02 Apr

Tracy Fessenden, “The Other Woman’s Sphere” (2001)

“The Other Woman’s Sphere” examines how nuns and prostitutes stood “well outside of the nineteenth-century Protestant woman’s sphere” (169). According to Fessenden, “the creation and maintenance of a Protestant woman’s sphere in the nineteenth century emerges as part of the larger project of asserting a unified Protestant America in the face of social fragmentation along multiple axes, and then of managing that fragmentation by processing difference through a binary logic.” In other words, non-Protestant women like nuns and prostitutes, were coded as outside the woman’s sphere. Nonetheless, some Protestant women “resisted this homogenization of ‘woman’ and put it to work to serve their own interests” (172). Fessenden argues that the constructed discourse of woman’s sphere allowed “white middle-class Protestant women to extend their power over other women while allowing men to maintain their dominance over women as a class” (184). It allowed white Protestant men and women to protect and frame their hegemony over religious, racial, and class formations. Men, particularly those in the emerging medical field, biologized the woman’s sphere so that working outside the home was considered a criminal act. Protestant women working in factories, sales, or other jobs were considered dangerous like nuns and prostitutes who worked outside the home. One medical publication stated “A woman who works outside the home commits a biological crime against herself and her community.” Men deployed the ideology of biologized spheres to keep women out of public occupations.  The woman’s sphere came to be seen as separate from the marketplace.


Fessenden’s work is significant because she recognizes the woman’s sphere as an ideological construction by Protestants. Few scholars have recognized this religious aspect of the woman’s sphere. Fessdenden notes, “The widespread critical unwillingness to engage religion as a category of identity alongside or encoded within race or class also elide the ways that female power, whether represented as belonging to or transcending woman’s sphere, has frequently been organized as power over (and at the expense of) women whose racial, class, and religious identities set them in ambiguous relation to dominant and implicitly white, middle-class, and Protestant ideologies of womanhood.” Recognizing the woman’s sphere as a particularly Protestant construction allows scholars to recognize the relationships between religion, class, and race in the nineteenth century. It allows scholars to analyze the ways that Protestants deployed the woman’s sphere against non-Protestants, non-whites, and the lower classes.

Despite these insights, Fessenden’s work lacks a historiography of the ideology of woman’s sphere. It is not clear which historians Fessenden draws on to evoke and elaborate the definition and ideology of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. This is problematic because Fessenden invokes both phrases in ways that historians have already elaborated and/or cautioned against. For example, Fessenden suggests “As sites for probing the boundaries of private and public spaces, behaviors and roles, the figures of nun and prostitute both vex and bolster nineteenth-century constructions of legitimate femininity as domestic, maternal, pious, and separate from the workings of the market.” The idea that separate sphere ideology was metaphorical, or a construction, was supported by Linda K. Kerber in “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place.” Moreover, the argument that this ideological construction separated women’s domestic life from public or industrial life has been argued by Jeanne Boydston in Home & Work. Neither of these scholars’ work appear in Fessenden’s notes. This makes it hard to trace what exactly is new and important about Fessenden’s elaboration of the woman’s sphere and the separate spheres. I suggest that the importance of this work emerges in its suggestion that men and women used the ideology of the woman’s sphere to talk about “the other,” or nuns and prostitutes. This work is also important because it argues that the emerging medical field, not just industrialization (See Boydston) worked to create the ideology of separate spheres. More importantly, this article suggests that the woman’s sphere promoted Protestant ways of understanding women, as well as Protestant women’s actions in society and their construction of “the other.” Few historians have recognized the religious dimension of the ideology of the woman’s sphere and how Protestant women  and men deployed this phrase to and against women.

02 Apr

Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, The American Woman’s Home (1869)

The Beecher sisters published The American Woman’s Home in 1869. Catherine lived with Harriet and her family while they worked on the advice book. The American Woman’s Home extended Catherine’s previously published Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841). Catherine’s Treatise was widely popular and entered its fourth edition just two years after its initial publication. Treatise was published almost every year from 1841 to 1856. According to Kathryn K. Sklar, Beecher’s Treatise established her “as a national authority on the psychological state and the physical well-being of the American home” (Catherine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity, 151).


The American Woman’s Home was a sequel to Catherine’s Treatise. It contained much of the same information from the previous book. However, there was new information. The sisters added to and updated the blue prints for American homes. These blueprints still included parlors. But by 1865, Catherine and Harriett equated an American woman’s home with a church. The architectural blueprints included houses with steeples and naves, and parlors that doubled as schoolrooms and pulpits. The sisters argued that mothers were the ministers, indeed the heads, of the home. The sisters recognized parlors as sanctuaries populated with sacred furnishings that formed and expressed a family’s salvation. The American Woman’s Home included chapters on decorating parlors in ways that would enhance religious formation. They suggested that “A small church, a schoolhouse, and a comfortable family dwelling may be united in one building, and for a very moderate sum” (The American Woman’s Home, 455). The home was the church and school.

These church-home-schools were not just for single families. The sisters suggested that any woman could run this type of home: “Christian women in unhealthful factories, offices, and shops; and many, also, living in refined leisure who yet are pinning for an opportunity to aid in carrying the Gospel to the destitute” (The American Woman’s Home, 458) could operate such an establishment. These “homes” could be run as benevolent organizations headed by women. These homes served as a means of employment outside the home. The Beechers urged women to “earn an independent livelihood, especially in employments that can be pursued in sunlight and open air” (The American Woman’s Home, 470). They also encouraged women to support the American Woman’s Educational Association founded by Beecher in 1850. The association was meant to train female teachers who would be sent West to run and operate their own schools.

The family and home were models for how society should work and function. The stronger and wiser members should raise the weak and ignorant members. Moreover, “When any are sick, those who are well become self-sacrificing ministers” (The American Woman’s Home, 18). The family served as the model of moral and social reform in heaven and on earth. “The family state then, is the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister” (The American Woman’s Home, 19). Modeling social life on family would usher in the Kingdom of God. Women were the ministers to children and the socially destitute. Women would reform the world and bring about the millennium through their benevolent actions in homes and in the world. The American woman’s home was home, church, and school. But, it was more than the domestic sphere. The American woman’s home was anywhere in society where women’s religious instruction could act on and transform society.

See the full text of The American Woman’s Home (1869) here.

01 Apr

John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (1932)

Black Elk (1863-1950) was an Oglala Lakota known for his visions and curative powers. When Black Elk was 19, he cured a sick boy and became a medicine man among his people. Black Elk worked in a store for the Wasichus (non-red people) and as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He was a part of the Ghost Dance movement. Black Elk also participated in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (i.e., the Battle of Little Big Horn) in 1876 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Shortly after the massacre, Black Elk was baptized as a Catholic.

John G. Neihardt interviewed the Sioux about their history in 1930 and published Black Elk Speaks in 1932. The book remains controversial because it is a white man’s re-telling of Black Elk and the Oglala Lakota’s history. Neihardt interviewed Black Elk, but Black Elk did not speak English. A translator relayed Black Elk’s story to Neihardt who took notes of the accounts and later reconstructed the notes into a narrative. Scholars have recognized inconsistencies in Neihardt’s retelling and in the history of the Oglala Lakota. Others have suggested that Neihardt embellished the narrative to make it more appealing to white audiences in the 1930s.


Black Elk Speaks tells the story of Black Elk’s life as a medicine mane. According to Neihardt, Black Elk received visions from the spirit world—the first at the age of 9 and the second when he was “lamenting on a hill.” The visions were of an herb with curative powers. Black Elk and One Side found the herb. Soon after, Black Elk used the herb and the power of the spirits in a ceremony to cure a sick boy. The narrative relays Black Elk’s doubts about being able to cure the boy, but his eventual success. Black Elk was 19 at the time he cured the boy. Thereafter, many came to him for help and Black Elk became a medicine man.

Black Elk Speaks also recounts the relations between the Oglala Lakota and the Wasichus (non-red people). Neihardt relates Black Elk’s account of the failed treaties and promises with the white men. Black Elk’s people suffered starvation and disease. Land was stolen from them by the Wasichus. According to the narrative, the Oglala Lakota awaited for the appearance of a sacred man, a messiah-like figure, who would save them from death and destruction by the white men. Black Elk was unsure of this figure, but thought hard about this man and his own visions. In anticipation of this sacred man and the coming world of peace, the Lakota held ghost dances as a way of contacting and seeking advice from the spirit world and their ancestors. Black Elk joined in the ghost dances. People linked arm in arm to dance and sing. During the dances, Black Elk had visions and out of body experiences. Once he saw a vision of two men wearing holy shirts. Black Elk made holy shirts like the ones he saw in his visions. He told people about his visions through songs.

For an excerpt of this text see: John G. Niehardt, Black Elk Speaks. In American Religions: A Documentary History, 341-351. Edited by R. Marie Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

The Ghost Dance Movement in History

Historians have attributed Oglala Lakota resistance to assimilation into white culture to the Ghost Dance Movement. The Ghost Dance Movement connected the earthly and spiritual worlds. It focused on the power of the circle and anticipated an earthly time when people would not suffer under white men. The Ghost Dance Movement gave hope and encouragement to men and women whose lives, livelihoods, and lands had been stolen. Despite the non-violent nature of the ghost dances,  the U.S. government and white American settlers perceived the Ghost Dance Movement as a religious movement meant to incite war. Tension mounted as the U.S. government arrested leaders of the Ghost Dance Movement throughout 1890. The U.S. government called for the continued forced removal of the Oglala Lakota from their lands. In December 1890, the U.S. army surrounded a group Oglala Lakota  travelling to the Pine Ridge Agency. The group included men with weapons as well as women and children. The U.S. army attempted to disarm the men in order to board them on trains for removal. In the process, shots were fired and the  U.S. army massacred Oglala Lakota men, women, and children near Wounded Knee Creek.

31 Mar

Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955)

Will Herberg was an historian of American religion and a sociologist in the mid-twentieth century. Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955. This book examined the increase in American religiosity and church membership after WWII. Herberg argued that the majority of Americans defined themselves either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. But, these American did not focus too much on creeds and theologies. Instead, they promoted religion as Americans’ faith in faith. Herberg called this the “American Way of Life.” Herberg’s work foregrounded the relationship between religion and nationalism, what scholars today refer to as American Civil Religion.


In the 1950s, Americans appeared more religious than ever before. According to recent polls, the majority of Americans identified themselves as either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Church membership numbers had increased dramatically. Money spent on church construction also increased. Polls also suggested that Americans recognized religious leaders as the ones doing the most good for the country. Religion and the church gained respectability in American social life and politics. American used religion to talk about the “Godless” Communists. Americans also expected public officials to “testify to [their] high esteem for religion. Herberg argues that Americans recognized “religion as a ‘value’ or institution” in American life. Moreover, religion gained a new intellectual prestige in cultural life. Philosophers and theologians were successful in selling their “religious books” as many of them made the best-sellers lists. Religious ideas and topics were also popular in journals of literature, politics, and art. What did this new esteem of religion mean?

Herberg argued that despite people’s profession of religion, they were not actually more religious in any denominational or creedal sense. Rather, Americans’ increased religiosity was evidence of a common religion. Herberg defined America’s common religion as “the American Way of Life.” Robin M. Williams Jr.’s defined “common religion” as common ideas, rituals, and symbols that supplied an overarching sense of unity. According to Herberg, “The American Way of Life is, at bottom, a spiritual structure, a structure of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of beliefs and standards; it synthesizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the good, and the true in actual life.” The American Way of Life was “an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitute a faith common to Americans and genuinely operative in their lives, a faith that markedly influences, and is in influenced by, the ‘official’ religions of American society.” The American Way of Life provided an undergirding unity among Americans with a particular value system as its center. This center upheld certain characteristics as foundational to American life: democracy, the Constitution, free enterprise, equalitarianism, economic competition, high mobility, idealism, individualism, “deeds, not creed,” progress, self-reliance, character, optimism, moralism, and activism. This American Way of Life “is, of course, anchored in the American’s vision of America.” Americans looked to the Puritans who defined America as “the new Israel” and “the Promised Land.” The American Way of Life was also a middle-class way of life. American perceive themselves as a middle-class people. Most importantly the American Way of Life had been shaped by American Protestantism.

Hererg argued that historical religions in America had been “Americanized” and imbibed these qualities.  The American Way of Life had secularized Judaism and Christianity so that they had become “integrated as parts with a larger whole defined by the American Way of Life.”  The American Way of Life promoted the belief of faith in faith. Americans held a common religion based on the elevation of religion as a value. Americans believed in the goodness of religion in general. Herberg attributes the seeming increase in piety, religiosity, and church membership to Americans’ participation in the American Way of Life. Practicing individual religion was a ritual in the American Way of Life.

For Herberg, the American Way of Life was detrimental to Judaism and Christianity. Herberg argues that the American Way of Life looked like the “civic religion of the American people.” According to Herberg, “civic religion has always meant the sanctification of the society and culture of which it is the reflection, and that is one of the reasons why Jewish-Christian faith has always regarded such religion as incurably idolatrous. Civil religion is a religion which validates culture and society, without in any sense bringing them under judgment.” Herberg calls for Americans to recognize the wrong in the American Way of Life, of common religion. He urges Americans to separate common religion from “real” religion. The American Way of Life opposes major tenets of the Jewish-Christian faith. The American Way of Life is too man-centered. There is no sense of the transcendent God and there is no sense of the “nothingness of man.” The American Way of Life promotes a religion that mobilizes God to serve man, instead of mobilizing man to server God. The American Way of Life does not call man to seek humility or his consciousness. Rather, “it is something that assures him about the essential rightness of everything American, his nation, his culture, and himself; something that validates his goals and his ideals instead of calling them into question…[it] offers him salvation in easy terms instead of demanding repentance and a ’broken heart.” For Herberg, the American Way of Life was “a strong and pervasive idolatrous element” in America. American civic religion had co-opted the Jewish-Christian faith in America. American civic religion was at odds with American religions. American civic religion was immoral and bad for the American people.

31 Mar

William E. McLellin, Journal (July to November 1831)

William E. McLellin is known for his conversion to the Church of Christ in 1831. McLellin became an Elder in the Church and was an original member of Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Quorum was made of men who were considered apostles, or thought to have a special calling as evangelists. McLellin is also known for his excommunication from the Church by Joseph Smith in 1838. McLellin spoke out against the Church after his excommunication, but rejoined after Smith’s assassination in 1844.

McLellin was born in 1806 in Tennessee. He married Cynthia Ann in 1829. Cynthia Ann died before July 1831 when McLellin lived in Paris, Illinois and worked as a teacher. From July to November 1831 McLellin kept a journal of his interactions with the two travelling preachers, his baptism into the Church of Christ, and his early evangelism. McLellin’s journal is an important source for historians of American religion. It reminds scholars that in the nineteenth-century the Church of Christ appealed to many Americans. It was entertaining, a part of the evangelical print culture, and represented Christian truth. The movement looked like other Christian movements in the 1830s and emphasized similar ideas and theologies. It was also new and mysterious to many others. In any case, the new Christian movement attracted many Americans including McLellin.


McLellin first heard about the Church of Christ when he was teaching school in Paris, Illinois. Two men came to town and advertised an afternoon meeting in a local town where they would preach. The men said they were travelling to Zion ,”which they said was in upper Missouri.” They also had a book with them called the Book of Mormon, which they claimed was revelation from God. After school one day, McLellin set out “Anxious to see and hear those quear [sic] beings.” The two men preached outdoors in a sugartree grove. They talked about signs of the time, explained why they believed in the Book as a revelation, and “expanded the Gospel the plainest” McLellin “ever heard” in his life. One of the men described having “seen an Holy Angel who made known the record to him.” McLellin pondered “these strange things” in his heart and invited the men to preach in Paris. He also travelled with them to another town to listen to their testimonies and to talk to them more about their religion. McLellin “was induced to believe something about their mission.” The two men invited McLellin to travel with them to Jackson County, Missouri where he could meet other members, and Joseph Smith, a Prophet and the translator of the Book. McLellin accepted the invitation and travelled West.

McLellin’s journal catalogues his journey to Independence, Missouri. He stayed some nights and ate meals with his friends and family who he told about the travelling preachers and the Book of Mormon. Other days and nights he spent with the two men and attended meetings where they preached. One day he took them to the graves of his dead wife, Cynthia Ann, and their infant. Before departing with the two men again, McLellin bought the last Book of Mormon they carried with them. Other nights he stayed in towns. In all cases, he usually paid for his and his horse’s room and board. McLellin also bought a pocket Bible for 75 cents one day. At one of his stops he sold his copy of the Book of Mormon to a lady who boarded him. Two Elders had visited the town and preached, but they ran out of copies of their book to sell. The women convinced McLellin to sell his copy to her.

When McLellin arrived in Independence, he talked with the local people to see what they thought about the traveling preachers. The villagers called them “Mormonites.” They said the Mormonites were honest, but “much deluded by Smith and others.” McLellin met with the Mormonites and saw peace, love, harmony, and humility among them. They engaged in family prayer and talked about the Second Coming, and the rise and progress of their church. They gave testimonies about their conversion experiences. McLellin rose early the next day and prayed to God. He recorded in his journal, “I was bound as an honest man to acknowledge the truth and Validity of the book of Mormon and also that I had found the people of the Lord—The Living Church of Christ.” McLellin was baptized into the Church by immersion in a river and laying on of hands. Nevertheless, like many evangelicals, McLellin had doubts after his baptism. He attended a “sacrament meeting” where there was plain preaching and witnessing by men and women of the works of god. McLellin, however, was disappointed by the lack of shouting, screaming, jumping, and shaking of members at the meeting. Nevertheless, he felt happy and “saw more beauty in Christianity now than I ever had seen before.” A few days later, McLellin was ordained as an Elder in the Church of Christ and was called to preach the Gospel himself.

McLellin travelled with other Elders and preached at meetings. He had not been trained to preach, but God gave him an animated and burning heart. McLellin, like the other Elders, preached for hours on end. At two different meetings, Methodist ministers challenged McLellin and the other Elders. One Methodist accused them of teaching “a supernatural Religion.” Other Christian preachers accused them of being false prophets. McLellin continued to preach with the other Elders. They preached about the literal Second Coming of Jesus in Zion in Missouri, and encouraged people to prepare and gather in Zion. They also continued to sell the Book of Mormon. McLellin eventually returned home to Paris after his preaching circuit.

31 Mar

Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, Islam in America and “The Moslem World” and “Voice of Islam” (1890s)

In the introduction to Yankee Muslim, Brent D. Singleton outlines Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb’s Islamic mission to America from 1893 to 1897. The mission, officially known as the American Islamic Propaganda (AIP), was funded by Hajee Abdulla Arab and Moulvi Serajuddin Ahmed of Bombay. Webb stationed the mission headquarters in New York where he established a free lecture room, a library, and the Moslem World Publishing Company (MWPC). In 1893 the MWPC published Islam in America, a short book in which Webb explained why he became a Muslim. It also outlined the practices and beliefs of Muslims in other counties. The MWPC also issued the pamphlet “A Guide to Namaz,” and the newspapers The Moslem World (from May 1893 to 1893), The Voice of Islam (from November 1893 to June 1984), and The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam (from January 1895 to February 1896).

According to Singleton, financial exigencies and dissent among AIP members contributed to the dissolution of the mission in 1897. Singleton argues that Webb contributed directly to the failure of the AIP: “His main failure was the inability to truly imbibe the teachings of Islam with regard to class and race…It is clear that by choice and ideology Webb left himself only a small window for success, pinning his hopes on a meager cohort of the American intelligentsia” (47). Singleton’s comments are noteworthy because they suggest that the AIP failed because Webb reached out to the wrong audience, “a meager cohort of the American intelligentsia.” This suggestion is intriguing and deserves more attention. Did Webb reach out to the wrong audience with his publications?

To answer this question, I think scholars must situate Webb, the newspapers, and the Muslim mission in their historical contexts. Race and class were important to Webb, but not in the way that Singleton suggests. In other words, the newspapers and mission’s failure had little to do with Webb’s inability to “imbibe the teachings of Islam with regard to class and race.” Historians must move beyond recognizing Islam as a force that engulfs believers. Islam, like Christianity, has no one message about race and class. People practice religion, for better or worse, based on their geographic location, historical circumstances, and local and familial traditions. Webb probably believed that he imbibed the true teachings of Islam in Victorian America. This leads me to the second point. Scholars must situate American Islam within its American context to understand how and why Webb’s mission flourished or floundered. This investigation may start by examining the publications of the AIP and the historical context of 1890s America.

The publications are important for understanding Webb’s mission because late-nineteenth-century America was inundated with newspapers and missionary literature. In this light, I think scholars can ask: How did the form and content of the AIP publications work compared to other mission literature? Did the AIP publications do what readers expected them to do (i.e., relate the truth and Words of God, quote from scriptures, etc.)? Scholars should also examine the actual content of the publications for more evidence about the failing of the AIP. Articles written by Webb in The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam suggested that the mission failed for reasons other than those stated by Singleton. Singleton argued that Webb did not proselytize among the American masses, people who, Singleton suggested, would have accepted Webb’s Islam. However, Webb suggested in his articles that: 1) he was so popular in the American presses that damaging rumors spread about the mission before he could control them; 2) American Christian missionaries in the East were sending damaging reports about Muslims back to America; and 3) that the American press blamed unrest in the Ottoman Empire on Muslims and supported Armenian Christians. It seems that Webb was very popular among the intelligentsia as the presses published numerous articles about him (some serious, others mocking). Thus, it appears that Webb was more well-known in America than he has been given credit for. Rather than Webb’s unpopularity, targeting the wrong audience, and inability to practice Islam, the failure of the AIP appears to have more to do with the American and international context in which the AIP emerged.

By examining only a few the articles written by and about Webb, scholars have overlooked the contentious context in which the AIP arose in America. They have also ignored the surplus of American print media that Webb and the AIP would have had to contend with. This appears to be a general problem with studies of Islam in America. Muslim missions and movements are treated as anomalies that emerged in America and cannot be explained. American religious, historical, and international contexts (especially the cultural exchange between other American missionaries) are ignored. Scholars must recognize the American contexts in which groups and individuals practiced Islam. Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America were times of religious, spiritual, social, and economic restlessness and reform. Some upper-middle class, white Americans, like Webb, looked to non-Christian forms of religion for Truth. These men and women were formed by liberal Protestantism which lauded progress, whiteness, and respectability. Scholars cannot extract people from their historical context and expect to fully understand the success or failure of their missions. Like other Americans Webb and his followers were searching for their identities in new and thought-provoking ways. Webb targeted white, middle-class Americans who were also searching for Truth in religion and media. After all, this was the heyday of Spiritualism and spirit photography. The failure and floundering of the AIP must be explored in these historical terms and relationships.

29 Mar

Imam W. Deen Mohammed, “Message of Concern” (1982)

Imam W. Deen Mohammed delivered the lecture “Message of Concern” at a meeting of the Committee for the Removal of All Images that Attempt to Portray the Divine (CRAID) in Dallas, Texas in 1982. CRAID was initiated in the 1970s as an interfaith movement that called for the removal of images of Jesus from Protestant and Catholic churches across the United States. Mohammed argued that images of Jesus, particularly white images of Jesus, were psychologically harmful to the African American community. The images taught black Americans to worship and suffer under a white God. Mohammed argued that removing these images from churches would aid in the uplift of black Americans, particularly black Christians. Mohammed also argued that removing the images would help black Americans recognize the message of Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and the American Muslim Mission.


“Message of Concern” highlighted the reasons why Mohammed founded CRAID and promoted its work. CRAID was intended to remove images in religion “that invite the members of the religions to worship, or to address those images as Deities, or as G-d’s [sic]” (8). Images of the white Jesus on the cross were psychologically harmful to black Americans. These images suggested that God was white and called black Americans to suffer under a white God. According to Mohammed, “But when you look at it [white image of Jesus], no such ideas can come in your mind, because your reality does not agree with that part of the image. So, isn’t this an injustice” (18). These images should be removed to repair injustice.

Removing images of Jesus was a particularly American problem for Mohammed. He argued that white images of Jesus in churches violate the United States Constitution: “This is the concept in the Constitution of these United States of America. The Constitution of the United States recognizes the sacred dignity of the human person. It does not give priority to ethnicity over what is essentially the human being” (19). Images of Jesus, particularly white images, sanctioned the divine in human form. This human form of God authorized which humans had authority and power in the world. These imaged forms of Jesus elevated whites over blacks. This violated the United States Constitution because the Constitution did not elevate one race or ethnicity over another. Rather, it upheld the dignity of all humans. According to Mohammed, the necessity of removing these images was supported by the Constitution. Removing images of Jesus was an American problem rooted in American history.

Mohammed argued that the American Muslim Mission had a particular mission in America. “The Mission is to make America deliver.” The Mission was going to make America deliver on its promises of freedom, equality, and the sacredness of human dignity. America also had to deliver on the promise in religion. According to Mohammed, the promise in religion was the Gospel’s message that “parables are going to be pushed back, and out of the way as a veil opening up for the light, and the knowledge shall come to us in plain language that all of us can understand. In other words, that wording in scripture, promises us what America in the West had tried to deliver.” Mohammed suggested that America had a particular role to play in religion, in the Gospel, in the American Muslim mission. That role was providing, “Publication education. Equal access to knowledge.” America was to fulfill the divine will of the scriptures which said that all men would recognize “the Reality of their Purpose” by accessing knowledge. Jesus promised knowledge to all people through the Gospel and Muhammad was the messenger to the illiterate. Removing images of Jesus would allow black Americans to see and fulfill the messages of Jesus and Muhammad.

29 Mar

Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835)

Finney was a Presbyterian preacher during the Second Great Awakening in New York. He is famous for inducing conversion experiences with his sermons and revival techniques, called “New Measures,” in the 1820s and 1830s. Finney published Lectures on Revivals of Religion in 1835. These lectures had been delivered to his own congregation in previous years, and edited and published by the New York Evangelist. Finney was relatively unknown in evangelical circles until the publication of these lectures in book form. The lectures criticized New England Calvinism and lauded methods of evangelicals, particularly Methodists. The publication of Lectures on Revivals of Religion was meant to resuscitate revivalism amidst controversy, debates, and the decline of revivalism in churches. Two of Finney’s most famous published lectures were “Methods to Promote Revivals” and “Instruction to Young Converts.”

“Methods to Promote Revivals”

“Methods to Promote Revivals” argued that under the Gospel dispensation God had not established any particular measures, or no particular system, for promoting revivals of religion. Finney argued that if one looked to history, one could see that there had been a succession of New Measures. New Measures had changed with traditions and time. People usually had a hard time accepting New Measures because they believed the old ones had come from God. Eventually New Measures became old ones and the cycle continued. To see this truth, one only had to look to examples in church history. Finney reminded readers that: 1) pastors’ clothing had changed over time and that different articles of clothing marked pastors’ status; 2) the books, songs, and materials of worship changed over time; and 3) the participation of laymen had also change (in particular, Finney noted that at one time women’s prayer meetings were opposed in all churches).

Finney lauded the great revivalists in Christian history who had instituted such changes, including the apostles, Luther and the Reformers, Wesley and his coadjutors, and President Edwards. These men served as models for Finney’s promotion of his own New Measures. Finney’s New Measures included anxious meetings, protracted meetings, and the anxious bench. Anxious meetings allowed pastors to converse with individuals and groups about religion in order to “lead them immediately to Christ.” These meetings were not new. They were practiced in New England as means to induce conversions. Protracted meetings were camp meetings or revivals of religion that lasted multiple days. Again, these were not new. Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians hosted these meetings. But by the 1830s, Presbyterian ministers and laymen questioned the efficacy of revivals. People who converted at these meetings usually slid backwards shortly after their conversions to Christ. Moreover, many people complained that these meetings interfered with their business work. They grumbled about having to take time off to attend these meetings. This upset Finney. He argued they needed to realize they were doing God’s work at these meetings. Finney also suggested that these meetings should not be about spending money and entertaining travelling guests. Moreover, these meetings should avoid sectarianism and employ only 1 or 2 preachers. Finney also argued that people should stop think about these meetings as the only measure to promote the revivals of religion. Just as effective, Finney suggested, was the anxious seat. This seat put individuals in the spotlight at meetings and forced them to make a decision for Christ. Finney thought the individual and psychological nature of the anxious seat would only bring those who were truly ready for conversion before the congregation. The anxious seat provided some liability against mass conversions at protracted meetings.

Finney concluded by reminding readers that congregations needed new measures, particularly more entertaining ways of preaching (like the Methodists). Finney criticized Presbyterians for lauding education in ministers over their abilities to preach and draw crowds. “Many ministers are finding it out already, that a Methodist preacher, without the advantages of a liberal education, will draw a congregation around him which a Presbyterian minister, with perhaps ten times as much learning, cannot equal, because he has not the earnest manner of the other, and does not pour out fire upon his hearers when he preaches.” Finney argued for a shift away from older forms of Calvinism to New Measures that were more effective for the times. According to Finney, it was “the right and duty of ministers to adopt new measures for promoting revivals.” Holding on too tightly to the old measures “savors strongly of fanaticism.”

“Instruction to Young Converts” explains why and how ministers and churches should educate new converts. Educating new converts did not include teaching them doctrinal knowledge, or that religion is a substance that is part of the mind. Religion was not just about raptures and ecstasies, or “high flights of feelings.” Religion was “obedience to God, the voluntary submission of the soul to the will of God.” Religion did not consist of religious duties alone, like reading the Bible, praying, or going to meetings. These were part of religion, but not converts’ sole duties. Obedience to God included “A LIFE OF PIETY,” not just duties. Religion did not include “desires to do good.” This was “practical Atheism.” Religion consisted of choosing to do duties in everyday life. Religion required selfless, voluntary action undertaken to please God alone. Religion also consisted of self-denial and sanctification. Sanctification did not precede obedience and it was not a change in one’s nature or soul. Sanctification was obeying God “more and more perfectly.” Religion was perseverance, practicing piety in everything, and temperance in all things (particularly, temperance in overeating, and abstaining from tobacco and coffee and tea, which were not nutritious). Religion should pervade a young convert’s business life. Young converts should try to be just a holy as ministers. Young converts should aim at being perfect and to exhibit their light. Religion also consisted of winning souls for Christ. The church should allow young converts to be active in the church and the church should watch over them. The church should be tender in reproving them, but also point out their faults. It was important for the church to educate young converts and not leave them to their own devices after revivals and conversion experiences. The church should train young converts as soldiers of the churches for missions. The hope of the church was young converts. If they had truly converted, then young converts could be harnessed by the church and made energetic and thorough Christians.

29 Mar

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)

Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in June 1741 to his congregation in Northampton. Edwards delivered the sermon as the area revival in religion was building. The sermon became famous after Edwards delivered it at a meeting in Enfield, Massachusetts in July 1741. The sermon was meant to induce an awakening, or conversion experiences, among the community of Enfield. In the previous weeks, the itinerant preacher George Whitefield induced an awakening with his preaching in the neighboring town of Suffield. Area minsters were distressed that the same had not happened in Enfield. They set-up a preaching circuit among local pastors including Wheelock, Edwards, and Meacham to awaken Enfield and the other surrounding towns.

Edwards did not preach with dramatic gestures and theatrics like Whitefield. Nonetheless, Edwards’s sermon had a significant effect on the Enfield congregation. Before Edwards finished delivering the sermon, congregants moaned and cried out for their salvation. They feared going to hell and asked what they could do for Christ. At one point, Edwards asked the congregation for silence because its shrieks and cries filled the room. Edwards did not finish this sermon because he could not be heard over the audience’s shouting and crying.

Edwards delivered the sermon several times after the Enfield address as one of the standard sermons in his revival itineracy. In later versions of the sermon, Edwards appended six practical steps for seeking salvation. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of Edwards more infamous sermons. Its focus on hell to induce conversion leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many twenty-first-century Americans. Edwards’s focus on hell and death, however, were not unusual topics in the eighteenth-century. Edwards and other preachers found these topics effective for awakening souls to God. This sermon has been one of the most widely reproduced of Edwards’s sermons.  (See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 219-224.)


“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” interpreted and applieed Deuteronomy 32:35, “Their foot shall slide in due time.” According to Edwards, “In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites, that were God’s visible people.” The verse related to the punishment and destruction of the Israelites for their sins. Edwards explained that this verse meant the Israelites were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. The immanence of that destruction was of their own doing. They had not been destroyed already because God had not allowed it to happen yet. Edwards concluded as doctrine: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” Edwards proved this doctrine by reminding his audience of the omnipotent power of God, that men deserve to be cast into hell, and that men are already sentenced to hell. God was angry and displeased with those on earth as with those in hell. The only thing that saved men from hell in every moment was God’s restraint. The devil stood ready to seize them when God permited. The living were to have no security in the fact that there were no “visible means of death at hand.” There was no security in life. Men continued to reject Christ in their attempts to evade death and hell. But, no one could escape hell. “God has laid himself under no obligation by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment.” Until men believed in Christ, God was under no obligation to save anyone from hell.

Edwards then applied this doctrine. He argued that “the use may be of awakening to unconverted persons in this congregation.” He urged people to recognize that “God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked…you hang by a slender thread.” Edwards called the congregation to realize that the wrath of God was fierce and infinite, that congregants were always expose to this misery, and that this misery was eternal. He called the congregants to awaken to Christ in the hope of being spared from God’s wrath. Edwards called on the old as well as young women, young men, and children to awaken. He urged “God seems now to be hastily gathering in his elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and it will be as it was on that great outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days, the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded.” Congregants were to make haste and seek Christ to “fly from the wrath to come.”

25 Mar

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, Selection of her “Letters” (1805)

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821) converted to Catholicism in 1805. She founded the Sisters of American Charity and the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. Elizabeth was beatified in 1963 and canonized in 1975 by the Roman Catholic Church.

Elizabeth grew-up in New York and joined the Trinity Episcopal Church. Elizabeth helped establish The Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797) and served as its treasurer. In 1803, Seton travelled with her husband, William Seton, and children to Italy. Early on the trip, William died. Elizabeth and her children stayed with William’s business partners who introduced Elizabeth to Roman Catholicism. Elizabeth returned to New York. For two years, Elizabeth contemplated converting to Catholicism, and faced ridicule and alienation from family and friends. Elizabeth also suffered financial hardships after the death of her husband. In 1804, she started a boarding school to support herself and her family. However, local Protestants refused to send their daughters to this school on hearing of Elizabeth’s bent toward Catholicism. Elizabeth’s letters record these struggles and her desire to become a Catholic. These letters include her correspondences with Catholics and non-Catholics, and correspondences on her behalf. Below I’ll highlight some of these letters.

Writing to Anthony Filicchi in January 1805, Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore expressed his concern for Elizabeth. Bishop Carroll hoped that “after being put to the severe and most distressing trials of interior darkness, doubts, and terrors of making a wrong step, our merciful Father in heaven will soon send her relief, and diffuse light and consolation in her heart.”[1] Bishop Carroll also offered reading suggestions for Filicchi to pass along to Elizabeth. These included Thomas à Kempis’s Of the Following of Christ, particularly the ninth chapter of the second book “Of the wants or absence of every comfort.” Bishop Carroll also advised that Elizabeth should focus on asking God to “revive in her heart the grace of her baptism.”[2] He also urged her to listen to the voice of God if this meant painful sacrifices. Bishop Carroll hoped that Elizabeth’s current trials would make her stronger for the trials that would come after her conversion to Catholicism.

Elizabeth wrote to Philip Filicchi in January 1805 and described her doubts, anxieties, and troubles. In the summer of 1804, Elizabeth had been left alone by her family and A. Filicchi, her spiritual advisor. She engaged in prayer and read Protestant authors about the Prophesies. The authors argued that Catholicism was a temptation by Satan. For months, she struggled and doubted which version of Christianity was true. Elizabeth visited the Protestant church in her town, but often wished she were at Mass. She started reading a volume by the French Jesuit Priest Lois Bourdaloue. It encouraged her to read again the other books she had on Catholicism. She tried to visit the only Catholic Priest in New York, Mr. O’Brien, but to no avail. Elizabeth could not come to a decision about her faith. She ended the letter requesting to see A. Filicchi, Philip’s brother, when he returned to town.

Elizabeth also wrote to Amabilia Filicchi in January 1805 and expressed similar doubts and concerns. She described how she read Bourdaloue and tried to visit Mr. O’Brien. Nevertheless, she had doubts about converting. She could not decide if the Catholic Church in New York was a bad as people had described. Elizabeth resolved that these rumors would not hurt her faith and that the ministry of the sacraments would be enough to satisfy her yearnings for the Church. She argued, “I seek but God and His church, and expect to find my peace in them, not the people.”[3] Elizabeth described going to a Protestant church, St. George’s. She felt the need to go to church, but after going felt indifference to Protestantism and decided not to return. She realized that she had no faith in the prayers of the Bishop at St. George’s. After reading a book from Mr. Hobart she also realized that Protestant churches claimed no apostolic history. They had no connection to the True church of Christ. Communion at St. George’s also made Elizabeth feel uncomfortable because it was not given as the real presence of Christ. The Catholic Church represented a church steeped in apostolic authority, and linked to Christian history and beginnings. Elizabeth resolved, “For if the chief church became Antichrist’s [the Catholic Church], and the second holds her rights from it [the Protestant Church], then I should be afraid both might be antichristian, and I be lost by following either.”[4] Elizabeth waffled in her decision on which church to join. She wanted to have faith and to be a good Christian. But, she did not know if either of these were the right choice. Doubt plagued Elizabeth.

Elizabeth wrote to Amabilia Filicchi again on March 14, 1805, and expressed her joyous conviction in choosing the Catholic Church. Elizabeth moved to Baltimore to be closer to a Catholic church. She expressed happiness in seeing the cross on top of the church instead of a weathercock. She also basked in the “great crucifixion” above the altar. Elizabeth also enjoyed the Irish priest’s talk of “death so familiarly that he delighted and revived me.”[5] Elizabeth made her profession of faith. She felt clearer in head than she had in months. Nevertheless, she begged “our Lord to bury deep my heart, in that wounded side so well depicted in the beautiful crucifixion, or lock it up in His little tabernacle where I shall rest forever.” Elizabeth gloried in talk of death, Christ’s suffering, and the material artifacts at this Catholic church. They evidenced a more real faith to her. Elizabeth notified Amabilia that she was preparing for her confession of faith and hoped that after it she would “begin a new life, a new existence itself.”[6] As Elizabeth continued in her preparation, she relayed feelings of satisfaction and freedom: “How awful those words of unloosing after a thirty years’ bondage!..How bright is the sun these morning walks to the church for preparation.” After years of struggling with her doubt, Elizabeth decided to become a Catholic.

[1] Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, “Letters” in R. Marie Griffith, ed., American Religions: A Documentary History, 1 edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 185.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 188.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Ibid.