Thursday, February 26, 2009

Religion in Colonial America

Now back to another (less) frequent (of late) subject matter of Bald blogger: (Protestant) religion in eighteenth-century North America.

I found out earlier this week that my proposal was accepted for the Colonial Society of Masschusetts Graduate Student Forum. In April I'll be presenting the gist of my dissertation, and then discuss, debate, and interrogate it with graduate colleagues, Robert Allison, and Pauline Maier.

One of my committee members, Todd Romero, participated in the forum a few years back and my graduate colleague and friend Devethia presented her work last year. Both rave about it, so I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

Here's the panel I'm on (click here for the full program):

Panel 1: 9 to 10:30 [Friday 4/31]
Restless Souls: Dissent and Conflict in Church and State

Charlotte Carrington, University of Cambridge, “'Secular' 'Dissent' in New England, 1620-1689”

Christianna Elrene Thomas, Ohio State University, “‘In his Arm the Scar’: Medicine, Disease, and the Social Implications of the 1721 Inoculation Controversy in Boston”

Phillip Luke Sinitiere, University of Houston, “‘The Sad Tendency of Divisions and Contentions in Churches’: Popular Religion and Pastoral Dismissal in British North America”

Here's a few paragraphs from my dissertation's Introduction, which gives a sense of what I'll be discussing in Boston:

Protestant ministers in colonial America, mostly recipients of graduate degrees in theology from colleges like Harvard and Yale, aimed to help their parishioners make eternal sense of their temporal world through preaching, teaching, writing, and counseling. Pastoral labor generally involved hours of weekly reading, reflection, and study, visits with parishioners, family responsibilities, and above all sermon preparation and sermon delivery. Congregations expected exposition and explication of biblical texts and biblical themes, and sermons sometimes responded to local events like floods and epidemics, or larger provincial and imperial matters. In colonial America ministers and congregations operated according to a set of religious and cultural codes, and certain expectations existed on both sides of the pulpit.

Yet at times the spirit of the ecclesiastical arrangement between pastor and parishioner(s) was neither cordial nor cooperative. Ministers who fell out of a congregation’s graces sometimes faced censure or expulsion. At other times, mostly due to a congregation’s inability to compensate its parson, ministers voluntarily resigned or requested a dismissal. Still on other occasions, although much less frequently, a minister received a call from another church necessitating the request for a dismission. General reasons for congregational rupture included modifications in theology or doctrine, salary disputes, personality conflicts, displays of excessive spirituality, expressionless or cold faith, meetinghouse politics, intemperance, and in some cases marital infidelity. Frequently reasons for dismissal were local in nature, although often connected to large colonial religious currents such as the transatlantic revivals of the early 1740s. Whatever the case, church conflict was frequent and clerical dismissal a far more common reality for ministers and their congregations throughout the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Titled “‘The Sad Tendency of Divisions and Contentions in Churches’: Popular Religion and Pastoral Dismissal in British North America,” this dissertation examines the confluences between church conflict, congregational strife, lay religion, and pastoral expulsion among Congregational, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches throughout New England. Focusing on eighteenth-century America, it posits that doctrinal and theological concerns lay at the heart of many church conflicts. Pastors and congregations read their Bibles incessantly and intently, lived and imagined deeply in their religious worlds, and often fought tirelessly over interpretive matters related to scripture. Theologically trained ministers often competed for the imaginations of doctrinally competent and religiously literate laypeople who did not passively participate in their religious lives.

Pastors’ diaries and correspondence from the eighteenth century shows that ministers and laypeople often conversed about doctrine. Both believed that discussions of this nature could result in the advancement of religious knowledge and strides in personal holiness. However, theological discussions could and often did result in congregational conflict, as each side stood convinced of the validity of scriptural interpretation. Doctrinal argument of this nature and its conclusion, in the words of Massachusetts minister Solomon Williams’ 1750 sermon, evidenced a “sad tendency of divisions and contentions in churches.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Du Bois and Religion

[This is also posted over at Religion in American History.]

Today I received in the mail the much anticipated The Souls of W.E.B. Du Bois: New Essays and Reflections. It was well worth the wait. While I have not yet read every essay, I poured through many of them and want to highlight several points about this seminal collection.

First, kudos to Ed Blum and Jason R. Young. This is a stout collection of essays that unveils a spiritual Du Bois who—as we all know from Ed’s work was an American prophet—but from the new work also a scholar whose interest in things spiritual included commentary on the history of Islam, writing about Zionism, and reflections on the religious traditions of India.

The editors organized the essays into four segments: the first around the question of Du Bois’s religious inspiration, a section that analyzes Souls of Black Folk, another on the social and cultural history of Du Bois and religion, and a final section on Du Bois’s engagement with Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism.

In section one readers will find a revised version of Dwight Hopkins’s chapter on Du Bois from his great book on Black theology titled Shoes That Fit Our Feet, and an interesting essay on the (religious) pragmatist tradition of Du Bois—an important topic that Jonathon Kahn will expound upon in Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois, due out in July. Most importantly, Phil Zuckerman adds a keen challenge to Du Bois as a religious figure and claims he was decidedly “irreligious.” Zuckerman piles the quotes and the evidence quite high, and makes good points about Du Bois’s social scientific worldview as well as his extreme distaste for religious hypocrisy. Although I am not fully persuaded by his claims, Zuckerman nevertheless remains a very thoughtful voice in the growing body of work about Du Bois and religion.

The second section on Souls of Black Folk adds yet more texture to the multiple studies of this key work. So far my favorite part of the collection is section three. Ed’s contribution here comes from ch. 4 of W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet, one of the strongest chapters of his biography. (For more on this chapter see this post from my interview with Ed.) David Howard-Pitney’s essay ties Du Bois’s religious meditations to America’s civil religion and therefore contextualizes his work in new ways. Another very strong contribution in this section comes from Michelle Kuhl, whose essay studies Du Bois’s conception of manhood as reflected in his lynching/crucifixion tales published in The Crisis. Here Kuhl makes use of some of Du Bois’s understudied writing while editor of the NAACP’s magazine, and shows that Du Bois’s fictional work and creative writing is crucial for understanding his overall religious outlook.

The final segment of this collection takes Du Bois and religion in an entirely new direction by focusing on his understanding of Islam (Jason R. Young), his relationship to Zionism (Benjamin Sevitch), and the literary and religious depth of Du Bois’s Darkwater and Dark Princess (Ronda C. Henry).

Put this on your to-be-read list. It will be well worth your time. Here's what others have to say (from the jacket). James Cone describes this new book as "a thoughtful collection of essays," and Anthea Butler writes that it is an "excellent volume." Manning Marable says that the book contains "fresh insights" and "extraordinary essays." Finally, the BlogMeister recommends the essays as "wonderfully interesting" as the volume is "unusually coherent and cohesive."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Yesterday I drove about 90 minutes to my alma mater, Sam Houston State University. I gave a talk at the history department's symposium to commemorate the centennial of the NAACP, sharing some of my research on W.E.B. Du Bois The Crisis (as mentioned in a previous post).

Harlem Renaissance scholar Cary Wintz as well as Texas Southern University historian Howard Beeth delivered talks. Howard's paper dealt with early twentieth century African American newspaper editor C.F. Richardson and Cary's presentation covered the life and work of the indefatigable Charles Hamilton Houston. The papers complimented each other beautifully as we saw the history of legal challenges to segregation, the work of the black press in Houston to criticize Jim Crow, and literary efforts to assert Black identity. The Q&A following the talks was quite good and discussion rich. Kudos to my mentor and friend Bernie Pruitt for her efforts to organize the symposium.

A number of students attended the talk, as well as several faculty members from history and other departments. It was a great joy to be back on campus, see old friends, and meet new folks. We all had a wonderful dinner afterward, and heard some amazing and moving stories about the Civil Rights Movement in Huntsville.

I speak again in Huntsville on Sunday at Greater Zion Missionary Baptist Church as part of a local program commemorating the efforts of local civil rights leaders. Thanks again to Bernie for her efforts organizing this program.

The images that accompany this post are religiously-themed covers from The Crisis magazine. These images were part of my presentation. The image on the left features a Black Madonna with Black Christ child, and this issue contained a spiritual short story titled "Three Wise Men." The image on the right depicts the Three Wise Men (one Black) from the Christmas passage in Luke.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

History of the NAACP

Here's a piece I wrote for the Conference on Faith and History Graduate Student blog. UPDATE: a slightly amended version is now up at (Thanks, Ed.)

"The Faith of our Fathers and Mothers: Commemorating the NAACP"
By: Phillip Luke Sinitiere (Ph.D. candidate, history, University of Houston)

With the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln the subject of numerous conferences, colloquia, and television shows, I want to highlight another important commemoration in 2009: the centennial of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Association celebrates its centennial this week. And next year is the centennial of its magazine The Crisis. The title of this post aims to recognize the contributions of the founders of the NAACP and The Crisis.

Organized by a multiracial, progressive coalition, in its early days the association worked for racial justice and led campaigns against lynching. It aimed at race pride, racial uplift, and civil rights. It is a testament to the vision and work of its founders that the NAACP thrives today. On the other hand, and despite the recent election of the nation’s first Black president, that the NAACP still exists means that more justice-oriented work remains. Read here a statement from one of its founders, Mary White Ovington. And click here for a timeline of the organization and read an insightful summary of its history here.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was another founder of the NAACP and tireless editor of The Crisis for nearly a quarter century. A prolific author, social critic, and leading intellectual, Du Bois’s remarkable legacy and progressive agenda has yet to be fully appreciated. That The Crisis is still in print today is due in many ways to the wisdom, foresight, and brilliance of its first editor. (Another early Black periodical, Opportunity, is still in print as well. It began in 1923 and is the magazine of the National Urban League.)

One place to examine Du Bois’s progressive worldview is on the pages of Crisis. And remarkably, one finds an amazing amount of religious reflection. Subsequent posts will briefly highlight Du Bois’s work in The Crisis. Before then if you want to read more about Du Bois and religion, I’d recommend historian Edward J. Blum’s W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet. (If you have Fides et Historia handy, for more on Du Bois see Blum’s article “Race and Christian Scholarship,” Fides et Historia 40/1 [Winter/Spring 2008]: 25-41.)

I conclude with a prayer Du Bois wrote for students at Atlanta University around 1910. Du Bois left Atlanta in the summer of 1910, bound for New York City to begin work as Director of Research and Publications at the NAACP.

While this prayer has wide application, and is borne from life experience, it may also inspire those of us in the midst—in the throes—of graduate work:

God give us grace to realize that education is not simply doing things we like, studying the tasks that appeal to us, or wandering in the world of thought whither and where we will. In a universe where good is hidden underneath evil and pleasure lurks in pain, we must work if we would learn and know. It is the unpleasant task, the hard lesson, the bitter experience that often leads to knowledge and power and good. Let us, O Lord, learn this in the days of youth while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when Thou shalt say, “I have no pleasure in them.” (Ecclesiastes 11:1-7).

From: W.E.B. Du Bois, Prayers for Dark People, ed. Herbert Aptheker (University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), p. 28.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Commemorating the NAACP

Next week I'll be speaking at Sam Houston State University as part of its "Commemorating A Centennial: The NAACP at 100" program. A week-long slate of activities includes both speakers and documentaries, commemorating activities in the U.S. and across the nation.

My talk on Tuesday is titled "The Prophetic Propaganda of W.E.B. Du Bois: Religion and The Crisis, 1910-1934." I'll discuss the spiritual short stories Du Bois wrote for the NAACP's magazine, and the religious art that accompanied the December and April issues in which his reflections appeared. (For more on Du Bois and art, check out Amy Kirschke's great book Art in Crisis.)

I'm really looking forward to the talk not only because of the subject matter, but also because I'm returning to my alma mater where I received a B.A. (1999) and M.A. in history (2001). It'll be great to see old friends and colleagues.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

History of Judaism in America

I first heard Jonathan Sarna speak in 2000 on an American Academy of Religion author-meets-critics panel that examined George Marsden's Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. I remember Sarna's incisive comments, wit, and arresting lecture style. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.

Since then I've followed his work and scholarship and so perked up this morning when I read an interview with Sarna in my local newspaper on his newest book: A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew. The book is modeled after George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic. Although Sarna doesn't mention it, I should also note here Tony Campolo's Letters to a Young Evangelical.

Sarna is also a columnist with On Faith. The YouTube clip is from a 2005 lecture in Santa Barbara, California, on the history of Judaism.

Here's the interview with Sarna from the 2/7/09 issue of the Houston Chronicle.

If you have a question about American Judaism, the go-to guy these days is Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. His book, American Judaism, (Yale University Press, $20) won the 2004 National Jewish Book Award.

A Time for Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew (Basic Books.$25), is his latest. It’s a series of 13 letters to his daughter that address holidays in the Jewish calendar. After telling the story of each holiday, Sarna goes into issues that concern Jewish youth, including intermarriage and anti-semitism, social justice, the Holocaust and the environment. Sarna was in Houston recently for a lecture at the Jewish Community Center and sat down with Houston Chronicle reporter Barbara Karkabi.

Q: Why did you write your book around the Jewish holidays?

A: My editor gave me a beautiful book, Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel. He takes Catholic stories and uses them as a way of understanding Catholicism. Judaism really sanctifies time. I began to think about the relationship of our Jewish holidays to the central issues that young Jews are interested in.

Q: Why did you start with Passover?

A: By starting with freedom and ending with the joyous, uplifting holiday of Purim, I thought the narrative would work better. There are actually two Jewish New Years; Rosh Hashanah is one. But the Bible argues that the New Year begins with Passover because the Jewish people started anew. I’m using Exodus 12 as my validator.

Q: This is very different from your other, more scholarly, books.

A: It was totally different from anything I have done before and probably from anything I will do again. My editor felt there were themes in American Judaism, that deserved to be put into simpler language and presented in a different way. I have a son and daughter in their late teens, early 20s, and I have spent much of my career teaching. So I thought I could write for that age.

Q: And the response?

A: Very positive, with good reviews and comments. I’m waiting for more young people to read it. I didn’t gear it to adults, but, on the other hand, I think many are reading it and using it to talk to their children.

Q: Would it be good for non-Jews too?

A: Yes, just as I read the Catholic book. It didn’t say: “Warning, not to be read by non-Catholics.” It’s not a how-to book; the world didn’t need another one. But it was a way of thinking of these holidays, bringing them to life and making them relevant. I don’t think Tu be-Av is known to even some of my more Jewishly learned readers. It’s about love and marriage and a day in ancient Israel when the unmarried women wore white garments and went to dance in the vineyards, calling out to eligible bachelors: “Lift up your eyes and choose wisely.”

Q: How does the book keep Jewish youth interested?

A: I tried to write it in an engaging way. I think that to the extent that young Jews and all Jews are sensitive to the rhythms of their own calendar, that will remind them of the distinctive features of their culture. In part it’s the balancing of the American calendar and the Jewish calendar that helps to shape American Jews. There are so many holidays in the fall, it’s hard to observe all of them when I’m working. But it’s very important to think: “What are my priorities? How do I want to be known? What kind of a Jew do I want to be.”

Q: Do you have a favorite holiday?

A: I personally always loved Passover; maybe that’s why I wrote about it first. Not only are there wonderful rituals, but I think that to anyone in America, the central theme of Passover — freedom — resonates greatly. To have a seder is a very remarkable, moving ritual with passages that can remain relevant into history. None of the holidays have quite as much preparation; you have to clean your whole house. As far as my wife is concerned, without Passover, I would never clean my study.

Q: What does your faith mean to you?

A: I’m impressed by Judaism as a way of life. Remember that in Judaism, the commandments and the fulfilment of the commandments, as well as a life of study and learning, are very important. I’m not saying that Judaism is without belief, that’s certainly not true. But belief is actually in many ways secondary to study and the performance of ritual commandments. It’s what I make of being Jewish and the faith that defines me. That, to me, is a very powerful idea.