Religion and Public History

Christ Church, Philadelphia

Chris Cantwell of the Newberry Library raises a very good point on his Twitter feed (@cdc29):

“For a field rooted in the study of the past’s commemoration & veneration, the study of public history has done a poor job of considering religion.”

As Cantwell reminds us, many historic sites have a “sacred” quality to them, evangelicals have their Creation museums and Jesuslands, and many sites are marketed to religious communities.  Yet it seems that public historians have not addressed such sites in any meaningful way.

Any thoughts on this?  My initial reaction is that Cantwell is right, although I do think the work of Ed Linenthal has taken religious belief seriously in his public history scholarship.

8 thoughts on “Religion and Public History

  1. Hey all,

    Sorry for just now following up. My wife and I welcomed our second three weeks ago, which means everything is on at least a three day delay.

    Anyway, an edited collection would be great, but is probably a tough sell to start. Perhaps the three/four of us could start with some kind of panel at OAH or NCPH (I'd prefer the former, or when the two meet together), and if we get a strong reception pursue a collection? I'm working on an article about the Billy Graham Museum of Evangelism at Wheaton College that could serve as a presentation. If you, Devin, or whomever are interested, let's start the discussion. I can be reached at:



  2. Christopher: Great thoughts! I couldn't agree more.

    Matt: Interesting question vis-a-vis public historians participating in American civil religion. That's the sense I get when I read Linenthal's work (which I think is helpful, to a degree).

    I think the other place that this conversation might start is to assess, a la Rosenzweig and Thelen, what role history plays among the religious. We have qualitative data that evangelical Christians are active consumers of history (as the popularity of David Barton shows). But how else do the religious consume, mediate, and construct historical worlds? What significance does religion play in their everyday lives, in their everyday practice of religion? What is the relationship between sacred texts and historical imagination? I think these questions provide helpful starters for public historians interested in the study of religion.


  3. Thanks for sharing my thoughts, John. I really do hope this leads to some conversation. As to Devin and Matt's sharp comments, my answer is all of the above. I'm less concerned about the PRACTICE of public history, for I know for a fact religion plays a vital role in various ways. Churches are historic landmarks, battlefields are sacred sites, and religious groups create their own spaces of veneration. What more concerns me is that these practices are not a part of the academic study of public history. Peruse any issue of Museum Studies or the Public Historian and race, gender, sexuality, and class is there, but never religion. Why is this? And, more importantly, how can we rectify it? What questions should we be asking? What analytical tools should we employ to unpack the demographic, institutional, and cultural manifestations of religion in America's fragmented historical memory? I agree Linenthal's the exception here, Tom Tweed also has a good article on Methodist preservation, and since tweeting some have suggested looking into the literature on Indigenous museums. But, as usual, I think these exceptions prove the rule.

    Shall we collaborate on something to start this conversation?


  4. I love Linenthal's work. I think we are partially talking about 2 different things.
    1. Do public historians ignore religious history or content/connections related or essential to their interests?
    2. Is public history itself “religious” inasmuch as public historians participate in American Civil Religion?
    Am I making sense?


  5. Great to hear someone else weighing in on this. My advisor and I talked a lot about this lacuna within the field when I was working on my master's thesis. Linenthal's the only person we could think of who seems to take religion seriously within the public history field.

    Perhaps public historians have been reticent to consider religion (and I'm thinking especially here of Christianity, since that's my field) not only because of the “culture wars” and religion's role in them, but also because congregations, ministers, and other religious officials/institutions already have such a monopoly on the interpretation of the church's past?


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