Edwin S. Gaustad, one of the premier historians of American religion in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, died last month. His passing has been noted and his life remembered by Baptist news services and historical organizations, as well as the New York Times. Gaustad himself was a Baptist who was appreciative of his faith roots.
A prolific author, his books have been read by many. Much of his work focused on the colonial era in American history, and Gaustad relentlessly reminded us of the importance of religious dissent. Central to the narrative of dissent is the story of Baptists. From Roger Williams (first Baptist in America and founder of Rhode Island) to John Leland (national Baptist leader in the late eighteenth century), Baptists’ refusal to conform to approved orthodoxy and the will of colonial theocratic communities bore fruit in the birth of America as a nation of religious liberty and separation of church and state.
A national teacher, Gaustad’s influence extended far beyond the classroom. He taught America about herself, and reminded Americans of the best of their heritage – liberty and freedom. At the same time, he reminded Baptists to be proud and protective of their contributions to the American story.
Thanks to Edwin Gaustad, countless Americans today realize that our nation’s history cannot be fully understood apart from the religious dimension – both the good and the bad. May we never forget this truth.
Thanks to Edwin Gaustad, we are less likely to forget who we are. His is a legacy of remembering.