Paul Boyer, influential scholar of religious history, dies

March 26, 2012

by Susannah Brooks

Paul Boyer, Merle Curti Chair Emeritus in American History at UW-Madison, died in Madison on Saturday, March 17, after a short bout with cancer. He was 76.

A celebration of Boyer’s life and work will take place on Friday, April 27, at 4:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Drive. 

Known as an accomplished, even fastidious scholar, Boyer rarely drew attention to himself. Companionable and curious, he frequently sought out others’ opinions and returned his own, unsparing but generous in his critiques.

“Right from the start, Paul was a colleague of great intellectual integrity,” recalls close friend and colleague Charles Cohen, professor of history and religious studies and director of the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions. “The first piece I’d ever published was critical of some of the psychological theory he’d discussed in his book ‘Salem Possessed.’ When I interviewed here in 1984, [emeritus professor] Stan Kutler, who chaired the search committee, said, ‘Paul thinks you’re right.’ I thought, ‘How gracious; how unexpected.’ When I met him soon after, we didn’t talk about it at all.”

Boyer's work centered on religion and its impact on American life. His scholarship spanned an unusually large range of time periods – with equal aplomb, according to colleagues. While his book “Salem Possessed” covered the witch trials of the late 17th century, later titles including “By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age” and “When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture” cover issues nearly to the present.

Paul Samuel Boyer grew up in a Mennonite family in Dayton, Ohio. A conscientious objector, he still took sides on one subject in particular: the role of Dayton, home of the Wright Brothers, in aviation history.

“Paul was rarely caught up in the kinds of emotions about identity that often characterize us,” says Cohen. “But you never wanted to mention that Kitty Hawk had anything to do with the airplane; he could get almost bellicose. On that point, he was very much a son of Dayton.”

Beginning his studies at California’s Upland College, Boyer transferred to Harvard University following a two-year work assignment in Europe, serving at the headquarters of the International Voluntary Work Camps in Paris and building homes in post-war Germany. After completing both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Harvard, he became professor of American history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

In 1980, Boyer moved to Madison, where he rounded out his career as the Merle Curti Chair in American History. Among his many honors, he received fellowships from both the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations and was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of American Historians and the American Antiquarian Society. From 1993-2001, he also directed the Institute for Research in the Humanities. He held visiting professorships at UCLA, Northwestern University, and the College of William & Mary.

Following his retirement in 2002, he edited the History of American Thought and Culture series for the UW Press and co-authored several college textbooks.  He also remained in demand as a commentator in various scholarly and popular publications.

When Boyer received a diagnosis of late-stage cancer, he and his family eschewed heroic measures in favor of a shorter but more fulfilling time together.  Person by person, he reached out to friends and colleagues while methodically finishing the scholarly projects he had left. In addition to revisions on a textbook, he completed one final book, “A Very Brief Introduction to American History,” to be published later this spring.

As the days wound down, Cohen and his spouse, Christine, had planned to share a meal with their friends, but it turned into an hour-long visit in the Boyers’ home. Though they feared it might be their final chat, the subject didn’t come up.

“The way he faced the hand he’d been dealt was absolutely emblematic. He didn’t rail; it was very matter-of-fact,” says Cohen. “As many of our conversations were, the extraordinary thing may be that there was nothing extraordinary about it.”

Recalling Boyer’s careful attention during a tedious indexing project, Cohen notes how his friend’s work sustained him – even in the most difficult times.

“Doing an index is hardly joy-giving, but that same sense was apparent in our last conversation,” Cohen says. “He said, ‘With the strength I have, I do my work and I get lost in it. It takes my mind off this.’ Becoming so absorbed in the task didn’t put off the inevitable. But while he was working, he could forget everything. That dedication to the task, the joy of intellectual life, animated his career. It kept him going until the very end.”

Boyer’s survivors include his spouse of 50 years, Ann; their children, Alex (Mary) of Minneapolis and Kate (Michael Buser) of Bristol, England; two grandsons; his brother, William (Esther); and two sisters-in-law, Kathryn Boyer and Marion Talbot Brady (Jeremiah).

Contributions in his honor may be made to the University of Wisconsin Foundation, the Mennonite Central Committee or Wisconsin Public Television.