In the Archives: an Interview with Craig Harline

The cover of Craig Harline's book on ConversionsCraig Harline’s recently-published Conversions brings together two stories of changing faith: one from the Dutch Reformation, the other from 1970s California. Craig’s book offers an accessible and engaging account both of Jacob Rolandus, the son of a Dutch Reformed preacher, who converted to Catholicism in 1654 and ran away from home, and of ‘Michael Sunbloom’, a young American who converted to Mormonism in 1973, but left the church when he began to explore and embrace his homosexuality.

It is a book about religious change, and about the effects of movement between Churches on both families and wider communities, and closes with a moving plea for the tolerance and understanding needed to understand and interpret these diverse stories.

Craig was kind enough to meet up with the Conversion Narratives team at the recent Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, and to talk to us about a rich range of topics, including the importance of these stories, the role of the historian, the challenges of writing popular history, and his own experiences as a converter. You can listen to the full interview on our project website.

Conversions was recently named as one of the top ten religion books for 2011 by the prestigious Publisher’s Weekly, who described it as ‘History as it should be written: with feet deep in research and a head for individual story’. Craig has also tried the page 99 test on his own book, landing bang in the middle of ‘Michael Sunbloom’s’ California experiences. The vividness of Craig’s writing is exemplified in the abstract below which describes his experiences in European archives (and which prompted our question about air-conditioning!). Historians may think that this is all part of the day job, but to us, Craig’s account captures for a much wider audience the excitement of discovery and the (sometimes damp) realities of historical research.

Setting the latest bundle of crumbling documents onto the immense brown table before me, I plop wearily into a chair, scoot forward, and helplessly watch a drop of sweat run down the left lens of my glasses.
The drop lingers for a moment at the bottom of the lens, then continues downward until landing with a tiny splash on the table, just missing the documents, thank goodness.

I remove my glasses and wipe them with part of my damp shirt, wipe the drop on the table with my damp hand, and wipe at my forehead with the back of my damp forearm, but not a damp thing gets dry.

It’s hot and muggy in the archives in summer.
You’d think that an archive would be the coolest place around, even in air-conditioning-loathing Belgium, because everyone knows that heat and humidity damage documents.

The natives in the reading room soldier on bravely and virtuously, buoyed by the thought that they are avoiding the sore throats and colds and horrible diseases sure to result from artificially chilled air. Foreigners have no choice but to soldier on as well, if lethargically and grumpily, with hair a little wet around the edges and forearms perpetually sticky, so that despite gallant efforts to hold elbows aloft in order to avoid touching fragile 400-year-old documents you still manage to drip a little sweat on them anyway, while they get a little of themselves on you as well — usually grains of sand that some scribe scattered across the once-fresh ink to help it dry but that now stick stubbornly to your skin.

These aren’t exactly Everest-like conditins, but they’re unpleasant enough to make you wonder what else you might be doing with your time.

What keeps me and many other historians going back to archives, year after year, whatever the elements, is the hope of finding a fantastic new document.

[For me] a document is fantastic because it shouts out the drama of forgotten lives, revealing in astonishing detail people and ideas and assumptions and conditions that you’ve never imagined or heard of.

So far today, the documents have been, as usual, less than fantastic.

In fact it’s been a superabundance of laws, charters, deeds, financial accounts, church decrees, and other official sorts of things, all about as lively as the straight-angled, sterile decor of the mostly brown reading room itself. Though useful, such documents have little flesh and blood, little drama, little story.

But all that changes as I undo the usual red ribbon that holds together the usual pile of faded tan papers, and take into my sweaty hands the not-so-usual sort of document I’m always looking for: the secret journal of Jacob Rolandus.

(from Craig Harline, Conversions, Yale University Press, 2011, pp. 7-10).

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