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.

04 Apr

Margaret A. Nash, Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 (2005)

 Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 examines “how women’s opportunities for higher education progressed from the scattered and short-lived academies of the late-eighteenth century to the permanent and highly academic seminaries of the antebellum era” (4). Margaret Nash argues that these early academies institutionalized women’s right to education and set “in motion a commitment to accesses to equal education for women” (116). Academics in the early American Republic catered to white, middle-class women and upheld notions of intellectual equality. Many women and men, teacher and students, valued learning for learning’s sake.


Chapters 2 and 3 examine the theories behind women’s education and the actual educational practices of women immediately after the American Revolution. Women’s education was discussed in terms of Enlightenment rationalism. Americans who supported female’s capacity to learn drew on John Locke’s theory of child development. Lock suggested that males and females possessed equal potential in education. Locke described the infant’s mind as a tabula rasa, or a blank state, that could be influenced by teachers and parents. Locke advocated the same education for males and females since both were equally capable of harnessing the powers of reason. Americans also drew on René Descartes and François Poullain de la Barre, to support their arguments that women enjoyed intellectual equality. Others looked to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or on Education to support their arguments that men and women possessed intellectual differences based on biological capabilities.

Women’s education was also discussed in terms of civic republicanism. Nationalists, like Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush, recognized the role of women in educating moral, intelligent, and unified citizens. According to this logic, women needed to be properly educated so they could instruct the next generations of American citizens. Women held power over their husbands, other men, and children and, therefore, could shape the virtue of citizens and the nation. Women’s education was also discussed in terms of the personal rewards of education. According to Nash, these rewards included: the pure pleasures of learning; the ability of education and arts to bring one closer to the divine and a Protestant ethos; helping women cope with harsh marriages; improving household management; and supporting self-sufficiency. Discussions and practices of women’s education immediately after the American Revolution reflected “both the rhetoric of human rights and Enlightenment ideals about intellectual equality” (12).

Chapter 3 examines the academic and non-academic subjects of men’s and women’s academies of the early national period. Nash argues that because of beliefs about Enlightenment rationalism and civic republicanism, pedagogy and curricula were similar for both men and women in most academies. Chapter 4 investigates the relationship between class and female education. Nash argues that women viewed education as part of their emerging “middle-class” identity. Education was an emblem of class society. Americans also justified women’s education because it was related to evangelicals’ emphasis on education for the Christian progress of the nation. Chapter 5 argues that women pursued education because they yearned to learn. Chapter 6 examines the ways women’s education was bounded by race and class for the creation of a white middle-class.


Women’s Education in the United States elevates the study of women’s education in the early American Republic. Nash makes key theoretical moves that historians should imitate. First, Nash situates the most famous female academies and their founders (Catherine Beecher’s Hartford Theological Seminary, Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, and Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) within the larger female academy movement from the 1790s to 1840s. Nash argues that while well-known, these schools are no different in terms of curriculum and pedagogy than other female academies. This allows historians to understand that thousands of girls and women pursued education during this time as part of their middle-class identity. It also helps historians to see how male and female educators supported women’s education. Looking at an array of academies also allows scholars to see Troy, Hartford, and Mount Holyoke in their own context and not simply as precursors to women’s higher education in post-bellum America. These three schools were all founded by 1840. Thus, rather than a beginning, these schools mark a pinnacle in women’s education. Situating these schools in their own context also helps historians realize that these schools were not inferior to later women’s colleges or men’s schools of the same period. These three schools were a part of the flourishing of women’s higher education in the early Republic, not just the forerunners of higher education.

Nash also challenges historians to look beyond the ideology of separate spheres as they examine female education in the early American republic. Historians often deem these early academies as inferior because they examine these schools through the lens of the ideology of separate spheres. This ideology assumes that there was a strong distinction between male and female education. This has led scholars to assume that either women were intellectually inferior to men, women’s schools were intellectually inferior to men’s schools, or that the larger public did not support women’s education. Nash reminds scholars that the reality of the ideology of separate spheres has been challenged. Advice literature argued for this division, but many women did not adhere to it. Moreover, the ideology of separate spheres has been challenged because of its reliance on the clear distinctions between public and private. Scholars have shown that these lines were fuzzy at best. The lines between public and private were permeable and constantly negotiated.

Nash argues that the ideology of separate spheres has harmed studies of women’s education. It assumes that women were being trained for passive, familial roles. Thus, historians examine schools for their ability to transcend or confer domestic ideology to female students. The ideology of separate spheres has also dismissed the public and private nature of academies.

Nash concludes that historians should move beyond study the ideology of separate spheres when they study women’s education in the early American Republic. This moving beyond recognizes that the phrase “woman’s sphere” was used throughout the nineteenth century. But, it also recognizes that the phrase was not clearly defined in society or individual’s minds. Thus, “using ‘separate spheres’ ideology limits our understanding to explain women’s education in this period because it necessarily limits outs understand both of education and of the construction of gender” (12).

Despite Nash’s insistence and willingness to move beyond the ideology of separate spheres, she does not always do so. This is particularly clear in her reading of Catherine Beecher. Nash makes it clear that historians have misread the ideology of separate spheres. Actual nineteenth-century women did not relegate their activities to the private, or domestic sphere. Nevertheless, Nash argues that Beecher espoused the ideology. By this phrase, Beecher meant that “women should concern themselves with the ‘private sphere’ of home and children, while men should involve themselves in the ‘public sphere’ of paid employment outside the home and in the realms of politics and government” (2-3). Did Beecher actually say this? No. Scholars have traced this reading of the ideology to Engels and Marx’s critique of capitalism which imbibed their own readings of separate spheres into capitalism. Moreover, Beecher did not say this because she did not use the phrase “separate spheres.” If historians want to transcend separate sphere ideology they must stop attributing the phrase and its connotations to nineteenth-century women. Beecher, like other women did use the phrase “women’s sphere.” As Nash notes in her conclusion, Beecher used this phrase to talk about the domestic and social roles of women. These social roles included the professionalization of teaching and missionizing which were not private or domestic. Nevertheless, Nash concludes that for Beecher the woman’s sphere was the home and classroom. Beecher though that “women should leave the realm of politics to men.” By politics Nash seems to mean the public sphere. Nash, like other historians, re-inscribe Beecher in the realm of separate spheres. Beecher cannot escape because historians will not read her work without the lens of separate spheres. Historians must ask what nineteenth-century Americans meant by “woman’s sphere,” politics, and religion to really transcend “separate spheres” ideology. Despite Nash’s own ability to move beyond the spheres in her reading of Beecher, her work is an important contribution to studies of women’s education and religion in the early American Republic.

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?
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

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.

28 Mar

Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth (2005)

In Between Heaven and Earth, Robert A. Orsi argues that religious worlds are made by men, women, and children in relationships with each other and special beings. Religious idioms are intersubjective in that they are real, personal experiences shared among any number of networks of people. Intersubjectivity is understood as: 1) the nature of particular social, cultural and religious identities and realities (bonds of love/hate); and 2) the balance of familiarity/difference in the relationship between the researcher and his/her subject(s).

Orsi suggests that religion is not a “web of meanings but of relationships” and cannot be labeled with dichotomies. Scholars must move beyond the secularization thesis and the “from-to” paradigm of modernity. Belief is the wrong question to ask and the “realness” of religious idioms should be understood as real in experience, practice, and relationships. Orsi explains these ideas in the stories about Sal. These illustrate the relationships between handicapped people, other Catholics, and the saints who embody suffering. While handicapped people were made models of suffering and purity like certain Saints, this fantasy marginalized the lives and actual suffering of the “cripples.” This fantasy obscured their unequal relationships.

In chapter two Orsi examines the presence of Mary among the devout in pre- and post-Vatican II. Orsi explains the presence of Mary after Vatican II as: 1) psychological in that people placed Mary as a mediator in their lived relationships and experiences; 2) social in that Mary is a cultural figure who makes and is made by culture; 3) a symbol of American and other cultural/ethnic identities; and 4) emotional in that Mary’s emotions reflected those of the devout. The presence of Mary is not something that is either true or false, but her presence and people’s engagement with her reflect “the daily circumstances of their lives.” Her presence alters lived experiences and relationships through art, prayer, and history.

Chapter three considers how adults made the presence of God material in children’s bodies and imaginations. Like the holiness associated with “cripples,” the holiness imbued in children made them vulnerable, objects of desire, and idealized childhood. These experiences shaped relationships among children and adults to create American Catholicism.

Chapter four relates the hagiographical accounts of Saint Gemma Galgani and stories about Orsi’s grandmother. In these stories, heaven and earth not only reflect one another, but are made in relation to one another (diptych). “Meaning making” is a linear process and does not take into account that the lives of people can be made by meaning in stories. Orsi suggests that the “meaning making subject” be replaced with “a more tragic figure whose engagements in the world…proceed through media that may embody meaning against him or her.”

In chapter five Orsi examines the relationship between the researcher and subject. The study of religion is the study of relationships that use, make, or re-make religious idioms in particular cultural, historical and political contexts. To study or interpret a culture means to be engaged with the people in the culture and their conversations; to understand religion as dialectics. Orsi understands that while he cannot pray to Saint Jude like Clara, he can experience the feelings of loss and hope that she does. In this case, scholars should rethink the boundaries of “us/them” in research and realize that while there are differences there are also similarities among the researcher and his/her subject. Difference does not mean otherness. This intersubjectivity will help scholars understand religious ways of living and the researcher’s relationship to them.

In chapter six, Orsi traces the history of religion in the West and in the American academy. Scholars must understand how this history impacts their research. The evangelical and postcolonial critiques present compelling challenges, but ultimately re-establish boundaries in their work (like Covington with the snake-handlers). Orsi proposes a third position where the goal of research is to get beyond “otherizing” by disciplining one’s mind and heart to stay in the “in-between place.” This position is transformative in that the scholar must go beyond understanding religion as ethical, and not affirm or deny the studied religion. Scholars should proceed in their research with risk, suspension, and engagement. Haberman’s fieldwork maintains this third position. Religious witnessing is not for the university classroom since the expectation is for discussion, analysis and open exchange. Religious worlds and their morals must be studied through the lived experiences and stories between people and their gods.

28 Mar

Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (1997)

Joel A. Carpenter explores the history of the American fundamentalist movement from the 1930s to 1940s. Carpenter argues that “Forced by their failed antimodernist crusades to rely on their own institutional network, fundamentalists spent these years developing a distinct religious movement with an ethos and identity that was different from the various denominational heritages of its members. Promoted by their revivalist heritage to dream of another great religious awakening in America, they set about to make it happen. The result was, if not a national religious revival, a popular resurgence of fundamentalist and other kinds of evangelicalism after World War II” (3). Central to the reemergence of fundamentalism was fundamentalists’ use of media, and the founding of institutions and organizations that served as national networks.


Fundamentalism survived the 1925 Scopes Trial debacle. In fact, the movement thrived as it developed “a complex and widespread institutional network to sustain its activities” (31). Fundamentalists founded Bible colleges and summer Bible conferences, continued foreign missions, engaged in publishing and radio networks, and trained leaders to evangelize. These leaders and institutions connected members across class lines and states. The intuitions and networks were integral to the success of fundamentalism because they allowed fundamentalists to work outside of the established, mainline Protestant denominations, which were experiencing rapid decline in membership. During the early 1930s, fundamentalists “were becoming a distinct religious community” (33). While they flourished, fundamentalists still felt ostracized from American culture and public life. Three factors contributed to this feeling. 1) The popularization and populism of fundamentalism “pitted it against the rising cultural authority of the university-trained expert.” 2) Dispensationalism predicted that orthodox Christians would be a fighting minority in the last days. 3) Once-respected conservatives were no longer taken seriously in public life. Thus, fundamentalists cultivated a separatist impulse of which the institutions and networks were a part.

This separatist impulse was cultivated in other ways through patters of devotion and thought “that marked [fundamentalists], both in the biblical and ordinary sense of the word, as a peculiar people” (57).  Fundamentalists rejected worldly pleasures like drinking, fashion, and dancing. They saw fundamentalism in conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil, and thus developed what Carpenter calls a “militancy and machismo” (66). They also believed in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and supported Christian primitivism. Fundamentalist piety was characterized by conversion, or New Birth, and an event after conversion called “entering into a ‘higher Christian life’” (76). Fundamentalists viewed the world, history, the church, current events, and the future through dispensationalism. These habits of devotion and thought supported their notions of alienation and gave them purpose. That purpose, although paradoxical, was to quicken revival before the rapture. To bring revival to America, fundamentalists employed “a contemporary religious style by making extensive use of the popular arts and mass media: advertising, popular music and entertainment, broadcast journalism, and radio broadcasting” (125). At the same time, fundamentalists forged a coalition to present a united evangelical front. The National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1942 and organized by moderate fundamentalists, foregrounded “evangelicals” in American public life. Thereafter, grassroots organizations, like Youth for Christ, set off “the revival of revivalism, which had percolated deep within the fundamentalist movement” (161). Revivalism reached beyond America as fundamentalists and evangelicals committed their efforts to foreign missions.

In 1947, Harold Ockenga called on fundamentalists to unite to win America. Okenga argued that fundamentalism needed “an intellectual overhaul” (193). Others joined in and called for an evangelicalism that “would affirm the great fundamentals but avoid the ‘deficiencies’ of fundamentalism. It would be intellectually engaged, socially aware, balanced and realistic about prophecy, positive about Christian unity, and based on a fresh and relevant rendering of biblical teaching” (201). This evangelicalism spread through colleges and universities among young people. In 1949, fundamentalism experienced the evangelical revivals it had hoped for in the widely popular crusades of Bill Graham, a preacher from North Carolina. Fundamentalism influenced the revival of evangelicalism in America culture and public life.


Revive Us Again serves as a sequel to George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism in American Culture. Marsden argues that from 1925 to 1940, fundamentalism “was composed of less flexible and more isolated minorities often retreating into separatism, where they could regroup their considerable forces” (164). Marsden directed this conclusion at historians, like Richard Hofstadter, who suggested that fundamentalism was a social aberration destined for extinction. Carpenter examines this separatism more thoroughly to understand how fundamentalism survived and eventually thrived in American culture.  Carpenter convincingly shows how fundamentalism was more than a social aberration destined for extinction. It thrived in the 1930s and 1940s, and influenced the emergence and popularity of twentieth-century evangelicalism.

Revive Us Again is also important for its emphasis on the centrality of media and modernity in religion. Carpenter reminds scholars of Martin Marty’s description of modern evangelicalism: “there has been a symbiosis between unfolding modernity and developing Evangelicalism…Evangelicalism is the characteristic Protestant way of relating to modernity” (234-235). Carpenter concludes that secularism is a blessing to American religion: “In sum, the very secularity of American society—as well as it fluidity and pluriform nature—has made it possible for creative and entrepreneurial religious movements to win a hearing, a following, and, eventually, a measure of respectability” (239). This is an important point. Yet, Carpenter give little room for its explanation. If secularism is a blessing, what does this say about the relationship between secularism and evangelicalism, and, more generally, religion in America? Can evangelicalism exist without secularism? Can secularism exist without evangelicalism? What exactly does this symbiosis mean? Are evangelicalism and secularism of two different or overlapping spheres? What exactly does it mean that fundamentalists and evangelicals used media and secularism to thrive? The nature of the relationship between secularism and evangelicalism needs more parsing. Carpenter is not alone in evading the particularities of this relationship. Many scholars continue to ponder the meaning of secularism and evangelicalism today. Carpenter’s work is important for its emphasis on the centrality of media and secularism in American fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

28 Mar

George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003)

George M. Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life has been hailed as “a magisterial biography” by the Wall Street Journal and as “the finest biography of Edwards” by Harry S. Stout.[1] And, indeed, Marsden’s work deserves this praise. Jonathan Edwards is a riveting story of the life, times, and theology of Edwards. Marsden argues that historians should incorporate Jonathan Edwards–the preacher, theologian, father, husband, and philosopher– into the larger story of American history. Like other prize-winning historians, Marsden implements a cultural-historical method that historians of American religion should emulate. However, his method cannot escape a review unscathed. Particularly, Marsden poses a challenge to historians in his discussion of “the point of historical scholarship” (502). Before turning to this challenge, we should recognize what Marsden does well as a cultural historian.

Rather than providing a tedious list of historical facts, Marsden presents Edwards’ life through his familial, pastoral, and intellectual relationships. This method of historical writing works well in several ways. First, it allows Marsden to present a plethora of primary sources written by Edwards, to Edwards, and about Edwards. These diverse resources help readers recognize Edwards as a multi-dimensional, eighteenth-century man who had eighteenth-century concerns. Edwards was a theologian, a logician, a critic of Arminianism, and a proponent of human depravity. Edwards was also a compassionate man concerned with the salvation of his family and parishioners.  As Marsden notes, “Edwards’s universe is essentially a universe of personal relationship. Reality is a communication of affections, ultimately of God’s love and creature’s responses” (503). This focus on relationships helps readers grasp how Edwards would have thought about his worldview and his relationship to God.

Although Marsden re-creates a plausible eighteenth-century worldview, he falls short of his goal of providing “relatively few interpretive intrusions” (5). Marsden interrupts his narrative innumerable times to explain terms, ideas, and historical figures, and to conjecture about moments in Edwards’ life for which historians have little or no evidence. Even so, most of these intrusions are necessary. They create a seamless narrative so that readers are not left wondering how Isaac Watts or the “Old Lights” and “New Lights” related to Edwards and the eighteenth century. These interpretive intrusions allow Marsden to analyze evidence, piece it together for readers, and produce a cohesive narrative of Edwards’ life and times. These are necessary intrusions in the narrative and are how good historians should do their work.

Even so, there are times when Marsden’s interpretive intrusions go beyond analysis to the elevation of Edwards as a larger-than-life figure. In contextualizing Edwards’ conception of good, evil, and justice, Marsden suggests, “that Edwards’ universe was similar to that of many of our own moral tales, from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to countless other lesser entertainments” (137). In a narrative intended to situate Edwards in “real-life,” eighteenth-century British-America, this interpretive intrusion distorts Edwards’ world. Edwards would not have recognized his moral universe as one of entertainment or folklore. Edwards feared for his and others’ eternal souls. His recognition of the battle between good and evil were very real and imminent. To be sure, Marsden employs this comparison to catch readers’ attention. Nevertheless, this intrusion extracts Edwards from his eighteenth-century context, and elevates him to a mythological status of which Marsden warns his readers he will not do. While good historians should make interpretive intrusions, they must be mindful of the relevance of these intrusions to their historical subjects’ lives and times.

Perhaps the best methodological advice that Marsden gives to historians is that “objectivity is not neutrality” (5). Marsden suggests that historians should confess their faith community and the opinions they have of the faith communities they study. This enables historians to recognize and limit any bias towards their subjects. Objectivity is not neutrality, but a recognition of a historians’ time, place, and circumstances in relation to other people’s circumstances.

Marsden provides another methodological insight for historians in his description of the meaning of historical research. In Chapter 30 “The Transitory and the Ending,” Marsden suggests that “The point of historical scholarship should not be, as it so often is today, simply to take things apart, to destroy myths, or to say that what looks simple is really complex…We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from great figures in the past—both in their brilliance and in their shortcomings” (502). Most historians would agree with Marsden on these points. But, Marsden takes the point of historical scholarship one step further. He suggests that “one of the uses of being a historian, particularly if one is part of a community of faith, is to help persons of such communities better understand what they and their community might appropriate from the great mentors of the past and what is extraneous and nonessential” (502). While historians should help people learn from history, Marsden’s attempt at theological guidance poses challenges for his historical project and for historians, in general.

Throughout his book Marsden warns readers that good historical scholarship should situate Edwards in his own time and his own terms. Marsden excels at this until the conclusion. Granted, Marsden does acknowledge that he steps out of his historical framework, “Excepting a few comments on the concluding pages, I have attempted to follow my working principle of explaining as best I can Edwards’ thought in it historical context, pointing out what I see as especially significant but also allowing readers to make most of their own critical judgments” (6). In the conclusion, Marsden blurs the boundary between his role as a historian and a theologian. Some fuzziness around boundaries is expected when one accepts the notion that “objectivity is not neutrality.” We all have particular interests in our subjects that, likely, developed from personal reflections and struggles. Books and papers reflect our own thoughts and feelings about particular subjects that we are drawn to. However, blurring the boundaries too much between historian, counselor, and theologian impacts the ways we use history and construct historical narratives.

Marsden begins to upend his historical framework in his analysis of Edwards’ death. Marsden presents Dr. William Shippen’s letter to Sarah that described Edwards’ “good death.” Marsden notes, “Although this account was written by a devotee to a bereaved widow in an era when it was conventional to give embellished accounts of how the saintly had ‘died well,’ it is also consistent with everything we know about Edwards. Edwards, despite some evident shortcomings, was a saint according to the highest Reformed spiritual standards to which he aspired” (495; italics mine). Edwards certainly would have understood himself to represent the highest standards of the Reformed tradition. But, Edwards never confirmed his election or sainthood. Marsden employs the deathbed narrative, a particular genre of eighteenth-century writing, to confirm his own notions of Edwards’ sainthood. On the surface, this appears to be a smooth transition from a historical account of Edwards to Marsden’s own comments. However, something disturbing is at work. Marsden employs the death bed narrative as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelicals would have: to confirm the election of the dying. Marsden sweeps aside the deathbed narrative genre and its historical importance, and takes it as evidence of Edwards’ election just as Dr. William Shippen does. Reports of Edward’s demeanor, although no doubt sensationalized, mark Edwards as a confirmed saint for Marsden.

Marsden further skews his historical framework in the last paragraphs of the book when his voice intertwines with Edwards’ voice. Marsden extols Edwards’ theological “solution” as it is the way that “ultimately the vast majority of humans” can recognize “the redemptive love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he created” (505). Thus, Marsden’s cultural-historical biography becomes a missionizing tool for the contemporary Reformed tradition. Marsden’s conclusion extracts the book from its eighteenth-century context in order to present his larger intention for writing a biography of Edwards: to resuscitate Edwardsian theology for Reformed communities. The larger purpose of Marsden’s book is transformed from historical inquiry to hagiography. In the end, Marsden’s good historical scholarship sounds more like theology than a bridge between the two.

These criticisms may seem trivial until one realizes how this use of history impacts the larger historical narrative. In the end, Marsden suggests that “As a biographer attempting to understand Edwards first as an eighteenth-century figure, I have been working most directly as a cultural theologian. Yet I have been doing this always with an eye on the theological question, taking his thought seriously as part of the larger Christian tradition” (502). Thinking about “the larger Christian tradition,” impacts scholarship in ways that historians are now just beginning to understand. Placing Edwards within “the larger Christian tradition” supposes that there is a Christian tradition. It supports the notion that the Reformed tradition sustained and directed American religion throughout the nineteenth-century. It supports notions that “evangelicalism” is a thing that can be traced throughout American history and people. Marsden notes, “Edwards’ eighteenth-century Calvinistic evangelicalism is significant not merely as an early instance of a wider phenomenon, but also because it played a prominent role in subsequent American history. After the American Revolution, New England Calvinism with a deep Edwardsian imprint emerged as one of the most influential movements shaping the new American voluntary religious culture” (8). Placing Edwards within “the Christian tradition” of the devotee poses the risk of looking to the past to validate evangelicalism as a category of historical analysis. To be sure, Edwards was influential to nineteenth-century evangelicals. But, they appropriated Edwards and his theology in ways that Edwards himself would not have recognized and approved. Condensing history and theology runs the risk of tracing “evangelicalism” from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries. Looking for Edwards and his evangelicalism in American history masks transformations in how people employed and applied Edwards, and supposes that evangelicalism was one thing. The risk of merging historical frameworks with theological points of view is that the historical narrative will continue to support ahistorical views of evangelicalism as American religion.

Marsden no doubt provides a model for the way historians should do good historical scholarship. But, his conclusion brackets his cultural-historical methodology and elevates the theological intentions of his work over the historical and cultural aspects. Bridging the gap between history and theology impacts the ways scholars read evidence and construct historical narratives.

[1] Yale University Press, “Reviews” of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, Yale University Press Online, http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/reviews.asp?isbn=9780300105964. (23 April 2012).

26 Mar

Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997)

Christine Leigh Heyrman examines how evangelicalism spread to the American South from the 1740s to 1830s. Southern Cross surveys the diaries of itinerant Baptist and Methodist preachers to recognize “why southern whites of all classes long kept their distance from evangelicals” (26). Heyrman argues that evangelicalism did not gain widespread support in the South among white Southerners until the 1830s. In its incipient years, evangelicalism challenged the social and familial roles of the Anglican South, particularly the patriarchy of white masters. Itinerant preachers “realized that the future of their churches in the South depended on more than yielding ground to gentlefolk and slaveholders. It would require winning humbler folk as well by altering, often drastically, many earlier evangelical teachings and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black, as well as their positions and relationships between the church and the family, and between Christianity and other forms of supernaturalism” (26). By the 1830s, “Southern whites came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent” (26).


In the eighteenth century, the largest number of churchgoers in the South were “Anglicans, members of the colonial church of England who later came to be called Episcopalians” (7). The First Great Awakening (1730s to 1740s) did little to affect the religious atmosphere of the southern colonies. From the 1740s to 1760s, some evangelicals moved to the South to proselytize, and more settlers moved south and southwest bringing their pietistic traditions. Heyrman notes, “All of those migrants and missionaries carried into the South the conviction that spiritual rebirth was essential to salvation, and the most militant among them, Baptists and Methodists, aimed at nothing less than teaching all Southerners the language of Canaan” (11). To do this, evangelicals attacked the “popishness” of Anglicanism with its rituals and holidays, and sent young, itinerant preachers to the backcountry. Evangelicals gained some membership numbers and established churches. By 1776, however, evangelicals numbered less than 10% of the southern white population. After the American Revolution and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, evangelicals (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) gained only a few more adherents. By the early 1800s, evangelicals comprised only 17% of the white population and 8% percent of the enslaved population. “Why,” asks Heryman, “was it that evangelicals, although now invested with every advantage, still struggled to claim the soul of the South?” (23). The answer: Evangelicals challenged the social hierarchies of Anglicanism and southern culture.

These challenges angered and frightened most white laypeople, particularly white masters. Evangelicals preached about the sinfulness of humans, the torments of hell, and Satan and demons’ ability to interact with and take visible form in the world. This supernaturalism frightened white people in at least three ways. 1) It equated Satan with “the black man,” who represented the powerfulness of enslaved people. 2) It appealed to enslaved men and women who regarded supernaturalism as an integral part of religious life. 3) It frightened whites who also believed in the power and literalness of Satan. Evangelicals also challenged social hierarchy by sending out young, single, itinerant preachers. These young men challenged southern culture’s emphasis on patriarchy. These men did not defer wisdom to age, they were unmarried in a society that preferred marriage, they were single men interacting with married women, and they demanded reverence and respect from all classes of southern men. Evangelicalism also upset traditional understandings of family. Ministers ridiculed marriage, rarely dated, and married late. They expected loyalty among evangelicals after conversion, not among family members. They also upset hierarchies by seeking the conversion of women first and being in close proximity with women alone. They allowed women to speak in public, give testimony, and receive revelations. Women’s newfound spirituality looked hyper-sexual to white, male southerners. The language of family and “God the Father” in evangelical circles also undermined the earthly family. The emphasis on an intimate relationship with the male Jesus upset notions of masculinity. Moreover, ministers denounced social interaction among families and communities by denouncing dancing, parties, and drinking. Poorer white males even detested evangelicals who seemed to disrupt their relationships with white masters. Evangelicals challenged all levels of southern culture and society. These challenges hindered the popularity of evangelicalism. By the early 1800s, evangelicals recognized these stumbling blocks and altered their messages.

Evangelicals tamed their emphasis on Satan and supernaturalism to appease whites. This also meant segregating churches and seeking approval from masters to preach to and baptize enslaved Africans. Taming supernaturalism meant curtailing African participation in evangelicalism. Evangelicals stopped women from preaching and specking in public. They associated female piety with the home and domesticity. Evangelicals married and had families. They deferred power and authority to white masters. “What had come to matter most to men of God was what had always mattered most to men of honor: vindicating their mastery within the public sphere” (252). Evangelicalism draped itself in southern culture and society in order to win the souls of the South. Evangelicals came to resemble white masters. After winning the white masters, evangelicals were able to win the unchurched, white, lower classes from the 1810 to 1830s.


Southern Cross examines the spread of evangelicalism contra Nathan Hatch’s notion of democratization. Unlike Hatch, Heyrman recognizes, firstly, that regionalism was important to the growth of evangelicalism. Hatch suggests that “The choice to study common developments springs from a conviction that certain underlying cultural dynamics of this period are not reducible to distinct regional characteristics…no section of the new nation was exempt from a democratic upsurge in religious matters” (12). Heyrman shows that regionalism impacted the spread of evangelicalism in the South. Evangelicalism challenged the establishment of the Anglian Church in the southern colonies and southern culture. Regionalism hindered and postponed the democratic upsurge in religious matters.

Heryman also challenges Hatch’s notion of democratization and popular religious movements. Evangelicalism was not a democratizing movement in the sense that it liberated people from social mores and promoted equality. To be sure, the movement attempted these things in its early years in the South. The moves toward liberation, however, were not successful. Evangelical ministers eventually re-inscribed the social order and gender roles of southern culture, and supported slavery. Evangelicalism did not liberate or embody the values of ordinary citizens. It actually did the opposite. Thus, Heyrman redefines the meaning of a popular religious movement: “This is the truest sense in which southern evangelicalism was a dynamic and popular movement: It was being reinvented during the very decades that it took root in that region, transformed by the demands of laymen and –women and the responses of clerical leaders” (27). A popular religious movement is the reinvention of religious values to meet the needs of particular laypeople, clergy, and culture.

Southern Cross is also important for what it says about the characteristics of evangelicalism. The dominance of evangelicalism in the South was not inevitable. Evangelicalism struggled for almost 100 years to take root in the South. Only when evangelical ministers conformed themselves and their messages to southern society and culture did it survive and thrive. Moreover, evangelicalism in the early nineteenth-century looked strange to many people. Its focus on supernaturalism and Satan frightened people. Evangelicals tamed supernaturalism to appeal to southerners. This is an important point. However, the degree to which evangelicals actually tamed supernaturalism may be debated. Recent studies show that belief in the supernatural grew throughout the nineteenth-century. In Heyrman’s story, supernaturalism all but disappears from evangelicalism. Nevertheless, the main point still stands. Evangelicalism of the early nineteenth-century was not the evangelicalism of the mid- or late-nineteenth century. Evangelicalism is not a static force or category that describes one particular theology and practice of Christianity.

26 Mar

Leigh E. Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (2005)

Leigh E. Schmidt historicizes the search for spirituality in America by examining leading intellectuals and their religious seeking from the 1830s to 1940s. Restless Souls argues that America’s liberal tradition was central to the development of American spirituality. Liberalism, for Schmidt, “allows an array of movements, within Christianity and beyond it, to be considered under the same umbrella” (11). Liberalism refers to “as much a religious vision of emancipated souls as a political theory of individual rights and civil liberties or an economic calculus of the beneficence of free markets” (11). It grew out of a radical form of Protestant Christianity in the 1820s and eventually moved beyond Protestantism. In the mid-nineteenth century, religious liberalism culminated in: (1) individual aspirations for mystical or religious feeling; (2) the elevation of silence, solitude, and serene meditation; (3) the immanence of the transcendent – in each person and nature; (4) “the cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety as well as unity in diversity”; (5) social salvation through moral reforms; and (6) an emphasis on creative self-expression and adventure seeking. From the 1830s to 1910s, religious liberals helped move “mysticism” and “spirituality” from obscurity to prominence, thought of themselves as “seekers,” located religion’s essence in individuals, and appreciated and appropriated other religious traditions as spiritual resources. Religious liberals of the nineteenth-century were the progenitors of the religious seekers of the 1960s and 1970s.


Restless Souls traces the beginnings of American spirituality to Transcendentalism in the 1830s and 1840s. Transcendentalists’ love of mysticism forged the path for American individuals’ inner search for and experience of the meaning of religion and life. From the 1850s to 1880s, Transcendentalists elevated the importance of the individual in religious and mystical experience through the trope of the hermit. The hermit was transformed in the American imagination from the social outcast to a figure who gloried in solitude and the “oasis of redemptive isolation amid myriad alienations of modernity” (16). Transcendentalists elevated the lone individual to a mystical status.

From 1890 to 1910, American spirituality emphasized the unity of all religions or their common, shared nature. Schmidt traces American spirituality’s focus on unity to its encounter with Asian religions from the Transcendentalists in the 1830s to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. The importance of Asian religions to American spirituality emerged clearly in Americans’ “heightened emphasis on the practice of meditation and the value of the concentrated mind” (16). Spirituality’s focus on religious unity continued after the Parliament at spiritual retreats like Greenacre run by Sarah Farmer. Many Americans attended these retreats, including Society of Friends members. Between 1900 and 1940, Friends revived and populairzed the concept of “seekers,” and applied it to “a universalized way to the modern religious world” (18). The seeker concept remains an important aspect of American spirituality, which flourished through the babyboomer-years and is still evident in recent spiritual upsurges.


Restless Souls is significant for the study of American religions as it departs from several trends in the historiography. First, it situates the study of American “spirituality” or “spiritual, but not religious” in historical terms. Rather than looking to the baby boomers of the 1960s and 1970s as the progenitors of contemporary spirituality, Schmidt searches for the roots of spirituality in American history. Americans have been religious seekers long before the mid-twentieth century. In fact, Schmidt suggests that the religious liberalism of contemporary spirituality emerged in the mid-nineteenth century.

Restless Souls also departs from other studies in its de-emphasis of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, for Schmidt, is not essential to the story of American spirituality. Early American Protestants did not use the term spirituality in the way that later Americans did. Moreover, “the American invention of ‘spirituality’ was, in fair measure, a search for a religious world larger than the British Protestant inheritance” (5). Thus, for Schmidt, “it is not particularly fruitful to ground the history of American ‘spirituality’ in early American Protestantism” (6). Schmidt’s point is well-taken. American spiritualism is not a restoration movement looking back to the Puritans. American spirituality emerged from the development of religious liberalism in the 1820s, but grew beyond evangelicalism.  According to Schmidt, “The point is not to diminish [Protestants’] importance, but to recognize that American ‘spirituality,’ as the term is now broadly configured in the culture, was invented through a gradual disentanglement from these model Protestant practices or, at minimum, through a significant redefinition of them” (5).

Schmidt shows the beginnings of this disentanglement in the chapters on Transcendentalists who desired to move beyond traditional forms of Christianity. But, Schmidt does not draw out this disentanglement in any significant ways throughout the book. American spirituality survives through religious liberalism, which emerges as the driving force of religious progress. I understand historians’ desires to decenter evangelicalism. However, in many ways, Americans’ encounters with evangelicalism, like Asian religions, drove the development of American spirituality. The story of American spirituality must be situated in the longer history of American Protestantism to understand the deep tensions, disgusts, and searches for something else. Religious liberalism alone cannot explain the growth, expansion, and popularity of American spiritualism. Something else seems to loom in this history that bubbled and drove the seeker religion, something behind religious liberalism. Nineteenth-century Americans would have supported this notion of “religious liberalism” and progress. But, as historians look back to the World Parliament of Religions, we see that liberal Protestants were not all that liberal. They recognized white, liberal Protestantism as the pinnacle of religious progress.

Restless Souls also departs from other studies that seek to frame American spirituality by the marketplace. Schmidt moves away from analogies that compare American spirituality to “economic models of free competition, entrepreneurial promotion, and consumer demand” (20). This is not to say that American spirituality has not been influenced by commerce. Commerce “has been a powerful agent in the production and distribution of everything from Bibles to balloons; likewise, inner quests…never transcend the market” (20). Schmidt’s point is that historians need to move beyond “the trope of spiritual shoppers” as if “religious seekers were little more than spiritual gluttons gobbling up anything and everything that they can heap on their plates.” Schmidt’s points is, again, well-taken. However, it may be as equally helpful to historicize the influence of the marketplace on American spirituality. The spirituality that Schmidt describes developed with and within American capitalism, commodification, industrialization, and the printing press. True, scholars must look beyond the tropes. But, we must also historicize the tropes themselves. Rather than brushing off the marketplace, scholars can ask: How did nineteenth-century industrialization and commerce drive American spirituality in ways that the tropes do not fullly develop? Perhaps one reason Schmidt does not want to focus on the marketplace and economy is because he concentrates too heavily on individuals.

American spirituality is a history of individuals. “The spiritual life, as religious romantics imagined it, was nothing if not personal, and any adequate history of these developments has to emerge out of the inner lives of distinct figures” (14). In a history of individuals, religion, and the marketplace, individuals can only be conceptualized as gluttonous consumers. Individuals buys things, they do not work together to create and developed things and ideas. Schmidt’s concentration on individuals does more than obscure the importance of the marketplace for emerging American spirituality. It also reinforces the deceptive notion that American spirituality is ruggedly individual. It is true that religious seekers often looked to their inner selves to find and commune with the divine; to have a mystical experience. But, religious seekers shared these experiences with other people to make sense of them. They formed reading and discussion groups, reform movements, and retreats. They missionized, much like evangelicals, in newspapers, tracts, and at meetings. The hermit was elevated, but even Henry David Thoreau shared his experiences with others. Walden; or, Life in the Woods was meant to show how lone, personal reflection helped individuals understand society. A history of the inner lives of distinct figures reinforces romantics’ notions that the spiritual life was primarily solitary and personal. American spirituality was these things, but it was also social and filled with things, people, and organizations.

Restless Souls is an important contribution to the study of American religions. It historicizes American spirituality, rather than seeing the phenomenon as a mid-twentieth century invention. It moves beyond the trope of the marketplace to explain contemporary American spirituality. It also decentralizes the story of evangelicalism and makes way for the study of non-Protestant religions in American history. Restless Souls appropriately challenges many trends in the historiography of American religions, but it leaves room for further inquiry. Future studies of American spirituality may seek to incorporate more of the tensions between American spirituality and evangelicalism that drove “religious liberalism,” the historical role of the marketplace in American spirituality, and the material, social, and organizational cultures that transformed American spirituality.