Den Hartog Weighs In On SHEAR 2011

Our occasional correspondent, Jonathan Den Hartog, offers some reflections on the state of American religious history at SHEAR 2011.–JF

John asked for other reports from SHEAR 2011 in Philadelphia. In addition to offering a comment, I was able to attend several other sessions that John wasn’t able to make. Overall, the panels suggested that the program committee was open to including serious religious history into the mix, which was terrific. The work presented at the panels suggests that religion and politics is a going concern which in the years to come should produce significant findings.

Friday morning witnessed an interesting panel on Fast  Day celebrations. Spencer McBride (Louisiana State) looked at Fast Days in the Revolution, while Sara Georgini (Boston  University) examined their practice in the Antebellum period. This is a  great topic for investigation because Fast Day proclamations and the resulting practices were clear expressions of public Christianity. Although individual Fast Days have received attention (1798’s springs to my mind), the salience of their usage over the entire span of the early republic deserves more attention.

A Friday afternoon panel examined political implications that religion had in the Revolution and very early republic. Susanna Linsley (University of Michigan) did a comparative examination of the political behavior of the churches of New York City and Charleston in the Confederation and early national periods. Her specific focus was on how the churches wrote constitutions and incorporated at the same time as the national Constitution was being debated. (Although geographically outside her range, I’ve always found most interesting the fact that the Presbyterians were writing  their new church constitution in Philadelphia at the very same time that delegates were crafting the US Constitution.) Meanwhile, Denis McKim (University of Toronto) examined how in Canada, religion could motivate a stance against revolution. Anglican leaders most wanted to quash republican sentiment rising from the United States, and they worried that revivalist Baptists in the Maritimes (think: Henry Alline) and American-born Methodists in Upper Canada would cultivate the very same political upheaval as in the United States. However, in Canada, both Baptists and Methodists worked to communicate their loyalty and opposition to revolution. As Mark Noll would observe, consider the contrasting political strategies! Then, John Ellis (Purdue University) considered how Methodists challenged the social order of the south by upsetting the hierarchy of age. Their young circuit-riders felt free to criticize with impunity older ministers and the “squire-archy.” This cultural attack also undermined established political lines of authority.

Finally, right before John’s panel on Sunday morning, two other graduate students presented their research on evangelical identity and transatlantic evangelicalism in foreign missions in a fascinating session. Emily Conroy-Kurtz (Harvard University) examined ABCFM missionaries trying to make their way into British-controlled India at the same time as the War of 1812 was breaking out. This difficult experience brought them into closer cooperation with their peers in the London Missionary Society but also convinced them that missions work would have to be done in the face of governments and empires. Rather than being coopted by colonialism in this early period, they saw themselves  opposed to it. Ashley Moreshead (University of Delaware) examined missions periodicals in the states to find out how that literature posited American identity in the missions endeavor. Rather than portraying the United States as a “redeemer nation,” missions writers had to upbraid their countrymen in not doing enough for foreign missions. Thus the example of Britain was a reproof for American failings and a call to do more.

All of these panels suggest how much fruitful work is being done on religion in the early republic. As these scholars keep working on these topics, keep an eye out for innovative,  informative historical scholarship that will enrich our understanding of the period from the Revolution to the Civil War.