OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Sarah Barringer Gordon

Portrait of Sarah Barringer Gordon

The Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Sarah Barringer Gordon teaches and writes on American religious and constitutional history. She is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (2002) and The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (2010). She is currently at work on a book entitled "Freedom's Holy Light: Disestablishment in America, 1776-1876." She is particularly interested in the legal history of religion and religious peoples in America, with a special focus on the relationship of politics and law to belief and practice in American life. In the most religiously diverse country on earth, freedom of religion has been central, and controversial, across American history.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

This lecture studies the political and religious climate in the build-up to disestablishment in Virginia in 1785. It argues that religious groups were crucial to the debate, and to the ways that religious freedom was interpreted in Virginia and the United States, especially but not only before the Civil War.
This lecture traces the creation of two corporations in 1796, the first formed and controlled by African Americans. Both were churches in Philadelphia. Thereafter, the law of corporations blended with the growth and stature of African American religious institutions. Using legal conflict and caselaw to piece together the assertion of independence and eventually the formation of a new denomination (the AME Church), this lecture documents the use of law as a central tool for institution building by early national black religious leaders.
This lecture discusses the ways that prayer in public spaces (schools, legislatures, city councils, and even sports stadiums) became such a fraught issue after World War II. Debates over the legality of public prayer continues to the present day, dividing Americans so deeply that cases involving prayer have become among the most controversial decisions in all of Supreme Court history.