Monday, April 1, 2013

Commentary: Revival Session, New York State History Conference, June 2007

In 2007 I was asked to chair the session on Revivals at the New York State History Conference. The following were my remarks at the conference. Kenneth Shefshiek, by the way, strenuously disagreed with my assessment of his paper. Despite his criticisms of my remarks, however, I stand by my "reading" because whether he intended to or not his paper ends with an emphasis on economic factors and as such suggests strongly that he was polemicising for the centrality of economic issues to an understanding of the revival in New Paltz.

By the way, I don't think I made a good impression on the New York State History Conference powers that be. I have not been invited to comment on a session since. Call me a heretic.


I would like to welcome you to the session on Revivals at the 2007 New York State History Conference. Thanks for joining us. My name is Ron Helfrich I will be moderating the session and commenting on the papers prepared for it.

This morning we will hear two papers dealing with revivalism during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in New York, Kenneth Shefshiek’s “The Great Awakening at New Paltz” and Rachel Cope’s “’Some Places A Few Drops, and Other Places a Plentiful Shower’: Female Revival Experiences in the Burned Over District”.

Before I introduce the speakers a bit about the ground rules for the session. Kenneth will speak first followed by Rachel. I have asked both Kenneth and Rachel to limit their remarks to 20 to 25 minutes. I will then comment on the papers and afterwards open the floor to questions.

So without further ado let me introduce Kenneth Shefshiek. Kenneth is currently ABD at the University of Georgia, where he is working with Allan Kulikoff. The paper he will be presenting today will form a segment of his dissertation, which is tentatively titled "Stone House Days: Constructing Dutch Identity in the Hudson Valley." Kenneth has completed previous graduate work in heritage preservation from Georgia State University. He is currently the executive director of the Geneva Historical Society and was formerly curator of education at the Huguenot Historical Society in New Paltz, NY.

The second paper this morning is by Rachel Cope. Rachel, a Utahn like myself graduated magna cum laude with a BA in history from Brigham Young University in 2001 and received her MA in American history from Brigham Young University in 2003. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in American history at Syracuse University. Her research interests include revivalism, women's religious history, and the history of the LDS Church. Rachel is co-author of volume two of The Eyewitness History of the Church, Sacrifice Brings forth the Blessings of Heaven published by Cedar Fort Books.

Kenneth and Rachel read their papers.

My Comments: Before I begin a word of warning, I like to be provocative…

I have a problem with History. Far too often during the last several years that I have been ensconced in a history programme I have listened to far too many papers that in my opinion basically repeat the conclusions of previous scholarship. The assumption underlying this work, I guess, is this: that even if the conclusions these essays draw are simply a repeat of what has come before such a practice is acceptable if these papers are grounded in archival research, preferably archival research in materials that haven't been mined yet. Frankly, this belief that archival research even if it replicates the conclusions of previous studies is an end and a goal in and of itself makes me often feel as though I am trapped in an academic version of “Life Serial”, that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode which finds our hero Buffy working as a sales clerk at the Magic Box. Unknown to the Buffster a spell has been cast on her by her nemesis…ses the “pain in my asses” troika of Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew. In order to break this spell—one that must surely be a nightmare that every retail salesperson must have at some point in their lives—our Slayer has to satisfy a difficult customer buying a difficult product. This being the Buffyverse it, of course, takes Buffy quite some time to break the spell. Unfortunately, in the world I live in my version of this spell has not yet been broken.

I understand some of the historical and sociological reasons for this seemingly endless cycle of historiographic repetition. Archival research is one of the central symbols of virtually all of the current varieties of the historical enterprise. I understand that archival research is the central rite of passage for each and every student who winds his or her way through graduate programmes in history. I understand that the rise of professional history necessitated the distinction between professional and amateur historians and that the former were defined not only by their professional training and their proficiency in historical documents but by their ability find things deeper realities below the surface of those documents. And last but not least, I realize that far too many current historians and historians in training have far too little background in theory and historiography and far too much knee-jerk animosity toward it to do much of anything with it.

I, of course, grumpy old misanthropic cynic that I am, don’t buy the notion that archival research is an end in and of itself. There has to be some justification for doing historical research—and don’t get me wrong, archival research should be done—and publishing the historical research collected and collated beyond simply doing it for archival research sake or for telling a “good story”.

Both of the papers presented at this session refreshingly confront the historiography and theory associated with America’s Great Awakenings in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries head on. The historiography circling around America’s Great Awakenings is a long and storied one. Without debates and conflicts over the stuff of history would history continue to exist other than as a call and response phenomenon? After all isn’t it argument and debate that makes the humanities and social science worlds go around? In the old days most historians believed that seventeenth through nineteenth century America had experienced a cycle of spontaneous “Great Awakenings” that had “Christianised” America and provided most Americans with a common identity and a common ideology—William McLoughlin’s contribution to the prestigious Chicago History of American Religion series Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform probably represents the zenith of this interpretive perspective. Jon Butler’s “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction” and Awash in a Sea of Faith put a crimp in this scholarly consensus, however.

For Butler and for those who have followed in his footsteps the revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the American Colonies and the Early American Republic. It is worth noting in passing that revivals had been going on in Europe and North America since the seventeenth century making them ripe for an Atlantic World analysis, one of the “hipper” things going on in the discipline as I speak. It is also worth noting that these revivals were less spontaneous events than carefully planned ones and less cyclical events than periodic attempts to convert the “heathen” masses to the “one true faith”, points historian Timothy Smith made about the revivals in the Burned Over District as early as 1957 in his Revivalism and Social Reform,. Even those critical of some aspects of Butler’s thesis like Frank Lambert—Lambert--they argue that there was a colony wide awakening in the late eighteenth century--side with Butler when it comes to the pre-planned aspects of America’s eighteenth and nineteenth century revivals. Consensus now has it that America’s revivals were not spontaneous affairs but instead were the products of much planning.

Whether the revivals were colonial wide, regional, or local affairs and whether they were cyclical and spontaneous or planned and periodic or not have not been the only theoretical issues that have ruffled historians feathers over the last sixty years or so. Historians and social scientists have also spent decades debating the causal mechanisms of the Great Awakenings. Despite some self serving rhetorical bluster from the new historians of the sixties and after that the new history is a new and improved history not much has really changed when it comes to the theoretical and methodological schemas social scientists and historians use to explore social movements—religious movements are, of course, social movements—a fact readily apparent when one looks at how social scientists approach have typically approached social movements in the Burned Over District of upstate New York and northeastern Ohio. The old standbys of economic causality, deprivation, relative deprivation, political causality, psychological pathology, and naturalistic explanations that have dominated academic thinking since the 1930s still dominate academic thinking on the revivals of the early nineteenth century United States today and will, I assume, continue to animate numerous debates in history and the social sciences until the end of the world.

Charles Sellers (The Market Revolution), Paul Johnson (The Shopkeepers Millennium), Mary Ryan (Cradle of the Middle Class), and Carroll Smith Rosenberg (various essays collected in her Disorderly Conduct) emphasise economic change as the main culprit for the revival of religion in the Burned Over District and see evangelical revivalism as a form of middle class social control. Nathan Hatch (The Democratization of American Christianity) sees the new religious movements of the Burned Over District as reflective of trends toward democratization afoot in nineteenth century America and reflective of the realities of socio-economic inequality in the region. Mormonism, one of the new movements that arose in the Burned Over District, is, for Hatch, a response to the poverty of its founder and members. Kenneth Winn (Exiles in a Land of Liberty) sees Mormonism with its theocratic impulses and patriarchal hierarchies as a reaction to Jacksonian democratization. Michael Barkun (Crucible of the Millennium) interprets the new religions of the Burned Over District as apocalyptically oriented reactions to modernity. Anne Felt Tyler (Freedom's Ferment) regards Smith as one of those seemingly omnipresent nineteenth century American con men. Charles Sellers (The Market Revolution) portrays Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith as a fraud, a shyster, and a trickster, and suggests that LDS theology, with its characteristic patriarchalism, resulted from a kind of “male panic” caused by the economic dislocations in family structure that were again brought about by the transformations wrought by the Erie Canal. Fawn Brodie (No Man Knows My History) argues that Mormon founder and self proclaimed prophet Joseph Smith was a manipulative megalomaniac who was increasingly unable to distinguish fantasy from reality and whose sexual excesses played a major part in destroying him. Louis Kern (An Ordered Love) sees the Mormon practice of “the Principle” of polygamy as a product of Joseph Smith’s personal response to the familial and sexual ambiguity of early nineteenth century America, as someone who used religion to justify his sexual appetites. Lawrence Foster (“The Psychology of Religious Genius: Joseph Smith and the Origins of New Religious Movements”) reviving naturalistic explanations that had been prominent in social science explanations of religion in the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth century speculates that Smith may have been a manic-depressive.

Kenneth’s “The Great Awakening at New Paltz” offers us yet another version of the there is something deeper going on below the surface in American revivalism in his exploration of a schism within the Dutch Reformed community in New Paltz, New York. Typically historians of the revivals in America’s German and Dutch speaking regions have emphasized the roles debates over church authority—the mainstream church versus the pietists—and anglicisation played in the German and Dutch churches of the New World. For Kenneth, however, the debates over church authority and liturgical language hide deeper realities. According to Kenneth Hendricus DuBois’s opposition to the change of the language of the liturgy from Dutch to English was, if I am reading his argument correctly, a product of DuBois’s economic location and his social status. DuBois, argues Kenneth was a was a locally oriented yeoman uninvolved in market relations. The acceptance of the change in the liturgy of the Dutch Church from Dutch to English, in Kenneth’s tale, is equally a reflection, at least in part, of economic location and social status. Abraham Hasbrouck who favoured anglicisation of the Dutch church liturgy was a merchant who was well connected to the growing urban mercantile economy in New York. For Kenneth, then, it’s all about economics and it’s about the economic future of North America. Hasbrouck show us that capitalism was already afoot in the seventeenth century English colonies and was already having an impact on the Dutch Church. The fact that the majority of New Paltz’s townspeople would take a position more like that of Hasbrouck than DuBois foretold the future that was in store for the Dutch Church in the New World. As for the debate over when capitalism came to North America, it has been going on at least since the 1960s and will, I expect, to continue to animate debate well into the next millennium and beyond.

Not all attempts to understand America’s revivals have been grounded in geographic, economic, political, psychological, or naturalistic perspectives. David Brion Davis (“The New England Origins of Mormonism”) and Donald Meinig (The Shaping of American Volume 3: Transcontinental America, 1850-1915) see Mormonism as New England Puritanism reborn. Timothy Smith (“The Book of Mormon in a Biblical Culture”) suggests that the new religions of the Burned Over District were the products of a biblical culture. Richard Hughes (“Soaring with the Gods: Early Mormons and the Eclipse of Religious Pluralism”) and Jan Shipps (“The Reality of the Restoration in LDS Theology and Mormon Experience”) have emphasized the role biblical ideologies and romantic primitivism and restorationism played in America’s revival movements including Mormonism.

Rachel Cope’s “’Some Places A Few Drops, and Other Places a Plentiful Shower’: Female Revival Experiences in the Burned Over District” offers a cultural and perhaps a faithful approach to American revivalism. Unlike Mary Ryan and Carroll Smith Rosenberg who see women’s religious experiences and ideologies as products of economic change in the Burned Over District Rachel asks us to take women’s religious and spiritual rhetoric seriously as religious and spiritual rhetoric rather than as an epiphenomenon of economics, politics, geography, abnormal psychology, or social control. What Rachel finds in the diaries of Cornelia Smith, Zina Huntington, and Susan Bibens Fox—all converts to Mormonism, I assume—is several things: religion played a crucial role in their lives, that they were all young when the revivals impacted them, that they all felt a keen sense of their unworthiness, that they all were concerned about the afterlife, and that they all had a strong desire to share their revival experiences with family and friends and bring them, in the process, to the salvation they had found.

Rachel, of course, is not alone in emphasizing the need for historians to take religion as religion seriously. Harry Stout and D.G. Hart in their introduction to their edited collection New Directions in American Religious History, for instance, wrote about the need for scholars to take religion as religion seriously as a cultural phenomenon which impacts human action. Some of the essays in that book attempt to do just that.

Rachel, like others before her, raises an important issue: how can historians who traditionally lionize primary sources making them the be all and end all of the historical enterprise simply dismiss them at least when it comes to revivalism. When one actually reads the diaries and journals of converts to early Mormonism, for instance, one doesn’t find something like “I became a Mormon because of economic changes set in motion by the building of the Erie Canal” or “I became a Mormon because I saw it as a bulwark against heinous Jacksonian era political democratization?. Instead one finds statements like “I converted to Mormonism because I believed that Joseph Smith was the prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon and the revelations Joseph later received proved him to be God’s prophet.” There is a gap, in other words, between the historical rhetoric which emphasizes the importance of primary documents as the basis for writing history and the historical practice, at least when it comes to revivalism in the United States, of dismissing the documentary evidence and concentrating instead on economic, political, geographic, and psychological “realities” hovering underneath surface noise. So much for the just the documentary facts ma’am rhetoric card most historians like to play.

I am, as you have probably noticed, more sympathetic to Rachel’s--though not in a faithful way--rather than Kenneth’s view if he is, as I suspect, simply arguing that revivalism is an epiphenomenon of the economic. The textual evidence, namely the flow of his argument in his paper suggests he is despite protestations to the contrary. I agree with Kenneth that economic factors are important, Economic factors are important and are factors in peoples lives. All of us do, after all, have to make a living. But economic factors are—like geographic, political, and psychological factors—the broader contexts in which human action takes place. Religion, as Rachel points out, is a meaning system. People believe. These beliefs, this culture, this ideology constructs or manufactures the worlds people live in. I am a good old fashioned social constructionist here. Culture is, in other words, the means by which humans manufacture a view of the world, their perspective on that world, their identities in that world, and the communities they create to sojourn through that world.

Isn’t it time that historians fessed up to the role theory plays I their discipline just as it did in both of the papers you have heard today? Isn’t it time that we historians fessed up to the fact that the theories we view the world through are symbols and icons of how we perceive our world? And isn't it time that we admit that these theoretical issues will continue to animate debate in history and the social sciences into infinity because they are instead or reflecting “reality” they are reflections of competing intellectual and academic world views?

Thank you.

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