Mark Noll on Eugene Genovese and Henry May

Cross-posted at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

Yesterday I received in the mail the January/February 2012 issue of Books & Culture.  As usual, it is loaded with great stuff and I look forward to exploring it more fully over the course of the next few weeks.

This month’s issue begins with Mark Noll’s tribute to two giants in the field of American history who passed away this Fall: Eugene Genovese and Henry May.  I am sure the article will appear on the B&C website in the near future, but in the meantime here are a few entertaining quotes from Noll’s personal encounters with the two historians.

Noll on Henry May’s appearance at a 1984 conference on Jonathan Edwards held at Wheaton College:

At the conference, which featured most of the premier Edwards scholars from the university world, May’s demeanor was as impressive as his paper.  In keeping with his acknowledged status as an academic elder statesman, he was dignified, serious, and reserved.  But his kindness and approachability were just as evident.  For me the deepest impression came when he was heard to tell one of the presenters who obviously accepted Edwards’ theology as well as his simple brillance: “very good to hear from the home team.”

And here are Noll’s recollections of Genovese at a 1994 Wheaton conference on religious perspectives and historical scholarship:

More striking than their impressive formal presentations, however, was a memorable conversation after the meeting as the Genoveses waited outside Wheaton’s dining hall for a limo to O’Hare Airport.  It was shortly after Betsy Genovese had been received into the Catholic Church, when Gene had started to attend services with her but still proclaimed his own agnosticism; it was also while both were deep into the study of southern slaveholders that would lead to their trio of learned books in the next decade.  Luxuriating in a lovely spring day, Gene offered an unaccustomed spectacle to the Wheaton undergraduates passing by as he puffed away furiously on an angular black cheroot.  Those who paused to listen got an even more spectacular earful: “You wussy evangelicals.  It makes me sick to be around your pansy theology.  You need to be reading the real Calvinists like James Thornwell and Robert Dabney.  Now they knew what they were talking about.  If you want real theology, these were the real men!”  But…but…some of us tried to splutter, “Thornwell and Dabney were infamous for their stout defenses of slavery.”  A problem, Gene conceded, but a minor one compared to the strength of what they had to say about God and the human condition….

And finally, Noll describes a phone call he had with Genovese after he had returned to the Roman Catholic Church of his childhood:

I was the recipient of a Mafioso-style Catholicism at its most characteristic: “So you haven’t yet acknowledged the Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ?  Remember that purgatory can last for a very, very long time.”


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