Framing the American Religious Past

By May 30, 2016

This past semester, I taught the history major senior capstone research seminar on “Religion in America” [Aside: WHEN will I ever learn to choose appropriately NARROW topics for senior seminar??]. Students’ paper topics ranged from the Branch Davidians at Waco, to the religious geography of the early British colonies, to recovering Jefferson’s personal theology, to protections for religious observance in the 21st-century military, to anti-Semitism in immigration policy of the 1920s and 1930s — 16 papers with the rather dizzying variety you might expect from so open-ended a course. Most of the students, though advanced in the major, had little prior experience tackling religious subjects in history classes, so that added a dimension of danger complexity to the whole enterprise.

In such cases, an overall framework can be helpful – a sort of grand narrative with which to agree, or against which to push. When I took an American religion class a million years ago in college, the textbook was Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People, whose comprehensive-sounding title and deceptively massive presence obscured the fact that it was mainly about mainstream institutional / denominational Christianity in the U.S., and only very peripherally about anything, or anyone, else. When I’ve taught “Religion in America” in the past, I’ve tended to use Diana L. Eck’s A New Religious America to emphasize American religious diversity, but I wanted to shake it up and try a newer book, so instead I chose Peter Manseau’s 2015 One Nation, Under Gods, which I thought would deliver essentially the same take-home message. Well, it does, and it doesn’t.

Take the treatment of Mormonism in both books, for example. In Eck’s 400-page book, Mormons are mentioned only three times, each time only in passing. She notes that there are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists living in both “the heavily Mormon neighborhoods of Salt Lake City and in the Bible Belt of Dallas” (21). She observes that as part of Hindus’ efforts to solidify a sense of religious heritage among their younger generation, the Himalayan Institute modeled its home-study curriculum around LDS Family Home Evening or Seminary/Institute, which was news to me (137). And Eck connects community trepidations around mosque construction to now-resolved, but long-contentious, struggles over Mormon temples in San Diego and Belmont, Massachusetts (309). Mormons’ national presence is simply assumed; their participation as architects in constructing the American religious landscape is as problematic or unproblematic as any other religious tradition. She’s uninterested in how Mormons got there, leaving that story to others. Her book emerges out of a life’s work documenting the rise of religious pluralism in “unlikely” parts of the country, often hidden in plain sight in flyover middle America, and exploring how that creates an imperative for active participation in making our society more pluralistic (not just more diverse).

Manseau refers obliquely to Mormon exodus and re-entry into American society as a legitimate religious faith in his descriptions of the Poston Japanese internment camp (349) and in his brief discussion of Mitt Romney’s 2012 candidacy (409). But Mormonism makes its primary appearance in his chapter comparing accounts of two “indigenous” American prophets from early 19th-century upstate New York, i.e. Joseph Smith and Handsome Lake. Based only on the unpublished doctoral work of folklore scholar Lori Taylor–which, incidentally, he apparently first read about on this very blog–Manseau seems convinced that Joseph Smith must have attended an 1822 speech delivered in Palmyra by Handsome Lake’s nephew, Red Jacket [1], and further conjectures that Handsome Lake’s emerging revival / temperance / Indian revitalization movement shaped the contours of Mormonism through an early, formative impression on the young Smith. The evidence for this link is flimsy and unfortunately inherently unprovable. Honestly, it hardly seems worth building an entire chapter around. For more on the episode, and any possible connection to Joseph Smith, see Lori’s 2010 original post, Dave Banack’s review of One Nation Under Gods for Times & Seasons, and Jana Riess’s author interview with Manseau about the Handsome Lake chapter. Taylor’s guest post here was delivered primarily in the spirit of midrash–reflecting on stories and metastories–exploring persistent and provocative connections that cannot be anchored in the documentary record [2], though Manseau seems to have used her work to somewhat different purpose and with looser standards of historical proof [3]. And that’s both interesting… and problematic.

Throughout his book, Manseau is interested primarily in reminding his readers that different religious traditions have not only coexisted in what became America from earliest times, but that there were also “striking moments of inter-influence” (7) we should now acknowledge. In that sense, his book constitutes a similar call to Eck’s for recognizing and grappling with contemporary religious difference in the service of a more peaceful and tolerant national culture. The main difference is that he also wants to extend that multi-religiosity backwards onto the past, too, only without Eck’s careful statistical and documentary method. Each chapter in his highly episodic narrative considers a moment in time, a “major turning point in the nation’s narrative of encounter and expansion,” where “an alternate spiritual history can be told” (5). Well, granted: yes.

Manseau’s book is profoundly postmodern in its insistent destabilization of unitary historical narratives, positing instead that there can always be another version. It’s as far from Ahlstrom as one could possibly get. It was also, I’ll just note, very difficult for the novice religious historians in my class to think critically about. They had no trouble believing that the past made for strange bedfellows and fascinating juxtapositions of people, ideas, texts, and events drawn from vastly disparate religious traditions – the strange tale of the (possibly) Muslim slave-turned-sorcerer in Cabeza de Vaca’s entourage; a Yiddish coded letter sent during the American revolution; the Sikh army WW1 veteran who had his citizenship granted and rescinded in rhythm with prejudice and racial ideology in the courts; etc… but they had a harder time appreciating the larger historiographical argument which Manseau’s book implicitly addresses. “Inter-influence” by virtue of simple proximity in time and space seems convincing at first glance — how can one argue with it? These things happened near each other, so they must be connected, right? It all makes for a very impressionistic history — it’s Howard Zinn-like and not in a good way (compelling but light on the secondary literature). One Nation Under Gods undermines (or simply does not engage) scholarly authority to such a point that its own authority gets necessarily called into question as well. “My story’s OK, your story’s OK, every story’s OK” simply cannot be religious history’s professional consensus, can it? If this is the new normal, then maybe I need to take my seminar back to the drawing board for a re-tool before teaching it again. At the least, I should more explicitly address some of the various considerations and pros/cons that arise when using frameworks and master narratives to organize student learning.


[1] The internet yields up supposed text of Red Jacket’s 1822 speech in Palmyra along with an earlier, 1805 one. Of course “Indian chief speeches” rendered into English and reprinted in the popular press were their own literary genre in the 19th century, so there’s that. Great quantities of salt may be needed to make such texts palatable to the historian.

[2] Since, for starters, there are no documents for / from Joseph Smith prior to 1828

[3] In an interesting aside, Taylor’s post was also used to alter the Wikipedia page on Ganargua Creek … further extending JI’s authoritative reach across the interwebs. (12 Feb 2016 version, see the “History” section)

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Courses Pedagogy


  1. Great post, and thanks for the link. I think the episode that struck me most in Manseau’s book was the struggle that US Buddhists (mostly Japanese) had in getting the military to bury young Japanese Buddhists fighting on the American side (they died in battle for their country, for goodness sake!) under their own religious symbol. Throughout WWII there were only three options: Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. Mormons, too, faced this difficulty. It is still hard to grasp that degree of governmentally-sponsored religious endorsement of mainstream faiths and associated dismissal of all other faiths as recently as the 1940s. A lot changed in the following three decades!

    Also good on that topic is Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America, reminding the reader that three major faiths having public legitimacy was in fact an improvement over previous Protestant hegemony where even Catholicism and Judaism were publicly disfavored.

    Comment by Dave — May 30, 2016 @ 10:58 am

  2. Great stuff, Tona. As always, I love your engagement with both scholarly literature and theory. I’m teaching American religious history this fall–and then I’ll be teaching it annually for the foreseeable future–so I’m grateful for your wisdom.

    Comment by Ben P — May 30, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

  3. Really enjoy these teaching posts. They give me some extra bit of engagement with the literature not found elsewhere. Thanks, Tona.

    Comment by WVS — May 30, 2016 @ 8:06 pm


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