I am the eggman (woo), They are the eggmen (woo), We were bigger than Jesus

By Randall Stephens

Will miracles never cease! The Guardian reports that the “the Vatican has finally announced that it likes the Beatles.” A semi-official newspaper of the Holy See has praised the Fab Four’s “unique and strange alchemy of sounds and words.” Though not sanctioning the Beatles penchant for alchemicals in general—lysergic and THC, the sort that turns rock Gods into walruses—the Vatican has feted the White Album’s 40th.

The chill came in 1966 when John Lennon told Maureen Cleave of the Evening Standard about his views on Christianity: “Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in [Lennon]: not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time. ‘Christianity will go,’ he said. ‘It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.’” Lennon’s remarks had a bit to do with his reading of Hugh J. Schonfield bestseller The Passover Plot.

Whatever nuance was there in the original statement was soon lost. Official condemnations appeared in denominational magazines, Beatle boycotts and Beatle record burnings rallied the faithful. At an August 1966 show in Memphis the Beatles mounted the stage as firecrackers went off and a barrage of fruit and debris pelted them. In 1978 Lennon “thanked” Jesus for putting an end to their hectic and now seemingly dangerous tours.

According to the Daily Telegraph the Vatican has absolved “John Lennon of his notorious remark, saying that ‘after so many years it sounds merely like the boasting of an English working-class lad struggling to cope with unexpected success.’” (For one of the best treatments of the “bigger than Jesus” episode, see Bob Spitz’s hefty tome, The Beatles: The Biography or Devin McKinney’s poetic, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. Brian Ward’s popular lecture on the subject is tremendous.)

This turn of events marks a thaw not a full-scale warming. Other acts—Black Sabbath, the Stones, the Kinks, the Zombies—will have to wait for their blessing. (Of those groups, my money would be on the Zombies' uplifting dramatic pop. Rod Argent sang in the choir at St Albans Cathedral and Colin Blunstone’s heavenly voice could melt the heart of Richard Dawkins. The Zombies masterful Odessey & Oracle deserves to be spotlighted on Vatican Radio.)

It’s nice to hear that Rome has made peace with the world's greatest rock band, even if it is 40-some years late. My good friend Bryan Zimmerman wonders if this represents a general shift away from the social conservatism of yesterday. (Southern Baptist Convention, take note.) Here’s to hoping this official reappraisal is not like Father McKenzie’s “sermon that no one will hear.”

Publish glad tidings, ye saints of Liverpool.

Thanksgiving Op-Eds

By John Fea

Thanksgiving offers an opportunity for historians, critics, and pundits of all kinds to think historically about the day. Here are a few of today's efforts:

Kenneth C. Davis in the New York Times on the French "pilgrims" who predated the ones who came to Plymouth.

Andrew Beahrs in the New York Times on Mark Twain and the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Brad Hart at American Creation on George Washington's Thanksgiving Day proclamation.

Boston 1775 on the 1774 Thanksgiving proclamation of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

Millard Fillmore's Bathtub on Texas's claim on the First Thanksgiving.

Karl Jacoby sets the record straight in the Los Angeles Times.

The Boston Globe on how an influential editor of a Boston women's magazine convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare a national day of thanksgiving.

Larry Tise in the Chicago Sun-Times on how our holiday bird got its name.

Ira Stoll in the Wall Street Journal on Samuel Adams and Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving!

(Crossposted at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.)

The Visible Church: Historiography of African American Religion Since Raboteau

Paul Harvey

A few weeks ago I blogged about the wonderful AAR session devoted to a 30th anniversary retrospective of Albert Raboteau's Slave Religion. I now wish that, prior to this event, I had been alerted to the recent article by Sylvia Frey, which Rebecca Goetz has just brought to my attention:

I just read a fantastic lit review in the March 2008 Slavery and Abolition by Sylvia Frey: "The Visible Church: HIstoriography of African American Religion since Raboteau." I highly recommend it.

Indeed, this is a state of the art piece, synthesizing the historiography of religious expressions in the African diaspora from the 1440s to the eve of the American Civil War. It does not cover the period since emancipation, so the title is a bit misleading, but the substance of the piece is an indispensable overview of the last generation of work on the religious expressions of enslaved peoples in the Western Hemisphere. It's not online presently, will be I think after a one-year embargo, but I was able to get it inter-library loaned electronically. So, ordered it last night, received it by PDF this morning. Sometimes progress is good!

The article focuses on placing the study of "slave religion" in its full Atlantic context, noting especially works such as John Thornton's Africa and Africans and Linda Heywood's Central Africans and the Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora (I was totally unfamiliar with Heywood -- got to get that for our library immediately!). Also, as is true of much of this new work, Catholicism plays a much more central role in African American religious history than appeared in an earlier generation of work, in Brazil and the Carribean of course but in North America as well.

Frey concludes: "It is fair to conclude by noting that more sophisticated methodologies developed since the publication of Raboteau's Slave Religion have advanced the historiography to such a level that what was largely invisible about African influence in the making of the Atlantic religious universe is now increasingly visible."

The full reference: Sylvia R. Frey, "The Visible Church: Historiography of African American Religion Since Raboteau," SLAVERY AND ABOLITION 29 (March 2008): 83-110.

Can Hope Become Justice: Post-Election Roundup

Paul Harvey

Just a brief roundup of some post-election views. First, the religious historian, jazz instrumentalist, and fantasy football player extraordinaire Jason Bivins asks, "I will be eager to see if one of campaign 2008’s keywords—hope—is supplanted by a different word: justice." That seems to be a theme running through many of these pieces. Another example: John Carlson's "The Justice We Need" suggests:

But Obama’s election suggests more than just a victory for equality or the realization of hard-earned civil rights. For, just as Obama now shines under the lamp of King’s legacy, it is essential to recall that, for King, justice was never only about civil rights. Justice was also a political formulation of the “beloved community”: the uniting of diverse peoples in one “beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” . . . . To be sure, this was an ideal never to be realized fully on earth. But it is an ideal that is every bit as important to King’s politics and his pursuit of justice as the Forms were to Plato or the Heavenly City was to Augustine.

King’s dream makes clear that justice begins with rights. But justice encompasses so much more than rights just as the injustices of America’s past—slavery, lynchings, segregation—extended far deeper than any simple denial of rights. The suffering and inhumanity associated with these indignities tore apart individual bodies and ruined lives, not to mention the relations that solidify families, communities, and, at times, the entire nation. Justice, then, also entails the process of binding old wounds, of reclaiming moral wholeness, and, most of all, rectifying the civil relations that countenance moral disorder. So understood, justice is not established the moment slavery or segregation is abolished or the instant that civil rights are extended to all. Conceiving justice as such overlooks the ongoing role that civic attitudes and actions play in healing relationships among citizens and shaping the moral character of a polity that binds them together.

And finally also from Immanent Frame, this roundup of responses, crossposted here:

In conjunction with recent post-election reflections at The Immanent Frame by Howard Adelman, Arjun Appadurai, John Esposito, Conrad Hackett, D. Michael Lindsay, Elizabeth Prodromou and John Schmalzbauer, Nicole Greenfield gathers a selection of articles that consider the role religion played in last Tuesday’s election (and the way it might figure politically in the months ahead), while Ruth Braunstein surveys news and analysis on “Voting in a year when ‘Muslim’ was a slur.” Find both of these roundups (and more) at here & there.

In our ongoing discussions, Patrick Lee Miller continues his
exchange with critics of his recent post on “Immanent Spirituality,” Arjun Appadurai responds to Jason Kuznicki’s criticisms of his post, “The magic ballot” (and Kuznicki fires back), Christine Wicker and Conrad Hackett consider how best to grasp the polling impact of “evangelicals,” and readers of Christianity Today and others react to D. Michael Lindsay’s post on evangelical leaders and the “Changing of the guard.”

Religion and the Louisiana Purchase


In 2004 over twenty scholars of religion in the Americas gathered at the University of Missouri-Columbia for the conference “Moving Boundaries: American Religion(s) through the Louisiana Purchase.”  Richard Callahan, chief organizer of the conference and assistant professor of religious studies at UM, has spent the last few years editing a selection of essays devoted to understanding the complex religious dimensions of a territorial purchase that linked the cultures of the nascent United States, Spanish and French colonial empires and the circum-Caribbean world on an enormous and perhaps unprecedented level in American history.  The result of Callahan’s innovation and diligence is the book New Territories, New Perspectives: The Religious Impact of the Louisiana Purchase (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008).  Like Thomas Tweed’s groundbreaking book Retelling U.S. Religious History, Callahan’s edited collection of essays is a reformulation of the relationship between religion and place in the United States as manifested in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  Or, to use the words of Callahan in his introductory remarks, it is an opportunity to examine how “Native Americans, Africans, African Americans, and others competed and at times cooperated with the new nation, as space, authority, and identity were refigured into the story of the United States.”

Contributors include Peter Williams, Amanda Porterfield, Charles Long, Paul Christopher Johnson, Michael Zogry, Douglas Henry Daniels, Carole Lynn Stewart, Elaine Lawless, and John Stewart.  Topics include religious landscape and architecture, sex and violence, Indian removal, jazz, Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the Deep South roots of Pentecostalism, Mardi Gras, the cultural history and representation of New Orleans, and the integral role that Vodou played in the Louisiana Purchase.

The breadth and importance of this book is only matched by the academic credentials of its contributors.  New Territories, New Perspectives also begs the question: to what extent have historians taken seriously Tweed’s call for new narratives of American religion?  Have historians followed the example of those who contributed to Retelling U.S. Religious History over ten years ago?  Is the field of American religious history sufficiently “reoriented,” “recentered,” and “retold”?  If so, then what’s next?  If not, then what happened?  To begin answering these questions, I suggest you read Callahan’s New Territories, New Perspecctives.

Bob Zellner's Civil Rights Memoir

Paul Harvey

Everyone who studies SNCC and the civil rights movement will recognize the name of Bob Zellner. A white Alabamian, son of a clergyman and college student in the early 1960s, Zellner cast his lot with the black freedom movement. In spite of his ubiquity in the historical literature of the movement (including a couple of brief appearances in my book Freedom's Coming), he remains much less well known than other characters from the era. That may be rectified somewhat now by the publication of Zellner's new memoir, Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Movement. Connie Curry, instrumental in the wonderful collection Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement, and a number of other memoirs and books about the period, is listed as the co-author, and Julian Bond provides the foreword. I look forward to reading this soon and blogging about it some more.

A brief description of the book, with Web extras below:

Even forty years after the movement, the transition from son and grandson of Klansmen to field secretary of SNCC seems quite a journey. In the early 1960s, when Bob Zellner’s professors and classmates at a small church school in Alabama thought he was crazy for even wanting to do research on civil rights, it was nothing short of remarkable. Now, in his long-awaited memoir, Zellner tells how one white Alabamian joined ranks with the black students who were sitting-in, marching, fighting, and sometimes dying to challenge the Southern “way of life” he had been raised on but rejected. Decades later, he is still protesting on behalf of social change and equal rights. Fortunately, he took the time, with co-author Constance Curry, to write down his memories and reflections. He was in all the campaigns and was close to all the major figures. He was beaten, arrested, and reviled by some but admired and revered by others. The Wrong Side of Murder Creek is Bob Zellner’s larger-than-life story, and it was worth waiting for. Zellner now lives and teaches in New York state. Atlanta-based co-author Curry is also a civil rights veteran and has written several books and directed a documentary film.

Web Extras

• Bob Zellner reads from The Wrong Side of Murder Creek on YouTube.
Read an excerpt of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek.
• Visit the official Wrong Side of Murder Creek website.
• Read the Alabama Writers’ Forum review of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek.

Bodies of Belief

The Church Body
Paul Harvey

Note on a new book of interest -- we'll have a more extensive review of this just-published work up sometime in the very near future. The book's main thrust, based on the summary below, appears to go along well with a number of other recent studies of early Baptist bodies, including portions of Charles Irons's Origins of Proslavery Christianity, which we've discussed extensively on this blog before, as well as Jewell Spangler, Virginians Reborn: Anglican Monopoly, Evangelical Dissent, and the Rise of Baptists in the Eighteenth Century. Evangelical democracy is looking less democratic than it used to in the historiography, a healthy corrective I think, and one that accords better with how these early church bodies actually worked in practice, and how they fit into society. Anyway, here's a description of Lindman's new work; more to come on it later.

Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America
Janet Moore Lindman

The American Baptist church originated in British North America as "little tabernacles in the wilderness," isolated seventeenth-century congregations that grew into a mainstream denomination by the early nineteenth century. The common view of this transition casts these evangelicals as radicals who were on society's fringe during the colonial period, only to become conservative by the nineteenth century after they had achieved social acceptance. In Bodies of Belief, Janet Moore Lindman challenges this accepted, if oversimplified, characterization of early American Baptists by arguing that they struggled with issues of equity and power within the church during the colonial period, and that evangelical religion was both radical and conservative from its beginning.

Bodies of Belief traces the paradoxical evolution of the Baptist religion, including the struggles of early settlement and church building, varieties of theology and worship, and the multivalent meaning of conversation, ritual, and godly community. Lindman demonstrates how the body—both individual bodies and the collective body of believers—was central to Baptist definition and maintenance of faith. The Baptist religion galvanized believers through a visceral transformation of religious conversion, which was then maintained through ritual. Yet the Baptist body was differentiated by race and gender. While all believers were spiritual equals, white men remained at the top of a rigid church hierarchy. Drawing on church books, associational records, diaries, letters, sermon notes, ministerial accounts, and early histories from the Mid-Atlantic and the Chesapeake as well as New England, this innovative study of early American religion asserts that the Baptist religion was predicated simultaneously on a radical spiritual ethos and a conservative social outlook.

Sutton Named Top Young Historian

By Randall Stephens

And young, and top, and historian he is. At 33, Matt's been recognized by the History News Network for his excellent writing, research, and classroom prowess. A typical student review of a Sutton course: "He's amazing. I absolutely loved his class. He made a subject that I care very little about into something so interesting. I was always excited to got to his class." He's published articles, written a stellar book, and racked up awards at an astonishing rate. Just take a look at the long list of favorable reviews of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America!

Matt's amusing anecdote is a humbling reminder to me of the times I've worn underpants on the outside of my trousers, come to school wearing two ties, or run over students (by accident) with my Honda CRV. Still trying to get that college sweatshirt out of the grill.

Markets and Morality Conference Report

"Did you ever wake up to find/A day that broke up your mind . . . It's just that demon life/has got you in its sway." Yes, from "Sway," my favorite Stones song. And yes, pretty much a description of my last week, between health problems, scrambled trips, and general chaos, so excuse the lack of blog entries.

In the meantime, thanks to
Kate Carte Engel for this report from the Markets and Morality Conference recently held at the Library Company of Philadelphia, which
I blogged about in September. It sounds like it was a blessedly rational event; just reading about it calmed me down. In the near future I hope to host a blog "interview" with Prof. Engel on her new book Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Until then, here's her first of what I hope will be other guest posts.


Religion and the economy has been a recurrent subject for this blog, so perhaps readers will be interested to hear a report of a recent conference held in Philadelphia. Market and Morality: Intersections of Economy, Ethics, and Religion in Early North America, the seventh annual conference of the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in Early American Economy and Society offered participants both lively discussion and interesting papers on a timeless subject.
The PEAES Program, steered by the University of Delaware’s Cathy Matson, fosters scholarship on diverse aspects of the early American economy and the wider culture that surrounded it. It has become a focal point for new and methodologically innovative work on early America, and its attention to the study of religion in the early American economy points to the vitality of that field.

As one commentator noted, Max Weber and Perry Miller were present as the elephants in the room, but panelists tried to work beyond (and sometimes with) them to build new paradigms of the study of religion in the economy. No single theory emerged as victor. but speakers covered topics as diverse as seventeenth-century Quaker merchants (Kristen Block), Puritan economic thought (Mark Valeri), and the controversies over early nineteenth-century turnpikes in New England (Jason Opal). Multiple historiographical approaches were brought to bear on the subject. Jose Torre offered a grand intellectual narrative that swept from Plato to the early republic. Holly Snyder used synagogue records and merchant ledgers to examine how Jews infused their economic lives with spiritual content. Opal delved into the town records of early national New England. Quite obviously, the diversity of approaches to this subject underlies the difficulty of coming to one, satisfactory theory to explain it.

Perhaps a better metric for understanding religion in the early American economy is the range of recurring themes in the conference’s discussion, topics marking the issues that Americans did battle with in their efforts to make spiritual sense of their economic lives: the shifting definition of providence, the nature of free will, and the meaning of sacrifice. These are theological questions but they were practical ones too for the people studied here. At the same time, in this effort to blend two very different subjects, political economy, the nature of the body politic, and the realities of transatlantic trade in the age of sail played an equally important role. In the concluding discussion, reminders to bring God back into the conversation alternated with those calls to remember political realities under which people lived.

The University of Connecticut’s Christopher Clark concluded the day with a discussion he described as a “wealth of notions.” He noted the marked drift over the last twenty-five years away from viewing markets as hostile forces. He pointed out that this beneficent view of the economy--perhaps a relic of the boom years that he dated as from 1983 to about last week--underlay most of the papers, which looked for accommodations between religious actors and economic situations, rather than core conflict between religion and economy. Yet wide-ranging discussion that followed highlighted how difficult it can be for historians to keep both of these subjects in mind at once. In short, no answers were to be had, but the breadth of scholars represented points to a fruitful discussion to come. The papers for the conference are available on the conference website.



Recently, my family and I took a day trip to Walden Pond and the town of Concord, Massachusetts. I snapped a few photographs of the autumnal landscape and the New England townscape and sent them to some friends and relatives. I received this email response from one of my cousins who happens to be a high school English teacher.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

No commentary. No personal reflection. Just the words of Henry David Thoreau. I should also mention that I telephoned an aunt of mine that same morning (she, too, a high school English teacher) to tell her of my impending trip, and she literally cried; she wanted to be there so badly. “Oh, you have to tell me all about it,” she insisted. “You have to take pictures! You have to remember to visit Nathaniel and Ralph and the rest of them for me!”

And so we entered the frenzied clutter of cars and pedestrians and cyclists that is Concord’s Main Street on a perfect weekend in October, plopped the two-year-old in the stroller, and started for Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It seemed that all signs pointed to our destination—Authors Ridge. After maneuvering toddler and stroller over cracks and roots and rocks and cobble, we reached the summit and paused in front of the modest stone markers placed over the remains of great writers made into myths. Several people had already paid their respects by leaving various mementos of their journey to what Louisa May Alcott once pseudonymously called “this modern Mecca” (she used her nickname Tribulation Periwinkle).

Little did Alcott know—or perhaps she knew quite well—that she would be visited by similar sorts of pilgrim-tourists who flocked to Concord in the 1860s and who, in the words of Alcott, “roost upon Concordian fences, chirp on Concordian doorsteps, and hop over Concordian fields and hills, scratching vigorously, as if hoping to unearth a new specimen from what is popularly believed to be the hot-bed of genius.” I wonder how much today’s roosting, chirping, hopping, scratching, and hoping resemble that of the nineteenth century. I wonder how much the myth has changed since the The Scarlet Letter (1850) became THE book to study for the English AP test. I wonder when high school English teachers started crying over the Transcendentalists. And I wonder why I felt so happy to be there.

So to all you college professors who teach courses on religion in America—the next time you’re covering the Transcendentalists, don’t just spend the hour situating this or that author within the larger movement of romanticism or placing this or that idea within the larger tradition of liberal Protestantism. Instead, remember your audience. Hell, remember yourself. Reflect upon how this ridiculously quotable, glaringly tiny group of American thinkers became so pervasive in American culture and so interesting or boring but nonetheless known to you and your students. Heaven knows they’ve never heard of old John Winthrop, who, by the way, you can also visit next time you’re in the Boston area at the King’s Chapel Burying Ground.

And to all you folks who plan to visit the site of Thoreau’s shed and remains, watch out for the high school cross country teams at Walden Pond and skateboarders at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. They’re courteous, but many.

For a few recent books on Transcendentalism and other related matters, see Philip Gura’s American Transcendentalism: A History (Hill and Wang 2008); John Matteson’s Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father (W.W. Norton 2007); Dean Grodzins’ American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (Univ. of North Carolina 2007); Sterling Delano’s Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia (Belknap/Harvard 2004); and David Robinson’s Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism (Cornell 2004). For a 2002 NPR report on Thoreau’s Walden, go to this link.

Robert Orsi Forum in Historically Speaking

By Randall J. Stephens

The latest issue of Historically Speaking includes a forum on “Abundant History,” which features a lead piece by Robert Orsi and responses from Thomas Kselman, Jane Shaw, Brad S. Gregory, and Constance M. Furey. The forum was made possible by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. I have posted Orsi’s lead essay and Shaw’s response here.

It’s a provocative subject. Some of you may know that Orsi has been looking at the limits of critical historical method and its epistemological underpinnings. The essays in the forum examine the religious experiences that lay outside “the conceptual range of modernist epistemology and historiography.”

After discussing Marian apparitions, Orsi poses several critical questions:

What words or categories of interpretation are there for phenomena such as these? How do we talk about what happened, first at Lourdes (and at other sites where the transcendent breaks into time and comes face to face with humans in the circumstances of their everyday lives), and then afterward, as the result of what happened at Lourdes, there and at all the other Lourdes? How do we account for the excess?

A few related items: Johns Hopkins University Press will begin publishing HS in January 2009. It's been a pleasure to work with them. That means that HS will now be available on Project Muse. It's good news for us because to date we've had a limited web presence. I’ve moved up from associate editor to editor. And, lastly, I’ve started doing some caricatures. Call that an experiment, failed or successful. William James, which accompanies Shaw’s piece, is one of the first.

Sugrue's Sweet Land of LIberty: Review and Interview


Paul Harvey

Just a bit more on Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty. Alan Wolfe reviews it in today's New York Times; he finds the history moving but the advocacy unconvincing, concluding:

Imagine how much more might have changed if the Northern civil rights movement had borrowed more of the moral appeal to conscience that inspired civil rights in the South.

Prior to the book's publication, Sugrue was interviewed about his work here. As if in direct response to Wolfe's review, he explains his focus on the structural and the institutional:

Q: So you’re exploring the idea that racial inequality is about institutions and not only personal attitudes?

A: That’s one of the major themes that run through my book. Since the mid-20th Century, Northerners and Americans in general have framed the question of civil rights as a moral question or a psychological question — a question about individual motivations and individual intentions. But the story of the North is a story of the ways in which racial separation and racial privilege are created and replicated through institutions. Ultimately it’s a story of the ways in which the taking for granted of how we organized our workplaces, how we organized where we live, became the foundation for deeper and more pernicious forms of racial inequality.

By explaining away racial inequality as a problem in the hearts and minds of white Americans, we also dodge having to grapple with the larger issues about the ways in which racial inequality is the result of exploitation--the result of asymmetrical power relationships. That fundamentally, as civil rights activists have highlighted, is a political problem which requires pushing the political system to demand a different allocation of power and resources.

Yale Divinity School Job Announcement

YALE DIVINITY SCHOOL seeks to make a tenure track appointment in the field of American religious history, to begin July 1, 2009. In an ecumenical environment Yale Divinity School prepares students for ordained ministry in diverse Christian churches and for a wide range of professional involvements, including higher education, law, medicine, management, and public service. A Ph.D. or its equivalent, strong potential as a teacher will be required. The successful candidate should have expertise in American religious history of the nineteenth and/or twentieth centuries.

A letter of application with curriculum vitae and a list of three references should be submitted by December 15, 2008 to Dean Harold W. Attridge, Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511-2167.

Yale University is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity employer. Yale values diversity in its faculty, staff, and students and especially encourages applications from women and underrepresented minorities.

Religion, Culture, and Politics: Interview with Mark Hulsether

Columbia University Press recently published Mark Hulsether's Religion, Culture, and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States, a book very much oriented for classroom use. You may find an interview with the author here at the Columbia University Press blog. A little excerpt:

Thus I stress using multiple maps and critical tools to analyze US religion. I think it is crucial not to get carried away by a common wisdom that imagines a binary struggle between “real religious values” on one side, versus either a purely “naked” public square or a religious liberalism that is just a halfway house to secularism.

Sober Reflections

Our Ed Blum has some of the best post-election analysis I've read in an essay at Religion Dispatches. It should be required reading for Obama supporters and detractors. Striking a Niebuhrian tone (in my mind, at least), Blum compares this year's "day of Jubilee" to that experienced at the end of the Civil War:

When we think of Obama as "savior-elect," we court trouble. When we forget history we weaken our own resolve; mysteries can be dangerous and days of Jubilee do not always end with eras of sublimity.

You can hear more of Ed's thoughts by listening to a San Diego NPR panel.

Documentary Reader on Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

Paul Harvey

Here's a note for a new book of interest that likely will find its way into many classrooms.

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism: A Documentary Reader

Edited by Barry Hankins

”Scholars, students and the general reading public have long needed a book like this one. Its judicious selections, helpful introductions, and intelligent arrangement open up a history that has been too often obscured by partisanship and sloppy reporting.” —Mark Noll, University of Notre Dame

Evangelicalism retains the doctrine of biblical authority that developed during the Protestant Reformation as well as the sense that each individual stands in need of a life-transforming experience of forgiveness of sins that can only come through faith in Christ.

With the rise of the Christian Right in American politics over the past quarter-century, there has been renewed interest in Protestant evangelicalism and fundamentalism and their roles in American culture. Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism is a collection of key primary readings tracing the history and development of this religious movement and its intersections with American life and politics, spanning the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century.
The documents deal with issues such as biblical criticism, theology, revivalist preaching, religion and science, religion and politics, and social concerns such as gender and race. Countering notions among some that evangelicalism is monolithic, the diversity of the movement is made evident in texts from the evangelical Left as well as the Christian Right.

Each section and many individual texts are prefaced by a brief editor's introduction explaining their background and context. During the period the book covers, evangelicalism went from being the dominant form of religion in America, then to the fringes, then back into the mainstream. These texts provide the reader with a sense of the central core as well as the range of evangelical thinking in the past century.

Post-Racial America? Nope.

Earlier on the blog I mentioned Thomas Sugrue's SWEET LAND OF LIBERTY as the most important work of American history to appear this year -- heck, maybe this decade. My review of it, posted at Books and Culture's Book of the Week series, is linked below. As mentioned before, this is not a religious history book, of course, but there's an awful lot to learn about religious/civil rights history in it--and many other topics besides.

Post-Racial America? Not Yet.

Why the history of the black "freedom struggle" remains all too relevant today.

Reviewed by Paul Harvey

In a brief interval between college and graduate school, I worked as a canvasser and community organizer in some poorer neighborhoods in the Bay Area, east of San Francisco. My grandfather, an Oklahoma preacher, had worked there during World War II, part of a floodtide of southern migration to industrial jobs. By the time I arrived in the 1980s, however, a largely black working-class population sat in deteriorating neighborhoods, poisoned by environmental contamination from the local Chevron plant and frightened by urban decay and drug-related violence. I accomplished little other than justly earning distrustful looks from embattled longtime residents who were, doubtless, baffled by my own stunning naiveté.

Click to continue.

Scholarly Categories

by John G. Turner

I recently attended a service at a church belonging to the Anglican Mission in the Americas, which according to the movement's website is "a missionary movement of Rwanda committed to reaching the unchurched in North America."

The service featured liturgy (not surprising), praise songs, and hands being held high or waved in the air. One could fairly categorize it as evangelical, I think. Does that mean conservative? Not in terms of the worship music, which one certainly wouldn't hear at Trinity Church in Boston. Not in terms of race, as the congregation was biracial, unusual in these parts. In terms of theology? Probably, but "conservative" is a pretty imprecise term anyway.

The service got me thinking about how difficult it can be to categorize American churches and religious movements (it's hard enough for me to categorize myself sometimes). Historians like to bring order out of chaos. We hypothesize, categorize, and generalize -- how else to make sense out of the mountains of evidence we encounter?

I find it very difficult to place Mormonism on the landscape of antebellum American religion. Catherine Albanese, in A Republic of Mind and Spirit, places Mormonism within a broad stream of metaphysical religion. While I see some connections here (the Latter-day Saint emphasis on restoring family connections across the generations, for instance, was shared by many other nineteenth-century metaphysical movements), it is an imperfect fit. "Thus community among them," Albanese writes of metaphysicians, "has tended to be ad hoc and flexible, and authoritarian voices and concerns have not gotten very far." (pp. 6-7) Although particularly during the church's pre-Utah years, authoritarianism was always contested, it did get rather far in this case.

It's equally misleading to simplistically situate Mormons amidst the millenarians, the restorationists, the seekers, the hermeticists, or the radical evangelicals. Thus, for me, making sense of Mormonism is a constant challenge. The organizational hierarchy is baffling. As Richard Bushman concedes, "any effort to extract an organizational chart ends in confusion." (Rough Stone Rolling, 253) The theology is equally complex. The early Church of Christ (later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) shared characteristics with other restorationists, sometimes reflected the vibrant spirituality and theology of radical evangelicalism, and illustrated the influence of folk magic in the Early Republic.

Brigham Young expressed a similar frustration -- wonder, really, in his case -- when describing his 1832 conversion:

When I undertook to sound the doctrine of "Mormonism," I supposed I could handle it as I could the Methodist, Presbyterian, and other creeds of Christendom, which I had paid some considerable attention to, from the first of my knowing anything about religion. When "Mormonism" was first presented to me, I had not seen one sect of religionists whose doctrines, from beginning to end, did not appear to me like the man's masonry which he had in a box, and which he exhibited for a certain sum. He opened the main box from which he took another box; he unlocked that and slipped out another, then another, and another, and thus continued to take box out of box until he came to an exceedingly small piece of wood; he then said to the spectators, "That, gentlemen and ladies, is free masonry." I found all religions comparatively like this-they were so deficient in doctrine that when I tried to tie the loose ends and fragments together, they would break in my hands. When I commenced to examine "Mormonism," I found it impossible to take hold of either end of it. (Brigham Young discourse of 17 April 1853)

Most unique was the presence of the "Golden Bible," the Book of Mormon. In the end, though, what I find most striking about the early Latter-day Saint movement is its inherent dynamism, which the new Scripture symbolized. [I'm influenced by Terryl Givens's superb analysis here]. The Saints accepted not only an open canon but a prophet who continually took them in new directions, theologically and temporally. Especially during Joseph Smith's lifetime, and to a lesser extent under Brigham Young, Latter-day Saint theology and practice remained intensely fluid and dynamic. That dynamism perplexed Smith's followers and continues to perplex historians. It's hard to take hold of either end of it.

Faith and Politics

by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

A few weeks ago I posted about Edward Curtis's new encyclopedia on Muslim-American history and Thomas Kidd's latest offering on the history of evangelicals and Islam in America. American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism is now available, as is Kidd's HNN piece on the attempt by some evangelicals to paint Barack Obama as a Muslim. Kidd brings some historical clarity to these claims, and calls for some much needed cosmopolitan thinking on the matter.

Here's the first part of Kidd's informative and brief historical summary:

During this year’s presidential campaign, widely-circulated e-mails claimed that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim. “Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim,” one version of the e-mail asserted. “Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background. ALSO, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Koran.” Setting aside the factual problems with this e-mail (the swearing-in claim confused Obama, a long-time practicing Christian, with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress), how has the prospect of a secret Muslim as President taken such a prominent place among the cyber-myths of this election?

One might easily point to the fear of Muslim extremists generated by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as a contributing factor to this rumor about Obama. The prominent role of evangelical Christians in American politics might be another cause. Anxiety about Islam has particular resonance among conservative Protestants: polls have consistently demonstrated that contemporary evangelicals have a substantially more negative view of Islam than other Americans. But American fears about Muslims precede 9/11 by hundreds of years, with origins as early as the founding of the first English colonies in America. History also shows conflicted American attitudes toward Islam, even among conservative Christians, whose views of Islam have ranged from studied respect to apocalyptic revulsion.

Read the rest of the article here and find a copy of the book here.

A Tribute to Albert Raboteau's Slave Religion

Paul Harvey

Some years ago, several folks helped to organize a tribute to Donald Mathews's classic work Religion in the Old South at the 2002 SHA, on the 25th anniversary of its publication. My friend Lauren Winner and others organized this wonderful event.

I had the same warm feeling today at the session for the 30th anniversary of Albert Raboteau's Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South. Of course, anyone who knows this field will recognize that this is one of the seminal works in all of American religious history, its influence reaching down through (by now) generations of scholars.

The Hilton Hotel provided us a malfunctioning microphone and a room about as unfriendly to dialogue as possible. Nonetheless, everyone present made it a great event, and I was thankful to be present and a participant. 5 panelists (including myself) were privileged to be able to reflect on the life and influence of Raboteau's classic work. Younger, middle-aged (that would be me), and older scholars were represented. Professor Raboteau responded, characteristically thoughtfully and incisively, at the end, and the audience provided excellent questions and commentary. In all, it was a great day in Chicago, and we all have Phil Goff to thank for putting the session together.

For anyone's interest, I'm pasting in my commentary below. As mentioned, there were five responses today to Raboteau's work. Each presenter had a distinctly different set of comments. My comments below briefly mention the influence of newer work on the African diaspora, foreshadowed in Raboteau's work; Jalane Schmidt of the University of Virginia spoke at length about this. Mark Noll (Notre Dame) and Dennis Dickerson (Vanderbilt) discussed theological issues in Raboteau's work. Curtis Evans drew from his significant work on the history of the concept of "black religion" and gave a religious studies perspective on Raboteau's book. I discussed historical issues remaining for further exploration, further detailed below. Anyone who was there and has read this post, feel free to comment. Mostly, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Prof. Raboteau for creating this work of enduring significance, and for his subsequent career in exploring avenues of African American religious history.



When I was in graduate school, I hung out a lot at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, on a beautiful spot overlooking the Bay Area. When I was there “back in the day,” I checked out a lot of books on African American religious history, which I was just then starting to study with my mentor Leon Litwack. Time after time while there in the pre-historic pre-computer library days, I wrote my name in the little check out cards. Time after time, when I did that, I wrote my name under another name, the last person to have checked out these often rather obscure books, mostly about nineteenth-century African American religious history: Albert Raboteau. I spent those years wondering whether I could ever write such a work as Slave Religion. A ghost was haunting me: the specter of Albert Raboteau. I’m still trying to write such a book, and that specter still looms before me - - today, in person!

So I started my career following in Albert Raboteau’s footsteps. And I’ve continued my career in those footsteps since. Re-reading SLAVE RELIGION reminded me of that. It reminds me of recently re-reading Winthrop Jordan’s WHITE OVER BLACK, parts of which I had assigned for a class. Re-reading it reminded me of how much Jordan had anticipated decades of scholarship to come. Jordan didn’t use the word “whiteness,” but he was exploring that concept long before most scholars (aside from DuBois, of course), were using the word. Likewise, re-reading SLAVE RELIGION for this session reminded me of how much Raboteau had not only shaped, but also anticipated, the state of the field then and to come.

In the initial section of his book, Raboteau depicts the “death of the gods,” meaning the inevitable demise of African religions in any systemic form. There were “retentions” and “survivals,” fragments of surviving African religious customs (as Melville Herskovits had documented in his older classic Myth of the Negro Past), but the brutal passage to the New World meant that African religions would not survive intact. Nonetheless, while African religions died, from their remnants African-American Christianity took its characteristic cultural forms. In Raboteau’s account, enslaved Christians might have attended white-sanctioned and supervised services, sung Anglo-American hymns, and listened to southern ministers instruct them in the virtues of obedience, patience, and humility. But they also created their own covert religious culture, one with its own distinctive theology and rituals. In services held in slave cabins, in the woods at night, and in "hush arbors," enslaved African Americans developed a religious culture that brought together elements of their African past and their American evangelical training. Before the war, when independent institutions were impossible, black religious life emerged most clearly in religious rituals such as ring shouts, spirituals, and chanted sermons.

Raboteau’s book surveys the field in a way that is still unexcelled, and still sets the standard for all other work in the field. If Raboteau still defines the field as it exists, what of the field as it is to come? We don’t have any new overall synthesis that encapsulates seemingly everything, such as Raboteau accomplished thirty years ago. But we do have trends, new books and articles, and interesting forthcoming work that suggests what such a synthesis would look like in the future.

I’ll suggest what it will look like in three areas. First, African American religious history is now about the diaspora, rather than North America per se. Raboteau anticipated this, but it’s now come full bloom. Second, as Raboteau acknowledges in his new afterword, traditions outside of Christianity per se, or evangelicalism of the Protestant variety, are in need of much further exploration. That, too, is now well underway, especially in the earlier history of African American Islam. Finally, the period from the early seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth remains terrain in need of further exploration.

I want to dwell for a moment on the last point: the earlier story of African American religious history. We have a lot of work to do to correct an evangelical Protestant teleology that still implicitly tends to write our American religious history. Examining the earlier periods of African American religious history brings a few thoughts to mind.

First, if we import the concept of lived religion into the study of African American religious history, what would we find? I think we would discover what archaeologists are increasingly finding as they unearth the artifacts of early slave plantations: the remnants of everyday religious practice. Scholars such as Lauren Winner are examining the quotidian religious practices of eighteenth-century Americans, in her case elite Anglicans, in a manner much like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has done for the now-famous midwife Martha Ballard. We’ll never be able to reconstruct the world of early African Americans in the same way. AT this point, for example, we’re not even very sure anymore where such a well-known figure as Olaudah Equiano was even born, and the degree to which he might have invented his own tradition as a child of the African motherland. Nonetheless, even before the evangelical awakenings, African American religious life must have been practiced in myriad everyday ways.

Secondly, it now seems clearer than it was at the time Raboteau wrote that Anglicanism and Catholicism exerted far more influence in early African American religious history than has heretofore been understood. This doesn’t mean that Anglicans, or Catholics, effected mass or large-scale conversions as did the evangelicals later. It does mean that the idea that boring Anglicans presented a message with no appeal at all to slaves in Virginia, for example, no longer holds.

This is clear from a recently rediscovered document published in the William and Mary Quarterly. This document is a letter from 1723 in which a group of mixed-race slaves are writing to the newly appointed Anglican bishop, asking for their freedom based on their grounding in the Christian faith. They were, they wrote, “Baptised and brouaht up in a way of the Christian faith and followes the wayes and Rulles of the chrch of England.” They complained about the law “which keeps and makes them and there seed Slaves forever.” The hardness of their masters, they said, kept them from following the Sabbath: “wee doo hardly know when [Sabbath] comes,” they wrote, “for our task mastrs are as hard with us as the Egyptians was with the Chilldann of Issarall.” Their letter concluded with an explanation of why they did not sign their names, “for freare of our masters for if they knew that wee have Sent home to your honour wee Should goo neare to Swing upon the Gallass tree.”

These slaves retained an older, more radical view of Christian conversion: their religious status gave them rights to freedom and respect, for which they were willing to fight – in court rooms, in letters to imperial officials, and, as a last resort, in rebellions. Here, our language of Christian Englishmen and non-Christian Africans interacting in the Chesapeake fails completely, for what we see instead are Christianized Afro-Virginians utilizing the levers of power to try to leverage Christianity into freedom. They knew the language of power, and they spoke it eloquently and at great risk to themselves. John Thornton’s work on the timing of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, which fit with a Catholic Kongolese calendar, also shows the ways in which religious sensibilties informed early slave life in America.

Younger scholars examining the history of Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley, moreover, as well as those studying the diasporic connections of Africans in various parts of the Americas, are rewriting early African American religious history as well. To me, this is one of the most exciting frontiers of research and analysis, precisely because it suggests the diversity, complexity, and multiplicity of early American history. Again, once we no longer assume Protestant evangelicals are the winners by default, then all those Catholic missionaries loom much larger than they typically have in American religious history. Michael Pasquier’s forthcoming work on French missionary priests will tell us an awful lot about early Catholic history and the relationship of Catholics with slavery, as has my former student Sue Ann Marasco's just-completed dissertation.

Finally, I want to speak to the issue raised by the story of Charles Colcock Jones, that Raboteau tells in his work. Jones was a Presbyterian planter and minister in the lowcountry of Georgia who scorned slavery when younger but eventually created the enterprise of the “mission to the slaves.” Preaching before a slave congregation in 1833, Jones delivered a message about order and obedience from the book of Philemon. “When I insisted upon fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants and upon the authority of Paul,” he later wrote, and “condemned the practice of running away, one half of my audience deliberately rose up and walked off with themselves, and those that remained looked anything but satisfied, either with the preacher or his doctrine. After dismission, there was no small stir among them; some solemnly declared ‘that there as no such thing an Epistle in the Bible’ others, ‘that they did not care if they ever heardme prech again!’ . . . Some objected to him as preacher “because I was a master.” (Raboteau, 294).

Charles Colcock Jones’s experience suggests one of the deep paradoxes of American religious history: the explosion of democratic evangelicalism together with the rise of a repressive form of Protestantism that at first implicitly, and later explicitly, racialized the divine.

In southern history, one sees this paradox played out in particularly powerful ways. Therefore, in writing a social history of religious freedom, there is no better place to start than the South. Such an exploration will show the ways in which freedom depended on un-freedom, and how evangelical democracy sprang up at the same time as the explosive spread of racial slavery. Religious democracy, racial slavery, and social repression grew up together. What exactly was their connection? That, to me, is a question of fundamental importance worth revisiting; and when we revisit the question, the specter of Albert Raboteau will loom over us again.
newer post older post