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Mount Historian Curtis Johnson Named Delaplaine Professor

College of Liberal Arts Staff

Curtis Johnson feature

President Timothy Trainor, Ph.D., recently named Professor of History Curtis Johnson, Ph.D., the next Delaplaine Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at Mount St. Mary’s University. The professorship honors “excellence in teaching and scholarship,” and those who hold it are expected to “contribute to curricular development and teaching, particularly in the core curriculum.” Johnson succeeds Susann Samples, Ph.D., a professor of world languages and cultures, who just completed a successful term as Delaplaine Professor on the theme of the black diaspora in Europe.

Occupants of the endowed chair lead in successive summers two seminars with Mount faculty members. During the professorship’s final year, the holder expands the theme through undergraduate courses and public events. Established in the mid-1990s, the award was funded through a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) matching gift program. Generous local Mount benefactors George and Bettie Delaplaine made the private gift, which the NEH matched to establish the award.

As Delaplaine Professor, Johnson will study the rising tide of secularization in American society, particularly as it relates to Generation Z.   Johnson observed that “Multiple public opinion surveys have demonstrated the rapid secularization of Generation Z nationally” and “Mount Saint Mary’s reflects national trends” to some degree.  Johnson sees value studying the causes and impact of these national trends and then exploring with faculty colleagues how a Catholic university like the Mount should respond.  He said, “The first summer, we will examine why the current generation of college students is ‘the least religious generation in American history.’” In the second seminar, faculty participants will apply what they have discovered to teaching and learning at the Mount, particularly in the core curriculum.

Johnson, who came to the Mount in 1985 with a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, is extremely well qualified to lead this initiative.  He stands tall in a Mount faculty long known for teaching excellence.  Emmy Jansen, C ’23, an English and conflict, peace and social justice major, called Johnson “one of my favorite professors at the Mount.  Anyone who says history is boring has not taken a class taught by him!” Praising the “expertise and enthusiasm” her professor demonstrated in his Manhood in America course, Jansen said, “the concepts he taught me have become relevant in every course I’ve taken since.”  She also marveled how he formed “a group of unengaged students into a team that thirsted for the knowledge he had to offer, simply because he radiates ideals that are the cornerstone of academia.”  History and philosophy major Joseph Myron, C'22, admired how Johnson “grasps multiple, critical aspects of history in his teaching” in ways that “encourage students to see history beyond something that merely happened in the past, but as something greatly influencing the present.”  Myron added, “His knowledge and teaching style have been very helpful in my academic growth.” 

Johnson combines teaching excellence with a distinguished scholarly record. History Department Chair and Director of Academic Programming Gregory Murry, Ph.D., stated, “Students and faculty at the Mount know Curt Johnson as a beloved and engaging teacher, as well as a generous mentor and colleague.  What is perhaps less well known (because Curt is not naturally one to brag about his accomplishments) is that he is also an influential figure in the field of American religious history with several important books and articles to his name.  We are very lucky to have him leading the Delaplaine on this important and relevant topic.”  In addition to penning numerous articles and reviews, Johnson has published two books on the role of religion in American society, Islands of Holiness: Rural Religion in Upstate New York, 1790-1860 (1989, reprinted 2012), and Redeeming America: Evangelicals and the Road to Civil War (1993). 

Johnson’s third book, forthcoming in November 2021, The Power of Mammon: The Market, Secularization, and New York State Baptists, 1790-1922, meshes well with the theme of secularization that will be the focus of the Delaplaine seminars.  While studying the records of more than 40 Baptist churches and almost 20,000 believers in New York state, Johnson “kept making discoveries that contradicted much of the established historical literature.”  He found that women played important roles in Baptist church governance in the 1810s and that the evangelistic revivals of the 1830s were not nearly as successful as previous historians claimed.  “Eventually,” he said, “I realized these findings were only a part of a much larger story: that the market economy and its associated distractions were the primary forces secularizing Baptists and their churches in the long 19th century.”  Always meticulous and thorough about collecting and analyzing data, Johnson employed innovative statistical measures to support his conclusions.

In addition to developing extraordinary expertise in teaching and scholarship, Johnson has generously accepted many roles in service to Mount St. Mary’s.  He chaired the history department; he directed the American Experience program; and he currently leads our America in the World program. He also served on the important Tenure, Rank and Awards Committee, the Undergraduate Academic Committee, and the Middle States Self-Study Steering Committee, among many others.  In 2011, he received the Class of 1950 Memorial Award for service to the university, and in 2017 he received the John Richards Award for Teaching Excellence, the Mount’s top teaching honor.

When asked about his long tenure at Mount St. Mary’s, Johnson recalled “When I interviewed here for a history position in 1985, the search committee asked me why I wanted to teach at the Mount.  I told them that I wanted to teach at an institution that took religious ideas seriously. I continue to see that as one of the Mount’s strengths.”  And, certainly, having professors like Johnson is one reason why the Mount is so strong.   

College of Liberal Arts Staff