By Bill Leonard
Born in Iowa in 1923, he completed the B.A. at Baylor University in 1947 and the Ph.D. at Brown in 1951. His dissertation, The Great Awakening in New England, 1741-1742, was published in 1957, the first of a massive corpus of scholarly books and articles that Gaustad produced during his outstanding academic career.
A lifelong Baptist, Ed held teaching positions at Shorter College (Georgia) and the University of the Redlands (California), two Baptist-related schools. In 1965 he joined the history faculty of the University of California, Riverside, retiring in 1989.
This May, the National Association of Baptist Professors will honor Gaustad’s life and work with a Festschrift, a collection of essays written in his honor, each addressing issues that parallel Gaustad’s own longtime interests. Articles examine the Shoah (Holocaust) and the Maafa (slave trade); religious liberty and American Muslims; the impact of race on Southern Baptist mission strategy; early Baptist concepts of conscience; Madison’s fight for the First Amendment; the rise of the new Atheism; and insights for spirituality and interfaith dialogue from Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
The author of some 50 books, Gaustad focused extensively on the colonial period, with continuing attention to religious liberty, pluralism and dissent. He wrote several works on Roger Williams, the quintessential American dissenter, as well as a commentary on the Last Will and Testimony of Obadiah Holmes, a much persecuted New England Baptist preacher.
Exiled by Massachusetts Puritans, Williams helped make Rhode Island an early center of religious pluralism. For Gaustad, Williams continued to teach Americans that: “Religion has the power to persuade, never the power to compel. Government does have the power to compel, but that government is wisest and best which offers to liberty of conscience the widest possible range.”
Obadiah Holmes was arrested and flogged by the godly representatives of the Massachusetts Puritan Establishment for his heretical Baptist views. Yet Gaustad observed that it was only from this obscure preacher that:
“[W]e learn in revealing detail about the earliest Baptists in America — their feeling, believing, preaching, quarreling, disciplining, and caring. In Holmes one discovers more about conversion and being born again, more about biblical understanding and evangelical pietism, more about the personal credo and commitment of America’s first Baptists than from any other single source. And along the way one comes to know this simple and uneducated man, whose impact nevertheless endures….”
Ed Gaustad’s own Baptist identity was at the heart of his exploration of dissent in America and impacted his work as both analyst of and advocate for religious liberty and pluralism then and now. In an essay published in In the Great Tradition (1982), Gaustad warned that American Protestantism increasingly reflected “Voluntarism without vocation,” a concern for continued cultural privilege but with a diminishing sense of identity.
He wrote that for the religious right the “American past is idealized into a Christian hegemony that never was; the American future is envisioned in terms of a Christian establishment that cannot constitutionally be,” while the religious left, “no longer calling the tune and no longer bolstered by abundant coffers and crowded pews, retreats from the larger and costlier commitments.”
He suggested that for many contemporary religious institutions: “Keeping the ecclesiastical ship afloat is the issue; taking it out of the harbor into deeper waters is not.”
Gaustad insisted that in American society a prophetic witness is often found, not in the churches with the strongest numbers or greatest cultural advantage, but in those “on the fringes, in the subcultures.” In words as telling now as they were 30 years ago he concluded:
“Once the chief arbiter between good and evil, between the heartless and the generous, the churches have found themselves bystanders in many of society’s critical struggles. Why not, with resources 50 times greater than those of the National Rifle Association, again speak with a force that can be decisive in a culture’s direction and a culture’s quality…? Not laid back, not defeatist, not dug in behind stout theological or sociological walls, not mindless or heartless — but open, active, committed enthusiastic, compelled.”
Edwin Scott Gaustad was teacher, scholar and historian extraordinaire. He was also decidedly Baptist, prophetic and dissenting when necessary.