The Author’s Corner with John Hayes

51eS3fj0YsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_John Hayes is associate professor of History at Augusta University. This interview is based on his new book, Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: The original idea was to see if, as a Southern historian, I could find real-world evidence for the imaginative landscape of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction—if I could demonstrate that O’Connor, with her literary insight, had evoked something real but perhaps opaque to historians. As I moved into the project, I realized that the type of Christianity embodied in her middle-class characters was well analyzed in the historiography; it was the Christianity of her poor characters (her primary characters) that had little presence in the scholarship beyond a few hints and fragments. The book is my attempt to excavate this distinct Christianity of the poor and to interpret it in its context.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: In the circumscribed world of the New South, poor whites and poor blacks exchanged songs, stories, lore, visual displays, and other cultural forms with each other, crafting a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the underside of regional capitalism. Their folk Christianity was a fragile but real space of interracial exchange and a fervent attempt to grasp the sacred in earthy, this-worldly ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: 

* It’s the first historical monograph on folk Christianity in the American South.

* In the face of a culture that continues the well-established tradition of denigrating and dismissing the poor, it shows the inner complexity, cultural creativity, and rich interiority of the poor of a certain time and place.

* It complicates what we think we know about religious life in the American South, especially by debunking the abiding trope of religious homogeneity on either side of the color line.

* In the face of scholarship that insists that Jim Crow was the culture of the New South, it argues for the fragile but real presence of interracial religious exchange among the poor.

* Where else, in the pages of a single volume, can you read about haunting songs of personified Death, anti-Mammon odes to the Titanic, and praying spots deep in the woods; about cows kneeling in reverence on Old Christmas night, graves decorated with bedsteads and grandfather clocks, and initiates emerging from imminent death to the sights and sounds of bright green trees and birds chirping away?

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

JH: I had an a-ha moment a few years after college: I realized that history was a way to take the abstract philosophical/theological questions that obsessed me and pursue them in concrete, tangible form—to explore the “big questions” not in open potentiality but in flesh-and-blood actuality. That was the initial impulse, but as I’ve worked as a historian I’ve also come to see another impulse that was there at the outset, but subconsciously: history is crucial for understanding identity. Nothing falls from the sky; everything has a story behind it. I’ve driven to seek the stories behind our society so that I can make sense of it. To know the past is to get a handle on the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: It’s very much in the coalescing stage, but I want to look at religion in “moments of possibility” before and after the circumscribed world of Hard, Hard Religion: in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. In both moments, sacralized social structures were being destabilized, and new religious conceptions had to emerge—though what exactly they would look like was very much an open question. That’s a very different context from my book, where poor people carve out meaning within stable, confining social structures.

JF: Thanks, John!

Did Lincoln’s Reliance on “Providence” Make Him an Incompetent President?

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This semester my Civil War class is reading Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer PresidentIt is, without peer, the best book on Lincoln’s intellectual and religious life.  Others seem to agree.  In 2000, Guelzo’s biography received the prestigious Lincoln Prize for the best film or book about the Civil War era.  Last night we discussed chapter 8: “Voice Out of the Whirlwind.”

Guelzo argues that Abraham Lincoln, at least in his adult life, was never a Christian, but he did spend a lot of time reflecting on big questions about free will and determinism and their relationship to a force or supreme being that governed the world.  Lincoln, in his pre-presidential years, believed in what he called the “Doctrine of Necessity.”  He wrote: “I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”–that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control…”  Guelzo compares Lincoln’s view here to the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “philosophical necessity,” a believe “that human beings possess neither free will nor the moral responsibility for the right or wrong actions that is supposed to follow the exercise of free choices.” (p.117).

During his presidency, Lincoln’s “Doctrine of Necessity” took on a more religious flavor.  He began to use the word “providence” to describe this “power, over which the mind has not control.”  He came to embrace a “divine personality” that intervened in human affairs. (p.328).

Guelzo argues, and quite convincingly I might add, that the Civil War led Lincoln to apply his view of “providence” to the political decisions he made as POTUS.  This was particularly the case in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Proclamation was issued days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam.  In a cabinet meeting following the battle, Lincoln uttered what Guelzo calls “the most astounding remarks any of [the members of his cabinet] had ever heard him make.”  Lincoln told the cabinet that he had become convinced that if the Union won at Antietam he would consider it an indication of the “divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” (p.341).  He added, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”  Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the course of the war.  The Proclamation made it a war that was less about preserving the Union and more about freeing the slaves.  It could be argued that it was the turning point of the Civil War.  And Lincoln made his decision by somehow interpreting (with much certainty) the providence of God.

After class, a student asked me if I thought a United States President could get away with this kind of presidential leadership today.  What if George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump made a republic-altering decision and said that it was based upon his reading of God’s providence? (Bush came close on numerous occasions).  There would be many evangelicals who might love such a claim.  But most Americans, including many evangelicals who believe in the providence of God but do believe we can know God’s will in every matter on this side of eternity, would think that such a decision-making process might be the height of presidential incompetence.

Can You Really Spend Too Much Time on Religion in the U.S. Survey?

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Over at Teaching United States History blog, Eric Bartram discusses her “struggles” and “successes” in teaching religion in the first half United States history survey course.

Here is a taste:

A while back, I read Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ piece Teaching True Believers, and responded with my own thoughts: Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics. Where Thomas talked about struggling to get students with strongly-held beliefs to see religion as “a social construction or an anthropological conceit or a legal category bearing geopolitical effects,” I reflected on the difficulties of teaching the history of religion to students “who have little framework for understanding religion or belief but nonetheless have very fixed ideas about how religion operates.”

Both in the comments on the piece itself, and on Twitter, many scholars of history and religious studies expressed shock at the idea that students could be so ill-informed. Many put it down to geographical differences; some parts of the country are just more religious than others, and therefore some students more prepared to talk about it.

There’s something to that argument, but I think that something more specific is at play. Did students grow up in a place where religion was understood to be a public matter (at least if you belonged to the dominant religion) or a more private matter? I’m not saying that there’s anywhere in the United States that’s free of civil religion or laws that reflect the views of historically-dominant religions, but that in parts of the country where students don’t see religious belief, it might be easier for them to think it’s not there. As a result, even the moderate amount of discussion time we spend learning about American religious beliefs in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries seems like so much religion.

This presents a particular kind of challenge in teaching. It’s not like religion is the only thing we teach where students have to be persuaded that it’s worth thinking about, but for me, teaching in the Northeast, it’s also something where many students have almost no pre-existing framework to hang new analysis on, and the framework they do have largely consists of “religion was for people in the past and is a marker of backwardness.” I imagine this is the case for a lot of historians. But I can’t give up on teaching it.  And so, in my US I, we draw a lot of family trees to map out the branches of Christianity. We talk about the contours of antisemitism. We define terms: “heathen,” “Papist,” “evangelical,” “denomination,” “salvation.” We draw more family trees.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Maura Jane Farrelly

51Hpt1GPjKL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Maura Jane Farrelly is associate professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. This interview is based on her new book, Anti-Catholicism in America (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Anti-Catholicism in America?

MJF: The boring answer is that Cambridge asked me to put together a narrative about anti-Catholicism in early America that could be used in an undergraduate classroom. The more interesting answer, however, has to do with my sense, while watching protests over the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan in 2010, that we have been here before.  Many immigrant groups have been viewed as a threat by native-born Americans — and sometimes, as is the case now, it’s been because those immigrant groups have been associated with violence.  But in the case of nineteenth-century Catholics and twenty-first-century Muslims, I think the fears were — are — about something deeper, as well.  The anxieties have been rooted in the not-entirely-unfounded sense that Catholics and Muslims have (or have had) an understanding of “freedom” that is  different from the American understanding of freedom.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Anti-Catholicism in America?

MJF: The book argues that anti-Catholic bias played an essential role in shaping colonial and antebellum understandings of God, the individual, salvation, society, government, law, national identity, and freedom. For this reason, the early history of anti-Catholicism in America can provide us with a framework for understanding what is at stake in our contemporary debates about the place of Muslims and other non-Christian groups in the United States today.

JF: Why do we need to read Anti-Catholicism in America?

MJF: To give us hope — and maybe a bit of humility, too (she said with a striking lack of humility…).  As I note in my introduction, anti-Catholicism — which was such a salient force in America’s political and cultural history for such a long period of time — is basically gone now.  It’s a tool that is utilized primarily by internet trolls (and,  recently, by one thoughtless and impolitic senator from California who was looking to derail the nomination of a conservative law professor from Notre Dame to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  But I think the collective response of political and religious leaders to Diane Feinstein’s questioning of Amy Coney Barrett confirms my assertion that anti-Catholicism is no longer an “acceptable” impulse in America.).  If the Catholic understanding of freedom can become more compatible with the American understanding of freedom — and the American understanding can become more compatible with the Catholic — then maybe the same will happen with Muslims?  And certainly the fact that our cultural understandings of freedom are protean — as any serious study of history will reveal — should give us all pause as we make political claims that are based on our sense of what freedom is and what it takes to secure it.

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

MJF: My journey to this place has been marked by some rather significant diversions (I worked as a reporter for several years — though Phil Graham, if he were still alive, might say I was just playing with the “first rough draft of history”…). But I think I first fell in love with early American history when my family and I took a summer vacation to Massachusetts. I was maybe 14 or 15 years old?  I still pinch myself, sometimes, that I now get to live in this state.

JF: What is your next project?

MJF: I may be leaving religion for a while.  I don’t know. I’ve stumbled upon a tragic story from the late nineteenth century that involves people from two prominent American families.  I’m hoping to use this story as a springboard into a greater exploration of the role of the frontier in defining American freedom (there’s the common thread, I guess…); the beginnings of the conservation movement; and the phenomenon of so-called “remittance men” and their place in the literature and lore of the American West.

JF: Thanks, Maura!

The Author’s Corner with Lincoln Mullen

51E0Jh31O6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lincoln Mullen is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Early in graduate school I had the good fortune to do a reading course in American religious history with Jonathan Sarna, who became my PhD director. After that course I wanted to tell as broad a story about American religion as I could muster. The theme of conversion offers the chance to both compare religious groups and observe their interactions, so it became my way to write that kind of history.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Over the course of the nineteenth-century, pressures to convert, actual conversions between religious groups, and the possibility of having no religious affiliation at all changed the basis of religious identity from inheritance to choice. But that process played out very differently for different groups, so the chapters on black and white Protestants, Cherokee converts, Mormons, Jews, and Catholics see how the spread of that idea refracted through different religious traditions.

JF: Why do we need to read The Chance of Salvation?

LM: Different audiences will likely come to the book for different reasons.

I’d like for scholars in the field of American religious history to read it as a synthesis of nineteenth-century religious history on the basis of primary research on the topic of conversion. This book is hardly the first or only to attempt to put the field together in this way, but it isn’t a common approach either. Few books that aren’t textbooks try to bring so many religious groups together; most books are narrowly focused. So what other kinds of primary synthesis might scholars write?

Other readers might be interested in the book because of their own religious commitments, or even because they are converts. Those readers will find the book’s story both strange and familiar. Familiar, I hope, because they will recognize themselves in some of the book’s many stories of converts. But I hope they also find the book strange because people like to talk about their religious choices as being free, but the book shows the ways those choices are obligated and constrained. It’s their story, but not the way they would tell it.

And if you come to the book because someone assigned it for class, at least you get to cover a pretty wide swathe of nineteenth-century religious history in one book.

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

LM: In high school I thought I would go into mathematics or the like. But there were more history books than math books around the house.

JF: What is your next project?

LM: I am working on two projects at the moment. I’m turning a digital history project called America’s Public Bible into a digital monograph that will be published by Stanford University Press. And with a team at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I am working on a project called Mapping Early American Elections.

JF: Thanks, Lincoln!

The Author’s Corner with Joy Schulz

9780803285897-JacketBlue.inddJoy Schulz is a Professor of History at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. This interview is based on her new book, Hawaiian By Birth: Missionary Children, Bicultural Identity and U.S. Colonialism in the Pacific (University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Hawaiian By Birth?

JS: When I first visited Honolulu as a teenager, I was struck by the fact that I was a racial minority. I remember wondering if I was feeling to a very small degree what my nonwhite friends in Nebraska felt on a daily basis. Later, after being introduced to the history of U.S. annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, I wondered why “the missionary boys,” as native Hawaiians called the annexationists, would overthrow their Christian queen. When I dug a little deeper and realized that hundreds of white children had grown up in the Hawaiian Islands as subjects of the Hawaiian monarchy, I became fascinated by their story. Having missionary friends who were raising their own children outside of the United States, I thought the topics of citizenship, national identity, and Christian mission—as they related to missionary children—were worthy of further exploration. The fact that the missionary children in Hawaii left extensive written records only made the project more exciting to me.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Hawaiian By Birth?

JS: Hawaiian By Birth is the history of U.S. colonization of the Hawaiian Islands as told by the children of nineteenth-century American missionaries living in the Islands. Hawaiian By Birth explains how American colonization was a domestic and generational endeavor, undertaken by missionary parents out of tremendous fear for their children’s economic futures, but completed by the children, whose views on race, religion, politics, and the environment were directly influenced by their bicultural upbringing.

JF: Why do we need to read Hawaiian By Birth?

JS: Other historical narratives of the Hawaiian Islands have been told from American missionary or native Hawaiian accounts. A few have looked at Hawaiian history from the perspective of missionary wives or Hawaiian queens. None have explained the U.S. annexation of the Hawaiian Islands from the perspective of the missionary sons and daughters.

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

JS: I decided to become a historian after hearing my college history professor describe the discipline. He told our class: if you like to read, think independently, and manage your own time, but also enjoy people, the discipline of history might be for you. I think I declared my major that same day!

JF: What is your next project?

JS: My next project explores the American public school teachers who traveled to the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. U.S. colonization of the Philippines was both a military and educative endeavor. Unlike the American public school system today, U.S. government-sponsored teachers traveling to the Philippines had openly Christian perspectives and evangelical goals. Who these teachers were, why they traveled across the Pacific, and what influence they had upon the islands interests me.

JF: Thanks, Joy!

Who Owns the Oldest Synagogue Building in the United States?

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Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I.

A federal court just ruled that Congregation Shearith Israel (Manhattan, 1654), the oldest Jewish congregation in America, owns Touro Synagogue (Newport, R.I.), the oldest synagogue building (1763) in America.

Find out more by reading Sharon Otterman’s story at The New York Times.

Here is a taste:

Two Jewish synagogues consider themselves the oldest in the nation, for different reasons. Shearith Israel, founded in Manhattan in 1654, is the oldest congregation, though it is not located in its original building. Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I., built in 1763, is the oldest synagogue building.

But now a federal court has ruled that Shearith Israel in New York actually owns the Touro Synagogue building in Newport, the result of twists in a history spanning centuries.

Justice David H. Souter, the retired associate justice of the Supreme Court, wrote the opinion for the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued on Wednesday. In it, he overturned a district-court ruling that the congregation that has worshiped for more than 130 years in the Touro Synagogue building, Jeshuat Israel, had control over the building and its objects.

The appeals court instead enforced a series of contracts between the two congregations from the 20th century, in which Jeshuat Israel acknowledged that it was leasing the Newport building. Now, what may be the country’s most historic synagogue building — which George Washington visited in 1790, inspiring an important letter on religious freedom — is officially owned by a group that is based 180 miles away.

The reasons are complicated. When Newport’s Jews faced persecution during the American Revolution, they fled the town and the synagogue building, many for New York. Without a congregation in Newport, Shearith Israel took control of the synagogue, along with the sacred ritual objects with which the congregants fled. Among the objects was a pair of decorative knobs with attached bells made of silver and gold designed to top the shafts around which the Torah scrolls were rolled.

Read the rest here.