Conference Recap: Religion and Politics in Early America

Jonathan Den Hartog

I've just returned from the Religion and Politics in Early America Conference in St. Louis, and I'm still processing all the great ideas that emerged.

First, the important details: the Conference was convened by the Society of Early Americanists, and the conference organizer was Abram Van Engen, who did a fantastic job in organizing and executing the event. The conference was hosted by Washington University, and significant funding came from the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University and the Kinder Institute at the University of Missouri.

My head-line impression was the significant interest the conference generated. There was significant buzz before the conference convened, and the expectations were well met. The conference had great attendance, with attendees ranging from graduate students to very established scholars. The sessions were full of interested audiences. The success of the conference indicated to me the critical mass of scholars working at the intersection of religion and politics in the "vast" framework of early America. There is much to be investigated, but lots of sharp scholars are doing important work on many parts of the field.

This painting of the Pilgrims from the U.S. Capitol served as an iconic inspiration for the conference.

On a related note, the conference was successful in bringing together both historians and literary scholars. Although disciplinary differences were on display--in one panel: unpacking one sermon vs. treating a long genealogy of ideas vs. considering both physical and written evidence--still good efforts were made to talk across borders and gain greater insights.  Further, presenters showed how different methodologies could illuminate a shared topic.

These two pieces--the critical mass and the conversation across disciplines--point to the energy in the field. These conversations are not only important in 2018, but they point to questions of enduring concern. Those digging into the topic are making great contributions, and I expect we will continue to see great results growing from this conference into the future.

One very fruitful organizational component of the conference was the creation of several panel series, where multiple panels would address the same topic. This allowed for extended conversation and evolving understanding around common interests. So, Brian Franklin organized a series on "Religion and Politics in Early American Missions" and then fought laryngitis to see it to completion. Andrew Murphy planned a series on William Penn and Quaker legacies. Stephanie Kirk organized a series on Colonial and Global Connections, while Caroline Wigginton developed a series on material culture aspects of religion and politics. Although not officially a series, I was impressed with the several panels on Cotton Mather and Politics--Mather wrote enough to justify multiple sessions! I spent much of my time in a series that I designed with Carl Esbeck on the processes of religious disestablishment in the American states.

If you're interested, the entire conference program is here.

In addition to the general percolating of ideas, I take two benefits away. First, I'm glad for all the people with whom I was able to interact. The week-end was an on-going feast of energetic conversation. I'm glad to have met in person several Twitter acquaintances. Second, the intellectual work on the topic of religious disestablishment was very beneficial. It moved the project I'm working on quite a ways down the road. All the panelists I was working with did a great job.

So, it's entirely appropriate to end the recap with gratitude for all those who made the week-end such a success!  


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