Abram Van Engen

Abram Van Engen

Dean’s Fellow for Educational Innovations and Initiatives
Professor of English
Professor of Religion and Politics (by courtesy)
Pronouns: he/him/his
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

contact info:

mailing address:

  • Washington University
    CB 1122
    One Brookings Drive
    St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

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).

    Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England

    Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England

    Revising dominant accounts of Puritanism and challenging the literary history of sentimentalism, Sympathetic Puritans argues that a Calvinist theology of sympathy shaped the politics, religion, rhetoric, and literature of early New England. Scholars have often understood and presented sentimentalism as a direct challenge to stern and stoic Puritan forebears; the standard history traces a cult of sensibility back to moral sense philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment, not Puritan New England. Abram C. Van Engen has unearthed pervasive evidence of sympathy in a large archive of Puritan sermons, treatises, tracts, poems, journals, histories, and captivity narratives. He demonstrates how two types of sympathy -- the active command to fellow-feel (a duty), as well as the passive sign that could indicate salvation (a discovery) -- permeated Puritan society and came to define the very boundaries of English culture, affecting conceptions of community, relations with Native Americans, and the development of American literature.

    Van Engen re-examines the Antinomian Controversy, conversion narratives, transatlantic relations, Puritan missions, Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative -- and Puritan culture more generally -- through the lens of sympathy. Demonstrating and explicating a Calvinist theology of sympathy in seventeenth-century New England, the book reveals the religious history of a concept that has previously been associated with more secular roots.