Today’s guest post is a reflection on the life and work of Edith Blumhofer, by Mark Hutchinson, professor of history and dean of the faculty of business, arts, social sciences, and education at Alphacrucis College in Australia.
History is made by unexpected people in unexpected places. It is a fact often not recognized until later, when the consequences of the small things, the particular things, begin to appear on the historian’s radar screen. This fact, that history is the art of the particular, will have been on the mind of many of the world’s evangelical historians with the passing of our colleague Edith Waldvogel Blumhofer. Across nearly four decades at Wheaton College and through such discipline-defining programs as Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), Edith gently broke the standard accounts and broadened the American evangelical mind.
Her ability to remove barriers for others was entrenched in who she was. Born in 1950 in Brooklyn, New York, Edith grew up in a German-American Pentecostal community pastored by her father, E. H. Waldvogel, and moved easily among the leaders of the expanding post-war globalization of the Assemblies of God. After an education at Hunter College (BA, MA, 1971) Edith took a PhD at Harvard (1977), and, while taking up teaching roles, continued the research that would result in her first books: The Assemblies of God: A Popular History (1985); The Assemblies of God: A Chapter in the Story of American Pentecostalism (1989); and ‘Pentecost in My Soul’: Explorations in the Meaning of Pentecostal Experience in the Assemblies of God (1989). Like many of her colleagues, she could have stayed in the relatively confined world of AG-USA higher education, but Edith had “pepper”—in 1987, she accepted a role at Wheaton College in the ISAE, a vehicle developed by George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Joel Carpenter to help put a more informed study of evangelicalism back into the mainstream of American intellectual life.
It was an inspired choice. Not only would Blumhofer’s role as project director (1987-1995) then assistant director (1996-1999) produce some of the cutting-edge scholarship of the time (Modern Christian Revivals, 1993; Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism, 1999; Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land, 2004), but it put a female scholar skilled in the history of American Christianity and familiar with transnational Pentecostalism in a key position. Edith’s brilliance lay in hard work, a focus on the particular, and (as Wheaton’s Timothy Larsen has noted) a “refusal to patronize” popular Christian movements. Her teaching was warm, collegial, massively well-informed and supportive. Modern Christian Revivals (which she edited with Randall Balmer), for example, marshaled the art of the particular to implicitly critique the normative story of Christian revivalism by demonstrating its transnational roots. This focus would re-situate the history of American Christianity within a global framework not just in her own work, but also in the work of her colleagues.
What a tremendous legacy she would leave, in her work and life. For those of us who work mainly on the history of Pentecostalism, Blumhofer’s books (particularly Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister, 1993; and Restoring the Faith, 1993) were visions of what a humane, well-researched, and intelligent account of the discipline could be. Again, she wrote without patronizing, opening up elements of the American experience like few others. For international historians in the discipline, her name became a commonplace in every disciplinary conversation. Whether teaching in the history program at Wheaton or in the public religion program at the University of Chicago, Edith influenced colleagues, brought popular denominational traditions into contact with scholarship, and taught a great crowd of students, many of whom have gone on to doctoral work and followed her lead to treat the lives and experiences of people in detail, and with respect.
Though some of them are the best in the field (Tim Larsen for example), her students have big shoes to fill. Edith didn’t just get under the skin of her subjects: unlike many scholars, she could really write. This precision of mind, heart and pen meeting on the page can, in her marvelous biography of “America’s sweet singer in Israel,” be heard in her description of Fanny Crosby’s mental world:
The only child of John and Mercy Crosby, Fanny Crosby was born into a humble home crowded with an extended family. They boasted few worldly goods, but they cherished a rich family lore. The adult Crosby liked nothing more than an excuse to recite her “granite stock” pedigree. Animated by nostalgic pride in her forebears and uncomplicated devotion to liberty and democracy, she carried a small American flag wherever she went. She boasted a family line that valued the “stuff” of fabled Yankee pride—independence, sobriety, thrift, morality, hard work, public service, family loyalty, unashamed patriotism, and above all, devotion to duty. To her, words like “English” and “Protestant” described not only her lineage but also—she hoped—a certain essence of character. The Crosby family saga shaped Fanny Crosby’s sense of self and country. It also offers glimpses into the lives of some of the nameless people whose choices have woven the fabric of the American dream. (Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005, p. 2)
Focus, relentless detail, and personality all woven within an expansive vision of what the particular constructs. This is the work of a virtuoso historian.
Many of us have “Edith stories.” As an Australian historian of global evangelicalism, I arrived at the work I do because I was blessed to be among those who learned from Mark Noll that work in the Christian humanities is fundamentally a collegial response into a calling, but that calling was no excuse for second-rate scholarship. What Mark Noll and Joel Carpenter inspired, however, Edith Blumhofer and Larry Eskridge wrestled into being. On one occasion, Edith and I found ourselves in a post-ISAE event group restaurant conversation over the “what was next” for the work of the institute. Edith and I had already had a conversation in the foyer of the Barrows Auditorium at Wheaton College, where she dropped the casual phrase “Well, Pentecostalism just is world Christianity.” So when the question was asked, I just quoted Edith back to herself. That was the seed for the Evangelicalism and Globalization Project, and then (merged with the North Atlantic Missions Project, NAMP) the Currents in World Christianity Project (run by Brian Stanley at the University of Cambridge). For me, and I know for others, Edith’s affirmation of what I knew to be true continues to inform much of what I continue to write through to the present. So, though distance meant I didn’t get to work as closely with Edith as others, her transnational vision continues to turn up in surprising corners of the globe.
We mourn with Edith’s husband, Edwin, and their children, the award-winning musician Jonathan, Judy (a medical doctor serving in Central America), and Christopher, a rising New Testament professor currently at Fuller, all Wheaton graduates. The apples haven’t fallen far from the tree, and in them Edith’s legacy is assured. As with her account of Fanny Crosby, moreover, one might say that the Waldvogel family saga shaped Edith’s sense of self and country. Her penetrating work continues to “offer glimpses into the lives of some of the nameless people whose choices have woven the fabric of the American dream.” For that we are grateful to our common Lord, who now holds her in his hands.
See also Wheaton College’s obituary, “Remembering Dr. Edith Blumhofer (1950-2020).”