09 Apr

W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” (1986)

“The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” appears in Iconology: Image, Text, Rhetoric. This book is not specifically about images, but “the way we talk about the idea of imagery” (1). Mitchell wants to show “how the notion of imagery serves as a kind of relay connecting theories of art, language, and the mind with conceptions of social, cultural, and political value” (2). This is also a book about the fear of images. According to Mitchell, the term iconology “turned out to be, not just about the science of icons, but the political psychology of icons, the study of iconophobia, iconophilia, and the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry” (3).  This struggle can be seen within our conceptions of images and text. Mitchell recognizes that images cannot be read without text and context. Pictures need words and vice versa. “The recognition that pictorial images are inevitably conventional and contaminated by language need not cast us into an abyss of infinitely regressive signifiers…The history of culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights in ‘nature’ to which only it has access” (42-43) Thus, historians cannot separate pictures from words in history or in their analyses. Ways of seeing images are socially constructed by texts and language. With this struggle between pictures and words in mind, Mitchell examines the rhetoric of iconoclasm.

Mitchel examines the rhetoric of iconoclasm in Marx’s ideology and fetishism. Marx defined ideology as a false consciousness. According to Mitchell this means “a system of symbolic representation that reflects an historical situation of domination by a particular class, and which serves to conceal the historical character and class bias of that system under guises of naturalness and universality” (4). Since Marx, historians have taken ideology to mean the “structures of values and interests that informs any representation of reality” (4). This meaning loses Marx’s notion of false consciousness, oppression, and criticism.

Marx made his notion of ideology concrete by using the language of imagery. Marx suggested that ideology was the camera obscura. Like the camera obscura, ideology projected false realities. For Marx, the camera obscura was a commodity, a bourgeois amusement that created illusion with images. Marx called for iconoclasm or a break from ideology and false ideas.

Marx also called for iconoclasm, or a break from material things in Das Capital. Marx criticized capitalists’ material objects and concrete practices in his explication of the commodity fetish. Marx applied the European idea of the fetish as a perverse, primitive, religious illusion to the commodity. Marx argued that commodities were fetishes. Commodities to the capitalist appeared to have a “transcendent” being, they were endowed with a “mystical” and “enigmatic” character (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81-96). A commodity to the capitalists “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81). This mystery, according to Marx, stemmed from a commodity’s abstraction of labor and concealment of labor history: “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of the labor” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 83). A commodity’s material existence seems to have nothing to do with the labor involved in its creation and its value in relation to other commodities. Thus, Marx looked for a category in his contemporary, historical moment that could describe this mysterious power of things.


The parallel he saw was the fetish as Europeans deployed it against West Africans. According to Mitchell, “Marx adopted fetishism as a metaphor for commodities at the moment when Western Europe (and particular England) was changing its view of the ‘undeveloped’ world from an unknown, blank space, a source of slave-labor, to a place of darkness to be illuminated, a frontier for imperialist expansion and wage-slavery. ‘Fetishism’ was a key word in the vocabularies of nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologist who went out to convert the natives to the privileges of enlightened Christian capitalism” (W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 205).

Marx applied the word fetish to commodity as a critique of capitalism and its perception of magical things. According to Mitchell, “In calling commodities fetishes, Marx is telling the nineteenth century reader that the material basis of modern, civilized, rational political economy is structurally equivalent to that which is most inimical to modern consciousness” (191). In other words, capitalism was a perverse illusion. Capitalists fetishized commodities and money. Money embodied the value of the commodity. Marx argued that money was not a symbol of exchange, but “the direct incarnation of all human labor,” or “the embodiment of their values” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 105, 122). Capitalists ignored the symbolic form of money. They recognized that money was a real, powerful thing and that money begot more money.

Marx called capitalists to recognize their own false perceptions of material things. Capitalists were not idolaters in the sense that they worship the symbolic (money) through a material form (commodity). For Marx, capitalists were like West Africans who recognized things (for capitalists, commodities) as magical objects that contain their value (the abstraction of human labor). According to Mitchell, “Commodity fetishism can be understood then, as a kind of double forgetting: first the capitalist forgets that it is he and his tribe who have projected life and value into commodities in the ritual of exchange. ‘Exchange-value’ comes to seem an attribute of commodities even though ‘no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in either a pear or a diamond.’ But then, a second phase of amnesia sets in that is quite unknown to primitive fetishism. The commodity veils itself in familiarity and triviality, in the rationality of purely quantitative relations and ‘natural, self-understood forms of social life.’ The deepest magic of the commodity fetish is its denial that there is anything magical about it: ‘the intermediate step of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind’” (W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193). In other words commodities seem like timeless, ahistorical things with power. The abstraction of labor conceals their production processes and history. Capitalistic economics forgot “the historical character of its own mode of production” (193).  The commodity fetish and money, according to Mitchell, level “all the distinction of sex, age, and skill into quantities of universal labor time in both the exchange and factory” (196).

Protestants charged Catholics with fetishism, or idolatry. “The idolater is naïve and deluded, the victim of false religion” (197). Similarly, Marx accused Protestants of being idolaters and victims of capitalism. According to Mitchell, Marxism “plays the role in modern Western intellectual life of a kind of secular Puritan/Judaism, a prophetic iconoclasm that challenges the polytheistic pluralism of bourgeois society. It tries to replaces polytheism with a monotheism in which the historical process plays the role of messiah, and the capitalist idols of the mind and marketplace are reduced to demonic fetishes. The liberal pluralist complaint against the intolerance of its iconoclastic rhetoric is likely to be met by a Marxist dismissal of petit-bourgeois ‘tolerance’ as the luxury of a privileged minority” (207). The struggle between these two positions, Mitchel hopes, will make “both our love and hate of ‘mere images’ contraries in the dialectic of iconology” (208). Mitchell hopes to show the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry, between words and images. He also hopes to show how ideology (in the Marxist sense) can be transformed into ideology as reality so that the iconoclast appears to stand above everyone else as the messiah. And the rhetoric of iconoclasm continues between image and text, idolatry and iconoclasm.

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.

07 Apr

Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900 (1986)

The Christian Home in Victorian America examines the affect Victorian Christianity had on attitudes towards domesticity, or the private aspect of American culture. McDannell argues that for nineteenth-century Christians “the connection between religion and the home was natural and inseparable” (xiii). Christians, Protestants and Catholics, believed in the divine nature of the home and created an American domestic religion.


McDannell traces the development of American domestic religion and its dependence on notions of the family to Puritans who settled in America. Puritans, like later evangelical Protestants, structured domestic religion in similar ways. “They met in the morning and evening [in the home] to recite prayers, sing psalms, and read from the Bible” (5). Religion, and, in turn, domestic piety witnessed a decline in the mid- to late-1700s as colonial and early republic Americans focused more in “individualism, deism, rationalism, and concern for the new nation” (5). American domestic religion matured in the 1820s as the social world of the Victorians witnessed the advent of industrialization and advances in transportation, the textile industry, mass production, and the marketplace. By the 1840s, these developments supported a marketplace filled with affordable Christian goods. Middle-class Protestants decorated their parlors with these Christian goods. Women oversaw decoration as notions of “true womanhood” equated womanhood with motherhood purity, piety, and domesticity. This domestic, feminine Protestantism coalesced with consumerism to foster a culture that prized visual and material displays of religion in the home. By the 1870s, Protestants recognized homes as sanctuaries populated with sacred furnishings that formed and expressed their salvation. Irish Catholic domestic piety developed from the mid-century and was entrenched by the 1880s. Protestant and Catholic domestic piety supported a middle-class Christian culture. Domestic religion also supported fathers and mothers as leaders at the domestic altar. The attention to fathers waxed and waned throughout the nineteenth century.


The Christian Home in Victorian America is one of the first books to examine the material culture of American Christianity. McDannell shows us how religion was practiced in the home with things. This is a significant methodological move because it demonstrates that Victorians in America did not shut their homes off from the world and the marketplace. Rather, the marketplace and mass produced goods were essential to Protestant and Catholics’ practice of religion and notions of salvation. Things and the marketplace mattered for American Christianity. This is also important for nineteenth-century gender studies because it suggests that Americans did not understand the separation of the spheres. The marketplace as man’s sphere was not separated from the home as woman’s sphere. Christians displayed prized goods from the marketplace in their homes.

Despite showing how the home and marketplace worked together to maintain Christianity in America, McDannell recognizes the separation of the spheres. “The home was not only a private sphere unconnected to society but the starting point for shaping the public world” (xiv). For McDannell, the home was a private sphere that influenced the public sphere. This notion comes from McDannell’s use of Barbara Welter’s “the cult of true womanhood.” Welter argued that “true womanhood” in the nineteenth century defined womanhood as motherhood purity, piety, and domesticity. Domesticity, or the woman’s sphere, was central to “true womanhood.” Welter reasoned that religion and domesticity went in hand: “One reason religion was valued was that it did not take a woman away from her ‘proper sphere,” her home.” Thus, Welter separated religion and women from the public sphere and wider world. McDannell maintained this separation for a reason. She wanted to show the importance of the private sphere in light of recent work on the private sphere in civil religion and the feminization of American culture.

McDannell recognized her work as contributing to the debate about American civil religion. In 1968, Robert Bellah argues that American civil religion as a set of “public symbols that define what is sacred in this country” (150). Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann modified Bellah’s Durkheimian perspective. According to McDannell they suggested that “modern society forced individuals to retreat into the private sphere where they cultivated autonomy, self-expression, and self-reliance” (150). This retreat segregated religion within the private sphere. This move for Luckmann and Berger was “functional,” but upsetting since the public sphere (not families and individuals) was supposed to mold individuals. The private sphere took on the role of the public sphere, but this role was mediocre and unnatural.

Other scholars also lamented the role and function of the private sphere. In the Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas argued that ministers and women intentionally feminized religion in their support of the private sphere. Douglas interpreted this feminization as a detriment to American culture because it did not create a progressive women’s movement. This feminization was negative because it focused on domestic culture as sentimental and undesirable. Douglas pointed the finger at nineteenth-century American women who supported this familial, feminine, sentimental culture. She did not recognize these women as feminists. The private sphere was a burden to American progress. Other historians like, Barbara Welter and Nina Baym, argued that the private sphere supported the public sphere. They suggested that sentimental, feminine culture elevated women. They approved of domestic novels because they “were ‘vehicles of protest’ which commented on ‘temperance, women’s right, prolabor and antilabor, slavery and abolition.’”

According to McDannell, this work on civil religion and feminization minimized the importance of and influence of the private sphere. McDannell argued “only when the private sphere (dominated by women) attempted to control the public sphere (dominated by men) was the private sphere worth noting.” McDannell saw her work as opening the private sphere to show how men and women practiced religion in the home. The private sphere was important on its own right. It did not need the public sphere to be important. This became especially clear in light of civil religion.

McDannell argued that American domestic religion existed alongside of denominational religion and American civil religion. “By combining traditional religious symbols with a set of middle-class domestic values the Victorians rooted their home virtues in the eternal and allowed the more abstract traditional symbols to assume a real presence in everyday life. Domestic religion, in its uniquely religious and generally cultural forms, bound together what was truly meaningful in Victorian society….To understand Christianity of this period we must look not only at public symbols of civil religion, or particular theologies, but at the sacramental character of the home” (151). McDannell evaluates the private sphere to show how domestic religion functioned positively as its own set of private symbols in Victorian culture. To show the importance of the private sphere, McDannell reinforces the separation between the public and private spheres.

Despite McDannell’s reinforcement of the separation of the spheres, her work is important because it shows the opposite. Domestic religion fused the public and private spheres. Women and religion were not separated from the public sphere, they moved in and around the public sphere and brought it into their homes in the forms of goods and commodities. Likewise, women took religion into the public sphere and shaped it. The spheres were not separate. In fact, there seem to be no public and private spheres. McDannell’s works recognizes this in her discussion about fathers and mothers as leaders of the domestic altar in Protestant and Catholic models of domestic religion. Men also lead worship, prayer, and Bible reading in the home. The home and religion were not conceived of as completely the realms of women. The home was not woman’s sphere. Men also has an importance place in the home. This is an important insight which has been lost in the literature on spheres. Despite, McDannell’s evidence to the contrary, The Christian Home in Victorian America perpetuates the separation of the spheres as a metaphor and reality in order to promote domestic religion as a category unto itself. Historians must rethink the ideology of separate spheres in order to understand how parlor culture and religion were a part of the wider Victorian culture of men, women, and children.



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.

26 Mar

Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (1991)

The Divine Dramatist traces the biography of George Whitefield, “Anglo-America’s most popular eighteenth-century preacher” (xiii). Harry S. Stout recounts this life story through Whitefield’s published writings and diaries, letters, magazines, and newspapers from the eighteenth-century. This book examines Whitefield’s popularity in terms of social and cultural history. Stout argues that Whitefield “bequeathed a new, more modern sense to the term evangelical. His field preaching competed not only with the ‘velvet-mouthed’ preachers of his church, but also with the vendors, sportsmen, and entertainers of the marketplace” (65-66). According to Stout, “It was left to Whitefield to become Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age” (xvi). Whitefield infused religion with modern forms of consumption and helped shift the meaning of “revival” by employing modern notions of epistemology to conversion. Stout concludes that Whitefield was an American icon, a Pauline evangelist, and an American patriot.


The young Whitefield enjoyed theatre, but scorned secular entertainment after an epiphany at Oxford. As a “boy preacher,” Whitefield harnessed the power of the press to debate Anglican Bishops and publish sermons. While in Georgia, Whitefield continued publishing in the Journal to maintain his religious audience. In the 1730s, Whitefield induced revivals in London, colonial America, and Scotland. He transformed the sermon into “a dramatic event capable of competing for public attention outside the arena of the church—in fact, the marketplace” (66). By 1750, America and Britain experienced the first seeds of a “consumer revolution” (xvii) that focused on the marketplace, manufacturing, capital, and leisure. The new language of consumption did not include religion and “threatened to overtake social discourse” (xviii). Whitefield integrated religious discourse into this language of consumption to show that “preaching could be both edifying and entertaining” (xvi). Whitefield attracted international attention, especially among women, as well as controversy. Samuel Foote satirized Whitefield as Dr. Squintum and criticized his use of theatrics to market religion.

In the 1740s, Whitefield worked to restore relationships with religious authorities and continued his revivalist mission. Stout argues that Whitefield “helped introduce a new concept of religious experience that grew throughout the nineteenth-century into a recognizably ‘evangelical movement’” (xx). This concept of religious experience was grounded in revivals, typified by Whitefield, that were based on personal conversion experiences. Whitefield’s revivals in the mid- eighteenth-century departed from Puritan revivals. This departure resulted from a shift in epistemology. Puritans “denied that conversion could be experienced by those who were ignorant of the theological terms on which it rested. This meant that the teaching function of the church had always received primary interest” (206). Whitefield reversed this emphasis so that “individual experience became the ground for a shared theology” of conversions and, therefore, revival. Stout traces this shift to Lockean epistemology, which focused on sensation and experience: “As sensation represented the only avenue for natural knowledge in Lockean epistemology, so the supernatural experience of New Birth became the sole authentic means to spiritual knowledge in the evangelical revivals” (205). Modern evangelicalism is marked by a shift in the ways Christians experienced conversion and revival. Conversion and revival transformed from “a mysterious, local, communal event to one that was predictable and highly subjective” (xxi). The conversions and revivals of Whitefield were based on individual, personal, and emotional experiences of the supernatural.


The Divine Dramatist is an important contribution to the study of American religion. Stout provides a much needed historical account of George Whitefield’s itinerancy. As Stout notes, “Studies of Whitefield have too often abstracted him from the age in which he lived” (xvi). Scholars often present hagiographies of Whitefield, not historical analyses. Stout does much to correct this. However, Stout’s biography may overstate the degree to which Whitefield embodied “American” values. Stout suggests that both Whitefield and Americans “chafed against authority and arbitrary powers” (91). This reading presupposes “the revolutionary spirit” of “Americans.” Many colonial Americans, especially males, supported the white, male hierarchy of the colonies. Women, slaves, and non-landowning males had little political, social, or economic authority and could not challenge established order. A stronger biography might fully situate Whitefield within this hegemonic, Anglo structure. Whitefield was an Anglo-American in the sense that he, like other Anglo-Americans, were British subjects.

Stout also presents Whitefield as the driving force behind the integration of religious discourse into the marketplace. Whitefield is presented as a phenomenon and innovator for his use of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology. Whitefield is a lone hero who transcended the public sphere and transformed religion: “Only Whitefield thought to transcend denominational lines entirely and, in effect, ply a religious trade in the open air of the marketplace” (xviii). In presenting Whitefield as a hero, Stout borders on elevating Whitefield’s biography to hagiography. To be sure, Whitefield was a popular itinerant preachers who achieved international celebrity. However, as Charles G. Finney remembered in “Measure to Promote Revivals,” Whitefield was not always so popular in British-America. According to Finney, “When Whitefield came to this country, what an astonishing opposition he raised! Often he well nigh lost his life, and barely escaped by skin of his teeth. Now, everybody looks upon him as the glory of the age in which he lived.” Many British-Americans did not recognize Whitefield as an American hero as Stout suggests.

Moreover, as other historians have shown, Whitefield’s tactics were not all that new. He did not initiate preaching outdoors, using the press for religious discourse, or calling for revivals based on personal experience. As David Hall argues in World of Wonder, Days of Judgment, print media were an integral part of popular religion in seventeenth-century New England. Moreover, Sarah Rivett challenges notions that Puritans were not modern. In The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, Rivett shows how sixteenth and seventeenth-century Puritans employed Lockean epistemology to experience the supernatural for personal conversions. Whitefield was more of a product of his social and historical surroundings than Stout suggests. Nevertheless, Stout’s work remains significant for its recognition of the centrality of media, the marketplace, and modern epistemology to eighteenth-century Anglo-American religion, particularly Whitefield’s evangelism.

18 Mar

David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1989)

Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment investigates “popular religion” in seventeenth-century New England. Popular religion recognizes how religion “was embedded in the fabric of everyday life” of lay men and women.[1] Hall argues that popular religion in New England encompassed the clergy as well as laypeople, strict “Puritans” and “horse-shed Christians,” and theology as well as literacy, magic, the meetinghouse, and rituals. Religion in seventeenth-century New England “was a loosely bounded set of symbols and motifs that gave significance to rites of passage and life crises, that infused everyday events with the presence of the supernatural.”[2] The people of New England experienced religion as “a set of practices and situations that offered choice, that remained open-ended.” [3] The diary of Samuel Sewall, a prominent merchant and magistrate from Boston, illustrates the open-ended interpretation of religion experienced by seventeenth-century New Englanders.


Literacy and the interchangeability of print and oral media “were deeply consequential for popular religion.”[4] The people of seventeenth-century New England were highly literate people who revered the Bible as a commodity, a book, a talisman, and the Word of God. They read religious books, pamphlets, testimonials, and printed sermons. Protestant truths were directly accessible from these printed forms which embodied the Word. Yet, spoken sermons “were as sacred as the printed page” and hearing was like reading.[5] People listened to and annotated sermons which they read afterwards, and read printed sermons purchased from printers. The Word infused spoken and written words so that it conveyed truth in an interchangeable form to listeners and readers. This ideology of truth informed other printed materials that New Englanders read, which included almanacs, dirty books, fiction, tales of wonder, and witchcraft. People put the storylines of theology and popular print to work in popular religion. The “ways they viewed the world were sustained by print culture, and in turning to the books that circulated widely we encounter structure of belief, or as I prefer to say, the stories that lay people knew and used to understand the world.” [6] The market place and print media provided people with alternatives to strict New England Puritanism.

These alternatives emerged in the form of “wonders,” or ghosts, the Devil, trumpets, and the presence of the supernatural. A wonder “was any event people perceived as disrupting the normal order of things—a deformity of nature such as a ‘monster birth,’ a storm or devastating fire. Always, wonders evidenced the will of God.”[7] New Englanders, laypeople and clergy, wrote of these wonders in terms of the meteorology of Greeks and Romans, astrology, apocalyptic prophecy, magic, and natural history. They used wonders to explain the world around them, current events, and to oppose religious and political adversaries. While clergy imposed their own interpretations on some wonders, the sheer abundance of wonders ensured that the “process of interpretation remained open-ended” for laypeople.[8]

The meetinghouse functioned as a site for open-ended religious interpretation. In theory, the meeting house marked sacred space and set the godly community apart. It was a place for conversion testimonies, baptisms, communion, the elect’s governance, and sermons. But, laypeople struggled to meet the ideals of these activities in the meeting house. Many New Englanders never “found the confidence to testify about the work of grace.”[9] As a decrease in testimonials led to crises in membership, clergy called for the Halfway Covenant (1662). Adult non-members were allowed to baptize children to increase the church community. Many parents baptized their children to save them from damnation in case of infant death, not necessarily to tie themselves or their children to the community. Some people, uncertain of their election, refused communion for fear of the clergy’s promises that uncertain members would be punished if they partook in communion.

New Englanders also experienced open-ended religious interpretation in the rituals that occurred outside of church. Rituals of repentance and renewal took place in courts with criminal trials and witch-hunts, at home with deaths, prayers, fasting, and thanksgiving days, and in public places at executions and meetinghouses. A ritual “was a formalized procedure, a patterned means of connecting the natural and the social worlds to supernatural power.”[10] Ritual was a means of seeking order in the natural world by organizing life events and crises.


Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment is one of the most significant books in American religious history. Hall applied the notion of “popular religion” (or lived religion) from studies of religion and society in early modern Europe to American religious history. Prior to Hall’s work, Perry Miller’s The New England Mind stood as the most influential work on Puritans in America. Miller presented an intellectual history of Puritanism that focused on the theology and philosophy of the clergy. He argued that Puritanism fostered an intellectual legacy still present in 1939. Hall’s work departs from intellectual histories of Puritans. It looks, instead, to the lay practices at the meetinghouse and in everyday life. Hall refused to represent “the clergy as so dominating the churches that their way of thinking always prevailed.”[11] He also refused to write a history of Puritans. The term “Puritan” assumes “that the people of New England exemplified a total or perfect faith. I want to affirm the legitimacy of horse-shed Christians as well as the legitimacy of stricter patterns of behavior.”[12] Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment presents the ways laypeople agreed and disagreed with clergy. Popular religion “happened in conjunction with much sharing, and with a subtle process of selection between choices that the clergy helped initiate.”[13] Hall’s work moves the study of American religion away from intellectual histories to studies of lived religion. It also takes seriously the place of the occult and magic in religion. It also tried to move the study of Puritanism to the study of Christianity in New England. While the latter was an admirable task, “Puritans” and “Puritanism” remain dominant categories in studies that trace American evangelicalism to New England Puritanism.

This book also revolutionizes how scholars should think about the relationship between the marketplace and media. Hall saw both of these as foundational to New England religion. Printed materials sustained popular religion by circulating material that people used to make sense of their world. Moreover, Hall argued that these printed materials worked differently in New England epistemology. Printed materials and the spoken Word were interchangeable to such a degree that the spoken Word recorded in print form relayed the same concept of truth as the spoken Word. Although Hall did not go so far as to argue it, his notion of interchangeability has significant implications for understanding how New Englanders interpreted conversion testimonies, deathbed scenes, and witchcraft trail proceedings that were transformed into print. For example, oral conversion testimonies revealed the working of God on a human soul. When pastors translated and published these testimonies, the printed form was supposed to relay the same truth that the oral testimony had. Readers were to hear and see the testimony and the testifier through the printed word. The same is true of deathbed narratives. Dying New Englanders provided conversion testimonies at their deathbeds. Many of these testimonies were published for individual consumption. Readers were supposed to see the deathbed, hear the deathbed testimony, and see the manifestation of Christ that the dying saw. The printed word allowed readers to experience and see truth as if they had witnessed the testimony firsthand. Few scholars have taken Hall’s suggestion to its logical end (that printed testimonies and images revealed Truth; they were eyewitness accounts), except Sarah Rivett’s The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England. Moreover, few scholars have recognized the degree to which Hall suggested that media, the marketplace, and culture influenced religion.

While Hall provides many insights for the study of American religion, he may have over-emphasized the open-endedness of New England religion and the power of laypeople to select their own interpretations. New Englanders’ certainly had some agency, but they were also constrained by social, religious, and cultural norms. For examples, people certainly had the power to choose what they read. But, not all people had the ability to access certain books. Some books were too expensive, some not available, and some were deemed too foul. The market place dictated what people could read and when. In this sense, the marketplace exudes a much more powerful force on religion and laypeople than Hall suggests. The constraints of laypersons also comes across in the strict gender roles that New Englanders adhered to. Women and children may have had less of an opportunity for the interpretation of religion than Hall suggests. For example, the clergy coaxed particular knowledge and experience from women who gave conversion testimonies. Many women’s narratives ended in a sense of doubt and uncertainty that many male testimonies did not. The coaxing allowed clergy to frame women’s narratives in a style that they, not the women, deemed appropriate. Nevertheless, Hall’s book remains instrumental for its emphasis on popular religion, and the relationships between religion, magic, media, and the marketplace.

[1] David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), 3.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid., 71–72.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Ibid., 130.

[10] Ibid., 168.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Ibid., 11.

18 Mar

American Tract Society. “Fashionable Amusements,” Volume 73. Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series. New York: American Tract Society, 1832.

Amid a growing marketplace and entertainments, the American Tract Society (ATS) produced the tract “Fashionable Amusements” to remind Christians to keep their minds focused on their religious duties. Fashionable amusements included playing cards, dancing, and attending the theatre and plays. The ATS redacted and republished this tract from an 1815 version by the New England Tract Society. “Fashionable Amusements,” went through multiple printings from the 1810s to 1840s. The 1842 version included an image of the dangers of fashionable amusements (Figure 1). The image suggests that Satan, as the serpent, pushed Christians to indulge in fashionable amusements. Christian who participated in amusements danced themselves off a cliff and drowned in an anonymous sea. Amusements led to an unprepared death and the eternal damnation of the soul.

Figure 1. Cover page of “Fashionable Amusements,” Volume 73. Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series. New York: American Tract Society, 1832.

Figure 1. Cover page of “Fashionable Amusements,” Volume 73. Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series. New York: American Tract Society, 1832.

The tract puts forth and then refutes four arguments that “have frequently been adduced in favor of fashionable amusements.”[1] 1) Some Christians argue that fashionable amusements are not forbidden in Scripture. The author suggested that while they are not forbidden specifically, they are forbidden given the general tenor of Scripture. 2) Some Christians suggested that fashionable amusements are innocent because “many professed Christians indulge in them.”[2] The author counters that truly pious Christians, especially youth, profess their faith by engaging in appropriate activities, and following the cause and actions of Jesus. “Without such proofs of piety, however much we may respect them, they have no claim to authority as Christians.”[3] 3) Some argued that these amusements were a means of relaxation and enhanced religious duties. The tract insisted that these entertainments only promoted excessive neglect of religious duties. Amusements contradicted “those parts of Scripture which require Christians to separate themselves from the world, that they may live a pious life.”[4] Moreover, “Indulgence in these amusements is objectionable, even as a relaxation from secular concerns” since they make people more anxious than relaxed.[5] 4) Finally, some Christians argued that “the evil is past all remedy” and, thus, fashionable amusements should be been absorbed into Christian life. The author suggests that these entertainments are still sins and that God does not abide sin.

Fashionable amusements should be avoided, furthermore, because they are inconsistent with the general tenor of Scriptures. They are expensive and a waste of time. They waste not only earthly time, but eternal time. They led to the eternal punishment of the soul at judgment. Amusements “prevent the acquisition of valuable accomplishments,” including manners, taste, knowledge of business, and habits if industry. They also “unfit the mind for religious duties” and “communion with God.”[6] This includes inducing those called “to mourn the recent loss of friends” to refuse attendance. Mourning was a religious duty in the nineteenth-century that trained Christians to be ever mindful of the need of spiritual preparation before death. Mourning directed proper and timely religious formation. It reminded people of the nearness of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Engaging in fashionable amusements suggested that “reference to particular doctrines of the Gospel, and especially to the momentous topics of death, judgment, and eternity, is proscribed as altogether impertinent.”[7] In other words, fashionable amusements kept people from contemplating the most serious and important aspects of their salvation: eternal life after death.

“Fashionable Amusements” points to several themes in nineteenth-century evangelicalism worth exploring in further detail. Evangelicals recognized the distinction between the secular and religious spheres. The secular sphere was not defined as fashionable amusements, or things which Christians should steer clear. The secular included everyday concerns, or the work that Christians took part in, including farming and mechanical work. Fashionable amusements were detriments to religious duties and secular concerns. They pulled Christians further into worldliness. But, worldliness was not the same thing as “the secular.”

The tract’s attention to worldliness is important. Christians were supposed to be focused on the next world, the world where their souls would live after death. The emphasis on the next world does not mean that Christians should not participate in the secular sphere. It meant that the ultimate meaning in this world was training oneself to communion with God after death. Salvation meant preparing oneself for heaven so that the soul could rest with God in eternity. This training focused heavily on the themes of mourning, Satan, death, hell, and judgment for spiritual preparation. This attention to the next world is important because it reminds historians that many evangelicals took supernaturalism seriously and were attentive to death and the afterlife in ways that twenty-first century Americans are not. The presence of death and the next world were always near for nineteenth-century Americans. Salvation prepared one for the afterlife. Participating in fashionable amusements wasted Christians’ earthly and eternal time.

[1] American Tract Society, Fashionable Amusements, vol. 73, Tracts of the American Tract Society: General Series (New York: American Tract Society, 1832), 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 9, 11.

[7] Ibid., 11.