Research Trip Wrap Up: From “Heathens” to “Hindoos”

Cotton Mather just thought they were heathens.

The first research trip is over and as I look back over my notes I’m realizing that I may have been asking the wrong questions all along. Going into the trip I thought the East India Marine Society would be the perfect case study for how ideas about Hinduism floated into America through trade networks. But after spending four days going through all of the records left by the society I now see it differently. The society and its museum did not present visitors and the folks of Salem with Hinduism or even Hindoos. Instead, they presented the Orient, the Indies, the East. It was undifferentiated. Yes, there was India, China, and other countries, but they were all swallowed up in the East/Orient/Indies. This was why it didn’t seem dissonant for someone in full Mandarin dress to lead a procession that included a Bengali made palanquin carried by African Americans in turbans. It was about the Oriental mood. This is why it made sense to put the Ganesa image from Java right next to the Rama and Sita image from Bengal. It was different but it wasn’t. Yes they were people known as Hindoos, but they were part of the larger group of Orientals.

So, the questions change. The question for chapter one had been: How did the East India Marine Society introduce local New Englanders to representations of Hinduism? The new question: What made it possible for New Englanders to imagine people known as Hindoos? This new questions gets at the limits and production of knowledge about India in America. In India Christiana, Cotton Mather does not distinguish between Indians-be they from the West or East Indies. Rather, they are all heathen and they all need Christianity. In the 1830s Rammohun Roy emerges in Unitarian magazines as a Hindu and when he is labeled a heathen by conservative Protestants he is quickly defended by his liberal Christian allies. Thus, my task in chapter one is to explore where, when, and under what circumstances Americans began to see “Hindoos,” and “Hindoo religion” as something unique. When did “Hindoo religion” or “Hinduism” emerge from heathenism in the minds of Americans. I’m sure this happened in fits and starts and among liberals long before conservatives but that’s still the question.

Now, off to research.

Research Trip Post #3: Toasts, Gods, and Museum Catalogs

 I got out of the library archive and into the museum the past couple of days. Yesterday, thanks to a wonderful curator at the Peabody Essex Museum,  I was got a quick tour of the East India Marine Hall and saw a handful of the original EIMS collection that is on display currently. She even took me back to a storage building and showed me the palanquin. It was covered in plastic but I could imagine it being carried down the streets of Salem. I went back today and took some pictures of the items on display to help me think about what folks might have run into when they entered the museum in the 1820s.

Back in the library, I spent yesterday going through old catalogs and manuscripts trying to find out what items were in the museum when and who donated them. I’m realizing that there was a good bit of stuff from Hindu religious culture in the museum, but that there was a lot of other stuff too.

Today, I looked at a bunch of lists of toasts given at the societies anniversary dinners, some scrapbooks, and some guest books. The toasts were useful because they revealed how nationalistic and commercially minded the society was. It was all about an amazing virtuous America built upon strong commercial enterprise. The toasts are like early American tweets-little bursts of thought that crystallized ideas floating in the culture. Going the guest books was tedious but interesting. I knew I’d find John Quincy Adams and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I also knew I’d find a spot where Andrew Jackson had had his signature clipped out in an act of pro-Whig vandalism by two young girls. But I didn’t know I’d find Lyman and Harriet Beecher or Franklin Pierce. I also didn’t know I’d find visitors from as far away as Mississippi, Charleston, Kentucky, and Alabama. Seems like the museum was the thing to do when you visited Salem (maybe even Boston)  in the early nineteenth century.

Tomorrow is the last day. Time to finish with the guest books and head back to Atlanta.

Thinking About Ralph Waldo Emerson on His Birthday

Caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Famous "transparent Eyeball" Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892)

Today is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 208th birthday. The Concord sage is one of the great figures of American history and one of my favorite New England religious thinkers. I always think of Emerson as the man who was willing to push that little bit further. Where Arminians and Unitarians stopped, Emerson jumped off the cliff into a sea of human potential. Where Channing had argued for human virture, Emerson posited the Oversoul-the divine within and without. Up to his day American religion had been a religion of dissent and in many ways, Emerson doubled down leaving the Unitarian clergy behind and pushing the 1838 graduating class of Harvard Divinity School toward a “being without bound.”

I’ve yet to start writing  my dissertation chapter that deals with Emerson and his contact with Hindu religious sources but as of now I’m convinced that the relationship between Emerson and Hinduism was one of convenience. That is, Emerson was a collector of religious ideas and for various reasons Hindu ideas happened to be at hand. Because he was in Boston, because New England merchants had been trading with India since the 1790s, because Rammohun Roy’s work had reached Unitarians in the 1820s, and because the British empire made knowledge about India readily available in English, India was an obvious place to look for spiritual sources. For example, Emerson famously described the Bhagavad Gita as the great text of Buddhism. To him it didn’t matter which Eastern tradition the book belonged too so long as it fit with his overall spiritual vision.

Emerson is often given credit for first popularizing Asian religious ideas in America. That’s not completely true. At least in eastern New England, Hindu ideas found their way through the periodical press into the homes and libraries of many Americans. The aforementioned Rammohun Roy’s Precepts of Jesus, his Vedantan Hindu reading of Jesus’s moral message,  and his various defenses of it were widely available in the late 1820s and 1830s.  What Emerson did do was Americanize Hindu ideas. He paired a Vedic formulation of Hinduism with a liberal post-Unitarian spirituality that became the seed bed for liberal spirituality we still have with us today. He brought together Krishna. Mesmer, and Swedenborg and now we have Deepak Chopra.

To help you celebrate Emerson’s birthday today you might swing by Amazon and pick up a free Kindle version of a new edition of Self-Reliance complete with self-reflections on the book from historical and contemporary thinkers.  Or if you’d rather watch then read, there’s the 2007 documentary Emerson: The Ideal in America, also available for free viewing online. Or you can just go for a walk in the woods.

HT: Maria Popova

How to write a book about “X in American Religious History”

It’s not as hard to write a book in American religious history as you might think. Feel free to use this handy template.

Introduction- X has been important throughout American religious history.

Chapter 1. What the Puritans said about X

Chapter 2. What Jonathan Edwards (and maybe George Whitefield) said about X

Chapter 3. How X was shaped by the early Republic and the Second Great Awakening

Chapter 4. The Victorian X

Chapter 5. X in the Civil War

Chapter 6. Reforming X in the Progressive Era

Chapter 7. How X took on shifting meanings in pre-WWII America

Chapter 8. How the 1960s radically changed X, but not for everyone

Chapter 9. A new multifaceted X in the 21st century

Conclusion- See, I told you X was important.

What you think you know about church and state in America and why it’s wrong

David Sehat gives us five myths about church and state in America:

1. The Constitution has always protected religious freedom.

2. The founders’ faith matters.

3. Christian conservatives have only recently taken over politics.

4. America is more secular than it used to be.

5. Liberals are anti-religious.

Read the whole piece to see how he defends these.

I appreciate David’s work because he does such a good job of outlining Protestant cultural power during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My current research focuses on the boundaries of the Protestant establishment that David has outlined in his Myth of American Religious Freedom. I’m digging into Hindus as a representation of the outside of America-the dark, heathen, other-and David has done a great job investigating the inside of American culture and the ways Protestant moralists managed that inside. I also appreciate his provocative flair.

Buy his book.

Is there a difference between ideology and religion?

The U.S. Intellectual History blog has an interesting guest post from Corey Washington on “After Ideology.” Here’s a bit:

There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles. Nevertheless, the fact that people reason so badly about politics is striking given that people are intelligent and believe strongly that it is important for their political beliefs to be true. Religion may also be innate and non-rational, but if people are rational enough to give up God-oriented religion because there is not sufficient evidence, why do they not give up ideologies as well?

When I ask this question, the responses are quite similar to what you hear when you discuss atheism with a religious person. Atheists/agnostics cannot imagine how you could act ethically, or more broadly make sense of the world, without an ideology. That is, ideology seems to give many atheists/agnostics a value system just as religion does for believers. I believe ideologies also provide people with a community of like-minded friends, as do religious beliefs, and people are loath to alienate themselves from their friends. But if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies and communities if they are based on beliefs one has very little reason to think are true?

Those two sentences I bolded struck me. Of course ideology functions like religion! Washington is right on the money with this. But so was Emile Durkheim. Religion and ideology, as sketched by Washington here, both form what Durkheim called “moral communities” in his Elemental forms of Religious Life. What Washington doesn’t outline in his post, thought I suspect it is to be worked through in his book, is the relationship between ideology and religion. Too often religion becomes subsumed under ideology. Thus, socially constructed notions of the sacred are reduced down economics or psychology or what have you. Instead, religion and ideology should be placed alongside one another as products of cultural and social imagination and construction. For example, nationalism (and here I’m following my recent reading of Benedict Anderson) as an ideology has the incredible power to motivate men to die. Anderson begins his discussion of nationalism with a comparison to religion. They both share this same power-a power that will motivate humans to lay down their lives. To go back to Durkheim, we can call this socio-culturally produced power ‘the sacred.’ Questions then follow. How is the sacred produced in cultures and societies? What is sacred in an ideology or religion? How dies it function?How do humans move between or occupy overlapping sacralities (i.e. a communist nationalist Christian)?

However one approaches the question of ideology and religion and whether one wants to use the term ‘sacred’ or not, the goal should be to  avoid reducing the phenomenon down to a single ’cause’ and instead to uncover their messy cultural production and practice.

The Dissertation Proposal: Hinduism and the Boundaries of Nineteenth Century American Culture

Two weeks ago I successfully defended my dissertation proposal. I thought it might be worthwhile to share an abridged version so anyone interested might get a sense of what this project is shaping up to be. I’d love to hear feedback and suggestions. In this abridged version I’ve cut out the literature review.

“This extensive and populous country…retains its peculiar manners which have stamped the people as a peculiar race from the earliest periods of history.”1 So writes Samuel Goodrich in 1845, using the pseudonym Peter Parley, under the heading “Hindostan” in his schoolbook Manners and Customs of the Principal Nations of The Globe. For, Goodrich, and for the children reading his grade school book, India was quite different from America. As common schools began to grow in the middle third of the nineteenth century, writers like Goodrich believed that children in America needed to have a global view. A view that included Asia and India. In his The Tales of Peter Parley About Asia (1845) Goodrich describes the people of India for his readers: “I shall now tell you of a people, who may be regarded as the most interesting of all the inhabitants of Asia, I mean the Hindoos…the Hindoos, in personal appearance, in disposition, in character, and in religion, are a distinct and peculiar nation.”2 Children would find the Hindus interesting because they were so different from Americans—so “peculiar.” As Goodrich pointed out, they looked different, lived differently, and believed in a different religion.

About a decade later, Henry David Thoreau bathed his mind in “the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy” of the Bhagavad Gita during his mornings at Walden Pond. For Thoreau, the sacred book of India made the modern world “and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Laying the book aside, Thoreau made his way down to his well to draw water. The Gita still in his thoughts, at the well he met “the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahama and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Veda, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.” Thoreau’s meditation on the Gita brought him to a place where “the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”3 For Thoreau, the Brahman at the foot of the tree reading the Veda represented everything missing from his industrial American society. Through his romantic vision, Hindu religious culture represented an ancient spiritual wisdom that Thoreau believed American industrial society had lost.

In 1884 the Methodist run Christian Advocate offered a very different image of India’s religions. The magazine published a report from the Rev. Samuel Knowles on “The Devi Patan Mela,” a religious festival in India. Knowles narrates the scene his group of missionaries arrived to find: “Thirsty tired, and full of dust, we entered under the grand grove of tamarind trees that surrounds the gloomy temple of the blood-deluged idol goddess…it was calculated that one animal a minute was sacrificed sunrise to sunset of every day for a week.” Like Thoreau, Knowles also sees Brahmins. “A number of blood-stained priests stand behind a stone in front of the temple,” waiting to help devotees offer sacrifices to “the dishonored shrine.”4

These three examples illustrate the variety of ways Americans imagined and represented Hindu religions in the nineteenth century. For the schoolbook writers, India was a land of barbarous, dark skinned, heathens that stood in contrast to the virtues of white, enlightened, Christian America. For Thoreau and his ilk, Indian religions held a spiritual truth that was missing in American Protestant culture. Americans needed to “bathe their minds” in India’s spiritual waters as an antidote to rising materialism and industrialism. Missionaries, like the Methodists in the Advocate, viewed Hindu religions as dark heathenism in need of the conquering light of the Gospel. As these examples indicate, Americans held a variety of reactions and ideas about India and its religious culture, but all of these reactions shared a common understanding of religious difference. Whether viewed positively or negatively, all Americans believed that Hindu religions were altogether different from America’s.

Furthermore, these visions of Hindu religions preceded the arrival of Hindus themselves. Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the World’s Parliament of religion is often cited as the beginning for Hinduism’s history in America. On the one hand, this is true insofar as Vivekananda’s Vedanta Society became the first Hindu religious institution to attract a following among Americans. But on the other hand, such a history fails to outline the events and ideas that made Vivekananda’s movement possible. The history of Hinduism in America begins a century before Vivekananda when Americans first encountered Hindu religions through missions work, trade, travel narratives, and the popular press. By examining the representations of Hinduism that preceded Vivekananda, this dissertation traces out the ideas and images in American culture that made Vivekananda’s work possible, thinkable even. In short, I point out the ground rules Vivekananda, and Hindus that would follow him, had to play by.


In this dissertation, I situate my investigation on the boundary of American culture. In the nineteenth century, Americans from a variety of backgrounds produced and consumed representations of Hindu religions. I argue that these representations took a myriad of forms and emphasized various themes about India but they were all predicated on a notion of religious difference—whatever Hindu religions were, they were not American. Thus, Hindu religions marked the edge of American culture. They were always already outside America, though they were then represented by Americans for Americans in American cultural forms. By sketching the borders of American culture in the period and by paying particular attention to the role of religion in maintaining this boundary, this dissertation will explore the different ways Americans used religion as a category for defining America. In a sense, this dissertation gets at “American religion” through the back door, by examining examples of what did not count as American religion during the century.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sharia Myths

Adam Serwer summarizes a new report that debunks the myths underlying conservative panics over sharia. In short, sharia is not like Biblical law or the Ten Commandments and it is not a threat to the United States.

But the sharia panic that is driving state legislatures to try and criminalize Islam, and making GOP presidential candidates fearful of even looking tolerant of Muslims, is based on an understanding of the religion that would be analogous to treating the bombing of an abortion clinic as the only true possible interpretation of Christianity.

Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment

Note: Originally posted at State of Formation

The criticism of Rob Bell’s Love Wins is not about theology. It is all about authority.

In case you missed the hubbub surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I point you to Sara Staely’s post where she outlines John Piper and the neo-Calvinist establishment’s response to the book. She sums up the conflict nicely:

Over the past few days, one three-word tweet has put the evangelical world into a tizzy:Farewell Rob Bell.  The tweet came from John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and the veritable Godfather of the neo-reformed evangelical establishment (for more on Piper’s influence, see my previous post on evangelicals and inter-religious dialogue).  Piper was referencing Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, a celebrated speaker and author among a younger, more progressive evangelical crowd.

Largely based on this two-and-a-half minute promotional video for Bell’s forthcoming book,Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Piper has determined that the book will come a bit too close to universalism for his sensibilities.  And so, with a few clicks of the keyboard, a tap of the mouse and one trite tweet, it seems Bell has been expelled from what Piper deems to be the One True Church.

Sara goes on to discuss her own response to Piper et al.’s theological self-congratulations for securing orthodox evangelicalism, but I want to take things in a different direction. Sara is quite right to dwell on the theological implications of the “Bell’s Hell” controversy, however, I think at bottom the dispute is not about heaven and hell or heresy and orthodoxy. It is about authority.

Rob Bell challenges the authority of the (Calvinist) evangelical establishment and they don’t like it. For example, Bill Walker has compared Bell’s ideas in Love Wins with conservative evangelical darling and Presbyterian Church in America pastor Tim Keller’s ideas in The Reason for God. As Walker lays it out, the two share a lot in common. They both lean heavily on C.S. Lewis for their ideas and Bell even cites Keller’s other book Prodigal God in his “further reading” section of Love Wins. Yet, Keller is beloved by those in the pews and quoted by those in the pulpits while Bell is dangerous. As Walker puts it:

So here’s my second question.  Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if his theology is the same as one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really about theology?  Might there a deeper political element of power underlying the supposedly righteous rhetoric?

The short answer to Walker’s questions: Yes.

The controversy is not about the book or its theology. Look at this list of responses to the book from Southern Baptist leaders, put together by the Baptist Press. It seems like half of the respondents have not even read the book. They just know it was written by Rob Bell and so it must be opposed. The ones that do try to engage Bell’s writing either misread it or pan it as erroneous without giving good reasons why.

So, if it is not about theology, then what is is about? Why is Keller in but Rob Bell out? Why are old man Piper and the good fellas at the SBC hassling pastor Bell? Piper, the SBC, and other “orthodox” evangelical critics of the book are defending their own privileged place in American evangelicalism. Tim Keller is okay because he is a PCA pastor. He is inside the establishment. He is safe. Rob Bell is not.  Bell is not part of any major denomination and so, to Piper et al., he answers to no one. He is a rogue pastor with a HarperCollins book deal.

The response to Bell reminds me of the disputes between the Old Lights and New Lights in colonial America. During what some historians call the Great Awakening, pastors like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached an evangelicalism that emphasized God’s grace and personal experiences of salvation. Revivals broke out up and down the East coast as Whitfield preached to crowds. Along with this exuberant evangelical “experimental religion” came challenges to the old guard of church leadership. The revival came because of a new kind of ministry the mended the failures of the old lights.

While Bell is  not giving sermons on “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” like Gilbert Tennent, nonetheless, his book and his overall project challenges the power of the existing denominational establishment in America. The Baptists, the PCA, and the various Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations have provided the institutional structures and the doctrinal orthodoxy for their particular corners of the evangelical community. But Bell and others like him come from outside of these structures, challenging their theology but, more importantly, challenging their authority. There is no assembly, council, bishop or court to drag Bell into and strip him of his post. This lack of control scares evangelical elites like John Piper.

In the pursuit for control over what counts as “evangelicalism” in America, it remains to be seen if love wins or not.

Review: American Veda by Philip Goldberg

While I was traveling over the last few days, Religion Dispatches published a review I wrote of Philp Goldberg’s American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. Here’s a bit of it:

A Methodist church near my house advertises for “Gentle Yoga Classes” on one of those church signs usually reserved for witty and redemptive one-liners like “Jesus: Your Get Out of Hell Free Card.” Meanwhile, a local pizza place lists a “Kosmic Karma” pie on its menu. Indian spiritual language has crept into American vernacular culture. But where did it come from? Is there some connection between karmic pizza and yoga in church?

In American Veda, Philip Goldberg tells the story of a new American tradition, derived from both the practices of yoga, and the philosophy of Vedanta. He names this “Vedanta-yoga,” as distinguished from other aspects of Hindu religious culture (such as the worship of multi-limbed deities) that might be less meaningful for Americans.

For Goldberg, it all adds up to the slow “Vedicization” of American spirituality. By this he means that Americans have become more comfortable with a view of the world ultimately found in the ancient literature of India—the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. First, there is the idea that the self and the ground of Being (or the Divine, God, Brahman, Consciousness, etc.) are one. The full realization of this truth leads to liberation and the cessation of suffering. Second, there are a number of paths toward this realization and no single path works for everyone. Third, it follows then that, at bottom, all religious and spiritual traditions, while looking different, share the same goal of divine realization. Vedanta-Yoga is thus a monist, pluralist, and perennialist tradition of American spirituality built from Indian religious sources.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>


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