Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with James O'Brien, August 19, 2017

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Search this Index
00:00:00 - Introducing James O'Brien, who portrays a civilian preacher from the American Civil War

Play segment

Partial Transcript: This is an unrehearsed oral history interview for the Living History Oral History Project. My name is JD Carruthers. Today is Saturday, August the 19th, 2017.

Segment Synopsis: James O'Brien says he portrays a civilian clergy from the American Civil War period, and that he has portrayed this role for nineteen years. He says that he is ordained specifically for historical events. He says he has seminary training and could have a regular congregation. He talks about his seminary education at Kentucky Christian University. He defines the term "homiletics" which is the discipline of developing sermons. He says he researches diaries, journals, and letters written by clergy during the 19th century to support his living history interpretations. He talks about an ancestor of his who was a 19th century circuit rider, and that his journals are a source for both theological and historical information.

Keywords: Circuit riding; Clergy; Congregations; Education; Grayson (Ky.); Hebrew; Homiletics; James A. Ramage Civil War Museum; Kentucky Christian University; Latin; Ordained ministers; Religious rites; Research; Seminary; Sources

Subjects: Civil war.; Clergy--Books and reading; Clergy--Family relationships.; Clergy.; Frontier and pioneer life--Kentucky.; Frontier and pioneer life.; Kentucky--History--1792-1865.; Kentucky--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.; Kentucky--History.

00:07:03 - Historical circuit riding / Military chaplains

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And now, a lot of these circuits would be, I presume, would be somewhat overlapping, uh, depending on denominations.

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien talks about the history of circuit riding clergy and the different denominations to which they ministered. He says the Methodists used the circuits the most and had the largest circuits. He says circuit riding clergy occasionally reported appropriating converts from other denominations which was referred to as "flock stealing." He talks about how civilian clergy would often visit encamped troops during the Civil War, especially if the unit did not have their own chaplain. He also talks about how civilian clergy might have been temporarily conscripted by marching armies during the Civil War. O'Brien relates the story of a Dr. Hobson who was a surgeon and minister for Disciples of Christ and a Confederate sympathizer. He says Dr. Hobson was arrested for being John Hunt Morgan's chaplain, and was briefly imprisoned before being expelled from Union lines and forced to join General Morgan on parole. He says the source of this story was a memoir written by Dr. Hobson's wife in the 1880s. He describes his research process of tracing secondary source footnotes back to the primary source to learn more about Dr. Hobson.

Keywords: Baptists; Camp Clements; Chaplaincy; Conscription; Conversions; Denominations; Dr. Hobson; Flock stealing; John Hunt Morgan; Parole; Preachers; Regimental chaplains; Research; Sources; Theology

Subjects: Disciples of Christ.; Methodist; Military chaplains.; Presbyterian

00:18:01 - Attending living history events / Living history organization

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Now in your capacity as an interpreter, uh, you come out to--how many of these events do you do typically each year? Do you usually stay around the Cincinnati area?

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien talks about slowing down in his living history activities. He says he and his wife once did twenty-five events each year. He says he avoids winter encampments. He says he is an independent living history interpreter and minister, and is not associated with a living history organization. He says independence gives him greater flexibility. He says he is unaware of living history organizations strictly for religious interpreters.

Keywords: Church services; Living history events; Military units; Ministry; Religious interpreters; Winter encampments

Subjects: Clergy.; Kentucky--History.

00:21:09 - Ownership of identity in living history

Play segment

Partial Transcript: One of the issues I'm interested in researching in this, I refer to as, uh, a matter of ownership and uh, as an example, last year about this time I was in Sturbridge, Massachusetts interviewing people at a Revolutionary War era event...

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien says that he believes living history interpreters that portray a religious persona should have some religious background. He says historically lay preaching was common, and he is fine with that practice as a living historian. He says that a lay minister should not conduct sacraments as a living historian. He adds that he has seen a living history interpreter deliver a sermon using a New International Version Bible, which is not historically correct. He says King James Bible or a Douay-Rheims is more historically correct than NIV or Jerusalem Bible. He says J.R.R. Tolkien and Alexander Campbell translated versions of the Bible. He says that living history religious interpretations need to use the period correct versions of literature, and that a religious and historical background is necessary to support an authentic and realistic portrayal. He distinguishes religious from ethnic portrayals by noting that perhaps people from ethnic backgrounds may not want to do living history, thus leaving a gap. He talks about a female chaplain during the Civil War who served unordained with a Wisconsin artillery unit. He adds that she did not serve in disguise. He says that a minister is the only persona he portrays.

Keywords: Alexander Campbell; Attire; Authenticity; Campbellites; Church services; Douay-Rheims Bible; Ethnic culture; Gender roles; Historical realism; J.R.R. Tolkien; Jerusalem Bible; King James Bible; Lay preachers; Native Americans; New International Version of Bible; Oration; Ordained ministers; Personas; Professional persona; Religio-Politico Society; Religious rites; Research; Sources; Theology

Subjects: Bible.; Chaplains.; Clergy.; Disciples of Christ.; Kentucky--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.; Kentucky--History.

00:31:32 - History of denominational schism

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Well that--my understanding is that is where the term Southern Baptist comes from, that it was a split about the time of, either immediately before or during the Civil War...

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien says the schism over slavery in United States protestant denominations began to appear as early as the 1840s. He says much of his historical research has focused on his own denomination, Disciples of Christ. He talks about the portrayal of Father William Corby in the film "Gettysburg" and how he is pictured from behind because the actor's beard was too short to be authentic, even though it was a real beard. He mentions a notable Confederate chaplain, Abram Joseph Ryan. He notes that history often focuses on political and military issues, and does not always address religious issues. He says Kentucky Christian University had a two-semester course of the history of the Disciples of Christ, but he cannot speak about other seminaries' courses on religious history. He says that digital resources provide greater access to original historical sources. He describes how he can find historical sermons via the internet, eliminating the need to travel to an archive and handle fragile materials, and that he transcribes interesting sermons by hand.

Keywords: Abram Joseph Ryan; Baptists; Chaplaincy; Digital archives; Father William Corby; Gettysburg (Motion picture); Religious history; Research; Sources; Whig Party

Subjects: Catholic; Chaplains.; Clergy.; Corby, William, 1833-1897; Disciples of Christ.; Methodist; Presbyterian; Protestant; Ryan, Abram Joseph, 1839-1886

00:37:46 - Authenticity and realism with sermons

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Now when you deliver a, a sermon like this, um, when you deliver your own sermons at, at religious services at, uh, at an event such as this, would you--do you like memorize and recite verbatim a, an original, uh, sermon...

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien says that during the Civil War, ministers gave sermons extemporaneously, and that religious services often lasted for hours. He says he tries to deliver authentic sermons and delivers them using 19th century language and focusing on a message that is applicable to both the Civil War period and contemporary period. He says he researches original period sermons online and then transcribes in his own hand to create a set of notes that is realistic, and then he reads it in "manuscript style" and he will give credit to the original author at the end of his presentation. He says that he can do both first person and third person personas, depending on the event. He says most events are a mix of first and third person voice. He says when he presents in first person voice, his persona is a composite generic character. He says he is now at the age to portray his great-great-great uncle who was a minister in his fifties during the Civil War. He says he only knows of his ancestor's ministry based on reports in religious journals which do not mention visiting any battlefields. He says this is the reason he emphasizes a civilian clergy role rather than military chaplain. He speaks of his great-great grandfather who served in the Union cavalry during the Civil War.

Keywords: Authenticity; Composite characters; First person voice; Historical realism; Manuscripts; Periodization; Religious journals; Research; Sermons; Sources; Third person voice

Subjects: Chaplains.; Clergy.; Sermons.

00:43:52 - Authentic artifacts and realism

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Now I notice you have a volume, uh, I presume that's a, uh, uh, one of the translations of the Bible?

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien shows off a copy of a King James New Testament published in the 1850s by the American Bible Society which he purchased in a Cincinnati used book store. He says he must be very careful using the original artifact and does not use it during bad weather. He says he has a few reproduction pocket testaments for his living history interpretation. He says the American Bible Society in New York published virtually the same translation of the Bible as a Confederate publisher. He says he prefers the authentic artifact over a reproduction because the print is larger and easier to read. He discusses the desirability of using realistic reproductions mixed with authentic artifacts in different applications at living history events. He says both authenticity and realism is desirable and instructive.

Keywords: American Bible Society; Artifacts; Authenticity; Historical realism; King James New Testament; Reproductions

Subjects: Bible.; Clergy.

00:49:33 - Living history religious rites

Play segment

Partial Transcript: One of the functions of a clergy in any capac--or any setting would be, uh, performing of religious rites.

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien says that during living history events he has presided over communion or the Lord's Supper, although he adds that at the time of the Civil War the common view was that communion should be kept within members of a denomination. He says he has been invited to perform a wedding, but he has not been bonded by the state. He talks about a time when he christened a cannon during a living history event at Heritage Village in Sharon Woods. He says he has not participated in a funeral at a Civil War event, but he did attend a recreation of a Shaker funeral at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. He said he portrayed a Shaker persona and not the "world's people."

Keywords: Bonding; Christening; Communion; Costume interpreters; Denominations; Funerals; Heritage Village Museum; Lord's Supper; Shaker Village Pleasant Hill; Sharon Woods Park; Weddings

Subjects: Chaplains.; Clergy.

00:53:31 - Levels of interest in living history

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Which brings up a question I had about the public interest in living history.

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien talks about the waxing and waning interest in public history, and he attributes the waning interest to educational institutions who do not present history in an interesting or informative way. He talks about the importance of personalizing the historical narrative by understanding the human condition rather than focusing so much on facts and statistics. He refers to a diary entry in which a woman talks about the return of her husband from the war after he lost a leg, and how his spirit had changed. He talks about other personal accounts he has researched which makes the narrative more real. He talks about how living history makes the human experience seem real. He talks about Ken Burns' use of the Sullivan Ballou letter in conjunction with Ashokan Farewell to achieve a narrative effect. He talks about how living history interpreters need to have a detailed understanding of facts, and he uses the example of how many states there were in 1863 since states were added during the course of the year. He says it is important for a living historian to know periodization in detail, including the year and the month. He talks about several Ph.D.s that he knows that are living history interpreters.

Keywords: Ashokan Farewell; Authenticity; Education; Flags; History textbooks; Ken Burns; Living historians; Newspapers; Periodization; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); Reenactors; Research; Robert E. Lee; Social history; Sources; Sullivan Ballou; U.S. Grant

Subjects: Civil War documentary series; Civil war.; Kentucky--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.; Kentucky--History.

01:06:50 - Time machine metaphor for living history

Play segment

Partial Transcript: One of the books that I've read, some of the literature I've read in my research, uh, was by Jay Anderson, uh, a book called "Time Machines."

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien says that he thinks living history brings the past forward rather than taking people into the past. He says when he does an 1860 portrayal, he presents a neutral viewpoint, which was not a safe position during that period. He talks about how Cincinnati was split by the attitude of "whose side are you on?" He adds that many Cincinnatians were sympathetic with the South because that is where they traded, and not because of sympathy with slavery. He tries to make a presentation from a 19th century lens and not 21st century.

Keywords: Cincinnati (Ohio); Living historians; New Orleans (La.); Periodization; Riots; Trade

Subjects: Civil war.; Clergy.; Kentucky--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.

01:12:21 - Living history and interpretation of bias

Play segment

Partial Transcript: So it's important really to--I mean like, a lot of issues like questions of slavery or racism or misogyny or religious bigotry that is not necessarily politically correct to talk about, um, as a living historian you think it's something we absolutely should be talking about.

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien says that living history needs to address controversial issues and biased attitudes of the past carefully but directly. He says it is not appropriate to interject a 21st century attitude into the past. O'Brien refers to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address quote "with malice toward none, with charity for all" as a useful lesson in contemporary social discourse.

Keywords: Bias; Historical lenses

Subjects: Civil war.; Kentucky--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.; Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.

01:15:12 - Favorite living history memory

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Well, I, I, I've taken you away from, uh, your, uh, duties long. I appreciate it. I do have have one last question. I call it my capstone question.

Segment Synopsis: O'Brien talks about one of his favorite memories during his living history career, when he viewed a reenactment of the battle of Mills Springs near Somerset, Kentucky in 1998. He says during the original battle, the field was obscured by thick fog and the combatants could not tell who was who. He said the 1998 event was coincidentally just as foggy, which inhibited spectators from seeing much of the action, although O'Brien and his wife appreciated how realistic the fog was. He says after the event, he spoke to a friend who was a reenactor portraying a Confederate officer. He says the friend was shaken because he had ordered his troops to fire a simulated volley toward other troops in the fog only to discover the other unit was also Confederate. He says had this been actual combat, there would have been casualties from friendly fire, and that such an incident actually happened in the real battle.

Keywords: Fog; Friendly fire; General Felix Zolicoffer; Mill Springs; Realism; Somerset (Ky.); Weather conditions

Subjects: Civil war.; Kentucky--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.