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?”