What Happens When a Symbol’s Meaning Changes?

John L. Crow

Much has transpired recently regarding the killing of nine African-Americans in South Carolina and its impact galvanizing those who see the Rebel Flag as a symbol of racism and hate. Living in the South since the early 1990s, I have seen the flag frequently in both Georgia and North Florida. I have heard the argument that it represents heritage and is not a symbol of racism. Assuming this is true, for the moment, such an argument still misses that symbols change and their meanings evolve. This is something that I have had to examine in my study of the Theosophical Society because another symbol of bigotry and hate, the swastika, is part of their organizational seal.

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York City and promoted Eastern ideals and traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. The swastika is a common symbol within these traditions and has been used within the iconography for centuries. Even today, if you are in some Asian countries and see a restaurant with a swastika on its sign, it means the restaurant serves Buddhist-friendly vegetarian food. Thus, it is not surprising that the society adopted the swastika as part of their logo. At one point, Blavatsky explained the swastika “is the summary in a few lines of the whole work of creation, or evolution.” It is a symbol of the dynamic aspects of creation, a point Theosophy stresses.

But we all know that the swastika was also adopted by the Nazi party as their emblem and is connected in the minds of most people to the racism and genocide of the Nazi regime. This was done fifty years after the Theosophical Society incorporated the symbol into its seal. Yet, now that the meaning of the swastika has changed, many claim that Theosophy, and in particular its founder Madam Blavatsky, is racist. Despite the fact that Blavatsky died two years after Hitler was born, there are numerous websites which use the inclusion of the swastika in the TS logo as evidence for its connection to Nazism.

CFP: Sacred Texts and Comics: Religion, Faith, & Graphic Narratives

Lauren Turek

I just came across this recently posted CFP and had to share it, as the proposed volume sounds fascinating. It is an interdisciplinary project and is intended to include essays that examine a wide range of faith traditions. This seems like a great potential opportunity for the historians and religious studies scholars on this blog, especially those who work with material and visual culture.

Call for Papers

CFP: Sacred Texts and Comics: Religion, Faith, and Graphic Narratives

Ken Koltun-Fromm, Haverford College (kkoltunf@haverford.edu)

Assaf Gamzou, Israeli Cartoon Museum (assaf@cartoon.org.il)

Sacred Texts and Comics: Religion, Faith, and Graphic Narratives

The last decade has produced critical and expressive studies in sacred canonical texts and comics. Witness, for example, the artistic works from R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis (2009) and JT Waldman’s Megillat Esther (2005), as well as scholarly publications from Karline McLain’s India’s Immortal Comic Books (2009), A. David Lewis’s edited volume Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels (2010), and Samantha Baskind’s and Ranen Omer-Sherman’s editorial work for The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches (2010).

Sacred Texts and Comics: Religion, Faith, and Graphic Narratives is a proposed volume for the “Critical Approaches to Comics Artists” series at the University Press of Mississippi that builds upon, but also beyond, Western or “major” religious traditions to develop a broader landscape of religious graphic mediums. We encourage submissions that engage Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, African Diaspora traditions, or other religious communities from a variety of disciplinary or cross-disciplinary perspectives. Such critical approaches may include studies in religion, literature, theology, art history, culture, anthropology, political science, or other disciplines that work with the multi-dimensional features of graphic narratives.

Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Depictions of the sacred in comics.
  • The place of historical exegesis and critical, religious interpretation in graphic narratives.
  • Comics as a form and method of interpretation.
  • The ways in which the graphic, formal features engage notions of the sacred.
  • The modes by which graphic narratives represent the sacred or conceptions of religion.
  • The ways in which religious identity and belief are represented and explored in graphic mediums.
  • The multiple ways that visual culture informs religious practice.

Please send a 500-1000 word abstract, CV, and contact information to Ken Koltun-Fromm (kkoltunf@haverford.edu) and Assaf Gamzou (assaf@cartoon.org.il) by August 21, 2015. Haverford College will host a symposium on “Sacred Texts and Comics” on May 5th and 6th, 2016 that will include workshops for contributors to this proposed volume. Please indicate your interest in and
availability to participate in the symposium (all expenses will be paid, including a small stipend).

"For Too Long"

Paul Harvey

Just for those who missed, here is a link to President Obama's eulogy of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney today in Charleston, which is (among other things) full of references to religion in American history, everything from Amazing Grace to Marilynne Robinson to slave revolts to "collective salvation."

Note: it should load up automatically, but if it doesn't, the speech begins at about 1:22 (one hour twenty-minutes in).

Also: Here is the transcript of the speech. 

Writing about Charleston

Emily Suzanne Clark and Matthew J. Cressler

Last week, a horrible thing happened, and Matt Cressler and I (Emily) were both asked to write about it. Since this month doesn’t have a 31st (Matt’s date), he and I together took the time here to reflect on writing about the #Charlestonshooting for a public audience. Also, if you didn’t check out #Charlestonsyllabus yet (which was trending for awhile!), do so now or read this round-up of sources compiled by the African American Intellectual Society’s blog.

EMILY: When the news broke Wednesday evening about the mass shooting in Mother Emanuel, I was deeply sad. Being on the west coast, I was still up and on my computer so I watched the immediate aftermath on Twitter. The realization that it was Denmark Vesey’s church and on June 17 was a painful one. I woke up Thursday morning and now was mad about what happened. I sat at my desk and read a bunch about the shooting and the media’s coverage of it. I fumed. I thought about the all-too-neat historical trajectory from southern slavery to the night before. I yelled “Why?” at my computer a few times, even though I knew why. I read Laudato Si, the pope’s encyclical about climate change that had just been released that morning, but I couldn’t really focus on the words. The only things that jumped out to me were lines about social justice. Charleston was on my mind no matter what I did. Then I got an email about it.

MATT: I too awoke in a rage. Since I’m starting at the College of Charleston in August, friends had texted me through the night about the Mother Emanuel massacre. The news was almost the first thing I saw when I got up Thursday morning. What made this even more poignant for me was that I had just planned a class trip to Emanuel AME the day before. Wednesday morning I sat in a coffee shop drafting my African American religions syllabus for the fall. One of things that most excites me about teaching this subject in this place is the depth of African American (religious) history in “the Holy City” – something people across the country have now been awoken to tragically. That morning I typed “Special Class Visit to Emanuel AME Church” into my syllabus. I toyed with calling the church right then and there to schedule a visit, but decided against it. What’s the rush, I thought. This made it seem all the more surreal when horror visited the Mother Emanuel community that very night.

Ex Machina, Gender, and Post-humanist New Religious Movements

Today's guest post is from Megan Leverage, a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. Her interests include religion and technology, millennialism, new religious movements, and Mormonism. She'll be presenting a paper about similar topics to today's post at AAR this year on a panel for the Religion and Transhumanism group.

A couple of months ago I went to go see the British Sci-Fi thriller Ex Machina, the directorial debut of Alex Garland, author of The Beach (novel), and screenplay writer for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. You can find the film’s trailer, synopsis and other information on the official website. I had been anxiously awaiting this film’s release not only as an admirer of Garland’s earlier work, but also because this already acclaimed film seemed to have much in common with the research I had been developing over the past two semesters. I had become interested in the sub-sub-genre, gender and new religious movements, particularly post-humanist new religious movements. It may be worth noting that this project was the first instance in which gender seemed so essential, not because I developed a new interest in gender studies, or because I saw gender as a means to fill a gap in the scholarship, but because I became convinced that expressions of gender and sexuality were fundamental features of these particular movements. This observation also applied to Ex Machina, which explored similar post-human themes of technological embodiment and consciousness, and communicated these ideas through the sex appeal of the film’s main character Ava and her post-gendered A.I. body.

Loving God's Wildness: A Conversation with Jeffrey Bilbro

The following is an interview with my friend and colleague  Jeffrey Bilbro Jeff is an Assistant Professor of English at Spring Arbor University.   He is a prolific blogger, the author of numerous articles, and co-author with Jack Baker of An Agrarian Hope for Higher Education: Wendell Berry and the University (forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky).  Our conversation below concern’s Jeff’s first book, Loving God's Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature (University of Alabama Press, 2015).

What stimulated your interest in environmentalism (if you would call it that)?

It’s hard to pinpoint an origin, but one formative experience for me was spending a year in the remote community of Stehekin when I was eleven. Stehekin is surrounded by the North Cascades National Park and is inaccessible by car; to get there you have to take a boat or plane. Only about 100 people live there year-round. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place, and we took lots of hikes in the surrounding mountains.

Even more than the glamorous scenery, however, what drew my attention were the resourceful, creative, difficult ways in which the residents made a living in this remote place. Their pragmatic efforts to survive here inevitably came into conflict with various National Park Service policies. Because these policies were determined in some centralized bureaucracy, they often didn’t fit the local reality. So while I learned to value the beauty of seemingly untouched, pristine wilderness, I also came to see the ways in which wilderness preservation and land use can clash, which as I learned in my research for this book is one of America’s enduring conflicts.

To circle back to your question, I avoid using the term “environmentalism” because it simply means “surroundings.” Wendell Berry points out that when we use this term, we imply that humans and other organisms can be separated from their surroundings, but in fact, humans can’t survive if we’re severed from other life forms. Furthermore, “environmentalism” seems to lead to efforts to preserve “wild” places in some other state or country, to save particular species, or to keep humans from messing up their surroundings.
The more important and difficult question, however, is how do we live with the other members of our places in ways that enable us all—human and non-human—to flourish? Thus questions about proper land use are historically much more important and difficult—and interesting—than merely setting aside sections of an apparently untainted environment. The word that suggests the scope of these questions best is “ecology,” which comes from the Greek word oikos that simply means “household.” We derive both “economy” and “diocese” from this same root, and these related words indicate both the practical and religious implications wrapped up in how we live with the other members of our biological household.

Quakers to Know: Margaret Hope and S. Allen Bacon

Carol Faulkner

I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret Hope Bacon, who died in 2011, and her husband Allen, who died in 2013, when I was working on my biography of Lucretia Mott. Margaret, a prolific writer and historian, had published a wonderful biography of Mott, titled Valiant Friend, in 1980. The Bacons were activists. Like many of their 19th c. Quaker predecessors, this unassuming couple acted on their religious convictions to promote racial equality, peace, and other causes. With some important exceptions, including Allan Austin's recent book on the American Friends Service Committee (read Karen Johnson's interview with Austin here and here), Quakers get more attention in histories of early America than they do in histories of the twentieth century. The obituaries of the Bacons, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, offer a starting point for further histories of twentieth-century Quaker activism.

S. Allen Bacon was a Quaker by birth, and educated at Quaker schools like Westtown and Haverford. He and Margaret met at Antioch College. Though his obituary states that the "two helped work to integrate the school," Antioch had (at least in theory) admitted African American students since the 19th century. In the 1940s, students protested and the college decided to actively diversify, recruiting both African American and Japanese American students. During World War II, Allen was a conscientious objector, and, through the Civilian Public Service program, worked with patients in a mental hospital. Afterward, he made a career of community organizing in the settlement house movement in Philadelphia.

Unlike her husband, Margaret Hope Borchardt was not born a Quaker. She grew up in New York City and graduated from Antioch College in 1943. She did not join a Quaker meeting until her three children prompted her to do so. In addition to her writing, from 1962 to 1984, Margaret worked at the American Friends Service Committee (see Guy Aiken's recent post on its archives). Her many social and political commitments included the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, which in Mott's day did not allow female members. As she told one interviewer, "I've always been interested in what motivates people to do good works. There's a spirit running through humanity that keeps producing people who have the urge to make life better for their fellow human beings." Accordingly, her list of biographical subjects include Mott, Quaker prison reformer Abby Hopper Gibbons, and African American abolitionist Robert Purvis. For future historians, she left her abundant research materials to the Friends Historical Library.

Paul Wood’s Absolution Under Fire: A Case Study in Religious Memory and Sacred Imagery

This month Cushwa welcomes Notre Dame graduate student Andrew Mach to the blog. Andy's research is currently focused on American nativism and transnational anti-Catholicism during the 1840s and 1850s; he also has extensive experience in public history, and has spent the past five summers as a National Park Services interpretive ranger, most recently at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. Those interested in Catholicism and art, though of a very different character and historical period, are invited to mark your calendars for our upcoming exhibit Outsider at the Vatican: Frederick Franck's Drawings from Vatican II, opening August 1.

Andrew Mach

Absolution Under Fire at the Snite Museum of Art
On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, as stray Confederate shells shrieked overhead and deafening sounds of battle thundered across the open landscape of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Union Army chaplain Father William Corby led Irish Brigade soldiers in prayer and gave general absolution of sins as the troops prepared to march in support of beleaguered Northern units stationed near the Wheatfield.

Corby’s action received little coverage at the time, but by 1890 his “absolution under fire” at Gettysburg had taken on iconic status in Catholic circles. Brigade veteran St. Clair Mulholland called for Corby to be awarded the Medal of Honor and spearheaded the successful effort to erect a statue in the chaplain’s honor at Gettysburg. Another eyewitness told his wife that the absolution had made him “as strong as a lion,” while speakers upheld Corby as a model of American Catholic spiritual devotion and patriotism. [1]

Arguably the most popular and influential account of Corby’s battlefield sanctity, however, grew out of a nineteen-year-old student’s keen imagination and considerable artistic talent. In September 1891, University of Notre Dame professor James Edwards, eager to record Corby’s absolution for posterity, commissioned art student Paul Wood to put the scene to canvas. “This is just the kind of work which I love to paint,” Wood confided to his diary, “scenes of blood, carnage, death, sudden and fearful.” [2]

Taking considerable artistic license, Wood placed Corby against the dramatic backdrop of the heights of Little Round Top, further incorporating blood and carnage into the otherwise solemn scene. His finished work, entitled Absolution Under Fire, received critical acclaim for its striking imagery and lifelike appearance, leading at least one newspaper reporter to wrongly describe the teenage Wood – who had never experienced battle in his life – as a “witness” to Corby’s 1863 absolution. [3]

The Indiana State Journal’s conflation of historical fact with artistic rendition provides a starting point for discussing the interpretive promise and scholarly perils of analyzing paintings and other non-written sources on American religion. In this post, I study Absolution Under Fire in hopes of sparking a broader conversation on religious history sources and methodology, highlighting how paintings can serve as both creations and creators of historical memory, as well as differentiating sacred images from images depicting the sacred.

Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism: An Interview with Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Paul Putz

When the semester ended in May, I had a stack of books on my to-read list. Fortunately for me, the first I chose to pick up was Kristin Kobes Du Mez's A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Problem of Christian Feminism (Oxford, 2015). I enjoyed it so much that I reached out to Kristin to see if she would discuss the book and give RiAH readers a taste of her work, and she graciously agreed. Kristin is an associate professor of history at Calvin College. You can follow her on twitter @kkdumez.

P: As a grad student I’m constantly told that I’ll need to distill my dissertation project down to the impossibly short “elevator talk.” So what is your elevator talk for Katharine Bushnell? To the uninitiated, who was she and why is she important?

K: In today’s parlance, Katharine Bushnell was an internationally-known anti-trafficking activist, a feminist theologian, and an evangelical Christian who believed the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God. She was one of the global leaders in the “first wave” of Christian anti-trafficking activism in the late 19th century, and it was this activism that opened her eyes to the fact that the men perpetrating acts of violence against women were, more often than not, Christian men—a realization that ultimately led her to write her remarkable feminist theology. What makes her theology so compelling is that even as she challenged traditional patriarchal readings of the Scriptures in dramatic ways, because she relied on retranslation as well as reinterpretation, she was able to do so while scrupulously upholding the authority of the Scriptures. Much of her theological work holds up well even by today’s standards, and she has a small but devoted following to this day among evangelical Christians, in America and around the globe.

Yet outside of these circles, she remains largely unknown. Sometimes I like to think of Bushnell as the most important American evangelical you’ve probably never heard of. She certainly is one of the most fascinating. If you’re interested in Christianity and feminism, in connections between Christian patriarchy and abuse, in feminism and evangelical purity culture, or in “evangelical feminism” more generally, Bushnell’s story really is essential reading. In short, Katharine Bushnell is important for who she was and for what she did, and for her continuing influence today. But as a historian I also think that part of her significance lies in the fact that she was for so long forgotten—by Christians and feminists alike. That’s part of her story, too, and a very instructive part—and that’s really the story of A New Gospel for Women.

Conservative vs. Liberal or Evangelical vs. Churchly?

Elesha Coffman

I recently reviewed Timothy Gloege's very fine book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism for Christianity Today. (You can find that review here.) I'm still thinking, though, about a framing move Gloege makes in his introduction that could be useful for scholars writing on a variety of topics. Gloege writes on p. 13,

"For the sake of clarity, let me explicitly reject the practices of equating 'evangelical' with 'conservative Protestant' and positing 'liberal' as its opposite. An adherent's attitude toward the development of religious belief and practice over time--the crux of the matter when determining a conservative or liberal orientation--is logically (and practically) independent from whether a believer understands his or her faith as either an individualistic and quantitative project or a communal and qualitative project. Such conflation obscures the evangelical ethos of spiritual seekers like Oprah Winfrey, for example. Widening the definition of evangelical helps explain how ideas once intrinsic to individualistic forms of liberal belief and practice are later adopted by individualistic conservatives. To be sure, conservative evangelicals have aspired to create a 'conservative Protestantism' in their own image, but conservative churchly forms still persist. The degree to which conservative evangelicals have succeeded in making themselves the public face of conservative Protestantism has been a remarkable rhetorical achievement--but it was precisely that."

There are several things I really like about this reframing and a few I'm not so sure about.

Integral Mission and the Reshaping of Global Evangelicalism: A Conversation with David C. Kirkpatrick

Heath Carter

I recently had the chance to catch up with David C. Kirkpatrick, who successfully defended his dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on Monday (congratulations, David!).  Readers of the blog will no doubt be interested in his work, which tracks the rise of progressive evangelicalism in Latin America - a story which, as we discuss below, has important implications for the historiography on postwar American evangelicalism.  His manuscript is currently entitled, "C. René Padilla: Integral Mission and the Reshaping of Global Evangelicalism," and will be a great book before you know it. 

HC: Many readers of this blog are familiar with liberation theology but fewer, perhaps, with misión integral.  Can you tell us a bit about it?

DK: Thank you for having me, Heath!  The development of Latin American social Christianity - both Protestant and Catholic - reflected wider transnational intellectual trends.  In the aftermath of the Marshall Plan in Europe and the failure of American development projects in Latin America, many economists in the 1960s began to question economic theories of development in favor of dependency theory.  Dependency theory argued that Latin America did not simply lag behind Western countries in terms of economic development, but suffered from an unjust system that channelled resources from peripheral, poor nations to core, wealthy economies.  What Latin America needed, then, was not development within the world economy but liberation from the world economic status quo.  Dependency theory also created an ideological unity and shared suspicion of Western efforts, funding, and ideology among a politically conscious theological elite in the Global South.  The reality of dependency was as unacceptable in theology as in economics.

This shift from theories of development to theories of dependency is the background for the emergence of Catholic theologies of liberation, perhaps most well-known in the career of Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, and his 1971 book Teologia de la Liberación.  Latin American evangelicals shared this postwar intellectual context with liberation theologians, yet negotiated a unique path of paternalism with North American evangelicalism - especially in the seminaries and historic mission organizations.  This intersection of imported theological and political influence from the North, and a growing awareness of dependence in the South created a third path toward the emergence of new, inculturated, and holistic forms of Christianity.

Ecuadorian theologian René Padilla speaking
at the Lausanne Congress of 1974
(Courtesy Billy Graham Center Archives of Wheaton College)
Ecuadorian evangelical René Padilla (b. 1932) coined the term misión integral to speak of an understanding of Christian mission that synthesized the pursuit of justice with the offer of salvation.  Padilla's use of the term derives from his homemade pan integral, or whole-wheat bread.  He first used the phrase publicly in his controversial plenary address at the Lausanne Congress of 1974, where he decried the exportation of "American culture Christianity" around the world.  The emergence of misión integral signaled both the rise of Majority World evangelical leadership, and a growing discontent with rote repetition of translated theologies from the North.  In turn, it radically reshaped evangelical conceptions of mission, challenging paternalistic missionary structures and the political monopoly of the Religious Right.

Job Announcement: MHA seeking Executive Director

The Mormon History Association is seeking qualified applicants for the independent-contractor position of Executive Director. The Executive Director serves as an officer and member of the MHA Board of Directors. The term is for three years with an annual review and and may be renewed. The job is a substantial one, with some variability in workload over the course of the year. Compensation negotiable and commensurate with experience. We seek an energetic person with a commitment to the importance of Mormon history. Duties include the following:
  • Fundraising: endowment development; active solicitation of new members; representation of MHA to diverse audiences; collaborating with other organizations to promote the public presence of the MHA
  • Promotion and Communication: management of the organization's website and social media presence; preparing and distributing the MHA digital quarterly newsletter (using InDesign software)
  • Administration and Record-keeping: promptly managing the routine daily business, financial, correspondence, accounting, and other operations of the MHA office; preparing annual budgets, maintaining MHA's office files, records, correspondence
  • Conference Management: staging the annual MHA conference, including contract negotiations, conference pre-planning, publicity, management, etc.
  • Interface and community-building: working with the MHA Board of Directors to plan and host the Board's quarterly meetings (including preparation of agenda and taking of minutes); preparing new Board members; developing and implementing strategic planning initiatives, coordinating and thanking volunteers and donors
Education and/or commensurate experience in business administration, fundraising, and management are required. The successful applicant will:
  • possess strong administrative, office management, and interpersonal skills
  • manage and coordinate the responsibilities, activities, and objectives of the Board
  • have strong written and verbal communication skills; be comfortable in addressing diverse audiences
  • possess a working knowledge of QuickBooks, Microsoft Office Suite, Adobe InDesign, and Act/Stage
  • deal well with periods of high pressure and stress, especially during the annual conference; be highly organized with great attention to detail
  • understand and work with financial reports, budgets, investments, tax returns; negotiate contracts for conference sites, facilities, services, advertisers, and exhibitors 
  • possess an interest in Mormonism and the Mormon historical community
Applicants must submit a letter of interest with resume, and contact information for three references. Please include a brief description of your vision for the future of the MHA. Review of applications will begin July 10, 2015, and will continue until the position is filled. Questions and applications should be directed to Laurie Maffly-Kipp (maffly-kipp@wustl.edu). No telephone inquiries, please.

Summering with the Dead

Laura Arnold Leibman

Summer is here! Wednesday I start teaching my masters class on "American Dead and Undead," but I have already been enjoying spending time in some of America's finest cemeteries.  Sunday I had the pleasure of traversing Beth Olam in Cypress Hills, the resting place of congregants and leaders of three of New York's oldest Jewish congregations, Shearith Israel, B’nai Jeshurun, and Shaaray Tefila.
Looking out from the B'nai Jesurun
Section of the Cemetery

 I was at Beth Olam to pay homage to the graves of the Brandon and Moses families, whom I am researching this summer and on whom I had just spoken at Shearith Israel earlier in the week.

Founded in 1851, Beth Olam is the fourth and current cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and New York's first Jewish congregation.  Unlike the three earlier cemeteries, Beth Olam is located outside of Manhattan in Queens.  

Calvert Vaux Chapel with Cardozo
graves in foreground
Also unlike the earlier Shearith Israel cemeteries, Beth Olam was built as a Garden Cemetery, that is a burial ground that uses landscaping to create a park like setting.  This was fortunate for me, as although it was quite hot the day I visited; yet, because of the landscaping there were plenty of trees and welcoming shade.  Even the chapel at Beth Olam pays homage to the landscaping movement of the nineteenth century: the building is "the work of Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park. Commissioned in 1882, the small, red brick chapel is the only religious building that Vaux is known to have built" (Fourth Shearith Israel Cemetery).

Although the vast majority of the stones in the Shearith Israel section (including those of the Brandon and Moses families) were in keeping with other Spanish-Portuguese cemeteries of this era, I found myself entranced with the less common and more unusual mausoleums, particularly their elaborate use of stained glass, which gave the mausoleums a synagogue-like feel.  Stained glass was common in synagogues of this era, and most of the symbols used on the windows were Jewish ones, most prominently the eternal flame.  Also popular, however, was a neoclassical woman in mourning (either in metal or in Shaaray Tefila in glass), similar to ones found in Christian garden cemeteries of the era, such as in Lowell.  Below are some of images from the Beth Olam cemetery, arranged by which congregation's section they are from.

"My Goal Wasn't to Write an Exposé": Reviewing Going Clear

Michael Utzinger

Alex Gibney's HBO documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (HBO, 2015) aired to the public on 29 March 2015.  My students in alternative religions this semester were quite in tune with the controversy surrounding the Church of Scientology and Gibney's documentary, which had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015.  News reports say that when the film finished at Sun Dance, it received a standing ovation.  A quick Google search of "Going Clear" immediately makes the controversy clear: the top two links (paid ads by the Church of Scientology) that attempt discredit the film.  The Third link is also paid ad bought by HBO trying to pedal its wares.  My students tell me that the film trended on Twitter.  All of us who teach alternative religions or new religious movements will have to contend with this documentary for some time, if for no other reason because of its popularity and/or notoriety.

Gibney's film is based upon Lawrence Wright's book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013; paperback Vintage, 2013).  [Reviewed by Jonathan Den Hertog here] Wright's credentials as a journalist are impeccable, having won numerous awards for journalism including a Pulitzer Prize for his book Looming Tower:  Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006).  Going Clear was a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Award.  The documentary condenses much of Wright's research, but, on the screen it packs a visual punch.  This is not to mention that a video documentary very likely reached a younger demographic Wright's book ever did.  (At least, I can say that none of my students had read Wright's book, even though it was a New York Times Best Seller, but they knew about the documentary.)  Wright is interviewed to lay out the goal of the film.  He notes that he has studied Jonestown and radical Islam and wished to ask the question about religious individuals: "Why do they believe one idea rather than another?"  He continues:
There are often good-hearted people, idealistic, but full of a crushing certainty that eliminates doubt.  My goal was not to write an exposé.  It was to understand Scientology, to try to understand what people got out of it.  Why did they go into it in the first place?
These questions are the heart of the documentary as they were for Wright's book.  Wright, in fact, is a guiding presence throughout the documentary.  He explains and interprets the footage and interviews the viewer sees.  In this sense it is better to understand him as a collaborator with Gibney rather than simply a "talking head."

CFP: 2015 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: The Spirit of Sports


Seth Dowland

I wanted to pass along this call for proposals about a fall conference that looks fascinating -- Baylor's Symposium on Faith and Culture. This year's topic is "The Spirit of Sports." 

Quick Facts
Dates: Thursday, November 5-Saturday, November 7
Location: Baylor University, Waco, Texas
Deadline for Proposals: July 31, 2015
Web Sitewww.baylor.edu/ifl/sports

Conference Description and Call for Proposals 

The love of play and the desire for competition are woven deeply into human experience. From vacant lots-turned-playing fields to modern stadiums, from pick-up games to professional leagues, from Olympic record seeking to fantasy-league deal making, sports have become a defining feature of our culture.

Sports provide us with heroes and villains, role models, platforms for social commentary, and even pulpits for evangelism. Sports cut across social barriers, uniting people from diverse ethnic, financial, and religious backgrounds. Sports also reveal the best and worst of who we can become. Through sports we can develop self-discipline and virtues of character like courage, perseverance, and honesty, or we can cultivate baser human traits like vainglory, greed, and the desire to dominate at all costs.

Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Race in the Cold War Era

Randall J. Stephens

“The position of Fundamentalism,” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in 1931, “seemed almost hopeless. The tide of all rational thought in a rational age seemed to be running against them.”[1] Half a century later a Milwaukee reporter figured that “conservative Christians always regard politics as ‘a dirty business’ unworthy of men of the cloth,” until fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell and the Reagan landslide victory proved otherwise.[2] That was the line that Falwell himself took in his March 1965 sermonic response to civil rights activism: “Ministers and Marches.”  “Our only purpose on earth is to know Christ and make Him known,” he counseled members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.[3]  Of course, this was at the same time that Falwell was preaching adamantly against communism, statism, liberalism, and meddlesome civil rights agitators.
Vic Lockman's cartoon of MLK running roughshod over
law and order, Christian Beacon, June 11, 1964. Click to enlarge.

The recent scholarship of Matthew Sutton, Darren Dochuk, Molly Worthen, Uta Balbier, Axel Schäfer, Daniel Williams, Kim Phillips-Fein, and a host of others has pretty much buried this notion of political/cultural disengagement.  Things were not as they’d often been reported. No, fundamentalists did not retreat into their dark, dank church basements, to sit quietly and wait for the second coming, surrounded by walls decked out with colorful premillennial charts.  No, the saints did not throw in the political towel after W.J. Bryan’s botched 1925 exegesis in Dayton, Tennessee.  

I wanted to know a little more about how evangelicals and fundamentalists engaged with politics and culture in the 1950s and 1960s.  So, for an article I recently published in the Journal of American Studies, “‘It Has to Come from the Hearts of the People’: Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Race, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” I zeroed in on believers’ reaction to and understanding of civil rights legislation and race relations during the high season of the Cold War.  What did stalwarts make of some of the most important legislation to pass through congress since the tumult of the Civil War and Reconstruction?  How did white responses range across the spectrum of center to far right?  (The cartoons I include here from the Christian Beacon represent one end of the field.) Here’s one of the takeaways from the article:

American Possessions: Interview with Sean McCloud

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Today I interview Dr. Sean McCloud about his new book American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States (Oxford University Press, 2015). He teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, where he also directs graduate studies in the Religious Studies department. Dr. McCloud is the author of numerous books and articles, including Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

Phillip Luke Sinitiere (PLS): The short title of your book, American Possessions, speaks to the larger contours of your scholarship and marks your book’s subject as both “religious” and “material.” As someone who has convincingly called scholars to consider the material and class dimensions of American religion, can you unpack the title of your book with a view to articulating its main argument?

Sean McCloud (SM): First Phil, thank you for these questions, and thanks both to you and the folks at Religion in American History for kindly expressing interest in American Possessions. In the short title of this intentionally short book (intended, among other things, to mirror the length of a spiritual warfare manual), I hoped to evoke two meanings for “possessions” that point to the work’s themes. Overall, I suggest that U.S. religious culture in the twenty-first century can be characterized as immersed in and constitutive of an era of possessions—on the one hand of consumer goods, objects, and technologies and, on the other, of spirit entities such as demons and ghosts—and that Third Wave Evangelicalism and its practice of spiritual warfare provides a case study through which these trends converge. I have always been interested in how those things scholars and practitioners define as “religious” are always deeply intertwined with and dependent upon the historical moment that they exist within, and how that historical moment’s material conditions and social structures push, propel, encourage, and discourage particular ideas and activities. I see Third Wave spiritual warfare as one social formation that registers some of the most prescient themes and social/historical forces in contemporary American religion.

PLS: Can you discuss the documentary basis of American Possessions—the spiritual warfare guides and handbooks? I’m interested to hear more about the discourse these manuals present on deliverance, rituals of “spiritual housekeeping,” and “spiritual mapping,” along with the assumed presence of “demons” that ties these Third Wave concepts together.
SM: There are hundreds of spiritual warfare books out there and the meanings of that term can vary between different groups of evangelicals. My specific focus is on Third Wave spiritual warfare.“Third Wave” is a term coined by former Fuller Theological Seminary Professor C. Peter Wagner in several articles and books he wrote in the 1980s. The name described what he and some of his colleagues viewed as a new evangelical movement of the Holy Spirit—the latest in an historical succession with two previous “waves,” the birth of Pentecostalism at the turn of the twentieth century and the charismatic movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Demons are real for this group. They aren’t metaphors or symbols for something else. As I write in the book, without the demonic there would be no Third Wave spiritual warfare. First, demons provide a material and spatially-located form of theodicy, explaining why certain places, objects, and people have been witness to tragedy and sin. Events and phenomena as variant as plane disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, the 2010 Haitian Earthquake, haunted houses, generational alcoholism in families, and national financial crises are all explained via some combination of human sins and demonic activities. Second, demons are the focal point of attention and attack in spiritual warfare. Because Satan and his evil spirits stand between the individual and her salvation through Jesus Christ, expelling demons from people, objects, and places is the goal of spiritual warfare practices. Third, and most broadly, in asserting the reality and even physical presence of demons, one simultaneously asserts the reality of the entire Third Wave theology of God, Satan, and the spiritual world.

What Came First?: Postwar Evangelicalism or the Religious Right?

Janine Giordano Drake

I have been thinking about a fun paper assignment for an undergraduate course: What came first--postwar Southern evangelicalism or the Religious Right? If we can trace causality, which one was the parent of the other movement?

A number of recent books (which I begin to list below) speak to this question. If we look at them carefully, we find that they arrive at a number of different definitions of "postwar Southern evangelicalism." Scholars assess differently the degree to which this religious movement was inherently dispensationalist and fundamentalist in origin (theologically driven), and to what extent it was culturally and politically driven---inherently pro-business, inherently Southern, and based in a kind of traditionalist paternalism. At the heart of this great debate in the scholarship right now are several related questions. I will list a few below, not only for keeping track of the scholarly debate, but also for further prompting in this suggested undergraduate assignment.

Defining and Historicizing Southern Evangelicalism:
1) To what extent do dispensationalist/ apocalyptic ideas about the end times (including the figure of FDR and the international problem of fascism) define Southern evangelicalism?

2) To what extent should we identify Southern Protestants outside of National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)- related churches as Southern evangelicals? For example, are folks from the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union, or Highlander Folk School, Southern evangelicals? Are African Americans outside of mainline denominations Southern evangelicals? Do those labor/religious leaders who attended Union Theological Seminary in the liberal 1930s, who later returned to small churches in the South, count as Southern evangelicals? Can we find Southern evangelicals in mainline Protestant churches?

3) How directly did Southern businessmen's funding of institutes for "Christian free enterprise" influence the creation of Southern evangelicalism? To what extent was Southern evangelicalism already established before these institutes took hold?

4) **To what extent were Southern evangelicals repelled from the Federal Council of Churches' mainline churches and their programs for theological reasons, and to what extent were Southern evangelicals opposed to the Federal Council for social and political reasons?

CFP: U.S. Catholic Historian Issue on Politics in the Twentieth Century

We are happy to share the  following Call for Papers from the U.S. Catholic Historian. Questions or submissions may be sent to Fr. David Endres at the email address below. If readers have CFPs or other announcements they would like to have posted on the blog, please send submissions to Cara.

Politics in the Twentieth Century

For more than thirty years the U.S. Catholic Historian has published theme-based issues relevant to the history of American Catholicism.  An upcoming issue will address the theme of “Politics in the Twentieth Century.” Contributions could include, but are not limited to, studies of the following:
  • Catholic political allegiances and “issues” that impact voting
  • Role of Catholics in public policy debates
  • Biographical studies of Catholic elected officials and candidates
  • Catholic participation in U.S. political parties
  • Comparative studies of the Catholic vote across regions, time, etc.
  • Role of bishops/Bishops’ Conference in politics
Scholars considering a submission are asked to contact the editor, Fr. David Endres at DEndres@Athenaeum.edu before preparing a contribution. Approximate length is 7,000-10,000 words. We ask for submissions by May 1, 2016 and look forward to hearing from potential contributors.

Fr. David Endres
Editor, U.S. Catholic Historian

After the Wrath of God: An Interview with Anthony M. Petro

Samira K. Mehta

Anthony M. Petro. After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion. (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2015)

On July 1, Oxford University Press will release Anthony Petro's After the Wrath of God. Having read many drafts of this project over the years, I am particularly excited to interview him here on the blog.

SKM: After the Wrath of God deals with very recent history. Can you talk a bit about how you approached this topic?

AMP: The book looks at the history of Christian responses to the AIDS crisis in the United States. The CDC first reported cases of what would eventually be called AIDS in 1981. In 1996, the “AIDS cocktail” became available, rendering HIV a manageable disease for most people with access to health care. I focus on this decade and half, calling it (a bit playfully) the “long 1980s.” We could come up with other ways to periodize the Eighties or the initial years of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., but this span worked well for my research.

I consider this history pretty recent, but when you think about it, it was already a generation ago! Let me put it this way: most of our first and second year undergrads today were born after 1996 -- years after Ryan White died and after Magic Johnson revealed his HIV diagnosis. For most of our students, this is just plain history.

SKM: Yet the Eighties still feel close to us.

AMP: Maybe this is because we can’t quite let that decade go, but I don’t think it’s simply because so many of us lived through it. We are, in many ways, still living with the major political, economic, and cultural changes that erupted then--the culture wars, the decline of the welfare state, and the way that we increasingly think about every aspect of our lives in terms of economization (just look at debates in higher education today).

This was also the decade that introduced most Americans to the intimate lives of gays and lesbians -- and this was done very much through news coverage of the AIDS crisis. Of course, genealogies of the culture wars and of neoliberalism go much further back than the Eighties. Likewise with the way many Americans thought about gay sexuality and AIDS. Following Mark Jordan’s lead, I trace the languages that many Christians have used to describe AIDS as a sexual epidemic to much earlier theological rhetoric about sodomy.

I’m glad to see that historians and religious studies scholars have become more attentive to this period, though -- a number of amazing books now abound on the history of religion and politics in the 1970s and 1980s.

Religion and Rosie the Riveter

Adina Johnson

I always feel that it’s worth noting that my June entries fall on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day. I take that as justification to reflect on religion in the era of World War II. Last year, Sean Brennan wrote about the Roman Catholic chaplain, Fr. Fabian Flynn. This year, we have another guest poster. Adina Johnson is a Ph.D. student in U.S. History at Baylor University. Her research is on women and religion during World War II. I’m delighted that she was willing to share a few thoughts with the RiAH blog. ~Jonathan Den Hartog

In the midst of World War II, the Seattle Times expressed the distinctiveness and value of a woman’s contribution to the war effort:  "Men fight the war with bayonets, long hours at defense jobs, 'leisure' hours at air-raid drills.  Women fight the war with stewpans, knitting needles, alarm clocks that go off at 4 o'clock in the morning, rudely awakened babies, unelastic budgets, fast-rising prices."  The advertisement suggested a man might receive more glory for his efforts, but “women’s work” was just as important to America’s effort to win the war.  For the Times, a woman’s service in the private sphere was as essential, and as patriotic, as a man’s sacrifice in the public sphere.

Iconic images from the American war effort such as Rosie the Riveter, Red Cross nurses, victory gardens, gold stars hanging in windows, and female WASP pilots all convey the importance of a woman’s contribution to the Allied cause, and the righteousness of her doing so no matter the cost.  For conservative Protestants, however, the story was more complicated because of deep-seated ideals regarding the value of a woman’s presence within a Christian home.  Conservative Protestant periodicals from the war years show that a woman who chose to become a soldier or war-worker held a precarious position within the Christian community.  The press attempted to alleviate some of this unease by describing her public roles using the language of domesticity and spirituality, even as her work took her far outside the bounds of traditional Victorian womanhood.

No image would come to symbolize the role of American women during World War II more indelibly than “Rosie the Riveter”.  The quintessential “Rosie” was a woman who exemplified patriotic femininity while working in a wartime factory wearing overalls and a bandanna.  Indeed, many women entered the work force for the first time during the war, in traditionally masculine jobs.  However, both mainstream Americans and conservative Protestants wrestled with the impact of this change.  Both voiced concerns for the health of the family, and emphasized the necessity of other wartime roles for women, but the conservative Protestant press could never quite bring itself to fully affirm the idea of a mother or wife working outside the home.

The experiences of conservative Protestant women in relation to war work reflect the experiences of American women as a whole.  Some entered the work force while others stayed home with their families.  Pat Williams, a Southern Baptist woman from West Texas, observed that many women in her church worked at a munitions plant about thirteen miles away, especially those women whose husbands were in the service.  She recognized that this was a new phenomenon, “Before then women basically didn’t many of them work outside the home, nurses probably, school teachers, and a few secretaries . . . But most women just stayed home.”  Donna M. Panknin Denton, from Waco, Texas, worked two jobs during the war.  Her first job was playing the organ or piano for local funerals.  Her primary job, though, was working at a war plant that manufactured ammonia and nitric acid.  She noted, “Of course, I was in the administrative building,” a comment that revealed her assumption that women wouldn’t work in the factory itself.  Most conservative Protestant women were able to navigate the potential conflict between war work and their responsibility as Christian wives and mothers without much trouble.

Call for Participants: NAASR Job Workshop (AAR/SBL Atlanta, 2015)


If you're an early career scholar and planning to apply for jobs in Religious Studies, this one's for you: NAASR will be hosting a job market workshop alongside the 2015 AAR/SBL Meeting in Atlanta.

Participants will have the opportunity to work with current and former chairs of Religious Studies departments from a variety of institutions. Through several activities (which you can read more about here), participants will workshop practical and strategic job market advice with veterans of the hiring process. Not a member of NAASR? No problem. This workshop is open to all, though preference will be given to scholars at the “ABD” stage and currently on the market. If you haven’t been to a NAASR panel before, fear not: we’d be happy to have you, too.

To register for this no-cost workshop, or to learn more about it, please click here. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me (mgraziano [at] fsu [dot] edu).

We hope you’ll join us in Atlanta!

Image Credit: Arashboz on Wikimedia.

Listen up! Salvage Preservation and Recording Religion

As everyone on this blog can probably agree and attest to, historians are a trendy bunch. So it is probably of little surprise that in the past year or so there has been great work done on sound, music, religion, and of course, vinyl. A quick survey of my favorites includes Isaac Weiner's Religion Out Loud (See also: herehere, and here), Lerone Martin's excellent Preaching on Wax (here too), John Modern's Prayer Project, and most recently Jason Bivin's Spirits Rejoice! (For those too lazy busy to click back a page: here and here, listening guide, with more here and here). Adding to this conversation of recording, is Brian Hochman's excellent Savage Preservation, a valuable read on how media was debated and used in nineteenth and early twentieth century research involving American Indian communities.

Someone Should Write a Book About Vacation Bible School


Michael J. Altman

As I drive around Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I can't help but notice that every church has a banner out advertising Vacation Bible School. It's that time of year, I guess. For those who don't know about VBS, it is a week long event at many churches during the summer. Kids are dropped off for about half the day and engage in all sorts of games, songs, and teaching.

I sent this tweet on Friday because my wife asked me, "When did churches start doing Vacation Bible Schools?" I thought for a second. Then I realized I really didn't know. I mumbled something about the late nineteenth century and then walked away frustrated that I didn't know more. So I sent that tweet. And no one responded with any answers. So, over the weekend I started googling around and doing some very preliminary digging. Here's what I found.

Know Your Archives: American Friends Service Committee Or Friends in Low Places

Today's post is a continuation of our "Know Your Archives" Series. Previous posts include information about the National Archives at College Park, American Antiquarian Society, LDS Church History Archives (and others related to the next generation of Mormon Studies), and the Archdiocese of New York, to name only a few. Readers embarking on their own research trips are invited to submit "Know Your Archives" pieces to Cara.

Our guest contributor is Guy Aiken, a PhD Candidate in American Religions at the University of Virginia. Guy's dissertation, "Quaker Relief and the Politics of Neutrality, 1919-1941: Triumph and Tragedy," will be about the American Friends Service Committee's massive child feeding programs in Germany after the Great War and in southern Appalachia during the Great Depression. In this post, Guy recalls his first introduction to the archivists of the American Friends Service Committee.

Guy Aiken

Deep in the bowels of the earth, a man sits alone at his desk. He is an archivist—no, more than that: he is a finding aid. Linear feet collapse comfortably in his brain. He mentally bestrides mountains of material like a colossus. He is Don Davis, archivist and finding aid for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Philadelphia.

According to Don, “The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Quaker based organization. Founded in the tumult of World War I, the AFSC provided relief to the civilian casualties of World War I and provided conscientious objectors a means by which they could contribute without being placed in a position to do harm to another human being. The AFSC operated relief missions throughout the world during and after both World Wars and afterwards worked in support of peace issues throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, Middle East, Latin America and Caribbean.  Currently the organization works on programs that promote lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action.” The AFSC has thorough archival records of all of this work.

Well, ok, so maybe the archive isn't actually deep in the bowels of the earth, but only a few feet under ground. And maybe Don Davis doesn't have millions of documents filed individually in his brain like some extorting genius in Sherlock Holmes, but only the box or range of boxes where you're likely to find what you're looking for. Still, he is a friend (among Friends) in low places who, when asked where the finding aid is, points at his head. Where can I find documents about the AFSC being responsible for the initial publication of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"? Just ask Don. What about the AFSC's Rights of Conscience Fund for legal defense in civil liberties cases? Don knows. The AFSC's share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947? The child feeding on both sides of the Spanish Civil War? The Quaker-Gestapo summit after Kristallnacht in December 1938? Yup, you guessed it.

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