Yesterday was a beautiful 71 degrees here in Conroe, but I’m packing my warm clothes because tomorrow I’m headed out to Denver, which is apparently pretty cold right now. (However, it gives me the chance to wear my full-length wool coat that I bought last winter and have only worn once.) There are plenty of gripes about AHA conferences—they are too big, often too expensive, and a sense of existential angst settles on the entire city as job candidates prepare for their interviews—but I really like them. I love catching up with so many good friends, meeting people who I know digitally, and hearing some very smart papers. And given this will be my first time attending in four years where I don’t have to worry about the job market, I’m prepared to like it even more.
The only downside is I have to pretend I’m a serious scholar not once but twice, as I somehow had papers accepted to both the AHA and ASCH schedules. I’m honored, however, to be on panels with some very smart people. My ASCH panel, “Sacred Answers to Secular Questions: Religious Critiques of Democratic Politics in Antebellum America,” also includes papers from Tara Strauch and Spencer McBride, as well as a response from the indomitable Michael Pasquier. My AHA panel, “God’s Kingdom in the American Republic: New Studies in Region, Religion, and Revolution,” features papers by Sara Georgini and Roy Rogers, with the smart Sam Haselby playing respondent. The time, location, title, and abstract for my papers are below. I look forward to seeing many over-specialized history nerds in Denver!
ASCH 25, Friday, January 6, 3:30pm, Convention Center Room 704: “The Theology of Democracy: Theodore Parker’s Transcendentalist Critique of America’s Political Tradition”
The intellectual and literary movement commonly referred to as the Transcendentalists are often understood in ways that emphasize, on the one hand, their disrupture from America’s cultural tradition and, on the other, their irrelevancy to America’s political history. Yet many participants within the group understood their ideas as interconnected to the political culture of their day and, even more importantly, their intellectual innovations led to profound implications when considering how to address the nation’s fundamental constitutional crisis: slavery. When understood as merely an aesthetic and philosophical movement, Transcendentalism fragments into dozens of pieces; when seen as a religious critique of democratic theory, the movement gains both coherency and relevance.
This paper traces how Theodore Parker and several of his collaborators transformed their Transcendentalist theologies into political critiques. By basing their ideas of “rights” and “truths” on an idealist tradition inherited from German and French theologians, Parker and his contemporaries strove to present a new picture of American political thought that would embrace the sanctity of the human soul and reject the monstrosity of the slave institution. And more than just offering an important chapter within the debates that led to the Civil War, this tale emphasizes the centrality of religion to crucial moments within America’s democratic tradition.
AHA 277, Saturday, Jan 7, 3:30pm, Sheraton Governor’s Square 15: Redeeming a Nation: Religious Conceptions of Union in the Atlantic World in the Wake of the American Revolution
The Age of Revolutions posed as many problems as it did solutions. The unsettling of traditional political allegiances, the reaffirmation of other forms of political sovereignty, and the realignment of political understandings brought immense change to diverse elements of cultural practices, especially in America. Scholars have successfully demonstrated the impact of these changes on the religious climate of the newly United States, and it is common to refer to the “democratization” of Christianity in particular and Christianity in general. Faced with a new world, religionists were forced to adapt their messages in accordance to new expectations.
Yet what is often overlooked is the role that religion played in these political transitions. How did religious thought influence the democratization of politics, the centralization of federal power, or the unification of civic allegiance? This paper examines how religious contexts structured the debates that both led to and descended from the Constitutional Convention, and places them within a broader Atlantic context. For many, these political transformations were driven by a religious impulse regarding how societies functioned and rights were enacted. This presentation examines how that dynamic played in in particular locations concerning a particular constitutional moment.
This study will utilize a number of different individuals and genres, including Fast and Thanksgiving sermons along with more wide-ranging pamphlets and books written to explicate the role of religion in conceptualizing new forms of citizenship and exploring novel concepts of political belonging. At the heart of these texts was a tension over how populations from different backgrounds possessing divergent ideas imagined a united community worthy of divine approval and applicable in an age of democratic transformation.
See you soon, Benjamin!