Southern Buddhists, 19th-Century Anti-Mormons, and American Missionaries: Buffet Selections from UNC Press



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Paul Harvey

Our friends at the University of North Carolina Press are putting out a wonderful assortment of religious history, and in the second of my "new and coming attractions" posts, I wanted to alert you to one brand new book (to be reviewed here more extensively soon) and two other September baby books which will be covered here in more detail down the road.

First, Jeff Wilson's Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South (UNC Press) is going to get much more extensive coverage and a review by our contributor MIke Altman in the near future. But for now, just a note about the new book, from the book's website, for those interested:



In Dixie Dharma, Jeff Wilson argues that region is crucial to understanding American Buddhism. Through the lens of a multidenominational Buddhist temple in Richmond, Virginia, Wilson explores how Buddhists are adapting to life in the conservative evangelical Christian culture of the South, and how traditional Southerners are adjusting to these newer members on the religious landscape.
Introducing a host of overlooked characters, including Buddhist circuit riders, modernist Pure Land priests, and pluralistic Buddhists, Wilson shows how regional specificity manifests itself through such practices as meditation vigils to heal the wounds of the slave trade. He argues that southern Buddhists at once use bodily practices, iconography, and meditation tools to enact distinct sectarian identities even as they enjoy a creative hybridity.

Second, here's a book UNC Press will publish in September that should advance scholarship on Mormonism (and anti-Mormonism) to a whole new level: J. Spencer Fluhman, A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. I've seen this book take shape over a period of several years, read some manuscript excerpts of it previously, and will be jazzed to see the final product ("jazzed" -- a little pun, get it?). Here's a brief description:

In "A Peculiar People", J. Spencer Fluhman offers a comprehensive history of anti-Mormon thought and the associated passionate debates about religious authenticity in nineteenth-century America. He argues that understanding anti-Mormonism provides critical insight into the American psyche because Mormonism became a potent symbol around which ideas about religion and the state took shape.


<SPAN STYLE= "" >"A Peculiar People"</SPAN>Fluhman documents how Mormonism was defamed, with attacks often aimed at polygamy, and shows how the new faith supplied a social enemy for a public agitated by the popular press and wracked with social and economic instability. Taking the story to the turn of the century, Fluhman demonstrates how Mormonism's own transformations, the result of both choice and outside force, sapped the strength of the worst anti-Mormon vitriol, triggering the acceptance of Utah into the Union in 1896 and also paving the way for the dramatic, yet still grudging, acceptance of Mormonism as an American religion.


Let me say also that, while the above description gets at the basic topics of the book, this sort of brief summary does not tell you something else very important about the book -- that Spencer is one of the strongest, wittiest, and most penetrating writers of religious history that I know, and that this book is going to be a delight to read (partly in spite of, and partly I guess because of, the vitriolic polemics that he covers). 


Finally, another September baby. This is a book that I knew nothing about until I was just perusing through the UNC catalog recently, the first I had heard of it: Sarah Ruble, The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture After World War Two. Part of my interest here lies in a project I started and abandoned a million years ago, about that very topic. only prior to World War Two. I read plenty of fascinating missionary correspondence, letters, and diaries in researching that long-since-forgotten project, so I'm looking forward to this more successfully completed project very much. A bit more below:

<SPAN STYLE= "" >The Gospel of Freedom and Power</SPAN>In the decades after World War II, Protestant missionaries abroad were a topic of vigorous public debate. From religious periodicals and Sunday sermons to novels and anthropological monographs, public conversations about missionaries followed a powerful yet paradoxical line of reasoning, namely that people abroad needed greater autonomy from U.S. power and that Americans could best tell others how to use their freedom. In The Gospel of Freedom and Power, Sarah Ruble traces and analyzes these public discussions about what it meant for Americans abroad to be good world citizens, placing them firmly in the context of the United States' postwar global dominance.


Bringing together a wide range of sources, Ruble seeks to understand how discussions about a relatively small group of Americans working abroad became part of a much larger cultural conversation. She concludes that whether viewed as champions of nationalist revolutions or propagators of the gospel of capitalism, missionaries--along with their supporters, interpreters, and critics--ultimately both challenged and reinforced a rhetoric of exceptionalism that made Americans the judges of what was good for the rest of the world.


And let's see, oh yeah, there's some book called The Color of Christ coming out in September as well, also from UNC Press, right alongside Spencer's and Sarah's. You can friend that book already. A trifecta of fall books! Congratulations to Jeff, Spencer, and Sarah for these new titles, and to UNC Press for giving us such a diverse assortment of entrees to choose from. 


1 comments:

Christopher at: May 14, 2012 at 3:17 PM said...

All three of these look like great reads, and I look forward to Mike's further thoughts on Dixie Dharma. I am especially excited about Spencer's book. I took several classes from him while he was completing the dissertation this book is based on, and his research was actually the subject of my very first blog post at Juvenile Instructor (nearly 5 years ago): http://juvenileinstructor.wordpress.com/2007/10/28/madness-civilization-and-mormonism-or-are-mormons-monomaniacs/

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