Examining Stories about Religion in America

December 17, 2015
Professors Catherine Brekus and David Holland
Professors Catherine Brekus and David Holland / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

Asked how HDS professors Catherine Brekus and David Holland came to co-teach "Narratives of American Religion: The Canon and Its Revisions," Brekus said the decision to collaborate was made quickly.

"David said, 'That sounds like a fun course,' and I said, ‘Why don't you teach it with me?' And that was the extent of it."

"Fun" might not be the first word that springs to every mind to describe an intensive seminar that rigorously grounds students in American religious historiography—exploring the process by which history is made through reading more than a dozen books of religious history, some of them over 1000 pages long—but observing the camaraderie between professors and graduate students makes it clear that fun does indeed take place, along with a great deal of learning and the keen analysis of texts. As PhD candidate Carleigh Beriont said: "We have a lot of jokes."

Joking aside, the course focuses on a very serious question in the study of religion: How should a nation's religious history be written? Brekus first realized the need for this class when she was a graduate student at Yale.

"There, a lot of people were criticizing something they called 'the canon' and how American religious history used to be written. There was an implicit 'other' against which we were reading, but there was no course like this for me to take, and I was really curious about how the story of American religion used to be told," she said.          

When Brekus became a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, she decided to co-teach an early version of the course with her colleague Martin Marty in order to fill the gap she had noticed as a graduate student. The structure has evolved over time, and the course now has two parts. In the first half, students read large one-volume surveys of American religious history written from 1844 to 1972. In the second half, they read revisionist histories that attempt to correct the oversights of the older books.

Recently, Holland had considered offering a similar course at HDS because he had sensed the same need as Brekus. "But," he said, "I would've been creating something from scratch that would've been nowhere near as polished or prepared as this is. So for Catherine to come in with this course, which has been refined over a couple of decades to maximize its pedagogical potential, was tremendous."

Brekus and Holland refer to the texts assigned in the class as stories about religion in America, and for good reason. These may be books of history—often very large ones, as students will point out—but they also resemble novels, with a defined cast of characters and a plot structure. For more than a hundred years of the writing of American religion, according to Brekus and Holland, the characters and plot remained sadly predictable.

Throughout the "canonical" half of the course, the heroes of the story are white, male Protestants, and the villains are other religious groups, and many types of people remain offstage completely. Meanwhile, the plot structure is usually a hopeful one, about challenges to Protestantism overcome.

According to Brekus, "It's a very positive plot, the story of how white Protestants have shaped America in positive ways, how they invented democracy, provided cohesion and a sense of national purpose. It’s a consensus story about how Protestants have shaped the American nation in their own image, and to make that argument authors have to sideline critical voices."

Brekus continued, "Then we see a change in the 1970s, which is a change in the academy generally regarding whose stories get told and why. So the second part is revisions to the older narratives, especially in terms of attention to groups that were ignored by earlier histories, such as women, Native Americans, African Americans, as well as religious groups like Spiritualists, Mormons, and so on. The difference between the book published in 1844 and the book published in 1972 is not as great as you might hope, but a different kind of history writing starts to happen after that."

As scholars, Brekus and Holland are interested in listening to these suppressed voices. They also joke about how they would have been viewed by the older authors they study.

Holland said, "One of the fun things about teaching this course is that, as a Catholic [Brekus] and a Mormon [Holland], we're often members of the demonized community from the earlier canon."

Brekus added, "It has been sort of funny to teach these books written by mainstream Protestants because, in each one, it's like, 'Here I am over here, they're watching me carefully because I’m plotting the overthrow of the republic!' "

The role of women in religion is important to both scholars. Brekus is the author of a book on American female preachers and the editor of a volume called The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past, while Holland has written on Anne Hutchinson and is planning a comparative biography of Mary Baker Eddy and Ellen White.          

They write on figures like these because the history of religion looks different through the lens of gender. Brekus explained, "Students have noticed from the beginning the oddity of narratives of American religion that foreground institutions and male leadership without accounting for the fact that most of the people in the pews seem to have been women. We have a number of students who are very interested in women's history and gendered history, and they've really wrestled with why women are absent from these books."

Asked what students who choose this class are looking for, Brekus joked, "Besides punishment? It's a small course because it's a major commitment. Students really have to want to know the history of the field they're entering and have to be ready to read a lot to learn that."

In the classroom, students and professors occasionally made rueful jokes about the heavy tomes they have read, mentioning dead authors in the way veterans of a war might refer to enemies for whom they have a grudging respect. However, students also emphasized that the course has taught them a great deal about the writing of history—especially what not to do.

MDiv candidate Natalie Malter said, "Now I have a long list of things I wouldn’t want to do, starting with writing a huge meta-narrative survey text. One question I have now is where to begin and end a story."

She explained that the seemingly simple decision of what period to write about necessarily emphasizes some stories and excludes others.

Beriont, a PhD candidate in Religion and Society, said that she’s "learned about the importance of situating oneself as author and being transparent about editorial choices."

She said older authors' lack of clarity about their own position in society and their authorial agendas allowed them to pretend to an objectivity that may be impossible in the writing of history.

MTS candidate Kelsey Viscount expanded on this question of historians' positionality: "I'm more aware now of the historical lineage between authors. Sometimes there may be a negotiation between doing new work and not wanting to disrespect mentors, but that results in a replication of stories."

Erika Nelson, MTS candidate, added, "The first book we read that was written by a woman still didn’t have any women in it; she’s a product of the intellectual history she’s a part of."

Brekus and Holland feel this understanding of authors’ contexts is an important benefit of the course for scholars-in-training.

"Treating historians as primary rather than secondary sources is a profound reminder that we not only study times and places, but we are products of times and places," explained Holland. "We are situated in a particular context that affects what we study and how we study. I don't know that anything could accomplish that quite as well as this class."          

Sometimes, professorial perspectives on an assigned text differ from those of students. According to Holland, "The students have a kind of critical distance on this that we probably don't." Brekus added, "It's because we're struggling with this all the time in our own writing, and they will be, too, but at this point they're not trying to write their books."          

Besides a nuanced understanding of how history gets written and how it can distort while it reveals, the course has other things to offer, Holland suggested.

"In the course of thinking about historiography, students are also getting a lot of history, and I think that's an enormous benefit as well."          

In search of such benefits, dedicated students come to the seminar from a variety of angles and with different scholarly or professional concerns, a diversity that enriches the class. For instance, students' own interests include investigating how evangelical history is connected to economics, studying new pagan religious movements in anarchist squats, tracing the dissemination of religious history through textbooks, and going into the ministry.          

Even as Brekus and Holland train students to pursue varied scholarly paths, they find that teaching informs their own research.

Holland offered an example: "Having taught this course, I'm rethinking my decision, but I did sign up to write a survey text, an intellectual history, and this course has fundamentally changed the way I'm thinking about it. I shudder to think how I might have come at that had I not had a semester of working with really smart people, in particular a very smart colleague, who have thought a lot about how you avoid the mistakes of the past."        

Catherine Brekus and David Holland  

Watching these smart people work together in the classroom was impressive. Students carefully teased out nuances of the texts they were examining as the two teachers asked clarifying questions about authors' agendas and methodologies, occasionally giving their own opinions but only to prompt further discussion. All participants in the process were adept at pointing out not only what was in the text, but what was left out.          

Brekus, who was Harvard Divinity School's 2014-15 Outstanding Teacher of the Year, said of co-teaching with Holland, "I'm grateful to HDS for letting us pool our resources this way. It's so interesting to hear David's reflections on these books because he often sees things in them that I don't see. I think that having two pairs of scholarly eyes allows a much more rounded understanding of this literature than we would have if it were just one of us."

Asked how understanding these texts matters outside the classroom, Brekus said, "Any time that you get a group of people thinking about the way we tell our stories, hopefully it will move the public conversation in more capacious directions, because it's still too narrow. I think this is one of the things Diana Eck's Pluralism Project here at Harvard wants to combat. But there are a lot of people invested in thinking of America as, for example, a Christian nation, and by that they really mean a particular kind of Christianity."

Brekus continued, "American Christians are highly diverse: They have very different understandings of their foundational texts, they have different understandings of ethics, so I think there's a conversation that needs to be had in the larger public about what it means to be a nation of multiple religious faiths and of multiple Christian faiths, and I think that conversation gets short-circuited too often by older understandings, which we see in these canonical books, that American religion is or should be a particular kind of white Protestantism."

Asked if they had any predictions about the future of American religion, the two historians just chuckled.

Brekus explained, "One of the very funny things in the course is that most of these books end with a historian making either explicit or implicit predictions about what’s going to happen in the future, and they're always wrong. But you go ahead, David, and I'll come back in 10 years and say, 'Professor Holland got it wrong.' "

Holland laughed. "No thanks."

—by Walter Smelt