The History of Black Catholics in the United States Turns 25

Matthew J. Cressler

My dad bought me my first copy of Cyprian Davis's The History of Black Catholics in the United States (BCUS from hereon out) by mistake. Don't get me wrong, I remember being touched to receive the gift. My dad had clearly listened to me prattle on (and on) about my burgeoning intellectual interests. I just must not have been clear enough in stating them. You see, at the time I liked to insist that I studied African Americans and Catholics, not African American Catholics. (It was a distinction that made perfect sense to my grad-student self and that I took to be very important.) I didn't "do" black Catholic history. I was interested in the ways African Americans and Catholics had been imagined as Other than "America/n." I've since removed this artificial (not to mention problematic) distinction. I am now invested in the study of black Catholic history. And I now love to look back at this gift and recall how neither my dad nor I knew that the book I held in my hands had launched a generation of scholarship.

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of BCUS - the Institute for Black Catholic Studies (Xavier University of Louisiana) unveiled the forthcoming 25th anniversary edition in April. Sadly, this month (May 18) marked the passing of Cyprian Davis, the black Benedictine monk who wrote the book that founded black Catholic history as we know it. What better time to pause and reflect on the legacies of the book and its author?

NBC’s The Voice finds Religion

John L. Crow

I don’t watch a lot of television. It’s not that I think TV is bad, it is just not a high priority for me. There was one exception these past few months, NBC’s The Voice. I, like millions of others, tuned into this singing competition weekly to hear the latest songs and watch the drama of contestants either surviving another week or leaving the show. I have been watching the voice for the last three or four seasons and I have never lost interest. A couple weeks ago season eight concluded with a new reigning artist who wins cash and a recording contract. This is how it is every season. In many ways, season eight was very much like season seven. However there was one way that season eight was different and that was the quantity of religious references, song choices, and appeals to religious constituency to support artists. This was such a change from the normally secular format of the show that one of the judges, Pharrell Williams, repeatedly thanked the show’s producers for allowing them “the freedom” to discuss religion.

Numerous artists performed songs with Christian themes. These included Meghan Lindsey performing “Amazing Grace” and Deanna Johnson performing “Down to the River to Pray”—made famous by the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. However the artist that was most overt about her Christian background was Koryn Hawthorne, a seventeen year old from a small town in Louisiana. While a number of songs generally spoke to her faith, it was her renditions of “How Great Thou Art” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” that has attracted the most attention. After singing “Oh Mary,” her coach, Pharrell Williams, said, “After seeing that performance, it’s like you realize that the impossible is just a word, because it can be done, and dreams can come true, and honestly, what you just did showed everybody back home the reason why not only should they vote, but anything is possible when you put God first.” It was this kind of language by which Williams appealed directly to Christians and “those who love gospel” to support Hawthorne that really mobilized a religious base to support Hawthorne and vote her into the finale. Moreover, their renditions of these songs continue to be popular within the Christian community even after the show has ended. As I write this, Megan Lindsey’s “Amazing Grace” is #1 on Billboard’s chart for Christian Digital Songs and Koryn Hawthorne’s “How Great Thou Art” is #1 on the Gospel Digital Songs chart and has been at #1 for multiple weeks. For the finale, Williams wrote a song just for Hawthorne, he said it was inspired by her faith. Entitled “Bright Fire,” Williams said that the song “feels good” because “it feels like sunshine.” He added, “just like the lyrics say, He is our bright fire, God!”

5 Questions for Leah Payne: Gender, Pentecostalism & the X-Files Re-boot

Arlene Sanchez-Walsh

I'm taking time today to interview a scholar of gender, Pentecostalism and performance theory is a great pleasure!  Where were all these neat theoretical ideas when I was writing my dissertation?  This is Leah’s first book, for readers contemplating adding readings, or better yet, assigning a new text that covers gender, Pentecostalism, and performance…you would do well to consider dropping a few bucks on Leah’s book & for those of us who perpetually lament the lack of women scholars on our reading lists, in our libraries and in our mutual networks---a chance to put your activism into action.

5 Questions for Leah Payne on her new book Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism: Making a Female Ministry in the Early Twentieth Century, life in the academy, & the X-Files re-boot. 

Leah Payne received her Ph.D. in History and Critical Theories of Religion from Vanderbilt University in 2013. She is a Louisville Institute postdoctoral fellow in American Religious History and Women’s Studies at George Fox University in Portland, Oregon. Her research interests include American religious innovation, gender, race, and class construction, performance theory, and religion & popular culture. In her spare time, she blogs about coffee, television, and religious studies at

1) Gender issue within Pentecostalism are usually relegated to sub-specialties once the "real" history of great men is played out, like an addendum to the real story, how do you think your book and your future work challenges that paradigm?

That’s a great question! I think some of this relegation happens because scholars of Pentecostalism do not think gender theory has potential to give insight to the movement in ways that are just as powerful as the “great men” approach. Hopefully, with time and more gender-conscious scholarship, students of Pentecostalism will see that investigating gender construction shows us a lot about how and why the movement changed over time. Also, as I wrote Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism, I found that questions about gender led me to other helpful questions. If the creation of womanliness and manliness shaped the movement, how about sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, etc.? I hope that my book demonstrates that applying gender theory to the history of Pentecostalism shows us aspects of the movement that intellectual histories of “great men” might otherwise miss.

2) I have found some pretty striking similarities between Pentecostal pioneers like Maria Atkinson, Sister Aimee, and Kathryn Kuhlman to name a few. They all had problems with their marriages, and yet they were venerated as saintly women by their followers, what do you make of this gendered conception of marriage and divorce.

Forgetting Why We Remember

Paul Harvey

Just a brief interruption in our normal schedule for a reminder of the true origins of Memorial Day, from Charleston, South Carolina just after the Civil War. We first posted about it here four years ago. This classic David Blight short piece "Forgetting Why We Remember gets circulated by historians around this time each year, but we'll have to keep doing it until it reaches public consciousness:

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

Read the rest here,  or you can watch Blight tell the story in a short recorded lecture snippet here.  

Important, not Particular: A Reflection on Religion in 21st-Century America


Charles McCrary

Note: This post is adapted from one I wrote for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog last year about Winnifred Sullivan’s book A Ministry of Presence. See the original post here. For more on the book, see Kolby Knight’s review at the Bulletin and Mike Graziano’s here at RiAH.

According to the new Pew study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 6.9% of respondents identified their religious affiliation or belief as “nothing in particular” and also reported that religion was somewhat or very important to their lives. For a minute, let’s set aside questions about the reliability of the survey, the phrasing of the questions, whether the “nones” exist and/or matter, and why we need to distinguish between Older and Younger Millennials (I’m in the latter camp apparently, and I feel [insert emoji] about that.) For now, let’s think about how these people—a group Pew labeled the “Nothing in particulars (religion important)”—came to their position, or at least how that position became possible. At first, this position struck me as funny. Who could believe deeply and sincerely in nothing in particular? What does a life look like when the belief and practice of nothing in particular is central to it? And perhaps it is funny. But it might also tell us something about the state of “religion” in the United States. In a couple weeks at the Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, a panel and audience will consider the question, “What do we mean by ‘religion’ in a time of ‘spirituality,’ ‘lived religion,’ and ‘non-religion’”? The answer I’d give: nothing in particular, and it’s very important.

We are all Nothing in particulars (religion important) now.

David Sehat on The Jefferson Rule

Today's guest post comes from David Sehat. David is an associate professor at Georgia State University and author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Readers of the blog will probably recall that Paul was quite excited about this book's release. He interviewed David in anticipation of Myth's publication, he announced when it was published, he alerted us to the extended conversation about it and he celebrated when the RiAH bump was confirmed David won the much deserved Frederick Jackson Turner Award.

With this post, the tradition of featuring David's work continues as he gives us a look into his new book The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible. Readers can find new interviews with David about his work here and here as well as his S-USIH post about "Why We Should Stop Talking about the Founding Fathers."

David Sehat

American politics is often like religion.  It is an arena of orthodoxies.  It employs liturgies for different occasions.  It leans upon a secular priesthood to run its affairs.  And, above all, it promotes veneration of the sacred.  Sometimes the notion of the sacred is attached to the nation, which is understandable even if it is not something that I feel.  But what I find more remarkable is that American politics promotes the veneration of the Founding Fathers.  That “assembly of demigods,” in Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, has been given supernatural wisdom, uncanny virtue, and sagacious foresight into the distant future.  They have become the phantasmagorical leaders of the American revolutionary promise and the architects of the American creed.

Their mythos began just a few years after their death. In the 1840s, as he was beginning to edit his grandfather’s papers, Charles Francis Adams complained, “We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves. . . . We are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them . . . certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities.”  As the Founders actual lives faded into the past, he realized that popular memory filled in the gaps in often astounding ways.

Consider the case of George Washington.  His myth began with his body barely in the ground.  “Washington, you know[,] is gone!” the writer Mason Locke Weems exclaimed to his publisher when he heard the news.  “Millions are gaping to read something about him.”  Fortunately, Weems claimed to have begun collecting tales about Washington six months past and was ready to satisfy popular demand.  The resulting book, which was based on evidence that was slim at best and more often simply fabricated, solidified Washington’s reputation not as a remote and stoic political leader in a deferential age (which he was), but instead as an honorable, virtuous, and sentimentalized Christian.  Weems claimed to be rejecting “Washington the hero, and the Demi-god” for Washington the real man, but he offered a version of the man who was just as heroic in many ways.  Here is the origin of the bizarre tales of Washington’s boyhood, including the one of him cutting down his father’s cherry tree.  When confronted by his father about the tree, Weems has Washington responding, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know that I can’t tell a lie.” Washington then confesses to cutting down the tree, and his father rejoices in the opportunity to see his son’s immaculate honesty.  (It was this story that prompted Mark Twain to claim of Washington: “He was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth.  He could not even lie.”)

Quakers to Know: Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader and George Fox White

Carol Faulkner

In my post for this month and next, I will highlight the careers of some nineteenth- and twentieth-century Quakers. My hope is to inspire readers to include more Quakers on their American and religious history syllabi and expand the historical perspective beyond a few famous Quakers like John Woolman, Elias Hicks, and Lucretia Mott (though Mott should be everywhere!).

In some ways, this post might be considered a follow-up to Laura Leibman's on the impact of scholarly articles. The two Quakers for today, Priscilla Hunt Cadwalader and George Fox White, are both courtesy of the scholarship of Tom Hamm, Professor of History at Earlham College, and author of The Transformation of American Quakerism. Hamm's article on Cadwalader appeared in the Journal of the Early Republic (Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall 2008), and his essay on White is in the recent collection Quakers and Abolition, edited by Brycchan Carey and Geoffrey Plank. Both Cadwalader and White were allies of Elias Hicks, and Hamm's essays illuminate the complex personal and political dynamics of the Hicksite split and its aftermath.

After she became a minister in 1817, Priscilla Coffin Hunt's career, like Lucretia Mott's, was bound up in the schism. During the 1820s, Quakers divided over the abusive power of the elders, their reliance of the Bible instead of the inward light, and their attachment to worldly wealth and influence, including that produced by slavery. Elias Hicks called on Quakers to return to the principle of the inward light. In many ways, Priscilla was the female Hicks, traveling from her home meeting in Indiana around the country to criticize the Orthodox (or evangelical) Quaker leaders. Hamm quotes from one of her Philadelphia sermons:

Roman Sources for the History of American Catholicism: A New Perspective


This month Cushwa welcomes Matteo Binasco, who has been working as a postdoctoral fellow based in Rome since September 2014. He holds a PhD from the National University of Ireland in Galway, and his research focuses on missionary expansion within the Atlantic area; Irish communities within the Italian peninsula; and Irish communities in the Caribbean during the early modern period. Matteo recently helped to organize a symposium in Rome on Roman Sources for the Study of Global Irish Catholicism. His primary project for Cushwa, however, has been the massive task of compiling a guide for English-speaking historians to the many archives of Rome, including those of religious orders and Vatican congregations, which can shed light on the history of American Catholicism and indeed, as with the example he gives of a letter from a Union officer, on American history in general.

Matteo Binasco

Since September 2014 I have been involved in a new exciting research project, supervised by Professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings in cooperation with Professor Luca Codignola and Professor Matteo Sanfilippo, which aims to prepare a guide to Roman archival sources related to the history of American Catholicism for the period from 1763 until 1939.

View of Rome, taken just outside the Archives of Propaganda Fide
This project follows a path which was first laid out almost a century ago. In 1911, American historian Carl Russell Fish set the agenda by publishing his Guide to the Materials for American History in Roman and Other Italian Archives. His Guide was a remarkable work which was completed within a very short time. In its broad geographical scope Fish included all documents related to North America, the Caribbean, and the northern part of Mexico.

Fish's Guide opened a research path that, since the mid-1960s, has been progressively expanded thanks to the research carried out by a series of American, Canadian, and Italian historians who have worked in the main religious archives of Rome, namely the Vatican Secret Archives and the archives of the Sacred Congregation "de Propaganda Fide." The latter was the Roman ministry founded in 1622 to oversee missionary activity in Protestant and non-Christian regions. These investigations resulted in the publication of articles, books, and essays, but also guides, among which L'Amérique du Nord française dans les archives religieuses de Rome, published in 1999, stands out.[1] This guide, which covers the years from 1600 to 1922, provides the best overview of the Roman sources for the history of the Catholic church in Canada to date and includes a number of items of interest for US historians.

What Would Jesus Read?

Today's post comes from Kyle Williams, a PhD student at Rutgers University studying American cultural and intellectual history. This is Kyle's first post at the blog, so please give him a warm welcome! 

Kyle Williams

Hal Lindsey’s editor at Zondervan initially told him to keep his expectations for sales low. Another Bible prophecy book probably was not going to be that remarkable. The market, he said, was already flooded with them. His readers would be curious evangelicals, Dispensationalist ministers and laypeople, and whoever else might find themselves at a Christian bookstore. The future of Lindsey’s book looked decent, maybe, but predictable. The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), of course, actually turned out to be anything but typical. Instead of going out of print, it was the bestselling book of the decade, with ten million copies in circulation by 1980. Instead of being a book for Christian readers alone, it enjoyed enormous crossover appeal. And its success was immediate—Zondervan did eight printings in less than six months and had over 130,000 copies in print within a year—and long-lasting—tens of millions of copies sold over subsequent decades.

What, exactly, was so appealing about The Late Great Planet Earth? Many critics and theologians considered it a dumbed-down version of a dubious eschatology. They tended to think of its readers as little more than “cultural dopes,” to use Stuart Hall’s term, willing to believe incredible interpretations of Biblical prophecy. Martin Marty, for example, from his perch at Christian Century wrote sarcastically that in place of his elementary school atlas, “which had taught me love of the earth,” he could substitute Lindsey’s book because it “teaches that because Jesus is coming soon, I should hate the earth and love not the things of the world.”

It is easy to look back on The Late Great Planet Earth and find many things to criticize or poke fun at, not the least of which was its evidently mistaken eschatological timetable. Hal Lindsey’s crude interpretation of the prophecies of Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel apparently did not come to pass in the 1980s. But as Erin A. Smith, an associate professor of American studies and literature at the University of Texas at Dallas, argues, to focus solely on the theological arguments or the politics of the book is to miss out on a big part of what makes it important. What we should pay attention to is the work that the book did. It engaged those who were interested in contemporary international affairs and gave them an interpretative lens by which to make sense of themselves and their world. “The book did good work,” she writes, “brought them closer to God, and helped them to convert their friends. Its theological incorrectness was easily overlooked.”

In her wide-ranging and productive new book, What Would Jesus Read?: Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press), Smith argues that historians should give more attention to the experiences of readers and the ways in which religious books were useful to them and engaged their “daily lives in immediate, material ways.” Smith works at the intersection of several fields, including the history of the book and consumer culture, but she takes her inspiration for this impressively comprehensive book from scholars of lived religion, such as David Hall, who have studied religious print culture in the colonial and antebellum periods. What Would Jesus Read? spans the twentieth century, considering in their turn social gospel novels, consumeristic religious books of the 1920s, mid-century religious self-help books, the evangelical “culture of letters” in the 1970s-80s, and finally new gnostic texts and books for spiritual seekers in the 1990s and 2000s.

Religion and Advertising in the 1970s

Elesha Coffman

As soon as the Mad Men finale wrapped up Sunday night, my religion nerd friends started chattering about how one might teach the episode in a class. (If you have not watched the episode, stop reading now. Actually, you'd better just step away from the Internet for a few days.) It occurred to me that we were not the first clever folks to spot deep connections between advertising and spirituality in American culture. Religion-minded folks in the 1970s probably noticed, too.

Here, then, is a quick roundup of short archival resources one might use when discussing the confluence of Esalen, Coca-Cola, and Don Draper's eternal return. You're welcome.

On the essential incompatibility between moral earnestness and commercialization:

"You probably saw it too--the hour-long Simon and Garfunkel TV program around Christmas time [1969]. I think Simon and Garfunkel songs are very good. But what struck me about the TV program was not the songs, nor even the ads, but the amazing contrast between the songs and the ads. Fifteen minutes of sensitive, probing folk songs, and then a hair spray ad. Then fifteen more minutes of strong songs protesting a sick society with its priorities grossly out of order, and then another hair spray ad: For the woman with never a lick out of place. ...

"That seems to be our way with dissent in our society. We don't seriously respond to it. Nor do we seriously try to stamp it out. We muffle it by giving it commercial value."

-- Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Protest and Hair Spray," Reformed Journal 20.2 (Feb. 1970), 5.

Zen and the Art of Cultural Commodification

Sarah E. Dees

Yes, it is possible to hold the sacred. To feel it. To breathe it in. I have spritzed it around my classroom; students have generally found the smell to be pleasant, if slightly reminiscent of Big Red gum.

I recently purchased a two-ounce bottle of Sacred Space from Urban Outfitters, America’s finest purveyor of culturally insensitive fashion and home decor. (“TO USE: Mist around your room, house, car, etc., to ground, clear, & renew energies.”) Although this product may seem like little more than all-natural air freshener, the marketing of Sacred Space is interesting for students and scholars of religion and capitalism. Critics of these types of products argue that they represent a form of cultural imperialism, while those that promote these items—and benefit from their sales—argue that they are honoring a community or a way of life. The problem is that, while this item in particular draws on imagery and symbolism vaguely associated with Indigenous spirituality, it is unmoored from a particular cultural community.

Journal of Southern Religion releases Volume 17

Emily Suzanne Clark

With a lot of excitement, I am happy to announce the release of Volume 17 of the Journal of Southern Religion! Volume 17 contains two new peer-reviewed articles and eleven book reviews. Volume 17 is also the beginning of something new for the JSR: rolling release. With this volume we are going to start taking advantage of our digital format in a new way. Instead of releasing one volume a year, we are going to push content to the JSR site multiple times a year in order to make awesome southern religion content available to readers like you sooner and more frequently. In the pipeline for later this year is some new work on southern religion and the Atlantic world.

Announcement: May 21 Deadline for R&AC Conference Special Rates

We interrupt the regular blog schedule to make a brief but important announcement from Philip Goff, Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture.

May 21 is the deadline for special rates for registration and rooms at the JW Marriott Hotel. The Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture is slated for June 4-7, 2015, and online registration is now open.

Until May 21, registration fees are $60 for students and $110 for professionals. Thereafter the fees will be $85 and $135, respectively.

A special conference rate of $99 per night (plus taxes) has been made available for a block of rooms thanks to support from Lilly Endowment. That special rate will end once that block of rooms is sold out, but rooms must be booked by May 21. The rate will then be the JW Marriott’s regular rate.

Register and make your hotel registration at The full slate of sessions and speakers is available on the website.

Photo Credit: Daniel Schwen, "Central Canal and Indianapolis skyline," 2008

Summer Writing Group 2015!

Laura Arnold Leibman

Each summer do you get started on a research project only to set it aside when school begins?  Do you have a “revise and resubmit” article that you never revised or never resubmitted? Could this be the summer you break the cycle?  Do you feel isolated and wish you had people who would read your work and respond in constructive ways?

Join us for the second annual year of the Online Writing Group! (Read the call for last year's group here.)  The internet is the often disparaged for creating connections that are fleeting and false (how many of your facebook friends do you actually know?).  Last year, however, our online group showed that we can also use digital tools to forge real connections.  As Gretchen Rubin suggests, “People succeed in groups.”  Not only do we thrive by feeling supported by others, but also when people in our group succeed, their success make us more likely to succeed ourselves (Happiness Project 243).

This summer we will once again be using Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks.  Whether you are a graduate student or a seasoned writer, Belcher has tips that will improve your writing and work habits.  One change that we will be making for summer 2015 is that our duo theme will be accountability and creativity.  How can the group help us maximize accountability so that we finish our projects?  How can we use the group's supportive atmosphere to help us get past self-sabotaging and fears of failure, risk, and shame so that we can maximize our creativity?

What’s the plan?

Guy Carawan, 1927-2015

Paul Harvey

Just a brief follow-up to the previous post on the work about Mississippi. Previously I had meant to post something about the passing of Guy Carawan, but had not done so. But what I would have written has pretty well been covered by Daniel Silliman here, so just a quick recommendation of his post. From the post:
Carawan was the music director of the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in East Tennessee, co-founded by Southern students of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Carawan was part of the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village, in New York, and was first sent to Highlander by Pete Seeger. He took over as music director in 1959 and, the next year, was present at the founding of the SNCC. 

He provided the group with the music that came to define the movement.

Keep reading here.

One Mississippi, Two Mississippi

Paul Harvey

Just a brief note today about a book that I haven't seen discussed elsewhere, yet: Carol V. R. George, One Mississippi, Two Mississippi: Methodists, Murder, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Neshoba County.

This work is primarily a study of Mt.Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County, known now primarily for its role as a center of voting registration at the beginning of Freedom Summer in 1964. Klan members, in conjunction with local law enforcement, beat and tortured church members, looking for information on civil rights workers, and burned down the church, The investigation of the burning brought three young men out to the church grounds -- Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. You know the rest of the grim story. Or, you may think you do, but it's precisely the point of this book to provide historical details, context, and local history that immeasurably enriches the story.

H-Net Book Review and MSUL Research Opportunties

Today's guest post comes from Bobby Smiley, the Digital Scholarship and American History Librarian at the Michigan State University Libraries. Before joining the MSUL in November 2013, he was a library science and digital humanities graduate student at the Pratt Institute, where he also interned at Columbia working on the NYC Religion web archiving project. Previously, Bobby received his M.A. in Religion from Yale, where he studied with Kathryn Lofton, and researched changing historiographical trends in American Church/religious history using Sydney Ahlstrom’s lecture notes. His current research interests include finding ways to read algorithmically historiographical patterns at scale and over time, intersections between the popular and the religious, and exploring how digital humanities and academic librarianship can be usefully conjoined.

Bobby Smiley

After some time in abeyance, I am excited to announce the revival of the Book Reviews section for the H-Net network, H-AmRel. H-Net (Humanities & Social Sciences Online) is one of the earliest online communities for scholarly discussion, with manifold networks covering areas in the humanities and social sciences. Hosted at Michigan State University’s History Department, H-Net is best known for its numerous disciplinary listservs, as well as posting CFPs, job postings, and books reviews.

The H-AmRel Reviews network has been, to be charitable, pretty moribund in the past decade (last review added in 2004). Since becoming its new editor in April, I’ve been actively soliciting reviewers, and I’m about to post our first review (on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America with several more in the hopper. However, I encourage and would welcome more reviewers to participate, especially, graduate students and faculty. If you’re interested in reviewing for H-AmRel Reviews, please send along a CV and writing sample (preferably of review length—1000–1200 words), and I’ll dispatch a list of our current inventory (I’m also happy to consider books not listed), and guidelines for reviews.

Mapping Ararat: A New (to me) Digital Project in the Study of Religion

Chris Cantwell

As some of the readers of this blog might be aware, I am currently in the final stages of publishing a report on emerging digital landscapes in the study of religion along with my co-conspirator Hussein Rashid. The report, commissioned by the Social Science Research Council for it's Religion in the Public Sphere program, documents how the kinds of born-digital work that have transformed other disciplines is/can/should change the study of religion as well. Hussein and I are currently completing revisions on the report, so look for a more formal announcement soon.

As part of the research for this report, I had the privilege of looking into a number of digital projects and talking to a number of lead scholars and project directors. The finished report will come with an appendix listing the projects Hussein and I found, but for my post today I want to highlight a project that particularly caught my eye. The project is called Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homelands Project, and it's part research, part art, and part speculative geography. But it's all fascinating and is one of the most innovative projects I found in writing the report.

Interview with Adam H. Becker, Author of Revival and Awakening

Samira K. Mehta

Adam H. Becker, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Awakenings in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

In Revival and Awakening, Becker explores the role of American Evangelical missionaries in the development of nationalism among modern Assyrians. He explores how their experience of modernity encouraged them to explore, define, and reclaim their ancient heritage, a task they undertook largely through scriptural and archeological skills learned in missionary run schools. 

SKM: This book is a departure, in many ways, from your training and previous scholarship on the ancient world. What was the germinating question that brought it about?  

AHB: My training was primarily in Latin and Greek language and literature as well as religion in the ancient world, but already in graduate school I had begun to focus on the Syriac (Christian Aramaic) tradition. Members of the Syriac churches historically lived in what is now Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, Syriac Christianity also spread widely in the Medieval period, for example, into India and deep into Central Asia. Much of my published work has been on the Church of the East, the so-called “Nestorians” (or East Syrians), who made up just one of these Syriac churches. Within the Classical Syriac tradition we do not find strong evidence for an ongoing Assyrian identity and yet for the last century many Syriac Christians, particularly members of the Church of the East, have identified themselves - and their ancestors - as Assyrians. Most of us only know about the Assyrians as the bad guys in the Bible, the evil empire whom God uses to punish the Israelites or as the creators of a certain style of archeological remains (unfortunately familiar of late because ISIS has been bent on publicly destroying these remains). However, there is also the contemporary Assyrians, a vibrant ethno-religious community who identify with this ancient past. I began this project with a straightforward question. I wanted to understand where this identification with the ancient Assyrians came from. Some scholars had already suggested in passing that it seemed to derive from contact with Western missionaries. I wanted to look more closely at this encounter and at the same time in 2007, because I am a language geek, I was curious about learning Neo-Aramaic, the written form of which Western missionaries promoted through printing (most writing done before the nineteenth century by members of the Church of the East was in Classical Syriac, which functioned as Latin did in the Catholic Church). I read numerous Neo-Aramaic publications of the American mission, particularly the monthly periodical they published from 1849 onwards. I also began going through the ABCFM archive, as well as travelogues, journals, and material from other missions. I found that my initial question was not that interesting because it was easily answered: Yes, it looks like an important conduit for information about the ancient Assyrians came through missionaries’ mediation of ancient near eastern archeology and oriental studies. However, by this point my question had changed. I realized that the content of Assyrian national identity was not the issue. Various nationalisms, particularly those in the Middle East, rely heavily on a retrieved past. The important issue had become how at the American mission a certain configuration of modernity was construed such that nationalism could emerge. 

Religion in (and beyond) Lake Wobegon

Jonathan Den Hartog

It is good to see some reports start to roll in from the American Society of Church History's Spring Meeting this past month in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thanks to Barton Price for the In God's House review!

Image result for kensington rune
The Kensington Rune Stone
This post draws from my involvement in the conference, where I had the privilege of chairing a really phenomenal panel, entitled "Religion in Lake Wobegon: Reviving the Study of a Lost Region."  The panel was thematically connected and produced great conversation. RiAH's Paul Putz led off with tracing the significance of the Midwest for vaulting the African-American woman evangelist Lena Mason to national prominence. Then, David Krueger told the fascinating story about how the Kensington Rune Stone--a stone purporting that Viking explorers traveled to Minnesota before Columbus--served not only ethnic and community purposes, but religious ones. The "Viking Martyrs" became potential Minnesota heroes at a time of cultural upheaval and Cold War uncertainty. David Zwart followed with a presentation on how church commemorations throughout the Midwest both created corporate memory and signaled beliefs about the wider world. The highlight of David's talk was undoubtedly his invocation of histories from both Pella and Sully, Iowa. Michael Lansing of Augsburg College offered an extremely insightful commentary, not only on the papers, but of the challenges of the New Midwestern History generally.

Both David and Michael have forthcoming books--be sure to put them on your reading list!

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Second Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa
The conclusion from our panel was the need to add complexity to our religious stories of the Midwest. That is, we need to go beyond the simple stories told by Garrison Keillor about Lake Wobegon. In going beyond Lake Wobegon, we could draw on other panels from the ASCH meeting, where Matthew Miller described Eastern Christianity in contemporary Minnesota, or Betty Bergland described Norwegian Lutheran outreach to Indians, or Mark Granquist described relations with African immigrants in Minnesota, or Bill Douglas regaled his hearers with stories of the Protestant minister, Catholic priest, and Jewish Rabbi who barnstormed Iowa during the Great Depression to promote more inter-religious toleration.

From my understanding, this desire to "Go Beyond Lake Wobegon" also featured prominently at the Midwestern History Association meeting last week. Perhaps subsequent correspondents can give insight there.

In helping us think beyond Lake Wobegon, I include my opening comments, which point to religious diversity in Lake Wobegon, or, if not Lake Wobegon, at least Anoka, Minnesota:

I started with a familiar line: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown...”

(That didn't generate the waves of applause I was hoping for, but perhaps it was too early in the morning, or the fact that we weren't meeting at the Fitzgerald Theater.)

Now, in addition to simply seeing if that could get some audience participation, let me begin by saying Lake Wobegon IS my hometown, or just about.

Garrison Keillor grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, which is literally just a few miles from my house, down Highway 14 and across the town-line. Since Keillor built his evocation of Midwestern life on his memories of Anoka, I think I can claim that Lake Wobegon is pretty close to my current hometown.
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As this panel’s catchy title suggests, we’re turning our attention to Midwestern History. This is very appropriate for a conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We’re acting as part of a larger attempt to reclaim a “lost region’s” history. That is, this panel has grown up specifically to further understand the Midwest. For those paying attention, there is a stirring for a “New Midwestern History” to remedy the lack of sufficient attention to a major American regional experience. There are solid historical considerations of the South, the West, New England, and the Pacific, but minimal exposure for the Midwest. This movement has gained more traction in the past year with Jon Lauck’s book The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History and the founding of the Midwestern Historical Association.

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