doomed to distraction

Category: research miscellany (Page 1 of 2)

September in Jane’s World

A month ago, I decided to start tweeting out lines from my dissertation research, one for each day of the year. Many of the bits I’ve chosen were never referenced in the dissertation or any of my published work; they’re just evocative or amusing lines. Some are sentences that have stuck with me since I first read them.

Revisiting this material has been enjoyable and painful in equal measures. I could weave a brief historical narrative based on every sentence I’ve selected or tell a fascinating story about every person mentioned. I don’t know that I’ll ever publish the book I intended to write using this research, but even if I did, I wouldn’t get to write about every interesting life and event I discovered. That’s just the way historical research and writing work.

But all of these sentences, and the letters they’re from, were important in helping me understand who these people were and what their lives were like. I got to know all of these people really well, or at least as well as a historian ever can, and it has been nice to visit them again.

Here’s everything that happened in September, with a key to the people, archives, and books referenced.



The Best That Could Happen: Suicide and Suffering under a Benevolent God

TW for extensive discussions of mental illness and suicide

A few notes to start. I originally presented this at the July 2018 SHEAR conference in Cleveland, which means that while it is deeply-considered and deeply-sourced, it is also something that had to be read in 20 minutes or less. It was also written to both make an argument and provoke conversation about that argument, not simply to be provocative, but because those kinds of conversations help us, as scholars, make our work better. This is all to say that there’s much more to this story, and to the argument I was making, and there are dozens of threads to be pulled in here. I have no idea if I’ll ever have the chance to weave them into something bigger than this, but I’m glad I got to tell this story. 

Three other things: I created a (hopefully) helpful family tree of the Sedgwicks and Minots discussed in the paper which you can find here. The Massachusetts Historical Society has this pretty complete listing of Theodore Sedgwick and three generations of his descendants (click on “Appendix” in the table of contents), and you can see how most of them have all been laid out in the famous Sedgwick Pie, the family burial plot in Stockbridge, MA. Also, I am not attempting to retroactively diagnose the people I’m analyzing in this paper; when I use terms like “depression,”  “mania,” and “insanity,” I am using the words and understandings that the physicians and family members used in their writing at the time. And finally, thanks to Greg Wiker for putting together our panel, to him and Leah Richier for speaking on it with me, to Dea Boster for chairing, to Becky Noel and Jeff Mullins for their comments, and to Mike Mortimer for live tweeting the panel, which you can read here.

In the spring of 1841, Charles Sedgwick awaited word of his son Charlie’s safe arrival in Liverpool. He hoped that the activity of the voyage would provide Charlie some relief from the severe depression he had experienced over the past eighteen months. Word arrived on April 21st. Charlie had died by his own hand.

In the days and weeks that followed, Charles expressed resigned gratitude that his son was at peace, but also argued that the manner of Charlie’s death was as much a merciful act of Providence as his death itself. How could a man like this – a New England elite and liberal (if unaffiliated) Protestant – express these beliefs about mental illness and suicide at a moment of such faith in human progress, when many physicians believed they could treat and even cure mental illness?

I argue that he drew on contemporary ideas about a benevolent God and the meaning of human suffering to come to terms with a tragedy that, in his eyes, demonstrated the continued failure of mankind to treat and cure the kind of mental illness his family had endured for three generations.

Born in 1791, Charles was fifty years old when his son died. Over those same fifty years, historians chart a distinct change in the way physicians treated mental illness in Europe and the United States. Condemning their predecessors’ methods as cruel, European physicians like William Tuke argued for “moral treatment.” Under the proper supervision of a doctor, in a healing environment, with their passions and appetites diverted and regulated, those with mental illness could be treated and even cured.[1]

An increasingly-professionalized community of physicians in the United States asserted similar claims, and many politicians and social reformers believed them. In the late 18th century, Benjamin Rush and others urged the creation of separate wards for the treatment of those with mental illness, though they continued using older treatments like bloodletting.[2] McLean Hospital, opened in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1818, was the first of several private asylums which put moral treatment into full practice, expanding into state asylums in the 1840s.[3]

But by the time of his son’s illness, Charles Sedgwick had reason to doubt these heroic claims. Both his mother and brother had been treated by physicians using moral treatment which had not only failed to cure them but seemed to have made their mental illness worse before their premature deaths. Charles did not reject the principles of moral treatment, but he was willing to reject the expertise of its professional advocates.

In the fall of 1839, Charles received a letter from William Minot, the brother of his sister-in-law Jane. 17-year-old Charlie, just beginning his junior year at Harvard, was “ill at his house of a nervous fever.” Despite William’s reassurance, Charles departed for Boston that day, and arrived to find that Charlie had been steadily improving.[4]

Despite positive contemporaneous accounts of Charlie’s recovery, a lifetime of experience meant the family was immediately on guard for evidence of mental illness.

Charles’ mother Pamela had experienced her first episode of mental illness on the eve of his birth in 1791. For years, her husband Theodore asserted that his wife’s “episodes” were caused by overwork and could be treated by hiring more domestic staff.[5] Her half-brother, a doctor, believed it was a “disorder of the blood,” not the brain.”[6]

When Charles’ brother Harry began exhibiting similar symptoms in 1826, his family members initially wrote it off as his extravagant personality made more irritable by periodic blindness.[7] It took two years for the family to fully accept this was something more and seek treatment.

In the wake of Harry’s illness, some of the Sedgwicks acknowledged this might be hereditary. But many things were hereditary, and the Sedgwicks believed this particular tendency could be counteracted by what amounted to proactive moral treatment, described by  Theodore Sedgwick II in a letter to his son as: “conduct regulated by wisdom & far removed from all extravagant hopes, fears, phantasies” and the maintenance of a “sound mind in a sound body,” since “bodily illness brings on insanity.”[8]

Charlie may have been “fast getting into as quiet a state as the Sedgwicks ever are,” but that wasn’t saying much. Charles was concerned that his son’s illness might catalyze something worse in his Sedgwick mind.[9]

His subsequent decisions demonstrate that he still believed in the principles of moral treatment but was no longer willing to place his faith – and his son’s life – in the hands of its professional practitioners.

His mother’s treatments at the turn of the century reflected early attempts at moral treatment in the United States. Theodore Sedgwick placed his wife under the care of doctors who practiced bloodletting and kept her separated her from her family – as far as 150 miles away – to calm her mania. Each period of treatment sent Pamela home “much improved,” though the improvement never lasted. When Charles was 12, these treatments stopped, and his mother died four years later in 1807.[10]

Twenty years later, when confronted with their brother Harry’s periods of mania and depression, the siblings considered placing him under the care of doctors, who now advocated moral treatment in dedicated asylums, but their mother’s experience made them skittish.

In December 1828, Catharine stated that doctors might be able to help her brother, but knew his wife opposed it. Harry himself had “most solemnly warned her against ever putting him into the hands of a ‘mad Doctor’ & in his sane moments he expressed great horror of sending patients to the hospital.” He made the source of his fear abundantly clear to his wife: “they served my mother & if you do it Jane you will repent it forever & forever!”[11]

Yet less than a month later, Jane and Charles brought Harry to McLean where he was placed under the care of Rufus Wyman. Wyman’s moral treatment again included keeping Harry completely separated from his family for nearly a year, save two visits from his oldest brother, to settle his alternately “exalted” and “depressed” passions.[12]

Instead, Harry became a “most violent maniac,” and by December 1829, the family deeply regretted what they had done.[13] Catharine wrote that “the thought of his confinement has become an intolerable burden to me – it seems like imprisonment – an infliction in which we have part.”[14]

Jane removed her husband to Eli Todd’s Hartford Retreat, founded in 1824, where he experienced a “moral treatment” more to his liking, including chess with Todd and visits from his family.[15] He was released home five weeks later in a calmer state.[16] Over the next year and a half, however, his illness gradually returned. He slipped into a coma in the fall of 1831 and died two days before Christmas.[17]

This background helps us understand both Charles’ familiarity with the principles of moral treatment and his deep skepticism of its practitioners’ methods and optimism.

He consulted Samuel Woodward, the head of the Worcester Asylum, James Jackson, the first physician of Massachusetts General and founder of McLean, and Walter Channing, Jackson’s assistant and a close family friend. All agreed that there was no cause for alarm over Charlie’s illness, and only Woodward suggested keeping him out of school, though not for the whole term.[18]

These doctors were not only “experts,” they were fellow elites and friends, but though they assured Charles this was as an isolated incident, he could not accept their conclusions.

Charlie did not return to Cambridge that term, or ever. Charles put his choice down to being a “fidgety and anxious person” himself, but he was not alone; “the nerves of the whole family [were] on the outside” about Charlie.[19] His reason may have returned easily this time, but his father was unwilling to take chances.

Charles accepted physician’s beliefs on the causes of mental illness and the basic tenets of moral treatment, but he never placed his son in their care. Instead, Charlie remained at home, engaging in regular physical exercise and a sedate course of study, reading Greek and history.[20]

It’s not difficult to imagine that an elite family believed they could provide a healing environment for one of their own, but equally important is their experience with family separation as a part of moral treatment.

Pamela Sedgwick attributed her distress to her husband’s absence and was then subjected to treatment that mandated further separation from her family. Harry begged his family not to place him in a hospital, but they did anyway. When his wife finally came to see him at Hartford, he screamed at her for leaving him isolated in such places for so long.[21]

In the wake of Harry’s death, Charles wrote to his brother Robert: “It was a sad error to permit him to go into that solitude unattended by some friend.”[22] Moral treatment may have been fine on principle, but the practice of family separation had only brought pain to the Sedgwicks, and they rejected it for Charlie.

By May 1840, Charles was cautiously optimistic about his son’s recovery, and Charlie went to New York to work in the law offices of a cousin, but like his uncle and grandmother, Charlie slipped into depression again and returned home to Lenox.[23] He spent the fall with his extended family in New York, and his younger sister Bessie reported to her father in December that he was “out of sorts but not so weak or fearful as at Lenox,” and the older women of the family agreed: “Aunt Lizzy considered him perfectly recovered and Aunt Susan confirms her in that opinion.” Even the homeopathist favored by some of the city Sedgwicks found Charlie’s sluggish circulations “to be now in perfection.”[24]

And yet again, Charles Sedgwick did not trust the doctor’s assurances, nor those of his sisters-in-law and daughter. Within a month of these letters, Charlie was preparing to set off on the packet to Liverpool, with this father’s full support.[25]

The family was hopeful that occupation would help Charlie, but they were worried too. Catharine seemed concerned that this wouldn’t cure her nephew, but Charles reassured her that if it didn’t, they could always try again.[26] Charlie’s mother seemed deeply concerned for his safety on the voyage, but his older sister Kate was worried for what came after.

In a letter to her father marking Charlie’s birthday on April 5th, she said she was “more anxious for him after he leaves the ship, loses the sphere of necessary exertion, & has time again to brood over himself, to extend the cloud of the past over the future.”[27] They had taken a chance in treating him themselves, and in sending Charlie away alone, they took an even greater chance. Charles regretted sending his brother into solitude, but had he made the same mistake with his son?

Kate’s fear was ultimately borne out. As Catharine later reported: “Captain Delano wrote that [Charlie] was cheerful during the greater part of the voyage, active and useful to him. The day before their arrival he took to his bed and said he had a bad fit of dyspepsia. It was with difficulty that Capt. D. persuaded him to leave the ship and go with him to his hotel — he was in the deepest dejection. The next day he was found dead in his bed with an empty phial of laudanum beside him.”[28] He had not lived to see the birthday his sister had commemorated in his absence.

The morning after receiving the news that his oldest son had died, Charles wrote to Catharine: “He is at rest, poor boy, and I am not unthankful…I assure you, after much reflection, that the loss is not aggravated by the manner of his death. I think there is as much reason to believe that that was a merciful dispensation of Providence, as there is to think that God ever interferes in the affairs of men by any special interposition whatever…

Charlie has been taken from the evil to come — mercifully taken from sufferings which human skill could not remove, which the watchful affection of earthly friends could not alleviate.”[29]

He elaborated on this point in a letter to Susan: “I am glad that my dear boy is at rest. I fear that some of my friends have fancied that there were some ingredients mixed in this bitter cup that have increased its bitterness — but I have not tasted them. If he had no choice, God has in mercy taken him from the evil to come.”[30]

We see this theme further elaborated in the regret Charles did express: “I was impatient of Charlie’s weakness, intolerant when his disease was upon him. The experience of seventeen and a half years…ought to have satisfied me that disease had wrought the change in him, and that he had no greater power of will than the dead.”[31]

The doctor who performed a post-mortem declared of Charlie’s brain: “Neither time, nor care, nor art could have restored the organ.” In light of this, Charles spoke even more emphatically about his son’s suicide: “I am so satisfied with Charley’s change in his mode of being that I cannot murmur or repine — so fully convinced that suffering awaited him here, that I am thankful.”[32]

In these reflections, we see how his family’s decades-long experience with doctor-supervised moral treatment formed the basis of three “truths” from which Charles Sedgwick formulated suicide as a blessing: that human skill could not cure Charlie’s suffering, that the love of his family could not alleviate it, and that Charlie himself had no control over it. These three truths then combined with one more, a truth that Charles would not abandon, even in his sorrow: that his God was a benevolent and merciful God.

Elizabeth Clark outlines emerging ideas of pain and suffering in the antebellum period that proceeded from new understandings of God as benevolent, rather than punitive. Liberal Protestants distinguished “unavoidable” pain brought on by illness from “avoidable” pain which stemmed from the violence in hierarchical relationships.[33]

Even as this perspective downplayed the importance of suffering in personal moral growth, the idea of gazing upon and entering into the suffering of others led white abolitionists to use the image of the suffering slave – the victim of punitive, avoidable pain in an immoral hierarchical relationship – to “call forth deep sympathy,” in William Ellery Channing’s words.[34]

Pain caused by typhoid fever was unavoidable, pain suffered in enslavement was avoidable, but how was the suffering caused by mental illness categorize in an age when doctors vowed they could treat and even cure it? In his letters after Charlie’s death, Charles repeatedly used the phrase “the evil to come.” He spoke from experience, believing that his child’s suffering would continue and increase with no natural foreseeable end. He believed his son’s pain was not only unavoidable but also unendurable.

Given what he had seen his mother and brother endure, he was confident that neither doctors nor family members nor Charlie himself could cure or alleviate his suffering. We also must consider that Charlie’s own lack of control is what made his suffering particularly unendurable in his father’s eyes.

While the suffering endured by an enslaved black woman who could not consent might be greedily lapped up by northern white audiences seeking to use it as fuel for their moral growth, could a young white man be expected endure such suffering and objectification in which “he had no choice?”[35]

Charles Sedgwick believed his benevolent God would move Charlie’s hand to end his own life before demanding he live it in suffering he could not avoid and should not have to endure.

A little over a year before his initial illness, Charles wrote to his son: “my dear boy, do not commit the unpardonable sin of denying that God has created us for happiness.”

In an age of boundless faith in the ability of humans to make the world better, Charles watched three generations of his family endure mental illness that could not be cured and suffering that could not be alleviated.

He did not lose faith in human skill, but until it had advanced to the point that it could bring his son back to happiness – for a young white man like Charlie, something inseparable from reason and agency – he was willing to leave it to the mysterious workings of Providence. Whatever Charles Sedgwick’s benevolent God decided was, in his words, “the best that could happen.”

[1] Mary-Margaret Mahoney, “Books as Medicine: A History of the Use of Reading to Treat the Self and Its Diseases in the Anglophone World, 1800-1940” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Connecticut, 2018), Ch 1.

[2] Richard Bell, We Shall Be No More: Suicide and Self-Government in the Newly United States (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2012), 251.

[3] Bell, 104-5.

[4] Letters from Charles Sedgwick to His Family and Friends, ed. Catharine Maria Sedgwick (Boston: Privately Printed, 1870), 141-2.

[5] Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick, ed. Mary E. Dewey (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872), 27-8.

[6] John Sedgwick, In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness & Desire in an American Family (HarperCollins: New York, 2007), 108.

[7] Letter, Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Frances Sedgwick Watson, January 21, 1828, box 80, folder 2, Sedgwick Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society; Letter, CMS to FSW, February 8, 1828, box 80, folder 2, SFP, MHS.

[8] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 195-6, also LLCS, 27-8

[9] LCS, 142.

[10] Richard E. Welch, “Theodore Sedgwick (1746-1813): Federalist” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1952), 616-9; Timothy Kenslea, The Sedgwicks in Love: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in the Early Republic (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2006), 21-8.

[11] Letter, CMS to FSW, December 27 1828, box 80, folder 2, SFP, MHS.

[12] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 191; Rufus Wyman, A discourse on mental philosophy as connected with mental disease: delivered before the Massachusetts Medical Society, June 2, 1830 (Boston: From the Office of the Daily Advertiser, 1830), 18.

[13] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 191.

[14] Letter, CMS to Louisa Davis Minot, December 13, 1829, box 80, folder 3, SFP, MHS

[15] Sedgwick, In My Blood, 192-3.

[16] William Minot to Jane Minot Sedgwick I, May 27, 1830, box 27, folder 4, SFP, MHS

[17] Sedgwick, In My Blood 193-5.

[18] LCS, 141-2.

[19] LCS, 142.

[20] LCS, 136-7.

[21] Sedgwick, In my Blood, 193-4

[22] LCS, 66.

[23] Proceedings at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Graduation of the Class of 1841 at Harvard University (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1892), 75.

[24] Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick to Charles Sedgwick, December 20, 1840, box 7, folder 7, Charles Sedgwick Papers, MHS.

[25] LCS, 142-3.

[26] LCS, 145.

[27] Katharine Maria Sedgwick to CS, April 5, 1841, box 4, folder 22, CSP, MHS.

[28] LCS, 145-6.

[29] LCS, 146-7

[30] LCS, 148.

[31] LCS, 147.

[32] LCS, 149.

[33] Elizabeth B. Clark, “”The Sacred Rights of the Weak”: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America” Journal of American History 82, no. 2 (September 1995): 471-3.

[34] Clark, 476-8.

[35] See Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

“…then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery”

This is a portion of a letter dated January 2, 1845, from Herbert O’Sullivan, the younger brother of John L. O’Sullivan, to his friend Jane Minot Sedgwick II, whose life I researched for my dissertation. Herbert was in New York, and was writing to Jane while she was teaching at Harriet Randolph Hackley’s school for girls in Norfolk, Virginia.  It is one of the best things I found during my dissertation research and I’ve taught with it many times. It’s certainly good evidence of white women’s engagement in politics and the mansplaining they received in response,  but more importantly, it’s one man’s rationale for the continuation of chattel slavery expressed in clear, brutal terms.

So you are not gratified at the election of Polk, because you suppose it will have a bad effect on slavery.  By the by, don’t express any abolitionist sentiments in Norfolk.  I should become very much affected if I were to read in the newspaper of your having been tarred and feathered; or rather, as men only would probably be [illeg.] with that suit, of you being incarcerated from the charge of you exciting sedition, and aiding and abetting the escape of slaves, like our New England heroine at Louisville, of whom I suppose you have heard.  I suppose you don’t see much at Norfolk to shock your delicate feelings; though from feeding upon the pure mountain air of Berkshire they are perhaps somewhat fastidious.

Slavery as it appears in the towns at any rate is, I think, by no means the awful bugbear that it is made to work upon the sympathies of northern abolition audiences.  The slaves in Norfolk, for instance, are well clothed and fed, very kindly treated, and quite intelligent.  In fact it seems to me that if the present state of society is to continue, and some of us are to live in luxury, while others are to work hard in laborious and menial offices, that it is much better for the happiness of all that there be a class to take the latter place who shall be brought up from infancy to habits of submission and respect, and be prevented from learning anything that may make them discontented.  Our country is now thinly populated, and not for many years can we expect to have at the north any very frightful amounts of pauperism, but if the rules that govern society are such that, when every acre here teems as every acre in England does, we are to have an immense throng of hungry proletarians crying aloud not for bread only, but frankly totally unable to purchase for themselves anything besides the hardest  necessities, and often starving to death, then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery.  Perhaps my hypothesis is wrong, and we are never to be reduced to that extremity.

This letter can be found in the Sedgwick Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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.


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