January 14, 2013

“The Burden of Church History”… in the American West

by Cara L. Burnidge

Celebrating 125 years of the American Society of Church History in New Orleans last weekend, fellow Religion in the American West contributor Laurie Maffly-Kipp gave fellow ASCH members plenty to ponder in her presidential address, “The Burdens of Church History,” at the Society’s Winter Meeting.

Drawing inspiration from C. Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History, Maffly-Kipp asserted the continued importance of “church history” despite theoretical problems it carries within Religious Studies. While noting her interest in expanding the focus of church history to include people, events, and objects outside of a traditional notion of a “church,” Maffly-Kipp admitted that she cannot avoid the “nagging feeling” that she must hold on to the “church” part of “church history” because it mattered to historical actors she studies. Drawing on her own work on African American religions, Maffly-Kipp pointed to the tension that often gets overlooked within African American Christianity: even though Jim Crow weighed heavily upon churches, many African American Christians sought membership in and gave value to belonging to a church. In a short paraphrase of Maffly-Kipp’s remarks: it mattered to them, so it should matter to us.

What, you might ask, does this offer for scholars of religion in the American West? More than you might think. As her address drew to a close, Maffly-Kipp emphasized the significance of collectivities, networks, and institutional structures that shape historical actors’ individual experiences. Rather than choose between “fight or flight” with a traditional “church history” method, Maffly-Kipp pointed ASCH members to a renewed interest in institutions—and institutional memory—as a vantage point for scholarship. This, it seems to me, can be of great interest to RAW readers. How do collectivities (be they formal institutions like churches or not) and networks of collectivities shape religion in the American West or, alternatively, the notion of the “west” itself?

At first blush it may seem that RAW readers have a healthy distance from “church history,” both the physical spaces and the outdated model of scholarship. There may be much to gain, however, in reconsidering the relationship between the two. 

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