Q&A with Joel Carpenter

Dr. Joel Carpenter is professor of history and director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College. He reminisces with us here about his grad school experience.

How did you choose your area of specialty?

From high school on I was fascinated with U.S. history, and when I got to
college, my U.S. history professors (Ronald Wells and George Marsden) deeply
engaged me.  I went to Johns Hopkins to study with Timothy Smith, who was by
then running his Program in American Religious History, with funding from the
Lilly Endowment.  My first thought was to work on revivalism and 19th century
reform movements, drafting off of Smith’s famous book on the topic.  But Smith,
who had just finished mentoring a cohort of doctoral students doing
immigrant/ethnic/religious history, started asking me personal ‘roots’
questions.  When he found out that I had been reared in a rather sectarian
Baptist denomination, he encouraged me to do research on the history of the
American fundamentalist movement.  I found out that my professor back at
Calvin, George Marsden, was working in the same area, and I became hooked on
the topic.

How did grad school challenge and/or strengthen your faith?

I had a very good time socially with fellow graduate students, and the
professors with whom I was reading for exams took religious faith very
seriously as a historical and human factor.  All but one, I think, were
religiously observant themselves, after some fashion.  So I had no great crisis
of faith in graduate school.  Prof. Smith, who was a devout Christian in the
holiness tradition, and who thought constantly about faith and history sorts of
issues, was very encouraging and supportive.  So was Prof. John Higham, who had
us read Reinhold Niebuhr, and so too another Smith student, Ben Primer, who
introduced me to Peter Berger’s The Social Construction of Reality.  Berger’s
sociology of knowledge helped me push back intellectually versus those who
wanted to reduce religion to other, purportedly more basic forces.  All of
these factors and our knowledge of them are socially constructed, I found, so
none deserved any more explanatory power, privilege or leverage than human
religiosity.

But more than intellectual challenges, I had to face the loneliness,
unrelenting hard work, and questions of calling that come with graduate studies
in the humanities.  I received great help from the learned and wise pastor at a
nearby Baptist church, who gave me the best medicine available–the
responsibility of teaching the Sunday morning Bible class for university
students!  I found the assurance I needed as I studied the Gospel of Matthew
and the Epistle to the Colossians with the students.  Speaking to me
particularly were the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come unto
me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke
upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will
find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  This
has become a life motto for me.


What was the most enjoyable part of grad school?

I very much enjoyed the intellectual discoveries, especially those that I
gained on my own.  It was a time of rich learning and exploration.  I really
enjoyed the people.  We had a great social bond going, especially amongst the
American history graduate students.  It helped that I came from a Christian
sector that thought having a beer after work was OK!

What was the most challenging?

The unrelenting grind of reading and writing.  We lived in the library
carrels.  There were so many warm summer nights when we could see the lights at
Memorial Stadium, just blocks away, but we had to be satisfied with a brief
coffee break and then back down to the carrels.   The few times we went over to
see the Orioles play, we all felt guilty.

What did your scholarly “community” look like? How did you make use of
other scholars around you and how did such collegial relationships enhance your
own work?

At Hopkins, there were three large cohorts:  the American Seminar, the
European Seminar, and the “Atlantic” Seminar (which merged Americans, Euros,
and those looking at the Caribbean and West Africa).  We all met formally once
a month, when there was a student or prof. presenting a paper.  These formed
the nucleus of socializing too, including those who were T.A.s together for
undergrad survey courses.  We spent lots of time at coffee shops and bars and
grills, especially the infamous Grad Club, where we could get a beer and a hot
dog after the library closed at 11:30 pm. for about a dollar.  We exchanged
lore about professors, teaching, dissertating, job searches, and of course the
campus legends– e.g. about trunks of dissertation notes from European archives
lost at sea and the arcane questions that Prof. So and So asked at orals.  We
found out what each other were reading in fields beyond history per se to gain
perspective, context, breadth and depth, including period novels, sociological
and anthropological studies, and in what then were some rather arcane areas,
such as linguistic theories and semiotics.  Once in a while, deep into the
night, questions would turn to life’s deeper things–its meaning, the existence
and action of God, heaven or hell, sexual morality.  I think we learned as much
from each other as from the senior professors.

One problem I saw with some other evangelical students is that they kept to
themselves, studied in their rooms, didn’t go to departmental parties or
intermural games, and didn’t hang out after hours, either.  Their concerns
about worldly behavior and worries about studying hard enough got in the way of
some very important learning and engagement with other rising scholars.  Their
time in grad studies was impoverished and in some cases, imperiled, by their
lack of socialization.

What strategies helped you most in writing your thesis/dissertation?

It wasn’t strategy, but necessity.  I got a full-time teaching job before I
began writing dissertation chapters.  So it was pretty much a chapter per
summer, over five years.  That was all that I could manage, with a very heavy
teaching load.  I had a very hot topic, as things turned out, so some of my
dissertation chapters first appeared as papers given at invitational
conferences, and were published as essays and articles before they came out in
the dissertation.  That pattern worked well to help me make progress, but it is
obviously not a strategy!

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One Comment on “Q&A with Joel Carpenter”


  1. […] An interview with Joel Carpenter, a professor of history at Calvin College and historian of religion, about being a Christian in graduate school. From the Conference on Faith and History. […]


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