When I started writing my biography of Charismatic evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman, I went to Edith Blumhofer for advice. Edith wrote a masterful biography of Pentecostal superstar Aimee Semple McPherson, and another of hymn writer Fanny Crosby, so she knew more than anyone the challenge of writing about strong women in conservative Christian contexts—women who were held to unattainable standards, lived and ministered under intense scrutiny, and sometimes stumbled into ignominy. “People always want to talk about the scandal,” Edith warned me. “You have to talk about the scandal, of course, but you can determine that it won’t be the center of the conversation.” Help the reader to understand the larger story of the person under scrutiny, Edith recommended. And always let these women be human.
Edith, who died on March 5 at the age of 69, was a renowned historian of American Christianity, who wrote groundbreaking books on the history of American Pentecostalism, the Assemblies of God, Christian hymnody, American evangelicalism, and clear-eyed biographies that were deeply sympathetic but never hagiographic. She was also a gifted and beloved teacher. In both her professional work and personal life, Edith saw the human.
I met her in in the late 1990s when I was a student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Dr. Blumhofer, as I knew her then, was the Associate Director of the Pew-funded Public Religion Project. I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in one of the Project conferences, held at the Drake Hotel in downtown Chicago. New to Chicago and to the academic world, I was completely freaked out by the whole experience. I had a social anxiety attack of epic proportions—but Edith ...1
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