May 28, 2008 — Adam J. Jortner, a Ph.D. candidate in American history at the University of Virginia, is among 29 recipients of the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships given by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
Newcombe Fellows, doctoral candidates in the final year of writing dissertations that address religious and ethical values, receive a 12-month award of $23,000. Jortner is the 35th U.Va. graduate student to receive one of the Newcombe Fellowships since their establishment in 1981.
"This is very exciting," Jortner said. "It is a great honor and it puts my studies in a much broader range of discussion about religion."
Jortner, 32, of Blacksburg, Va., is writing his dissertation, "Reign of Witches: A Political History of the Supernatural in America, 1780-1838." Some people during this period based their religion on fantastic events — signs, miracles, visions — which eventually pitted political legitimacy against divine sanction.
"A lot of times, big culture wars revolve around faith or reason," he said. "This was a case of reason versus reason, because sides were accusing the other of lacking reason."
Jortner's work is examining how small religious groups, such as the Shakers and the Mormons, and the reaction to them, has shaped church-state relations in America.
"In America, we have a tendency to assume that the changes that occur are 'what the people want'; that change happens when people are 'ready' for it," he said. "But I don’t think that’s the case: U.S. society has been changed radically by small, intense groups that forced the changes upon us — and not always groups who wielded political power."
"Adam is a wonderful student, one of the best, and he has an original and brilliant approach to the history of Christianity in America," said Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History and Jortner's adviser.
Onuf said Jortner is very serious about his study of religion, which he approaches as a scholar, not a believer in a particular faith, and can see it through the eyes of other people.
"He has a superb prose style and a charismatic personality," Onuf said.
Funded by the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation of Princeton, N.J., the Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship is the nation's largest award for Ph.D. students addressing ethical and religious questions in the humanities and social sciences. Since its inception in 1981, the Newcombe Fellowship has supported more than 1,000 doctoral candidates, many of whom are now noted faculty at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and abroad. This year's 29 winners were selected from 452 applicants.
Jortner was drawn to history because he says it's a "catalogue of ways to be human," and allows him to track concepts people think are "essential," even in religion, which some think of as unchanging.
"A lot of what we think can never change actually can change — which is both inspiring and terrifying," he said. "Look at all the different ways, teachings, valences, philosophies, across time and around the globe, and it makes it clear that U.S. religion is always changing, and we’re not stuck in some pattern that was set in 1776."
Jortner is finishing a year as the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Fellow in American Religious History at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Next year, he will be at the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville, overseeing U.Va.’s Early American Seminar with faculty members Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy, George W. Van Cleve and graduate student Taylor Stoermer. He will seek a publisher for his dissertation and is planning a career in academia.
This year's Newcombe fellows represent 10 fields of study, including anthropology, history, philosophy, music and art, and come from 20 institutions nationwide. The 2008 Newcombe Fellows are writing on such topics as the influence of eugenics, as a social value of early 20th-century France, on modern Latin American architecture; the ways in which religious groups' claims of miracles shaped America's "republican experiment" in the years following the Revolutionary War; a comparison of Catholic and Islamic struggles with liberal democracy; and the impact of pre-Revolutionary China's lay Buddhists on contemporary Chinese views of religion and social engagement.
For information, visit www.woodrow.org/newcombe.