Grad Profiles

Isaac Barnes May

PhD 2020

Academic Appointments

  • Assistant Professor, American Studies, University of Virginia, 2020–2021
  • Lecturer, Religious Studies, University of Virginia, Spring 2020


  • University of Virginia: PhD in American Religions

  • University of Virginia: MA in American Religions

  • Harvard University: MTS in Religions of the Americas

  • Earlham College: BA in History, Phi Beta Kappa  

Research Interests 

American religion; secularization; atheism and skepticism; liberal religion; Quakerism; mainline Protestantism; American Judaism; pacifism and Just War theory; law and religion.


  • God-Optional Religion: Changing Notions of Theism among Quakers, Unitarians and Reconstructionist Jews, 1920-1965
    • Advisor: Matthew S. Hedstrom
  • My dissertation is a history that documents how several groups on the American religious left became “God-optional” over the course of the twentieth century, allowing members the latitude to decide for themselves what they believed about God. I argue that this was a communal adaptation taken to respond to pressures of secularization, which religious liberals increasingly feared were rendering the idea of a personal God implausible. My work pays particular attention to how Quakers, Unitarians and Reconstructionist Jews were able to unite behind a commitment to communal identity and social betterment, staying unified even after abandoning a shared theology. My work demonstrates how the ideas generated by these groups diffused, causing membership in a religious community and belief in God to become increasingly separate issues in modern America.

Teaching Experience

  • Instructor-of-Record, University of Virginia
    • American Religion, Citizenship, and the Construction of Race, 2020
    • Theories and Methods in American Studies, 2020
    • “Spiritual but Not Religious”: Spirituality in America, 2020
    • Introduction to Western Religious Traditions, Summer 2018
    • Thomas Jefferson, the First Amendment and Religion, Summer 2017
  • Instructor, University of Virginia
    • Introduction to Western Religious Traditions, Summer 2018
    • Thomas Jefferson, the First Amendment and Religion, Summer 2017
  • Teaching Assistant, University of Virginia
    • “Spiritual But Not Religious”: Spirituality in America, Spring 2017
    • Salem Witch Trials, Spring 2016
    • Introduction to American Studies, Fall 2015
    • Religion in America Since 1865, Spring 2015
    • Introduction to Western Religions, Fall 2014 and Spring 2016
  • Teaching Assistant, Earlham College
    • United States History from 1865, Spring 2011
    • United States History to 1865, Fall 2010


  • Book Under Contract
    • American Quakers and Resistance to War from World War I Through Vietnam (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill).
  • Academic Articles
    • “When History Substitutes for Theology: The Impact of Quaker Scholars’ Religious Affiliations on the Study of Nineteenth Century American Quakerism,” Religions 2018, 9 (12): 395,
    • “The Blessed Channel of the Work: Gender, Power and the Union of the Women’s Foreign Missions Societies in the Religious Society of Friends,” Quaker History 107, no. 1 (Spring 2018), 27-53.
    • “The Great Fight for Religion, Democracy and the Home: The Committee to Oppose the Conscription of Women as a Study in the Secularization Process,” Peace and Change 42, No. 1 (January 2017), 64-92
    • “Encounters from Beyond: Quakerism, Belief in Extraterrestrials and the Boundaries of Liberal Religion,” Quaker Theology, No. 27(Summer-Fall 2015), 54-81.
    • “Forged in the Fire: Norman Morrison and the Link between Liberal Quakerism and Radical Action,” Cult/ure: The Graduate Journal of Religion at Harvard Divinity School 9 (Spring 2014)
    • “Opening the Shutters: Gurneyite Quakerism and the Struggle for Women’s Equality in the Meeting for Business,” Quaker Studies 18, Issue. 2 (March 2014), 170-190.
    • “Only Human(ist): Charles Francis Potter and his choice to abandon Unitarianism and Universalism” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 37 (2013-2014), 153- 175.
    • “Friends and Foes:  Richard Nixon and the Division of American Quakerism,” Quaker History vol. 102, no. 1(2013): 17-36
  • Book Chapter
    • “Conflict and Transformation, 1809-1920,” co-authored with Thomas D. Hamm, Cambridge Companion to Quaker Studies ed. Stephen W. Angell, Pink Dandelion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 31-48.
    •  “Quakers, Herbert Hoover and the 1928 Election” in An Early Assessment: U.S. Quakers in the 20th Century, ed. Chuck Fager (Durham, NC: Kimo Press, 2017), 204-216.
  • Book Reviews
    • Review of Quakers, Politics, and Economics, ed. David R. Ross and Michael T. Starr, Quaker History, 109, no. 1, Spring 2020, 57-58.
    • Review of Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion, by Candy Gunther Brown, Reading Religion 2020,
    • Review of Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel, by Gary Dorrien, Friends Journal, March 2019, 34-36.
    • Review of Seven Types of Atheism, by John Grey, Project on Religion and Its Publics (blog), February 13, 2019,
    • Review of This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement, by Sarah Azaransky, Friends Journal, January 2019, 29-30.
    • Review of A Long Road: How Quakers Made Sense of God and the Bible, by T. Vail Palmer, Jr., Quaker Religious Thought no. 131, 2018, 48-53.
    • Review of Renegade: Martin Luther, the Graphic Biography, by Dacia Palmerino and Andrea Ciponte, translated by Michael G. Parker, Friends Journal, April 2018, 30-31.
    • Review of Defending Faith: The Politics of The Conservative Christian Legal Movement, by Daniel Bennett, Reading Religion, 2017, 
    • Review of Friends in Deed: 50 Years of Quaker Service Australia by Heather Saville. Quaker History vol. 106, no. 1, Spring, 2017, 29-30.
    • Review of Plowshares: Protest, Performance and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age by Kristen Tobey. Reading Religion, 2017.
    • Review of Nixon’s First Cover-Up: The Religious Life of a Quaker President, by H. Larry Ingle, Quaker Studies, Number 21, Issue 1, June 2016, 128-130.
    • Review of Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America, 1822- 1940, by Chuck Fager, Quaker Theology, Number 25, Summer-Fall 2014, 75-77.
  • Encyclopedia Articles

    • “Harry Emerson Fosdick,” Opposition to War: An Encyclopedia of United States Peace and Antiwar Movements (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2017), In Press

    • “Unitarian Universalism,” Sage Encyclopedia of War: Social Science Perspectives (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing, 2016), 4:1741-1743.

    • “Pentecostalism,” Sage Encyclopedia of War: Social Science Perspectives (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing, 2016), 3:1344-1346.

    • “Religious Society of Friends,” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, Rutgers-Camden, 2016.
  • Other Publications

Selected Conference Presentations

  • "Catholic Heart, Unitarian Mind: Identity in William Sullivan's The Priest." Paper presented at the Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Studies, Baltimore, MD, October 2019.
  • “Weaponizing the First Freedom: What Unitarian Legal Strategies in McCollum v. Board of Education and Abington School Board v. Schempp Teach Us about Contemporary Religious Liberty Controversies.” Paper presented at the Graduate Student Conference on Democracy and Religion, University of Virginia, April 2019.
  • “Fruits Not Roots: Social Service, Political Radicalism and Denominational Solidarity among Quakers, Jews and Unitarians.” Paper presented at the Unitarian Universalist Collegium, Newton, MA, October 2018.
  • “Quakers and the Humanist-Theist Controversy.” Paper presented at the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists, University of Massachusetts Amherst, June 2018.
  • “Born-again Heroes versus Angsty Insiders: Comparing Protagonists in Contemporary Evangelical and Mormon Films.” Co-authored with Joshua Leach. Paper presented at the Boston College Conference on History of Religion, March 2018.
  • “A Toxic Red Pill: Contemporary Organized Atheism, Misogyny and the Concept of Rationality.” Paper presented at the American Academy of Religion, Boston, MA, November 2017.
  • “Inventing the Historic Peace Churches: How Government Pressure Over Conscription Religiously United the Quakers, Mennonites and the Brethren.” Paper presented at the American Society of Church History and American Historical Association, Denver, CO, January 2017.
  •  “Permitting a Godless Faith: Quakers, U.S. v. Seeger and the Changing Notion of the Deity in American Law.” Paper presented at the American Academy of Religion, San Antonio, TX, November 2016.
  • “The Blessed Channel of Work: Gender, Power and the Union of the Women’s Foreign Mission Societies in the Religious Society of Friends.” Paper presented at the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists, Birmingham, UK, June 2016.
  • “A Tradition of Peace: The Influence of Protestant Pacifist Culture on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Paper presented at the Huskey Research Exhibition, University of Virginia, March 2016.
  • “Theologian of the Quaker Republicans: The Cold War and the Repudiation of Pacifism.” Paper presented at the United States Intellectual History Conference, Washington D.C., October 2015.
  • “Legalizing the Liberal God: Theological Implications of the Legal Battle Over Conscientious Objection during the Vietnam Era.” Paper presented at the New England Historical Association, New Haven, CT, October 2015.
  • “Peace Church Cold Warrior: Elton Trueblood and the Influence of Niebuhrian Thought on the Presidency.” Paper presented at Huskey Research Exhibition, University of Virginia, March 2015.
  • “The Limits of Creedless Faith: Policing Heretical Practices in Liberal Religion.” Paper presented at the Department of Religion Graduate Student Symposium, Florida State University, February 2015.
  • “The Quaker Republicans:  Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and the Weighty Quakers in the Republican Party.” Paper presented at the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists, West Chester, PA, June 2014.

Fellowships, Honors and Grants

  • Research Fellow, Project on Lived Theology (University of Virginia), 2020-2021
  • Dean’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship (College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia), 2019 to 2020  
  • Race, Religion and Democracy Lab Student Research Collaborator (University of Virginia), Summer 2019
  • Research Grant and Travel Grant, Americas Center (University of Virginia), Spring 2019 
  • Rachel Winer Manin Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship (University of Virginia), 2018 to 2020
  • Research and Living Grant, Fund for Nurturing Unitarian Universalist Scholarship (Unitarian Universalist Association), Summer 2018
  • Margaret W. Moore and John M. Moore Research Fellowship (Swarthmore College), Summer 2018
  • Elizabeth Ann Bogert Memorial Fund for the Study and Practice of Christian Mysticism, Fall 2017 
  • Clay Graduate Fellow, Institute of the Humanities & Global Cultures, University of Virginia, 2017
  • Research Grant, Elizabeth Ann Bogert Memorial Fund for the Study and Practice of Christian Mysticism, 2017.
  • Jefferson Scholars Foundation Research Prize, Jefferson Scholars Foundation, 2017
  • Arts, Humanities and Social Science Summer Research Fellowship, University of Virginia, 2016
  • Honorable Mention, Zora Neale Hurston Award for best Graduate Essay on Women, Gender or Sexuality, University of Virginia, 2015
  • Gest Fellowship, Haverford College, 2014