Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Memorials: Michael (Mike) McGiffert

Mike McGiffert served as Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly at the Omohundro Institute from 1972–1997. He also taught at the College of William & Mary.


Michael McGiffert (1928–2016) by Francis J. Bremer

A teacher, writer, and editor, Mike McGiffert specialized in Early American history with a focus on religious thought. He graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1949, and earned B.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale.

From 1954 to 1972 he taught American history at Colgate University and the University of Denver. While in Denver he published a history of The Higher Learning in Colorado and edited The Character of Americans: A Book of Readings (1970), Puritanism and the American Experience (1969), and American Social Thought: Sources and Interpretations (1972). In 1972 the University of Massachusetts Press published God’s Plot: The Parodoxes of Puritan Piety- Being the Autobiography & Journal of Thomas Shepard. His edition and annotation of the Shepard autobiography and journal was hailed as an important contribution to our understanding of the puritan mentality. In 1994 the University of Massachusetts press published God's Plot: Puritan Spirituality in Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge, which consisted of the earlier work, expanded to include many of the narratives of faith offered by lay people before Shepard’s Cambridge congregation.

Leaving Colorado for Williamsburg, Virginia, for twenty-five years he edited The William and Mary Quarterly, the preeminent journal of Early American history at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. He also taught at the College of William and Mary. He was zealous in seeking out authors, meticulous in reviewing and editing manuscripts submitted, and as concerned to help those whose work could not be placed in the journal as those whose work was accepted.

I first met Mike McGiffert when he travelled to Kentucky in 1975 to present a paper at a conference I had organized at Thomas More College on “Puritanism in Old and New England.” It was the beginning of a cherished friendship. Over the years Mike and I grew close as members of the diminishing tribe of students of puritanism, and particularly puritan religious ideas. He was a generous reader of my own manuscripts, helping to make them better books through his insight and encouragement.

In addition to his brilliant edition of Thomas Shepard’s journal, he published a number of insightful essays on the development of puritan covenant theology. Those articles became the foundation for a massive manuscript on that subject which he had nearly completed and which I have been working to prepare for publication. In the introduction to that work he discussed his ancestry, aspects of his own life, and his experiences as an author. For those who knew him, I believe his voice comes through in these written words.

The dedication of his study on covenant theology speaks to his ancestry:

“I dedicate [this work], with a layman’s grateful nod, to three generations of McGiffert clergymen. Heading them in time is Joseph Nelson McGiffert (1845–1896), a Presbyterian minister in Astabula, Ohio. Following on is Arthur Cushman McGiffert (1861–-1933). Presbyterian by heritage and Congregationalist by choice, he taught at and presided over Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The choice was forced by the threat of Presbyterian trial for publications that leaders of the New York Presbytery found heretical.1 Third comes Arthur Cushman McGiffert Jr. (1892–1993), Congregationalist. He taught at and presided over the Chicago Theological Seminary and the Pacific School of Religion.”

“These men are my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father. They were religiously mindful men. The latter two were active writers; their venturings and compassings are my heritage. Where they led, in mental investment though not in essential vocation, I follow. It should be said, in the interest of full disclosure, that they were Christian believers—the latter.”

“[My] grandfather, Arthur Cushman McGiffert was (I believe it’s fair to say) the first liberal American theologian to explore Christian theology over historic time. His major work, A History of Christian Thought, published in two volumes in 1933, is still in print…. My father, Arthur Cushman McGiffert Jr. wrote a pioneering study of the thought of Jonathan Edwards and edited a volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s youthful Unitarian sermons. I am indebted to him for readings of some of the earliest-drafted chapters of this book.”

“I prepared to follow professionally where they led but was deterred, after three years of seminary study, by failure of faith. The bachelor of divinity degree that Yale Divinity School awarded me in 1952 has remained in the desk drawer ever since.”

“I dedicate this book also to a woman and a man who are best—or worst—remembered for making themselves non grata with the covenanted clerical masters of puritan New England. The woman misbelieved and misbehaved—by those masters’ lights. The man misbehaved; we don’t know what he believed or, for that matter, disbelieved…. Hutchinson and Allerton: surely an odd couple. This book is those ancestors’ reward or recompense. It might interest them but I’m sure they would find it hard to approve. They were, for all their alterings of faith and piety, insiders. I stand apart not only from their commitments but also, it should be said, from Christian belief.”

“This book’s report undertakes to be as right as scholarship can be that is distanced from its subject in both time and thought. Learning licenses it; earnest intent is its warrant. The question is whether a nonreligious outsider’s detached and distanced view can do the subject justice. You, reader, standing where you stand and seeing as you see, will be the judge.”

Also imbedded in the introduction are discussions of how he came to study covenant theology and how he found the practice of scholarship changing over time:

He noted that his early work, while teaching at the University of Denver (1960–1974), focused on other themes. “My only venture into the field of puritan studies was an edition in 1972 of Thomas Shepard’s autobiography and journal, the latter transcribed for the first time from the original at the New York Public Library. I’d become acquainted with that rich document while researching an undergraduate honors thesis on Shepard’s role in New England’s antinomian controversy of the 1630s.

“Checking bibliography at the outset of the research that grounds the book you are reading, I was pleasantly surprised to find that few works of theological history touched upon the subject of God’s covenants and fewer still dealt with it in depth. A good deal of able, useful work had been done. Its substance gave cause for thanks; so, too, did its scarcity: the field of study, fifty years ago, lay largely unexplored; a substantial structure of historical learning was still to be built. My gratitude for such luck might, however, have been the less had I realized how very large that field would prove to be.”

“The timing of the project proved fortuitous. Had it begun earlier, it could only have been done the old-fashioned way, book by book by book by book. Many hours would have been spent in British and American libraries. Such visits would have been made pleasant by the hospitality of research librarians, but the cost in time and money was prohibitive. Serendipitously, the timing of my task was made both possible and easy, though still very long in the doing, by the invention of microfilm and the microfilm reader, the installing of these in libraries, and those libraries’ acquiring of hundreds of neatly packaged microfilms to read on them.”

“Such collections are now becoming defunct; the Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary—to whose resources and resourceful librarians I owe a deep debt—retired its entire microfilm collection not very long ago. Praise be, then, to the resourceful computer wizards at University Microfilms who produced Early England Books On-Line. Without that easily tapped resource, the present book could have been written.”

“Microfilm was read in somewhat shaded rooms by students and scholars who got exercise, as well as a stooped back, by turning the handle of a microfilm reader: to that cranking I owe a lasting grinch in the right elbow. A little practice made it possible to turn the handle very fast while keeping a sharp eye on the rolling film for that one magic word, covenant, and its correlatives. Hey, there it is, one said, and stopped cranking and started taking notes. I would not dare claim to have caught every reference. But I’m confident that no substantial source escaped this sweep of several hundred films.”

“Facilitated by EEBO, research for the present study was largely completed in October 1981. Writing began while I was editing, full time, the William and Mary Quarterly at the Institute of Early American History and Culture (now the Omohundro Institute) …”

“A journal I kept for a while records the process of creation. The entry for March 16, 2000 (during a period of academic leave), reads: ‘I sit down at the computer along about 9:30 and work for 2 or 2 1/2 hours about every morning. If I feel up to it and in the flow—and time is available—I write a little more in the afternoon and, rarely, in the evening. At top speed this regimen can produce 2-3 pages a day, but I can’t keep up that pace for long. I also keep going back over—and over and over—the text.”

“Keep up this routine day in, day out, week by week and month by month and this—the book you are reading—is what one gets. There were times, of course, when things did not go well—when thought slowed or when one seemed doomed to drown in a sea of sources that got ever wider and deeper. But there were also stretches when all went swimmingly and the joys of scholarship were real and strong.”

I for one will miss his kindness and the joy of talking with him of the world of the puritans.

Francis J. Bremer
Professor Emeritus of History
Millersville University of Pennsylvania

1. At a later point in his introduction Mike elaborated on this episode: “A Presbyterian minister and son of a Presbyterian minister, grandfather McGiffert taught most of his long career at Union Theological Seminary, then a Presbyterian institution in New York City; from 1916 to 1925 he also served as Union’s president. In that office he came under fire from a cadre of conservative Presbyterian ministers and laymen on whom the seminary relied for monetary support. They charged him with adopting, in one of his several studies in historical theology, the hermeneutic errors of the so-called higher criticism of God’s word. They threatened to close their pocketbooks while he remained in office. Finding them unalterably stiff, he took himself to East Orange, New Jersey, where he joined a Congregational church. The seminary accepted this tactful dodge and he remained in office. I have this story from my father.”