My Notes from the 2011 AHA and ASCH meetings

I’ve seen more snow at home in Atlanta than I did up in Boston. Weird. I spent a whirlwind two days up in Boston for the meetings of the American Historical Association and its smaller, more religious cousin, the American Society of Church History. There was plenty of religious history goodness to be had, but alas, I was on a time crunch. I flew in early Friday, stayed the night and flew back late Saturday. Here are my random thoughts, observations, and notes from the various panels I attended and things I found to occupy my time drawn from scattered marginalia in my conference book.

Friday afternoon’s panel on cosmopolitanism and the religious left at the turn of the 20th century was very good. John Pettegrew (Lehigh University) offered an interesting argument for Mark Twain as a religious liberal and for Twain’s belief in empathy as a force that bound humanity together. For Twain, argued Pettegrew, empathy was war’s opposite and it allowed for a universal humanity. Emily Mace’s paper (Princeton) analyzed some intriguing ritual festivals in the life of New York’s Ethical Culture School. These festivals organized around civic values of democracy and equality, as respondent Leigh Eric Schmidt pointed out, were anything but Durkheimian collective effervesance. Nonetheless, Mace’s point that we must not neglect ritual in the study of liberal religions is well founded. Finally, my favorite paper–if only because it was closest to my own research–was that of Ann Marie Kittelstrom (Sonoma State University). Kittlestrom traced the history of the National Federation of Religious Liberals in the wake of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religion. In the NFRL and its successors, Kittlestrom sees the beginning of a real cosmopolitan pluralism that appreciated differences while still holding onto shared universals. Leigh Eric Schmidt (Harvard University) responded to all three papers in turn but for me his big take away was the importance of sympathy–in contrast to Pettegrew’s empathy. Sympathy, according to Schmidt, was a rich moral/social sentiment for bridging differences and imaging a cosmopolitan sensibility in the 19th century among religious liberals. Sympathy could be found in the subjects of all three of the papers presented.

Friday night the American Society of Church History held a reception for graduate students at theCongregational Library on Beacon Hill. It is a beautiful library and it was a nice chance to talk to colleagues also along the graduate school path. Kudos to the ASCH for doing this! What was even better was that the ASCH arranged for a small group of graduate students to have lunch or dinner with some great historians on Friday and Saturday–for free! So, after the reception at the library a few of us went to dinner with the great historian of Mormonism Jan Shipps. We had a wonderful dinner and Jan was truly delightful to spend time with. She can tell some amazing stories. On Saturday lunch was arranged with Charles Lippy and dinner with Keith Francis. Again, kudos to the ASCH for setting up these meals. I wasn’t able to take part in any of them on Saturday but they were great opportunities and only available within a smaller society like the ASCH.

By the way, I do love the smaller and more intimate setting of the ASCH in the midst of the glitz and glamor of the AHA. It’s really the best of both worlds. Sort of like Mayberry and Manhattan at the same time.

Saturday morning, I got up and headed to a roundtable chaired by our very own Randall Stephens on “Bracketing Faith and Historical Practice.” The panel featured Randall Balmer, Margaret Bendroth from the Congregational Library, Jon Roberts, Grant Wacker, and Lauren Winner. I won’t say much in case Randall wants to post something later. The main question the panelists addressed was whether or not (or even if) historians should bracket their religious beliefs when practicing their craft. Balmer and Winner seemed confused that this was even a question. For them, it was impossible not to bracket one’s faith and so historians should be upfront about where they are coming from. Roberts disagreed and argued for “norms” that guide the practice of history and call for objective “historical natuarlism.” Grant Wacker offered what I thought was the best argument. Wacker pointed out that there is no hard and fast rule and that various political and social situations will guide a historians decisions about what to disclose and what to use in their interpretation of historical events and agents. Randall Stephens did a good job as chair in relating the various comments and furthering the conversation but I kept getting the sneaking feeling that Roberts and Balmer/Winner were just talking past one another and really arguing about the value of reflexive methodology and not the role of belief in history writing. It was a good conversation, however, and one that will hopefully continue.

After the roundtable I rushed over to the Westin, where the ASCH panels were meeting. It was my turn. I was part of a panel on Methodist Media. The panel began with a paper from Erika K. R. Hirsch (Boston University) who analyzed the role of worship in early Methodism. Hirsch argued that the personal experiences afforded in hymn singing and corporate prayer provided authentication of genuine piety. She tied this desire for authenticity to an early modern emphasis on empirism and verification by the senses. My take away from Hirsch was that we need to pay more attention to the role of practice in British and American Methodism. Elizabeth Georgian (University of Delaware) also emphasized the role of practice in Methodism in her paper on Methodist print culture in the early nineteenth century. Georgian argued that practice, not theology, was the source of debates between Methodists and Presbyterians in their respective periodicals. David Scott (Boston University) brought in a transnational element with his paper on Methodist educational missions in Asia during the nineteenth century. Scott argued that Methodist missions focused on education overseas because they were so focused on education already on the home front. Educational missions were a key part of Methodist identity at home and abroad. Finally, I kept the missionary theme going with my own paper on the Methodist Christian Advocate. I argued that the Christian Advocate allowed Methodist readers to map out the distant land of India, make contact with Indian Hindus (especially women), and travel to the mission field alongside missionaries. The full paper is available here. Russell Richey dispensed with the usual “5th paper” style response, as he put it, and instead posed some refining questions to each paper. Overall, I thought the panel went well but it’s always hard to tell when you’re the one up there.

After my panel I ate lunch at California Pizza Kitchen and headed to airport. A few final thoughts on the overall conference. As Tenured Radical has noted, it was weird going to a conference in a mall. There was also a ridiculous number of Starbucks shops within the bounds of the conference. I also struggled to find WiFi all weekend, but that could have been my own ineptitude. In the end, it was a fun trip that involved little sleep and a lot of running around in glass walled skywalks.

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