Catherine Brekus, Distinguished American Religious Historian, to Join HDS

March 10, 2014
Catherine Brekus, Distinguished American Religious Historian, to Join HDS
Catherine Brekus

Renowned scholar of North American religious history Catherine Brekus has been named the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School, effective July 1, 2014.

Brekus is currently Professor in Religions in America and the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She also serves as an Associate Member of the University of Chicago's Department of History and is affiliated with the school's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.  

"I am delighted to join the faculty at HDS," remarked Brekus. "So many things impress me about the Divinity School: its outstanding faculty, its lively community life, its commitment to diversity, and its dedication to educating ministers, scholars, and the larger public.

"Given my work on women's history, I'm especially excited to be part of the conversations taking place in the Women's Studies in Religion Program. HDS will be a tremendously vibrant place to live out my vocation as a teacher and a scholar. I'm looking forward to sharing my interest in American religion with faculty and students at HDS and across the University."

Brekus graduated from Harvard University with a BA in the history and literature of England and America, and she holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University.

Her research has focused largely, but not exclusively, on women in emerging evangelical movements from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. She is widely regarded as a pioneer and innovator in the writing of American religious history.

The groundbreaking volume she edited, titled The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past (2007), is an example of the ways that the field of gender studies and women's history has been affecting the field of American religious history. With W. Clark Gilpin, she co-edited American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity (2011), which explores the multiple forms of Christian expression in the United States. Her prize-winning first book, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845, established her reputation as one of the most influential historians of American religion in the country.

Her most recent book is Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013), which uses an eighteenth-century woman's extensive diaries and letters to explore the rise of the evangelical movement. The book extends Brekus's project of exploring the impact of women’s history on narratives of American religion into discussions of the enlightenment, evangelicalism, economics, the American Revolution, slavery, and family life.

"I am thrilled to welcome Catherine Brekus to the Warren Chair in the History of Religion in America,' said HDS Dean David N. Hempton. "A much acclaimed and prize-winning historian, Professor Brekus has explored how religious beliefs and conflicts have shaped American understandings of public and private life, for example in gender, race, childrearing styles, and national identity. 

"She has particular expertise in gender studies and the ways in which women's history has reshaped the field of American religious history. Professor Brekus is a distinguished scholar, a highly regarded teacher, and an experienced mentor of doctoral students. Her arrival at HDS will augment our existing strengths in the field of American religious history and make Harvard one of the prime locations in the country for the study of American religion."

Brekus is the recipient of a remarkable collection of notable awards, including a Henry Luce III Faculty Fellowship in Theology and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. She won the Jane Dempsey Douglass Prize for the best essay on women and religion from the American Society of Church History. She also won the Brewer Prize for the best first book on the history of Christianity.

Sarah Osborn's World is the winner of: the 2013 Aldersgate Prize given by John Wesley Honors College, Indiana Wesleyan University; an Honorable Mention by the 2013 New England Book Festival in the General Non-Fiction category; and an Honorable Mention by the 2013 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence in the Theology & Religious Studies category.

Among her research interests are how religious beliefs and conflicts have shaped American understandings of public and private life, and how American culture has influenced popular understandings of religion.

In 2013, she spearheaded the creation of a new doctoral field of study at the University of Chicago Divinity School, "Religions in America," which is designed to foster an interdisciplinary conversation about American religion. Among the 20 different courses she has offered at Chicago are courses on American Catholicism, slavery and race, the Enlightenment, and children and religion.

"This appointment brings together two of the historic strengths of Harvard Divinity School: American religious history and women's studies," said Ann Braude, Senior Lecturer on American Religious History and director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program. "With Sarah Osborn's World, Catherine Brekus has shown just how tightly intertwined the two fields are, and how much we can learn from viewing them together."

—by Jonathan Beasley