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Holy history: Students embark on Boston for 2012 Conference on Faith & History

Oct 25—For the historian who loves seafood, there is no better eatery than America’s oldest restaurant, Union Oyster House in Boston.  On the first Saturday in October, five Northwestern students filled a booth at that very oyster house, sitting across from former president John F. Kennedy’s preferred booth.  Over plates of freshly shucked oysters and bowls of clam chowder, they celebrated the end of the biennial Faith and History Conference, hosted by Gordon College.

After days of papers, panels and plenary sessions, Professor of History Jonathan Den Hartog had encouraged his students to spend Saturday morning in the historic city just down the coast from Gordon where they walked most of the Freedom Trail, a path weaving through sites like Paul Revere’s old north church and Bunker Hill.

During the three-day conference, budding historians Scott Anderson ‘12, Rosie Muska ‘13, Adam Saxton ’13, Ricky Seaman ’12 and alum Justin Myhra ’12 presented papers that garnered praise from panel commentators and professors alike, including one suggested publication and several requested copies of their work.

“These students gave very clear and compelling presentations and interacted well with the audiences who were present,” Den Hartog said, “I am biased, but I thought in several panels our students clearly had the best research presentation.”

Saxton and Muska had exchanged papers mid-flight to Boston and were presently surprised.  Muska’s paper, Journeying from Left to Right: How Post-Communist Conservatives Changed American Politics, ended with the Reagan presidency, precisely where Saxton’s paper, Fusion to Fission: Conflicts within the Conservative Movement, began.  At the conference Muska ended her presentation with a handoff to Saxton, creating a clever panorama of conservatism.

Anderson, a history major and Civil War aficionado, infamous during his elementary days for spouting random war facts to any willing listener, presented a paper on his favorite subject.

In Military Memoirs and Memory he advocated that historians should resist the temptation to take Civil War memoirs at face value as factual accounts of the war.

You can learn a lot through the memoirs, but you get to look at [the generals’] lives through their publishing eyes.  They were often involved in politics, and it was in their best interest to portray themselves in the best light.”

In one historical hiccup, General Chamberlain claimed in his memoir a goodwill exchange of salutes with a Confederate general during the formal surrender ceremony.  Anderson explained that this “healing moment for the nation” was never accounted for in any soldier’s memoir (some 20,000 were present) making its reality questionable.

Beyond the facts and figures most of us associate with history, Anderson is concerned that people develop their understanding of yesterday to make healthy decisions today.

"It's often considered cliché to say we learn from our mistakes.  I think we can study the past to learn about successes, to learn about individual lives,” he said, “In every person there is a lesson to be learned, in every event.”

Saxton shares a similar passion for harvesting historic value, so much that he changed his major from history to an interdisciplinary degree in international relations, specializing in government and politics. While he expressed being in awe of the historical academic community at the conference, Saxton also agreed with the critique spoken by the president of the organization, who cautioned that "historians need to make history more accessible to the general public.”

Northwestern’s history department is turning out thoughtful historians like Adina Johnson ’10 and Benjamin Brandenburg ’06. who are pursuing graduate studies and were present at the conference, creating quite a  reunion.

“The conference was a fantastic opportunity for networking,” said Anderson, “And to remember what makes history so good.”

The Conference on Faith and History is a community of scholars exploring the relationship between Christian faith and history. They welcome members from a variety of Christian traditions and seek to learn from scholars outside the Christian tradition, with a primary goal is to encourage excellence in the theory and practice of history from the perspective of historic Christianity.