John Fea (Ph.D, Stony Brook University, 1999) is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Fea has written extensively for both scholarly and popular audiences. He spoke on the Grace College (Winona Lake, Ind.) campus last week and this is his blogpost recalling that experience:
I had a great day today at Grace College, a Christian college in beautiful Winona Lake, Indiana. Thanks to Jared Burkholder, a history professor and director of the college’s Center for Faith and Learning, for the invitation.
This morning I spoke during the college chapel service. My message was entitled “Christian America and the Kingdom of God.” I tried to get the students to reflect more deeply about the relationship between their Christian faith and their identity as citizens of the United States.
I was asked to speak in chapel to commemorate Constitution Day, but I soon learned that this was not the only commemoration happening on the Grace campus today. One year ago two Grace students were crushed by a tree as they sat on a hammock along the banks of Winona Lake. One of them, a freshman volleyball star, was killed instantly. The other student was paralyzed from the ears down. The college put together a video to honor the students and the president of the college offered some reflections on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. As an outsider I was deeply moved by the way that this academic community came together to call upon God during a time of collective grieving. I am not sure if anyone remembered what I had to say today, but that is just fine. There was something much deeper, much more significant, going on in the auditorium this morning.
After chapel I ate lunch with Jared, Mark Norris (a former colleague from Messiah College who is now an administrator at the college), and a group of Grace history majors. Jared is using Confessing History in his senior capstone history course so we talked a lot about those essays. It was good to get some student feedback on the text. They particularly liked Beth Barton Schweiger’s essay, “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History.” Our conversation then turned to the discipline of historical thinking and the intellectual virtues that the study of the past can cultivate in our lives.
I spent part of the afternoon touring the Reneker Museum. Dr. Steven Grill, the museum’s enthusiastic curator, showed me the room where, in 1949, Billy Graham and several evangelical leaders prayed through the night seeking God’s guidance for the launch of Graham’s worldwide evangelistic ministry. The museum tells the story of Winona Lake, exploring its years as a Chautauqua site that drew 250,000 people every summer in the late 19th and early 20th century. Winona Lake was the home of Billy Sunday, one of the most popular men in America at the turn of the century. It was also a vacation destination for William Jennings Bryan, H.J. Heinz, John Philip Sousa, Samuel Gompers, Charles Fairbanks, and Booker T. Washington. All of them either spoke or performed on the grounds. And there were many others. The place even had a cyclorama!
I had a nice dinner with a group of Grace College faculty at the Boathouse Restaurant, a great little restaurant overlooking Winona Lake. Our conversation focused on the history of American evangelicalism, dispensational theology, and the potential for a more robust liberal arts emphasis at Grace.
We then headed back to campus for my evening lecture on Was America Founded as a Christian Nation. There were about 75 people in attendance, including Grace students, professors, members of the community, and a group of students and faculty from nearby Bethel College. I also met a local Presbyterian pastor who has read The Way of Improvement Leads Home and Confessing History.
I could not help but feel a sense of vibrancy and enthusiasm among the people at Grace, especially the students. It was fun to think about my lecture in the context of Winona’s history of promoting Christian faith and the intellectual life. I know that there are many faculty at Grace College who are trying to reconnect with that local heritage. I wish them well.