Religious Museums, Historical Memory, and Public History

Lauren Turek

Photo by Lindsay Eyink

Now that Fall classes have begun, I am (naturally? neurotically?) thinking ahead to the classes that I'll be teaching in the Spring semester. One of those will be a course on Museums and Society, which I will be designing as an introduction to public history as well as to museum work. Mulling over the topics I want to cover in that class has led me to think not just about my previous training in museum studies, but also about the museums I have visited or worked with over the years—including a number of religious and denominational museums. Some of these, such as the Judah L. Magnes Museum of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, CA, are dedicated to exploring the life, art, and material culture of specific religious groups in the United States and their connections to the larger diaspora. Others, such as the Assemblies of God museum at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center in Springfield, MO are designed primarily with members of their faith in mind. They provide a history of the denomination and their global missionary enterprise while seeking to inculcate a sense of  pride and belonging among fellow believers. Then there are those religious museums and theme parks, such as the much-publicized Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (as well as the related and still-under construction Ark Encounter), which actually serve as physical spaces that embody, perform, and teach religious doctrine rather than present the history or heritage of a particular religious group.

This has led me to wonder—what would be the most effective and sensitive way to incorporate the study of these religious museums into courses on American religious history or public history?

In the diversity of their missions and presentation practices, these types of museums strike me as fascinating potential case studies for those of us interested in understanding how communities use, create, and present their histories to themselves and the larger community. They also shed light on religion in American history as well as in contemporary politics and civic life. After all, why build a museum? What is it about the museum as a concept that has led religious groups to create these spaces? How do the denominational leaders or founders of these institutions decide on the narrative their museum will present to the public—what they will include in the story and what they will leave out? How do they present religious objects/artifacts, texts, and images? How do they define their mission—is the museum a place to bolster existing beliefs? To win new believers? Or teach non-believers about the history of Jews or Catholics or Sikhs in a specific town, state, or the nation as a whole? What do their mission and the exhibitions they develop tell us about religion in public history?

CFP: Heidelberg Center for American Studies Annual Spring Academy Conference

Heidelberg Center for American Studies 13th Annual Spring Academy Conference

Heidelberg, Germany, 14-18 March, 2016

Call for Papers

The thirteenth HCA Spring Academy on American History, Culture, and Politics will be held from March 14-18, 2016. The Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) invites applications for this annual one-week conference that provides twenty international Ph.D. students with the opportunity to present and discuss their Ph.D. projects.

The HCA Spring Academy will also offer participants the chance to work closely with experts in their respective fields of study. For this purpose, workshops held by visiting scholars will take place during this week.

We encourage applications that range broadly across the arts, humanities, and social sciences and pursue an interdisciplinary approach. Papers can be presented on any subject relating to the study of the United States of America. Possible topics include American identity, issues of ethnicity, gender, transatlantic relations, U.S. domestic and foreign policy, economics, as well as various aspects of American history, literature, religion, geography, law, musicology, and culture.

Participants are requested to prepare a 20-minute presentation of their research project, which will be followed by a 40-minute discussion. Proposals should include a preliminary title and run to no more than 300 words. These will be arranged into ten panel groups.

In addition to cross-disciplinary and international discussions during the panel sessions, the Spring Academy aims at creating a pleasant collegial atmosphere for further scholarly exchange and contact.
Accommodation will be provided by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies.

Thanks to a small travel fund, the Spring Academy is able to subsidize travel expenses for participants registered and residing in developing and soft-currency countries. Scholarship applicants will need to document the necessity for financial aid and explain how they plan to cover any potentially remaining expenses. In addition, a letter of recommendation from their doctoral advisor is required.







The Origins of American Religious Nationalism

Charles McCrary

Review: Sam Haselby, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Some of the most interesting and vibrant work in American religious history/studies has analyzed the constructions and intersections of religion, politics, sectarianism, nationalism, and secularism in the early national period. At the same time, many of these conversations are stale—or, at least, the paradigms are. It’s a strange problem. Talented scholars have written great articles and books on these topics, fostering a rich conversation that includes Paul Johnson, Nathan Hatch, Amanda Porterfield, Eric Schlereth, Christine Heyrman, and many others. And yet, many of the characters, frameworks, and questions remain the same. Was the Second Great Awakening about “individualism” or “social control”? Were Methodists and Baptists really egalitarian? What, exactly, is Jeffersonianism? And what did Protestantism have to do with the “frontier” and American expansion?

Alongside this literature, and sometimes overlapping with it, many scholars have taken interest in the creation of the American nation and the advent of nationalism, national identity, and American exceptionalism. In expanding out from Perry Miller—and Sacvan Bercovitch and Richard Slotkin after him—many American studies scholars moved away from questions of nationalism and “the nation” in favor of analyses of material culture, racialization, gender, popular culture, and a host of other topics and lenses. However, a newer group of scholars, building from these insights and combining them with political theory and analytical frameworks like imperialism and settler colonialism, have argued again for the centrality of the nation(al) to nineteenth-century American life. These scholars, including Susan Schulten, Jason Frank, Thomas Allen, and Eric Slauter, have written outstanding (and some of my favorite) works, though religion is often absent from their discussions. Another group of scholars, understanding the United States as an empire, have resituated the nation as a category of analysis by focusing on its global engagements. Some of these scholars have focused on religion and the early national period. Heyrman and Emily Conroy-Krutz (both forthcoming), for example, have demonstrated how Protestant missions globalized America’s “civilizing” imperialism. These histories occasionally intersect with work on religion, politics, and the “Second Great Awakening” (sometimes under the framework of the “Benevolent Empire,” as discussed recently on this blog), though the work discussed in this second paragraph rarely is in sustained historiographical conversation with the first.

That was a long, scattered historiographical introduction. But I bring up all these issues only to highlight how impressive—and invaluable—a contribution Sam Haselby has made with The Origins of American Religious Nationalism. The historical people, movements, and ideas, as well as the historiographical questions and frameworks, certainly are all related. But the threads are in a tangle. Haselby picks apart the knots and weaves together a lucid narrative while remaining disciplined, focused, and clear. What results is a story about American religion, politics, and nationalism that is sweeping and expansive and, at the same time, clear and coherent.

Reforming Sodom, or Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster

Mark Edwards

For those of you who missed the preorder parade, get your copy now of Heather R. White’s new book, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (UNC).  I’m sure there will be a lot to say about White’s work in the upcoming months here at RIAH.  What follows is less a review than a brief historiographical meditation upon this exceptional piece of scholarship.

Put simply, Reforming Sodom reveals the surprising history of Protestant contributions to the creation as well as destruction of the post-World War II  “straight state.”  As White explains:

The broad common sense about the Bible’s specifically same-sex meaning was an invention of the twentieth century.  Today’s antihomosexual animus is not the singular residue of an ancient damnation.  Rather, it is the product of a more complex modern synthesis.  To find the influential generators of that synthesis, moreover, we should look not to fundamentalist preachers but to their counterparts (pp. 3-4). 

SPOILER ALERT: By “counterparts,” White means the liberal Protestants who coopted, formed, and spread the therapeutic sciences after 1920.  Her work is in keeping with recent arguments by David Hollinger, Matt Hedstrom, Gene Zubovich, and others regarding the central—if often “quiet”—impact of liberal Protestantism within American culture.  Countering secularist narratives of the liberatory power of the social sciences, White advances a (thankfully) plain-man’s Foucaultian account of how liberal Protestant pastors, Bible scholars, and others generated a “new sexual binary” between heterosexuality and homosexuality.  Much like Dr. Frankenstein gazing upon his monster, however, liberal Protestants quickly recoiled in horror at what they had fashioned.  They revolted against—and generally forgot—their own handiwork, becoming early supporters during the 1950s and 1960s of a pro-gay politics.  Evangelical conservatives, nearly a decade later, turned to the same “therapeutic orthodoxy” in their resistance to gay rights.  Thus, as White concludes, “a liberal Protestant legacy has shaped all sides of the oppositional politics over gay rights” (p. 5).

Reforming Sodom can be read as an essential compliment to at least two recent syntheses of post-World War II America.

Smuggling and Citizenship

Today's guest post is by Andrew Wender Cohen, Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University, whose new book Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century (W.W. Norton) will be released this weekend!

By Andrew Wender Cohen

The nineteenth-century United States was a paradoxical place for Jews.  No land on Earth was more open to Jewish immigration.  The First Amendment to the Constitution and the disestablishment of state religions meant non-Christians could be citizens and office holders.  Yet, Jews were a tiny minority.  If discrimination was less common in the U.S. than in nations like Russia, it was nonetheless a reality that democratic ideology could not staunch.

American Judeophobia was visible in my research for my book, Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century.  I argue that smuggling shows us how nineteenth-century Americans understood nationalism, secession, slavery, race, wealth, trade, taxes, cosmopolitanism, and empire.  After the Civil War, Americans viewed smuggling as treason in miniature.  It was thus especially meaningful that customs officials profiled a number of different groups, including Asians, women, and Jews. 

This equation of Jews and smugglers had originated in Europe.  It reflected the longstanding defamation of Jews as Christ-killers, traitors unwilling to swear oaths so essential to state and nation building.  But it also depended upon the oft-stated myth that Jews were rootless agents of international capital and thus incapable of becoming citizens. 

The slight gained currency amidst the hyper-nationalism of the Civil War.  It part, this reflected the nativism that Republicans were unable to purge from their party.  Some evangelical leaders deprecated Jews for theological reasons.  Though Jews were a tiny minority in the cotton trade, they nonetheless loomed large in the stereotype of the rebel merchant.  It did not help that men like Senator Judah Benjamin had risen to the top of Southern politics.  Benjamin's role in leading the Confederacy fit comfortably within a "Passion Play" metaphor of the war, in which the South betrayed the Union, as Judas betrayed Jesus.

When the Union blockaded Southern ports, the alleged interchangeability of Jews with smugglers assumed military significance.  General Ulysses Grant issued his infamous Order #11, barring Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee, because he imagined all Jews were engaged in the illicit cotton trade.  Though Lincoln countermanded Grant's command, the slander remained.  General Benjamin Butler identified blockade runners by their Jewish religion.  In his autobiography, Lafayette Baker, the Union's spymaster, did the same, presenting the smugglers with a comic-opera Yiddish accent.  In 1863, the New York Illustrated News captioned a drawing of a sloop being chased by a gunboat, "Jews Smuggling Goods across the Potomac to Supply the Rebels."

Current and Upcoming Cushwa Center Activities and Opportunities

Catherine R. Osborne

This is the 40th anniversary year for the Cushwa Center, and as such, we have a busy schedule planned. Current and upcoming events for the fall semester include:

Through September 30: Outsider at the Vatican: Frederick Franck's Drawings from the Second Vatican Council. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II, and in collaboration with Pacem in Terris: The Frederick Franck Museum and the Catholic Documentation Center, Radboud University Nijmegen, we've assembled 68 drawings and one oil painting made on site during the Council's four sessions by the fascinating Dutch-American artist Frederick Franck. For more information on the exhibit (which is free and open to the public) and on Franck, see our website; you can also read a brief interview with me here, and stream a ten-minute podcast here

September 11 at 5:00 pm: Historian Gillian O'Brien will deliver the annual Hibernian lecture on her book Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Details here.

October 7 at 4:00 pm: Hosffman Ospino of Boston College will headline a symposium on Hispanic Catholics in 21st-Century Parish Life, based on his work as principal investigator of the recent National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry. Respondents include Edward Hahnenberg, John Carroll University; Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame; and Dora Tobar, Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana. Further details here.

October 31 at 9:00 am: The Seminar in American Religion hosts historian Jason Bivins to discuss his new book, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (Oxford, 2015). Commentators are Stephen Schloesser, S.J., Loyola University Chicago, and Hugh R. Page, Jr., University of Notre Dame; as always, there will also be an extended discussion open to all who attend. 

Research Grants Due December 31: Finally, please start thinking about making an application for a grant from the Cushwa Center. Research travel grants, which are given to scholars at all levels and from all types of institutions, are awarded to those who have a need to use the University of Notre Dame's archives or special collections. The Hibernian Research Award funds projects related to the Irish American experience. The Peter R. D'Agostino Travel Grant funds travel to Roman archives for a project on U.S. Catholic history. More information on these grants and their requirements can be found here

We hope to see you at some or all of these events in South Bend! Please get in touch if you'd like more information about any of them. 

New Books in American Religious History: 2015 Year in Preview, Part Three (September-December)

Paul Putz

Following the first and second editions of the 2015 book preview list, here is the year's third and final list.

The usual preface: I've listed the books in roughly chronological order based on the month of their tentative release date. Although I've tried to include as many relevant and interesting titles as I could find, I'm sure that I left out some deserving books. Sometimes this is because publishers don't have updated information on their websites, and sometimes it's because I just missed it. Please feel free to use the comments to add to this list and I can update the post as needed.

As for how I define what is "American" in American religion (to say nothing of what is "religion" in American religion), for the purposes of these lists I mostly follow Kathryn Gin Lum's response in this IUPUI RAAC forum. There, she articulated an understanding of "America" as the region that eventually became known as the United States. That definition does have problems, of course, which is why your contributions to this list -- contributions which envision "America" differently -- are more than welcome.

Now, on to the books! (after this collage to add some color to any social media links)

"Benevolent." "Empire." Discuss.

Elesha Coffman

image from Rolling Stone
Does anyone else remember the Mike Myers SNL sketch "Coffee Talk with Linda Richman"? When the character, host of a fictitious TV talk show, felt emotionally overwhelmed--verklempt--she would throw out a topic and ask viewers to "Talk amongst yourselves" while she pulled herself together. Several of the topics were historical:

"The Progressive Era was neither progressive nor an era. Discuss."

"The New Deal was neither new nor a deal. Discuss."

"The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Discuss."

I keep thinking about this trope as I try to write a book chapter on the Benevolent Empire, the constellation of mostly Protestant philanthropic organizations formed in the first third of the nineteenth century. The Benevolent Empire was neither benevolent nor an empire. Discuss.

I could just leave the post there and let the comments solve my writing problems, but I'll mull over a few things first.

Healing the Racial Divide, Interview with Lincoln Rice

Karen Johnson
Recently, I caught up with Lincoln Rice to talk about his new book Healing the Racial Divide: A Catholic Racial Justice Framework Inspired by Dr. Arthur Falls.  The book uses the life of the black Catholic medical doctor Arthur Falls (1901-2000) to think through contemporary theories of racial justice.  

KJ: You've based your book on the life and writings of a relatively unknown layperson.  Why does Arthur Falls matter?
LR: Healing the Racial Divide had a large historical emphasis not only to suitably address the problem of white supremacy, but also as an exercise in historical retrieval. The stories and theologies of the oppressed are often not properly respected or preserved. I retrieved the life and thought of Dr. Arthur Falls, a black Catholic physician, because he is one of the under-appreciated and forgotten voices. In addition to playing a leading role with the Chicago Urban League during the 1930s, he founded the first Catholic Worker in Chicago in 1936, played a mentoring role for the Congress of Racial Equality at its inception in 1942, and was one of ten black physicians who filed a suit against Chicago hospitals in 1961 that was successful in integrating Chicago’s hospital system. Falls was a monumental figure in American race relations during the twentieth century.

KJ: What can we learn from Arthur Falls about what it takes to pursue racial justice?  

“Christian Realism” and Progressive Evangelicals in U.S. Foreign Policy

Today's guest post comes from Michael Limberg. Michael is a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut specializing in U.S. foreign relations. His dissertation “An Abundant Life: U.S. Development in the Near East, 1919-1939” is about the network of missionaries, philanthropists, and diplomats encouraging economic and social development in Turkey, Palestine, and Lebanon in the 1920s and 1930s.

Michael Limberg

After Secretary of State Kerry announced a nuclear deal between the P5+1 countries and Iran, I was wading through a sea of editorials and thought pieces by foreign policy experts and conservative evangelicals when one headline caught my eye: “The Iran Deal is a Good Option- and a Christian One.”  In a post on the Sojourners website and Huffington Post, Sojourners President Jim Wallis argued that the agreement on the table was the only moral and practical way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  Wallis, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, and other progressive evangelical leaders had already convened an ecumenical group of supporters in favor of a deal with Iran, laying out a theological framework in the “Hope but Verify” statement issued in April 2015.  Signatories argued that Christians had a “moral obligation” to pursue peaceful negotiations, but also to acknowledge evil in the world by pushing for strict inspections and controls.  In his July article, Wallis celebrated the deal’s inspection framework, saying it was “critical to those of us who ascribe to ‘Christian realism.’”

Hearing progressive evangelical leaders speak out on foreign policy issues is not a surprise.  Wallis and the Sojourners organization’s early opposition to the Vietnam War was a formative voice informing the early agenda and theology of the broader progressive evangelical movement.  The 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern rejected a “national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad.”  Pacifism, peacemaking, and a critique of overbearing nationalism remained central to the movement from opposition to Reagan’s nuclear buildup through the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  But the nod to Christian realism in Wallis’s post is surprising.  He and many other progressive evangelicals have long opposed Niebuhrian realism and its evangelical proponents.  In a 1982 statement against nuclear weapons, for instance, Wallis argued that “To ignore Jesus now, in the name of political realism, is to allow our realism to destroy us.”  But the mention of realism here reveals several key issues about the nature of progressive evangelicals’ engagement with foreign policy, avenues of investigation that can deepen our historical understanding of the movement and its evolution. 

CFP: Jews of the Americas in Global Perspective

Laura Arnold Leibman
AJHS, NY (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)
Jews of the Americas in Global Perspective
The 2016 Biennial Scholars' Conference on American Jewish History
Center for Jewish History, New York, NY JUNE 19-21, 2016

The Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society in conjunction with the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, and the Center for Jewish History invites proposals via email to by November 1, 2015.

The 2016 Biennial Scholars’ Conference on American Jewish History welcomes proposals on all topics related to the American Jewish experience. We especially invite, however, proposals for papers and panels that explore American Jewish history in a global context, drawing on international, transnational, and comparative perspectives. We invite conference participants to conceive of “American Jewish history” as inclusively as possible, encompassing not only the history of Jews in the United States but also that of Jews in the Americas more broadly, from Canada to Latin America to the Caribbean.

By tracing the connections and disjunctions—cultural, familial, political, philosophical, ideological, economic—between American Jews and the wider world, we hope to consider some of the following questions:
  • How can recent scholarly approaches developed in fields such as transnational studies, studies of the Atlantic or Pacific Worlds, and colonial and postcolonial studies recast our understanding of American Jewish history?
  • Conversely, what can American Jewish history, which has long grappled with inherently international issues—such as migration, diaspora, and Zionism—contribute to a broader scholarly conversation about what it means to do history across national borders?
  • What happens when historians place local or regional studies of American Jewish experiences of immigration, industrialization, and urban life, for example, in conversation with scholarship about how such developments played out on an international scale?
  • How does studying the international reception of American Jewish popular culture change how we understand that culture?
  • When we consider American Jewish history in more global perspective, what communities and relationships come into view that might be obscured in histories defined by national boundaries?
The Scholars Conference Committee will gladly consider proposals exploring any aspect of American Jewish history. Papers and panels that explore the conference’s central theme of American Jewish history in global or international perspective are particularly encouraged, as are those that consider people and places traditionally underexamined in American Jewish history (Sephardic Jews; Jews in US colonies and territories; the Caribbean). We will accept proposals for individual papers, but we encourage the submission of complete panel proposals and roundtable presentations. We also encourage nontraditional types of panels, including seminars, performance analysis, and lightening sessions. We also strongly encourage international scholars to apply. Limited travel assistance will be available.

In addition to a full program of panels and plenary sessions, this conference will also feature special sessions designed for the needs of graduate students in the field, including sessions on the digital humanities and grant writing.

All submissions must include a one-page (250 words) paper abstract, short (120 words) bio and contact information (including e-mail address and phone) for each participant, and a specific indication of technological needs. Complete panel proposals are strongly encouraged, and should include a brief rationale for the panel as a whole in addition to the abstracts for each paper. If you are submitting a panel format, please indicate as precisely as possible your plan for the session.

Please send proposals to by November 1, 2015.

For more information about the AJHS Academic Council and updates about the conference see The Academic Council gratefully acknowledges the support of the Knapp Family Foundation for this conference.

Job Announcement: Claremont Graduate University

The Religion Department at Claremont Graduate University invites applications for a tenure-track, advanced assistant or associate professor of American religions, with a preferred specialization in African American and/or Latino/a religion in North America. Candidates should be primarily prepared to teach and advise MA and PhD students in the department’s program in American religions, while the ideal candidate will also contribute to the department’s program in comparative scripture. Special preference will be given to candidates with demonstrated ability to teach a graduate-level religious studies theory and method course. Applicants should have a PhD in religious studies or related fields, as well as a proven track record and future trajectory of scholarly achievement. The appointment is scheduled to commence in Fall 2016.

Intellectual breadth is important in our department and university. Regardless of specialization, we seek candidates eager to help graduate students who possess a wide range of interests discover nuances and make connections across fields and topics in their scholarly work. In addition to research and teaching, faculty at CGU work closely advising and mentoring MA and doctoral students on their theses and dissertations and on their career preparation. The successful candidate will have outstanding teaching and mentoring skills, a demonstrably strong record of publications, and experience advising students from diverse backgrounds. Please submit a letter of application, CV, and writing sample (30 pages maximum), and arrange for three letters of reference to be sent to: Patrick Mason, Chair of the Search Committee, Department of Religion, Claremont Graduate University, 831 N. Dartmouth Avenue, Claremont, CA 91711.

Applications must be postmarked or submitted electronically by 5 October 2015. Electronic submissions accepted via Interfolio at

Claremont Graduate University, a private, free-standing graduate school, is part of the Claremont College Consortium. Nestled in beautiful Claremont, CA, the seven-college consortium offers a diverse, university-sized faculty set within a liberal arts college atmosphere, all within 35 miles of downtown Los Angeles.

Claremont Graduate University affirms the values and goals of developing and maintaining a diverse faculty and student body and strongly encourages the applications of women and candidates from historically underrepresented groups. CGU is an Equal Opportunity Employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, place of national origin, sex, age, sexual orientation, or physical handicap in its employment practice and in admission of students to educational programs and activities in accordance with the requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and other applicable laws.

Claremont Graduate University is committed to increasing the diversity of the campus community and the curriculum. Candidates who can contribute to that goal are encouraged to identify their strengths and experiences in this area. Applicants who have a demonstrated commitment to issues of diversity and inclusion are particularly encouraged to apply as are individuals who have membership in one or more of the following groups whose underrepresentation in the American professoriate has been severe and longstanding: Alaska Natives, Black/African Americans, Mexican American/Chicanas/Chicanos, Native American Indians, Native Pacific Islanders (Hawaiian/Polynesian/Micronesian), and Puerto Ricans.

Job announcements, CFPs, and other opportunities may be submitted to Religion in American History by contacting Cara.

Introductions to the Study of Religion


Samira K. Mehta

Next month, I will begin teaching at Albright College. The Department of Religious Studies does not have prerequisites for their classes, so I cannot be sure that my students will have taken one of the department's introductions to religion/religious studies. As a result, I decided to use that wonderful networking tool, Facebook, to crowd source and ask my colleagues for their best introduction to the study of religion readings. I specified that I wanted to spend no more than one or two days at the beginning of class on the issue of how and why we study religion, though of course we would return to those conversations as necessary throughout the term.

My question generated almost forty comments, with suggestions for readings, as well as conversation about pedagogy. Since several people expressed a wish to capture the conversation, or make PDF of the facebook thread, I am sharing it here.

By far the most widely recommended essay was J.Z. Smith's "Religion, Religions, Religious." It was the first article mentioned and was endorsed by an additional six voices, but many people suggested many approaches and (with a few edits) the conversation is transcribed after the break!

John Adams and "The Religion of Democracy"

Jonathan Den Hartog

Since Penguin was kind enough to send me a review copy of Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy , I thought the book deserved some thoughtful response.  (Note: there is an excerpt from the introduction here.)

Kittelstrom wants to connect religious commitments with the development of American democratic ideals. Her figures are "liberal" in their outlook, toward both religion and the world. In this, Kittelstrom tells a New England-based story of the evolution of liberal thought--a process Kittelstrom sees as "an American Reformation" (with echoes of Sidney Ahlstrom and Conrad Wright). As such, it's a meditation on the development of one branch of New England's moral reflection, one defining itself against New England's orthodox believers. So, this is a story of religion and American culture--although I was not convinced by Kittelstrom's claim that historians have missed the religious impulses in New England moral thought. (On this point, RiAH readers should feel free to let me know I'm off base. This seemed a truism to me.)

Kittlestrom traces this development through seven representative figures--John Adams, Mary Moody Emerson, William Ellery Channing, William James, Thomas Davidson, William Mackintire Salter, and Jane Addams. Rather than only being about these individuals, though, the chapters aim to be "reconstructions of key controversies in which the actors participated" (15). The figures thus act as framing devices for the debates and issues that develop from the late eighteenth to the mid twentieth century. As a fan and and employer of such a strategy, this seemed a reasonable approach, although the issue is always in the execution.

On a very broad scale, Kittelstrom sees a religious trajectory from "Reformation Christians" to "liberal Christians" to "post-Christian religious liberals" (27). This is a direction of religious movement, and Kittelstrom fairly chronicles it, even as its critics might label it "declension." On the side of political liberalism, Kittlestrom sees great continuities in the desire to enact, via government, the mechanisms to promote human liberty, freedom of thought, and personal development. Despite this continuity, Kittelstrom does note a new development in the twentieth century, as she finds the ideals consumed by New Deal politics, leading not to continued reflection but to partisan dogma.

I'll let others comment on the more sweeping connections and generalizations. I want to offer some response to the chapter on John Adams. Having recently written on John Adams, religion, and politics, I was interested to see how Kittelstrom treated Adams.

“It’s Not Sissy to be a Christian”: Playing Indian, Sports, Evangelicalism at Kanakuk Kamps

Today's guest post comes from Hunter M. Hampton, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri, who is currently the visiting scholar at the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust in Vancouver, Washington. I had the pleasure of meeting Hunter at the OAH annual meeting earlier this year. His post is based on the paper he gave as a part of the panel "The Myth and Reality of Indigenous Childhood."

Hunter M. Hampton

Campers in front of camp sign circa 1950.
Photo from "Memories of Kanakuk are Forever"
Just as much as a week of pipe-cleaner crafts and dodgeball is an important summer ritual for American Christians, so is a term at summer camp. Each summer nearly 11 million children and adults attend a summer camp in the United States. In 2012, camping was a fifteen billion, yes billion, dollar industry. According to the Christian Camp and Conference Association, more than 5.5 million people attend a Christian camp or conference each year, and “tens of thousands come to faith in Jesus Christ through that experience.” One of the largest Christian residential summer camps in the United States is Kanakuk Kamps. Located in the Ozark Mountains outside of Branson, Missouri, the camp has never missed a summer since its founding in 1926. Reading through Kanakuk’s brochures from 1950-1970 provides an interesting lens through which to view Kanakuk’s appeal to Cold War-era evangelical families. One key to Kanakuk’s success was its blend of playing Indian, sports, and evangelical Christianity.

The day a first-time camper arrived, they were placed in one of two American Indian tribes, Cherokees or Choctaws. According to the camp brochure, “The hatchet is dug up the first week of camp and a battle royal is between the two tribes.”[1] Over the course of the summer, the two tribes competed in football, baseball, basketball, swimming, marksmanship, and archery to earn points for their tribe.[2] At the end of the term, a winner is decided and “the hatchet buried with ceremony until the following summer.”[3] Reflecting on their time at camp, former campers repeatedly recalled their fond memories of tribal competition, and offered their well wishes to fellow tribesmen. The potency of imitating American Indians appeased a desire for an authentic experience in nature and left an indelible mark on the campers for the rest of their lives.

Aside from the ceremonies and competition, Kanakuk offered children the opportunity to learn from the Indians that previously occupied the land. Each day campers took a course in “Indian Studies.” Here they learned that “the camp is situated in old Indian country, and many relics of the early Indian life are found: arrow heads, spearheads, and pieces of pottery being among those collected.”[4] Each class had an instructor allegedly knowledgeable of Indian customs and traditions. Learning about Indian culture afforded campers instruction on properly playing Indian. These types of lessons inspired one father to declare “if he had to have his children miss summer camp or a year in school he would prefer that they miss the year’s schoolwork.”[5]

Florida State Graduate Student Symposium 2016


Andy McKee

This will hopefully be of some interest for all graduate student readers. Get your proposals in before endless summer officially ends and save big

Call for Papers:

The Florida State University Department of Religion
February 19-21, 2016 • Tallahassee, Florida

The Florida State University Department of Religion is pleased to announce its 15th Annual Graduate Student Symposium to be held February 19-21, 2016 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Last year’s symposium allowed over 50 presenters from over 15 universities and departments such as History, Political Science, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Classics to share their research, learn from one another, and meet many of their peers and future colleagues.

This year’s symposium will be held under the theme “Religion/Culture”

Dr. Kathryn Lofton, of Yale University, will deliver this year’s keynote address.

Due to our commitment to collaborative scholarship, students from all fields with interdisciplinary interests in the study of religion and at all levels of graduate study are encouraged to submit paper proposals.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: Church and State; Religion, Law and Politics; Ritual, Practice, and Performance; Religion and Violence; Space and Place Theory; Secularisms; Empires; Sexuality and Gender; Cosmology and Creation Stories; Method and Critical Theory on Religion; Possession and Displacement; and, Comparative Examinations of Religious Groups and Texts.

Presentations should be approximately 15 to 20 minutes in length and will receive faculty responses.  In addition, every year respondents select the best graduate paper to receive the Leo F. Sandon Award, an endowed award named for the Religion Department's former chair.

Proposals including an abstract of approximately 300 words, a list of key terms, and a one-page CV should be submitted by December 4, 2015 for review.  Final papers must be submitted by January 24, 2016.  Please send proposals to Matthew Coston at <fsureligionsymposium @>

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)
older post