Just 'Cause You Feel It, Doesn't Mean It's There

Days of Hope, Religion of Fear:
Reflections on Jason Bivins's Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism

by Paul Harvey
Just 'Cause You Feel It, Doesn't Mean It's There -- "There There," Radiohead

Reading Jason Bivins’s
Religion of Fear made me think, not so much of Hell Houses or planes flying aborted fetus pictures over Notre Dame, but of Arcade Fire’s Intervention:

I can taste the fear
Gonna lift me up and take me out of here

And it made me think of Don Delillo’s White Noise, which played so expertly and wittily on social paranoia as a broader product of secular horror – as seen in the “airborne toxic event” that drives the plot of the novel.
Perhaps I’m thinking of that today while hanging in hippy-trippy Crestone, Colorado, right at the base of the Sangre de Christos, surrounded by a plethora of religious communities; and sitting at the Shambala Café, overhearing the musings of some of the locals, who are (unwittingly) serving as a counterpoint but also counterpart to the subjects of Bivins’s work, and who seem cumulatively like a DeLillo character come to life.
It should be called the Department of Offense, not the Department of Defense, man. Dude,
Obama’s just doing their bidding, man. They'll get someone else to run the Ponzi now.
Paranoia's seductions strike deep in the heartland, and even a fur piece down the road from the heartland. Arcade Fire captures their voice as well:
Don't wanna give 'em my name and address,
Don't wanna see what happens next,
Don't wanna live in my father's house no more. . . . .
Don't wanna fight in a holy war,
Don't want the salesmen knocking at my door,
I don't wanna live in America no more.
'Cause the tide is high,
and it's rising still,
And I don't wanna see it at my windowsill.
Indeed in reading Jason’s work I was wondering if DeLillo was going to come up. And he does in one of the quotation epigraphs for the last chapter, where a character in DeLillo’s Mao II says: “So we turn to the news, which provides an unremitting mood of catastrophe. This is where wefind emotional experience not available elsewhere.”

But evangelical audiences did have that emotional experience available elsewhere, which is exactly what this book is about.

Starting with Jack Chick tracts in the 1960s, and moving on through evangelical critiques of popular music, hell houses, the entire oeuvre of the Left Behind novels, and a variety of other evangelical popular productions, Bivins traces how and why the audience for these productions could taste the fear, and why it lifted them up and took them out of here, from the 1960s to the present. Throughout, the emphasis is on the erotics of fear, and how the cultural products of evangelical fear dovetailed with the horror genre in ways that simultaneously provided titillation, fright, anger, and reassurance. This is religious studies that cultural historians need to engage.

Jason’s textured work provides one of the richest exploration of evangelical popular culture since the 1960s that I’ve ever read. He manages to avoid the demons of this genre: on the one hand, the left-wing journalism school that sees theocracy anywhere and everywhere; and on the other hand the penchant for celebrating products of popular culture on their own terms, without seriously considering any normative statements about the meanings of these cultural products.

Here is how he puts it at the end of chapter 2, setting up the series of topical chapters to come:
The frights are not propagandistic, but they are politically coded. While they may not be designed to generate political ideologies or programs directly, they are created out of sociopolitical concern and they underwrite antiliberal politics . . . none of these creations [Chick’s cartoons, anti-rock/rap censorship, Hell Houses, and Left Behind novels] takes a “mustard seed approach,” waiting patiently for faith to blossom. They are proudly direct and confrontational, seeking to alarm in God’s name . . . Through blood, shock, death, and destruction, the religion of fear ushers into being a world whose very terrors announce its redemption.
Consistently throughout, we find Bivins’s subjects (conservative evangelical audiences who consume these products) “drinking deeply of the forbidden in order to deny it,” with the “compulsions, desires, and fascinations that these representations seek to displace” inevitably returning “in vicarious experiences and representations which promise the erasure of these desires even as they deliver a surrogate thrill . . . Desire is thus, even when expressed in a litany of repudiations, a central part of the religion of fear.”

This is the case with his tracing of the history of evangelical anti-rock/rap/metal tracts:
these demons are never fully driven out but, like an endlessly glitched compact disc, return to infinitely reassert their place of prominence in this discourse.” The repressed returns again and again to the same stuck place in the CD, and the audience can’t stop watching/listening, not unlike the one place in the Arcade Fire song quoted above that I just had to keep replaying while driving home from school.
But here’s my favorite quote that sums up the theme of the work. Commenting on the Left Behind novels (and I didn’t know how many of these novels there were – enough to form a genre by itself), a fifteen-year old fan is quoted as saying, “The best thing about the Left Behind books is the way the non-Christians get their guts pulled out by God.” Sometimes it takes a fifteen-year old to raise a thesis.

Fear has its erotics, and it has its politics, the subject of the final chapter:
The religion of fear’s exemplars are public creations, representations meant for the entire sinning world . . . Slowly, since the 1960s, the seeming outlandishness of its many claims have been reframed. The discourse now normalizes and naturalizes ideas that are antithetical to the kind of pluralism on which democracies thrive. Or as put in a previous paragraph: Nowhere in the religion of fear do we see suasion and reason, only ramparts manned and fingers pointed.

Where does the religion of fear go from here? (Feel free to respond to that question, Jason!). The prevailing tension between hope and fear seems especially urgent now, as gun stores sell out, the usual pundits and radio show hosts prattle on, Glen Beck sells his own unctuous evangelical paranoia – but also while the political rhetoric of hope had strong currency in the 08 political marketplace in America, and the 09 political marketplace in Tehran. I’m just asking.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll engage this book. It is not easy reading; it avoids simple philosophizing or sloganeering; and it requires (or at least required from me) frequent bouts of re-reading denser sentences that balance competing ideas and theoretical reflections delicately posed on a teeter-totter. Ultimately, despite its somewhat pessimistic conclusion, the book is a resounding affirmation of democratic pluralism against the erotic seductions of the culture of fear, as are the protagonist's unconcious realizations in "Intervention":
Been working for the church
While your life falls apart
Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home.

Civil Society and Religion in the Early U.S.


by Chris Beneke

The Sunday
Boston Globe "Ideas" section includes an interview by Samuel P. Jacobs with Johann N. Neem, associate professor of history at Western Washington State. The subject is Neem's book, Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Harvard, 2008), which considers, among other things, the role of churches and ministers in America's emergent civil society. The book, Neem writes, "questions the assumption that America's voluntary tradition emerged naturally out of the democratic ideals of the American Revolution. Americans were uneasy about becoming a nation of joiners and accepted it only when other options failed." Here's an excerpt from Jacobs' interview with Neem:

IDEAS: We think of freedom of association as a right like freedom of assembly. But this idea is not a concept we can date back to the American Revolution.

NEEM: Today we are much more pluralistic. We tend to think of society as divided up into groups with their own interests, each of which has the right to divide up and pursue their own welfare. That is our modern right, which emerged out of this idea that the hope for a government with one interest is constantly being threatened by people dividing. Freedom of association emerges as a way for outsider groups to continue to pursue their private or political causes. Freedom of association is in a sense the embodiment of a failure of a certain kind of revolutionary hope.

IDEAS: Another thing that we read backwards onto the founders, you argue, is a separation between church and state.

NEEM: One of the things that is important to remember is that Massachusetts had a tax-supported church until 1833. The only competitors, in a sense, were Connecticut in 1818 and New Hampshire in 1819. Only in New England. Most of the states separated church and state right after the Revolution. Why did they do that? Why did it last so long is the question. The answer is that in many ways the public church as well as the militia or the public school were seen as sources of social unity by providing a common institutional experience and also common values.

IDEAS: In many parts of the US, today’s church leaders have become as important as political leaders. How engaged were church leaders in Massachusetts in the 19th century?

NEEM: Church leaders, as well as religious people, congregants, were very active in politics. What is interesting is that the church leadership in Massachusetts started to discover in the 1820s and 1830s that their influence would be greater less through state sanction and more through the cultivation of their congregants. Increasingly church leaders said less we need an alliance with the state, in fact that is a handicap. What we need is to convert people and then mobilize those people. Some of the most mobilized Americans in the 1820s and 1830s were Evangelicals coming out of these churches.

What is a continuation is the ways in which the church has some of the most active citizens. Citizens who still have the ability to write legislators, to organize themselves, are coming out of churches. You see it today not just in today’s conservative movement. You saw it in the civil rights movement coming out of the African-American churches. It is not really liberal or progressive or conservative, it has to do with how citizens participate in public life.

Billy Graham, Nixon, and Jews as God's Time Piece

Today's guest post comes from our friend Steven Miller, author of the recent and much noted book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (the link takes you to the NY Times review of the book). You may find an interview with the author here, and find the book's web page here. Steven reflects on the latest release of the Nixon tapes and the ongoing revelations of the Billy Graham/Richard Nixon connection, and in particular how Nixon's political project dovetailed with Graham dreams of evangelical unity.

Thoughts on the Latest Graham-Nixon Tape
by Steven Miller

Tuesday’s latest tapes and papers release from the Nixon Presidential Library, from what I can gather, contains some juicy anecdotes, but no paradigm-shifting revelations (News flash: Richard Nixon was a cynical, embittered man—a master of political hatchet work and paranoid overreach alike). The release does, though, include another Billy Graham-Nixon conversation (February 21, 1973) that, like their now-notorious February 1, 1972, conversation, has gained attention for its notes of anti-Semitism. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the earlier conversation was not so exceptional after all. There is much to ponder here, and I do not begin to imagine that I have put this conversation in full context. Below I offer a few thoughts, written from the perspective of a student of Graham.

By Nixon standards, the tone of the 20 minute phone conversation was very upbeat, coming just after the treaty ending American involvement in the Vietnam War and just before the Watergate crisis really hit the Oval Office’s fan. The general theme was, We’ve proved ‘em wrong, haven’t we?—the “’em” being Nixon’s critics, real and imagined. Much of the conversation concerned the relationship between Israel and American Protestant leaders, especially in light of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s impending visit to the States. Several recent events had threatened that relationship, in the eyes of Nixon and Graham. Nixon cited Israel’s shooting down of a Libyan passenger plane, while Graham was smarting from recent statements by American Jewish leaders opposed to the ecumenical Key ’73 evangelistic campaign, with its manifest destiny-like slogan: “CALLING OUR CONTINENT TO CHRIST”. Both believed that Israeli and American Jewish leaders underestimated, at their peril, the latent anti-Semitism among Americans, even among good Christian folk. Unsurprisingly, Nixon put the matter more crudely: “It may be they have a death wish.” But Graham also suggested that Israel was in danger of alienating its Christian allies, especially if American Jews continued “overreacting” to the emerging “Jews for Jesus” movement, which was “just scaring them to death.” In a line that makes for an easy headline, Graham quoted the Book of Revelation (2:9, 3:9) in describing the kind of Jews who belong to the “synagogue of Satan.” As with the 1972 conversation, Graham certainly had in mind publishers of pornographic material; but, in the context of echoing Nixon’s distaste for the Fourth Estate, Graham also seemed to be thinking of high-profile Jewish liberals in the mainstream media. Graham, as I have written elsewhere concerning the 1972 exchange, “was willing to indulge Nixon’s prejudices and . . . voice a few of his own.”

I was struck by the way in which Graham casually cited dispensationalist eschatology in discussing matters Jewish with Nixon. Jews are “God’s time piece,” Graham declared to an agreeable, grunting Nixon, “and he has judged them from generation to generation, and yet used them, and they’ve kept their identity.” I was struck because Graham-Nixon communications often were rather devoid of theological content. At the same time, as I have argued, Nixon was more comfortable with Graham’s evangelicalism than has been assumed (to the extent Nixon was comfortable with anything or anyone). Either way, Nixon and Graham undoubtedly shared a strong criticism of liberal media outlets, such as Newsweek and the New York Times. “And Henry Luce would turn over in his grave,” Graham declared to Nixon, if Luce knew what the formerly friendly Time was now publishing. Many members of the liberal media happened to be Jewish. That is, Nixon and Graham chose to notice the presence of Jews therein.

The Graham who comes through in this conversation suggests the fine line between emerging Israel-philia and lingering anti-Semitism among early 1970s evangelicals. Graham saw himself as a strong friend of Israel, and he could cite his closeness with Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee as evidence. At the same time, Graham remained keenly aware of how much Jewish leaders valued him as an ally. Tannenbaum was set to visit Graham in Montreat to discuss Key ’73. Graham clearly was most comfortable in a broker-style relationship with Jewish leaders, wherein they would explain evangelicals to their people and he would explain Jews to his.

In the end, this conversation confirms that Graham was indeed in Nixon’s “kitchen cabinet” during the immediate post-reelection period. When Graham and Nixon talked, they talked politics. Unprompted by Nixon, Graham proceeded to dump on evangelical critics of Nixon’s Vietnam policies, such as the liberal Senator Harold Hughes (D-IA), who was “pretending to be . . . a great Christian” and the moderate Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), whom Graham cited as “the big disappointment in political life—in politics that I’ve known.” At some level, of course, Graham kowtowed to Nixon like many a presidential confidante before and since. But in these weeks before Watergate consumed Nixon and threatened Graham’s reputation, Graham clearly saw Nixon’s political project (countering liberal hegemony with a new majority) and his own religious project (countering mainline Protestant hegemony with evangelical unity) as complementary efforts. “And just as you have changed the political picture, we hope to change the religious picture,” Graham said to Nixon in reference to the upcoming Lausanne evangelism conference.

Michael Jackson Icon of Pop Dies


by Gerardo Marti

Within minutes, the news of
Michael Jackson's rush to the hospital and abrupt death at age 50 was heard around the world. Brian Williams lead of the evening news was to have been the passing of Farrah Fawcett (also today) which was suddenly trumped by the death of the King of Pop.

Michael JacksonMichael Jackson via last.fm

Hour-long specials have already aired. MTV is replaying Jackson's music videos. Youtube is lighting up with the moonwalk to recapture the magic of the wunderkind of dance. Expect a steady stream of long commentaries on the striking talent and career of Michael Jackson. Hear quotes from music celebrities old and new about the legend. Wait for the new revelations about the reclusive eccentric that will resurrect the myths surrounding the man and spin new theories of his oft bizarre behavior. On the heels of his own life will be speculation about his children's future.

Two things I wish to add.

Watch the beginning of the video Thriller and find a statement from Michael Jackson - a religious statement.

"Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult. Michael Jackson"

He left his Jehovah's Witness faith behind for the most part, but discussion of his religious orientation will show up at least briefly. Let's see what kind of memorial service will be performed.

Did Michael Jackson leave any instructions about his passing? What might we learn about his religious convictions?

And another thing. Michael Jackson is being remembered as a Black entertainer. This will be interesting to see how this plays out in emerging pop history. Specifically, it seems that Jackson was the first Black person to have a video played on the then-new MTV network. Michael Jackson, breaking free from the Motown label with his brothers to go to Epic, developed a solo career that expanded beyond racially constricted circles. His scarcrow in The Wiz with Diana Ross and Nipsey Russell was an African American counterpart to the original MGM Wizard of Oz film, but his breakout televised performance of Billie Jean on Motown's 25th Anniversary where he first performed the Moonwalk moved him beyond being an entertainer only for Black audiences. The music found in both Off the Wall and Thriller topped all music charts and played across the radio spectrum.

Socially, he publicly expanded beyond Black social networks. He was showed prominently hanging out with Brooke Shields (white icon), befriending Elizabeth Taylor (white icon), and eventually marrying Lisa Marie Presley (daughter of ultimate white icon). His Sgt. Pepper-looking red military jacket alluded back to the Beatles (yet another white icon).

Yes, Michael Jackson was Black. But his career was fully mainstream. Jackson avoided politics as far as I can tell (can someone correct me on this?), so he has not been associated with initiatives to further Black causes, Black rights, or Black issues.

In the end, watch for race and religion in our newest, and perhaps most comprehensive, public discussion of Michael Jackson in the coming days.

Cross posted from Praxis Habitus blog.

Protestant Empires, Whiggish History, and Personal Religious Histories

Today we're happy to guest post again from Katherine Carte Engel, Professor of History at Texas A & M and author of a book we've blogged about here before, Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Kate reflects on a pair of recent books, one academic and the other more personally reflective, that recast thinking about what constitutes "American religious history."
Protestant Empires
by Katherine Carte Engel

Apropos of Charles Cohen’s comment that “Even by the capacious definitions of what constitutes early American history, Deseret makes for an unusual place in which to hold an Omohundro meeting,” -- as well as the other sessions of that excellent conference, at which that comment was referenced by those who have noted the hegemony of the east-coast-early-American-establishment -- two recent books have made me run around the circle, once again, of what I consider “American religious history.” My early Americanist self welcomes the publication of Carla Gardina Pestana’s timely and wonderfully readable Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World. My non-academic self finds Erik Reece’s musing and occasionally wrenching An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God intriguing and thought provoking.

Assuming from the title of the former that I would be hearing another foray into the question of a Christian nation that Chris Beneke raised a few days ago, I was quite surprised to find an actual pre-Revolutionary colonist, William Byrd, taking a prominent role as a religious thinker in Reece’s Gospel. Byrd’s patriarchal rage, treated in depth by Kenneth Lockridge, made quite an impact on my vision of early America as a graduate student, but I had never thought of him as a source of spiritual inspiration. Reece, an environmental writer most known for his depiction of strip mining in Kentucky, suggests the adoption of a new American theology more attuned with joy, peace, the natural landscape, and, most likely, locally-grown green leafy vegetables. He argues that Americans (including his own father and grandfather) have been too long dominated by a depressing and Puritanical religion that has accomplished the overwhelming task of dividing Americans from themselves and from all that is inspiring and holy in the world. This process (with some help from Alexander Hamilton) has led inexorably to desiccated cities and (in a wonderfully evocative phrase borrowed from Guy Davenport) the automobile, that “bionic roach.”

Reece’s Manichean jeremiad is heartfelt and his exploration of Walt Whitman is riveting. But his Gospel, rooted in Byrd, elaborated by Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, and verified by modern science, offers an image of “American” religion that is hard to reconcile with Pestana’s detailed account of the early modern British Atlantic. (Pestana’s book provides a full elaboration of themes she began in the excellent collection, The British Atlantic.) She chronicles what early Americanists currently see as the central theme of the early modern era when, in the place of the European’s encounter with a virgin continent, she tells the complex tale of contact, conquest, conversion, and resistance that unfolded when post-Reformation Europeans and enslaved Africans landed in North America and the Caribbean. The dynamic consequences of human interaction and cross-cultural engagement take us from failed missions and lost opportunities to shattering clashes between world views. The overpowering reality of religious diversity in the Atlantic world remains a constant, however, as do people’s resolute desires not to be forced into conformity or to give up their deeply held beliefs.

It’s easy to pick apart Reece’s work from a historical perspective, but in all fairness he wasn’t trying to write a thorough history, even a literary one. His is a contemplation of men’s (and they are largely men) interaction with the land, and (white, privileged) American men’s often unsuccessful efforts to throw off the psychic constraints of generations of their fathers. But even as he decries American culture he feeds the Whiggish narrative that the United States, the political entity that sustains his gospel, offered some quintessential freedom to men who sought to recreate themselves. Pestana’s work reduces the United States to its proper historical context. It elaborates the very real political forces at work in religious history. As history, it is unquestionably more accurate. I am looking forward to using it to introduce my students to the early modern religious past, filling a gap in the literature that has long plagued the field. But Reece’s speaks to the “American” cultural soul in a way we early Americanists, who struggle to incorporate Deseret and demote the United States’ religious freedom to a matter of historical contingency, rarely do.

Holy Mavericks, Batman


Holy Mavericks, Batman

by Ed Blum

Regardless of what recent survey results like the ARIS show, the quest to commune with God seems just as present in American society today as it has at any other time. Board any American airplane and you’ll probably see at least one white, middle-aged, slightly overweight evangelical reading William Young’s The Shack. In it, God reveals herself in a host of racialized forms to teach the protagonist new lessons of faith amid horrible life circumstances. And the main character’s life was pretty awful. His daughter had been murdered, the evidence left in some random shack, and God called him to converse at that location. The entire narrative is wrenching for the main character, from God’s racial manifestation, to the profane and sacred geography, to the loss of his daughter.

We can hear similar spiritual strivings if we listen closely to the sonic vibrations from the I-pod of the agnostic, freethinking, thin, and tattooed college student next to that evangelical. See her lips mouth the words, “I met God / on the corner of first and Amistad. / Where the west / Was all but won.” She is singing with the soulful beats of The Fray’s “You Found Me.” The song is asad one, where human misery once again forces the search for God. This God has no racial features, but He sits alone, “smoking His last cigarette.” God encourages the pained singer to “Ask anything.” A torrent of questions and accusations are flung at God. “Where were you, When everything was falling apart?” Why did You never call? Why did You never send letters? The end of the song shifts the location of holy finding. After the singer had lobbied everything he had at God, he now feels that God is the one who found him. “Why’d you have to wait? / To find me, to find me.”

Americans continue to search for a God to find them, to hear them, and to offer answers amid their pains and their tragedies. And for hundreds of thousands of American Protestants, five individuals provide the avenues to God: T. D. Jakes, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Paula White, and Brian McLaren.

In an amazing new book that had me feeling like I was sitting in the various congregations, hearing the sermons and being transformed by them, feeling the rhythm of the music, unconsciously absorbing the various means of media, sociologist Shayne Lee and historian Phillip Sinitiere show how these evangelical innovators recast traditional Protestantism for contemporary Americans who still want to find God (or be found by God). Holy Mavericks is a quick read and each chapter sparkles with close analysis of the main ideas and innovations of these pastors. It’s fantastic scholarship that runs from the sexualized presence of Paula White (who presents herself as vulnerable to speak to those with pain in their backgrounds) to the creepy smile of Joel Osteen (who has updated the power of positive thinking with amazing business and media acumen), from the stomping of T. D. Jakes (who has played both sides of the “gospel of prosperity” coin) to the goofy jokes of Rick Warren

(whose use of the internet is pretty savvy for a guy who wears plaid shirts reminiscent of the fictional character Al on Home Improvement). Holy Mavericks is a book not only for those who want to understand why these individuals have scored so well in the American marketplace of religion, but also for those who want to understand that marketplace.

I don’t want to bore readers here with a recitation of the theoretical underpinnings of Holy Mavericks (they have an excellent conclusion on the sociological theory that informs their analyses). And I don’t want to offer criticisms just for the sake of criticizing (an aspect of academic book reviewing I find as hackneyed as the “makes a significant contribution to INSERT FIELDS HERE” phrase that concludes almost every review). Oh shucks, maybe I do have one criticism in the form of a query. Why did Lee and Sinitiere compare the most politically liberal of the pastors and movements – Brian McLaren and the Emergent Church – to Al Qaeda, while Paula White is compared to Martin Luther, T. D. Jakes is understood through an analogy to jazz, and Osteen is likened to the “boy-next-door”? Perhaps this is just me being persnickety because when I had read McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian I thought it was nonfiction and searched for the fate of Neo. Alas, I’m off subject, but I would encourage readers to attend to the myriad analogies used in Holy Mavericks to see how Lee and Sinitiere make their case.

I do want to encourage the readers of this blog to get their hands on Holy Mavericks, enjoy a journey with the leaders of the evangelical masses, then return to “You Found Me” or to The Shack, and finally to ask whether the statistical data in the ARIS study is even worth studying. It may have you exclaiming, as I did, “Holy Mavericks, Batman, that survey data is as fishy as the Penguin.”

Bodies and Baptists

John Fea

Baptists, according to Janet Moore Lindman in Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), believed in “a body-centered religion.” I must admit that I was initially confused by what she meant by this, but as I read through this compelling work of scholarship it became clear to me that Lindman is using the term “body” to describe both the individual human bodies of specific Baptist believers and the collective “body” of believers that made up the core of Baptist community in early America.

Lindman starts with two traditional chapters tracing the emergence of the Baptist movement in colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia. (Those interested in New England Baptists will find very little here. I would recommend going to works by Carla Pestana and Susan Juster). By focusing on early American Baptists in both places Lindman avoids the common temptation to paint all eighteenth-century Baptists as “stalwart believers” who “overcame persecution” and posed a radical threat to colonial religious establishments. This popular view, which was articulated best by Rhys Isaac in The Transformation of Virginia, fails to take into consideration the fact that the ecclesiastical nerve-center of early American Baptist life was Philadelphia and the surrounding mid-Atlantic. Here Baptists always enjoyed religious freedom. By giving mid-Atlantic Baptists a central place in her story, Lindman’s readers will get a much more balanced and accurate view of Baptist life in the period.

Frankly, I thought Lindman could have pushed this point even harder. Baptist historiography has been too Whig for too long. Eighteenth-century Baptists are only important to historians as revolutionary threats to establishment, models of the religious poor rising up against wealthy elites, evangelical egalitarians, or forerunners of American democracy. Mid-Atlantic Baptists, however, tended to be cautious egalitarians. They were of the middling sort in socio-economic status. And they were rather institutional and authoritative when it came to church governance. Some of them were staunch Old Sides during the First Great Awakening. Moreover, I have always wondered why no one is studying eighteenth-century Baptists as part of the Atlantic world. Were early American Baptists really so indigenous to the British colonial landscape?

Chapter One, “Little Tabernacles in the Wilderness,” is the best thing I have ever read on mid-Atlantic Baptist life. Lindman’s debt to Jon Butler is evident throughout this chapter. She concludes that the story of Baptists in Pennsylvania is the story of denominational order, particularly as it relates to the influence of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. But Lindman also argues that in the early years of Baptist life in the region Baptist identity was never entirely clear. Early Baptists, for example, were influenced by the followers of Quaker apostate George Keith. She writes: “The Keithian influence is evident in the adoption of Quaker practice by several Baptist churches, including bodily decorum in speech and dress.” Some early congregations “used numerals to denote days and months, authorized plain speaking and dressing, and prohibited sweating oaths or fighting.”

Lindman concentrates on the paradoxical nature of Baptist communities. Were they radical and egalitarian? Yes. But they were also quite conservative. Baptist views on race and gender contributed to this mixed identity. She writes:

Baptists adopted the spiritual equity of the New Testament but built an institutional structure based on racial and gender asymmetry; they supported the inclusion of blacks into church membership but created separatist policies and waffled over slavery; they recognized egalitarian notions among male and female members but limited the role of women in the institutional church; and finally they endorsed a circumscribed model of masculinity while white male members gained authority and dominance within church polity.

Lindman makes a successful attempt at analyzing Baptist conversion, ritual practice, and church discipline through the theoretical grid of gender and, to a lesser extent, race. These chapters make up the heart of the book. Baptist conversion was feminine in nature. It was emotional. It stirred the heart. It could lead to excessive bodily activity. It resulted in love and devotion between fellow believers. And it was similar to certain forms of African-American spirituality.

While Baptist conversion was an individual experience, it was also a communal one. Baptist clergy worked hard at creating a “body” of believers whose individual “bodies” had experienced conversion. This kind of community was fostered by rituals such as water baptism, the laying on of hands, and the practice of anointing with oil. Lindman writes: “The convert underwent a highly personalized experience of spiritual transformation and then willingly placed him-or herself and his or her body under the command of other believers in a specified religious community.”

Membership in the Baptist body required placing one’s individual body under the authority of church leadership. Baptist church discipline was conservative and masculine. “Through the process of defining and maintaining orderly conduct among their members,” Lindman notes, “Baptist churches infused a new religious authority into a social order based on gender and race. The Baptist religion repositioned the bodies of its believers for their successful entry into the godly community at the same time it marked them with secular conceptions of difference.” In the end, Baptists advocated a “theology of democratic religion that welcomes all true believers,” but disciplined individuals in ways that “coalesced with the dominant hierarchies of secular society.”

In her last three chapters, Lindman continues her treatment of race and gender in the early Baptist community. Chapter Six, “Sisters in Christ,” focuses on spiritual kinship among Baptist women and the battle for women’s suffrage in Baptist meetings. Chapter Seven, “Free People in the Lord,” argues that Baptists—both in Virginia and Pennsylvania—did not fully embrace the abolitionist cause despite their egalitarian theology. My favorite chapter is Chapter Eight, “The Manly Christian.” Here Lindman argues that Baptist belief required a new form of masculinity that rejected the rational, Enlightenment, competitive, independent, camaraderie-driven masculinity of secular society. At the heart of this new Baptist masculinity was not only the embrace of a conversion experience informed by certain feminist qualities, but also the determination to do spiritual battle with the devil for one’s soul and the courage to face adversity through persecution.

The best thing about Lindman’s book is the way her theoretical reflections are grounded in meticulous research in Baptist church records, diaries, and other archival sources. If you have one book in your library on early American Baptists it should be Bodies of Belief. This is a major contribution to American religious and gender history.

Happy Birthday to Us

Paul Harvey

Yesterday, this blog turned two years old, and no one threw me a pity party! So, it's my party and I'll cry if I want to (more accurately, procrastinate if I want to).

So, happy birthday to us. I think 2 years is like middle-aged in blog years, right? We're sailing along with around 300 - 400 hits per day (more than that whenever we post about Sarah Palin, but you're not always so lucky). I'm happy that someone reads this.

Anyway, here's a few things we're working on for the near future. In the meantime, keep those good posts and comments coming.

1) Randall is working on a image site redesign so it won't look so, well,
you know, pre-formatted and unoriginally blogspotty. So we should have a revamped and better-imaged look up sometime reasonably soon.

2) Our author interviews with Emma Anderson, Kate Engel, Tisa Wenger, and others have proven popular and also useful for those authors, so look for more of those.

3) We've added a "search" feature recently so readers can do a google-style search just for material on the blog.

4) Kelly recently created a facebook fan page for us, and our fans now number in the triple digits! You facebookers, give it a look.

5) We've added a number of contributing editors recently, and are always open to others who are interested. The more, the merrier. So if you're interested, just contact me and we'll talk.

6) Several of our contributing editors -- John Fea, Phil Sinitiere, Gerardo Marti, and others -- have created their own blogs and are going gangbusters there. Someone once said be fruitful and multiply, and unlike most other commandments, we're actually following this one.

7) Let me know what else you would like to see here, not see here, or what other suggestions you have. And have a nice summery drink on us tonight.

Serving God and Wal-Mart

Paul Harvey

This book was on my reading list even before it was published; now that it is out, and reviewed smartly here at Religion Dispatches by Diane Winston, even more so:

Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise.

Just a bit of the review here; click above for the rest.

Wal-Mart’s success, both in reframing traditional gender relationships for a new corporate environment, and in sanctifying
working-class consumer capitalism, help explain the connections between conservative politics, the market economy and family values. But Sam Walton also had a major role in spreading the gospel of Christian free enterprise, an amalgam that linked religious principles, government support, and entrepreneurship. Even as business was becoming the default major on campuses, Walton and his friends sought to bend the curricula, first toward vocational training, which became a source for unpaid interns, and then to entrepreneurship, which lionized the visionary leadership provided by individuals exercising their God-given autonomy.

The focus on the individual as entrepreneur echoed religious themes that valorized individuality; particularly the importance of each person’s unique access to God and responsibility for his own salvation. Not surprisingly, alongside the teaching of (Christian) service and free enterprise, college business programs also taught students to be wary of government encroachments in the form of taxes, regulations or oversight. But these same programs gladly took government aid and encouraged students to use federal funds to further their own professional goals. Government was a one-way street: the expectation was that it should support entrepreneurship without expecting anything in return. It was the old Populist notions reinterpreted by Christian capitalists on steroids.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Mormon Feminist: An Appreciation by Charles Cohen


Thanks to Spencer Fluhman at BYU, who recently sent along a report of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture meeting just convened in Salt Lake City. During the gathering, a premier scholar of early American religious history, Charles Cohen of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, delivered an appreciation of the influences on the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of The Midwife's Tale, The Age of Homespun, and other landmark works. Cohen reflects on the influence of Mormon thought and culture on Ulrich's scholarly work; or, how the personal becomes the historical. Thanks to Spencer Fluhman for his reporting on the conference, and Charles Cohen for consenting to have his remarks published here and also at The Juvenile Instructor.


Even by the capacious definitions of what constitutes early American history, Deseret makes for an unusual place in which to hold an Omohundro meeting. Utah has less claim on our attention than Ghana. The locale does have a certain logic, however, since some scholars known primarily for their work in our field have also contributed to Mormon history, including David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Alan Taylor, and John Brooke. For two of our most distinguished figures, however, the connection is both professional and personal; they emerge from as well as dissect that past. Richard Bushman and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich are Mormon historians in a twofold sense: scholars of Mormons, and scholars who are Mormons. For most of us that dual identification means little: the subject lies beyond our chronological horizon, and we base academic reputation on works, not faith. Important aspects of these colleagues intellectual lives transpire in a parallel universe that early Americanists barely know. Consequently, in Bushman’s case we overlook biographies of Joseph Smith and a new-modeled providentialism that radically critiques mainstream historiography’s secular epistemology. In Ulrich’s case, ignoring her Mormon identity blinds us to sources of inspiration invisible in her footnotes.

Ulrich is only now plunging into Mormon history full-bore, but she has made at least one prior excursion. In 2004 she delivered a plenary lecture to the Mormon History Association, whose script she has kindly shared with me, though, absent the accompanying forty-nine slides, the text resembles a sampler in progress, its pattern marked but the vivifying embellishments not yet stitched.[1] The talk is vintage Ulrich, opening with anecdotes about an enamel bowl her husband inherited and a brass bowl that a Chinese miner who literally bet his life in a high-stakes poker game gave to the man who won the hand—and him. The first bowl’s story leads via discrepant recollections of how her father-in-law whipped up his prize-winning angel food cake batter to an observation about the vagaries of memory, while the second’s tale reveals a nineteenth-century empire of goods in which souvenirs exported by migrant merchants in China reached Cantonese consumers in the Inter-mountain West. Demonstrating the value of reading objects and documents in tandem, the lecture’s body unpacks two other items: an unpainted secretary that Nathan Davis cobbled together for his daughter Sarah Davis Thatcher, and a quilt sewn by more than seventy women that the Fourteenth Ward Relief Society raffled off in 1857, a year of profound economic, environmental, and political stress for the Saints, to raise money for the poor. These examples subserve her central concern: Mormons are “blessed with an extraordinarily rich material culture and with a complex and deeply documented history, she notes, “But sometimes the two sides of our heritage sit in different rooms” (4). Objects, she concludes, reveal the struggles, ideals and contradictions “involved in the effort to create a culture and a faith in the Great Basin” (15). Substitute “New England” for “Great Basin” in that sentence and you have an apt epigraph for Ulrich’s work in early American history.

Ulrich’s lecture gestures toward a system for advancing Mormon social history beyond interminable discussions of polygamy. Mormon archives are stuffed, testimony to the Saints’ regard for documenting their past as a sacred trust combined with a passion for genealogy second only to that of hobbits. Yet despite the wealth of available resources, Mormon historians have typically demurred in situating their field within larger narratives of American history, and non-Mormons have seldom invited them to do so. Five years ago Ulrich pointed members of the MHA toward such an engagement, advertising the techniques she had perfected studying early American history and dropping pregnant hints about future lines of research such as analyzing the relationships among the seamstresses of the Fourteenth Ward quilt and their patterns or tracking the routes by which the quilt’s composite fabrics reached Salt Lake City from eastern mills. But Ulrich has always lead by example, not prescription, and she is currently engaged on a book concerned, she tells me, with “notions of family in nineteenth-century Mormon diaries … I want to know how these literate and semi-literate folks wrote about issues that to our minds seem very strange.”[2] Mormon historians are in for an experience, since we early Americanists know what happens when she gets her hands on a diary.

The heart of Ulrich’s method rings a subtle change on the credo of second-wave feminism: for her, the personal is the historical. Take a scribble or a secretary, parse its structure and function, unpack it meanings as they exfoliate from among those most closely connected with the piece to those farther away, and contextualize that discussion within the time period. Her gender analysis drives her to choose items associated with women and the female communities that formed around the object’s use. Nathan Davis intended that his gift to Sarah commemorate himself, but “Today,” Ulrich judges, “the secretary is less a memorial” to him ”than to his daughter” (8). “Cutting up fabric” to create the Fourteenth Ward quilt’s “fancy designs,” she remarks, “seems like a strange way to relie[ve] the poor” and “an inefficient enterprise,” but doing so relieved those women from “the drudgery of housekeeping, the burdens of self-sufficiency, the anxieties of polygamy, and the dangers of idleness” (14). We might think of her early American corpus, particularly A Midwife’s Tale and The Age of Homespun, as a collateral branch of the community studies genre that dominated colonial historiography in the 1970s and 80s; her version-framed by craft work rather than demography-reconstructed families through artifacts, not statistics. This method perfectly suits her subject matter, and it has illuminated women, families and material culture from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth, but she did not derive it to suit a peculiarly early American research agenda. Indeed, to hear her tell it, her discipline and periodization found her: “My intellectual life,” she mused two decades ago, “has been built from ‘jest what happens to come.’” She sought a Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire “not because it fitted some long-term life plan but because it was handy and relatively cheap.” She chose history despite having earned an M.A. in English ”because the history department was stronger at the time than the English department, and I thought I would get better training. I chose my field of concentration-early America-for much the same reason, though I must admit that the fit was perfect.”[3]

The insights underlying Ulrich’s technique come most readily from outside her professional training. She said as much in her 1992 commencement speech to this very campus: ”My children’s lives have been enriched by my scholarship, and my scholarship has been enriched by my life as a housewife and mother.”[4] Her way of writing about the past reflects a sensibility nurtured by and in constant dialogue with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her habit of elaborating history outward from a core of household activity and interaction through ramifying networks of kinship and community owes much to her embracing the Church’s valorization of domestic life and its construction of families genealogically and sacramentally across time, as well as to a feminist stance nurtured among the Mormon sisterhood who founded Exponent II in conscious emulation of the journals their nineteenth-century forbears had pioneered. Ulrich and her contemporaries were “sustained” in their endeavors, she told the University of Utah’s baccalaureates, “by a new understanding of the past. The lives of ’traditional women,’ women like Martha Ballard, taught us that American women had always sustained their communities as well as their homes. We also learned from women who claimed more public roles. Listen to this voice,” she urged the audience:

It is time that we utterly repudiate the pernicious dogma that marriage and a practical life-work are incompatible.

“Radical 1970s feminist?” she queried. “No, this is Louisa Greene Richards, a pious Latter-day Saint mother writing in the Woman’s Exponent, published in the territory of Utah in 1877. I can date a new era in my life from reading such words.”[5] To be sure, she learned something from her scholarly mentors at New Hampshire; most Mormon matriarchs do not win the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes. At heart, though, her perspective issues from her comfort at simultaneously appropriating and extending her religious tradition. “As a daughter of God,” she wrote in an essay explaining why the phrase “Mormon feminist” both is and is not oxymoronic, “I claim the right to all my gifts. I am a mother, an intellectual, a skeptic, a believer, a crafter of cookies and words.”[6] The personal is also the methodological.

That Laurel Ulrich is working on another major project means that this panel’s assessments are necessarily contingent. Still, we can acknowledge that a career which emerged from the dynamics of Mormon family and community life is now cycling back to explore that life with an analytical acumen perfected in limning the intimate spaces of early America.


[1] “Objects, Memory, and History,” Mormon History Association, Provo, UT, May 20, 2004.

[2] Email, Laurel Ulrich Thatcher to Charles Cohen, April 9, 2009.

[3] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Patchwork,” in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Emma Lou Thayne, All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1995), 25.

[4] Ulrich, “A Phil Beta Kappa Key and a Safety Pin,” in Ulrich and Thayne, All God’s Critters, 156.

[5] Ibid., 155-56. Italics in original.

[6] Ulrich, “Border Crossings,” in ibid., 198.

Way of Improvement Leads to BaldBlogger


Paul Harvey

Don't miss the conversation between two of our contributing editors, Phillip Sinitiere and John Fea, as Phil interviews John over at Baldblogger about John's book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America -- Part 1 here, and Part II here.

Also, let me second John's congratulatory comments here about Phil's recent successes, earning his PhD, co-authoring a book, and getting a job all nearly simultaneously!:

ongrats to Phil on his recent graduation from the University of Houston with a Ph.D in American history, on the publication of his new book, Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press), and on his new teaching post in the history department at Sam Houston State."

A brief excerpt from the interview:

BB: What are some important things that modern readers can take from the life of Philip Vickers Fithian? Why does he matter for today?

JF: I try to speculate on this a bit in the conclusion of the book. For me, Philip’s story is an American one. He reminds us that Enlightenment cosmopolitanism always existed in compromise with local attachments. We Americans still pursue self-betterment through higher education. We travel around the globe and boast about our world citizenship. But we also long for the passions, love, and faith that bring meaning, in a transcendent way, to our lives. We are mobile people, but we also search for roots as part of our attempt to connect to particular pasts or places. We cherish unlimited progress even as we prepare ourselves for death. It seems to me that these tensions have always defined the American experience. In other words, many of us hope that our “way of improvement” will lead us “home.” Philip’s life has made me think about how I live my own life. When I started a blog [BB: and a Facebook group!] to help promote the book I realized that it was hard to separate Philip’s eighteenth-century story from my own convictions about life. Those familiar with my blog know that sometimes it is unclear when I am blogging about my own thoughts about place, cosmopolitanism, self-improvement, or ambition and when I am describing Philip’s story inThe Way of Improvement Leads Home. I am not sure if this lack of detachment makes me a bad historian, but I just can’t ignore the fact that many of Philip’s convictions and struggles are also my own.
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