John G. Turner
Thanks for the proclaimed respite, Paul. It will do us all good.
My first week in graduate school, one of my professors assigned The Social History of Truth by Steven Shapin. I spent an entire weekend carefully reading it, underlining furiously, and taking copious notes. By the time my seminar met, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about the book beyond its title. Its entire content had mysteriously eluded me.
It can be tough to visit foreign historiographical territory, even within the field of American religious history. I've been trying to get up to speed on religion in the antebellum United States to provide me with some context in my grapple with Mormonism. Therefore, I'm reading some new books and reviewing some I too loosely perused in graduate school. I found I absorbed Nathan Hatch's Democratization much more than Jon Buter's Awash in a Sea of Faith, for instance, so I've reread Butler. I love his characterization of the antebellum "spiritual hothouse."
Having mostly concentrated on evangelicalism, I find myself challenged by Catherine Albanese's insistence on the "role of metaphysics as a major player in the evolution of the national religiosity." (A Republic of Mind and Spirit) Moreover, although I've encountered histories of the occult in Butler and in various works on Mormonism, I'm staggered at Albanese's detailed and complex accounts of hermeticism, alchemy, and other forms of the occult in the United States. Unlike Butler, she doesn't think magic and the occult became relegated to the "folk" by the end of the eighteenth century. I also found her sections on Spiritualism and Theosophy very illuminating.
In seeking to further understanding these and related topics, I've turned to Ann Taves's Fits, Trances, & Visions, which traces religious and scientific accounts of involuntary movements from the awakenings of the 1740s through William James. As much a contribution to Religious Studies as history, Taves highlights the role of Methodism in American society in ways new to me, such as John Wesley's relatively open stance toward the supernatural, the development of "shouting Methodism," and the beginning healing revivals at the end of the nineteenth century. I found myself taking away insights about everything ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Joseph Smith to clairvoyant somnambules. [If there isn't a recent scholarly biography of Ellen G. White (the adventist prophetess), it needs to be written!]
I'm also very impressed with Leigh Schmidt's Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion and the American Enlightenment. Intrigued by Joseph Smith pronouncing Brigham Young's glossolalia "the pure Adamic language," I learned from Schmidt that disciples of Swedenborg, among others, sought the pure tongue of angels in nineteenth-century America.
Unfortunately, my encounter with Albanese, Taves, and Schmidt -- all very erudite monographs -- leaves me feeling slightly akin to my reading of The Social History of Truth. Although I now have some sense of Swedenborg, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, I've realized not only how influential some of these "alternative" (i.e., not strictly Protestant) movements were but also how difficult they are to understand (at least for me). Perhaps I should have stuck with what Albanese terms the "evangelical thesis." I hadn't been planning on spending time on spiritualism in my American Religious History class this spring but now feel it's essential, so I'm going to have to spend more time digesting these topics. [I'm going to read Larry Moore's book on spiritualism, which I have hitherto neglected -- his Religious Outsiders is one of my all-time favorites, not least for his chapter on Mormonism]. Any suggestions for further reading on these subjects?