Looking at the Category of New Religious Movements

John L. Crow

As the year 2013 comes to a close, I am already thinking about the New Year, and the next semester. In a week I’ll begin teaching a New Religious Movements class. This winter break has given me the time to think about the subdomain of New Religious Movements, and I must admit that after creating a syllabus and looking at the topic from a variety of viewpoints, I am ambivalent about the sub-discipline.

In his 2007 essay, “New New Religions: Revisiting a Concept,” J. Gordon Melton asked again, “What are we studying?” After looking at the changing field and the subject of investigation, he asserted that new religions are mostly, “new representatives of some of the older religious traditions that exist as minorities in the West.” He goes on to claim that “the production of new religions is a normal, ongoing process in a free society.” I read this essay a few years ago, but in rereading it for the class, I began to wonder if his conclusion ultimately announced the end of the subdomain of new religious movements? As these minority traditions become less of a minority, do they cease being New Religious Movements?

One question I often ask my colleagues when discussing the category of New Religious Movements is why do traditions such as Spiritualism and Theosophy remain categorized as “new religions,” even though they are 130 to 160 years old, while more recent traditions, such as Pentecostalism, are not considered New Religious Movements, but new iterations or formations of previous, older traditions? It is because they are derivations of majority traditions. Clearly the “newness” of the tradition is not really the issue, despite the name of the sub-discipline. Instead the traditions that fall into New Religious Movements signal a kind of distance or deviance from an imagined norm. Thus the invocation of the variegated scale leading from church to cult.

Jewish Post-Christmas Thoughts

Rachel Gordan

It wasn't so long ago that people talked about a "war on Christmas." I think the idea was first introduced to me in an American religious history course, while I was a graduate student. We must have been approaching that time of year. The professor, ordinarily emotionally reserved, seemed of heavy heart over this Christmas conflict, and he invited our reactions. We non-Christians in the class must have exchanged a puzzled glance. "War on Christmas"?  During the post-Thanksgiving weeks, it felt more like "tyranny of the majority." Where was this war being fought? Who were its foot soldiers? To the Jews among us, this war surely seemed an incredible idea.

For, added to our own feelings of outsiderness about Christmas, were the stories of parents and grandparents. Being compelled to sing Christmas carols in public schools is one common narrative; embarrassed reports about who, among friends and family, had caved and "bought a tree" -- out of some misbegotten sense of what it meant to be an American in December -- is another. (A joyous, child-centered event, in a Christian middle-class American family, becomes a moment of betrayal in a non-Christian family.) The inheritance of many young, American Jews in the late twentieth century, these Jewish "Christmas stories" helped to preserve, within families, a feeling of what it meant to be a religious minority.

But Jewish feelings about Christmas are complicated, and not so far removed from their feelings about Christianity. Fear, antipathy, resentment, and disdain may lie at one side of this veiled spectrum of emotions; admiration, awe, and attraction are espied at the other end. It is the beauty of the Christmas season that catches the outsider's breath; a surprise, because one wasn't thinking or planning for the holiday, but then, there it is: the awe-inspiring "Silent Night" or a few sweet verses of "Joy to the World" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Then, too, there are the visuals. On Christmas Eve day, I walked through my parents' neighborhood with my Orthodox brother and sister-in-law (because Jews, inevitably, spend Christmas with family) as we selected our favorite, decorated homes and editorialized on the wreath and lighting choices of other neighbors (because Jews also, inevitably, believe they would do a more tasteful job with Christmas decorations.) To the Jewishly committed, these favorite sights and sounds of Christmas can have the feel of contraband.

If the affection of Jews toward Christmas is, at times, a love that dares not speak its name, it is becoming less so, I think. The internet and Facebook, in particular, are full of evidence of Jews boldly "owning" their entanglement with the holiday, signaling, perhaps, a new chapter in American Jewish-Christian relations. This was my first Christmas on Facebook, and I was struck by how many of the day's good tidings, sometimes in the form of a hearty "chag sameach" (Hebrew for "happy holiday"), came from Jews. Ithere is still a battle being waged on Christmas, such as my professor rued, it seems that Jews are approaching it differently. Now, Jews come as protestors, showing up to the event with signs: "Make love, not war." Once outsiders to Christmas, Jews have increasingly made it their own party. That hardly sounds like a war.

Great Books on (American) Religious History, 2013 Black Jesus/Santa edition

Paul Harvey

I know you've been waiting for it, and here it is -- my baker's dozen list of some of my favorite works in American religious history for 2013 (ok, and a couple from 2012 that I'm inducting into the 2013 Hall of Fame). We've got the relics of 17th-century Jesuit martyrs and their varying fortunes over four hundred years; we've got Communist Christs; we've got Scientologists; and we've got liberal Christians and an author getting exorcised on a Benny Hinn tour of Israel. Something for everyone, I hope.

Click here for the piece.

RiAH at AHA/ASCH 2014: Preconference Round Up

Cara L. Burnidge

If you are attending the American Historical Association's annual meeting and/or the American Society of Church History's Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. next week, then you may be like me and thinking "next week?!" To help you (me) plan your (my) schedule, I've started a Google Doc that lists the panels and roundtables featuring RiAH contributors. I tried to include both past and present contributors as well as friends of the blog whose books have been reviewed by contributors. You can view the list here.

In case there are panels or presentations I left out, the doc can be edited by anyone who views it. Feel free to add panels, presentations, roundtables, and the like that you think would be of interest to RiAH readers. I only searched the names of contributors, which leaves out promising panels about religion in American History like the one on Reconstruction-era Religion, on Catholic Narratives during the Civil War, on Religion, Refuge, and Resistance in Indigenous History, or on Wine Drinking. Not to mention these papers on American Protestant missionaries and Chinese Muslims, on religion, sexuality and "Hindoo" children in nineteenth-century America, and on the Native American Church Movement.

Of course, you don't have to take my word for it. You can search the AHA schedule here and find information about the mobile app here. The ASCH schedule can be found here.

If anyone figures out how to be in two places at once, let me know!

Chris Gehrz's Call for More "International and Transnational" Histories of Evangelicalism

Brantley Gasaway

At last month's meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, a panel discussed David Swartz's Moral Minority, a pioneering history of the evangelical left.  (I interviewed David about his book on this blog last year--see here and here.) Panelists included Dick Pierard, Owen Strachan, Miles Mullin, and Chris Gehrz. As my own forthcoming book examines the history and public theology of the contemporary progressive evangelical movement (UNC Press, Fall 2014), I would have enjoyed the opportunity to hear each respondent's appraisal. I was not at the ETS meeting, however, and therefore was pleased to discover that Gehrz, an international historian at Bethel University, posted his paper on his own blog. Click here for part one and here for part two.

I encourage you to read the paper in its entirety, for Gehrz makes a strong case for the need for "a more international and transnational approach to the history of evangelicalism." In reviewing Swartz's book, he suggests "that time might tell that the most significant chapter in Moral Minority is the one that has the least to do with (North) American history: the chapter entitled “Samuel Escobar and the Global Reflex.” Swartz demonstrates how Escobar, a Peruvian theologian, and other Latin American leaders such as René Padilla of Ecuador and Orlando Costas of Puerto Rico shaped international conversations about evangelical theology and practice. Gehrz proposes that 

Swartz’s “Global Reflex” suggests a different way to write the recent history of American evangelicalism: as one expression of an international, interconnected movement whose center of gravity was already shifting southwards by 1970. According to the most recent report from Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, three out of every four evangelicals live in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. From 1970 to 2010, the evangelical population grew 5.5-6.5 times faster in those regions than in North America, and in the present decade alone growth in the Global South is projected to outpace that in this part of the world by a factor of 2.5-3.5.

Thus, Gehrz argues, historians of evangelicalism would benefit from considering comparative approaches and examining how "ideas flowed through international networks."  He concludes:

David Swartz, in his chapter on the “Global Reflex” in Moral Minority and in his continuing work on the history of evangelical internationalist organizations like World Vision, makes clear that this kind of history can be written: synthesizing stories from several continents, drawing on sources in multiple languages, and cognizant that the ideas that reshaped progressive evangelicalism crossed national borders thanks to forces like migration, educational exchange, and mass communication. His work embodies the benefits claimed by historian Mae Ngai for the “transnational” turn in our discipline: “By directing attention to the circuits and flows of social forces and discourses that span nations and cultures, we unfasten the blinders of national history. In a sense it is an indirect approach, which hopes by way of the broader context to deflate claims of national greatness and to gesture to histories that are more connected, more aware and of a piece with the modern world.”

I appreciated Gehrz's argument, and his proposal seems in line with the helpful ways that scholars such as Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh have challenged us to re-examine our understanding of global Christianity (or, perhaps, Christianities). In addition to Swartz's work, do readers know of other studies of evangelicalism that offer models for such international and transnational historiography?

Religion in a Family's History, a repost

Emily Suzanne Clark

My parents are getting ready to sell their house and downsize. This means going through and packing lots of stuff. Some finds have been funny – including "books" I wrote when I was 7. Every piece has a story. We found my great-grandfather's framed certificate acknowledging his promotion to 32nd degree mason in the Scottish Rite from the late 1920s. My mother's pre-Vatican II missal from her childhood shows the wear of a book used lovingly, dutifully, and devoutly for years. It was full of holy cards for her grandparents, JFK, Pope John XXIII, a friend who died in Vietnam. Two of those holy cards were for my great-grandmother Stella, which reminded me of a story I shared on this blog a couple years ago. I've re-posted it below. Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

A secret infant baptism orchestrated by a “formerly” Catholic wife who renounced her faith when she married into an anti-Catholic family sounds like a plotline to an early twentieth century soap opera. And it makes me think of my family. My family may not be Italian, but my great-grandmother Stella Foster Myer was a sort of German version of the“immigrants’ daughters” that Robert Orsi’s earlier work focuses upon, because Stella too was caught between early twentieth century tensions of family and religion.

Young Scholars in American Religion, 2014-16: Call for Applications

Call for Applications

Beginning in 2014, a series of seminars devoted to the enhancement of teaching and research will be offered in Indianapolis. The aims of all sessions of the program are to develop ideas and methods of instruction in a supportive workshop environment, stimulate scholarly research and writing, and create a community of scholars that will continue into the future.

The dates for these seminars are:
Session I:                  September 17-21, 2014
Session II                  April 15-19, 2015
Session III:                October 15-19, 2015
Session IV:                April 13-17, 2016

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp and Douglas Winiarski, both of whom participated in the YSAR program early in their careers, will lead the 2014-2016 seminars.

Maffly-Kipp is a Distinguished Professor at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her BA from Amherst College in English and Religion, and completed the PhD in American History at Yale University. Her research and teaching focus on African-American religions, religion on the Pacific borderlands of the Americas, and issues of intercultural contact. Her publications include: Religion and Society in Frontier California (Yale University Press, 1994), articles and edited collections on Mormon-Protestant conflicts in the Pacific Islands, African-Americans in Haiti and Africa, and Protestant outreach to Chinese immigrants in California; Practicing Protestants: Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630-1965 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) with Leigh Schmidt and Mark Valeri; Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories (Harvard University Press, 2010); American Scriptures, a Penguin Classics anthology of sacred texts (Penguin, 2010); and Women’s Work, a co-edited collection of writings by African-American women historians (Oxford University Press, 2010). Currently she is working on a survey of Mormonism in American life that will be published by Basic Books. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships and grants, including a grant for a collaborative project on the History of Christian Practice from Lilly Endowment, Inc., fellowships at the National Humanities Center, and an NEH Fellowship for University Professors.

Winiarski is Associate Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Richmond. He received his BA from Hamilton College, an MTS from Harvard University, and his PhD at Indiana University. He specializes in the religious history of eighteenth-century British North America, with research and teaching interests in popular religion in early New England, Native American religions, alternative religious movements, and material culture. His essays have appeared in leading academic journals, and his book, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: The Travail of New England Congregationalism, 1680−1770, is forthcoming from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture/University of North Carolina Press.

Eligibility: Scholars eligible to apply are those who have launched their careers within the last seven years and who are working in a subfield of the area of religion in North America, broadly understood. Ten scholars will be selected, with the understanding that they will commit to the program for all dates. Each participant will be expected to produce a course syllabus, with justification of teaching approach, and a publishable research article. Costs for transportation, lodging, and meals for the seminars will be covered, and there is no application fee.

To Apply: Applicants must submit: (a) a curriculum vitae; (b) three letters of reference directly supporting their application to the program (no portfolios with generic reference letters, please); and (c) a 700-word essay indicating why they are interested in participating, their current and projected research, and teaching interests. Please note that the deadline for applications is 15 February 2014. Essays, CVs, and letters of reference should be sent in PDF format to raac@iupui.edu. Letters of reference should be submitted directly by referees.

Stuff Your Stockings with Church and Estate!


The following is a guest post from Thomas F. Rzeznik, Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University.  Rzeznik is the author of Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia (Penn State University Press, 2013).  I hope to write more about this book in a future post, but for now I thought I'd highlight its chief strengths.  In Church and Estate, Rzeznik  tells the story of the rise and fall of an industrial-financial elite in Philadelphia between 1870-1920.  More importantly, Rzeznik excavates the lived religion, or "everyday negotiations" (5), of the WASP-ish well-to-do through extensive archival research.  Calling out previous works on this era that privilege secularization theory, including Jackson Lears's No Place of Grace (1994), Rzeznik rather finds that "religious belief structured social relations" (5).  The end result is a stellar narrative centered on the role of religion, or "spiritual capital" (8), in modern class formation.  Given Rzeznik's elegant prose, this book would be an ideal addition to US religious and general survey courses as well as classes on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.  After the break, Rzeznik introduces his subjects and situates his work amidst important recent scholarship.   

Review of Gottschalk, American Heretics

Carol Faulkner

I jumped at the chance to read Peter Gottschalk's American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance since I used "Heresy" in the title of my biography of Quaker minister Lucretia Mott. I was not disappointed. Gottschalk devotes a chapter to the first generation of Quakers, and meditates on their unique place in American history: "The fact that many Americans mistake Friends for Shakers or the Amish reflects how their challenge to social norms remains in the public imagination, even though what distinguishes them from those norms remains largely unknown" (p. 28). Gottschalk's study is more than a history of religious intolerance. He is inspired by the "Islamophobia" that characterizes the contemporary U.S., defining "Islamophobia" as "unjustified social anxieties toward Islam and Muslim cultures," with an emphasis on the social rather than individual nature of this phobia (p. 170). Gottschalk argues that it is not the religious beliefs of Muslims that disturb many Americans, but "perceived differences in race, ethnicity, clothing, facial features, skin complexion, and/or place of national origin" (p. 171). Throughout, Gottschalk stresses that the history of religious intolerance in the United States has been exacerbated by other factors, most notably nationalism. He begins with the startling observation that "I was raised an Islamophobe" (p. 1), explaining how his formative years were marked by the OPEC oil embargo, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Gulf War, and the conflicts between Israel and its neighbors. A short book that offers a sweeping view of American history, Gottschalk's goal is to teach Americans to recognize intolerance in order to better avoid it.*

Oh Say Can You See? Or Sing?

David W. Stowe

I haven't figured out a great seasonal angle on this--maybe that we will be seeing many renditions of the Anthem during the slew of bowl games that lie ahead--but hopefully it's not too early to mention a major anniversary looming in the new year: the bicentennial of the SSB.
A colleague down the road in Ann Arbor, music professor Mark Clague, has spearhead a campaign (and non-profit foundation) to raise awareness of the national anthem, including an Indiegogo campaign that has raised more than $13,000 to provide recordings and songbooks for K-12 students.

The latest post to the website actually addresses another song, "God Bless America," which appeared on radio for the first time 75 years ago. Author Sheryl Kaskowitz, who published a book on Irving Berlin's ubiquitous song, writes:

Understanding the history of songs can deepen our understanding of history writ large, providing students with another lens into American culture at specific moments.

But songs do more than this—they travel with us into the present, their meanings shifting over time. In his book Music as Social Life, Tom Turino calls this process “semantic snowballing”: as a song is sung again and again in different contexts over time, new associations are added while older ones are retained so that a song becomes more than just its words and melody—it becomes a powerful symbol of all of these accumulated associations. I trace this phenomenon in my book about “God Bless America,” but we can see it with a multitude of other songs. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, singing “The Star Spangled Banner”—with its reference to a siege on American forces during the War of 1812—took on an added significance, as one observer described in 1942:

Social Gospel(s) in the American West? Five Possible Themes

Paul Putz

If I'm going to write about one notoriously nebulous historical concept anyway, why not double down?

An Episcopalian feast day commemorates the leading social
gosepelers. Accessed via holywomenholymen.wordpress.com
For most people interested in American history, the term "social gospel" probably denotes an informal American religious movement that began sometime around the publication of Washington Gladden's Working People and Their Employers (1876) and faded in importance sometime after Walter Rauschenbusch's A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). It involved a decreased focus on individual other-worldly salvation and an increased emphasis on applying Christ's teachings (especially in regards to fairness and justice) to fix temporal inequalities produced by the new industrial economic and political order.

That basic definition seems to remain the standard introductory description, although a number of questions have (let me apologize in advance for using this word) problematized social gospel historiography since the 1940s. To list just a few issues, historians still debate how radical social gospelers really were, how much continuity existed between social gospel reform and antebellum social reform, and what sort of theology imbued the movement (was it liberal? evangelical? a theology of its own? all of the above?). Then there's the problem of the word "social gospel" itself. Before the 1900s, what we now call the social gospel was often described with terms like practical Christianity, applied Christianity, or social Christianity.

As historians have debated and discussed who gets to be included as a social gospeler, they have created an impressive collection of strange bedfellows. While some social gospel boundaries are firm -- for example, the social reform efforts of the Salvation Army, the Church of the Nazarene, and other holiness movement groups are excluded -- the tendency among historians has been to broaden the scope of the social gospel. If only I had the power, I would invite all the individuals who have been labeled as social gospelers to a dinner party just to listen to their awkward conversations and see their shocked faces when I informed them that they were all part of the same reform movement (Thomas Dixon? Please meet Reverdy Ransom).

Book "Shelfies" as Autobiography and Aspiration

Elesha Coffman

I recently participated in the social-media craze of naming 10 books that have stuck with me, then asking friends to do the same. There's a related phenomenon of the book "shelfie," in which people post photos of themselves with their favorite books, or just photos of their bookshelves as self-portraits. The technology to enable this literary self-disclosure is new, but the impulse is older and has been particularly strong among liberal Protestants.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, for example, named scads of books that influenced him in his 1956 autobiography, The Living of These Days. One list that appeared early in the book served as a portrait of the preacher as a young man:

"Books were one of the most memorable aspects of my boyhood--all sorts of books from Oliver Optic to Scott, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, Charles Reade; from Jane Porter's Scottish Chiefs and Thaddeus of Warsaw, to Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, Edward Eggleston's The Hoosier Schoolmaster, and Ingraham's The Prince of the House of David; from Lew Wallace's Ben Hur and R.D. Blackmore's Lorna Doone, to Artemus Ward and Mark Twain."

A book discussion that appeared even earlier, though, served a different purpose. Fosdick began to describe his decision, at age 7, to be baptized into his parents' church. But before he got to the event, he detoured through a discussion of Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, George John Romanes, Felix Adler, Robert Ingersoll, and Bordon P. Bowne. Fosdick didn't read their work as a 7-year-old, of course, which makes their inclusion in his narrative puzzling. Did he want to assert his sophistication? Did he consider the writings of prominent skeptics more formative to his adult faith than his own baptism? (For more stops on this train of thought, come to the "Texts and the Origins of Liberal Religion" panel at ASCH on Friday, January 3!)

Fosdick wasn't the only early 20th century liberal Protestant to give his favorite books a prominent place in his autobiography. To follow my hunch that this pattern reveals something about the tradition, I checked three other sources: Elmer Gantry, After Cloven Tongues of Fire, and Billy Graham's autobiography, Just As I Am.

American Religion and the Architecture of Empire

Today's guest post from Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University continues our discussion from October emanating from the new Religion and Empire group, headed up by Sylvester and Tracy Leavelle, and including several of our bloggers in the discussion.
American Religion and the Architecture of US Empire

Among the major shifts in twentieth century US religion was the movement of Christian fundamentalism from the margins to the center of national culture. Recent scholarship on this transformation ably demonstrates that the decades following the Scopes trial (a low-tide marker of fundamentalism’s public status) witnessed a ground-shift whereby Christian fundamentalism began to command the public meaning of the faith. By the time the civil rights movement had peaked in the mid-1960s, the legacy status of social gospel Christianity was firmly undone. The struggle over the public meaning of Christianity was largely fought between advocates of the social gospel, of which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was emblematic, and fundamentalists (represented by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Joseph H. Jackson) who were determined to reclaim Christianity from liberal theology. It was evident even then that fundamentalism had established the upper-hand in a battle that would have lasting significance for political religion in the US.[1]

Blurred Lines: The Basement and Civil Rights? (Part III)


Charity R. Carney

I was tempted to name this post “Mic’d Phone Calls from a Birmingham Jail” for all of you civil rights scholars out there. Matt Pitt is serving a year sentence for impersonating a police officer and the rhetoric surrounding his conviction has been… well, many adjectives. Surprising, galling, bizarre? You’ll have to decide for yourself. In my previous posts, I commented on the reasons behind the popular Birmingham youth pastor’s arrest and on his frenetic interview that hit YouTube weeks later. In the impromptu (and now infamous) interview that Pitt gave a local reporter before his arrest, he compares himself to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Creflo Dollar. The association with King has bloomed into an actual mushroom cloud of civil rights analogies that make zero sense (historically speaking) but are driving the #FreePitt movement.

Jews in America @ the 2013 AJS Conference in Boston, Dec. 15-17

Despite the incredible snow storm in Boston, this year's Association for Jewish Studies conference has begun!  (AJS meets in Boston, MA from Dec. 15-17, 2013) 

THATCamp.  Rumor has it that THATCamp was awesome this year, but since I was trapped for five extra hours in the air due to the storm,  I missed it.  Topics included pedagogy, Omeka, and new methods.

Debates about the Future of Gender Studies.  I did make it, however, to a fabulous discussion about the state of Jewish Women's and Gender Studies that included presentations by Chava Weissler (Lehigh), Americanist Joyce Antler (Brandeis), and Marsha Rozenblit (U. Maryland).  The panel and audience members widely debated the advantages of having a separate division on women and gender versus having papers on gender and women integrated across the conference.  The conversation was sparked by a sea change:  the division on women and gender was disbanded this year due in part to the lack of submissions of abstracts to this division.  (As you will notice below, there were still some papers and panels that dealt with gender, but they were submitted to divisions that reflected people's eras or sub-disciplines.).  I am curious how this experience reflects that at other conferences.

An Americanist President!  AJS also welcomed tonight Jonathan Sarna (Brandeis University) as the society's second illustrious Americanist in a row as President (outgoing President was Jeffrey Shandler of Rutgers).  Sarna is the author or editor of thirty books on Jewish American history and is best known for his critically-acclaimed and award-wining masterpiece, American Judaism: A HistoryHis most recent work has been on Jews and the Civil War, including a superb book on Grant and the Jews.  The presence of scholars of Jewish American history in leadership positions in AJS reflects some changes in the configuration of Jewish Studies and the ongoing recognition of American subject matter for the field overall.

American Panels and Papers.  This is the largest AJS conference to date, and the wealth of Americanist panels and papers reflects the new pool of participants.  Here is a brief list of some of the Americanist topics that will be (or have been) presented (my apologies to any that got left off):

Know Your Archives: The Next Generation of Mormon Studies

Today's guest post is from Tom Simpson, who holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. He teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. His most recent published article is "The Death of Mormon Separatism in American Universities, 1877-1896" (Religion and American Culture), and his forthcoming book is entitled Authority, Ambition, and the Mormon Mind: American Universities and the Evolution of Mormonism, 1867-1940.
 A little over a decade ago, as I was preparing for a doctoral exam in U.S. religious history, I started wrestling with some of the questions that have animated Mormon Studies for decades. Mainly, I wondered: after years of principled, costly resistance to federal authority, how could Mormons, seemingly overnight, embrace so many of the institutions and values of their tormentors?

The question lingered, and before long, I had decided to make a dissertation of it. It started in the stacks of my university library, thousands of miles from Utah, with Davis Bitton's extraordinary Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies. That opened worlds, eventually leading me to a project that would captivate me for years.

My first sojourns in Utah introduced me to a wealth of material housed in the state, church, and university archives of Utah. With some critical financial support from Brigham Young University's Charles Redd Center for Western Studies and (former) Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, I could work extensively in the archives with a team of expert archivists and scholars, who responded incredibly thoughtfully to my work and invited me to present my research in seminars and at major conferences. In the end, what has kept me coming back to the work, and coming back to Utah, has been the relationality of the work, the chance to do meaningful, collaborative historical research in state-of-the-art facilities. 

Still, too few non-Mormons (like myself) take advantage of the resources available. The recent establishment of positions in Mormon Studies at Utah St., Claremont, and the University of Virginia bodes well for the future of Mormon Studies, but the field still needs—and deserves—a larger and more diverse cast of characters. In a recent conversation, J. Spencer Fluhman—associate professor of history at BYU and the author of A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America -- told me that this is indeed "a golden age at the LDS archives….It's a good time to be interested in Mormon history." Here's hoping that the field's real promise is realized in the decades to come.

The major LDS archives in Utah are housed in the LDS Church History Library, the Utah State Historical Society, and the special collections departments of Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and Utah State University. All photographs by the author.        

Florida State Graduate Student Symposium, CFP (due December 31, 2013)


Call for Papers:

The Florida State University Department of Religion 
13th Annual Graduate Student Symposium

February 21-23, 2014 • Tallahassee, Florida

The Florida State University Department of Religion is pleased to announce its 13th Annual Graduate Student Symposium to be held February 21-23, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida. Last year’s symposium was a huge success, allowing over 60 presenters from over 18 universities and departments as varied as History, Political Science, Philosophy, Psychology, and Classics to share their research, learn from one another, and meet many of their peers and future colleagues.

This year’s symposium will be centered on the theme “Inscribing Authority: Bodies, Spaces, Texts.”

Dr. Candida Moss, of the University of Notre Dame, will deliver this year’s keynote address. Her lecture is titled “Broken Bodies as Power in Early Christian Martyrdom Literature.” Due to our commitment to collaborative scholarship, students from all fields with interdisciplinary interests in the study of religion and at all levels of graduate study are encouraged to submit paper proposals.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: Authorship and Identity, Remembering and Myth Making; Practice and Ritual; Conceptions of Self; Material Culture and Food; and Acquisition of Knowledge.

Presentations should be approximately 15 to 20 minutes in length and will receive faculty responses. In addition, every year respondents select the best graduate paper to receive the Leo F. Sandon Award, an endowed award named for the Religion Department's former chair.

Proposals including an abstract of approximately 300 words, a list of key terms, and a one-page  CV should be submitted by December 31, 2013 for review. Decisions will be made as quickly as possible. If accepted, final papers must be submitted by January 15, 2014. Please send proposals to Sher Afgan at fsureligionsymposium@gmail.com

Interdisciplinary Congregational Studies Fellowships - Feb 1 Deadline

Gerardo Marti

An interdisciplinary call for Congregational Studies Fellowships for 2014-2015:
The Congregational Studies Team is pleased to announce the availability of Fellowships* to support scholars who are interested in disciplined inquiry into the life of local communities of faith in North America. These 18-month fellowships include $18,000 in research support, plus $2,000 for related travel. In addition, Fellowships include a program of mentoring by a senior-scholar coach and participation in two summer consultations that bring together the Fellows and coaches with the Team.

Applications are encouraged from scholars in a variety of disciplines — from practical theology to the social sciences, from history to biblical studies and contextual education — for projects that involve learning from and about living communities of faith in the United States and Canada. Fellows will explore avenues for making that knowledge available for the sake of those communities’ wellbeing, as well as developing strong academic contributions appropriate to their disciplines. Applicants should have completed their graduate work and be placed in a professional position at the time of application. We especially encourage early-career scholars to apply, but will consider applications from persons who have recently been tenured. 

 The application deadline is 1 February 2014. Instructions and guidelines can be found here

Information on past fellows can be found here

*This program is supported by a major grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. and is administered by the Congregational Studies Team: Nancy Ammerman, Anthea Butler, Bill McKinney (project director), Omar McRoberts, Larry Mamiya, Gerardo Marti, Joyce Mercer, James Nieman, Bob Schreiter, and Steve Warner.
This announcement with similar links is also here
Once again, I believe this is truly a wonderful opportunity. As a member of the Congregational Studies Team, I'm happy to answer any questions and can be best reached by email @ gemarti @ davidson.edu . 

Four Questions with David Morgan

Randall Stephens

David Morgan is the latest to take part in our “Four Questions with” series.  His influential and acclaimed work on religion and visual culture will be familiar to many of our readers.  Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University.  He is the chair of the Duke Department of Religion as well.

He has written a range of books and essays on the history of religious visual culture, art history and critical theory, and religion and media. His latest book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). He is also the author of Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images (University of California Press, 1998); Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production (Oxford, 1999); The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005); and The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007).  Books that he has edited and contributed to include Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008).

Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

Randall Stephens: When and why did you decide to study American religion?

David Margan:
I studied the history of European and American Christian thought with Bernard McGinn and Martin Marty as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago. My concentration was on art history because I had originally planned on a dissertation that would examine the history of art and religion in Europe and America. But my dissertation took a turn toward the history of art theory instead, so further work on American religion had to wait until after I graduated.

Declaring a Truce in the War on Christmas


The Christmas season—the most wonderful time of the year— elevates the modern standoff between traditional faith and rising skepticism. For religious conservatives, winning the “War on Christmas” may require a form of Christianity that is neither captivating nor consistent with the celebration of Christ’s birth. In fact, threats to a commercialized and culturally-defined holiday may strengthen Christmas by drawing attention to a more compelling faith.
 Christmas errands recently sent me in search of wrapping paper, decorations, and holiday cheer to wonder as I wandered through the halls of the local hobby and craft mega store. And suddenly, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a statue of Santa, kneeling before the baby Jesus in a manger (there are many Santa & Jesus products available for your gift-giving needs). This combination of cultural and religious Christmas symbols is an example of why December is a unique time in the American calendar each year. Many American evangelicals view the world through a sacred versus secular dichotomy for much of the year. This requires a strict filtering of all non-Christian influences. But during Christmas time, candy canes are a witnessing tool, Neil Diamond proclaims of the joy of the newborn savior, and we hear the stories of annual battles over courthouse lawns. Some retailers choose to greet consumers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” because they view it as a smart business decision.


Rachel McBride Lindsey

In lieu of the rigorous original research and incisive commentary that readers of this blog have come to expect, please excuse this shameless promotion of two fellowships at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics for academic year 2014-2015. The deadline for both is January 1, 2014. The full announcement for each fellowship is included after the break, but in a nutshell, the Dissertation Completion Fellowship is for doctoral candidates in their final year of writing and the Postdoctoral Fellowship is for recent PhDs and is renewable up to two years. Both fellowships require residency in St. Louis and up to two fellows from each category will be selected.  The Danforth Center is a nonpartisan, interdisciplinary, and research-intensive academic center at Washington University in St. Louis. Applications from scholars in religion, political science, sociology, gender studies, history, American studies, and related fields whose research contributes original insight into issues relating to religion in American public life are encouraged to apply.

Winning the Internet: Religion, Media, and Digital Humanities at the AAR


The American Academy of Religion estimates that over 10,000 people regularly attend its annual meetings. But at the AAR's gathering in Baltimore last month, I had the good fortune of spending a day with seventy participants who came early to participate in the AAR's first ever THATCamp. Unlike traditional academic gatherings THATCamps, which stands for The Humanities And Technology Camp, have no predetermined proceedings. Rather, participants propose the kinds of sessions they would like to attend in the weeks leading up to the camp so the day's events reflect the needs and interests of those in attendance as much as possible.

The day, I think, was a resounding success. This was in no small part to the people who made THATCampAAR happen. The AAR was unendingly generous in providing us with space, wifi, and audiovisual equipment; DeGruyter Press provided everyone with swag and the most expensive cups of coffee in the world; and the organizing team of Kristian Petersen, Mike Altman, Hussein Rashid, Jeri Wieringa, Kelly Bulkeley, and Dave McConegy were all great to work with in pulling this off. But by far it was the campers that made THATCampAAR such a success. In addition to a number of preplanned workshops, we had sessions on the digital publication of religious studies scholarship, building DH teams on campus, teaching religious history with web-born resources, and a vibrant discussion on what a manifesto for a digital religious studies would look like. By the end of the day I was as invigorated as I was exhausted. Check out the camp's #THATCampAAR hashtag to see just how vibrant the day was.

But at the AAR this year THATCamp was only the beginning of a much larger

Oh Chrismukkah Tree, Oh Chrismukkah Tree!

I'm delighted to have Samira K. Mehta here as a new regular blogger; she's an old friend of the blog, but finally agreed to sign on to post on the 7th of each month. Welcome! 
Samira Mehta

Every year, on the plane from AAR to Thanksgiving, I flip through Skymall and I see an advertisement for the “Star of David Christmas Tree Topper,” with the following caption. “Celebrate the warmth and wonder of both Hanukkah and Christmas. Here's the perfect way for interfaith families to celebrate both holidays.” This year, I was not on a plane, but I gather, from the many colleagues I asked to track down the image, neither was the ornament. Perhaps it was missing because this summer Buzzfeed referred to the item as “one of the 30 most insane things for sale in the Skymall Magazine.” Maybe the Talking Smurf Toothbrushes edged it out. Perhaps someone in the Skymall marketing division realized that Thanksgivukkah (covered so well on this blog by Jodi Eichler-Levine) meant that this was not really the year for Chrismukkah ornaments. Regardless of why it was not in the magazine, the Star of David tree topper remains on the Skymall website, and it may not be quite as ridiculous as Buzzfeed would like to think.

Teaching Religious Loyalism

Jonathan Den Hartog

 I'm just wrapping up my fall semester class on "The American Revolution and Early Republic," and I thought I might share a piece of it with our readers.

One challenge that I think American students studying the Revolution have is to understand the Loyalists generally. As students assume that the Patriots were in the right, they find it hard to understand why people would take the opposite position. Adding the religious element is a further complication. Again, students can make sense of the Protestant/Republican/Whig synthesis, but the other side comes off as more opaque. I want students to understand what pushed the Anglican Charles Inglis into forthright Loyalism and ultimately to Canadian exile and what pushed the Georgian Presbyterian John Joachim Zubly into opposing the Revolution.

As we unpacked the coming of the Revolution and considered the issues raised by Patrick Griffin's America's Revolution, we discussed the coming of the Revolution as a problem of the integration of the colonies in the wider British empire. As T.H. Breen and others have argued, America was becoming more intertwined with British culture, not less.

So, how to bring religion into this story?

I had success with at least a few strategies.

I found talking about John Wesley worked very powerfully with my students. Wesley's evangelical Christianity is unimpeachable. He's a sympathetic figure, yet he forthrightly condemned the American Revolution in his piece "A Calm Address to Our American Colonies." (Granted, Wesley largely lifted it from Dr. Samuel Johnson, but he still published it in his name and with his imprimatur.) In this address, Wesley asserted the British ministry's position in regard to taxation and insisted the colonists obey their rightful rulers.

I also pushed students to give voice to the religious Loyalist position, primarily from the Anglican perspective. Here, I encouraged them to use a strong assertion of Romans 13. In debating the Revolution from the position of an Anglican priest, I watched several students really nail the argument. One of them even produced some Robert Filmer quotes in favor of obedience to monarchical authority.

Had I had more time, I would have encouraged my students to listen to this podcast on "Should Christians Have Fought in the US War of Independence?" Gregg Frazer gives voice to the passive, non-resistance view which characterized the Anglican position--although the other two voices aren't bad, either.

And, I think my students figured it out. This might have been an indication of the acuity of the class, but at least I was able to provide the materials for them to see another perspective. I think the experience was fruitful. The class saw more clearly how messy the push for independence was. Further, they grasped that religious arguments could lead away from independence as much as they could lead towards it. If that was the case, contrasting and analyzing the types of theological arguments and uses of the Bible offered by both sides became necessary. I hope the end result was to understand the period better as well as to understand the foreign character of the time--the arguments that carried the most weight weren't the ones that we might find the most convincing. Still, by giving voice to both sides we have taken those historical actors seriously and maybe, just maybe, planted a greater mindfulness about the strategies employed when attempting to talk about religion in the public square.

For the comments section--is this an issue that has cropped up for anyone else? If so, how have you dealt with it in class?

Demolishing a Past: Tremont Temple's Struggles in Macon

The following comes to us Doug Thompson, the new Editor of the Journal of Southern Religion. Doug is an Associate Professor in Southern Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. 

Demolishing a Past

Early in November, news sources released reports about two demolition projects. The first one broke where I reside and involves a zoning request to tear down Tremont Temple Baptist Church, Macon, GA, to make room for a donut shop.  Given the proximity of the Medical Center of Central Georgia, the addition of that kind of business will be a boondoggle for the owner and the city. The second report had far greater reverberations in the national press and comment sections of news outlets. The Atlanta Braves are leaving Turner Field, which was retrofitted for the team following the Summer Olympics in 1996. A day after the Braves leveled their surprise, Atlanta announced plans to demolish Turner Field to create more housing. In one of the reserved parking lots for Turner Field, fans walk across the painted remains of the old Fulton County Stadium. Progress means moving on and leaving behind traces of former glory.

The lesser known, but not necessarily less significant, story in Macon deserves some attention for religious historians. In the reports of the church demolition in Macon, there has been no mention of the church’s attempted move from the location in 1974.  The Tremont Temple’s website explains the long-term effects of that failed move because of a protracted lawsuit brought by five church members. The physical location of the church building on Cotton Ave in downtown Macon allowed Reverend Elisha B. Pascal to situate the church as a “Movement Church.”  

Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Part 2

by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Today is the second part of a 2-part interview with Dr. Kate Bowler about Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, published earlier this year with Oxford University Press.


PLS: Pardon the pun, but some of the richest interpretive elements of Blessed are the 8 network diagrams (pp. 47, 81, 84, 85, 92, 121, 258, 259) you constructed to provide a stunning visual explanation of the deep connection and numerous affiliations between prosperity teachers and preachers. Can you discuss this part of the book?

KB: This was the beginning of my love affair with spreadsheets. In light of the difficulty of identifying who is a prosperity preacher in such a fluid movement, I began to look for ways to track and measure participation more meaningfully. My largest network was a compilation of every advertised conference in Charisma magazine from 1980 to 2010 which tracked 4,267 separate speakers across 1,637 conferences. This much tidier diagram of a single conference, The Voice of Healing annual conference, 1950-1956) makes the point. The network visually represents an early hub of pentecostal revival preachers, many of whom adopted some formula for how to receive financial blessings. The lines between preachers indicate that they shared a conference platform, and the greater total number of intersections draws them closer to one another and to the center of the diagram. This image draws attention to the importance of early prosperity preachers like T. L. Osborn, W. V. Grant, and Gordon Lindsay. The comparative marginality of big names like Oral Roberts and A. A. Allen, on the other hand, confirms that their massive ministries had outgrown the need for this support. After having scoured the archives for these preachers, an image like this helped me weigh and measure the significance of each minister’s contributions to the movement. Throughout, I relied on these spreadsheet to follow the rise of new networks, gauge the density of their interactions, and help date the where’s and when’s of how ideas spread.

PLS: Similarly, another bountiful portion of Blessed are the Appendixes, particularly Appendix B where you detail terminological difficulties with the term “prosperity” and otherwise wax academically (and poetically) on important considerations for studying the prosperity gospel. Can you summarize this for us? Since your work is the first history of the prosperity gospel in the U.S., in your estimation, what does the future of the scholarly study of the prosperity gospel look like?

KB: Part of the headache of writing Blessed was that no one wants to be called a prosperity preacher, and the movement includes a wildly diverse assembly. The book could have been easily consumed by trying to defend who I included and why. So, I tried to map out of a rubric for identifying the kinds of connections that tie these people together into this movement: rhetorical (what special vocabulary do they use?), associative (what denominational and conference markers set them apart?), educational (what earned and honorary degrees do they share?), and performative (where and how often to do they share ecclesial spaces?). But much of this history is still obscured and will benefit from new interdisciplinary work on its media impact (Katie Hladsky, JonathanWalton), immigrant networks (Arlene Sanchez Walsh), cultural biography (PhilSinitiere), contemporary pentecostalism (Joseph Williams) and so many others. The subject is wide open, and (I hope) increasingly transnational in scope.

PLS: During the course of your research, what surprised you most about the American prosperity gospel? What was most disconcerting?

KB: Like most people, I used to think that the prosperity gospel was about money. What I learned was that, though we might not always like its prophets, millions of believers choose this message every Sunday because it uses a Christian framework to remind them that God cares about the details of their lives. But that comfort is limited. When they read God into their biographies as proof that their faith is working (or not), this theology stokes their fears that every misfortune is of their own making. Often, the prosperity gospel heaps spiritual condemnation on tragedy.

PLS: Finally, what are you working on now?

KB: While working on Blessed, I realized how much the prosperity gospel makes Christians profoundly nervous. Not for its errors, but for its similarities. So I’ve begun a new project which will be a broad history of economic anxieties in American Christianity, particularly through the lens of immigrant churches and narrations of the American Dream. How have American believers explained and theologically justified the rise and fall of their good fortune? Their deep ambivalence about financial successes is where this project begins.

Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Part 1


by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Today begins a 2-part interview with Dr. Kate Bowler, about her fantastic and trend-setting study Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, published earlier this year with Oxford University Press and mentioned previously on RiAH. Blessed is a model of outstanding scholarship, and also exhibits fantastically readable prose. Kate is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in the U.S. at Duke Divinity School, and has published widely on the prosperity gospel. Congrats to Kate (and her family) on the publication of her first book as well as the very recent birth of her son!


Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): Give us a brief snapshot, a thumbnail sketch of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

Kate Bowler (KB): Blessed is a cultural history of how a tiny off-shoot of pentecostalism became one of the most popular religious explanations for why good things happen to good people. The “prosperity gospel” is really a cluster of four themes: faith, health, wealth, and victory. In its most basic form, faith--a spiritual power released through positive words and belief--can be measured by wealth and health which allows believers to aspire to total victory here on earth. It’s almost sad that a whole decade of your research life can be summed up in a sentence, but there it is.

PLS: There are many who are deeply skeptical of the “prosperity gospel” and its many meanings and caricatures. Briefly explain its historical and cultural significance and why we should pay attention to it.

KB: The term “prosperity gospel” is often conflated with a whole host of worries (greed, crass fundraising, greasy leaders, overt religious entrepreneurialism etc.) or whole movements and institutions (megachurches, church growth, pentecostalism, etc.) People come by this confusion honestly, because the rise of the prosperity gospel is a messy history and its cast of characters so varied.  It’s important to remember that, from the late 19th century onwards, Americans fell in love with a host of theologies of self-help that shared a number of common ideas: there is a secret to success; you are the solution; perfectibility is possible; and that everything you need is at your fingertips. What I’m calling the prosperity gospel (though there are many) follows a pentecostal incarnation of those ideas begun by post-war healers that eventually caught on with the rise of televangelism. What we’ve seen since the late 1980s is an increasing turn toward therapeutic religion that soothes the soul, and the prosperity gospel has mastered the tone, vocabulary, and approach to do just that. Rather than an aberration, the prosperity gospel should be seen for what it is—a popular theology of modern living.

PLS: Let’s turn to sources, interviews, ethnography, and the evidentiary base of Blessed. Discuss the research processes and the multiple methodologies you used to complete the project.

KB: This sprawling project demanded an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach. First, I relied on old-school archival research to sift through the hundreds of cheap paperbacks, dozens of periodicals, websites, and sermon recordings that illumine the ideational foundation of the movement. Second, I started to trace networks when I realized that, after the late 1970s, the movement was rapidly expanding beyond its original boundaries. Third, I took on a variety of ethnographic methods to capture various slices of the movement. This included 18 months of participant observation and interviews at a local storefront prosperity church in Durham, North Carolina [PLS: see KB's chapter in Candy Gunther Brown's Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing]. The long-form relationships I developed at this church gave me a much richer sense of the everyday spiritual lives of prosperity believers. Further, in order to gain a bird’s eye view of the prosperity megachurch landscape, I traveled widely and visited 25% of all American prosperity megachurches and almost all major conferences. These short trips should be considered “ethnography-lite,” for the brevity of my interactions, but certainly opened my eyes to the movement’s breadth. I interviewed a number of senior pastors, including all the major figures of prosperity churches in Canada. Further, I attended a 10-day trip to the Holy Land with controversial healer Benny Hinn and 900 of his spiritual tourists. Oh, and lastly I compiled statistics on prosperity megachurches by examining the websites of all 1,400 (at the time) American megachurches.
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