The Wayfarer

September 1, 2015
Professor Catherine Brekus helps students forge pathways to knowledge

In 1871, Thomas Nast drew an editorial cartoon about Catholic immigration to the United States. Entitled "The American River Ganges," it depicts bishops as crocodiles emerging from the ocean on all fours, scales on their backs and mitres transformed into gaping jaws. A lone Protestant minister steps forth to confront them, arms spread to protect scores of terrified children on the American shore.

It’s easy to look at the cartoon today and ask how anyone could have been bigoted enough to draw it—much less get it published in Harper’s Weekly. It’s precisely this type of "moral superiority," however, that Professor Catherine Brekus wants the students in her classes to overcome.

"When we look at a cartoon like this, we feel the pastness of the past and the way things have changed," she says. "But what are our prejudices now? What will people say about us in 100 years? That we demonized American Muslims or didn’t pay more attention to climate change? An honest encounter with the past ought to make us more humble about the present."

Brekus’s ability to bring the past alive for students in a way that not only informs them but also helps them to confront their own biases earned her the 2015 HDS Outstanding Teacher Award. The honor came as something of a shock to the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America, who only joined the School’s faculty in 2014, after more than 20 years at the University of Chicago.

"This was not something I expected," she says. "The award is a reflection of the kindness and generosity of my students, who were eager to learn and to welcome me to the community."

"All of the questions I was asking about how people had made sense of their experience, it was as if religion became the master key to answer them all."

It might be more appropriate to say "welcome back" to the Harvard community. Brekus received her undergraduate degree in history and literature from Harvard College in 1985. She hadn’t yet discovered her interest in the study of religion, though, and never took a course at the Divinity School. After two years teaching at Milton Academy, an elite Boston-area prep school, she entered the PhD program in American studies at Yale. During her first year there, she took a course on Puritanism with Professor Harry Stout, almost as a lark. Brekus says that the course changed her life—and the direction of her scholarship.

"All of the questions I was asking about how people had made sense of their experience, it was as if religion became the master key to answer them all," she says. "I had gone to Yale to do American women’s history, but ended up writing a dissertation on female preaching. That one course changed my approach completely."

Hired out of graduate school by the University of Chicago, Brekus soon caught the attention of colleagues and scholars with her research. Her book Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 won the Brewer Prize from the American Society of Church History for its exploration of the rise of female preaching during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelicalism in Early America, which argued that the evangelical movement emerged in dialogue with the Enlightenment, earned the Aldersgate Prize from Indiana Wesleyan University and the Outler Prize from the American Society of Church History. Brekus’s other honors include a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, a Henry Luce III Faculty Fellowship in Theology, and a Pew Faculty Fellowship in Religion and American History.

"One of the questions that drives my research has always been ’How and why do things change?’" she says. "In my classes, I hope that students become more aware of the choices that led to the place that we are now." "All of the questions I was asking about how people had made sense of their experience, it was as if religion became the master key to answer them all." Students in Brekus’s classroom need to stay aware—and stay prepared. Her classes are interactive and discussion based, with very little lecture.

Students work together in required "collaborative learning groups" where they critique and discuss each other’s written work. Didn’t do the reading? There’s no place to hide. "If you try to sit in the back corner, I’m going to make you come up to the table," she says. "Everybody sits where they can all see each other. I always tell them, ‘If you want to hide, the best place to sit is right next to me, because it’s harder to see you.’"

In the 2014–15 academic year, Brekus taught "Cities on a Hill," a course that explored the way that religion interacts with American nationalism, and "Women, Gender and Religion in Colonial North America and the United States," which looks at the way that faith is shaped by gender. In all of her classes, she presents diverse source materials to connect with students who learn in different ways.

"I love texts, and I learn through reading," she says. "Some people learn better through images and music. So we’ll look at a famous painting that depicts the notion of manifest destiny, or listen to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," or watch the film Guadalcanal Diary. The idea is to create as many different paths to learning as possible."

Brekus also tries to connect with students one on one. Each student is required to come to office hours at least once during the semester, not for a quiz or to discuss an assignment, but because "I want to get to know their story." Brekus says she’s a better teacher when she knows who’s in her classroom. Moreover, interactions with HDS’s students are one of the perks of being here.

"The first week I was here, a woman named Sylvia came to meet me," she remembers. "She was so eloquent. She wanted to get a doctorate, but then took a course on prison ministry, and it changed her life. Now it’s her vocation. Then there’s the ex-chairman of an oil company, or the student who was a teacher in the Marshall Islands. I have met some really remarkable men and women."

HDS students, who bestow the annual Outstanding Teacher Award, clearly think as much of Brekus as she does of them. And while most won’t follow her into academia, Brekus says that her students nonetheless have a critical impact on her award-winning scholarship.

"It’s wonderful to have students who are personally engaged in religious questions," she says. "It’s a very powerful reminder that religion is not some abstraction; it’s a very potent reality that shapes the way people live."