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Upon Further Review: Interdisciplinarity and the Edited Volume

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

by Charles McCrary

Kathryn Gin Lum’s review of John Carlson and Jonathan Ebel’s edited collection From Jeremiad to Jihad (in the June 2014 issue of Church History) offers a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of disciplinarity and genre in scholarship. Lum’s reaction to the book is similar to mine when I read it. It’s a somewhat cumbersome and disjointed book, and the tone and angle varies significantly from essay to essay. (As a side point, I should say that Lum’s review is a good model for how to review an edited collection, which is very difficult—especially when it has fifteen essays.) The book’s unevenness is valuable because it helps the reviewer and reader to focus on the organizing tropes of the book. What threads run throughout? One theme Lum highlights is what she calls the “moral undertones” of the volume. The essays, she writes, “are united in their refusal to essentialize religion as inherently violent and refusal to find violence in ‘every corner of American history and culture’…Despite the heavy subject, an undercurrent of hope pervades the volume as a whole…” It’s worth asking, about this book and about edited collections in general, if a volume’s “undercurrent” is a product of the likemindedness of individual authors or of their organization by the editors. How might the book be read differently, for instance, if the final five essays, on ethics, instead were the first five? Again, this is another peculiarity of the genre edited collection.

The book and Lum’s review call our attention to discipline and the potential and promise of interdisciplinary scholarship. For an interdisciplinary—or, perhaps, antidisciplinary—approach to be most effective, the theme or topic must be clearly and defensibly defined. Lum gestures toward this point in her review, though she does not address it head-on. She identifies an undercurrent that links the essays, but there is also a topic, and object of study. That object—data set, if you will—is religious violence in America. For all fifteen authors and the two editors to agree on the meaning of any one of these three words would be an unlikely feat. How, then, to organize a set of essays from multiple disciplines around a contested and malleable topic without it collapsing into a babble of confusion? One way would be to engage in an interrogation of the organizing categories themselves: religious, violence, America. And the volume, as Lum indicates, does this to some degree. Another way would be to define very clearly what each author means by these terms, which most essays do not do explicitly. We can be more specific here. Is “religious violence in America” a sufficient trope around which to organize essays written by historians, ethicists, political scientists More bluntly, what do reflections on religious responses to the Virginia Tech shooting, a historical examination of uses of the trope of the Amalekite, and a debate about the justness of war have to do with each other? That’s a lot of work for such a short unclear phrase, “religious violence in America,” to do. As Lum writes, the essays do share undertones. A mood, a disposition. Is that enough to organize a body of scholarship?

Charles McCrary is a Ph.D. Student in American Religious History at Florida State University. You can find him on Twitter.

The Imagined Atheist in Colonial America

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

by Paul Putz

Arthur Scherr’s recent Church History article (“Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife”) has already elicited numerous responses at this blog, and I do not wish to add to them. However, I would like to use one of Scherr’s major themes as a jumping off point: his analysis of Jefferson’s attitude towards atheism.

Although Scherr deals mainly with Jefferson’s uniquely positive views on atheism expressed in his post-Revolution writings, it is the concept of atheism as it developed in colonial America that particularly intrigues me. This is because (to quote James Turner’s classic Without God, Without Creed), “America does not seem to have harbored a single individual before the nineteenth century who disbelieved God.” If that’s the case then why did the colonists – from as early as the settlement of Jamestown – seem to have no problem discovering atheists in their midst?

Nearly thirty years ago in an article for Church History Winton Solberg briefly addressed that question, arguing (with Hobbes and Descartes in mind) that in early-eighteenth-century America, “the new science created anxieties that expressed themselves as a fear of atheism, which took many forms at the time.” But even without anxiety about enlightenment thought, colonists could readily find atheists. What we typically mean when we say “atheist” — one who believes and proclaims that God does not exist — was considered by most colonists to be merely one type of atheist: the speculative or professed atheist. This type was exceedingly rare. For example, on a voyage to America in 1740, the sight of a pilot fish caused George Whitefield to reflect that “[t]his single Sight (one would think) is sufficient to confute any Atheist, if there be such a Fool as a speculative Atheist in the World.” But atheism of the heart, or practical atheism – living and behaving as if God did not exist? As Increase Mather put it in 1716, “The World is swarming full of Practical Atheists.”

The concept of atheism of the heart was easy for the colonists to articulate because it had biblical precedent in Psalm 14:1: “the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.” Just because one did not verbally express his/her atheism did not mean she/he was not an atheist. One’s words and works, if not in accordance with the community’s standards of Christian morality, could reveal the atheistic state of one’s heart. It should be no surprise, then, that young wits with their unbridled, scoffing tongues – often frequenting coffee houses and taverns – were typically associated with atheism.

But regardless of why colonists so easily found atheists in their midst and regardless of how their definition of an atheist might differ from ours, the most important point is that any discourse about atheism or the atheist in colonial America – at least any published and public discourse – was a one-sided affair. As far as we know, there were no individuals claiming the atheist label for themselves (atheism was, after all, illegal in most colonies). And even when deists like Thomas Young, Ethan Allen, or Thomas Paine eventually published pamphlets expressing their deistic views, they made sure to distance themselves from the label of atheism (in Paine’s case hurling the label right back at his Christian opponents).

Given this reality, it seems to me that exploring popular-level discourse related to the atheist would be a useful enterprise. I’m thinking here especially of the imagined caricature of the atheist. Certainly warring pamphleteers often accused their theological or political opponents of encouraging the spread of atheism. And scholars have rightly pointed out that atheism was often conflated with various forms of subversive or skeptical beliefs. But it would be more interesting, in my view, to look at the character traits that were associated specifically with the atheist when he (and from what I’ve seen it was usually a “he”) was imagined in sermons, pamphlets, and newspapers.

One example of a popular depiction of an atheist came from The Second Spira, a morality tale that became a publishing sensation in England in 1693 and was subsequently published in America several times between 1693 and 1777. The Second Spira (yes, there was a first Spira – he was a Catholic apostate) told the “true” story of a young man, the pride of his family, who left home to study law. He soon fell into bad company, consorting with impious friends. What began with “bare Laughter, or a ridiculous Grin” advanced into more serious arguments. For example, his new friends claimed “That Mahomet has more Votaries than Christ…That the wild Indians dare bravely dye for their Religion” and consequently, “its not the Excellency of any one Religion…’tis the Habit and Custome of Education that creates the formidable Notions of Conscience, Heaven, Hell, Futurity and the Immortality of the Soul, all which are but the politick inventions of Priests and cunning Magistrates to enrich themselves.”

The slippery slope to damnation continued, and soon the young man and his friends had formed a secret atheistic club, where they committed various wicked acts. However, as often happens with atheists when they are written about in Christian morality tales, tragedy struck. The young man became deathly ill, so ill that he asked a minister to visit him. In the process of the visit the minister (using Locke and Descartes combined with the Bible) ably refuted the young man’s atheistic philosophical notions. The young man sadly proclaimed: “Oh unhappy Time, when first I imbib’d these Atheistical Principles! When first I exchanged the Christian Faith for the Creed of Spinoza and the Leviathan! When first I relinquish’d all reveal’d Religion for the natural one, and the last for none at all.” Then, he writhed about in hellish agony – vividly described, which helps to explain why the pamphlet was so popular. Finally, after crying out “Oh the insufferable Pangs of Hell and Damnation,” the young man died.

Even if there were no “true” atheists (by modern standards) around at the time, depictions of atheists like that in the The Second Spira (or another one of my colonial favorites, a poem titled “The Atheist and the Acorn”) can help us better understand the fears and ideas of the creators and consumers of the imagined atheist. And perhaps they might also offer insight into the long history of negative stereotypes and attitudes about atheists in America, attitudes that linger even today.

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He can be found online at or you can follow him on twitter @p_emory.

Money and the Heresy of Joel Osteen

Monday, September 8th, 2014

By Thomas J. Whitley

Make no mistake, Joel Osteen is a heretic. This according to Matt Walsh (popular blogger) and Albert Mohler (President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Cries of heresy are neither new nor particularly unique, though it seems that the word is bandied about less frequently today than it was for much of church history. Such prominent early writers as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Augustine, Epiphanius, and John of Damascus all openly wrote against heretics. These early writers understood it as their responsibility to keep the church theologically “pure” and to cast as outsiders those with whom they disagreed. Walsh and Mohler have chosen to carry the same banner for modern conservative American evangelicalism.

Albert Mohler writes of the “Prosperity Gospel” that the Osteen’s preach as an “American heresy.” Matt Walsh is much less subdued and comes right out of the gate calling the Osteens heretics in the title of his post and speaks of the “rather heretical things” they have said to their “congregation” (Walsh puts congregation in quotes to portray his view that Lakewood is not a church. He also puts church in quotes for the same reason. Both are very deliberate classificatory moves). The identity formation angle is easy to see and hardly needs pointing out. Mohler and Walsh can quickly and effortlessly draw a line between the faithful and true Christians and everyone else by employing this one word.

Both take issue with recent comments made by Victoria Osteen in which she said,

Do good for your own self. Do it because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really -you’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.

Walsh uses these comments as a jumping off point to rebut the Osteen preaching that God wants to bless God’s followers by blessing them materially. The push back against the Prosperity Gospel is interesting to watch for a multitude of reasons, but one of the most interesting is the way in which suffering and a lack of material goods is equated with godliness, just as was the case with the ascetic and monastic movements in the 4th and 5th centuries. In response to a quote from Osteen that God will make one prosperous if they will but “declare words of victory,” Walsh says:

This is an interesting perspective, to be sure, especially considering that Americans live in relative wealth and luxury even though we are from from the most Biblically faithful people on the planet. In the Middle East there are millions of Christians who believe deeply and, rather than wealth and health, they are rewarded with torture and decapitation.

Thus, according to Walsh, those Christians who live in poverty in the Middle East are classified as “the most Biblically faithful people on the planet,” apparently because they believe and suffer, as opposed to American Christians who believe and do not suffer economic difficulties or persecution. No other reason for classifying these Christians as “Biblically faithful” is given or can reasonably be implied from Walsh’s comment. There is an unspoken assumption that the poorer a believer is and the more a believer suffers on account of their beliefs, the more pure and faithful that believer is. I am reminded of Candida Moss’ The Other Christs: Imitating Jesus in Ancient Christian Ideologies of Martyrdom (2010), of the writings of Jerome, and of the Pachomian Rules.

Though Mohler and Walsh are not preaching the same ascetic message and are not outright suggesting martyrdom as the only true way to follow Christ, hints of such a time in the church’s past can be seen in their critiques of the Osteens. Asceticism, at least as an ideal, has found its way to modern conservative American evangelicalism. It is not simply that one should not expect to be rewarded for their belief, but that those who have not been rewarded in this life are those who truly believe. We can, once again, determine one’s commitment to Christ by observing their suffering for Christ.

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University where he studies sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity. You can follow him on Twitter.

*Image courtesy flickr user cliff1066

Conference Announcement: “How Do We Study Religion and Emotion?”

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Readers of the blog may be interested in the following conference announcement:

How Do We Study Religion and Emotion?
A Conference at the National Humanities Center
February 19-20, 2015

The surge of interest in the study of religion and emotion is part of a broader “affective turn” currently taking place across the humanities. This conference will gather an international group of scholars to discuss ways of studying emotion in religion and to debate how our querying the very terms that we use to define our endeavors – emotion, affect, feeling, passion, desire, sentiment, and other terms – is crucial to effective deployment of them in investigating religion. The conference is co-sponsored by the American Academy of Religion and Florida State University. For more information contact:

Keynote Address
John Corrigan (Florida State University), “How Do We Study Religion and Emotion?”

Diana Fritz Cates (University of Iowa)
Anna Gade (University of Wisconsin at Madison)
M. Gail Hamner (Syracuse)
June McDaniel (College of Charleston)
David Morgan (Duke)
Sarah Ross (Universität Bern)
Donovan Schaefer (Oxford)
Mark Wynn (University of Leeds)

For more information, please click here.

Upon Further Review: Religious Dispositions and Tastes

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

by Jacob Hicks

Upon reading Mark Hanley’s review of Nicholas P. Miller’s The Religious Roots of the First Amendment (2012) [in the June issue of Church History], the following appraisal of Miller’s work stood out: “While most of Miller’s pages are devoted to establishing dissenting Protestantism’s influence among colonial founders and the Revolutionary generation, it is his complementary emphasis on the religious disposition of ordinary Americans that represents this study’s most important contribution” (470, emphasis mine). In the culturally Protestant culture of the late colonial era and early republic, the dissenting Protestant idea of people exercising the right of private judgment in matters of faith was quite appealing to much of the populace, which contributed to the new nations’ citizenry ratifying the First Amendment’s religion clauses. In other words, they had developed a taste for wanting to express their religious opinions freely.

By mentioning how Miller highlights the religious dispositions of the people, I wonder if Hanley is pointing out the emergence of a new trend in American religious history that focuses on a people’s dispositions or tastes in examining religion. One other book that seeks to accomplish the same goal is Eric Slauter’s The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Slauter notes how “to many Americans at the end of the eighteenth century, the most natural and legitimate government was precisely the one that could claim cultural origins” (12). He cites Montesquieu, one of the most widely-read philosophers among the Revolutionary generation, favorably when Montesquieu contends that “government most comfortable to nature is that which best agrees with the humor and disposition of the people in whose favor it is established” (12). So, part of Slauter’s book examines sources that comment upon the architecture and portraiture of the period. He argues that from these cultural artifacts that everyday people encountered, the Founders drew metaphors for forming the government: “framing” the government from architecture and “representation” in government from portraiture.

Both Religious Roots, at least according to Hanley,and The State as a Work of Art are examinations into the dispositions and tastes of regular people that influence the creation of the Constitution. What would it look like to take such an emphasis and apply it to other eras of American religious history or the history of Christianity? Might it provide yet another tool in the scholar’s toolbox for one to get beyond writing historical works that focus on elites?

Jacob Hicks is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. His research focuses on the history of American religion.

“Be sure your sins will find you out”: On purity and the Christian body, from the Donatist controversy to Bob Coy and Mark Driscoll

Monday, August 25th, 2014

By Jennifer Collins-Elliott

“God will not be mocked,” declared Calvary Chapel’s Outreach pastor Chet Lowe in the wake of the “moral failure” of fellow pastor Bob Coy this April. Lowe spoke of the love and forgiveness that he and the parishioners should extend to Coy, but he was certainly no longer going to lead the congregation. In addition to his position as senior pastor at the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida megachurch, Coy was the host of a popular Christianity podcast available on iTunes. Among the most prevalent topics that Coy covered in his podcast and in print media was marriage. However, since the nature of Coy’s sinful transgressions included adultery and the consumption of pornography, the podcast, Active Word Radio Podcast, was not only suspended but his sermons concerning marriage were scrubbed from iTunes and from Calvary Chapel’s website. Church web pastor Dan Hickling responded to outraged listeners and readers, explaining that the church made this choice in order to protect Coy from those who might “misuse” his teachings in light of the scandal.

Mark Driscoll

As someone who studies Early Christianity, I was unfamiliar with the Coy incident and the subsequent censoring of his teachings. However, even I am familiar with notorious lightening-rod Mark Driscoll, who has been in the news this month. On August 8, Mars Hill Church, Driscoll’s pastoral home, was removed from membership in the Acts 29 church planting network, which Driscoll himself had co-founded. The next day LifeWay Christian Resources, with both brick-and-mortar stores and a commercial website, announced that they would no longer be carrying Driscoll’s books. Over at Christianity Today, author Ruth Moon, who had also covered the Bob Coy drama for the magazine, posed a question that struck me: “following a moral failing[, s]hould Christians stop studying the teachings of fallen pastors?” Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean at Fuller Theological Seminary, responded thusly:

When leaders step away from ministry because of moral failure, their written and recorded teachings should be suspended for a season. Once restored—changed and humbled—to ministry, their teachings can become available again, telling the story of God’s goodness and restoration.

As I read this and other responses that Moon had gathered from Evangelical leaders, I heard echoes of a distant debate that had similarly rocked Christian North Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries CE: the Donatist controversy.

In the wake of the Diocletian persecutions in the late third and early fourth centuries, a group of disgruntled Christians coalesced around the leadership of Donatus. During the persecutions, a number of clerics, later deemed traditores or “traitors,” surrendered Christian holy texts to the Roman state. After the reign of Diocletian and the end of the persecutions, the “traitor” priests continued to preach, preside over Mass, and to confer the sacraments. However, after Caecilian was made bishop of Carthage by an alleged “traitor” cleric in 311/312, Donatus and his followers were impelled to form their church “of the saints.” Not only did this group feel the need to separate themselves from the traditores and their spiritual progeny, but they even went so far as to rebaptize members who had been baptized by any priests who had participated in betraying God. The Donatist controversy encompasses any number of complex theological issues, but at the heart of the schism was the betrayal of both God and the broader Christian community as well as the matters of sinfulness/purity.

It is on these two points that the 21st century and the 4th century converge. For the Donatists there was concern that the impurity of the priests and bishops administering sacraments like Baptism and Communion would sully and make illegitimate those blessings on the lay recipients (a point which Augustine thoroughly examines and rejects in his On baptism, against the Donatists [De baptismo contra Donatistas]); for modern Evangelical Christian churches like Calvary Chapel or Mars Hill, this same anxiety is found, but around the subject of interpretation of the Bible and teaching. Mark Driscoll has been encouraged to step-down from ministry and was removed from the Acts 29 network for “ungodly and disqualifying behavior,” including allegations of abusive conduct from former Mars Hill pastors. Additionally, his books have been taken off the shelves at Christian retailers and he has been removed from speaking engagements, such as a series of “Act Like Men” conferences starting this October in Dallas. Bob Coy didn’t merely resign, he “confessed to the board of directors” and he “stepped down from ministry because he honors God.” His teachings on marriage, once promoted by his church and on his podcast, were put on restricted access. Coy and, increasingly, Driscoll are being quarantined—the marginalization of these figures and their teachings are not unlike the boycotts of “traitor” priests in 4th century North Africa. The “church of the saints” rebaptized those who had been exposed to a tainted sacrament at the hands of the traditores. Acts 29 and Calvary Chapel have similarly purified their ranks in order to protect, as they believe, the infallible and inerrant word of God by shielding the Christian body from the teachings of those deemed morally inadequate, at least until they are “changed and humbled.”

Post-script: As of this morning, Mark Driscoll has announced that he will be taking at least a six-week leave of absence from his position at Mars Hill Church. In-keeping with the themes of silence until appropriately redeemed and protecting the purity of the church and its message, Driscoll noted that “the same media channels that can be used to carry a sermon to virtually anyone around the globe can also be used by anyone around the globe to criticize, attack or slander,” but that, “another part of it is simply my fault, and I will own it, confess it, and move on from it as God continues to redeem me.”

 Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, ““Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust”: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.

Imagining the Past: Creating Monuments and Memory in Late Antiquity

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

by Tara Baldrick-Morrone

I was preparing to write a post for the ASCH blog that discussed my recent research on the cult of the saints during the late fourth-century papacy of Damasus (366–384) when a New York Times op-ed released on Tuesday caught my attention. In “Why Our Monuments Matter,” the author, Nikos Konstandaras, seeks to express his dismay at the destruction of several “ancient monuments and shrines” that the group known as the Islamic State has perpetrated over the past few months. For example, a video that surfaced in late July shows the sudden explosion of a site near Mosul that was known as the tomb of the prophet Jonah, a monument that was considered sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Commenting further on the general state of affairs in Syria and Iraq, Konstandaras writes, “Mesopotamia, a cradle of world civilization … is ravaged today by psychopaths with armored trucks, swords, and genocidal zeal. Living in an eternal present rooted in an imagined past, the militants are obsessed with destroying all that is unlike them.” The monuments that they have destroyed are a concern for Konstandaras not solely for their status as “treasures of the past,” but more so for their value in the present, as they are “our guide and our shield.”

A few different but not unrelated issues came to mind after reading this. First, one of the things that strikes me about this op-ed is not Konstandaras’ obvious dismissal of the Islamic State as “psychopaths” who represent a “mass delusion of people who have no frame of reference” (labels that no doubt are meant to discredit them and their ideologies). Rather, what stands out to me is the way in which the militants are described as clinging to an “imagined past.” Here, I do not take him to be saying what scholars of religion like Jonathan Z. Smith mean when they talk about how groups (mainly scholars) “imagine” religion, or how Candida Moss and Elizabeth Castelli describe early Christian communities “imagining” themselves as part of a cosmic struggle during times of persecution. Instead, Konstandaras’ use of “imagined” here seems to imply that this past purported by the Islamic State is made up of nothing but fantasy and falsehood. In contrast to this fabricated past, though, the monuments that they have destroyed are, in Konstandaras’ mind, bearers of the actual past, the one that is real. In thinking about this idea of what monuments represent, I was reminded of what the scholar James E. Young says in his writing about monuments and memory: “Monuments create and reinforce [a] particular memory of the past.” Applying this to Konstandaras, then, these monuments that he sees as preserving the past can be seen as preserving only one kind, one particular imagining, of the past.

My previously mentioned work on Damasus’ veneration of the saints constitutes one example of this kind of creative memory work that monuments do. At a time when Rome was no longer seen as antagonistic towards Christian groups (as this was decades after the Edict of Milan and the reign of Constantine, the early church’s biggest patron), the narrative about Christianity’s past in Rome greatly shifted. Because the church found itself with more social, economic, and political power than it previously had in the first few hundred years, the rhetoric of its relationship with Rome could no longer stand to see the Empire as the great persecutor. But, at the same time, as Dennis Trout argues, “It was not (and never could be) a matter of the simple rejection of all that the old past had to offer christianizing Romans; Damasus’ invention of early Christian Rome around the tombs of the saints relied as heavily upon remembering as forgetting.” It then became a matter of how best to link these two identities, Christian and Roman, together. One way that this was done was through the creation of large, hand-carved, marble plaques (known as elogia). These elogia, which were scattered throughout (and sometimes outside of) Rome, were placed at various martyrs’ tombs in commemoration of their lives and their deaths. These short messages, said to be written by Damasus himself, were the tools by which he could show Roman and Christian identities as complementary to one another. One way of doing this was by the style of writing. The elogia were written in hexameter verse, which was no doubt meant to be reminiscent of Roman epic poetry from authors like Ovid and Virgil. Moreover, there were even allusions to works like the Aeneid, which itself gives one particular imagining of Rome’s past. The martyrs themselves became part of the Roman narrative — through their deaths. An explicit example of this is seen in the elogium on the tomb of Saturninus, which reads:

Citizen now of Christ, formerly of Carthage,

The moment the sword pierced the Mother’s holy breast,

through her blood he changed country, name, and lineage;

the birth to the life of the saints made him a Roman citizen.

 According to Trout, the elogia, such as the one above, “reveal the mechanisms of appropriation and subversion that underwrote [the transformation of Rome] from the outset.” Going back to the quote from Young, this appropriation of the Roman narrative (or one of them, at least) through the use of hexameter, in addition to the “naturalization” of martyrs, serves to create a certain memory or presentation of the past that, I argue, serves a social function for the present. In this case, the “dominated” had become dominant, which therefore called for a refashioning (indeed, a reimagining) of a decidedly negative past with Rome.

Although this post only presents one example of how Christian groups used creative memory work to (re)imagine a particular past, what are some other examples, perhaps in your own work, of monuments (or texts, art, etc.) that function in the same way? How is the Christian past (re)imagined, and in what ways might that kind of work serve the present?

 Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a doctoral student at Florida State University. Her research interests include rhetoric about the body and disease in late antiquity, ancient medicine, and issues of method and theory in the academic study of religion by way of critical pedagogy. She can be contacted at tbaldrickmorrone at fsu dot edu and on Twitter.



Upon Further Review: Miller’s The Religious Roots of the First Amendment

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

This marks the first post in a new series, “Upon Further Review.” This series uses recent book reviews in Church History to think through broad questions in the study of the cultural history of Christianity. These are not “reviews of reviews.” Instead, they reflect the ongoing discussion around new books and new ideas in our field. Jeffrey Wheatley, a monthly contributor here at the blog, presents the inaugural post.

by Jeffrey Wheatley

In this brief post I would like to use Nicholas Miller’s The Religious Roots of the First Amendment and Mark Hanley’s review of Miller in Church History (June 2014)  as springboards to assess divisions in recent scholarship. Hanley begins his review by situating Miller’s work within a cadre of “religious historians” such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, who have in the past two decades struggled (and succeeded, to some extent) to gain scholarly capital against the tide of the “modern secular academy.” For Hanley the pivot point of this divide is the willingness to “take religious ideas seriously.” Of course, within the realm of scholars who take religion, or “religion”—the historical instances of subjects defining religion over against not-religion—seriously, there are a number of divisions as well. This is what I am currently interested in. Specifically, I ask: what methodological commitments undergird the works of the various scholars interested in these topics? Read the rest of this entry →

Recovering Previously Unheard Voices: Native Americans Pentecostals in the Assemblies of God

Monday, August 18th, 2014

By Angela Tarango

In my recent book Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle (UNC Press, 2014) I show how Native American Pentecostals took the Assemblies of God’s theology of missions, the indigenous principle, and transformed it into a tool that they used to critique the denomination’s treatment of Native believers and to demand more autonomy within Pentecostalism.  While the history of Pentecostalism in America is well documented in rich and varied ways, the greatest difficulty I faced in writing the book was trying to find the voices of the mid-twentieth century Native actors within the Assemblies of God.

Image Courtesy UNC Press

Today I want to talk about the importance of resurrecting the voices of minority groups within historically white denominations. While in graduate school we are taught about how theory and method affects our work, but we are often not taught how to work with archival sources to privilege minority voices, especially when those voices might be very hard to find, as it was in the case of my research. Therefore I will use this blog post to talk about the historian’s craft, and my experience in writing the history of Native Americans within the Assemblies of God.

I began the research for the book when I was a graduate student in American religious history at Duke. Like many graduate students, I didn’t realize what I was initially getting myself into. I had discovered that the AG had extensive missions to Native peoples, and I wanted to write about those missions, but no secondary literature existed, and there were only a few monographs that dealt with missionary work to Native peoples in the twentieth century. Little also existed that focused on Pentecostalism among Native Americans, and what did exist tended to be ethnographic. Initially, I considered doing ethnography—a study of an on-reservation Native American AG church, but issues of funding and time precluded this idea, and also I realized that ethnography would not help me capture the voices of the now deceased early to mid-twentieth century Native American Pentecostal leaders within the AG.  When I decided to not conduct a full-scale ethnography, I was left with only one option—the archives of the Assemblies of God. So I scraped together my graduate student pennies and set off for Springfield, MO, the home of Chinese Cashew Chicken, the Bass Pro World “Granddaddy” store, and the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

Anyone who studies Pentecostalism knows that periodical sources tend to make up the bulk of your primary sources.  Pentecostals often relied on Pentecostal periodicals to both connect believers and to spread the word of the movement. Pentecostals themselves—especially early Pentecostals, were a highly oral tradition within American religion. The saints don’t tend to write down their conversion narratives; instead they often internalize it, re-telling the story of how they were saved and then baptized by the Holy Spirit often hundreds of times during their life. In the act of re-telling they will often relate their experiences to the particular audience they are talking to, or tailor it for a particular moment. But this particular trait of Pentecostalism means that it is really hard to trace what actually happened, especially in the earliest years. This was an even bigger issue when it came to Native Americans. In the earliest years of the movement Native people tended to appear in Pentecostal periodicals as “heathen savages” that only existed to be saved. Few records were kept with info on the missions or missionaries and the faith mission aspect of early Pentecostal work in general made it hard to track down records.

So to reconstruct the history of Native Pentecostals within the Assemblies of God I combed Pentecostal periodicals, looking for any mention of Native people or mission stations on reservations. I kept a list of names of white missionaries and Native missionaries, of mission stations, and of themes within the articles. Soon patterns began to emerge, and I was able to map out which missionaries (both white and Native) were most active in mission work to Native peoples. The women were especially hard to find information on because they were usually referred to as “Sister John Smith”—their Christian names were not used in the periodicals well into the 1960s. Once I had the names of those involved established, I pulled any missionary files I could find, and searched the archives for any references to them. Many missionaries did not have an official file, or sometimes identifying information was spelled wrong. In some cases I found small stashes of letters, often for fundraising, pictures, and very rarely I stumbled across a few reminiscences, autobiographies, letters, or written down testimonials. Because white Pentecostals exercised editorial control over the periodicals I also knew that they were being written for a white audience, one that did not see Native voices often as any more than a novelty.  With that in mind I tried hard to read through the themes that emerged about Native Pentecostals in the periodicals and tried to discern what was really going on at mission stations. Once I had narrowed down the themes that emerged I used them as entry points to understanding certain aspects of Native Pentecostal life.

Even with all that work I did not have a wealth of information, so I made the decision to follow the lives of a few prominent Native missionaries that I had unearthed, and one female white missionary who had worked closely with Native leaders. I wove intertwining narratives based upon specific themes for my historical actors and decided to tell the story of Native Pentecostals in the Assemblies of God in that manner. I also tried to find meaning in places where the sources were silent—some strategically so, and I researched background information on the general history of Native people so that I could situate this history better.

Such a method had its setbacks of course. The voices of lay believers remains muted throughout the work, as it mainly focuses on Native leaders. Female Native evangelists are pretty much missing from the work, which for me, was a sore point. Although I knew they existed in the time period I wrote about, they were not covered anywhere in the documents I found—my guess is only oral histories or familial recollections would fix this problem. And by focusing on a group of select leaders the history is powerfully shaped by their vision of Native American Pentecostalism. Yet even with these drawbacks I feel that I captured the essence of Native Pentecostals’ engagement with the AG, and unpacked their important fight for autonomy and a voice within the denomination.

Young scholars should not get discouraged when they find that sources are scarce in the area they wish to study. This is especially true for scholars who focus on minority traditions, since in their case the sources may be biased or even scantier than normal.  The important point here is to do as much as you can with what you have: read between the silences, try to find corroborating information, and don’t be afraid to find creative ways to address the gaps, so long as you stay true to the sources and the history they contain. Because, as my graduate advisor Grant Wacker used to say (and I believed he picked up this quote from his friend David Steinmetz), the job of the historian is to “resurrect the dead and make them speak.”

Angela Tarango is assistant professor of religion at Trinity University. Her first book, Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principlewas published by UNC Press in 2014.


Bringing Religion to the Frontier

Friday, August 15th, 2014

by Andy McKee

In a speech given on May 26, 1826, titled “An Address to the Whites” Elias Boudinot, a Cherokee by birth, addressed First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia to raise funds for missionary activities in the southern United States. In it, he raised questions of race and religion to the community “What is an Indian? Is he not formed of the same material with yourself? For “of one blood God created all the nations that dwell on the face of the earth. Though it be true that he is ignorant, that he is a heathen, that he is a savage; yet he is no more than all others have been under similar circumstances. Eighteen centuries ago what were the inhabitants of Great Britain?” Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, American empire was thought about, created, and enacted on one of the most contentious and often hostile frontiers: the Southeast. In this post, I want to briefly discuss what I find most interesting about the framework that Boudinot worked and evangelized, while not forgetting that at the same instance, just a bit further south, Osceola was waging a “costly little war.”

Elias Boudinot (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Over the course of the summer, while not teaching, grading, holding office hours, or making off-hand tweets about the lack of hammocks in my office, the last several months have provided a great time for thinking about how religion and American empire interact and inform one another. In regard to the antebellum Cherokee religion that Boudinot worked to dismiss, American expansionism relied heavily on two court cases to answer the difficult question: “Do the Cherokees constitute a foreign State in the sense of the constitution?” On this question, Chief Justice Marshall famously declared that no; the Indians were “domestic, dependent nations,” subject to Federal control.

Yet, by the time the John Marshall’s Supreme Court heard Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, the collective imagery of the uncivilizable native was, for all intensive purposes, real. As Marshall wrote of the Cherokee in his opinion, “Their relations to the United States resemble that of a ward to his guardian. They look to our Government for protection, rely upon its kindness and its power, appeal to it for relief to their wants, and address the President as their Great Father.” Therefore, the legal cases surrounding the Indian nation – Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1830) and later Worchester v. Georgia (1832)– did the work of performing and offering particular details that intensified knowledges of race, religion, and American citizenship along the southeastern frontier region.

In casting the Cherokee as having no religion, the dominant position of Christian missionaries was established. In short order, laws, both local and federal, began to reflect the mentality of this powerful force and foreign policy issues regarding this most intimate of outsiders that were patterned by certain memories of violence and unrest. If antebellum America needed to manage and control rivalries between new states to survive, the Georgia cases suggest that expansion is and was not a series of simple, mechanically administered, organizational affairs, but instead yielded to the complicated nature of dealing Indian religions. From this framework of encountering empire, religious intolerance and violence became markers of how state interest in creating and protecting religious rights were not foregone conclusions.

The 1830s experiences of Boudinot and the relationship between America and various Native American nations within the expanding United States, I am suggesting, defines a scene in which the struggle for “proper citizenry” within American empire played out. Within the particularities of these specific events, a short speech given to a Northern Presbyterian audience, for example, operates “typical structures” of knowledge, exchange, and history that represent larger devices for thinking about interreligious interactions in America and the creation of broad categories such as “Christian” and, even more generally “religion.”

In the conclusion of his 1826 speech Boudinot remarked that the nation’s real “American” growth was constituted in the inhabitants who were an “industrious and intelligent people.” These potential great citizens, however, could not overcome the fact of not possessing a religion. Boudinot lamented: “The Cherokees have had no established religion of their own, and perhaps to this circumstance we may attribute, in part, the facilities with which missionaries have pursued their ends. They cannot be called idolaters; for they never worshipped Images. They believed in a Supreme Being, the Creator of all, the God of white, the red, and the black man. They also believed in the existence of an evil spirit who resided, as they thought, in the setting sun, the future place of all who in their life time had done iniquitously….The translation of the New Testament…has swept away that barrier which long existed, and opened a spacious channel for the instruction of adult Cherokees. Persons of all ages and classes may now read the precepts of the Almighty in their own language…” Boudinot’s approach to religion stresses how religious beliefs and attitudes were shaped in negative interactions between individuals and collective groups. The linkages between economics, Christianity, and civilization raises questions about how “religion” became one of many markers of difference used to solidify the once “open frontier” and put clear lines legally on the map.

Andy McKee is a doctoral student at Florida State University. He researches American religious history via labor movements, indigenous religions, and empire. He can be contacted at or on Twitter.