I am still a historian after thirty-three years as a pastor in The United Methodist Church (U.S.A.). When I ask myself, “why?” I remember that I have always lived in more than one world.
Before retiring, I served as a pastor for small-town congregations in South Dakota, but, while I did, I still had family in metropolitan Chicago where I grew up and many relatives in Georgia where my parents were born. I arrived in the world of South Dakota small towns as an outsider sent to perform the consummate insider role of the pastor who lived with people thru their times of birth, marriage, illness, death, and in-between.
During the 1970’s, I had no notion of becoming an ordained minister. I completed my higher education at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois) with a major in history, and, in 1978, I was admitted to the degree of doctor of philosophy in the University of Cambridge for my dissertation, “Time and the Land: The Work of American Historians during the Generation of the American Revolution.”
People often asked me why I went to the United Kingdom to study U.S. history. I usually replied, “well, I’m studying the colonial period,” but the more valuable contribution that Cambridge made to my education was the different perspective I gained from studying with a small but distinguished number of U.S. history scholars who sailed in a sea of distinguished European history scholars. U.S. history faculties generally have the reverse proportion.
Herbert Butterfield, one of those European history scholars, envisioned a historical scholarship that would consider all the people of the past from “a world where everything is understood and all sins are forgiven” (The Whig Interpretation of History (1931)). In spite of the difficulties in the way of knowing what happened in the past and in spite of the necessity of taking a point of view in order to write about the past, this still seems to me to be an excellent ideal.
When I returned to the United States, I entered Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, Illinois) and, eventually, applied for membership in the South Dakota (now Dakotas) Conference of The United Methodist Church. Four short publications grew out of these years and subsequent years as a pastor:
- “The Revival of Stewardship and the Creation of the World Service Commission in the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1912-1924,” Methodist History, 23 (1985): 223-239.
- Six Stories of United Methodism. Presho, South Dakota: Published at the Parsonage, 2003.
- In Praise of the Trinity. Presho, South Dakota: Published at the Parsonage, 2003.
- Why, According to Scripture, Homosexuality is Not Sinful. Presho, South Dakota: Published at the Parsonage, 2004.
I published the last three under my own imprint, which means that I “self-published.” At the time, I received at least as much attention for figuring out how to do this as I did for my critique of The United Methodist Church and my exercise of the freedom of the pulpit that it allows.
The first of these publications examined the growth of wealth and the centralization of financial control in a denomination that had always and still does value decentralization. This theme connects with what I have written in Chapter One of my history of the Dakotas Conference and what I plan to discuss in a book-length reflection on religion and decentralization in the history of the United States. These are two of the three projects I hope to complete in my retirement. (The third is a biography of the friendship between my father, Edmund F. Perry, and Walpola Rahula, author of What the Buddha Taught.)
With these projects, I hope again to walk in more than one world at the same time—the worlds of historians, theologians, pastors, “general readers,” “average citizens,” and “people in the pew.” I realize that the number of readers in all of these categories may be declining, and I know that trying to bring them together in one audience may just annoy everybody.
But, perhaps, if you have read this far, you are not easily annoyed.