In the Beginning There Were No Indians, Africans, or Europeans...

Or, What African American Studies Teaches Me About Religion in America

Matthew J. Cressler

Where to begin, where to begin... This semester I am teaching Religion in America (RELS 250 here at CofC) for the first time, if you can believe it. Up to this point it was the class I'd thought most about how to teach but had never actually taught. No longer! Now I'm wrestling in realtime with the dilemmas many of us share on the daily. What must I include? What can I cut? Where (oh, where!) do I begin?

Unsurprising to most (who read this blog), I began with requisite hand-wringing. What is the "religion" in American religion? What, where, and who is the "America" in religion in America? These questions are crucial for me. In a sense, these questions are what my course is about. I like opening all my classes on this meta-level, challenging students to challenge themselves (and the world around them) about what they assume they already know. Whether its a 101 intro or a 200-level African American religions survey, one of my universal objectives is for us to wrestle with the fraught history of words that might appear, at first glance, to be neutral, even innocuous: "religion," "nation," "race," "America."

The trick is how to get this to stick.

5 Questions for Philip Sinitiere on his new book "Salvation With a Smile"

There are some people in the business with whom you can spend hours talking to about a myriad of things that religion geeks talk about. I've known Phil for years, benefited greatly from his scholarship, his dry Texas humor, and his generosity as a person. His new book, required reading for anyone who wants to understand the phenomenon that is Joel Osteen is out now. It should be on reading lists. Salvation with a Smile  continues Phil's engaging work coming to terms with what in means to be a Texan and write about Texas religion...and there is a little tidbit in there at the end about the eternal Texas BBQ debate...enjoy!

Q1. This is the first academic treatment of Joel Osteen, my first question I guess, is have you had any feedback from the Osteen camp, or do you expect to?

A1. First, Arlene, let me say thanks for the interview and the probing questions. I’m grateful to you and RiAH readers for engaging the book. I’ve heard nothing from the Osteen folks about the book. During the course of the project, and even dating back to the research for Holy Mavericks, I tried to interview key leaders of the congregation, but to no avail. Access to celebrity ministers is an interesting research problem for scholars that I know is not unique to my project. At the end of the day, I did not need access to the smiling preacher to complete the project given his numerous books and interviews, although Osteen perhaps could have answered some questions I had about his father John Osteen’s career. In the book, I navigate the difficulty of access by using qualitative evidence such as audio and video files of sermons, television broadcasts, and sustained participant observation, along with archival materials and published books and sources by Joel and other Lakewood leaders.

Q2. Predictability is a concept I don’t think academics pay much attention to, but you promote the idea that one of the reasons for Osteen’s tremendous following and success is that he has whittled the evangelical message down to a nearly perfect predictable message, can you go into more detail about the idea of predictability?

I’m not sure I theorized the idea of predictability in any sort of analytical fashion as much as I observed and identified it in the twentieth- and twenty-first century annals of American religious history by connecting it to Osteen’s story. One of Osteen’s historical antecedents is Norman Vincent Peale, the popular Cold War-era New York-based minister who published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. While Peale had a history that extended beyond the mid-twentieth century, as Carol V. R. George’s still important book God’s Salesman shows, it occurred to me that Peale’s predictable message of positivity in the unstable years of the early Cold War registered as one of the reasons for his notoriety. In an interesting historical parallel, Osteen became a popular figure in the early twenty-first century starting around 2004 in an age of increasing economic inequality, global terrorism, and sustained political conflict. As I lay out in greater detail in the book, both ministers found a popular, predictable, redundant message of positive thinking that resonated across the American cultural landscape in moments of tremendous political, social, cultural, and economic change. The notion of predictability is not the only historical explanation for understanding Osteen; however, for those interested in probing the smiling preacher’s importance beyond intramural theological debates between evangelicals (as vital as it is to historicize these kinds of battles), I do think it helps us move from merely describing Osteen’s popularity into analyzing the historical and cultural reasons for his significance.

Call for Artists: Bodies of Christ: Visualizing Jesus Then and Now

Edward Blum 

From June 12-24, 2016, historians, religious studies scholars, artists, theologians, and pastors will meet in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at Calvin College to discuss “Bodies of Christ: Visualizing Jesus Then and Now.” (applications for the seminar are due by February 15).

As part of the seminar, special guests will join the group to discuss their work, insights, ideas, and artwork. When I participated in a Calvin seminar on Religion and War, for instance, Jonathan H. Ebel (author of Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War and G.I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion) shared some of his research and was a highlight of our time. We are looking for individuals in the visual arts who would consider spending one or two days to share their paintings or sculptures or websites or anything else. Travel expenses, housing, and an honorarium will be provided.

Please send inquiries or a bio to

CFP Round-up: Upcoming Deadlines for Conference Proposals

Lauren Turek

There are a several upcoming national, international, and graduate student conferences for which readers/scholars of religion in American history might like to submit proposals. The two international conferences offer an opportunity for scholars of American Jewish history in particular, while the other three provide opportunities for presenting research on a range of American faith traditions or American religion more broadly. All of the following have deadlines within the next month or two:

Re-Framing American Jewish History and Thought: New Transnational Perspectives 
Call for Proposals deadline: February 15, 2016
Conference Date: July 20-22, 2016
School of Jewish Theology,  University of Potsdam

American Jewry, despite its size, cultural productivity, and influence on many levels, has hardly begun to develop as a field of scholarship outside the U.S. itself. Recently, however, the growing recognition of the interaction between American and other Jewries over time and into the present has sparked a novel wave of interest. European, Latin American, and Israeli-based scholars are beginning to add their voices to the scholarly discourse, complementing the dominant American perspective. This may presage a fruitful dialogue between American specialists and others. This conference aims to further encourage this development by bringing together younger and senior scholars involved in such research. We endorse an interdisciplinary approach that is open to historians, migration researchers, scholars of religion, theology, Jewish thought, and cultural and literary studies among other fields of knowledge.

We welcome papers on a broad range of subjects under the umbrella of the transnational approach. Those could include:
  • The migration of people and institutions between various countries and North America, with an emphasis on Jewish communities and how they mutually affected each other
  • The impact of the American or European backgrounds of individuals and groups on their Jewish activities in other communities
  • The transfer, translation, and adaptation of texts, ideas, and practices, particularly in the context of the sociology of religion, cultural modernization, and Jewish global awareness
  • Developments in Jewish theology within the American historical context and their relations to European models of religious thought
  • The Holocaust and American Jewry, and the interrelations between American and other Jewries in its aftermath
  • Comparative perspectives that place American Jewry in the context of the experiences of other modern Jewish communities
  • Representations and ideas of “America” and other venues of Jewish life and their location within Jewish history as well as in the present and future
  • Linguistic and cultural translations between languages and cultures as expressions of transformations through the encounter of American and other Jewries

Teaching: Assigning Unessays

Emily Suzanne Clark

I offered the option of an unessay to my students last semester for their final papers. I did not invent the unessay. It's important first to give credit where credit is due. The idea comes from some of our wonderful colleagues in English and Digital Humanities. I was introduced to the idea of the unessay by Ryan Cordell, an English professor at Northeastern University. In his awesome post "How Not to Teach Digital Humanities," he references this assignment. He expands on the idea for a class of his here. He also pulled the idea from a couple of others, namely Michael Ullyot and Daniel Paul O'Donnell. They center the unessay on a few characteristics: students choose their own topics, they present it in any way they choose, and we evaluate based on how compelling it is. The idea is to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity. (Cordell has posted some of his students' previous unessays here).

This kind of assignment intrigued me. Readers of the blog might remember that I assign faux primary sources in a couple of my courses. Last spring a Theatre major wrote and then recorded an mp3 of a Salvation Army hymn. The relative success of this assignment got me thinking: how else can I offer avenues of creativity for student assignments? This is where the unessay comes in. But it brings its own concerns: What about students who feel overwhelmed or intimidated by such an assignment? And how to heck do you assess such an assignment?

To respond to the first question, I offered the unessay this past fall as an option. Students could respond to the final paper prompt with either an essay or an unessay. So like many of us, I adapted another teacher's original creative assignment (Thanks English/DH scholars!) to suit my own needs. The final paper prompt this past fall for both my American Christianities students and my African American Religions students was the same: Pick the three most significant figures/events/communities that we covered this semester and construct an argument about their significance that makes a central claim about the story of Christianity in America or African American religions. There were two main parts of the assignment: make a case for the three choices as being the most significant and then argue a central claim or thesis. My assessment of their assignment was focused on those two parts, whether students chose to do an essay or an unessay. I warned those students who wanted to take the unessay route that they could turn in the most creative thing but they would lose points if it didn't fully answer the prompt. I figured assessing an unessay would be most difficult so I focused in on the prompt: explain your three choices and make an argument.

The Alliance of Baptists: An Interview with Andrew Gardner

Charles McCrary

Small denominations and institutions always have been a part of American religious life. However, many of these organizations fall through historiographical cracks. Denominational history is less common in our field than it once was, but there is much to be gained by focusing on institutions large and small. These histories contain fine-grain details and compelling stories that not only serve as valuable sources for other scholars but can point to larger trends, movements, and issues. Reimagining Zion: A History of the Alliance of Baptists (Nurturing Faith, 2015) is one such book. Today we have an interview with author, my friend and colleague Andrew Gardner, a PhD student at Florida State.

Thanks for doing this interview and telling people about this book. First of all, who are the Alliance of Baptists?

The Alliance of Baptists is a small Baptist organization founded as the Southern Baptist Alliance in 1987 in response to conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This denominational group of fewer than 200 congregations was the first to break away from the SBC. Over the course of its history, the Alliance of Baptists has developed an identity that continues to seek to shed its former denominational affiliation while at the same time re-interpret that Baptist tradition. Adherents have reinterpreted ideas of evangelism and missiology in terms of justice and partnership as can be seen through the group’s long-standing partnerships with La Fraternidad de Iglesia Bautista de Cuba (The Fraternity of Baptists in Cuba) and other ministry organizations globally and nationally. The Alliance has also been a longtime advocate of female ministers and the rights of individuals identifying as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender. These characteristics among others help define the Alliance of Baptist as a liberal protestant tradition with a Baptist tinge.

What does the Alliance of Baptists tell us about the history of Baptists, evangelicals, and American religions more broadly?

For God and Globe: An Interview with Michael Thompson

Mark Edwards

Michael Thompson is a Research Associate and Adjunct Lecturer at the United States Studies Centre
at the University of Sydney.  He’s also the author of the best single essay I’ve ever read on Reinhold Niebuhr.  The following is a recent conversation we had about his important new book on ecumenical Protestants and foreign relations, For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War (Cornell).  Michael also shares some thoughts on post-World War II evangelical internationalism.

How did you become interested in the topic of ecumenism and Christian Internationalism?

Actually, it all began with that essay you mentioned in your intro—on Reinhold Niebuhr. In that project I was interested in Niebuhr’s theology as it interacted with the changing shape of global politics on the one hand and with the ideologies of American exceptionalism and nationalism on the other. I encountered Niebuhr while taking an excellent Grad seminar on the American National Myth with Neville Meaney, a one-of-a-kind diplomatic historian at  Sydney University. As part of that seminar, naturally we looked at religion’s role in nourishing and sustaining national mythology. We were reading a lot of old school scholarship—Tuveson, Bercovitch, and some newer stuff too (although this was before the religious turn…well before Jon Butler’s famous Jack-in-the-Box call). Niebuhr’s Irony of American History was on the reading list — not the Obama-endorsed 2008 reissue, but the dusty old 1950s edition. This was 2003. Niebuhr first of all didn’t seem to fit into the model of Protestantism-bequeathing-nationalism that  scholarship seemed almost uniformly to convey. In fact, he seemed to be an  insightful critic of that very dynamic—especially when reading in 2003-4 against the backdrop of unfolding operations in Iraq.

But I always had a sense—as I think you did in conceiving of your book—that there was more to Niebuhr’s world than just Niebuhr.  So the present project actually began with a pretty simple desire to follow Niebuhr’s footsteps into the murky world of interwar Protestantism. I suppose at the outset I wanted o use Niebuhr to get beyond Niebuhr. I thought surely this  theologian becoming a public intellectual on matters of foreign policy had to have some context behind him. He can’t have been just some random outlier. And of course, the biographies like Fox's gave hints of that. 

My two-fold question then became i) what kinds of Protestant enterprises devoted themselves to reflecting on US foreign relations, and ii) what distinctive ideas did each such enterprise give rise to over time? As you know, and as other scholarship on internationalism had touched upon (all the more so recently), the sheer proliferation of knowledge production enterprises focused on international relations was a phenomenon in itself in the 1910s-30s. You had the big guns, Chatham House in the UK and the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, but you also had scores of smaller, sometimes more ephemeral ventures that also mattered in their time. International Relations seminars, forums, retreats, institutes, newsletters and much, much more. I became fascinated by this world, especially the Protestant parts (which were usually marginal or absent in existing works on internationalism).

An Interview with American Catholic Historical Association President Liam Brockey

[This month, the Cushwa Center welcomes an interview with Liam Brockey, Professor of early modern European history at Michigan State University as well as the incoming president of the American Catholic Historical Association. (He served as vice-president during 2015.) Since this blog has seen lively discussion recently on several posts by Elesha Coffman regarding the purpose and future of the American Society for Church History (see here, here, and here) we felt readership would be interested in Liam's thoughts on some of the issues raised in those previous posts. 

As always, please have a look at our upcoming events to see what's happening in South Bend. And if you haven't already, consider applying for a new grant opportunity: Theodore M. Hesburgh Research Travel Grants. These grants are available for travel to work in Hesburgh's archives, which cover many subjects of interest to 20th-century U.S. historians.]

CFP: ASCH Spring Meeting, April 7-10

Elesha Coffman

Calling all Canadians, or anyone else who would like to visit our neighbor to the north! The ASCH Spring Meeting will be held April 7-10 in Edmonton, Alberta. The program committee (of which I am a member) is interested in paper or session proposals on any topic related to the interaction of Christianity and culture. More specifically, as per the CFP posted at the ASCH website, we would love to see proposals on:

- The Christian experience in Canada, in keeping with the meeting's location in Edmonton
- The history of Christianity in two or more countries (one of which may or may not be Canada)
- Interfaith relations and dialogue (e.g., Christianity's intersections with Judaism and/or Islam)
- Early, Medieval, and Early Modern history--time periods which are sometimes underrepresented at the Spring meeting
- Current issues in technology (teaching history online, digital humanities for historians, etc.)

The deadline for proposals is February 19, and you must be a current, dues-paying ASCH member to get on the program. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

New Books in American Religious History: 2016 Year in Preview, Part One (January-April)

Paul Putz

We're back for another year of book preview lists! Like last year, I plan on posting three of these. This first one will cover books set to be published in January-April. Part two (posted in late April) will cover books published in May-August, and the last (posted in late August) will include those published in September-December.

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

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

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

Did Premillennialism Drive Political Conservatism? Why it matters.

Janine Giordano Drake

Some of us are currently engaged in a fascinating and important debate about whether the apocalyptic theologies of premillenialism drove evangelicals into alliance with political conservatives. More particularly, did premillenialism drive evangelicals away from pro-labor politics? We have a number of heavy contenders in this debate (especially Jarod Roll and Kevin Kruse) whose work is not featured in this post, but hopefully will be in future posts. For now, let's think about this with some new books by Matthew Avery Sutton, Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, and Tim Gloege. I lay out each of their approaches to this question and then comment on why this debate is so very important.

#DigitalReligion News

By Chris Cantwell

Interest in the study of what many call "digital religion"--or, more creatively, #DigitalReligion--has grown substantially over the last few years. Scholars, journalists, and even religious leaders are increasingly asking how digital technology is not only shaping the study of religion past and present, but also the very production of religion in a digital age. The last month has seen a number of new developments related to this emerging trend.

First, ITHAKA S+R, the research arm of the non-profit that brought you JSTOR, has begun convening a number of meetings related to the writing of a major report documenting the changing research practices of religious studies scholars. The principle investigators have an admirably capacious definition of the field, which should benefit the scope of the report's findings. Late last month they announced an impressive list of participating institutions. Keep an eye out for the final product on S+R's blog.

And in another recent announcement, New York University's Center for Religion and Media  just posted that they received a second round of funding from the Henry R. Luce Foundation to continue developing a series of interdisciplinary conversations on the study of religion in a digital age. The funding supports a number of one-year postdocs for scholars interested in writing about religion for a wider audience by contributing to the publication of the Center's longstanding web magazine The Revealer. Interested applicants can find information on the postdocs here.

Finally, I'm excited to share that a report Hussein Rashid and I authored for the Social Science Research Council on the study of religion's digital futures titled Religion, Media, and the Digital Turn, was also published last month. Of course, this partially a shameless piece of self promotion. But I wanted to announce the report's release because in many ways it was a collaborative endeavor. Hussein and I surveyed over a hundred and fifty digital projects in the study of religion and talked to nearly two dozen project directors--many of them friends of the blog--in researching the piece. So while Hussein and I may have authored the report, it is really more of a narrative map of so much of the exciting work going on in the field today.

And from these other announcements, it sounds like there will be lots of exciting work to come as well!

Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right. An interview with Seth Dowland.

Samira K. Mehta

Seth Dowland. Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015)

SKM: Seth, first of all, as someone who also works on religion and the American family, I am so excited to have your book in my hands. I have been teaching your article of a similar name (published in Church History in 2009) for years and expect to make similar use of the book.

SD: Thanks, Samira -- both for your excitement about the book and for doing this interview.

SKM: I was really struck by an argument that you make in chapter 2, “Textbook Politics,” that at issue for Christian schools was not only the content of the education, but also the manner of inquiry, essentially an educational system that prioritized top down instruction versus exploration of concepts. Until you said that, I would have pointed to content based differences such as: Were the Founding Fathers Christian or not? Do we include histories of women or not? Do we teach evolution, creationism, or both?, but you make it clear that there are very distinct pedagogical approaches. Would you say more about that difference?

Image courtesy of Liberty Christian Academy
SD: As I dug into the sources surrounding textbook controversies, I was surprised by the emphasis conservative evangelicals placed on pedagogical methods. They did protest some of the content in textbooks, as you would expect, but they also protested educators’ emphasis on inductive reasoning. In the words of conservative textbook protester Norma Gabler, “too many textbooks leave students to make up their own minds about things.” For conservative evangelicals, historical facts were indisputable. Recent innovations like social history and “new math” invited students to come up with their own truths. Given evangelical belief in human sinfulness, such an invitation was a recipe for disaster. They insisted that teachers and textbooks should offer an authoritative account of history, science, and math.

In the book I argue that such an approach to education emerged from a couple evangelical beliefs. First, evangelicals believed God had set up authority structures to govern society. Undermining authority went against God’s plan. Second, American evangelicals’ approach to scripture encouraged a robust faith in the determinative power of written texts. As Norma Gabler put it, “textbooks mold nations because they largely determine how a nation votes, what it becomes, and where it goes.” They worried that the pedagogical innovations offered by new textbooks went hand in hand with cultural relativism, and they determined to put the nation back on track by returning to old, didactic methods of instruction.

6 Questions with John David Wilsey

Jonathan Den Hartog

It's been my great pleasure to get to know John David Wilsey. John is an assistant professor of History and Christian Apologetics at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Havard School. He is also the associate Director for Southwestern's Land Center for Cultural Engagement, and he blogs at "To Breathe Your Free Air." He has been working on a project about "American Exceptionalism," and the resulting book--American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea--was just released late in 2015 by IVP Academic. I was glad to see that Mark Edwards has already given his recommendation of the book. Today we get to pepper John with 6 questions.

1. Exceptionalism is often treated as a dirty word among historians. What made you want to write a book about it?

Great point, and that is precisely one of the reasons I found the topic compelling. Exceptionalism is an ambiguous term that a lot of people use, but that can also have a lot of different meanings depending on context. And despite the fact that many historians and other academics do not find the term helpful, many of those same scholars continue to employ it.

I became interested in the intellectual history of exceptionalism while writing my dissertation on the Christian America thesis. In my study of Christian America since 1977, I found that American exceptionalism is entailed in the proposition that America was founded as a Christian nation. Despite wide disparity in how advocates of Christian America defined a “Christian nation,” those same advocates all agreed that America was normatively exceptional.
From whence came this need to assign theological significance to the American nation-state? What is the history of American exceptionalism as an idea? How has it developed in American history? What political, economic, social, and religious movements have shaped it over the years? What is the theology of American exceptionalism? Where do exceptionalism and Christianity conflict, and what are the ramifications? Can American exceptionalism be understood in non-theological terms? And is there any place for American exceptionalism in Christian civic engagement? These are some of the questions I brought to the project and am still interested in exploring.

Exceptionalism is, without a doubt, a dirty word among historians—and deservedly so, if we’re thinking of an exceptionalism that baptizes nationalism in Christian theology. But exceptionalism has a complicated history, and not every mention of exceptionalism means the same thing. It is an idea that is worthy of study, at least because it isn’t going away anytime soon.

ASCH Future Directions

Elesha Coffman

As many of you know, last year at the ASCH/AHA conference, it was suggested that the ASCH should stop meeting with the AHA, because of administrative changes imposed by the AHA. (I've written about this subject here, here, and here.) The discussion will continue at the Extraordinary Business Meeting scheduled for this Friday, January 8, at 7:30 p.m. in the Marriott International Ballroom 2. All ASCH members who wish to receive information and give feedback on the subject of future annual meetings are encouraged to attend. No binding decision will be made at this meeting, but the ASCH council (of which I am a member) covets your input.

Other ways to participate in this discussion include:

- Filling out the ASCH membership survey, which Keith Francis has mentioned in several e-mails. (This survey is only available to ASCH members.)

- Attending the regular ASCH business meeting on Saturday, January 9, at 4:45 p.m. in the Marriott International Ballroom 4.

- Contacting any member of the ASCH council or leadership. We are listed at the front of every issue of Church History.

Hope to see you in Atlanta!

Cultivating Private Gardens of Inward Spiritual Development: How the Wesleyan Methodists Became Fundamentalists

Randall Stephens

Wesleyan Church conference, ca. 1930s, Wesleyan Archives.
My father’s side of the family has had its share of preachers and pastors, missionaries and music ministers. My grandfather, Raymond (born in 1906), was a holiness minister and evangelist in the Wesleyan Methodist Church.  He supplemented his meager income with pig farming, near Scott City, Missouri.  (I wasn't ever up to the challenge of riding on one of the hogs, affectionately named Oscar, but my cousin did it, to my great surprise and delight.)  My grandpa had a booming voice that modulated volume when he sang "Holiness unto the Lord" and crackled like a hickory log in a fire when he preached.  Raymond’s mother and father where evangelists, too.  In the early 20th century, Alfred, my great grandfather, would barge into pool halls in Iowa and implore, “Boys, put down the pool sticks, I need to tell you about life everlasting.” So goes the family legend.

Many on this side of the family were in the Wesleyan Church.  They lived all over the country, but had mostly put down roots in places where the Wesleyans were active.  Great uncles, aunts, and an army of cousins attended Wesleyan churches and colleges from Indiana to California.  The church followed the westward, Yankee pattern of settlement.  Quite a few of my kin went to Miltonvale Wesleyan College, a holiness outpost in the north central part of Kansas. The tiny hamlet was far removed from the dens of iniquity in Topeka or the saloons and brothels in Kansas City.  The school closed in 1972 and merged with Bartlesville Wesleyan College.  I wrote my masters thesis on MWC back in the stone age/dial-up modem era.  My Jurassic word processing software had a bright blue screen with a chunky, jagged white font.
Miltonvale Wesleyan College. From Ira Ford McLeister
and Roy S Nicholson, Conscience and Commitment (1976).

One of the questions that sparked my interests had to do with how and why the Wesleyan Methodists had made a kind of religious and cultural pilgrimage from abolitionism, women’s rights crusading, and pacifism to conservative, quasi-fundamentalism.  Like many historians working on evangelicalism I’ve been inspired by the work of Donald Dayton, Timothy Smith, Peggy Bendroth, Nancy Hardesty, and others who thought through related questions. 

In the last couple of years I’ve been re-exploring this question of the so-called “great reversal,” meaning the change in evangelicalism that first began in the years after the Civil War.  Sociologist David Moberg used the term as a title for a book on the topic.  In the years after the Civil War, writes Mark Noll, “Protestants who had once guided national life retreated from efforts at shaping society in order to cultivate private gardens of inward spiritual development; and when potentially innovative religious convictions (Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish) were only inching toward broad public commentary on economic issues.”[1]  The nature of this conservative, inward turn was particularly interesting to scholars of evangelicalism in the 1970s, like Moberg and Smith, who looked back on their tradition's roots for some guidance on social justice.  Steven Miller recently remarked that they were asking themselves, “What had happened to the abolitionist legacy of Charles Finney, the Tappan brothers, and the early administrators of Oberlin and Wheaton Colleges?”[2] 

Where the Problem with Historical Data about U.S. Religion Really Lies


by Lincoln Mullen

One of my side projects (eventually to turn into a main project) is figuring out what can be done with historical data about religious groups in the United States. This ground is in some ways well trodden. The field has a very fine atlas in the form of Gaustad, Barlow, and Dishno’s New Historical Atlas of Religion in America, as well as an experimental Digital Atlas of American Religion for the twentieth century. Then too, the field has more or less decided that this ground is not worth treading anyway. There are a number of sophisticated critiques of the whole enterprise of dealing with religious statistics and mapping. If I can sum these up in a broad statement, the point is that numbers don’t tell us anything that the field actually wants to know. As Laurie Maffly-Kipp puts it in a well-argued review essay, “our dazzling new technologies and spatial theories” might only have “brought us back to much more circumscribed definitions of religious experience.”1 I recognize the weight of these arguments, and a full justification for dealing with religious statistics will eventually have to take them into account.

But not yet. I want to argue that historians of American religion have barely begun to take advantage of the quantitative data available to them. While we have to keep the theoretical arguments I alluded to in mind at all times, the pressing issue at the moment is one of basic research. Until we make a fuller attempt at using these quantitative records, we can’t really know whether we will find anything useful from them.

Here is the argument. Mapping and quantitative analysis of historical statistics about U.S. religion have been sorely limited by the kinds of data that have typically been used, namely county-level aggregates of Federal census data, and by the way that mapping has focused on general comparisons rather than the specifics of the data.

First, the kinds of data. Leafing through the New Historical Atlas it is apparent that, with the exception of a few colonial maps, most of the maps in that work follow the pattern of mapping the number of churches per county for three years (1850, 1890, 1950). If you look the data used in the encyclopedia, you’ll find that it all comes from federal censuses, which began asking a few questions about religion in 1850, and which took more detailed censuses of religious bodies in 1906, 1916, 1926, and 1936. The exact same data is used in the Digital Atlas for all years before WWII.2 Furthermore, both the New Historical Atlas and the Digital Atlas use county-level aggregates of the data. (By the way, the same county-level aggregates are available at the NHGIS. Once one has mastered the basics of making maps—it’s not hard—one could reproduce most of the maps in the Gaustad atlas.)

This data is extremely limited. The federal censuses that asked about religion occurred at most once a decade and didn’t start six or seven decades into U.S. history. Because of concerns about church and state, the questions about religion asked by the census were limited questions such as the number of churches, the value of church property and amount of seating, and in only a few years the number of adherents. Because the data is aggregated by county or (worse yet) the state, we are seeing data which has a very low geographic resolution. Furthermore, no real attempt has been made to get beyond the surface of the data to do diachronic calculations. For instance, neither atlas tries to connect individual counties to see how they changed over time. Nor has this data been connected to other kinds of data that are available. Knowing the number of churches per county just isn’t that interesting a fact, so it is unsurprising that the field remains unconvinced that this kind of work is useful.

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