Amusing Archive Finds

Emily Suzanne Clark

How many times have you read something in the archives or in a primary source that made you smile, chuckle, or even lol? For some research topics, the answer might be never. But hopefully everyone finds topics for the classroom that allow us to think about funny things in American religious history.

This is on my mind because in both my courses last week, Religions in America and African American Religions, my students had primary source readings that made some of them (and me) chuckle. Last week in my African American Religions class, students read excerpts from the FBI's files on the Moorish Science Temple from the 1930s and 1940s. These are a great read for students because they reveal so much about how outsiders saw the Moorish Science Temple, the politics of monitoring raced religions, and still the files describe some elements of the Moorish Science Temple. As a class we commiserated over our frustration at what's blacked out in the declassified files. And the place of employment of one interviewee's brother made us smile. The interviewee's brother, who helped keep order at the meetings, worked in a "potato chip shop." Something about the idea of a store that specializes in and sells potato chips makes me smile. No, not lol levels, but still some amusing archives. After the jump break I share what's funny from my own current research—what I like to call seance snark.

My current research makes me laugh from time to time. I'm working on a group of Afro-creole men in New Orleans who practiced Spiritualism from just before the Civil War through the end of Reconstruction. Calling themselves the Cercle Harmonique, they received political, social, and religious guidance for the world of the dead. Lucky for me, they recorded the messages the spirits sent them. Sometimes the spirits were a bit cheeky. A certain Capuchin priest named Ambroise was a frequent spirit guide of the Cercle Harmonique. One day while delivering a message critical of the Catholic institution he formerly served, Ambroise lamented how the Catholic hierarchy "build splendid residences and Theaters ... pardon, churches, at your expense." Misspeaking, pausing, and then correcting himself, Ambroise called attention to the hypocrisy he saw. And since he delivered numerous messages that were critical of the Catholic hierarchy, he likely didn't misspeak on accident but rather did so to draw a direct comparison between "Theaters" and opulence of Catholic church buildings.

Ambroise's cheekiness was not alone. In particular the spirit of Claire Pollard, a Cercle Harmonique medium's mother, proved that mom—in this world or in the spirit world—is concerned with the politeness and courtesy of her children. One day the Cercle Harmonique wrote down some rules for their seances. This would keep order and ease the cultivation of harmony between the Spiritualists and the spirits. One of these rules was punctuality. Despite the importance of arriving on time, someone must have arrived late to the next seance. The first message recorded underneath the rules came from one medium's mother. She chastised the latecomer. "It is understood, my brothers," Claire communicated, "that the belated ones, arriving after the lecture, would take their places at the table with respect and in deep meditation so as not to disturb the harmony already established ..." One can assume that the tardy Spiritualist felt a bit of shame. On another occasion Claire told the group "listen to your mother." My mom taught me to be polite, and my subjects' mothers did too. And when they didn't fulfill mom's expectations, she called them out. There is something a bit comforting about that—even in death, mom is with you. I think there's something a little funny here. Don't ignore mom's advice. She'll still lecture you, even from beyond the grave.

What amusing things have you found in either archival research or in the readings you assign your students?

Bonus primary source entertainment! Last week in my Religions in America class, we looked at religion and health in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. They read an excerpt from Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's The Living Temple. In class we talked about the Battle Creek Sanitarium and discussed the reading. When asking them what Kellogg thought was a godly diet, we all had to chuckle a bit. Kellogg recommended grains, nuts, and fruits as the main 3 food groups. Vegetables were a far off fourth choice. "Lastly we may mention vegetables as part of the necessary food supply," Kellogg wrote, "though it must be confessed that this class of foods is far less important than those previously mentioned." What's funny, we decided as a class, was that kids could argue that on a doctor's order, they didn't need to eat their vegetables.


Brian Wilson at: April 5, 2015 at 10:26 AM said...

While Kellogg's The Living Temple can be read for laughs, a slightly more serious reading reveals it to be a fascinating window into the on-going struggle by a key figure in early Seventh-day Adventism to reconcile science and religion. See my recent book from Indiana UP: Brian C. Wilson, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living (

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