Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

Category: research miscellany

Confessions of a horse shed historian

David Hall famously wrote of the “horse shed  Christians,” those people in early New England who, during service, were just as likely to be out back by the horse shed talking about the price of wheat with their friends as they were to be in the church listening attentively.  I’m stretching the metaphor a lot for the purpose of this little essay, but I hope you’ll go with me.

Much of the time, I feel like a horse shed historian of American religion.

I am an editor for H-AmRel, I list religion as one of the things I study, I did a comps field in it. But while I’m usually always at the first service, by the second one I find myself out at the horse shed, talking about other things with other historians.

To some extent, we’re all like this. We often have a primary field and several secondary ones. Knowing a few fields well is key to formulating productive research questions, and usually those fields are defined by theme, by geography, and by time period. Specialization is not only the way the academic discipline works, it’s prudent.

I think about the history of the 19th century in America, including Americans abroad. I think about the history of women. I think about the history of ideas. I think about the history of social status. But it’s really only when operating in the history of American religion scene that I feel as though I’ll never be a full member, in the old New England sense.

I have discerned two distinct markers of full membership. They are not explicitly stated anywhere, and indeed many of you reading this might recoil at the suggestion that they exist and have power, but I hope you can hear me out. It strikes me that if a historian can manage one of these things, they can scrape by and get full membership. Having neither means I probably know you from the horse shed.

First, if you’re not a historian of mainline/evangelical Protestant Christianity or conversant enough not to embarrass yourself when talk turns to Protestant theology and church structure over drinks at a conference, you’re not a full member. Understanding Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism, etc etc etc beyond a few notable events or figures is optional.

The argument one might make here is that, for better or worse, Protestant Christianity has dominated American public life and institutions. If you’re going to be a historian of religion in America, you have to know this stuff. And I’ll grant you that, to an extent. But the LDS church is about as American as you can get, and Catholicism is the largest denomination in the country and has been for a long time. Knowledge of neither is sufficient or even always necessary for membership.1)Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.

Second, and to my mind more important, is that if religion isn’t the central topic and driving force of your scholarship, you’re not a full member. This, I find, is as applicable when I’m among historians of Catholicism as it is when I’m among historians of Protestantism. I find it more the case among historians of religion than any other historians I work with. It is also, unfortunately, much harder for me to articulate and explain, but I’ll give it a whirl.

We have all these fields, and most of us work across fields all the time, because people in the past lived “across fields.” But most of us have a place we start from. A thing that we want to know more about, more than anything. The framework in which we operate. Talking with other historians of religion, I have heard scholars (who were not there) described as “not really a historian of religion” or “not really a historian of Catholicism.” These comments indicated that religion was not central enough to a particular scholar’s work for it to “count,” that history of religion wasn’t the singular place from which the scholar formulated their questions and departed.

Religion often seemed pretty central to the books we were discussing, so at first I was confused. How could they not really be historians of religion? Sometimes, it was because the book wasn’t a certain percentage about religion. What was the right percentage? That was for them to know and for me to find out, apparently. Sometimes, it was because the historian had written a book in which religion played the central role but had also written a book in which religion didn’t play the central role, even if it was there. Sometimes, it meant that their work on religion didn’t give sufficient attention to The Institutions Where Religion Happened and The People Who Defined What Religion Was. Sometimes it was just that the history of religion was forced to share the page with the history of women.2)Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.

This is why I find myself at the horse shed.  I didn’t go to grad school to study the history of religion explicitly, though I had done extensive work in American Jewish history in college. I didn’t have a department with any prominent historian of American religion. I listen attentively and hope no one asks me my thoughts when conversation turns to Joseph Bellamy. But I found a dissertation topic that interested me, and a good part of it was about religion. I wrote it, and now I’m revising it for publication, and I know it’s not going to be about religion enough to count. 3)Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.

My study of the history of religion has been and continues to be fruitful and fascinating, but I don’t think it’s ever going to get me to full membership because it’s never going to hit both of those markers. Moreover, I’m not actually sure I know whether there’s any topic that I always want to know more about, other than the 19th century in America, which might be a problem.4)A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?” A much as I have felt compelled to convince historians who don’t focus on religion that what I study is important and worthwhile, a thing many of us have had to do, I have also felt that I had convince other historians of religion that what I study is enough about religion – and not too much about other things – for them to care about it.

Sometimes my students complain that there’s “too much religion” in US I, and of course I know that relative to how important religion was to the people I study, there’s actually far too little. Part of the reason that this issue of full membership is so frustrating to me is that it seems to work against the goal that many of us have: to help others understand how important – how integral – how integrated – religion was and is in the history of the United States. It feels like these markers of full membership exclude lots of people from scholarly conversations that would help further this goal. And to put it bluntly, if historians of religion are going to complain all the time that “regular” historians don’t pay attention to our work, I should never have to hear, or feel, like certain scholarship about religion isn’t about religion enough. That’s the stuff that sends me to the horse shed, folks. And you know what? It’s not bad out here.



References   [ + ]

1. Most of what gets discussed on H-AmRel is Protestant-related, and anecdotally, I know that many of my friends who study American Catholicism don’t subscribe to the listserv. This is not to deny that people who study Protestantism and Catholicism and Buddhism in America have different goals and frameworks. I also know that there are historic reasons why the listserv is what it is. But it is something we should be aware of – the listserv about “American Religion” is not a place where many different religions get discussed.
2. Who are not – I repeat, not – The People Who Defined What Religion Was.
3. Even when I’m doing religion, the people I study were Unitarians (but weren’t Channings) and Catholics, so I’m already sort of on the fringe.
4. A friend of mine in college who went on to do a PhD at Chicago once said to me: “It’s just that nothing after the 11th century really makes any sense to me, you know?”

Well worth hearing

The “rediscovery” of Frederick Douglass recently made me remember a letter I found in my research, from one young Sedgwick woman to her cousin. The letter is undated and no one in it is named, and it wasn’t really vital to my research so I never bothered to figure out precisely who it was talking about. Still, I know the letter writer’s life well enough to guess that this was written in Lenox, MA, in the mid-1840s, and I have always assumed the former slave mentioned in it was Douglass.1)Given Douglass’ speaking schedule, I suspect this is just before his May 9, 1843 speaking date in New York, but I have no way of knowing. The author, Bessie Sedgwick, would have been about 17 when she wrote this letter, which is in the Sedgwick Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Who do you think I had here to breakfast the other day? Two abolitionists who wish to keep the matter of slavery “agitating before the people” The one a ranting screaming pertinacious unamiable individual saying only what has been said a hundred times before but in a manner a hundred times as disagreeable as it ever was said before – The other, a nice little gentlemanly person, who had the sense not to say much in public. The third guest was a black slave who escaped from the South some time ago, and is one of the most quick witted and one of the most eloquent people I ever saw – He speaks with all the bitterness you would expect from one who had suffered under the wrongs of slavery – is very satirical and has a great deal of dramatic power – so to speak – uses perfectly good language – and is altogether well worth hearing. He is to be in New York on Tuesday evg and if you happened to hear him I am sure you would be very much interested by him…

Perhaps someone who knows more of the personalities of the abolitionists could identify this with more certainty.

References   [ + ]

1. Given Douglass’ speaking schedule, I suspect this is just before his May 9, 1843 speaking date in New York, but I have no way of knowing.

“Extinct Species”

Found this article on extinct species in an issue of The Catholic World from 1865, reprinted from The St. James’s Magazine. It’s very fun to read if you initially dreamed of being a paleontologist as a child, as I did. One bit caught my eye:

It is no part of our intention to discuss the causes of mammoth extinction. This result has assuredly not been caused by any onslaught of the destroyer man. The Siberian wilds are scantily populated now, and it has never been suggested that at any anterior period their human denizens were more plentiful. Nature often establishes the balance of her organic life through a series of agencies so abstrusely refined, and acting, beside, over so long a period that they altogether escape man’s cognizance. The believer in the God of nature’s adaptation of means to ends will see no reason to make an exception in animal species to what is demonstrated by examples in so many other cases to be a general law. The dogma, that no general law is without exception, though one to which implicit credence has been given, may nevertheless be devoid of the universality commonly imputed. (p. 527)

Other scholars undoubtedly know more than I do about how people in the 19th century thought about ideas of evolution, but I thought it was neat to see them grappling with ideas of natural selection in the moment. Even then, however, they saw the writing on the wall:

Without the forest for shade and sustenance the race of wild elephants cannot exist; and, inasmuch as elephants never breed in captivity, each tame elephant having been once reclaimed from the forests, it follows, from the consideration of inevitable results, that sooner or later, but some day, nevertheless, one of two possible issues must be consummated – either that man shall cease to go one subduing the earth, cutting down forests and bringing land into cultivation, or else elephants must become extinct. Who can entertain a doubt as to the alternative issue? Man has gone on conquering and to conquer from the time he came upon the scene. Animals, save those he can domesticate, have gone on fleeing and fleeting away. (p. 529)

They were convinced that it was all part of some great balance that Nature would maintain. That was their explanation for the mammoth’s extinction, and for the inevitable extinction of the elephants. The author doth protest too much, methinks.


The perfect bookmark

I found this being used as a bookmark in the middle of an old biography of Orestes Brownson.


Though I don’t think he’d agree that his pursuit of religious truth was spurred by “[journeying] through incarnation after incarnation,” I think this passage would resonate for Brownson: “subtle questions become more persistent, the need for answers more intense, the illusions and contradictions of life more inescapable – thus, a seeker is born.”

This resonates with me because of my work on converts, of course, but it also led me to learn about a religion I’d never heard of. I suspect if we made a pie chart of the topics pursued by those who work on the history of religion in America, we’d have a few very big slices and then a whole lot of little slices. I’ve suspected the much about the people who are members of H-AmRel itself, and I’ve worried that we don’t attend to the little slices enough. Perhaps for every thing we read about Billy Graham or Jonathan Edwards, we should also read a bit about ECKANKAR?



Sister Mary Frances Clare is a very prolific writer, and at the rate she goes on, will, in a few years, furnish us quite a library. She possesses considerable intellectual powers, which must have been carefully cultivated ; she writes with vivacity and vigor, with earnestness and power; but in those of her writings which we have read, we miss that meek and subdued spirit, that sweetness and unction, that we naturally expect in a daughter of St. Clare. We miss in them the spiritual refinement and ascetic culture we look for in a religious, and their general tone strikes us as somewhat harsh and bitter, sarcastic and exaggerated.

~ Orestes Brownson in “Religious Novels, and Woman versus Man,” BQR, January 1873

I’m working on an article this summer that requires me to read a lot of Orestes Brownson. I have said before that I think he’d be a really insufferable friend, but I also think he’s about the most useful writer to read for understanding the 19th century. That being said, reading his thoughts on class, race, gender, and intellectual ability, I’m amazed at how contemporary the themes are.

The way he talks about the waning of masculine intellectual and political habits, the danger this lack of manly vigor poses not only to the nation but to civilization itself, the way he condemns women’s writing because of its emasculating sentimentality while also condemning women like Sister Mary Frances Clare for being too aggressive and harsh in their writing…all of it is very resonant with the contemporary social and political climate in 2016.

In particular, I want to highlight the way that women simply cannot win with Brownson, and he doesn’t care, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. They are simultaneously too this and too that. Historical empathy and detachment be damned, sometimes I really want to reach back into the past and give him a good shake. But that’s because it’s an easier thing to do – have an imaginary shouting match with a dead guy – than to go out into the world, every day, and live this stuff and teach this stuff and beat my head against the wall. Even if I could yell at him, though, it wouldn’t do much good, so I’ll have to keep living and teaching and writing.

“the female portion of the candidates”

Two selections from an article entitled “Diocese of Hartford,” from The Catholic Telegraph, October 23, 1845. The article discusses the recent “ceremony of confirmation.”

Rev. Mr. Smyth officiated at divine service in the forenoon, (previous to confirmation.) After the reading of the gospel, by the officiating priest, the Right Rev. Bishop ascended the pulpit and read the same aloud, in English; then having had a portion of Scripture selected as a subject for his sermon, suited to the occasion, he delivered an eloquent, though brief discourse, on the stability and infallibility of the Church of Christ, which we believe, gave general satisfaction, — all seemed to like it so well that every one we heard speak of it, regretted its brevity.

Emphasis mine. Skepticism also mine.

What pleased the curious and admiring eye most, and which we much admired, was the neatness, decorum, and order with which the female portion of the candidates for confirmation conducted themselves. They were dressed in white — white being an emblem of innocence and simplicity. The idea, we presume, of being dressed entirely in white, on such occasions, is to show that the interior should be as free from the stains of sin, as the exterior is from a mixture of colors. On the whole, we would just say that their conduct was highly creditable to themselves and their decorous and orderly appearance confers great credit on the ladies who undertook the supervision of them.

This passage is about one-third of the entire article, and really makes me wonder about the young women of Hartford of the 1840s. What on Earth had they been getting up to that their good behavior was so striking?  Or is this report shaming the young men by omission because they got up to trouble during the ceremony?  We may never know.



The Anti-Taking-Babies-Into-Public-Assemblies Society

From The Catholic Telegraph, August 17, 1844 (originally from The New Mirror)

The Anti-Taking-Babies-Into-Public-Assemblies Society

A meeting of this highly respectable association was held last evening at their rooms. Mr. Job Smith, a worthy and athletic bachelor, was called to the chair, and the usual quantity of vices and secretaries appointed. The committee, appointed at a previous meeting, reported the following, as the principles of the society:

First. — We consider the practice of taking infants into public assemblies, concerts, etc. as an evil that cries aloud for remedy.

Secondly. — While we would not breathe the faintest reproach towards that highly respectable class of the community, who officiate as nurses, we strongly protest against their taking their babies into public meetings, etc. knowing, as we do that it can only be done by a resort to arms.

Thirdly. — While we acknowledge, that a large majority of our fellow-creatures are, or have once been babies, we consider it to be a fact, that it is a very small minority who support these crying evils.

Fourthly. — We cannot shut our ears to the numerous evidences of this evil; indeed, we have known instances of late, where it was found impossible, with the largest church organ, to drown (not the child itself) the shrill, organic notes of the child. We protest against those notes.

Fifthly. — We pledge ourselves to use our utmost exertions to carry out  the above principles.

After the reading of the principles of the society, Mr. Dunn Brown rose from an inverted cradle, on which he was sitting, and moved their adoption, which motion was unanimously carried, amid the shouts of the assembled bachelors.

A committee of fourteen was then appointed, whose duty it is to carry out the objects of the society. It is to be hoped, that not a single man will be found in the city, who will not join this interesting association.

J. SMITH, chairman, A.T.B.I.P.A.S.


Presented without comment

“Don’t you think everything men do is very much overrated?”

~Sophia Ripley to Ruth Charlotte Dana, May 1849, Dana Family Papers, MHS

We find so many great things in archives and in old books that never make it into the final product, often because they’re tangential. I think they used to let you just publish weird sources you found in journals, but those days are gone, and all we have is this series of tubes. I will try not to put in enormous amounts of material that will delay messages, but I’m going to share the random bits and bobs that don’t fit in my academic writing but need to be read by people other than me.

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