Monday, August 10, 2015

Flannery O'Connor's Favorite Protestant Theologian

I did a double take when I saw this passage:

"She never missed Dr. Frank Crane, an advice columnist....Appearing on the same page as the comics in the Atlanta Constitution, he was a prophet of positive thinking, regularly reporting success stories of people who smile and compliment others. O'connor jokingly called him her 'favorite Protestant theologian.'"

The passage comes from Jonathan Rogers's 2012 book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor (Thomas Nelson). It probably didn't startle others the same way it startled me. But as a wannabe historian, this passage had the potential to make my research relevant. Here was Flannery O'Connor, a darling of the thoughtful Christian crowd, apparently an avid reader of Frank Crane, the subject of my new Nebraska History article. 

Almost everything seemed to fit. Frank Crane was indeed an apostle of positive thinking and also a syndicated newspaper columnist. Norman Thomas, writing in The Nation in 1924, aptly described Crane's style as something "a Pollyanna might have written after a short course in William James's pragmatism and a shorter and somewhat critical course in Tolstoi's non-violent ethics."

Frank Crane in American Magazine (1922)
There was just one problem: Crane died in 1928. And O'connor was reading "Dr. Frank Crane" in the 1950s. It was at least possible that Frank Crane's columns were being reprinted decades after his death, but it seemed unlikely. So I decided to investigate. I went to the sources cited by Rogers, all of which came from The Habit of Being, an edited collection of O'connor's letters. As the letters showed, O'connor definitely peppered her letters with references to Crane. "Ashley was telling me that you are an admirer of Dr. Frank Crane, my favorite Protestant theologian (salvation by the compliment club)," she wrote to Robie Macauley in 1955. "He is really a combination minister and masseur, don't you think? I like to hear him tell Alma A. that she can keep her husband by losing 75 pounds and just the other day he told a girl who was terrified of toads how not to let this ruin her life -- know the truth & the truth shall make you free."

In another letter to Macauley, she cracked more jokes about Crane: "I'll write Dr. Crane and ask him what is the significance of the short story. He tackles any subject." Elsewhere, she described Crane as an "odd mixture of fundamentalism (against the grape), psychology, business administration and Dale Carnegie. The originator of the Compliment Club."

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Book List: The Rise of the National Basketball Association

If you're looking for a book on the history of the NBA that features tables with titles like "Fixed-Effects Regression Equation for NBA Gate Receipts, 1950– 51," then this is your book and David George Surdam (a professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa) is your author.

To be fair, Surdam's tables, all thirty-three of them, are placed in Appendix B. The main text of the book follows the typical chronological pattern of most descriptive histories. Within that text, though, Surdam offers a unique angle to the NBA's early history that (like the charts on fixed-effects regression equations) could only come from an economics professor. Forget Bill Russell, the owners are the heroes in The Rise of the National Basketball Association. Men like Walter Brown, Fred Zollner, Les Harrison, Eddie Gottlieb, Ned Irish, Ben Kerner, and Maurice Podoloff, should "justly feel proud of their efforts," Surdam writes, because they held the NBA together with "determination" and "a willingness to absorb losses."

To get at the owners' perspective and to explain the choices they made -- from integration, to television contracts, to gate receipt sharing, to league rules, to expansion and franchise relocation -- Surdam relies on a mix of secondary literature, New York Times and other national print media, archival research at the Naismith Hall of Fame, and a 1957 Congressional antitrust hearing on "Organized Professional Team Sports." Numerous NBA owners testified at that hearing, providing documentation on league finances and operating procedures that help Surdam analyze the economic underbelly of the league in a new way.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Frank Crane, From the Pulpit to the Press

A couple years ago on a Tuesday afternoon I drove to First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. There I met Diane and Donna, the church's two archivists. They work on a volunteer basis, coming in once a week to organize and preserve pieces of the church's past.

When I arrived Diane and Donna led me down concrete stairs to the church basement, into a small storage room that served as the church's archive. They knew that I was interested in 1890s Omaha, and they mentioned that they had the perfect source for me: a weekly church newsletter that was distributed for most of the 1890s. After scanning the archive shelves, Donna pulled down two dusty old volumes titled "The Guidon."

I did not expect to find much excitement in a weekly church newsletter. Event announcements, membership lists, sermon summaries: in and of themselves these items did not pique my interest. But I knew that studying the routine activities of Omaha's leading 1890s Protestant church would be valuable. I was also interested in finding themes related to the social gospel. As I flipped through the two bound volumes and took pictures of the pages, I looked for signal words like "Washington Gladden" and "fatherhood of God."

To my surprise The Guidon's contents frequently exhibited a flair for the creative (or at least the unexpected). Instead of mindlessly snapping pictures for future use, I found myself pausing and reading, constantly drawn into the personality exhibited in the text. To take but one example: in order to convince church members to accept a new system of church finances, the editor wrote a parody of the wildly popular 1894 free-silver tract Coin's Financial School. In the original, a man named Professor Coin taught bankers and businessmen the benefits of bimetallism. In the parody, a man named Gould Coin taught First Methodist board members the benefits of a monthly subscription-based church giving system.

Intrigued, I resolved to find out more about Frank Crane, the editor of The Guidon and the pastor of First Methodist from 1892 until 1896. I began my search, as most do these days, with google. And very quickly, thanks to the plethora of digitized newspaper and magazines from the pre-1922 years, I discovered that the Frank Crane who edited The Guidon in such an interesting way was the same "Dr. Frank Crane" who became perhaps the most widely read syndicated newspaper columnist in the early twentieth century and an icon of middlebrow American consumer culture.

From LIFE magazine in 1920.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Comparing the Religious Affiliation of Omaha's Elites with Omaha's Population, 1910

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a golden age for amateur (often self-published) histories of American cities. Usually written by longtime middle- and upper-class residents, the histories are especially useful in showing the disconnect between the image of the city that "elite" citizens wanted to project and the reality of the city as experienced by the masses.

Often, these amateur histories would include a biographical directory of prominent citizens. Arthur Wakeley's Omaha: The Gate City (1917) was one such book. I decided to use it to compare the religious affiliation of the citizens that Wakeley included with the religious affiliation of Omaha as a whole. This methodology is admittedly crude, and Wakeley is certainly not the definitive arbiter of who is and is not an "elite." This is definitely skewed towards men, as well, since women were usually mentioned only as wives (or widows) of important men. 

But, the comparison below does provide at least a suggestive glimpse into the differences in religious affiliation between those who moved about in Omaha's high society (as defined by Wakeley) and those who did not, and it shows the outsized influence that Protestants had in Omaha compared to their actual membership numbers. As you'll see below, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists claim a much higher percentage of Omaha's elite than they do the masses. Catholics, on the other hand, have a much lower percentage, as do the unaffiliated/unidentified. 




Thursday, July 2, 2015

Summer Book List: Henry George (and George Norris) and the Crisis of Inequality

Note: this is the second book in my "Summer Book List" series. In the first installment I discussed Murry Nelson's The National Basketball League: A History.

May 2, 1930 was an active day in the U.S. Senate. With unemployment already well past three million people, the economic downturn that would become known as the Great Depression occupied the minds of many senators.

On that particular day, though, the main issue at hand was the confirmation of President Hoover's nomination for the Supreme Court, John J. Parker. A longtime resident of North Carolina, Parker's nomination was part of Hoover's plan to attract southern Democrats into the Republican fold. But the nomination of Parker, a lily-white Republican with a history of racist statements and actions, sparked opposition from the NAACP. Labor leaders were not happy with Parker, either, criticizing his use of injunctions against strikes and his support for yellow dog contracts.

What authority could be invoked in these debates and discussions over a growing economic crisis and a controversial Supreme Court justice? For Senators Gerald Nye and George Norris, that authority came in the voice of a nineteenth-century reformer named Henry George. Early in the day's proceedings, Nye inserted into the Congressional Record George's late-nineteenth-century words on inequality, condensed into more palpable form by George's son-in-law Will Atkinson:


Later in the day, during a two-hour speech explaining why he opposed Parker's nomination, Senator Norris turned to George as well, quoting "one of the most beautiful things I have ever read on the preciousness of human liberty." The lengthy quotation from George's Progress and Poverty spanned three paragraphs, ending with George's plea: "In our time, as in times before, creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality, destroy liberty....Unless its foundations be laid in justice, the social structure cannot stand." For Norris, Judge Parker's history of judicial activism against labor meant that he would only exacerbate the problem of economic equality made conspicuous in the wake of the 1929 Crash. Ultimately, Norris's view (alongside the NAACP and others), won the day. Parker's nomination failed by one vote.

It should be no surprise that Henry George -- one of the earliest and most prominent voices pointing out the danger of inequality in Gilded Age America -- was invoked in 1930, a moment when the problem of economic inequality seemed obvious. So, too, it is only fitting that in 2015, a time when the problem of economic inequality once again holds the nation's attention, we should have a new biography of Henry George.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer Book List: Learning about the National Basketball League

Recently I had time for a little pleasure reading, so I picked up Murry Nelson's history of the National Basketball League. For those not familiar, the NBL was one of two leagues (the Basketball Association of America was the other) to merge in 1949 and form the National Basketball Association.

The impetus for the book came back in 1996 when the NBA celebrated its 50th Year Anniversary. Nelson, a leading historian of basketball, cried foul, noting that 1996 was 50 years after the BAA's founding, not the NBA's. As for the NBL -- the other half of the merger that created the NBA -- it had been around since 1937. Choosing 1946 as the beginning of the NBA blatantly ignored both the importance of the NBL and the historical record.

Not surprisingly, Nelson's pleas went unheard. The NBA went ahead with its celebration in 1996 and continues to mark 1946 as the starting point in league history. In light of this, an angry and inspired Nelson set out to recover the NBL's history. In The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949 (McFarland, 2009) he's done just that, providing the definitive account of the league that from 1937 until 1948 was "the undisputed premiere professional basketball league in the United States."

Nelson certainly has a point when arguing for the superiority of the NBL. He estimates in the book that 90 percent of the best professional basketball players in 1947 played in the NBL. It's impossible to know with certainty whether or not that estimate is correct, but we do know that the first six NBA champions were NBL teams, and that in the NBA's first season six of the ten All-NBA players were from the NBL while only one came from the BAA (three rookies also earned All-NBA honors). Of course, in the 1940s some of the nation's top basketball players, including Hank Luisetti, Bob Kurland, and Jesse Renick, found homes and stable employment on company-sponsored AAU teams. And, an even greater asterisk, professional basketball leagues mostly barred blacks from playing (more on that in a second), leaving the top African American players to join famed traveling teams like the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Rens.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Writing about Nebraska

One of my favorite stops on the internet is Religion & Politics. They're not a rapid-fire content accumulator or aggregator. Instead they post just one article a week. But that one article is almost always something worth reading.  

To someone like me, someone who is intensely interested in notions of place and identity and how those relate to religion, perhaps the coolest thing R&P has going on is their "States Project." Here's how they describe it: 
We gathered writers from around the country to tell us about where they discovered religion and politics in their states. Both part of a union and cultures unto their own, these states reveal stories of people, places and histories of the American experience. 
As of last week, they had covered 23 states. This week, they added their 24th state: Nebraska. And I was fortunate to be the writer they allowed to take on the Cornhusker state. If you haven't yet, you can check out my piece, "Nebraska: A Cornhusker Prays with FCA." I wrote about one way that sports, religion, and the power of place are linked together in Nebraska.


After you read that piece, feel free to catch up on my other Nebraska-related writing from the past couple of years. Among other things, I've written about the fantastic Omaha-based 1960s documentary film, A Time for Burningthe NBA's brief 1970s foray into Nebraska, the religious beliefs of legendary Nebraska Senator George Norris, and brand-new Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse's relationship to the Christian Right. I've also published an article in Nebraska History on Charles W. Savidge, a pioneering turn-of-the-twentieth-century holiness movement pastor in Omaha. And finally, one last plug: in August, I'll be publishing a second piece with Nebraska History. More details to come on that in the near future.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year in Review: My Favorite Music in 2014

It's time for my annual year-end list of favorite albums. I'm no music critic, so my criteria for which albums make the cut follows the Lemon test: I know what I like when I hear it. Normally I'd write a little blurb for each of these twelve albums, explaining why it's a favorite. Unfortunately, I'll have to set aside that little extra flourish this year due to time constraints.

With that said, onto the list!

Favorite Song: Patriarch
Favorite Song: The Dark (Trinity)


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Things I Wrote in 2014

Most of my writing this year was devoted to research papers for PhD coursework. My topics were as varied as the courses in which I was enrolled: I wrote papers about William Gladstone's perceptions of America, depictions of atheism in the early American republic, and Mary Mills Patrick's college for girls in Istanbul and its connections with early twentieth-century liberal American Protestantism and Turkish nationalism.

Along with coursework, my writing in 2014 included blogging (here, at the Religion in American History blog, and at the American Society of Church History blog), writing pieces for more formal/established online outlets (Christian Century, Christ and Pop Culture, and Religion & Politics), and working on history conference papers and academic articles. Here's a list of the highlights from that non-coursework writing in the the past year (and yes, "highlights" is very much a relative term).

Conference Papers/Academic Articles

1) “‘Endless miseries, ruined lives, and social disaster’: Marrying Parsons and Sexual Revolution in the Progressive Era.” - presented at the Religion and Sexual Revolutions Conference at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.

2) “‘First Pick the Mote From Thine Own Eye’: The Christian Rhetoric of Racial Equality in the African American Press of the Great Plains, 1890-1900.” - presented at the Missouri Valley History Conference and the Conference on Faith and History.

-I am working on submitting both of the pieces above to academic journals sometime in 2015. 

3) “Christian Historians and Social Media” - presented as part of a roundtable discussion at the Conference on Faith and History. You can read the full text of my comments here.

4) "From the Pulpit to the Press: Frank Crane's Omaha, 1892-1896." I recently submitted this article to a history journal, and should have a response back from them sometime in January. Hopefully, I will be able to list this as a published piece when I do a 2015 roundup of my written work.

5) Co-author with Jordan R. Bass and Mark Vermillion, “‘Going Viral’: The Impact of Forced Crowdsourcing on Coaching Evaluation Procedures,” International Sport Coaching Journal 1.2 (2014): 103-108. Mostly I did some background historical research on college coaching scandals, while Bass and Vermillion did the heavy lifting in putting the piece together and connecting the information I collected within a theoretical framework.

Most Popular Blog Posts (1000+ hits)
At both this blog and the Religion in American History blog I can track the page views that my pieces receive. I had three blog posts* this year that managed to get a four-digit hit count:

1) The Fifteen Best NBA Teams Of All Time...If Those Teams Were Organized By Players' College Degrees

2) Zach Lowe, Graduate Student in History

3) The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (Review)

*I also had two book preview lists posted at the Religion in American History blog that garnered well over 1000 views. Those two posts were easily my two most-read blog posts this year, but since they didn't really require much in the way of writing, I list them separately here. You can access my first preview list here, and my second preview list here.

Non-blog Online Pieces

1) Son of God and marketing Jesus movies to ministers (The Christian Century's "Then and Now" column)

2) A Short History of Christian Matchmaking (Religion & Politics)

3) A Narrow Vision of America’s Great Big God (Christ and Pop Culture)

Academic Book Reviews/Reflections

1) The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism (RiAH blog)

2) Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (RiAH blog)

3) Transcendental Meditation in the Midwest (RiAH blog)

4) The Cross of War: Matthew McCullough's New Book on Christian Nationalism in the Spanish-American War (RiAH blog)

5) Rally the Scattered Believers: Northern New England's Religious Geography (RiAH blog)

6) Capture These Indians for the Lord: Indians, Methodists, and Oklahomans, 1844-1939 and Catholic Borderlands: Mapping Catholicism onto American Empire, 1905-1935 (RiAH blog)

7) Five "First Books" of Note in 2014 (ASCH blog)

American Midwest/West

1) An ASCH Member Heads to Washington: Ben Sasse and the Christian Right (ASCH blog)

2) Take a Stand for Peanuts: Thinking Out Loud About The Irreverent George Norris (RiAH blog)

3) The Minnesota Turn in the Study of Christianity (ASCH blog)

4) Bringing Social Gospel Back (Religion in the American West blog)

Commentary/Reflection on American Christianity

1) Progressive Evangelicals and Christian History (ASCH blog)

2) What God's Not Dead Gets Right (And Wrong) (Putz blog)

3) For Christians, Must Art Always Serve A Purpose? (Putz blog)

4) A Narrow Vision of America’s Great Big God (Christ and Pop Culture)

5) A Short History of Christian Matchmaking (Religion & Politics)

6) The Imagined Atheist in Colonial America (ASCH blog)

Basketball (all from the Putz blog)

1) The Fifteen Best NBA Teams Of All Time...If Those Teams Were Organized By Players' College Degrees 

2) The Most Interesting College Degrees in the NBA

3) College Majors and College Degrees for the 2014 Draft Prospects 

4) Zach Lowe, Graduate Student in History