The Author’s Corner with Evan Haefeli

Evan Haefeli is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. This interview is based on his new book, Against Popery: Britain, Empire, and Anti-Catholicism (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Against Popery?

EH: I was inspired to put this book together after working for years on the history of religious tolerance in early America. I came across so much more anti-Catholicism than tolerance that it became clear we needed a book to draw our attention to its significance and pervasiveness. Early American anti-popery was so deeply rooted in the British tradition that you cannot understand the one without the other. Moreover, it is such a big topic that no single person can account for the whole, so I recruited an interdisciplinary group of people from (and working on) both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Against Popery?

EH: The two sentence argument of the book: Anti-popery was a Protestant prejudice against Roman Catholics but also an unstable ideology of liberty. Its rejection of the political and religious example of the pope favored Protestant cultural hegemony across the Anglo-American world until the mid-eighteenth century, when efforts to enhance imperial authority provoked anti-papists in America to start a revolution that, ironically, increased liberty for Roman Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic.

JF: Why do we need to read Against Popery?

EH: You should read this book because we need to incorporate anti-popery as an essential key for understanding early America and the British Empire. It is already recognized as an important issue in early modern English history, but it was truly inseparable from the religion, popular culture, political ideals, ethnic relations, racism, gender expectations, patriotism, intellectual habits, and art of all corners of what I call the British-American world. The book is also an argument for changing the way we approach the histories of early America, Britain, Ireland, and the first British Empire. Currently, those are separate fields of study based on different national histories, but certainly for the period before 1783 they must be understood as an integrated whole. How it then fell apart remains a problem in need of explanation. Anti-popery was fundamental to understanding both what held the British-American world together and then broke it apart.

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

EH: I was drawn to study American history at the end of college, when I discovered how little we knew about the Native American experience and how fascinatingly complex early America was. I was inspired to go to graduate school to expand our knowledge of Native America and develop an inclusive approach to American history that can account for, and be accountable to, its diversity — the coexistence as well as the conflicts that bind us all together.

JF: What is your next project?

EH: I have a lot of work coming down the pipeline. In February I have a book coming out on the origins of early American religious pluralism with the University of Chicago Press. It traces the establishment of the remarkably diverse range of colonies created, from Massachusetts and Maryland to Rhode Island and more, to the religious politics of early modern England to argue that what we got by the time the foundation of the modern Church of England was laid in 1662 was the unintentional result of conflicting impulses. There was no plan to make colonial English America a religious refuge or lay a foundation of religious pluralism, but that is exactly what happened, hence the books title Accidental Pluralism. Now I am writing about the even more important period after 1660, when the really diverse colonies that deliberately authorized religious toleration, like New York, Pennsylvania, and Carolina, were created. Their origins lie in the very different religious politics of Restoration England, hence my tentative title Pluralism with a Purpose. I have also begun writing a history of the Iroquois Confederacy and how it made peace with its many Indigenous enemies in colonial America, transforming the diplomacy of the eastern woodlands. Then, of course, I will have much more to say about the role of anti-popery in early America, which I am currently developing in several different articles along with a study of the religious politics of colonial Virginia.

Overall, these works are part of a bigger effort to change our understanding of religious, political, and constitutional history of the colonies, the empire, and the early United States to show that we did not easily come by the values we cherish, like religious freedom, nor can we rely on them to persist as somehow intrinsically American qualities. Their origins were fragile, conflicted, and not inevitable, just like the origins of America itself.

JF: Thanks, Evan!

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

They Knew They Were PilgrimsJohn Turner is Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: A few years ago, I had finished writing the second of two books about the Latter-day Saints. I wanted to write about a new topic, but one that had some continuity of themes, namely religious persecution, exile, a quest for the true church. Obviously, the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, and the founding of Plymouth Colony are well-worn subjects. But I discovered that most historians neglect the story of Plymouth after the first Thanksgiving, perhaps returning to the colony with the advent of King Philip’s War. I found that there was a great deal more to the story.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Americans inaccurately have praised the Mayflower passengers for planting the seeds of republicanism that bloomed at the time of the American Founding. I argue instead that we need to examine the debates about liberty–religious liberty, political liberty, and the enslavement–present in Plymouth Colony on their own, local, seventeenth-century terms.

JF: Why do we need to read They Knew They Were Pilgrims?

JT: It’s not quite as essential as physical distancing during a pandemic, but… we think we know the story of Plymouth Colony. The Mayflower passengers are the most famous colonists in American history, their lives scrutinized by armies of genealogists. I did not realize how poorly I had understood them until I began the research for this book. I begin my book with Robert Cushman, who as of 1603 was an apprentice to a grocer in Canterbury. He was excommunicated for posting “libels” on church doors, dabbled with something akin to antinomianism in Canterbury, became a wool comber in Leiden, had a falling out with the other organizers of the colony, and preached a remarkable lay sermon during his very brief stay in Plymouth. If you think you know the Pilgrims, think again. I promise that what you’ll learn in this book will surprise you.

I also discovered that the seventy-year history of Plymouth Colony contains a host of remarkable episodes about a variety of peoples. If you read They Knew They Were Pilgrims, you’ll learn about an expanded cast of characters: an African American slave who became one of the first “English” casualties in King Philip’s War; the decades-long struggle of Quakers for religious liberty; a female sachem who held her community together for two decades amid war and dispossession. In addition to fresh material about seventeenth-century understandings of liberty, there are a lot of gritty human stories in this book.

JF: You have now written books with subjects based in the 20th century (Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ), 19th century (Brigham Young), and now the 17th century (Plymouth). What are the challenges of writing across such a wide historical spectrum?

JT: The foremost challenge is getting up to speed on the existing scholarship. Let’s face it – there’s a tremendous volume of books appearing on so many elements of American religious history. It’s a golden age for the field, from my vantage point. So many scholars are writing deeply researched and eloquently written books. It’s very hard to keep up! Just think about the deluge of titles published in the last decade on twentieth-century evangelicals or on the Latter-day Saints.

At the same time, though, I’ve found it very refreshing to immerse myself in new places and times. We require our students to study things with which they are unfamiliar, so it’s good for us to do so as well, at least from time to time. I also love meeting new people, both people from past centuries in archival sources and new scholars who work on various subjects.

My research strategy has always been to immerse myself as much as possible in a new subject and its sources. I really marvel at the many people in our field with the ability to trace a phenomenon or group across time and place. Many recent examples come to mind, such as Erik Seeman’s Speaking with the Dead in Early America, David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land, or to mention some slightly older but even more expansive and synthetic books, Colleen McDannell’s Heaven or Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries.

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m writing a biography of Joseph Smith. It seems that despite my penchant and preference for new subjects, I can’t quite get away from early Mormonism.

JF: Thanks, John!

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 ( and Jennings College Consulting (

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!