In the Beginning...What?

by Heath Carter

For the second spring in a row, I am teaching "History of Religion in the United States" at Loyola University Chicago. The class meets once a week on Thursdays from 4:15-6:45pm, meaning that I am working against not only short attention spans but also serious hunger pains and wish-it-was-Friday already syndrome.

Nevertheless, things got off to a promising start yesterday. I gave a lecture that focused on life in Pueblo New Mexico on the eve of Spanish arrival, the experience of conquest, the establishment of Franciscan doctrinas, the possibilities of resistance, etc (based mostly off of Ramon Gutierrez's When Jesus Came, The Corn Mothers Went Away (1991)). We followed that up with a discussion of Lauren Maffly-Kipp's essay, "Eastward, Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim," which can be found in Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997), edited by Thomas Tweed (I imagine most readers know of this book already, but for those who don't, it's full of provocative essays, perfect for stirring up conversation in class). You could see the wheels turning as students struggled to re-imagine American religious history outside the trope of westward expansion, which is so pervasive in high school history classrooms.

And I will admit, often in mine. While I am committed to starting somewhere other than aboard the Arbella (we get there toward the end of week 2) and was generally very pleased with the conversation yesterday, I haven't yet figured out how to weave this initial class meeting seamlessly into the rest of the course. This is mainly because I go on to foreground the nation. By dealing extensively with themes of race, class, and gender I try to move beyond the confines of older grand narratives, with their "confessional pitfalls," to borrow Maffly-Kipp's phrase. But in exploring questions about the way religion has historically shaped - and been shaped by - national political and economic currents, I do end up spending a lot of time on Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant). In this way my approach is certainly more traditional.

All this brings me to a question: where do others begin when teaching the American religious history survey? Many of the contributors to this site have participated at one time or another in IUPUI's seminar for young scholars in American religion, which you can learn more about here. Over the past twenty years this program has produced a treasure trove of syllabi for courses in American religious history, which are invaluably cataloged on the same site. For those of you who have posted syllabi there in years past, do you still begin your courses the same way? Or have you changed things up as you've gone along?


Anonymous said…
I begin by raising the question of where they think we should begin and why. But I do then start with Christopher Columbus' journal, Sublimus Deus, and Las Casas. I'm an ethicist subbing in for the person who really knows US history, though; this is a convenient choice for me but I don't pretend it's ideal.
Chas S. Clifton said…
I like Sam Gill's MOTHER EARTH: AN AMERICAN STORY, but it's a tough read for undergrads.
Susan said…
Wherever you start, please teach chronologically. While I understand the value of displacing master narratives, the value of non-confused students should be even higher. I TA'd for someone who threw chronology out the window and ended up with a mass of very confused and ultimately ill-informed students. I appreciate that Heather identifies the need to incorporate the non-Arabella starting point into the rest of the course, and I see that as a key challenge: How do we rewrite a narrative that is capacious but hangs together in lecture classes on US religion?

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