Deg's Dispatches, Part X

Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part X
by Darren Grem

Well, I finally received my course evaluations from my students, and they more or less related what I thought they would. Most students liked the variety that the “uncoverage” approach offered, particularly how we alternated between films, music, lectures, and discussions. They also enjoyed – to varying degrees – the course’s final assignment and how it offered an out-of-class opportunity to review material instead of having to do so via a final, comprehensive exam. Concerning whether the course helped them attain a greater appreciation for the subject matter, most students affirmed that it did, although a noticeable number averred that the course’s design and/or assignments prevented their grasp of the material. The workshop essays seemed like “busy work” for about a dozen of my students, and a strong majority recommended that they either be changed in format or dropped altogether. Not surprisingly, the reading quizzes were not appreciated and described as “nit picky” and “irrelevant to [the course’s] other assignments.” Overall, however, the students seemed to like the experiences that uncoverage offered, even if they remained skeptical of its full benefits or resentful of the workload.

Course evaluations are, of course, completely de-contextualized documents and, as such, some have to be read with a grain of salt. Who knows what the real reason is for some evaluations, particularly the ones that flame the course or the instructor. But, taken in general, they can offer some good critique and, in my case, I agree with most of the ones my students made. When considering my experiment with uncoverage this term, I have come to some conclusions about the pedagogy that I will certainly use to revise the course for next time around. They are:

1) Workload – For me, more work was required at the planning stages, but once the term got going, it was comparable with previous terms (although admittedly a little much at term’s end). For students, it was certainly a challenge. Some did not think the workload was too demanding, while others were completely swamped. Personally, I don’t think you’re working if you’re not working over 30-40 hours a week on your schooling. But, since a number of my students also work full-time or part-time outside of school, I’ll probably drop a number of assignments or reframe them to make them less time-consuming. This leads me to the next point. . .

2) Purpose-driven work – Rick Warren would be proud. I think that some of the assignments – particularly the essays – lost their gleam, both for them and me, because they weren’t as purposeful as they should have been. Sure, they were able to work on their grammar and style (and I saw significant improvement in both among a number of students). But, writing an essay per week can get repetitive and predictable – as can grading them – which tended to undercut a real benefit of uncoverage, namely offering students a chance to “dig” into documents. Given that, I will most likely write questions that will direct their readings of the documents in the future. These will be “purpose-driven” assignments, which explicitly state which historical/critical thinking skills they’re working on and then try to develop those skills in ways that weekly essays simply don’t.

3) Exams – As much as I don’t want to admit it, I think exams need to have a place in an uncoverage class. The reading quizzes tested whether they read the assigned selections, but did little to ensure actual learning. Exams may or may not do this either, but they do offer an opportunity for students to know what they’ve synthesized over the course of a month or so. I didn’t have an assignment that did that in the course, and I think three or four exams in a term would do that. So, quizzes out, exams in.

4) A/V Selections – The students loved these, and I liked seeing their gray matter humming when they were analyzing the film and music selections. Some will be retained and shown in full (Sister Aimee, This Far By Faith, while I will use selections from others (Black Robe, The Ten Commandments, Jesus Camp, etc.). I may use these to supplement lectures instead of just having stand-alone days for these A/V selections, but all in all, the films and music I used in the class are here to stay.

5) Course design – Having separate days for A/V viewing, lectures, and discussions led to a bit of disjointedness between classes. Likewise, leading off with A/V viewings left some students floundering for the main points of a section until I provided them to them in a follow-up or concluding lecture. So, in the future, I’ll probably lead off with lectures, give some scaffolding for a given section, and then follow them with A/V viewings and other supplementary exercises.

All in all, I think the uncoverage approach offers much for anyone wanting to teach an elective in American religious history. Taking cues from uncoverage techniques – such as workshops and A/V selections – are a marvelous way to focus on issues that a coverage approach might have to drive-by. In turn, you can use a workshop or A/V day to supplement a lecture or replace one, offering variety to the in-class and out-of-class experience for students or offering different ways to make the same points. This, however, has to be balanced with an eye toward synthesizing material for students, so that they don’t get lost in a forest of disconnected topics and points. The final assignment certainly does that, but a more traditional lecture can also be valuable tool in an uncoverage course, making students follow the leader a bit so they might later get more out of their own readings and self-led examinations of course material.

Regardless, if you decide to try it out, I would offer this final thought. Uncoverage offers a lot of valuable options, and its predominant value is in its options. So, if or when you do it, make those options work for you and your students. Next fall, I will try to make it work for a new elective on post-1945 America. We'll see how it goes and, if you're curious, feel free to contact me.

GIS'ing Religion and Culture in the Atlantic World -- Professional Development Opportunity

Religion and Culture in the Atlantic World
(Posted for John Corrigan of Florida State University):

An NEH-funded initiative undertaken collaboratively by Florida State University, West Virginia University, and Indiana University will gather a small group of scholars interested in religion and culture in the Atlantic World for a series of three workshops in 2008-2009. The purpose of the workshops will be to discuss ways in which to spatially organize data about the Atlantic. We will brainstorm ways in which to utilize the electronic mapping capabilities of GIS (Geographic Information System) and, more pointedly, imagine how the humanities can be better served by such technology. Ideally, we would like to build a model for a Humanities GIS by using GIS to display information about the Atlantic.

We do not expect participants to be trained in GIS, but all participants should develop some familiarity with it in the early stages of the project. We are seeking persons who have an interest in exploring ways in which the humanities can collaborate more actively with the social sciences, and especially through adapting the electronic mapping technology of GIS (and the multimedia displays - images, audio, text, and so forth - that can complement it) to the agendas of the humanities.

Participants will meet three times, likely in the fall of 2008, spring of 2009, and fall of 2009. The first meeting will be in Indianapolis and the second two in Tallahassee. The project will cover all travel expenses of participants and pay small honoraria for participation in the second and third meetings.

We seek a group of approximately 6-8 persons. Please contact John Corrigan (jcorrigan AT fsu DOT edu) if you are interested in joining the project. We expect to have a complete team in place by mid-July, 2008.

CFP: Lincoln's Era: The Role of Religion in the Underground Railroad

7th Annual National Conference on the Underground Railroad

Lincoln's Era
The Role of Religion in the Underground Railroad
November 6-8, 2008 / Cincinnati, Ohio

Coinciding with the Lincoln Bicentennial and the opening of "Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War" (exhibit created by the National Constitution Center), the conference will explore the roles of religion and people of faith working against the institution of slavery during the 1800s, as well as the provocative debate over Lincoln and racism. The conference also foregrounds the roles of faith in the anti-slavery movement with a special focus on Abraham Lincoln's evolution and Christian, Islamic, and Jewish anti-slavery advocates.

Conference Highlights

Ø Talks by prominent theologians (Rabbi Gary Zola) and scholars (Lerone Bennett, Jr., Harold Holzer, and Roger Billings);

Ø Panels on religion, faith, slavery, and abolitionism;

Ø Panels on Lincoln's evolving views on slavery, race, and racism;

Ø Genealogy research at the Freedom Center;

Ø Spirituals concert;

Ø Interfaith service and historical re-enactment of services from the era;

Ø Bus tours of historic faith sites on the Underground Railroad.

Break-Out Sessions on the following topics:

Ø Runaways and Cincinnati Churches

Ø Antislavery Literatures

Ø Spirituals and the Underground Railroad

Ø Lincoln's Spiritual Journey to Abolitionism

Who should attend: Religious Leaders, Lay Members, as well as Academic and Non-Academic Scholars, and Students

Cost: Participants can attend the entire conference or individual events. Registration for the entire conference, except for the bus trips, is $150 per person. Registration includes membership to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Individual Events: Tickets for individual activities can be purchased in advance beginning September 1: Thursday morning faith tours, Thursday night keynote address, Friday luncheon speaker, or spirituals concert.

Call for Papers: The conference committee invites scholars, faith leaders and activists from all disciplines to make presentations in Cincinnati on the role of faith or religion in the spread of anti-slavery activism in the 1800s and the lessons for today for cooperation across the faith divide.

The Freedom Center and NKU support and value all scholarship examining the history and lives of peoples involved in the Underground Railroad movement. Deadline for submissions is July 31, 2008. Please submit 250 word abstracts or paper proposals electronically to Academic Program Chair:

Dr. Eric R. Jackson
Northern Kentucky University
Department of History and Geography
Highland Heights, Kentucky, 41099
jacksoner (at) nku (dot) edu

God, Country, and Declension Narratives


Paul Harvey

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory asks: Do these young Boy Scouts know why these flags look different from all the other flags placed on the graves of soldiers on this Memorial Day?

Perhaps a good Memorial Day activity for everyone would be to look again at Charles Reagan Wilson's Baptized in Blood, followed by a brief review of David Blight's Race and Reunion. When these boys get a bit older, I'll put that on their reading list when they take my course. I bet they can hardly wait.

While you're at it, see "Declension Narratives in Civil War History" at the same blog, which references Tim Burke's discussion of declension narratives in general. I post here because religious historians, of all folks, should be familiar with declension narratives, right Perry Miller?

Burke writes:

A very large number of the popular narratives of decline and fall that have circulated in American society for the last thirty years or so, for example, take conditions that were a brief, specific consequence of the post-WWII reorganization and affluence of American society and start to reframe them first as a general part of the entire 20th Century, then as something basic to American history all the way back to colonial settlement, and then leap the Atlantic and usually plow straight for the Aegean, coming to rest in Greece, Rome or Jerusalem.

Penitente Renaissance

I recently reviewed a rather unusual picture text on the Penitente Brotherhoods of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado, for a local interest newsletter. It occurred to me the book's subject may be of interest to a wider audience. While this is a work of an enthusiast and caretaker of a tradition, not a scholarly book per se, the subject may interest some readers of this blog, and some of you may want to get this for your school libraries. Hope this is of interest to some --

Ruben E. Archuleta, Manifesting Hope: Penitente Renaissance (Pueblo West, CO: El Jefe, 2007).

Such a labor of love as Ruben E. Archuleta's Manifesting Hope: Penitente Renaissance could only have been accomplished by an insider to a religious tradition famous, and sometimes infamous, for its secretiveness and insularity. Author Ruben Archuleta, formerly the Chief of Police in Pueblo and now an author and santero, writes that “the Hermanos of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico are as fine men as anywhere to be found. They are holy, endowed, by an age-old spirituality, especially the spirituality of the orders of begging friars. As Fray Angelico Chavez taught in My Penitente Land, the Brotherhoods live in the lands of sheep and shepherds, living in the rough, dry barren uplands similar to those of Palestine and Extremadura” (27). The abundant and extravagantly produced color photographs in this volume lie as testament both to the rugged and isolated rural conditions in the New Mexico/Colorado highlands that rural and largely Hispanic residents have faced, as well as the remarkable durability of religious practices in these depopulated counties that stand about as far (not geographically, but culturally) from megachurches and pop “praise music” as one could get.

Archuleta’s work on the Penitentes makes a nice accompaniment to scholarly works in this area, notably including Marta Weigle’s Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood, originally a University of Pennsylvania dissertation in 1971 which still stands as the most thorough and complete documentation of the history and cultures of the La Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (The Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene), popularly known as “The Penitentes.” Established, in all likelihood, sometime in the early nineteenth century, the Society is based in northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado in Hispanic communities largely removed from the major arteries of American life. The Penitentes are known for organized yearly processions commemorating Christ’s suffering. In years past, sometimes those commemorations featured acts of penance such as self-flagellation, from which the Penitentes gained a bit of dark renown.

Historically, the Penitentes were hardly viewed so favorably as they appear in books such as this one specifically designed to honor them. From their earlier days in the nineteenth century, Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy expressed his displeasure with Hispano practices, mostly by attempting to ban them. Of course, Lamy faced a formidable opponent in Fray Antonio Jose Martinez, who had been a defender of Hispano rights in Mexican territory prior to the North American conquest. Lamy attempted to institute a regime of European Tridentine Catholic practices, which forbade practices not specifically sanctioned by centralized church authorities. Much later, in the twentieth century, the Church finally recognized the Brothers as a legitimate part of church tradition. By that time, it appeared the Penitentes could die out entirely; that did not happen, as this book testifies, but the numerous photographs of older men, eroding walls and roofs on the moradas, and counties facing significant economic and social challenges suggest that the Penitente renaissance remains a work in progress, and the brotherhood a legacy of southwestern Hispano Catholicism whose future is both promising (due, in part, to outsider interest in the santos and other artistic monuments to southwestern Latino devotion) and imperiled (due to an aging population and struggling local branches of the brotherhood).

For years, I have assigned to American religious history students a classic of the field: Robert Orsi’s Madonna of 115th St., a work which studies the practice of penitential Catholicism among (mostly female) Italian Catholics in uptown New York, East Harlem, from the late nineteenth century and down through much of the twentieth century. In the case of the devotions paid to this apparition of the Madonna, women control virtually everything about the practice. Italian-American men, largely anticlerical in sentiment, serve at most as auxiliaries to a set of practices which enshrine female suffering and sacrifice. After discussing this book with students, I often ask them, why are Catholic devotional and penitential practices so largely contained with the worlds of women, while parallel practices in the Latino Catholic world are defined and regulated by men? In asking this question, I am thinking primarily of the Brothers of Light and the Brothers of Blood, the orders which have carried on the practices so colorfully documented in this book. Someday, maybe, a scholar in American religious studies will suggest why the Penitentes, so unusually for American Catholic devotional practice, remain a world of men, with women primarily serving as auxiliaries and helpmeets. In the meantime, this book will provide both information and visual pleasure to its readers.

Reading the Faithful

Darren Grem

Now that teaching's done, I've been able to get to my summer reading stack (and put the hurt on some dissertation chapters). First on my list was James M. O'Toole's The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America, recently published by Harvard UP.

I've been needing to brush up on my Catholic history, and this is an effective synthesis, telling the "bottom-up" story of American Catholicism from the perspective of lay Catholics. O'Toole's treatment is nicely divided into six "ages" - "The Priestless Church," "The Church in a Democratic Republic," "The Immigrant Church," "The Church of Catholic Action," "The Church of Vatican II," and "The Church in the Twenty-First Century" - that non-specialists and, especially, students, will find a helpful conceptual model for comprehending American Catholic history. To be sure, I doubt that Catholic historians will find many startling arguments in here, but I've found his narrative eye-opening, particularly his chapters on Catholicism in the the colonial era and early republic, and his treatment of the pope's relationship to the American "faithful" (as lay Catholics preferred to describe themselves). The implications of his book, as O'Toole sees them, are pressing since "A new age of the church in America has begun, and what form that church will take, what combination of old and new, will be up to its people to decide." One of the faithful himself, O'Toole wonders aloud: "What will be our collective national culture and ethos? How shall we behave toward each other, and especially toward the more unfortunate among us? What kind of discourse will we have with one another about what really matters to us as individuals and as a nation?" Most of those questions, O'Toole points out, are old ones, but also questions that Catholics share with most Americans. As such, his history is not just a religious history or a denominational history, but a readable, pertinent, and timely national history.

Dispatches from Zion

by John G. Turner

Particularly if arriving in May from an already oppressive Gulf Coast summer, one can easily see why Brigham Young and his fellow pioneers adopted Utah as their Zion (at least pending the anticipated return to Jackson County, Missouri).

I'm in the midst of two weeks of digging through archives in Salt Lake City, Provo, and Logan. While the manuscripts take me to the middle of the nineteenth century, being in Utah also encourages me to find opportunities to learn more about contemporary Mormonism as well.

I haven't gotten to everything on my list: the Temple Square Welcome Center, Brigham Young's Lion House, and the Humanitarian Center will all have to wait for next time. There are canyons and wildlife refuges to explore in Utah, after all.

I did, however, accomplish one major item on my Mormonism "to-do list" by finding a Mormon family to take me to church. It was a priceless experience. I could have gone by myself anywhere, but it was easier being escorted. I attended the Priesthood meeting (for the men -- women attend a Relief Society hour), a Sunday school lesson, and sacrament meeting. Three hours altogether. Most wards begin with the sacrament meeting, but it's left up to the individual ward.

Overall, I was surprised at both the commonalities with Protestantism and the differences. Much of the discussion on topics such as prayer and Jesus would have resonated with most Protestant Christians. There was discussion of the Mormon understanding of the Godhead -- Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as two distinct personages (with bodies). The Sunday school lesson was on the Book of Mormon (the entire church rotates through the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants). It mostly sailed over my head. Zarahemla!

The sacrament meeting was noteworthy first of all for the boisterous children present. It featured an older couple who had recently completed a two-year mission outreach to Hispanic families in the area. I was surprised that the sacrament itself featured bread and water (rather than, say, grape juice). The closing hymn seemed very appropriate: "Families Can Be Together Forever."

There were several other highlights, including lunch with two of the Juvenile Instructor guys at BYU. See that blog's recent discussion of Randall's The Fire Spreads. I also sat in on a BYU Book of Mormon class.

A few miscellaneous thoughts:

- As poor as I would be at observing the hot beverage portion of the Word of Wisdom, I find it a troubling sign of declension that Starbucks has made it to Logan, Utah. Still, quite a few establishments advertise "cocoa."

- The affordability and quality of the cafeteria in the Church Office Building (that also houses the church archives) alone would be a major impetus to researching Mormon History. After hours of looking at microfilm, though, it is a shame there's no coffee available at least for gentiles.

- Hearing about the intolerance that most Mormons have encountered from evangelicals makes me wince. I met one man who served a mission in Alabama, definitely hostile territory. Even if you believe certain groups of people are going to hell, a more winsome approach would go further to rescue them from it.

- I learned that movers cringe when discovering a Mormon family's Emergency Food Storage is part of their load.

Getting to spend two weeks in the heart of Mormondom is a reminder of how much there is for us to learn about religion in America that we can't learn through books alone. Regardless of the faith tradition, there are opportunities to visit historical sites, worship services, and other concrete manifestations of those traditions. Not to mention just talking with folks! Iwish I seized those opportunities more often.

Anyone desperate to learn about the dwindling Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is welcome at our church in Alabama any Sunday.

The Religious Marketplace -- From New Contributing Editor Phillip Sinitiere


Editor's note: Yes, I admit it, the trainer has been administering those steroid and HGH shots again, hence the added muscle and firepower of this blog yesterday and today. Today we introduce our new contributing editor Phillip Sinitiere, aka the Baldblogger, together with his first post!

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at the University of Houston where he’s in the final stages of a dissertation on congregational conflict, church scandal, and pastoral dismissal in colonial America. He also teaches world, U.S., and European history at a college preparatory school in Houston. His research interests include American religious history, religion in world history (with a focus on Africa), and the pedagogy of religion, and recent publications examine religious identity in contemporary evangelicalism, global Christianity and teaching, and a forthcoming book with NYU Press titled Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (co-authored with Shayne Lee).


Cashing In or Selling Out?: Spiritual Marketplaces and Religious Economies
By Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Is the United States a spiritual marketplace where “religious capitalists” compete for religious consumers? Does a viable religious economy exist in America where the most effective spiritual firms carve out their niche to offer religious goods and services that meet the tastes and desires of spiritual consumers? Are such formulations useful for teaching, simple or reductionist descriptive devices, or can scholars craft meaningful and convincing interpretations of American religious history by imagining this country as a spiritual marketplace? (For teaching and the religious marketplace, see parts IV, V, and VI of “Deg’s Dispatches” below) Or, perhaps, given the reach of globalization and the reality of international commerce, is there a global religious marketplace? Perhaps so, since recently scholars have found religious economies in Latin America, and spiritiual marketplaces in China and Africa, and even among some Muslim martyrs.

Famously argued by sociologists of religion Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in The Churching of America (1992; 2nd ed. 2005)—with due regard to Max Weber and Peter Berger—and subsequently refined by fellow sociologists such as Wade Clark Roof, Robert Wuthnow, and Stephen Warner, to name only a few, historians have found a religious economy in the archives as well. R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God (1994) comes to mind, as does Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of America Christianity (1989), and Terry Bilhartz’s Urban Religion (1986), among many others.

Even some contributing editors offer thoughts on the subject: Matt Sutton’s book has a great chapter on Sister Aimee’s deft marketing strategies, for example. John Turner’s fine book finds that Bill Bright and Campus Crusade were to some extent into selling Jesus, and Darren Grem’s fascinating article on the business behind Jim and (the late) Tammy Faye Bakker’s spiritual empire shows that the bottom line competed with the Bible. Even Ed Blum’s fantastic book on Du Bois addresses the topic—albeit indirectly as the American Prophet had nothing but spiritual rage and righteous indignation for masquerading prophets, pastors, and religious leaders working only to make a profit. Katie Lofton’s keen look at pastoral self-promotion in her 2006 Religion and American Culture article, “The Preacher Paradigm: Promotional Biographies and the Modern-Made Evangelist,” creatively finds consumer-driven spiritual commodities in multiple contexts. (One also imagines that her forthcoming work on Oprah and religion will provide yet another stellar contribution to the field.)

So, if the spiritual marketplace fits as a helpful way to teach American religious history, and if there is a growing body of work on the subject offered by historians, sociologists, and religious studies scholars, who are the religious capitalists, the spiritual merchants who are about the business of faith in a religious economy? George Whitefield? Dwight Moody? Billy Sunday? Carrie A. Nation? Norman Vincent Peale? Fulton Sheen? Eddie Long? Rick Warren? Juanita Bynum? T.D. Jakes? Paula White? Luis Palau? Joel Osteen? This list could go on and on. And where does religious architecture, or religious language or spiritual practice fit into such an interpretation? What about the role of electronic media in/on a spiritual marketplace?

Since I’ve posed questions that would take many more blogposts to answer, not to mention several books, it is only appropriate I end with one more: how effective a formulation is the spiritual marketplace and/or religious economy as both scholars and students labor to imagine and understand American religious history and its infinite complexities and contradictions? Why or why not?

Boosterism -- from New Contributing Editor Matt Sutton!


Hello: Today we're pleased to introduce our newest contributing editor, Matt Sutton, formerly of Oakland University, as of this fall Professor of History at Washington State University in Pullman, WA (hey, congratulations on the new gig, Matt!). Most recently, Matt is the author of the widely-acclaimed Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, recently favorably reviewed in Books and Culture and elsewhere.

Matt stirred up a firestorm with his previous guest post; today he comes not to bury, but to boost! Welcome to Matt.


Boosting the Booster
Matt Sutton

Ed Blum is a busy guy. He lectures on religion to rooms full of students who spend their weekends running the United States’ largest university drug trafficking ring; soaks up the rays on San Diego’s beautiful beaches; gives interviews to Newsweek; and remains up-to-date on the Gilmore Girls; yet he still finds time to read and promote the latest work in American religious history. I have certainly benefitted from his boosterism. Since he has been such a faithful promoter of my work, I figured I had better put aside my reading on Gog, Magog, and “the merchants of Tarshish, with all the young lions thereof” (you all know that Ezekiel here is referring to the United States, right?) and pick up Blum’s Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 and W.E.B. DuBois: American Prophet

These are impressive books—it seems that Ed and I will have to form a mutual admiration society. What I like about Blum’s work is that he is doing much, much more than simply “filling a gap.” Nor is he content with making religion another layer to pile on top of existing work on Reconstruction, American nationalism, and DuBois. Instead, he does what all religious historians aspire to—he makes the compelling case that religion is central to our understanding of the pivotal issues in American history. He makes bold arguments, hunting for the big game, slicing and dicing Bancroft and Pulitzer-Prize winning historians such as Eric Foner and David Levering Lewis. Whether or not Blum is always right (of course, he is always right), he forces his readers to engage with his argument. You cannot ignore him. Blum’s combination of smooth writing, diligent research, and bold argumentation change the ways in which we approach the past, which is a tremendous benefit to all historians of American religion. Now all Ed needs to do is develop some better taste in DVD rentals.

Reviving the Great Awakening, Part II

Paul Harvey

Don't miss "Reviving the Great Awakening, Part II," Baldblogger's continuing interviews with Thomas Kidd on his works on the Great Awakening. Here's an excerpt, with links to important follow-up reading material:

BB: One of the points you make early in The Great Awakening is that contemporary accounts of the movement overlook the role of the Holy Spirit in evangelical revivalism. This speaks on the one hand to questions surrounding religious practice (i.e., “manifestations” of the Spirit), while on the other hand it brings a focus to the role of “enchantment” (to use a sociological term) in this history of evangelicalism. You effectively sustain this line of argument throughout the book. What exactly does understanding the role of the Holy Spirit add to our understanding of colonial evangelical revival and religious practice? (Reading between the lines here, are readers right to identify this angle of analysis a silent commentary on your own faith tradition?)

Thomas Kidd: The Great Awakening was shot through with mystical manifestations of the Spirit (trances, dreams, visions, healings, spirit journeys, etc.). Historians have often not known what to make of such episodes, and have only recently begun to look seriously at them as an integral part of evangelical history. Historian
Douglas Winiarski has probably done more than anyone to alert us to the teeming presence of the miraculous in early evangelicalism. My sense is that the mysticism of the revivals fed their intensity, subversiveness, and individualistic tendencies. The belief in the Spirit led many common people to believe that they had a more profound experience with God than many of the state-supported, college-educated pastors. I certainly also have personal interest in the ways that experiences in the Spirit tend to fuel a kind of Christian egalitarianism.

UPDATE: Robert Orsi, from a popular Catholicism perspective, addresses this line of thinking and analysis in a
2007 article explaining religious mysteries and human encounters with the transcendent. For further reflections readers might also wish to read Orsi's 2006 interview in Historically Speaking. And of course in this context we should not fail to mention two recent books that help scholars to ponder analysis of the unseen: Orsi's Between Heaven and Earth and Thomas Tweed's Crossing and Dwelling.

Hearing Things

Paul Harvey

Our blog routinely promotes reviews and discussions of new books, including the don't-miss post just below by Ed Blum on two new religious biographies.

To supplement this, I thought it would be nice occasionally to feature older books, either older classics or books published in the last decade but no longer hot off the press; or to highlight reviews published in places where historians and religious studies folk probably would miss them; or just to publish reviews that we enjoyed writing. Contributions are welcome.

So, to kick this off I'm reprinting below a review of mine of Leigh Schmidt's Hearing Things. I'm reproducing this here for several reasons. First, I've been facing terrible pain in my family recently, a terminal cancer that will soon take a loved one, and at such times the inexplicably cruel nature of such deaths, and the apparent silence of the gods, strike one hard, and the questions we contemplate in the Humanities become less academic and more internally pressing (and no more answerable). With this in mind, I read this book, and my review, more personally than I did when I wrote this several years ago. (I should add that my absence from the blog lately, and in the coming days as well, is due to the personal energies taken up by this situation; my thanks to my co-editors for filling in in the interim).

Secondly, as will be obvious from the review I admired the book, and this blog seems to be a good place to plug books we admire, whether current or older works.

Finally, this review appeared in a theological journal (Spiritus) that historians would typically not read (I had not heard of it myself until asked to do this review). Moreover, I just enjoyed writing this as much or more than just about anything I've ever done. So, without further adieu, I give you . . .

Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment. By Leigh Eric Schmidt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 318. $37.50; ISBN 0–674–00303–9.

“You called up in the sky
You called up in the clouds
Is there something you forgot to tell me... tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me.”

(from Joan Osborne, “St. Teresa,” 1995).

For much of Christian history, the ear was the way to God. “Hearing things” meant hearing God’s voice, directly, unmediatedly. One could not see God, but one could hear the voice of the divine.

Now, of course, “hearing things” is a colloquialism that suggests mental instability, and perhaps the need for a quick dose of some psychotropics. The street people I stepped over every morning on my way to the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, during graduate school, heard things, and talked back in response, but everyone else ducked their heads and walked along quickly, at once embarrassed and disheartened at the collapse of state mental health services and the consequent intrusion of psychoses into the public square.

Along the way, as well, God has stopped speaking––or at least it seems that way to many, both Christians and non–Christians. The street corner St. Teresa, the dealing street-corner angel of Joan Osborne’s Grammy–winning song, cries out to the sky, vainly importuning God for leaving her in her situation, without so much as a sentence of explanation or comfort. The “talkative” God of the Bible has fallen silent, frustrating those who await the still, small voice. “Is there something,” we want to ask God, “you forgot to tell me?”

But of course Christians and others still hear the voice of God. He has not fallen silent for everyone, even if the presence of God might be represented in Hollywood by the avuncular George Burns or the hipster Alanis Morissette. Meanwhile, postmodern theorists have “unmasked” the ethnocentrism implicit in the valorization of the eye over the ear, the visual over the auditory, that came as part of the whole package of false promises of the Enlightenment. Reliance on the ear was characteristic of the primitive and the African, Enlightenment thinkers asserted, hence the western emphasis on the visual as the surer road to knowledge. The eye could not be fooled as the ear could––by ventriloquists, spiritualists, and all manner of illusionists who delighted in deception, and whose relentless assault on the unreliable ear is chronicled in fascinating detail in Schmidt’s brilliant book.

Leigh Schmidt gives an extended and wonderfully entertaining intellectual history of how “hearing things” underwent such a transformation. Along the way, we learn a great deal about fascinating but relatively unknown characters from the Enlightenment era and the nineteenth century, who developed the field of acoustical studies, delighted audiences with Mickey-Mouse voice effects produced by inhaling hydrogen gas, and played around with sound trumpets and other means of transmitting sound. In western thought, hearing the voice of God moved from being a divinely spiritual moment to being inevitably trapped in the world of illusion (at best) or the asylum, the home for those who heard things. Schmidt traces the evolution of our contemporary understanding of hallucination (defined in the 1880s as “perception without an object”) and illusion (a false perception). “It is this breakage of the sign, the loss of any presence in these experiences,” he argues, “that marks the real undoing of God’s listeners . . . disembodied voices . . . had no actuality except in the memories, imaginations, desires, and agonies of those who heard them.” In sum, Schmidt’s work explains the process of the “normalization of God’s silence” (198).

“What would you ask if you had just one question,” Joan Osborne sings in another tune about God, suggesting again that God’s silence is so normal that asking God a question is a fantasy along the lines of “what would you do if you won the lottery?” or “who would you meet if you could meet anyone?”

The twist in Schmidt’s analysis, however, lies in his recognition, in the epilogue, that the “desire for a ‘holy listening’ has hardly subsided in American culture.” Rather, as he concludes, “the noisier and more frenetic the contemporary world is perceived as being, the stronger that spiritual longing becomes.” So today we have the increasing popularity of music therapies, or the “heightened attention to contemplative silences, evident in New Age appropriations of Zen Buddhism and Eastern Orthodoxy,” as well as the recurrent fascination with angels and “their whispers of consolation.” Apparently, then, God’s silence has never been as normalized as the Enlightenment skeptics, scientists, and stage–performing illusionists would have had it.

Schmidt discusses “sound Christians” of the modern era, discussing in depth their perceptions of God’s voice. Methodist preacher Lorenzo Dow, the black Methodist female exhorter Jarena Lee, and the noisy evangelicals of the camp meeting era of the early Republic all receive extended discussion. But as Schmidt points out, “extraordinary calls and sudden leadings continued to flourish in popular Protestant piety, and evangelical ways of hearing hardly lost their resonance; if anything, they radiated even more widely in modernity’s wake” (76). Schmidt concludes the chapter on “sound Christians” with the story of Oral Roberts’s healing and call to preach. The audible call Roberts heard was hardly surprising to him, “given the enveloping devotional culture of these sound Christians,” but at the same time “that very intimacy with divine speech proved a two–edged sword, imperiling his standing in the wider society and ultimately turning him from evangelist to laughingstock” (77).

In the following two chapters, “oracles of reason” and “how to become a ventriloquist,” Schmidt follows the stories of those who pulled the curtain from the Wizard of Oz, exposing the tricks and manipulations and deceptions behind God’s apparent speech, whether that speech come from ancient oracles, from nineteenth–century spiritualists, or from other disembodied voices. Contemporary figures who devote full–time to exposing fraudulent mysticism––debunkers of spoon–benders, UFO sightings, angelic presences, and the like––carry on the tradition of the acoustical experimenters of the eighteenth and nineteenth century that Schmidt discusses in detail. The newly emerging science of acoustics demystified what previously had been divine sound, and (evidently) left behind “sound Christians” in a cultural backwater of irrelevant religious mystics and eccentrics. Even with the triumph of the acoustical scientists, however, the sound of the divine yet remained real for many who continued to hear “Voices from the Spirit–Land,” the title of chapter five.

Chief among these was Emmanuel Swedenborg, part of a panoply of figures who restored apostolic speech and “made part of a communications network [into] a wonderland of good vibrations” (202). While Enlightenment figures “had been dedicated to the proposition that the technological disembodiment of the voice and the artificial propagation of sound were useful means of exposing the absences in the oracular,” others (including Henry David Thoreau) found instead that “mechanical mediation became instead a vehicle of presences, a salvific force alive with vibrational and telegraphic connections” (239). Thoreau famously heard God in the “sonorous revelations” of nature, but he also “discerned a universal harmony, a music of the spheres, through telegraph posts and wires” (241). Walt Whitman sang the body electric, because for many nineteenth-century Americans the electric transmitted the spiritual, as unseen forces moved over the wires.

Schmidt’s work will leave the reader with a greatly heightened sense of the interplay of the oracular, the auditory, and the visual in religious understanding. Many of the questions that perplex us now, he makes clear, were fully in evidence already in the eighteenth century. The postmodernists are late to the game of contemplating the fractured and disembodied self. At the same time, and unfairly, some readers may grow frustrated as Schmidt raises, elaborates, and so deftly plays around with fundamental questions, without proposing any solutions other than that “suspicion can be turned on the suspicious,” and the unmaskers will inevitably themselves be unmasked.

Thus, the “ ‘midnight of absence that now haunts much of religious studies and the humanities generally” (251) also haunts this book, and it is a testament to Schmidt’s brilliance (and to the intractability of the questions he studies) that the reader will await anxiously, but unsuccessfully, for the author to provide some resolution to street corner St. Teresa's cri de Coeur to God, “is there something you forgot to tell me?”

Ed Blum on New Twentieth-Century Religious Biography

Shall We Crusade or Shall We March?
New Twentieth-Century Religious Biography

by Ed Blum

I should be grading; I should be wading through essays on how “radical” was radical Reconstruction, on how my students would teach the Civil War, and on the historiography of the Emancipation Proclamation. But I just cannot help myself; when not playing Wii tennis, I have been reading the many good books in American religious history coming out left and right. So I decided to gratify my mind. Instead of term papers, I read John Turner’s Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ and Cynthia Taylor’s A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader. Thank goodness for such pleasures.

I could be wrong, but my guess is that Bill Bright and A. Philip Randolph never met. Both were from the South (Bright from Oklahoma and Randolph from Florida); both founded and led crucial twentieth-century movements (Bright founded Campus Crusade for Christ and Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and was the driving force behind the first plans for a national March on Washington). Both have relatively new religious biographies with John Turner’s Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ and Cynthia Taylor’s A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Labor Leader. Bright and Randolph’s differences probably outweigh their similarities. Bright was white and politically conservative; Randolph was black and politically on the left. If they had met, what would they have said to one another? Would Bright have tried to impress his four spiritual laws on Randolph? Would Bright have asked if Randolph had accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior? Would Randolph have asked Bright why his organization was largely segregated or why Campus Crusade had nothing to say about racial violence or discrimination? We can imagine that Randolph would have confronted Bright’s questions before, that Randolph himself had wondered about the state of his soul, and that he had these conversations with African American Christians and church leaders. We can also imagine that if Bright would actually have listened to Randolph, Bright might have been spiritually troubled. He may have wondered why he and his organization opposed certain forms of “spiritual evil,” such as abortion or Communism, but had little to say about other forms. Probably, he would have brushed aside the questions, said that this is an imperfect world and that when Jesus returns (which would be soon, Mr. Randolph, and you should think upon these things) all would be set straight. This is the power of good religious biography – that after reading them we can imagine the characters interacting.

John Turner’s Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ fills a huge void in the scholarship of twentieth-century evangelicalism. Anyone who has participated in evangelical America knows the power of parachurch organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ. Perhaps one attended a Bible study in one’s dorm. Perhaps one felt a compulsion to choose between Campus Crusade and its main rival Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (and one did not even know why there was a compulsion to select one or the other). Perhaps one has received the seemingly unlimited mailings of requests for prayer and for money (in the spirit of uncoverage here, let me say that my prayers go to these religious ministries and my donation money goes to the NAACP). Groups like Campus Crusade are crucial to the shape, form, and continuation of evangelicalism, and we have Professor Turner for this new biography and institutional history. Turner focuses on three facets of Campus Crusade: (1) its founder Bill Bright, a man who at one time sold candy who then created an international power that carried the message of evangelicalism to college campuses as “secular” as UC Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Michigan; (2) the relationship between evangelicalism and conservative politics in the twentieth century; and (3) Crusade’s relationship with gender roles within evangelicalism and the broader nation.

Turner is at his best when analyzing the similarities and differences between Crusade’s tactics and those of the New Left. Both spoke for a discontent among college-aged white Americans in the mid and late 1960s; both offered new approaches to the old ways. Moreover, Turner does a nice job using the language of the religious marketplace to investigate Bright’s labor.

Hopefully, Turner’s study is merely the beginning of significant analysis of Crusade in American society and culture. Future scholars could examine the place of the Civil Rights movement in their organization. As I read Turner’s work on Crusade, Bill Bright and his legions seem unaware that the nation was being rocked by the moral, economic, cultural, and social critique of civil rights activists. They seem deaf or blind to the religious critique of the United States made by Martin Luther King, Jr., James Forman, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ella Baker, or Fannie Lou Hamer. Perhaps Turner’s subjects never spoke about the Civil Rights movement; perhaps they did not care what was happening in schools, at lunch tables, or in black churches. Perhaps they didn’t care that white supremacists were bombing African American churches. If they did not, then this is a moral and historical problem. What can we make of their absence? It is possible that their focus on the four spiritual laws, or their struggles with the New Left, enabled Crusade members to avoid the politics of the black freedom struggle? Is it possible that they have more in common with nineteenth-century evangelist Dwight Moody than they ever realized – that just as he led a national revival in 1876 and 1877 that minimized political issues in a moment when the politics of civil rights were paramount in “this world,” Campus Crusade’s focus on saving souls facilitated the continued damning of the souls of black folk? Perhaps someone will follow Turner and take up this challenge.

A. Philip Randolph, I would imagine, would not only want a racial critique of Campus Crusade, but also an economic one. For Randolph, Bright would have been one of the minions of economic, racial, and religious discrimination. Cynthia Taylor’s A. Philip Randolph: The Religious Journey of an African American Leader follows the spiritual and religious insights of Randolph through his long career of labor and civil rights activism. Unlike Turner, Taylor has to contend with a scholarly tradition that claims that Randolph was an agnostic and hence uninterested in religion. For some reason, there is a penchant among some American historians to revel in the lack of faith in historical characters and then pay no regard for religion in their lives. It is much easier to say that faith did not matter to an individual and then pay it no heed. I never find this confusing from my historian colleagues; I always find it surprising when I hear it from religious historians (and, interestingly enough, I hear religious historians oftentimes claiming that “religion” really wasn’t important to an individual or a movement). Taylor doesn’t really care what Randolph believed; instead, she places him in a variety of religious contexts, including African American church life, the spiritual contents of American socialisms, the fundamentalist-modernist debates, and the origins of black liberation theology.

Taylor’s study shows how Randolph always carried with him the African Methodism of his youth. His father was both a minister and a tailor. Randolph imbibed the notion that God was on the side of African Americans and the working class. He took these lessons with him to New York in the early twentieth century as part of the “Great Migration.” In Harlem, Randolph co-edited The Messenger, one of the many new African Americans magazines and newspapers of the era. Within The Messenger, writers chastised ministers who failed to support organized labor; they applauded the clerics who did; and they attacked fundamentalism as backward, unscientific, and close minded. These were progressive black Christians, interested more in heaven on earth than heaven in heaven.

In 1925, Randolph transformed The Messenger into the organ for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He conceived of the trade union as a spiritual community, one which God would bless and use to transform American politics. Then in the early 1940s, Randolph led the charge for a March on Washington. Interestingly, one could compare the language of the “march” on Washington with the language of campus “crusade” for Christ, but I’ll leave that to another, more able interpreter. In preparation for the March, Randolph coordinated a series of prayer protests that prefigured the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, Taylor ends her study with Randolph’s embrace of King’s leadership and his return to the AME church.

It should be impossible to describe Randolph as merely an agnostic and then disregard his religious insights after Taylor’s book. It will happen; there will be studies that mention Randolph as an agnostic or discuss the irreligiosity of American labor movement (and cite Randolph as an example), but that will be because of a failure to read Taylor’s fine work.

I wish that Randolph had met Bright and that Bright would have heard what Randolph had to say. I wish that Billy Graham would have spent even more time with Martin Luther King, Jr., because maybe, just maybe, Graham and Bright would have realized that they could have learned much from these men and their insights. Thank goodness that we, as readers today, can not only imagine what they might have learned, but hear the lessons ourselves.

Debating the "Black Church" (Or Why I Love Religion Dispatches)


As should already be obvious, I am slightly enamored with Religion Dispatches and the analysis of current religious affairs. From Oprah to "Culting," the posts are poignant, reasoned and effective. So today, I was pleasantly surprised to find a debate on the term "Black Church" in reference to Rev. Jeremiah Wright's commentary on the media's antagonistic relationship with the Black Church. (T.D. Jakes expressed that the media distracts churches from their true work with negative coverage in a piece for CNN.) Anthony Pinn and our own Katie Lofton focus on problems with the usage of the term. In "Black Church: Institution or Abstraction," Pinn writes:

The phrase “the Black Church” is an at times useful category of religious commitment and expression; yet it is misleading. Media depictions and commentary tend to flatten what is already a stretched terminology. There is not a historical reality known as the “Black Church” that actually represents a unified and static organization. It is a term meant to signal, to capture, a full range of theologies, practices and structures. It is an abstraction. What we really have in the United States are black churches, as varied in orientation as the number of congregations. There are millions of African American Christians housed in thousands of churches across the country–some of them rather large and others small in number.

In using this phrase, we must remain mindful of the similarities and differences between local congregations, spread across urban and rural areas that the term, “Black Church,” easily covers. It is true that the term speaks to a generic embrace of the Christian faith found within African American communities. For example, this involves some concern for the Christ event as a primary mode of understanding the relationship between the divine and humanity. However any attention to the denominational structures–Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, and so on–points clearly to notable differences regarding, for example, the nature of salvation, the importance and proper form of baptism. These differences present vividly if one considers local congregations are not simply matters of thought. Rather, practice informed by thought—or praxis–also differs across what we’ve called the “Black Church.”

In her "Black Church Blues," Lofton argues:

At some point, we have to give it up. I know it will be hard. I know it will be sad. But sometime soon, hopefully very soon, we have to let go. Maybe a communal scrapbooking will help. Or perhaps someone can commission some sculpture. But no matter what, no matter how hard, we have got to consider the possibility that one of the more precious categories of religious classification is also one of our most pernicious. I speak today of “The Black Church.”

She further notes that the problem is that the term has become a monolithic description of African American churches, and moreover, this presents a static image of a diverse religious traditions and peoples. She continues:

For scholars (then and now) the Black Church functions as the black institution, that thing which has been defined by and sustained by the subjects themselves. Liberationist black scholarship reinforced the historical and cultural importance of The Black Church, casting it as the critical bridge away from slavery, away from economic deprivation, and away from a state of victimization. The Black Church was, therefore, intended to resist the primitivist consignments of white culture, offering a sophisticated, institutionalized alternative to the folk and the primitive. It was external structure for a people denied the ability to mold external freedom; it was, at the very least, a trap of their own making. And so scholarship reframed this history in one long corporate classification, conjuring an ideal social invention to save everyone from the taint of racial manhandling and imperial overlay. Over the long history of governmental mismanagement, abuse, and exploitation of African American labor and (non-)citizenship, the black church countered and created. It was an imagined opposite to a postulated leviathan.

In some ways, it hurts to deconstruct a term carrying such revolutionary virtue. But when attempting to invest individuals with biographical fullness (when attempting, say, to explain presidential candidates or their pastors or their pastor’s geographic situation or their denomination’s history or their presidential possibilities as correlate to their pastors and their geographies and their denominations) the Black Church acts as a beached whale on the highway. It is beached and blanched not only because it is monolithic and irritatingly vague to the scrupulous archival historian, pundit, or average voter struggling to make an informed decision (although yes, it is that), but also because it obscures the very agency it claims to inscribe. Such analytic vagary encourages a view of African Americans as static, universal, and essentially corporeal, while whites are allowed the possibility of change and multiplicity. Concepts like the Black Church are inherently resistant to individuation. While individual whites develop, regress, complicate, and contemplate over time, under the auspices of the Black Church, African Americans are trapped in eternal descriptors as easily read in any individual member as in the Black Church uterine whole.

Teaching American Religion Through Film


The H-Amrel listserv currently has an ongoing discussion about useful films for teaching American religious history. The most popular suggestions seem to be Black Robe, The Apostle, anything by PBS's American Experience, and Malcolm X.

So following this discussion, I would encourage our blog readers to post their favorite films in the comments section. I currently like to use a documentary on Appalachian snake handlers called the Holy Ghost People, available here, and I am toying with Jesus Camp and Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple. (Also, Internet Archive has great resources, including documentaries and video clips, for class.)

Where Have All the Bible Salesmen Gone?

Michael Pasquier 

I taught a course on religion in the American South this past semester.  We started with Jon Sensbach’s 2007 article in the Journal of Southern History, “Religion and the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire.”  We ended with Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood (1952).  Talk about a wide time span, not to mention a topical (not tropical) gulf between a heavy historiography of the colonial South and a fictional rendering of the twentieth-century South.  As you might imagine, we covered a whole lot of material in between, from Afro-Catholicism in colonial New Orleans (more slaves went to mass than whites?) to white evangelical Protestants and the music of Johnny Cash (who’s the man in “The Man Comes Around”?), and from the depiction of women in Gone With the Wind (Scarlett O’Hara was an Irish Catholic?) to the rise of Pentecostalism (who’s this Randall Stephens guy?).
During the final week of class, as my students and I discussed some of the major issues threading the entire course, a confident graduating senior asked a tough, sarcastic question: “Where have all the bible salesmen gone?”  She was thinking about our few encounters with "God’s peddlers" throughout the semester: Manley Pointer in O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People” (1955), Big Dan Teague in the Cohn Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), and Paul Brennan in the Maysles Brothers’ documentary Salesman (1969). 
For the life of me, I could not think of a good answer.  I still can’t think of a good answer.  No bible salesperson has ever knocked on my door.  Sure, I’ve kindly declined the little green books from my fair share of Gideons on university campuses, but giving away cheap prints of the New Testament is a bit different from selling expensive family bibles.  So, instead of answering the question directly, I did like any stammering professor would do; I asked the class what they thought.  Specifically, I tried to facilitate discussion about the representation of bible salesmen in the stories we watched and read in class.

First up, Manley Pointer, bible salesman turned prosthetic leg thief who really knows how to pick ‘em in Hulga Hopewell, an atheistic, nihilistic, skeptical philosophy Ph.D. who thinks she can pull one over on the presumably innocent bible thumper, only to be drawn up into the loft of a barn by the hard-drinking, card-playing Pointer who admits “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” and who runs away with Hulga’s leg.
Next, Big Dan Teague, self-described “man of large appetite” with a patch over one eye and a piece of fried chicken in the other who lures Ulysses and Delmar out to an isolated pasture where the robust bible salesman, whilst perspiring through his white linen suit, chooses to thump his companions instead of the bible.
Last (and probably least well known), Paul Brennan, the real-life Irish Catholic bible salesman who friends call “The Badger” and who gets denied at the doorsteps of countless homes across Massachusetts and Florida, thus introducing thousands of viewers to one of the most poignant depictions of the relationship between work and religion in American film.  See the film and you can also meet the Gipper, the Rabbit, and the Bull.
I’m left with three questions:
1. Where are all the bible salesmen in the history books?
2. Why the bad rap?
3. Where can a young professor with no summer income get a job selling bibles (or mufflers, for that matter)?  

Great Material

by John G. Turner

There are several items of interest to scholars and students of American religion in the most recent Books & Culture, including a smart review of Matt Sutton's Aimee Semple McPherson by our Arlene Sánchez Walsh.

Also included is my review of Randall Stephens's The Fire Spreads. My "judgment," in summary form:

Crisply written, analytically clear, and full of colorful personalities, The Fire Spreads is the most significant study of Pentecostal origins since Grant Wacker's Heaven Below, and Stephens' four chapters on holiness Christianity provide an unparalleled introduction to that movement's emergence and growth in the South.

Randall richly explores the infighting between first Methodist denominations and their Holiness offshoots, and then between the latter and Pentecostal offspring. And he does so by finding pungent pieces in Holiness and Pentecostal periodicals:

Similar to the way southern Democrats met the Populist challenge, southern denominations responded with derision and expulsions, which holiness preachers endured as badges of persecution and signs of the Second Coming. "The Quarterly Conference will just be reading the verdict on some holiness evangelist," wrote the preacher and publisher H.C. Morrison, " … And, behold! The man has disappeared [in the rapture]."

As Sutton's book certainly indicates as well, we historians of American religion should be perennially thankful for the great material we have been given.

"Evangelicalism Rebounds in Academe"


Another day, another breathless report of the evangelical incursion. This time, our journalistic source is an admirable one: Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay (author of Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite) writing for the May 9, 2008 issue of The Chronicle Review. Of familiar pitch is the exclamatory that “evangelicalism is rebounding,” the statistical joy at evangelical Ivy League elitism, and the inevitable ethnic revelation (“I found that 90 percent of the members of the Yale chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ are Asian-American”).

After five paragraphs of such rehearsal, the article transitions to a narrative useful for any students of evangelicalism and fundamentalism seeking quotations on the mind(s) of those Christian men (and women, though fewer of those are imagined) pressing into hallowed halls. Lindsey serves up a summation of “evangelical scholarship” and its meeting of the “intellectual mainstream.” Included in the primer is an exuberant presentation of evangelical scholars, scholarship on evangelicals, and evangelical scholarship. The piece presumes an anxious readership, liberal and loathing of the menace that seems to have more money, more organizational power, and more disregard for plural postulates than the dominant academic mainstream. To that cohort, Lindsay supplies a comforting reminder and some clarification. His point is quelling: most of the evangelicals who have invaded liberal arts lands are of a cosmopolitan bent, and eager to keep the apple cart (his metaphor) upright. The question is whether the apple cart, frightened of its new handler, may collapse under the weight of presumptive infection. Lindsay says, rightly: probably not.

Is Globalization the New Poststructuralism? (Or Am I Just Late to the Game?)

Art Remillard

While we’re on a Newsweek kick, I’ll alert readers to “The Rise of the Rest,” an excerpt from Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (his motto: “See…Ph.D.s can make money!”). He explains that non-western nations have risen to prominence, slowly displacing America from its privileged position. Signs of this transformation are all around us. The world’s largest oil refinery is being built in India; the largest passenger plane is in Europe; the largest investment fund is in Dhabi; and only 2 of the top 10 of the world’s richest people are American. Even the Mall of America, once labeled the world’s largest, no longer ranks in the top 10. (If you have a minute, check out Zakaria's interview with Charlie Rose).

Zakaria refuses declare America’s demise. Instead, he advocates embracing this global reality and exploiting our finest resources, such the nation’s “greatest industry,” higher education. By educating the homegrown population and recruiting the finest minds from across the world, colleges and universities will ensure that America remains influential and prosperous.

I have spent this past academic year working in international education. While I move into the faculty next year, the experience has been enlightening. I now recognize more than ever that exposure to, and immersion in, different cultures is not a luxury for students (and professors). Rather, it is a necessity. Moreover, while I am admittedly late to the game, I am convinced that globalization is the new poststructuralism. That is, just as the decentering ideas of Foucault et al. influenced nearly every discipline, so too is the flattening world. In my own area, I think of Charles Reagan Wilson’s Southern Missions, which “places the religious history of the American South in a global context. The global connections of southern religion reflect a tradition within the American South that historians have failed to examine.” Indeed.

American Religious History and Historians at Baldblogger

Paul Harvey

Some months ago, Baldblogger featured a several-part series of interviews and posts on Ed Blum and W. E. B. Du Bois: American Prophet, and more recently reports on Blum's recent lecture at the University of Houston, "The Noose and the Cross: Race, Religion, and the Redemption of Violence in the Works of W. E. B. Du Bois."

Last week, Baldblogger began the first of a three-part interview series with Thomas Kidd, author and editor of recent important works on the Great Awakening. These new books, and the interview, highlight the importance of Kidd's work, and should be must-reads for American religious historians. We'll look forward to the continuation of this series.

Thanks to Baldblogger for his vital contributions to blogging in American religious history!

Young Scholars Program, 2009-2011

Here is the latest round of the Young Scholars in American Religion Program. As a current leader of the 2008-2010 group, I encourage everyone to apply, including those who applied for the last round. Those fortunate enough to be selected will have no more valuable professional opportunity. The deadline is mid-October, so pass the word!

Young Scholars in American Religion Program 2009-2011

The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI announces a program for early career scholars in American Religion. Beginning in April 2009, a series of seminars devoted to the enhancement of teaching and research for younger scholars in American Religion will be offered in Indianapolis. The aims of all sessions of the program are to develop ideas and methods of instruction in a supportive workshop environment, stimulate scholarly research and writing, and create acommunity of scholars that will continue into the future. For more information about the Center or the YSAR Program, please visit the Center's website.


Session I: April 2-5, 2009
Session II: October 15-18, 2009
Session III: April 15-18, 2010
Session IV: October 14-17, 2010
Session V: April 28-May 1, 2011

Seminar Leaders:W. Clark Gilpin is the Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Christianity and Theology in the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is a historian of Christianity who studies the cultural history of theology in England and America since the seventeenth century. Among his works is an intellectual biography of Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century advocate of religious liberty. A more recent book, A Preface to Theology, examines the history of American theological scholarship in terms of the theologian's responsibilities to a three-fold public in the churches, the academic community, and civil society.

Tracy Fessenden is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, specializing in western religious traditions, religion and literature, and American religious and cultural history. Her recent work focuses on religion, race, gender, and sexuality in American cultural history, on the relationship between religion and the secular in American public life, and on questions of religion and violence. She is author, most recently, of Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature.

Eligibility: Scholars eligible to apply are those who have launched their careers within the last seven years and who are working in asubfield of the area of religion in North America, broadly understood.Ten scholars will be selected, with the understanding that they will commit to the program for all dates. Each participant will be expected to produce a course syllabus, with justification of teaching approach, and a publishable research article. All costs for transportation, lodging, and meals for the seminars will be covered, and there is no application fee.

To Apply: Applicants must submit a curriculum vitae with three letters of reference directly supporting their application to the program (do not send portfolios with generic reference letters) as well as a 500-word essay indicating 1) why they are interested in participating,and 2) their current and projected research and teaching interests. The deadline for applications is 15 October 2008. Essays, CVs, and letters of reference should be sent to: Director, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, IUPUI, Cavanaugh Hall 417425, University Boulevard, Indianapolis, IN 46202-5140

Mormon Domination (of Popular Culture)

Kelly Baker

It seems that Newsweek's on a roll this week for Mormon coverage. In a previous post today, Art highlighted the article on Short Creek and its law enforcement legacy. Another article, "America's Next Top Mormon," trumpeted the prominence of Mormons on television. (They are everywhere! American Idol! Dancing With the Stars!) The author, Sally Atkinson, sees a surge of Mormon contestants on reality television as signal of LDS's growing (pop) cultural dominance. While I am not convinced by her thesis, I am intrigued by her reaction to Mormons invading our precious reality T.V. programs. Does this (gulp) mean Americans want wholesome, religious competitors on shows like Rock of Love or Big Brother? The wholesomeness (no rated "R" movies!) is part of where Atkinson thinks the appeal lies. Atkinson writes:

Wholesome, likable Mormon competitors are now so plentiful that some viewers have taken to playing Spot the Mormon. Former "Idol" contestant Carmen Rasmusen, herself a Mormon, says one of this season's early episodes set off her Mormon radar when she heard White tell the judges she'd never seen an R-rated movie. "My husband and I just looked at each other and said, 'She's totally Mormon.' I mean, who else would say something like that?" With all the conniving, back-stabbing and sexuality on reality TV, it may seem like a strange place for Mormons to congregate. That cultural disconnect is obviously part of the attraction for viewers and casting directors alike. Take the strange spectacle last month of a beautiful young Mormon woman— the "Idaho virgin," as she came to be known—sucking the toes of the eligible bachelor on MTV's racy "That's Amore." Or the contestant on this year's "America's Next Top Model" who said maybe her elimination was for the best, as she would have been uncomfortable doing a nude shoot. But for Mormon contestants themselves the motivation is more complex, whether it's testing the limits of their religion, showing America that Mormons aren't the insular community they're often perceived to be, or the one that crosses all denominations: the hunger for fame.

In reality TV terms, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in a sweet spot demographically: still small enough that members get excited to see one of their own in the spotlight, but large enough that when they watch together and vote they can affect results and ratings. Mormons reserve Monday nights for Family Home Evening, and when Marie Osmond competed on the family-friendly "Dancing With the Stars" last year, she benefited from having the voting fall on a Monday each week. In fact, all three Mormon contestants made it to the final four that season.

While "Idol"'s voting night is Tuesday, some Mormons around the country still get together for viewing parties and pour in the votes after each show. "Idol"'s producers won't disclose voting numbers, but Rasmusen says producer Ken Warwick once stopped her before a results show and told her she usually did pretty well in the East Coast voting but that her "numbers just soared" when the mountain states kicked in. "I was so happy to hear that people were voting like crazy and supporting me," she says. "Utah does a great job rallying around its people." Lauren Faber, an eighth-grader in Provo, votes for Archuleta as many times as she can each week for at least 20 minutes, "no matter what—even when he messed up that once." That will undoubtedly be music to Archuleta's ears, although last week Osmond spoke out in the church-owned Deseret News, saying that White and Archuleta should be judged based on their talent, not their religion. "I mean, you don't hear other people saying, 'One of the finalists is a Catholic' or 'One of them is a Presbyterian' or 'One of them is Jewish'."

But Mormons don't do well only on shows where the audience votes. "There must be something about the Mormon community that makes these people so self-confident and so open," says Lynne Spillman, a casting director for "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race." She thinks that coming from a large family probably helps in a game like "Survivor," with its complicated group dynamics mirroring sibling rivalries. "They also have these incredible experiences through their missions," she says, "and can relate to being dropped off in the middle of somewhere they've never been and having to make it."

I am curious to what our readers and contributors think about this piece. It strikes me as exoticizing Mormons by pointing out their (gasp) normality (Katie argues "charmed observance" can sometimes function for naughty purposes in this post). Am I hyper-sensitive because of the FLDS media coverage (more on that to come) or my tendency to look for the nefarious because my own research? Or is there something else going on in the need to document the Mormon presence on all these shows? Are Mormons becoming mainstream, at least in pop culture, as Atkinson seems to suggest? I am just not sure, but now, I will be on the lookout for the religious commitment of my favorite reality T.V. show "stars." Perhaps, Rock of Love will add a lovely Mormon to the cast, but for some reason, I doubt it.

The Historical Society’s 2008 Conference: Migration, Diaspora, Ethnicity, & Nationalism in History

By Randall Stephens

The Historical Society is hosting its sixth biennial conference at Johns Hopkins University
on "Migration, Diaspora, Ethnicity, & Nationalism in History," June 5-7, 2008. Blog readers will be interested in a number of the sessions, many of which deal with religious history topics: New Scholarship on the Post-Civil War era; African Americans in the era of the Great War; the State of African-American History and Studies, Parts I & II; What Public Historians Can Teach Academic Historians; Moving Civil Rights History in New Directions; Antislavery Reconsidered: Means, Ends, and Constituents; the Politics of Civil Rights History; 19th Century Religious History.

The relentless thrust of
globalization and the unexpected termination of the Cold War have increased rather than reduced global tensions. These developments force us to reconsider some themes once thought to be exhausted. Migrations, the formation of Diaspora communities, and the resurgence of ethnicities, both old and new, have transformed our understanding of nationalism and conventional conceptions of the nation-state. The 2008 conference will consider the above themes.

Franklin W. Knight will chair the 2008 conference program committee.

See more on the conference web site.

Short Creek, 1953

Art Remillard

For some historical perspective on the Texas polygamy case, take a look at Newsweek's recent article on the raid of an FDLS community in 1953.
It was July 26, 1953. In the pre-dawn hours, 120 heavily armed
Arizona lawmen prepared to descend upon the small polygamous community of Short Creek, home to the roughly 500 men, women and children of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The governor, J. Howard Pyle, had ordered a two-year investigation into polygamy and the marriage of teen girls to older men, and the cops arrived ready to take almost the entire town into custody. But the plans hit a snag. FLDS lookouts spoiled the raid by setting off a dynamite charge when they spotted state troopers and National Guardsmen approaching. Fearing a shootout, the lawmen cranked their sirens and sped into town, guns drawn. "You are all under arrest!" shouted the sheriff over a loudspeaker. "Stay where you are." But no one was going anywhere: officers found the residents of Short Creek gathered in the schoolyard, unarmed and singing hymns...

Despite the harsh claims, the prosecutions fizzled. Six months after the raid, the men were home on probation. A photo spread in Life magazine showed the "Lonely Men of Short Creek" living forlornly without their missing wives and children, and the case seemed less about polygamy than the rights of parents to keep their kids...

But public sentiment has changed. It's been fueled by the recent prosecutions for sexual abuses—and by last year's conviction of the FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, now in prison for charges related to performing a marriage of a 15-year-old girl to her older cousin. Texas officials focused on child welfare—unlike at Short Creek, the men have been left in place pending criminal investigation...
Still, could Eldorado also turn into a prosecutorial dry hole? "This isn't going to be like Short Creek," says state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, a Republican who worked with the local sheriff and other officials in 2005 to revamp state marriage laws in response to the Eldorado community. Thirty-one of the 53 girls between 14 and 17 years old are either pregnant or mothers already, Texas officials say. But attorneys for the Texas families say many of the young moms are 18, and they complain that the FLDS parents are only practicing their faith. There has been media criticism, and civil libertarians are worried. Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU's Texas office, says opposition is building: "We're concerned that the proceeding didn't meet the requirement in Texas law of imminent harm to a child. We have been inundated with concerns from the public." The lessons of Short Creek may not yet be fully absorbed.
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