A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Tag: 19th-century

Catherine Albanese, “Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion” (2008)

Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale, 2008).

Albanese’s ambitious tome attempts to establish “metaphysical religion” as a major force in American religious history. Allow me to repeat: Albanese discovers (or invents) a movement hitherto unknown to the historiography, discerns its roots and tracks development from the pre-colonial era to the present, and argues that it has exerted major influence on the evolution of American religion writ large. If you are willing to go along for the ride, this is the kind of book that can dramatically alter the way you see the field.

Four features characterize “metaphysical religion.” First, it shows a deep concern with the mind and its powers. Whether in the secret knowledge of the early freemasons or the healing powers of mind in Christian Science, Albanese argues that the tradition understand and harness the mind’s capabilities. Second, the tradition takes interest in the correspondences between worlds—between this world and the other world, the spirit world and the physical world, etc. Thus, its practices have often taken the form of “magic,” a manipulation of this world to make contact with the other. Third, the tradition focuses on movements and action. The spirits move, the dead appear and vanish, energies flow, forces pass through us, and thus the tradition is not terribly interested in rigid codification or fixity. The metaphysical tradition reveals itself through its combinative character, its networks of action. Fourth, the tradition emphasizes salvation as solace, comfort, therapy, and healing. Despite the accusations of otherworldliness others fling at it, the metaphysical tradition seeks change in embodied life—from the transformative power of positive thinking to the comfort of a séance with a lost love.

Albanese attempts to recover the grand story of religion in America from “perspectives and data deployed to protect and promote the role of Christianity in the nation’s history” (4). She first takes aim at the “evangelical thesis,” which locates the distinctive Americanness of American religion in the evangelical tradition. Traipsing from Edwards through Finney through Moody to Graham, this narrative finds evangelicalism’s influence present in American religious individualism, religion’s focus on the heart, and in the USA’s evangelicalized national culture (see my review of Noll). According to Albanese, this thesis received its antithesis from Jon Butler, who declared that the rise of evangelicalism only told part of the story of religion in America. Insofar as religious unity and symmetry existed in America, he contended, it confirmed the triumph of “mainstream denominationalism” modeled on the state churches of Europe over “popular occultism.” Albanese holds this “occultism” to the light. Rather than seeing occultism as lowbrow, quasi-religious doings doomed to folklorization at the hands of “mainstream” churches (à la Butler), she considers it part of a robust metaphysical tradition that reached its mature form around the time of the Civil War. To recover this tradition from the dustbins of history, she posits the “metaphysical thesis.” According to the metaphysical thesis, the distinctive Americanness of American religion developed under the influence of all three forces, often in combination with each other: evangelical, mainstream denominational, and metaphysical. More importantly, she considers the metaphysical tradition to be at least as influential as the evangelical tradition in guiding that development.

As someone who works on a tradition usually linked to the “evangelical” thesis, I’m excited by the possibilities this book opens. Albanese demonstrates the value of the odd combinations, the evanescent networks, the loose associations of religion in America. As a youngster, I remember being terrified when I first saw a Ouija board in a toy store. I had always been told that demons pushed the planchette in that particular game, and I couldn’t imagine why such an item sat so innocently on a shelf near Hungry Hungry Hippos. The plural of anecdote isn’t evidence, but Albanese’s thesis looms large over such seemingly trivial, everyday happenings. At the very least, it seems probable that the metaphysical tradition exerted some influence over 20th-century fundamentalism. But even if one wants to deny the existence of the “metaphysical tradition” altogether (which I don’t), Albanese challenges us to see the connections between religious practices, institutions, and individuals. We have to explain why Ouija boards even registered on conservative evangelical radar, why both stoned teenagers and fastidious pastors would assert the spiritual powers of a board game. Albanese shakes up the comfortable, respectable portraits we have created of what counts as “religion” in America.  

Review by A.T. Coates

David Bebbington, “The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody” (2005)

David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (InterVarsity, 2005)

Image: Charles Haddon Spurgeon preaching at the Music Hall in the Royal Surrey Gardens, 1856.

Bebbington delivers a very readable introduction to evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century. Aimed at a non-specialist audience, it would work well in an undergraduate survey of evangelicalism or in a graduate class on approaches to the study of evangelicalism. Most famously, this book presents a succinct definition of evangelicalism—one that has become standard in the field. Bebbington identifies four defining emphases of “evangelicalism”: 1) crucicentrism, emphasis on the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, 2) conversionism, emphasis on individual faith and conversion experience, 3) biblicism, emphasis on the Bible as the revealed Word of God, 4) activism, emphasis on spreading the gospel. Given its wide audience, the book focuses more on surveying the landscape than offering a controversial argument: Bebbington’s thesis claims that nineteenth century evangelicalism, carrying forward the “vigor” it inherited from the awakening of the eighteenth century, assumed a “dominant” role in the churches and cultures of the English-speaking world (see 252). Evangelicals stood at the vanguard of innovative church practice, set the trends in theology and in popular spirituality, and led all other churches in numerical growth. More than that, evangelicalism exerted major influence on cultural debates about sentimentalism, science, public education, sports/recreation, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

There’s much to praise about this book. Bebbington treats evangelicalism as a network that spanned the English-speaking world. Though most of the book’s action takes place in Great Britain and the United States, Bebbington traces evangelical connections around the globe—Canada, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand play their parts. More importantly, he stresses that evangelicals themselves thought of their movement in global terms. That said, Bebbington is also careful enough to draw attention to the “diversity” of this global movement. While historians have tended to slice the evangelical pie nation by nation, Bebbington suggests that theological, social (esp. race and class), and denominational differences mattered more to evangelicals themselves. Canadian, American, Australian, and African Presbyterians probably shared more resources, styles of worship or devotion, and feelings of connection than most white American Presbyterians shared with black American Methodists. Despite such deep fissures, Bebbington insists that these were “internal contrasts… less important than the unity of the evangelical movement” (81, emphasis added).

As my regular readers will probably suspect (the few, the proud, the bored), I have some concerns with the centrality of “belief” in Bebbington’s definition. Though he calls them the evangelical movement’s “enduring priorities” (23), his crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism are all abstract ideas to which individuals, or aggregates of like-minded individuals, can assent. They are “beliefs” of a very particular kind, though we hear nothing about their making. This set of intellectualized “priorities” floats through history like a ghost, manifesting and appearing in different expressions here, now there, now then. This ghost generates an “essence” of late nineteenth-century evangelicalism, one that gets embodied in Spurgeon and Moody (267). As far as I’m concerned, “belief” needs to remain under constant interrogation. We need to ask how “belief” gets assembled and reassembled in particular contexts. This certainly means examining the self-understandings of individuals if and when they assert them, but it also means attending to the objects, images, discourses, body disciplines, subjectivities, and social formations that constitute “belief” in a given case. The category of “belief” constantly gets made and remade, so whenever we invoke the category, we need to trace the associations that make it.

Review by A.T. Coates

Ernest Sandeen, “The Roots of Fundamentalism” (1970)

Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930. (U Chicago, 1970).

Sandeen isolates millenarianism as the lifeblood of American fundamentalism. In his appraisal, fundamentalism marks just one important phase in the larger history of millenarian theology. Instead of looking to the infamous “five fundamentals” (inerrancy, virgin birth, atonement of Christ, bodily resurrection, miracle-working power of Christ) as time-honored Christian principles upheld by old-fashioned believers, Sandeen treats them as theological innovations that emerged from the millenarian tradition. Though Americans had developed indigenous strains of millenarianism in the Millerite and Mormon movements of the early 19th century, the variety that led to fundamentalism came as a British import. In general, British millenarianism gave the American version four characteristics: i) zeal for interpreting biblical prophecies, ii) special interest in Jews and Zionism iii) the doctrine of the premillennial advent, and iv) a futurist stance toward the book of Revelation (8-9, 12, 36-37). In particular, John Nelson Darby’s dispensational premillennialism that won the States. With its doctrine of the secret rapture and its division of the New Testament into “Jewish” and “churchly” texts, dispensationalism became the dominant form of millenarianism in America by the 1870s.

But, even with Darbyite dispensationalism on the scene, American millenarianism wasn’t yet fundamentalism. Fundamentalism of the “five fundamentals” variety emerged only when British-style millenarianism formed a sort of informal alliance with “Princeton theology.” Developed by figures like B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, Princeton Theology stood out for its commonsense, rationalistic approach to the authority of the Bible. These thinkers insisted that a) the inspiration of scripture extends to the words of the text themselves, b) the Bible is not only reliable, but claims to be inerrant, and c) the inerrant verbal inspiration of the Bible only applies to the “original autographs” penned by the biblical writers (125-127). Sandeen argues that around the 1890s, when this theological approach met dispensationalism at Moody’s prophecy conferences, fundamentalism proper was born (172).

Coming of age intellectually in the post-Marsden age, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking Sandeen’s work was in 1970. Obviously, the book shows its age—I cringe at the mere thought of someone writing today about fundamentalist history only by looking at the theology of its “great (white) men.” Cultural or social history this ain’t. Nonetheless, the book still holds an important place in the historiography for several reasons. First, Sandeen saw himself as one of the only historians to take fundamentalist theology seriously. There’s very little condescension in these pages, and Sandeen makes a tremendous effort to treat fundamentalism as a movement with significant theological depth. Relatedly, Sandeen insisted that fundamentalism made measurable contributions to the development of American theology. That is, fundamentalism wasn’t just a relic of some bygone age doomed to die a slow death, but a living theological tradition. Third, Sandeen corrected the misconception, probably started by H.L. Mencken, that fundamentalism thrived only in the rural South. Quite contrarily, in Sandeen’s story, fundamentalism emerges as a sophisticated intellectual movement located primarily in the major cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Forty years after I publish my book, I’ll be well pleased if some smartass PhD student still finds any value in what I’ve written…

Review by A.T. Coates

Mark Noll, “America’s God” (2002)

Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford, 2002).

In his weighty volume America’s God, Noll tells how evangelical religion, republican politics, and commonsense moral reasoning wound together in the early American republic. His story describes the ways that evangelicals, particularly theologians, transformed public discourse in America and in the process produced a unique variety of Christian nationalism. But more than that, for Noll, “the process by which evangelical Protestantism came to be aligned with republican convictions and commonsense moral reasoning was also the process that gave a distinctively American shape to Christian theology by the time of the Civil War” (10). With thoroughgoing rigor, Noll follows evangelical theology from the “Puritan canopy” that birthed it, through the First Great Awakening, past the surge in the early nineteenth century, right up to the evangelical consensus that had emerged by the eve of the Civil War. In some ways, this book is a triumph of erudition—anyone interested in how evangelical theology became American, or how civil religion may have developed, would do well to consult this book.

A decade after its publication, Noll’s approach to evangelicalism has become something like consensus in the field. This is testifies to its thoroughness, clarity, insight, and careful argumentation, but also curses it, making America’s God the dragon young scholars of evangelicalism must—or at least think they must—slay. In Secularism in Antebellum America, John Modern offers a much more compelling critique than I will offer here (see my review of Modern or read Modern’s essay version here). Modern takes up the issue of agency and the public sphere, asking about the kinds of mediation, discipline, and discourse that enabled the evangelical self-understandings Noll so carefully examines. I won’t try to compete with him there…

Review by A.T. Coates

Paul Gutjahr, “An American Bible”

Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford Press, 1999).

Review by A.T. Coates

Gutjahr’s groundbreaking work An American Bible examines the Bible’s history as an American book. That is, Gutjahr illuminates the Bible’s changing role in 19th-century American print culture by focusing on its qualities qua book—especially how its changing contents and packaging changed its role in American life. While once the good book stood at the center of American print culture, by the 1880s Americans had become a people of the good books. The mass-production of cheap scriptures, proliferating “accurate” translations, ornately illustrated commoditized Bibles, “life of Jesus” adaptations, and non-biblical school textbooks dislodged the Bible from its once-dominant position. The Bible’s cultural role changed as its material qualities as a book changed.

Chapter 2, which traces the history of Bible illustration, offers the most interesting arguments for students of visual or material culture. As the century progressed, publishers seemed to add more and more detailed illustrations to larger and larger Bibles. Commercial concerns mingled with sentimentalist education strategies, the Common Sense philosophical impulse to verify the Bible’s stories led publishers to include maps, charts, and detailed (even fanciful) pictures that would bring interpretive insight. Publishers claimed that their illustrations helped readers interpret the Bible more accurately, which brought the convenient side effect of higher sales.

 

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