Love Those Whom You Study: the Legacy of Sarah Hammond and the Ethic of Critical Empathy

Last Thanksgiving, the field of academic religious studies lost one its brightest young luminaries. Sarah Hammond had just begun her career as a professor of American religious history at the College of William and Mary when her life was cut short at the age 34, after a long struggle with mental illness.

Last week at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Sarah’s friends, family, and colleagues gathered to celebrate her life and her work. We also gathered to lament both the contributions she will not have the chance to make, and how greatly she struggled within the structure of academia, which makes so little accommodation for mental illness. As we celebrated the great work she did, we could not forget how great a price she paid for for that work.

Sarah left us with much more than a massive body of research and writing worthy of Thomas Aquinas, on subjects ranging from evangelical businessmen of the 20th century to the peculiar Yale tradition of bladderball. Sarah left behind the ethic of critical empathy, which permeates her work. As she wrote,

To study religion is to study how men and women make sense of the world, how they act on those beliefs, and how they form communities amidst wild and wonderful diversity. Our job as historians is to enter into religious worlds with what I like to call critical empathy: trying, as outsiders, to understand what it might have been like to inhabit these worlds from the inside.

What makes this assessment so remarkable is that the worlds Sarah chose to study were not the ones in which she moved and operated. As an ardent Democrat, a female professor who held authority over men, and a lesbian, she had every reason to study people and events that empowered and vindicated her as a person.

But instead, she devoted herself to the study of evangelical Christian businessmen whose deepest values not only disagreed with hers but called her very personhood into question. Yet she dove into their world carrying no axe to grind, but with the empathy of one who had an abiding affection for those she studied.

She conveyed this empathy through a sharp wit that brought her subjects to life in few words. Take, for example, her description of Christian business executive Herbert J. Taylor in her dissertation:

Taylor may have been less colorful than Babbitt-like businessmen, but behind his rimless glasses, he had keener vision.

It was, in part, this critical empathy that made Sarah what Prof. Alison Greene called “the conscience of her field.” In her devotion to understand those she studied on their own terms, she kept those around her honest. Her research indicts caricature of evangelical leaders as fanatical, power-hungry “others” that defy understanding or empathy from reasonable, intelligent individuals. As she says of Christian dirt-transportation entrepreneur R.G. LeTourneau, who worked to move earth both literally and figuratively:

Sinclair Lewis would have dismissed LeTourneau’s inconsistencies as simple hypocrisy, but even if they were hypocrisy, they were not simple.

Take out the name “LeTourneau,” and replace it with your favorite political or religious bad guy. This admonishment works at every level.

In a climate where I keep hearing “I can’t imagine Obama getting reelected,” and “I just don’t understand why anyone would vote for Romney,” Sarah’s vision bears a powerful prophetic word not only to academics who need to stay on their toes, but to a nation that seems to suffer from a severe lack of imagination and empathy. She showed us that we must not be critical without also being empathetic. If we are not, we risk falling into dishonest scholarship as academics and inauthentic relationship as human beings. Through her work, she continues to remind us that critical thought without empathy is detached musing at best and unfair cruelty at worst.

This Thanksgiving, I lament that we have lost a remarkable woman who was arguably one of the foremost scholars in the country on the Left Behind series. I lament the work that she left undone, and the hole she left in the lives of those who loved her.

But I give thanks for the critical empathy she brought to her field, and I give thanks that this ethic lives on in her work and in her example. It is an example that counsels us to employ our imaginations to the greatest extent possible, to be more humane as scholars and as people, and, perhaps most importantly, to enjoy ourselves in doing so. In Sarah’s own words,

The stranger the world seems–and some of these religious worlds will seem very strange–the greater the imaginative challenge. What could be more fun than that?

The contributions that Sarah gave us came at great cost to her and those who cared about her. May they continue to bear fruit for generations to come.

Sarah Hammond’s book God’s Business Men: Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War will be published posthumously by the University of Chicago Press.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

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5 thoughts on “Love Those Whom You Study: the Legacy of Sarah Hammond and the Ethic of Critical Empathy

  1. “Critical empathy” is an apt term, and a good goal to strive toward.

  2. Hey Kathryn,

    I really want to thank you for this post. It gave me a lot to think about on a few levels, but first I am very glad you shared Sarah Hammond with the world. Whether or not everyone reads this article, her message of empathy and honest scholarship is lifted up by this article. Too often, I think that we use this empathy in our overly competitive western world, especially in academia, almost to the point that we cannot even see the very powerful point that you made in your article regarding the lack of accommodations for mental health in the academia. It is a shame, since I would assume many individuals are left outside of the Academia for various reasons, not the least of which is mental or cognitive challenges. So thank you for, in a way, speaking truth to power, to the AAR that just gathered and perhaps didn’t think this memorial event was as high of priority as the newest James Cone lecture or other high profile event.

    Beyond this, I think that you highlight a really important part of academia and religious leadership in general and that is that we should love whom we study and admire. As soon as you mentioned your admiration for her, my mind went to the late Forrest Church who was a leading scholar and minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I remember a few years ago when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and wrote his memoir, Love & Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow, how moved i was to learn about this great leader. I bought several of his books and met him once before he died. Now having been gone from us for a few years, I am still reminded about how much I appreciate his scholarship and religious leadership.

    Of course, there is a difference between someone dying at the end of a very long career and someone who is just beginning their career. Nevertheless, it is important that we do live by that idea of being both critical and empathetic, learning to have both the desire to change the world, but also be empathetic to the long journey of transformation.

    Nic Cable

    1. Nic,

      Thank you for your comments. I agree; I think the idea of loving the people we study- especially when we don’t agree with them- is really important. It goes a level beyond charitable reading.


  3. Kathryn,
    THANK YOU for this moving, beautiful post. I have been thinking about what it means for me to be an empathetic reader lately, and this spoke to me very powerfully. I will long keep this quote of Sarah’s with me: “The stranger the world seems–and some of these religious worlds will seem very strange–the greater the imaginative challenge. What could be more fun than that?” Thank you for introducing me to this remarkable woman and passing on her legacy in your words.
    Peace and Grace,

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