The Esoteric Harmony between Religion and Science

John L. Crow

One of the general areas of interest I have is the intersection of religion and science. It is one of the reasons I have focused so much on the American religious traditions emerging in the mid-nineteenth century and leading in the early twentieth. During this time period, the boundaries were porous and claims fantastic. This is also one of the reasons why I study Theosophy, because from its beginning it has had an ambiguous relationship with both religion and science. Frequently members of the society would suggest that particular scientific discoveries would prove this or that esoteric claim made by members. Yet, should science not support their claims, they are quick to dismiss science as limited in its scope or abilities. For instance, in reading about Theosophical ideas about the human body, one author was quick to invoke scientific discoveries to validate part of his claims, but when science did not validate the other part, he is quick to add, “Nor does it much more concern us that the Scientists deny the existence of such an arrangement, because their instruments are inadequate to make their senses perceive it. We will simply reply—‘get better instruments and keener senses, and eventually you will.’”

It was with this interest in the rhetorical deployment of science that I recently began to read Paul Eli Ivey’s Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). The book is about The Temple of the People, a Theosophical schism group that began in Syracuse, NY, but eventually relocated to Halcyon, CA, to establish a Theosophical community. One of the core tenants is that religion and science are mutually supporting and ultimately prove each other. The Temple’s members were often educated scientists who frequently made new discoveries. Ivey writes that in part, “this book also tells an alternative story of scientific advancement that suggests that the context for discovery in science are not always based in the traditional rationalist and empiricist scientific method” (8). Temple members saw the emergence of X-rays and infrared and ultraviolet light as indications that science was beginning to access the occult aspects of nature, aspects that Theosophy had been advocating for decades.

Those familiar with this time frame will probably recognize that the same rhetoric was used in Spiritualism. Even from its beginning, Spiritualist mediums attempted to use the rhetoric of science to prove life after dead. Elaborate and controlled experiments were concocted to test Spiritualist claims. Usually they proved little. However, this rhetorical style was adopted by Theosophists and thus the Temple too. However, unlike Blavatsky or Olcott who spoke directly with master they claimed, the Temple’s link to the Masters, a woman who went by the name of Blue Star, spoke with the Master Hilarion through trance, similar to Spiritualism. According to Blue Star, he communicated with her through a kind of electrical connection, and thus invoked the metaphor of a telegraph, again something Spiritualists picked up early in the movement.

The Temple still exists today and is still in the little town of Halcyon. They still publish their periodical, the Temple Artisan, and they still speak of religion and science. So does the Theosophical Society. This is not surprising because still today, science and its pronouncements are the strongest legitimizer of claims. Scientific rhetoric aside, Ivey’s book is excellent. His writing style is quite readable and it is clear that he is familiar with the literature in American religious movements, new religious movements and western esotericism. It might also be a good choice for students because their form of syncretism is so American with its inclusion of Theosophy, Spiritualism, Liberal Christianity, and millennialism. Ivey really captures the expectation of the members that the times are changing and they are on the cusp of it. Definitely a book worth checking out.

Visiting the Archives: Or, Parker McKenzie Is the Ghost of My Next Book

I'm delighted to post this today from friend-of-the-blog Jennifer Graber, Professor of Religion at the University of Texas, previously interviewed on the blog here, and author (among other things) of a stunning article on religion, war, and violence, which I blogged about here. Jen was recently at the Oklahoma Historical Society, researching her next book, and sent this dispatch on researching Kiowa history.

by Jennifer Graber


Parker McKenzie's account of naming andfamily connections for Tonekeuh (Good Talk), a Kiowa prisoner-of-war atFort Marion in Saint Augustine, Florida in the 1870s

Parker McKenzie, a Kiowa linguist, lived to be 101 years old. After his death in 1999, McKenzie’s family donated his papers to the Oklahoma Historical Society. The 34 boxes contain notes from McKenzie’s work to create a Kiowa alphabet and his publications on Kiowa vocabulary.
His papers also contain notes on Kiowa history. McKenzie collected articles by professional historians, as well oral histories from his relatives that McKenzie transcribed and translated. The articles and the oral histories serve a corrective purpose. For instance, one folder in the collection includes an article on Kiowa drawing by a respected Smithsonian anthropologist. McKenzie scribbled corrections in the margins, offering alternative translations of Kiowa names and providing different dates for particular events. Another folder contains a 1949 interview with his mother, in which McKenzie recorded her perspective on an 1871 violent encounter that most historians call the Warren Wagon Train massacre. McKenzie’s account is titled “Qajai et Topai de Hejega,” translated literally as, “Chiefs they them imprisoned story.”

Mark Driscoll, Will You Marry Me? Or Looking for Mr. Right at Christian (W)Life College

by Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh
  In my many travels through the evangelical/Pentecostal subculture, one particular subset of that life has fascinated me more perhaps than any other. The curious dating dance that occurs at bible colleges and evangelically oriented universities, where as I have been told numerous times, women go to meet their future husbands.  This selective process is intended to weed out anyone who women and men would consider incompatible and unequally yoked. Since I know quite a few of these pairings, some more successful than others, I thought it would be a good history lesson to see how these pairings are actually orchestrated--yes, I am afraid that the marriage industry, as created by mid-20th century marketers of jewelry and other assorted wedding accouterments  is not the only thing manufactured, since, it is at these bible colleges and universities, where, with apologies to Noam Chomsky, evangelicals are busy manufacturing consent--to appropriate dress, to appropriate dating, and eventually, to marriage. Here are only a few examples.

Teaching Introduction to Religion: Or How Tupac and Mary Douglas Became Best Friends

By: Cara L. Burnidge

This past year I had the pleasure of teaching an Introduction to Religion course for the first time at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. As a general education course that fulfills both a multicultural and writing-intensive requirement, this class draws in a variety of students across the university. Few students were Religion majors; most probably fell into the category I like to call, in the words of one student, "I'm just here to get my A." After 2 required textbooks, several assigned chapters, and 3,000 written words, it's fair to say many students walked away surprised at the rigor of a course designed around the question, "What is religion?"

Yeezus Christ Superstar: or, The Passion of Kanye West

Today's guest post comes from Paul Putz, a graduate student at Baylor University who blogs here; this is a crosspost from his blog.

I read Edward Blum and Paul Harvey's fascinating The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America last year, and ever since, I've been thinking about the place that our images and perceptions of Christ have within American pop culture. So when Kanye West announced that his new album would be titled "Yeezus" it immediately caught my attention...not because it was a surprising title, but rather because it fits in so seamlessly with the regular appropriation of Jesus' name within rap culture.

Rap music is no monolith. As with most forms of artistic musical expression, there are a variety of methods, tones, and attitudes embodied within the genre. Yet, at the level of pop culture at least, rap music is defined particularly by attitudes of defiance and megalomania.  There's "Fight the Power" and "F*ck the Police" and "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nothin to F*ck With," to name just a few definitive rebellious standards in the field. Then there's the endless bragging...indeed, an essential element of being an MC is claiming to be superior over and against all others. And words are the only weapons allowed in the combat (Tupac/Biggie notwithstanding).

Tales of Sporty Violence, Obligatory Doughnut Consumption, Pull-Up Contests, and Other Evangelical Things from the Midwest

Today’s guest post comes from Miles Adam Park, my good friend and fellow doctoral candidate in Religion at Florida State University. His research focuses on gender and bodies among 20th-21st century American evangelicals. Adam recently returned from a trip in the field for his dissertation on Christianity and mixed martial arts.

Tales of Sporty Violence, Obligatory Doughnut Consumption, Pull-Up Contests, and Other Evangelical Things from the Midwest

By Miles Adam Park

As it so happens, the sound a human femur makes when broken is not unlike the sound a chocolate bar makes when you break off a piece. But not a cold chocolate bar. One slightly above room temperature. Sort of a soft, muffled snap. The sound a human voice makes when experiencing a femur break is much louder. Indeed, the vocal utterings were largely incoherent at first. Lots of vowel usage. The unmaking of the world, I thought. Elaine Scarry. The audience was completely hushed at this point, listening and looking with a kind of disgusted interest. Then, words. “Dude, what the &*#%!” Trainers, cornermen, and the ring doctor rushed into the cage to attend to the young fighter. More profanities followed. “Shhhhhh,” one of the attendees whispered to the broken fighter, giving him a towel to bite down on. The expletives subsided. As he left the cage, splayed out on a stretcher, carried by his opponent and two EMTs, the injured fighter raised both his hands high. The audience cheered. Sportsmanship incarnate. Later that night, after winning the title by choking his opponent until he was forced to signify defeat, the victor stood in the middle of the cage for his televised interview. First and foremost, Kevin “the Bully” Parker proudly proclaimed, he would like to thank God for his victory. The audience cheered louder. Victorious faith evidenced. ShoFIGHT XXVI in Branson, Missouri. Where two or three gather in His name, so it goes.

And as it also happens, two or three gather in His name quite often for such things in these parts. Thanking God for a win is the tip of the iceberg. Just south of this Branson event, only weeks before, Christ Mixed Martial Arts gym hosted a women-only self-defense course, “Kick Like a Girl.” Should any more femurs need breaking, this is where godly women could learn. Providing “a Christ centered alternative to traditional martial arts,” Christ MMA additionally offers classes in “Christjitsu.” In this “full-discipline, spiritual martial arts program,” “Fighters for Christ” are trained “in the art of spiritual warfare against the evil forces in spiritual realms, while teaching them how to master and control the most important functions of the mind (intellect, emotions and will) according to God’s divine purpose and word.” The forging of hard-bodied, strong-souled Christian warriors is the idea. And many are being forged. A city away, in Little Rock, Arkansas, a comparable mixing of religion and sport occurs at Rock City MMA. As the gym owners describe in their “About Us” section,
"We believe that when you feel beat down in the cage of life, or you feel the grinding pressure of ground n pound at work or at school, the skills you have acquired through MMA training will bring you victory. Knowing that Jesus, your ultimate Cornerman, is there to bring you water in between rounds, gives us hope and courage to fight another round. We want to fight the good fight of faith. Knowing that with God beside me, we can accomplish anything we set our mind to."

Religion and Oral History



I’m not a professional oral historian. However, I use oral histories in the classroom to introduce students to the intersection of memory and history in the United States. Based on my limited but growing experience, this is no easy task. It’s one thing to recognize the educational value of oral history. It’s quite another thing to train students in the theoretical and technical skills necessary to conduct oral histories.

Without getting bogged down in the details, there are at least two ways to incorporate oral history into the classroom.

The first (and easiest) is to use audio/video recordings and transcripts already produced by oral historians to supplement reading assignments and lectures. They introduce students to the art of primary source interpretation and provide them with personal accounts of major developments in American religious history. There are hundreds of websites—most of them curated by universities, libraries, and other public institutions—with content that might be of interest to educators in American religious studies. The Oral History in the Digital Age initiative (sponsored by Michigan State University) has a list of 370 online repositories, from national organizations like the Smithsonian to universities like Baylor to public libraries in Noxubee County, Mississippi.

Notes on American Evangelicalism and the 1960s

(The following is a guest post by Axel R. Schäfer, Professor of American Studies at Keele University and author of two groundbreaking books on contemporary American evangelicalism, Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right (Wisconsin, 2011), and Piety and Public Funding: Evangelicals and the State in Modern America (Pennsylvania, 2012).  His post today introduces his forthcoming edited collection,  American Evangelicals and the 1960s (Wisconsin, 2013),which will feature several essays by friends of the blog, including Steven Miller, David Swartz, and Darren Dochuk.)

As with many projects of this kind, the beginnings of this book can be traced back to a combination of casual e-mails, a conference panel, late night discussions, a colloquium, and the enthusiasm and commitment of a group of dedicated young(ish) academics.  
            In early summer of 2006 I received an e-mail from my colleague Kendrick Oliver at the University of Southampton, asking whether I would be interested in putting together a panel for the 2008 OAH conference in New York City. In proposing the session, we wanted to formulate a response to a challenge issued by Jon Butler in 2004 to address the "religion problem" in modern American history. "Jack-in-the-box" was the colloquialism Butler had used to describe this current shortcoming. What he meant by this was that American historians still tended to treat religion as a historical phenomenon that pops up for a short time, makes some noise, surprises some people, scares others, and then suddenly disappears again into a box where it waits for its next release. Part of this myopia, we felt, was the notion that resurgent evangelicalism should primarily be understood as a "backlash" against the broader sociocultural and political transformations that emanated from the 1960s.

Free Love in the Burned Over District

Where to take out-of-town guests in central New York? How about the site of a historic free love commune? The Oneida Community Mansion House is a short (by CNY standards) 40-minute drive east of Syracuse. The mansion house is still home to some descendants of John Humphrey Noyes's communitarian experiment, the Oneida Community, founded in 1848. The site of the 2012 Communal Studies Association meeting, the Mansion House includes rental apartments as well as rooms for shorter stays. There are tours five days a week, and, in my experience, the docents do a wonderful job with a complex history featuring religious zeal, communal property and economic success, deep engagement with American culture, and, more scandalously, free love. Noyes did not believe in traditional marriage that joined two people for life. His intention was to establish heaven on earth: "In the kingdom of heaven, the institution of marriage which assigns the exclusive possession of one woman to one man, does not exist. Matt. 22: 23-30. 'In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.'" Of course, his system of complex marriage was not as freewheeling as "free love" might imply. Couples needed approval from Noyes before consummating their attraction, and he discouraged them from becoming sexually exclusive.

Close Encounters with Frisbee: An Interview with Malcolm Magee

David W. Stowe

Magee now
Many RiAH readers will know the name Malcolm Magee and be familiar with Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture he directs; some may not. Let me take this opportunity to draw attention to the ISCC, which has sponsored a remarkable number of productive intellectual happenings over the past decade. Mark Noll, Randall Balmer, Miroslav Volf, Eleanore Stump, William Romanowski, Peter Steinfels, John McGreevy, Damon Linker and Philip Blonde are a few of the speakers ISCC has brought to East Lansing, Michigan, often for two-day symposia.

More personally, Malcolm has been a wonderful friend and colleague at Michigan State, never less than during my years toiling on music in the Jesus Movement, a milieu to which he was an eyewitness. I never got the chance to interview Malcolm for my book, but was finally able to ask him some questions earlier this year. A few excerpts:

Malcolm and Judy Magee in the 70s
On Jesus freaks and Quakers:
The Willamette Valley in Oregon, south of Portland, had a lot of hippies and in the 70s, hippies tended to produce Jesus freaks. Growing up as part of the Quaker church added to my opportunities to observe the movement as well. Quakers historically have been fairly open to new movements such as this. Many Jesus people came through the various Quaker congregations in the valley.

On Frisbee:
Lonnie Frisbee was a riveting speaker. I first heard him when I went to a meeting with a small group—50 to 100 hippie-looking Jesus people in an old downtown building in town in central Washington. There was a painted hippie VW van parked out front and inside were all these people in tie-dyed shirts and long hair. This guy who looked like a shorter version of Jesus was up front talking and people were riveted. When he gave an appeal people were throwing packs of cigarettes and all sorts of stuff on the platform—”giving it all up for Jesus.

On McGuire:
Like many of the people in the Jesus movement, Barry McGuire represented a cross over from one world (secular rock music) to another (Jesus music). But more important to his appeal than that was that he was both personally approachable and deeply entertaining. He came to my high school in Zillah, Washington in 1973. Everyone loved hearing him.

On the politics of the Jesus Movement:
In the 70s and 80s you could still find moderate and left-leaning Democrats who focused on moral issues. Harold Hughes from Iowa could be used as an example. But more and more it became a battle between what was perceived as a “Christian” right and a “secular” left. The Jesus people and the musicians were not politically savvy enough nor historically aware enough to recognize that they were being co-opted. The idea that there was a place for a religious left with both personal moral concerns as well as a progressive economic policies was lost in the simplistic sound bites of the elections of the late 70s and 80s.

For Magee's complete answers and the whole interview, visit

Merritt on the Mainline: Part II of Panel on Coffman's The Christian Century


Author, pastor, blogger, twitter-er, co-hoster of God Complex Radio, among many other "ers", Reverend Carol Howard Merritt is one of the most important voices of liberal Protestantism in the United States. She writes a regular blog at The Christian Century, named after her first book "Tribal Church". Later this summer, we'll have a panel response to her Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation.

Carol Howard Merritt

As pastors, we tend several fires at once. We have our congregation, the members who pledge time, energy, and resources to the worshiping community. We work with our neighborhoods, in the hope that we can be instruments of peace and justice.

Though the care and nurture of those flames can be all consuming, we also have another facet to our complex jobs. We have a responsibility to be a public voice—one that attempts to take the mouthpiece of the prophets and proclaim justice and mercy. Sometimes our outcries can be a lone utterance, a beckoning in the wilderness. Other times, we call out from the seat of power and influence. Either way, we have that prophetic office, the one that compels us to do justice and love mercy.

Elesha J. Coffman presents one aspect of that voice in The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline. Dr. Coffman constructs a view of the liberal church in the United States through the lens of the influential magazine and she focuses on its cultural capital. Coffman often goes back to the theme that The Century carried much of its weight in prestige, class, education, and elitism, rather than followers or charism.

The Mainline's Main Magazine


Of the many gifts this blog gives, one has been framing the emergence of new scholarly discussions. I have been struck in particular by how the blog has narrated the rise of a debate on the shape and influence of twentieth-century modernist/liberal Protestantism. The new works include a veritable "must read" list for twentieth-century American religious history:

(I'm sure I'm leaving out some other important books, and I hope folks will reference others in the comment section)

Today begins a 2 part series on Elesha Coffman's new book, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline. First and foremost, congratulations to Professor Coffman and her family. They welcomed a baby boy this week. Of course, her book will receive bunches of scholarly reviews (in fact, Christian Century has already run one from David Hollinger himself). For our format, I thought it would be interesting to have two folks who have worked closely with The Christian Century reflect on Coffman's book from their particular vantage points.

Today, we have Jason Byassee, senior pastor at Boone United Methodist Church in North Carolina and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at the Duke Divinity School. As a former editor at Christian Century, he lived, moved, and altered the realms made by the Mainline's main magazine.

Jason Byassee

I’m grateful for this site’s invitation to review Elesha Coffman’s terrific book and respond with personal reflections.

I can’t believe my good fortune to have worked at The Christian Century, to look in on the institutional relationships Coffman examines some 50 years after the timeframe of her book ends, in 1960. I had an office from 2004-2008 beside Dean Peerman, who edited King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (“I found Dr. King very congenial to work with,” he said. I thought, “Are you freaking kidding me?!”). Martin Marty and John Buchanan became friends and mentors. There was still a whiff of the relationship to cultural power that Coffman details—Marty tells a story of Warren Buffett knowing the magazine, he is proud of Hillary Clinton growing up in a Methodist youth group in Chicagoland, we offered sympathetic portraits of Trinity UCC when the universe was spleening over it during the 2008 election. But that cultural greatness feels slightly past its sell-by date. We did not backslap with politicians or presidents. I was honored and intimidated to meet Wendell Berry and Barbara Brown Taylor, but in terms of cultural cache on the American political scene, they’re not exactly FDR (who met with Federal Council of Churches leaders in 1933). I do remember when two friends independently told me their minister-fathers feigned enthusiasm when their Ivy League dissertations were published by university presses. But they genuinely gushed to strangers when their kids got articles in The Christian Century. What your parents esteemed when you grew up still matters.

Congratulations to Karen Johnson and Elesha Coffman

Paul Harvey

A special here for RiAH readers -- just a quick note of congratulations to our contributor Karen Johnson, whose latest post on racial reconciliation is just below, for just completing her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where she studied with renowned historian and comedian Kevin Schultz! And congratulations to Karen, too, for accepting a position starting next academic year at Wheaton College, where she will be teaching U.S. History (and, no doubt, a thing or two about Catholicism!).

Also, tomorrow and MOnday we have two posts on our contributor Elesha Coffman's new book on the Christian Century and the mainline -- but here just a note of congratulations to Elesha on the birth of her new baby son! To sum it up another way: in one year Elesha has taken a new job, published her first book, and had a new baby -- heckuva job, Elesha!

Catholic and Evangelical Approaches to Racial Reconciliation


By Karen Johnson. 

This month I'm building on last month's post on evangelical racial reconciliation to describe some similarities between the efforts of an interracial, evangelical Protestant church and non-profit most active in reconciliation in the 1980s and 1990s, and an interracial Catholic settlement house from the 1940s.  I am using my research on Catholic interracial institutions, specifically Friendship House, an interracial settlement house founded in 1942 in Chicago’s Black Belt, and comparing it to Rock Church, which I attend (my current research is for a conference paper for the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation's National Symposium.  The center seeks to bring together practitioners and scholars, hence my dual focus).

First, in both cases, white people awakened to racial prejudice wanted to address the issue from a religious perspective in part by living in intentional community.  When Glen and Lonni moved into Austin in 1973, they were soon joined by several other couples who sorted themselves out into two apartment buildings and held everything in common.  Only one black person was a part of that fellowship.  In the case of Friendship House, very few black people ever joined the staff, primarily because they did not want to – or could not – take the commitment of voluntary poverty required.  Denied the American dream for so long, middle class black people usually wanted to move up and out of poor neighborhoods.  I see this still today, with few of my black friends at church who are middle-class wanting to live in the Austin neighborhood.

Second, members of both groups adopted a theology of suffering or discomfort.  That Catholics would do this should not surprise us, of course, given their history of embracing bodily suffering.  That white evangelical Christians adopt a theology of discomfort, however, is surprising.  Yet in order to share power in interracial institutions, one cannot always have the church service, for example, run how you prefer it culturally (for a fantastic comedy sketch on this, go here).  At Rock, this is particularly heartening to me because some excellent work on interracial churches suggests that they only survive if the black members cede to white preferences (see Korie Edwards’s The Elusive Dream).  Yet Glen, in particular, found it very beneficial to adjust his cultural expectations and to minister in what he calls a "community of brokenness." 

Third, in both cases, black members of the organizations became upset when the white members wanted to give away free things (like clothing and food) because of its disempowering effect on those who receive the goods (for more contemporary practitioners' perspectives on this, go here and here).

Finally, both organizations drew on the language of Matthew 25's description of the sheep and the goats to support their work.  Both groups identified being Christian with fulfilling the Son of Man's calling in that chapter to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit those in prison, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and welcome in the homeless.  In Friendship House's case, they equated African Americans with Jesus, named Jesus "Christ in the Negro," and argued for Christ's actual, incarnational presence among the "least of the these" in American society, those who they saw as most oppressed.  Rock Church and its ministry partner, Circle Urban Ministries, don't make Jesus black in the same way the Catholics did, but they do emphasize the Matthew 25 call, that "whatever you did to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me."

The Place of Catholic Women's Culture


Today's guest post comes from Monica L. Mercado, who is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation, "Women and the Word: Gender, Print, and Catholic Identity in Nineteenth-Century America," explores the emergence of a vibrant American Catholic publishing industry at mid-century and the women readers, writers, and institutions that grew up around it. In 2012-2013 Monica is a fellow-in-residence at Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, where she also coordinates a public history program. You can find more details about her research and teaching interests in women’s and gender history at

By Monica L. Mercado

As we reach the end of the academic year, rushing toward deadlines, turning in final grades, and maybe even planning some summer travels, I can’t help but turn to one of my favorite forgotten sites of American religious history: the Catholic Summer School of America, located at Cliff Haven, New York, on the western shores of Lake Champlain. Founded in 1892 as an outgrowth of the Catholic Reading Circle movement, the Summer School has piqued my interest as a space that fostered important bonds between Catholic laywomen at the turn of the century.

Last month, Smithsonian Magazine asked, “Where was the Birthplace of the American Vacation?”  The answer? New York’s Adirondack Mountain region, which by the late 1860s became increasingly accessible to East Coast elites. “By 1900,” Smithsonian tells us, “the Adirondacks’ summer population had risen to around 25,000 from 3,000 in 1869.” The natural beauty of the area attracted tourists as soon as boats and trains could easily reach it—among them, it turns out, thousands of Catholic visitors in search of an experience similar to the Methodist’s Chautauqua assemblies. In upstate New York, Catholics discovered a co-ed retreat centered on their intellectual and cultural aspirations.

“Confused as a termite in a YO-YO”: Appleby Baptist and Religion in the South


“Confused as a termite in a YO-YO”: Appleby Baptist and Religion in the South
By Charity R Carney

            The folks at Appleby Baptist hate a lot of things. Here’s just a sampling of the targets of the Independent Fundamentalist congregation: interracial marriage, Obama, cowboy churches, other Independent Baptists, the NIV, tattoos, Southern Baptists, Beth Moore, flashy clothing, John Calvin, oh, and interracial marriage. That last one deserved repeating because it comes up A LOT. Most of the church’s vitriol is aimed at evangelicals themselves, who are not living up to Appleby’s standards of Christianity and confronting these “sins” head on. The small church a few miles from my house has received some national attention lately for promoting racist and sexist doctrines, especially with is insistence on preaching the Curse of Ham. But there is more to Appleby than racist theology. The church promotes a range of fundamentalist doctrines that make Southern Baptists look liberal. In fact, Dennis Anderson (the lead pastor for Appleby) uses the word “liberal” interchangeably with “Southern Baptist,” in his writings.  
            As I’ve talked to locals who are just discovering this congregation, I’ve found myself contextualizing in the midst of their many condemnations. We should condemn these doctrines but to dismiss them as wacky or ignorant is to forget our own history.  For southerners especially, Appleby Baptist offers a real opportunity for us to take a closer look at our past and how it’s informed the present—beyond the walls of one fanatical congregation.

Know Your Archives, Part XIX

by Matt Sutton

OK, so this is not really another post in the old “know your archives series.” I have been meaning to get into the archives at Trinity College for months, and specifically the John Nelson Darby papers, but have not made it yet. This is really a post about “know your world” (and get the hell out of the archives for a while).

I have spent the academic year in Dublin, Ireland on a Fulbright. This has easily been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. Living outside of the US has helped me to understand religion back home in new ways and to see what is and is not unique about faith in the US.

Per the stipulations of this particular Fulbright, I taught one class each semester at University College Dublin (UCD) and helped with some graduate training. UCD semesters run 11 weeks, and courses generally meet for 2 hours per week, so the burden is not onerous. 

I also attended department meetings. These were surprisingly entertaining in that the chair—an early modernist—peppered discussions of important issues with dry, sarcastic and funny biblical metaphors (although with the budget crisis and austerity measures, those metaphors most often took the form of encouraging faculty to spread their arms and get ready to get nailed to the cross).  UCD has a faculty club in the same building as the history department, which boasts a full bar. If only I could retreat from all department meetings in the states with a nice Irish whiskey.

The UCD staff and faculty work hard to free up the visiting American professor from most obligations in order to allow him/her to get as much research and writing done as possible. I have spent the year revising and polishing my forthcoming 2014 book on evangelical apocalypticism, which is still in desperate need of a sexy title like [Something Apocalpyse-y]: The Rise of Modern American Evangelicalism

The Fulbright also provides numerous opportunities for visiting scholars to present their research and get critical feedback from faculty across Europe. While I did not give as many talks this year as Harvey and Blum (who did?), I presented my ongoing work all over Ireland, at Oxford, Cambridge, and King’s College, and across Germany. The Germans, apparently, love the Antichrist. I am heading over to Copenhagen next month for another talk, which is a ploy by Ray Haberski to get me to try new brews with him as our kids tear up parks around Denmark. I did not, however, give a talk at Northumbria (thanks for nothing Randall). 

While I did not really think about the networking possibilities provided by the Fulbright when I applied, I now realize that this is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the program. After all, how else could I have toured pubs in Dublin, Cambridge, and London with Andrew Preston? Or gotten a Harry Potter tour from Stephen Tuck? Or debated Puritan premillennialism with Jan Stievermann?

I have learned some other important lessons this year as well: 
  • English mustard is good, even if the English are not.
  • Brown sauce is the nectar of Satan.
  • When in Frankfurt, do not book a room by the train station.
  • Guinness is great, but not as good as the beer in the Pacific Northwest. 
  • I should no longer refer to houses built in the 1920s as “historic.”
  • Benedict can read Latin really, really fast (something my family and I were grateful for at Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican!).
  • Disneyland Paris is a lot dirtier than the real Disneyland (and no my Floridian friends, you do not have the real Disneyland). Old Walt’s obsessive-compulsive cleanliness has its benefits. 
  • If you go to the St. Patrick's Day parade, be prepared to be embarrassed by the behavior of your fellow countrymen. Drunk Texans in leprechaun suits can be painful to watch ya' all. 
  • It is hard to argue that looting and pillaging is all bad while enjoying the Louvre and the British Museum.
  • Horse doesn’t taste half bad when you don’t know that it is in your hamburger meat. Thanks Tesco.
  • I miss Mexican food. And football. 
So to the point—I cannot say enough about the value of this experience and I hope the readers of the blog will consider applying for Fulbrights in general, and especially the one that I currently have, the Mary Ball Washington Chair at UCD. Some years this chair draws really prestigious scholars—such as George McGovern, Stephen Ambrose, Peter Onuf, Kevin Boyle, Elaine Tyler May, and Harvard Sitkoff—but other years the competition must not be as stiff—after all, I got it. It pays better than most Fulbrights (it is funded by the Irish rather than the US government), the staff at UCD is wonderful, and there are few better places to live than Dublin.

As exciting as life can be on the Palouse, my wife has had a great time here as well exploring the city with our four-year-old while our seven-year old is in school learning, among other things, to speak Irish--no doubt this will serve him well in the years to come. The boys have seen substantially more castles, churches, and museums this year than I had previously seen in my entire life. The Irish people are incredibly friendly, kind, and welcoming (even though I am not). 

In sum, this has been a great year and place for obsessing over the apocalypse. 

Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky

Today's guest post comes from Rosie Moosnick, author of the book Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). 

Kentucky isn’t the first place that comes to mind when talking about Arabs and Jews.  Not surprisingly, when I mention my book, Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky:  Stories of Accommodation and Audacity, initial responses go something like there are Arabs and Jews in Kentucky?  Can’t be many?  No, Kentucky’s population does not resemble New York’s or Michigan’s where Arabs and Jews abound, but Kentuckians who are also Arab or Jewish exist even if comprising less than one percent of the 4 million of the State’s total residents.  Arab and Jewish Kentuckians’ stories are telling—the women’s, in particular, represent the intricate identity dances that transpire away from urban locales in this country and the Middle East.

There are contemporary women such as Sawsan Salem who is a little over a twenty year resident of the United States, originally from Jordan, she followed her Palestinian American husband to America.  Sawsan, like so many recent immigrants, is two places simultaneously.  She is in Kentucky but never far removed from Jordan—paying attention to both spots. 

Religion in the PNW: ASCH Spring Meeting in Portland


Seth Dowland

This might be cheating, but I’m going to write about the American Society of Church History spring meeting for my latest entry in Religion in the Pacific Northwest. The meeting was held in Portland, after all. My friend and fellow blog author Brantley Gasaway made the cross-country trip from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. After touring him around Tacoma, we made our way south to Portland. I’d always heard my doctoral advisor, Grant Wacker, rave about the ASCH spring meeting, praising its small size, intellectual camaraderie, and choice of location. This year’s conference had all of those virtues.

One of the most memorable presentations focused on Dwight Eisenhower’s Presbyterian identity. Samford Religion Professor David R. Bains offered a memorable set of slides focusing mainly on the Chapel of the Presidents at the National Presbyterian Church. Eisenhower promoted the church project as it was conceived and built during the 1950s and 1960s. To keep wealthy, conservative donors Henry Luce and J. Howard Pew on board with the project, the denomination ensured that the finished chapel featured monuments to Americanism and anti-communism, including a vivid stained glass window that depicted Lenin and Marx as forces of evil. An American eagle graced the pulpit, and six windows along the side featured some of our greatest presidents: Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts, and—you guessed it—Ike (pictured here signing the law adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance). David’s presentation brought to life the importance of Christianity in the Cold War, along with the shifting nature of denominational identity at midcentury.

Brantley and I followed with papers on Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush’s contentious relationships with some of their co-religionists. As respondent Mary Beth Mathews put it in her comments, “the one theme uniting these papers is, ‘with friends like these…’” Brantley showed how the liberal evangelicals who soured on Jimmy Carter during his presidency yearned for him once they realized the scope of fellow evangelical George W. Bush’s conservative agenda. I riffed on Clinton’s declaration that he had become a “Southern Baptist apostate,” which is something of a theological impossibility if you’re the type of Baptist who believes in soul competency. But the Southern Baptists in power during Clinton’s presidency were fonder of their version of biblical inerrancy (imported from other denominations) than homegrown Baptist dictums about the autonomy of each believer.

On Saturday I responded to a trio of fascinating papers on the Bible and American identity. Matthew Bowman of Hampden-Sydney College argued for a different way of understanding “liberal evangelicalism” by focusing on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The debates then were more hermeneutical than political. Bowman’s project differs from Brantley’s and from David Swartz’s excellent new book Moral Minority in its way of conceiving the liberal evangelical tradition, and the linkages between his turn-of-the-century characters and the folks who signed the Chicago Declaration in 1973 are not apparent; they may not exist in a substantial way. But his paper got me excited about a new line of scholarship that will examine this category in the same way that other scholars have been rethinking fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism.

After Bowman’s paper, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, presented a paper on early Mormons. Hendrix-Komoto recounted a bizarre incident in which Saints in the Kirtland period “plunged into a nearby river in a spectacular baptism that worked not to cleanse them of their sins but to transform them into the American Indians. After their baptisms, these white men and women pretended to scalp each other and then slid and scooted on the floor. Some sources claim that they also climbed stumps in order to ‘harangue imaginary crowds of Indians’ and that women even rolled naked in the snow.” Because this happened while Joseph Smith was away evangelizing, Parley Pratt had to figure out what to do with these untoward Mormons. Hendrix-Komoto smartly showed how Pratt and, when he returned, Smith, addressed a perennial problem of the Mormon doctrine of open revelation: how open is it? As it turned out, Smith eventually had a vision that discredited the female leaders of these unusual religious exercises by outlining a gendered dichotomy in which men like him had rational, well-ordered revelations sanctioned by God, who condemned the irrational flights of fancy of the women.

The final paper of the panel, by independent scholar Crissy Hutchison-Jones, built on the work of Colleen McDannell to show how the Bible acted more as a totem than as a text for some nineteenth-century Protestants. Her research illustrated that some of these Protestants quoted very little from the Bible even as they lambasted Catholics and Mormons’ unfamiliarity with the Good Book. Hutchison-Jones demonstrated that one of the few things every Protestant knew about the Bible was that Catholics and Mormons didn’t want their followers to read it.

As usual, I returned from the conference intellectually energized and refreshed to work in a guild populated by so many humane and smart colleagues. It was nice, too, that some of these colleagues trekked out to the mildewed upper-left corner of the continent for a conference; I relished the prospect of a 2.5-hour drive rather than a five-hour flight!

Four Questions with Peggy Bendroth

Randall Stephens

The historian Peggy Bedroth is the executive director of the Congregational Library in Boston, MA. Since her first book appeared 20 years ago, she has shaped the field of American religious history in profound ways.  Her insightful work on gender, childhood and family, and the cultures of

fundamentalism is as familiar to the grad student as it is to the established professor.  Among other things Bendroth has explored the day to day lives of believers and helped us understand how men and women, young and old, came to terms with the tumultuous 20th century.

I first encountered her excellent book
Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present (Yale University Press, 1993) in a graduate readings course with David Hackett at the University of Florida. Douglas Frank praised Fundamentalism and Gender in The Journal of Religion as "a remarkably stimulating read, offered in graceful, well-paced language by a generous spirit . . ." Agreed. In the years since Bendroth has written Fundamentalists and the City: Conflict and Division in Boston's Churches, 1885 to 1950 (Oxford University Press, 2005); Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children and Mainline Churches (Rutgers University Press, 2002); and has edited several other volumes, including Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2002). Her most recent book is A School of the Church: Andover Newton across two Centuries (Eerdmans, 2008)

In this second installment of Four Questions, Peggy reflects on the twists and turns of her academic career and discusses her recent work.

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

Peggy Bendroth:
You could say that I simply fell into it.  I majored in history as an undergraduate, and back in the heyday of the liberal arts (i.e., before college students worried about finding jobs), thought I’d love to study American intellectual history in graduate school.  For reasons that don’t make as much sense now as they did then I decided to take a side route into seminary to learn some theology, and ended up smitten with church history, and was then looking for grad school programs in American religion. 

Of course, in other ways I was probably predestined.  I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, a small Dutch Calvinist denomination and actually started learning theology from a very young age, memorizing the Heidelberg catechism, arguing with my Sunday school teachers, testing the patience of my fellow Calvinettes, and harassing my parents with complaints and questions.  The religion I grew up with was not about feelings—it was more like a life-long intellectual project.

I suppose what first interested me in religious history was the way it provided a context for my fairly narrow upbringing—it put us somewhere on a map, i.e., not the center—and helped me make personal and intellectual sense of what I’d grown up with.

Joseph Smith, the Bible, and the Book of Moses

by John Turner

Yesterday, I received via Interlibrary Loan a copy of Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (edited by Scott Faulring, Kent Jackson, and Robert Matthews). I am starting to worry that the insatiable Latter-day Saint appetite for books about Joseph Smith and early LDS history will deforest the world. The above-referenced volume is even bigger than the biggest Joseph Smith Papers volume.

I've often wondered exactly why Joseph Smith's "translation" of the King James Bible hasn't received more attention from scholars of Mormonism. There's a nice section on it in Phil Barlow's Mormons and the Bible, and Terryl Givens discusses it in By the Hand of Mormon. Smith, however, never published the bulk of his translation, and although the Utah-based LDS Church includes portions of it in the Pearl of Great Price and in footnotes to the King James Bible, in its entirety the Bible translation has never attained the authority of either the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine & Covenants. I love the image of Joseph Smith leafing through a King James Bible, reflecting upon the text, and then either expanding or correcting it. The translation work also prompted some of Smith's most significant revelations.

Smith and his scribe Oliver Cowdery purchased a Bible in 1829, which the prophet used for at least some of the translation work. Cowdery wrote the following on the flyleaf of the Bible: "The Book of the Jews And the Property of Joseph Smith Junior and Oliver Cowdery Bought October the 8th 1829 at Egbert B  Grandins Book Store Palmyra Wayne County New York." Further down, Cowdery noted: "Price $3.75 Holiness to the Lord." What Smith and Cowdery purchased was a version of the King James Bible published by Elihu Phinney in Cooperstown, New York. Version, because Phinney's edition modernized some of the language.

The Book of Mormon had announced that suggested that the Christian Bible was incomplete and imperfect. Many "plain and precious things" had been taken out of the Bible; the Old and New Testaments were corrupted texts in need of supernatural retranslation. Although he referred to his work as "translation," Smith did not attempt a retranslation of the Bible from its original languages. It was not a translation, as the term is commonly understood. Instead, an revelation sparked his episodic but somewhat systematic efforts to correct, clarify, and add to the King James text.

The work began with what Cowdery identified as "A Revelation given to Joseph the Revelator June 1830." It begins with Moses being "caught up into an exceeding high Mountain" and coming "face to face" with God. God tells Moses, "thou art in similitude to mine only begotten & mine only begotten is & shall be for he is full of grace & truth." Satan then appears and tempts Moses, unsuccessfully. "In the name of Jesus Christ depart," Moses dismisses the adversary and then again beholds God's glory. God then explains to Moses that "as one Earth shall pass away & the Heavens thereof even so shall another come." There would be no end to God's work and no end of worlds. At the end of this revelation, the text hints at Joseph Smith as the restorer of biblical truth. "[I]n a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught," God tells Moses in Smith's prologue to Genesis, "and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold I will raise up another like unto thee." Over the next nine months, Smith proceeded with emendations to the first five chapters of Genesis. Because of the Moses prologue, the material became known to Latter-day Saints as the Book of Moses and is now included in the LDS Church's Pearl of Great Price.

The resulting manuscript is a much more theologically creative text than the Book of Mormon. In a reconciliation of the two accounts of human creation in Genesis, the Book of Moses explains the first as a spiritual creation and the second account as the physical creation of human beings. Thus, the text teaches that God created the spirits of men and women before the earthly days of Adam and Eve. The Book of Moses reaffirms the fortunate aspects of the fall introduced in the Book of Mormon, and it explains Satan's rebellion as an attempt to "destroy the agency of man" by promising to "redeem all mankind." Nevertheless, as was true of the Book of Mormon itself, Smith's "translation" of Genesis is highly christocentric. In accord with the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses introduces Jesus Christ as central to the creation and salvation of human beings from the beginning of the world, and the expansions also state that a single divine "plan of salvation" began with Adam.

Out of what became the Book of Moses, what was most important to early Latter-day Saints was published in 1832 as a "Prophecy of Enoch." It expanded upon brief references to the character of Enoch in both Genesis and the New Testament (Enoch figured more prominently in rabbinical and apocryphal literature). In Joseph Smith's expansion of the early chapters of Genesis, Enoch, much like Moses, ascends a mountain, beholds "the heavens open," and is "clothed upon with glory." He talks with God "face to face." In the midst of ongoing battles against the enemies, Enoch gathers the "people of God" into a city. God calls his people "ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them." God then takes the city of Zion into heaven and weeps over the remaining inhabitants of the earth, whom he plans to destroy in a flood save for the family of Noah. Enoch receives a vision of Christ's crucifixion, which sets free the spirits of those righteous men and women who died prior to his incarnation. He then sees a second gathering of God's elect at the time of the earth's final tribulation before Christ's return and millennial reign. Smith did not publish the entirety of the Book of Moses until shortly before his death, but the figure of Enoch, the concept of Zion, and the millennial gathering of God's saints became central to the development of the Church of Christ.

After the material on Moses and Enoch, Smith proceeded to read through most of the Bible, dictating revised passages to his scribes. In 1832, he began simply marking changes on the text of the Phinney Bible. That, I find, is a striking image. For Smith, nothing was ever settled. Everything was subject to change. The Book of Mormon. His own revelations. And the Bible.

The Religious History of Morality Activism is Making a Comeback

by Janine Giordano Drake

I'm not the only one to observe that recent debates over marriage equality bear some similarity to nineteenth century debates over prohibition. Each involve a well-funded and well-connected group of Protestants with a conviction about how making something illegal would make an important social statement, even if it will not end the practice entirely. Both prohibitionists and defenders of "traditional marriage" have claimed that their mission ultimately protects children from the transgressions of adults. Both movements have involved a large number of moderates who have suggested that the act under question may or may not be morally questionable, but they do not think it should be illegal. For these and many more reasons, research on religious  provocations for temperance and prohibition (and morality activism more broadly) is making a comeback.

Studies on the subject have come a long way. Richard Jensen's classic, The Winning of the Midwest (1971), used extensive demographic and voting data on the Midwest to examine how and why voting behavior split on the subjects of temperance and prohibition. He concluded that there was a significant divide between what he called "pietists," those whose faith revolved around belief, and "liturgicals," those whose faith revolved around a liturgy. He found that pietists were much more likely public temperance advocates than liturgicals, even considering ethnic and national differences. I rarely hear of this distinction these days; I'm sure this dichotomy, like all dichotomies, has been rendered too simple.

Yet, in the 1970s and 1980s, social historians generally de-emphasized the religious provocations for temperance advocacy. Instead, they drew attention to the ways that critiques of the alcohol industry and the accusations of working class "dissipation" were about much more than Protestant evangelicals' personal faith commitment to temperance. Rather, advocates of temperance (and even moreso advocates of prohibition, in the 1910s) aimed to undermine Catholicism as a legitimate form of Christianity; to shut down immigrant and ethnic businesses, and to displace the saloon as a social center for working class activism and social life. In the Carter, Reagan, and Bush years, nineteenth century temperance advocates resembled the Christian Coalition.

The Problems and Promises of Religious Pluralism


By Chris Cantwell

From the moment authorities identified Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the primary suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, the American media engaged in what has now become a decades-old process of typecasting terrorism. CNN infamously noted they couldn’t tell from photos whether these supposedly “dark skinned” brothers “are Americans or not Americans.” Meanwhile, nearly every other media outlet has engaged in a shallow debate on the degree to which the Tsarnaev brothers’ Islamic faith motivated the attack—as if the Tsarnaevs’ religion could somehow be divorced from their experiences as immigrants, refugees, or working-class youth living on state aid.

A scene from the Boston Interfaith Service
While the media’s approach to the bombing has been predictable, however, the broader discussion about religion’s relationship to the tragedy has been anything but uniform. In fact, the weeks after the tragedy have actually seen a surprisingly vigorous debate on religion’s role in mitigating and preventing acts of violence. Writing over at the Huffington Post, Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel cogently argues that the only antidote to religious extremism is religious pluralism. If radicalism of any sort demands individuals understand their identities solely in relation to a single issue or cause, then the answer is to devise programs that create spaces where individuals are encouraged to see their own religious identity as one of many ways of being in the world. “When interfaith cooperation is done well,” Patel writes, “it creates space for the diverse identities within each of us to become mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive.”

Peace, harmony, and enrichment. Who could be against it? But as Lucia Hulsether notes over at Religion Dispatches, the suggestion that religious violence is a failure of, or an admonition toward, interfaith cooperation is claim loaded with normative assumptions about religion’s role in a liberal democracy. For Hulsether, the promotion of religious pluralism as a social ideal invites as many questions as it provides answers. Her list is well worth reading.

  • What other dynamics of power move out of focus when celebrations of “interfaith cooperation” are brought to the fore? Are questions of race, class, gender, state power, and social inequality obscured in the rush to emphasize common religious ground?
  • Does this appeal to interfaith cooperation recreate the same kind of “us vs. them” mentality that is said motivates extremists? Only now the “them” are those critical of a pluralist ideal?
  • Is interfaith cooperation implicit in a larger nation-building project?
  • What is the ultimate goal of this appeal to interfaith cooperation? Do I support it?
“Clearly,” Hulsether concludes, “we cannot draw one ‘conclusion’ about what ‘interfaith’ discourses ‘do.’” We can, however, think critically about their context and implications in order to avoid implicitly perpetuating ideologies of American exceptionalism that “undergird the systemic violence that continues to structure our world…”

"I have tried to recover a sense of humanity..."

Kelly Baker

Last week, I wrote a post for The Christian Century's Then and Now, curated by Edward J. Blum, on the label "evil" religion. As some might suspect, this label is often applied to the movements and people that I study (the Ku Klux Klan, doomsday cults, and new religious movements) among many other groups. The label, to put it mildly, is a problem, and the post catalogs my unease with quick judgments about the nature of "evil" religious movements versus other "good" religious movements (those that make us comfortable rather than uneasy). I wrote:

When people label religion “evil,” they almost always include Jonestown, Aum Shinrikyo and the Branch Davidians (who are represented here in an image accompanying Blake’s article). The common assumption follows that these religious groups can be marked as evil because they are imbricated in violence, death and destruction. We can cluck our tongues sympathetically at the supposedly brainwashed people deluded into joining these movements, and we can rest easier at night by assuming that our religious commitments must be the safe kind.

Moreover, we can hold onto the vision of “healthy religion” that [John] Blake espouses. If only we were versed in these four signs, the argument goes, then maybe these tragedies wouldn’t happen.

If only it were this easy. Such an understanding of “evil” religion is predicated on a sense that religion is inherently “good.” Blake even writes that “religion is supposed to be a force of good,” as if claiming this aloud necessarily makes it so. 

Unsurprisingly, I am increasingly wary of labels like "good," "healthy," "authentic," "bad," "evil," or "illegitimate" when they function as modifiers for religion. The normative bounds of how we wish the world is/was present themselves in such labels. Yet, what does that do for analysis? I have spent much of my career thinking about how assumptions about religion and religious people guide our narratives. Villainy, as I tell my students, might make a good story, but it does not provide analysis. To claim the "evilness" of some religions marks others as safe and good, and in both instances, it ignores the sheer ambiguity and ambivalence of that thing we call religion. We lose something with every normative claim.

More and more, I find myself returning to David Chidester's Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown to think through his claim of religion as "being a human person in a human place" (xviii), even if that means engaging and analyzing revolutionary suicide and mass death. This book prompts us to think about how to make the incomprehensible (the mass suicide of 913 members of the Peoples Temple) into something comprehensible. How do we make sense of these tragic events? Can we avoid the urge to moralize, to label "good" and "evil,' or to rely on easy narratives of villainy, destruction, and madness? Can we approach instances of violence and terror with empathy? How do we humanize victims and perpetrators? Or can we? (Or do we want to?)

Puritans, Puritans

Jonathan Den Hartog  

This past semester, I had to go back and revise an article relating to the first generation of Puritans. For that, I did a review of recent scholarship. Now, if there's a list of well-trod subjects in American religion, Puritanism would have to be near the top. Yet, in the last few years there have been several good new studies published, proving that there is more to be said about those Puritans.

I might start with Sarah Rivett's Science of the Soul in Colonial New England. The book has been reviewed on this blog here, but let me just reiterate my enthusiasm for the project. I really appreciate Rivett's interdisciplinary approach, bringing the language of theology together with the language of the developing natural philosophy (i.e., modern "science"). I had the chance to hear Rivett give a work-in-progress seminar last fall, and I'm excited about her next project on translation projects in early America.

Next, I picked up Francis Bremer's First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World. I really appreciated Bremer's big biography of John Winthrop, so I was interested in seeing what he would do here. Bremer attempted to write for a popular audience, bringing Puritans, if not to the masses, at least to a few more people. To do this, he attempted to bring narrative energy to early New England Puritanism through telling the stories of about 20 different people. That group is large enough to include both men and women and orthodox and non-orthodox (by Puritan standards) voices. I could see this book working really well in an undergraduate course. It would be an interesting way to launch a course on American Religion, but it could also work for an Atlantic World or Colonial America course.

Expanding interest in the Puritans among a larger public also motivated David D. Hall's newest contribution A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England.

Hall has added another elegant study to his ongoing career of describing Puritanism. This is another attempt to wrestle with why the Puritans might still matter. He examined both their civic ideals and how they worked out in practice. Hall finds a commitment to Communitarianism—Puritans practiced Compromise and were devoted to the Public Good. I especially enjoyed his final chapter, which was  a case study of Thomas Shepard’s Cambridge, and there he describes the extensive efforts those early settlers made to keep the peace and encourage fair treatment of citizens.

One more book and some shameless self-promotion after the break...

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