New American Religions and Social Change in the Long Nineteenth Century

Thursday, April 27, 2023, 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: Race; Religion; Social and Cultural


This panel considers how American religious thought responded to social turmoil in the long nineteenth century, focusing on individuals outside of the white Christian mainstream whose new religious visions challenged the status quo. Democratic revolutions, industrialization, the new geology revealing the Earth’s age, electricity, global abolitionism, the creativity of the African Diaspora—to the practitioners of new religious movements, these events were signals that civilization was on the verge of transformation and reform. To people invested in traditional forms of religious life, new religious visionaries could represent threats to a stable society. Daniel Gorman Jr. will address the challenge that Spiritualism posed to traditional American Protestantism, using the 1857 scandal of Harvard student Frederick Willis to consider why Spiritualism was so appealing, and why it unnerved establishment Protestants in the press and academia. Kate Hanch will analyze Sojourner Truth as a theologian in addition to being an abolitionist. Truth drew on multiple Christian traditions to become a nondenominational critic of the standing social order, offering a powerful Black feminist testimony. Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm’s paper will trace the influences of the nineteenth-century American new religious movement known as the Theosophical Society on José Vasconcelos and Augusto “César” Sandino and their notions of “race” and revolution in Latin America. Finally, Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh will connect the history of African American “conjure” to the histories of medicine and witchcraft. Although conjure described a wide range of spiritual practices including healing and harming, nineteenth-century white commentators in Britain and America continually dismissed the knowledge of Black women as disreputable “witchcraft.” Margarita Simon Guillory will chair the session, and Benjamin E. Zeller will comment on the presentations. Together, the panelists are committed to studying the intellectual and racial diversity of nineteenth-century American religion and spotlighting contrarian challenges to white Protestant hegemony.

Papers Presented

“Phantom Luminaries: Spiritualism and Paranormal Investigators in the Age of Disruption.”

​​This project combines a biography of a singularly eccentric and well-connected Spiritualist, Frederick Willis (1830–1914), with a study of the cultural furor surrounding his new religion. An orphan, Willis rejected his grandparents’ Calvinism in favor of free thought. He befriended Louisa May Alcott and boarded intermittently with the Alcotts from 1844–54, becoming immersed in Transcendentalism. In 1854, Willis became a Spiritualist medium, allegedly experiencing spirit manifestations, levitation, and the ability to diagnose and cure people. He befriended Spiritualists throughout Massachusetts while studying at Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister. In March 1857, Prof. Henry Eustis accused Willis of falsifying his powers, leading to his suspension. The Willis affair sent the Boston–Cambridge area into an intellectual and moral panic about Spiritualism for four months. Professors Louis Agassiz, Benjamin Peirce, Eben Horsford, and Cornelius Conway Felton, along with journalist George Lunt and astronomer Benjamin Apthorp Gould Jr., launched investigations into Spiritualism because of the controversy. Willis never regained his standing at Harvard, but he supported Spiritualism for the rest of his life. He became a lecturer and metaphysical physician, stressing his scientific and religious expertise. My thesis is twofold. First, the Harvard scholars and their allies attempted to discredit Spiritualism because it challenged their expectations of what counted as rationalist religion, respectable scholarship, and moral behavior. Second, the powerful combination of metaphysical and liberal ideas inspired individuals like Willis to join nonconformist religions (including Spiritualism) and remain loyal to them despite the controversy they inspired.

Presented By
Daniel James Gorman Jr., University of Rochester

“‘In accordance with her own most curious and original views’: The Spirituality of Sojourner Truth.”

This presentation follows the lead of womanist historians Margaret Washington and Nell Irvin Painter in teasing out the various strands of Sojourner Truth’s theological background to demonstrate how her spirituality enabled her to serve as a prophetic theologian. First, I describe and elaborate on Truth’s religious background. Her mother’s African heritage, the Dutch Reformed tradition of her enslavers, and the Methodist camp meetings which she attended as a young person all informed what her biographer Olive Gilbert describes “her most curious and original views.” Second, I draw out such views in her adult life as a lecturer and preacher, focusing on three movements in her co-authored autobiography: her conversion experience, her changing her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth; and her preaching at a camp meeting in front of a hostile crowd. Through these events, among others, Truth asserts herself as a unique Christian theologian not bound by any denominational affiliation or ecclesial body. Lastly, I address how her “most curious and original views” shape how she addressed her contemporary political and religious landscape. Particularly, I examine her “Aren’t I a Woman” sermon from 1853, drawing out how her theological backgrounds and personal experiences coalesce into advocating for Black women’s rights. Ultimately, Truth’s self-understanding as a spiritual and political figure allows her to bear “withness” (purposefully misspelled) to a God who honors and loves her body in a nation fractured by white supremacy, misogyny, and war.

Presented By
Kate Hanch, First St. Charles United Methodist Church

“Cosmic Revolutionaries: Theosophical Influences on Race and Revolution in Latin America”

Mexican historians have often commented on the singular importance of the politician and poet José Vasconcelos (1882–1959) and especially his influential manifesto, La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race, 1925), which was critical for shaping the ideology of the Mexican Revolution and celebrating racial mestizaje (mixture or hybridity) as a central pillar of Mexican nationalism. While scholars have rightly criticized Vasconcelos for formulating a version of mestizo identity that marginalized blackness, they have generally tended to ignore his references to alchemy, Atlantis, Lemuria, and a coming “Spiritual Era” in which the Cosmic Race would become dominant. These allusions make sense once we recognize that Vasconcelos was influenced by a particular new religious movement, namely the Theosophical Society, founded in New York City in 1875. Historians of religion have stressed this society’s role in the promotion of yoga and Buddhism in Europe and the United States, but it was more revolutionary than the typical narrative suggests. Indeed, Vasconcelos was not the only Latin American revolutionary to draw on theosophy. As this paper will explore, theosophical influences are also abundant in the work of the famous Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto “César” Sandino (1895–1934) and his lesser-known comrade Joaquín Trincado (1866–1935). This paper will excavate Theosophy’s history in Latin America and explore its influence (and those of other period occult and spiritist movements) on notions of “race” and revolution throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Presented By
Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm, Williams College

“Between Healing and Harm: Black Women, Conjure, and the Specter of Witchcraft in the 19th Century”

As spiritualism and other movements gained prominence and the field of medicine took shape in the 19th century, the healing and harming practices of African-descended people in the United States remained bound by the category of “conjure,” with all of its attendant connotations of superstition, backwardness, and irrationality. “Conjure” described a constellation of healing and harming practices executed through recourse to ritualized practices, material objects, or pharmacological productions. The term’s origins in the medicinal and folk practices of the British Isles belied its function as a racialized—and in many cases, gendered—category used to delineate legitimate and illegitimate approaches to the sense and spirit realms in the wake of the legal disavowal of “witchcraft” as a verifiable phenomenon following the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. Often wielded to discredit and malign African-descended people’s, particularly women’s epistemologies, racial commentators’ derogations of “conjure” masked 19th-century medical and New Age practitioners’ recourses to Black women’s practices as a source of “legitimate” medicinal and spirit knowledge in a period of intense religious innovation. This paper examines how the specter of “witchcraft” shaped Euro- and African-Americans’ derogatory orientations towards enslaved and “uneducated” Black women’s conjuring, even as women’s practices remained a source of knowledge for varied factions seeking to categorize, control, and ritualize the relationship between spirit and the body.

Presented By
Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, Stanford University

Session Participants

Chair: Margarita Simon Guillory, Boston University
Margarita Simon Guillory teaches courses on American religious history, digital religion, and religion and popular culture. Her research interests include identity construction in Africana esoteric religions, religion and technology, and social scientific approaches to religion. She is the author of Social and Spiritual Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches (Routledge 2017) and co-editor of Esotericism in African American Religious Experience (Brill 2014). In addition to these works, she has published articles in the Journal of Gnostic Studies, Culture and Religion, and Pastoral Psychology. Her current project, Africana Religion in the Digital Age, considers how African Americans utilize the Internet, social media, mobile applications, and gaming to forge new ways to express their religious identities.

Presenter: Daniel James Gorman Jr., University of Rochester
Daniel Gorman Jr. is a history PhD candidate at the University of Rochester, studying nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. culture and religion. He has taught courses on new religious movements, science and religion, and digital history at UR and the Rochester Institute of Technology. He received his MA from Villanova University and is a past recipient of the Beinecke Scholarship and an Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellowship.

Presenter: Kate Hanch, First St. Charles United Methodist Church
Kate Hanch is an independent scholar, adjunct professor, and associate pastor in the United Methodist Church. Her PhD dissertation, completed in 2020 at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Theology and Ethics, is entitled Prophetic Humility: A Feminist Theological Account. It explored the theologies of medieval European women and nineteenth century Black American women. Her forthcoming book with Fortress Press entitled Storied Witness: The Theology of Black Women Preachers in 19th-Century America delineates the theologies of Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, and Sojourner Truth. Hanch received her MDiv from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of several articles and chapters. She also serves as the first vice president of the National Association of Baptist Professors-region at large.

Presenter: Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm, Williams College
Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm is Professor of Religion and Chair of Science & Technology Studies at Williams College. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, his MA from Harvard University, and has held visiting positions at Princeton University, École Française d’Extrême-Orient, and Universität Leipzig in Germany. Storm is the author of numerous articles as well as the award-winning The Invention of Religion in Japan (2012), The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences (2017), and Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (2021), all published by University of Chicago Press.

Presenter: Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh, Stanford University
Alexis Wells-Oghoghomeh is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies department at Stanford University. A historian of African-American religion, her teaching and research examine the religiosity of enslaved people in the South, religion in the African Atlantic, and women’s religious histories. Her book The Souls of Womenfolk: The Religious Cultures of Enslaved Women in the Lower South (UNC Press, 2021) is a gendered history of enslaved people’s religiosity from the colonial period to the onset of the Civil War. She is currently at work on a second project that traces the gendered, racialized history of phenomena termed “witchcraft” in the United States. Her work has been supported by the Ford Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and Forum for Theological Education, among others. She received her B.A. in English from Spelman College, and Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Emory University.

Commentator: Benjamin E. Zeller, Lake Forest College
Benjamin E. Zeller is Associate Professor and Chair of Religion at Lake Forest College (Chicago, USA). He researches religious currents that are new or alternative, including new religions, the religious engagement with science, and the quasi-religious relationship people have with food. He is author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (NYU Press), Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America (NYU Press), editor of Handbook of UFO Religions (Brill), and co-editor of Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (Columbia University Press) and The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements (Bloomsbury). He also designed the Sacred Chicago project, a digitalization project involving Chicago’s sacred spaces. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina and a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard University. He is co-general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.