Nineteen and early twentieth century works by psychologists and sociologists frequently line the shelves of scholars of religion as canonical works in the theory and method of the field. Current historians of religion often admire and cite the work of contemporary sociologists, such as Robert Wuthnow and Wendy Cadge, and, increasingly, psychologists of religion, including T. M. Luhrmann. In light of the many layers of interactions among the disciplinary studies of religion, sociology, and psychology, a specific methodological issue arises for scholars of religion studying the past: when scholars of religion encounter historical works of disciplines in which they are not trained, particularly the social sciences, how can scholars respect the historical and current practice of the other discipline and also situate it within a history?
Scholars of religion have long attended to the historically-constructed category of religion and have more recently studied the history of the academic study of religion, both as heirs to assumed Euro-Christian or Euro-Protestant male ideas and practices. I contend that the practice of examining key categories in the field of the study of religion, whether one thinks scholars do it too much or too little, provides a repertoire for situating the historical works of other disciplines in their time, place, and relationship to religion. The repertoire includes approaching a text—be it scripture or sociology—from a variety of perspectives. Scholars might close read the text for the assumptions the author makes or what ideas the author prioritizes. They might search for whom the author of the text was in conversation, who read the text, whom the text was about, how the text was written, how the text was received, or how the text was read and used. Asking such questions will likely lead the scholar into the historical moment of the text, and of the discipline in which it participated. I do not mean to imply that the study of religion is the only field that has the tools to explore the historical works of other disciplines. Rather I suggest that the study of religion’s attention to the historical construction of seemingly quotidian categories, as well as to a range of methodological approaches, can inform the scholar of religion studying disciplines of the past. Approaching the text thoroughly and precisely can limit the scope such that the claims the scholar makes about the text from another discipline are specific analyses of particular conversations.
That said, writing about works in other disciplines can feel delicate. When I identify assumptions about how a sociologist from the 1950s understood the relationship of morality, ethnicity, neighborhood, and crime, I worry that I am inadvertently critiquing the present discipline of sociology, and therefore making a much bigger claim than I am prepared to make. The concern points to a difficult aspect of interdisciplinarity: a scholar in one discipline simply might not know the foundational theories and methods or the current state of the field in another discipline. Such disciplinary distinctions might not matter in the broad sense that anyone from any discipline ought to be able to study any text, or any aspect of culture for that matter, as Kathryn Lofton might posit. Yet, even if the distinctions should not be limiting, scholars practice and have practiced habits of disciplinary distinctions so long and so seriously that they merit consideration when studying a scholarly text of the past. So what might thinking about the categories and assumptions of other disciplines historically look like?
The Example of Studying G. Stanley Hall
Judith Weisenfeld’s analysis of psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) in a section of African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945 and Mark Jordan’s in a chapter of Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality provide instructive examples for how scholars of religion can approach studying the disciplines of the past. Hall founded the Journal of American Psychology, served as the first president of the American Psychological Association, and pioneered thinking in the United States about the psychological development of the adolescent. Serving as the first head of the National Education Association’s child-study department, he thought that the scientific study of child development could influence education reform. Though his own religious narrative is of moving away from Puritan orthodoxy, Jordan says, religion nevertheless remained a key category in his research.
Both Weisenfeld and Jordan focus primarily on Hall’s two-volume 1904 tome Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education, and Jordan also investigates Hall’s other writings in relationship to Adolescence. They approach Hall’s work with questions about how Hall characterized religion, race, gender, and sexuality, uncovering how central these categories were to Hall’s goals for civilization, and how in fact Hall categorized people(s) as more or less advanced by these categories.
Jordan studies patterns of church rhetoric about sexuality over time and thinks it is important to start with the emergence of English-speaking discussions about sexuality and adolescence, both found in Hall before in churches. He says that Hall describes adolescence in terms of Christian conversion or baptism—as an opportunity for an adult life of Christian values. In this time of life, already characterized on Christian terms, the adolescent is both religiously and sexually malleable and vulnerable. On Jordan’s account, without religion, Hall thinks that adolescent “‘perversion,’” “‘hoodlumism, juvenile crime, and secret vice’” abound. To uncover the relationship among sexuality, religion, and adolescence in Hall, Jordan explores Hall’s silences. Hall barely mentions the sexual character other psychologists at the time termed “homosexuals” or “inverts.” Nevertheless, Jordan says that fears about “homosexuality” shaped Hall’s rhetoric and meaning. Adolescents would begin to learn about sexuality that was “good and normal”, meaning sex within marriage, sexuality that was “bad and normal,” such as adultery, but Hall primarily left sexuality that was “dangerous” in references to other scholars’ work. Jordan also describes Hall’s concern that a group of “inverts” were attracted to the church and subverting it.
Weisenfeld too is conscientious of Hall’s rhetoric, and additionally how Hall’s ideas about gender and race shaped practice in the YWCA. She shows how Hall’s aspirations for producing the most advanced civilization directly influenced YMCA and YWCA programming. As the YMCA and YWCA “emphasized ‘character building,’” they “placed [Hall’s] recapitulation theory of human development at the center of their programs,” Weisenfeld shows, drawing on David MacLeod’s extensive discussion of the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and Hall. Weisenfeld writes that “In ‘primitive’ civilization, Hall asserted, the roles of men and women were similar; the divergence of these roles reflects the advanced stage of white American civilization.” Hall thought that girls should be socialized to bring out their “intuitive natures” and should avoid higher education “based on the ‘scholarly consensus’ that excessive mental activity results in infertility in women or the creation of ‘bachelor women,’ that is to say, unmarried women or, worst of all, lesbians.” Weisenfeld goes on to write that Hall thought that certain peoples, including African Americans were “‘adolescent race[s]’” and needed guidance similar to girls. Weisenfeld argues that this view “incorporated aspects of fear of black sexuality as well as the construction of people of African descent as ‘natural’ and ‘childlike.’” These ideas influenced programming, particularly at the YMCA, as MacLeod shows, but also to a degree at the YWCA. Weisenfeld describes how Harlem’s black YWCA, comprised largely of people considered “less advanced” according to various aspects of Hall’s theory, did and did not apply his theory to their organization. She shows that the YWCA was equally concerned with ideas of personal morality found in the Social Gospel as they were in “character-building.”
Weisenfeld and Jordan explore both how Christian ideas influenced Hall and how Hall influenced Christian institutions—with Jordan putting more influence on rhetoric than practice and Weisenfeld attentive to both. In order to address their questions about Hall’s influence on Christian rhetoric and YWCA practice, they describe who Hall was reading and how Hall’s work influenced various organizations. Categories relating to gender, race, sexuality, and religion had particular meanings in Hall’s early twentieth century and to Hall specifically. Weisenfeld and Jordan illuminate how Hall’s contributions shaped understandings of religion, gender, race, and sexuality in the YWCA and Christian church contexts. By studying how Hall approached these categories, both scholars are able to make specific claims about a psychological work from the past.
Social Scientific Research in the Context of Religion and Public Education
Weisenfeld’s and Jordan’s approaches have aided my own research on religion and public education later in the twentieth century. In one example, psychologist and education researcher William C. Kvaraceus’s 1945 Juvenile Delinquency and the School provides a novel frame for studying the history of religion and public education. Based on Kvaraceus’s Harvard dissertation research in Passaic, New Jersey through his appointments as Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Charge of Guidance, Research, and Curriculum, as well as Director of the Passaic Children’s Bureau, the book was an early effort by Kvaraceus on the topic of juvenile delinquency and the school. By the time the book was published, Kvaraceus was Assistant Professor of Education at Boston University. He went on to be a leader in the field, running the National Education Association’s Juvenile Delinquency Project in the late 1950s.
Like Hall’s, Kvaraceus’s study does not claim to be primarily about religion. Yet assumptions about what religion in public life looks like and the relationship among religion, juvenile delinquency, and the public school inform how Kvaraceus suggests schools approach delinquency prevention. One chapter focuses on a study on the relationship between church attendance and delinquency. The results of the study suggest that church attendance seemed to have little impact on delinquency rates, although the results vary some by religious affiliation and gender. Taken on its own, the study might indicate that religion and juvenile delinquency have little to do with each other; however, the assumptions behind even the study’s set-up suggest otherwise.
First of all, Kvaraceus and his research team use the term “church” to mean site of religious worship. In the category of “church,” they include the synagogue, meaning that the Christian idea of church symbolized all sites of religious worship. Secondly, “church attendance” signifies the most significant part of religion, even though the study mentions that the Jewish tradition finds certain activities at home to be sacred. Thirdly, and most importantly, the study pits church attendance against juvenile delinquency, indicating that the church ought to foster behavior that would prevent delinquency, an idea dating back to Hall’s Adolescence forty years earlier. Delinquency is characterized as a deficit in students’ moral behavior that a church might instill.
The study goes on to suggest that organizations such as the YMCA and church-influenced youth groups might be more effective in preventing delinquency than simply church attendance. Kvaraceus thus divides religion into two categories: the “old” religion of rules and the “new” religion, which is more relaxed and focused on religious ideals such as friendship and brotherhood. While I am certainly interested in how religious institutions incorporated the ideas in Juvenile Delinquency and the School, my main focus is how public schools included religious and social scientific ideas in their moral education curriculum. I have found that many public school programs on moral and spiritual values cited Kvaraceus or scholars doing similar research on how religious activities could prevent delinquency. The public school is not a religious organization as a church, the YMCA, or the YWCA is, but, historically, public schools’ moral education has mirrored Christian practices of moral instruction in certain ways. It is therefore unsurprising that schools found some of their values represented in Kvaraceus’s work, as churches and Christian community organizations did. Studying Juvenile Delinquency and the School involves becoming familiar with the sociological and psychological concerns about juvenile delinquency in the 1940s-50s, from academic experts and government institutions, in addition to the ones in religious communities.
Towards a Critical Interdisciplinary Religious History
Weisenfeld’s and Jordan’s discussion of Hall and my brief introduction of Kvaraceus suggest that schools, churches, and Christian organizations often cited psychological and sociological research as science to support their programming and rhetoric. At the same time, they may have been drawn to some of the Christian ideas and framing in Hall’s or Kvaraceus’s work. Studying the past social scientific work of these disciplines suggests that the works are not value-neutral. That does not mean that the current practices of the disciplines are any less robust; it just goes to show that all disciplines have histories and assumptions.
My initial question asked about simultaneously respecting the past and present of a discipline other than one’s own and situating the past productions of a discipline in its historical context. By the very practice of taking seriously the claims and circumstances of Hall’s psychological texts, Weisenfeld and Jordan do respect the past and present of the discipline. Respecting disciplinary difference and situating disciplines historically are not at odds—rather, the practices inform, if not rely on each other. If one can come to understand, however modestly, the past and present language of the discipline one engages, then the interdisciplinary conversations can produce fruitful explorations of the intersections of past and present ideas.
Leslie Ribovich is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religion in the Americas at Princeton University. She is writing a dissertation on the history of moral education, racial desegregation, and religion in New York City public high schools from the 1950s-1980.
*Image Credit: Wikimedia (Public Domain) and unz.org.