I attended a fascinating panel this morning entitled “Liberal and Evangelical Women, Social Reform, and the Problem of Categorization” The four panelists asked us to consider whether or not “liberal/progressive” and “evangelical” were actually oppositional categories in the 19th century. The conclusions drawn by all four suggest that, like many things in history, the reality is rather complex.
First, Dennis Durst of Kentucky Christian University reconsidered Frances Willard’s religious groundings, arguing that her activism mixed progressive and evangelical social values. He pointed to her extensive use of Biblical motifs, her emphasis on the maintenance of the traditional family, and her view on sexual purity. Willard, he noted, was incensed when other evangelicals called her reform movement “secular.” Durst also asked us to be careful not to read the fundamentalist/modernist controversy back too far.
Leah Payne of Vanderbilt focused on Pentecostal leader Maria Woodworth-Etter. While many have presumed that Pentecostal eschatological views would dampen any impetus towards social reform, Payne argued that Woodworth-Etter’s advocacy for women’s ministry fits into that tradition quite neatly.
Heather Vacek of Duke examined the religious backgrounds of Dorothea Dix, and how they contributed to her advocacy for the mentally ill in the nineteenth century. Raised for the first 12 years by her father, a fiery evangelical Methodist preacher, she spent the rest of her early adulthood with her extended family, a group of metropolitan Boston Unitarians. Vacek argued that Dix inherited piety and perfectionism from her father, but turned her focus outwards as a result of her Unitarian influences.
Lydia Willsky, also of Vanderbilt, touched on Unitarianism as well in her exploration of the religious and philosophical life of Caroline Healey Dall. For Dall, like for many others, Unitarianism led to Transcendentalism. Many historians argue that Transcendentalism was not a religion but a philosophy, bu Willsky argues that for Dall, who was influenced by the sermons of Theodore Parker, Transcendentalism was very much a religion.
Bret Carroll of California State University at Stanislaus gave a wonderful comment, tying all four papers together and asking some significant questions about the theme that tied the panel together: categorization. He asked if these papers revealed significant overlap between evangelical and liberal/progressive reformers, and if so, how useful was it to think of these categories as oppositional. He praised the way each panelist had used gender to highlight and tease apart the assumptions long built into the work on these women and their religious movements.
After my morning spent pondering evangelical reformers, and a wonderful lunch at Antoine’s with the American Catholic Historical Association, I had a really exciting meeting with one of the most prominent historians blogging today: John Fea!
I have one more day of panels and perhaps some sweet deals at the book exhibits. I’m mentally exhausted but also excited and rejuvenated. It’s wonderful to be around so many of my peers doing so many interesting things, with a speech like Cronon’s presidential address to get us fired up for the spring semester. One of Cronon’s major points was that history helps us talk about how the world got to be the way it is today, which can be the entry point for so many of our students, and for members of the general public too. For many of us, untangling those threads that tie us to the past – a past that is familiar yet utterly foreign – is one of the most exciting things about our discipline. I leave this conference excited to head back to my classroom, to explore the foreign countries of the past with a new group of eager travelers.