June 16, 2014

Better Know an Archive: UCSB’s American Religions Collection

by Dusty Hoesly

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). It is one of the oldest such departments at a secular university in the United States, established one year after the Supreme Court’s Abington v. Schempp decision allowed teaching about religion (but not proselytizing) in public schools, and it has been a leader in the field ever since. Well-known faculty specializing in American religions have included Robert Michaelsen, Thomas O’Dea, Phillip Hammond, Ines Talamantez, Catherine Albanese, Wade Clark Roof, Charles Long, Rudy Busto, Ann Taves, and Kathleen M. Moore.

UCSB also maintains one of the finest collections in the world of archival and documentary materials on new religious movements and “alternative” religions. The cornerstone of the library’s Department of Special Collections is the American Religions Collection (ARC), mainly comprised of materials assembled by J. Gordon Melton for his Encyclopedia of American Religions, first published in 1978 and now in its 8th edition. The ARC contains thousands of books and serials, and almost 1,000 linear feet of manuscripts relating to 20th century sects and newer religions, such as Hare Krishnas, the Unification Church, Scientology, the Church of God, New Age groups, Asian religions in the U.S., and mail-order religions. Melton’s manuscript files, containing correspondence, newsletters, flyers, articles, clippings, and ephemera relating to hundreds of such groups, make up the bulk of the collection. Like his Encyclopedia, materials are organized by “families” of religious traditions.

In addition to the ARC manuscript files, some of the other holdings within the ARC include:
·         Bromley Papers: legal case files compiled by scholar David Bromley relating to est, ISKCON, Unification Church, and The Way International, among others.
·         Burnell Collection: materials by Los Angeles-area New Thought leaders George and Mary Burnell.
·         Chicagoland Psychic Archives (1964-1985): materials relating to practitioners of paranormal phenomena in the Chicago area, such as psychics, astrologers, mediums, ghosthunters, and devotees of the occult, UFOs, and parapsychology.
·         Clifton Collection: files about pagan, witchcraft, and occult subjects.
·         Cult Awareness Network (CAN) Collection: files on hundreds of religious groups, as well as internal administrative files of the former cult watchdog group.
·         Hadden Papers: files collected by scholar Jeffrey K. Hadden about evangelical groups and leaders such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jim Bakker.
·         Russell Chandler Collection: files from the 1960s-1980s collected when Chandler was a religion writer for the Los Angeles Times.
·         Santa Barbara Parapsychology Collection: materials related to parapsychology groups in central coastal and southern California.
Other sub-collections include materials about Ramtha, Estreletta, Worldwide Church of God, World Prophetic Ministry, Children of God, Old Catholics, Krishnamurti, ISKCON, Unification Church, Soka Gakkai International, Goddians, Christian Science, Unity School of Christianity, Swedenborgianism, Foundation for Christian Living, Brotherhood of the White Temple, Process Church of the Final Judgment, and Christian anti-Communism.

If you are looking for a complete run of FATE magazine or a complete set of Jack Chick books, the ARC has them both. Metaphysical serials include Hypnosis Quarterly, Health Alternatives Newsletter, Parapsychology Bulletin, Pagan Dawn, Eck News, and Astrologers’ Almanac, to name just a few. Aside from non-traditional religions and spiritualities, there are periodicals and other materials on a range of Christian sectarian groups, including Pentecostalism, Adventism, and various stripes of Evangelicalism, as well as Asian, African, and Native American religions, plus many more.

Beyond the ARC, the Special Collections department contains other resources useful for studying religion in the American West. For example, the Humanistic Psychology Archives encompasses manuscripts about “spiritual psychology” and related topics, and the J. F. Rowny Press Records collection contains materials from the Santa Barbara-based J. F. Rowny Press, which published metaphysical works. The Ricardo Cruz Catolicos por la Raza Papers (1967-1993) includes correspondence, legal documents, transcripts, and ephemera of Cruz, a Chicano rights attorney and founder of the controversial Católicos por la Raza, which demonstrated against the Catholic Church for its neglect of the Latino community.

Best of all, the library staff is always helpful and courteous, making research in the Special Collections a joy. Curator and archivist David Gartrell, in particular, can locate anything you are looking for quickly, typically offering relevant suggestions about other files which may aid in your research. In my experience, he will even sit with you and comb through manuscripts or serials looking for that one piece you are searching for. One time, he spent twenty minutes with me flipping through the classified ads in the back pages of FATE magazine for a particular advertisement.

In this brief and rather arbitrary look at the ARC and the UCSB Special Collections department’s holdings, I have focused more on the “alternative” and “new” religious movements which gained steam in the 1960s rather than “traditional” or “establishment” religions. I do this primarily because it reflects much of J. Gordon Melton’s collection as well as his scholarship, both of which are the core of the ARC. However, California should not only be seen as a place for “weird” religions, immigrant religions, and religious innovation. It is also a place of mainstream religions, nativism, and religious conservatism. Happily, the ARC contains materials on all of the above and more besides. Next time you’re visiting the American Riviera, stop by, introduce yourself, and surf through UCSB’s Special Collections and especially the American Religions Collection. Scholarly—or other—enlightenment awaits.

June 6, 2014

The West as a de-centering strategy for American religious history

by Thomas S. Bremer

The particular research methods and theoretical perspectives employed in the study of religions in the American west suggest the kinds of questions we ask and the insights we might gain from our scholarly inquiries. But we can also think about the west itself as a particular methodological strategy and theoretical perspective. Used this way, the west introduces a destabilizing element into resilient historiographical paradigms of Christian triumphalism that have burdened the more general field of American religious history. This is an approach I found useful in my recent work writing a textbook on the religious history of America.
The text I have written covers nearly six centuries of religion in America, presented chronologically, while questioning students’ assumptions about both “religion” and “America.” The goal, and the authorial challenge, was to present a “de-centered” narrative that allows students to consider the various ways that people on the North American continent have regarded themselves as religious and as American. One key intention of this textbook is to guide students through the various issues at stake in how people have imagined “religion” and have regarded “America” in ways that have produced normative views of both.

The challenge in avoiding paradigms that imagine religion in decidedly Protestant terms and that present America as the focus of a Christian tale of triumphal destiny is to resist allowing the historical reality of Protestant dominance to overwhelm the narrative by relying exclusively on Christian categories and perspectives for telling the story. The tale I want to present to students needs de-centering strategies that allow for a critical distance on the narration of American religious history. One useful tactic for achieving this is to bring attention early and often to the American west. This approach highlights the multidirectional nature of contact, conquest, and settlement of the continent while mitigating the teleological tendencies of a story that moves inevitably westward toward a conclusion at the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. In short, my attempt to produce a different sort of story relies to some extent on utilizing the American west as a deliberate strategy for resituating the historical narrative.

The story of the English in America can be an instructive example of how a western orientation can shift the emphasis of the historical narrative. In fact, English claims in North America did not begin in Virginia; before Jamestown, even before Roanoke, the English laid claim to California when Francis Drake spent a month there in 1579. He was attempting to preempt the claims of the Spaniards, the great Catholic nemesis of the Protestant Englishman. Drake’s activities along the Pacific coast of North America draw attention to how English interests were situated in the international politics of religious conflicts; this suggests a different, more expansive context for English colonization. From this standpoint, the internal theological differences within the Church of England that brought Puritan settlers to New England become a secondary, less consequential justification for a Protestant presence in America.

On the other hand, undue emphasis on the west can distort the historical narrative. Yes, the English claimed California before they sent colonists to Virginia, but it remained an empty claim, impossible to enforce and impractical to develop. In contrast, English Protestants who settled in Virginia, New England, and the other colonies established an enduring presence; just as importantly, they introduced religious narratives of providential exceptionalism that have served well the consequent course of nation building in America, with all of its questionable implications and often disastrous consequences.

That traditional tale, with its origins in the Calvinist proclivities of early Puritan colonists, became the conventional historiographical narrative of American religious history, one that has proven remarkably durable. It utilizes the figure of the west most often as the frontier of Christiandom, marking a boundary to be crossed and subjugated. But a different story that reconfigures the role of the western half of North America offers alternative narrative opportunities. The west can serve as an effective strategy for de-centering the tale of American religious history, not as the privileged space for a counter-narrative, but as another point of departure for gaining multiple perspectives on a religious history that cannot be reduced to any particular group or place.