Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part V
by Darren Grem
During a review session for an exam I gave in this course last fall, a student remarked that the early nineteenth century’s religious history was the most confusing subject she had ever studied. That’s understandable. The era has certain qualities that students might find familiar, such as the voluntary principle, and others that are completely unfamiliar, from Shaker communalism to slaveholder apologetics. The sheer number of religious groups that fight for prominence – or fade from prominence – after the Revolutionary era likewise can be daunting. Thus, to make it more of a sensible mess, I divided up the pre-Civil War section into three parts: 1) the “early religious marketplace” 2) African-American religions and slavery and 3) the Civil War era.
We started our investigation of the early religious marketplace with the evangelicals, looking at how and why revivalism spoke to Americans in the early 1800s. I’ve often found it hard to convey through lectures why revivals were meaningful events, so I decided to use the “sights and sounds” of the early revivals to do the job for me. I showed a number of slides that detailed what occurred at camp meetings and coupled these with early evangelical song lyrics, hoping to get students to think about why someone living in the early nineteenth century might find these events attractive or off-putting. By following this analysis with selections from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Philip Schaff’s America, I wanted students to consider how the voluntary principle could have long-ranging effects, allowing new groups to develop followings while fundamentally reshaping the relationship between religion and the broader political order. De Tocqueville and Schaff offered the additional benefit of having my students reflect on how others have tried to make sense of America’s religious environment, much like they were trying to do in the class (other readings, such as selections from Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew and Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart will follow in this vein). Initially, I thought the tour of evangelical revivals was more successful in conveying the ramifications of a religious marketplace than the more conceptual reflections of de Tocqueville and Schaff. But after reading their essays on these observers, I noticed that they grasped the complexities of the religious marketplace well enough, which set us up to start playing with their first impressions about the liberties of that marketplace.
In a lecture about “religious insiders and outsiders” I told my students that “religious freedom does not necessarily result in full scale religious tolerance.” They read selections from Leonard Dinnerstein’s Anti-Semitism in America to drive home this point, as well as several chapters from our textbook, Butler, et al.’s Religion in American Life, which detailed the various religious groups that were at odds with “respectable” religious practice in early America. To illustrate why certain religious groups – like evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, Transcendentalists, and African-Americans – would conflict with one another, we had a Presidential-style debate in the class after the lecture. The idea for a mediated debate came from one of my undergrad professors, who frequently used them to show why certain historical conflicts were reconcilable and others were not. To prepare for their debate, the students read documents from five different religious figures – Joseph Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Grandison Finney, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, and Jarena Lee – and were instructed to engage in a debate with anyone in the room on matters of religious authenticity and authority. They had to speak in the voice of the figure they represented and had to be aggressive (for some reason, undergrads have a tendency to be too nice with one another during exercises like this, working toward consensus instead of conflict).
Both classes got into the exercise to varying degrees, but I was especially pleased with how well they assumed the perspective of the leaders under study. Some were more difficult for them than others (e.g. Emerson), but all in all, they laid out the conflicts and concessions of the era quite well. I worried afterward, however, that they might remember the debate as a fun exercise instead of an instructive one. Could they, if I asked them now, remember the particular points that, say, Smith and Finney disagreed about? I suppose I will have to wait until their end-of-the-term comprehensive papers come in to find out. Regardless, it was a nice exercise that forced them to read the documents under study (to avoid embarrassment during the debate) while breaking up the rhythm of the course.
We started our study of African-American religions with the first episode of the excellent PBS series This Far By Faith. This documentary lays out the multiple genealogies and expressions of African-American religious culture, and it set us up for broader considerations about how the religious history of slavery fit into America’s early religious marketplace. Since we had been on the topic of religious freedom, insiders, and outsiders, I asked students to view African-American religions along those lines, looking at how slaves, free blacks, and ex-slaves utilized religion to craft their own interpretations of “religious freedom.” Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography, Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s account of “Negro Spirituals,” and W.E.B. Du Bois’s commentary in The Sorrow Songs helped them do that, offering perspectives on pre- and post-emancipation black Christianity in particular. Their papers on these individual accounts of black Christianity were quite insightful (grammar and style, of course, remain a never-ending battle). In general, however, they showed that they grasped how and why religion mattered for slaves, slaveholders, and ex-slaves. To clarify the long-term importance of this religious culture, I lectured about the history of African-American Christianity after slavery, reiterating that the “outsider” status of many blacks continued to grant an important role for religion (and encourage religious innovation), both in the South and in the North.
We also stayed in the post-Civil War period briefly to end our examination of the pre-Civil War era. I took the students (on a particularly frigid day for Georgia!) down to a Confederate Monument downtown. Like other monuments to the “Lost Cause,” this one is double-dipped in religious imagery. The students did some field work there, making inferences about how this monument’s religious aspects helped (white) southerners make sense of the war’s coming and going. Given that the monument proclaimed the Civil War to be a “religious event,” I asked them to make connections between it and documents from before the war, which likewise interpreted the conflict over slavery in religious ways. Via the writings of Angelina Grimké, Catharine Beecher, and George Armstrong, they were exposed to abolitionist, gradualist, and apologist perspectives on slavery. They debated in small groups how each utilized religion to build their various platforms and we inferred from their writings whether the Civil War fit the definition of a “religious war.” I think that the next time I teach this class, I will need to include an additional day to make more explicit the connections between the pre-war religious sentiments circulating about slavery and the post-war interpretations of the conflict. By compressing the topic into two days, we simply didn’t have enough time to draw those lines as tightly as I would have liked. In addition, we didn’t get the chance to connect the war as clearly to the broader themes of voluntarism, religious tolerance, insider/outsider status, and the ironies of “religious freedom.”
Overall, I think the exercises I used to navigate the students through the pre-war religious marketplace were good, although some were better than others. I relied a great deal on Butler, et al’s Religion in American Life to fill in the blanks, which I might supplement next time around with more direct instruction. In turn, I wonder if some of the debates helped clarify particular matters for students or prevented them from deeper understanding since they were depending on one another’s understanding of the readings instead of my direction. All in all, I don’t think they misunderstood the importance of some of the era’s major themes and, as far as I could tell from their essays and comments, they certainly “got” that there was certainly a lot of considerations and conflicts that you have to take into account when you talk about the meaning of “religious freedom.”
Next up, immigration, industrial capitalism, and fundamentalism.