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British Association for American Studies


In Memory of Louis Billington (1936-2016)


In Memory of Louis Billington (1936-2016)

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“He forgot more history than most of us will ever remember”:

Louis Billington (8 July 1936-13 November 2016)

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Louis Billington’s death sadly deprives the British Association for American Studies of a much-admired British pioneer of the study of American popular religion, its transatlantic context, and its implications for the social history of the United States. He was one of the youngest members of the first generation of BAAS, which he joined in 1958 as a 23 year-old research student at the University of Bristol. He helped to shape the intellectual profile of the American Studies community in Britain during those early years and contributed to the sense of excitement that inspired it (a subject he discussed with affectionate discernment in an essay for the Journal of American Studies in 2008: ‘Pioneering American Studies: Ten Years of the Bulletin, 1956-1966’.)

Louis established himself as a loyal and authoritative contributor to the Journal of American Studies over a period of four decades from its founding in 1967. He brought to its pages, as well as to BAAS conferences, his deep knowledge of religious revivalism, millennialism, varieties of sectarianism, women’s preaching, and the radical reform movements they inspired. His scholarly assurance and ability sympathetically to enter the worlds of these groups – and his determination to take them seriously – was founded on a mastery of sources, in particular the religious periodical and newspaper press, and first-hand accounts of the religious experience of ministers and lay-people. Louis was much influenced by Whitney R. Cross’s classic work, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (1950) and also by Frank Thistlethwaite’s The Anglo-American Connection in the Early Nineteenth Century (1959), which explored the intertwined relationship of British and American reform movements, including antislavery, temperance, and women’s rights – subjects particularly close to his heart.

Louis’s most significant published work appeared as scholarly articles in the Journal of American Studies: ‘The Millerite Adventists in Great Britain, 1840-1850” (vol. 1, no. 2: Oct., 1967); ‘British Humanitarians and American Cotton, 1840-1860 (vol. 11, no. 3: Dec., 1977); and ‘”Female Laborers in the Church”: Women Preachers in the Northeastern United States, 1790-1840’ (vol. 19, no. 3: Dec., 1985). Two other influential articles appeared in the Journal of Religious History: ‘The Churches of Christ in Britain: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Sectarianism’ (1974) and ‘Popular Religion and Social Reform: A Study of Revivalism and Teetotalism’ (1979). Louis was also an assured reviewer of books for the Journal of American Studies, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the English Historical Review. His reviews were always discerning and fair. If his critiques could sometimes be trenchant (as I personally discovered, as a raw younger historian!), it was only because he measured other historians’ work against his own exacting scholarly standards. The high bar that he set might explain why he did not write the book on nineteenth-century sectarianism for which he was so well equipped. Yet the absence of a monograph from his oeuvre does not diminish the quality and value of his fine scholarly legacy. My own work would have been the poorer without it: thank you, Louis.

Professor Richard Carwardine is the current President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford


When I first came to the American Studies Department at the University of Hull in 1992 Louis Billington was my Head of Department.  Over the course of the next 24 years he became much more to me.  I arrived with my newly-minted PhD into a higher education system that was foreign to me and bore little or no resemblance in those days to the American education system that produced me.  Louis guided me through the ins and outs of university teaching and administration.  He gave me some of the most valuable career advice I had ever received.  Not only did he help me structure my teaching and my university committee work, he introduced me to BAAS where I went on to become a member of the executive committee, Secretary and Secretary General of EAAS.  I eventually followed in his footsteps into the role of Head of Department.  Throughout this journey Louis was always there – with advice, as a sounding board, as my own personal cheer-leader and as a good, faithful friend.

Louis was one of the smartest historians I ever met.  I often thought he forgot more history than most of us will ever remember.  Thankfully he seemed to think that I too had some knowledge of American history so he was willing to engage in long, thoughtful discussions of everything from colonial American race relations to the most recent presidential primary season.  His office at Hull was wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books – all of which he had read at least once and I always enjoyed trying to find the most obscure title I could.  My favorite was The History of the Clam Bake.

Louis also took it upon himself to show me the countryside surrounding Hull.  Back in the ‘good old days’ we took off every couple of weeks, on a week day no less, and explored towns and villages within a day’s drive.  Whether we were visiting Fountains or Rievaulx Abbies, Stamford, Whitby, Goatland, the Dales, Boston Lincolnshire or even Blackpool I could be sure of two things: he would get us there using the most obscure backroads and once we arrived he would know the best pub for lunch.  I also got history lessons, both national and local, throughout the day.  I wouldn’t trade a single memory for any amount of gold, though his driving did often scare the pants off me.

Louis retired only a few years after my arrival but we remained close friends.  We met at least once a week for drinks and conversation and there were very few if any topics about which Louis did not have an opinion.  In the last few years he was invaluable to me in my research on US Army chaplains in World War II because of his vast knowledge of American religious history.  I would give him chaplain memoirs or diaries to read and we would discuss them over glasses of good quality wine.  The real trick was keeping Louis on track in the conversation.  I am sure many students remember Louis for his oft repeated statement – ‘but I digress’.

I retired in February 2016 and moved back to the US in March and rarely did a day go by that I didn’t think, ‘I would like to tell Louis about this’.  I missed him and now he’s gone, but I am sure he is regaling someone, somewhere with his stories.

Dr Jenel Virden is Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Hull[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]