Some Great New Work in American Religious History

By John Fea

Cross-posted at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

I recently returned from the Winter meeting of the Louisville Institute where I had a chance to meet younger scholars who are doing some amazing work in American religious history. There are some great new projects out there which, if all goes well (and I have no reason to believe it will not) should be showing up in monographs somewhere in the next five to ten years. Here are three of the projects that I had the privilege of engaging over the course of the last day or two:

Alison Greene, Yale University: "'No Depression in Heaven: Religion in Memphis and the Delta, 1929-1941."

Alison described the Great Depression as a "watershed moment in American religious history." She focuses on the black and white residents of Memphis and the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta "tracing the Depression-era theological reorientation among laypeople and clergy, the corresponding changes in the relationship between belief and social action, and the shifts in power among American religious bodies." Religious leaders in the Delta responded to the economic crisis in several ways. Some stressed evangelism. Others "blended evangelism with social services." And a small group, driven by the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr and others, critiqued capitalism and its "particular abuses in the South." In my opinion, the genius behind Alison's work is the way it is situated and grounded in a particular place--the Mississippi Delta. She has visited over twenty archives in her research and thus probably knows more about the twentieth-century religious history of this region than anyone else alive. Her finished work is going to make a major contribution to American religious history and southern history.

In honor of Alison's work, here is the Carter family:

Christopher Cantwell, Cornell University: "The Adult Bible Class Movement and the Transformation of Evangelical America."
Chris studies American evangelicalism and fundamentalism at the turn of the 20th century through the work of an organization known as the Adult Bible Class Movement." It should be stated up front that this is NOT an institutional history. The Adult Bible Class Movement, led by a charismatic leader named Frank Wood, claimed over five million members in the 1920s. Chris has found a wonderful window into evangelicalism and fundamentalism during this period. Not only does the Adult Bible Class Movement allow us to see fundamentalism from the perspective of the laity (men and women), but it provides much insight into the way fundamentalists organized for labor reform, prohibition, and other progressive causes. Chris's project has the potential to challenge a dominant narrative of American fundamentalism that is mostly concerned with clergy and ideas.

Brendan Pietsch, Duke University: "Dispensational Modernism."
Pietsch's work connects the dispensational movement within American fundamentalism (C.I. Scofield plays a prominent role in the dissertation) to what he calls "popular beliefs about the power of quantification, classification, and scientific analysis." He connects all those great dispensationalist charts dealing withthe "end times" to what he calls "classificatory desire" in popular culture. He is not as much concerned with the minutiae of dispensational theology as he is the way in which new styles of organization and management and architectural drawing may have influenced the movement. As he puts it: "dispensationalists labored to chart anew the spiritual world through own scientific methods."

I look forward to reading these books down the road.


Thanks for the cross-post, John. I look forward to following these intriguing works.
John G. Turner said…
I heard Chris Cantwell's presentation at the recent ASCH; it was superb.
DEG said…
Those look like some great new studies. Thanks for the heads-up!

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