Not long after graduating from college, I found myself editing Christian History magazine, a richly illustrated quarterly where most of the contributing writers were academics but most of the readers were not. Honestly, I had more in common with our readers than with our authors. On my way to a B.A. in English literature, I had taken one class in Christian thought, one in Western civ, and zero in church history. I also had basically no exposure to Christian traditions other than evangelical Protestantism.
Finitude, contingency, transience. These three linked words signal basic elements of what it is to be a human—and especially to be a historian. David Tracy, noted theologian and next door study-neighbor, taught me this connection, and I’ve let it color my life and scholarly preoccupations.
Sidney E. Mead died this summer at age 94. With Sidney Ahlstrom he dominated the study of American religious history a generation or two ago. When Mead, along with Jerald Brauer, invited me to study at the University of Chicago, I was 26 years old and had not spent an hour on what became my own teaching field for 35 years, American religion.