Abram Van Engen

Chair of the Department of English
Professor of Religion and Politics (by courtesy)
Stanley Elkin Professor in the Humanities
PhD, Northwestern University, 2010
MA, Northwestern University, 2005
BA, Calvin College, English and Philosophy, Honors Degree, 2003
research interests:
  • Early American Literature
  • Religion and Literature
  • History of Emotions
  • Intellectual History
  • Puritanism
  • Collective Memory
  • American Exceptionalism
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    • Washington University
    • CB 1122
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    Professor Van Engen has published widely on religion and literature, focusing especially on seventeenth-century Puritans and the way they have been remembered and remade in American culture.

    Van Engen began his career with a study of sympathy in seventeenth-century Puritanism, drawing together abiding interests in the history of emotions, theology, imagined communities, and literary form. Those interests led to his first book, Sympathetic Puritans, and numerous related articles on early American religion and literature.

    Beginning with these concerns, Van Engen has moved from a study of the Puritans in their own place and context to an interest in the way Puritans have been recollected and re-used by later generations. Studying the life of texts and the effects of collective memory, Van Engen has produced a second book, City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, along with several other publications that together study the creation and curation of American exceptionalism.

    Work on his second project was furthered by participation in the Humanities Digital Workshop at Washington University in St. Louis, where Van Engen has been leading a team to study the concept and creation of American exceptionalism through a history of the phrase “city on a hill.” That work has led to multiple related digital projects, all in teams with undergraduate and graduate researchers. Collaboration remains essential to his work, with co-edited journal issues, co-written articles, co-taught courses and working groups that bring together literature, history, religion, politics, and psychology.

    Van Engen’s undergraduate courses have included Literature, Spirituality, and Religion (a freshman seminar); Early Texts and Contexts; American Literature to 1865; Natives and Newcomers in Early America; City on a Hill (for American Culture Studies); and Morality and Markets (co-taught with the Business School). Graduate seminars have included Puritanism, Literature and Religion, Intro to Graduate Studies, and Marilynne Robinson.

    Spring 2019 Courses

    Seminar: Marilynne Robinson (E Lit 508)

    The novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson first achieved national acclaim with "Housekeeping" (1980), a haunting coming-of-age novel about two sisters set in the beauty and grandeur of the west. That novel eventually established Robinson at the Iowa Writers Workshop where she taught for many years. What many noticed in her first book was a new sort of voice, a lyric prose, which returned over two decades later in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel "Gilead" (2004). Since then, she has written two more novels ("Home" and "Lila") set in the same town, but with radically different voices and perspectives. Between these novels and her collected essays, Robinson's work engages issues of race, gender, history, regionalism, and religion. Her later work has focused in particular on the role of the humanities and higher education. She has been a lecturer in high demand and has been interviewed many times—most noticeably by Barack Obama. In this class, we will read all her published books, asking questions of development, style, and voice. Meanwhile, as we see what critical engagements have been made with her writings, we will situate her within broader academic discourses and ask how various approaches can open new insights into her writings.

      Selected Publications

      Caroline Wigginton and Abram Van Engen, eds., Feeling Godly: Religious Affections and Christian Contact in Early North America (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021)

      City on a Hill: A History of American ExceptionalismNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.

      Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

      Ed., with Kristina Bross. A New History of American Puritan Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

      Ed., with Sarah Rivett and Cristobal Silva. “Post-Exceptionalist Puritanism.” Special issue of American Literature 90.4 (December 2018).

      Feeling Godly: Religious Affections and Christian Contact in Early North America

      Feeling Godly: Religious Affections and Christian Contact in Early North America

      In 1746, Jonathan Edwards described his philosophy on the process of Christian conversion in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. For Edwards, a strict Congregationalist, true conversion is accompanied by a new heart and yields humility, forgiveness, and love—affections that work a change in the person's nature. But, how did other early American communities understand religious affections and come to recognize their manifestation?

      Feeling Godly brings together well-known and highly regarded scholars of early American history and literature, Native American studies, African American history, and religious studies to investigate the shape, feel, look, theology, and influence of religious affections in early American sites of contact with and between Christians. While remaining focused on the question of religious affections, these essays span a wide range of early North American cultures, affiliations, practices, and devotions, and enable a comparative approach that draws together a history of emotions with a history of religion.

      In addition to the volume editors, this collection includes essays from Joanna Brooks, Kathleen Donegan, Melissa Frost, Stephanie Kirk, Jon Sensbach, Scott Manning Stevens, and Mark Valeri, with an afterword by Barbara H. Rosenwein.

      City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism

      City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism

      In this illuminating book, Abram Van Engen shows how the phrase “City on a Hill,” from a 1630 sermon by Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop, shaped the story of American exceptionalism in the twentieth century.

      By tracing the history of Winthrop’s speech, its changing status throughout time, and its use in modern politics, Van Engen asks us to reevaluate our national narratives. He tells the story of curators, librarians, collectors, archivists, antiquarians, and often anonymous figures who emphasized the role of the Pilgrims and Puritans in American history, paving the way for the saving and sanctifying of a single sermon. This sermon’s rags-to-riches rise reveals the way national stories take shape and shows us how those tales continue to influence competing visions of the country—the many different meanings of America that emerge from its literary past.

      Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England

      Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England

      Sympathetic Puritans re-examines Puritan culture through the lens and language of sympathy. Challenging the stereotype of stern and stoic Puritans, it argues that a Calvinist theology of sympathy shaped the politics, religion, rhetoric, and literature of early New England. Studying a large archive of sermons, treatises, tracts, poems, journals, histories, and captivity narratives, this book demonstrates how two types of sympathy permeated Puritan society and came to define the very boundaries of English culture, affecting ideas of persuasion and salvation, conceptions of community, relations with Native Americans, and the development of American literature.