October 1918, for instance, the Michigan State Telephone Company took out an ad in a Battle Creek newspaper, asking locals to “please restrict your use of the telephone to calls which are absolutely essential,” thus freeing up operators to attend to “the essential business of the community.” Similar messages went out in New Jersey and North Carolina, where an ad asked the public to “refrain from using the telephone except when necessary so that prompt service can be given to the sick.”

So begins Jessica Leigh Hester’s Atlas Obscura post on the changing uses of the telephone. You may read her entire post here.

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