A Glimpse of the American Society of Church History Book Exhibit

Martin 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 (and related organizations) in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

Here’s a sample of what’s on the ASCH bookstands. The volume the religious imagination of Stephen King—appropriately placed next to a book on witchcraft—looks particularly intriguing.

Bookstand 1

I’m looking forward to reading John Wolffe’s Sacred and Secular Martydom in Britain Since 1914. It offers chapters on the World Wars, the Falklands Conflict and Irish Nationalism.

Bookstand 2

A collection of books on American religious pasts and futures from Eerdmans:

Bookstand 3

I’m hoping to read this volume by Amy Collier Artman on Kathryn Kuhlman, who has always appeared to me a very enigmatic figure. A good sampling of some of the recent interest in political spiritual biography too, including FDR and Robert E. Lee.

Bookstand 4

I’m also looking forward to reading this book that has been crafted on the religious significance of Hobby Lobby, a useful counterpart to Bethany Moreton’s book a few years ago on the spiritual significance of Walmart.

Bookstand 5

Nationalism and Worship

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Nationalism and Worship Panel (Left to right): Wright, Maiden, Hummel, Bivins, Haberski and Turek

Martin 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

This morning at ASCH I chaired a roundtable on Nationalism and Christian Worship. This gathering was my idea. It forms part of a project I am working on this year funded by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The grant is given as part of the CICW’s new Teacher-Scholar grant program that encourages scholars to find ways to connect their discipline, the study of Christian worship, and the practice of local worshipping communities. I have been doing various things during the grant year including reading good books on worship and nationalism, and starting to write a book of my own on Evangelicalism and Nationalism. I have also been working with Dr. Jim Samra, pastor of Calvary Church, Grand Rapids, to lead a church-based study group on the history and practice of nationalism and worship.

As a scholar whose main research interests focus neither on nationalism nor the United States I wanted to conduct a fact-finding mission to learn from experts in the field. The roundtable this morning was the result. I was very pleased with the top-flight team who assembled, and I learned much from their lively and multi-dimensional responses to my questions.

Lauren Turek (Trinity University, San Antonio TX) explored how Evangelicals have appropriated the internationalist language of human rights to serve nationalist ends, particularly in regard to construing the global campaign for religious freedom as a refraction of their own allegedly embattled place within American culture. Jason Bivins (North Carolina State University) picked up this theme of the imagined marginality of American Christians, and I look forward to his new book Embattled Majority which plots these issues in detail. Bivins also gave arguably one of the most passionate orations I have heard at an academic conference about the need for scholars to be plain-speaking prophets for these perilous times. Raymond Haberski Jr. (Indiana-Purdue University) reflected on the link between rhetoric and “operationality” of religious nationalist discourse, thinking particularly about the way in which Catholic just war theorists engaged the public sphere in the 1980s against a tendency toward ecclesial withdrawal from public life in the wake of the  Vietnam era.

Dan Hummel (University of Wisconsin-Madison) opened up the multivalent connection between worship and nationalism in regard to Christian Zionism, in particular the adoption of Jewish liturgical practices by Evangelical Christians. But he also wanted to warn against seeing Christian Zionism as simply a refraction of American nationalism, pointing us to the international nature of the Christian Zionist movement. Ben Wright (UT Dallas) explored the issue of national formation in the antebellum era, and affirmed the point made by some other panelists that nationalism differs across space and time, and is, to some extent, always a site of contest and evolution in which Christian communities have played strategic and varying roles. John Maiden (Open University, UK) offered a British perspective, arguing that the British Evangelical community has in one sense lost its older commitment to national religion (the 27% of Evangelicals that voted for Brexit stand in marked contrast to the 81% that voted for Trump), while retaining some of its imagery, particularly in regard to Britain’s special status and anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Several overarching themes emerged which I will want to reflect on further. First, a hunch I had developed going into this project received some affirmation. Nationalism, while on the one hand belligerent and self-satisfied, is in many ways fragile and uncertain. Indeed, its most strident manifestations may come from positions of weakness – or imagined weakness – as much as from strength. Second, the question was raised at several junctures concerning for whom the discourse of Christian nationalism is intended. Is Christian nationalist rhetoric primarily aimed at the Christian community, or is it directed to achieving defined goals within the nation-state? Third, I was interested in the relationship between individualism and community raised in the discussions, especially as this seems a very germane link with issues of worship. Is nationalism, especially in the American context, something experienced (ironically) in isolation or, at best, as a kind of personal experience of a cultural mood or sentiment? Or is it genuinely about community and civic engagement? This seems important as it connects with a standard critique of Evangelical worship that privileges sentiment and individual experience over the formation of an ekklesia. This leads me to the fourth reflection, which is the sense of moral imperative that several participants conveyed for the church to do better at helping Christians think and act well about these issues. Much of the literature on worship and liturgy stresses the educative function of worship. The question my whole project is asking this year is (a) whether churches are equipped to fulfill this function in a way that sufficiently addresses and overcomes the other powerful liturgies that form Christian identity and community within the national-state, and  (b) if, as I suspect, the answer is often not, then what role can Christian thinkers — including us Christian historians—have in helping the church “imagine the Kingdom” and “unmask the powers” more fully.

One question after the panel from an audience member reminded me of a question I also still want answered: are there any historical studies of when the flag when into the sanctuary, or when and why it left the building? Flags in sanctuaries seem to be a great example of what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism” – the slow and almost unnoticeable daily drip-feed of national identity symbols. My only answer to the question is anecdotal. Perusing the minutes of a church in Grand Rapids I found that this particular church raised the flag in 1976—a symbolic date that requires no explanation. But it would be interesting to know if this was the start or just a renaissance of the flag in the sanctuary, and to explore the mechanisms that encouraged churches to hoist the flag in this year. Was there a concerted national campaign, or was it spontaneous local initiative? As the audience member suggested, it would be useful for those trying to encourage the removal of the flag from the sanctuary if historians could show the context and reasons it went in.

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.

American Exceptionalisms

American Exceptionalism

Gutacker (left) and Foley (right) respond to questions at the panel on Race, Religion, and American Exceptionalism

Martin 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

The interplay between race, religion and American exceptionalisms was the theme of a panel in the second round of papers at day one of the ASCH in New York city. The panel sits squarely in the center of the conference’s overall theme: Whose América: New Perspectives Contours and Connections in Church Histories.

The plural exceptionalisms was a key note sounded, particularly in the papers by Malcolm Foley (Baylor University) and Nichole Renèe Phillips (Emory University) which discussed how African American conceptualizations of American exceptionalism could critique America’s oppressive and violent racial attitudes while simultaneously affirming that the American experiment was indeed built on unique ideals. In fact, such endorsement of American exceptionalism was often used to call white Americans to reform. This suggests that American exceptionalism is not always a cipher of bellicose ethno-nationalism, but can also act as a sternly prophetic voice. Indeed, I was left pondering how severe critique of the nation’s sins can still be a form of implicit nationalism, since the very act of chastisement for sin tacitly accepts the normative status of national claims to uniqueness and special importance.

I was particularly intrigued by Foley’s presentation of Black Presbyterian Pastor Francis Grimke (1850-1937). Foley showed how Grimké was troubled by an apparent contradiction between African American experiences of inequality and violence in America and the foundational commitment and loyalty to the country that he witnessed among many African Americans. Yet, according to Foley, Grimké himself displayed some of this same ambiguity, castigating and critiquing, yet never able to quite give up on the America of the mind.

Meanwhile Paul Gutacker explored the way in which church history could be used by Americans of both European and African descent in the nineteenth century. European Americans drew on the broader myth of Protestant freedom and Anglo-Saxon liberty to envision America as the arena wherein the story of the English people would find its climax, the result of America’s victorious disaggregation of church and state. Gutacker focused part African American Christian leaders, by contrast, stretched further back to emphasize that the early church Bible belt was in North Africa, and that the most revered of all theologians, even among Protestants, Saint Augustine, was, of course, African. Interestingly, both African and European Americans could plug into the dominant anti-Catholicism of the era. Black theologians perpetuated a narrative that held the Catholic church as responsible for slavery, while European leaders saw anti-Catholicism as the great unifying creed of freeborn American Christians.

Anti-Catholicism, which was to some extent a proxy for nationalism in the nineteenth century in both Britain and the United States, will recur as a theme at ASCH in a panel on Sunday with papers from John Wolffe, Geraldine Vaughan and John Maiden. Prof. Wolffe told me in conversation after today’s panel that he sees anti-Catholicism scholarship making a resurgence. This is an intriguing fact given current hostility to immigrants and outsiders at work in American (and British) society at the moment. I am reminded of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.’s comment that prejudice against Catholics is “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.”

The American Society of Church History is Coming to Town!

ASCH

It’s Always Christmas New York, Broadway, New York, NY near the ASCH conference. Photo by Martin Spence

Martin 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!  –JF

It may be January 3, but it’s always Christmas in New York. And if any historians possessed the knowledge about how to keep Christmas well, it was the five who led one of the first panels at the ASCH Winter meeting at the Parker Hotel, New York.

The papers were culled from the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Christmas, an inter-disciplinary study of the theology, history, sociology, liturgy and culture of Christmas which editor Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College) assured us will be published just in time for….Easter.

The panelists, Katrina Jennie-Lou Wheeler (City University of New York),David Thomas Orique (Providence College), Daniel Vaca (Brown University), and Timothy Larsen, all emphasized how Christmas has been a site of cultural contest since the early modern era. Larsen’s revelation that nonconformist Evangelicals who did much to popularize Santa Claus in late Victorian Anglo-America was particularly intriguing, especially as a counterpoise to the common belief that a secular Santa has shoved Jesus out of the manger.  Meanwhile David Thomas Orique showed how the celebration of Christmas was both a point of friction and a zone of assimilation for European, Native and African cultures in post-Columbian America. Daniel Vaca touched on the multivariate narratives of Christmas and their role in mediating idealized visions of domesticity, pleasure, and social harmony. Katrina Jennie-Lou Wheeler took us back to the original “war on Christmas” in Tudor and Stuart England.

Lo! Two blocks East of the conference venue shines the great light of Trump Tower, and inevitably the forty-fifth President made a (virtual) appearance at the panel when panel commentator and chair Margaret Bendroth (Congregational Archives and Library) raised Trump’s  recent “Miracle of Christmas” rally at Battle Creek, MI. Bendroth asked whether it is actually the “powers that be,”—posing as the faux champions of Christmas to serve political-cultural ends—who may be the real Grinches.