How should we teach America’s religious history? At the University of West Georgia students can expect a full load of scholarly and primary texts, as well as two insightful and articulate professors in Keith A. Pacholl and Daniel K. Williams. In a two part paper given at the 2011 AHA in Boston, Pacholl and Williams described their experiences teaching the survey of America’s religious history in their history department. Both began their remarks on the experience by insisting that should you find yourself at a similar regional university you not make the mistake of prejudging your students. In their experiences in upper Georgia, diversity and curiosity are the central features of their students, who range in age from 18 to 80 and in religious belief from Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Pagan, non-religious and a host of others held in the warp and woof of the American religious fabric. Students seem, as Williams said, often in transition between an older and newer religious paths. Seekers in Georgia? Yes, and ones who by all accounts are eager to read assigned texts and discuss historical questions in the classroom. We should all be so lucky.
Perhaps, however, much of the credit must go to the instructors who have given so much thought to the shape and mood of their classroom experience. Both William and Pacholl were clear in their desire to stick to history and historical modes, and both hoped to avoid moments where testimonial might enter the classroom as well as any chance for students’ own beliefs to be discouraged or disparaged. In the end they wish for a safe, open environment for inquiry that played by history’s rules. To achieve this goal they look to major figures and events that provide not only fodder for solid instruction (that is, themes or topics that are essential cogs in the larger American story as well as ones supported by primary and secondary documents) but also entertainment to restless modern youth. This leads to a more competitive narrative of religion in America’s history, but one whose rewards are long forays into dissent among Puritans, fractures over Slavery, legal battles over evolution and public schools, and political change in the Temperance and the Civil Rights movements. You can expect to learn about Anne Hutchinson as well as Dorothy Day, so there is ample time for discussions of gender. Likewise for race as students grapple with God’s Long Summer. (Whither sexuality was unclear.) Pacholl suggests that violence is particularly helpful to keep students attention when studying the colonial period. The Pequot War and King Philip’s War capture religion’s role in sustaining and justifying American violence and these bloody conflicts appeal to undergraduates and are blessed with well-written secondary literature.
One unique element of their organization of the course concerns its periodization. Split into two halves America’s religious history often ends its first chapter in 1820 or with the Civil War. Pacholl spoke about their decision to begin part two of their course in 1800 instead, and he argued that Thomas Jefferson’s election as president is a watershed moment in the struggle between Enlightenment thinking and the rising evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening. It is the end of an era and Jefferson’s political battles in office become a way to begin the conversation about how the Republic was changing. This may aid the course when it attempts to frame the second period as one continually interested in social change (Abolition, Temperence, Suffrage, Civil Rights, Equal Rights, etc.), but it also means that we need not argue that America’s diversity begins only with the waves of late 19th Century immigration. Indeed, both instructors suggested that America’s diversity from its earliest moments sets a bar high enough that modern narratives about growing pluralism fall flat. There is no teleological perspective offered here on the arc of American religion, and perhaps moving our division of the first period away from the Civil War also moves us intellectually away from the ideas that the opening chapter of our nation led inexorably to Democracy or the epic struggle to end Slavery.
For my part, I found not only the periodization, but the selection of materials and topics to be first-rate. I was thrilled to hear Pacholl say that he uses William Cronon’s Changes in the Land to talk about early American views on Nature, and I was fascinated by Williams’ perspective on teaching recent decades in American history. Evangelicals in the 1950s, he argued, were not the same as they were in the 1960s or 1970s or 1980s. Maintaining the unique elements of each period resolves one of the challenges I’ve faced when looking at modern American Christianity: the ease with which students can get the impression of monolithic blocks of folks such as fundamentalists, evangelicals, or charismatics/pentecostals. Clearly students are benefiting from Williams expertise in this area (see his newly released God’s Own Party) and he is taking the time to place the varieties of more recent Christianity through the kind of work we more often do for earlier groups such as the Methodists, Baptists, and Puritans.
The one thing that I sensed was truly lacking in their courses is the one thing that courses I’ve taught recently at UCSB have engaged in most heavily: the sense that religious groups from the center and the periphery are engaged in parallel tasks and therefore mutually beneficial for study. Pacholl worried that their version of the course could easily be seen as a history of American Christianities, and while one argument might hold that this is only natural given the weight of statistics and American proclivities, my own training under Catherine Albanese reminds me that those in the mainstream are just as easily influenced by what’s going on in the margins as they are by trends within their own traditions. We might expect more interaction with Asian religions (especially from 1893 onward), metaphysical currents (Andrew Jackson Davis’ hand behind Christian Science and Mormonism), and the role of early spiritual not religious folks such as those who gave birth to the New Thought and the New Age movements. In today’s era when supernatural shows like “Ghost Hunters “ rake in more viewers than TBN, we perhaps owe these historical features of the American religious fabric more attention.
Clearly the challenge for instructors in history and religious studies remain those of thematization and periodization. It is too easy (and often flatly wrong) to argue that historians alone privilege the linear progression of American history alongside America’s religious history, while their religious studies counterparts get distracted by comparisons of shiny exotic objects. If there was a critique of the ample contributions of these two instructors, it would be their rather hasty description of the lines dividing the way their subject is taught by its sister field. The search for a compelling narrative no less calls for us to treat history chronologically as it does for us to find those unique contributions that may shed light on the ubiquitous features of a subject. In religious studies, where I hail from, we certainly like to show America’s true religious diversity (far, far beyond its Protestant and Catholic mainstream), but we are not thrashing about in the dark afraid or unable to tell the story in the right order. Nor do we lack for a sense of narrative, and we are sometimes willing to be far more teleological about the arc of religion in our nation’s history. If anything, one thing that Pacholl and Williams demonstrated in their two presentations was the way that they both privilege a social scientific version of history that looks at religion as a key causal agent in social change. Organizing a course becomes a search for which religious explanation matches which social or political moment. This is further removed from religious studies, where the narrative searches more openly for the “American religion” and its many key features.
As a graduate student in religious studies who specializes in American religious history, I was thrilled to find two historians discussing their experiences. While I bristled somewhat at their description of what happens in departments like my own, I picked up more than a few excellent bibliographic and pedagogical suggestions. Folks in religious studies would do well to open up a clearer dialogue about the differences between the way one subject can be taught so differently in two related fields. I for one hope to find ways to engage in such a discussion in the future, for I don’t know in the end which way the winds will blow me when I enter the job market. My future may just as easily lay in a department of history as it could in a department devoted to the study of religion.
[Please feel free to read my comments on a roundtable about keywords in American religious history from the first day of the AHA.]