Episode 59: Miss America’s God

PodcastThroughout the history of the Miss America Pageant, there has been a complicated relationship between sexuality and religion. The goal of the pageant is to crown the ideal American woman. But contestants are judged simultaneously based on their so-called purity as well as their sex appeal. Host John Fea explores his own relationship with the pageant and its roots in the New Jersey boardwalk culture. He is joined by Baylor’s Mandy McMichael (@mandyemcmichael), author of Miss America’s God: Faith and Identity in America’s Oldest Pageant.

 

The Author’s Corner with Erik Seeman

speaking with the dead in early americaErik Seeman is Professor of History and History Department Chair at the University at Buffalo. This interview is based on his new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Speaking with the Dead?

ES: In my large lecture class, “Death in America,” Spiritualism is one of my students’ favorite topics. I had long wondered how a religious movement with such a specific starting point–the Fox Sisters’ communication with a ghost in 1848–could claim “millions” of adherents within a decade (leave aside for a moment that the claim was likely exaggerated).

So I started Speaking with the Dead with a simple question: Where did Spiritualism come from? But I quickly became dissatisfied with previous historians’ answers, which had focused on relatively marginal movements in the 1830s and 1840s: Shakerism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism. The deeper I dug, the more I found examples of people imagining communication with the dead, not only in the nineteenth century, but going back to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century England.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Protestantism is a religion in which the dead play a central role. From the Reformation forward, many Protestants have maintained relationships with the dead, a tendency that increased over time and culminated in what I call the antebellum cult of the dead.

JF: Why do we need to read Speaking with the Dead?

ES: Historians have long insisted – as in one recent account of the Reformation – that “Protestantism stripped religion of mediation and intimacy with the dead.” Speaking with the Dead offers countless examples from historical, literary, and material culture sources to demonstrate that such assertions must be revised.

To use categories formulated by the religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, historians have usually conceived of Protestantism as a religion of “absence,” in contrast to Catholicism, which is seen as a religion of the “presence” of supernatural beings other than God and Christ (saints, deceased loved ones, the Virgin Mary). In my account, Protestantism is very much a religion of presence.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

ES: I went to college “in Boston” (as Harvard grads like to say, evasively). I was a History major but not at all on a path toward becoming a historian, until I started primary source research for my junior-year paper, sort of a mini-thesis. I started taking the T and the commuter rail to the Mass Archives at Columbia Point and the Essex County Courthouse in Salem. I couldn’t believe they handed over stacks of eighteenth-century wills and inventories and letters to an untested twenty-year-old. The next year I continued my research on the social history of the Great Awakening, expanded my geographic compass, and spent so much time in the archives that I got a D on my Icelandic Saga midterm. At that point I asked my Teaching Fellow, Mark Peterson, “How do I do what you do?”

JF: What is your next project?

ES: Continuing the Boston theme, I’ve just started a book I’m calling “The Pox of 1721: Boston’s Deadliest Epidemic.” It’s going to be a social history of the sort I started writing as an undergrad. This is the smallpox epidemic famous for the “inoculation controversy”: Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylston favored the new (or new to Euro-Americans) practice of inoculation, while William Douglass and others strongly opposed it. This controversy left an ample published record that has drawn lots of scholarly attention. But what about ordinary people? How did this epidemic play out among the unfree as well as the free, the poor as well as the well-to-do? We’ll see if I’m able to unearth enough sources to tell that story.

JF: Thanks, Eric!

Episode 50: The Religious Beliefs of the Adams Family

PodcastDon’t be confused by the title, we are not talking about the spooky family from the 1960s. Rather, in this episode, we turn to the religious history of one of America’s founding families. By focusing on the Adams family, one can trace the evolution of American religion as John, Abigail, JQA, and others wrestle with Providence, the Enlightenment, and a changing political landscape. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by Sara Georgini (@sarageorgini), the author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Author’s Corner with Michael Altman

altmanMichael J. Altman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. This interview is based on his new book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893 (Oxford University Press, 2017).    

JF: What led you to write Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu?

MA: The book actually began as my MA thesis at Duke. I came into grad school unsure if I wanted to study religion in America or colonial India. After taking seminars in both, I started wondering if I could draw the two interests together. I was talking about this with Tom Tweed, who was teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill then, and he mentioned that no one had done much work on all the references to Hinduism in nineteenth century sources. With the help of Lila Prasad and Jason Bivins, I started digging around and found a lot of really interesting stuff in the archives. I wrote the thesis and new that I had more than enough material to expand it into a dissertation. So, I went to Emory and wrote my dissertation on representations of Hindu religions in nineteenth century America. I then heavily revised the framing of that dissertation for Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu. The book is much sharper than the dissertation. I pay particular attention to the language used by the sources to represent religion in India and I don’t assume that all of the representations are somehow referring to the same object, Hinduism. Rather, I’m particularly interested in how each representation functions to serve the interests of various Americans engaged in cultural, religious, and political conflicts about what it means to be American.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu?  

MA: Americans represented religion and people in India in a variety of ways during the nineteenth century and those representations functioned within conflicts over what counted as religion and American. Americans argued about “those people over there” in their fights about what it mean to be “one of us.”

JF: Why do we need to read Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu?

MA: There are three reasons you need to read this book. First, American religious historians have largely ignored the role of Asian religions in America during the nineteenth century. This book begins to open up space to see how Asia, and specifically India, played an important role in American religious history earlier than we usually think. Second, the book uses India and Hindus as a case study for telling the larger narrative of the rise of comparative religion and religious studies in American history. In that sense it historicizes the field of comparative religion and begins to put comparative religion into American religious history. Third, the book also offers a new approach to “religion” in American history that takes a genealogical approach. By that I mean that I am most interested in how categories are formed in culture. For example, Hannah Adams discussed “Hindoos” within a framework where there were four religions in the world: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and heathenism. But in 1893 “Hinduism” was one ten “world religions” at the World’s Parliament of Religions. How did that conceptual change in what counted as religion happen?

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MA: I’m not sure if I am. Readers can tell me if what I’ve done in the book is American history or not. While I was doing my Ph.D. in Religion, I was privileged to work with great American and church historians like Brooks Holifield. So even though my training and work falls more within religious studies, I’ve benefited from spending time with and reading a lot of excellent American historians (this blog included). I like to think of myself as moving in between American history and religious studies and trying to draw on both of them in my work.

JF: What is your next project?

MA: I have two projects I’m getting started on right now. First, I’m working on a cultural history of Mohandas Gandhi in America. Like Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu, I’m interested in the variety of ways Gandhi was represented in American culture from the 1930s to today. It’s not a biography of Gandhi, more like a biography of the idea of Gandhi. Second, I’m also working on a very meta-level genealogy (or maybe it’s a historiography?) of the connections between American Religious history, Christianity, liberal political philosophy, and the English Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Mike!