A Narrative of the Historical Process

It’s been a long road, but I just published my dissertation in book form. Considering all that’s gone into this, it’s rewarding to see the end product. It has also given me cause to reflect on the process behind this moderate-sized dissertation-turned-book. In what follows I would like to give the (very short) narrative of the six and a half years that has led to this academic, historical monograph. I think there is value in showing what the historical process looked like. It wasn’t something that I spent a few hours on each week for a couple months. It was immersive for many years. The work of doing this kind of history (academic) is difficult, but very rewarding. This post is a short narrative of some of that process. It is meant for those who might be considering this kind of study or for those who are simply interested in the behind-the-scenes work. Of course, not all histories will follow this exact process, but this is what went into mine.

Before I begin I should note that my focus here is solely on the historical academic process. Much more than what I will say below has gone into this project. That would be the personal cost that I, and many others, have invested. Chief among those who have sacrificed are my wife and kids. That side of things is another tale to tell, but one I do not intend to tell at this time or in this venue.

To narrate the academic process I am going to first look at what the dissertation process looked like for me before moving on to the publishing process.

The Dissertation

When I began my doctoral work I did not have a topic nailed down. I knew I wanted to write on my own theological heritage and I knew I had interest in the nineteenth century. One of my profs, Doug Sweeney (who became my primary advisor), advised that I take a look at American Baptists because they had not received much attention in this time period. That prod led me to begin outlining the major Baptist thinkers from the North. I chose the North because it is my more direct heritage. What I found really surprised me. There were very few works that gave sustained attention to this time and area. I explored the options and came up with a basic question: what was the character of nineteenth-century Northern Baptist theology? There were many ways to try and explore an answer, but I kept coming back to Alvah Hovey because his life (1820–1903) and his academic career (1849–1903) span very important times, he was incredibly influential, and he left behind mountains of materials. I ran these ideas past the three church history profs at TEDS (Doug Sweeney, John Woodbridge, and Scott Manetsch) and received encouragement that I was on to something. I was excited that I had a topic, but the reality was that I was far from a proposal. This was the Fall of 2014.

Once I knew I wanted to write on Hovey I began working on the idea in earnest. This included reading as widely as I could into Baptist history in the nineteenth century, American religious history in the nineteenth century, theology in the nineteenth century in general, and diving into Hovey’s substantial corpus. I reached out to a couple scholars who at least knew about Hovey and interacted with them, I wrote class papers on various aspects of Hovey’s thought, and I got myself started in archival research. When I began working on the Hovey papers I connected with the library that held them (Andover Newton Theological Seminary, in Boston). Their archival librarian (Diana Yount) was incredibly gracious and sent me several rolls of microfilm to work through (which were only Hovey’s correspondence) and she warned me that the Hovey papers were “daunting” (12 linear feet of archival space is a lot to work through). I read and read and read. I took notes and asked questions about everything I was reading. I spent hours and hours at the microfilm reader discovering new pieces to the puzzle. I spent days and weeks looking at old (from the 1800s) newspapers and magazine. I sat down with my advisors often and threw ideas around. I talked to classmates about what I was trying to get my mind around. I wrote and delivered papers on Hovey in about 5 different classes. I still have several Moleskine notebooks filled with notes from all of these things. This was the slow work of history. I enjoyed it all, but you also have to try and build something with all this.

I took to the task with a lot of energy because I was excited to uncover something new and contribute my findings to Baptist history. What I found out pretty quickly was that I was wandering without a compass. I had a pretty hard time relating my subject to other studies because there was such a dearth of work on nineteenth-century northern Baptists. There was no standard textbook on what nineteenth-century Northern Baptists were like. Even the larger Baptist history books hardly touched this area. Even though Hovey was extremely influential in his day and left behind dozens of books, he was not even mentioned in most standard Baptist history books. The entire time period has been largely overlooked. I had to plow new ground and then make sense of it, largely on my own. It was a lot of reading, thinking, writing, and then re-reading, re-thinking, and re-writing. There were a lot of dead ends. There were a lot of books and articles that I wished existed, but did not. It was a slog. But the process of historical research cannot be rushed.

Perhaps the biggest struggle was to construct a formal dissertation proposal that connected what I wanted to write on with other works on Baptist figures and nineteenth-century America (and, of course, a proposal that satisfied all the institutional demands of my school). In particular, I needed to find the focus of my project and connect it with existing scholarship. This was a big deal and really hard for me. My breakthrough came when I took out a sheet of paper and started drawing bubble diagrams of all the disparate ideas about Hovey that I had. I tried several times and finally found “authority” as the center. I still have the picture I took and sent to my wife in great excitement (she was of course excited for me…she’s a saint). When I shared the idea with my advisors they also rejoiced with me that I had found a central topic (having advisors who suffered and rejoiced with me along the way was invaluable). Finding the center allowed me to focus my work and start to make real progress. I was required to write proposals for two different classes before this point, but I now had something substantial to connect with. I wrote several further proposal drafts for both my advisors and also for a group of classmates that would meet at my advisor’s home once a month for academic discussion. Once my primary advisor gave me the nod, I was able to schedule the formal hearing (Oct 24, 2017). I am grateful to have had an advisor who forced me to produce a quality proposal. I had to know what I wanted to ask, how it related to other histories, and how I was specifically going to fulfill my project. To put the hard work of organizing your project at that stage saved me much work later on.

After the proposal you normally attain candidacy status and begin writing your dissertation right away and that is the last part of the PhD, at least at TEDS it was this way. For me, I found out when applying for candidacy that I had to take one more class (this is another story…suffice it to say that there are always hoops you must jump through). This put my start a little behind, but I did use the paper for that class in the dissertation, so it worked out ok. By the summer of 2018 I had finished this last class, drafted the first two chapters (with approval from my advisor), and moved away from Chicago to Colorado.

By this point, I had a large part of my research complete. I had read most of Hovey’s works that I had my hands on (and some of them I had read several times), I was familiar with the other primary works (of nineteenth-century Northern Baptists), and I was up to speed on the secondary literature (which my comprehensive exams helped solidify). I also had notes upon notes documenting what I had found and where. It was now time to take a research trip to the Hovey archives. The archives had been recently moved from Andover Newton to the Yale Divinity School library in New Haven, Connecticut, so that’s where I went. I spent five days scanning everything from Hovey’s hand that I could in the restricted time I had. His archives were so large that I had to be quite selective even though I had a full work week and was able to scan thousands of pages a day. Fortunately I had a guide of his archives and could plan my week ahead of time. Over the next several months I worked through these scans (literally thousands of Hovey’s own hand-written pages) to add substance to the claims of my research. Fortunately, I did not discover anything that upset my ideas; rather, it reinforced what I wanted to argue. I had done so much work on Hovey that I knew what I wanted to say, I just had to do the work of composing it all.

During the Fall of 2018 I worked through the Hovey papers, wrote two more chapters, and was on the job hunt. In January 2019, my family and I moved to Minnesota to work at Central. I also applied for May 2019 graduation (when I had about half the dissertation written). Once in Minnesota I was able to crank out chapters five, six, and seven in quick succession to complete my dissertation. I defended April 24, worked through all the formatting changes, and then graduated May 10. That was a great day.

Publishing

Now what? Finishing the PhD was an accomplishment in itself. To leave the dissertation as it was would have been completely fine. But I had been encouraged all along to have publication in mind. So I tried to have that in mind throughout and to work in that direction once done. I sent out a couple email feelers to try and get feedback from some other scholars connected with the Baptist publishing world to hear their thoughts. As it happened, I never heard back from any of them. That combined with a very busy life made me put the idea of publishing on the back burner. I knew I needed to edit the dissertation anyway, but I wasn’t ready to do it. But then COVID hit in March 2020, which drove me to look harder at publication.

I reconnected with my advisor and he helped by writing a reference for publishing my dissertation. I looked into a couple publishers that focused on Baptist studies, and decided to try the Monograph in Baptist History series with Wipf and Stock. I sent my dissertation to the series editor, who gave me a kind review and said he would be happy to have it as part of the series. At that point I did two things, I began the formal process with Wipf and Stock (another proposal) and I began editing the dissertation for publication. It had only been a year since I finished, so there wasn’t much literature to add, but I had the chance to smooth a few things out, add a little, and make it more of a book rather than a dissertation. In all, the book is not substantively different than the dissertation. The proposal took time but was accepted and I had a book contract in hand. I then needed to submit the final document, edited according to their house style. That took a lot of careful, detailed work. There were further edits for the copy edit and the typeset stages, both with more careful, detailed work. Then I created an index (again, a sustained effort at careful, detailed work) and then the book hit production in April 2021. The publication process was an alternation of furious editing activity and then waiting. In all, I think I read and edited the book about a dozen times.

The project I began in the Fall of 2014 has now made it into book form in Spring of 2021. Six and a half years of study, writing, and editing. And now I have a book to hold in my hands. There were times when things moved really slow, times when it was pretty steady progress, and times where I was at a dead sprint. From the beginning of the project to now, I’ve written easily a hundred pages that didn’t make the cut (and all those wonderful footnotes that no one will read), read tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of pages, and have hundreds of pages of scribbled notes and questions. To hold the finished product and flip through it causes me to remember the entire process. It’s been rewarding and satisfying.

Unfinished Questions

A lot went into this one historical monograph. Writing this kind of history is slow and difficult, but it has been worth it. The historical process itself was the fun part. This process has been the constant asking of questions (which has been more fun than I expected), searching for answers (which don’t always exist), sifting of materials (the slow work of doing history), taking notes along the way (probably the most important step), writing (sometimes fast but usually slow), and editing (over and over again). As I’ve outlined above, it basically started with a question: what is the character of nineteenth-century Baptist theology? This book is a small dent in that question, but one I’m proud of. I’d like to see more done to answer that question. There are many books and articles that I wish existed, they would have made my process much easier. But that gives me something to continue working on. That would definitely be a bigger project that builds on the work I did for this dissertation. That’s where my research eyes are now focused. Which has me excited to jump into the historical process all over again.

One thought on “A Narrative of the Historical Process

  1. Timothy Jones June 5, 2021 / 7:33 pm

    Well done, Matt!!!
    Tim Jones, formerly of
    Front Range Baptist Academy

    Like

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