America in the World, the World in America

Cara L. Burnidge

Thus far in my semester, I spend comparatively little of my time thinking about religion in US History. (You read that right.) Besides editing my own work for publication and conferences, much more of time time is related to teaching Introduction to World Religions and Introduction to Religious Studies. Although the United States certainly comes up, as it is my research area and, for most students, the only frame of reference, I see my job as introducing students to a world beyond what they know. Learning about theoretical concepts in Religious Studies and World History is intended to be a window into new perspectives on their own culture.

For example, at mid-term both of my classes are concentrating on three quotations that have guided our discussions about religion and the idea of "world religions." Each have provided a theoretical framework for individual classes (so this is not their introduction to the following quotations; we've rotated our review of each several times now):

"Every established order tends to produce the naturalization of its own arbitrariness." --Pierre Bourdieu
"I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community--and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign." --Benedict Anderson
"...the problem is not the challenge of defining such a supposedly complicated thing as, the difficulty instead lies in regulating the many definitions of it that other people offer. Defining it therefore isn't the tough part; minimizing the effects of definitions in competition with one's own is when the heavy lifting begins."--Russell McCutcheon
Next week,  my students finish writing an essay where they picked a quote and applied it to their textbook chapter on "Indigenous Religions." (How is this chapter an example of "every established order..."? How is this chapter demonstrating the "problem" of defining religion? etc., etc., you get the idea) Even though this assignment relates to categories within Religious Studies, my hope is that they will--or at least some of them will of them will?--remember these quotes and the critical thinking encouraged through them when they read headlines like

"Experts say immigrants are changing the U.S. religious landscape"
"Reagan's Christian revolt: How conservatives hijacked American religion"
or any number of the headlines devoted to the "religious liberty" bills in Kansas, Arizona, and elsewhere this past week: "America's 'Sincerely Held' Religious Beliefs and the Fraying of America"; "Religious Liberty or Anti-Gay Legislation?"; and "Setting the Record Straight on Arizona's Religious Liberty Bill".

Even though our minds might be focused on "the world," and our topics may be "indigenous religions" or "world religions" or anything else that doesn't use the word "America," we are still thinking through ideas and examples that shape what we know about "religion in America." Their critical thinking is at its best when it can be applied to multiple cultural contexts.

In Good Faith, a Collaborative Research Project of the ATLA

Emily Suzanne Clark

This post is a quick heads-up about a research planning project being overseen by the American Theological Library Association (ATLA), the Catholic Library Association (CLA), and the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). The project is called "In Good Faith: Collection Care, Preservation, and Access in Small Theological and Religious Studies Libraries." The research planning project centers on the creation and analysis of a preservation survey for small theological and religious studies libraries, archives, and cultural institutions. The point of the survey is to collect information from the librarians and archivists at small religious studies and theological libraries in order to get a sense of collection care and preservation needs that are unique to these smaller institutions. This way, the ATLA, CLA, and AJL can plan classes, seminars, and programs specially geared towards these smaller libraries' needs. The rich materials found in these smaller institutions are so important to the kind of work we as scholars can do and sometimes unknown to us. The forthcoming survey will be available in March, and please pass it onto to your favorite small library or archive. Though the advisory group has been working on a definition of a small library, it is being conceived somewhat broadly. So if you're not sure if your favorite small religious studies or theological library fits the definition, send it on anyways. Here is a press release about the forthcoming available survey.

The grant is financially sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library services and overseen by representatives from the ATLA, CLA, AJL, and research consultants. I serve on the advisory board to represent researchers. Not only are the other people on the advisory board lovely, it has been a wonderful experience seeing into the world of libraries and archives—places I rely upon heavily to do my work but don't think too much about beyond that. At AAR this fall, stop by and see what the librarians at the ATLA booth are up to. They are much more than databases. They're fun people and smart thinkers who ask insightful questions.

Mississippi Praying: An Interview with Carolyn Dupont

Editorial Note: I'm pleased to host this interview with Carolyn Dupont, historian at Eastern Kentucky University and author of Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights MOvement, 1945-1975. We previously noted this book here, and let me repeat a bit of what I wrote then:

This is, for my money, right at the top of the heap for works dealing with southern white churches and the civil rights movement. {This] is a crisply written, strongly argued book that takes a decided stand on an issue (the degree of support that white southern churches gave to segregationism) that has been the subject of a most interesting and productive recent scholarly dispute.

Here's a bit from the NYU Press website, before we get to the interview:
Mississippi Praying examines the faith communities at ground-zero of the racial revolution that rocked America. This religious history of white Mississippians in the civil rights era shows how Mississippians’ intense religious commitments played critical, rather than incidental, roles in their response to the movement for black equality. Challenging previous scholarship that depicts southern religious support for segregation as weak, Dupont shows how people of faith in Mississippi rejected the religious argument for black equality and actively supported the effort to thwart the civil rights movement. At the same time, faith motivated a small number of white Mississippians to challenge the methods and tactics of do-or-die segregationists. Racial turmoil profoundly destabilized Mississippi’s religious communities and turned them into battlegrounds over the issue of black equality. Though Mississippi’s evangelicals lost the battle to preserve segregation, they won important struggles to preserve the theology that had sustained the racial hierarchy. 

Here are four questions for Professor Dupont, and her answers. Enjoy. 

As you know, the degree of support white southern churches gave to the system of segregation during the era of the civil rights movement is a very contentious point in the scholarship. You argue that "White Mississippians created a faith divinely suited for a segregated society." Can you elaborate on that point, and explain more about your findings that, contrary to the views of some other historians, segregationists did in fact find substantial support among southern white Christians.

Certainly, evangelicals did not speak about race and segregation with one voice.  Some evangelicals condemned America’s racial practices quite pointedly, while others made biblical arguments for segregation.  It becomes a pretty tricky exercise to determine which of these approaches dominated when you look at these denominations as a whole, because the civil rights movement divided them deeplyBut I realized, by looking at one single state, that overt evangelical support for segregation had a geography; where resistance to black equality thrived, this resistance enjoyed a fairly vigorous religious support.  Another important divide lay between denominational elites, who tended to be more progressive, and folks in the pews.  Critiques of American race relations more often came from seminary professors and heads of denominational agencies, a small element in these bodies, rather than layfolk, who constituted the majority.  Certainly, listening to denominational elites (whose voices are fairly easy to recover) creates a different impression than listening to laypeople (whose voices are harder to find.)

D. G. Hart on Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason


The following is a guest review of Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2013), named one of Paul Harvey's Great Books on Religion for 2013.  D. G. Hart currently teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.  He is the former director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, and is the author of several incisive histories of evangelicalism.  His most recent book is Calvinism: A History (Yale, 2013).

Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.  viii + 352 pp. $27.95 (cloth). 

D. G. Hart

If a historian had the assignment of telling the history of historical knowledge and scholarship in the United States, how would she organize the narrative or what institutions or figures would she use?  (We do have examples of such history – Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession – so this is not an odd question.)  If the scholar with this assignment used the American Historical Association as the basis for a narrative, she would produce a different story than if she followed the officers and members of the Organization of American Historians.  And this would be a different narrative from one that followed the leading or most prestigious university graduate school programs.  Which would also be different from an account that featured history programs at liberal arts colleges, or that followed the doings of history majors after receiving a B.A.  Some might argue that a history featuring the AHA or OAH focused too much on professional historians and did not adequately factor in museums, monuments, historical sites and markers, theme parks or even journalistic accounts of military or national anniversaries, not to mention book reviews of historical scholarship in non-specialized print media. 
This may seem like an odd way to introduce Molly Worthen’s new book on evangelicalism, but since historical knowledge in the United States has more institutional definition – from professional organizations to requirements for undergraduate majors – than born-again Protestantism, the comparison between evangelicalism and history is not as farfetched as it might seem.  These considerations are relevant for considering Worthen’s book because any historian of evangelicalism confronts a task analogous to someone telling this history of history.  How does the historian decide who is in and who is out?  How much does a historian impose their own categories of analysis or let historical actors supply the terms for interpretation?   To alleviate the suspense, readers may be interested to know that I made Worthen’s cut as a figure in this book, though as merely a graduate student with Timothy L. Smith as my advisor, while the favorite evangelical of New York City journalists, the Presbyterian pastor, Tim Keller, did not qualify for inclusion.  Lest anyone think this selection has gone to my head, they should also know right away that Worthen did not follow my cautions about interpreting evangelicalism – namely, that the subject is an arbitrary construction applied by journalists and scholars to an amorphous and hardly coherent set of people who go to church and don’t, who left mainline Protestant denominations and remain in them, who are Protestant and Roman Catholic, but who look appealing or menacing, sizeable, and influential if you are a candidate for federal offices or a publisher selling books.  To be sure, Worthen is in good company in believing that evangelicalism really exists.  But she did not try to persuade the skeptics who doubt evangelicalism’s existence.

Under The Radar: 5 Questions for Historians You Should Know

Five Questions with Kim Alexander, PhD. St John's College, Associate Professor, History of Christianity,  Regent University 

When you travel in these Pentecostal circles long enough, you get to meet people who you resonate with, who understand your research, and who are allies in bridging the chasm between pentecostalism as a movement and its academic study--Kim is one of those rare women--who will cross over her Holiness Pentecostal pedigree in the Church of God--to talk about feminism, healing, Holiness, academic politics & of course, Rock 'n Roll.  

Dr. Alexander's latest work is What Women Want:  Pentecostal Women Ministers Speak for Themselves co-authored with Dr. James Bowers, Bowie, MD: The Seymour Press, 2013.

1.  Obvious question, what do women want? What did you find in your research?
The women ministers we surveyed indicated that they want to be valued, they want their call to be recognized, they want support (and are in serious need of such) and, perhaps most importantly, they want the opportunity to be at the leadership table. They are weary of being overlooked and of being slighted. They are tired of the jokes and condescension.
While it may be argued that this research was limited to one ecclesial group, one denomination in the classical Pentecostal orb, reviewers from outside the classical Pentecostal world, both male and female, have resonated with the findings and have indicated that it correlates with their own experience within even some mainline traditions.

The Reverend Jennie Johnson and African Canadian Religious History

Today's guest post is by Nina Reid-Maroney, Associate Professor of History at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. Her book,The Reverend Jennie Johnson and African Canadian History, 1868-1967, was published in the Gender and Race in American History series at the University of Rochester Press in 2013. 

Jennie Johnson (1868-1967) was an African Canadian Baptist preacher, the first woman in Canada called as an ordained minister “publicly consecrated to SACRED SERVICE, “ as her certificate of ordination proclaimed, “authorized to preach the Gospel, administer its ordinances, assume its responsibilities and share the honors of the Christian Ministry.”  Born in a rural black abolitionist settlement in Chatham Township (near the present-day town of Dresden, Ontario) Jennie Johnson lived through a century, from the era of Reconstruction to the modern civil rights movement. She co-founded a Baptist congregation at the age of sixteen, received her theological education at Wilberforce University in the 1890s, founded churches in Ontario, established an inner city mission in Flint, and was an active member of the Michigan Freewill Baptist Convention-- one of the only black women in this predominantly white association in the early years of the 20th century.   

Her ordination preceded by a generation the ordination milestone for women in the liberal United Church of Canada, and placed the Reverend Johnson in a position of religious and civic authority years before women in Canada had the right to vote, before the first woman in Canada was appointed magistrate, before the Privy Council’s decision that women were indeed to be considered “persons” under the British North America Act.

Books and Babies

Cover for 
The Age of Evangelicalism
Congratulations to Steven P. Miller and Clarissa Gaff on the birth of their daughter Orli Hess Miller, born on February 17. Little Orlie arrived just months before the Miller's welcome his new book into the family The Age of Evangelicalism.

Call for Papers: ASCH 2015 New York City Meeting

Randall Stephens

Following up on Heath's post below about the ASCH spring meeting in Oxford, I post here Margaret Bendroth's CFP for the 2015 winter meeting in NYC.  The deadline is fast approaching, March 16, so please consider proposing panels or individual papers. 


American Society of Church History Winter Meeting 2015

The annual Winter meeting of the American Society of Church History (ASCH) will be held Friday to Monday, January 2-5, 2015, in New York, NY, in conjunction with the 129th annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA). We invite ASCH members to submit paper and session proposals on any aspect of the history of Christianity and its interaction with culture, including proposals for formal papers, panel and round table discussions, consideration of a major recent book, critical assessments of a distinguished career, and other relevant themes and issues.

Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (Review)

Paul Putz

While preparing for an introductory lecture on American evangelicalism years ago, Priscilla Pope-Levison was struck by the lack of information on women. In her search to include women in the lesson she came across Iva Durham Vennard, a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Methodist deaconess, evangelist, and educator. Discovering shared affinities -- both were "Methodist from birth, participants in egalitarian marriages...mothers, teachers, [and] fierce advocates for women in ministry" --  Pope-Levison was intrigued. And disappointed. "Why had no one ever introduced me to Vennard in my Methodist confirmation class or Methodist college or Methodist seminary?" she recalled thinking (p. 173).

That thought led Pope-Levison (Professor of Theology and Assistant Director of Women's Studies at Seattle Pacific University) down a path of research that resulted in Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and a website dedicated to "an exhibition of women evangelists and their impact on American religious life from the nation’s infancy to the present." It also led to Pope-Levison's latest book, Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era, released in December with NYU Press.

The Bible in American Life: CFP

Call for Papers:  The Bible in American Life
Conference: 6-9 August 2014, Indianapolis, IN

The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis welcomes individual paper proposals on the topic of the Bible in American Life. Focusing on how Americans past and present have used the Bible in their daily lives, the conference (6-9 August 2014 in Indianapolis) will be interdisciplinary in nature, with scholars from various perspectives offering analyses from historical, cultural, sociological, and theological approaches, among others.

Thanks to a generous grant from Lilly Endowment, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture will cover travel, lodging, and food expenses related to the conference. Additionally, authors will receive a $1000 stipend for participation in the project. More details below the fold. 

ASCH Heads to Oxford

Heath Carter

The American Society of Church History will hold its spring meeting jointly this year with Britain's Ecclesiastical History Society.  Oxford University will host the conference, which is set for April 3rd-5th.

The Harcourt Hill campus of Oxford Brookes University, where most of the sessions will unfold
 The meeting's primary theme is "Migration and Mission in Christian History."  As the call for papers explains: "From the scattering of the Jerusalem Church in 70 CE through the 'barbarian' invasions of the Roman Empire, the Anglo-SAxon and Viking settlements of England, and the migrations of the religious refugees in the Reformation era, to the Atlantic slave trade, the Irish, Scottish and European diasporas of the nineteenth century and the African and Asian ones of the twentieth, people movements have profoundly shaped the course of Christian history.  They have disrupted religious commitments, forged new ones, and inspired and constrained mission.  There is hence enormous scope for papers from all periods of Christian history."

The official conference schedule has not yet been released (it's coming soon, by the way!), but I was able to get a sneak peek at a list of the accepted panels.  Amongst the many exciting offerings:

"Historicizing 'Sin' in Nineteenth-Century America"

"Missionary Hagiography and American History: The Marketing of America and Protestantism"

"The Word in Motion: Textual and Human Migrations in Asian Missions"

"Missions, Migrations and Motivations in China and its Diaspora"

"(Re-)Creating Communities: Missionary Periodicals and Communication Networks in the New World"

I'll be participating in a roundtable on the state of the field in Social Gospel studies, which will also feature contributions from Drs. Amanda Porterfield (chair), Christopher Evans, Wendy Deichmann, Eugene McCarraher, Rima Lunin Schultz, and Ralph Luker.  I'll make sure to report back on what should be a stimulating conversation.

In the meantime, you can find all the relevant details about the conference over at the ASCH site.  Hope to see many of you there!

Religion and Toys

Mitzvah Kinder (Photo by Amudart)
Laura Arnold Leibman

Why is it that Christian Fundamentalists have had better kitsch than Charedi Jews?  Will this always be the case?  To answer this question, I turn to one segment of American kitsch industry, the religious toy.  Childhood in general and toys in particular can enhance our understanding of what is "American" about in American religion. In a recent post on gender, the family, and modern evangelicalism, Randall Stephens noted, "the story of Christianity in America has often centered on childhood as well as parenting and the family."  In this post I look at recent Charedi engagements with the toy industry and consider how concerns about the relationship between American life and religion are played out in the world of toys.  In addressing the intersection of religion and toys, I return to a question raised by Randall Stephens, but in slightly modified form: What does the study of family life, parenting, and children add to our understanding of American Religion?

Child's chair from Plimoth
Plantation, Indian Converts
Collection. Photo L. Leibman, 2005
Current Christian toys are part of a long history regarding the intersection of childhood and religion in American life.  Scholars of American Religious History have generally accepted that children's toys reflect both religious ideology and changes in American notions of childhood.  As I have noted in my Indian Converts Collection, before 1750 it was rare in New England to find objects expressly for the use of children:  the objects that did exist were utilitarian: cradles, swaddling clothes, leading strings, walking and standing stools.  Perhaps more crucially these objects were designed to restrain rather than entertain: they “forced the child to lie straight, stand straight, or walk erect” (Calvert 7). When children did possess "toys” such as rattles, they were given them because they helped with toothaches, not because they were developmentally important or entertaining (Calvert 49).

"The Mansion to Happiness"
(W. & S.B. Ives, Co., 1843).
(The Board Game Craze)
As this view of childhood and play was gradually eroded by the influence of the Enlightenment, children’s toys began to change in quantity, quality, and meaning. By the middle of the nineteenth century, children’s paraphernalia had also multiplied. Rather than restraining the “beast” within the child, children’s cribs, high chairs, and swings were intended to protect the sweet and innocent child from “physical injury, temptation, and worldly contamination” (Calvert 7-8). Children’s games became socially acceptable and encouraged (Calvert 81).  Some of the earliest American board games such as the "Mansion to Happiness" (1843) were explicitly religious in message and content and helped the child progress on his or her spiritual journey.

Historical Society of the Episcopal Church: Grant Opportunity

Mike Utzinger

The Historical Society of the Episcopal Church invites applications from individual scholars and academic and ecclesiastical groups for grants to support significant research, conferences, and publications relating to the history of the Church of England, the Anglican communion worldwide, and the Anglican and Episcopal churches in North America.
These grants are usually modest in amount: $1,000-$2,000 generally, though more or less may be awarded depending on the number of awards given and the amount of funds actually available in any particular year. Typical grants would include travel to collections or resources, dissertation research, and seed money for larger projects.
Applications must include:
  1. A statement of the subject and purpose of the project of no more than 500 words;
  2. A bibliography of the project, no more than a single page;
  3. A concise curriculum vitae;
  4. A projected total budget for the project and the specific amount requested (with a detailed statement of how it will be used).  If this is less than the total budget, it must be made clear how a small grant would help and what other resources are available or being pursued;
  5. At least two letters of recommendation (in the case of a graduate student, we expect that one of those letters will be from the project's main supervising professor);
  6. A sample of recent scholarly writing (an article, essay, or chapter of no more than ten pages).
Applications must be submitted by April 1st. Application materials should be uploaded in .pdf format.
  • Click the Upload button.
  • Enter the password hsec
  • Select the file to upload from the files on your computer.
The Rev. Dr. Robyn M. Neville, Chair of the Grants and Research Committee, will confirm receipt within a week of submission.
Grants will be announced July. It is expected that winners will make an appropriate submission to Anglican and Episcopal History.

To see prior work funded and to upload your application visit:

Four Questions with Jason C. Bivins

Randall Stephens

Jason C. Bivins is a professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at North Carolina State University. He is the author of a number of influential articles and books, including Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2008) and The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).  Thomas Tweed called the former "an engaging but unsettling tour of the dark corners and sub-basements of American culture, from Hell Houses to comic books, and along the way we learn a great deal about religion and politics in the United States. Indispensable for those interested in popular culture and conservative evangelicalism."

Here Bivins takes part in our Four Questions With series, reflecting on his forthcoming work, his initial interest in religious studies, and he comments on where he sees the field heading.

Randall Stephens: When and why did you decide to study American religion?

Jason C. Bivins: Growing up in Washington, D.C., and coming of age during Reagan’s 1980s, I was curious about subcultures and the variety of religions overflowing in my home city. But I was more compelled, perhaps predictably given that I was the son of government employees and involved in a fairly activist local music scene, by political religions in various forms (from social criticism to protest). That’s what drove my academic interest in religion, though, for most of my undergraduate career I focused heavily on reading theories of religion, continental philosophy, and the history of theology. It wasn’t until graduate school that, with the urging of Robert Orsi, I turned to more sustained examinations of American religions in their lived, cultural contexts. But in the larger disciplinary sense, I did not identify with any particular subfield or sub-specialization, nor did I imagine there was any particular necessity to do so. I considered myself (and still do) a participant in the often shapeless field of “Religious Studies,” one who simply has an interest in the religions of the United States. This fascination has only deepened in the intervening years, as my questions have multiplied.

The Beauty of a Transparent Life: More Than Conquerors


The academic study of religion is an awkward pursuit. It takes a unique kind of compartmentalization to reduce the hot passions and stirrings of the soul into a measurable and observable science. Religion becomes easier to study when it is held at arms’ length, or when it is politicized.  At worst, religion becomes an unattached “force” in a dry narrative; the residue of too much philosophy and too little time spent at the feet of real people.

So our best understanding of this thing we call religion comes in stories and testimonies and strange recollections of the way that people find meaning in their lives. But religious memoirs tend toward the classic “born again” narrative, or go the other direction completely with a secular conversion: “I once was found but now I am lost.” A new memoir of an evangelical missionary childhood and an adulthood steeped in doubt shows the value of the personal in shaping historical interpretation, and avoids a predictable outcome destined to arrive at either spiritual belief or skeptical atheism.

More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments by Megan Hustad hits bookstores today, and provides an original and vulnerable account of a Midwestern family who set out to serve Jesus on the mission field. Hustad’s story is Christian conservatism under a microscope. In 1978, Hustad’s parents quit their jobs in Minnesota and packed up three-year old Megan and her older sister to move to the Caribbean island of Bonaire. There, they would serve with Trans World Radio, a broadcasting ministry that used super transmitters there to send programming across worldwide frequencies. On missionary furloughs, they worked the church basement and slide projector circuit to eke out financial sponsors to send them back to the mission field for another tour.

Politics of Representation--Between Critic and Classroom

Rachel Lindsey

In a recent essay in Religion and Politics, I categorized last year's film 12 Years a Slave as a "political act" that, among other things, "present[s] religion as a mechanism of the film's political efforts."

The movie (which Charity R. Carney reviewed on this blog in November) has succeeded in sparking a number of conversations about race through the catalyzing legacies of American enslavement. And yet conversation is not nearly capacious enough a category for defining the political. Visual and cinematic strategies are integral to the film's politics, but focusing attention on the cinematic success of 12 Years a Slave also works to contain the problems that the film ostensibly exposes. Focusing attention on the movie's treatment of historical slavery does not let us off the hook for ignoring the racism that continues to immobilize Atlanta or the crippling segregation of St. Louis. So the questions I am left with are not far from those with which I started--what is this film about? What are we to do?

I'm not going to recap the essay here (you're welcome). But I do want to raise the question of the film's treatment of religion to this audience by way of the continuity (or disjuncture) between cultural critique and classroom pedagogy.

"Working Class Religion": A Thing Unto Itself?

Janine Giordano Drake

We don't usually think of early twentieth century Catholics, Protestants and Jews exchanging and sharing religious convictions. We usually think of these faith traditions from their institutional perspectives--as hierarchical organizations with leaders whose ideas are passed down to the people after they are agreed upon by all authorities. Among the aspiring classes, of course, most Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations had little to do with one another.

Yet, when we look at the religious world from the perspective of the crowded urban streets of industrial cities--the folks who were least likely to be called to lead religious congregations of the aspiring classes in the early twentieth century--we find a startling amount of common ground in religious belief. That is, we find large numbers of workers are anti-clerical (despite their religious tradition), and share a certain moral conviction that capitalism has disordered loves. That is, that a living wage for workers ought to be a higher priority than profits to investors. To a large degree, workers in the early twentieth century gathered together across religious lines because of these shared convictions.  To what extent might we call this shared belief and its attendant community a thing in itself-- a working class religion?

To be fair, this is something I've been thinking about for a long time. Heath Carter, Chris Cantwell and I have regularly brought up the question in the writing of our coauthored introduction to the forthcoming essay collection, Between the Pew and the Picket Line. We haven't come to resolution, and don't expect to, but we seem to always come back to the importance of the question.  As I contemplate the future of our field of working class religious history, the question continues to follow me. Do I really study working class Protestants if none of them go to church, and some of them are of Jewish and Catholic upbringing? 

Thankfully, we have some absolutely excellent new work which very carefully begins to plot the path to exploring this question empirically. In fact, this is one of the many important questions that David Burns begins to raise in his stellar book, The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus. He suggests that indeed, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the rise of "radical religionists," often mislabeled "infidels," who carried an alternate and very modernist version of Jesus' biography into the public square. He suggests that even though these folks were secularists (denying Jesus' divinity), they also carried on a kind of religion--a more or less coherent belief system--which was in conversation with dominant American religious culture, and in fact led the modernist challenge on the churches. He challenges us to rethink the need for elements of the supernatural in our definition of lived religion.

Jennifer Guglielmo's Living the Revolution: Italian Women's Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945 does not directly address religion at all. Yet, her Italian women subjects often occupy often the very same space as those of Burns (Harlem, greater Manhattan, and the Bronx), and their beliefs about religion, morality, and the good life overlap considerably. Many of Guglielmo's subjects are anti-clerical Catholics who reshaped Catholicism "to reflect their own concerns and practices." Southern Italian women passed down the proverb, "The husband is like the government in Rome, all pomp; the wife is like the Mafia, all power." While we can read this proverb to tell us a great deal about the informal power within women's communities, we can also learn about Italian Catholics' understanding of the church. That is, church authority, like male authority, was to many Southern Italians mostly a formality. Women, like the mafia, had a completely parallel (even if less respectable) system of authority and truth.

In the same period that we see Italian Catholics frustrated with prevailing Irish American authority in the Catholic churches and to a large degree fighting for their own national parishes, we see Irish, Jews, and Italians cooperating within the Industrial Workers of the World. Now, of course, ethnic hierarchies would never be fully erased. Racism and ethnic chauvinism sanctioned condescension toward groups considered lower on the social hierarchy, even within the most radical and anarchist circles. The legendary anarchist Emma Goldman famously condescended Italian American women as overly concerned with domestic activities. (Even while, as Gugielmo points out, those domestic women were organizing anarchists and anti-fascists through domestic activities.) While Jewish and Italian women cooperated within the International Ladies' Garment Union (the ILGWU), Italian women often felt marginalized as expert seamstresses and felt that the union did not fully represent their interests. Working class cooperation in the early twentieth century was never entirely on terms of equality and respect.

Nevertheless, I would argue that we still see more inter-ethnic and inter-religious cooperation among the working classes than we do among the middle classes of the period. Tensions arose because of the fact that these groups did meet together and exchange ideas about justice, truth, the good life, and the meaning of supposed "One Hundred Percent Americanism." Surely, ethnic groups largely lived in different areas and worshiped separately on Sunday mornings. But, a whole lot of workers did not have the luxury of not attending work on Sunday mornings. Many male industrial workers had to be at work most of their lives (when not unemployed), and spent far more time with their coworkers than fellow parishioners, or even families.

Whether we want to call radical and labor union activities "religious" or not, we must admit the emergence of "a" labor culture in the early twentieth century which rivals the church in its depth of well-developed ideas claiming the name of truth. I am convinced that there is such a thing as "working class religion" in this period. Even though it encompassed a wide variety of cultures and convictions, the radical labor movement also shared many truths about Christianity and justice, and evangelized them with the same fervor as their "betters" evangelized what they called "the" Gospel.

MAVCOR: New Digital Publication

Many readers may already be familiar with Yale University's longstanding Initiative for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR). Since 2008 the project has convened conferences, curated exhibitions, and supported research on the impact art, mass production, and materiality have on religious communities and religious expressions. Results from the project's first phase on the senses is set to be published this summer by Yale University Press as an edited collection. Titled Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, the collection will be edited by Sally M. Promey and promises to be an important resources with over thirty essays by some of the leading scholars in the field.

And as MAVCOR moves into its next phase, the project recently launched a completely revamped website. More than just place to announce the initiative's ongoing publications and events, the new MAVCOR has become an additional space for the project's resources, publications, and debates. An every-growing Archive of religious materiality allows users to submit images both iconic and quotidian;  guest-curated exhibits (called Constellations) utilizing objects from the archive; and an expansive series of Conversations feature essays and interveiws on issues and methods in the study of material and visual culture. The entire endeavor is now online and open to others in the field to contribute to. The project as a whole is a fantastic resources, but it also serves as an exemplary model of the kind of mutli-modal publication scholars can take advantage of in this digital age.

Jewish on Their Own Terms: An Author Interview with Jennifer A. Thompson

Samira K. Mehta

Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism by Jennifer A. Thompson was published by Rutgers University Press in December of 2013. In it, Thompson explores the implications of interfaith marriage for American Judaism, with two chapters giving particular attention to Christian women taking the primary responsibility for raising Jewish children.

 In these chapters, she argues that these women, and their Jewish husbands, are creating new way of participating in American Jewish life, firmly identifying themselves within the Jewish community but not necessarily aligning their own practices with broader communal norms. Thompson’s work, however, suggests that these families, and their alternative approaches, constitute a large enough presence in the American Jewish community to be changing the face of American Judaism, in terms of fundamental assumptions about individual autonomy versus communal responsibility, universal religious truths and their relationship (or lack thereof) to religious practice, and obligations to family and history.

 Thompson, currently the Amado Professor of Applied Jewish Ethics and Civic Engagement and California State University Northridge, agreed to be interviewed for the blog over the past month. Thank you, Jennifer Thompson, for taking the time for this conversation. For full disclosure, Jen and I were both trained in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion and were fellows together at the Sloan Foundation’s Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life.

 Jen, it was exciting to get to read your book, especially since I watched you research the dissertation and read it at that stage as well. It is an incredibly rich ethnography, and I can imagine any number of possible conversations, but I wanted to focus in on your work with the Mothers Circle. Can you begin by providing a bit of background on The Mothers Circle, what is and who participates?

Huguenots in the World

By Jonathan Den Hartog

With apologies to the Dos Equis Man, "I don't always find articles in the AHR interesting, but when I do I try to blog about them."

That definitely fits my experience with the most recent American Historical Review (December 2013, Vol. 118, no. 5, for those keeping track) which I finally got around to reading this past month. The lead article is by Owen Stanwood of Boston College and is entitled "Between Eden and Empire: Huguenot Refugees and the Promise of New Worlds."

The Empire ReformedStanwood has written an important book about British North America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution. He also contributed an impressive essay periodizing how Anti-Catholicism functioned in colonial America in Chris Beneke and Chistopher Grenda's collection The First Prejudice. So, I was glad to see his developing a new project on the international spread of Huguenots in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

After the Wars of Religion in France, French Protestants had received limited toleration from Henri IV Bourbon in the Edict of Nantes. With Louis XIV's ascent to the throne, however, he aimed to reestablish Catholic uniformity under his absolutist rule. This strategy culminated in 1685 with Louis' Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Huguenots were ordered to convert to Catholicism or lose their property. The result was a mass exodus of refugees from France. They scattered, not only to England, the Netherlands, and the German states, but throughout the Atlantic World and beyond.

Stanwood's piece turns on the irony of expectations and results. Most of Huguenot refugees hoped to establish small pockets of Eden--peaceful settlements where they could enjoy peace and the productions of their own labor, under the guidance of a properly-Reformed Huguenot church. There, they could regroup and live well until the moment when they could return to France. By contrast, these refugees found themselves dependent on the support and power of other Protestant states, especially England and the Netherlands. These empires--limited as they were--came to value and deploy these refugees, not for their religious witness but for their ability to support imperial designs.

Incorporating Religion into the US History Survey

Trevor Burrows

This summer I will be taking up yet another rite of passage familiar to graduate students everywhere: teaching the US History survey. And like most grad students building a syllabus and planning lectures for the first time, I’m experiencing an uneasy mix of excitement and confusion as I try to answer all the questions that emerge from the process. It seems the key word here, and the source of so much difficulty, is balance. How do we balance the need and desire to teach “hard” content alongside the larger processes that constitute historical thinking itself? How do we balance the presence of standard topics and narratives with those of the underrepresented and the marginalized? And the most important issue of balance: how do I finesse the syllabus so I get to talk about the stuff I really like?

Race and Religion in American History: Conference at Princeton

Race and Religion in American History: Conference at Princeton, March 7-8, 2014
PosterMost often when scholars of religion in America invoke “race,” they use the term to signal the inclusion of African Americans in their work rather than to mark a sustained engagement of racial categories, concepts, or the functions of race in a given context. In such cases, people of African descent alone bear the burden of racialization, and the failure to theorize race results in the reification of particularly American practices as obvious, transhistorical and universal. Even when scholars address “peoples of color” other than those of African descent as racialized, “race” serves not as an analytical category, but an interpretive shortcut for signaling social marginalization or outsider status, for example. And, for the most part, whiteness remains unmarked and uninterrogated. As such, the complex processes of racial construction, transformations in racial categories and identities, and the relation of religious belief and practice to these constructions remains surprisingly understudied in the field of American religious history. This conference will feature new research in which scholars theorize race and religion together, seek to discern the trajectory of historical developments, and consider interactions between race and religion in a comparative frame across religious affiliations and racial categorization.
Organized by Professor Judith Weisenfeld, this conference is made possible by the generous support of the Center for African American Studies, the Center for Human Values, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Council of the Humanities, and the Program in American Studies.

Upcoming conference on religion and music seeks papers

This will be of interest to some readers of RiAH:
Proposals should be about 250 words long, should include the proposed title, audio-visual requirements, the author’s name, email address, and institutional affiliation, and should be sent to Monica Phonsavatdy ( by February 23rd, 2014 (for first round), or April 27th (second round).

Painting, Working, and Haunting in the Steel City

It is my pleasure to introduce Andy McKee to RiAH-land. Andy is a doctoral student at Florida State University, specializing in American religious history. He came to Tallahassee by way of the University of Missouri, where he studied with Chip Callahan. Prior to that, he attended Saint Francis University and majored in history before I pulled him over to the dark side. Below, Andy gives background on his MA thesis,"'Kolosalno! There is Something Here . . . Power, Energy, the Future!': Haunting, Steel, Progress, and the Urban Religious Landscape." 

Andy McKee

Over the course of several weeks in 1937—and again in 1941—artist Maxo Vanka covered the walls of  St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Parish in Pittsburgh with images of American and global industry. The resulting paintings do not show a straight line of progress, but rather flashes of unforgettable scenes that address themes of labor, family, capitalism, and social justice. Initial reception to his work was mixed. A headline from nearby Youngstown after the grand unveiling announced, "Artist Vanka Paints Bums: Yugoslavian Also Does Church Murals in U.S."

I first encountered these images several years ago at a church-sponsored rummage sale. Even though I had spent my entire life growing up less than five minutes from the parish, I had neither seen nor heard of these magnificent murals. Fortunately, they resurfaced in my memory as I began my graduate work with Chip Callahan. So I decided to return home to give a closer look to these murals, hoping that they could reveal something about religion and labor in Pittsburgh.

Vanka made his way to America in the mid-1930s and immediately was struck by the struggles of working-class people. While traveling with his friend, the novelist Louis Adamic, Vanka began to conceptualize a vision of his new home when a small Catholic Croatian parish in Pittsburgh headed by Father Albert Zagar recruited him to paint murals on the church's bare walls. In the finished product, Vanka metaphorically marked the process of migration while indexing concerns of crossing and dwelling in the Steel City. He additionally showed solidarity with the working class by embedding his own immigrant story into the murals, highlighting the ways that he felt the American dream was lost in the smoke and death associated with big business.

Three New Things You Should Know About Now: Sacred Matters, North American Hinduism, and AMERICAN RELIGION IN AMERICA

By Michael J. Altman

Three things you should know about:

1. Sacred Matters: Religious Currents in Culture

If you haven't seen it yet, please check out the new web magazine I'm editing with Gary Laderman, Sacred Matters. We have our first batch of articles up on the site and I'm really proud of them. The whole project is a giant experiment in re-thinking the way we write about religion and culture.

RiAH readers will be especially interested in the wonderful essay from historian E. Brooks Holifield, "Why Do American's Seem So Religious?" I was lucky enough to take a seminar on that exact subject with Brooks when he first started kicking these ideas around and I look forward to the book that will eventually tackle this question. Oh, and we also have articles on legal pot in Israel and Beyoncé.

2. CFP: North American Hinduism Group of the AAR

This Group seeks paper and panel submissions that advance the study of Hinduisms in North America and related diaspora contexts, develop a more sophisticated understanding of what distinguishes these Hinduisms from those in South Asia, and nurture thoughtful debate on the methodologies unique to and appropriate for their study. We welcome any paper or panel submissions that might fulfill these goals.

Additionally, we are interested in panels and papers addressing these more specific topics:

• Racialization of Hindus in North America

• Visual and material culture (for possible cluster of cosponsor with Religion, Film, and Visual Culture and Religion, Media, and Culture groups): In addition to paper or panel submissions the NAH Group is interested in curating an exhibit of material and visual culture and seeks recommendations for objects, artifacts, and media for inclusion.

• Green Hinduisms: Hinduism and the environment in North America
If you have questions contact me or Shreena Gandhi, the co-chairs:

Michael Altman,
Shreena Gandhi,


Last, but not least, my Honors History of Religion of America (an terribly awkward name stuck on the books) course is blogging this semester. Starting this week students will be writing about the things we're covering in class and relating our discussion with current events and anything else they see fit to write about. It's a giant experiment. I'd love it if the RiAH crowd could stop by and lend comments and feedback throughout the semester. Also, the name of the blog comes from the caps-lock subject line of an email I got from a student about the course. I love it.

Online Forum for Religion & American Culture

Paul Harvey

I'm posting here quickly a note from Philip Goff of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI, announcing a new online forum associated with the journal Religion and American Culture. The first forum features some great short essays by Sylvester Johnson, Kathryn Gin Lum, and Rhys Williams:

From: Philip Goff

 Ever interested in creating and sustaining a culture of conversation among scholars working in American religion, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture (IUPUI) is pleased to announce an online version of its popular FORUM section that appears annually in the journal "Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation." This online forum will appear monthly. Notable scholars will wrestle in 1500 words with a topic or question. Readers can then enter the discussion with comments.

The first Online Forum has been posted. Pieces by Sylvester Johnson, Kathryn Gin Lum, and Rhys Williams tackle the subject about what "American" means in the field of American religious studies and how we might continue to think about the term. We invite you to read these thoughtful essays and enter the conversation
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