On International Women’s Day: Hannah Adams and Early American Comparative Religion

Today is International Women’s Day . As a historian of American religious cultures, IWD reminds me of the foundational role women have played and continue to play in American religions. The story of Hindu religions in American culture that I laid out in my dissertation brought many women typically on the edges of American religious history to the center of the narrative. Women ranging from Helena Blavatsky to Lydia Maria Child to Hannah Adams.

So, in the spirit of IWD I present a section of Hannah Adams’ An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects which have Appeared in the World from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Present Day (1784). This was the earliest work of comparative religion in America and the section below is the earliest account of Hindu religions penned by an American. For more on Adams remarkable career I recommend Gary D. Schmidt’s A Passionate Usefulness: The Life and Literary Labors of Hannah Adams (2004).

MOGUL’s EMPIRE. The original inhabitants of India are called Gentoos, or, as others call them, Hindoos. They pretend that Brumma, who was their legislator both in politics and religoin, was inferiour only to God; and that he existed many thousands of years before our account of the creation. They Bramins-for so the Gentoo Priests are called-pretend, that he bequeathed to them a book, called the Vidam, containing his doctrines and instructions; -and that though the original is lost, they are still possessed of a commentary upon it, called the Shahstah, which is wrote in the Shanscrita language, now a dead language and known only to the Bramins, who study it.

Read the rest of Adam’s account here.

James Freeman Clarke and the Post-Protestant Metaphysical Roots of Comparative Religion in America

Ten Great Religions

I came across this on page 1 of James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions (1871):

[The present work] is an attempt to compare the great religions of the world with each other. When completed, this comparison ought to show what each is, what it contains, wherein it resembles the others, wherein it differs from the others; its origin and development, its place in universal history; its positive and negative qualities, its truths and errors, and its influence, past, present, or future, on the welfare of mankind. For everything becomes more clear by comparison. We can never understand the nature of a phenomenon when we contemplate it by itself, as well as when we look at it in its relations to the phenomena of the same kind.

It is remarkable to me that I have rarely seen James Freeman Clarke mentioned in histories of comparative religion or religious studies. He gets three mentions in Eric Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History. Tomoko Masuzawa gives him two pages in her book The Invention of World Religions. But both Sharpe and Masuzawa put the American Clarke into a story that is mostly about European approaches to comparative religion. Clarke’s place as a Unitarian minister and his location within the history of liberal religion in America is neglected. Within American religious history, Clarke comes up in discussions of mysticism and Asian religions. Leigh Eric Schmidt highlights Clarke’s interest in universal mystical experience in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese briefly analyzes Clarke’s representation of Hindu religions in Ten Great Religions in her book A Republic of Mind and Spirit.  There are two Clarkes, the comparativist who imagines a universal religion based in Christianity and a metaphysical interested in the mystical East, depending on the history you are telling.

I am sympathetic with the story of Clarke as a metaphysical. I am approaching him in the same vein as Albanese. I have the benefit of a narrower project than hers that will allow me to really dig into Clarke’s representation of “Brahmanism.” Yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that there is another story to tell about Clarke and other 19th century liberal (post)Protestants interested in world religions that unites the comparativist narrative with the metaphysical one. In the rush to throw off the bonds of comparative theology-indeed any kind of theology-I think the academic study of religion in America may have misplaced its history. Perhaps we owe more to Clarke than we do to Max Mueller.


Should we compare American Atheism and American Christianity?: An Impromptu Twitter Discussion

The following conversation emerged on Twitter between myself and Per D. Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. Check out Per’s great stuff over at irritually. Per specializes in studying irreligion and so I sent him a link to a CNN article and, well, click on the storify link and you can see what ensued.

[View the story "Atheism, Humanism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Mainline" on Storify]

The question I’m left with is this: Is there a force within American society/culture that is shaping atheists and Christians in similar ways such that evangelicals look like New Atheists and old school humanists look like the mainline? What could it be? How could we find it? Is it the market? Politics? What?

What do yall think?


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