The prominence of religion in the history of our country is undeniable. Many of the first North American settlers brought their religious beliefs and practices with them, and these quickly became an immovable fixture on the developing American landscape. The developmental explosion experience by American Christianity, in particular, led to it becoming the primary “pulse of a new democratic society” (Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, p.6).
In 1850, the U.S. Census reported that there were 18 principal denominations in the country. By 1890, this number grew to 145. The 1906 Census of Religious Bodies reported this number at 186, reflecting not only the growth of population in the U.S., but also the increasingly diverse ethnic background of the country at the turn of the century (this very interesting document is available here).
I could go on, but to me it’s pretty clear that religion is an ever-present force within our collective past.
But does it really matter?
Or we might ask “is it even relevant?”
The relevance of history is a topic that many of our colleagues who practice history have recently begun to tackle en masse. One notable way that this struggle has manifested itself is through the History Relevance Campaign. The campaign asserts that history is essential for a variety of reasons, including its ability to nurture personal identity, teach critical skills, foster engaged citizens and inspire leadership. The overall emphasis is that history, rather than being a compilation of dates and events from long ago, has meaning and value for today and the future.
My question is this: Does all of this hold true when viewed through the lens of religious history? If history is essential for all the variety of reasons stated by the History Relevance Campaign, can the same be applied to a religious history perspective? And does our religious history mean anything for our lives today, as well as for the future? If so, then why and how?
If not, then why bother? There is, after all, evidence to suggest that religion is becoming less of a fixture, albeit slightly, in our country (depending on how you read the results of this recent study). Does this mean that religious history will become ir-relevant?
Admittedly, I am asking the above questions as devil’s advocate (am I allowed to do that on a religious history blog?) to the field. For those of us practicing history, especially religious history, I believe that answer is wholeheartedly “YES!” However, it’s one thing to say “Yes, it’s relevant!” but another thing to actually articulate “why?” And the why for one person may be different for another. Which is why our differing perspectives and experiences are so valuable. In the coming months, members of the Religious History Affinity Group, along with some guest posters, will be thinking about these issues, and sharing their thoughts on why religious history is relevant in our country today.
By way of introduction, allow me to share some reasons why I believe religious history IS relevant today:
- It provides the key to understanding our geographic landscape. Walk through any city or town and count the places of worship. Why are there so many? And why do so many look and act the same, yet have no interaction? Why is there such a large Mormon population in the West, and why are there Southern Baptist Churches in the North? Understanding the religious history of our country can provide insight to these and many similar questions.
- It provides an understanding of people. To state the very obvious, people are all very unique. And when guided by a set of religious principles, this uniqueness is often sharpened. When their religious commitment infuses their entire outlook, everything from politics to business to architecture to recreation will be influenced by that worldview. An identity is created that is inseparable from everything else. Understanding our religious history can help us to see the complexities amongst people, and perhaps help us to understand where they are coming from, even when we may not agree with them. This is true today, but is also true historically. Who among us would study African-American history in the 1960s without considering the religious elements of that story?
- It provides proper context. Religious groups often create a physical world that may long outlast the adherents of that belief system, such as publications, architecture and furniture. Often times, these items are ripped from their original context, and take on a life of their own. A proper understanding of such items (a Shaker chair, for example) must see the items in their original context. This could lead to an accurate and honest understanding of such items in both our popular culture as well as in our cultural institutions. The Shakers never set out to be furniture makers; instead, the chairs they made, as well as the buildings they built and the hymns that they wrote, were the logical, and inseparable, result of their belief system.
- It provides inspiration. Concepts of love, hope, peace and justice are inseparable from many religious belief systems and have been positively used by many to change the country for the better (the Civil Rights movement quickly comes to mind). A proper understanding of the motivation that people have can inspire others to follow the path already trod. Alternately, many have misused and abused religion to achieve a variety of ends throughout history. Understanding this can inspire people to be careful how they use their beliefs, and ultimately learn from the mistakes of the past.
Is religious history relevant today? Yes it is…for the reasons stated above and for so many more. Join the Religious History Affinity Community in the coming months as we think about these concepts. Hopefully, it will create a dialogue and help us all sharpen how we see our past, present and future.
Aaron Genton is the collections manager at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.