07 Apr

Ann Douglass, The Feminization of American Culture (1977)

The Feminization of American Culture examines how American religion transformed in the nineteenth-century from New England Calvinism to Protestant sentimentalism. Douglas argues that American religion was feminized by sentimentalism. This feminization was detrimental to American culture because it did not aid in the progress of America or promote feminism.


Douglas traces the emergence of sentimental Protestantism to the decline of Calvinism and disestablishment. Ministers experienced disestablishment as states stopped supporting official religions. Evangelicalism rose to popularity and supported less-well trained and less theologically focused clergy. Calvinist ministers experienced a decline in their social, economic, and religious statuses. At the same time, women experienced disestablishment as production and labor were increasingly moved from the home to the marketplace. Women lost control of their homes, families, and American culture. They experiences a loss of social status. They attempted “to gain power through the exploitation of the feminine identity as the society defined it” (8). Ministers in turn gave into this female audience to gain support and authority.

The printing press united these ministers and women in their efforts to gain power. They shared a “preoccupation with the lighter productions of the press; they wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs, sermons, and magazines pieces” (8). Through the press ministers and women wished to exert their influence, which they claimed as a religious force, on society. But this influence was haphazard, according to Douglas, because they “confused theology with religiosity, religiosity with literature, and literature with self-justification” (9). Douglas admits that their intentions were not bad: “Under the sanctions of sentimentalism, lady and clergyman were able to cross the cruel lines laid down by sexual stereotyping in ways that were clearly historically important and undoubtedly personally fulfilling” (10). Nevertheless, the effects were bad. “Nineteenth-century American women were oppressed, and damaged; inevitably the influence they exerted in turn on society was not altogether beneficial” (11).

The influence of sentimentalism and feminization were detrimental to American culture, religion, and history. According to Douglas, “The tragedy of nineteenth-century northeastern society is not the demise of Calvinist patriarchal structures, but rather the failure of a viable, sexually diversified culture to replace them” (13). Sentimentalism also created a feminine form of religion that was not concerned with feminism, education, or theology. “’Feminization’ inevitably guaranteed, not simply the loss of the fines values contained in Calvinism, but the continuation of male hegemony in different guises” (13).  It also created a static holding pattern. “The triumph of the ‘feminizing,’ sentimental forces that would generate mass culture redefined and perhaps limited the possibilities for change in American society” (13). The feminization of American culture was too sentimental, too emotional, non-theological, anti-intellectual, and anti-feminist. Douglas could not overcome her infatuation with male dominated forms of Calvinism to give women a chance to speak in nineteenth-century American culture.


The Feminization of American Culture, despite some historians’ continued criticisms, remains central to the narrative of religion in American history. This narrative continues to perpetuate the feminization of American religion. To be sure, most historians do not accept the negative aspect of this feminization. However, they do still accept Douglas’s idea that feminization of American religion segregated men and women into separate spheres. Douglas argued that women were “by and large in the home…” Historians, like Colleen McDannell, have worked to rescue the private, or domestic, sphere from Douglas’s indictments of its failures and hypocrisies. McDannell argues that the private sphere wielded positive and considerable influence in the nineteenth-century on the family through material displays of religion.

Douglas’s argument continues to impact how scholars of women’s history narrate the emergence of feminism in America. Douglas suggested that Sarah J. Hale was a complacent, anti-feminist:

“Nothing is more distressing to the feminist historian than the atmosphere of flushtide self-congratualtion that pervades the work of a woman like Sarah Hale; it is understandable, but nonetheless painful that, to groups whose potentialities are largely suppressed, any enlarged exercise of faculty seems, and probably is, at least in the short range an almost unmitigated good, whenever inner conflicts it creates, whatever limitations or long-term consequences it carries. It is pointless to condemn the anticipatory complacency of women like Hale as to condescend to members of ethnic or racial minority groups who ‘waste’ their money today on big cars and fancy clothes. The self-conscious if devious sense of social mobility felt by Hale and others was natural, yet it was delusive. Inevitably the uneasy alliance of ministers and women depended on their mutual entanglement in intricate and unperceived forms of dishonesty.”

Douglas threw Hale and other Christian feminists, like Catherin Beecher, under the bus. Their work did not matter. It was dishonest and it was not progressive. Their work was not feminist work. Nina Baym tried to rescue Hale from Douglas’s attack. In “Onward Christian Women,” Baym argues that Hale was a Christian feminist who supported women’s rights and women’s history in Christian terms. Nevertheless, historians continue to read Hale, Beecher, and other nineteenth-century women who supported similar notions as backwards, complacent, anti-feminists. Douglas’s work, although it promoted feminism, has greatly harmed women’s history in America. Historians are slowly recuperating from Douglas’s attacks on nineteenth-century women and their work for women and women’s rights.

Despite Douglas’s attack on nineteenth-century women, her work is important for women’s history. Douglas recognized that women were a prime consumer audience and prime produces in nineteenth-century America. Douglas suggested that most women were “By and large in the home.” But, Douglas did not separate women completely into the private, domestic sphere. Women were produces of American print culture. In fact, women led the clergy into the popular press. While Douglas condemned the content of these women’s writings, her insights are significant. Woman wrote for and shaped nineteenth-century print culture. Women were integral to the “public sphere.” Historians have not taken Douglas’s insights to their logical conclusion: women controlled American culture through print. Douglas also suggests that women controlled the marketplace as consumers. “In certain ways, middle-class women were freed as well as enfeebled by the shift in their economic status; they were to have greater, if more questionable, powers as consumers than that had enjoyed as producers [in the home]…they were women advocating the womanly, even if in aggressive ways…the home could sanction rather than limit traditionally undomestic activities” (78). Douglas recognizes the links between gender, the home, and the marketplace like no other historian has.

Douglas’s work is also important because it recognizes the importance of women in death and mourning in nineteenth-century America. However, like the women and ministers who support these practices, death and mourning were insincere forms of sentimentalism and feminization. Douglas argues that ministers and women “inflated the importance of dying and the dead by every possible means” (201). Like women’s other endeavors, these were negative. The proliferation of literature about death and dying did not reflect any increase in actual deaths. Neither did it reflect Americans’ concerns about death and the afterlife. Rather, it reflected women and ministers’ power struggles. “If the insignificant [the dead] could be proved to be significant, if the dead could live, ministers and women could establish a new balance of power in the free-for-all, intensely competitive democracy of American culture” (202). Women and minister feminized death and mourning to gain power in American culture.

The Feminization of American Culture is important for what is can tell us about women in American religion and history. Women were producers and consumers in the home and burgeoning marketplace. This comes out most clearly in the epilogue: “The forces of feminization were significant enough—they had tapped the increasingly formidable processes of industrialization, commercialization, and mass culture deeply enough—so that any opposition, even waged by a Harvard graduate like T.R., had to be conducted on their own terms” (328). Women were the arbiters of religion, culture, and the marketplace. Historians have not taken these claims seriously as they have examined women’s history in America. Ironically enough, Douglas’s work may help historians recognize the importance of women in American history. It may help scholars overcome their dependence on the separate spheres.

03 Apr

André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1960)

“The Ontology of the Photographic Image” examines how the plastic arts preserve humans and reality through representation. Photography presents itself as objective and real. This objectivity and realism, however, are only constructions of the mechanical processes of photography.


In ancient Egypt the plastic arts, like statuary, were substitutes for dead bodies. “It is this religious use, then, that lays bare the primordial function of statuary, namely, the preservation of life by a representation of life” (5). The evolution of art and civilization “has relieved the plastic arts of their magical role” (6). According to Bazin, today no one recognizes the ontological link between the body and a representation: “No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death” (6). The arts no longer care about survival after death. Instead, the focus on “the creation of an ideal world in the likeness of the real, with its own temporal identify.” The plastic arts today create a virtual world that has nothing to do with life and afterlife. This explains why photography and cinema caused “the great spiritual and technological crisis that overtook modern painting” in the 1850s. Photography and cinema are plastic realisms. They freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness. Painting could not escape the subjectivity of the artists because true likeness could not be achieved through the human hand. Photography did not perfect the physical process (color, etc.), but it did solve our psychological desire for realism; it satisfied “our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part” (7). Photography is seen as objective because “between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent” (7). The artist and his genius are not present in photography like in painting.

This objective production affected our psychology of the image. We accept the object before us in photography as credible, really existing, and actually re-presented. Reality is transferred from the thing to the reproduction. “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (8). This objectivity and reality are a product of impassive mechanical reproduction. “Photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it from its proper corruption” (8). Film takes photography to another level. Film, or the cinema “is objectivity in time.” For the first time with film “the image of things is the likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were” (8).Thus, the “photograph as such and the object in itself share a common being, after the fashion of a finger print” (8). Surrealists embraced photography because it “produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, a hallucination that is also a fact” (9). Photography tricks us because its mechanical nature seems objective and reproduces the model. Photography creates a realism that is not of this world. Photography is “clearly the most important even in the history of the plastic arts” (9).


This is what Walter Benjamin argued about photography and film. They construct objectivity and realism through mechanical reproduction. Photography and film are hallucinations and un-real worlds. They don’t show truth because they are constructed through mechanical reproduction. Benjamin refers to Dadaism as an attack on reason, logic, materialism, and nationalism through the arts. It was meant to awaken people from a false reality and a false consciousness. Similarly, Bazin refers to surrealism photography as a means of awakening people from the false reality and false consciousness of photography.

Benjamin, however, went further in his argument that photography and film are harmful. They lose their aura (originality, subjectivity, production history) and trick the masses into believing that a constructed reality is reality. For Bazin, the tricks of photography and film have no moral affects. The opposite is true for Benjamin.

Given the ability of all plastic arts to present and re-represent, I’m not convinced that Egyptian statuary and photography are all that different. They both create realities in their re-presentations. Photography does provide more realism. But in the 1850s, photographs of dead bodies were used like Egyptian statues as substitutes for dead bodies. For many people, the plastic arts do retain their magical role. In fact, this is what Bazin seems to argue when he suggests that they are hallucinations. Photography and film can make us believe things that may or may not be not real. They are still magical because they still create worlds. Maybe photography renewed this sense of magic experienced in ancient Egypt.

03 Apr

Elizabeth Reis, “Immortal Messengers: Angels, Gender, and Power in Early America” (2003)

“Immortal Messengers” examines how American Christians have seen visions of angels and written about angels, and how these visions were authorized (or not) through gender. Puritans had visions of angels. Cotton Mather wrote about his visions as signs from God and argued that angels guided his hand in writing. Mather, however, warned women to ignore the angels who came to them. Angelic visitations bordered on revelations from God. Authorizing women’s visions would authorize their religious authority and ability to commune with God. Mather told women the angels they saw were devils. By the early 1700s, colonial Americans saw visions of angels before their deaths or on their deathbeds. They worked as signs and confirmations of one’s salvation. Shakers had visions of angels as conformation of Mother Ann Lee’s authority. Most of these visions were of male angels. Angelic visions became more popular in the 1800s. Ministers wrote about angels and Americans republished Swedenborg’s writings about angels. Spiritualism focused on angels as loved ones in heaven. Reis suggests that during the 1800s angels in writing were mostly men, while angels in images were female. By the 1850s female angels appeared on greeting cards, stereocards, and in ladies’ magazines. Reis argues that “Angels had become metaphors for feminine sensibility, and the angels themselves were by now primarily female….The feminization of angles was a piecemeal process, and by no means completely consistent, through it had developed in unison with a kinder and gentler religious sensibility” (175).


  • Were angels only metaphors by the 1850s?
  • How did angels work in 19th century evangelicalism?
  • What did (or did not) angels authorize in the 1800s?
  • What more can we say about angels, religion, and gender?
03 Apr

Matthew Dennis, “Patriotic Remains: Bones of Contention in the Early Republic” (2003)

“Patriotic Remains” explores how early Americans treated the bones of Native Americans, patriots from the American Revolution, and George Washington. These bones were wrapped in political and cultural meaning and used to construct and practice nationalism in the early American Republic.


Americans, like Thomas Jefferson, dug up the bones of Native Americans that rested in mounds. Disposing of these bones cleared the way for an American heritage and claim to the land. The Tammany Society worked in New York to have the bones of soldiers from the American Revolution entombed. These bones haunted New Yorkers because they belonged to soldiers who had been held prisoner and died aboard British ships anchored off the coast. After the war, the ships were abandoned along with the dead and their bones. The ships eventually sank and the bones washed ashore. The bones remained on shore until the early 1800s. The Tammany Society argued that if the remains of Washington could be entombed then so could ordinary war heroes. According to Dennis, “These remains became holy objects, which served to promote patriotic memory and and national feeling.” The bones were interred, but their importance and memory waxed and waned through American history. The burial and interment of Washington’s bones were no less controversial. The nation went into mourning at the death of Washington. Americans held mock funerals, elegies, and processions to honor Washington. Congress called for his entombment at the Capital. Some Democratic-Republicans, however, argued that such ostentatious display of mourning and memorializing were unsuited to a republican form of government. Republicans and Federalists argued over whither public funds should pay for memorials to Washington. Washington was eventually buried at Mount Vernon, not the Capital. Dennis concludes that “Bones and the nation are linked symbolically: graves of ancestors stake claims to the national landscape and its history. They are political relics, deployed (though not always self-consciously) to gain control of the nation’s collective memory, and in support of particular cultural and political agendas” (148).

Things to Think About

  • John Adams criticized the emerging cult of Washington. He wrote to Benjamin Rush: “When my parson says, ‘Let us sing to the praise and glory of G.W.,’ your church will adopt a new collect in its liturgy and say ‘Sancte Washington, ora pro noobis.” Adams added that if Congress had agreed to fund the Washington mausoleum, he would have been “obliged to do the most unpopular act of my whole unpopular life by sending it back with a negative and reasons.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 143.
  • Given the controversies over memorializing Washington with federal funds, Congress rejected the Tammany Society’s request for money to bury the New York patriots. A congressman wrote to the Tammany Society, “some are of the opinion that Congress ought not to appropriate public money for such purposes,” and others believed the art of printing “has superseded the use and intention of monuments.” See Dennis, “Patriotic Remains,” 144.
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.

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.”

13 Mar

C.S. Lewis on Death and the Afterlife

Observations on the death of his wife:

“Don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There is not a word of it in the Bible. It rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back. How well the spiritualists bait their hook! ‘Things on this side are not so different after all. ’ There are cigars in heaven. For that is what we should like. The happy past restored. And that, just that, is what I cry out for, with mad, midnight endearments and entreaties spoken into empty air.”

A Gift Observed (1963), p. 25-26