Hannah Adams' Intellectual Grandchildren; Or, Maybe It Was All Liberal Protestantism, After All?

By Michael J. Altman

Robert: I feel that an earlier generation of scholars of religion was willing to consider these questions. The answers may not always have been satisfying–but I think of William James here, or even the early theorists of crowd behavior. There were scholars interested in talking about how we think about these sorts of human events, but I don’t see it anymore.

Richard: James is the perfect example of it–

Robert: But in the end he’s too individualistic for me!

Richard: Very Protestant, maybe?

Robert: Yes. [Laughs]

Maybe it's just me, but it feels like it's a strange time in the field of religious studies. I've been hiding in my dissertation cave for the past few months so maybe that's part of it. Yet, every time I poke my head out I keep noticing things. Little things. Reports of unease in the rooms of that conference in Indianapolis here, a dialogue about "presence" and "abundant events" that seems to run out of vocabulary before it can get off the ground there. To me, these moments signal the slow death of liberal Protestant religious studies and the grasping about for whatever will come next.

Paul already mentioned James Turner's Religion Enters the Academy but I want to come at the book from a different angle.  Paul is right, William James is the hero of the book in the final chapter. But the first two chapters narrate the rise of the comparative and academic study of religion in America among liberal (mostly Unitarian) Protestants. In the first chapter, Turner brings Hannah Adams and Joseph Priestly to the fore as the early comparativists before 1820. Chapter two follows the growth of Unitarian and Transcendentalist interest in world religion from 1820 to 1875. This includes Thomas Wentworth Higginson's The Sympathy of Religions (1871), Lydia Marie Child's Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages (1855), and James Freeman Clarke's  Ten Great Religions (1871). Meanwhile, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton offered comparative religion as part of their ministerial training in the latter quarter of the century. The University of Chicago opened its doors in 1892 and quickly added a department of comparative religion. Then, a year later and in the same town, the World Parliament of Religions attempted to unite "all religion against all irreligion" with the help of many liberal Protestants. The long and the short of it--the history of religious studies is the history of liberal Protestantism.

It's not that early scholars of comparative religion happened to be liberal Protestants. Rather, Turner shows that comparative religion, and later religious studies, was a particularly liberal Protestant project. As he puts it, "Comparative religion during its first academic decades in the United States was thus a historically minded, text-based study, oriented toward articulated religious or ethical propositions. And the discipline's driving motive, stated or unstated, was t understand how non-European religions stacked up against Christianity" (65-66). It was a project by Protestants, for Protestants, using Protestant categories.

Enter our hero, William James. James shifted the categories in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Gone were texts. Gone were institutions. Gone were beliefs, creeds, and doctrines. James went after experience. James also threw out the hierarchy of "world religions" and placed religious experience on a level playing field, drawing on contemporary accounts of religious experience. James got rid of the Protestant categories, and took little interest in comparing Christianity to other religions. Turner ends the book noting that, in the end, William James won. Maybe. James is still taught in "Theory of Religion" courses. I even read Varieties in a graduate seminar a few years back. We don't read James Freeman Clark anymore.

But Robert Orsi's laugh takes all the wind out of Jamesian sails. Even William James is too Protestant--too individual. Religion for James was "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine." I imagine Cotton Mather in his private solitude meditating on the grace of God not a procession in Italian Harlem.

As I read work on Asian religions, mostly Hinduism, the argument against the term religion--and by extension religious studies--seems rather easy. It's a Western term that doesn't fit well with the realities of Indian culture. Fine. We can have the debate if you want. But what if it isn't an East / West problem? What if the unease of religious historians not knowing their Bible or not wanting to admit to it, the back and forth of Bushman and Orsi trying to find a way to account for "abundant events," and the liberal Protestant history of religious studies are all linked? What if religious studies doesn't fit well with the realities of American culture? Maybe the unease in Indy and the search for adequate language to describe religious experience are really the unease of our liberal Protestant history and the search for a way out of it.

The field has been trying to shed its history for a long time now. As a religious studies major in college I took the "Theory of Religion" course. We read Durkheim, Freud,Weber and other European thinkers important to the field. Other than James we didn't read any Americans until we go to the late twentieth century--Eliade, J.Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon. We ignored the American history of the field and its liberal Protestant baggage--poor James Freeman Clark.

William James won. But is that enough?


Tom Van Dyke said…
"To understand them as they understood themselves," as one fellow put it. As this is all inside baseball for academic types, I must admit I don't understand why it must go deeper than that.

The Orsi quote that jumps out at me, per my own observations and studies of y'all, the gentle readership of this blog and those of your ilk [perhaps I should write a book!] is this:

"I’ve said someplace that the halls of religious studies departments are filled with ex-ministers and ex-priests and so forth, all of whom have very powerful and very deep and perhaps legitimate concerns about religion and long and complicated histories with religious traditions. I agree that such personal background does play a role in the scholarship, and I think it’s critically important for people to be very clear about what anxieties and commitments they bring before they set out to do this work."

Such anxieties jump out at me among many or most professional religious historians, and appear to have come to the fore in the recent conference. How to write about these sects and alleged religious experiences [and politically/culturally unacceptable sensibilities!] without appearing to endorse them as true or authentic or valid?

Did Bernadette Soubirous see the Blessed Mother or did she "see" her? The problem of phraseology is clear, "alleged" visions.

But it seems a proper agnosticism---that we cannot know---is proper. The good journalist simply delineates assertion from fact: Joseph Smith said he received the plates from the Angel Moroni; 8 witnesses affirmed they saw them.

The journalist would not write that Smith received the plates from an angel, not that 8 witnesses saw them.

Now, there is certainly the chance of mass delusion or individual delusion in any and all claims of religious experience. Is the historian obliged to point out that possibility as boilerplate in each and every work of religious history?

Perhaps a disclaimer on the overleaf? A sticker on the cover?

What I want from such works is simply to understand these people and movements as they understood themselves. If we were writing of Jim Bakker, we would be obliged to write of his scandals. But can we say he was insincere, that his ministry was pure and cynical opportunism? Or, perhaps more to the concern of religious history's study of groups and movements, that his followers, regardless of his own personal failings, didn't have religious experiences they regarded as authentic?

I do understand that the religious historian feels obliged to point out alleged discrepancies in the stories of Joseph Smith or Bernadette of Lourdes. But these seem to me on the order of mention or footnote, if the author feels the need. The Mormon reader probably discounts Bernadette's story, the Roman Catholic discounts Smith's, and the secularist or ex-priest or ex-fundie and/or standard academic reader of these works of religious history discounts them all, or at best swallows them with a shakerful of salt.

In other words, the disclaimers on theological truth are stipulated by the reader by accepting the risk of opening the book. When the author feels obliged to make disclaimers anyway, he/she just gets in the way of the narrative.

As for Joseph Smith and magic on p.50, well, that's in the narrative and must be told. However, the compatibility of such magic with Joseph Smith's theology should be featured, if we are to understand him as he understood himself; to understand him as Mormonism understands him.