S.11 E.6: “Imagine the Experience of Others”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews Brigham Young University professor of church history Jordan T. Watkins.
Posted on December 6th, 2021 by

Historian Jordan T. Watkins, Assistant Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and a professional colleague of Greg’s, converses about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on his teaching both now and long term, his Mormon faith tradition and interest in it, his path from business major to history major, his recent book Slavery and Sacred Texts: The Bible, the Constitution, and Historical Consciousness in Antebellum America, fear about facing the difficult aspects of our nation’s past, Joseph Smith, and the death and life of his sister Micah.

S.11 E.6: “Imagine the Experience of Others”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, a faculty member in the Department of History.

“Black Lives Matter,” one of the most enduring meanings of this phrase is that our laws, institutions and policies lay bare the awful fact that in American society, black lives have less value than white lives. Much of this meaning depends upon an understanding of how the past, including black enslavement and its afterlives has shaped and continues to shape the present in quote. With this trench in passage, my guest today, historian Jordan T. Watkins begins his excellent new book, Slavery and Sacred Texts: The Bible, the Constitution, and Historical Consciousness in Antebellum America, published by Cambridge University Press.

Professor Watkins and I met in 2018 as participants in a national endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for College and University Faculty on slavery in the constitution co-directed by historians, Paul Finkelman and Paul Benson in Washington, D.C. As this suggests, Jordan and I share an interest in the history of slavery in the constitution, and when he notified me this summer that his book had been published, I knew right away I wanted to have him on the podcast. Jordan has three degrees in history, a BA from Brigham Young University, an MA from Claremont Graduate University and a PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Watkin’s dissertation won the university’s Outstanding Dissertation Award, and he was subsequently nominated for the prestigious Allan Nevins Prize awarded by the Society of American Historians.

Currently, Jordan is assistant professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young. Before that, he worked as historian editor on the papers of Mormon leader, Joseph Smith, and held a fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. In addition to his book, he has co-edited two others dealing with Joseph Smith and authored numerous reviews, articles, essays and presentations. Jordan’s work on Smith and the pre-Civil War debates over slavery is both fascinating and important as you will hear and I’m so glad he could join me to talk about the findings, significance of his research, his own background and journey and why history including intellectual history, matters. So welcome, Jordan, it’s so great to have you on and reconnect.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Thank you, Greg, it’s a pleasure to be with you today.

Greg Kaster:

Thanks so much. So you’re out in Provo, Utah, and we were chatting just before we started recording, has the fire abated? I mean the smoke and is the air any better, I hope?

Jordan T. Watkins:

It actually is quite a bit better for a couple of weeks there, maybe it was even months. Yeah, it was pretty dismal outside, but actually the last week or so, the air has cleared quite a bit. I don’t know if that’s the case for everybody here in the West, but at least right now where I’m at, it’s actually been quite nice.

Greg Kaster:

That’s good. Now have you been teaching at all during the pandemic or were you on leave any of that time?

Jordan T. Watkins:

I have been. I was teaching right when the pandemic really broke out and we pretty quickly went to online classes. But then since that time, we’ve done a range of things, we’ve done what we call blended which is having some students in class with masks while some are online on Zoom and then they’ll switch. And just now, we are back to in-person, the students are wearing masks.

Greg Kaster:

Us too. Is there a mask mandate for students or vaccine mandate?

Jordan T. Watkins:

There’s no vaccine mandate, it’s strongly encouraged. They are required to wear masks, so yeah, it’s presented some interesting challenges, to say the way it is.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s the same for me, 18 months ago… I haven’t been back on campus until this semester in 18 months and not in person. I feel good we teach history because basically, you need to read and you need to talk and you need to write and you can do it online. It’s not the same but I was joking with one of our administrative assistants yesterday, suddenly realized as a kid, I just always wanted to mask up as the Lone Ranger, I don’t know if you know that show, but this is a different story. And again, I know about you. I was anxious about going back more because I wasn’t sure how it would work with the masks. I thought I won’t be able to hear them, but it’s been fine so far. I’m really happy. Is that been your experience?

Jordan T. Watkins:

That’s mostly been my experience. I thought, how am I going to teach with a mask? How are the students going to hear me? Are the students on Zoom going to hear me? But I found it, and those did create challenges but I found it to be not too bad. And then something else happened, which is I recognized that the things I was dealing with paled in comparison to this suffering of so many people during this pandemic. So, that gave me perspective and I’m hoping that that bears some relationship to how I teach, that perspective of okay, yeah, we’re dealing with some challenges here in terms of how we teach and the logistics of it. But I guess one way to say it is to recognize that despite the small differences, my life hasn’t changed all that much.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I agree.

Jordan T. Watkins:

And hopefully that makes me think about others for whom it has changed and for whom this has been devastating and perhaps, that can inform my teaching. There are these physical barriers, I mean the mask itself or even Zoom that the teaching during the pandemic has created. And that’s made me, I think hopefully it’s heightened my cognizance of other barriers-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah. Taking the words under the mask.

Jordan T. Watkins:

… maybe both seen and unseen barriers that distanced me from my students or the students from each other or the students from the broader world. And so hopefully, that leads me to be more intentional about trying to bridge some of those distances and help the students bridge those distances.

Greg Kaster:

Well, as you well know, this relates to your work, we’ll get into that, your scholarship later.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, right.

Greg Kaster:

You’re literally taking the words out of my mouth, I was going to use the word heightened a second ago. It sounds… I don’t mean this the way it may sound, but this awful pandemic I think has made me, a lot of us better teachers. I feel exactly what you just said, I think I have a heightened empathy that I may be too… I had empathy but now, it’s heightened.

Jordan T. Watkins:

No, it’s true.

Greg Kaster:

And that’s a quality that we need too as historians, I always tell the students that. But anyway, it’s so interesting to think about how the pandemic will impact our teaching going forward in some good ways. I never use technology that much but I’ll certainly I think continue using it more. Pretty much the same story at Gustavus, we were not on campus, most of us were online and there was this thing called, you call it blended, I think we call it hybrid, I prefer blended I think. Some reason, hybrid always makes me think of agriculture, the farmers family on my mom’s side, anyway. And now I’m back and it feels good and so far so good. So fingers crossed for all of us in higher ed. So you’re out there, so is Provo that area where you grew up? Tell us a little bit about your background.

Jordan T. Watkins:

I grew up in a small town in Utah County which Provo is also in Utah County, grew up in a place called Alpine Utah. And I think it’s important to note that Utah County and Alpine in particular, one of the highest per capita Latter-day Saint Mormon populations in the world.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Jordan T. Watkins:

So, much of my identity was and is tied to my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brigham Young University is a private university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So growing up, I grew up as a Mormon boy and quite early on, developed an interest in the sacred texts of my own tradition, which includes the Bible, but also includes the book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s other scriptural productions.

So relatively early on, I became quite interested in Joseph Smith and the early church that he founded and somewhat naively as a child and youth, I felt that access to knowledge about my own sacred texts, Joseph Smith and his teachings was tantamount to access that knowledge about the world. And that was the key to the universe, so to speak. And obviously as I grew and matured, I realized the world was a much bigger place and came to value other communities of learning and understanding. And as I look back, I was probably just trying to understand myself and my place in the world. It was a process of-

Greg Kaster:

You were doing only history.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, it really was and-

Greg Kaster:

Putting yourself in historical context.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Exactly, sort of a process of self discovery via studying my own faith tradition.

Greg Kaster:

How far back does Mormonism go in your own family? Were your grandparents both sides Mormon?

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, quite a ways back actually. Latter-day Saints are known to be quite interested in family history because of our belief in baptisms for the dead, doing rituals and ordinances for those who’ve passed on. So yes, on both sides of my family, I can trace the roots of Latter-day Saint belief back quite of ways, including some of the early founders and leaders of the Latter-day Saint faith.

Greg Kaster:

Bringing beyond [crosstalk 00:11:54].

Jordan T. Watkins:

Back to Joseph Smith’s time, that first-generation of Latter-day Saints.

Greg Kaster:

That’s incredible long family history. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, it wasn’t a Mormon high school I assume, was a public school you’ve gone to, or?

Jordan T. Watkins:

It’s a public school but it almost may as well have been a Mormon high school, that is to say, not everybody was a member of the Latter-day Saint Church who attended my high school, but certainly the vast majority. And that would have been true of my elementary education and secondary school. I basically knew, the people I knew were members of my faith and in fact, if you weren’t a Latter-day Saint, people probably knew about it and that’s unfortunately primarily what they knew about you. So yeah, I was saturated, that was my world.

Greg Kaster:

That’s the word I was just going to use, I was just going to use the word saturated. As I emailed you, I was baptized. I was told baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church, I have no memory of that, but my dad’s Greek American and [crosstalk 00:13:20]-

Jordan T. Watkins:

Okay.

Greg Kaster:

… and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and went to an Episcopal church, and most of it was going, some of it confirmed it was an alter boy the whole bit, but it wasn’t… some ways, I think I had a religious, maybe it’s not a religious sensibility at least, but I don’t think it’s different than what you’re describing. It wasn’t a saturation. And I knew people well beyond that. I knew Jewish people. But in any case, had your parents gone to college also? My mom went to a two year teacher college and my dad did not go to college.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, my dad did do an MBA at BYU. He had gone to college, my mom had done some college.. I’ve got, well, there are seven kids in my family, good, big Latter-day Saint family. The last two, my youngest sisters were adopted, so five biological, two adopted and my older siblings and my younger siblings did some, most of them did some college but none of them got… my dad did do an MBA, none of my other siblings did masters or PhD. So I was a little bit unique in that decision to go that route.

Greg Kaster:

Same here. Yeah, I think so as I know, that’s… What was your dad doing for a living?

Jordan T. Watkins:

My dad is an entrepreneur. It’s quite an interesting story but he started so early on, he was doing some real estate and some other things for a little short time, right as I was born, we were living in a motor home traveling around and he was trying different things. But he eventually with a friend of his, they started what was a computer accessories company, so this is going back a little bit, but to desktop covers, cover over a desktop or what were called mouse mats for your mouse.

Greg Kaster:

And all of that stuff, I remember. Oh dude, still I have a mouse pad.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah. They started doing that sort of thing that developed into a successful business and he actually now teaches at an entrepreneurship class down at a university in St. George, in Southern Utah. So he did business and I thought despite my deep interest in my own faith and examining the history of my faith and its sacred texts, I didn’t really know if you could make a career out of that. I didn’t understand what that might look like, so I actually served a mission, proselytizing mission for my church which is, especially when I was growing up and before that, if you were a Mormon boy, it was expected that you would go serve a two year mission preaching and proselytizing for your church. And I did that when I was 19 years old, I served in Central Mexico from 2002 to 2004-

Greg Kaster:

Where at in Mexico? I was in Cholula and [crosstalk 00:17:20]-

Jordan T. Watkins:

It was in Leon, Guanajuato and surrounding areas.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, Guanajuato. Oh my God, I love Guanajuato. Cheers, I was there as an undergraduate.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Really?

Greg Kaster:

Oh my gosh!

Jordan T. Watkins:

Wow, that’s amazing!

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I love Guanajuato. People have gone about Guadalajara but Guanajuato, oh, it’s gorgeous.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

Anyway, so you were doing that, this is right out of the book of Mormon I guess in a way, a little bit.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

We can get into that later, I did see that on Broadway. So you did that, how old were you when you were doing that?

Jordan T. Watkins:

19.

Greg Kaster:

  1. Were you in college at the same time or not?

Jordan T. Watkins:

What I did is I did a… so right after high school, this is how interested I was in my own faith tradition. I did a semester, enrolled at BYU but they had a program where you could go and do a semester in Nauvoo, Illinois. Nauvoo, Illinois is the city where the Latter-day Saints founded, Joseph Smith of course was there, that’s where he was eventually close to there, he was eventually killed. So I did a semester there and then that’s when I left on my mission to Mexico. Was there for two years, very challenging experience, learning a new language, new culture, et cetera, but also an incredibly beautiful experience to interact with and learn from the Mexican people in that area.

And then during my mission, I was wondering about, what am I going to do when I get home? What am I going to study? And then when I got back, I re-enrolled at BYU and I declared myself a business major, again thinking well, I guess that’s what my dad does, that’s I guess what I’ll do. But I figured out pretty quickly that I could actually pursue my passion and I found that history would allow me to do that. Now, I think it’s probably the case that broader forces maybe shaped or dictated that choice.

Greg Kaster:

You’re speaking like a historian.

Jordan T. Watkins:

I guess I should say that it was contingent but it was contingent on the fact that modern scholarship on Mormonism has mostly been dominated by historians. Now that’s changed a little bit, so more recently, you have people coming from different academic backgrounds exploring Mormonism. So you could do theology or religious studies or sociology or literature or English. So there now more options in terms of approaches to Mormonism, but early on from the 1950s and ’60s, most of the people interested in studying Mormonism were historian. So I think that’s probably what led me to believe that okay, well, this is the way to go if I want to study my own faith tradition. So while I was at BYU, to illustrate this, in 2005, I took a course that was focused on Joseph Smith and the course was being taught that year because that was the 200th anniversary of his birth. And we read Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling as the text and it actually came out that same year.

Greg Kaster:

Great historian we both know, you know better than I do, he was your dissertation advisor, but Mormon himself and wonderful historian.

Jordan T. Watkins:

And I didn’t know this really about him. I didn’t know who he was, I don’t think until I was introduced to this text and of course he had written a number of other histories before this point that are well-known. But this was him writing at the height of his scholarly powers and he was bringing that to bear on his own faith tradition. So it was profound for me in the sense that it became a model for historical scholarship but also useful because Bushman offered me a way in which I could rigorously examine the history and figures of my own church while still maintaining belief in this faith tradition, which was important to me.

Greg Kaster:

To me, that’s really so interesting on so many levels. I didn’t know… I encountered his work, I guess he was teaching at BYU, I can’t remember. But anyway, I encountered his work, what he was writing about was at New England or Puritanism schools way back. And I only learned later about that the sky is a Mormon and had no idea. And in some ways, it’s not exactly the same but plenty of people that could save us who combine work college’s… not of the church but affiliated with the evangelical Lutheran, that word evangelical used to scare the hell out of me. But to me, mainstream Lutheranism anyway. But people who combine deep faith with rigorous science, and I have a podcast with a few of them and it’s so interesting how they’re able to do that. And you found a way to be a rigorous historian, including the historian of your own faith tradition while maintaining that tradition.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, and that’s something I had to learn from others, like a Bushman, again early on in my life, I didn’t know what rigorous historical scholarship was or scholarship period. I was usually just thinking okay, I’ve got the answers to all of life’s questions in my immature understanding of my own face. So it required me not only learning what scholarship is and historical scholarship, but also recognizing the ways in which somebody like Richard Bushman managed to maintain his face while also pursuing that. And Bushman, this was an interesting time because… so 2005, he publishes that book, 2007, he became the inaugural Mormon studies chair at Claremont Graduate University and that’s really what led me to apply there.

I thought, wow, here’s a chance for me to go study with this guy whose book I’ve read and loved, so I did. I went to Claremont to do my master’s degree in history. Now, Richard was actually in the department of religion and the received wisdom at that time was that if you wanted to study Mormonism and particularly if you were a Mormon, you probably should broaden your lens a little bit because practically speaking, there just aren’t that many jobs teaching laminating history and theology. So partly for that reason, I actually enrolled in the history program rather than the religion program, where Bushman was a faculty member. I did take classes from him and he did serve as my first reader on my thesis which actually explored the writings of 19th century travel writers to Salt Lake City.

Greg Kaster:

That was your MA thesis, right?

Jordan T. Watkins:

That was, that was.

Greg Kaster:

Which also sounds interesting.

Jordan T. Watkins:

And another interesting thing about that, at least interesting to me is that Janet Brodie was the department chair in history and she served as the second reader on my thesis. Now, Janet Brodie’s mother-in-law is Fawn Brodie.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, my gosh!

Jordan T. Watkins:

And Fawn Brodie had [crosstalk 00:25:54]-

Greg Kaster:

Jefferson scholar.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, Jefferson scholar and she’d also written an influential biography of Joseph Smith and [crosstalk 00:25:58]-

Greg Kaster:

Joseph Smith, yeah, a long time ago, right. Which I’ve not read, I’m just aware of it.

Jordan T. Watkins:

60 years before Bushman wrote his biography of Joseph Smith. So I had Bushman Brodie pairing on my thesis, which I was just so pleased about.

Greg Kaster:

That’s the Mormon, I was wondering about Claremont because it’s BYU, and then Claremont in the middle, and I now understand the through line. It makes sense to me.

Jordan T. Watkins:

That was a great experience, learning to become a graduate student. I remember my first semester there, I had this professor teach a class. I think he called it something like classics in American studies. So it was the older tradition of American studies, and his name is Robert Davidoff and it was this Wednesday class. I went to class and he had this really idiosyncratic style where he would start class, usually would open with this very lengthy lecture that would mix scholarly analysis and personal experience and these humorous asides and he would just go on and it was entertaining, but I came to find that he would an hour, an hour and a half in, he would suddenly stop rather abruptly and look around the class. And in this class, there were five or six of us. And look around in the class expectantly, jump in, like now it’s your turn.

And I dreaded going to those Wednesday classes because I knew he was going to start… And not only that, if you did decide to jump in, if you were brave enough, he was pretty rigorous in terms of monitoring or examining and analyzing what you said and how you said it. I remember one time, a student in… this was actually in a subsequent class I took from him. A student kept using the term or the phrase, that you know, you say something and then you say, you know. And he stopped him at some point and said, “You keep saying, you know, and that’s telling me that you’re insecure about your point and you’re seeking affirmation of some kind or something like that.” That’s the kind of… Now I say this, but I came to absolutely adore his style.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I can imagine.

Jordan T. Watkins:

It forced me to become a careful reader, I needed to come to class having read carefully. It forced me to be careful in articulating my thoughts. So it was actually in those dreaded classes that I think I first found my scholarly voice or maybe at least first, the voice of a graduate student.

Greg Kaster:

You write in the acknowledgements to your new book about how something like he’s the most exacting difficult whatever professor I ever had. My own view is we all need someone like that. I had versions of that and one was Mary Furner, the intellectual historian who I had when I was doing my MBA work. Incredibly exacting and demanding in good ways. I think we used to joke about creating a t-shirt that would say something like historians are made not born, but the same thing. And these days, even, even apart from COVID, but certainly during COVID, going back to what you were saying, we try to be empathetic.

And I just wonder, I definitely came into teaching at Gustavus. With that, I was much more I think maybe intense and intimidating. Some students said it wasn’t my intention to be intimidating, but how do you have rigor? How do you set exacting standards and still be understanding and empathetic? There’s a way to do it, but I think that’s important. I know this has been debated recently in the chronicle, that’s a case for rigor. That’s a case for doing what he did.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, and I think that’s right. Maybe it’s the case hopefully that we find that there’s a professor like that, but there’s also a professor who is openly and explicitly patient and caring. Now again, I wouldn’t want to say that Davidoff was not that, I think he was that in his own way, which is why I decided I’m going to take more classes from this guy.

Greg Kaster:

He didn’t run away, he took more.

Jordan T. Watkins:

He took more. So it’s not that he didn’t have a way of being caring and kind and empathetic. In fact, I think I came to understand his rigor as a sign of his care and concern. But yeah, I think we probably need… it’s good that we have professors with different approaches.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I wouldn’t want all [inaudible 00:31:26].

Jordan T. Watkins:

No.

Greg Kaster:

Graduate school’s hard enough with that.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It sounds like you’re really interested in history and so far as you’re interested in your faith tradition from a very early age, then you come back to BYU. I know I misspoke earlier, I forgot the PhD is University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this has had a mantra not BYU, you came back to BYU to teach, but how did you… because the book is an outgrowth of your dissertation, how did you come from your study of Mormonism and Joseph Smith, you were working on Joseph Smith papers, to slavery and the debates over it?

Jordan T. Watkins:

That’s a great question. I did focus a lot of my attention on Mormonism Mormon history at Claremont, but in part, because of Davidoff’s class which really deepened my interest in intellectual history, we read things like FL Mathesons [crosstalk 00:32:33]. But that really… I think I came to realize, and I certainly didn’t realize this when I was young but looking back, and this might be me looking through the lens of what I now do, but I think my interest in Latter-day Saint ideas was symptomatic of a broader interest in ideas. Now I didn’t know that at the time, I thought that was my interest. But later on in Davidoff’s class and another classes, I came to recognize, oh, I’m fascinated by ideas and how they function in history in relationship to other historical forces.

Now this increased when I did go to UNLV. And actually Richard Bushman was fundamental here as well, I was talking to him about where to apply and he mentioned David Holland, at that point unknown to me, but who was at UNLV, is actually another Latter-day Saint.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I didn’t know that, that’s interesting.

Jordan T. Watkins:

And he’s studied and studies American religious and intellectual history. And so when I found out about him and what he studied, I thought that this could be perfect. And further more, UNLV had a historian specializing in the American West and that related to my master’s thesis, people like David Rabel. And so I thought, oh, this is a good option, now I applied to many other schools, many other schools didn’t accept my application but UNLV did.

Greg Kaster:

Obvious one.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, right. It became the obvious choice for me. When I got there, despite not having the name other universities do, David Holland, my advisor, once told me I could make my PhD program whatever I wanted it to be. And I found that to be, there’s something Emersonian in that advice but I really took it to heart. He has great faculty and I had a great cohort of fellow students who were engaged and thoughtful and took all kinds of classes, thought maybe I would actually do something in the American West, still in the tradition of intellectual history and received some training in that field. But ultimately did settle on American intellectual history. So dissertation in about let’s see, 2010, I was about a year into my program, needed a project, was in a graduate seminar and I decided to write a paper on Emerson’s philosophy of history.

And in that process, I began to consider the idea of a dissertation on historical consciousness in 19th century America and I found that the little scholarship that did address that topic often advanced a series of assumptions about historical consciousness in the United States, including the idea that it was rather shallow, that the American revolution had birthed the forward-looking nation and citizens really didn’t care that much about the past and even that the religious makeup of the new republic inspired millennialist abuse. And so, that curbed the development of historicist thinking that had been emerging in Europe. Well, the work I’d done on Emerson led me to question some of those assumptions. And so I thought, okay, maybe there’s a project here. I started much too broad, which is often the case, but-

Greg Kaster:

Often we encounter that in our own students, right?

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yes. I thought, how am I going to try and tackle the question of American historical consciousness? Well, I’ve got to write about Emerson and I’ve got to write about novelists like James Fenimore Cooper and Catharine Sedgwick and certainly historians like George Bancroft and historical painters like Jonathan Trumbull and black historians like William Wells Brown. I thought this is the way to do this. Well, of course I fairly quickly realized that that was just an impossible task, that’s a series of books, that’s not a book. What I did is I jumped into the archives. I did a fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Athenaeum, some of the Harvard libraries and I just tried to let the research inform my approach, and what I came to recognize is that many of the sources I was examining, they were indicating, for example I was looking at the papers of Joseph Buckminster, a Unitarian minister who was at Harvard, who became the first holder of the Dexter Lecture which was the first chair of biblical studies in the United States.

And what I found is that people like Buckminster, they were grappling with trying to understand the Bible is timeless and applying its principles unilaterally, but at the same time, they started to recognize what is the focus of the dissertation in the book, that is historical distance. So they started to recognize the historical particularities of the biblical past, that they can’t just assume sameness over time. And so I started to notice that in some of these biblical scholars in the United States, and I observed that these conversations were often tied up with debates over slavery.

So you look at a biblical passage in which Paul, so a New Testament passage, and he writes to Philemon and he tells Onesimus who is a servant to return to his master, Onesimus. So here, you have an apostle telling a servant to return to his master. Well, the question for early Americans is, well, what does this mean for us? And Buckminster will say, even though he’ll argue that we have to understand these developments in context, he’ll then make the unilateral application, that okay, Paul sent back essentially, Buckminster wants to argue a fugitive slave. And so we have to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act or subsequently in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law.

So I started to notice how these biblical debates got bound up with the issue of slavery and then at a certain point, I also observed that a similar conversation was taking place in relationship to the constitution. And not only that, but that you had figures like Theodore Parker or even the congregationalist Moses Stuart who were arguing about both the Bible and the constitution in relationship to slavery. So I started to see this interpretive overlap in biblical and constitutional debates. And at that point, I thought okay, I can set aside all of the other stuff I thought I was going to do in this dissertation. And that really in practical terms, it gave my project the focus it needed, but I also felt that it uniquely captured a historical development and that this really was the best way to measure antebellum historical consciousness.

Greg Kaster:

It’s a great story, especially for students listening, because how do you… there’s so many different ways to come upon a topic and one way is to, I think you used the phrase jump into the archives, right?

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

And for people who like swimming and love to jump into water, that’s what we, historians love jumping into the archives. And sometimes, the topic emerges as in your case. And it’s a fabulous topic because first of all, while some historians have looked at debates over slavery using the Bible and even the constitution, you’re putting them together. And it’s this business of which I want you to talk more about, is this business of historical distance. Tell us more what you mean by that and what that involved among these antebellum thinkers.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Good. It bears emphasizing that this idea of historical distance, that there are profound cultural, societal differences in different times and places is a fundamental to modern historical thinking.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, exactly.

Jordan T. Watkins:

I start class with my students reading, usually we actually read something from Sam Wineburg-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I use his book.

Jordan T. Watkins:

The  Historical Thinking and… yeah.

Greg Kaster:

As an Unnatural Act.

Jordan T. Watkins:

He came to Gustavus, he’s a friend to Gustavus. When I was chair, I brought him, great guy, fabulous guy.

Greg Kaster:

I love that.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, I think that’s such a good way to start because it introduces to the students this idea that the past is a foreign country, to use the novelist’s phrase, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Jordan T. Watkins:

And I think that’s so crucial as a starting point to understand the past. What I’m getting at in the book is I’m trying to explain ways in which that notion that the past is… That maybe seems obvious, certainly seems obvious I suppose to some of us as historians, maybe less obvious to our students. But it was not obvious to many who lived in prior centuries, people could approach in the 19th or 18th century, could approach the past as if it was contemporaneous or at least as if there were no profound historical differences between their era and the era of the past. Charles Cohen talks about the Puritans who could have spoken of Moses as if he was their contemporary.

So we have to start with that idea that there wasn’t an assumption of historical distance throughout this period. And so what I’m trying to track is the ways in which a number of Americans start to recognize distance, and not just distance from the past, but I think it’s important to note that they’re starting to recognize distance from their most favored past.

Greg Kaster:

Review, yes, thank you. I can tell you that point comes through in what I’ve read the prologue and the intro. That’s key [crosstalk 00:44:22].

Jordan T. Watkins:

That is key because even if they recognize distance from let’s say the classical period or more likely the middle ages or what they would call the dark ages, they might at some surface level understand or conceptualize distance from the past, not as a deep level in terms of historical research but just because it’s not very useful to them. But what happens when they begin to recognize distance from a golden age, from a biblical past or biblical pasts, errors that they deemed to be timeless? That’s where I see the process of historicization as being most significant in powerful. What happens when those pasts are seen as distant? Well, that starts to suggest something more along the lines of modern historical consciousness which is that all pasts are distinct and all pasts are distant. So that’s what I’m tracking and what I think is… there are a number of forces at play here.

In the biblical realm, you have European biblical criticism that begins to emerge during the 18th century and 19th centuries and American biblical scholars start to incorporate some of that thought. Now, many Protestant Americans are very suspicious of what’s coming out of Europe and what’s coming out of Germany in particular. But at the very same time, I argue that they do incorporate at least the idea that the Bible should be understood through historical research, through contextual examination and interpretation. Even if many of them want to continue to unilaterally apply the messages that they gleaned from the Bible, nonetheless, they are saying yes, we need to understand that these were people living in a different time and a different place and we need to understand their context in order to properly understand the Bible. So they start to recognize that distance from the past which does begin to trouble some of their efforts to apply the Bible to issues like slavery.

Greg Kaster:

Like slavery, yeah. And of course history troubles, and that’s exactly right, I like that. Say more about how this historical distance impacted debates over slavery. Just pick up on what you just said and flash that out a bit for us. Because I find that absolutely fascinating, that part of your book.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Maybe the way to do that is to talk a little bit more about the constitutional issue. One of the things that happens here is for a figure, Theodore Parker’s central in the book, transcendentalist who is an abolitionist, who engages rather deeply with biblical criticism, but he will take the rather radical approach at least among these contemporaries of saying, hey, you know what, this happens in 1850. When you get the Missouri… excuse me, you get the compromise of 1850 and you get the Fugitive Slave Law and you get Daniel Webster, his 7th of March speech in which he defends it.

And very interestingly and notably, I think he defends it out of both the Bible and the constitution. And then what you get is you get abolitionists and transcendentalists like Theodore Parker who are railing against Webster and his speech, and immediately, jumping to his defense are a number of people, including Moses Stuart, who’s Congregationalist. He is probably the foremost biblical scholar in the United States during this period. He’s taught at and over for decades and he rises to Webster’s defense and makes a contextual argument essentially saying that yes, to cite the passage I mentioned earlier in relationship to Joseph Buckminster, “Yes, Paul did send back a fugitive slave, and so you Northerners or we Northerners, we need to abide by the Fugitive Slave Law.”

So it’s very interesting move in which he uses contextual argument to argue that, he uses a contextual argument and then conflates time or collapses time and saying we need to live like Paul did. But then what Theodore Parker does, which is I find so fascinating, is he says, “You know what, Moses Stuart, maybe you’re right. But if you’re right, then let’s just set aside the Bible.” He has this quote, he says “A very short and easy method with Professor Stuart and all those who defend a Bible or defend slavery out of the Bible. If the Bible defends slavery so much the worst for the Bible.”

And what I want to argue there is that Parker is using historical distance. He’s very insistent on the differences between the past and the present in part, because he holds to this idea of moral progress and religious progress, but he’ll say hey, the distance between now and then is so great and we’ve moved beyond that period. So you know what, if you want to use the Bible to defend slavery, I can just set aside the Bible and I can use historical distance to do so. Now what’s interesting here too is that Moses Stuart understands by this point that the most important argument is not the biblical argument, it’s actually the constitutional argument. That’s the most determinative argument to be made here.

And so he’ll turn to that text too and he’ll say, we have to abide by what the founders put in place through the constitution. And in fact, at a certain point, he says, “If Paul were among us, the abolitionists essentially would probably kill him.” So he collapses time there. But he does something similar with the founders. He says, “If John Jay were here and he saw William Jay, his descendant as an abolitionist, he would be so upset.

Greg Kaster:

It was a fugitive slave clause written into the constitution.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yes. So he wants to say again, he wants to provide this contextual argument to claim that both Christian founders and founders of the new republic, they were in support of sending back fugitive slaves. And so he wants to say because of that, that’s what we should do today. Well, once again, Parker’s willing to say, if the constitution won’t allow us to get rid of slavery, there’s a higher constitution that will. Again, he’s willing to say, look, there’s this historical distance between us and these pasts and we can move beyond them if we need to. Now it’s perhaps notable to note that Parker doesn’t ultimately side with Garrison, who’s willing to say-

Greg Kaster:

William Lloyd Garrison, that radical abolitionist.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, William Lloyd Garrison who burns a copy of the confrontation. Parker ultimately wants to use historical distance as a lens or tool to read the Bible and the constitution as an anti-slavery text. And this becomes important, Frederick Douglas does this too. He’s got this transition where he goes from Garrisonian anti-constitutionalist to an antislavery constitutionalist following figures like Garrett Smith but both of them, Parker and Douglas and I argue, Lincoln as well, though they do it in different ways, they both want to say, listen, the founders expected slavery to die out. And because of that expectation, we should move to end slavery. Now, Lincoln only does this of course later on during his presidency and during the civil war, but they use an argument, what I want to suggest is not only do they recognize historical distance, but they use that to then reinterpret the constitution as an anti-slavery text. So historical distance becomes not just something that people are aware of but it’s also something that is used to revise or reinterpret these sacred texts.

Greg Kaster:

There are many parts of your book I find so interesting. And finally, because I just love this period of history as my students know, but the way that it’s used as a tool by Parker and others to reinterpret the past, to give it that anti-slavery cast. And just the way in which… your book, it cuts in so many different ways and it seems to me, and this goes back to the opening in my intro, the quote from your prologue. I’m a little reluctant to talk about or ask you about how is it relevant? How is any of this relevant to our present, but my goodness, think of the debates over the constitution today. Is it changed originalists versus… so I think first of all, just recovering the term historical consciousness is important and interesting. But way beyond that is how it’s inflecting or accenting, whatever words we want to use.

These debates over slavery, it’s not just slavery is right, slavery is wrong, slavery is bad, slavery is good, it’s much more interesting, much more complicated than that. By the way, I did long ago under Mary Furner, Professor Furner, I did an MA, wasn’t a thesis really, but a paper at her suggestion, the historical consciousness of populace, and I just loved it. I loved it, I loved it. And like you, I just find reading about and analyzing ideas so rewarding, so fulfilling. Where is it on your own website, we have a quote from Emerson about what is all history, but the work of ideas?

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Anyway, the book is full of ideas about ideas, but I find… Were you thinking much about connections between then and now as you wrote the book?

Jordan T. Watkins:

Not initially, or at least if I was, it was at a very surface level, but I think in light of a number of events that have taken place especially over the past couple of years, I couldn’t help but think about the relationship between then and now. And I do have to be careful here because part of the thing I am saying is I’ve written a book about the awareness of historical distance.

Greg Kaster:

We have to be careful, exactly.

Jordan T. Watkins:

So I don’t want to say things are the same or something like that.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly.

Jordan T. Watkins:

But that’s not to say that there isn’t a connection between past and present. One thing that my book shows is that politics shaped historical thinking then, and it does-

Greg Kaster:

Still true.

Jordan T. Watkins:

… in the present, it’s still true. So when I think about things like the critical race theory and conversations about it which to me seem driven much more by fear than understanding or even an attempt to understand, I do think that there is something here about how we think about the relationship between past and present. And I think part of the fear stems from not being willing perhaps to face the truth about our past or at least to face those portions of our past that we’re fearful about. We want to tie ourselves to the good in history. We want to see ourselves reflected in the mirror of the past, but we refuse to look at the bad. And this is not true of all of us, I’m speaking very broadly, but I think-

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:57:35]

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah, and I think in part, it’s because looking at the bad or the hard or the difficult requires a recognition of how many of us have benefited from both the good and the bad.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right. I try to get students, I completely agree with you. And I try to get students, we do this in our own lives. Most of us certainly do plenty of whitewashing I’m sure as I look back on my life or avoidance, denial, all of the above. I just think, and you’ve anticipated a comment I was going to make earlier, but an irony for me is the book, it’s about historical distancing. But the very first sentences in your prologue, not counting the acknowledgements, are about the present. And I think what you’re getting at is exactly right, it’s not an either or, you can have that historical distancing, that historical consciousness. And part of that is understanding how the past is different than the present, but also how as you’re saying in the piece from the prologue I read the start of the prologue, about how the past also informs the present in some ways.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

And there’s no way to understand the present without understanding that.

Jordan T. Watkins:

This goes to that James Baldwin quote that I use, I actually can’t remember if I’ve used in the prologue or the epilogue, but where he said, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways and history is literally present in all that we do.” I suppose one of the reasons that I began with Black Lives Matter is one, that phrase speaks what I deem an essential truth, but one that actions and conditions have challenged and continue to challenge. So I think a full understanding of that phrase depends upon a really clear eyed view of past actions and conditions. And you mentioned this idea that we ourselves whitewash our own histories, and I think there’s something to say about comparing memory to history. They’re not entirely analogous-

Greg Kaster:

They’re not the same.

Jordan T. Watkins:

… and that breaks down at some point, but it’s interesting to note that sometimes, we suppress traumatic memories because they’re too painful or maybe we just don’t want to own up to what we’ve done or who we are. But we as individuals do have to live with that suppression. But when it comes to our national past, it’s easier to ignore that in part, because at least we don’t have to live with that suppression and as direct a way, or maybe another way to say, it’s someone else has had to pay the cost of that ignorance.

Greg Kaster:

That’s what I was… exactly. I think George Floyd here in Minneapolis, there’s an example of that, someone else. The other thing that’s occurring to me here is how many times have we heard people, especially when speaking about slavery, well, that’s behind us? And in a way, okay, there’s historical distancing, good. But it’s historical distancing that is missing the ways in which the past informs the present.

Jordan T. Watkins:

It’s a very surface level historical distancing. It’s not a deep understanding of… it’s not a sense of historical distance that emerges from deep historical understanding.

Greg Kaster:

That’s exactly right. And there’s no way to understand what happened here in Minneapolis or in so many other instances without understanding not just the recent past, but the distance till you start working distant past-

Jordan T. Watkins:

The distant past, the linkages between that distant past and our present.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. I love that word you use in the passage I read from your prologue, black enslavement and its after lives, plural, incredibly important. We’re winding down here on the clock and boy, I could keep going. I love the material, it’s absolutely fascinating and incredibly well. I just want to touch on something so tragic that impacted you. I don’t know, I think it may have occurred, you can correct me while you were working on this project, because that was the tragic death by suicide of your adopted sister, Micah Shea. Did that happen as you were working on the book?

Jordan T. Watkins:

It did, yeah. So it’s two thousand-

Greg Kaster:

The reason I bring it up is because I came across an essay you wrote, I find it a beautiful essay, actually a bit powerful essay where you’re writing about you use her tragic death, that loss to write about distance in your own life from her but also then related to Smith and his death, if you don’t mind talking a little bit about that.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Sure, sure. Micah took her life, this was in January of 2012. It’s actually a couple of weeks before I read about this a little bit and the acknowledgements, but this was a couple of weeks before my qualifying exams. And at the moment, I just thought, I don’t know if I’m going back to school, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. And at the time, I wasn’t thinking about, I didn’t immediately jump into a scholarly analytic mode where I was thinking, oh okay, I’m distant from my sister now and I’m writing about historical distance. It was only later that I started to think about that a little bit more of that profound loss.

In some ways, I’d say I’ve never before or since felt that kind of distance before. Just having someone have been so present in my life and then to have them be so radically and utterly absent. But that did lead me to think and has lead led me to think over the years about that distance and how it maybe does relate to some of the things I’ve been writing about in terms of historical distance but also how it relates to the last couple of years and social distance and social distancing. In that piece, I read a little bit about… so I worked at the Joseph Smith papers for a short time and I worked on one of the published, oh, I don’t know, maybe 20 volumes now of his papers.

And I worked on one of the volumes which covered just the summer of 1842. And during that period, he’s faced with some isolation and Parker is actually hiding from authorities who are trying to extradite him to Missouri. And so he goes into hiding and you can tell, Joseph Smith is quite a social person, maybe likes to be around people and with people. So being alone is quite hard on him and you can tell it makes him really reflective and pensive, and while he’s in hiding, he writes about a practice among Latter-day Saints which is baptism for the dead, this idea that if you’re a member of the church and you’ve had loved ones who were not members of the church and they’ve passed, that you could go and be baptized in their behalf and they could in an afterlife state, they could make the choice whether or not to accept that baptism on their behalf.

And Joseph is writing about these things while he’s in isolation and I make this point to my students, I tell them I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he’s writing about how to secure relationships in an afterlife scenario, precisely at the moment that those relationships are under threat for him. So, that connection between the very temporal realities of life and for a religious person, what the afterlife might look like, I see those things as very much related in Joseph Smith’s teachings. And then for me, Micah’s absence or distance of course is incredibly challenging and difficult, hardest thing I’ve dealt with in my life.

Greg Kaster:

I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry, I just can’t imagine the loss.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Well, thank you, Greg. But I guess I would also say that as difficult as it is, because I am a religious person, somebody, Douglas Davies who’s done some studies on Latter-day Saints, he found these surveys, I don’t know if he conducted them himself, but he said Latter-day Saints seem to be the people who are least afraid of death because there’s just this profound belief in afterlife and one way to say it is it’s very material. Joseph Smith teaches that the same sociality which exists here will exist in the afterlife. So, that is to say that as hard as Micah’s passing has been, was and is and will continue to be, it’s also been generative in a way just in terms of me trying to understand more about her, me contemplating my relationship with her.

This does for me also lead to thoughts about reunion but also I think maybe more related to what my book’s about and to our conversation here, it has led me to for example dig into her journals. She wrote some journals and it’s led me to try and understand her more. And I think for me, history is many things and I think the study of history can do many things, but one of the things I think it probably should always do is ask us to imagine the experiences of others. And so in pretty profound ways, Micah’s death has done that for me, led me to think about her own experience but also perhaps the experience of other people who may struggle with similar difficulties. So it’s been yes, incredibly hard but I also think generative and important, and I think helpful ways for me.

Greg Kaster:

And we’ve come full circle, you’re a young kid and you’re essentially doing history to understand your faith tradition. And now, I don’t know if you still are to some extent now you’ve read about this in that wonderful essay, doing historical research into Micah really, right?

Jordan T. Watkins:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And I think what you just said is so important and maybe we’ll end there because it’s a profound point, try to get it across to our students, all of us do. I hope most of us, not all of us who teach history. Yeah, you have to use your imagination and try to understand other people who are in the past. And also, I remember it may have been Eileen Crowder telling my wife, Kate this, but… or maybe Eileen Crowder the historian, Eileen Crowder wrote about also people we don’t like. Think slaveholders, think William Lloyd Garrison, one of my heroes, I’m sure he wouldn’t have had a beer anyway but he’d be a pain and be around in some ways as he was.

But I think that’s an incredibly important point and I’m glad that there’s been some generative stuff to come out of that terrible tragedy. As I’ve said, I could go on and on with you, I just love talking to other historians and I love talking about this antebellum history with you. There’s just so much that we have to do more. We’re going to have to bring you out to Gustavus too to give a talk, that’s for sure, at some point. So it was so much fun to be in that seminar with you and the others, we had a really good group, Tony, I can’t believe it was [crosstalk 01:11:05]. Yeah, we were lucky. The two Pauls and DC, it was great. Great to reconnect. But what are you teaching? How many courses are you teaching this semester?

Jordan T. Watkins:

I’m teaching four courses.

Greg Kaster:

Wow, that’s a lot.

Jordan T. Watkins:

But it’s going well.

Greg Kaster:

All good. All right, good luck with that. The book will be all well-reviewed, I’m sure reviews are starting to come out and it’s super highly recommended to people. I have it in hardcover but I assume it’s going to come out in paperback at some point, I imagine.

Jordan T. Watkins:

It will eventually.

Greg Kaster:

Buy it, read it, it’s truly, truly excellent. Again, Slavery and Sacred Texts: The Bible, the Constitution and Historical Consciousness in Antebellum America. You’re welcome and there’s something to be said for historical writing that is accessible to a general audience and that’s true of your book. So take good care, Jordan.

Jordan T. Watkins:

You too.

Greg Kaster:

Have a good semester. Thank you, we’ll stay in touch.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Okay, thanks Greg.

Greg Kaster:

This was fun, thanks a lot. Bye-Bye.

Jordan T. Watkins:

Bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate, Will Clark, class of ’20 who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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