Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Progressive Evangelicals and Christian History

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Paul Putz

The history of contemporary progressive evangelicalism has now been the subject of two excellent scholarly books: David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Penn, 2012), and Brantley Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit and Social Justice (North Carolina, 2014).

Although I am in the middle of a typical busy graduate school semester, I couldn’t resist the temptation to immediately read Gasaway’s book when it arrived in my mailbox last week. Having previously read Swartz’s book, I can attest that the two books complement each other quite well. For example, while Swartz analyzed in greater depth the pioneering personalities involved in the movement, Gasaway focused more on tracing the development of a progressive evangelical public theology (as articulated in the leading publications associated with the movement). If you have an interest in the subject I highly recommend reading both books, which are available in affordable paperback or e-book editions.  And if you want a more thorough introduction to the themes and arguments of Gasaway’s book, you will find Swartz’s two-part interview with Gasaway at the Anxious Bench blog quite helpful (here is part 1 and here is part 2).

With the substance of the book set aside, I’d like to mention a more peripheral item that caught my attention while reading Gasaway’s introduction. Specifically, I was struck by his brief discussion of the connection between the rise of contemporary progressive evangelicalism and shifts in historiography related to American evangelicalism. As Gasaway pointed out, in the 1970s progressive evangelicals looked to the history of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism for “a ‘usable past’ that helped to justify their own activism.” Indeed, it was through the pages of progressive evangelical organ Sojourners (then the Post-American) that historian Donald Dayton first published the essays on nineteenth-century progressive evangelicalism that formed the foundation for what became his 1976 book Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.

While that book, which drew on the work of previous scholars like Timothy L. Smith, was intended for a popular audience, its rediscovery of socially conscious nineteenth-century evangelicals made it an influential force in both the academic world and among evangelicals on a more popular level. For progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, it “helped us understand that our longing to embrace the world was grounded in both Scripture and history” and “revealed the public evangelical faith that is our great inheritance.” Within the academic world, it was part of a larger trajectory in which Dayton became a leading critic of what he called the “presbyterianization of evangelicalism and evangelical historiography” represented by figures like historian George Marsden (in 1991, Church History published an article by Douglas Sweeney on this historiographical debate.)

Reading Gasaway’s brief mention of Dayton and of the way that some progressive evangelicals sought to position themselves as the true heirs of evangelicalism made me think about the different ways that the full scope of Christian history has been appropriated by the evangelical left and the evangelical right. While much attention is given to evangelical conflict over how to interpret the Bible, it’s clear that interpretations of Christian history hold at least some authority in evangelical debates as well. But since I’m unaware (largely for lack of searching) of a robust analysis of this topic, please feel free to use the comments to help me out.

As it turns out, Dayton’s 1976 book could have renewed relevance in today’s evangelical debates: next month Baker Academic is publishing a second edition, re-titling it Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage. “There is a desire, especially among young adults, for a form of scripturally based Christianity in which social justice is perceived as the natural outworking of deep faith,” Douglas Strong writes in the introduction, “an evangelicalism much like the one Dayton discovered from the 1800s, uncovered for the 1970s, and that can be rediscovered again for today.”

Molly Worthen’s blurb for the new edition seems to me a fitting way to end: “…the fight to determine who counts as an authentic American evangelical…continues 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.

A Transgender Thecla?

Monday, November 10th, 2014

By Thomas J. Whitley

The Acts of Thecla tells the legendary story of a woman from Iconium (modern day Konya, Turkey) who, after hearing Paul’s preaching, left her mother and her betrothed for a life of asceticism and sexual renunciation. Her story is a fascinating one to read. She escapes death, with God’s help, multiple times and even baptizes herself in a pool of seals that intended to devour her. She was praised as an apostle, a martyr, and an ideal ascetic woman. Her gender, though, is not stable in the text.

On the one hand, Thecla is feminized throughout the text. At one point Thecla is to be burned at the stake, “and when she came in naked the governor wept and admired the power that was in her” (Acts of Thecla 22; emphasis added). The author forces the reader to imagine Thecla’s naked female body tied to the stake.

Later, she tries to convince Paul to let her follow him wherever he goes. He denies her request because “times are evil and you are beautiful. I am afraid lest another temptation come upon you worse than the first and that you do not withstand it but become mad after men” (25). Thecla’s beauty and her apparent weakness (inherent in her femaleness) preclude her from doing what any male would have been able to do.

Thecla is in a different arena when she is thrown to the lions having been stripped, but having received a girdle (33). She then baptizes herself in the seal-filled pool and after a flash of lightning kills the seals Thecla is surrounded by a “cloud of fire so that the beasts could neither touch her nor could she be seen naked” (34). Again, the reader is directed to imagine Thecla’s nude feminine form behind the cloud.

On the other hand, Thecla is also masculinized in the text. She is independent, fends off an attempted rape, makes the attempted rapist a “laughing-stock” in the process (26), and baptizes herself (f.1). Masculinization of women is nothing new in early Christianity and it is always seen as a positive change in the status and gender of the person. In the Gospel of Thomas, for instance, Jesus says of Mary,

Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, being similar to you. Every woman, if she makes herself male, will enter the kingdom of heaven (f.2).

The masculinization of Thecla comes to a head, though, when she crossdresses and presents as male:

And Thecla longed for Paul and sought him, looking in every direction. And she was told that he was in Myra. And wearing a mantle that she had altered so as to make a man’s cloak, she came with a band of young men and maidens to Myra, where she found Paul speaking the word of God and went to him. (40)

While there are theories as to why Thecla crossdresses here, the text is silent as to the motivation. Was it so that she did not have to travel as an unaccompanied female? Was it to help her gain some authority or autonomy? Did it shield her from unwanted advances? Was there a spiritual motivation behind it? Did she see herself as having “become male,” as Jesus vowed to help Mary do in the Gospel of Thomas?

The answer is not clear, but it is clear that Thecla’s gender presentation changes throughout the text. Thecla does not simply shift from presenting as female to presenting as male, as if it were a gradual shift with a clear end goal. Indeed, early in the text in her request to follow Paul she said, “I will cut my hair off and I shall follow you wherever you go” (25). She offers to present as male but continues to present as (and be presented as) female throughout the text until the crossdressing episode. She then returns to presenting as female after the crossdressing episode.

Stephanie Cobb has written about how both masculinizing and feminizing females in early Christian martyrological literature served to keep them in their place (f.3) While on the one hand, it would have been unacceptable to present Christian women as becoming completely male and so the masculinization need to be balanced by a healthy dose of feminizing. On the other hand, this feminizing also served to reinforce the ideals of modesty and submission (f.4). I think that Cobb is completely right in her interpretation, but I wonder if it is time to add another layer to our interpretation, namely, one that reads characters like Thecla as transgender. This question seems especially crucial when a character has not simply been portrayed as having masculine characteristics like strength or autonomy, but has presented as male in the text. In other words, should we couple our analyses of gender construction with analyses of gender presentation in early Christian texts?

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.


(1) On autonomous women as “manly” see Stephanie Cobb, Dying to Be Men: Gender and Language in Early Christian Martyr Texts (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 92.
(2) Gospel of Thomas 114. Translation from Uwe-Karsten Plisch, The Gospel of Thomas: Original Text with Commentary (Stuttgart, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2008), 243.
(3) Cobb, Dying to Be Men, 92-123.
(4) Cobb, Dying to Be Men, 93.

*Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

What Year Is It? On women, authority, and the roots of Christian tradition

Monday, October 27th, 2014

by Jenny Collins-Elliott

“Did I just wander into the 17th century?” reddit user “Zrk2” asked in response to a discussion thread on the subreddit /r/TrueChristian (1) entitled: “Christian woman culture thoughts?” [sic] The poster, “SpecialU,” wanted to know what fellow, anonymous users of /r/TrueChristian—an online message board for “Bible-believing Christians” to discuss their religion and to answer questions from non-believers—thought about female Christian preachers like Joyce Meyer and women’s retreats, and if these pro-women messages didn’t constitute or lead to idolatry. In response to “Zrk2’s” 17th century comment, user “PetevonPete” wanted to push their ignorance even further into the past, saying, “Worse. /r/TrueChristian, more like 2nd century. BC. Don’t ask how that’s possible, they found a way.” Though writing in jest, I think “PetevonPete” was on to something.

The concerns raised in response to this question about heresy and women’s Bible study were interesting in that they were so predictable. One reddit user said that women lapse more easily into heresy because they aren’t as theologically educated as men. Some suggested that this was a result of institutional sexism, while others cited the oft repeated paraphrase of 1 Timothy 2:13-14, “Eve was deceived, not Adam.” This kind of verbal shrug points to an essentialist understanding of the spiritual capabilities and limitations faced by Christian women—at least according to the Pastoral Epistles. But, as “PetevonPete” so wisely suggested, this idea—that women are naturally more prone to wild excesses, to making poor decisions, to being fooled, to creating chaos when challenging their natural role as submissive to men—does not start nor end with Christianity.

Suspicion of women and women’s religion is scattered throughout the annals of classical Greek and Latin literature, with the fingerprints of these cultural attitudes being found later in early Christian writings. Euripides’ play Bacchae (405 BCE), to take but one example, warns of the deadly and unnatural consequences of letting women run free in the wild, worshipping the god Dionysus (aka, Bacchus). In the play, the worship of Dionysus was troubling because it was new, and it encouraged women of all ages and social stations to leave behind their responsibilities to their families and city in order to head into the woods and hills to engage in women’s-only worship of this new god. The play’s anxiety around women-only worship is not unlike the one voiced by reddit user “injoy,” who suggested that women-only church groups can foster an attitude in which it is permissible and even exciting to “ditch” ones husband and children to have a ladies night, which she deems idolatrous behavior. At the root of both the play and many of the comments on the reddit thread is a fear of instability, of the disruption of the standard order as having been put in place by (the) god(s). In the case of the Bacchae, traditional Greek religion helped to maintain a well-order polis (city-state), one in which good women and wives stayed at home, tending to the loom (which represented more than mere weaving, as being at or leaving the loom are topoi in Greek literature that can signal order and disorder, respectively). The arrival of the god Dionysus and his brand of worship to the city of Thebes immediately causes this traditional order of life to become disrupted, with the Theban women having been driven from their homes in a craze.

Reddit users in the /r/TrueChristian thread displayed skepticism of “you-go-girl” theologies, led by break-out female ministers and expressed concern over the creation of a “church within a church” for the same reasons—these are subversive messages that are contrary to the order that God has already laid out. But the behavior of women is of special concern because women are believed to be (naturally) more prone to being deceived, misled, or corrupted than men. Euripides pointed to the unnatural sway that Dionysus exerted over women. In the Wisdom of Ben Sira (2), the author warns that fathers should not let their daughters spend time with married women “for from garments comes the moth, and from a woman comes woman’s wickedness” (Ben Sira 42:13). “Paul,” writing in the 1st century CE, pointed to the example of Eve’s being fooled by the serpent in the Garden of Eden in 1 Timothy as explanation for why women cannot teach men. Celsus, a 2nd century CE “pagan” (3), argued that the early success of Christianity was a result of their converting “the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children,” whereas men of sound-mind were not so easy to win-over (Origen, Cels. 3.44).

Users commenting on this thread about women’s heresy weren’t merely harkening back to the 17th century, as “Zrk2”suggested, or even the 2nd century BCE, as “PetevonPete” suggested. Rather, those expressing concern over women-only religious groups and calling for (male) leadership to provide oversight are engaged in a much older, much wider-ranging anxiety over the disruption of familial and social order believed to have been put into place by god(s) and enforced by male leaders and other female followers, an order naturalized by its sense of timelessness.

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.


(1) reddit is, according their faqs, “ a source for what’s new and popular on the web.” It is a free, user-driven website, in that individuals who have reddit accounts can submit content (links from other sites or original content, like text,  images, and videos) and other users vote (either up or down) on those posts. Material that is highly “up-voted” is more visible on the site. reddit itself is actually composed of thousands of “subreddits”—discussion boards centered around specific topics or interests. For this post I’m drawing from two subreddits, /r/SubredditDrama and /r/TrueChristian. /r/SubredditDrama is a meta-reddit, meaning that it is a board in which people link to other posts on reddit in which there is “drama” unfolding. These are sometimes silly disputes between users, other times they are heated debates about racism or sexism. I discovered the /r/TrueChristian discussion covered in this post via /r/SubredditDrama, which is where the comments from users “Zrk2” and “PetevonPete” come from. /r/TrueChristian, which currently has 5,916 subscribers, is a relatively new subreddit. Its creation was driven by users who were unhappy with what /r/Christianity, with 88,540 current subscribers, had to offer. /r/Christianity is a larger, less ideologically driven community than /r/TrueChristian, which is more conservative and whose stated goal is to create a “safe-haven” for Bible-believing Christians to discuss their faith. While /r/TrueChristian doesn’t describe itself as being in direct competition with /r/Christianity, they are making a claim to authority over what it means to be Christian in their title. Moreover, this is in the face of other denominationally differentiated Christian subreddits, such as /r/Catholicism or /r/Anglicanism, while /r/TrueChristian is more ecumenical in its membership.

 (2) Ben Sira (aka, Sirach) is a 2nd century BCE book of Jewish wisdom literature that is canonical for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but not Protestants.

 (3) Celsus’ writings come to us only indirectly, as portions of his work were perserved by Origen (185-232 CE) in Contra Celsum

“It is just as easy to reach the portals of Heaven from Cappadocia as from Jerusalem”: Rereading Gregory of Nyssa’s Position on Pilgrimage

Friday, October 24th, 2014

by Tara Baldrick-Morrone

In the section on John of Lycopolis in the History of the Monks of Egypt, sayings 13–64 detail the three-day visit that seven brothers (i.e., monks) had with John. Upon their arrival, when John inquired about their journey, they responded that they had come to see him “for the good of [their] souls so that what [they] ha[d] heard with [their] ears [they] might perceive with [their] eyes.” John then replied, “And what remarkable thing did you expect to find…? Those who are worthy of admiration and praise are everywhere.” These sayings point to the different positions on a subject of much dispute in late antique Christianities, namely, the undertaking of pilgrimages. Similarly bound up in this discussion of sites and people was the cult of relics that emerged during the fourth and fifth centuries. Pilgrims undertook journeys just to be near the relics of the martyrs, perhaps in order to be healed or simply to show reverence. However, some, like Gregory of Nyssa, thought that the veneration of these “holy objects” — holy sites, particularly — could possibly constitute some form of pagan idolatry.

Specifically, in his letter on pilgrimage (Letter 2), which is thought to have been written after 381, Gregory expresses concern about pilgrimages not in terms of ordinary people, but for “the perfect,” those monks and virgins who had set themselves apart from the world Here, he writes that such travels “impose a harmful worldly occupation on those who have undertaken to lead the strict life.” One of Gregory’s main points of deterrence is the description of the potential harm that a pilgrimage (to Jerusalem, mainly) could cause. Directing contemplation toward a place shifts their focus of attention away from the monastic life and puts it on “a practice that neither renders [them] blessed nor directs [them] to the Kingdom.” Moreover, as Gregory explains, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem does not bring one nearer to God; instead, it appears to do the exact opposite, as the land around Jerusalem itself appears to embody a pit of sin and death:

 Again, if grace were greater in the vicinity of Jerusalem than anywhere else, sin would not be so entrenched among those who dwell there. But as it is, there is no form of uncleanness that is not brazened among them: fornications, adulteries, thefts, idolatries, drugs, envies, murders. This last kind of evil especially is so entrenched that nowhere else are people so ready to murder each other as in those places, where even blood relatives attack each other like wild beasts for the sake of lifeless profit. Well then, where such things go on, what evidence is there that in those places grace abounds more? Moreover, what gain shall he have when he has reached those places? Is it that the Lord still lives in the body today in those places and has stayed away from our regions? Or is it that the Holy Spirit abounds among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but is unable to come to us? Really, if it is possible to infer God’s presence from the things that appear, one might more justly consider that he dwelt in the nation of the Cappadocians than in places elsewhere! For how many altars are there in these places through which the name of the Lord is glorified? One could scarcely count so many altars in all the rest of the world!

 While his condemnation does seem to be about pilgrimage, I think it can also be seen as an argument about place. As he says, grace is in no greater quantities in Jerusalem than that which is found in Cappadocia. For him, it does not appear that no place is holy, or should be labeled as such, for as Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony has argued, Gregory often uses the phrase ieros topos for certain sites around Cappadocia. If his concern may not be about the problem of holy sites in general, what reason would there be for Gregory to have issues with Jerusalem? One way to answer this question is to look to the economic aspects and advantages that emerge in the practice of pilgrimage. In his discussion of Jerome and Vigilantius’ differences over the cult of the saints, Peter Brown details the kind of fundraising that occurred in Rome for its provinces and the Holy Land:

 Funds continued to flow out of Rome and the West toward the Holy Places and the monasteries of Egypt. Rome could afford this drain. But in the provinces propaganda for the ascetic movement and the fostering of pilgrimage to the Holy Land threatened to undermine the finances of the less well-endowed local churches. In the years before 406, the issue exploded. The monasteries around Jerusalem came under attack. They were accused of having diverted the wealth of rich Christians away from their local churches through soliciting overseas donations to the Holy Land.

 Although Gregory does not address such issues in Letter 2, and Brown does not specifically mention him, reading Gregory’s position on pilgrimages in the letter through the lens of economic interest serves to, in the words of Bruce Lincoln, discuss “the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions” of Gregory’s discourse that represents itself as “…transcendent, spiritual, and divine.”

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.

* Image from Anna Silvas’ translation and commentary on the letters of Gregory of Nyssa, published by Brill in 2007.

Capitalism’s Turn?

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

by Jeffrey Wheatley

The Greenstone Church in Pullman Town, ca. 1883

Scholarly interest in capitalism has been on the rise. The most obvious sign of this interest has been Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which received a surprising amount of media attention for being a rather dense book with new methods but an old argument. Piketty is a French economist, but scholars from a variety of disciplines have also sought to incorporate capitalism into their research. Last year, The New York Times pronounced a capitalist turn in history departments. The article highlighted Cornell’s History of Capitalism Initiative, which, by the way, is hosting a conference November 6–8 that is worth paying attention to if you are an Americanist. To give another example, Edward E. Baptist’s new book has joined a body of work that situates the expansion of capitalism, and specifically finance capitalism, in the Atlantic slave trade and slave labor.

Not to be left behind, scholars of Christianity and religion generally have also been especially interested in business, wealth, and trade. This interest, of course, is not unprecedented, but I want to list some of the more recent works for this post. Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, which was noted in The New York Times article, explores the rise of “Wal-Mart Moms” and the political impact of their faith in God and market. Kathryn Lofton has already given us Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, which explores the relationship between modern American religiosity and consumerism. She is also working on a project that does something similar with the financial practices at the Goldman Sachs Group. Thomas Rzeznik’s Church and Estaterevels in the Gilded Age by looking at the intersection of religious claims and business practices among the Philadelphia elite. Christopher Cantwell’s essay over at Religion & Politics sketches out some of the links between big capitalism and big Christianity in Illinois.

This interest is not limited to scholarship on the United States and modernity. A number of works have explored the relationship between Christianity and economics broadly. To provide one example, Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, which won ASCH’s Philip Schaff Prize in 2013, traces the problems and products of wealth in Christian churches during and after the decline of the western Roman empire.

These works rely upon a variety of methodologies. Some highlight a type of religiosity present in economic practices. Others show the mutual relationship between religious and business organizations. In my last post at the blog I suggested how the tracing of metaphorical motifs might allow us to traverse archives in order to undo the impact of compartmentalization. Specifically, I wanted to draw connections between anti-monopoly, anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and other popular late nineteenth-century protestations in order to illustrate a broad sense of dread of invisible systematic subversions.

Taken together, I think this growing interest in capitalism is interesting because it tests how scholarly vocabularies from cultural studies, history, religious studies, and economic theory can (or, perhaps, cannot) mingle. I do not believe that interdisciplinarity is always a good in and of itself, but the particular junctures created and debated seem to me to be productive in bringing together conversations whose separation has made sense disciplinarily but not historically. As Winnifred Sullivan notes in her critique of liberal reactions to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, beliefs and practices under the sign of religion have always been—and she is speaking within the context of American religious history—entwined with business.

I think it will be especially productive to examine formations of religion and business within the context of state projects. How have states adjudicated the economic and the religious? How, at the same time, have they replicated certain economic and religious assumptions and practices within the body politic? Or among colonized groups? In future posts on this blog I hope to address these questions with some historical examples while also laying out some of the theoretical and methodological problems that have resulted from the disciplinary intersections that have occurred due to rising interest in capitalism.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

*Image courtesy of the Pullman Virtual Museum.

The Devil May Care: Left Behind and Modern American Evangelicalism

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

by Emily Johnson

In the week before the new Left Behind movie hit theatres, marketers released a teaser poster. Above a post-apocalyptic scene in a crowded parking lot are the words: “Please do not bring unbelievers to this movie.” The quotation is attributed to Satan.

The movie is an adaptation of the first book in the bestselling apocalyptic fiction series by Baptist pastor Tim LaHaye and evangelical author Jerry B. Jenkins. First published in 1995, that book now sits squarely at the center of one of the most significant phenomena in modern Christian publishing. Twelve sequels, three prequels, and three spin-off series later, the book has sold over sixty million copies and made a new generation literate in the theology of premillennial dispensationalism.

Read the rest of this entry →

CFP: 14th Annual Florida State University Department of Religion Graduate Student Symposium

Monday, October 13th, 2014


by Thomas J. Whitley


Call for Papers:

The Florida State University
Department of Religion
14th Annual Graduate Student Symposium

February 20-22, 2015 • Tallahassee, Florida

The Florida State University Department of Religion is pleased to announce its 14th Annual Graduate Student Symposium to be held February 20-22, 2015 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Last year’s symposium allowed over 45 presenters from over 15 universities and departments as varied as History, Political Science, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Classics to share their research, learn from one another, and meet many of their peers and future colleagues.

This year’s symposium will be centered on the theme “Resistance and Religion”

Due to our commitment to collaborative scholarship, students from all fields with interdisciplinary interests in the study of religion and at all levels of graduate study are encouraged to submit paper proposals.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to: Subversion of Authority, Power and Hierarchy, Practice and Ritual, Conflict and Violence, History and Myth Making, Emotion and Healing, Textuality and Control, Space and Dominance, Gender and Identity.

Presentations should be approximately 15 to 20 minutes in length and will receive faculty responses. In addition, every year respondents select the best graduate paper to receive the Leo F. Sandon Award, an endowed award named for the Religion Department’s former chair.

Proposals including an abstract of approximately 300 words, a list of key terms, and a one-page CV should be submitted by December 12, 2014 for review. Final papers must be submitted by January 18, 2015. Please send proposals to Beena Butool at <>.
Thank you for your interest. We look forward to hearing from you or your students and seeing you at the 2015 Graduate Student Symposium at Florida State University.

The Minnesota Turn in the Study of Christianity

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Paul Putz

The Call for Papers for the spring 2015 meeting of the American Society of Church History is now live (check it out here). The theme, “Contact and Exchange among Religious Groups,” looks to be quite promising, but I was particularly intrigued by this line in the CFP: “Given the location of this meeting in Minneapolis, we also encourage papers addressing contact among religious groups in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest…” Obviously Minnesota is not the focus of the meeting. But it was nice to see the astute conference organizers recognize the rich possibilities for exploring interaction among religious groups provided by Minnesota-based (and Midwest-based) studies.

As I have written elsewhere, there has been a movement afoot recently to reinvigorate the Midwest as a subject of academic inquiry. Among the relevant developments: the creation of the Midwestern History Working Group, the launch of a book series devoted to the Midwest from the University of Iowa Press, and the creation of a new journal, the Middle West Review. Given those advancements, I’m sure that the ASCH’s recent CFP will be greeted with enthusiasm by scholars interested in promoting the study of the Midwest, and it should provide a forum for interesting new scholarship on religion in the region.

But what about older scholarship? More specifically, what older scholarship has made it onto the pages of Church History? Out of curiosity, I decided to look through Church History’s online archives to see how often “Minnesota” or the “Midwest” was the featured place of study for an article. I found three relatively recent pieces:

Joan R. Gundersen, “The Local Parish as a Female Institution: The Experience of All Saints Episcopal Church in Frontier Minnesota.” (September 1986)

“This essay blends two areas of theoretical concern. The first area is the debate over the extent and nature of feminization of nineteenth-century religion. The second arises from recent emphasis on the role of the laity in the church and a rediscovery of the meaning of such phrases as ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and ‘lay ministry,’ which spring from an emphasis on the church as the body of Christ….By looking at the actual experience of a parish, it is possible to regain a sense of the role of the laity and to see in what ways women, as part of the laity, shaped the religious parameters of a community….All Saints Parish in Northfield, Minnesota provides the scholar with an opportunity to consider the feminization of religion in a tangible form by studying a single congregation from a neglected denomination in a neglected region.”

William Vance Trollinger, “Riley’s Empire: Northwestern Bible School and Fundamentalism in the UpperMidwest.” (June 1988)

“It has become almost a commonplace among historians of fundamentalism to assert the central role played by Bible institutes in the survival and growth of this religion movement. But the thesis has not been tested, for there have been no case studies dealing with the work of Bible institutes at the grass-roots level. This article is a start toward filling this void. The focus is Northwest Bible and Missionary Training School of Minneapolis and its role in the upper Midwest in the second quarter of the twentieth century.”

Jennifer Graber, “Mighty Upheaval on the Minnesota Frontier: Violence, War, and Death in Dakota and Missionary Christianity.” (March 2011)

With the [U.S.-Dakota War of 1862] as a lens for exploring religious change, this essay offers new possibilities for understanding the violent conflict in the lives of Protestants who articulated the emerging idea of manifest destiny and the dynamics of religious modification in Native American communities who engaged in war in an effort to protect their way of life. Just as much as we need to understand the religious worldviews that came in contact on the frontier, we must also understand how participants understood episodes of violence within their frameworks for interpreting divine and human powers at play in the world.”

Hopefully those who make the trek to Minneapolis in April will get a preview of new Minnesota-related (or Midwest-related) research that will follow in the footsteps of the articles listed above, eventually finding a place within the pages of Church History.

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.

On Cephalopods, Religious Contestation, and Railroad Monopolies

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

by Jeffrey Wheatley

The ocean is in fashion. Anchors, oars, whales, maritime flags, and octopuses adorn the button-up shirts of American hipsters. Not to be outdone, academia has also adopted the marine as a central motif in the past decade, often situating the Atlantic World and its symbols as sites, metaphors, and producers of the modern self and modern capitalism. However, within the context of the United States, many marine symbols have served another purpose: to represent threats to individual and national security. I intend to take this opportunity to examine briefly the motif of the cephalopod (i.e., octopuses, squids, and fictionalized creatures with similar features) and to trace the motif’s relationship to religio-political contestation and broader concerns over power in the United States.

Of course, the creatures of the sea, whether allegedly seen by ship or washed up on a beach, have fascinated a variety of cultures around the globe for centuries, but within the American context the cephalopod became a common motif in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century cartoons as oceanic symbols in general became more and more popular thanks to narratives both real and fictional (e.g., Moby-Dick [1851], Toilers of the Sea [1866], Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea [1870], and, later, with a more purely metaphorical bent, The Octopus: A Story of California [1901]). Even as new technologies made the Atlantic and Pacific oceans more accessible than ever, America’s fascination with the creatures of the deep sea grew, often with a sublime and morbid tint. Furthermore, cephalopods became a useful shorthand for critiquing phenomena believed to be threatening to the existing religio-political order as understood by the historical subjects.

Mormons were the first religious group to be targeted by sensationalist American newspapers utilizing images of cephalopods.

Illustration 1 Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, Puck 14, no. 362 (February 13, 1884), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA,

In these fairly well-known illustrations, the tentacles were used to symbolize expansionism, influence, and manipulation. In Illustration 1, the octopus with Brigham Young’s face issues a multi-pronged attack on public opinion, schools, YMCA, justice, and even Ireland. In Illustration 2, which was occasioned by Reed Smoot’s election to the U.S. Senate, the octopus occupies a geographical space in the West, but stretches a tentacle to Washington D.C.

Illustration 2 Los Angeles Herald XXXI, no. 97 (January 1904), California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside,

The illustration implies that having finally established an empire far away from U.S. interference, the Mormons were now seeking to take control of the federal government. Some anti-Catholic literature, having long relied on reptilian imagery to represent the Catholic Church, also began to deploy the cephalopod in the early twentieth century.

However, the cephalopod was not only used to critique specific denominations or churches. Publications also utilized the octopus to critique, in very similar ways, American corporations, cities, and modernism itself (as produced by the Moody Bible Institute). In fact, cephalopods were first popularized through propaganda that targeted railroad monopolies in the waning decades of the nineteenth century (see Illustration 3). Other fields then incorporated the imagery in the following decades.

With this admittedly small set of data, I would like to propose some directions for scholarship interested in analyzing religious contestation. I argue that historians have much to gain by crossing or ignoring the boundaries of what is typically defined as “religious” and by examining how certain motifs have crossed a variety of modernity’s compartments—compartments that are contingently produced with certain interests in mind, yet certainly powerful in a multitude of ironic ways that go beyond individual or communal control.

From corporations, to churches, to cities (or more specifically, to cite one example, the corruptive reach of the mail-order catalogs produced therein), to twentieth-century imperial ideologies and industries, the aesthetic of the cephalopod in the past two centuries has provided a convenient shorthand for identifying a dangerous and amorphous other that is submerged until just before or when it becomes too late to react against it. At this moment the threat becomes ever-expanding and clearly present. This was one of the common threads of nineteenth-century deep-sea fictions and one of the underlying implications of these propaganda cartoons. The compelling nature of these illustrations, I believe, is based on their ability to make the invisible (under the sea) visible (landed, reaching, and unescapable).

Illustration 3 critiques San Francisco’s railroad magnates and the destruction of local farmers’ lands due to Southern Pacific acquisition. George Frederick Keller, “The Curse of California,” The Wasp 9, no. 316 (August 19, 1882), 520-521.

I argue that although we should not collapse the different political goals sought after in these productions, we can identify a nerve that cuts across typically fenced-off cultural fields (i.e., the fields of “religion” and “economics”). This nerve registers the fear of institutionalized systematicities, whose center is always elsewhere and othered, overwhelming the capacity of individuals and the local to be themselves. (However, as John Modern argues, systematicity and this type of individualism ironically developed together.) Nonetheless, the consistent re-use of octopuses and the like suggests the tenderness of this nerve, one especially vulnerable within the turn-of-the-century context of massive national expansion, radically interconnecting technologies, and the growth of corporations and the federal government (often in a reciprocal relationship).

My intention in bringing together these few illustrations is straightforward: scholarship interested in religious contestation, which is a field of interest to me, could find productive avenues by looking for similar discourses and aesthetics in archives derived from other cultural fields. Such an approach might allow us to propose new sources and frameworks for such contestation. These frameworks could incorporate the political, incorporate the economic, and blur the distinction between these and other fields. Theoretical frameworks, I assert, can become claustrophobic when based solely on the adjective “religious.” Tracing the repurposing of signposts like the cephalopod could allow us to gain some visibility in these murky waters and to map out the submerged cultural terrain that is inevitably connected in a variety of ways.

Finally, I have one question to pose: how might we explain the amelioration of the octopus today after such a history of malignancy?

Jeffrey Wheatley is a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. Of late he has been researching the epistemologies at work in missions to Native Americans, representations of Catholic exceptionalism in the American West, and Gilded Age corporate religious sensibilities. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

New Books: Andrew Stern’s Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross

Monday, September 29th, 2014

by Andrew Stern

While completing my book Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross, I lived in a small town called Ocracoke on the coast of North Carolina. Religious life in this town was a fitting setting in which to write on Catholic-Protestant cooperation. The town had two churches – United Methodist and Assemblies of God – yet perhaps the largest religious community was the Catholic, composed primarily of recently-arrived immigrants from Mexico. The Catholics had no church building of their own, and so whenever a priest visited from a nearby town they met in the fellowship hall of the Methodist church. For special occasions such as quinceaneras or Christmas Eve celebrations they used the sanctuary. So accustomed were the residents of Ocracoke to this arrangement that no one thought it remarkable that a group of young Catholic children should receive their First Communion in a Methodist church.

One rarely hears about such cases of inter-religious cooperation. There is a tendency in much of our public discourse to highlight incidents of violence and intolerance, especially when it comes to religion. The media fixates on them and gives disproportionate attention to the most extreme voices in any debate. A single pastor of a small church who threatens to burn a Qur’an can dominate the news cycle for days, while peaceful coexistence goes unnoticed. In addition, many nonprofits and offices within academia justify their existence and increase their budgets by emphasizing how far American society still needs to go in interfaith understanding. In terms of religious history specifically, narratives of persecution are central to many faiths. Often, it seems that historians construct their stories around the same key events. Haun’s Mill, the murder of Joseph Smith, and the “Mormon War” dominate Mormon history. University quotas, the lynching of Leo Frank, and “The International Jew” invariably figure prominently in American Jewish historiography. And histories of American Catholicism invariably highlight the burning of the Charlestown convent, the Know-Nothings, and the failed campaign of Al Smith. These incidents are all worthy of historians’ attention, just like incidents of intolerance today demand redress, yet at times our attention to them might blind us to another, equally if not more important side of the story.

To some extent, historians of American religion simply go where the sources lead them. The most prominent records are of events that grab observers’ attention, and a lynching or a convent burning is far more attention-grabbing than people of different faiths quietly and peacefully living their daily lives. Yet such overt instances of bigotry and violence are anomalous, so the question arises, how can historians resurrect the everyday occurrences that may seem mundane but that are much more indicative of how people in the past actually lived? How can historians uncover and analyze cases of cooperation that, like the sharing of a church in a small town in North Carolina, seem so natural that no one bothers remarking on them?

Tracing inter-religious cooperation can take on some of the qualities of midrash. It requires interpreting the silences as well as accessing the more obscure sources that reveal the lived religions of the past. This book is my modest attempt to do precisely that. In my research, I was surprised to discover that in fact there are many sources in which Catholics and Protestants commented on the ways in which they supported each other. But typically, these were asides, tangential to the main theme of the journal, letter, or newspaper article and thus easily overlooked. The Diurnal of the first bishop of Charleston, S.C., Bishop John England, the source that first led me to this topic, is an excellent example. England described his travels across his vast diocese. He listed each town through which he passed and the sermons that he preached, often in Protestant churches. As remarkable as the fact that Protestants invited this Catholic prelate into their churches is the fact that England did not seem to find such assistance remarkable at all. Because commentators generally took such hospitality for granted, a large part of my task was to try to interpret and explain it. Readers will have to judge whether or not my argument is persuasive.

The question remains whether Catholic-Protestant cooperation in the Old South was anomalous, a product of that particular culture. I suspect it was not. Bits of evidence from regions outside the scope of my work suggest this and indicate that what historians often identify as religious animosity was often rooted in class divisions more than in religion. Questions also remain about how attraction and repulsion can be so intimately intertwined, and how cooperation can so quickly yield to violence, and vice versa.

When historians tell the story of religion in America in the early twenty-first century, they will no doubt mention the controversy over the Islamic Center near ground zero, the shooting at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple, and other signs of religious intolerance, as well they should. I hope, however, that they find ways to include incidents like the Methodists of Ocracoke opening their church to Catholic worship as well. We need both types of stories in order to begin to understand the full complexity of religious experience in America.

Andrew Stern is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina Wesleyan University. His first book, Southern Crucifix, Southern Crosswas published by the University of Alabama Press in 2012.