African Catholics and Slave Rebellion in Early American History

Matthew J. Cressler

“Believe it or not, Europeans were not the only Catholics who crossed the Atlantic in the early modern period.” This is how I opened lecture a few days ago. I am currently teaching a course on Catholics and Catholicism in American History and, as we cover the colonial period, I have tried to impress upon my students that the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries witnessed dynamic (and oftentimes destructive) encounters between Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans in what we now call the Americas. I assume that most students were not surprised to find New Spain and New France as starting points for our semester, even if the distinctive nature of early modern French and Spanish Catholicisms may have taken them somewhat off guard.  But I’d venture a guess that few if any expected to learn about the Kingdom of Kongo or armed African Catholic slave rebellion on a South Carolina plantation in Week 3.

Lucky for those of us hoping to broaden students’ (and our own) perspectives on what it has meant to be Catholic at various points throughout American history, there has been some groundbreaking work over the past few years on African Catholics in the Americas.

Praise Yeezus?

John L. Crow

I am a god. What now? —Kanye West

In high school I came to love what is now called classic rock. My favorite groups included Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and the Who. My absolute favorite was Led Zeppelin. I had all the albums, read the bios, collected bootleg concert recordings, and much more. They were rock and roll gods. That said, I never thought of starting a religion based on them. They were just entertainers I liked a lot. Earlier this month, however, a fan of Kanye West debuted his new religion based on Kanye’s newest album, Yeezus. With songs like “I am a God,” and Kanye calling himself Yeezus, talking to Jesus, this anonymous fan took it upon himself to bring to life the song lyrics and founded Yeezianity.

Yeezianity-headerWith a hodge-podge theology, derivative of Christianity, Islam, and the New Age, this anonymous fan calls everyone a God, and advocates for universal creativity. His “5 Pillars” include “Man possesses the power to create everything he wants and needs” and “All human suffering exists to stimulate the creative powers of Man.” It also has socialistic leanings stating “All things created must be for the good of All” and, perhaps in an attempt to lessen the value of money, “Money is unnecessary except as a means of exchange.” In his “Dogma” section, he announces that humanity is oppressed and that it is time to “break free of this slavery” and Yeezus, i.e. Kanye West, is going to “usher us into a New Age Where we all control our own destinies.”

Thick FramesOne could place Yeezianity in a long line of recent, Internet spawned traditions which include a variety of Star Wars-Jedi based religions (examples can be found here and here), or Pastafarianism (The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster), but I wonder if that is giving this so-called new religion too much credit. In the section of the website entitled “Declarations of Faith,” one learns that to join the Church of Yeezus and become a “Ye’ciple,” one must only post an anonymous picture with a sign declaring “I Believe in Yeezus.” With such low demands and a declaration custom made for social media, I wonder if it would be more appropriate to call the First Church of Yeezuz a meme instead of a religion. Moreover, when interviewed, the creator admitted that one of the reasons he made the church was to get Kanye’s attention.
I'll be honest, if I had to go with what the ultimate desire was, first and foremost, and what stimulated the inspiration, it was that. [Meeting Kanye.] I don't want to take the whole thing to a personal level, but there's no one out there doing what Kanye is doing. And how do you get someone like that's attention? I hope that's not selfish. (The interview can be found here.)
When asked if he saw Kanye on the Yeezus tour, Yeezianity’s creator admitted he could not afford it, although he states definitively, “If you study the positive laws of attraction, if you really need money, and that's really the limiting factor, it's going to come your way.” So perhaps he will meet his newly minted God in the future, if only he concentrated hard enough on that goal.

CFP: Religion and Sexual Revolutions in the U.S.

Monica L. Mercado

It's that time of year when course evaluations for the previous term roll in, and I've been pleasantly surprised by student reflections on my Fall 2013 course, Sex and Sexualities in Modern U.S. History, some articulating the goals of the course even more elegantly than I did:
I think there are some ways in which I previously thought of sexuality as a private matter between individuals, but this class has constantly challenged me to think about the multitude of ways in which larger cultural, economic, political, and religious forces have shaped individual’s sexual identities, experiences, and choices.
As I had hoped, when sharing my syllabus back in September, my students did in fact express interest in discussing the intersections of religion and sexuality in American culture. A handful of final papers pursued these issues more in depth, exploring recent movements of gay Christians, evangelical marriage manuals (a la Amy DeRogatis), and organizations like the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., which emerged out of the 1961 North American Conference on Church and Family

So I was particularly excited to see the latest CFP out of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics for the graduate student conference "Religion and Sexual Revolutions in the United States," taking place in St. Louis on May 9, 2014, with the University of Delaware's Rebecca Davis giving the keynote. 

"Impairing the Morals of 1950s America": St. Elvis & the Supernatural


Today is the anniversary of Elvis’ first television appearance, the Dorsey Brothers variety show booked Elvis from January through July 1956. He made his appearance on January 28, and was not allowed to sing his own songs, but limited to the rock ’n roll standard, “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and “I Got A Woman.” If the Dorsey’s were hoping for “safer” music than Presley’s own music, they obviously didn’t listen to the lyrics very carefully. [Insert reference to “one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store”]

Tommy Dorsey, one of the most popular musical figures of the War years and RCA’s best selling artist till Presley replaced him, was not a fan of Elvis’ music. Elvis, it seems, was a joke to many of the Dorsey orchestra--they thought he was “dirty” and wondered if he bathed, because he had a particular smell.  No doubt this was class and geographical bias at its best. The idea that anything good would come from “white trash” was typical, coming from Dorsey’s New York-based orchestra--often times, trained musicians who had been at the top of the music industry for years.  The idea of losing their place to the truck driver from Memphis was unthinkable.

A Super(natural) Bowl?

I'm pleased to guest post this from my two colleagues down the hall from me, Jeffrey Scholes (who previously posted here after his beloved Rangers just missed winning the World Series a couple of years back) and Raphael Sassower, from the Philosophy Department at the University of Colorado. They are the co-authors of a brand new book just out with from Routledge, Religion and Sports in American Culture. The eyes of Tebow, or of Richard Sherman, are upon you. 

Jeffrey Scholes and Raphael Sassower

The headline of a survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute in mid-January “Half of American Fans See Supernatural forces at Play in Sports,” was sure to catch some attention. Eyes must have rolled at the ridiculous suggestion of God intervening in an event that has millionaires running around, trying to catch a piece of leather. Reggie White was either confused or calculated when he claimed that God told him to play for the Green Bay Packers. Yet some nod approvingly at that headline— of course God listens to prayers and is involved in all of creation, so there must be supernatural forces at work on a football field. In between these two sets of reactions is a larger group that may not be willing to drag the divine down into the dirt of a playing field yet refuse to restrict the divine from doing so. 

Knowing that theologically crass questions, such as the one asked on the pre-Super Bowl 2013 edition of Sports Illustrated “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?” generate a range of emotions (that in turn generate magazine sales), we shouldn’t be surprised that the relationship between religion and sports elicits one’s own theology.

CFP: Society for U.S. Intellectual History Announces Its Sixth Annual Conference

Cara L. Burnidge

The Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH) recently announced that its sixth annual conference will be held at the Omni-Severin Hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana October 9-12, 2014. The conference will feature RiAH contributor Kathryn Lofton as the keynote speaker. As a preview to the 2014 conference, there is a thought-provoking Q&A with Lofton at the S-USIH blog. She answers questions about her forthcoming work, her understanding of intellectual history, and her view of the relationship between intellectual history and Religious Studies.

The theme of the 2014 S-USIH Conference is "Materiality of Ideas." The Call for Papers explains the theme as follows:
This subject calls attention to the history of ideas by focusing on the various embodiments of American thought. This can include considerations of the relationship between immaterial and material realities; the development of American thought through the production or reproduction of ideas; the substance of thought, including the presence or absence of material objects; the manifestations of thought in economics, politics, or culture at local, national, or global levels; and, materialization in intellectual history including, but not limited to, book culture. Although proposals that relate to the theme are encouraged, the committee also welcomes submissions that are relevant to any aspect of the study of American thought.
The full Call for Papers, including guidelines for submission, can be found here . More information about the conference can be found at the S-USIH 2014 conference page, which will be updated throughout the year. Submissions may be sent to: 2014 Conference Committee, Other queries may be directed to: Mark Edwards and Cara Burnidge, 2014 Conference Co-Chairs,

The New Evangelical Social Engagement

Paul Harvey

A new anthology to point your attention to, and one with a variety of essays that address many of the points raised by David Swartz's Moral Minority and other books on progressive evangelical social engagement:

Brian Steensland and Philip Goff, eds., The New Evangelical Social Engagement (Oxford, 2014).

A brief description from the book's website:

In recent years evangelical Christians have been increasingly turning their attention toward issues such as the environment, international human rights, economic development, racial reconciliation, and urban renewal. Such engagement marks both a return to historic evangelical social action and a pronounced expansion of the social agenda advanced by the Religious Right in the past few decades. For outsiders to evangelical culture, this trend complicates simplistic stereotypes. For insiders, it brings contention over what "true" evangelicalism means today.

Beginning with an introduction that broadly outlines this 'new evangelicalism', the editors identify its key elements, trace its historical lineage, account for the recent changes taking place within evangelicalism, and highlight the implications of these changes for politics, civic engagement, and American religion. The essays that follow bring together an impressive interdisciplinary team of scholars to map this new religious terrain and spell out its significance in what is sure to become an essential text for understanding trends in contemporary evangelicalism.

The book features essays by the likes of David Swartz, Omri Elisha, John Green, Glen Stassen, Amy Reynolds, Gerardo Marti, and many before, with topics ranging from "green evangelicals" to evangelicals and human rights to "pro-lifers of the left" to what is different and what is the same between an older and younger generation of progressive evangelicals. Check it out. 

Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

Emily Suzanne Clark

2013 was a pretty good years in books for scholars interested in black Jews or black Israelites. Jacob Dorman's Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions, Tudor Parfitt's Black Jews in Africa and the Americas, and John L. Jackson, Jr.'s Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem were all published, and all three books are good. Fellow blogger Lincoln reviewed Chosen People a while back. Today I encourage you to pick up a copy of Jackson's Thin Description for three main reasons: it encourages us to rethink ethnography and religion, it presents a not very well-known group in a very dynamic way, and it pushes the typical categorical boundaries of African American religions. I will keep my thoughts here short, as I'm reviewing it for the Communal Societies journal—a review that has proven to be a difficult task because there is a lot to say about this book. As someone who has researched the Moorish Science Temple, black Catholicism, and is finishing up a dissertation on Afro-creole Spiritualism, I love finding other projects that highlight the vividness and diversity of African American religions. And Thin Description, with its attention to context and politics, clearly demonstrates the significance of this numerically small but richly vibrant community.

The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem is one of many movements of black Israelites to develop in the United States, but they are unique for their decision to move first to Liberia and then to Israel. The community recognizes themselves as the ancient Hebrew patriarchs' descendants but punished for turning their backs on God’s commandments. This curse will be “permanently rescinded as soon as the descendants of Abraham, Moses, and Jacob repaired their relationship with the Creator” (42). Discussions of the group's apocalyptic thinking, their spiritual geography, their relationships with other black Hebrew groups, how various members came to join the movement, their move across the globe, and their bodily discipline can all be found within Thin Description's pages. The book is fascinating for its exploration of their religion alone. The book becomes even better by its smart reflections on doing ethnography. The result is a thick book of forty-five thin chapters; or as Jackson puts it, "forty-five different ways of telling the same story, forty-five ways of blinking and winking and twitching through decidedly ethnographic eyes, at different speeds with constant backtracking and revisitations" (18).

Reverberations: Searching for Something in a Kansas Record Bin

Paul Harvey

Our normal 24th-of-the-month contributor David Stowe is on hiatus for a few months, but in the spirit of David's consistently engaging posts on religion and music, I thought I would post this as a link to Randall Stephens's contribution to John Modern's ongoing project Reverberations: New Directions in the Study of Prayer. (And with Reverberations, I would especially direct your attention to John Modern's own multi-layered sets of liner notes/mini-essays Vinyl Prayers, Beware, though, once you get into this you'll lose an entire day or more just following the recorded song links, and from there researching aimlessly into the treasures that he points you to).

Randall recounts his findings from a record store in Lawrence, Kansas last summer, including a vinyl recording of The Gift of Tongues: Glossolalia, billed as "the first time the 'gift of tongues' has been recorded." Put to vinyl sometime in the mid-1960s, Randall explains that

I have seldom seen prayers on vinyl like this. But I have seen plenty of records by church choirs, subpar Jesus rock groups, Christian college folk outfits, and countless other forgotten evangelical ensembles from yesteryear. The record wonks at Love Garden curate their collection. No one does the same at the area thrift store, and this is where you often find choice Christian records by: A middle-aged white women ventriloquist who preaches alongside her puppet, a pastor who moonlights as a singing gospel clown, a Christian magician. A puppet might lead the sinner’s prayer. In a sense, these records—many from the born again/me decade—are like prayers in their own right. Such records were produced in makeshift studios, pressed in small runs (perhaps 200 to 500), and then sent into the world like vinyl missionaries in hopes that they would reach the unsaved or buoy the faith of the faltering. You can look at the sincere pictures on the back and the oversaturated or molded color photos on the cover and feel the yearning.

Go check out this wonderful essay -- and while you're at it the other provocative, funny and searching mini-essays collected there. 

Writing about Francis Schaeffer (and Reinhold Niebuhr)


By Mark Edwards

SPOILER ALERT: This is an old, old story: Impressionable Fundie falls head over heels for Francis Schaeffer’s books, Fundie confronts secular culture and academia armed with Schaeffer’s apologetic
arsenal, Fundie becomes frustrated by how quickly Schaeffer’s arguments shut down learning.  For me, my love affair with the “line of despair” began in 1991.  Schaeffer’s engagement with big philosophical and historical ideas suggested that it was right as well as safe for me to do the same.  But, like so many others, I soon learned that Schaeffer’s methods and reasoning were not those of the disciplines I was most found of.  My turn against Schaeffer came when I read Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1995).  As part self-discovery, part act of revenge, I wrote my honor's thesis on Schaeffer.  I set out to write a critical intellectual biography, in which the shortcomings of Schaeffer’s thought (as I saw them) would stem from his upbringing (the same as my own).  At the time, I had as my guides a few edited collections of essays by disillusioned Schaefferites like myself, several hagiographies, Edith Schaeffer’s autobiography of her family,  Michael Hamilton’s essential essay from Christianity Today, and a wonderful 1994 dissertation from FSU graduate Daymon Johnson on the Reformed influence in the Religious Right.  My central argument plagiarized Noll’s: Schaeffer’s oppositional stance toward culture, formed during his separatist fundamentalist days, prevented him from real living of the life of the mind.  D. G. Hart was kind enough to publish an abridged version of my thesis in the Westminster Theological Journal.
What surprises me is how little critical work has been done on Schaeffer since my own feeble effort to fell the man that his publishers dubbed the most important Christian thinker of the twentieth century.  If Billy Graham was postfundamentalism’s statesman, certainly Schaeffer was its shaman—so why all the scholarly hush-hush? 

Frances Hodgson Burnett and the Occult

By Carol Faulkner

On Oct. 12, 1913, the New York Times featured an article on "Mrs. Burnett and the Occult." "Mrs. Burnett" was Frances Hodgson Burnett, the beloved author of Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) and The Secret Garden (1911), among many other novels. Born in England in 1849, Frances and her family immigrated to Tennessee after the Civil War, where she began writing to support her family, and where she met and married her husband Swan M. Burnett, an aspiring eye doctor. After she became famous, she split her time between Europe and the U.S. Last month, after reading The Secret Garden to my daughter, I became interested in Burnett's religious views. As a parent, rereading classic children's literature can be rewarding, surprising, and disturbing. While the religion in The Secret Garden washed over me as a child, it caught my attention as an adult. And, despite the Britishness of her childen's novels, I found out that Burnett's religious experience was as much American as it was English.

For those of you who have not read The Secret Garden, or have not read it for many years, it is the story of an orphaned girl named Mary, who moves from India to live with her rich uncle in Yorkshire (I will not go into the racial assumptions of the novel, as that is a separate and much bigger topic). She is an ugly, unlikeable, and, as a result, lonely child. While rambling around her uncle's mansion, she meets her cousin Colin, an equally unlikeable invalid. When Mary befriends him, sharing her discovery of his dead mother's locked and abandoned garden, and introducing him to the Yorkshire lad Dickon, who helps her bring the garden back to life, he decides to get well. Yes, that it where the book got interesting (at least for a religious historian). Colin embraces the power of nature, and something he calls magic, to will himself into good health. This boy, formerly on his deathbed, announces that he will live forever. The narrator informs readers that "One of the new things people began to find out  in the last century was that thoughts--just mere thoughts--are as powerful as electric batteries--as good for one as sunlight is or as bad for one as poison."

Four Questions with Candy Gunther Brown

Randall Stephens

Candy Gunther Brown is Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University.  A historian and ethnographer of religion and culture, Brown has authored a range of books on evangelicalism, pentecostalism, and alternative medicine, spanning over three centuries.  Her books include: The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004); an edited volume, Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing (Oxford University Press, 2011); Testing Prayer: Science and Healing (Harvard University Press, 2012); and, The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (Oxford University Press, 2013).  She has won high praise from scholars of religious studies and the history of medicine alike.  In typical fashion, one reviewer has called Brown's Testing Prayer "innovative, sophisticated, and fascinating book that makes an outstanding contribution to Pentecostal studies."*

Below Brown speaks about her training, career trajectory, and her most recent work.

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

Candy Brown: I remember loving American history and literature at least since high school. I especially enjoyed “eavesdropping” on personal reflections in old diaries and letters. Religion featured prominently in these documents. When I discovered a “History and Literature” major at Harvard, this seemed the obvious choice. I was privileged to be Bernard Bailyn’s last undergraduate advisee before he retired; for my thesis, I discovered a treasure trove of manuscript letters written by women missionaries to the Cherokee Indians. From there, it was a natural transition to go onto graduate school to study lived religion with David Hall, also at Harvard, starting with the Puritans and taking the story forward into nineteenth-century evangelical print culture.

2014 Year in Preview: Thirty-five Noteworthy New Books

Paul Putz

There are likely already enough books on your must-read list to make it seem endless. Hopefully, this post will make your problem worse (or at least add a few book reviews to your list). Below, you'll find thirty-five new books connected to the field of religion in American history that are set to be released in the first six months of 2014 (books released from July-December will get their own blog post in the future). I'm sure that a few of these titles will receive more coverage down the road on the blog. In the meantime, take a look and despair at the wretched tyranny of time and/or my lax standards for what counts as "noteworthy."

Since I ended this list at thirty-five books—I had to stop somewhere—I inevitably overlooked some books. Feel free to let me know all about my ignorance in the comments. Shortcomings aside, this post should at least alert readers to upcoming books of interest from a wide variety of publishers.

(All quotes attributed to individuals come from promotional blurbs found on the publisher's website or Amazon. Books are listed chronologically by the month in which they will be released. I honored the seven books that I am most interested in with red font.)

Nancy Koester, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Eerdmans, January)

James McPherson: "The daughter, sister, and wife of prominent clergymen and theologians, Harriet Beecher Stowe outshone them all in her impact on American religion and reform. Her life and work were framed by a spiritual quest that led from her ancestral Calvinism to high-church Episcopalianism and even spiritualism. Nancy Koester’s lucid narrative and penetrating analysis carry the reader along unfailingly on this fascinating quest."

Know Your Newsmakers: A Review of The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media

Elesha Coffman

We who study American religious history have access to abundant media sources for our research and teaching. With digitization, this bounty grows daily. Yet the wide availability of print, audio, and visual documents tends to divorce their content from their original contexts. I can easily summon an old magazine article from a library database, but the text that appears on my screen tells me little about the author and editors behind it, the periodical in which it appeared, what ads or other articles appeared near it, or who might have read it. That information could matter a great deal as I try to interpret the text, especially if I'm wondering whether the article was representative of its era, the periodical in which it appeared, the thinking of a large group of people--or, really, anything other than the singular vision of its author.

A great resource for approaching those questions appeared in 2012, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media, edited by Diane Winston. Winston, who holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California and serves as the director for Religion Dispatches, brought both academic and journalistic credentials to the project. The nearly 40 contributors to the volume also brought expertise in a number of fields. Some of the names will be very familiar to RiAH readers (Anthea Butler, Darren Dochuk, Kathryn Lofton) while others, particularly those from media studies fields, will be new acquaintances. The fact that historians of religion typically don't read media studies scholarship is one of the problems this handbook addresses.

The Cushwa Center's Seminar in American Religion

Heath Carter

Twice a year the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism hosts a Seminar in American Religion (SAR).  As many readers of this blog can testify, these are "can't miss" events.  All faculty within striking distance of South Bend are invited to participate; there are also a limited number of spaces available for graduate students.

The Seminar kicks off on a Friday evening with cocktails and dinner, and then picks up on Saturday morning with a three-hour discussion of a major new book in the field of American religion (note: if you register sufficiently in advance, the Center will cover the cost of both dinner and accommodations; the first 20 registrants also receive a free copy of the book).  Cushwa Director Kathy Cummings has this to say: "One long-time participant recently referred to the SAR as the 'jewel' in Cushwa's crown, and I couldn't agree more.  This semi-annual event is a pleasure to host.  Since it was initiated almost 35 years ago, the Seminar has generated thoughtful discussions of some of the most important books published in American religious history.  The combination of the Friday evening gatherings and the Saturday morning discussions have fostered a terrific community among religion scholars throughout the Midwest."

Sold?  The next SAR is scheduled for Friday, February 28th, and Saturday, March 1st, and will feature a discussion of Duke historian Kate Bowler's Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (you can find great coverage of the book on this site here and here). Comments by yours truly, as well as Notre Dame economist David Ruccio, will kick off what promises to be a stimulating conversation.  If you are interested in attending the Blessed edition of the Seminar - or if you'd like to be included on invitations to future events - please contact the Cushwa Center as soon as possible at 

"Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.": The Discipline, Gay Rights, and Methodist History

Charity R. Carney

“Discipline” sounds so ugly. I pride myself in being a bit of a rebel, and I just don’t like the word. It brings forth images of rulers smacking knuckles or a New Year’s diet routine. If only you had more discipline, you could resist that Frappuccino and make it to the gym today. But for Methodists, Discipline is what holds everything together. Since the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Discipline has served as the unifying document of rules and regulations that keep the clergy and congregations in step—they must abide by the same moral code or face correction by the church. I’m not sure of the last time you walked into a Methodist church and heard a sermon on this very technical piece of denominational policy, but I’m betting it happens with the same regularity that you resist those Frappuccinos. This week, however, the Methodist Discipline received way more attention than it has in a long time and I can’t help but see some historical parallels to a current controversy facing the church.

Adam Fraley resigned from his position at United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Indiana. Until recently, he had served as choir director of the small congregation but a new pastor forced changes in the church and altered Fraley’s work environment. Fraley is gay and the change in pastor indicated a shift in attitude towards his serving in a leadership position. Although he is not openly homosexual, his partner did attend services with him. According to interviews, Fraley resigned because “of a heavy workload and his own personal discomfort with the new leadership.” The new minister did not approve of Fraley holding the choir director position (which he had been in for six years), and the situation culminated in a need for the young man to resign.

Clothing and Religion

A Happy New Year.
Hebrew Publishing Company, between 1900 and 1920.
Note difference in dress between new arrivals (Right)
and established immigrants (Left).
Prints and Photographs Division (52),
Library of Congress.

Do you dress your religious beliefs?  Some American religions (Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, to name a few) include doctrines about how practitioners should clothe their bodies.  Other American religions have unofficial dress codes that mark congregants as insiders.  What role has clothing played in American religion from the colonial era to the present?

In Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920, Barbara Schreier argues clothing signaled shifts in religious identity.  Immigrants during the Great Migration often abandoned Jewish restrictions on dress in order to appear "more American."  Clothing, she notes, became an "identifiable symbol of a changing consciousness" (Schreier 5).  Women often bore the brunt of these changes. "My mother," wrote Mary Antin, "gradually divested herself...of the mantel of orthodox observance; but the process cost her many a pang, because the fabric of that venerable garment was interwoven with the fabric of her soul" (Schreier 12).

In this post I would like to turn the clock back before the Great Migration began to the 1790s-1840s, an era in which the notion of what it meant to be a Jew was undergoing radical transformations.  Clothing, I will argue, helped respond to those changes. Portraits of Jews from this era struggle to confront what it meant to be a Jewish women in an era in which Jewishness and gender were increasingly embodied.  Unlike Shreier who primarily uses photographs for her analysis, I will turn mainly to early American portraits.  I'd like to talk about three examples in particular: Pierre Jacques Benoit's "Five enslaved women going to various places of worship" and Shop of the Jewish "Vette-Warier" [retailer] (ca. 1831); the portrait of Sarah Brandon Moses (early 19th century; AJHS); and J.L. Riker's daguerreotype of "Johannes Ellis en Maria Louisa de Hart" (ca. 1846; Rijksmuseum).

An Interview with David Chappell on MLK's Legacy, Part II


President Ronald Reagan signs
the MLK federal holiday into law
This is part 2 of my interview with David Chappell on his new book, Waking From the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr., which goes on sale tomorrow. In part 1, Chappell explained his purpose in writing on civil rights from 1968 through the 1980s, was not only to “lengthen” the interpretation of the civil rights movement, but to “broaden and deepen it.” Toward that end, Chappell explained that efforts such as the 1968 Civil Rights Act, the National Black Political Conventions in 1972 and 1974, and the Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment Act were attempts “to change the basic structure of power and resources, severely alter the course of economic and political history in the United States.” While these events have been ignored by many historians, Chappell believes they are “as significant as the 1963 March on Washington.”

In part two of the interview, Chappell discusses the origins of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and King's legacy today.

Hammond: So, getting at this broad and deep story, you wrote in your introduction that after the victories of the civil rights era, there is no heroic narrative. The years after King appear aimless, without one unifying force. As I read the book, this is not the story most of us have heard before: the story of busing, affirmative action, the Bob Jones case, for example. Those battles are left out of your book, probably intentionally. Does this aimlessness in the story point back to Martin Luther King as an exemplary leader? Or is this just the random nature of history as it unfolds in different times?

Chappell: There is a narrative thread through the story I tell in the book. Many people saw themselves carrying on Martin Luther King’s unfinished business, even in cases where they came to disagree with him. Martin Luther King’s name signifies changes in our social and political system. And he wasn’t finished. If you pay any attention to what he actually said before he died, he was nowhere near. That gives the story a kind of coherence, but I don’t want people to go away with that as the point of the story.

Call for Papers for the 2014 CFH Biennial Conferences

September 24-27, 2014

The CFH's 29th Biennial Conferences will be September 24-25 (Student Research Conference) and September 25-27 (Fall Conference) at Pepperdine University in Malibu CA. The conference theme will be "Christian Historians and Their Publics," and the general program chair is Jay Green, Covenant College TN. What follows are the calls for papers for both conferences. 


2014 CFH Undergraduate Student Conference
September 24-25, 2014

The Fall 2014 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History at Pepperdine University in beautiful Malibu, California, will be preceded by a two-day Undergraduate Student Conference, the 24th and 25th of September. The theme of the conference is "Christian Historians and Their Publics," but papers on any topic will be considered. See Facebook page for further information: here.

The deadline for undergraduate proposals is April 15, 2014. Individual undergraduate paper or complete session (preferable) proposals may be sent to either:

Bryan Lamkin, Department of History and Political Science, Azusa Pacific University, or

Brad Hale, Department of History and Political Science, Azusa Pacific University,

Graduate students are invited to participate as chairs of the breakout sessions on Friday, September 25.  Anyone interested in participating is asked to email Mary Sanders, Graduate Student Representative to the Conference on Faith and History (

2014 CFH Biennial Conference
September 25-27, 2014

The General CFH Conference chair, Jay Green, has issued a call for papers for the 2014 CFH Biennial Fall Conference. The deadline for submission is March 15, 2014. A color poster of the call can be downloaded here.

Prof. Green writes: Contemporary historians have a somewhat complicated relationship with "the public." We long to have "public" audiences who will be challenged and shaped by our work, but most of us tend to produce highly specialized scholarship and write primarily for other scholars. When we do address the public, our often "myth-busting" strategies can come across as patronizing, contemptuous, and even politically motivated. As historians, who are our "publics"? And what responsibilities, if any, do we owe them? Are their public venues for historical understanding that we should be exploring? Does our peculiar identity as Christians have any bearing on the publics we address, what we have to say, or how we say it? Are there Christian ways of thinking about and doing public history? Is there a Christian public for our work as historians?

The Fall 2014 Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History will gather at Pepperdine University in beautiful Malibu, California, to explore these and many other questions related to Christian Historians and Their Publics.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some ideas you may want to consider for paper, panels, and plenary sessions:

Christian Historians' Vocational Responsibility to the Church
Should Historians Seek a Public Platform? Why or Why Not?
Historical Thinking among Ordinary Christians
The Status and Quality of Popular History Written for Christian Audiences
Responding to Popular Christian Social Memory
What Professional Christian Historians have to Learn from "the Faithful"
Historians and Social Media
The Undergraduate Class as a Public
Historians and the Status of "The Evangelical Mind"
The Encounter between "Popular" and "Professional" Christian Historians
The Christian Historian as Public Intellectual
Christian Museums and Historic Sites
Writing Institutional Histories
Writing Congregational Histories
Writing Local History
Writing School Curricula
Negotiating Professional Convictions and Public Needs/Tastes/Assumptions
Christians in Public History
Christian Faith and Advocacy History
Documentary Filmmaking
Christian Historians in Government Service
Invitations to the Local "Rotary Club"
Responding to History-themed Films
History as Entertainment/Pastime
The Challenges of Giving "Historical Context" to Contemporary Issues
Historical Authority in Public
The Historian as Expert Witness
The Historian as Political Activist
The Historian as Journalist/Pundit
The Historian as Wikipedian

If you have ideas for plenary speakers, sessions, or individual papers, please send them to Jay Green ( at Covenant College.

An Interview with David Chappell on MLK's Legacy; Part I

Michael Hammond

David L. Chappell’s last book A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow provided a new interpretation of the role of religion in the civil rights movement. It was called called “one of the three or four most important books on the civil rights movement” by The Atlantic Monthly. In his new book, Waking From the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr., Chappell assesses the impact of King on ambitious yet mostly unknown civil rights efforts after his death in 1968, along with a look at the public memory of King himself. In contrast to studies of the 1970s and 1980s that focus on Affirmative Action and de facto segregation, Chappell portrays a series of aspirational efforts to honor the legacy of King with new forays into social change. Chappell analyzes the significance of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which assured fair housing; the 1972 and 1974 National Black Political Conventions, the 1978 Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment Act, Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday, and the public revelations of King’s plagiarism and infidelity in the 1980s. The book goes on sale this Tuesday, January 14.

I spoke with Chappell recently about his book and its new interpretation of civil rights history. Today’s interview focuses on these overlooked efforts and how they broaden the understanding of the movement, starting in the immediate days after King's assassination. Part II of the interview includes Chappell's perspective on the MLK Day Holiday and how King's legacy is remembered. That interview is available here.

Hammond: This is a book about memory and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. How do most Americans remember King, and how does your book add a new interpretation of his legacy?

Chappell: Well, I don't have as low an opinion of the public as most scholars do. And all they can go by is what they see on TV. Every time Black History Month comes around, or King’s birthday comes around, there’s Michael Eric Dyson saying that the people only remember this optimistic dreamer. And give the impression that it was this kind of anodyne, easy thing for us to achieve. And that he only wanted a colorblind society and did not want economic justice and didn't want anything more profound and difficult. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Eric Dyson is a great guy and doing wonderful work. But he and others complain—and I think complain with some justice—that people don’t remember King fully. And they tend to remember him in a way that’s comforting to them.  I think that’s probably true in the same way that we remember everything superficially.

What’s missing from the story—the little bit that I bit off that I thought that I could chew in this book—was what happened to him after he died; what happened to his image in the hands of people who thoughtfully and quite self-consciously sought to carry on his legacy, to carry on his unfinished business.

Political Theology Start-Up Kit from Ted A. Smith

Today's guest post comes from Ted A. Smith, professor of ethics and preaching at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. Author of The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice (2007), Dr. Smith is a leading young scholar in the field of political theology, a field we rarely discuss here at the blog (even though they have a blog like RIAH

After being entranced by Smith's first book - almost as much as audiences certainly were with Finney's preaching - and then being wowed by his current manuscript on John Brown and the ethical limits of righteous violence - I asked Professor Smith to put together a "so you want to begin thinking about political theology" list. And here it is:

Ted A. Smith

Talk of “political theology” runs across a wide variety of conversations that do not necessarily overlap.  The term has been used to describe almost every kind of interaction between religion and politics.  In this short list I do not try to provide a comprehensive description of those conversations.  I rather mean to suggest one way into them.  This list is not a map of the woods, but a series of blazes that promises to lead a reader to places worth going.

Dispatches from the American Society for Church History--New Directionsin Latino/a Religious History

Arlene Sánchez Walsh 

Special from the 2014 American Society of Church History Conference

I was unable to make the 2014 meeting of the American Society of Church History (ASCH) in DC this year. All flights from the LA area were either booked/delayed/and in my case, cancelled due to the terrible weather back East.

Taking advantage of the ability to talk to people just about anywhere, my colleague, Felipe Hinojosa skyped me in and I was able to deliver my responses to the topic “Faith, Power and Resistance: New Directions in Latino/a Religious History.”  Because I am considered mid-career and occasionally feel a certain sense of misplaced entitlement, delivering my response in my pajamas from the comfort of a sunny 75 degree day in L.A. fulfilled that scant sense of privilege one acquires in academia.

The papers were small parts of larger projects by some up and coming Latino/a scholars at different stages of their academic careers focused on varied topics such as the maintaining of ethnic identity as a form of resistance among Mexicano Pentecostals on the borderlands, a work on Latino/a Mennonites and their entry way into multicultural political coalitions as a means to serve the interests of their community, and finally an intriguing look at the civil rights organization, the Young Lords, and their improvised “People’s Church” movement which agitated for more services from varied mainline Protestant groups.  My response aside from some comments specifically targeted to the papers themselves was an attempt to put this field in some context and to speculate on where it is we are going.

Interfaith Marriage Literature in 2013: A Year in Review

Samira K. Mehta

Two books on interfaith marriage made something of a splash in 2013: both are poised on the line between scholarly and popular literature, and both are written by experienced journalists whose own marriages are interfaith. That is where the similarities between the books end, but because they represent opposing viewpoints, and they and their subjects are oriented towards different kinds of religious communities, we can gain insight into debates about interfaith family life. What is at stake in both texts are their intersecting, yet often conflicting, assumptions: about community, about identity, and about the malleability—or rigidity—of individual religious practice in an increasingly diverse American landscape.

 ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America by Naomi Schafer Riley was published by Oxford University Press, and its research and writing was funded by Roger Hertog, the Barclay Foundation, and the Earhart Foundation, which provided the author with the means to commission a survey of interfaith couples across the United States. After examining a wide variety of religious combinations, Schafer Riley reports, “[m]y survey suggests that interfaith marriages are generally more unhappy—with lower rates of marital satisfaction—and often more unstable, with particularly high divorce rates when certain religious combinations are involved.” Schafer Riley notes that, on a scale of 1 to 10, same-faith couples rate their level of marital satisfaction at 8.4, compared to interfaith couples, whose satisfaction rate averages 7.9. This difference, she reports is, “real, but modest.”

A Throw-back Review (Cold and Snow Edition)


Jonathan Den Hartog

I hope this finds its readers well, in whatever circumstances they find themselves. I know some people are returning (or recovering) from the AHA. People on the East Coast and in the Great Lakes region are dealing with large amounts of snow. Here in Minnesota, we're bearing up under arctic cold. As I write this, the air temperature is -20, with a windchill of -43. Those are great conditions to stay inside and think about American Religious History.

Over the past weeks, I've been making final revisions on a book manuscript (about which, I hope to have much more to say in 2014). For these revisions, a colleague suggested I take a look at Liam Riordan's Many Identities, One Nation: The Revolution and Its Legacy in the Mid-Atlantic. I somehow missed the book when it came out in 2007, but I'm glad I finally was able to take some time with it. So, consider this a "throw-back review" for something that should have been noted awhile ago.

I was really glad that although the book doesn't bill itself as "religious history," it uses the religious experiences of many groups to understand group formation and national identity in the early republic.

Riordan (University of Maine) grounds his study by doing close examinations of three communities in the Delaware River Valley: New Castle, Delaware; Burlington, New Jersey; and Easton, Pennsylvania. Each town was oriented toward Philadelphia, but they also witnessed much activity and development of their own, which Riordan believes speaks to larger developments in America as it tried to craft a post-revolutionary settlement. The problem facing Americans after the Revolution, which Riordan takes up, was how to create a national identity and a functioning society from a wide array of particular (and particularistic) cultures. Riordan describes the Delaware Valley as indicative of America's multi-cultural society even in the early republic.

Many Identities, One Nation
And here's where religion comes into play. Riordan believes that nationalist outlooks were advanced in two directions in his communities: a political route and a religious route. Politically, the national parties that developed in the 1790s vied for allegiances from the different groups and sought to create a national political identity.

More interesting, however, is Riordan's reading of religious cultures in his communities. He is really deft in tracing how religious cultures helped to structure group and even ethnic identities. In examining his communities, he pays close attention to the presence and practice of such diverse traditions as Quakers, German Reformed, German Lutherans, Black Methodists, and Anglo Presbyterians. He reads religious sources ethnographically and is able to draw conclusions from a wide array of sources. For instance, he pays close attention to German Baptismal Certificates, done in Fractur Writing, as a folk art that spoke to both religious identity and cultural identities. Similarly, he reads African-American Methodist Hymnals to tease out cultural concerns in the newly-independent churches. Throughout, he demonstrates that religious practices really do help to understand the larger cultural visions of those involved.

Monotony and the Culture Wars: A Reappraisal

Trevor Burrows

Another year done, another series of “culture war” conflicts come and gone. I responded to 2013’s final major controversy, the Phil Robertson firestorm, with the same sigh and groan as many others. There is a recognizable, ritualized pace to cycles of public controversy, especially those involving words, thoughts, and deeds that are often lumped under the broad and ambiguous “culture war” umbrella. Clamorous outcry is swiftly followed by some sort of apology, whether from the accused or their employer; cultural defrocking, and frequently a much quieter cultural reordination or redemption, follow in due time. So it was with the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, and so my eyes rolled. One could predict with fair accuracy the language used, the personalities present, even the institutions involved as it worked its way through the well-oiled machine of 24/7 news media and internet commentary.

It was precisely the monotony of the debacle that led me to peer a bit closer, to second guess the actuality of that monotony and its possible implications. After all, regardless of where we pinpoint the particular origins of these spectacles - whether we think back to the 1990s, the ‘80s, or reach even further to the ‘20s - a lot of time has passed. Contexts have changed, and so have technology, politics, and popular culture in general. If the episodes of the culture wars seem to resemble each other in form and in content, they nevertheless occur at distinct historical moments and are shaped by unique circumstances. Their familiarity may be deceiving.

The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism Revisited: New Book by Thomas J. Little

Paul Harvey
Thomas J. Little, The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760 (University of South Carolina Press, 2013).

Here’s an important and (relatively) new title to call to your attention, especially for those of you in colonial history, southern religious history, and eighteenth-century American studies.

In this work, Thomas Little seeks to revisit the “origins” question – in this case, the “origins of southern evangelicalism.” And he does so through intensive, painstaking research into religious practices in South Carolina through the late 17
th and first half of the 18th century.
 There are bits and pieces of this story (Jonathan Bryan, George Whitefield’s tours, the SPG missionary Francis Le Jau, and a few others) which have been discussed elsewhere and are staples of the story; but there are an awful lot of people in here that I had scarcely or never heard of, and remarkable stories from individual congregations and congregants – featuring Harold Camping style ranting about the end days, German Pietists who murdered people in their own congregation, Quaker women who were publishing defenses of women in the ministry, and Protestant dissenters from all over Europe who were coming into South Carolina to man newly opening frontier towns but along with them brought a huge variety of Protestant practices that set Anglicans’ teeth on edge – that I’ve never seen so extensively narrated and discussed before. The end result is a persuasive pressing of his thesis, that evangelical revivalism and dissent came along much earlier than is usually depicted. 

Conceived in Doubt -- Session at #AHA2014 #ASCH2014

Quick note -- for those you who read Mike Altman's post below previewing his comments at the AHA/ASCH panel on Amanda Porterfield's Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation, they have now been updated to include all of his comments. You can also follow the basic thread of comments at the ASCH's live blog, which you can access here (you have to scroll backwards at the bottom of the page).

Over at his blog, John Fea has a number of correspondents writing in with impressions of various sessions at the AHA/ASCH, and John reports in on his own session on Religion and the American Revolution, featuring John, our blogger Chris Jones giving us an early taste of his dissertation, and our good friend Kate Carte Engel. It's a good read. Featured there also is a photograph of Mike Altman, Chris Jones, and our occasional guest blogger Matthew Bowman stylin' at the book exhibit.

New Year, New Editorial Teams, New Podcasts, and New Books

Art Remillard

With 2014 now underway, it seems appropriate to begin this post with...

Out with the Old

Along with Mike Pasquier and Luke Harlow, I transitioned out of the Journal of Southern Religion editorial team following the release of our fifteenth volume in November. Before leaving, though, I recorded three final podcaststwo related to the new volume and one to the editorial changes.

First, I caught up with Michael McVicar to talk about his article, "Take Away the Serpents from Us: The Sign of Serpent Handling and the Development of Southern Pentecostalism." Michael begins by explaining why he was drawn to this topic in the first place. He then offers an overview of the discussions and debates about serpent handling practices among early pentecostals, before concluding with a reflection on the ways that his essay sheds light on how we contextualize and interpret marginal religious practices.

Next, Christopher Graham and I discussed his article, "Evangelicals and 'Domestic Felicity' in the Non-Elite South." Christopher starts by telling us how this piece grew out of his broader interest in the lives of "common people" in the Civil War era. He goes on to describe the evangelical print culture of the time and its influence on domestic life in North Carolina. In our concluding exchange, Christopher thinks about how the "evangelical domestic ethos" forged in the 1850s might complicate our understanding of secession and Confederate nationhood.

For my final podcast, I talked with outgoing editor Mike Pasquier and incoming editor Doug Thompson. Mike gave his thoughts on where the journal had come since he and Luke began, while Doug looked ahead to the journal's future. It's safe to say that the JSR is in good hands, and that we can expect to see more great things in the coming months and years.

As for my position, I'm delighted that Carolyn Dupont of Eastern Kentucky University will be taking over as book review editor and podcast director. Meanwhile, I'm starting a new venture as radio director over at the Marginalia Review of BooksAs I mentioned previously, I am very impressed with what Timothy Michael Law and his editorial team is doingexcept for their most read story for 2013. Bizarre.

Nevertheless, this brings us to...

UPDATED- Thomas Paine is My Spirit Animal: Comments on Porterfield's Conceived in Doubt #AHA2014 #ASCH14


UPDATE- I have updated this post with my full comments from the panel for those who couldn't make it.

Since my day for a post this month coincides so nicely with the AHA and ASCH meetings I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone. Below is a draft and preview of my opening remarks as part of an AHA/ASCH roundtable on Amanda Porterfield's Conceived in Doubt tomorrow afternoon. If you're in D.C. for the meetings please come check out what promises to be an excellent discussion.

I stand here today with Thomas Paine as my muse. A skeptic. Paine is more than my muse. He is my spirit animal. I picked up Amanda Porterfield’s wonderful book in the midst of my own crisis of doubt. In the midst of my own skeptical turn. It was a very Tom Panian mood. While the field of American religious history continues to churn out well written and rigorously researched work, I had begin to wonder if all of our energies weren’t just variations on a single theme and I was losing my belief in that theme. I was growing skeptical of American religious history. 

About a year ago I was having coffee with a mid-career religious historian whom I admire greatly. We were discussing how we imagined ourselves, our work, and our audience. This historian looked at me at one point and said something to the effect of, “I wanted to show historians that religion is a powerful force. That it does stuff.” Religion does stuff. Isn’t this the theme of our subfield? I don’t walk the halls of a history department but I imagine this is what the religious historian says to their Marxist colleagues. Religion is not epiphenomenal. It is not simply a mask for politics or capital. It does stuff. 

For example, in their 2010 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, titled “Everywhere and Nowhere,” Paul Harvey and Kevin Schultz described the ways historians of American religions have “found the persistence, continuity, and adaptability of American religion an impressive, motivating, guiding, and ever shape-shifting specter,” (p.131).  Motivating. Guiding. Shape-shifting. So many verbals. Because religion does stuff, right? Religion guides, motivates, adapts, continues, persists, right? 

Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe those moments of persistence, guidance, motivation, and continuity are actually the moments where religion itself  gets constructed. Maybe it’s shape-shifting because it is constantly being rebuilt. But by who? And to what end? These were the questions driving my doubt.

“Religion came to designate a diffuse realm, protected by the state, where people built communities, conceived relationships with God, and lamented the corruption of the state and of profane, mistrustful society,” writes Porterfield (p. 12). Here religion does nothing. People build, conceive, and lament and in that process they build a diffuse realm they call religion. And so, as she closes her introduction, Porterfield proves my doubts warranted. Religion is not an agent, it is not a force, it is not a motivator. It is a realm, a category, a way of cordoning off this and not that. It is a product of distinctions and combinations. 

In my reading, Porterfield’s most important contribution to American religious history is the shift from arguing that religion does stuff to an argument about how religion became a “diffuse realm” that Americans distinguished from the political and the profane. It is a shift from descriptivism to constructivism—a shift from looking for religion and seeing what it does to tracing out how Americans built this category they called religion. 

So, allow me to quickly outline two examples of these distinctions from Porterfield’s book that will add clarity to what have been abstract comments thus far. I see this shift from what religion does to how religion came to be in two places: evangelicals’ relationships with their others and disputes over true religion. In these two cases Porterfield does not attempt to prove that religion is doing something. Rather, she pays particular attention to how Americans distinguished religion or evangelical religion and how these acts of distinction, difference, and boundary maintenance shaped the realms of religion and politics. 

In Porterfield’s narrative, evangelical revival washed away the doubts and skepticism of the late eighteenth century. This narrative highlights the ways evangelicalism functions as a mode of identity construction that depends on distinguishing oneself from others. Evangelicalism is a strategy for claiming a unique identity in American culture. Evangelicalism always needs an other. It always needs something else outside of itself. Evangelical identity, at its theological root, is about being in or out, saved or not, a believer or an unbeliever. As Porterfield argues, unbelievers and skeptics—others—fueled the revivalism of the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Just beyond the period Porterfiled covers comes the rise of the missionary movement, a hallmark of evangelical identity, which was predicated on a distinction between the Christian and the heathen. Even before American missionaries launched ships for heathen lands, evangelicals made the connection between the heathen over there and unbelievers here at home. An 1801 tract titled “Good News, or, a Brief Account of the Revival of Religion in Kentucky and Several Other Parts of the United States, Likewise” carried a series of extracts from letters and accounts of revival combined with letters from British missionary William Carey. One extract of a letter from Lexington, Kentucky describds an outsider to the evangelical revival: “But alas, poor L——, yet in measure stands out, though I trust even in this Sodom there are a few brought to the saving knowledge of a precious Christ. I was told yesterday, that the wicked son of E. D. has been bro’t in the gospel fold.” Sheep and goats. Insiders and outsiders. Evangelicals and unbelievers. 

Further on in the same tract comes a letter from British missionary William Carey. In his letter Carey laments the “truly deplorable” state of religion in India. The Europeans are all young deists who “having read so much of Jupiter, Juno, Bacchus, &c. under the name of Deists, and of their worship under the disguised name of sacred mysteries, they admire the words, and call Hindoo abominations by the same name.” Even worse, they are marked by idolatry, luxury, and vice. The natives in India are in an equally “deplorable state” according to the Baptist missionary. “Their worship is idle ceremony; moral vicissitude of conduct makes no part of their system, and may be literally said to be pickled in vice.” This sounds a bit like a evangelical critique of Federalist religion. But even more importantly, Carey puts the heathen and the deist in the same boat and his own evangelical religion stands in contrast to these others. The difference between evangelicals and Federalists was more a matter of identity than theology or practice and it depended on others—those outside the evangelical fold like poor L or the wicked son of E. D.—for its maintenance. 

The evangelical identity built on opposition, on insiders and outsiders, constructed the realm of religion in America as a realm of choice. How does a person move from one side of the ledger to the other? Through a decision to leave behind sin and fall upon the grace of God. As Porterfield acknowledges, this new realm of choice put theological pressure on New Light Presbyterian’s to leave behind Calvinist predestination but it posed no hurdles for the Methodists and Baptists. Religion as choice has a downside for evangelicals, though, because one can always choose to opt out altogether, like poor L in Lexington. Hence the need for revival to continually reinforce the right choices. So, can we call this kind of evangelical religion, a religion of choice, democratic if there’s only one right answer to choose?

This leads to my second example from Porterfield’s book, the conflicting definitions of true religion in this early period of American culture. Throughout Porterfield’s book Americans of different stripes continually argue for what “true religion” is in contrast to whatever they see around them. Thomas Paine argued that true religion relied on reason endowed by the Creator. Federalists argued that true religion maintained moral and civil order. Evangelicals argued that true religion was a matter of religious experience and personal transformation. But more importantly, Republican evangelicals argued that true religion was free and separate from government intervention. The evangelical critiques of Federalist religion did not argue about the role of religion in government but argued about the very authenticity of any religion tied up with government. This argument, which won the day according to Porterfield, constructed the realm of religion as something that by definition existed outside of politics. Religion tied to civil government is no religion at all, but priestcraft as critics so often declared it. Priestcraft was a category that tied together Federalist state religion, Catholicism, and even pagan religions like Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) and Hindu religion (Brahman priestcraft). It was a category for things that were not true religion. 

Taking these two moments of construction together, Porterfield reveals how the realm of religion emerged in the early nineteenth century as a space defined by personal choice and identity that stood separate and apart from government. It is this within this realm that Jeffersonian politicians and evangelicals found common ground. They shared the belief in individual choice and they shared an opponent in the Federalists. In imagining religion as a realm separate from government, evangelical Republicans opened it up as a realm for political cooperation with skeptic Jeffersonians. Ironically, in claiming to separate religion from politics, evangelicals placed themselves in a better position to act as a political force. But above all, Porterfield has asked an important question in this book: How did Americans construct religion? It’s a question more of us should ask.

So, perhaps I started with the wrong skeptic. I am not Thomas Pain, I am Francis Scott Key asking if the flag of American religious history still stands. If we can produce more work like this, if instead of asking what does "religion do?" we can ask "how is religion constructed?", then I think I can still see it in the dawn’s early light.

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