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Retweeting History

Research is meant to generate knowledge, but unless that knowledge is shared, it won’t make an impact or advance scholarly conversations on a topic.

While it was once common for research to be shared only with readers of academic publications, a growing number of investigators are using social media tools to disseminate their research to a larger and more diverse audience than ever before.

It might seem strange for a historian to make use of the latest social media technologies, but Dr. Thomas Kidd, a professor of history in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences, uses a number of these tools to connect his research to contemporary popular conversations. Kidd studies 18th-century North American religious history, specifically the history of evangelicalism. His work presents the lives of central figures in the formation and spread of American religion as well as the role of religion in our nation’s early history, topics that continue to resonate in current discourse about the role of religion in society.

Kidd’s most recent book, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, chronicles the life and career of an 18th-century Anglican minister who, despite being one of the most widely known and successful evangelists of the 18th century, does not enjoy the same popularity today as some of his contemporaries.

In many ways, Whitefield (pronounced “whit-field”) was a man ahead of his time. Considered one of the first ‘celebrity preachers,’ he drew large crowds to revival services in both his native England and the American colonies. Whitefield is often compared to another famous evangelist, Billy Graham, the 20th-century Baptist evangelist who spoke to huge audiences at meetings and prayer services on six continents. Just as Graham was considered a pioneer for his use of television in his ministry, Whitefield also made use of the technology of his day to help spread his message. When he traveled to a new area to preach, Whitefield would send advance teams to distribute printed flyers and handbills announcing his upcoming sermons.

“Whitefield worked incredibly hard, delivering tens of thousands of sermons in his career and traveling far more than any other preacher of his time,” Kidd explains.

“He also had an innate talent for public speaking that was unsurpassed. Finally, he was open to new methods, such as outdoor services and the latest types of print media, to get the message of the gospel out to as many people as possible.”

Reviewers have praised Kidd’s biography for its objective presentation of both Whitefield’s successes and his notable shortcomings. Whitefield was a brilliant theologian and public speaker, but like many colonial Americans, he was a slave owner.

According to Kidd, presenting a fair and accurate biography of historical figures like Whitefield requires scholars to wrestle with difficult questions. Biographers must balance their desire to portray their subjects’ significance with a duty to also report on their flaws.

Whitefield himself might have agreed. As Kidd writes in America’s Spiritual Founding Father, Whitefield’s own 1747 autobiography decried the “pious fraud” that authors commit when they present to readers “the bright, but not the dark side” of their subjects’ character.

It would be easy, Kidd says, to treat Whitefield as only a Christian hero and disregard his status as a slave owner, or to consider all of his accomplishments fatally tainted by the fact that he owned slaves.

Kidd suggests a third path, emphasizing the need for biographers to deal honestly and forthrightly with both the positive and negative aspects of their subjects.

“There is a special temptation associated with the lives of religious figures to treat them as if they were an entirely perfect and holy person,” he explains. “Some may think that bringing up their failings somehow dishonors them and their work, but I don’t think that it does. Of course, we also have to be humble enough to realize that we all have our failings and blind spots, and not be quick to judge people in the past. If we were in their situation, we might well have made the same mistakes that they did.”

Making history social Kidd does not just disseminate his work through traditional publication channels. In addition to writing books and articles in the scholarly and popular press, Kidd is among the growing number of researchers who use social media as an outlet for their scholarship and commentary. He is active on Twitter under the handle @ThomasSKidd and is a frequent contributor, along with other evangelical historians, to The Anxious Bench, a blog dedicated to examining faith, politics and culture as they relate to religious history. He also writes a biweekly newsletter with updates on his current projects and reflections on current events.

It might seem strange for a historian to embrace modern communication technology, but Kidd believes that, at their best, technologies like blogs, tweets and podcasts serve a similar function to that of scrolls, books and newspapers of yesteryear.

A number of recent social protest movements illustrate the power of social media to bring attention to people and causes that may not receive much coverage from mainstream media outlets. In one example that Kidd blogged about on The Anxious Bench, the American Center for Law and Justice maintained a dogged social media campaign using the hashtag “#TweetforYoucef” in support of pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian convert who was arrested and jailed in Iran for three years awaiting trial for apostasy from Islam, a charge that could have been punished by execution. Thanks in part to pressure from the ACLJ and the U.S. State Department, Nadarkhani was convicted of a lesser charge, sentenced to time served and released in 2012.

While not all uses of social media have such noble goals or outcomes, even in their more mundane applications, Kidd sees benefits from reaching out to a global audience through platforms like Twitter.

“Although many great teachers have not been active in publishing, there’s a unique benefit to students and a university when historians and other scholars are engaged in cutting-edge research and publishing,” he says. “It is one thing to relate discoveries and arguments that scholars at other schools have made, and another for a teacher to introduce students to his or her own discoveries and arguments, which they are publishing with top academic presses and journals.”