Craig Harline, professor of history at Brigham Young University and noted Reformation scholar, has long been noted as a skilled author whose prose and approach reach a much broader audience than is typical for academic books. Whether it’s a Reformation archbishop, a seventeenth century nun, or a comprehensive history of Sunday, Harline is widely respected for making historical stories accessible for general readers.
But while finishing his book on conversion in seventeenth-century Europe—focusing on a family whose father was a Protestant minister, whose son was a convert to Catholicism, and how they balanced these tough issues of tolerance—Harline considered ways to make the book more relevant to contemporary readers. He narrates how he came to this conclusion in the epilogue to the book: during a chance meeting with some family friends at a local restaurant, he learned about their college-age daughter’s recent choices and the grief and disappointment it brought to their close-knit family. Trying to bring comfort to the troubled parents, Harline shared the story and lessons of his current book-in-progress. Satisfied with the (albeit limited) relief that this brought, he felt justified in his desire to use his book “to show explicitly how the distant past could possibly have meaning in the present, and vice versa.” History, he concluded, was too often seen as “something mostly suitable for school, or hobbyists, something to be discussed recreationally..rather than as something that might inform present experience” (269-272). Hoping to reverse this trend, and hoping to better reach people an audience like his friends with the wayward child, Harline re-envisioned the overall framework and methodology of what is now published as Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (Yale UP, 2011).
In seeking to make his work much more relevant, Harline offers a narrative style quite foreign to a traditional historical monograph. For one thing, he places himself directly into the text, narrating his time in “hot and muggy” summer archives, how he raised his hands “in triumph” when he found the seventeenth-century journal of Jacob Rolandus, and then his joy in being able to crack the journal’s written code (7-12). In some points of the narrative, Harline sounds more like a journalist than a historian. Further, he uses other unconventional methods within the book that promise to make traditional historians squirm: not only does he not employ endnotes (a bibliographic essay is offered instead), but he never even uses quotation marks, choosing instead to place all direct quotations in italics; in most cases, Harline merely paraphrases or summarizes a scene’s layout or a character’s thoughts like a typical novelist would. Take, for example, the following except narrating the buildup to Jacob’s escape:
There had been some close calls these past weeks, as might be expected with more and more friends learning of Jacob’s plans and needs: which of them might let something slip? Just days before, the local sheriff had approached to ask about rumors that Jacob was thinking of going off to war with Vlierden: there was nothing to it, said an undoubtedly shaken Jacob. Stay at home and keep studying with your father, said the suspicious sheriff.
Today was nerve-wracking too, for while Jacob sat in church listening to his father’s sermon, as he did every Sunday with his mother and sister, his mind was filled not with the mysteries of heaven but rather with the decidedly earthly matter of finding a horse. Just yesterday he thought he’d found one, but this morning had come word that it wasn’t available after all. yet he had to leave tonight, as he couldn’t bear to stay another day. Besides, he had to meet young Vlierden at the border the next morning, or never. (4)
Harline is an eloquent writer, and passages like this demonstrate why it is often easy to forget this narrative is based on documents nearly four centuries old.
But even more than introducing himself into the narrative or utilizing the novelist’s prose, Harline’s most imaginative (and perhaps controversial) technique was to use a “modern” story to magnify the “historical” tale. This Harline does by alternating the chapters on the Rolandus family with the story of Michael Sunbloom (not his real name), a friend of Harline’s whose life is filled with several similarly major conversions and transitions: first from Protestantism to Mormonism, a move that infuriated his parents, and then later embracing his homosexuality and entering into a long-term monogamous relationship with another male—a transition that initially destroyed his familial relationship but eventually led to full reconciliation. Such a collapse of distance (mid-seventeenth century Europe and late-twentieth century California) is traditionally avoided by academics, as accusations like “presentism” and phrases like “the past is a foreign world” typically restrict historians to their period of study. But Harline directly challenges this anxiety with his own guidelines:
The trick to seeing your connection, of course, is to see through all the differences that can blur it. You don’t ignore those differences: they are real, and wondrous, and give you an eye-opening glimpse into how other human beings have done things. Instead, you study these differences thoroughly, until you begin to see that many may not be so different after all: they just need to be looked at in new ways. (19)
Annette Gordon-Reed, in her award-winning Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008) argued for a similar approach:
Historians often warn against the danger of “essentializing” when making statements about people of the past—positing an elemental human nature that can be discerned and relied upon at all times and in all places. Warnings notwithstanding, there are, in fact, some elements of the human condition that have existed forever, transcending time and place. If there were none, and if historians did not try to connect to those elements (consciously or unconsciously), historical writing would be simply incomprehensible…Therefore, we should not be afraid to call upon what we know in general about mothers, fathers, families, male-female relationships, power relationships, the contours of life in small closely knit communities, as we try to see the Hemingses in the context of their own time and place.” (31-32)
Such a narrative requires the historian to be more transparent about their person views and background. But, to Harline, this is a good thing. “The whole [comparative] process reminds you again that the study of the past is not about the past but about life, including your particular life,” he explains before introducing Michael. “In fact when a story from the past seems fantastic it’s probably because that story is somehow about you as well” (18). After finishing his story of Michael, and in the middle of an extended justification for including the narrative in the first place, Harline shared his “growing conviction that to care deeply about the past you have to be a little self-absorbed: you have to find your story in someone else’s story, if it’s to have any meaning for you. The process doesn’t have to be narcissistic, but it has to be personal–and in the best possible world, a personal story should have some universal quality to it anyway” (268). This certainly places the historian in a much more vulnerable position than is typically expected.
This approach could easily be abused, and I imagine all of us have experienced a botched example of collapsing the past and the present. But when done right–and I believe Harline pulls it off beautifully–it can make the work both fascinating and relevant. The narrative is fluid and readable, and I had trouble putting the text down. Harline is at his best when, after finishing the two stories, he ruminates on broader issues of tolerance, resting his judgements on a broad base of research and reflection (243-251). The reader can easily discern the depth and breadth of Harline’s research, which makes his conclusions even more powerful. I viewed this section as being a “public historian” at its best.
Academic historians will (and have) take(n) issue with Harline’s use of sources—both the difficulty to trace his use of the Rolandus sources, and his use of interviews and memory in Michael’s story. But I imagine Harline won’t be too troubled with those critiques: they are trying to hold him to a traditional academic framework that he is consciously trying to challenge. He was more concerned with making the story relevant—by closing the distance between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, by lessening the gap between the ivory tower and main street, and by making his book significant to his friends in the restaurant with the wayward child—than with following the static blueprint of an increasingly isolated academic world. He implies that it is one thing to be accessible—many books are accessible, but they still aren’t read—and quite another to be immediately relevant, specifically showing what makes the topic significant for today’s readers.
And since much of Harline’s book is about finding “personal meaning,” I’ll end my review by pointing out the message that I found most poignant. While much of the narratives focused on issues of conversion and tolerance, I was taken back by the lesson of empathy: the ability to place yourself in the other’s shoes. (And certainly this is a key component of tolerance.) Throughout the text, there are instances of those unable to understand those who they are arguing with, but the triumph came, at least in Michael’s story, when people were able to drop their preconceptions and willingly embrace another’s point of view. And, personally, I hope that this book succeeds in bringing its many audiences to become more empathetic: average Americans empathizing with those of different faith traditions in a post-9/11 world, academics empathizing with a general public often unwilling and unable to comprehend scholarly tomes, and, perhaps most pertinently for the author’s immediate context, traditional religious believers empathizing with a homosexual community that they rarely understand.
And that’s an academic approach I can empathize with.