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Professor co-edited book on a pioneering religious historian


David Edward Harrell Jr., the pre-eminent historian of the South’s most remarkable religious movements, is celebrated in a new book, “Recovering the Margins of American Religious History: The Legacy of David Edwin Harrell Jr.”

Dr. Scott Billingsley, an associate professor of history at UNC Pembroke, co-edited the collection of essays. He was a student of Dr. Harrell’s at Auburn University, where Dr. Billingsley earned his doctorate in history.

Dr. Billingsley discussed the book and his mentor in an interview not long after the book’s publication by the University of Alabama Press.

“He focused on the marginalized religious movements of the South,” Dr. Billingsley said. “His major areas of study were the Restoration movement, which includes charismatics, fundamentalists, the Disciples of Christ, independent Christian churches and the Church of Christ. He wrote biographies on Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson.

“Ed was the leading historian in this field for a long time,” he said. “If you are going to study religion in the South, you have to read him.”

Dr. Harrell made his mark in 1974 with the publication of “All Things Are Possible,” his groundbreaking work on the early years of charismatic and healing movements. Before that, Dr. Harrell pushed the envelop with his 1971 book “White Sects and Black Men.”

“‘All Things Are Possible’ was a big hit with charismatics because it was the first time someone told their story objectively,” Dr. Billingsley said. “That is why Oral Roberts allowed an academic like Ed to write his biography.

“He was critical, but he was fair,” he continued.

Now in his 80s, Dr. Harrell attended the formal introduction of the book during a conference in the summer of 2012. Since 2005, the book has been an on-again-off-again project between the UNCP professor and co-editor B. Dwain Waldrep, a professor and chair of the Department of Arts and Sciences at Southeastern Bible College.

“In 2010, I put everything else away to focus on it,” he said. “Edited collections can be difficult, but this was a nice experience.”

Most of the contributors were students and/or friends of Dr. Harrell, and they are some of the leading scholars in the fields that Dr. Harrell first plowed, Dr. Billingsley said. The UNCP historian also contributed an essay, “The Midas Touch: Kenneth E. Hagin and the Prosperity Gospel.”

“Although he did not share the celebrity of other charismatic evangelists, such as Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson, Hagin became one of the most influential religious leaders in post-World War II America,” Billingsley said. “Ed wrote about Hagin in ‘All Things Are Possible,’ and I would like to write his biography if I can get his family’s permission.”

Dr. Billingsley came to UNCP in 2003 and teaches courses in religion, technology, American history since 1945, including an upper level course on the Vietnam War. But his scholarship, like Dr. Harrell’s, is the study of religion in the South.