Conference Recap: Uses of Religion in 19th Century Studies

Charles McCrary

Last week I attended the Uses of Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference at the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University. Organized by Josh King and deftly and seamlessly facilitated by the Library staff and numerous volunteers, the conference was a small gathering featuring eight panels of three papers each. In my post today, I’ll say a few brief things about the content of the conference itself, but I’ll also spend some time considering the conference format—small meetings versus large ones, specializations and subfields, and interdisciplinary conversation.

The conference topic—Uses of Religion in Nineteenth Century Studies—could be understood in a number of ways. Should we read it with “religion” in quotes? As in, the way the category has been operationalized? And, if so, do we mean how it functioned in the nineteenth century, or in the study thereof? Or both? And if we’re not talking about the word “religion,” then what are we talking about? OK, I could write more questions, but we get the idea. The short answer is, I suppose, “all of the above.” The conference participants came from a number of backgrounds, though most were in literary studies, and a number of countries around the world. A majority of the presentations focused on British literature in some capacity, often on themes of religious forms in supposedly “secular” literature or the way religious groups used texts to make political arguments. Secularism (and secularization) was a constant theme, though sometimes more explicitly than others. While my background is in neither literature nor British studies, I found all the presentations engaging, enriching, and thought-provoking. I’ll highlight just a few here before moving on to a more general discussion of conference formats.

I moderated an excellent panel on “Concepts of Religion(s),” featuring Arie Molendijk, Jeff Morrow, and Bart Scott, each of whom was sharing material related to books out this year. This panel, as a whole, spent the most time with “religion” in scare quotes, tracing histories of how, in the late nineteenth century, religion and religions were theorized, classified, and ranked—and then what to do with them, or it. Molendijk focused on Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East, gleaning from them a theory of religion that hinged on textualization and comparison as well as the naturalization of religion within individual subjects. Morrow spoke on Albert Loisy’s theory of religion and efforts to privatize it, a project that resulted in his excommunication in 1910, after his support for France’s 1905 law secularizing public schools, Pope Pius X’s 1907 condemnation of modernism, and other incidents, included being a bit too buddy-buddy with an atheist prince who recommended Loisy to be a bishop in Monaco. Scott explained how Keshub Chunder Sen used Christian ideas to develop his theory of “conjunctive religion.” The “Spirit Christ” could transcend both the Western and Asiatic Christs, and thus could help to bring Europe and India together. In all three papers we saw how historical actors used the concept of religion(s) to engage in political projects, from the revitalization of the “true church” to the secularization of the public sphere to the renunciation of certain Indian leaders as perpetuators of “priestcraft.” Religion, in these three papers as well as in many others throughout the conference, provided grammars and vocabularies that could be employed across a variety of arenas.

Other highlights, for me, included Dominic Erdozain’s paper that offered, to quote his abstract, “a reading of Marx that eschews the tired polarity of religion and the secular for a more elastic history of ‘conscience,’” as well as Joy Dixon’s look at the centrality of sex to late Victorian anthropologists’ and psychologists’ theories of religion and its origins. A number of papers focused on material culture and uses of print, such as family bibles. Others focused on visual art and architecture. Dominic Janes presented a paper on Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s opposition to gothic architecture. He instead favored the architectural and aesthetic “simplicity” of classical style, which some nineteenth-century critics derided as “pagan” and, upon seeing images of Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, some audience members found, well, not so “simple.”
Metropolitan Tabernacle, built 1861

Speaking of architecture and aesthetics, the Armstrong Browning Library was an ideal setting for such a conference. At one point, Charles LaPorte read some Browning lines that happened to be depicted on a stained glass window right behind him. In addition to being a beautiful space, the Library offered many manuscripts and other research materials relevant to the topics discussed. The library staff had laid out archival materials related to speakers’ talks, in digital as well as physical form. (See the digital exhibit here.) As each speaker began, the library tweeted a link to the part of the online exhibit that was relevant to that speaker’s talk. A conference archive, compiled by Jade Werner, complete with descriptions and video of each talk, will be made available soon.

I want to close with a few brief remarks on the size and scope of conferences. With the exception of a conference on religion and law hosted at Florida State in March 2013, the Uses of Religion Conference was the only one I’ve attended with only one panel in each time slot. Every participant was in the audience for each panel, and so the conversation built on itself from panel to panel, and from meal to meal. It reminded me of a good seminar, when by the middle of the semester the class has established a set of questions and a shared vocabulary and set of referents and the conversations are just richer. It was like that, but over the course of a few days. Elesha recently wrote about the ASCH, AAR, AHA, and their annual meetings. While her post raised a number of questions, perhaps they called all be addressed by asking, “What is the point of an academic conference?” (Or, of an academic society.) Of course, there are many points, and there is tremendous value in attending large conferences, which include seeing old friends, meeting new people, and, theoretically, advancing one’s career. And there’s so much to see! At AAR or AHA there are dozens and dozens of panels at the same time. The result of such plentiful options, though, at least for me, often means that I don’t branch out enough. There might be five interesting panels in a time slot, but I attend the one I really should see, because it’s closest to my area of study. At the Uses of Religion Conference, I saw papers I normally would not, and I met and had meals with people I would not have at a large conference. In this way, a small specialists’ conference actually can entail more intellectual and social variety than a huge one. As many scholars and societies emphasize interdisciplinary collaboration and conversation, they might realize that perhaps the best way to facilitate those interactions is not by putting everyone in a convention center, but by inviting a small number into the same room.


Elesha said…
Great thoughts, Charlie! I could imagine ASCH sponsoring or co-sponsoring a meeting like this.
Charlie McCrary said…
Thanks, Elesha. It does seem like a small meeting like this, organized around a theme, with ASCH sponsoring and some institution hosting, would be a good option, perhaps especially for the spring meeting (though I haven't been to a spring meeting before.)
esclark said…
With full disclosure that I too haven't attended an ASCH spring meeting, I think this sounds like an intriguing idea.