Today is International Women’s Day . As a historian of American religious cultures, IWD reminds me of the foundational role women have played and continue to play in American religions. The story of Hindu religions in American culture that I laid out in my dissertation brought many women typically on the edges of American religious history to the center of the narrative. Women ranging from Helena Blavatsky to Lydia Maria Child to Hannah Adams.
So, in the spirit of IWD I present a section of Hannah Adams’ An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which have Appeared in the World from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day (1784). This was the earliest work of comparative religion in America and the section below is the earliest account of Hindu religions penned by an American. For more on Adams remarkable career I recommend Gary D. Schmidt’s A Passionate Usefulness: The Life and Literary Labors of Hannah Adams (2004).
MOGUL’s EMPIRE. The original inhabitants of India are called Gentoos, or, as others call them, Hindoos. They pretend that Brumma, who was their legislator both in politics and religoin, was inferiour only to God; and that he existed many thousands of years before our account of the creation. They Bramins–for so the Gentoo Priests are called–pretend, that he bequeathed to them a book, called the Vidam, containing his doctrines and instructions; –and that though the original is lost, they are still possessed of a commentary upon it, called the Shahstah, which is wrote in the Shanscrita language, now a dead language and known only to the Bramins, who study it.
Reading the last chapter of Lydia Maria Child’s The Progress of Religious Ideas I came across this passage that seemed timely during our election season:
Little or no progress toward truth is usually made, because passages of ancient books are taken up hundreds of years after they were written, and are used in a sense altogether foreign from the original intention, in order to sustain some opinion, or tradition of the then present time. And the human mind is not free to pursue even this distorting process; but colleges of supervisors are appointed to instruct the young in what light everything ought to be viewed. One college covers the eyes of all its students with red spectacles, so that every object seems on fire. Another insists that blue spectacles are the only proper medium; consequently its pupils maintain that all creation is ghastly pale. Whereupon red spectacles rush to battle with blue spectacles, to prove that the whole landscape is flame-coloured. If one who uses his natural eyesight comes between them, and says, ever so gently: “Nay, my friends, you are both mistaken. The meadows are of an emerald green, and the sunshine is golden,” he is rudely shoved aside, as an heretic, or an infidel. One party calls out to him: “Did you ever look at the landscape through red spectacles?” Another shouts: “Did you ever examine it by the only right method, which is through blue spectacles?” And if he cannot answer in the affirmative, they both vociferate: “Then you had better keep silence; for you are altogether incapable of forming a correct opinion on the subject.”
Child is describing religious controversy during her lifetime. But it seems to me red and blue spectacles are easy to find in the fall of an election year.
I came across this on page 1 of James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions (1871):
[The present work] is an attempt to compare the great religions of the world with each other. When completed, this comparison ought to show what each is, what it contains, wherein it resembles the others, wherein it differs from the others; its origin and development, its place in universal history; its positive and negative qualities, its truths and errors, and its influence, past, present, or future, on the welfare of mankind. For everything becomes more clear by comparison. We can never understand the nature of a phenomenon when we contemplate it by itself, as well as when we look at it in its relations to the phenomena of the same kind.
It is remarkable to me that I have rarely seen James Freeman Clarke mentioned in histories of comparative religion or religious studies. He gets three mentions in Eric Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History. Tomoko Masuzawa gives him two pages in her book The Invention of World Religions. But both Sharpe and Masuzawa put the American Clarke into a story that is mostly about European approaches to comparative religion. Clarke’s place as a Unitarian minister and his location within the history of liberal religion in America is neglected. Within American religious history, Clarke comes up in discussions of mysticism and Asian religions. Leigh Eric Schmidt highlights Clarke’s interest in universal mystical experience in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese briefly analyzes Clarke’s representation of Hindu religions in Ten Great Religions in her book A Republic of Mind and Spirit. There are two Clarkes, the comparativist who imagines a universal religion based in Christianity and a metaphysical interested in the mystical East, depending on the history you are telling.
I am sympathetic with the story of Clarke as a metaphysical. I am approaching him in the same vein as Albanese. I have the benefit of a narrower project than hers that will allow me to really dig into Clarke’s representation of “Brahmanism.” Yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that there is another story to tell about Clarke and other 19th century liberal (post)Protestants interested in world religions that unites the comparativist narrative with the metaphysical one. In the rush to throw off the bonds of comparative theology–indeed any kind of theology–I think the academic study of religion in America may have misplaced its history. Perhaps we owe more to Clarke than we do to Max Mueller.
Today marks the 158th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Right now I am knee deep in Transcendentalists, Thoreau included, as I wade through my chapter on Transcendentalist representations of Hinduism. The combination of today’s anniversary and my current writing work got me thinking about how Henry David Thoreau fits into American religious history.
Right now I’m working to put Thoreau into the proper place as one of America’s earliest Orientalists. Thoreau studied and appreciated Hindu religious texts, among other Asian traditions, and found them inspirational for his spiritual thought and literary prose. But he also took a view of “the East” and “the Orient” that imagined it as an essentially spiritual place. As New England industrialized around him, Thoreau looked to the Orient as a counterbalance–a place of spiritual contemplation and ancient truth to offset America’s material industry and progressive zeal. He hoped for a fusion of East and West in his writing, in his religious thought, and in America’s future. This hybrid vision emerges at the end of the chapter titled “The Pond in Winter.” Thoreau observes ice harvesters taking ice from the pond that would be packed in sawdust and shipped from New England to India. This connection between cold New England and balmy Calcutta sparks a vision:
Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.
I want to put Thoreau up as one of the first American Orientalists, with all the baggage that comes with such a title, and analyze the politics and power relations at work in the Orient as he imagined it. But what is his larger place in American religious history? What is the place of Walden?For some Thoreau is the first American yogin. Though that really depends on what you mean by yoga and how much you take Thoreau’s claims at face value. In Restless Souls, Leigh Eric Schmidt argued that Thoreau is part of a tradition of solitude within American liberal religion. When he took to the woods “to live life deliberately” he took part in a larger Western tradition of hermitage and solitude that has continued in his wake–my colleague Brian Campbell is writing his dissertation on this hermitage tradition. Thoreau is also invoked in contemporary talk about “spirituality.” His iconoclasm and belief in individual and intuitive religious experience are often cited as the forerunner to the “spiritual but not religious” of today. Thoreau and Walden are also key to ideas about the relationship between religion and nature. Thoreau found his own sacred meaning in the landscapes around him, as the quote above highlights. These various examples show how Thoreau has become a multivalent icon of religious liberalism and individual spirituality. We’ve reached a point where his face can be deployed to demand you work for peace, disobey, or simplify. Thoreau’s meaning is as slippery as “spirituality.” His face is a blank slate on which we scrawl our own spiritual visions.
What do you see as the significance of Thoreau and Walden for American religious history?
I’ve made it to the Transcendentalists! The chapter on Unitarian and evangelical ideas about Hinduism is done and passed along to The Adviser. Now, I’m changing gears. The chapters I’ve written so far were exercises in uncovering. Only a couple previous studies had looked at the materials and so my basic work was to dig up representations and descriptions of Hinduism in sources and relate them to the larger context of American culture during the period. For example, only a couple of people have written about Rammohun Roy’s impact in the West and only Carl T. Jackson has really considered how he impacted America. So I had a lot of space to dive deep into the sources and make my arguments about the significance of Rammohun Roy for the history Hinduism in America and the history of American religious cultures.
But now I’m writing about Transcendentalists. There are a lot of books about Transcendentalists. I’ve also caught up with the narrative. Most histories of religion in America argue that the Transcendentalists were the first Americans to show interest in Asian religions–Arthur Christy’s The Orient in American Transcendentalism (1932) did the most to cement that claim. So, there’s a lot of secondary literature on Asian religions, and especially Hinduism, in Transcendentalist thought. That’s the list of call numbers I took with me to the library this week on the left. Now my challenge shifts. It’s not about digging up stuff no one’s found, it’s about finding a new angle on the stuff we already know about. I find this much harder and much less exciting.
The question of how American’s construct the category “religion” has emerged as a consistent theme in the early chapters of this project and I think it might be my way to cut a path through the underbrush of the Transcendentalist rainforest. Most of the research on Asian religions and Transcendentalism take “religion” for granted. (BTW, there’s a whole discussion of when we should or should not take this term for granted in our writing. But that’s a whole different post.) There are these religions in Asia and these folks in America “discover” these religions and somehow these religions influences their thinking and writing. But why did Thoreau or Emerson or Alcott recognize the Bhagavad Gita or the Laws of Menu as religious? I think John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, which I’ve started but not yet finished, will be helpful on this point. Secularism makes “religion” as a category possible. It sets the horizons for a “religion” that is a chosen, believed, and, most importantly, can be categorized, be borrowed from, and influence people. All talk of Asian religions “influencing” the Transcendentalists gives agency to religion. Religion does stuff. It’s a virus. Or maybe a smoke monster. The clearest expression of this is Lydia Maria Child’s Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive Ages. Compare Child’s title with Hannah Adams’ A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. Religion progresses for Child. It has movement. Adams’ certainly has a progressive view of religion in her dictionary, as I argue in my chapter about it. But that movement, that agency, is more pronounced by 1855 when Child writes. This thing, religion, that was invented in the 18th century has gotten more power, more agency–maybe?
So the challenge for me–my way toward a fresh take on Transcendentalism and Hinduism–is to trace the invention of religion as this viral, smoke monstery, agent through Transcendentalist encounters with Hindu religious culture. Now, let’s just hope no one in the stack of books beside me has done that already.
This is the same dual work that much “evangelical history” does. On the one hand, the history of evangelicalism represents what evangelicalism is or has been to those not within the fold. It’s a project that says, “See, we have been at the heart of democracy and republicanism in America. Ours is the religion of freedom, liberty, choice, and reason.” It’s also a project that represents itself to itself–that is, to evangelicals. Often these representations are meant to call today’s evangelical Christians to be a better sort of Christians by reminding them of what they once were. “Once we had the social passion of the great abolitionists and the depth of thought of Edwards. We can have that again.” I think it is this dual work of representation that creates the blindspots around race and gender that engendered Ed’s battle cry and Kelly Baker’s questions.
That said, I don’t think the problem is really about representation. It’s not that there aren’t enough African American, Latino/a American, or Asian American evangelicals in our indexes and lists. The problem is not representation but construction. Or, to put it as a question, why do we think there even is such a thing as evangelicalism? Or evangelicals? To be blunt, why do we care who is or isn’t an evangelical?
The term “evangelical” has a long history that I won’t get into and that I’m sure many readers of this blog know more about than I do. However, it seems that the term has been self-applied or imposed upon a variety of Protestants since the Reformation. It is a “native term” batted about by Protestants throughout their various squabbles with themselves and others. For some American Protestants at certain places and times “evangelical” signified “true.” Evangelical Christianity stood in contrast to infidel Christianity (be it liberal or deistic or what have you). Or conversely, to put myself in the shoes of the Unitarians I’ve been reading all week, “evangelical” Christianity is stiff mindless orthodoxy that lacks the refined reason and liberty of liberal Christianity. The question of who is or isn’t “evangelical” or what is or isn’t “evangelicalism” is a Protestant debate between Protestants and has become a historiographical question within American religious history insofar as American religious history is still under-girded by Protestant sensibilities and categories.
The real question for historians of American religion and especially historians of American evangelicalism is “what are the politics of the category evangelical?” Why do we want more African Americans in a list of evangelicals? Why do we want more women? Because it is a privileged category. It is also a constructed category. It is, to use my favorite Jon Butler phrase, an interpretive fiction. It is an invention, first within the minds of Protestants since the Reformation and then within the minds of historians from Robert Baird to the guys at Patheos. Rather than worry about who is or isn’t an evangelical or adding more diversity to the list, historians should be investigating the process of this invention. We should be tracing the politics of the term and what is at stake in various places and times when people take, leave, fight for, argue about, or compromise over what it means to be “evangelical.” We don’t need more or different histories of evangelicalism or evangelicals, we need a genealogy of the term. We need to trace the invention of American evangelicalism. We need to stop assuming that evangelicalism is something out there for us to track down in the archive or research field and label correctly. Instead, let’s pay attention to how various subjects imagine evangelicalism and the political, cultural, and social forces at work in those imaginings. Let’s find out what’s at stake when people get included or excluded from “evangelicalism.” I’d do it but I have this other thing I’m working on.
Let me be clear, I don’t think evangelical historians should stop doing what they are doing. The work of representing evangelical history to outsiders and other evangelicals is important and I’m glad there are wise and talented folks doing it. However, the ways these historian construct “evangelicals” is ripe for analysis by those investigating how “evangelicals” are invented. In this way “evangelical history” can be the source material for a genealogy of evangelicalism. For folks like Ed who are unsatisfied with our current constructions of “evangelical,” adding a bunch of new names to the list or changing the category will not solve the problem. For a while “Puritan” stood as the privileged category of religious history. Perhaps we’re now realizing that it’s been replaced by “evangelical.” (A process that itself is worth investigation). We have to deconstruct these categories and dig up the processes that have bestowed their privilege upon them, whether by historical subjects or historians. We can’t just change the plaque on the spacecraft.
From the diary of Rev. William Bentley of Salem, Mass. December 29, 1799:
Had the pleasure of seeing for the first time a native of the Indies from Madras. He is of very dark complection, long black hair, soft countenance, tall, & well proportioned. He is said to be darker than Indians in general of his own cast, being much darker than any native Indians of America. I had no opportunity to judge of his abilities, but his countenance was not expressive. He came to Salem with Capt. J. Gibaut, and has been in Europe.
Remembering When the Klan Tried to March Through Town: Kelly J. Baker’s ‘Gospel According to the Klan’Posted: December 21, 2011
I was in fourth grade when the Klan tried to march through town. At that time I was living in my Dad’s small hometown in southeastern Georgia. I don’t remember how I heard but I remember hearing that a group called the KKK wanted to parade through town. Everyone seemed very worked up about it. As a white boy growing up in the South I knew something about race at that time. Mostly I knew that it signaled some sort of difference but what the difference meant and how it played out, that I was still figuring out. When the Klan wanted to march through that small town I got the feeling that it just embarrassed everyone. There was definitely a racialized social structure to the town–not that I knew what to call it or had a full sense of it. My Mom, Dad, brother and I were staying with my Dad’s parents helping out taking care of my aging and sick grandfather. I remember him getting all worked up over me playing with a black kid from the gravel road at the back of the neighborhood. I remember that while the white kids would go inside each other’s houses and play, my black friend and I stuck to playing on the gravel road. So, like I said, when the Klan wanted to march it embarrassed everyone. It was like that family member at Thanksgiving who has a little too much red wine and begins saying out loud all of the judgments everyone else had kept to themselves. The Klan was just being mean.
This memory cropped up as I read through Kelly J. Baker’s great new analysis of the Klu Klux Klan of the 1920s, Gospel According to the Klan. The Klan I remember trying to march through a small town in Georgia (I don’t remember if they actually did it or whether the town stopped them) is far removed from the Klan of the 1920s. During the second revival of the Klan that Baker outlines the “Invisible Empire” was not an embarrassment, except maybe to the writers of the Christian Century. Rather, they were a group of white Protestants defending America against the perceived threats of Catholicism, immigration, and inferior races.
The strength of Baker’s book is her analysis of Klan periodicals. She is at her best when she delves into the ways the Klan represented itself to itself. That is, when these periodicals outline the ideal Klansman or Klanswoman to their readers. From their use of the cross and other Christian symbols to their goal of reuniting the disparate strands of Protestantism, the 1920s Klan was a deeply Protestant cultural phenomenon. While most people see the Klan as a group of racists and then work backwards from there to their religion, Baker starts with their Protestant nationalism and works forward. Thus, rather than seeing racism draped in religion, Baker reveals religion whose logical ends are racist, exclusionary, and hateful. The Klan emerged as a force of Protestant nationalism that united Protestant Christianity with Americanism. The “100% Americanism” that emerged stood as call for men and women to defend their country from invasive forces.
I wonder, though, how the 1920s Klan and its defense of Protestant America connects to the other movement among conservative Protestants in the 1920s, Fundamentalism. Baker notes that the KKK drew on members from the Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, and Presbyterians. These are the same folks that were fighting over evolution and biblical criticism. The Scottish common sense philosophy underlying Fundamentalism seems to be at the bottom of Klan theology as well. The defense of American morality read as pure Protestantism ties these two movements together. Baker stresses that the Klan must not be marginalized in our narratives of American religious history and I totally agree. What better way to put them into a central part of the narrative than place them alongside Fundamentalism during the period? The book would make an interesting read alongside George Marsden’s classic Fundamentalism and American Culture, for any of you planning seminar syllabi.
That said, Baker’s book is an extremely important work. Her analyses of gender, nationalism, and material culture are strong and useful for anyone looking for a model. Furthermore, her use of the periodical literature and analysis of representation and rhetoric offers me a model for my own work with representations of Hindus and Protestants in my sources. The chapters hold their own as individual readings and can be put to use in a number of undergraduate courses while the book as a whole ought to be a part of any seminar on race or nationalism and religion.
Just take the dust jacket off if you read it on an airplane–I discovered that the hard way.
[Image via Wikimedia. In this photo shot October 1987 in Jackson County, Ohio. Farmer William Donta holds an M1 Carbine, he had a KKK ralley, and a cross burning on his private property in Jackson County, Ohio.(Photo/Paul M. Walsh)]
Cross-posted from Religion in American History
While we are all aflutter over this weekends’ American Academy of Religion, I would ask us to take a moment and turn our attention to another scholarly society–the American Society of Church History. Earlier this month the ASCH launched its very own blog that is open to contributions from any of its members (ahem, AAR are you listening?) So far there has been some quite interesting content covering Christian history in America. Yesterday’s post from W. Clark Gilpin, “Wanted: A New Chronology of American Religious History,” especially caught my attention.
Gilpin points out that one of the central tasks of the historian is to track change over time and this requires some sort of chronology. How one builds that chronology, though, will depend on what one sees as the engine driving change.
In no small measure, decisions about periodization depend on the issues that a given author or group of authors have identified as the principal engines of change. Historians who link American religious history to immigration are likely to produce a different chronology from historians focused on the intersection of religion and politics, or the history of religiously motivated movements of social reform. And yet, a moment’s reflection will also suggest that these three sets of concerns display interesting chronological convergences, for example, with changes in U.S. immigration law and movements for civil rights during the 1960s.
The entire post is worth a read, but this point was especially interesting to me. As we think about the narratives we tell about religion in America, what are the engines driving our chronologies? What do they allow us to see? Where do they give us blindspots? For my current work I’d have to say “religious difference” drives the narrative. Gilpin names immigration, politics, and reform. Lately on the blog we’ve been talking a lot about the market. Are there other engines we’ve yet to put to use? Where could they take us?
The first research trip is over and as I look back over my notes I’m realizing that I may have been asking the wrong questions all along. Going into the trip I thought the East India Marine Society would be the perfect case study for how ideas about Hinduism floated into America through trade networks. But after spending four days going through all of the records left by the society I now see it differently. The society and its museum did not present visitors and the folks of Salem with Hinduism or even Hindoos. Instead, they presented the Orient, the Indies, the East. It was undifferentiated. Yes, there was India, China, and other countries, but they were all swallowed up in the East/Orient/Indies. This was why it didn’t seem dissonant for someone in full Mandarin dress to lead a procession that included a Bengali made palanquin carried by African Americans in turbans. It was about the Oriental mood. This is why it made sense to put the Ganesa image from Java right next to the Rama and Sita image from Bengal. It was different but it wasn’t. Yes they were people known as Hindoos, but they were part of the larger group of Orientals.
So, the questions change. The question for chapter one had been: How did the East India Marine Society introduce local New Englanders to representations of Hinduism? The new question: What made it possible for New Englanders to imagine people known as Hindoos? This new questions gets at the limits and production of knowledge about India in America. In India Christiana, Cotton Mather does not distinguish between Indians–be they from the West or East Indies. Rather, they are all heathen and they all need Christianity. In the 1830s Rammohun Roy emerges in Unitarian magazines as a Hindu and when he is labeled a heathen by conservative Protestants he is quickly defended by his liberal Christian allies. Thus, my task in chapter one is to explore where, when, and under what circumstances Americans began to see “Hindoos,” and “Hindoo religion” as something unique. When did “Hindoo religion” or “Hinduism” emerge from heathenism in the minds of Americans. I’m sure this happened in fits and starts and among liberals long before conservatives but that’s still the question.
Now, off to research.