I am an assistant professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University, working on digital history and the history of American religions. You can find a link to just about anything I've worked on in my CV or in the blog archives. Some of my work is described in more detail on the research page, and my syllabi are on the teaching page along with workshop materials. You can write to me at lincoln@lincolnmullen.com.

Interview with the Setup

[I was interviewed by The Setup, “a collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done.” The interview is there and below.]

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Lincoln Mullen and I’m a historian at George Mason University. I teach and write about American religious history; at the moment I’m writing a history of people who converted between religions in the nineteenth-century United States. I’m also a digital historian at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. I’m responsible for teaching a graduate course on computer programming for historians, for which I’m writing a book (still very much a rough draft) on using R for digital history.

What hardware do you use?

I have a 15" MacBook Pro with an Intel i7 processor, an SSD, and 16 GB of RAM provided by my department. I also use a ThinkPad T430 which was my main machine during graduate school. There is an unremarkable Dell external monitor on my desk. I have an iPhone 5C but I more and more dislike using a phone for anything.

I really like my Timbuk2 Command Laptop messenger; I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

And what software?

I used to play around with software much too often. Now I’ve settled down with a few organizing principles influenced by Mike Gancarz’s Linux and the Unix Philosophy: I use Unix-style tools and store my data in plain text or flat files. Everything that I write is formatted in Markdown using the Pandoc extensions. John MacFarlane’s Pandoc is peerless for converting between markup formats. I use some custom LaTeX templates with Pandoc. I use Vim, often in the terminal but usually in MacVim, for all text editing. Every project—writing, coding, you name it—is kept under version control with Git and almost always made available on GitHub. Almost every project is built by GNU Make. All of that is run through the shell, usually ZSH. My dotfiles and Vim files are available on GitHub.

I used to write in several different programming languages, but now I use R if at all possible. It took me some getting used to R and functional programming, but R really is a beautiful language for data analysis. It is made even better by the “Hadleyverse” of packages written by Hadley Wickham, such as dplyr, tidyr, and ggplot2. I use Yihui Xie’s knitr package to write and code together in R Markdown. RStudio (in Vim mode) is my only exception to the rule about using Vim for everything; it is a very nicely done IDE for R. Even better, I can use the server version of RStudio on a much more powerful machine, or for teaching a workshop, and get the same interface. If I can’t write it in R, then I use Ruby, which is also beautiful. JavaScript is not beautiful, but Mike Bostock’s D3.js is; I use it for interactive data visualizations and maps.

For managing citations I use Zotero, an excellent open-source application and web service by my colleagues at RRCHNM. My notes are written in Markdown, stored in Git, and edited in Vim, but they are turned into a wiki by Gitit.

For most websites, like my personal site or my course syllabi, I use Jekyll. Jekyll is a static site generator written in Ruby so I’m comfortable writing plugins for it; it uses Markdown (with a Pandoc plugin) so I can write in plain text and keep the site under version control. For any kind of web exhibit or other scholarly website I use Omeka (think WordPress for galleries, libraries, archives, museums, and scholars). Omeka is also created by my colleagues at RRCHNM. If I assign students to write blog posts, then I use WordPress. I’ve been really pleased with Reclaim Hosting, which provides hosting to educators and students.

The ThinkPad runs Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. Whenever I spool up a cloud or local virtual machine, it runs Ubuntu. I often use Vagrant with VirtualBox to create development environments. Homebrew is obligatory for installing development dependencies on a Mac.

I use a few Mac or web apps: iTerm 2 as a terminal emulator; OmniFocus for task management, which I could probably use better; BackBlaze for online backups; DropBox for file syncing; Caffeine to keep my monitor from going to sleep while I’m teaching; QGIS for GIS work if I really must; Transmit for FTP and Amazon S3; TextExpander for snippets; Spectacle for window management; Feedly for reading feeds.

My open-source or open-access licenses of choice are MIT for software and CC-BY for prose.

What would be your dream setup?

I have plenty of computing power and can rent more cheaply. I don’t even have much to complain about when it comes to battery power. I wish that there was a way to teach students digital methods without going through the grime of setting up a development environment.

I’ve never found an e-reader that I liked. I want a device with a large-enough screen approaching an 8.5" by 11" piece of paper that could read e-books and PDFs of journal articles, nineteenth-century books, and students papers with equal ease, preferably with an e-ink screen. Is that too much to ask?

And most of all, I’d like more and more academic work in history and the humanities to be released online (in pre-prints like arXiv, or in final versions) in open formats and hopefully under open-access licenses.

USAboundaries Package for R

The Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture has released a set of shapefiles for historical state and county boundaries from 1629 to 2000 as part of their Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. These shapefiles are very useful for creating historical maps, so I’ve bundled them with a few convenience functions as the USAboundaries package for R. This package makes it easy to make a map for any arbitrary day in United States history.


map_1844 <- us_boundaries(as.Date("1844-03-21"))
The United States on March 21, 1844
Figure 1: The United States on March 21, 1844 [PNG]

For more, see the documentation. The package is available on CRAN.

Preliminary Reading List for Religion and Capitalism

[This post was originally published at Religion in American History. Readers there made many additional suggestions.]

This spring I’ll have a chance to teach a graduate readings seminar on the history of religion and American capitalism. This a course I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and for a number of reasons I think it is worth doing.

The first reason is that the field of American religious history is shot through with (mostly unexamined) economic metaphors. The most obvious of these metaphors is that there was a “marketplace” of denominations or religions in the United States. As a field I don’t think we’ve yet reckoned with theoretical work like Leigh Schmidt’s groundbreaking but infrequently cited essay, “Practices of Exchange: From Market Culture to Gift Economy in the Interpretation of American Religion.” Then too, much thinking about religion and capitalism boils down the idea that religion supports (or should support) capitalism or opposes (or should oppose) capitalism. If the “line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart,” it seems to me that promotion of and resistance to capitalism runs right through most religious groups. I hope this class will be a chance to examine, and perhaps discard, some of these ways of talking about the field.

Second, the class should be a way of integrating disparate streams of American religious history. As I’ve written elsewhere, what I think our field needs most is synthetic work that brings together the rich but fragmentary studies of different groups. There are many ways to attempt this, but to the extent that capitalism is the water in which all these denominational fishes swim, examining how various groups have interacted with capitalism seems like an obvious way to attempt integration.

Third, the so-called “new history of capitalism” is a vibrant and growing field. Witness Seth Rockman’s recent essay, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?,” in the Journal of the Early Republic, or Edward Baptist’s recent The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and Making of American Capital. Some of the most interesting recent work in American religious history has contributed to this field. One thinks of Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart at one end of the chronological spectrum, and Mark Valeri’s Heavenly Merchandize at the other, with plenty more in between. Still I sense plenty of opportunity for American religious historians to borrow from and give back to the new history of capitalism.

That leads me to the last reason, which is that there are still many gaps in the history of religion and capitalism in the United States. There are some articles and chapters on Mormons and the economy, but nothing comparable to Leonard Arrington’s 1958 Great Basin Kingdom. I had hoped to include a book on slavery, religion, and capitalism, but I couldn’t find anything suitable (correct me if I’m wrong!). The history of the Catholic Worker movement could be updated since Mel Piehl’s 1982 Breaking Bread. Eventually I’d like to do some work on those gaps, and perhaps the other members of the seminar will find their own topics of interest.

But it’s perilous to point out lacunae in the literature, since those holes might just be gaps in my reading or thinking. So I put the question to you, RinAH readers. Below is the core of the reading list (not a full syllabus, obviously) for the semester, following a one-book-per-week rule. I intend to add a list of related but not required reading to each week of the syllabus. (Very rough start here.) And I’m almost certainly going to include excerpts from theoretical works on capitalism by Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Bourdieu etc. What would you do differently? What other works would you recommend?

  1. Valeri, Mark. Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

  2. Engel, Katherine Carte. Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

  3. Block, Kristen. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

  4. Noll, Mark A., ed. God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

  5. Stewart Davenport, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815–1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

  6. McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

  7. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

  8. Arrington, Leonard J. Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1900. New edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

  9. Kobrin, Rebecca, ed. Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press,
  10. Phillips, Paul T. A Kingdom on Earth: Anglo-American Social Christianity, 1880–1940. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

  11. Heineman, Kenneth J. A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

  12. Hudnut-Beumler, James. In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

  13. Bowler, Kate. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

  14. Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,

Gender package now on CRAN

Gender is an R package which takes names and associated dates or ranges of dates and predicts the gender of the name. The gender package is now on CRAN for the first time; you can also see the package README at GitHub. This is the package description:

Encodes gender based on names and dates of birth, using either the Social Security Administration’s data set of first names by year of birth or Census Bureau data from 1789 to 1940, both from the United States of America. By using these data sets instead of lists of male and female names, this package is able to more accurately guess the gender of a name, and it is able to report the probability that a name was male or female.

The package was based on an idea by Cameron Blevins, with whom I’m collaborating on a related article, and it includes significant contributions from Ben Schmidt.

A Vagrant Development Environment for R

Most of the time when I’m working in R I’m using Mac OS X and I have a bunch of packages installed. But often I want to run my R code in a clean environment, and when I’m developing a package I want to test it on a Linux instance. The combination of Vagrant and VirtualBox makes it easy to write a script which spools up a virtual machine for this purpose. I’ve created a set of files for Vagrant that created an Ubuntu 14.04 virtual machine, provision it with all the development tools I need, then install commonly used R packages. Creating a new development environment is as simple as cloning the repository and running vagrant up. You can get these scripts at GitHub.

Every so often, I also want to spool up a server at Amazon EC2 with far more RAM and processing power than I have on my laptop. While the Vagrantfile is unnecessary for this, the files bootstrap.sh and install-r-packages.R can be adapted with just a little modification to provision an EC2 instance.