By Heath Carter
While considerably smaller than the ASCH's joint meeting with the American Historical Association, this year's spring meeting in Grand Rapids nevertheless showcased a lot of exciting work, some from senior practitioners in the guild but much of it from up-and-coming scholars. The two panels that I attended on Saturday exemplified the trend.
The first was entitled "Religion, Class, and American Elites." Peter Williams, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Religion and American Studies at Miami University (Ohio), kicked things off with a learned paper on Episcopalianism and the "gospel of art" in the Progressive Era. Then followed two presentations by recent graduates of the history department at Notre Dame. Thomas Rzeznik, now an assistant professor at Seton Hall, revisited the Scott Nearing case, arguing that the economist's infamous confrontation with the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania in 1915 was about far more than academic freedom. The trustees dispensed with Nearing, Rzeznik contended, because his radical ideas challenged the moral and religious framework that helped elite Americans - including U Penn's benefactors - justify their disproportionate wealth. Finally, Timothy Gloege looked at how Henry Parsons Crowell, head of Quaker Oats, became not only a major player within the Moody Bible Institute at the turn of the century but also a key agent in the production of the Fundamentals. Gloege is now revising a fascinating dissertation on fundamentalism's early years, in which he highlights connections to big business, casting the movement not as an anti-modern backlash but instead as the theological handmaiden of emergent consumer capitalism. Overall, the panel left me wondering - as has my own work on Chicago - whether standard histories of this period overstate the significance and reach of the social gospel. More on that in a future post.
The second panel was entitled "Race, Religion, and Civil Rights." David Komline, one of my current colleagues at Notre Dame, delivered a paper examining the work of a German Jesuit who traveled through the United States in the immediate postbellum years, encouraging Germans and African Americans alike to establish their own parishes. Komline went on to complicate white-black binaries by considering the role that concerns about ethnicity played in the emergence of segregated Catholic churches. Karen Johnson, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois (Chicago), then gave a very compelling talk on Arthur Falls and the roots of Catholic inter-racialism in Depression-era Chicago. I heard Johnson give a paper back in autumn, based on another chapter of what is shaping up to be a very impressive dissertation: her account underscores the power of the hierarchy with respect to racial questions but also highlights extensive and often countervailing activity on the ground throughout the long Civil Rights Movement.
All-in-all, then, a great meeting. The cherry on top: the 80 degree weather that made for a beautiful, windows-down ride back to Chicago on Sunday.