We are excited to announce that Professor Don Akenson has been awarded the university's highest research-related honour and has been named a Distinguished University Professor.
Don Akenson’s scholarly work while at Queen’s has been in several fields of history and also in related areas of social policy. Don is the sole author of 23 monographs, his most recent published just last year in 2018, Exporting the Rapture. John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North American Evangelicalism with a sequel in progress. He has been the editor of McGill-Queen’s Studies in the History of Religion since 1997. The collection now includes over 80 volumes published in memory of George A. Rawlyk. Following his first historical book The Irish Education Experiment: The National System of Education in the Nineteenth Century (1969) on 19th century Irish education, Don wrote separate historical studies of Irish public education in the twentieth century, north and south. These books led to his own continuing involvement in the movement for integrated education across the religious chasm in Ireland and directly stimulated the pioneers of integration in Northern Ireland.
From 1984-85 Don held a Guggenheim Fellowship during which time be published The Irish in Ontario: A Study in Rural History (1984) and Being Had: Historians, Evidence and the Irish in North America (1985). These two books highlight Don’s engagement in Canadian and American social history. Next Don focused on the related field of societal basis of nationalism and anti-nationalism in Ireland and in areas of Irish settlement around the world. Don published Small Differences: Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, 1815-1922: An International Perspective (1991), which used an analysis of social science data, as opposed to traditional historical sources, to examine the question “were Catholics and Protestants really different?” J.W. Auld called this book “a noteworthy warning against the intrusion of the cultural stereotyping … that distorts much Irish history.” Don has studied religious organizations and how religiously determined ideologies interacted with societal patterns: his interest was chiefly to see how religions worked on their own terms and to begin to understand how to distinguish the pathological from the merely traditional. Don’s book God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster (1992) was a timely publication in world geopolitics and was awarded the Grawemeyer Prize, of which other recipients have included Richard Neustadt, Mikhail Gorbachev and the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. God’s Peoples was also included on the list of 30 best books published in the USA in all genres in 1992.
Don was a serious farmer for a considerable time and one of the things he observed put him onto an entirely new intellectual train of thought: this was that the most successful farmers around him were Irish Catholic in background. It was intriguing, because the historical literature at the time held a near-universal consensus that Irish Catholic migrants in the 19th century were a “city people” and, indeed, could not adapt culturally to frontier rural life, much less agriculture.So, the questions were “was his own local area, eastern Ontario, merely an exception to the rule? And, if not, how wide and how far back did the exception run?” These questions produced a book that flipped the accepted Canadian ethnic historiography upside down. The Irish in Ontario: A Study in Rural History was one half a local study – every single piece of land and its owners in Leeds and Lansdowne townships was traced from initial colonization onwards – combined with a new Ontario-wide analysis of 19th century census data concerning religion, ethnicity, and property. The book was well received and led to thirty years or so of intermittent projects on the Irish diaspora, including a gender primer, various monographs on settler nations, and more recently a volume comparing poverty and migration from Ireland and from Sweden in the 19th century. As something of an homage to his training in economics as an undergrad, the book re-tabulated and corrected Swedish census data for the period, something the Swedes viewed with surprise. As a separate matter, Akenson has worked directly in the field of ancient religious history. His Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds has become a standard item, and his work on the “historical Jesus” question – entitled Saint Saul. A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus is a continuing part of a debate that, one suspects, will never be resolved. There are other completed projects, but the ongoing one that engages Don now is a three volume sequence that deals historically with a strange phenomenon: by what path did the United States come to have a large swath of its population allegiant to apocalyptic evangelicalism? The study is historical, based on fugitive sources (mostly archival; some in printed ephemera) that allow a largely hidden story to emerge. It is a contrarian project, in that it rejects the major operational premise of most work that leads to “American history” (the term that means the USA), namely that from roughly Independence onward, the really important things in American history were autochthonous. They were not: most of what are now core American beliefs, came from abroad – and, delicious irony, most of this apocalyptic thought came via Canada.