Reading Children


My Darling's A.B.C. (1830s-40s) in the collections of the
American Antiquarian Society. Photograph by author.
Last month, I traveled to the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) to take part in the 2015 Summer Seminar in the History of the Book, on the topic of "Reading Children." The holdings of the AAS in artifacts of childhood number over 26,000 objects, an important repository for researching changing ideas of childhood and the child reader from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. With a week together at the AAS library in Worcester, seminar participants explored the collection’s rich archive of print and visual artifacts created for and by children, with hands-on workshops informed by historical and theoretical readings in the history of childhood, and the history of reading and print. Our sources included not only those produced by printers, publishers, and pedagogues--such as children’s literature, toy books, games, primers, and school texts--but also those created by children themselves (such as amateur newspapers, diaries, letters, copybooks, scrapbooks, and autograph books).

Photograph by American Antiquarian Society via Twitter.
Seminar leaders Pat Crain and Martin Brückner, guest lecturers Laura Wasowicz (the AAS Curator of Children's Literature) and Anna Mae Duaneand a wide variety of participants, including Ph.D. students, museum curators, librarians, and faculty spent the week finding collections related to their own research, while also exploring highlights from the collections selected by the AAS staff to suggest answers to the question, "What does it mean to be a child reader in pre-1900 America?" 

In our readings and discussions, we interrogated ideologies of literacy, literature, and print culture inflected by race, class, and gender to answer this question. But as our conversations developed, I became increasingly interested in the ways we were and were not talking about religious reading, or religious children--surprising, I thought, given the extent to which the market for pre-twentieth century children's books was inflected by religious publishers and religious and moral instruction. [The very notions of children and childhood can't really be discussed without considering religious ideas--just look at Webster's 1828 dictionary definitions of child to get started!]

JSR Critical Conversation: Lynching and Religion

Emily Suzanne Clark

Over at the Journal of Southern Religion we have decided to launch a new type of publication that Doug Thompson and I are calling "Critical Conversations." It's our attempt to merge the flexibility of an online journal with the timeliness of a blog. It's something that Doug has been wanting to do since coming onboard the journal staff. At last year's AAR, Doug, Ed Blum, and I talked about how much we love Donald Mathews's 2000 JSR article "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice." In that article Mathews wrote about lynching and southern religion and discussed the meaning of the ritual for both white Christians and black Christians. The article was truly ahead of its time and remains incredibly relevant today. When #Charlestonsyllabus starting trending on Twitter a few weeks ago, several people mentioned "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice," including myself and Doug as well as Anthea Butler. (But we all know that Prof B's tweet make bigger waves than mine or Doug's.)

Over the next few weeks, new reflections will be added to this Critical Conversation on the 15th anniversary of Mathews's article. Currently up on the website is Ed Blum's introduction and Amy Louise Wood's reflection. We're grateful to Ed for editing this collection for us. In his introduction, he shows how incredibly timely this conversation is. As the author of the award-winning Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, Wood's piece identifies Mathews's article as an important "revelation" she encountered while writing her dissertation. She then takes us through the article and why she has found it both helpful and problematic. The entire conversation is being published in Volume 17, which is our first rolling release issue.

"Influential, Pivotal, Seminal, or Otherwise Important": Recommended and Essential Reading in North American Religions

Charles McCrary

Recently the American Academy of Religion provided a list of recommended readings, compiled by the program unit chairs. Each unit has its own short list of books or articles that “someone within the broad field of religion and theology might be interested in, even if the topic is outside of his or her area of specialization.” This is a helpful resource, especially for people like me who often teach outside their specialty. Of course, the list invites plenty of scrutiny. Specialists in every area surely will find choices with which to agree or quibble. In this short post, though, I want to identify (or create), but also destabilize, a distinction between data and scholarship. When we talk about American religions (or whatever “field” this blog is about), are we talking about a set of people, things, ideas that we study—or about a particular group of people who study things? I’ll conclude on what I hope is a practical note.

The AAR’s preface to the Recommended Reading list suggests that the list is about both data and scholarship. On one hand, they suggest that “if you are interested in knowing more about a topic that you are not yet familiar with, this list may be a good place to begin.” This is how I imagine the list being most useful. If I need to write a lecture on some topic well outside my expertise, sometimes it is hard to know where to start, which monographs and scholars good and which are bad, what’s the standard view and what are the revisions or challenges to that. So, a handy list from an authoritative group indeed does seem to be a good place to start. However, the description of these works as “influential, pivotal, seminal, or otherwise important” speaks to a different—perhaps very different—set of criteria. Many of the most important and influential works in any field are, well, bad. They were influential, and people debated them for a long time, and they changed the field, and now most people think they were wrong. For the imagined consumer of this list, a scholar interested in a somewhat unfamiliar topic, is it important to know about the “seminal” works? Or is it just important to know the material? The list’s imprecise framing underscores the fact that, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued and illustrated two decades ago, “Not only can history mean either the sociohistorical process or our knowledge of that process, but the boundary between the two meanings is often quite fluid” (3). And, in some cases, the data set exists as such by virtue of being studied.

The North American Religions Section’s list suggests five books:

Rethinking America's Liberal-Conservative Divide: A Religions Special Issue

Mark Edwards

Just a brief note to alert readers to a recent special issue of the open-access journal Religions.  It is entitled "Religion, Politics, and America's Liberal-Conservative Divide Reconsidered," and is edited by Darren Dochuk. The issue presently contains two excellent essays of original research by Ronit Stahl and Daniel Williams ( a preview of his highly anticipated new book) as well as a bit of clean-up work from my 2012 book.  Here's the introduction to the series:

Media and scholarly focus on the culture wars has reified a conservative-liberal divide in U.S. religion and politics, to the point of stifling constructive examination of the analytical spaces in-between. Thankfully, recent trends in scholarship have begun adding texture to our understandings of “Right,” “Left,” and “Center” in both church and state. This is certainly the case in the discipline of history. While the study of conservatism has flourished recently as a corrective to an earlier “liberal consensus” model, new scholarship is emerging that reassesses liberals and liberalism(s) in more complex renderings of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras. Meanwhile, several historians are providing fresh analyses of what “conservative” and “liberal” actually mean when delineating important features of our recent religious and political past. Where do we place progressive evangelicals or Catholic radicals on the spectrum? And what about Christian Realists, Mennonites, Latino Pentecostals, military chaplains, and proponents of a “greener faith”? How do these categories break down, or do damage, when we try to impose them on people, movements, and issues that resist easy categorization? 

If you are familiar with books or essays that attempt a similar kind of rethinking, please add them in the comments below.

Honour Due to All Men: Lucretia Mott on William Ellery Channing

By Carol Faulkner

One of my current projects, with co-editors Christopher Densmore, Nancy Hewitt, and Beverly Palmer, is an edited collection of Lucretia Mott's speeches and sermons, currently titled Lucretia Mott Speaks (we hope to send the manuscript to University of Illinois Press by the beginning of fall semester--wish us luck!). As a Quaker, Mott did not write down her words, so we have collected reports of her speeches from newspapers, pamphlets, meeting records, and phonographic (shorthand) transcriptions. Of these, we have selected sixty speeches, eleven more than appeared Lucretia Mott: Complete Speeches and Sermons (1980). Another important difference between our volume and this earlier one will be the annotations. Aside from Biblical quotations (far too numerous to annotate), we identify individuals, events, etc. to illuminate Mott's political, social, and religious networks. Mott had the Bible memorized, and could quote it at will. Another of her frequent references, however, was to Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), and in particular, his sermon "Honour Due to All Men." Even a quick read indicates why Mott found this sermon so appealing.

As the title indicates, Channing's sermon made a democratic appeal for equality. According to Channing, Christianity had instigated a "mighty revolution," but one that was still in progress. He lamented that "mutual respect" and "love" had yet to be established among ordinary men (and women). Instead, "great men" received all the honors, and the old hierarchies, enforced by "instinct, interest, and force," continued. Channing envisioned a time when, like Christ, humans would willingly "suffer, and if need be...die for our fellow-creatures." They would only do so when they recognized the "immortal power," the "rational and moral nature," in every individual. The individual soul, and their spiritual potential, in Channing's view, made "all men essentially equal." Though he does not mention either of Mott's two principle causes--abolition and women's rights--in this speech, by the end of his career he endorsed both the anti-slavery movement and women's right to participate.

Mott embraced Channing's egalitarianism. The two passages from "Honour Due to All Men" that Mott quoted offered support for her own view that the inward light was something more than a Quaker doctrine:

A Theology of Streets

Chris Cantwell

State and Adams Streets, Chicago (1903)
In the earliest days in the study of "lived religion" scholars searched not only for a method with which to explore the religious lives of ordinary people, but also a metaphor. By 1980 scholars like Natalie Zemon Davis and Peter Burke had made the "carnival" a reigning paradigm in the study of what they called "popular religion," a term that embodied not only the conviviality of daily religious life but also its primary location in the folk life of local communities. Advocates envisioned the study of lived religion as a corrective to the the carnival's popular excesses, a criticism of its assumption that the "authentic" or "true" religious lives of ordinary people could only be found outside of, and preferably in opposition to, established ecclesiastical institutions. While a fair or bazaar may be imbued with religious meaning, they argued, the religion lived out by ordinary people could often often be found in both the church and the carnival, not just in one or the other.

But how to describe this liminal space?

Evangelical Women and Sports Ministry

Paul Putz

Annie Blazer's Playing for God: Evangelical Women and the Unintended Consequences of Sports Ministry (New York University Press, 2015) is a much-needed book that I hope will be widely read. Expanding on a dissertation she completed in 2008, Blazer, a professor of religious studies at William & Mary, brings the world of evangelical sports ministry to life with an insightful historical and ethnographic study that focuses on sports ministry's largest demographic: women.

Blazer frames her book as "a case study of how evangelical engagement with popular culture created the possibility for reevaluating orthodoxy from inside the tradition." Along with her ethnographic work, she makes a change-over-time argument by contrasting the original aims of the founders who launched the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes in Action (AIA) in the 1950s and 1960s with the current aims (and results) of sports ministry organizations. Basically, she argues that sports ministry organizations originated in the post-World War II years from those moderate, culturally-engaged fundamentalists we often call neo-evangelicals. The aim at first was to harness the celebrity of athletes for the purpose of evangelizing. Over time, however, the emphasis shifted away from witnessing through proclamation, to witnessing through one's actions and attitudes on the field. The experience of sport also increasingly became a way for individuals to connect intimately with God. According to Blazer, those shifts have had unexpected consequences, particularly as evangelical women have became more and more involved in athletics.

Evangelicals and Business: A Prequel

Elesha Coffman

The Declaration of Independence famously alters John Locke's celebration of "life, liberty, and property" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Those differing values have been in tension ever since. When push comes to shove, whose property, and whose happiness, matters more? What qualifies as "property" or "happiness"? And who gets to decide?

Current scholarship mostly finds 20th-century evangelicals to have been quite happy with the acquisition of property. Without big business, there would be no evangelicalism as we know it. But these two cultural forces did not always get along so nicely. Heath Carter recently reminded us that evangelicals  championed labor unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Legal historian John W. Compton, looking even further back in history, found that evangelicals once hacked away at property interests in America, ironically paving the way for progressive interpretations of the Constitution that evangelicals and other conservatives now despise. And by hack, I do mean hack. That's Carry Nation on the cover of Compton's book, wielding a Bible rather than her more iconic saloon-smashing hatchet.

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard, 2014) might not naturally join conversations about evangelicals and business. Compton sought to intervene in a different discussion, the legal-historical and political debate about why the Supreme Court in the 1930s started interpreting the Constitution as a work in progress rather than a document set in stone. A longstanding explanation stated that extreme political pressures in the 1930s, coupled with foreign ideas from the likes of Charles Darwin and G.W.F. Hegel, produced a sudden, stunning legal revolution. Revisionists argued that upheavals in the American economy contributed to the change, and that it built slowly, in step with the Industrial Revolution. While granting some of these points, Compton put religion in the picture and tied the legal innovations of the New Deal era to the social transformation begun by the Second Great Awakening. Harvard Law Review did a better job of analyzing--and affirming--Compton's legal scholarship than I can. Instead, after a brief summary, I'll offer a few thoughts on how this book can speak to the "business turn" in our field.

Go to the Urban History Association Meeting Next Year!

Karen Johnson

The call for papers for the annual meeting of the Urban History Association recently went out.  Readers of the blog, there's room at the UHA for religion in urban and suburban history.  In fact, I think that there should be more crossover between American religious history and urban/suburban history.  Let's make that happen.  See the call below:

The Eighth Biennial Conference of the Urban History Association
“The Working Urban”
Chicago, Illinois
October 13-16, 2016
The Urban History Association Program Committee seeks submissions for sessions on all aspects of urban, suburban, and metropolitan history. We welcome proposals for panels, roundtable discussions, and individual papers. We are also receptive to alternative session formats that foster audience participation in the proceedings.

The Program Committee is pleased to announce that Loyola University Chicago will serve as the local host for the October 2016 conference.

The conference theme – The Working Urban – highlights the importance of labor and of historians’ working definitions of “urban history.” We therefore encourage submissions that explore the scales at which historians work (i.e. local, national, regional) as well as those that interrogate the racial and gendered aspects of work in relation to the built environment. “Working” also refers to workshops.  For the first time ever, the UHA conference will include professional workshops built specifically around interpreting primary sources and exploring problems of evidence in the field. Innovative workshop ideas are especially encouraged.

Successful panel and paper proposals need not adhere strictly to the conference theme. For instance, being fifty years removed from the 1960s and a century from the Progressive Era, the program committee will also pay special attention to panels marking the anniversaries of events that profoundly impacted cities, including the opening of Margaret Sanger’s first birth control clinic in 1916, the Watts uprising in Los Angeles, the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966, the Model Cities Program, Martin Luther King’s Chicago campaign, the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision, the founding of the Black Panther Party, and more.

The Church of Wells Invades Lakewood, Or Historicizing a Heckling Incident

Charity R. Carney

On June 28, six members of the Church of Wells (a small fundamentalist congregation about 20 miles from my home) covertly found their way into the visitors’ section of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, and heckled one of the most famous megachurch pastors in the world. They called Joel Osteen a “false prophet” and railed against his form of preaching, declaring it motivational speaking and not the Word of God. True Christianity reveals the sinfulness of man, the church maintains, and emphasizes righteous living, not acquisition and a desire for blessings. The men were subsequently removed from the sanctuary/arena and charged with criminal trespassing. While awaiting their hearing, they shouted sermons and sang hymns in the court house halls. I’ll admit, it’s taken me a few days to find an angle on the events because they are so new and close to home. This is an issue that I’ve encountered often when researching and writing about megachurches—as I try to place them in historical context I have to be aware of and even untangle the political, personal, and cultural influences that I did not confront in the same way with my studies on earlier subjects. Certainly, we always strive for elusive objectivity but I’ve found that with history as it happens (as our friend Phil Sinitiere likes to say) it’s even more difficult to remove yourself from the equation. That being said, I’m going to challenge my scholar brain to historicize June 28 and the two groups involved in the controversy. Here goes.

Religion in the Rain: Pacific Northwest Burial Traditions


Laura Arnold Leibman

Gravestone Lone Fir Cemetery.
Portland, OR.
Photo by Author.
This past May when I checked in for my flight home from a research trip in Bridgetown, I was caught off guard by a Barbadian crew member's eagerness for my hometown. "Portland?  Portland, Oregon??  I LOVE Grimm."  Yet long before the Pacific Northwest was the official haunt of Grimms, Wesen, eternally youthful vampires, and their business-world BDSM equivalents, it was the birthplace of new religious movements and religious innovation.  While certainly endless rain and overcast days have a magical appeal for those who tend to sparkle like diamonds in the unwelcome sunshine, the Gothic weather patterns of the Pacific Northwest also seem to induce a certain spiritual ecstasy for what might lie beyond the mists of the visible world.  This makes it a fantastic place to study the local inhabitants' visions of death and the great beyond.  In this post I consider Pacific Northwest innovations in Russian Burial traditions and the impact of the Russians on Portland funerary art.

Grimm Gravestone. Waverly Memorial
Cemetery, Albany Cemetery.
Photo by Author

Spirits Rejoicing on Wax (or CD or Mp3 or . . . )

SR CoverPaul Harvey

A couple of notes about two recent works that I have loved, professionally for sure but really personally as well, on religious culture through music in the twentieth century. Self-indulgence alert: Both brought me back to two moments that changed my personal, and scholarly, lives, in ways I could not articulate at the time (if not interested in the personal stories, just click forward to the next track -- i.e. skip the next paragraph! -- to get to a discussion of the books). I  now understand those moments a bit better, thanks in part to these two vividly interpretive works: Jason Bivins's Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion, and Lerone Martin's Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion.

In a reflection previously published about Manuel Vasquez's More than Religion, I began this way: "During the 1980s, while in graduate school, if people asked me if was 'still religious' or 'still went to church,' I often replied, with studied sardonic intonation, 'sure, I got to Yoshi’s regularly' . . . .when I left Yoshi’s [a jazz spot then on Claremont Avenue in North Oakland], I often felt that I had been part of some communal ritual of struggle, cleansing, and release, precisely what I no longer felt in 'religion.'" Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Abby Lincoln, Horace Silver, Phil Woods, Tony Williams, and too many others to name were the ministers. And not just Yoshi's, but any number of musical centers in the Bay Area, most long since deceased (save for the beloved Freight & Salvage), that educated me in ways that were more important than anything I was reading in graduate seminars. One was called Koncepts Cultural Gallery, where one night, after two days of suffering through some intense migraines that left me nearly paralyzed, I stumbled onto a quartet of tuba, standup electric bass, sax, and drums that in a straight two-hour set surveyed nearly the entire history/repertoire of instrumental jazz, and singlehandedly healed/exorcised me.

I've spent a fair amount of time wondering about those experiences and trying to interpret them. I made a little headway, perhaps, but only now feel the work has come that engages this subject with the intellectual depth and passion I've been seeking. Jason Bivins's Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion is a hefty, deep volume that crosses several fields at once in exploring profound questions of sound and spirituality. In addition to this piece and this one (from April 28 and 29) already posted here at RiAH, I wanted to call your attention to this new posting at Religion Dispatches, an interview with Jason about (among other things) the process of researching and writing the book. One of the themes of the work in the instability of the categories "jazz" and "religion," and the interplay between the improvisational nature of both. Here is one story from the interview which says a lot about the genesis of the work: (continue after the jump)

Christian Reconstruction: An Interview with Michael J. McVicar, Part 2

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Today is part 2 of my interview with Dr. Michael J. McVicar about his book Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Read part 1 of the interview here. 

Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): Can you pinpoint some of Rushdoony’s major impacts—even legacies—within the broader worlds of religious and political conservatism in the U. S.? In this regard, how does your book connect to the recent and related studies by Molly Worthen, Matt Sutton, Kevin Kruse, and Tim Gloege, among others?

Michael J. McVicar (MJM): Arguably, Rushdoony’s singular achievement came not in the form of Reconstructionism, but in his advocacy for Christian homeschooling. In the 1950s, Rushdoony began arguing that conservative Christians had a theological and religious obligation to free themselves from state-funded public schools. By the 1960s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court Rulings—ranging from controversial integration decisions to orders banning school prayer and religious instruction in public schools—made Rushdoony seem especially prescient. Concerned parents flocked to his lectures and he built a grassroots network of lawyers, educators, and activists who challenged compulsory state attendance laws and other regulations limiting parents’ ability to educate their children at home or in private Christian schools. He eagerly cooperated with left-wing homeschooling advocates or adherents of other religious faiths so long as they shared his view of the educational autonomy of parents. Rushdoony also had a broad influence on conservative grassroots political activism from the 1960s through the 1990s, but most of this influence came at such a granular and decentralized level that it is nearly impossibly to assess the scope of his activities. 

Christian Reconstruction: An Interview with Michael J. McVicar, Part 1

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Today begins a two-part interview with Dr. Michael J. McVicar about his book Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Dr. McVicar is Assistant Professor of Religion at Florida State University where he teaches courses on religion, new religious movements, and religion and American political culture. Additional features on Christian Reconstruction are available as podcasts here and here. Part 2 of the interview posts tomorrow.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): In the sometimes shadowy and sometimes elusive recesses of the Christian Right, the name Rousas John Rushdoony is key to the larger story of political and religious conservatism in this country. Who was R. J. Rushdoony, the person, the scholar, the iconoclast?

Michael J. McVicar (MJM): Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) was a theologically and socially conservative Presbyterian minister who played an important role in the development of the Christian Right of the late 1970s. His biography is compelling because it reflects many of the major cultural and social upheavals of the twentieth century. He was the son of Armenian immigrants who fled Turkish forces during the Armenian genocide of 1915. His older brother, Rousas George, died during the Turkish siege of the city of Van. After a Russian assault forced Turks to lift their siege, Rushdoony’s parents—his mother already pregnant with Rousas John—escaped through Russia to New York City. R. J. Rushdoony was born in New York and baptized in Los Angeles. His father, Y. K. Rushdoony, went on to minister to Armenian diasporic communities in California and Michigan. The plight of his family and the Armenian people more generally haunted Rushdoony for the rest of his life as he struggled to come to terms with their suffering and the forces that enabled such violence. After graduating first from the University of California, Berkeley, and then from seminary in the 1940s, Rushdoony served as a missionary on a Native American reservation in Nevada. There he became convinced that the forces that led to the Armenian genocide were identical to the forces behind the genocide of America’s native populations: the abandonment of orthodox Christianity for the sinful elevation of the state to god-like status in human affairs. In short, Rushdoony’s early ministry was directly shaped by his personal experiences as a survivor of one of the twentieth century’s great atrocities. 

As a scholar, Rushdoony developed a radical anti-statist theology by synthesizing the presuppositional apologetics of Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til with the political theology of Ernst H. Kantorowicz, the great German-American medieval historian and Rushdoony’s mentor at Berkeley. Rushdoony fused these intellectual projects with his own idiosyncratic brand of Christian libertarianism that he developed in conversation with the libertarian economic and social theorists popular in some circles of the American right following World War II. As a fundamentalist theologian, he tried to harmonize these modish midcentury ideas with a rigorous and aggressive Christian message that preached individual regeneration through literal adherence to Biblical law. He came to see orthodox Christianity, especially as embodied in the definition of Chalcedon, as an antidote to the problems of modernity and as a way of resisting the totalitarian systems of communism and fascism in the twentieth century.

Teaching the Historiography Seminar in American Religions

Today we welcome to RiAH as a guest contributor Jennifer Graber. Professor Graber, a historian of North American religions, teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. She is working on a book called “Indian Country: Land and Religion in Nineteenth-Century America.” Her first book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons andReligion in Antebellum America, came out from UNC Press in 2011.

Jennifer Graber

This fall, I’ll be teaching a graduate historiography seminar called Approaches to the Study of U.S. Religions. I taught this class for the first time in 2013. At that time, I picked a theme for each week, assigned an important book for students to read, and assigned some secondary texts to cover during the seminar meeting. For example, for our consideration of the early republic and antebellum era, we read Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith, as well as discussed works by Hatch, Heyrman, Albanese, and Porterfield. This approach had its merits, namely that students engaged what are considered to be the most important books in the field. But it also had its drawbacks. Several of our central texts were fairly old.

For this fall, I hatched a new plan in which I picked many of the same themes, but paired a classic text with an updated one. Every week, a student will lead discussion about the paired common readings. Other students will provide short accounts of the secondary readings, which will help flesh out the historiography of each of the week’s themes. At the end of the semester, students will put together similar reading lists on two themes, one related to their research and one outside their expertise. 

I’m happy to hear your feedback.

August 26 – Opening Questions and Recent Appraisals

Common reading:

Lofton, "The Problem of Religion in History," historiographical essay, in draft

September 2 – Field Assessments and Methodological Statements

Common readings:
  • David D. Hall, “Introduction,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (1997)
  • Thomas Tweed, “Introduction: Narrating U.S. Religious History,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997)
  • Jon Butler, “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History,” The Journal of American History (2004)
  • Kevin M. Schultz and Paul Harvey, “Everywhere and Nowhere: Recent Trends in American Religious History and Historiography,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2010).
  • Thomas Tweed, “Expanding the Study of U.S. Religion: Reflections on the State of the Subfield,” Religion (2010).
  • John T. McGreevey, “Religious History,” in American History Now (2011).

Virgin Nation: An Interview with Sara Moslener

Samira K. Mehta

Sara Moslener. Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

On July 1, Oxford University Press released Sara Moslener's Virgin Nation.

SKM: Professor Sara Moslener, I am glad to have gotten a chance to read Virgin Nation, though as I think I told you, I was worried about the ramifications of reading it on airplanes! How did you come up with the title?
SJM:I was also hesitant about using the word virgin because it has such a fetish factor. And I don’t really discuss the concept of virginity as much as purity and these are not always the same thing.  So it felt a bit disingenuous.  The subtitle was already in place and I knew I wanted to indicate the connections between of the nation-state and adolescent, sexual purity.  In the end, it was a matter of economy--I knew I needed a title that was succinct, yet communicated a lot. And Virgin Nation does that.

SKM: As someone who also uses both history and ethnography, I was particularly interested in your use of both methods. Can you talk a bit about your use of those two methods? What were the advantages and challenges?

SJM: When I first started this project as my dissertation, ethnography among U.S. religious historians had become a bit of a fad and somehow I became convinced that being trained as a historian I could also do ethnography. At that time my focus was on the contemporary movement which required attending events and interviewing people involved. At that point I was interested in how young people participated in the movement and how they articulated what it meant to them, especially in regard to their religious beliefs and practices. However, it became clear that getting permission to talk to people under 18 about this topic would be impossible. I was also very uncomfortable because I was aware of and shared a lot of the criticisms of the movement. I feel strongly that when you do ethnographic work you need to develop a good faith relationship with the people you were working with, and that was going to be difficult for me. I also had no interest in assessing the content and value of people’s sexual choices. I was more interested in the teachings and assumptions that were influencing young people to make this decision.

The two groups I studied, True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing, promote the idea that this is a movement for young people by young people. And had my primary work been ethnographic, this would have been my own conclusion and that would have been misleading. By adding the historical dimension, which I did in the process of editing my dissertation into a book, I was able to situate the contemporary movement within a much longer trajectory of evangelicals using fears about sexuality to gain political influence.

Jacob Green's Fourth of July

Jonathan Den Hartog

With the Independence Day week-end just concluded, I wanted to commend a recent book that speaks to the perennial questions of religion and the American Revolution--S. Scott Rohrer's Jacob Green's Revolution: Radical Religion and Reform in a Revolutionary Age (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).

Now, I will be featuring Jacob Green's Revolution prominently in a forthcoming review essay in the Journal of the Early Republic, but let me take a different tact here and suggest that this "microhistory" actually says some very interesting things about the Revolution.

Or, more to the point, the book succeeds by highlighting three individuals whose stories helpfully reveal contrasting religious visions during the founding era.

The first is the book's title character. The Rev. Jacob Green (1722-1790) grew up in Massachusetts and attended Harvard. There, he was caught up in the Great Awakening, fascinated by the theology of Jonathan Edwards, and went on to travel with George Whitefield. In New Jersey, he was convinced to become a Presbyterian minister, and he would spend the rest of his life as a minister in Hanover in Morris County.  As a minister, Green published several widely-read works, most expressing the theological concern for purifying the Church. Among them was a popular tract, A Vision of Hell, imagining the schemes of demons to destroy the church. Its appeal was heightened as it included engravings by the Bostonian Paul Revere. In the first section, Rohrer provides a very good description of Green as pastor. He reads deeply into Green's sermons, both published and unpublished (most were on either the Gospel of John or Acts). So, the book works well as religious history.

As Green's life moves into the Revolutionary period, Rohrer deftly switches to political history. With the Imperial crisis of the 1770s, Green advocated for Revolution. In 1776 he wrote a pamphlet that proved very important for the Middle Colonies, arguing against Reconciliation with Great Britain. Because of the popularity of that work, he was actually sent to the New Jersey Provincial Congress in 1776. As a politician he did little, though he helped New Jersey overthrow its royal governor and move to put a new, popularly elected government in place. He even chaired the committee that drafted New Jersey’s first Constitution. As the Revolution went on, Green decried moral laxity in citizens and soldiers--he saw this challenge up close, as he hosted 14 soldiers in his home.

As the War wound down, Green once again moved into the role of a reformer. He called for economic reforms with adjustment of the currency and a just fix for the Congress’s financial problems. Paying down the national debt was also a moral concern that Green raised. Green advocated against slavery, adding his Reformed, reforming voice to the calls for emancipation. In religious matters, after the war, he broke his church away from the Presbyterian synod to form an “associated synod of Morris county.” This was more “Consociational”--or, more like the Congregational arrangement of his New England boyhood. He wanted synods to be advisory but for all power to lie with the Congregations; the Presbyterian format was too restricting for him. In his last years, he worked to improve discipline, behavior, and piety in his own congregation--leading to one last revival season before his death.

The Impact of Religious Congregations on Contemporary Urban Society

Trevor Burrows

Does the contemporary urban religious congregation have any substantial impact on the city or surrounding metropolitan area it calls home?

It is a simple question on the surface, but one heavy with meaning for any religious historian whose work deals substantially with urban subjects. In many ways, there is substantial overlap between the dominant narratives of urban and religious histories, particularly in the twentieth century; the themes and descriptors used to describe the fate of the postwar American city, phrases that try to capture its decentralization, fragmentation, and reterritorialization, could easily be applied in histories of American religion that trace the decline of the denominational mainline, the rise of evangelicalism, the augmentation and pluralization of the American religious landscape, and the persistent increase of the “nones” or spiritual “seekers.” Indeed, many of the developments of postwar American religious history are deeply intertwined with developments in postwar American geography and urban history, the most prominent example, perhaps, being the migration of urban churches from the inner to the outer rings of the city and eventually to the suburbs, patterns of migration that followed suburbanizing congregants from the 1950s onward. To consider the role or impact of the contemporary congregation in urban America today is to hint at the interrelatedness of these historical restructurings, an urban restructuring and a religious restructuring, and to wonder skeptically at their effect on the possibility of building religious communities in the spatially-disjointed, polarized, and ostensibly secular “postmetropolis.”

In their recent book Religion and Community in the New Urban America, Paul D. Numrich and Elfriede Wedam analyze fifteen case studies of congregations from a variety of traditions throughout the greater Chicagoland area. Their aim is to better understand the unique challenges of urban congregations today, how these challenges affect congregational life and a congregation’s ability to build a stable and intimate community, and to what extent congregations make a notable impact on their surrounding environments and thus participate in urban change. The volume may be read as a continuation of the important work that has come out of the Religion in Urban America Program that began at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the early ‘90s, in which Numrich and Wedam were involved. In 2000, the program published Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City, an important volume that drew on research of over seventy-five Chicago-area congregations to describe the variety of congregational communities and their functions throughout Chicago. In Religion and Community, Numrich and Wedam zoom in on questions concerning the making of community in and through urban congregations, and the urban impact of congregations on their surroundings. Although they repeatedly warn against exaggerating the effects of congregations on contemporary urban life, they nevertheless demonstrate that religious congregations are not only shaped by their urban environments, but that they have also “played a role in recent urban restructuring.”

Civil Religion in America, etc.


Michael Graziano

Independence Day seems like a good time to talk about that most American of religious studies terms: “civil religion.”

Civil religion has been in my mind since the Fourth Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture held last month in Indianapolis. The conference was thought provoking—lots of lively discussion and thoughtful exchanges—and you can find recaps of the proceedings by Emily Clark, Craig Prentiss, and Jeffrey Wheatley.

The conference also hosted a conversation on "civil religion."

As with the rest of RAAC, the panel led to a good discussion. Wendy Wall argued that, with the exception of histories of US foreign relations, talk of civil religion had largely dropped out of ARH. Many were interested in whether civil religion was a “good” or “bad” thing, especially as some in the audience understood civil religion to aid US foreign policies with which they disagreed.

But it quickly became clear that not everyone in the room was on the same page with what was meant by “American civil religion.” Is civil religion a kind of Diet Deism™ in American politics, with all the God Bless Americas and the In God We Trusts? Is it the practice of assigning transcendent value to American nationalism? Perhaps it's a palpable feeling in the hearts of Americans? Or is civil religion a term used by scholars to describe how people link the status of America to a set of transcendent claims to its authority and power? Or is it something else entirely?

A Mixtape on Theory & 'Religion' Dedicated to American Historians: Side A


Michael J. Altman

Last month, at the Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, I was hanging out with RiAH blogger Heath Carter and friend of the blog Tim Gloege when Heath leaned over the table and said to me, "So, Mike, tell me what historians don't understand about 'religion.'"

"Yea," said Tim. "You should write a blog post on that. 10 books of theory that every historian should read."

Little did I know that Heath's question, posed to me the night of our arrival to Indianapolis, would be one of the major themes of the conference. The next morning opened with a panel on "what is religion?" and the second day saw more poking and prodding around how historians and religious studies scholars should think about the category religion. By the end of the conference I found myself defending genealogical critiques of categories like "religion" or "Hinduism."

(Side note: That I'm typing this blog post on my laptop is proof enough that I still find use in the so-called "genealogical turn" and have not, indeed, taken a sledgehammer to my computer as recommended.)

So, I'm going to follow Tim's advice. I offer this mixtape of theoretical essays and books to all my American historian friends who want to think about the category "religion" a little deeper, with a little more nuance, and with a little more theory. Like all mixtapes, this one carries with it my own tastes and is offered with affection in hopes that a track or two will inspire you to listen deeper in the artist's catalog.

The first half of the mixtape is below and I'll bring you the second half in August. Also, feel free to make more recommendations in the comments section. 

The Business Practices of Corporate Evangelicals


Tim Gloege's recent book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (UNC Press, 2015), details the ways that business shaped the evangelicalism of the Moody Bible Institute in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book intervenes in several different subfields, including the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism and the history of religion and capitalism. But before I get to the historiography, first the history.

Gloege argues that Moody Bible Institute, including evangelists D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, and James M. Gray, as well as businessmen such as Cyrus McCormick and Henry P. Crowell, "weaved disparate ideas drawn from business and religion into a compelling, if unstable form of evangelical Protestantism" which he terms "corporate evangelicalism." Corporate evangelicalism was an attempt to create a "respectable evangelicalism" which could resolve the tension between evangelicals' rejection of "churchly" institutions and the very real excesses of unbridled individualism. By being respectable, evangelicalism could appeal to the middle classes, even if it lost its ability to appeal to the working classes. Being businesslike was a way of being modern without becoming a modernist.

According to Gloege the development of corporate evangelicalism fell into three chronological stages. First, the nineteenth century featured a "compulsory denominational identity" against which evangelicals like Moody rebelled. The evangelicals, borrowing techniques from the businesses they ran or that funded them, instead built the Moody Bible Institute into a "branded institution." This brand guaranteed the purity, in terms of doctrine, practice, and associations, of the students it educated to be Christian workers. When the oatmeal magnate Henry Crowell took over the Institute he instituted stricter rules about dress and deportment, and segregated the living quarters of African American students off campus, in order to appeal to the respectable middle class. However, neither Crowell nor any other institution could entirely maintain their control over celebrity evangelists who had their own brands, and so we are left today with a "present in which the brand alone is all that matters."

What Happens When a Symbol’s Meaning Changes?

John L. Crow

Much has transpired recently regarding the killing of nine African-Americans in South Carolina and its impact galvanizing those who see the Rebel Flag as a symbol of racism and hate. Living in the South since the early 1990s, I have seen the flag frequently in both Georgia and North Florida. I have heard the argument that it represents heritage and is not a symbol of racism. Assuming this is true, for the moment, such an argument still misses that symbols change and their meanings evolve. This is something that I have had to examine in my study of the Theosophical Society because another symbol of bigotry and hate, the swastika, is part of their organizational seal.

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York City and promoted Eastern ideals and traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. The swastika is a common symbol within these traditions and has been used within the iconography for centuries. Even today, if you are in some Asian countries and see a restaurant with a swastika on its sign, it means the restaurant serves Buddhist-friendly vegetarian food. Thus, it is not surprising that the society adopted the swastika as part of their logo. At one point, Blavatsky explained the swastika “is the summary in a few lines of the whole work of creation, or evolution.” It is a symbol of the dynamic aspects of creation, a point Theosophy stresses.

But we all know that the swastika was also adopted by the Nazi party as their emblem and is connected in the minds of most people to the racism and genocide of the Nazi regime. This was done fifty years after the Theosophical Society incorporated the symbol into its seal. Yet, now that the meaning of the swastika has changed, many claim that Theosophy, and in particular its founder Madam Blavatsky, is racist. Despite the fact that Blavatsky died two years after Hitler was born, there are numerous websites which use the inclusion of the swastika in the TS logo as evidence for its connection to Nazism.

CFP: Sacred Texts and Comics: Religion, Faith, & Graphic Narratives

Lauren Turek

I just came across this recently posted CFP and had to share it, as the proposed volume sounds fascinating. It is an interdisciplinary project and is intended to include essays that examine a wide range of faith traditions. This seems like a great potential opportunity for the historians and religious studies scholars on this blog, especially those who work with material and visual culture.

Call for Papers

CFP: Sacred Texts and Comics: Religion, Faith, and Graphic Narratives

Ken Koltun-Fromm, Haverford College (

Assaf Gamzou, Israeli Cartoon Museum (

Sacred Texts and Comics: Religion, Faith, and Graphic Narratives

The last decade has produced critical and expressive studies in sacred canonical texts and comics. Witness, for example, the artistic works from R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis (2009) and JT Waldman’s Megillat Esther (2005), as well as scholarly publications from Karline McLain’s India’s Immortal Comic Books (2009), A. David Lewis’s edited volume Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels (2010), and Samantha Baskind’s and Ranen Omer-Sherman’s editorial work for The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches (2010).

Sacred Texts and Comics: Religion, Faith, and Graphic Narratives is a proposed volume for the “Critical Approaches to Comics Artists” series at the University Press of Mississippi that builds upon, but also beyond, Western or “major” religious traditions to develop a broader landscape of religious graphic mediums. We encourage submissions that engage Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, African Diaspora traditions, or other religious communities from a variety of disciplinary or cross-disciplinary perspectives. Such critical approaches may include studies in religion, literature, theology, art history, culture, anthropology, political science, or other disciplines that work with the multi-dimensional features of graphic narratives.

Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Depictions of the sacred in comics.
  • The place of historical exegesis and critical, religious interpretation in graphic narratives.
  • Comics as a form and method of interpretation.
  • The ways in which the graphic, formal features engage notions of the sacred.
  • The modes by which graphic narratives represent the sacred or conceptions of religion.
  • The ways in which religious identity and belief are represented and explored in graphic mediums.
  • The multiple ways that visual culture informs religious practice.

Please send a 500-1000 word abstract, CV, and contact information to Ken Koltun-Fromm ( and Assaf Gamzou ( by August 21, 2015. Haverford College will host a symposium on “Sacred Texts and Comics” on May 5th and 6th, 2016 that will include workshops for contributors to this proposed volume. Please indicate your interest in and
availability to participate in the symposium (all expenses will be paid, including a small stipend).

"For Too Long"

Paul Harvey

Just for those who missed, here is a link to President Obama's eulogy of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney today in Charleston, which is (among other things) full of references to religion in American history, everything from Amazing Grace to Marilynne Robinson to slave revolts to "collective salvation."

Note: it should load up automatically, but if it doesn't, the speech begins at about 1:22 (one hour twenty-minutes in).

Also: Here is the transcript of the speech. 

Writing about Charleston

Emily Suzanne Clark and Matthew J. Cressler

Last week, a horrible thing happened, and Matt Cressler and I (Emily) were both asked to write about it. Since this month doesn’t have a 31st (Matt’s date), he and I together took the time here to reflect on writing about the #Charlestonshooting for a public audience. Also, if you didn’t check out #Charlestonsyllabus yet (which was trending for awhile!), do so now or read this round-up of sources compiled by the African American Intellectual Society’s blog.

EMILY: When the news broke Wednesday evening about the mass shooting in Mother Emanuel, I was deeply sad. Being on the west coast, I was still up and on my computer so I watched the immediate aftermath on Twitter. The realization that it was Denmark Vesey’s church and on June 17 was a painful one. I woke up Thursday morning and now was mad about what happened. I sat at my desk and read a bunch about the shooting and the media’s coverage of it. I fumed. I thought about the all-too-neat historical trajectory from southern slavery to the night before. I yelled “Why?” at my computer a few times, even though I knew why. I read Laudato Si, the pope’s encyclical about climate change that had just been released that morning, but I couldn’t really focus on the words. The only things that jumped out to me were lines about social justice. Charleston was on my mind no matter what I did. Then I got an email about it.

MATT: I too awoke in a rage. Since I’m starting at the College of Charleston in August, friends had texted me through the night about the Mother Emanuel massacre. The news was almost the first thing I saw when I got up Thursday morning. What made this even more poignant for me was that I had just planned a class trip to Emanuel AME the day before. Wednesday morning I sat in a coffee shop drafting my African American religions syllabus for the fall. One of things that most excites me about teaching this subject in this place is the depth of African American (religious) history in “the Holy City” – something people across the country have now been awoken to tragically. That morning I typed “Special Class Visit to Emanuel AME Church” into my syllabus. I toyed with calling the church right then and there to schedule a visit, but decided against it. What’s the rush, I thought. This made it seem all the more surreal when horror visited the Mother Emanuel community that very night.

Ex Machina, Gender, and Post-humanist New Religious Movements

Today's guest post is from Megan Leverage, a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. Her interests include religion and technology, millennialism, new religious movements, and Mormonism. She'll be presenting a paper about similar topics to today's post at AAR this year on a panel for the Religion and Transhumanism group.

A couple of months ago I went to go see the British Sci-Fi thriller Ex Machina, the directorial debut of Alex Garland, author of The Beach (novel), and screenplay writer for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. You can find the film’s trailer, synopsis and other information on the official website. I had been anxiously awaiting this film’s release not only as an admirer of Garland’s earlier work, but also because this already acclaimed film seemed to have much in common with the research I had been developing over the past two semesters. I had become interested in the sub-sub-genre, gender and new religious movements, particularly post-humanist new religious movements. It may be worth noting that this project was the first instance in which gender seemed so essential, not because I developed a new interest in gender studies, or because I saw gender as a means to fill a gap in the scholarship, but because I became convinced that expressions of gender and sexuality were fundamental features of these particular movements. This observation also applied to Ex Machina, which explored similar post-human themes of technological embodiment and consciousness, and communicated these ideas through the sex appeal of the film’s main character Ava and her post-gendered A.I. body.

Loving God's Wildness: A Conversation with Jeffrey Bilbro

The following is an interview with my friend and colleague  Jeffrey Bilbro Jeff is an Assistant Professor of English at Spring Arbor University.   He is a prolific blogger, the author of numerous articles, and co-author with Jack Baker of An Agrarian Hope for Higher Education: Wendell Berry and the University (forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky).  Our conversation below concern’s Jeff’s first book, Loving God's Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature (University of Alabama Press, 2015).

What stimulated your interest in environmentalism (if you would call it that)?

It’s hard to pinpoint an origin, but one formative experience for me was spending a year in the remote community of Stehekin when I was eleven. Stehekin is surrounded by the North Cascades National Park and is inaccessible by car; to get there you have to take a boat or plane. Only about 100 people live there year-round. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place, and we took lots of hikes in the surrounding mountains.

Even more than the glamorous scenery, however, what drew my attention were the resourceful, creative, difficult ways in which the residents made a living in this remote place. Their pragmatic efforts to survive here inevitably came into conflict with various National Park Service policies. Because these policies were determined in some centralized bureaucracy, they often didn’t fit the local reality. So while I learned to value the beauty of seemingly untouched, pristine wilderness, I also came to see the ways in which wilderness preservation and land use can clash, which as I learned in my research for this book is one of America’s enduring conflicts.

To circle back to your question, I avoid using the term “environmentalism” because it simply means “surroundings.” Wendell Berry points out that when we use this term, we imply that humans and other organisms can be separated from their surroundings, but in fact, humans can’t survive if we’re severed from other life forms. Furthermore, “environmentalism” seems to lead to efforts to preserve “wild” places in some other state or country, to save particular species, or to keep humans from messing up their surroundings.
The more important and difficult question, however, is how do we live with the other members of our places in ways that enable us all—human and non-human—to flourish? Thus questions about proper land use are historically much more important and difficult—and interesting—than merely setting aside sections of an apparently untainted environment. The word that suggests the scope of these questions best is “ecology,” which comes from the Greek word oikos that simply means “household.” We derive both “economy” and “diocese” from this same root, and these related words indicate both the practical and religious implications wrapped up in how we live with the other members of our biological household.

Quakers to Know: Margaret Hope and S. Allen Bacon

Carol Faulkner

I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret Hope Bacon, who died in 2011, and her husband Allen, who died in 2013, when I was working on my biography of Lucretia Mott. Margaret, a prolific writer and historian, had published a wonderful biography of Mott, titled Valiant Friend, in 1980. The Bacons were activists. Like many of their 19th c. Quaker predecessors, this unassuming couple acted on their religious convictions to promote racial equality, peace, and other causes. With some important exceptions, including Allan Austin's recent book on the American Friends Service Committee (read Karen Johnson's interview with Austin here and here), Quakers get more attention in histories of early America than they do in histories of the twentieth century. The obituaries of the Bacons, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, offer a starting point for further histories of twentieth-century Quaker activism.

S. Allen Bacon was a Quaker by birth, and educated at Quaker schools like Westtown and Haverford. He and Margaret met at Antioch College. Though his obituary states that the "two helped work to integrate the school," Antioch had (at least in theory) admitted African American students since the 19th century. In the 1940s, students protested and the college decided to actively diversify, recruiting both African American and Japanese American students. During World War II, Allen was a conscientious objector, and, through the Civilian Public Service program, worked with patients in a mental hospital. Afterward, he made a career of community organizing in the settlement house movement in Philadelphia.

Unlike her husband, Margaret Hope Borchardt was not born a Quaker. She grew up in New York City and graduated from Antioch College in 1943. She did not join a Quaker meeting until her three children prompted her to do so. In addition to her writing, from 1962 to 1984, Margaret worked at the American Friends Service Committee (see Guy Aiken's recent post on its archives). Her many social and political commitments included the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, which in Mott's day did not allow female members. As she told one interviewer, "I've always been interested in what motivates people to do good works. There's a spirit running through humanity that keeps producing people who have the urge to make life better for their fellow human beings." Accordingly, her list of biographical subjects include Mott, Quaker prison reformer Abby Hopper Gibbons, and African American abolitionist Robert Purvis. For future historians, she left her abundant research materials to the Friends Historical Library.

Paul Wood’s Absolution Under Fire: A Case Study in Religious Memory and Sacred Imagery

This month Cushwa welcomes Notre Dame graduate student Andrew Mach to the blog. Andy's research is currently focused on American nativism and transnational anti-Catholicism during the 1840s and 1850s; he also has extensive experience in public history, and has spent the past five summers as a National Park Services interpretive ranger, most recently at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. Those interested in Catholicism and art, though of a very different character and historical period, are invited to mark your calendars for our upcoming exhibit Outsider at the Vatican: Frederick Franck's Drawings from Vatican II, opening August 1.

Andrew Mach

Absolution Under Fire at the Snite Museum of Art
On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, as stray Confederate shells shrieked overhead and deafening sounds of battle thundered across the open landscape of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Union Army chaplain Father William Corby led Irish Brigade soldiers in prayer and gave general absolution of sins as the troops prepared to march in support of beleaguered Northern units stationed near the Wheatfield.

Corby’s action received little coverage at the time, but by 1890 his “absolution under fire” at Gettysburg had taken on iconic status in Catholic circles. Brigade veteran St. Clair Mulholland called for Corby to be awarded the Medal of Honor and spearheaded the successful effort to erect a statue in the chaplain’s honor at Gettysburg. Another eyewitness told his wife that the absolution had made him “as strong as a lion,” while speakers upheld Corby as a model of American Catholic spiritual devotion and patriotism. [1]

Arguably the most popular and influential account of Corby’s battlefield sanctity, however, grew out of a nineteen-year-old student’s keen imagination and considerable artistic talent. In September 1891, University of Notre Dame professor James Edwards, eager to record Corby’s absolution for posterity, commissioned art student Paul Wood to put the scene to canvas. “This is just the kind of work which I love to paint,” Wood confided to his diary, “scenes of blood, carnage, death, sudden and fearful.” [2]

Taking considerable artistic license, Wood placed Corby against the dramatic backdrop of the heights of Little Round Top, further incorporating blood and carnage into the otherwise solemn scene. His finished work, entitled Absolution Under Fire, received critical acclaim for its striking imagery and lifelike appearance, leading at least one newspaper reporter to wrongly describe the teenage Wood – who had never experienced battle in his life – as a “witness” to Corby’s 1863 absolution. [3]

The Indiana State Journal’s conflation of historical fact with artistic rendition provides a starting point for discussing the interpretive promise and scholarly perils of analyzing paintings and other non-written sources on American religion. In this post, I study Absolution Under Fire in hopes of sparking a broader conversation on religious history sources and methodology, highlighting how paintings can serve as both creations and creators of historical memory, as well as differentiating sacred images from images depicting the sacred.

Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism: An Interview with Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Paul Putz

When the semester ended in May, I had a stack of books on my to-read list. Fortunately for me, the first I chose to pick up was Kristin Kobes Du Mez's A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Problem of Christian Feminism (Oxford, 2015). I enjoyed it so much that I reached out to Kristin to see if she would discuss the book and give RiAH readers a taste of her work, and she graciously agreed. Kristin is an associate professor of history at Calvin College. You can follow her on twitter @kkdumez.

P: As a grad student I’m constantly told that I’ll need to distill my dissertation project down to the impossibly short “elevator talk.” So what is your elevator talk for Katharine Bushnell? To the uninitiated, who was she and why is she important?

K: In today’s parlance, Katharine Bushnell was an internationally-known anti-trafficking activist, a feminist theologian, and an evangelical Christian who believed the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God. She was one of the global leaders in the “first wave” of Christian anti-trafficking activism in the late 19th century, and it was this activism that opened her eyes to the fact that the men perpetrating acts of violence against women were, more often than not, Christian men—a realization that ultimately led her to write her remarkable feminist theology. What makes her theology so compelling is that even as she challenged traditional patriarchal readings of the Scriptures in dramatic ways, because she relied on retranslation as well as reinterpretation, she was able to do so while scrupulously upholding the authority of the Scriptures. Much of her theological work holds up well even by today’s standards, and she has a small but devoted following to this day among evangelical Christians, in America and around the globe.

Yet outside of these circles, she remains largely unknown. Sometimes I like to think of Bushnell as the most important American evangelical you’ve probably never heard of. She certainly is one of the most fascinating. If you’re interested in Christianity and feminism, in connections between Christian patriarchy and abuse, in feminism and evangelical purity culture, or in “evangelical feminism” more generally, Bushnell’s story really is essential reading. In short, Katharine Bushnell is important for who she was and for what she did, and for her continuing influence today. But as a historian I also think that part of her significance lies in the fact that she was for so long forgotten—by Christians and feminists alike. That’s part of her story, too, and a very instructive part—and that’s really the story of A New Gospel for Women.

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