Sex Talks

by Elesha Coffman

As noted in Carol Faulkner’s post on American History Now, John McGreevy named “religion and sexuality” as a neglected research topic. I don’t have a broad enough knowledge of scholarly trends to affirm or question this judgment, but sexuality certainly hasn’t been a neglected topic at Princeton University this week. By coincidence, two scholars visited campus to discuss new work on religion and sexuality, and while the presentations were quite different, they both reflected a combination of concerns that have become pervasive in the field—the linguistic turn and attention to religious practice.

On Monday Christy Gardner, associate professor of communication at Wheaton College, gave a public lecture (sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion) on her new book Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns. Her central argument was that evangelicals gained traction for their abstinence message, which is preached at flashy events sponsored by parachurch organizations including True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, and Pure Freedom, by shifting from negative to positive rhetoric. Out: The “just say no” approach, accompanied by nit-picky lists of what the abstinent may not do. In: A creative appropriation of feminist ideas, promoting chastity as an empowering choice for young men and women, a way to reclaim control over their bodies in defiance of an MTV culture that insists teens are helpless slaves to hormones. Alongside this analysis of why abstinence rhetoric works (though the programs don’t always work, delaying sexual debut for some teens some of the time), Gardner provided comparisons with evangelical abstinence programs in Africa. In that context there is less emphasis on personal empowerment, largely because Africans do not experience their lives as a succession of free choices.

On Thursday Bruce Dorsey, chair of the history department at Swarthmore College, visited the religion department’s weekly American Religion workshop to share insights from his works in progress on two sex scandals in the 1830s, both involving evangelical clergymen. In 1833, in what was at that point the longest trial in American history, an itinerant Methodist minister named Ephraim K. Avery stood accused of impregnating and then murdering mill worker and fellow Methodist Maria Cornell. He was eventually acquitted, but this verdict, like so many others in high-profile cases, stirred rather than settled debate. In 1835 a Christian Connection revivalist named Eleazer Sherman was tried in an ecclesial court for making sexual advances to young men. Sherman was unapologetic, casting his actions as examples of Christian brotherhood, but the other ministers involved hastened to discredit his ministry and distance themselves from him as much as possible. Dorsey interpreted these scandals as evidence of shifting cultures of work, gossip, gender, and sexuality in the new republic. At a time of so much mobility, with so much in flux, scandals marked the collision of different sets of expectations. The fallout from those collisions radiated in all directions as people newly connected by print and popular culture attempted to make sense of what happened.

Though both presentations attended to religious leaders—albeit entrepreneurial ones whose success owed little to credentials or formal, institutional support—Gardner and Dorsey followed the “lived religion” track in focusing on ways religious ideas play out in the everyday. What’s it like to sit in a strobe-lighted room full of teenagers yelling, “Sex is great”? How does this make sense to them? Or, what sorts of behaviors occurred when nineteenth-century revival preachers shared close quarters on the road? If different men perceived the same behaviors very differently, as in the Sherman case, why?

The more striking commonality between the presentations, to me, was their concentration on rhetoric and narrative. (Granted, Gardner is a rhetorician, not a historian, but I didn’t find her presentation that different from something I might hear at AAR or ASCH, so for the purposes of this discussion I’ll count her as one of us. I hope she doesn’t mind.) In response to expected questions from the audience, Gardner was able to give statistics on the abstinence programs, but her real interest was how people talked about sexuality—at rallies, in testimonies, in small groups, in Africa. Similarly, while Dorsey has spent enough time with the literature of the Avery case to form definite conclusions regarding who did what to whom, he was more interested in storytelling, especially the blurry line between Christian confession and gossip. When was a tale of sexual misbehavior evidence of contrition to nineteenth-century evangelicals, and when was it grounds for ostracism, even prosecution? Misreading that distinction could be extremely dangerous.

Perhaps now that attention to practice (including, often, deviant practice) and language has become widespread in the field, a surge of scholarship on religion and sexuality is on its way. I might get to test that hypothesis next week, when the CSR, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Center of Theological Inquiry sponsor a conference on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Goodness knows there’s plenty of racy stuff in there.


rjc said…
Both Amy DeRogatis and Marie Griffith have been working on sexuality in American religious history. So has Kristy Slominski. I'm sure there are many more. I think sometime in the near future we'll see a bunch of publications on this topic.
Edward J. Blum said…
Fay Botham's book on interracial marriage should fit in this ... and of course Jane Dailey's article on sex, segregation, and the sacred. Then, of course, issues of marriage and sex come up in my book on Reconstruction (whether discussing Yankee schoolmarms having romantic interactions with black men or supporting interracial marriage) or discussions of the (unrighteousness of lynching). And then there's Tanya Erzen's fantastic book _Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement. And an essay for The Columbia Guide to American Religious History is on gender, sexuality, and religion. I think you and McGreevy are right on ... this is a growing approach/interest.
Edward J. Blum said…
oh ... and from earlier generations, there's Aaron Spencer Fogleman's _Jesus is Female_ that deals with Moravian sexualization of Christ's body and Richard Godbeer's work on early New England, sex, and puritanism - _Sexual Revolution in Early America_.
Edward J. Blum said…
And sorry to flood the comment box, but I'm waiting for 'date night' to officially begin and had a few more thoughts: there's the classic of antebellum America - The Kingdom of Matthias - on sex and salvation in the burned over district. And, for new probably-will-become-classics, there is Amanda Porterfield's forthcoming monograph on the early Republic. I don't want to give anything away, but let's just say that we'll probably have to think differently about Nathan Hatch's democratization thesis after reading Porterfield and the importance of sex and religion in the era.
I promise on my promise ring that I won't comment again. Great post!!!
tm said…
Rebecca Davis' book on premarriage counseling (among many other things) - More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss - also ventures into that territory.
Anonymous said…
also be on the lookout for lynne gerber's forthcoming Seeking the Straight and Narrow, to be released in Nov, and Heather White's sure-to-be-amazing book on religion and the gay rights movement! -Anthony Petro