River Religion



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Emily Suzanne Clark

A theme of water connects Chip Callahan’s wonderful post yesterday to this one. Today, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Michael Pasquier’s recently edited Gods of the Mississippi.

In 1999, Indiana University Press published Gods of the City, a volume edited by Robert Orsi that explored how urban space and the experience of living in it form urban religiosities. The similarly named Gods of the Mississippi examines how religion moved and adapted along the Mississippi River and its banks from expeditions to its source to living in its delta. Neither the river nor the religions on it were ever stationary; rather, the religious worlds of those near the Mississippi were often in flux. The Mississippi’s waters mattered to the religions of the region in manners topographical and imagined, actual and perceived, new and old, physical and symbolic, but never static. As a river is a constantly changing space of flux, so to the religions of it. Pasquier notes in the Introduction, “religious beliefs and practices were made and unmade and remade in these watery worlds known for their high levels of spatial and temporal fluidity.”

What follows the Introduction are nine excellent essays and an epilogue by Thomas Tweed. Tweed makes sense as the book’s final voice. His 2006 Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion and his introduction from 1997’s Retelling U.S. Religious History, with its emphasis on sightings, can be sensed throughout the Gods of the Mississippi’s pages in terms of theorizing and taking seriously how location shapes narrative. Many of the book’s contributors are no strangers to this blog’s readers; Art Remillard takes us along with adventurers searching for the river’s source, Sylvester Johnson illustrates how missionaries worked as the “‘civilizing’ religion of empire” for Anglo-America’s expansion into the Mississippi Territory, Jon Sensbach shows us the “spiritual bricolage” of black colonial Louisiana, and Alison Collis Greene follows the mobile religious institutions of itinerant sharecroppers.

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Many of the essays will work well on their own in undergraduate classrooms. Collectively the volume convinces readers that the river itself was an actor in the Mississippi’s religious worlds. The river bend at Nauvoo and surrounding topography shaped Mormons and their critics; the fertile land the river supported attracted the imperialism of the U.S. War Department and missionaries; the flow of water connecting river settlements and the Atlantic World provided mobility to black religion; the finding of the river’s source was an activity of ownership both physical and symbolic; and developments in industry changed religious orientations to the river—these all illuminate how physical space is never simply that without neglecting to take seriously the significance of the materiality of space. The river was both space and process, a thing and an idea. And, as Tweed states in the afterword, this understanding of the Mississippi and its significance “allows for more expansive vistas” and pushes us “towards richer narratives.” Much like Callahan’s edited New Territories, New Perspectives: The Religious Impact of the Louisiana Purchase, Gods of the Mississippi bucks against an east-to-west story of American religious history and narrates a story from the continent’s interior.

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