Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation
Winter 2014 Volume 24 Number 1
FORUM: Religion and the Biographical Turn, by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Catherine Brekus, Nick Salvatore, Matthew Avery Sutton, and Debby Applegate
Academia has long been skeptical of biography as a legitimate form of scholarly production. The revolution in academic methods starting in the 1960s cast an especially harsh light on the "great men" school of historical writing. Scholars turned their attention to new subjects—women, blacks, Indians, the poor—and developed new methods to tell the collective stories of these neglected segments of American society. Interestingly, the last decade has seen a resurgence of "great men" biographies—with popular biographies of the founding fathers often remaining on best-seller lists for months at a time. There has been a parallel explosion of biographical writing among scholars of American religion. Some of these biographies are of well-known and influential figures such as Jonathan Edwards or Aimee Semple McPherson, while others take as their subjects obscure or little-known characters whose lives become a means of exploring the broader cultural and historical context. Whoever their subject, these biographies represent an effort by practitioners to bring the insights of recent scholarship to a broader audience.
For this FORUM, the editors have invited several scholars to reflect on biography as a means of investigating American religion. Their subjects are as varied as their approaches to biographical writing, and we have asked each of them to explore the particular challenges and rewards they found in choosing biography as their form.
"If a War It May Be Called": The Peace Policy with American Indians, by Jennifer Graber
In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant initiated the “Peace Policy” with American Indians, an approach that privileged humane interactions with native peoples and allowed religious groups to run reservations across the American West. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, administered the largest numbers of reservations and symbolized the policy’s benevolent aims. This essay explores varying Quaker understandings of peaceful relations with Indians, as well as the general public’s perception of the Friends’ nonviolence. The essay focuses on an 1871 Indian attack on an overland wagon train, including Quaker engagements with the army in the attack’s aftermath. Despite the Society’s part in an emerging culture of threat against Plains Indians, Americans continued to consider both the Society and the policy to be peaceful. As such, this episode proves useful for understanding the intersections of religion and violence in United States history. Close analysis of the internal Quaker debate about military engagement, as well as Americans’ ongoing identification of the policy with nonviolence, shows how religious groups and religious language were employed to reclassify episodes of violence as peace.
Religion, "Moral Insanity," and Psychology in Nineteenth-Century America, by Jodie Boyer
This article explores arguments amongst medico-legal experts (including Amariah Brigham, Isaac Ray, John P. Gray, and W. A. Hammond) about the social and moral ramifications of expanding the definition of insanity to include moral insanity. This is an important corrective to a standard view that sees the movement to transform the insanity defense in nineteenth-century America as a rejection of the explanatory power of human depravity in the face of an optimistic understanding of human nature as found in Scottish common sense philosophy. The debate, especially between Ray and Brigham on the one hand and Gray on the other, finally led to a situation in which religious discussions of sin, the will, grace, and the shape of the human self were legally sidelined.
The Politicization of Family Life: How Headship became Essential to Evangelical Identity in the Late Twentieth Century, by Anneke Stasson
This article will describe the fluidity of evangelical gender ideology during the 1970s and will posit that belief in male headship became one of the distinct marks of evangelical identity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time the Christian Right led a campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, arguing that the ERA was the means by which feminists were seeking to destroy the family. It became politically expedient for evangelicals to assert their support for male headship over and against a feminist paradigm of the family. In the 1990s and 2000s, as evangelicals had begun to feel less animosity towards feminism and had actually absorbed many feminist assumptions, the Christian Right's campaign against gay marriage gave evangelicals a new reason to cling to the ideology of male headship. The campaigns against the ERA and gay marriage have made evangelicals aware of the very real presence of different models of family in American society. This awareness has enhanced commitment to the headship model of marriage.
Historians Betty DeBerg and Margaret Bendroth have done much to point historians to the way in which gender ideology has been important to evangelical identity over the last century. By analyzing anti-ERA and anti-gay marriage evangelical literature, this article will argue that gender ideology was integral to the formation of evangelical identity during the last third of the twentieth century. Thus the article seeks to extend the argument of DeBerg and Bendroth into the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s and to present gender ideology as a key feature in defining twentieth-century American evangelicalism.
Summer 2013 Volume 23 Number 2
"Modern Christianity is Ancient Judaism": Rabbi Gustav Gottheil and the Jewish-American Religious Future, 1873-1903, by Caleb J.D. Maskell
Gustav Gottheil was a person of great influence in the development of American Reform Judaism, but his story has been largely forgotten. From 1873 to 1903, he was rabbi at Temple Emanu-el, the largest and wealthiest Reform Congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. A prolific author and public teacher, he was "a striking and dominating figure . . . in American Judaism at large." He was also controversial, criticized by some for his perceived openness to the ideals, institutions, and elites of American liberal Christianity. One editorialist wrote that he was "frequently accused of . . . ogling with Christianity, of servilely fawning upon it." Another suggested that when the history of American Reform Judaism was written, "ill-disposed critics [would] deny Gottheil his legitimate place," judging that he was "dragging the congregation into . . . un-Jewish paths" based on to his warm relations with urban Christian elites.
This essay is a study of the complex dynamics of Gustav Gottheil's relationship to American Christianity. It argues that Gottheil believed America was in profound religious transition. In spite of the fact that American culture was dominated by Christian normativity, liberal Christians who were giving up their Trinitarian dogmas were actually becoming Reform Jews—"Modern Christianity," he said in 1885, "is ancient Judaism." This trajectory left him in no doubt that Reform Judaism was the "only possible religion of the American future."
Throughout his ministry, Gottheil sought to advance the process of the conversion of American Christianity to Judaism. He entered into extensive dialogue and friendship with scores of liberal Christian leaders—the "ogling" and "fawning" for which he was criticized. His strategy was rarely to debate, but rather to inhabit their vocabulary. He spoke the religious language of the normatively Christian American culture, affirming the cultural impulses of the Christian nationalist vision while creatively renarrating them on Jewish foundations.
Faith Healing, Medical Regulation, and Public Religion in Progressive Era Chicago, by Timothy E.W. Gloege
This essay examines a six-year campaign against the radical faith healer John Alexander Dowie mounted in the 1890s by Chicago doctors, public health officials, and their "respectable" middle class allies. The incident demonstrates the important role of religion in the process of medical professionalization. Medical professionals established cultural authority by aligning themselves with a broader discourse of "orthodoxy"—an ill-defined set of beliefs and practices thought necessary to maintain social order. Protestants used this discourse both to exclude outsiders and unite elites across denominational lines. An initial attempt to prosecute Dowie based on legalistic claims of practicing medicine without a license led to a backlash against medical professionals by middle-class Protestants who believed it compromised the integrity of religious liberty. This suggests that the growing efficacy of medical advances was an insufficient basis of social authority. Only when medical professionals self-consciously aligned themselves with the Protestant establishment and portrayed themselves as defenders of the social order (focused especially on the integrity of the family) were they able to rally the middle classes to their cause. This shift in rhetoric was an important step in the process of creating a discourse of "orthodox" medicine. It helped grant medical professionals the right to oversee the public body just as elite Protestants superintended its soul.
"Just a Bunch of Agitators": Kneel-Ins and the Desegregation of Southern Churches, by Joseph Kip Kosek
Civil rights protests at white churches, dubbed "kneel-ins," laid bare the racial logic that structured Christianity in the American South. Scholars have investigated segregationist religion, but such studies tend to focus on biblical interpretation rather than religious practice. A series of kneel-ins at Atlanta's First Baptist Church, the largest Southern Baptist church in the Southeast, shows how religious activities and religious spaces became sites of intense racial conflict. Beginning in 1960, then more forcefully in 1963, African American students attempted to integrate First Baptist's sanctuary. When they were alternately barred from entering, shown to a basement auditorium, or carried out bodily, their efforts sparked a wide-ranging debate over racial politics and spiritual authenticity, a debate carried on both inside and outside the church. Segregationists tended to avoid a theological defense of Jim Crow, attacking instead the sincerity and comportment of their unwanted visitors. Yet while many church leaders were opposed to open seating, a vibrant student contingent favored it. Meanwhile, mass media—local, national, and international—shaped interpretations of the crisis and possibilities for resolving it. Roy McClain, the congregation's popular minister, attempted to navigate a middle course but faced criticism from all sides. The conflict came to a head when Ashton Jones, a white minister, was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for protesting outside the church. In the wake of the controversy, the members of First Baptist voted to end segregation in the sanctuary. This action brought formal desegregation—but little meaningful integration—to the congregation."
Antirevivalism and Its Discontents: Liberal Evangelicalism, the American City, and the Sunday School, 1900-1929, by Matthew Bowman
This article examines the rise of anti-revivalism among a certain strain of American evangelicals in the first years of the twentieth century. It argues that, influenced by the new discipline of psychology of religion and growing fear of the chaotic environment of the early twentieth-century city, these evangelicals found revivalist evangelicalism to be psychologically damaging and destructive of the process of Christian conversion. Instead, they conceived of a form of evangelicalism they called "liberal evangelicalism," which repudiated the emotional and cathartic revivalist style of worship and, instead, insisted that evangelicalism could be rational, moderate, and targeted toward the cultivation of socially acceptable virtues. The venue they chose to pursue this form of evangelicalism was the Sunday school. Throughout the nineteenth century, liberal evangelicals feared, the Sunday school had emerged as a revival in miniature, one in which teachers were encouraged to exhort their students to come to cathartic, emotional conversion experiences—a strategy that had found its apotheosis in the "Decision Day," a regular event in which students were subjected to emotional preaching and encouraged to confess their faith in Christ. Though the Decision Day was itself an evangelical attempt to deal with the transient nature of the city, liberal evangelicals began, in the early twentieth century, to redefine it in ways that would better facilitate the sort of gradual and developmental form of conversion in which they placed their. Leading the effort was George Albert Coe, a professor and Sunday school organizer who used his school to experiment with such reforms.
Winter 2013 Volume 23 Number 1
Contemporary Mormonism: America's Most Successful "New Religion," with contributions by Terryl L. Givens, Kathryn Lofton, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, and Patrick Q. Mason
For this issue's FORUM, we asked our participants to comment on contemporary Morminism from the perspective of their respective disciplines, fields of study, and research. For the purposes of this FORUM, the editors have assumed that Mormonism is "America's most successful 'new religion.'" Each of the four participants in the FORUM has been asked to reflect on that judgment as well as on one of four particular aspects of the Mormon experience: Mormonism and the family, Mormonism in popular culture, Mormons and gender issues, and Mormonism and politics.
Our decision to select this topic for the FORUM was triggered by a variety of contemporary developments as well as by the powerful and significant group of scholars who are at work in the area of Mormon studies and in the larger field of American religious history. We thought it an appropriate moment in time to reflect on the contemporary situation of the Mormon community.
The Humbug in American Religion: Ritual Theories of Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism, by David Walker
ABSTRACT: This essay examines critical modes and dependencies of mid-nineteenth century spiritualism. It looks at the relationship between the ritual dynamics and promotional framings of rappings and seances, and it considers the contested location of those practices within nineteenth-century theories of religion. The argument is threefold: that components of spiritualist practice are better understood alongside certain commercial enterprises; that their examination demands reconsideration of the relative importance of belief, intellection, and criticism in religious ritual; and that, in light of nineteenth-century Americans' own critical thinking on these matters, we understand better the ways in which spiritualism itself became both a location and datum for Americans' definitions of religion. The long-ignored religious theory of P. T. Barnum supports reclamation of the Fox sisters' own ritual practices even as it illustrates the processes by which they were gradually exorcised from American religions, spiritualism, and their historiography. Meanwhile, evidence from court records, newspaper reports, and the professional careers of mediums and their debunkers aids reconstruction of a religious movement that consisted largely, for a time, in the formal recognition of its own skepticism and operational intrigue.
"Doubts still assail me": Uncertainty and the Making of the Primitive Baptist Self in the Antebellum United States, by Joshua Guthman
ABSTRACT: Though forged in the fires of the early nineteenth-century evangelical revivals, Primitive Baptists became the most significant opponents of the burgeoning antebellum evangelical movement. The Primitives were Calvinists who despised missionaries, Sunday schools, Bible tract societies, and the other accoutrements of evangelical Protestantism. This article contends that a feeling of uncertainty dominated Primitive Baptists' lives, catalyzed their movement's rise, and fueled their strident opposition to the theological and organizational changes shaping churches across the country. For Primitive Baptists, it wsa their questioning—especially their experiences of persistent doubt—that set them apart from evangelicals. The uncertainty that colored Primitive Baptist selfhood motivated believers rather than paralyzed them. It propelled them toward a community of like-minded souls, and it stirred those souls to action as a more ardent brand of evangelical Protestantism crowded church pews. It is in the Primitives' uncertain selves—not in their theology of socio-economic condition—that we find the most compelling explanation of their movement's unlikely rise.
Yoga for the New Woman and the New Man: The Role of Pierre Bernard and Blanche DeVries in the Creation of Modern Postural Yoga, by Joseph Laycock
ABSTRACT: Pierre Bernard and his wife, Blanche DeVries, were among the earliest proponents of postural yoga in Amerca. In 1924, they created the Clarkstown Country Club, where yoga was taught to affluent and influential clientele. The network created through this endeavor not only popularized yoga in the West but also advanced the reinvention of yoga as science of health and well-being rather than as a religious practice.
This article suggests that the pair's success in marketing yoga coincided with a shift in gender roles underway at the turn of the century. Economic and cultural changes led to the rise of a "New Woman" who was not only more financially independent but also more socially and sexually autonomous. At the same time, a crisis of masculinity led to the rise of the "New Man" as men sought out new cultural forms through which to restore their sense of manhood. Bernard's success depended largely on his ability to capitalize on the perceiveD "otherness" of yoga, presenting it as a resource for Americans seeking to construct new forms of gender identity. Bernard borrowed from the physical culture movement and presented yoga as an antidote to the emasculating effects of modern society. DeVries taught a combination of yoga and sensual Orientalist dances that offered women a form of sexual autonomy and embodied empowerment. By utilizing these strategies, Bernard and DeVries helped lay important foundations for modern postural yoga and its associations with athleticism, physical beauty, and sexuality.