Conference to Classroom

We’ve had a bit of a hiatus on blog posts, as well a bit of a break in the class schedule, because I’ve spent the last few days in Providence, Rhode Island, at the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians.  It was a thought-provoking conference (digested here), with quite a few great panels on the subject of American religious history.  It offered, as good conferences always do, a chance to see how great historians are investigating the same themes we grapple with in class.   I’m curious to see how those discussions–those among academics and those in the classroom–will inform each other over the next few weeks.

The American religious world after 1800 was overwhelming in its options, and historians have equally limitless ways of asking questions about it. On Friday, I went to a great panel about early American religious geographies. (John Fea tweeted it, the OAH storified it.) Christopher Jones, Shelby Balik, and Kyle Bulthuis collectively showed the importance of using space and landscape as a way to understand religion.  Notably, they came at the study of religion in quite varied ways, from large-scale geographic rearrangements and reconfigurations within a single denomination (Jones), to the piety of individuals in a certain kind of space (Balik), to the actions of groups of people, in cities, who may or may not have shared denominational affiliations (Bulthuis).

The papers by Balik and Bulthuis promoted contrasts between rural reveries and the opportunities cities offered to religion. Americans in the early republic, a people who were almost dizzyingly mobile, made use of their environments to create new forms for their faiths, and both big cities and tamed, rural landscapes (de-peopled of their Native inhabitants) were arguably new in the early republic. Discussion about the presence and erasure of Native peoples on those landscapes was particularly productive, and it made me think immediately of our reading for this week.  Angela Pulley Hudson points out that Indian-ness was framed locally, while race was operated regionally. This paradigm, however, is complicated by Jones’s observation (based on his study of transatlantic Methodism in the era) that black Methodists in vastly different regions—from the US North to Sierra Leone—faced similar situations. I don’t think there’s one single conclusion here—the point is in asking the questions. I’m grateful for fresh ideas to use when looking at the period.

This rich depiction of religious life in the early republic came together nicely with Jon Butler’s presidential address, on the persistence and importance of institutions in the diverse religious landscape of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Manhattan.  With the same wink and theoretical acuity that he used to challenge the idea of the Great Awakening (in an article that, like Morgan’s “American Paradox” climbed high in the ranks of the Junto’s classic article competition), Butler is critically engaging the complex terrain of secularization and scholarly assumptions about its force and consequences. His critique of Charles Taylor’s Secular Age has been incredibly helpful to me, and this work no less so. To assume religion’s decline in the modern age begs the question of the category’s stability, and Butler shows clearly that modern folk were as adaptable in their approaches to faith as they were in their evolving technologies.  The religious geographies panel showed that those changes started in the early republic – the first “modern (secular) era.

The purpose of this blog is to explore how this course fits into wider contexts from the perspective of the professor, to help explain why I ask the questions I ask, assign what I assign, and the way I see class themes in both scholarly and popular conversations. Moving from the classroom to the conference session to the ultimate publications that come out of those scholarly discussions and back to the classroom is the lifeblood of intellectual inquiry.  At my college graduation, eons ago, Cornell West spoke about the real pleasure of intellectual life, and for me these years-long cycles of investigation are the epitome of that.

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