Nothing But the Blood

Nothing-but-the-Blood-Full-Score-1Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

“Blood” is a powerful, multi-faceted, and pervasive theme of Christian historical experience. And, as a Saturday afternoon ASCH roundtable co-sponsored by the American Catholic Historical Association revealed, it has also been a unifying trope of Catholic and Protestant spirituality. These separated brethren are, it turns out, blood brothers.

The panelists, Rachel Wheeler (Indiana University), Jennifer Scheper Hughes (University of California, Riverside), Adrian Weimer (Providence College) and Elizabeth Castelli (Barnard College) showed that blood flows in many forms in Christian history: it is both metaphor and material reality; sacrament and symbol; interiorized and externalized. It can signify the blood of Christ, the sacrifice of the martyrs, the “pure” or “impure” blood of racialized communities, or the pulsing energy of a new convert whose “heart” has been revived. It boils, flows, drips and circulates. It appears in rivers, cups, tears, and vials. It comes down to cover, and ascends again to heaven.

I appreciated the format of this panel: a seemingly simple one-word theme that opened up inexhaustible veins (pun intended) of discussion. While the presentation of in-depth research papers has an important role at conferences, I enjoyed the way the way in which the format of this panel quickly opened up all kinds of possibilities and linkages across time periods and subject matter.

While the panel focused predominantly on early modern history (with the exception of Castelli’s account of the Saint Patrick’s Day Four—Catholic pacifists who smeared their own blood over a US Army recruiting station to protest the 2003 Iraq War), I found myself thinking about ways that blood flows in my own area of modern Evangelical history. Evangelical hymnody drips with blood, of course (for example, see Tom Schwanda’s chapter in John Coffey’s edited Heart Religion on the imagery of wounds and blood in the hymns of John Cennick). But there is also the Salvation Army’s motto “Blood and Fire;” a constellation of millennially-tinged nineteenth-century Christian health movements that worried about animal blood spilt, human blood transfusions, and embraced health regimes intended to revivify circulation; and the reaction against blood-soaked theological rhetoric exemplified by late Victorian critics or reformers of Evangelicalism who found the imagery faintly revolting.