Studying “the Occult” in Colonial America


John L. Crow

It is unlikely I have to tell the readers of this blog about the significance of Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith (Harvard 1992) or David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (Harvard 1990). Both books were important in examining the way the occult manifested in the religious practices of early colonialists. Less known is Herbert Leventhal’s In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century America (NYU 1976). Whereas Butler and Hall make a division between orthodox religion and so-called “popular religion,” Leventhal does not erect such boundaries noting that everyone in the eighteenth-century had a cosmological view that permitted the existence of spirits and asserted the connection between human health and the position of the stars. It was not the commoners casting astrological charts and making diagnoses, it was the court physicians. This is a point that Walter W. Woodward makes in his recent Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676 (UNC 2010). Though Woodward does perform some contortions to maintain some divisions between elite and popular religiosity, he squarely identifies alchemy as a practice for the elite, and that there was an active network of alchemists communicating throughout Europe and the British Colonies. It was Winthrop, Jr. along with others, according to Woodward, who resisted claims of witchcraft, not because he said that witchcraft was false, but because it was complex and beyond the abilities of the most uneducated. It seems alchemy and witchcraft were the purview of the elite!

Third Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, Indianapolis, June 6-9 2013

From: Philip Goff(
Third Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture
Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, IUPUI
Indianapolis, Indiana
June 6-9, 2013

We are pleased to announce the Third Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, to be held at the Sheraton Indianapolis City Centre Hotel, June 6 through June 9. The overarching themes of this third biennial conference will be “thinking again about old topics” and “new developments.” Scholars from multiple perspectives will serve on multidisciplinary panels. The conference schedule is given below.

Like the conferences in 2009 and 2011, the room will be set up in a circle with audience members on risers around the central round table. This set-up promotes more participation from the audience and deeper conversation among the panelists and those surrounding them. The hotel is again conveniently located in downtown Indianapolis among restaurants, museums, and public parks – all very conducive to continuing over coffee and meals those conversations begun in sessions.

Thanks to a grant from Lilly Endowment, we have reserved a block of rooms at the Sheraton Indianapolis City Centre Hotel at the special rate of $79 per night. Once those rooms have sold out, rooms will be available at the going room rate, so please be sure to reserve your room right away. The Sheraton is offering a special self-parking rate of $10 per night, easily the best deal in town.

Early registration rates are available until May 15. These early rates are $90 for professionals and $50 for students. Registration after May 15 will be at the onsite rate of $120 for professionals and $70 for students.

To register for the conference and reserve your room, please go to  (Note: the special hotel rate of $79 will not appear on the screen or on the automated response but will be confirmed by a second email from the hotel.) That website also contains longer descriptions of each session. 

FDR and the Judeo-Christian Tradition

Rachel Gordan

For those of us who teach and write about 20th century American religious history, 1950’s civil religion often seems best explained by President Eisenhower’s 1952 remark, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is." It’s a perfect statement for evoking the vague, non-theological brand of 1950’s religion. It also usually gets a chuckle. But a terrific recent article about the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition by Healan Gaston (in Relegere), reminds me of the need to complicate what seems so simple. “Judeo Christianity” is a term with an evolving and contested meaning, Gaston explains. It held varied significance to Jews and Catholics and Mormons, just as its meaning in 1940 was very different from its meaning in 1970.

 Recent work on FDR has helped me think about Gaston’s call to re-examine the dimensions of Judeo-Christianity. We tend to associate Judeo-Christianity with President Eisenhower, but considering FDR's role in the creation of this “tradition” reveals the term’s evolution and its tensions. Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith (2012) clarifies how FDR’s simple, non-intellectual Christian faith helped him succeed “in enshrining religious pluralism at the heart of the American national faith.” Preston takes FDR’s religion seriously, notwithstanding its lack of theology. “He was a Protestant Christian who respected faith in general, and thus was the most instinctively ecumenical president since Lincoln,” Preston writes. FDR once said of his ancestors, “In the dim distant past they have been Jews or Catholics or Protestants. What I am more interested in is whether they were good citizens and believers in God. I hope they were both.” It is a startling comment from a man of FDR’s social caste. FDR’s patrician parents instilled in him the noblesse oblige that encouraged tolerance toward Jews, but the president had many anti-Semitic friends and relatives, including his wife.

 It’s hard not to compare the recent and dramatic shift in Americans’ perception of the GLBT community with the changing perception of Jews during the 1930’s-1950’s. America’s postwar embrace of Jews and Judaism (although quotas and “gentleman’s agreements” certainly kept bigotry alive) was preceded by the general acceptance of anti-Semitism. Eleanor Roosevelt is a case in point. After attending a party in honor of Jewish financier Bernard Baruch, Eleanor Roosevelt commented, “The Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels, and sables mentioned again.” As the authors of FDR and the Jews (2013), Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman, explain, Eleanor had “acquired harsh and commonplace stereotype of Jews as pushy, social inferiors.” More sheltered than her husband, she did not have the kind of friendships and interactions with Jews that ultimately helped inform the president’s tolerance -- and, in time, affected Eleanor's views of Jews. 

Are You Gonna Wait for Your Sign, Your Miracle? This is It

Paul Harvey

In the Easter issue of Cresset, from Valparaiso University, Harold Bush of Saint Louis University has a wonderful piece entitled "Studies of Race, Religion, and the American South." Bush discusses Edward J. Blum's books Reforging the White Republic and W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet, in addition to our work The Color of Christ. While Amazon reviewer "Soda Pop Sal" found "nothing interesting here" in our "ramblings-on," and another reviewer named Col. Takashi "cannot dis-recommend" the book enough, finding it a "severe manifestation of people getting weird ideas disconnected from reality," Professor Bush somehow managed to find much of interest in the work, and I thank him for the gracious review and discussion.

And while we're on the #colorofchrist: since its publication, we've been inundated with just about every conceivable Jesus image imaginable (most of them white guys, just as our book would predict, except for a great one one just sent by Lincoln Mullen, "The Hamitic Bible: Prepared for the Negro Race," which you can view here -- all evidence that no matter how much you research, there's always just so much more out there!).

But the one below, from blog contributor Seth Dowland, is definitely up there among the best. Sending this one out for all you 80s/90s music pop culture fans. Insert your own jokes in the comments section. Personally, though, would go with "Footlose" before the execrable "Highway to the Danger Zone." But that's just me.

Negotiating the Boundaries of Islam in America with Love

Cara L. Burnidge

As the nation continues to discuss the Islamic identities of the Tsarnaev brothers and if/why/how violence shapes religious and ethnic identities, I'd like to turn toward quite a different discussion of American Muslims, by Muslim Americans, about their own experiences and identity. 

Love, Inshallah: The Secret Lives of American Muslim Women is a co-edited book that contains twenty-five stories written by American Muslim women about their own loves lives. Confronting the stereotypes of arranged marriages, veiled bodies, and asexual personhood, these authors assert the uniqueness of their gender, ethnic, national, and religious identities. Unveiling what they consider to be too long hidden, these authors complicate the stereotype of a single, monolithic female Muslim and/or American Muslim identity by focusing on an immaterial reality: love. (An apparently popular topic, as NPR's Terry Gross recently interviewed Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World).

The only criteria for participating in the volume was that authors self-identify as both American and Muslim. In addition to various regional perspectives, Love, Inshallah includes a spectrum of religiosities, women who are devout and women who self-identify as "secular" but retain their cultural identity to Islam. This book includes women who waited to have sex until after marriage and those who did not (both happily and regrettably so), who's parents arranged their marriages and those who refused; it also includes queer voices, those who identify with pride and those with a feeling of shame or regret. The authors note that the stories do not encompass every Muslim American woman, but, as they've said to several media outlets, they hope it's a start.

The vignettes in Love, Inshallah support recent sociological studies that suggest American Muslims, particularly those in their youth, negotiate their identity between their American and Muslim roots as they feel like they fully belong to neither. For instance, Najva thought to herself, after her parents admitted they had been reading her blog for years, "they know about the drugs and booze and the girls and boys, normal by America's MTV standards, but not for an Iranian family that refused to have cable TV sully the living room" (116). Or Hudi who wondered if the man her parents arranged to propose to her would kneel "like an American boyfriend" (107). And Taz who "had punk-rocked, prayed, loved, moshed, laughed, skated, cuddled, rocked, touched, kissed, and cried" in an epic Muslim punk wedding weekend (73). 

For the Love of God: Evangelical Romance Novels

Brantley Gasaway

I never thought I would read a romance novel--but Lynn Neal changed my mind.

After reading Neal's Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction several years ago, I determined that at some point I should break with cultural stereotypes and read my first romance novel.  Not just any romance novel, mind you, and certainly not one with a shirtless Fabio on the cover.  No, I wanted to read an evangelical romance novel.  As I designed my course on religion and American popular culture for this semester, I decided it was finally time.

In Romancing God, Neal describes how evangelical romance novels (or inspirational fiction) overlay the basic plot structures of secular romance novels with the theology of conservative Christianity.  In addition to sanitized language and censored sex scenes that rely upon euphemism, these works differ from their secular counterparts by presenting obstacles somehow related to the characters' religious beliefs (or lack thereof) that separate the male and female protagonists.  In turn, heroines and heroes overcome these problems not through fate or their own designs but rather through faith and the power of God's love.  The focus of Neal's book, however, is not upon the explicit plots and implicit theology of inspirational fiction.  Instead, through interviews with both authors and readers, she primarily analyzes why women (who are the main readers of these books) choose to read evangelical romance novels and how these works shape readers' religious imaginations and experiences.  Neal draws three primary conclusions (12-13): 

River Religion


Emily Suzanne Clark

A theme of water connects Chip Callahan’s wonderful post yesterday to this one. Today, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Michael Pasquier’s recently edited Gods of the Mississippi.

In 1999, Indiana University Press published Gods of the City, a volume edited by Robert Orsi that explored how urban space and the experience of living in it form urban religiosities. The similarly named Gods of the Mississippi examines how religion moved and adapted along the Mississippi River and its banks from expeditions to its source to living in its delta. Neither the river nor the religions on it were ever stationary; rather, the religious worlds of those near the Mississippi were often in flux. The Mississippi’s waters mattered to the religions of the region in manners topographical and imagined, actual and perceived, new and old, physical and symbolic, but never static. As a river is a constantly changing space of flux, so to the religions of it. Pasquier notes in the Introduction, “religious beliefs and practices were made and unmade and remade in these watery worlds known for their high levels of spatial and temporal fluidity.”

What follows the Introduction are nine excellent essays and an epilogue by Thomas Tweed. Tweed makes sense as the book’s final voice. His 2006 Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion and his introduction from 1997’s Retelling U.S. Religious History, with its emphasis on sightings, can be sensed throughout the Gods of the Mississippi’s pages in terms of theorizing and taking seriously how location shapes narrative. Many of the book’s contributors are no strangers to this blog’s readers; Art Remillard takes us along with adventurers searching for the river’s source, Sylvester Johnson illustrates how missionaries worked as the “‘civilizing’ religion of empire” for Anglo-America’s expansion into the Mississippi Territory, Jon Sensbach shows us the “spiritual bricolage” of black colonial Louisiana, and Alison Collis Greene follows the mobile religious institutions of itinerant sharecroppers.
Many of the essays will work well on their own in undergraduate classrooms. Collectively the volume convinces readers that the river itself was an actor in the Mississippi’s religious worlds. The river bend at Nauvoo and surrounding topography shaped Mormons and their critics; the fertile land the river supported attracted the imperialism of the U.S. War Department and missionaries; the flow of water connecting river settlements and the Atlantic World provided mobility to black religion; the finding of the river’s source was an activity of ownership both physical and symbolic; and developments in industry changed religious orientations to the river—these all illuminate how physical space is never simply that without neglecting to take seriously the significance of the materiality of space. The river was both space and process, a thing and an idea. And, as Tweed states in the afterword, this understanding of the Mississippi and its significance “allows for more expansive vistas” and pushes us “towards richer narratives.” Much like Callahan’s edited New Territories, New Perspectives: The Religious Impact of the Louisiana Purchase, Gods of the Mississippi bucks against an east-to-west story of American religious history and narrates a story from the continent’s interior.

Oceanic Religion

Chip Callahan

“I believe water will be one of the most pressing environmental, economic, social, political, and strategic issues of the twenty-first century.” – Mark C. Taylor, Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy (2012)

I want to thank Mike Pasquier for inviting me to contribute some thoughts concerning water and the study of religion. Mike has been posting some intriguing things about his own work on the Louisiana coast and the volume that he edited, Gods of the Mississippi, posts that point beyond themselves to the potentialities of a water-based perspective on the study of religion in America. The Mississippi, in particular, its connection to New Orleans, and its outlet into the Gulf of Mexico have long intrigued me as a possible site for problematizing received narratives of American religious history. If, as Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch have argued, the American mind is the Puritan or New England mind writ large (and, of course, there are many reasons to reject this formulation), then the Mississippi River is America’s main artery. If the historiography of American religion has been biased towards understanding religion in terms of belief and thought, qualities that match better to the Puritan or New England Mind model, then a Mississippi Artery perspective would find a practice-based approach more appropriate and illuminating. It would also require historians to center their sights on the material and cultural exchanges that were the foundation of movement up and down the River and its tributaries.

While rivers in the national interior turn our attention toward new ways to imagine the places and practices of religion in America, and possibly push our methodological creativity, my own work has been taking me offshore into the ocean itself. I’ve been exploring the nineteenth century whaling industry for what it might inspire in the way of thinking about American religion. This was one of the largest industries of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, peaking in the 1840s. The busiest port of the whaling trade was New Bedford, Massachusetts, where whaling ships would set out on voyages often lasting three or four years that took them throughout the Atlantic and the Pacific. Whalers meandered throughout the Pacific as they hunted their prey, stopping off at many Pacific islands to gather supplies. They interacted with Pacific Islanders (as represented by Queequeg in Moby-Dick, for instance) and both European and American missionaries. They entered into trade relations with many of these entities. And they brought the experiences (and cargo and people) back with them to New England, even as they took New England to the Pacific. Here’s an impressive visual mapping of the global expansiveness of this industry.

My project begins in work, continuing my explorations of the religious performances and productions of cultures of work. I have been interested in three aspects or “scales” of religion involved in the whaling industry: first, the lived religion aboard ships, including how the specific setting of life at sea and the work of whaling was reflected in and informed by religious practice; second, the ground (or sea) level “comparative religion” that went on as whalingmen interacted and exchanged with members of various cultures, societies, and religions; and third, the impact of these experiences back home in New Bedford and beyond. Yet, just as their work carried whalingmen into new worlds that required different ways of seeing, so my research has led me to view the history of religion in America differently.

Grading No-Grade Discussion Groups


Mark Edwards

Last summer some colleagues and I were talking about how to connect better with students in new, non-coercive (no grades!) ways.    I got the idea for a joint student-faculty discussion group based on a shared interest—in this case, religion and politics.  Since my friends in Theology and English were already doing this for topics like just war, Wendell Berry, and so on, I decided to give it a shot.  Turned out to be the highlight of my 2012-2013 academic year (Ed's "Jesus Jokes" lecture a very close second).

Regarding membership, I decided to limit the group to ten people and make it invitation-only.  I thought that, beyond what could fit at a standard conference table, we’d start to lose some people in discussion.  Turned out we still lost one or two people along the way, although they did tell me they benefited from just “listening in.”  By invitation-only, I only wanted faculty and students with a strong personal interest and investment in the subject; no extra credit, no merit plan steps (for faculty), only laying up treasures in liberal arts heaven.  For students, I first approached my former religion and politics class and then my current national government class.  We settled on four faculty and six students and started meeting in September.

Quaker Generations

Carol Faulkner

 A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, New York. I highly recommend a visit to this fabulous site, which places the history of Anthony and the suffrage movement in its vibrant regional context. The topic of my talk was Lucretia Mott (of course), but I got into a fascinating discussion about the women’s rights movement and “the church” with the Executive Director Deborah Hughes, a former religious studies major and minister, and Director of Programs Annie Callanan. Why did some nineteenth-century feminists (especially Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage) see organized religion as a primary obstacle to women’s rights, while others, like Susan B. Anthony, were willing to partner with evangelical women? Callanan suggested that as a birthright Quaker, Anthony had a much different perspective on the nature of spiritual authority. Susan B. Anthony had no need to rebel against the church, hers or any other.

An Olympics of Intellectual Take-downs

David W. Stowe

Not typically in the right place at the right time, I was fortunate to be both a couple weeks ago when Jon Butler was officially feted/roasted out of his longstanding professional roost at Yale. (RiAH readers were alerted to the day-long conference here at the beginning of March.)

Planners Amy Koehlinger, James Bennett, and Katie Lofton spearheaded a consistently mind-expanding day of panels packed with former Butler students. Representing different decades and fields, professors at all ranks were flown in from around the country and asked to produce a paper in the heretical Butler mode, puncturing the conventional orthodoxy of their subfield. The rule of thumb for presenters, as Molly Worthen pointed out in her paper, was WWJD: What Would Jon Do? Or: Be your own devil's advocate! What ensued was, in the words of Elizabeth McAliser, "the Olympics of intellectual take-downs."

McAlister herself delivered a take-down of mythologies of the Bwa Kayiman ceremony held in Haiti in 1791, considered to be the beginning of the Haitian Revolution. Chris Grasso took down the idea that there was no religious skepticism in early America. Rachel Wheeler took down the idea that Native Americans couldn't also be Christians. Molly Worthen took down the "culture war" paradigm in recent U.S. history. Michael Alexander took down the notion that "exile and return" works for American Judaism. James Bennett took down the presumption that the American West was and is irreligious. Brandi Hughes took down the idea that the Exodus narrative alone dominated African American identity. Amy Koehlinger took down the concept of the Catholic Imaginary. Kathryn Gin Lum took down the very idea of history as change over time. Stewart Davenport took down the idea that critical scholarship about religion is necessarily cynical. Cathy Brekus took down the view that historians of Christianity should blend into a larger history of religion rather than be explicit about their interest in Christianity. By the end of the afternoon historiographical bodies were everywhere. C. Vann Woodward looked on with a somewhat dour expression from a portrait on the wall behind he podium.

After dinner Butler was roasted by New York Times "Beliefs" columnist Mark Oppenheimer, who donned a white beard and cardigan for an excursion through "Mr. Butler's Neighborhood," nicely capturing Butler's elfish mannerisms. One of Butler's sons spoke movingly of his father's faithful attendance at his many high school and college basketball games. Even as dean of the Graduate School, Butler apparently left his work-world behind when he came home and joined the family for dinner.

Holy Granola?

 Elesha Coffman

What do kundalini yoga, Cranberry Acai Granola, the Department of Homeland Security, Henry VIII, and the First Amendment have in common? All of these elements factored into a recent Oregon court case addressing the finances and leadership of Sikh Dharma International (SDI). I don't typically write on any of these subjects, but an old friend of mine happened to be involved in the litigation, and he passed along copies of some briefs and findings. They proved to be fascinating reading, raising a host of questions about religious freedom, the boundaries of secular and sacred, and the status of minority religions in the U.S.

Sikh Dharma was founded by Yogi Bhajan in the early 1970s. A combination of yoga and Sikhism with New Age overtones, it was popular with hippies and has continued to attract American converts. It has also made quite a bit of money. In addition to providing yoga instruction and other kinds of spiritual guidance, Yogi Bhajan launched or became involved with what the judge in the Oregon case called "a Russian nesting doll of nonprofit and for-profit entities" designed to provide employment for Sikh Dharma followers and revenues for SDI. One of these entities, Golden Temple, Inc., sells books and DVDs, personal care products, and the aforementioned Cranberry Acai Granola. Another entity, Akal Security, Inc., had at the time of a 2004 New York Times article $1 billion in federal contracts to "protect vital and sensitive government sites." Compounding this complicated picture, Yogi Bhajan (again quoting the judge) "maintained personal attendants, a group of women upon whom he became dependent for day-to-day and hour-to-hour support and companionship in his home as his health declined toward death from complications of diabetes and kidney failure." When the yogi died in fall 2004, power struggles ensued involving his widow, persons running the various nonprofit and for-profit entities, and the personal attendants, who had been paid modestly during the yogi's lifetime but promised life-long compensation afterward.

Breaking Down Walls

Karen Johnson

I don't think I'll ever forget it.  In September, 2007, Glen Kehrein installed a stove in my apartment.  Glen and his wife Lonni were my landlords.  They were also my heroes.  For over 30 years, Glen had been living out a life committed to racial reconciliation, which caused him (a white man) to move to Chicago’s Austin community (which had just flipped from white to black in 1973), and to found a non-profit called Circle Urban Ministries.  In his years of service, Glen, a white evangelical Christian, addressed racism and its effects at the personal and structural level - building friendships and rehabbing hundreds of apartments, partnering with a charter school, providing wrap-around educational services for neighborhood children, and offering GED classes, among a myriad of other endeavors.  With Raleigh Washington, a black pastor who had served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, Glen wrote a book called Breaking Down Walls, which offered a model for racial reconciliation based on their experiences.  Together, Glen and Raleigh had built a unique partnership that made Raleigh’s church, Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church, deeply committed to racial reconciliation.  By the time I came to Rock, Raleigh had been gone for nearly 10 years, having taken a position at Promise Keepers.   

In a region as geographically segregated as Chicago’s, interracial, religious spaces continue to matter for breaking down walls between people and working toward racial justice.  But how effective are these places?  How effective has Rock Church been?

Four and a half years later, on a Saturday in November, I sat in a packed gym, participating in Glen's home-going service.  Glen had lost a year-long fight with colon cancer, and my life – and the lives of so many others – would be less rich without Glen (for more on Glen, go here and here).

Christianity and the "Specter of Capitalism"

Heath Carter

A noteworthy piece in the April 6th edition of the New York Times trumpeted a new twist in the field of American history, declaring, "A specter is haunting university history departments: the specter of capitalism." It went on to say, "After decades of 'history from below,' focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers, and brokers who run the economy."

Two immediate reactions:

1) The new history of capitalism is, in fact, on the rise.

2) This emerging field will not supplant "history from below."  A central task ahead for both historians of capitalism and social historians is to find ways to weave their respective stories and perspectives together.

This second point raises interesting questions and problems for those of us who are working particularly on the relationship between Christianity and capitalism in modern American history.  While the Times article's only nod to religion was a mention of Bethany Moreton's work on Wal-Mart, the reality is that this is now a thriving subfield, as was clear at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in San Francisco this past weekend.

The Great Evangelical Recession?

Charity R. Carney

“Building that lasts: Christians in US dwindling fast” I saw this headline in my local newspaper this weekend and wondered why they had left off the exclamation marks. The columnist had read a new book by John Dickinson, The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church… And How to Prepare, and gleaned that only 7% of the population of the United States are currently “counted as evangelical Christians.” Oh, and also, we should panic.   

The Great Evangelical Recession presents a portrait of America that is losing its faith and in need of a spiritual bailout. The anxiety stems from Dickinson’s observation that churches “have fallen into a dollar-centric Americanized deformity of the Gospel.” Secular culture has perverted the true faith and churches are run more like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s than as true no-frills missions-driven congregations. Dickinson argues that the evangelicals who remain are defensive and reactionary, which antagonizes and alienates the population that they are trying to convert. 



Sutton Wins JAH Award

Edward J. Blum

Real quick update (please don't yell at me for breaking calendar protocol): more evidence of US religious history dominance: Matt Sutton just won the best article in the Journal of American History over the past year! This was for his article "Was FDR the AntiChrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Antliberalism in a Global Age," JAH 98 (2012): 1052-74.

Here's the essay abstract.

Eboo Patel's American Story

Michael Utzinger

I am preparing for a new course on religious autobiography next semester.  One book I intend to use is Eboo Patel’s memoir entitled, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).  The story is ostensibly about the creation of the Interfaith Youth Core (IYC), an organization dedicated to engaging young people with the virtues of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue and cooperation. 

Meditating on W.E.B. DuBois’s famous claim that the problem of the twentieth century is the color line, Patel claims that great divide of the twenty-first century is and will be the "faith line."  On either side of this line are religious totalitarians and religion pluralists.  Further, argues Patel, today’s youth are the key in this struggle of the faith line.   When one considers recent terrorist attacks (done by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, among others) he reminds his readers of the very young age of most of the attackers; almost all were younger than thirty.  Why?  Patel claims that religious totalitarians (religious individuals who believe that those of other faiths "need to be cowed, converted, or condemned or killed" (p. xv)) have become expert institution builders to recruit of the young.  However, he also tells his readers the story of Whitwell, Tennessee middle-schoolers, who promoted and created a Holocaust memorial, with the support of the local Methodist Church.  He notes that faith commitments propelled this project promoting tolerance and religious pluralism. Patel's thesis explains why the youth can have such radically different religious experiences: "influences matter, programs count, mentors can make a difference, institutions leave their mark" (xvi).  All of this interesting as a thesis and worthy of reflection in itself.   However, the autobiographical material the weaves through this sustained argument for religious pluralism is just as much a part of this truly American story, and, for this reason, merits use in the class.

Turning It into a Book

Randall Stephens

Few could have accused Ernest Hemingway of being too subtle. “The first draft of anything is shit,” he once quipped.  True.  And still we plod on, hoping to spin that draft dross into gold. We spend hour upon hour crafting, redrafting, proofing, worrying, and rewriting.

Several years back the historian Stephen Pyne wrote in a forum I put together for Historically Speaking that "History is a book culture. We read books, we write books, we promote and award tenure on the basis of books, and at national meetings we gather around book exhibits. We’re a book-based discipline."* 

But figuring out how to land a publisher, what press to go with, and answering a range of other questions can be daunting. 

And so, I was happy when my colleague Brian Ward at Northumbria University organized an afternoon session on publishing last month.  Humanities Publishing in the 21st Century: A Workshop was particularly aimed at early-career historians.  It was a packed house.  We had the pleasure of hearing from and picking the brains of Linda Bree (Cambridge University Press); Susan Ferber (Oxford University Press); Stephanie Ireland (Oxford University Press); and John Watson (Edinburgh University Press).  We all benefited from their advice and experience.  Plus we got a chance to pepper them with questions.

The Book of Mormon in Fifteen [or So Non-Consecutive] Days (Part II)


Two months ago, I posted about my first experience of reading the Book of Mormon in its entirety in fifteen days. As mentioned previously, the rather colossal Book of Alma did me in. In my edition (Royal Skousen's Earliest Text), Alma takes up two hundred and thirty pages. It stopped my reading schedule in its tracks.

Eventually, I set aside six days for Alma, and it was then easy to read the remainder of the scripture in short order. Continuing my approach from the first post, here are summaries of the remaining books in fifty words or fewer.

Alma. A really long book. Priests good; priestcraft bad. Did "whosoever did mingle his seed with that of the Lamanites did bring the same curse upon his seed" influence later LDS concerns over intermarriage?  Alma foregoes his judgeship to focus on his priestly duties; seems anti-theocratic. Lamoni's apparent death fascinating.

Helaman. Growth of Gaddianton societies, robbers with signs and secret words. At the end of Helaman, a Lamanite prophet named Samuel announces that Christ's coming is near, will be accompanied by signs. God will destroy all Nephites, but not utterly destroy the Lamanites.

3 Nephi. Christ comes. Miraculous signs accompany Christ's birth. Many believe, then fall away a few years later. Gaddianton soldiers with shaved heads, headplates, lambskin dyed in blood. Destruction at time of Christ's death. Zarahemla burned. Jesus appears, will appear to other "sheep." Three Nephites: somewhere between mortality and immorality.

4 Nephi. Best of times: "neither there were Lamanites nor no manner of ites." People live long lives. After two hundred years, unity dissolves amid growing riches and pride. Building up of different apostate churches.

Historicizing Followers of the Proletarian Jesus

by Janine Giordano Drake

I recently finished Edward Blum’s 2007 W.E.B. DuBois: American Prophet, a terrifically written spiritual biography of W.E. B. DuBois. Blum follows DuBois’ writings on spirituality and racism over the duration of his life, and finds that at the center of DuBois’ diagnosis of “the problem” of 20th century oppression was the cartel of a domineering, white, self-aggrandizing, self-centered, and pro-capitalist Jesus. At times in DuBois’ life, especially the 1910 and 1920s, DuBois is vocal about being a follower of Christ. He even suggests that the Christian ethics he describes are central to renewing peaceful and just relations on earth. He dismissed many mainline white churches as complicit in the problems which Christ came to eradicate, but to him, as Blum put it, “true followers of Christ… stood against any racism, caste and creed” (111). Indeed, DuBois lived and worked within the Christian Socialist vision of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one which held closely to the person of Christ, but which critiqued the affiliation of Christianity with both capitalism and most denominational churches. 

At other times, however, DuBois' was more reticent about public prayer, and publicly more distant from the rhetoric of Jesus. Through an examination of more and less public writings of DuBois, Blum shows that this reticence should not necessarily be read as a step away from Christian spirituality or belief. Rather, Blum shows, DuBois' early twentieth century faith in God to empower social and political reform did not waver. What changed was white America's vision of what Christianity was good for.

Exhibiting Faith, part II: Toward a Public [digital] Religious Studies


By Chris Cantwell

Last month a group of hackers and digital artists gathered in New York’s most ironic borough for Brooklyn’s annual Art Hack Day. The end result was God.js, a JavaScript based program that tacks onto your preferred web browser and functions like, well, God. Once installed, God.js’s programming interface allows the user to input a religious creed (or is it religious code?) for internet usage such as “Thou shalt not ‘poke’ thy brother on Facebook,” or “Thou shalt not have no gods above the Religion in American History blog.” Break these commandments, and you face the wrath of God.js. On Facebook too much? God.js plagues your screen with boils, frogs, or flies. Checking more than this fine blog? Your web browser crashes as God.js opens tab after tab of GIF-driven hellfire. Users are invited to code their own “scripture language interface” and share it on GitHub, allowing for the emergence of new browser-based religions as followers try to decipher your command(ments).

While this all may seem like one big crass practical joke, God.js’s creators claim to be trading in much deeper stuff. As they note in the project’s description, they designed God.js as a way “to explore the idea of religious instruction as machine.” Where others may look upon God.js’s emphases on rules and discipline and exclaim “That’s not what religion is!” God.js playfully asks “Why not?” American evangelicalism, after all, is no stranger to web filters that block impious material and exact judgment by emailing peers. But beyond such mischievous juxtaposition, God.js’s collaborative, yet autonomous, nature pushes its interpretive reach even further. As a semi-sovereign computer program vested with a kind of latent agency by the individuals who create, follow, install, contribute to, obey, discuss, and even uninstall this patchwork of JavaScript, God.js’s “relationship” with its users is not unlike the sacred figures and holy beings that inhabit the lives of more traditionally religious communities.

God.js giveth, and God.js taketh away.

This ability to mock, explore, and interrogate the category of “religion” is, I think, God.js’s most intriguing contribution. It is also the central question of the field of religious studies. But where God.js has been the subject of write-ups by publications as varied as The Verge, the vast majority of religious studies scholarship typically does not crack broader public discourses. In my previous post, I suggested that there are important scholarly connections between the fields of public history and religious studies that have yet to be explored. Collective memory and public commemoration have been driving forces of American religious history, I argued. But here, I’d like to focus on how there are also important professional connections between the work of public history and the field of religious studies. For in this climate of austerity, where the humanities are in crisis and the relevance of the liberal arts is openly questioned, it is incumbent upon scholars to make public engagement a vital component of their academic profile. And the web, I think, provides one of the most exciting outlets to realize this mission.

Conspiracy Theory in American Religions

Kelly Baker

As my Apocalypse class is finishing up Michael Barkun's excellent A Culture of Conspiracy, I have conspiracy theory on the brain. We have discussed new world order, aliens, reptoids, black helicopters, secret concentration camps, the Illumnati, the Masons, government coverups, more aliens, men in black, and secret cabals that control the world. One of my commitments in teaching Barkun's book is to problematize visions of "fringe" and "mainstream" by demonstrating how conspiracy theories appear commonly in popular and civic culture. I want students to move beyond initial reactions of "this is crazy" to an approach that recognizes how conspiracy functions and why these theories have appeal and longevity. Barkun convincingly argues the need to study groups we find bizarre and strange for comprehension while also noting that ignoring conspiracists will not make them go away. More importantly, his book demonstrates that hoping some movement is fringe does not make that true, even it is comforting. By far, he is one of my favorite scholars to think with as I also research groups and topics that appear "fringe" at first blush. To demonstrate the mainstreaming of these topics, my class watched an episode from the History Channel's Ancient Aliens series (now in its fifth season) about alien cover-ups as an example of mainstreaming. I've posted it here for your viewing pleasure

"Onward Christian Soldiers": 1790s Version


By Jonathan Den Hartog

I'm sure no one else on this blog has ever written about a topic only to discover you've missed some evidence. O.K., I'll admit it—it has occasionally happened to me. Fortunately, nothing I've discovered has caused me to rethink my interpretations radically, but it's a good reminder that even after studying a topic for years you can still learn more.

In this case, I've found out more about Timothy Dwight, a figure with whom I feel like I've lived for quite a few years. Dwight bore a prestigious pedigree as the grandson of Jonathan Edwards. He was also a minister, theologian, president of Yale College, member of the literary circle known as the "Connecticut Wits," active Federalist, and general curmudgeon. What I hadn't realized until recently, though, was that he was also a hymn-writer.

Of his hymns, a well-known one still sung today is "I love Thy kingdom, Lord," for which a tinny reproduction exists here

The first stanza proclaims, "I love Thy kingdom, Lord,/ The house of Thine abode,/The church our blessed Redeemer saved/With His own precious blood."

I especially hear Dwight's devotion in a later line that praises the Church's "heavenly ways,/Her sweet communion, solemn vows,/Her hymns of love and praise.

This musical contribution was one area of Dwight's career that I had just not taken the time to investigate, but it's one that probably has had as much public impact as others. After all, this hymn is still in many Protestant hymnals.

I learned from Amanda Porterfield's recent and intriguing book Conceived in Doubt (which I've been thinking a lot about for a review essay) that Dwight's edition of hymns served at least two purposes. First, it worked to Americanize hymnody, by removing extraneous references to Great Britain. Second, it sought to keep Calvinist music up to speed with the Methodists, who were already becoming known for their vibrant music. As a result, there could be multiple reasons for producing a hymn. As other religious historians have pointed out, religious music always needs to be contextualized.

For my purposes, it strikes me that the hymn also has a political connotation. Dwight wrote it in the late 1790s or early 1800s, at a time when he was less than sanguine about the state of the nation. He suspected the republic was being undermined by secret societies like the Bavarian Illuminati and not-so-secret societies like the Democratic-Republicans who were championing Thomas Jefferson for president. That concern would only increase when Jefferson was, in fact, elected. Dwight believed only the good sense of Calvinist New England could now preserve the original ideals of the American Revolution. So, it's interesting that in 1800 he would contrast his very real doubts about the survival of the nation with his permanent confidence in the Kingdom of God. In that way, the hymn might be read as an aggressive response to the "scoffers" who abused church altars and who might produce persecution in the years to come. This is a battle hymn for aggressive resistance. This type of historical background gives the song a great deal more texture than as just one more in the hymnal.

So, I'm glad I've found another piece of evidence--even if it took me a decade to do so.
newer post older post