The Seer of Bayside

Katherine Dugan

Today’s guest review of Joseph P. Laycock’s The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism (Oxford, 2014) comes from Katherine Dugan. Dugan is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern University. She studies contemporary U.S. Catholicism, prayer practices, and millennial-generation Catholics. Her dissertation is titled “Catholicism Remixed: Catholic Prayer and the Making of Millennial Catholic Subjectivities.”

In 2012, Joseph Laycock attended the forty-second anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s 1970 apparition to Veronica Lueken in Bayside, New York. Laycock had already begun his archival work on the so-called “Baysiders” and was eager to see how the contemporary version of this community acted. He encountered a complex mix of Catholic identities, fear of cultural changes and post-Vatican II Marian devotion that had been swirling around Lueken’s visions and messages for the past forty years. With The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 2014) Laycock has written a subtle and clear-as-possible history of complicated (and often convoluted) events surrounding this devotional site and the subculture around Lueken’s apparitions. This text makes important contributions not only to religious history, but also to the way scholars study religious experience.

As Laycock details it, Veronica Lueken first began to suspect she was having extraordinary mystical experiences the night that Robert Kennedy was shot. It was June 5, 1968 and Lueken prayed to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, asking the saint to intervene on the senators’ behalf.  Two years later, the Virgin Mary appeared to Lueken. For the next twenty-five years, until her death in 1995, Lueken received messages and visits from Mary. The apparitions first took place in Bayside Hills, New York and the thousands of Catholics who came to follow Lueken called themselves “Baysiders.” 

Reading Children


My Darling's A.B.C. (1830s-40s) in the collections of the
American Antiquarian Society. Photograph by author.
Last month, I traveled to the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) to take part in the 2015 Summer Seminar in the History of the Book, on the topic of "Reading Children." The holdings of the AAS in artifacts of childhood number over 26,000 objects, an important repository for researching changing ideas of childhood and the child reader from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. With a week together at the AAS library in Worcester, seminar participants explored the collection’s rich archive of print and visual artifacts created for and by children, with hands-on workshops informed by historical and theoretical readings in the history of childhood, and the history of reading and print. Our sources included not only those produced by printers, publishers, and pedagogues--such as children’s literature, toy books, games, primers, and school texts--but also those created by children themselves (such as amateur newspapers, diaries, letters, copybooks, scrapbooks, and autograph books).

Photograph by American Antiquarian Society via Twitter.
Seminar leaders Pat Crain and Martin Brückner, guest lecturers Laura Wasowicz (the AAS Curator of Children's Literature) and Anna Mae Duaneand a wide variety of participants, including Ph.D. students, museum curators, librarians, and faculty spent the week finding collections related to their own research, while also exploring highlights from the collections selected by the AAS staff to suggest answers to the question, "What does it mean to be a child reader in pre-1900 America?" 

In our readings and discussions, we interrogated ideologies of literacy, literature, and print culture inflected by race, class, and gender to answer this question. But as our conversations developed, I became increasingly interested in the ways we were and were not talking about religious reading, or religious children--surprising, I thought, given the extent to which the market for pre-twentieth century children's books was inflected by religious publishers and religious and moral instruction. [The very notions of children and childhood can't really be discussed without considering religious ideas--just look at Webster's 1828 dictionary definitions of child to get started!]

JSR Critical Conversation: Lynching and Religion

Emily Suzanne Clark

Over at the Journal of Southern Religion we have decided to launch a new type of publication that Doug Thompson and I are calling "Critical Conversations." It's our attempt to merge the flexibility of an online journal with the timeliness of a blog. It's something that Doug has been wanting to do since coming onboard the journal staff. At last year's AAR, Doug, Ed Blum, and I talked about how much we love Donald Mathews's 2000 JSR article "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice." In that article Mathews wrote about lynching and southern religion and discussed the meaning of the ritual for both white Christians and black Christians. The article was truly ahead of its time and remains incredibly relevant today. When #Charlestonsyllabus starting trending on Twitter a few weeks ago, several people mentioned "The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice," including myself and Doug as well as Anthea Butler. (But we all know that Prof B's tweet make bigger waves than mine or Doug's.)

Over the next few weeks, new reflections will be added to this Critical Conversation on the 15th anniversary of Mathews's article. Currently up on the website is Ed Blum's introduction and Amy Louise Wood's reflection. We're grateful to Ed for editing this collection for us. In his introduction, he shows how incredibly timely this conversation is. As the author of the award-winning Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, Wood's piece identifies Mathews's article as an important "revelation" she encountered while writing her dissertation. She then takes us through the article and why she has found it both helpful and problematic. The entire conversation is being published in Volume 17, which is our first rolling release issue.

"Influential, Pivotal, Seminal, or Otherwise Important": Recommended and Essential Reading in North American Religions

Charles McCrary

Recently the American Academy of Religion provided a list of recommended readings, compiled by the program unit chairs. Each unit has its own short list of books or articles that “someone within the broad field of religion and theology might be interested in, even if the topic is outside of his or her area of specialization.” This is a helpful resource, especially for people like me who often teach outside their specialty. Of course, the list invites plenty of scrutiny. Specialists in every area surely will find choices with which to agree or quibble. In this short post, though, I want to identify (or create), but also destabilize, a distinction between data and scholarship. When we talk about American religions (or whatever “field” this blog is about), are we talking about a set of people, things, ideas that we study—or about a particular group of people who study things? I’ll conclude on what I hope is a practical note.

The AAR’s preface to the Recommended Reading list suggests that the list is about both data and scholarship. On one hand, they suggest that “if you are interested in knowing more about a topic that you are not yet familiar with, this list may be a good place to begin.” This is how I imagine the list being most useful. If I need to write a lecture on some topic well outside my expertise, sometimes it is hard to know where to start, which monographs and scholars good and which are bad, what’s the standard view and what are the revisions or challenges to that. So, a handy list from an authoritative group indeed does seem to be a good place to start. However, the description of these works as “influential, pivotal, seminal, or otherwise important” speaks to a different—perhaps very different—set of criteria. Many of the most important and influential works in any field are, well, bad. They were influential, and people debated them for a long time, and they changed the field, and now most people think they were wrong. For the imagined consumer of this list, a scholar interested in a somewhat unfamiliar topic, is it important to know about the “seminal” works? Or is it just important to know the material? The list’s imprecise framing underscores the fact that, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued and illustrated two decades ago, “Not only can history mean either the sociohistorical process or our knowledge of that process, but the boundary between the two meanings is often quite fluid” (3). And, in some cases, the data set exists as such by virtue of being studied.

The North American Religions Section’s list suggests five books:

Rethinking America's Liberal-Conservative Divide: A Religions Special Issue

Mark Edwards

Just a brief note to alert readers to a recent special issue of the open-access journal Religions.  It is entitled "Religion, Politics, and America's Liberal-Conservative Divide Reconsidered," and is edited by Darren Dochuk. The issue presently contains two excellent essays of original research by Ronit Stahl and Daniel Williams ( a preview of his highly anticipated new book) as well as a bit of clean-up work from my 2012 book.  Here's the introduction to the series:

Media and scholarly focus on the culture wars has reified a conservative-liberal divide in U.S. religion and politics, to the point of stifling constructive examination of the analytical spaces in-between. Thankfully, recent trends in scholarship have begun adding texture to our understandings of “Right,” “Left,” and “Center” in both church and state. This is certainly the case in the discipline of history. While the study of conservatism has flourished recently as a corrective to an earlier “liberal consensus” model, new scholarship is emerging that reassesses liberals and liberalism(s) in more complex renderings of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras. Meanwhile, several historians are providing fresh analyses of what “conservative” and “liberal” actually mean when delineating important features of our recent religious and political past. Where do we place progressive evangelicals or Catholic radicals on the spectrum? And what about Christian Realists, Mennonites, Latino Pentecostals, military chaplains, and proponents of a “greener faith”? How do these categories break down, or do damage, when we try to impose them on people, movements, and issues that resist easy categorization? 

If you are familiar with books or essays that attempt a similar kind of rethinking, please add them in the comments below.

Honour Due to All Men: Lucretia Mott on William Ellery Channing

By Carol Faulkner

One of my current projects, with co-editors Christopher Densmore, Nancy Hewitt, and Beverly Palmer, is an edited collection of Lucretia Mott's speeches and sermons, currently titled Lucretia Mott Speaks (we hope to send the manuscript to University of Illinois Press by the beginning of fall semester--wish us luck!). As a Quaker, Mott did not write down her words, so we have collected reports of her speeches from newspapers, pamphlets, meeting records, and phonographic (shorthand) transcriptions. Of these, we have selected sixty speeches, eleven more than appeared Lucretia Mott: Complete Speeches and Sermons (1980). Another important difference between our volume and this earlier one will be the annotations. Aside from Biblical quotations (far too numerous to annotate), we identify individuals, events, etc. to illuminate Mott's political, social, and religious networks. Mott had the Bible memorized, and could quote it at will. Another of her frequent references, however, was to Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), and in particular, his sermon "Honour Due to All Men." Even a quick read indicates why Mott found this sermon so appealing.

As the title indicates, Channing's sermon made a democratic appeal for equality. According to Channing, Christianity had instigated a "mighty revolution," but one that was still in progress. He lamented that "mutual respect" and "love" had yet to be established among ordinary men (and women). Instead, "great men" received all the honors, and the old hierarchies, enforced by "instinct, interest, and force," continued. Channing envisioned a time when, like Christ, humans would willingly "suffer, and if need be...die for our fellow-creatures." They would only do so when they recognized the "immortal power," the "rational and moral nature," in every individual. The individual soul, and their spiritual potential, in Channing's view, made "all men essentially equal." Though he does not mention either of Mott's two principle causes--abolition and women's rights--in this speech, by the end of his career he endorsed both the anti-slavery movement and women's right to participate.

Mott embraced Channing's egalitarianism. The two passages from "Honour Due to All Men" that Mott quoted offered support for her own view that the inward light was something more than a Quaker doctrine:

A Theology of Streets

Chris Cantwell

State and Adams Streets, Chicago (1903)
In the earliest days in the study of "lived religion" scholars searched not only for a method with which to explore the religious lives of ordinary people, but also a metaphor. By 1980 scholars like Natalie Zemon Davis and Peter Burke had made the "carnival" a reigning paradigm in the study of what they called "popular religion," a term that embodied not only the conviviality of daily religious life but also its primary location in the folk life of local communities. Advocates envisioned the study of lived religion as a corrective to the the carnival's popular excesses, a criticism of its assumption that the "authentic" or "true" religious lives of ordinary people could only be found outside of, and preferably in opposition to, established ecclesiastical institutions. While a fair or bazaar may be imbued with religious meaning, they argued, the religion lived out by ordinary people could often often be found in both the church and the carnival, not just in one or the other.

But how to describe this liminal space?

Evangelical Women and Sports Ministry

Paul Putz

Annie Blazer's Playing for God: Evangelical Women and the Unintended Consequences of Sports Ministry (New York University Press, 2015) is a much-needed book that I hope will be widely read. Expanding on a dissertation she completed in 2008, Blazer, a professor of religious studies at William & Mary, brings the world of evangelical sports ministry to life with an insightful historical and ethnographic study that focuses on sports ministry's largest demographic: women.

Blazer frames her book as "a case study of how evangelical engagement with popular culture created the possibility for reevaluating orthodoxy from inside the tradition." Along with her ethnographic work, she makes a change-over-time argument by contrasting the original aims of the founders who launched the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes in Action (AIA) in the 1950s and 1960s with the current aims (and results) of sports ministry organizations. Basically, she argues that sports ministry organizations originated in the post-World War II years from those moderate, culturally-engaged fundamentalists we often call neo-evangelicals. The aim at first was to harness the celebrity of athletes for the purpose of evangelizing. Over time, however, the emphasis shifted away from witnessing through proclamation, to witnessing through one's actions and attitudes on the field. The experience of sport also increasingly became a way for individuals to connect intimately with God. According to Blazer, those shifts have had unexpected consequences, particularly as evangelical women became more and more involved in athletics.

Evangelicals and Business: A Prequel

Elesha Coffman

The Declaration of Independence famously alters John Locke's celebration of "life, liberty, and property" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Those differing values have been in tension ever since. When push comes to shove, whose property, and whose happiness, matters more? What qualifies as "property" or "happiness"? And who gets to decide?

Current scholarship mostly finds 20th-century evangelicals to have been quite happy with the acquisition of property. Without big business, there would be no evangelicalism as we know it. But these two cultural forces did not always get along so nicely. Heath Carter recently reminded us that evangelicals  championed labor unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Legal historian John W. Compton, looking even further back in history, found that evangelicals once hacked away at property interests in America, ironically paving the way for progressive interpretations of the Constitution that evangelicals and other conservatives now despise. And by hack, I do mean hack. That's Carry Nation on the cover of Compton's book, wielding a Bible rather than her more iconic saloon-smashing hatchet.

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard, 2014) might not naturally join conversations about evangelicals and business. Compton sought to intervene in a different discussion, the legal-historical and political debate about why the Supreme Court in the 1930s started interpreting the Constitution as a work in progress rather than a document set in stone. A longstanding explanation stated that extreme political pressures in the 1930s, coupled with foreign ideas from the likes of Charles Darwin and G.W.F. Hegel, produced a sudden, stunning legal revolution. Revisionists argued that upheavals in the American economy contributed to the change, and that it built slowly, in step with the Industrial Revolution. While granting some of these points, Compton put religion in the picture and tied the legal innovations of the New Deal era to the social transformation begun by the Second Great Awakening. Harvard Law Review did a better job of analyzing--and affirming--Compton's legal scholarship than I can. Instead, after a brief summary, I'll offer a few thoughts on how this book can speak to the "business turn" in our field.

Go to the Urban History Association Meeting Next Year!

Karen Johnson

The call for papers for the annual meeting of the Urban History Association recently went out.  Readers of the blog, there's room at the UHA for religion in urban and suburban history.  In fact, I think that there should be more crossover between American religious history and urban/suburban history.  Let's make that happen.  See the call below:

The Eighth Biennial Conference of the Urban History Association
“The Working Urban”
Chicago, Illinois
October 13-16, 2016
The Urban History Association Program Committee seeks submissions for sessions on all aspects of urban, suburban, and metropolitan history. We welcome proposals for panels, roundtable discussions, and individual papers. We are also receptive to alternative session formats that foster audience participation in the proceedings.

The Program Committee is pleased to announce that Loyola University Chicago will serve as the local host for the October 2016 conference.

The conference theme – The Working Urban – highlights the importance of labor and of historians’ working definitions of “urban history.” We therefore encourage submissions that explore the scales at which historians work (i.e. local, national, regional) as well as those that interrogate the racial and gendered aspects of work in relation to the built environment. “Working” also refers to workshops.  For the first time ever, the UHA conference will include professional workshops built specifically around interpreting primary sources and exploring problems of evidence in the field. Innovative workshop ideas are especially encouraged.

Successful panel and paper proposals need not adhere strictly to the conference theme. For instance, being fifty years removed from the 1960s and a century from the Progressive Era, the program committee will also pay special attention to panels marking the anniversaries of events that profoundly impacted cities, including the opening of Margaret Sanger’s first birth control clinic in 1916, the Watts uprising in Los Angeles, the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966, the Model Cities Program, Martin Luther King’s Chicago campaign, the Supreme Court’s Miranda decision, the founding of the Black Panther Party, and more.

The Church of Wells Invades Lakewood, Or Historicizing a Heckling Incident

Charity R. Carney

On June 28, six members of the Church of Wells (a small fundamentalist congregation about 20 miles from my home) covertly found their way into the visitors’ section of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, and heckled one of the most famous megachurch pastors in the world. They called Joel Osteen a “false prophet” and railed against his form of preaching, declaring it motivational speaking and not the Word of God. True Christianity reveals the sinfulness of man, the church maintains, and emphasizes righteous living, not acquisition and a desire for blessings. The men were subsequently removed from the sanctuary/arena and charged with criminal trespassing. While awaiting their hearing, they shouted sermons and sang hymns in the court house halls. I’ll admit, it’s taken me a few days to find an angle on the events because they are so new and close to home. This is an issue that I’ve encountered often when researching and writing about megachurches—as I try to place them in historical context I have to be aware of and even untangle the political, personal, and cultural influences that I did not confront in the same way with my studies on earlier subjects. Certainly, we always strive for elusive objectivity but I’ve found that with history as it happens (as our friend Phil Sinitiere likes to say) it’s even more difficult to remove yourself from the equation. That being said, I’m going to challenge my scholar brain to historicize June 28 and the two groups involved in the controversy. Here goes.

Religion in the Rain: Pacific Northwest Burial Traditions


Laura Arnold Leibman

Gravestone Lone Fir Cemetery.
Portland, OR.
Photo by Author.
This past May when I checked in for my flight home from a research trip in Bridgetown, I was caught off guard by a Barbadian crew member's eagerness for my hometown. "Portland?  Portland, Oregon??  I LOVE Grimm."  Yet long before the Pacific Northwest was the official haunt of Grimms, Wesen, eternally youthful vampires, and their business-world BDSM equivalents, it was the birthplace of new religious movements and religious innovation.  While certainly endless rain and overcast days have a magical appeal for those who tend to sparkle like diamonds in the unwelcome sunshine, the Gothic weather patterns of the Pacific Northwest also seem to induce a certain spiritual ecstasy for what might lie beyond the mists of the visible world.  This makes it a fantastic place to study the local inhabitants' visions of death and the great beyond.  In this post I consider Pacific Northwest innovations in Russian Burial traditions and the impact of the Russians on Portland funerary art.

Grimm Gravestone. Waverly Memorial
Cemetery, Albany Cemetery.
Photo by Author

Spirits Rejoicing on Wax (or CD or Mp3 or . . . )

SR CoverPaul Harvey

A couple of notes about two recent works that I have loved, professionally for sure but really personally as well, on religious culture through music in the twentieth century. Self-indulgence alert: Both brought me back to two moments that changed my personal, and scholarly, lives, in ways I could not articulate at the time (if not interested in the personal stories, just click forward to the next track -- i.e. skip the next paragraph! -- to get to a discussion of the books). I  now understand those moments a bit better, thanks in part to these two vividly interpretive works: Jason Bivins's Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion, and Lerone Martin's Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion.

In a reflection previously published about Manuel Vasquez's More than Religion, I began this way: "During the 1980s, while in graduate school, if people asked me if was 'still religious' or 'still went to church,' I often replied, with studied sardonic intonation, 'sure, I got to Yoshi’s regularly' . . . .when I left Yoshi’s [a jazz spot then on Claremont Avenue in North Oakland], I often felt that I had been part of some communal ritual of struggle, cleansing, and release, precisely what I no longer felt in 'religion.'" Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Abby Lincoln, Horace Silver, Phil Woods, Tony Williams, and too many others to name were the ministers. And not just Yoshi's, but any number of musical centers in the Bay Area, most long since deceased (save for the beloved Freight & Salvage), that educated me in ways that were more important than anything I was reading in graduate seminars. One was called Koncepts Cultural Gallery, where one night, after two days of suffering through some intense migraines that left me nearly paralyzed, I stumbled onto a quartet of tuba, standup electric bass, sax, and drums that in a straight two-hour set surveyed nearly the entire history/repertoire of instrumental jazz, and singlehandedly healed/exorcised me.

I've spent a fair amount of time wondering about those experiences and trying to interpret them. I made a little headway, perhaps, but only now feel the work has come that engages this subject with the intellectual depth and passion I've been seeking. Jason Bivins's Spirits Rejoice: Jazz and American Religion is a hefty, deep volume that crosses several fields at once in exploring profound questions of sound and spirituality. In addition to this piece and this one (from April 28 and 29) already posted here at RiAH, I wanted to call your attention to this new posting at Religion Dispatches, an interview with Jason about (among other things) the process of researching and writing the book. One of the themes of the work in the instability of the categories "jazz" and "religion," and the interplay between the improvisational nature of both. Here is one story from the interview which says a lot about the genesis of the work: (continue after the jump)

Christian Reconstruction: An Interview with Michael J. McVicar, Part 2

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Today is part 2 of my interview with Dr. Michael J. McVicar about his book Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Read part 1 of the interview here. 

Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): Can you pinpoint some of Rushdoony’s major impacts—even legacies—within the broader worlds of religious and political conservatism in the U. S.? In this regard, how does your book connect to the recent and related studies by Molly Worthen, Matt Sutton, Kevin Kruse, and Tim Gloege, among others?

Michael J. McVicar (MJM): Arguably, Rushdoony’s singular achievement came not in the form of Reconstructionism, but in his advocacy for Christian homeschooling. In the 1950s, Rushdoony began arguing that conservative Christians had a theological and religious obligation to free themselves from state-funded public schools. By the 1960s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court Rulings—ranging from controversial integration decisions to orders banning school prayer and religious instruction in public schools—made Rushdoony seem especially prescient. Concerned parents flocked to his lectures and he built a grassroots network of lawyers, educators, and activists who challenged compulsory state attendance laws and other regulations limiting parents’ ability to educate their children at home or in private Christian schools. He eagerly cooperated with left-wing homeschooling advocates or adherents of other religious faiths so long as they shared his view of the educational autonomy of parents. Rushdoony also had a broad influence on conservative grassroots political activism from the 1960s through the 1990s, but most of this influence came at such a granular and decentralized level that it is nearly impossibly to assess the scope of his activities. 

Christian Reconstruction: An Interview with Michael J. McVicar, Part 1

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Today begins a two-part interview with Dr. Michael J. McVicar about his book Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Dr. McVicar is Assistant Professor of Religion at Florida State University where he teaches courses on religion, new religious movements, and religion and American political culture. Additional features on Christian Reconstruction are available as podcasts here and here. Part 2 of the interview posts tomorrow.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): In the sometimes shadowy and sometimes elusive recesses of the Christian Right, the name Rousas John Rushdoony is key to the larger story of political and religious conservatism in this country. Who was R. J. Rushdoony, the person, the scholar, the iconoclast?

Michael J. McVicar (MJM): Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) was a theologically and socially conservative Presbyterian minister who played an important role in the development of the Christian Right of the late 1970s. His biography is compelling because it reflects many of the major cultural and social upheavals of the twentieth century. He was the son of Armenian immigrants who fled Turkish forces during the Armenian genocide of 1915. His older brother, Rousas George, died during the Turkish siege of the city of Van. After a Russian assault forced Turks to lift their siege, Rushdoony’s parents—his mother already pregnant with Rousas John—escaped through Russia to New York City. R. J. Rushdoony was born in New York and baptized in Los Angeles. His father, Y. K. Rushdoony, went on to minister to Armenian diasporic communities in California and Michigan. The plight of his family and the Armenian people more generally haunted Rushdoony for the rest of his life as he struggled to come to terms with their suffering and the forces that enabled such violence. After graduating first from the University of California, Berkeley, and then from seminary in the 1940s, Rushdoony served as a missionary on a Native American reservation in Nevada. There he became convinced that the forces that led to the Armenian genocide were identical to the forces behind the genocide of America’s native populations: the abandonment of orthodox Christianity for the sinful elevation of the state to god-like status in human affairs. In short, Rushdoony’s early ministry was directly shaped by his personal experiences as a survivor of one of the twentieth century’s great atrocities. 

As a scholar, Rushdoony developed a radical anti-statist theology by synthesizing the presuppositional apologetics of Westminster Theological Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til with the political theology of Ernst H. Kantorowicz, the great German-American medieval historian and Rushdoony’s mentor at Berkeley. Rushdoony fused these intellectual projects with his own idiosyncratic brand of Christian libertarianism that he developed in conversation with the libertarian economic and social theorists popular in some circles of the American right following World War II. As a fundamentalist theologian, he tried to harmonize these modish midcentury ideas with a rigorous and aggressive Christian message that preached individual regeneration through literal adherence to Biblical law. He came to see orthodox Christianity, especially as embodied in the definition of Chalcedon, as an antidote to the problems of modernity and as a way of resisting the totalitarian systems of communism and fascism in the twentieth century.

Teaching the Historiography Seminar in American Religions

Today we welcome to RiAH as a guest contributor Jennifer Graber. Professor Graber, a historian of North American religions, teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. She is working on a book called “Indian Country: Land and Religion in Nineteenth-Century America.” Her first book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons andReligion in Antebellum America, came out from UNC Press in 2011.

Jennifer Graber

This fall, I’ll be teaching a graduate historiography seminar called Approaches to the Study of U.S. Religions. I taught this class for the first time in 2013. At that time, I picked a theme for each week, assigned an important book for students to read, and assigned some secondary texts to cover during the seminar meeting. For example, for our consideration of the early republic and antebellum era, we read Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith, as well as discussed works by Hatch, Heyrman, Albanese, and Porterfield. This approach had its merits, namely that students engaged what are considered to be the most important books in the field. But it also had its drawbacks. Several of our central texts were fairly old.

For this fall, I hatched a new plan in which I picked many of the same themes, but paired a classic text with an updated one. Every week, a student will lead discussion about the paired common readings. Other students will provide short accounts of the secondary readings, which will help flesh out the historiography of each of the week’s themes. At the end of the semester, students will put together similar reading lists on two themes, one related to their research and one outside their expertise. 

I’m happy to hear your feedback.

August 26 – Opening Questions and Recent Appraisals

Common reading:

Lofton, "The Problem of Religion in History," historiographical essay, in draft

September 2 – Field Assessments and Methodological Statements

Common readings:
  • David D. Hall, “Introduction,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (1997)
  • Thomas Tweed, “Introduction: Narrating U.S. Religious History,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997)
  • Jon Butler, “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History,” The Journal of American History (2004)
  • Kevin M. Schultz and Paul Harvey, “Everywhere and Nowhere: Recent Trends in American Religious History and Historiography,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2010).
  • Thomas Tweed, “Expanding the Study of U.S. Religion: Reflections on the State of the Subfield,” Religion (2010).
  • John T. McGreevey, “Religious History,” in American History Now (2011).

Virgin Nation: An Interview with Sara Moslener

Samira K. Mehta

Sara Moslener. Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

On July 1, Oxford University Press released Sara Moslener's Virgin Nation.

SKM: Professor Sara Moslener, I am glad to have gotten a chance to read Virgin Nation, though as I think I told you, I was worried about the ramifications of reading it on airplanes! How did you come up with the title?
SJM:I was also hesitant about using the word virgin because it has such a fetish factor. And I don’t really discuss the concept of virginity as much as purity and these are not always the same thing.  So it felt a bit disingenuous.  The subtitle was already in place and I knew I wanted to indicate the connections between of the nation-state and adolescent, sexual purity.  In the end, it was a matter of economy--I knew I needed a title that was succinct, yet communicated a lot. And Virgin Nation does that.

SKM: As someone who also uses both history and ethnography, I was particularly interested in your use of both methods. Can you talk a bit about your use of those two methods? What were the advantages and challenges?

SJM: When I first started this project as my dissertation, ethnography among U.S. religious historians had become a bit of a fad and somehow I became convinced that being trained as a historian I could also do ethnography. At that time my focus was on the contemporary movement which required attending events and interviewing people involved. At that point I was interested in how young people participated in the movement and how they articulated what it meant to them, especially in regard to their religious beliefs and practices. However, it became clear that getting permission to talk to people under 18 about this topic would be impossible. I was also very uncomfortable because I was aware of and shared a lot of the criticisms of the movement. I feel strongly that when you do ethnographic work you need to develop a good faith relationship with the people you were working with, and that was going to be difficult for me. I also had no interest in assessing the content and value of people’s sexual choices. I was more interested in the teachings and assumptions that were influencing young people to make this decision.

The two groups I studied, True Love Waits and Silver Ring Thing, promote the idea that this is a movement for young people by young people. And had my primary work been ethnographic, this would have been my own conclusion and that would have been misleading. By adding the historical dimension, which I did in the process of editing my dissertation into a book, I was able to situate the contemporary movement within a much longer trajectory of evangelicals using fears about sexuality to gain political influence.

Jacob Green's Fourth of July

Jonathan Den Hartog

With the Independence Day week-end just concluded, I wanted to commend a recent book that speaks to the perennial questions of religion and the American Revolution--S. Scott Rohrer's Jacob Green's Revolution: Radical Religion and Reform in a Revolutionary Age (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).

Now, I will be featuring Jacob Green's Revolution prominently in a forthcoming review essay in the Journal of the Early Republic, but let me take a different tact here and suggest that this "microhistory" actually says some very interesting things about the Revolution.

Or, more to the point, the book succeeds by highlighting three individuals whose stories helpfully reveal contrasting religious visions during the founding era.

The first is the book's title character. The Rev. Jacob Green (1722-1790) grew up in Massachusetts and attended Harvard. There, he was caught up in the Great Awakening, fascinated by the theology of Jonathan Edwards, and went on to travel with George Whitefield. In New Jersey, he was convinced to become a Presbyterian minister, and he would spend the rest of his life as a minister in Hanover in Morris County.  As a minister, Green published several widely-read works, most expressing the theological concern for purifying the Church. Among them was a popular tract, A Vision of Hell, imagining the schemes of demons to destroy the church. Its appeal was heightened as it included engravings by the Bostonian Paul Revere. In the first section, Rohrer provides a very good description of Green as pastor. He reads deeply into Green's sermons, both published and unpublished (most were on either the Gospel of John or Acts). So, the book works well as religious history.

As Green's life moves into the Revolutionary period, Rohrer deftly switches to political history. With the Imperial crisis of the 1770s, Green advocated for Revolution. In 1776 he wrote a pamphlet that proved very important for the Middle Colonies, arguing against Reconciliation with Great Britain. Because of the popularity of that work, he was actually sent to the New Jersey Provincial Congress in 1776. As a politician he did little, though he helped New Jersey overthrow its royal governor and move to put a new, popularly elected government in place. He even chaired the committee that drafted New Jersey’s first Constitution. As the Revolution went on, Green decried moral laxity in citizens and soldiers--he saw this challenge up close, as he hosted 14 soldiers in his home.

As the War wound down, Green once again moved into the role of a reformer. He called for economic reforms with adjustment of the currency and a just fix for the Congress’s financial problems. Paying down the national debt was also a moral concern that Green raised. Green advocated against slavery, adding his Reformed, reforming voice to the calls for emancipation. In religious matters, after the war, he broke his church away from the Presbyterian synod to form an “associated synod of Morris county.” This was more “Consociational”--or, more like the Congregational arrangement of his New England boyhood. He wanted synods to be advisory but for all power to lie with the Congregations; the Presbyterian format was too restricting for him. In his last years, he worked to improve discipline, behavior, and piety in his own congregation--leading to one last revival season before his death.

The Impact of Religious Congregations on Contemporary Urban Society

Trevor Burrows

Does the contemporary urban religious congregation have any substantial impact on the city or surrounding metropolitan area it calls home?

It is a simple question on the surface, but one heavy with meaning for any religious historian whose work deals substantially with urban subjects. In many ways, there is substantial overlap between the dominant narratives of urban and religious histories, particularly in the twentieth century; the themes and descriptors used to describe the fate of the postwar American city, phrases that try to capture its decentralization, fragmentation, and reterritorialization, could easily be applied in histories of American religion that trace the decline of the denominational mainline, the rise of evangelicalism, the augmentation and pluralization of the American religious landscape, and the persistent increase of the “nones” or spiritual “seekers.” Indeed, many of the developments of postwar American religious history are deeply intertwined with developments in postwar American geography and urban history, the most prominent example, perhaps, being the migration of urban churches from the inner to the outer rings of the city and eventually to the suburbs, patterns of migration that followed suburbanizing congregants from the 1950s onward. To consider the role or impact of the contemporary congregation in urban America today is to hint at the interrelatedness of these historical restructurings, an urban restructuring and a religious restructuring, and to wonder skeptically at their effect on the possibility of building religious communities in the spatially-disjointed, polarized, and ostensibly secular “postmetropolis.”

In their recent book Religion and Community in the New Urban America, Paul D. Numrich and Elfriede Wedam analyze fifteen case studies of congregations from a variety of traditions throughout the greater Chicagoland area. Their aim is to better understand the unique challenges of urban congregations today, how these challenges affect congregational life and a congregation’s ability to build a stable and intimate community, and to what extent congregations make a notable impact on their surrounding environments and thus participate in urban change. The volume may be read as a continuation of the important work that has come out of the Religion in Urban America Program that began at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the early ‘90s, in which Numrich and Wedam were involved. In 2000, the program published Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City, an important volume that drew on research of over seventy-five Chicago-area congregations to describe the variety of congregational communities and their functions throughout Chicago. In Religion and Community, Numrich and Wedam zoom in on questions concerning the making of community in and through urban congregations, and the urban impact of congregations on their surroundings. Although they repeatedly warn against exaggerating the effects of congregations on contemporary urban life, they nevertheless demonstrate that religious congregations are not only shaped by their urban environments, but that they have also “played a role in recent urban restructuring.”

Civil Religion in America, etc.


Michael Graziano

Independence Day seems like a good time to talk about that most American of religious studies terms: “civil religion.”

Civil religion has been in my mind since the Fourth Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture held last month in Indianapolis. The conference was thought provoking—lots of lively discussion and thoughtful exchanges—and you can find recaps of the proceedings by Emily Clark, Craig Prentiss, and Jeffrey Wheatley.

The conference also hosted a conversation on "civil religion."

As with the rest of RAAC, the panel led to a good discussion. Wendy Wall argued that, with the exception of histories of US foreign relations, talk of civil religion had largely dropped out of ARH. Many were interested in whether civil religion was a “good” or “bad” thing, especially as some in the audience understood civil religion to aid US foreign policies with which they disagreed.

But it quickly became clear that not everyone in the room was on the same page with what was meant by “American civil religion.” Is civil religion a kind of Diet Deism™ in American politics, with all the God Bless Americas and the In God We Trusts? Is it the practice of assigning transcendent value to American nationalism? Perhaps it's a palpable feeling in the hearts of Americans? Or is civil religion a term used by scholars to describe how people link the status of America to a set of transcendent claims to its authority and power? Or is it something else entirely?

A Mixtape on Theory & 'Religion' Dedicated to American Historians: Side A


Michael J. Altman

Last month, at the Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, I was hanging out with RiAH blogger Heath Carter and friend of the blog Tim Gloege when Heath leaned over the table and said to me, "So, Mike, tell me what historians don't understand about 'religion.'"

"Yea," said Tim. "You should write a blog post on that. 10 books of theory that every historian should read."

Little did I know that Heath's question, posed to me the night of our arrival to Indianapolis, would be one of the major themes of the conference. The next morning opened with a panel on "what is religion?" and the second day saw more poking and prodding around how historians and religious studies scholars should think about the category religion. By the end of the conference I found myself defending genealogical critiques of categories like "religion" or "Hinduism."

(Side note: That I'm typing this blog post on my laptop is proof enough that I still find use in the so-called "genealogical turn" and have not, indeed, taken a sledgehammer to my computer as recommended.)

So, I'm going to follow Tim's advice. I offer this mixtape of theoretical essays and books to all my American historian friends who want to think about the category "religion" a little deeper, with a little more nuance, and with a little more theory. Like all mixtapes, this one carries with it my own tastes and is offered with affection in hopes that a track or two will inspire you to listen deeper in the artist's catalog.

The first half of the mixtape is below and I'll bring you the second half in August. Also, feel free to make more recommendations in the comments section. 

The Business Practices of Corporate Evangelicals


Tim Gloege's recent book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (UNC Press, 2015), details the ways that business shaped the evangelicalism of the Moody Bible Institute in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book intervenes in several different subfields, including the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism and the history of religion and capitalism. But before I get to the historiography, first the history.

Gloege argues that Moody Bible Institute, including evangelists D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, and James M. Gray, as well as businessmen such as Cyrus McCormick and Henry P. Crowell, "weaved disparate ideas drawn from business and religion into a compelling, if unstable form of evangelical Protestantism" which he terms "corporate evangelicalism." Corporate evangelicalism was an attempt to create a "respectable evangelicalism" which could resolve the tension between evangelicals' rejection of "churchly" institutions and the very real excesses of unbridled individualism. By being respectable, evangelicalism could appeal to the middle classes, even if it lost its ability to appeal to the working classes. Being businesslike was a way of being modern without becoming a modernist.

According to Gloege the development of corporate evangelicalism fell into three chronological stages. First, the nineteenth century featured a "compulsory denominational identity" against which evangelicals like Moody rebelled. The evangelicals, borrowing techniques from the businesses they ran or that funded them, instead built the Moody Bible Institute into a "branded institution." This brand guaranteed the purity, in terms of doctrine, practice, and associations, of the students it educated to be Christian workers. When the oatmeal magnate Henry Crowell took over the Institute he instituted stricter rules about dress and deportment, and segregated the living quarters of African American students off campus, in order to appeal to the respectable middle class. However, neither Crowell nor any other institution could entirely maintain their control over celebrity evangelists who had their own brands, and so we are left today with a "present in which the brand alone is all that matters."

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