DEVIN C. MANZULLO-THOMAS. Exhibiting Evangelicalism: Commemoration and Religion’s Presence of the Past. Amherst, MA: University Massachusetts, 2022. Pp. 240. $28.95 (U.S.)
Important commemorations lie on the horizon for American Anabaptists. The year 2023 marks the three hundredth anniversary of the Church of the Brethren in America. In 2025 and 2026, respectively, come the five hundredth anniversary of Anabaptism and the American semiquincentennial. These occasions present apt opportunities to reflect on the themes and questions raised by Exhibiting Evangelicalism.
In this book, Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas, a professor and director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah University, contends that postwar conservative Protestants started trying to meet a constellation of interconnected cultural, theological, and political goals through historical interpretation and preservation. This framework that Manzullo-Thomas calls “evangelical heritage” continues into the present. It is a construction of stories and practices about the nature of God, the Bible, and human history, which informs how conservative Protestants comprehend and communicate the past (3, 6-8). Evangelical heritage functioned both to create a sense of a trans-denominational unity and as a tool of its elite’s aim of proving Christianity essential to the American nation. Exhibiting Evangelicalism shows how conservative Protestants also became public historians.
Manzullo-Thomas employs a series of museum case studies to illustrate this development. Opening with examinations of the Mount Hood [Billy Sunday] museum and Park Street Church in Boston, Chapter 1 demonstrates how these institutions created scaffolding for conservative Protestant public history by fashioning a cohesive identity for the new evangelicals emerging after World War II. Subsequent chapters explore the maturation of evangelical heritage through several attempts to commemorate the life and legacy of Billy Graham. The context of the Civil Rights movement, second wave feminism, and Watergate shaped clashes over the location of the Billy Graham Center Museum. In the process it drew new evangelicalism with gendered and racialized lines against the backdrop of American nationalism. Chapter 3 turns to the content of the Billy Graham Center Museum and its adoption of the novel public history practice of centering audience emotions and experience in its exhibits. Ultimately, Manzullo-Thomas determines using this approach to bring about individual conversion and wed American history to evangelical heritage proved neither an unequivocal success nor a complete failure.
The fourth chapter focuses on the twenty-first century creation of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. Part museum, part theme park, Manzullo-Thomas finds that the Library charges visitors to read Graham’s legacy through the lens of the New Christian Right—a version of conservative Protestantism shaped by nostalgia and bellicose nationalism. He concludes the book with the prominently centered Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate the contemporary potency of evangelical heritage, and to state the significance of the phenomenon in understanding the relationship between religion and public history.
Exhibiting Evangelicalism makes a convincing case for the progress and significance of the evangelical heritage, while also displaying the necessity for greater communication between religious and public history. Manzullo-Thomas’s source base ranging from archival sources, to oral histories, and museum visitors’ feedback, speaks well to the depth of his analysis. The way he incorporates discussion of the importance of gender and race throughout the text is also to be commended. However, he lacks significant explanation on the criteria used to select the museums he studied. The Graham Museum and Library provide a helpful narrative arc, but that alone does not clarify his choices. Given the sites he did select, might there also be more significance to the geographic ascendency of museums exhibiting evangelical heritage than what Manzullo-Thomas notes about the Museum of the Bible’s Washington, D.C. location? Even with these minor critiques, it remains a readable and timely text for anyone interested in religion, memory, and culture.
For the practitioners and consumers of public history within the Anabaptist tradition, Exhibiting Evangelicalismraises several questions worth considering. First, how does the lens of evangelical heritage shape expectations for how religion and history interact in a museum? Second, should the overt nationalism and pugilism of evangelical heritage diminish it as a model for publicly presenting religion? Third, what might the construction of evangelical heritage as a whole show us about how we communicate our particular religious histories? Are there points of similarity, difference, or cross-pollination? Exhibiting Evangelicalism does not discuss the tension between heritage and history felt by denominational museums, libraries, and their constituencies. However, its discussion of conversion proves illuminating. Evangelical heritage aims for Christian conversion, and as Manzullo-Thomas notes in the conclusion, public historians possess the same goal. Further, he encourages museums to prepare “visitors to recognize the synthetic nature of history and to distinguish between tellings of the past” (177). How might public spaces provide the skills for individuals and communities to engage in the historical craft? As a number of momentous commemorations approach, it’s a timely question for American Anabaptists to ponder.