Student Spotlight: Caleb Morrel

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Caleb Morrel

How did you decide on the topic of your research?

My freshman seminar in the School of Foreign Service dealt with the question of the history of American church-state relations and I guess you could say I have been on that track ever since. The Baptists stand out in the history of American church-state relations for their commitment to the separation of church and state. Today, however, many Baptists seem concerned or at least distrustful of the idea of separation of church and state. As a Baptist myself, I have been interested in understanding historic teaching of Baptists on church and state to see what Baptists in our present time can learn from their doctrine and their example.

How did you become involved in research?

I became involved in research through the Carroll Fellows Initiative where I conducted a research project during my Freshman and Sophomore year on the original meaning of “Separation of Church and State” according to primary sources written between 1770-1790. I presented this research at the Research Conference last year. This year I wanted to build off of the research I began last year by expanding my study to understand the particularly religious arguments for the separation of church and state.

What was your favorite part about the research process?

Digging up primary sources that I feel no one has explored or taken seriously and trying to make sense of them for myself. I feel like a detective when researching: I’m trying to find clues to make sense of historical developments.

What was the most challenging part of the research process?

When I realize that I’ve gone down a dead end or that I’ve been wrong about something and need to shift my focus or change my conclusions. It’s humbling, difficult, and often discouraging, but it’s important to follow the “evidence” wherever it leads.

What was the most unexpected part of the research process?

Finding the evidence to support my theory in Roger Williams. He’s such a famous Baptist that I had overlooked him in my initial research, instead focusing on more obscure authors. Instead, I found that he had already articulated the argument I was trying to make: the right way for Christians to read the Old Testament (their “hermeneutic”) precludes the possibility of an established state religion and instead warrants religious toleration.

How was Georgetown able to support you during the research process?

I received support and advice from relevant Georgetown professors in the field as well as suggestions for where to look for sources.

The Georgetown University Undergraduate Research Symposium, and the university as a whole, is committed to fostering interdisciplinary, intellectual dialogue. What is one experience that you have had at Georgetown that reflects this commitment?

I was able to draw from several disciplines to make this research project happen, including History, Theology, and Political Science. The research would have been profoundly lacking if any of these disciplines had been lacking.

Describe your research in one sentence.

Studying the early English Baptists reveals a powerful and internally coherent religious justification for an institutional separation between church and state based on the distinctly Baptist doctrine of believers baptism.

What is your advice for other undergraduates who are interested in pursuing research at Georgetown?

Follow the evidence where it leads and don’t be afraid to admit that you’re wrong and start over again.


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