Catherine A. Brekus ’85 is a professor at Harvard Divinity School. She studies religion in America with a special emphasis in women’s religious history.
Catherine A. Brekus ’85 is a professor at Harvard Divinity School. She studies religion in America with a special emphasis in women’s religious history. By Frank S. Zhou

Fifteen Questions: Catherine Brekus on Historical Women, Christian Nationalism, and Religious Freedom

Divinity School professor Catherine A. Brekus ’85 sat down with Fifteen Minutes to talk about women’s history and religion. “For me, religion became a tool for asking questions about how women had made sense of their lives, and how they had made meaning,” she says.
By Jem K. Williams

Catherine A. Brekus ’85 is a professor at Harvard Divinity School. She studies religion in America with a special emphasis in women’s religious history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: What was your experience as an undergrad at Harvard?

CAB: So I was class of ’85 and I had a very positive experience here, mostly because I had the really good fortune to be placed with three women my first year — we were in Straus — who became lifelong friends.

All that said, Harvard has changed so much for the better since I was a student here. The whole time that I was here, I had only two courses with women professors.

FM: Do you feel like that ratio has improved a good bit?

CAB: It has improved dramatically. I would say it’s still not 50/50.

I feel like it’s affected the whole university. I feel as if there’s a much more welcoming ethos for students, or maybe I should say, I hope that’s true.

FM: How did you first get into studying religion in America?

CAB: This didn't happen until after college.

I knew by the time that I left Harvard that I was really interested in women’s history. And I thought I might want to go to graduate school, but I wasn’t positive. And so I taught at a prep school south of Boston for two years called Milton Academy and applied to doctoral programs in history and American Studies.

I ended up going to Yale’s American Studies program to do women’s history. And in my very first semester at Yale, I took a course on puritanism of all things, and became absolutely fascinated by religion and decided that my questions about women’s lives in the past would really benefit from bringing a religious lens.

FM: What were some of those questions?

CAB: So I was really interested in what historians have called social history.

For me, religion became a tool for asking questions about how women had made sense of their lives, and how they had made meaning. So really humanistic questions about what it means to be a person, what it means to be human, what makes a good life.

FM: When did you know you wanted to go into academia?

CAB: That was a slow process. I started thinking that might be the case when I was here at Harvard. But when I looked around, all the professors were male, and I wasn’t sure. I mean I guess I had impostor syndrome — like everybody does.

I had a conversation with a mentor that I’m sure he would regret now.

But a mentor who’s an advanced graduate student, where when I said to him, ‘I’m thinking I might want to get a Ph.D.’ He said, ‘You’re too nice to get a Ph.D.’ So that was kind of the ethos, like you had to be really tough, and it was very competitive and gendered male.

So I joke now with my students all the time, and I’d say it turns out, I really wasn’t very nice at all because not only did I get a Ph.D., but I’m back at Harvard, which I never would have imagined.

But I just realized more and more that I loved reading, I loved writing, I loved spending time in the library, just really getting to explore ideas and think about things. And that increasingly was pulling me in the direction of maybe I wanted to get a Ph.D.

FM: You’ve talked about this concept of religious nationalism, and the idea of “American chosenness,” which suggests that America is an exceptional nation because of its connection to Christianity. What caused this sentiment to emerge and what perpetuates it to this day?

CAB: I’m interested in figuring out how it is that the United States, for some people, has taken on a kind of transcendent sacred significance. That the United States is not just a country, but that it is — and here I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson, this idea is very old — the world’s best hope. And it turns out that this idea has roots that extend even deeper than the founding of the nation back into the early settlement of the British colonies. And even deeper than that the Protestant Reformation where Protestants were imagining themselves as being the vanguard of the one true church.

Before the United States was founded, Puritans described Massachusetts Bay where we are now as being a city on a hill, that would be a model or a beacon to the rest of the world.

And you can see that idea of persisting from the revolution all the way until now. It has been at the root of ideas like manifest destiny — that the United States was supposed to continue to spread westward, in this kind of providential way. It has definitely justified imperialism and xenophobia.

It had another side too, which is quite interesting, where a number of reformers in the United States, people arguing for women’s rights, people arguing against slavery, people arguing for greater rights for workers, they have often criticized the nation on the grounds that the United States does have a special destiny, and we’re not living up to it.

FM: With the concept of Christian nationalism, being so malleable as to serve, either perpetuating things like slavery, or strict gender roles, but also being a tool of abolitionists, how do we reconcile these two opposing ideas in one concept?

CAB: I think it’s a deeper question about, for Christian nationalism, the varieties of Christianity. So the term Christianity is a singular term, but what is contained within Christianity is a vast number of people who disagree about what it means or should mean to be a Christian. So in some ways, the arguments over the identity of the nation for Christian nationalists are also arguments about, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”

FM: You’re currently co authoring a biography on Sarah Edwards. Who is Sarah Edwards and what made you want to write about her?

CAB: So Sarah Edwards is the wife of a famous 18th century theologian named Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards is still revered and much cited by Evangelical Christians today.

And a few years ago, there was a woman who can trace her ancestry all the way back to the Edwards family, who got in contact with the Jonathan Edwards project at Yale, which has been digitizing Edwards’ vast manuscripts.

And so apparently when people went to meet her in New Jersey at her house, they said that when they walked into her living room, there were manuscripts everywhere.

Among all of these manuscripts was a manuscript in Jonathan Edwards’ handwriting. That said, “Mrs. Edwards’ Experiences.” It is an account that either he copied from an account that Sara herself wrote, or that he asked her to dictate to him of a religious experience that she had that lasted for about 10 days.

So this document came to my attention through my former doctoral advisor, Harry Stout at Yale and the Director of the Edwards project Ken Minkema, and we were all just so fascinated by it, that we ended up publishing an article about it.

When we were finishing up the article, I said half in jest, “That was really fun. We should write a book.” So now we are on chapter seven of a nine-chapter book that is a cultural biography of Sarah Edwards, that uses her experiences to reflect on understandings of the body, and gender and religion in the 18th century, particularly among Evangelicals.

FM: According to an article published in Harvard Magazine, you specialize “in hearing the voices of America’s early female religious leaders nearly lost to history.” How do you find and recover stories nearly lost in their historical record?

CAB: I think people don’t realize how much material there actually is about women. Or they haven’t thought about creative ways of trying to resurface voices. That has definitely changed. I got my degree in 1993, and there’s really been an explosion of women’s history and gender history over the past 30 years. So I’m really only one of a large number of scholars who have gone into archives, into the stacks of places like Widener looking for the voices of forgotten women.

This, of course, is a very politicized topic right now in the nation as a whole: whose history gets told whose history is important.

FM: On the topic of recovering lost voices in the historical record, what role do you believe fictionalized narratives should play in replacing voices that aren’t as well documented?

CAB: I love historical fiction, I will confess.

Some of it is better than others. I think it takes a lot of study to be able to really appreciate the nuances of historical voices. I think there has been a desire to move toward fictional representations, especially in places where the records are really thin.

I appreciate novelists who are trying to recover stories that we really can’t recover historically.

It’s important if you’re a historian to make clear, where you can really draw from records and where you can really substantiate what you’re saying and where you are creatively reimagining the past.

FM: On religion and politics, there’s been a lot of recent discussion about religious freedom with the recent Supreme Court rulings on a business owner’s right to refuse service to an LGBTQ+ individual on the grounds of religious freedom. What do you think of these cases and their implications for the intersections of religious and individual freedoms?

CAB: I’m not sure I can fully answer that question.

Maybe, if I can step back from the question, and to say, I think what’s driving a lot of these cases about religious freedom is a sense among many conservative Christians, that the United States is no longer a Christian nation. I want to make it clear that the United States has never been a Christian nation, constitutionally. We were founded on the principle of religious freedom. But it is true that for much of American history, Christians, particularly Protestant Christians have dominated the landscape.

That is rapidly changing. And so these religious freedom cases, I think, are coming from Christians who feel as if they no longer have the power that they once had. And so when they’re talking about religious freedom, they’re often talking about their own religious power.

FM: So on that same thread of all American presidents having been or having publicly been thought to have been Christian, and the majority of politicians as well, what are the dangers of having political power be dominated by one religious group, even though it’s not constitutionally written?

CAB: I think that the founders were quite clear that there would be no religious test for federal office. And I think that the fact that we have had really all Protestant presidents with two Catholics — Joe Biden is the second Catholic — has meant that it has been harder for other religious groups to feel fully included, and to feel as if their voices are heard.

So for people who are not Christian, I think they’re very aware that this nation remains highly influenced by Protestantism. So it’s hard to imagine right now, having a president who isn’t affiliated with Christianity, but I think it will be a very positive thing for the country when it happens.

FM: Do you think to diversify religious representation, it would be more worthwhile to push for a broader array of religious voices in government, or a harder separation of church and state?

CAB: I think it’s really important for people to feel as if their voices are heard.

I think that we would benefit from a greater variety of religious voices and non-religious voices in political positions. I also think it’s really important for ordinary people to feel as if they are not forbidden from expressing their religious views in public.

FM: What is one female historical figure that you admire and why?

CAB: So I wrote a book called Sarah Osborne’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America.

Sarah Osborne was a woman who was born in England and lived in Newport, Rhode Island. She was a poor woman who suffered a number of tragedies in her life. I really admired her determination to always see the goodness in life.

She was a Calvinist Christian, which meant that she believed that everything in the world happened for a reason and everything was providential. And so she suffered many things. But often, she wrote about her determination, not to despair, and not to give up hope.

FM: As an alumnus of both Harvard and Yale, who do you root for at Harvard-Yale Football games?

CAB: This is an easy one. I don’t go to Harvard-Yale football games. But if I were going to root, of course I would root for Harvard.

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