Thursday Reading: Religious Knowledge, Religious Studies and the Tea Party's Religion



0 comments
Kelly Baker

Here's some interesting reading for your Thursday over at Religion Dispatches and Religion Nerd. First, Brent Plate takes on the much-touted Pew survey about religious knowledge and asks important questions of why religion is always coded as belief rather than practice. How do we get pollsters to start thinking about how religion is embodied?

Second, my colleague, Mark Hulsether engages Newsweek's recent article on the popularity of Religious Studies as an undergraduate major. He writes about Newsweek's portrayal of the major and benefits and pitfalls of this story by Lisa Miller. Here's a snippet:

For starters, there's the characterization of Religious Studies as an “esoteric” field, against a background premise that it is not “useful” and that common sense would lead “anguished” parents not to recommend it to their children. True, the narrative presents the study of religion “reviving” from this baseline, moving beyond the baggage that seems to define its reputation. But what are the costs of granting this premise in the first place?

By its conclusion, the article is referring to Religious Studies as less “esoteric” than “do-gooder”—although the final sentence recommends the field for “students earnestly interested in the Meaning of Life,” so it circles back to a middle ground between esotericism and do-gooder-ism.

The overall logic seems to be that the academic study of religion is a “growth industry” mainly insofar as three things apply: First, that it is no longer “elitist,” as it presumptively has been in the past. Second, that it is virtuously out of step with most Ivy League schools. Third, and most crucially, that it is running away from what is clearly coded as a shame or embarrassment: its “legacy of Christian origins.” Apparently the problem is that some Religious Studies programs—notably Harvard’s, from which Robert Orsi luckily “fled”—still train some of their students for careers related to Protestant Christianity.

Finally, check out Dennis LoRusso's piece over at Religion Nerd on the analysis of the Tea Party's religion, which takes the portrayal of the movement(s) as religious and what's at stake in that claim.

A Quick Overview of the Results from the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey



6 comments
by Christopher Jones

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has released the results of its U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. This won't be entirely surprising to anyone here, but it turns out that Americans, as a whole, are religiously illiterate. Atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons appear to be slightly less uninformed.

On average, Americans correctly answered half of the questions of the 32-question survey (you can take a shortened version of the quiz here). There's a lot to dissect in the results of this survey, but for the time being, here's a quick run-down of some of the findings that struck me as notable or interesting:
  • Mormons answered more questions correctly about the "Bible and Christianity" than did any other group, including white evangelicals, who finished a close second.
  • Racial minorities scored the lowest of all respondents overall, with Black Protestants scoring only marginally better than Hispanic Catholics.
  • Jewish and atheist/agnostic respondents knew significantly more about "World Religions" than other groups.
  • Only 11% of Americans know that Jonathan Edwards, as opposed to Charles Finney or Billy Graham, is associated with the First Great Awakening. To put that in perspective, that's only 3% more than knew that Maimonides was Jewish.
  • (Only) 93% of Mormon respondents correctly answered that Joseph Smith was Mormon.
  • Roughly half (54%) of Americans correctly identified the Koran as Islam's holy book.
  • Less than half (46%) knew that Martin Luther was instrumental in the Protestant Reformation.
  • A large majority of respondents (89%) knew that teachers cannot lead students in prayer at public schools.
  • 33% of Catholics correctly identified the first four books of the New Testament.
  • 4% of respondents thought Stephen King wrote Moby Dick (there were some questions not related to religion included in the questionnaire).
Like I said, there's a lot more in the full report to chew on, and perhaps other bloggers here will offer more substantive analyses in the coming days and weeks than I have here. The results are certainly deserving of further attention. In the meantime, I'm going to keep trying to figure out how 7% of Mormons don't know that Joseph Smith is one of them.

Academic Blogging: Some Reservations and Lessons



16 comments
Academic Blogging: Some Reservations and Lessons
by Edward J. Blum

Last summer, I was chatting with a collection of amazingly talented graduate students and newly minted PhDs in American religious history about the role of blogging. They all agreed that blogging was a godsend for those new to the profession, for it let them “be known.” Blogging offered an instant opportunity to present ideas, critique other works, and sound off publicly on any number of issues. Time and again, these brilliant scholars expressed their belief in the blogosphere: that it was the place to gain recognition.

I was worried. I wondered if the perils outweighed the possibilities. Paul Harvey’s American Religious History blog was created after I was finished with graduate school and had two monographs published. I was just at that moment becoming an associate professor and so “making a name for myself” had less immediate importance. I saw his blog and others as a place to promote and to play – not a place to stake a reputation.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the academic turn to the blog, and my gravest concern is for junior scholars – knowing full well that by avoiding blogs, junior scholars may be missing out on many important opportunities. But here are my reservations and lessons:

1) Why would you give away for free the primary commodity you create? Your ideas are your intellectual property; when you publish them in a book, you and the press own them. You can make money off of them (sure, not a lot, but sometimes a nice chunk of change). You can receive credentials from them that include a job, promotion, and tenure. Just as much as publishers may benefit from a blog-inspired recognition, they may also not want to print concepts that can be found already on websites. I haven’t asked, but I wonder.

2) Peer review matters. Academic disciplines will lose all credibility without peer review; it is essential to what we do – as protection for the author and publisher, and as a way to get the best out of your work. When the five or ten or twenty reviewers (I can’t remember) for the Journal of American History sounded off on one of my dissertation chapters, I was shell-shocked. I could never have imagined there were so many problems with my essay. But those criticisms made it a better chapter, and my dissertation a stronger book. The JAH didn’t publish my essay, but the reviews transformed my approach to the topic. After graduate school, the number of people available to read your work may shrink. My experience is that there are fewer and fewer people who have the time to read my ramblings. Peer review allows the geniuses in our fields to challenge us, push us to new sources, and help with our prose. I’m grateful to have friends like Katie Lofton, who will read my essays and tell me what’s wrong with them – but it’s hard to make friends that brilliant and as the years pass on, we all seem to have less time for it. Blogs do not, as of yet, offer such a system of peer review and hence do not aid in that capacity in our development as scholars.

3) Post-publication review matters. Blog posts don’t get reviewed in the Journal of American History or the Journal of Southern History – books do. They are reviewed there and in other journals as another stage of peer review. It’s where we sound off – not just to say that this or that book “makes a significant contribution to” … whatever topic the book is on. It’s a place where real debates and real problems can be addressed. Comment sections in blogs aren’t the same, and they probably can’t go in your tenure file. Professional book reviews can and do.

4) Blog posts could hurt your reputation just as much (if not more) than help it. Fascinating blog posts probably won’t get you an interview or a job, although they may make your name noteworthy enough so the committee looks at your application (although I doubt this for most positions). Articles will, solid dissertations will, fantastic conference papers will. Blog posts are far more likely to hurt you in any number of ways: perhaps you write something that is too outlandish; perhaps you come off as too political (guess what, not all academics vote Democrat – some are more leftist, some are to the right – I learned this when one colleague of mine explained to me that even though I study and teach African American history, he hoped I didn’t vote as “they” did – an odd thing to say to a new colleague, but whatever). I’ve written a number of posts that I wish I could take back (usually the ones praising Matt Sutton’s work – and this, right here, is a joke, that could backfire if I didn’t point out it was a joke. And by this point, the joke is dead because I had to explain it so no one is even grinning). More honestly, I have in blog posts been rough and curt with some essential and important works (namely Barbara Dianne Savage’s very interesting Your Spirits Walk Beside Us), and I was wrong. I should have been more careful and thoughtful. Could that hurt me professionally – you betcha!

5) Blogs often function like the current American media: extreme, partisan, and amnesiac. Jon Stewart recently told Bill O’Reilly that all the messianic love for President Obama in 2008 set Americans up for heartache. Guess who said this in a Religion Dispatches blog essay in 2008? I did. Guess who remembers? Only me. As I see it, the current media is in the business of producing ideas each and every minute and there can be no regard for past claims, words, or interests. Stories and sound bites must be made new constantly. This is not how the scholarly world has functioned or should. We must take the time to think ideas through, to hash them out, to consider alternatives, and to weigh various other texts. Reacting to every new media story is not the path of most scholarly work; it’s the domain of the journalist.

6) Finally, and this is most apropos for our blog – this is a blog about religion and religions, the most powerful ideas, rituals, concepts, and communities that exist. As I understand the spiritual, it is the deepest core of people, ideas, organizations, and communities. Writing about it flippantly or without review or without consideration can be extremely damaging. I have done my fair share of rough handling with religion in these blogs, and I wonder at what cost. More and more, I think Robert Orsi is right when he calls us to be worry about our presentations of religion, especially of how those presentations get into the mass media. We’re observant to religious damages of the past, and certainly do not want to perpetuate them in the present and future (at least I do not).

So those are my concerns. I recognize the incredible work that blogs have done in American religious history. The Juvenile Instructor gang is amazing. The essays here are fantastic. Religion Dispatches is entertaining, insightful, and provocative. It’s not that we shouldn’t keep taking blog and technological leaps: it’s that, I think, we should look first.

White Rockers in Search of Soul Salvation



4 comments
Paul Harvey

This piece of mine comes from today's Religion Dispatches -- I'm posting a snip below and you can follow the link from there.

Fifty-eight-year old rock veteran John Mellencamp recorded his latest record live, in three different sacred spaces — a legendary studio (Sun Studios in Memphis), a hotel room in San Antonio (where blues legend Robert Johnson cut some epochal sides in 1936), and, most significant for this article, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia.

The first two are hallowed ground of American musical recording history. The third is the oldest black Baptist congregation in the country; so far as I know, it has no history of being used as a backdrop for popular recordings. All three, though, have deep mythical meanings for white Americans in search of authenticity. . . .

God’s Own Party, cont.



7 comments
by Steven P. Miller

In Dan Williams’ God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, we now have a go-to narrative analysis of the roots, rise, and resilience of the Christian Right. While Williams builds on earlier scholarship—especially William Martin’s memorable and anecdote-rich With God on Our Side—his book is an exceedingly original contribution based on deep (and I mean deep) research leavened by the wisdom of almost a decade’s worth of reflection. Williams writes with grace and clarity.

Williams describes a “ninety-year quest” (9), which started with the culture wars of the 1920s and intensified with the surprisingly (and overly) confident evangelical activism of the late 1940s and 1950s. (The early National Association of Evangelicals comes across as a proto-Moral Majority—something that those of us with our heads stuck in that Seventies decade should keep in mind.) After authoritatively covering the somewhat more familiar territory of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Williams, to his great credit, follows through with a deft ordering of the recent past. The power, glory, and spectacle of the George W. Bush years yielded to the uncertain trumpet of 2008 (which, in turn, was complicated by the blaring trumpet that is Sarah Palin).

Below are a few preliminary—and somewhat random—thoughts on how God’s Own Party informs what might be called the new evangelical history. (Later, I hope to do the same for Darren Dochuk’s no less eagerly awaited From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, which will appear in December.)

First, I affirm the use of “Christian Right” (as opposed to Religious Right) to describe an evangelical Protestant movement that, largely for strategic reasons, has included a broader range of actors. That said, a lot remains to be learned about the relationship between the Christian Right and the Catholic right. On this and other topics, Williams offers intriguing leads for future researchers (Attn. graduate students).

Williams gives “fundamentalist” vs. “evangelical” quite a bit of analytical heft, noting (echoing John’s study of Campus Crusade for Christ) that those identities were well defined only by the late 1950s before showing (my interpretation here) how they became less relevant by the 1980s, as the Reagan coalition took shape. Irenic Billy Graham and surly Bob Jones, Jr., had more than a few overlapping friends and positions, but Williams is very clear about their differences, especially concerning civil rights issues. He argues that “fundamentalists became ‘conservatives’ in opposition to the Kennedy administration” (59)—that is, well before New Right activists sidled up to Jerry Falwell, et al.

It’s hard to know just what to make of “Nixon’s evangelical strategy” (89), as Williams aptly calls it. His Nixon was an ambitious, but superficial manipulator of evangelical politics who went so far as to try to install his man (Veterans Administration official Fred Rhodes) as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. H. R. Haldeman and the once-born version of Charles Colson were equal parts ruthless and bumbling. Yet, as Williams notes, the salad days of the “silent majority” came after the fall, when Christian Right activists embraced its populist tone (“moral majority”). That’s “Nixonland” for you, I guess.

I sense an emerging scholarly consensus that abortion was a driving force behind the growth of the Christian Right from a very early date, even if W. A. Criswell tacitly endorsed Roe v. Wade and even if Jerry Falwell initially said little about the matter. Most such expressions of moderation occurred before the phrase “abortion on demand” became established, first as a concept, then as a statistic. To be sure, one might interpret that “concept” as a “rhetorical device.” But I think Williams is wise to avoid a cynical interpretation of evangelical pro-life politics. (For Francis Schaeffer, to cite one example, Reaganism was a proxy for opposition to abortion—not the other way around.)

Williams’ work is a story of (to quote an earlier version of the title) “Republican faith,” and it becomes clear in this book that, as early as the Eisenhower years, the GOP was the logical vessel through which to pursue conservative evangelical politics. This reality, as I read Williams, points to the overall pragmatism and patience of the Christian Right, not to its naivete or lust for power (as is sometimes suggested). If the Christian Right endures, as Williams believes it will, it will do so in large part because it made itself into a major wing of a major party.

American Antiquarian Society Fellowship



0 comments

(An announcement from H-AMREL, about a post-doc at the American Antiquarian Society, which has funded and provided a base for many excellent books and articles in American religious history):

Hench Post-Dissertation Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society

Scholars who are no more than three years beyond receipt of the doctorate
are invited to apply for the Hench Post-Dissertation Fellowship, a year-long
residential fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society. The purpose of
the post-dissertation fellowship is to provide the recipient with time and
resources to extend research and/or to revise the dissertation for
publication. Any topic relevant to the Society's library collections and
programmatic scope, and coming from any field or disciplinary background, is
eligible. AAS collections focus on all aspects of American history,
literature, and culture from contact to 1876, and provide rich source
material for projects across the spectrum of early American studies.

The Society welcomes applications from those who have advance book
contracts, as well as those who have not yet made contact with a publisher.
The twelve-month stipend for this fellowship is $35,000. The Hench
Post-Dissertation Fellow will be selected on the basis of the applicant's
scholarly qualifications, the appropriateness of the project to the
Society's collections and interests, and, above all, the likelihood that the
revised dissertation will make a highly significant book.

Further information about the fellowship, along with application materials,
is available on the AAS website, at
http://www.americanantiquarian.org/post-diss.htm.
Any questions about the fellowship may be directed to Paul Erickson,
Director of Academic Programs at AAS, at perickso AT mwa DOT org

The deadline for applications for a Hench Post-Dissertation Fellowship to be
held during the 2011-2012 academic year is October 15, 2010.

Paul J. Erickson
Director of Academic Programs
American Antiquarian Society

New Year, New You, New Books … Already?



2 comments

by Edward J. Blum

We’ve only just begun the fall semester, but it won’t be long until book orders are due for the spring. So, as you’re putting in orders for old faithfuls like The Kingdom of Matthias (IBSN: 0195098358) or new loves like Freedom’s Coming (ISBN: 0807858145), you may want to consider the third editions of Major Problems in American History (ISBN: 0495915130). If you’re not familiar with my blog posts, then you need to know that most of them are self-promotional. If you are not familiar with this series, the Major Problems, then you should really get your hands on them. The collections match 8-10 primary documents from a given period or topic with 2-3 scholarly essays that debate the key points. I have used just about every one and students seem to love them. It’s high-quality one-stop shopping (more like Target than Walmart) for primary and secondary sources!

Sadly, the new edition for Major Problems in American History began with a loss. Just before revisions started, editor Jon Gjerde passed away, professor of history at UC Berkeley and author of some amazing books on the West, ethnicity, and rural life,. I joined my colleague Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman (author of the fantastic book on the Peace Corps, All You Need is Love) to edit the new editions. Professor Gjerde did an incredible job establishing the main contours for the first volume and it’s his strong architecture I built upon.

The two new volumes highlight the role of religion and culture in significant, entertaining, and critical ways. Volume 1 (through Reconstruction) now has poems from Anne Bradstreet and court testimony from Tituba; it follows the emergence of American civil religion with patriot songs from the Revolution and odes to Washington; it careens into the antebellum period with new doctrines from the Church the Church of Latter-day Saints and salacious exposés on the Kingdom of Matthias. It has prophetic visions from Native Americans, new biblical interpretations from feminists locating egalitarianism in the Bible, and heavenly images of emancipation. For secondary documents, Volume I now has snippets from David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment on the colonial era and Nell Painter’s Sojourner Truth on antebellum religion and reform, where Truth’s adventures are matched with the analysis of Finneyite revivalism in Paul Johnson’s Shopkeepers’ Millennium.

Volume II amped up its religious coverage as well. Lost Cause ministers lionize the South, Brigham Young battles anti-Mormon ballads, Mark Twain satirizes the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson uses new technology to defend the old-time religion, Father Coughlin denounces FDR, Vance Packard laments the religion of America in the Cold War, and Jerry Fallwell calls for the nation to return to the Bible.

Paper Prize: Religion and American Culture Caucus, American Studies Association



0 comments
The Religion and American Culture Caucus of the American Studies Association is pleased to announce its 7th annual best paper prize competition. Any paper presented at the 2010 ASA meeting in San Antonio, Texas is eligible for consideration. The prize will be awarded to the paper that makes the most significant and creative contribution to the study of religion (broadly construed) and American culture.

For consideration, please submit your paper to Kelly Baker at kbaker27 (at) utk (dot) edu by Friday, October 29.


The winner will be selected by a national jury of scholars in the field, and announced at the Caucus business meeting at the ASA.

God's Own Party



3 comments
by Matt Sutton

Dan Williams’ highly anticipated and excellent new book God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right is now out from Oxford University Press. This book—along with Darren Dochuk’s forthcoming From Bible Belt to Sunbelt—sets a new standard for interpreting the relationship between modern American politics and evangelicalism.

Williams argues that the 1980 election was a pivotal event for Christians. “Evangelicals,” he explains, “gained news coverage during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues – they had been doing this for decades – but rather because they were taking over the Republican Party. The history of the Christian Right is thus a story not only of political mobilization, but also of party takeover. And that was an event that was more than fifty years in the making.”

Furthermore, for those of you religious-right lovers, the story continues. Williams makes a powerful and well documented case that “Evangelical leaders and their political organizations will come and go, and their political styles will change, but the underlying rationale for their political campaigns is not likely to go away. . . . Though they have largely succeeded in turning the GOP into ‘God’s Own Party,’ they have not yet been able to make America God’s own nation. Their ninety-year quest continues.” Somewhere Ralph Reed and his tea-panty friends are laughing menacingly.

To make his arguments, Williams’ book spans over ninety years. He does an excellent job of highlighting the political and religious differences and similarities among evangelicals in the north and south and shows how by 1980 true believers from different parts of the country finally put aside regional sympathies and came together to transform American politics and culture.

Buy the book. Read the book.

Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster at OBU



3 comments
Paul Harvey

From our Department of Self-Promotion, an announcement below which may be of interest to any blog readers we have in the great state of Oklahoma. I don't know for a fact that we have any, but just in case . . .

Celebrating Oklahoma Baptist University's Centennial

The Department of Anthropology, History and Political Science presents

Paul Harvey
1983 OBU Graduate
Professor of History, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Professor Harvey is a nationally recognized historian of Baptists and evangelicals in the South and commentator on present-day American religion and politics.

Tuesday, September 28


9:30-10:45 a.m. “Baptists and the American South” (Public Presentation; GC 220)
How have Baptists dealt with racial differences and other issues important in the South? Join Professor Harvey to reflect on this major problem in the American experience.

Noon-1:30 p.m. “History, Faith, and the Academy” (Open Lunch; GC 222)
Grab your lunch in the cafeteria and come to GC 222 for a rich
conversation! Cosponsored by the Faith and Disciplines Committee.

7-9 p.m. “Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South”
(Public Lecture; Bailey Business Building, Tulsa Royalties Aud.)

How do we explain the co-existence of the piously sacred and the violently
profane in the history of the American South? Through history, literature, music,
and film, this lecture explores four major archetypes of southern religious culture
from the 18th century to the present: Moses, Jesus, the Trickster, and Absalom.
Literary figures, cultural archetypes, and musical explorations have added layers
of complexity to what other wise might be seen as a solid South of evangelicalism.

The End is Always An Arm's Length Away



2 comments
Kelly Baker

Spending my weekends in the End of Times section at the local bookstore is becoming a habit for me. Pouring over not only Tim LaHaye's popular Left Behind series but also any other work of fiction (Christian or otherwise) listed under apocalypse, rapture, post-apocalyptic or the end. The apocalypse haunts my book shelves, my waking hours and my dreams these days. If I am not reading about the end, I am watching cinematic ends including zombies, angels and the hot monster-stalking brothers of Supernatural. My Netflix queue is a bit scary and my movie watching partner any day now is going to declare apocalyptic burn out. The end is always an arm's length away at my house.

This apocalypse obsession is currently focused on LaHaye. My relationship with LaHaye is completely one-sided. He has no idea that I even exist but he would probably be content to know that I now own several of his books both fictional and theological. I would like to say that LaHaye has been a peripheral figure in my mind since my high school days and the popularity of his Left Behind series among the young (and not-so-young) evangelical set. In 1998, I even started reading the eponymous first book, "a novel about earth's last days" and didn't get further than piles of clothing lying haphazardly on an airplane. In 2010, I finally finished the 468 page book I started twelve years ago as well as LaHaye's new venture in fiction with Craig Parshall, The End (2010) series. Moreover, I now am the somewhat proud owner of several Left Behind:The Kids books, two Left Behind films and multiple theological works "unveiling" Revelation and explaining how we are actually at the end of days. Why might you ask would I spend my limited time and energy on evangelical pulp fiction? (If you ask this, then you possibly don't know me well.)

This can partially be blamed on my students and my Apocalypse in American culture class, but that is a bit disingenuous on my part. Granted, I did assign interviews with Tim and Beverly LaHaye, excerpts from The Edge of the Apocalypse and excellent analysis from Amy Johnson Frykholm's Rapture Culture. Yet, the real reason is that I have become a bit obsessed, in a scholarly way, with LaHaye's end of times theology from Rapture to the Glorious Appearing, which includes tribulations, destruction, more destruction and a vast majority of humanity being wiped out in inventive yet terrible ways. His Revelation Unveiled sits on my desk with a cover bent from use because of his charts that depict timeline and explore the essentials differences between pre-millennialists, a-millennialists and post-millennialists.

Part of my effort is to understand the theology that LaHaye has spent much of his life popularizing. The other is to attempt to understand the appeal of the sixteen book series that sold 65 million copies and even made it to the top of the New York Times bestselling list. Left Behind, the book, turns fifteen this year, and LaHaye is still writing and preaching his approach to the end of times. The plot of the first book includes the rapture of true Christian believers, international intrigue, intrepid reporters, converted Christian skeptics and the appearance of the anti-Christ in the form of the Romanian Nicolae Carpathia. The Left Behind books follow the melodramatic saga of the Tribulation Force to the Glorious appearing of Jesus and eventually to the millennial kingdom. The series also includes three prequel books that follow Rayford Steele (the pilot), Buck Williams (the journalist) and Carpathia before the Rapture.

Fifteen years later, LaHaye and Parshall's The Edge of the Apocalypse provides a different and sometimes more disturbing narrative. Joshua Jordan, a former military man and now weapons designer, saves New York City from nuclear destruction using his Return-To-Sender defensive shield developed by his private company. In the early pages, Jordan's wife, daughter and son face nuclear annihilation, but Jordan saves the day. However, Jordan is not hailed as a hero but rather he is called in front of a Senate Committee for hostile questioning and maligned by the liberal media. LaHaye's favorite threats are still present: globalization, one world currency and the dangerous nature of peace. But, Jordan, a skeptic married to beautiful church-going wife, is not concerned with the end of the world but rther the end of the American nation. The patriotic hero fears that the government will steal his top-secret weapon and leave America unprotected from enemies that pretend to be allies. The edge of the apocalypse, then, is not for the global world but the particular American population, who cannot trust their government to protect them. The cynical Jordan, however, is one step ahead of the reader, and he organizes a small group of powerful capitalists, including one woman, called the Roundtable. The small cabal hopes to illuminate the government's diabolical plans and protect the nation at all costs.

What proved most striking to me was the intimate relationship between the American nation and the end of the larger world. LaHaye and Parshall's America was the redeemer nation, the model, and when America failed, so too would the rest of the globe. LaHaye and Parshall uplift a small band of Christian patriots to take back the nation if the government no longer protects its citizens. The book ends with Jordan contemplating how to work against our national government and deciding his group could lead the way to revolution. Perhaps, the reader is supposed to think, people like Jordan could save our nation from itself. This vision of the nation and the world bears some similarity to Left Behind but the larger tale appears more ambivalent about the end of a nation and its people.

Yet, the call for small groups to defend the nation and antagonize government proved a little too similar to the white supremacists that I study as well. They can't trust government either, the end is near and they guarantee that they are ready for it. The Edge of the Apocalypse conveys a similar meaning. At least with Left Behind, the violence did not erupt until after the Rapture. With Edge, the end of the book, and the possible end of the nation, no longer has the guarantee, and its end feels nearer and closer. The Edge haunts my dreams and waking hours, and maybe my obsession with LaHaye is to place that book in perspective. Or maybe, it is my attempt to see how America's fate became intertwined with the apocalypse more largely.

“God Shaped Hole”



2 comments
by Matt Sutton

While thumping Team Harvey in Fantasy Football last week, I began thinking about the relationships among celebrity, sports, fitness, and faith. My curiosity peaked when I came across reports of three very different athletes.

First, one of the blog’s favorite sports stars, Broncos bench-warming-quarterback Tim Tebow, is now more famous than ever, boasting record-breaking NFL jersey sales. He has recently joined social media. He has a new twitter account, a new Facebook page (which I cannot access because I don’t believe in Facebook) and a website. The website is fascinating, with its repetition of GB2, which stands for “God Bless and Go Broncos!” The website represents the perfect storm of God, celebrity, and the marketing of Nike and Jockey products. Amen.

Next was the story of Ron Artest. He is the NBA player who a few years ago climbed into the stands in the middle of a game in Detroit, started a brawl, and punched out a fan. Now he is a world champion with the Los Angeles Lakers (GB the Lakers!). When he was interviewed at the end of last year’s divinely ordained championship victory over the Celtics, he famously thanked his psychiatrist (who is actually a psychologist, but, as Artest explained, “psychiatrist” was easier to say in the moment).

He too has been making news. As the LA Times recently explained, “The Lakers star lends his fame to a push for funding for mental health programs in schools, using his own story to tell middle schoolers in Montebello it's all right to ask for and receive help.” Appearing before school children, “Artest talked about being in therapy from the time his parents separated when he was 13 years old. He talked about being counseled for anger issues, marriage issues, parenting issues. ‘I'm like, how can a kid in East L.A … get the same help that I got without paying so much?’ he said. Artest acknowledged the stress of being a father at age 16. He talked about growing up in a family with a history of mental illness. He urged the youngsters to seek out school counselors.”

While Artest, unlike Tebow, is never and will never be touted as a role model, I wonder who is doing more for kids? The guy making Focus on the Family commercials for the Superbowl or the screw-up who talks to kids honestly about being a screw-up?

Then a few days later I learned about B. K. S. Iyengar, a one-man yoga phenomenon who has become a hero to one of my history department colleagues. Yesterday I invoked the evangelical rhetoric of my youth in an effort to throw this colleague off of his racquetball game by asking him if he was using Iyengar to fill his “God shaped hole.” The phrase “God shaped hole” was popularized in the 1990s by the Christian band Plumb. However, my colleague did not know the phrase. He interpreted it as the product of too much abstinence-only education. From there the conversation degenerated into a parsing of the theological and Freudian meanings of having a God-shaped hole. Unfortunately he still kicked my hole on the court.

I am not sure what all of this says about our culture and the different idols we have. But this I do know: God loves the Lakers, hates the current Broncos regime, and is probably pretty impressed by Iyengar. Me too.

Suffer the Little Children



5 comments
Chris Cantwell

This guest post comes to us from Chris Cantwell, a graduate student studying 19th- and 20th -century religious history with Derek Chang and Nick Salvatore at Cornell University. He was also just named the Assistant Director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. His work focuses on the relationship between people’s devotional practices and political engagements. His dissertation, “The Bible Class Teacher: Piety and Politics in the Age of Fundamentalism” examines the history of the Adult Bible Class Movement through a microhistory of an unknown, relatively unimportant, but amazingly well-documented Bible class teacher and his Bible class on Chicago’s West Side. Here he looks into the fascinating world of the American child preacher and asks some provocative questions about the practice and meaning of this phenomenon.

You see them and you initially laugh. The grainy footage and shaky camera work suggest what you’re watching may very well be an entry for America’s Funniest Home Videos, so of course it’s not serious. But then the clip plays on. And on. You’re now laughing with a little less fervor as bewilderment slowly pushes humor to the side. You even have a serious look on your face. As the clip passes the two or three minute mark, you suddenly realize that while the YouTube user who posted the clip may have meant it as a joke, the individuals who originally produced the video did not. This is for real. You’re no longer laughing, but focusing; watching the diminutive figure pace and pound and shout with rage far beyond his—and it usually is his—age. But the kicker is not even the video’s main character. It’s his audience. By the time you’ve come to the conclusion that this six-year-old child is, indeed, preaching, you’re confronted with the cheering, clapping, supportive adults who surround the child and encourage not only his message but also his wild performance. It’s like a grade school play, but with fire and brimstone. And no one’s acting.

Child preachers are often the wacky sideshows of American religious history, confined to the fringes of American religious life. They purportedly stand outside the devotional lives of most “ordinary” believers. Indeed, the history of childhood has been around for some time now and has shown that the Sunday school movement, the Y’s, the Boy Scouts and, of course, Horace Bushnell did not exactly clamor to have children practice homiletics. Rather, as the brunt of the scholarship suggests, the motives behind the founding of these organizations were to shelter children from the vices and traumas of the adult world of work, prolong their innocence, and thereby delay their maturation. “This is exactly what the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor seeks to do for everyone of its members,” wrote the Reverend Francis Clark in 1902, the founder of that ubiquitous organization of American Protestant childhoods. “It sets them about doing things and thus tides them over the critical period of adolescence, the years of storm and stress and doubt.”

Absent from this narrative of American Protestant youth, however, are not just child preachers but children generally. Children as agents with their own ambitions, anxieties and religious imaginations are often as scarce in the history of American religion as child preachers are in American history. Of course, this lacuna is largely the result of a dearth of sources. Children often did not scribble down, much less understand, their own religious worldviews. Even if they did, such artifacts typically ended up on the family refrigerator and never made it to the archives. But sometimes kids do leave traces. In a 2007 Church History article (favorably mentioned on this blog), E. Brooks Holifield found in a number of antebellum children’s diaries that kids paid surprisingly close attention to their ministers, reflected on their teachings and, in some instances, emulated ministers. In my own research on a number of Sunday school workers at the turn of the twentieth century who were lifelong church members but never rose above laymen, I’ve been impressed by how many of them had aspirations to take to the pulpit in their youth, some as young as six. According to their recollections in later years—admittedly a less reliable source—most willingly and eagerly mounted the stage in the late nineteenth century to give sermon-like addresses before Baptist, Presbyterians, and Methodist congregations. But what has really surprised me in charting the childhoods of these women and men is just how many opportunities local churches provided for children to preach. Sabbath school anniversaries, holiday celebrations, decision days, rallies, monthly Sunday school concerts, quarterly temperance lessons, and especially Children’s Days all demanded spiritual performances from children in ways that mimicked adult worships practices. As much as we’ve interpreted Protestant ideologies of childhood to inflate the innocence of children to Precious Moments-like proportions, there was also a strand of local church culture and evangelical parenting practices that expected, or at least promoted, a kind of spiritual precocity in children.

I’m curious if the religious lives of children have similarly haunted the research of other readers. In a recent query on H-AmRel from BlogMeister Randall Stephens on the denominational acceptance of child preachers, listserv members offered a lengthy list of diverse figures from Bob Jones to C. L. Franklin who both literally and figuratively cut their teeth behind the pulpit. The lived religion of childhood certainly wasn’t something I was expecting to focus on when I began my dissertation, but it has become a central component to many of the arguments I try to formulate. Perhaps by better situating children and their interpretive imaginations in our studies we can deepen our understanding of generational change and stability in America’s religious communities. Taking children and their spiritual aspirations seriously may also help contextualize child preachers and the bemused contempt they perhaps unjustly receive. For when longtime Sunday school worker Asa Bullard worried as early as 1876 that the plethora of church events that forced kids to speak or recite Bible verses threatened to “make an exhibition of the children,” one has to wonder just how much the difference between child preachers and other Protestant children was one of degree rather than kind. Just ask any Protestant who, as a youngster, earnestly, but ultimately unwillingly, performed in church musicals throughout much of their childhood. That, however, would require a very different kind of blog post.

Fatal Attraction: The FBI, the Catholic Church, and Robert Hanssen



1 comments
Paul Harvey

Remember Robert Hanssen? The former FBI agent/Soviet spy and strictly devout Catholic member of Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic lay order? Hanssen's career as a mole and spy, and his tracking and arrest, were captured in the 2007 film Breach. Since then, Hanssen has become my neighbor, taking up residence in "Supermax," the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado, just about 1.25 hours away from me.

The arrest of someone responsible for what some called the "worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history" (I might nominate pretty much all "intelligence" about Vietnam in the 1960s, about civil rights leaders from WW II to the 1970s, and Iraq ca. 2001-2003 for that prize, but we're not here to argue the point) led to considerable speculation about how and why a super-patriot Opus Dei member would have spent decades selling out, rather cheaply, to Soviet agents, and it also led to a lot of articles about the attraction that agencies such as the FBI had to younger conservative Catholic men of a certain generation. The new book below, reviewed in Choice, appears to be a fuller-length exploration of some of those questions; some of you may be interested.

Rosswurm, Steve
. The FBI and the Catholic Church, 1935-1962. Massachusetts, 2009. 330p index afp; ISBN 9781558497290, $39.95. Reviewed in 2010oct CHOICE.

In a series of mini-biographical sketches, Rosswurm (Lake Forest College) focuses on the interconnectedness of men who expressed and exercised shared values of patriarchy and authority, hierarchical discipline, and the recognition of real threats to the respective organic bodies of the FBI and the Catholic Church. These men-in-charge established a special relationship that one could argue was symbiotic in its uniqueness, beginning not with the FBI in general, but with the "catholic Protestant"--J. Edgar Hoover. From Hoover's apex were born like-minded individuals who recruited, nurtured, and fed information to those "protestant Catholics," an excellent use of both "catholic" and "protestant" requiring readers to think beyond the mere religiosity of their connections. Their all-encompassing battle against communism necessitated that both organizations "put aside that which set [them] apart" "to intervene directly in the workings of citizens' group[s]" deemed harmful to the very core of Americanism. Subsequent chapters highlight specific individuals serving as point men in the battle of moral absolutes. The story, however, leaves the reader wanting. Do the catholic beliefs employing protestant means end with the demise of communism, or has their alliance moved on to other battlefields? Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.
-- G. Donato, Bentley University

The Fellowship of Christian Statesmen: From New Contributor Blake Renfro!



1 comments
Today's post comes from another new contributor (a banner week for us along those lines): Blake Renfro, a graduate student working with Gaines Foster at Louisiana State University. Welcome, Blake!

The Fellowship of Christian Statesmen

A short distance from our nation’s capital there is a modest old row house. A cohort of senators and congressmen live in the house while working in the city. They write their modest rent checks to a decidedly inconspicuous entity known as the “C Street Center.” A recent article in The New Yorker by Peter Boyer, entitled “Frat House for Jesus: The entity behind C Street,” examines the powerful evangelical group that owns the house. (Click here for an older Washington Post article on the same house).

“There’s this whole Washington phenomenon, related to access to power and the aphrodisiac of power,” says one of Boyer’s sources. This observation seems fair. Political culture is defined by ambition and status, but its concomitant religious culture proves more elusive. Ostensibly, individuals like Billy Graham and his successor Rick Warren address the nation’s moral conscious, while acting as personal counsel to the Washington political elite. Boyer’s article reveals a religious entity that seemingly defies this assumption. The C Street row house is one such facet of Washington’s religious culture that both caters to power and eschews it at the same time. The house is an ideal part-time residence for legislators, but it is also an “accountability group,” of politicians who “have pledged to hold one another to a life lived by the principles of Jesus.” The ministry that owns the house is partly funded by an organization known as “The Fellowship.”

The Fellowship was created in the 1950s. According to Boyer, it has become one of the most important evangelical organizations in Washington. Those of us familiar with religion in American life, know that religious groups of every type have lobbyists and activists on Capitol Hill. Born during the height of postwar ecumenism, The Fellowship sponsored the National Prayer Breakfast under the Eisenhower Administration, and it continues to this day. Of course, the main question is: Why haven’t we heard more about this organization? The answer is fairly simple. Doug Coe, the organization’s director for forty years, makes a concerted effort to keep the ministry out of the press. With a fairly modest budget of fifteen-million dollars, Coe and his small staff contribute to a variety of causes in Washington and throughout the world. Yet, the majority of their work “is interpersonal ministry to the powerful.” The Fellowship has established numerous small prayer groups throughout the city, which bring together politicians and bureaucratic officials. Unlike the preaching of more public evangelicals, Coe’s brand of Christianity is less concerned with salvation. The Fellowship focuses on shaping the morality of power and influence. Washington’s political culture might seem immoral, but Doug Coe believes he can persuade the powerful to live a life of humility and good character. He has won accolades from Ronald Reagan, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, and many others.

Critics charge that The Fellowship is a secretive organization which hinders democratic ideals. In a recent interview on Fresh Air, the writer Jeff Sharlet suggests the organization has supported Ugandan legislation which would make homosexuality punishable by death. Sharlet ignores the rather broad reach of Doug Coe’s ministry, arguing that The Fellowship is merely a fringe movement that “recasts theology in the language of empire.” There might be some truth to this observation. But, The Fellowship has earned the respect of nearly every powerful politician in Washington. This phenomenon encourages us to reconsider the intersection of political and religious culture. Sometimes powerful leaders find solace from unlikely companions.

The C Street row house, despite its flaws, illustrates how democratically elected leaders seek resolution in their political differences. Boyer movingly recounts how, in the spring of 2000, Congressman Bart Stupak’s son committed suicide after a high-school graduation party. Laying their differences aside, his housemates from C Street comforted their friend. Tom Coburn, who accompanied Stupak to view his son’s body, concluded that, “There was no decision to be made. I mean, we had to get to Bart and just be there to support him. We had a contingent of ninety members of Congress come to the funeral. And what they got to see was something they hadn’t seen in a long time: Here’s three Republicans and two Democrats lovin’ a brother through a problem.”

Moorish Body Builder and Blood Purifier: From New Contributor Emily Clark!



0 comments
Welcome to our new contributor Emily Clark! Emily is no stranger here, having tried her hand at a little blogging about the 5th anniversary of Katrina. Emily Clark is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Religion at Florida State University and the current managing editor for the Journal of Southern Religion. Her interests lie in the intersections of race, religion, and everyday life in the American South, particularly in the lives of women in New Orleans.

“Contains No Harmful Drugs”
by Emily Clark

Amassing pieces of material culture from American religion is a hobby of mine. My older sister collects thimbles from various times and places, while I prefer to build a more quirky and eclectic collection. I own a pack of “After the Rapture” mints aimed “for those of us not going anywhere,” and I gaze upon my officemate’s “Buddy Christ” from the movie Dogma with jealousy. While writing a paper last spring semester on the Moorish Science Temple’s Moorish Manufacturing Corporation, my curiosity about the curative and therapeutic products increasingly grew. Though Noble Drew Ali founded the MMC in 1927 and the products largely disappeared after his death, I found a temple in Brooklyn that still sold his teas and tonics. About two weeks ago, my purchase arrived.

Having ordered the Moorish Body-Builder and Blood Purifier with no online description, I was eager to see what exactly I had bought. Containing “No Harmful Drugs,” the label informs the consumer that Noble Drew Ali developed this particular tea to alleviate “rheumatism, lung trouble, run down constitution, indigestion, and loss of manhood.” For the consumption of men, women, and children, the tea is made with “the purest natural herbs.” Inside the box, the loose tea was packaged in a zip-lock sandwich bag. Curious enough, considering their proscription of alcohol, the suggested dose is “one wine glass full, twice daily.” In the maintenance of their bodily purity and good health, MST followers were willing to appropriate non-Moorish tools, from glassware to advertising forums. Advertisements for MMC Products could be found in late 1920s editions of the MST’s newspaper Moorish Guide and in the secular newspaper the Chicago Defender, next to notices for local fortune-tellers, “Mystic Arabian Oil,” and “Oriental Magic Loadstones.”

Though largely overlooked in the historiography on the MST, the products of the MMC offer another method of exploring the Temple’s early days and the everyday life of its adherents. In Edward Curtis’ chapter on the MST in his recent co-edited volume The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religion, he briefly calls attention to the similarities between southern African American traditions of Conjure and the material culture products of the MMC. This proposal is historically plausible and compelling; though, Curtis does not take this idea further. In terms of form, function, and context, a familial resemblance exists between the practices of root-work and Noble Drew Ali’s products. By means of religious knowledge, both attempt to heal black bodies through engagement of both the physical body and spiritual identity. Noble Drew Ali’s vision for “a clean and pure nation” had a material and corporeal grounding in the men, women, and children composing the Moorish race. In the MST’s material culture and theology, the body, spirit, and race impact and influence one other.

The Roots of Contemporary American Political and Religious Conflict



2 comments
Randall Stephens

[Cross-posted from the THS blog]

Last year I used Rick Perlstein’s lively, entertaining, and insightful Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America for a course I teach on America in the 1960s. The students loved it. Perlstein’s dramatic narrative pulled us in.

At the outset Perlstein observes that by 1972 a sharp division existed between "'people who identified with what Richard Nixon stood for' and 'people who despised what Richard Nixon stood for' . . . Richard Nixon, now, is long dead. But these sides have hardly changed. We now call them 'red' or 'blue' America, and whether one or the other wins the temporary allegiances of 50 percent plus one of the electorate--or 40 percent of the electorate, or 60 percent of the electorate--has been the narrative of every election since." The book is compelling on a number of levels. Yet it lacks an appreciation for ways that America had been deeply divided in other eras.

Is the culture war that feeds our current political debates all that new? Hasn't America been split between warring factions for eons? Enter Barry Hankins. His new book Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties, and Today's Culture Wars, spans over that rowdy decade and offers insight into ongoing political and religious conflicts.

The era from the 1930s to the 1980s, an era of relative religious stability, Hankins suggests, may have been the aberration. The pitched battles over immigration, alcohol, Darwinian evolution, obscenity laws, and public morality that riled Americans in the 20s "were a prologue to our own age," says Hankins. Like our era that period was "a time when religion was culturally central, participating fully in politics, media, stardom, social life, and scandal." Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, Daddy Grace, and Father Divine elbowed Charlie Chaplin, Al Joslon, and Clara Bow for newspaper headline space. (BTW, Matt Sutton gives it a great blurb.)

Hankins leads off with Warren Harding’s moral failings, "more repulsive than evil" in the words of a biographer. "There is a sense in which Harding’s story is the story of America during the Roaring Twenties," he remarks. The baptist president's religious life was thin, to put it mildly. His administration’s contempt for law, its moral degeneration, and the scandal that swirled around it defined the nation as well. Hankins similar treatment of moral crusades, scandalous religious leaders, and heated contests between liberals and conservatives has a contemporary ring to it.

History written through the eyes of the present, I’ve noticed, draws students in to the debates. Hankins does this well throughout Jesus and Gin. Hence, he notes that Edward J. Larson’s account of the Scopes Trial, "Summer for the Gods could not have been written between 1930 and 1980 for in that period the Scopes legend was taken for granted." In many ways the book is a comparative history that moves with ease between the Christian Right of the Reagan years and the late-Victorian moralizers of the 20s. (Though Hankins does note that there is no simple liberal-conservative split in the age of flappers and speakeasies.)

Hankins fittingly ends his with a rumination on "How the Roaring Twenties Set the Stage for the Culture Wars of Our Own Time." The major struggles of our era have roots that go back decades.

Like Perlstein’s sweeping history, Hankin’s book draws attention to the deeper political and religious clashes that shape current debates. Both are great reads and both would work well in the classroom.

Thanks to these our brethren: George Washington on Religious Civility in Wartime



2 comments

by Chris Beneke

General David Petraeus’ warning this week about the dangers posed to U.S. troops by Koran burning in the states brings to mind a notable incident in American religious history. Amid the siege of British-occupied Boston in 1775, the recently appointed commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington issued an order that must have resulted in some grumbling in the ranks. For decades, English and American Protestants had burned effigies of the Pope to celebrate the thwarting of (the Catholic) Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605. Bostonians marked the anniversary in a particularly lively way that featured fireworks, two flammable "Popes," and one grand fistfight. But in November 1775, with Catholic support for the American war effort desperately needed, an irritated Washington ordered his soldiers to forgo their beloved Pope's Day festivities. The words that he included in his orders may be worth recalling:

As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope – He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.
The campaign in Canada didn't end well. But Washington's sentiment--that we have good friends, of different faiths, aiding us against a common enemy--might still be of some value.

Down LDS Lane



1 comments
by John Turner

One of the joys of developing an interest in Mormon History is that there always seems to be a historic site to visit. AHA in San Diego? The Mormon Battalion. In New England? Joseph Smith's birthplace. And obviously lots to do in western New York, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Utah. For the details, see this list.


With a family, this surfeit can potentially be tricky to navigate, despite the family-friendly nature of the church. I've yet to persuade my wife that driving the length of the Mormon Trail would be a good use of our time and money -- perhaps we can just make a beeline to the Handcart Visitors' Center next summer.



My two-year-old daughter has had a mixed reaction to Mormon Historical Sites. Loved the stairwells at Salt Lake City's Beehive House. Screamed when subjected to a discourse on the history of the church at the Brigham Young summer home. Enjoyed collecting rocks at the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre (note: a site currently maintained by the church but not a "Mormon Historic Site") (second note: said daughter did not remove any rocks from the monument itself).

I'd long wanted to visit the massacre site, given the attention the massacre has received from historians over the past decade. It was strange to see the bucolic landscape surrounding the site, and it was hard to perceive the macabre given the pleasure of leaving boiling-hot St. George for a cooler and greener spot.


At the end of the summer, we drove from Rochester, NY to visit some friends in Vermont. (No time for Mormon tourism in Palmyra this year, but the Joseph Smith Family Farm and Sacred Grove were good stops last year). Somewhere near the NY-Vermont border on Rt. 4, we sped by the William Miller Chapel. In terms of signage and web presence, the Adventist Heritage Ministry lags way behind Mormon Historical Sites. I didn't think I could divert us for Miller this year. Perhaps next time. (I'd like to get a look at Ascension Rock).


Somewhat disappointed to have missed Miller's Chapel (but disappointment of course is relative in this case), I also regretted that our route to South Royalton, Vermont did not more closely approach Brigham Young's birthplace. However, I had forgotten that Joseph Smith was born in Royalton, Vermont. Our obliging hosts not only informed us of the birthplace and volunteered to take us the next day but also pulled out Hope Nash's 1975 Royalton Vermont.


A choice description from Nash of a religious minority making itself more acceptable to the mainstream:


...the Mormons, after raising the Joseph Smith monument in 1905, built a cottage, a reception center for visitors. In the 1920s they were fitting into the local scene with a dairy herd, sugaring operations, and an apple orchard. They made friends by inviting everyone to picnics, games, dancing, and programs of music and drama (p. 80) [Continued in a footnote on that page] The Mormons made themselves pleasant. They gave parties and pleased the children. When a little girl went up there they had a big box of candy on a high shelf and they lifted her way up so she could look down into it and choose ... In 1970 Mrs. Roland McIntosh said, "Now there is only one person on Dairy Hill who doesn't like the Mormons." She did not say who it was.


I didn't have time to sample contemporary local sentiment vis-á-vis Latter-day Saints.


The JS birthplace was much better marked than the Miller Chapel. One only had to find LDS Lane. All of our children loved the birthplace, so there must be something to Nash's analysis. I did find it a bit ironic that they received miniature American flags from the missionaries.


I think at this point my wife feared that Mormon Historical Sites would haunt her wherever we went. [None in the Southeast, though, at least until Patrick Mason's forthcoming book on anti-Mormon violence in the American South gets the ball rolling].


I did actually spend some time in the archives this summer, but one of the things I appreciate about the field of Mormon History is the passion with which Mormons (as well as ex-Mormons, anti-Mormons, and the curious) engage their history. What other church in the United States would invest so much time and money to promote the study of its past? There are both theological and historical reasons for this, but for outsiders like me, it is encouraging to spend my time studying something that is critically important to so many people.

Of course, the Mormons are not the only group to have cultivated a strong sense of their history. I recently read and reviewed Laurie Maffly-Kipp's recent Setting Down the Sacred Past, in which African American Protestants rejected the belief that they were a people without a history. In the process of discovering and refashioning a collective past, they became African Americans. A short paraphrase of Maffly-Kipp's conclusion:


The knowledge of a glorious past, the example of black and white heroes of the faith, and the anticipation of a millennial future enabled black Protestants to respond to the bitter disappointments of the Civil War's aftermath with efforts to shape a more just society either in the United States or abroad. In their books and speeches, the "point of history is to rise above ourselves and this world to an unmoving vantage point."


After spending another summer studying Mormon History and reading Setting Down the Sacred Past, it struck me that my own denomination (the dwindling PC(USA)) sorely lacks this keen interest in its history. We can't travel around the country visiting historic sites, we don't really have a pantheon of Presbyterian heroes, and most of us probably don't know what the word Reformed means in a Presbyterian context. I think historical forgetfulness impoverishes mainline Protestantism. We're not sure where we came from, and we don't have any idea where we're going. I don't think most mainline Protestants would want "an unmoving vantage point," and Maffly-Kipp doesn't argue that African Americans or other religious groups should re-embrace the historical or theological thought of her subjects. But whether Mormon, mainline or evangelical, white or black, there are distinct advantage to cultivating a sense of a shared sacred past.

newer post older post