This year’s winter meeting of the American Society of Church History saw a lot of reflection on the Society’s beginnings, the changes it has undergone, and the direction it will take in the future. Laurie Maffly-Kipps’ address to the Society (which will appear in the forthcoming June issue of Church History
) reflected on the historiographical shifts away from institutions that used to be so central to the study of “church
history.” At our council and business meetings, members deliberated on how best to adapt to the “American
Society’s” increasingly global reach. And as always, the panel presentations continued to the categories that church historians have used to make sense of things. Cara Burnidge has a succinct summary of Dr. Maffly-Kipp’s presidential address on the Religion in American West blog
. You can also read Emily Clark’s thoughts on the ASCH Meeting over at Religion in American History
Meanwhile, here is a brief recap of the first two days at ASCH.
I arrived Thursday afternoon in time for the conference’s first panel session, Restructuring Religion: American Approaches to Modernism, with John Corrigan, Elizabeth Clark, Amanda Porterfield, and Katie Lofton. This panel interrogated modernism as an analytical category by providing historical examples that offered new perspectives on modernism. John Corrigan presented several examples of how the self-understandings of modern religious communities can be explored in terms of space and place. The configuration of space, in the landscape, in architecture, and in communities’ relationships to each other, plays an important role in shaping group identity. One of the ways this confluence between space and identity has played out has been in the aversion to “negative,” or empty space. The process of building a collective identity that incorporated negative definitions of American Catholicism, for example, led to concerns that Catholics’ identity might become “hollow.”
The “horror vacui” (fear of emptiness) aesthetic at work in the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory. The artistic design fills all available space.
Elizabeth Clark discussed the contributions of George La Piana (1979-1971), the first Catholic to teach at Harvard Divinity School, to modernist thought. She highlighted La Piana’s emphasis on the Church as a social institution, influenced by cultural and economic forces, in contrast to the traditional Catholic portrayal of the Church as unchanging, and in contrast to Protestant historians’ emphasis on individual experience. Amanda Porterfield presented her interpretation of William James as a modern artist (rather than a modern scientist), whose Varieties of Religious Experience could be read as a “modernist collage” rather than a scientific study. By grouping disparate religious practices into categories of religious experience, James created a work that was driven more by aesthetic concerns than by scientific inquiry.
That afternoon, I caught Imagining God’s Kingdom: Supernatural Landscapes in Nineteenth-Century America, which was moderated by Leigh Schmidt. Caleb Maskell’s paper on Sylvester Graham argued for closer attention to Graham’s millennial eschatology. Graham’s dietary program, he argued, was part of a larger vision of the coming Kingdom of God as a kingdom of scientific knowledge about nature, including knowledge of the human body. Dana Logan discussed the construction of urban landscapes in antebellum spectator literature. Popular descriptions of the streets of antebellum New York condensed religious variety into a “panorama” that ameliorated Protestant anxieties over excessive religious variety by allowing them to experience it safely through literature. Sonia Hazard followed Logan’s paper by focusing on aesthetic changes in images of religious landscapes in nineteenth century textbooks. Hazard demonstrated how changes in printing technology led to changes in the aesthetics of these images, which in turn affected how views of nature were mediated. “Nature,” she said, “was in the machine.”
Tracts produced with wood engravings, for example, resulted in small images that were fully integrated with the text. Later developments in orthography produced larger, more autonomous images.
Brett Grainger’s paper examined nature mysticism among early American methodist preachers. More than simply a backdrop for religious experience, nature was itself an object of contemplation that resonated with the spiritual journeys of methodist writers. Leigh Schmidt’s response to the panel pressed each of the authors on the particular conclusions they drew, but also challenged them to think about the connections between each other’s papers on the role of landscapes in religious practice.
That evening, I sat in on the Society Council meeting. Much of the discussion was dedicated to the Society’s growth on the global stage, and how best to direct its resources in light of this growth. The treasurer’s report highlighted a substantial budget surplus, and recommended new putting procedures in place to make sure it is spent wisely. The editors of Church History reported that the journal has been doing well financially, and that its readership has expanded, particularly in Africa and Asia. All this led to some discussion on the issue of branding the American Society of Church History. Much of that discussion has been (and still is) ongoing, but the council did decide to begin a relationship with the Ecclesiastical History Society in the UK, which may include sharing information and calls for papers between the societies. The possibility of joint conferences in the future also came up.
Finally, we heard about the Society’s endowment campaign, which kicked off that weekend, to raise funds to support graduate students’ research endeavors. Charles Lippy has been soliciting donations, and hopes to raise $50,000. (If you want to contribute, you can do so from the Membership section of the Society web site. The official reports for the meeting should be online eventually as well.
The Friday morning panel I attended was called Anti-Jesuit Rhetoric in the Early Modern Francophone World, and was chaired by Daniella Kostroun. The panelists discussed the relationship between anti-Jesuit rhetoric and the expulsion of the Jesuits from France in 1764. John McCormack described portrayals of the French Jesuits surrounding their receptin of King Henry IV’s heart after his assassination. While sources sympathetic to the Jesuits played up their emotional lamentations over his death, the Jesuits’ detractors accused them of regicide and duplicity. Joseph Wachtel provided a history of the events leading up to the collapse of the French mission at Port Royal in 1612. Struggles over financing and jurisdiction between the Jesuits, their supporters, and the other colonists at Port Royal were framed within, and exacerbated by, Gallican portrayals of the Jesuits as disloyal, avaricious and motivated by the pursuit of power.
Daniel Watkins shifted the focus to the eighteenth century with the anti-Jesuit deployment of Isaac-Joseph Berruyer as a symbol of the Jesuits’ alleged heresies. A Jesuit historian, Berruyer published the first two volumes of his A History of the People of God to much criticism and condemnation. His second volume in particular was seen as a distasteful depiction of sacred history, incorporating contemporary sensibilities into his descriptions of Biblical events. His third volume, which seemed to emphasize Christ’s humanity over his divinity, was especially odious to his detractors, and as it was published while he was dying, the Jesuits were blamed for promoting Berruyer’s heretical views. According to Watkins, Berruyer became central to anti-Jesuits’ arguments for condemnation and the dissolution of the Jesuits – despite the Jesuits’ own disavowal of his works.
Scott Sunquist chaired a session called To Whom Does Christianity Belong, with papers on the intersection of religious and national identity in India, Brazil and Nigeria. Dyron Daughrity argued for the “Indianness of Christianity.” Indian Christians, he claimed, must work against their marginalization in India by making the case that their Christian practices were fully Indian rather than a western import. Todd Hartch demonstrated that the success of the Universal Church’s missionary efforts was marked more by the church’s assertion of its Brazilian identity than by any attempt at enculturation. Instead, the church’s appeal lay in its apparent spiritual power, and its attention to the concerns of the communities it encountered. Corey Williams examined the growth of Christianity in Nigeria as a result of its appropriation from its European roots by Nigerian natives. Christianity, Williams argued, is losing its distinctly European identity, and it gaining ground because of its “in-built capacity to belong everywhere, to everyone.” In his response, Scott Sunquist remarked upon the way “multiple layers” of Christian missions become more indigenous (and less western) as they accumulate. Older, more western forms of Christianity are not displaced by the emergence of more indigenous forms, but they do have to respond to them. Dr. Sunquist also suggested that future studies of global Christianity may have to pay attention to aspects of religious practice that have formerly received little attention, like the role of dreams in African practice.
At the 125th Anniversary luncheon, four speakers reflected on the Society’s past, and on its possibilities for the future. Peter Williams became a member of the ASCH when Sidney Ahlstrom passed out membership forms in class during the 1960s, and has been a member ever since. Dr. Williams commented on the Society’s “spirit of communitas” that made conferences welcoming to graduate students. “At the time I’m not sure I realized how remarkable this was,” he said, “how wonderful this was.” Barbara Brown Zikmund also remarked upon the Society’s hospitality to graduate students, but recalled that it had not always been reflected in Society policy as much as it is today. When Dr. Zikmund joined in 1965, graduate students were not allowed to present papers. While individual scholars were friendly to grad students, there was no system of hospitality or aid to graduate students as would later develop. The most biggest change in ASCH since then, said Zikmund, was the growth of WITCH – Women In Theology and Church History, a group formed for women to meet informally and to network. Many collaborative projects, she said, would never have started were it not for WITCH.
Barbara Brown Zikmund and Elizabeth Clark both discussed ways that the study of church history has evolved. “When I got there, it was a bunch of old, white, Protestant men,” said Zikmund. By contrast, 46% of ASCH presentations today are given by women, and the Society has a rule that its panels are to be mixed-gender. Dr. Clark described how, in the early days of the ASCH, church history was much more parochial, a society of American male church historians whose work tended to focus on continuity and consensus within ecclesiastical institutions. Since then, the ASCH has become a global, multidisciplinary organization, producing scholarship that is more self-aware, and that is more attuned to diversity and difference in the history of Christianity. “We have learned that there is no politically innocent history,” said Clark. Finally, John Fitzmier, Executive Director of the AAR, spoke on the ASCH’s relationship with the AAR and the AHA. He suggested that cooperative alliances with other societies could help the ASCH to tackle various issues facing scholars today. One example, he said, was the AHA’s endeavor to address the difficulties of the academic job market by encouraging graduate programs to prepare students for a broader range of jobs in the field of history.
After the luncheon, Ruth Compton Brouwer chaired a panel with Marguerite Van Die, Mark McGowan, and Mark Noll on comparative histories of Christianity in the US and Canada. Dr. Van Die called for more attention to diversity and variegation in Canadian church history, highlighting how its conventional emphasis on unity and inclusiveness has often belied Canadians’ own preoccupations with religious disunity. Mark McGowan’s presentation discussed the ambiguous relationship between Canadian Catholics and the state. As a constitutionally protected religious minority, Canadian Catholics were able to “finesse the state” on certain issues like school funding and religious broadcasting. To the extent that the separation of church and state had ever truly existed in Canada, McGowan argued, formal separation was confounded by the complexity of the church state relationship. Mark Noll called for more comparative studies of church history in Canada and the US. One way forward this area, he suggested, is to think of the US and Canada as liberal societies whose liberalism has been pushed in different directions by their contingent circumstances. Other possible factors for comparison came up in the panel discussion, including the role of region, migration, and the differences in global political power between Canada and the US.
One of the great things about the ASCH conference is that, after a dizzying array of panels and meetings, its members know how to unwind. Chuck Lippy took me and several of my fellow grads out for crab ravioli, gumbo, bread pudding, and good conversation. We talked about our research and the market. He told us about his experiences as a young scholar in the Society, and gave us some advice on the job search from his perspective as a former professor. I also learned what bread pudding is.
Pictures cannot adequately convey what bread pudding is.
This is something senior scholars at the ASCH meeting do as part of the spirit of communitas that Peter Williams mentioned. That alone is worth the registration. It was a promising start to an eventful weekend.