Greater Feast of Harry Smith, died November 27, 1991 at New York, United States
“America is seething with anarchy on every plane, because of the constantly changing economic conditions, the conflict between creeds, casts, codes, cultures and races. Society has never had a chance to settle down. The expansion westward, the discovery of gold, coal, iron and oil, the slavery question, the secession question, the constant flux caused by the development of technical science, the religious and moral instability, the conflict between federal centralization and state sovereignty, the congestion of cities, the exploitation of the farmer by the financier, the shifting of the economic centre of gravity, these and a thousand other conditions arising from the unprecedented development of the country combine to make it impossible even to imagine stability in any plane of life. There is thus a radical distinction between Europe and her daughter. We know more or less what to expect in any set of circumstances. Heterogeneous as we are there is a common ground of thought and action. We are even able to draw reasonable conclusions about Asia and Africa. London and Tokyo are sufficiently alike in essentials to make our relations intelligible, but in spite of the community of language, customs, commercial conventions, and so on, between London and New York, the difference between us is really more radical. There are many incalculable factors in any formula which connects the United States with Europe.”
— Chapter 75 from Confessions
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick.
This history of the American West is a significant revisionary account, which takes as its foil the century-old thesis of Frederick Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Author Limerick notes the effective obsolescence of any narrative about the West structured around a frontier, and she laments this conception as one that has caused a general eclipse of interest in the West as a historical topic. She then proceeds to raise a wide range of issues with which to demonstrate continuity between the ‘frontier’ West of the 19th century and the contemporary West of the late 20th. She seeks to portray “the West as a place and not a [completed] process.” (26) The innovation of the book is in its breadth of its perspective. Limerick has drawn principally on secondary sources written in the second half of the 20th century. Historical specialists had already come to factual grips with the individual issues and concerns that she constellates into an “unbroken past.” Her synthesis thus provides a new point of departure for historians and readers seeking fresh problems.
The book is divided into two sections. The first, “The Conquerors,” undermines heroic stereotypes of settlers and frontiersmen. Limerick provides resounding evidence against the savvy and independence that Turner attributed to those living a “frontier life,” and develops a counter-narrative in which settlers and developers of the West embraced naive hopes, and often came to view themselves as victims, tied as they were into commercial, social, and environmental nets of interdependence.
The book’s second section, “The Conquerors Meet Their Match,” restores narrative agency to the allegedly conquered forces of indigenous peoples, Mexican-Americans, other racial and religious minorities, and the wilderness environment itself. Limerick’s account firmly and convincingly contradicts the “composite nationality” of inter-ethnic solidarity asserted by Turner as a feature of the West, by pointing out racial conflicts and divides as significant and persistent as those chronicled in the South.
Limerick writes, “Simplicity, alas, is the one quality that cannot be found in the actual story of the American West.” (323) But on those occasions where she suggests a keynote, it is “the contest for property and profit,” (292) “an array of efforts to wrap the concept of property around unwieldy objects.” (71)
A chief feature of The Legacy of Conquest is its consistent success in tying its topics from the 19th century West to dilemmas of the same region in the late 20th century. While aimed at the reader in history, the book would be engaging for those whose ultimate interest is the contemporary American West. Like Turner, Limerick represents the stories of the West as the most characteristically American portion of America’s history, and thus reflective of tropes and trends common to the nation as a whole, and even to the entire project of European conquest of the Americas. [via]
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand.
The Metaphysical Club of Menand’s title was a small, fairly short-lived conversation society organized by Chauncey Wright in 1872 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with members including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce, among others. Menand represents this coterie as the seedbed of the American philosophical school of pragmatism, and uses it for a point of orientation in tracing the intellectual formation and accomplishments of pragmatists James, Pierce, and John Dewey. Along with Holmes, who despite his distaste for the label “pragmatism,” shared in much of the intellectual innovation of his erstwhile club colleagues, these men were “the first modern thinkers in the United States,” according to Menand’s account. (pp. xi, 432-3) This phase of American thinking germinated during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, flowered in the first decade of the twentieth, and persisted until the middle of the twentieth century—a span punctuated by the Civil War at one end and the Cold War at the other.
The Metaphysical Club offers an imposing tangle of vivid biographies, in order to repeatedly demonstrate how the “modern” perspectives of the pragmatists and their peers differed from their immediate predecessors: the “modernizing” generation of their parents and teachers. Intellectual biographies of the pragmatists’ fathers serve as points of comparison and contrast, rather than contributing causes of their sons’ careers. The Cambridge-based Saturday Club of Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Agassiz and their associates (including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.) helps to make this comparison concrete. The signal event that divided these two generations was the Civil War. And Menand suggests that a driving principle of their thought was “fear of violence,” a fear instilled by the Civil War and activated by economic and social conflict in the 1890s (p. 373).
Menand’s description of the intellectual mode of the pragmatists emphasizes their attention to liberty and tolerance, unity of thought and action, contextualism, and a refutation of natural essences. At the same time, he remarks the extent to which thinkers like Holmes and Dewey were actually quite alien to the standards usually at issue in characterizing “liberal” thought. They were hostile to individualism, scientific instrumentalism, and laissez-faire economics. Their typical tendency was to discuss complex phenomena as differentiated wholes, rather than combinations of reified elements. Menand also shows how the philosophical “pluralism” coined by William James was significantly different than its later mutation as cultural pluralism.
With his chosen cast of characters, Menand is able to explore the expression of the pragmatist viewpoint in the diverse fields of law, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, statistics, and education. At the same time, he provides an account of a key phase in the professionalization of the academy. He details the beginnings of graduate education in the US, the founding of several key universities, the establishment of AUUP and key juridical precedents for the intellectual freedom of academic professionals. [via]
The clumsy-sounding “Americans” of Moore’s title is intended to highlight the issue of like-it-or-not pluralism that pervades the book; there is no unitary America on the plane of religion. He characterizes ecumenism as a Protestant appetite, and emphasizes the recurrent usefulness of religious particularism and dissent. In many respects, he provides a historical and philosophical structure to comprehend the “supply-side” assertions of Stark and Finke’s later Churching of America, while transcending their focus on the statistically predominant Protestant institutions of American religious history. He also places himself in opposition to the expansive insider paradigm advanced in Robert Bellah’s theory of American civil religion, which Moore describes as “inexplicable” in its attractions, absent the ecumenical motive developed by Protestants and imposed by misreading onto Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew. (pp. ix, 18-19) In fact, Moore points out adroitly enough that “Civil religion…like more ordinary religions, may have split Americans into separate camps as often as it has brought them together.” (p. 202)
While apologizing for an apparent lack of narrative development or thematic unity in his relatively short book, Moore maintains throughout a consistent perspective highlighting the essential nature of the outsider position in American religion, to the point where a reader may suspect that to be genuinely religious in the US requires being an outsider of one sort or another. Reading the book provokes the question: who are “religious outsiders” in America? Moore starts with a clear-cut instance; in their origins and early history at least, Mormons were a tiny minority undoubtedly cast as deviant and progressively alienated from the national establishment. But his next two chapters, on Catholics and Jews respectively, implicitly demarcate all non-Protestant religions as “outsider.” And in his essay on “The Protestant Majority as a Lost Generation—A Look at Fundamentalism,” he depicts the numerical bulk of Protestants adopting or being cast into the position of outsiders for much of the twentieth century. Ultimately, the pluralism described and advocated by Moore is a circumstance binding on all Americans, and an ideal held by few, if any. In such a situation, a conscious embrace of “outsider” status offers both a measure of authenticity and tactical advantage. Religions can preserve their truth claims while excusing a lack of universal acknowledgement (thus Protestant fundamentalists). Even more importantly, they can reify social and cultural niches that provide their adherents with places in a nation that has never been a utopia.
Moore’s introduction is reminiscent of the introduction to Ahlstrom’s Religious History of the American People, providing a wide-angle review of the historiography of American religion, though in Moore’s case with particular and critical reference to the idea of religious diversity. He observes that histories—whether because of the providential theology of the 19th century or the denominational theories of the 20th—have typically gotten their facts wrong because they trained their attention on the “mainline” groups that embraced insider status and promoted tolerance, even while outsider and intolerant groups did as much or more to define the overall picture of American religious life. Moore later also deploys Ahlstrom’s category of harmonialism, without collapsing occultism and the general run of non-Abrahamic religion into it as Ahlstrom had done; the effect is that he situates Christian Science among Judah’s “Metaphysical Movements,” although he uses Ahlstrom’s term. (p. 116)
The book’s essays are divided into two groups, of which the first concerns itself with “ethnicity and American identity” in the context of outsider religions. In one chapter, Moore casts the development of Mormonism as the crafting of a novel ethnicity. In another, he reviews the “Americanizing” controversy within 19th-century Catholicism. He explains “non-Americanizers” as participants in a conscious strategy by which ethnicity could be used to maintain Catholic ties while adapting immigrants to American society, and presents them as antagonists of the premise that Catholicism was inherently anti-American. The chapter on Judaism describes not only the novelty of the American experience for Jews who found themselves promoted from an object of extraordinary prejudice in Europe to an “ordinary minority” in America, but also the extent to which Jews were able to turn around and become a vanguard in the representation of America to itself through both entertainment media and social justice organizing. By emphasizing ethnicity in these religious identities, Moore brings notions of difference from their peripheries to their centers.
In the second large division of the text, Moore treats “religions for average Americans” under the title “the Progressive’s Despair.” His “average Americans” include Christian Scientists, pre-millenialists, Fundamentalists, and African-Americans. In the first three cases, he soundly makes the case for their ordinariness alongside their “outsider” status, refusing to stigmatize them on the latter account. In the final case, he documents the exceptional nature of Black Christianity in both cultivating and undermining the sense of social autonomy among African-Americans.
While I understand that Moore’s thesis requires him to cultivate sympathy for the religious groups about which he writes, I think he tends to cut too much slack for Biblical inerrancy, e.g. when he characterizes it as “the notion…that the Bible means what it says.” (p. 169) The dilemmas regarding popular hermeneutics of scripture didn’t begin with higher criticism or theological modernism. No text is self-interpreting, and the Bible is less transparent than most. In fact, I think it is rather easier to defend the intellectual integrity of denying biological evolution than that of denying reading.
Another terminological quirk is Moore’s repeated invocation of the “Moral Majority,” which must have seemed like something more than a decade-long political coalition in 1986. (Falwell’s attempted resurrection of a grouping under that banner in 2003 made little progress before his 2007 demise.) Still, Moore’s analysis of Fundamentalism’s persistence after Scopes—as contrasted with the illusion of its reconstitution by Billy Graham—is a sound one, and he puts his finger on the political dilemma that confronted both Fundamentalists and their sectarian pre-millenialist cousins at the close of the 20th century. Their relationship to “Caesar” is necessarily different than the one shown in the gospels, but what should it be?
In the postscript, I was struck by the following remark: “If Americans are now more religiously tolerant than they were in the nineteenth century, it is not because they are collectively more high-minded but because they care less about religion.” (p. 205)
My disagreement with the final clause of the apodosis preoccupied me for minutes, until I realized that I rejected the protasis. And it seems that Moore may as well, if we attend to his final suspension of judgment on whether “consensus as a myth” will continue to be supportable in the future of American religions. (p. 210) I strongly concur that the “invented oppositions” (p. 46) in which our pluralism is rooted are what nourish its religious dynamism. [via]
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America by J Stillson Judah.
Writing in the 1990s, Wouter Hanegraaff refers to this book as a “standard work” on the topic, and notes that Judah coined the term “metaphysical movements.” (See Judah, p. 7) The volume treats a set of “religious philosophies” in the United States, beginning in the 1840s, and progressing up until the date that the book was written. Although Judah provided no evidence for the claim, he asserted that these religions were growing in popularity at the time of his writing. (p. 12) He characterized these metaphysical movements by family resemblance, with a set of fifteen chief features, including: gnostic anthropology, divine monism, pragmatism, psychological interpretation, optimism, mental or spiritual healing, and preferring “principles” to creed. Even when explicitly Christian, these groups tended to view Jesus as a teacher, rather than as the unique human incarnation of God.
Judah’s first chapter is devoted to inventorying some aspects of the germinal milieu of the American metaphysical movements. Besides the transcendentalist school and its effects, which he remarks as their foremost precedent and influence, he observes the importance of American religious pluralism, revivalism, deism, Swedenborgianism, Puritan utilitarianism, and occultism (i.e. hermeticism and kabbalah). He then goes on to provide historical sketches, with representations of doctrines and practices, for each of the following metaphysical movements: Spiritualism (with its various institutions and sects), Theosophy “and its allies” (i.e. the Arcane School and the Astara Foundation), New Thought (with the precedent teachings of Quimby and Evans, and the progeny of the Divine Science Church and the Church of Religious Science), the Unity School of Christianity, and Christian Science. A closing chapter treats the effect of the metaphysical movements on Protestantism, especially through the avenue of notions of health and mental healing.
Judah repeatedly cites Frank Podmore’s history of Spiritualism, Charles J. Ryan on Theosophy, Horatio Dresser on New Thought, and several secondary sources on Christian Science. For all of the movements surveyed, he makes extensive use of their own doctrinal literature, and in several cases he has interviewed key leaders or their families. Perhaps it is significant that no secondary sources appear in different sections of the book, since Judah appears to have been the first to tie these various groups and teachings into a coherent tradition.
Judah’s theory of religion is partly formulated in his closing chapter, where he insists that all religions can be analyzed in terms of three chief components: mental/philosophical, conative (relating to aspiration and conduct), and emotional. He insists that the conative component, the religious will as such, must be powered by an emotional experience, and he suggests that the historical transformations in American religion have resulted from the waxing and waning of emphasis on emotional experience. He points to the metaphysical movements as offering an orientation to the religious experiences of the individual during periods when mainline Protestantism has become abstracted into concerns about social justice. (pp. 291-2)
A significant part of Judah’s methodology in The Metaphysical Movements might be best characterized as comparative theology, even though that term has not been in vogue since the mid-20th century. He consistently attends to comparing the theological elements in the various metaphysical movements against each other, and against an implicitly normative mainline American Protestantism. But he has no evident chip on his shoulder, and his foreword includes an accounting of his own past engagements in the study and practice of Theosophy, yoga, New Thought, Spiritualism, and other “metaphysical” systems. The frankness of this passage shows a sort of scholarly reflexivity that is admirable in the early and mid-1960’s when Judah was writing. He cautions that any seemingly negative evaluations of the religions in his book “should be considered as constructive criticism offered in the same spirit in which the writer has also criticized the Protestant churches.” (p. 9) He does in the end refrain from offering either praise or condemnation of the metaphysical movements as a whole, but he opines that there would be ample justification for different parties to view them as revolutionary, restorative, or subversive of more customary institutional religions in America. [via]
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Middle-Class Blacks in a White Society: Prince Hall Freemasonry in America by William Alan Muraskin.
This sociological approach to Prince Hall Freemasonry contains a lot of fascinating data and some even-handed evaluations. The author faults previous studies of the American “black middle class” for actually confining their observations to the black elite. He then makes a convincing case that, for his purposes, members of the Prince Hall Masonic bodies can all be considered “middle class.” While not all middle class blacks would necessarily be Masons, by taking Prince Hall Masons as an identifiable bourgeoisie within American society, Muraskin considerably expands the middle-class black population to be considered in his study.
The historical information alone, while sometimes anecdotal in structure, is of excellent value. Particular attention is devoted to Prince Hall Masonry in California, Texas, Illinois, New York and Georgia. The author very effectively debunks academic misconceptions about Masonry as a primarily rural organization, or as an antiquated society in decline. He outlines both the virtues and ambitions common to Prince Hall Masonic bodies, as well as their special challenges and shortcomings.
As an initiate of the Order myself, I found this book to be a lucid look at the “big picture” of Prince Hall Masonry, from an objective yet sympathetic outside researcher of the subject. [via]