Modern Summer of Love: On Secularism in Antebellum America, Part III of VI. Chip Callahan Responds

The Author of Lewis Henry Morgan’s Being
Richard J. Callahan, Jr.
for a Panel at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion:

A Fabulous Rumor: Critical Interpretations of
John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America
(University of Chicago Press, 2011)

John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America is a beautiful book. I mean that in a variety of senses. It is conceptually beautiful, literarily beautiful, and physically beautiful. All of these beautiful pieces illustrate the care that Modern has put into this work. It is clearly the product of hard labor and great thoughtfulness. From the start the reader senses that Modern has voyaged out beyond the safe harbors of American Religious History and returned with a new vision. He is able to see Antebellum religious history with new eyes that were formed in his voyages through the lands of social theory, genealogy, anthropologies of modernity and secularity, and literary criticism.

It’s an itinerary not unfamiliar to contemporary scholars of Religious Studies, though its application to the study of American religion is still novel in a field that is so dominated by historians. He tells us that there were big, important changes to religion in the Antebellum period, which is a plot line with which we are familiar. But we have come to expect those changes to be narrated in terms of revivals, enthusiasms, Arminianism, and democratization. Instead, Modern presents us with a new story of Antebellum American religion, which is in fact a story of Antebellum American secularism. The two co-exist; more, they are co-constitutive. Modern paints the big changes in Antebellum religion in terms of a new way of understanding what religion is, a new type of religious subject and self that is bound up with the emergence (or production?) of the secular.

For Modern, secularism is not simply an absence of religion, or religion’s binary opposite. Nor is it an easily identifiable thing. It is an atmosphere, Modern tells us, a haunting, a series of resonances and associations. “Whatever we are talking about when we talk about secularism,” he writes, “exceeds our capacity to name it” (10). His book, he notes, is “a series of ghost stories” (46), a “particular history of ghosts as they become tangible in the lives of antebellum Americans who, in one way or another, found themselves subject to modernity’s affects” (xxxiv).

Modern’s new story is powerful. It is important. It drags us out of the internal Protestant narrative that has held such a fierce grip on the field of American religious history, pulling us out into the world a little bit further, embracing much more of history, and it throws us off balance just enough to force us to take note of the ground we are standing on and the restrictive parochialism of our historical vision and our interpretive frames.

However: John Modern’s story of Antebellum secularism is still a Protestant story. He situates the emergence of secularism within a Protestant history, and the characters in his narrative are (necessarily, for his purposes) all Protestant. He widens the lens on Protestantism by including liberal Protestants as well as evangelicals, and spiritualists as well as seemingly "secular" humanists who, we find, are rooted through individual history and cultural episteme to a Protestant base. Throughout the book Modern seems to slide between writing about "the secular" (a term that, as an ideological and an epistemological project, claims a universality) and qualifying his subject as "Protestant secularism" (or even "Evangelical secularism). This slippage, though perhaps unintentional, and perhaps easily clarified, nonetheless raises some questions for me. The ghostly specter of secularism, in being named and identified, cannot help but take some sort of shape, even as Modern struggles mightily through form and content to keep the specter spectral. His literary and analytical skills are put to the test, and they put his readers to the test, as he eschews straightforward connections and causality in favor of associative relations and comparative resonances. Yet, as will happen with ghosts, calling them forth compels their materialization, and thus they begin to take on a shape. And it is the shape, vague and hazy as it may be, of Modern’s secularism that haunted me in my reading like a feeling under the skin or a scent in the breeze. Difficult to put my finger on, but nonetheless present.

Lewis Henry Morgan, c. 1868 (Morgan Papers,
University of Rochester)
I was given the charge of responding to the chapter on Lewis Henry Morgan. In many ways I am grateful, because I think this chapter more than others helps me to frame particular questions about the limitations and boundaries, as well as the promise, of Modern’s perspective.
Lewis Henry Morgan was the “founder of scientific anthropology,” according to the great systematizer of knowledge called the Encyclopedia Britannica. His classic League of the Iroquois (1851), Modern tells us, “was part of the long transition from the study of a divinely sanctioned human society toward the investigation of human articulations of self and divinity as well as the relations between humans determined, in part, by those articulations” (185). In his studies of the Iroquois and beavers, of kinship systems and the universal system of social evolution, Morgan was seeking, to use his own terms, “the Author of his being,” hoping “to comprehend the purpose of his existence, and his final destiny” (183). To John Modern, Morgan’s interest in Native American life, no less than his participation in railroad development and iron excavation, was both an expression (or production?) of an emerging secularism and a performance of a kind of secular spirituality itself; that is, in Modern’s mind it was a particular formation and performance of “religion.”

title page of League of the Iroquois (1851)
How does Modern make this argument? First, by defining secularism as a way of imagining a totalizing and immanent system for mapping the human/world. Second, by finding connections between Morgan—either personally or discursively—and various forms of Protestantism (which he’s already mapped in the book: evangelicalism, liberal Protestantism, spirituality and spiritualism). Morgan’s close friend, J. H. McIlvaine, a Presbyterian minister “who spent over two decades trying to bring Morgan into the Christian fold” (198), plays a decisive role in Modern’s reading of Morgan’s Protestant secularism. McIlvaine’s concept of “voluntary attention” (which also makes an appearance in Modern’s genealogy of spirituality earlier in the book), like Horace Bushnell’s “interest in the rules that governed the process of human relationality,” was “conceptually analogous to ethnographic works that would appear during the second half of the century” (221). The drive toward reading the world as a system of signs pointing to a coherent whole was a “particular kind of Protestant sensibility that would inform Morgan’s future inquiries” (220), albeit without the “theological understandings of the problems and prospects of social sympathy” or the nomination of “God” as the author or final meaning of that coherent whole (a neglect that McIlvaine took Morgan to task for).

Morgan also attended many lectures by Rev. Eliphalet Nott, President of Union College and former Presbyterian pastor, while Morgan was a student at Union. Knot used Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism in his lectures, and Modern finds Nott’s and Kames’s Common Sense reasoning and spiritualist sentiment resonating with Morgan’s ethnographic project. It doesn’t hurt that Morgan lived in Rochester, New York, in the late 1840s, right in the middle of the so-called “Burned-Over District” and the setting for the ghostly experiences of the Fox sisters and the birth of modern spiritualism. Through such links we are led to this claim:

From the perspective of secularism in antebellum America, the threshold of anthropological comprehensibility was crossed by way of a lone assumption made with numerous inflections. Conservative and liberal Protestant alike, alongside phrenologists, spiritualists, and self-styled ethnologists, posited the uniformity of a symbolic system that made all human differences part of the same epistemic arena. Here was the will to read a code that confirmed, in the act of reading, that everything was connected and connectible. (221)

Bark House (interior and exterior views).
 Illustration by Richard H. Pease, from
Report on the Fabrics, Inventions, Implements and Utensils of the Iroquois,
made to the Regents of the University, January 22, 1851,
by Lewis H. Morgan
Into this mix, throw Morgan’s personal interest in the Iroquois as a source of some sort of authentic spiritual force and identity, which led him to form the fraternal Order of the Iroquois, in which he could play Indian while studying Indians, and his eventual initiation as a member of the Seneca nation. Yet, according to
Modern, Morgan was also, in Melville’s terms, an “Indian hater.” The march of progress was inevitable, Morgan held; as they were incorporated into American civilization, Indians would cease to be Indians. Thus, Morgan’s involvement with the railroad and mineral industries, which were key material factors in the dispossession and displacement of Native peoples in nineteenth century America, as well as the interesting connection between members of the Order of the Iroquois and leaders of industry, did not appear contradictory. Indeed, Morgan’s secular system of understanding the unity of humanity within an immanent frame seemingly required the obliteration of those very people who served as the foundation of that system based on the temporal framework that gave the system its coherence. Modern has little to say about secularism’s relationship to time, so far as I can tell, but it seems to me that this might be a key element in the Protestant flavor of Protestant secularism. I will return to this point momentarily.

But first, here are some questions that I would like to ask of John. It is a sign of the power of his book that it has raised so many fundamental questions in my mind.

My first question (really a cluster of questions) is this: are there non-Protestant forms of secularism? Of "the secular"? Or is all secularism, at least in the US, at least in Antebellum America, necessarily Protestant or derived from Protestantism? Or is it just the Protestant-related form(s) of secularism that Modern concerns himself with in this study? If there might be other "secularisms" that are not Protestant, then is it not likely that Protestant secularism was shaped and formed in and through interactions with these other secularisms? Another way to get at this question might be to ask: what is the "outside" of secularism? What defines its borders and limits? What interactions (discursive or otherwise) with its “others” shape its form? If religion and the secular are co-constitutive, then might it also be the case that "Protestant secularism" and other "secularisms" are also co-constitutive? Or that the formation/claim/production/emergence of a "Protestant secularism" (or even "the secular") is/was dependent upon (co-constitutive with) something else? Modern’s history and analysis of secularism seems to me to be too clean, even in its messiness. Much like Foucault’s treatment of Europe’s epistemes, there is a sense of being in a bubble, a closed system, in which all development is internal and self-produced (Foucault 1970). Yet we know that things are more complicated than that. There have always been options other than Protestantism in American history, regardless of Protestantism’s dominance. That is not to call for a “pluralistic” or “multicultural” or “more diverse” history, but to recognize that insides are constituted in relation to outsides, and Protestant power and dominance is and has been formed in relation to something that it defines and has defined as not itself (regardless of how plastic its own borders might be).

There is a palpable underlying anger in this book, aimed at the "normal" way of doing American religious history. But does Modern's "evangelical conviction" (Modern 2012) compel him to reinscribe a Protestant-centered historical narrative that simply reiterates some of the dominant themes and concerns of "regular" American religious history? What does it take to think outside of Protestantism in American religious history, even while understanding that Protestantism dominates American religious and cultural formation, including ideas and practices of the secular?

Ely S. Parker as General Ulysses S. Grant’s military secretary, from Arthur C. Parker, The Life of Ely S. Parker: Last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois and General Grant’s Military Secretary (Buffalo: Buffalo Historical Society, 1919), frontispiece
Ely Parker, Morgan’s Seneca friend and “informant,” seems to me to be an important figure in this, leading me to ask: what if Modern had paid more attention to Parker in the story? Not in the story of Morgan's self-discovery, his search for the Author of his being, but in the story of how Morgan’s "secular" project, as Modern classifies it, was so multi-faceted, enabling it to fracture expected Protestant narratives.

Ely Parker's Grave
The Iroquois, and Morgan’s interest in them, are key to his secular orientation. Morgan’s immanent frame was made legible and intelligible in large part through a temporal ordering that rendered progress and social evolution (one of his key contributions to anthropological theory) as foundational elements of understanding the human and the order of Nature. Human progress, he held, advanced through the stages of savagery and barbarism to civilization (Morgan 1877). American Indians—the Iroquois in particular—were prime examples of the barbarian stage. They were thus destined to disappear in the march of progress, but their existence as well as their impending negation provided, for Morgan, the evidence of an order of things that legitimated the primacy of his own (imagined) Euro-American culture(s).

Morgan's view "won" some might say; civilization and progress dominated. But that is true only if we buy into his measure of temporality in the first place. From another perspective, of course, the Iroquois did not disappear. They are still with us, and the only way to see them as "losing" is as a political/ideological project of violence and power—which is not the same story of evolutionary progress that Morgan told. Indians remain, but they have been marginalized by force of property, law, and violence. They have not been epistemologically or ontologically surpassed. In fact, epistemologically, indigenous forms may be gaining ground, perhaps, in postmodern and postcolonial ways of seeing.

It is exactly Ely Parker’s hybridity, or refusal to adhere to the temporal order that underlies Morgan’s
Lewis Morgan's grave
Protestant secular orientation, that makes Parker so interesting in relation to Morgan’s world-imagining project. Parker, in fact, transgresses a host of boundaries that define Morgan’s secular world order and the easy assumptions of American religious historians: as the son of a Baptist minister, and also a leader in the “new” Handsome Lake religion of the Iroquois (as was his father); as an Indian, and also a lawyer; as an Indian, and also a Civil War general (who wrote the final draft of the terms of Confederate Army’s surrender at Appomattox); as both a source for Morgan’s Indian play acting, and the gateway to Morgan’s “actual” initiation into the Seneca; and as a translator of contemporary Iroquois life into Morgan’s world and language. Moreover, Morgan met Parker not through some ethnographic encounter in the wilds of the field, but, as Modern tells us, when “Ely Parker enlisted Morgan and the order to lobby on behalf of the Seneca in their legal battle to remain on the Tonawanda reservation” when “the Ogden Land Company was seeking to remove the Seneca to Kansas” (214). 
Ely S. Parker in native dress
(clothing collected by Morgan for the State Cabinet of
Natural History (NY).
 Engraving in Morgan, League of the Iroquois (1851),

Parker’s relationship to the “new religion” of Handsome Lake also complicates Morgan’s picture of Iroquois religion as an artifact from an evolutionarily earlier period of human progress, in that it calls attention to the ways that the “new religion” was mindful of, and incorporated, recent historical events (like Handsome Lake’s vision of George Washington in heaven). It suggests, in the very source of Morgan’s secular vision, an alternative temporality and alternative combinations of religious and secular resources. 

I call attention to Ely Parker’s story in relation to Lewis Henry Morgan’s secularism simply to raise the possibility that there might be something important to consider here in terms of the various labors that went into Morgan’s construction of a (Protestantly inflected) immanent frame, not the least of which included the work of linking identity and temporality in a material context of hybrid sociocultural and religiopolitical formations and innovations that were racially and imperially charged. Protestant secularism’s borders, its potentials and limitations, must surely have drawn some inspiration and power from its producers’ navigation of such terrain. Modern is right to explore Anthropology’s birth as a window into Antebellum secularism, and to trace the residue of Morgan’s refusal to look “outside” the world for the “author of his being.” In linking this process to the subjects of the other chapters of his book, the resonances are clear. There was something in the air, something similar connecting these Antebellum projects. Yet I am left wondering and wanting to hear more about the influence of a wider context of global interactions, material exchanges, and cultural negotiations on these “secular” transformations. There is a reason why Moby-Dick, Modern's hermeneutic conceit, is set in the world's oceans.

My final question is this: Modern writes that Morgan

represented the world at every turn in his career as a matter of presence and calculability, relying upon those representations in order to assure himself of his own presence and calculability. Morgan’s drama of spirituality—his struggle to articulate and practice a bounded selfhood amidst a world that was admittedly and radically relational—was more than either a displacement or replacement of religion. It was also a placement and, to some degree, enforcement of specific definitional boundaries—religion as a solitary epistemic endeavor; religion as an interior assessment of external forces; religion as a means of ‘spiritual independence.’ (234)

But where does this term religion come from here? Modern himself slips it in, and it is unclear exactly what its status is. Morgan would not have recognized what he was doing as enforcing definitional boundaries of religion, surely. Morgan is doing something here, something akin, perhaps, to what evangelical Protestants and even spiritualists were doing during this period. But what is at stake in nominating this “something” religion? Morgan himself, Modern tells us, had a “life-long refusal to use religion as a category of self-understanding” (200). In some sense, just as Morgan removed the language of religion and theology from his activity and thought, attempting to transform his frame from transcendent to immanent (though Modern finds him nevertheless affirming a “transcendent yet non-theological totality” [235]), Modern slipped it back in. Does this mean that Morgan’s secularism is secretly “religious”? The flip side of the secularist claim that the religious is secretly the secular misrecognized? One would think not. Surely Modern is employing the category of religion here as an interpretive foil, as a way to confound secularism’s telos and give us a new way of seeing. We do this in religious studies sometimes. We treat something “as if” it were religion to see what shakes out. Modern is tricky here. And it is here that it is best to recall his statement, early on in the book, that he is a storyteller.

Haunting, as in the spectral presence of the secular that is felt under the skin, is "integral to what it means to be Modern," Dr. Modern tells us. He asserts that we need to appreciate haunting as a social phenomenon of great import because it is integral to "what it means, perhaps, to speak of a 'Modern book.'" That is, Modern’s book. There it is, right up front in the introduction. As the penultimate storyteller, and thus the author of (this formation of) Lewis Henry Morgan’s being, Modern’s search for secularism in Antebellum America is a quest after the Author of his own being. Secularism is as Modern makes it, even as he feels surely that secularism makes him. His is one formulation among many, one way of telling the story. What will we do with it? Will we allow it to entertain us, to transform us, to give us new ways of seeing? John Modern has journeyed out beyond the safe harbors of American religious history and returned with new vision, new stories, new cargo. Will we find this cargo to be useful, or will we reject it as toxic and foreign? Where will its enchantments lead? The next step is up to us, his readers, and our own storytelling. One thing that I know for certain: John Modern has written a book that is not easily let go of, one that poses challenges that promise to haunt the study of religion in America for some time to come.

Foucault, Michel. 1970 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon.

Modern, John Lardas. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

___________. 2012. “My Evangelical Conviction.” Religion 43(3), 439-457.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1851. League of the Iroquois. Rochester: Sage & Brother.

___________. 1877. Ancient Society. London: MacMillan & Company.


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