When I was writing my second book, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars, I wrote with a pretty specific audience in mind. Perhaps selling myself a bit short and surely with a fair bit of white and academic privilege, I thought that the only people who would want to read about black evangelicals and their encounter with fundamentalism in the early twentieth century would be those historians who, like me, study fundamentalism and evangelicalism in American history. We’re not a big group. Heck, Katie Lofton managed to get pretty much all of us around a single conference table back in 2013. But much to my surprise, the book has found other audiences, and it’s thanks to them that it has sold so well in its first six months since publication.
To be sure, I did spend a bit of time and effort making sure my prose was clear of academic buzzwords and jargon so that, in the off chance, if it were ever assigned in an undergraduate course, those undergrads wouldn’t curse me for being too boring and obtuse. Whether the book will ever be assigned to undergrads remains to be seen. And whether my peers in academia will view it favorably is also unclear, as academic book reviews take months or even years to appear in scholarly journals.
The first readers of my book have been African American evangelicals, and they’ve been exceedingly kind to me in their comments and reviews. Even before the book’s official release date, Dr. Anthony B. Bradley posted a video review to Facebook, recommending the book to his viewers. As of this writing, the video has over 10,000 views, and my Twitter followers spiked after he posted it. Dr. Bradley’s followers on social media read the book, asked thoughtful questions, and really engaged with the arguments and conclusions. Soon after Dr. Bradley’s video posted, Lisa Fields of the Jude 3 Project contacted me, asking for a video interview. Talking with her was a joy, and I even got over my fear of seeing myself on a computer screen.
Meanwhile, white evangelicals began to discover the book. In April, Tommy Kidd of the Gospel Coalition (and Baylor University) interviewed me for his Evangelical History blog. Just this past week, LifeWay’s The Pastor’s Library blog, which reviews new books of interest for Christian pastors, posted a favorable review. And in response to the LifeWay review, via Twitter, I learned that my book has been assigned for a Ph.D. seminar this fall at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. From these posts and the comments they received, one can see that these writers see the issues raised in the book as having relevancy today, just as the African American evangelicals noted earlier in 2017.
All of these developments have led me to several, probably obvious, conclusions. First, social media is key to getting the word out about new publications. Dr. Bradley’s video went viral and got the word out to people who might not have seen the University of Alabama Press’s catalog or website. He helped me make the jump from the small band of historians of fundamentalism to a much wider readership. From there, it was off to the races.*
Second, reaching audiences beyond your usual colleagues makes you a better listener and researcher. Fresh voices provide new insights, more honest reactions, and ideas for new avenues of research. I’ll continue to reflect on the comments I’ve seen and incorporate them in future work.
Third, and finally, I’ve realized that this book really did need to be written. Doctrine and Race is the first monograph (d’oh! there’s that academic jargon) to deal with African Americans’ interactions with white fundamentalism. Writing is a solitary enterprise, and many times during the process, I found myself wondering whether what I was doing was worthwhile. Thanks to the reception of the book thus far, I can confirm that it was worth all of those hours staring at microfilm readers.
Many thanks to those who have publicized the book!
* I should add that the book has also benefited from other social media sites more commonly associated with religious studies and history research–the RiAH “New Books in American Religious History” post, the African American Intellectual History Society’s “Black Perspectives” blog, and John Fea’s “Author’s Corner” at “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.”