Last year, associate professor of theology and history of Christianity and degree coordinator of the M.A. in history of Christianity Jennifer McNutt said that students in her program expressed eagerness for a venue where they could learn how to present their ideas and organize a conference that would “provide a public forum for their work.” Her response was, “Let’s do it!”
McNutt expressed that the conference, which was held this past weekend in the fifth floor lounge of the Billy Graham Center, was “dedicated to celebrating graduate student achievement in research.”
Students presented their research projects as presentations in several panels, with student chairs responding to the presentations, speaking about ways the papers intersect, and the common themes they saw emerge among the papers. They also opened it up to the audience for questions. In the past, the conference was attended by undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff and the public. McNutt said that her hope is that this will be the beginning of grad students in the area coming to Wheaton to present their work and that it will become a magnet for the conversation on the history of Christianity.
This year’s conference is the second annual one to be held and the first to be specifically rooted in History of Christianity rather than in Theology. The event was student led, with McNutt overseeing it. Second year masters student Morgan Thornburg coordinated the event.
The student panels each centered around a time period, focusing on the church in early, reformation and modern times. Each year there is also a concentration on a historical figure. Last year the focus was St. Augustine, and this year the subject was John Wesley.
In the middle of the conference, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals Larry Eskridge served as keynote speaker, tying the conference together.
In general, McNutt said she wants this to be a part of an increased focus on the history of Christianity, to “elevate it on campus as a subject of conversation. The rightful focus on theology can sometimes forget the history of the development of theology, and the history of the church.” She stated that this is what the department hopes to increase with events like the conference.
“Scripture talks about a body of believers in familial language: God is our Father and other believers are our brothers and sisters. This includes those from the past. (When we miss learning about the past,) we miss knowing our family. Also, in general there is a perception that when you don’t know the past, you’re doomed to repeat it,” McNutt said.
McNutt said that the graduate students she worked with were able to “orchestrate a plan and carry out something pretty professional,” and she said the college as a whole is growing in conversing about these topics.
“(Historical figures) are living testimonies of the past, and because we are believers who affirm the bodily resurrection, this means that they are the great cloud of witnesses,” McNutt added.
The conference also reiterated the development of the grad school, which McNutt called “a pretty exciting place.” Through the new general education proposal, she stated that she looks forward to greater opportunity to cross-teach with different departments, including graduate and undergraduate departments. More classes could potentially overlap between history and theology, thus following up on what the conference has tried to do. During planning, McNutt said that there was much collaboration with the history department, as many history students enter her graduate program.
“The Church today is really grappling with complexity of a shifting culture, and this is not the first time that this has happened for the Church. We can ask how can we learn for them. They can be models and inspiration for us, and the Holy Spirit can use their stories to impact our life today,” she added.
McNutt hopes that the History of Christianity Graduate Student Conference will continue in the future, increasing knowledge at Wheaton.