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 was there. She was a beacon of warmth and generosity and it was immediately apparent that she loved students. I have memories of her smile and the way she made sure each of us felt a part of the conference. At the end of the day, the grad students went home with Drake-crafted cannolis packed into to-go bags. I also carried away a life-long affection for Edith.
When I think of her now, I remember sitting in her light-filled office at the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. She was on my dissertation committee and always available when I needed a break from research at the Billy Graham Center across the street. This was the early 2000s, and we were reflecting, for some reason, on the pros and cons of women hyphenating their names when they got married. In her wonderful Brooklyn-inflected voice, Edith told me that hyphenating was never really an option for her. “What was your name before you married?” I asked. She smiled grimly and said, “Waldvogel.”
“Edith Waldvogel-Blumhofer” might have been too much for her to contemplate as a new bride, but she would have been justified in retaining such a proud Pentecostal name, a surname associated with Ridgewood Pentecostal Church of Brooklyn, New York, and Pilgrim Camp, in Brant Lake, New York, ministries with a long heritage and proud legacy. For Edith, Pentecostalism was personal, and this showed in her ability to dissect the religious tradition with the insight of an insider and the skill of a trained historian. People didn’t become Pentecostal in Edith’s work because they were poor misguided hicks who needed something—anything—to keep them from despair. She rejected the “compensation narrative,” which was popular at the time and is still all too common. Edith demonstrated in her nuanced work that Pentecostalism was far from a sop for the desperate, but instead diverse, dynamic, and fascinating. With her defining studies on the history of early Pentecostalism and the Assemblies of God denomination, Edith brought her Harvard-trained abilities to the study of an often maligned religious tradition.
She led the way in the late 20th-century flourishing of Pentecostalism studies. And from her Pentecostal perspective, Edith also wrote about evangelicalism before it was cool to write about evangelicalism. In 1987, she joined in the work of studying evangelicalism in America as the project leader and then director of Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. The field was just nascent then. Without her influence, it would be unrecognizable now. There’s a whole history to be written just about the connections she helped to make. From the outside, it sometimes seemed like Edith Blumhofer knew every single Pentecostal scholar or scholar of Pentecostalism in the United States. She was always glad to make an introduction or broker an exchange of emails between the many students or colleagues who shared friendship with her as their connection point. A recommendation from Edith carried weight for book proposals, dissertations, panels, articles, and anything else associated with Pentecostal history.
But more important than what she did is who she was. Edith embodied her life work. She was a Harvard-trained historian of Christianity who bridged the worlds of Pentecostal and evangelical studies. She was a woman of deep faith, who sang the beloved hymns of Fanny Crosby while analyzing the larger importance of hymnody for Christianity in America. A female religious leader within a conservative form of Christianity, she led projects and institutes, authored books, and established herself as a respected authority. She was a daughter of Pentecostalism, who understood the subtleties of God’s “peculiar people.” And to me, she will always be remembered as a friend and a trusted advisor, someone who let me park in her driveway when I took the train into Chicago, someone who showed me how to write about difficult women, someone who knew the value of a cannoli to a grad student. For all of this and more that you gave to the world: Thank you, Dr. Blumhofer.
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