Freemasonry in American Religious History



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John L. Crow

As the semester is over and I, like so many of my colleagues are busy grading, I will keep this short. Recently David G. Hackett of the University of Florida has published his examination of Freemasonry in America. Entitled That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture (California UP 2014), the book surveys important aspects of Freemasonry spanning 1730s through the 1920s. He looks at the shifting roles of masons in American society in the first part, and then gives focused examinations of topics, such as Prince Hall Freemasonry, Native Americans, and Freemasonry in relationship to Catholics and Jews in the second part.

Importantly, he engages why scholars of religion look at Freemasonry, even though masons themselves do not see it as a religion. He explains, “by expanding and complicating the terrain of American religious history to include a group not usually seen as a carrier of religious beliefs and practices, this book intends to show how Freemasonry’s American history contributes  to a broader understanding of the multiple influences that have shaped religion in American culture” (4). By “weaving Freemasonry into American history,” Hackett demonstrates that this so-called “Handmaiden to Religion” was much more active in disseminating religious values and mediating religious conflict. Lastly, his book continually addresses issues of gender, the tensions between public and private, and how masonry mediated these space, often creating a private male sphere, at least semi-autonomous from the private domestic sphere.

Since there are still too few studies of the role of Freemasonry in American religious history, Hackett’s volume is very welcome. Perhaps his work will inspire more scholars of American religion to include freemasonry in their studies. So far, it has been an understudied influence.

Conference Announcement: Religion and Sexual Revolutions at the Danforth Center



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By Monica L. Mercado

Now that I've turned in my dissertation, I'm looking forward to leaving my office and getting back out into the world! I'm particularly excited about the lineup for the Danforth Center's next graduate student conference, "Religion and Sexual Revolutions." If you're in or around St. Louis next Friday, May 9, this looks worth a visit. University of Delaware historian Rebecca L. Davis will be giving the keynote, "Religion, Marriage, and Sexual Counterrevolutions," and our own Paul Putz will be presenting "'Endless Miseries, Ruined Lives, and Social Disasters': Marrying Parsons and Sexual Revolution in the Progressive Era."

The full conference schedule is posted after the jump.

Under The Radar: Interviews with Historians You Should Know



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I feel like I’ve known Angela Tarango for years, and in some way I have, since her mom, who will always be known to me as Mrs. Tarango was my Vice-Principal. She was feared, but in a good way. The 6 Degrees of separation years later meant that when I heard Angela Tarango ‘s presentation on native Americans and the Assemblies of God and heard many familiar themes and new and exciting takes on a much needed gap in U.S. Religious History—let’s just say Angela and I have become fast friends, done panels together, and if one of the perks of this business is to work with your friends, then continuing to follow her work, and perhaps one day work with her on one of our mutual interests—for me, that will mean that Mrs. Tarango’s exhortations to pay attention and study will have come full circle.  This book, Choosing the Jesus Way is something all readers of U.S. Religion Blog should have on their shelves or in their Kindle…


Angela Tarango is a  native of Whittier, California, double major in religion and history, with honors in the religion major; graduated cum laude from Wellesley College, MTS from Harvard Divinity School and PhD from Duke University in 2009. Specializes in American religious history, specifically modern Native American religious history in the 20th and 21st centuries. Currently an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas where I teach American religious history, history of Christianity, and Latino/a, Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean, and Native American religions traditions

1Give us the gist of the book’s argument about Native Americans & their relationship with the Assemblies of God?
My book argues that Native American Pentecostal converts who were missionized by the AG took the AG’s main missionary theology—known as the indigenous principle—and transformed it into a form of religious practice that allowed them to argue for the autonomy and sovereignty of Native Pentecostals within the structures of the Assemblies of God. Basically they took a colonizing theology and transformed it to critique Pentecostal Christianity for its ethnocentric and at times racist treatment of Natives and to argue that Native Pentecostal believers had the right to assert their own presence within the denomination.

  What material would you have wanted to include that you did not?
I really wanted to do extensive interviews of lay people who belonged to a Native American AG church. The history I wrote is dominated mainly by Native leaders—especially men, and I really wanted to capture women’s and laypeople’s voices, but there were all sorts of logistical problems in doing this, and it also would not have captured the early years (1930s-1950s) that I ended up focusing on anyway. So in the end I focused on the archival sources, but I hope one day I can find the time and wherewithal to do significant participant observation at a Native Pentecostal church so I can write a smaller congregational study, and maybe capture some of the current trends (versus what was going on in the mid 20th century.)

Religion and the Natural Elements



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Note: Stephanie Brehm, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern, asked me to post this CFP for a conference on religion and the natural world next fall. Proposals are due in mid-May. Keynote speakers at the conference include Leigh Schmidt and Marilyn McCord Adams.

Call for Papers

 The Religious Studies Department of Northwestern University invites graduate papers for a conference on “Religion and the Natural Elements,” to be held in Evanston, Illinois on October 31 - Nov. 2, 2014. We request abstracts by May 16, 2014.

Through this conference, we aim to cultivate new ways of thinking about religion and the natural world. We focus on religion’s intersections with aspects of nature, from the environment, climate, flora, and fauna, to human interactions with the natural, in the form of spirits, gods and goddesses, and miracles. This conference will explore the relationships among ecosystems, religious practice, and religious thought.

The Color of Christ Meets a Cast of Critiques: A Response from Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey



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For the last three days, we've been running a series on responses to the book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, which were given at the 2013 AAR in Baltimore. Our thanks to Kathryn Gin Lum, Joshua Paddison, and Jennifer Graber for their thoughtful and provocative comments -- the links to their names will take you directly to their comments. We conclude the series today with our reactions.

Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey

We are grateful to the AAR, and especially to the North American Religions Section, the Afro-American Religious History Group, for convening the “authors meet critics” session. Our thanks, as well, to eminent scholars Stephen Prothero, Jennifer Graber, J. Cameron Carter, Kathryn Gin Lum, and Joshua Paddison, for giving their time and insights.

Jesus Christ has had quite a decade. Millions watched him brutalized in Passion of the Christ. They shuddered (or celebrated) when Reverend Jeremiah Wright proclaimed that Jesus was a “poor black man who lived in a country and who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich white people.” More recently, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly mentioned that the duo of Jesus and Santa Claus were “white” men (then later suggesting that the issue was not settled), and the film "Son of God" gave us the viral hashtag #hotjesus.

For scholars, J.C. has had quite a ride too. Stephen Prothero and Richard Wightman Fox built upon the insights of Jaroslav Pelikan, Kelly Brown Douglas, and David Morgan to detail the various ways he has factored in American history. With The Color of Christ, the book’s website, and dozens of op-eds, interviews, and talks, we threw our ideas into the mix. A paperback edition will be released this summer for fall classes (if you teach the book, please feel free to ask about a Skype session; we’re happy to oblige).

Scholarship and argumentation in academic fields tends to be driven by “either . . . or” propositions: this is right; that isn’t. The Color of Christ is a “both, and … and” book. Maybe this is Ed’s way of rejecting his childhood of “neither, nor” restrictions (we could neither drink orange juice after 9 am, nor purchase anything without a coupon); or Paul’s way of rejecting too many sermons which dwelt in the land of “neither . . . nor.” Below, we briefly spell out why we brought together constructs that are sometimes separated, and attempted to write a book that opened up possibilities and suggested new kinds of dialogue.

The Color of Christ Meets a Cast of Critiques: Part III of Series from the 2013 AAR



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Today we continue our series featuring responses and critiques to The Color of Christ, presented at the 2013 American Academy of Religion in Baltimore. Today's response comes from Joshua Paddison, author of the outstanding recent book American Heathens, which we have discussed at the blog previously. Josh has posted here previously on this subject, in our series "Asian Americans and the Color of Christ." 

Religion, Race, and Historiography: The Color of Christ
Joshua Paddison

            I was trained in a history department and so it’s from that background, rather than from religious or cultural studies, that I approach Blum and Harvey’s The Color of Christ. Today I’m going to try to step back and explain how The Color of Christ represents, in my view, a convergence of various strands of recent U.S. historiographical development. To me, one of the values of the book is how it sits at the nexus of some of the leading historiographical trends of the past 25 years. I will mention four main trends that I think the book reflects and then end by discussing one new direction I see it pointing us toward.

First, and perhaps most apparent, is the book’s invocation and interrogation of “whiteness.” In the 1990s scholars first began a widespread deconstruction of whiteness, viewing it as an imaginative category with, like “blackness,” its own history. As David Roediger wrote in 1994, whiteness, “far from being natural and unchallengeable, is highly conflicted, burdensome, and even inhuman.” Although aimed at exposing and ultimately tearing down white supremacy, whiteness scholarship came under fire for—along with studies of “masculinity”—directing yet more attention to the histories of white men and for de-emphasizing, even masking power relations and the structures of white dominance.

Writing as they do after the playing out of these debates, Blum and Harvey draw on the insights of whiteness studies while largely avoiding its pitfalls. Their chronicle of the rise of the white and then specifically Nordic Jesus shows us how the parameters of “whiteness” changed over time as well as Americans’ startlingly wide range of deployments of Jesus’s supposed whiteness. They do spend a lot of time talking about white men but are careful to connect cultural representations of the white Jesus to underlying power struggles. White Jesus, we are told, sanctified war, slavery, segregation, dispossession, imperialism, immigration restriction, and economic exploitation. The authors also work from a post-whiteness model of inclusion, giving numerous examples in every chapter of how people of color variously embraced, contested, and transformed Jesus’s whiteness.

The Color of Christ Meets a Cast of Critiques: Part II of a Series from the 2013 AAR



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Today we continue with Part II of our series from the "Author Meets Critics" session at the 2013 AAR, featuring Jennifer Graber's response to The Color of Christ. You may also be interested in her more formal review of the book, posted here at the Journal of Southern Religion.
The Color of Christ and Jesus’ Indian Haircut

Jennifer Graber
The University of Texas at Austin

In the 1890s, missionary Isabel Crawford and a small number of Kiowa Indians started the Saddle Mountain Baptist Church. Crawford wrote extensively in her diary and published several books and articles about her experiences. For me, her story about a Kiowa man named Komalty stands out. Komalty “came in today with his hair all flying & I asked him why he didn’t cut it off & pointing to the picture of Christ on the wall he said ‘Jesus no cut his. White women no cut. Indians, no cut, like Jesus, but what’s the matter with white men?’”[i]
            This story fascinates me. Here we have a Kiowa man looking at picture of Jesus supplied by Baptist missionaries. In it, he saw a savior who looked more like an Indian or a white woman than a white man. Komalty’s sense that white men were not like Jesus extended beyond his observations about hair. Indeed, some of the Kiowa Christians at Saddle Mountain didn’t want any white men coming to their church. This restriction eventually led to conflict because Baptist church polity at this time required that white men administer the Lord’s Supper. Crawford and the Saddle Mountain Christians broke the rules and called a Kiowa man to do it.[ii] 

            These Kiowa Christians said they didn’t want a white man in church, but wasn’t there already a white man there? Or at least the image of one? Namely Jesus? How are we to understand an Indian church with pictures of a white Jesus in which no white men were allowed? It’s questions like this one that made me an eager reader of The Color of Christ. And I am glad to report that Blum and Harvey’s book did just what it ought to do: it ran an end game around my particular questions and forced me to think about the subject in a different way. It demanded that I consider the bigger picture. Let me tell you how.

The Color of Christ Meets a Cast of Critiques: Part I of a Series from the 2013 AAR



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Editorial Note: Last November, at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore, Edward J. Blum and I were given the incredible honor and privilege of having our work The Color of Christ considered as part of an "author meets critics" session, co-sponsored by the North American Religions section and the Afro-American Religious History Group. "Jesus" scholar extraordinaire Stephen Prothero was kind enough to chair the panel, and respondents there that day included Kathryn Gin Lum, Joshua Paddison, and Jennifer Graber. A fourth respondent, J. Kameron Carter, was prevented from attending due to an emergency.

Today and over the next three days I'm happy to post all the responses from that day in a four-part series, starting with Kathryn Gin Lum's response today, and concluding with a reflection on all the responses from Edward J. Blum. This will follow the model we used last June when we posted all the responses from the author meets critics session featuring John Modern's Secularism in Antebellum America -- if you didn't have a chance to look at that series last year, now's a good time to treat yourself to it. 

My thanks to all the respondents for their thoughtful, incisive, and challenging commentaries, and to the audience that day who engaged in a lively discussion afterwards. Also, a huge congratulations to Kathryn for the birth of her daughter Phoebe Gin Lum, weighing in at 5 lb., 10 oz., on April 10, 2014! 

Who Wrote the Book of Race?

Kathryn Gin Lum

Every day on my way into the office, I pass by Memorial Church, the grandiose Gilded Age monument built by Jane Stanford in memory of her husband, railroad baron Leland. Memorial Church dominates Stanford’s central quad, and its striking mosaic façade glints in the perpetual California sun as tourists make their way down Palm Drive, cameras in hand. 

The mosaic is certainly snapshot-worthy. At 84 feet wide at the base and 30 feet tall, it took twelve laborers two years to finish. It shows a bearded, blonde, and resurrected Christ welcoming the righteous redeemed into His kingdom against a golden sky, palms waving in the background.

Before reading
The Color of Christ, I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the implications of a gigantic white Christ, beckoning people in with arms outstretched, at the very center of campus. But Memorial Church fits squarely into the book’s argument. Its façade was designed by an Italian artist whose craft echoed ancient mosaics and frescos from the Sistine Chapel. While some might see the facade as a direct imitation of European art, Blum and Harvey contend that Christ became white due to uniquely American circumstances. They argue that white Americans increasingly made Christ in their own image, paralleling the rise of the white man as enfranchised citizen in the early republic, and buttressing white supremacy in the wake of the Civil War and the rising tides of immigration in the late-nineteenth century.

Shepherds of the Empire: Mark Correll on German Fundamentalism



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Actually, Mark would say "fundamentalism" is a pretty misleading word to describe his subjects.  Mark Correll is Chair of the History, Politics, and Geography Department at Spring Arbor University, and my colleague (I'm known as Mark "the Lesser" around campus).  Correll's recent book is entitled Shepherds of the Empire: Germany's Conservative Protestant Leadership, 1888-1919 (Fortress, 2014).  It's received strong endorsements from the likes of David Bebbington, Gary Dorrien, and Mark Noll.  When not counseling Lord Vader on his serious anger issues, Correll's pastor-theologians were busy interrogating, erecting, and erasing boundaries between "believing" (conservative) and "critical" (liberal) church leaders, between the church and the imperial German state, between theological conservativism and political radicalism, and between seminarians and clergy.  His book is a wonderful addition to religion and politics studies that place theological controversy and reform at the center of nation-state building.  It would also make for excellent comparisons and contrasts with George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture.  Correll offers some interesting reflections on American and German Christianity in his following guest post.   


Mark Correll

I am a product of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. The churches I have attended, my undergraduate university, and my current employer all bear the imprint of this century-old conflict. In many cases the wound is still fresh and the conflict is still fought. I recall a poignant moment as a graduate student when I introduced my interest in modern German theology to a trained historian visiting our church. He told me that he was not much familiar with the theology of my dissertation, but he knew that Albrecht Ritschl’s theology arrived straight out of hell. While I am confident that I would have never drawn such distinct lines, the origin of my project was immersed in this thinking. At the beginning of my graduate studies, I told my advisor confidently that I was seeking to show that Germany secularized because Germany’s churches liberalized (in my mind liberalization was code for losing contact with spiritually genuine doctrines). Being informed by a far richer mind, greater life experience, and his own battle scars from the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, my advisor warned me to not be so confident that I would find any such evidence.

EIR/AAR Meeting: 19th Century Upstate New York Religions and their Heirs



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I hope to see some of you at the Eastern International Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, May 3-4, 2014 at Syracuse University. The theme of the conference is "19th Century Upstate New York Religions and their Heirs," and the conference organizers in the Department of Religion called for papers on the following topics:

Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)
Millerites and Seventh Day Adventists
Oneida Community
Shakers
Mormons
Spiritualism
Anti-slavery movement
Women’s rights movement
Chautauqua movement
Social Gospel
and many others

The conference schedule and logistical information is available here. The program looks great. The keynote speakers are Darryl Caterine, LeMoyne College,  "The Haunted Grid: Nature, Electricity, and Indian Ghosts in the Age of Industry," and Phil Arnold, Syracuse University, "The Great Law of Peace Center."

I'll highlight my own panel, bright and early (well, 9:30 am) on Saturday morning:

Session 1a: Reforming Sex, Race, & Authority: Antebellum Networks of Religious & Political Unorthodoxy

Chair and respondent Faye Dudden, Colgate University

"Frances Ellen Watkins and the Subversion of the Free-Soil Party"
Marcia Robinson, Syracuse University

"Religious and Sexual Respectability in the Antebellum Women’s Rights Movement"
Carol Faulkner, Syracuse University

"Colored Churches and the Ethics of Antebellum Authority"
Joan Bryant, Syracuse University

Please check out all the interesting papers/panels. And, in early May, the weather in Syracuse should be nice!

Waco's Tipping Point



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David W. Stowe

In a recent New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell, mega-best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath, offers a ringing endorsement of religious studies. Specifically, he analyzes the 1993 conflagration involving the Branch Davidians, in which Gladwell argues that if FBI agents had possessed the moral imagination (or training) to enter just a little bit into the theological worldview of David Koresh and his followers, the whole thing might have been resolved peaceably.

The FBI made the mistake of thinking the Branch Davidians were a replay of Jim Jones' People's Temple, isolated, "defensive and unstable," in the thrall of a messianic leader, liable to commit mass suicide if given the green light. But the Branch Davidians were "far from fragile," Gladwell writes. "They engaged freely and happily with the world around them." Koresh emerges as a regular guy, almost a character in a Judd Apatow film, but with a tremendous aptitude for long-form Bible study:

Koresh was not slick or charismatic, in the conventional sense. He was thin, with long wavy dark hair and a gentle manner. He was good with engines and guns, and he played in a rock band. His formal education was limited. His vocabulary was full of words of his own invention. He wore dirty jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers, and, after study sessions, would gather some of the other young men and head into Waco, as another survivor’s memoir, by David Thibodeau and Leon Whiteson put it, to “kick back, swallow some suds, play some tunes."

Gladwell cites R. Laurence Moore's work on mid-19th-century Mormons as direct predecessors to the Branch Davidians. Unlike many new religious movements, the Branch Davidians--and Mormons before them--didn't downplay their differences from the religious mainstream. They highlighted them.

"Countless religious innovators over the years have played the game of establishing an identity for themselves by accentuating their otherness," Gladwell writes. "Koresh faced the same problem, and he, too, made his claims, at least in the eyes of the outside world, 'in the most obnoxious way possible.' And historically, he concludes, "Americans aren’t very good at respecting the freedom of others to be so obnoxiously different."

If FBI negotiators had known any of this, Gladwell asserts, they would have negotiated very differently. But this might be expecting too much. A major focus of Koresh's trademark exegesis was to determine the identity of "the Lamb" referred to in Revelation, the "arm of Yahweh" and "son of man" alluded to in the psalms, who according to his interpretation could not have been Jesus Christ:

Francis Schlatter, an 1890s American Jesus



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Paul Putz

With the semester coming to a close and paper deadlines looming, I'm going to punt this month and cross-post a piece that I originally wrote last summer for my personal blog. It is timely as an Easter post at least: Francis Schlatter was thought to be Christ resurrected, and he himself had numerous resurrections in the Progressive Era.

But before I get into that, a couples of quick notes. First, I originally came across Francis Schlatter through Ferenc Morton Szasz's Religion and the Modern American West. My post below is culled from Szasz's work and from browsing through the Chronicling America newspaper database for reactions to the Schlatter phenomenon. Second, please note that when I make a passing reference to curanderismo (Mexican American folk healing) in the text, I know next to nothing about the subject. Fortunately, Brett Hendrickson has a book forthcoming with NYU Press on curanderismo, which I am very excited to read later this year. (And as an aside, he told me Schlatter does get discussed briefly in the book).

Pacific Commercial Adviser (Honolulu), 1896
On a Friday night in early January, 1896, a Unitarian minister in Salem, Oregon lectured on the topic "Is Francis Schlatter the Lord Jesus Christ come for the second time?" The exact details of his answer to that question are unknown, but we can be sure that his final word on the subject was "no." More interesting than his sermon, though, is why he would even bring up the subject in the first place. Schlatter never set foot in Oregon, neither before nor after his rise to fame. Twelve months prior he was virtually unknown, wandering through the New Mexico desert. But by August 1895, newspapers from coast to coast were writing about the "New Mexico Messiah" and cracking jokes about a new sect of "Schlatter Day Saints."

Who was Francis Schlatter, why did he gain messianic status in the eyes of some, and what, ultimately, happened to him?

One Church, 175 Years



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Elesha Coffman


The church I attend in Dubuque will celebrate its 175th anniversary in May. In preparation for the event, church members have offered historical reflections during services and posted monthly articles on the church website. As I have only attended this church for two of those 175 years, I've learned quite a bit myself, both about the effects of historical trends on one institution and about ways public history is constructed and used by the public, as opposed to curated by members of the academic guild.

When First Congregational United Church of Christ (there's a bit of history in the name alone) put out a call for a minister in 1836, this area was known as Dubuque Mines, Michigan Territory. By the time the church was founded, in 1839, Iowa was its own territory but still far out on the western frontier. Home Missions funding from back east supported the church and its pastor for the first decade. After that rough early period, pew rentals covered the church's operating expenses, freeing up offerings for local, national, and international benevolence. When I joined the church, I assumed that its activism in these causes dated to the liberal 1960s or the Social Gospel 1910s, but actually it all started with the pew rentals--one of those facts I "knew" as a church historian but know differently now that I've encountered it in an institutional context.

Experiential Learning: Teaching Race, Religion, and Ethnicity



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By Karen Johnson. It is Palm Sunday in the heart of Chicago’s Austin community, a west-side inner-city neighborhood.  Children welcome the congregation into the gym, one dressed as Jesus riding on a donkey (for all you Color of Christ fans, Jesus, in this case, is black).  Pastor Robert Stevenson encourages the congregation to sing their praises to God, dance their praises to God, play instruments in praise to God.  Technical difficulties prevent a song from playing well from the speaker system.  The atmosphere lacks the professionalism of most suburban churches, but the praise is heartfelt.  People pass babies.  My own son makes it to the front of the church when Pastor asks the man holding him to pray over the service.  The prayer quiets the congregation, a moment of comfort for many of the visitors in the audience who are my students from a suburban liberal arts college.  For many, this is a cross-cultural experience.  The students are part of my class on the history of race and ethnicity in the United States, and they are on an experiential learning field trip.


Why a field trip – especially with all the work it requires?  The answer lies in our calling as teachers.  “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” said James Baldwin.  This semester, we have studied the history of race and ethnicity not only to learn it, but to learn how to use it.   But how do we “use” history without being presentists?  Part of the answer lies in the question of why we teach.  Teaching should not just transfer knowledge, but help students be transformed.    Experiences teach students in ways that reading and analysis cannot.   As one student commented, “a woman who had attended the church for over 20 years said, ‘Sunday’s the most segregated day of the week.’  It struck me not only that there was some truth to that statement, but that I have lived my entire life experiencing segregated Sunday church services.”   The present has a history– to understand why Sunday is so segregated, and why Rock Church was such a powerful experience for the students, they needed to know the history.

What is Social Christianity Anyway?



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By Heath Carter

This question was amongst those at the heart of a vigorous roundtable exchange at the first ever joint meeting of the American Society of Church History and the Ecclesiastical History Society (UK) earlier this month.  The conference itself was well attended and a good crowd showed up to the morning session on Friday, April 4th, to participate in a dialogue with Wendy Deichmann (United Theological Seminary), Christopher Evans (Boston University), Ralph Luker (Independent Scholar), Rima Lunin Schultz (Independent Scholar), and myselfAmanda Porterfield (Florida State University) served as both chair and commentator.  A revised version of our exchange will be published as a forum in an upcoming edition of Church History, so rather than giving away all the juicy details here, I'll just highlight (below the fold) some of what I think were the most interesting questions and issues raised.

More than Hobby Lobby: My Take as a Scholar of Religious History



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Charity R. Carney

Hobby Lobby was not my favorite work experience—it required long hours, ridiculous record-keeping, exposure to monotonous Christian muzak, and putting up with some creepy coworkers. It was, well, retail. Also, I worked there for all of three months. I’ve been a religious historian for far longer and thought I’d share my thoughts on the current case and the evolution of corporate Christianity in general instead of dwelling on those three months of stocking googly eyes. Huffington Post and Businessweek both interviewed me regarding the current SCOTUS case and, while they had good questions, I think that there are some points that have been missing from the discourse. Namely, how is Hobby Lobby related to larger trends? What is actually happening to evangelical religion in the United States? And why are reproductive rights/contraception at the center of this struggle?   

Much of the discourse surrounding Hobby Lobby is, necessarily, about corporate Christianity. Of course, Hobby Lobby is a great example of this particular phenomenon and contributes to a larger
narrative of the blending of the corporate and religious that has been a theme in American religious history. As our own Darren Grem pointed out, “Religion has been a part of corporate America for quite some time.” I’ll leave this territory to Darren and fellow business and religion scholars—it’s an exciting field and there is obviously much relevance in this work right now. From my own developing research on megachurches, however, I’m considering a slightly different perspective on current trends.

Hobby Lobby may win this case because of the pro-business and conservative nature of the Roberts Court, of course, but there’s a larger cultural phenomenon that might be influencing public and political opinion as well. The case is significant because it represents the blending of corporate and Christian—and one very visible sector of American religion that mixes the same stuff is the rapidly rising megachurch movement. The public and our leadership have been primed to consider the religious rights of corporations because of the general growth of Christian industry and that industry is manifested in tax-free organizations like megachurches. In other words, megachurches and seeker-sensitive churches, in particular, are assisting in blurring the lines between business and religion so that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins.

Before the Flood: An Author Interview with Michael P. Kramer



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Laura Arnold Leibman

I'm extremely pleased this month to interview Michael P. Kramer of Bar-Ilan University. Michael is the author  Imagining Language in America, From the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton University Press, 1992) and the editor of numerous important collections, including  The Turn Around Religion in America: Literature, Culture and the Work of Sacvan Bercovitch (with Nan Goodman, 2011) and The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature (with Hana Wirth-Nesher; 2003).  He is currently translating S.Y. Agnon's And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight (Forthcoming, 2014), but this interview focuses on his most recent editing project, the special issue "Before the Flood: Early Jewish American Writing" for Studies in American Literature 33.1 (2014).

1. What led you to decide to edit an issue on Jews in early America?

The short answer is this: Early Jewish American literature has been woefully neglected by critics. Few nowadays know anything about what Jews wrote in America before the arrival of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, before, say, Abraham Cahan published Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto in 1896. Few have even heard of Isaac Harby, Penina Moise, or Adah Isaacs Menken, let alone Antonio de Montezinos or Isaac Aboab de Fonseca. I had been arguing for some years that Jewish American literary study will not leave its provincial swaddling clothes behind, will not achieve full scholarly maturity, until it comes to terms with the field’s early history, and it occurred to me that it was time to do more than publish polemics. So I thought I would invite scholars who were interested in early Jewish American writing—there were a few—and entice some others into venturing into the mostly uncharted territory to join me in a project. Ben Schreier, the editor of Studies in Jewish American Literature, was gratifyingly open to the idea and generously agreed to devote an issue to the venture. The result was “Before the Flood.”

There’s a longer answer, too. I was trained in graduate school by Sacvan Bercovitch, one of the truly great Americanists of the last half-century. Unlike many Americanists before him—Perry Miller being the prominent exception—Bercovitch took early American writers seriously, particularly Puritan writers. I cut my scholarly milk teeth in the mid-70s on the likes of John Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, Anne Bradstreet, and Cotton Mather. What fascinated me about his approach was essentially twofold. First, his interest in the Puritans was neither antiquarian nor filio-pietistic but critical. He took them seriously as writers, on their own terms, in all their otherness, not despite their Puritanism but because of it, reading their sermons, histories, personal narratives, and poetry as the literary fruits of their religio-political worldview, as extraordinarily complex cultural achievements. He took texts that others found uninteresting or impenetrable and opened their idiomatic power and wonder. Second, he believed that, for all its distinctiveness, the worldview of American Puritanism exceeded its local boundaries. Taking the long view of American literature and culture, he argued that you really couldn’t make sense of the great writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without understanding what came before, that to be a writer in America was to participate in a cultural process, in an anthropological rite of assent, that found its origins in the writings of those peculiar Puritans. He understood the America we live in—including its democratic pluralism and its growing multicultural openness, however paradoxical that might sound—to be the flowering of the New England Puritan imagination.

 So when I began to focus on Jewish American literature, I instinctively turned backward. My path had been paved by Bercovitch. I looked to the early centuries, convinced even before I started down the road—or, rather, I had a hunch, since I really didn’t know—that I would find riches. If others found the field barren, I surmised, it was because they didn’t know what to look for, or didn’t know what to make of what they’d found. I believed as well that what I discovered would help me better understand what came later. I invited some friends to come with me, and along the way I found others who had come for their own, different reasons. And the issue took shape.

2. What makes early writings by Jewish Americans different from those by later Jewish American writers?

What Do These Have in Common? Blogging as Scholarship, Last Kind Word Blues, and Major New Book on American Catholics and American Presidents 1960-2004



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Paul Harvey

Since a few of our folks are taking a well-deserved break from blogging this month during a particularly busy time of the semester, I've collected a few disparate items of interest for you here just to keep your blog reading muscles exercised while you're waiting for Laura Leibman's monthly blog treat tomorrow!

First: at this year's Organization of American Historians meeting, one of the final panels addressed the topic "blogging as scholarship." Historiann was on the panel and previewed her comments here; my graduate school buddy and excellent post player in basketball (25 - 30 years ago, anyway) Mike O'Malley from George Mason posted his thoughts here; and our own John Fea, whose illustrious blogging career got its start here before he decided just to take over the world, has some reflections from the panel here. The young historian Joseph Adelman contributes further to the discussion here. For those of you interested in some extended reflections on some of the questions that Chris Cantwell posted below on his "day of Digital History," this is a good place to start.


Second, I can't recommend enough this New York Times Magazine piece from yesterday: "The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie," a piece of historical detective work on two female musicians who flashed so briefly on the scene in 1930, recorded a few classic sides for Paramount at its factory in Grafton, Wisconsin, and then seemingly vanished from history. The author writes:

There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin villege on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie's "Motherless Child Blues" and Geeshie's "Last Kind Word Blues," twin Alps of their tiny ouevre, inspiring essays and novels and films and cover versions, [and] a classical arrangment

Along the way we learn a lot about the history of record sleuthing and collecting, about a vast but inchoate archive held by the king of all researchers in this field and why that archive may never fully reveal its secrets, and about church communities which historically have gathered in an array of musicians about whose talents it can only be said, the half ain't never been told. Those of you who follow any dispatches you can from the old, weird America -- read the piece, and check out all the accompaniments online, including the Kronos Quartet's cover of Geeshie Wiley's stone-cold chiller of a tune, "Last Kind Word Blues."

And now, for something completely different!

Giving History the Johnson Treatment



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Lyndon Johnson delighted in using power to accomplish his goals. He was famous for his ability to leverage any advantages he held over his opponents, whether that was a majority vote in Congress, or his 6 foot 4 inch frame. His personal efforts to control a debate or influence thinking became known as the “Johnson Treatment,” and few survived the full force of it without a shift toward Lyndon’s perspective. A current fifty-year commemoration of Johnson’s term in office demonstrates the enduring influence of his presidency, and a modern use of the Johnson Treatment to reshape his place in popular memory.

Whitney Young gets the Johnson Treatment, June, 1966

This week, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas celebrated 50 years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the Civil Rights Summit, a remarkable series of public lectures and events. Speakers included President Barack Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter. The program was an outstanding opportunity for reflection on the importance of the act and the challenges for civil rights today. The LBJ Library streamed the sessions, and they are available for viewing online.

Johnson’s family and former staffers have been active in promoting the civil rights acts and Great Society initiatives as the proper way to celebrate the legacy of Johnson’s term in office. These are monumental historic achievements that warrant commemoration. The Vietnam War is more difficult. The burden of that war took the strength of a political animal who rose to power in Texas and Washington by outmaneuvering and bullying his opponents. The revised look at Lyndon Johnson presents him as a great idealistic leader who chose to reform society but had the Vietnam War thrust upon him. One of the most fascinating ways that Lyndon Johnson is being celebrated is through the Broadway play “All the Way” starring Bryan Cranston, most famous for his role as Walter White in Breaking Bad. The play has received mostly positive reviews, and Cranston’s LBJ reinterprets Johnson as earnest and determined to accomplish “big things” with initiatives on civil rights, the Great Society, and the Vietnam War.

Reflect on Reflections of Amma



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If you are near Riverside, California, or just want to get away, join Professor Amanda Lucia for a discussion on her new book Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace. Thursday, April 17, 3:40-5:30 in some building called "INTN" room 3043. Jennifer Scheper Hughes will be there (author of the must-read Biography of a Mexican Crucifix). See you there!


P.S. the book is phenomenal!
P.P.S. vote Pedro


Day of DH 2014



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By Chris Cantwell

My post for today has less to do with American religious history and more to do with an American religious history blog. As some of you may know, today is the Sixth Annual "Day of DH." Run out of Michigan State University's MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, the event is "an open community publication project that will bring together scholars interested in the digital humanities from around the world to document what they do on one day." Participants have all registered for blogs at the Day of DH site and on the specified day everyone will live-blog their workday to give the world a sense of the immense diversity and creativity of digital scholarship today.

Well it just so happens that today, April 8, is Day of DH 2014 and I am participating. To mark the event I've decided to repost my first Day of DH post here which is, as you'll see, relevant to our little corner of the web. As I suggest below, I am becoming increasingly interested in impact new media is having upon scholars and readers who don't explicitly self-identify as digital humanists. And so I'd like to ask our readers: What has this blog meant to you? Why do you read it? How have you used it? How has it changed the work that you do? Please sound off in the comments below. Your thoughts will not only contribute to a larger conversation about digital scholarship, but could also serve as a nice marker on how great this blog is as it approaches its seventh year.

My Day of DH begins before the Day of DH even begins.

Religion in California: Conference April 24-25



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Today's guest post comes from Blaine Hamilton of Rice University, who informs us about the upcoming Religion in California conference to be held at the Graduate Theological Union, a spectacular location sitting right above the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, and providing a panoramic view of the Bay Area. 

Later this month I am privileged to be participating in the Religion in California conference at the University of California-Berkeley.  This focused event was organized by our own Ed Blum, along with Lynne Gerber and Jason Sexton, and it has been graciously funded by the California American Studies Association, Berkeley’s Religion, Politics, and Globalization Program, the Theological Engagement with California’s Culture Project, the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, and the Graduate Theological Union. Details below after the jump. 

The Crisis of Biblical Authority in Early America



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Jonathan Den Hartog

In my post last month, I raised the problem of religious authority in American history. Rather than being a recent development, this has been an on-going struggle in the American context. I also previewed my desire to post further about Michael J. Lee's new book The Erosion of Biblical Certainty.

The Erosion of Biblical Certainty - Michael J. LeeLee's book, released late last fall, takes up the topic of how Christians in the late colonial era and then the early republic wrestled with understanding, interpreting, and defending the Bible. It thus touches on apologetics, historical criticism, and hermeneutics. In fact, one way of reading the book is as a description of the early phases of biblical and textual criticism in America.

Lee, an assistant professor at Eastern University, traces the move away from a Puritan and uncritical reading of Scripture. Through chapters that capture moments of transition, Lee chronicles how American Christians decided to answer the rationalist critiques of the eighteenth century: to use the same methods against their opponents. Cotton Mather early on suggested capturing the "cannons" of biblical critics and turning them against those challengers. Following Mather, Jonathan Edwards and John Dickinson argued that reason and history could provide high probability of biblical authority, although faith was still necessary. This tension was lost as lecturers who participated in the Dudleian Lectures at Harvard increasingly emphasized the rational and empirical bases of Christianity, rather than any supernatural character.

This process seemed to be successful for a time, and the story might even have been viewed as a triumph if the clock could have been stopped on the eve of the American Revolution. Tracing the narrative into the early nineteenth century, though, makes it appear a tragedy.

In the second half of the book, Lee shows how German Historical and Textual-Critical thought blindsided America's rationalizing Protestants. The Historicist mindset undermined confidence in first the text of the Bible and then its transhistorical authority. Although the Unitarian Andrews Norton and the Trinitarian Moses Stuart both tried to hold the tension together--the Bible as historical yet not totally subject to historicization--they proved unable to defend biblical authority or restore it to its previous position.

In Lee's telling, this tragedy is ironic. Like James Turner, Lee sees the problems for American Protestants as originating within their own tradition. By choosing to defend the Bible on a rationalistic basis, they opened themselves up for a sudden shift should external standards of rationality and history shift.

As I was reading Lee, I was simultaneously sampling from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Taylor describes an important component of secular modernity as the loss of "naive" faith. By this, Taylor means that all belief is now colored by the knowledge of the possibility of unbelief, of the contested nature of any faith claims. Lee's book traces this move clearly in the eighteenth century. Taking critics seriously, American Christians worked to defend the Bible. In their rationalist justifications, though, they ironically lowered the authority of biblical revelation.

For understanding the Bible in American life as well as the contours of American thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Lee's book is an outstanding contribution.

"One Way!": The Jesus People and Countercultural Engagement



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Trevor Burrows

If you haven’t yet checked out Larry Eskridge’s God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America, you should move it to the top of your “to read” list right away. Beyond being beautifully written, the history (or histories) of the Jesus People it narrates should provoke some interesting questions for anyone interested in religion, culture, and politics in the twentieth century. For one of the main takeaways from Eskridge’s book is that the movement was built upon any number of tensions: was it a ministry to hippies, junkies, and counterculture refugees, or was it a grassroots movement comprised of those figures? Did it take on the trappings of the late ‘60s in order to save souls only, or did it use countercultural aesthetics and practices as “authentic” symbols of a different conception of Christian practice? And what was the relationship between the movement’s scattered leadership, its establishment backers, and the participants it attracted? These questions hover around the larger issue concerning the movement’s relationship to evangelical culture on the one hand, and to non-evangelical (counter)cultures on the other.

Rather than review Eskridge’s book here - it has been well-reviewed elsewhere - I want to use it to consider the significance of the movement in the history of modern evangelicalism, and to perhaps suggest a slightly more critical angle on the movement’s relationship to American culture and politics. For what has followed me since finishing the book is the Jesus People’s largely apolitical character. Of all the groups that Eskridge profiles, only one - the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF), an answer to Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front - seemed to engage the growing number of social and political issues that were debated at the time. Indeed, when Billy Graham tried to enlist the movement in support of Nixon in ‘72, the turnout was minimal. “For the overwhelming majority of Jesus People,” Eskridge writes, “[...] turning out for some sort of political cause was simply unappealing because it skirted the “real” issue: how would this effort glorify the Lord or lead the people to Jesus?” There is a parallel worth mentioning here in the recruitment and evangelization strategies of some of the movement’s leaders. When Tim Wise, a co-founder of one of the early outposts of the movement in the Haight-Ashbury area, is asked by a muckraking evangelist whether they encouraged hippies to clean up their act by purging their lives of drugs, promiscuous sex, and inappropriate fashion choices, Wise responds coolly: we talk about Jesus, and what happens from there is between the individual and God.

David King Offers Historical and International Perspectives on World Vision and Recent Controversies Over Its Marriage Policies



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Brantley Gasaway

No doubt many readers of this blog have followed the recent controversy surrounding World Vision, the global Christian relief, development and advocacy organization best known for its child sponsorship programs. For those of you who missed it, the American branch of World Vision initially stated that Christians in same-sex marriages would become eligible for employment before reversing this decision two days later after backlash from many supporters and prominent conservative evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham, Al Mohler, and John Piper. For details, see the coverage by Christianity Today (here) and the New York Times (here).

David King
Over at his regularly engaging blog, The Pietist SchoolmanBethel University's Chris Gehrz beat me to the punch by hosting a two-part interview with David King that offers historical perspective on World Vision and a better understanding of this imbroglio. David, who is leaving Memphis Theological Seminary this summer to become assistant professor of Philanthropic and Religious Studies at Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (IUPUI) and the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, is completing a book project entitled Seeking to Save the World: the Evolution of World Vision, American Evangelicalism, and Global Humanitarianism

I'd encourage you to read all of the interview--part one (here) and part two (here)--for Chris's questions and David's answers cover a wide range of issues that include the development of evangelical humanitarianism; how the controversy illuminates debates about definitions of "evangelicalism;" and the place of American evangelicals within the global movement. At the conclusion of the interview, for example, David reflects on the international consequences of the controversy:

W(orld) V(ision) US’ policy last week also created publicity headaches for other World Vision offices. A number of other World Vision offices – particularly Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. all released statements distancing themselves from WVUS’ policy…Canada and Australia, for instance, have laws that do not allow discrimination in terms of religious commitment or sexual orientation. WV Australia went on record to be clear they do not ask questions about sexual orientation or marriage status in interviews. While they remain Christian organizations, the way they see their Christian identity shaping their work and their office culture may be quite different. Again, this question of how religious identity shapes an organization is a fascinating question that looks quite different in various contexts.

In this case, World Vision U.S. serves as the exception among other western countries, and its strong evangelical U.S. donor base plays an important role, but WVUS may also find important allies among other World Vision offices in Africa, for instance, in contrast to fellow western countries. To me, World Vision International serves as a microcosm in many ways of the shifts in the global church that world Christianity scholars like Lamin Sanneh and Philip Jenkins have been describing to us for decades now.

World Vision is a highly influential organization that gives us insight into how Christians engage global need. Particularly among American evangelicals, it is at the leading edge of shaping popular culture and professional practice of religiously-based relief and development. Last week’s episode demonstrates that evangelical fault lines remain deep, but World Vision points to a number of other shifting dynamics as well.

Thanks to David and Chris for providing more light than heat on World Vision U.S.'s recent controversial policy decisions.

A New Look and Three New Interviews for Marginalia



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Art Remillard

Marginalia has a spiffy new logo and a modified URL, both the result of MRB becoming a partner publication of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Details on what precisely this means are trickling out at present. But it's safe to assume that our audience has widened. And hopefully as this widening continues, new listeners will tune in to our radio show and hear our latest three episodes, starting with Chad Seales who talks about his fine new book, The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town.

The interview opens with Seales describing how southern secularism is like a "greasy pig"; but, he quickly adds, it is not like David Duke. Trust me, this will make sense once you've heard his explanation. Since reading the book and recording the interview, I'm starting to think that The Secular Spectacle will do for the study of secularism what The Madonna of 115th Street has done for lived religion. Both dig a deep well into a local culture in order to bring to the surface a myriad of methodological insights, all the while telling a compelling story based on ethnographic and historical sources. And just as Robert Orsi has inspired many scholars to dig their own wells in the land of lived religion, I expect that Seales will likewise attract pilgrims to his intellectual territory.

So prepare yourself to hear much, much more about The Secular Spectacle. But first, listen to this interview.




"Much Love for the Children of Abraham Through His Son Ishmael:" The Mystery of My Book of Mormon



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By Michael J. Altman

I don't really know where the copy of the Book of Mormon that sits on my bookshelf came from. As one moves through academic life, books attach themselves to you like barnacles on the bow of a fishing boat. I remember that this particular Book of Mormon, a 1981 paperback missionary edition, once sat on the built-in bookshelf in my living room in Atlanta during graduate school. I remember it was shelved next to Science and Health with Keys to the Scriptures and a Qur'an. When I moved to my current position at the University of Alabama that shelf of books ended up in my new office. Then, a couple weeks ago, I pulled it down so I could pass it around the room during my lecture on Mormonism in my American religious history class. When I opened it up I found this on the inside of the covers:

Geoge Mason University Signs Free Agent Lincoln Mullen to play Digital Humanities Point Guard Position



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Editorial note: The 1st of every month is "Lincoln Mullen" day at the blog, where he usually dazzles us with some digital humanities wizardry. However, for the next few months Lincoln will be on hiatus, as he races to the finish line to complete his dissertation and accepts his new post in the Department of History at George Mason University! Congratulations to Lincoln for the new gig, and we'll look forward to his blogging again starting next fall. In the meantime, here is an announcement about his new position, posted at his own blog

Joining George Mason University

 I am pleased—and grateful—to say that this fall I’ll be joining the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University as an assistant professor. I’ll be teaching half my classes on digital history and half on American religious history. In the fall I’ll teach an undergraduate course on church and state in America and a graduate course on computer programming for historians. Over the past few years I’ve been able to get to know some of the people in the department and at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and there are many more great people whom I met during my visit and am looking forward to getting to know. I feel fortunate to be joining them as a colleague.
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