Incorporating Religion into the U.S. History Survey

Andrea L. Turpin

I’m trying something new this semester. After six years of teaching roughly the same books in my U.S. history survey class (1877-present), I’m changing most of them up. Yay for the time tenure provides! My motivation is two-fold. First, let’s be honest, I’m pretty sick of the ones I’ve got. They’ve worked great, but I teach this course every semester, and six years is a long time. But second, I also want to do a better job of incorporating religion into the course narrative.

This is perhaps an odd situation for someone who works at a religiously affiliated institution (Baylor). Nevertheless, while I’ve generally been happy with how I have integrated religious history into my upper-level courses, I’ve never quite found my groove with the survey. (So many topics! So little time!)

One problem is, of course, the textbook. I’ve noted in a previous post the surprising similarities I’ve found teaching fundamentalism and teaching feminism. Well, I’ve also found a similarity between how textbooks handle religion and how they handle women: the dreaded sidebar. (And don’t even get me started with how they (don’t) handle the history of education, or science….)
A notable exception is the most recent (4th edition) of the document reader Major Problems in American History, Vol. II: Since 1865, edited by Elizabeth Cobbs and Ed Blum. They purposefully incorporated more primary and secondary sources on the subject of American religious history into this edition with the result that the book is now one of the best for this topic. But I am experimenting with going without a document reader, so I was still left with the textbook problem.

Fall Preview: Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism

Benjamin J. Wetzel

(on behalf of the Cushwa Center)

As usual, the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame is hosting a lineup of events this fall that will be of wide interest to scholars of American religion.  All of the events are free and open to the public.

1) Lecture and Panel: "Land O'Lakes and Its Legacy" | Sep. 5
In 1967, Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. convened a group of Catholic educators at Land O'Lakes, Wisconsin to discuss the role of academic freedom in the modern Catholic university.  This year, the 50th anniversary of the conference, provides an appropriate occasion to reflect on the landmark report they produced, which came to be known as the Land O'Lakes Statement.  The event will feature a lecture by John T. McGreevy, I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame; and a panel discussion featuring five presidents of Catholic universities.  Details here.

2) Hibernian Lecture: "The Struggle for Ireland's Soul: Catholics Under the Penal Laws" | Sep. 22
The lecture will be delivered by Ian McBride, Foster Professor of Irish History at Hertford College, University of Oxford.  Details here

3) Seminar in American Religion | Oct. 7
This semester the seminar will discuss Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 (Knopf, 2017).  In addition to Professor Ulrich, commentators will include Patrick Mason (Claremont Graduate University) and Linda Przybyszewksi (University of Notre Dame).  Details here

4) Cushwa Center Lecture: "Father John Zahm in the Founding of Notre Dame" | Nov. 3
The lecture will be delivered by Father Thomas Blantz, C.S.C., professor of history emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, and will be part of a series of events commemorating the 175th anniversary of the founding of Notre Dame.  Details here

5) Book Panel: "Catholicism and American Borders in the Gothic Literary Imagination" | Nov. 16
This book panel, co-sponsored by Latin American/North American Church Concerns, will feature Farrell O'Gorman, professor of English at Belmont Abbey College and author of Catholicism and American Borders in the Gothic Literary Imagination (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).  Details here

For those who can't attend, Cushwa's YouTube channel now features video of most center events.  Subscribe to see videos for these and other events when they're posted.

Please direct any questions to  We look forward to seeing you at these events!

New Books in American Religious History: 2017 Year in Preview, Part Three (September-December)

Erin Bartram, William Black, Michel Sun Lee, and Moxy Moczygemba

Four of us—Erin Bartram (University of Hartford), William Black (Rice University), Michel Sun Lee (University of Texas at Austin), and Moxy Moczygemba (University of Florida)—are excited to present part three of the 2017 book preview list! This post covers releases from September through December 2017. Thank you, Paul Putz, for all your incredible work with the book lists thus far and for entrusting us with the reins. By the way, check out part one and part two if you missed them earlier this year.

As is the custom, here’s a little preface we’ve mostly borrowed from Paul: we’ve listed the books in roughly chronological order based on the month of their tentative release date. We’ve tried to include as many relevant and interesting titles as we could find, but are sure we’ve missed some worthy new books. Our reason may be that some publishers don't have updated information on their websites, or because we’ve simply missed it. Please feel free to use the comments to add to this list and we’ll update the post as needed.

We four each define "American” and “religion” a little differently. But for the purposes of these lists we follow Paul’s lead in adopting Kathryn Gin Lum's response in this IUPUI RAAC forum, where she articulated an understanding of "America" as the region that eventually became known as the United States. That definition does have problems, of course, which is why your contributions to this list—contributions which envision "America" differently—are more than welcome.

Racialized Christianity's Roots: Willie Jennings's The Christian Imagination


Racialized Christianity's Roots: The Christian Imagination
As historians, you all know this, but it's worth stating anyway: we are shaped by our contexts – theological, geographical, class, race, family, gender, national, etc.  Sometimes we begin to really see the water in which we swim by stepping into another stream.  Other times, reading about our stream's origins, its headwaters, can help us see our stream more clearly.  I study American history, my research is primarily in the twentieth century, and I don't read outside my field nearly enough.  But this summer I had the opportunity to do so with a group of Wheaton College colleagues when we read Willie Jennings's The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.  Jennings, a theologian, has written a historical piece that explores the interconnections between western Christianity, racial hierarchies, capitalism, commodification of bodies and places, and pedagogy.  Those who study religion in American history and have been shaped by – and shape – the academy will benefit from the book (although, if you're an Americanist, the only character that may be familiar is Olaudah Equiano).

Jennings shows how the racial hierarchies westerners imagined in the 15th century as they interacted with people living in South America and Africa, hierarchies that were inseparable from a theological pedagogy that assumed a one-way transfer of knowledge from the educated to the ignorant, deformed what he called "the Christian imagination."  For Jennings, "Christian imagination" refers to the possibilities of what could constitute Christianity.  These racial and pedagogical hierarchies developed in the context of mercantile capitalism, and the combination commodified bodies and land in new and detrimental ways.  

No Depression in Heaven: Greater at Length

Elesha Coffman

I have a confession to make. I have been promoting Alison Greene's No Depression in Heaven for months, whenever conversation turned to Christians' distrust of "big government," or why the Social Gospel faded, or whether churches could make up the difference for proposed federal budget cuts. (Gee, I dunno--does your church have an extra $714,000 lying around at the end of every year?) I was confident that Greene's book spoke powerfully to these discussions--but I hadn't actually read a page of it.

Now, I had read Greene's essay in the edited collection Faithful Republic: Religion and Politics in Modern America, so I knew both the crux of her argument and her skill as a writer. And I had heard lots of good things about her and her work the way one hears things in our field--at conferences, on blogs, on Facebook, etc. I say this for the benefit of any grad students suffering from imposter syndrome, or professors still suffering from imposter syndrome, especially while teaching four new preps at Podunk University, 100 miles from the nearest research library or in-field colleague. We're all magpies, picking up bits of what we need for teaching and writing and just trying to understand the world. I think it's better to be a somewhat knowledgeable participant in an important conversation than to sit it out for a lack of deep expertise.

Fortunately, Janine Giordano Drake invited me to comment on the book for this blog, making it easy to convince myself that I really should sit down and read it. The argument I had previously encountered was there: That church leaders in the Delta region, utterly unable to provide for the material needs of their communities during the Depression, eagerly sought federal assistance--until they began to feel that the government was usurping their moral authority, at which point they turned against the hand feeding them and denied that they had ever needed help anyway. This is such a potent and timely argument that, if it were all the book offered, it would be enough ... but you could get it from an essay-length piece instead. The whole book, I now know, has even more to commend it, including:

Theology and Historical Amnesia: Remembering the Great Depression

Janine Giordano Drake

[Today's post is the first of several reflections on Allison Collis Greene's No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression of Religion in the Delta. Look for another post tomorrow and yet another on Sept 9. ]

Why did Southern whites applaud Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency and the coming of the New Deal? Why did many of these same Southern whites later distance themselves from the same policies? To what extent have southern whites' attitudes toward charity, the government "dole," and the system of capitalism changed over the twentieth century?

Alison Collis Greene's heartwrenching and pathbreaking book answers all of these questions as it teaches us to parse the differences between history and memory. While many white Southerners remember government social programs as antithetical to the Christian ethics of hard work and personal responsibility, they forget that many of their own religious institutions embraced the New Deal with open arms in the depths of the Great Depression. Why did so churches do so, and why have so many of their members forgotten this embrace?

Greene's book examines the relationship between charitable institutions and the poor in the Misssippi Delta from the early twentieth century through the start of World War II. It shows that elite Southern women effected a Southern Social Gospel in the early twentieth century, particularly with regards to medical care, medical education, and aide to women and orphans. As spouses and children of prominent business owners, they always stood somewhat at odds with church teachings on the dangers of dependence upon charity and the virtues of personal responsibility. However, their work created the (albeit minimalist) infrastructure of charity that addressed the widespread onset of poverty starting in the 1920s.

This charity, as Greene teaches us with stunning detail, was never enough to actually address the depths of poverty in Memphis and the surrouding Misssippi Delta. By the time FDR took office, churches and charities throughout the South were going (or had already gone) bankrupt. Many had to spend more time attending to their creditors than to their members, not to mention to the poor outside of their churches. While Catholic and Jewish charities were able to raise a bit more money to support their communities than Protestant charities, the poor in the Missssippi Delta overall only received a small fraction of the public aide that poor people received on the average. Many Protestants realized that they relied upon voluntary donations. Without the intervention of the federal government, the future of their charities--and even their churches themselves--were not at all secure.

Greene teaches us that FDR and his programs for aide to the poor were widely welcomed by white and black Southerners as an answer to prayer. Poor, black and white Southerners shaped New Deal policy through their ready embrace of government "handouts" and programs like Social Security. However, the New Deal in the South, like in every region of the country, was largely administered by local white elites. Many administered programs to benefit white elite businesses and provide enough of a social safety net to recreate a white middling class. In short, Southern Democrats used the New Deal--and, indeed, widespread religious support for the New Deal--to preserve white supremacy. As this white middling class revived, conservative elites began rewriting the history of the Great Depression. They revived early twentieth century narratives about the problems of charity and the dangers of a powerful state. They quickly enforced a collective amnesia about the ways that their own churches had nearly faced financial and social ruin in the face of the Depression.

Why does it matter that Southern churches were "saved" by the New Deal? Why does it matter that Southern attitudes toward public aide have shifted more than most care to admit throughout the twentieth century? Historians of the New Deal, of Southern History, of American Christianity, of the Welfare State, and of African American History might each answer this question slightly differently.

I'll highlight here just one reason this study matters: Greene's work teaches us that we cannot understand shifts in religious convictions outside of the context of social history. Beliefs are powerful explanations for historical realities, but they are also quick to shift with changing circumstances. Beliefs are also as easy to forget as they are to remember. Despite how tempting it may seem to study the history of ideas--of theology--in a vacuum, Greene's work reminds me that this approach blinds us to the many forces of historical causality. We simply cannot explain shifts in religious belief without understanding the social, political and economic circumstances that supported them.

Announcement: Kelly Baker on MSNBC


Former blogmeister, Kelly J. Baker, will be on MSNBC today (August 13) at 3 PM (now!) to talk about hate crimes and modern KKK. 

Scholars of American Religion have much to say in this moment (and, of course, many of us have been talking about these issues in the classroom and on our campuses for some time). Inspired readers are welcome to send in their essays about Charlottesville or related topics/tactics for the classroom to Cara (cara [dot] burnidge [at] uni [dot] edu).

A Death, a Body, and the Living Word

Adam Park 

Jonathan Glover, circa 1948.
A foundational member of the Assemblies of God community died this Saturday. I knew him. From the United States to Sierra Leone, in fact, lots of people knew him. And for them that did, we knew that to be acquainted with Jonathan Glover was also to be acquainted with Someone else.

At just over 5-foot tall with shoes on, and 130-pounds soaking wet, the Someone else that Jonathan embodied was not easy to identify upon first glance. Unlikely vessel, perhaps. But then again, I hear, He was the least of these. What was clear, however, was that the Word inside Jonathan was bigger than he was. It overflowed incessantly. Everywhere. To anyone. He couldn't keep It in, nor did he try. Moments when Jonathan would become the Word were readily visible. His body would pulse with excitement. His short spine would stretch to hold him higher. He would spring up on the balls of his feet, lest Satan catch him on his heels. The volume and cadence of his voice would alter, rising and falling, quickening and pacing, punctuating and pausing. He would pronounce "God" differently, as though it was spelled with a "w" after the "G." A learned melody and sing-song style. The Word had an accent. Weberian charisma. The Word had charm. Jonathan had mastered a craft. Jonathan had been mastered by a craft. To watch Jonathan manifest the Word was like watching a bird in an updraft, effortlessly gliding, animated, held aloft, driven by an invisible thing.

The Fence: Mainline Protestants and Immigration Sixty Years Ago

Today's guest post comes from Nicholas T. Pruitt, a Visiting Instructor in History at Eastern Nazarene College. Pruitt recently completed a dissertation titled "Open Hearts, Closed Doors: Native Protestants, Pluralism, and the 'Foreigner' in America, 1924-1965."

Before there was talk of a wall, there was The Fence. First circulated in 1956, The Fence was a pamphlet that demonstrated sharp divisions among Americans over immigration policy. I first encountered this booklet while researching for my dissertation on white Protestant responses to immigration between 1924 and 1965. As I sifted through material from the Presbyterian Historical Archives, I came to realize that the history surrounding The Fence speaks volumes about midcentury American society and the position of white Protestants who sponsored its publication.

Many mainline Protestant leaders contributed to the public conversation surrounding the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, a bill that aimed to revamp the nation’s immigration system. While it ended Japanese exclusion, its critics pointed out that the legislation was still premised on unevenly distributed quotas based on national origins and other forms of discrimination. Congress eventually passed the bill sponsored by Nevada Senator Pat McCarran and Pennsylvania Congressman Francis Walter, but only after overriding Harry Truman’s veto. Most mainline Protestant denominations opposed the legislation, drawing upon a mix of postwar internationalism, social gospel ideals, and common concern for home missions. While the bill was being considered, the National Council of Churches (NCC) passed a statement in March 1952 calling for Congress to reform the quota system and demanding that the United States assume its global responsibilities and aid refugees. It is striking that in Truman’s veto message of McCarran-Walter, he even invoked the social gospel rhetoric of his Protestant contemporaries, claiming that the law “repudiates our basic religious concepts, our belief in the brotherhood of man.” Following its passage, the mainline periodical Christian Century questioned the law and had to fend off an angry rebuttal by McCarran, and Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam even had to answer for his criticism of the legislation before the House Un-American Activities Committee, on which Walter served, in 1953.

Thinking Seriously about “Taking Seriously”

Today's guest post comes from Haley Iliff, an MA student in the American Religious History program at Florida State. She is currently researching nineteenth-century women in the American west and their popular religious literature.

Haley Iliff

During my first year of graduate work, I wasn’t really sure what it meant to “take religion seriously,” but I was aware it was something required of me if I wanted to be a scholar. Now, about to enter my second year, I’m still not quite sure what the phrase means, but I think Charlie and Adam’s recent posts have given me a place to start thinking about “taking religion seriously” as an aspect of scholarly tone, especially the tone we take when discussion our subjects.

Historiographic Saints


Isaac Hecker, circa 1890
In the spirit of RiAH's 10 year anniversary, we welcome a guest post from historian William Cossen. You can follow him at and on Twitter @WilliamCossen.

What do historians of Catholicism owe to the saints about whom they write?

This question has been on my mind since the American Catholic Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver this past January.  Two moments at the conference together served for me as the genesis of this question.  The first moment took the form of a comment from Thomas Rzeznik during his presentation for the ACHA’s presidential roundtable, about which I have written in more detail on John Fea’s Way of Improvement Leads Home blog.  Rzeznik noted that scholars of Catholicism should remain mindful of the multiple audiences they serve through their research and writing: the academy, the institutional church, and interested laypeople.

The second moment emerged following my own panel on Catholicism and Americanism.  I had a conversation on the state of the field of Catholic history with the panel’s organizer, Erin Bartram.   Both of our papers dealt with Isaac Hecker, a central figure in the study of mid- to late nineteenth-century U.S. Catholic history, and we briefly pondered the nature of writing about an individual such as Hecker, who is presently being investigated for potential canonization.

It is obviously not uncommon for historians of Catholicism to write about men and women who have been recognized as saints by the Catholic Church.  This may be somewhat rarer in scholarship on U.S. Catholicism, which reflects the fewer canonized saints from the United States than from other countries with longer histories of an extensive Catholic presence.  There are, however, several fine examples of recent historical scholarship that include canonized (or soon-to-be canonized) Catholics as central figures in their narratives.

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