Integrating Religion into World History: Conversion, Power-Knowledge, and the State

AHA Session 160
World History Association 2
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room 205 (Hynes Convention Center)
David F. Lindenfeld, Louisiana State University
Roberta Wollons, University of Massachusetts Boston

Session Abstract

In his 2003 survey of the field of world history, Patrick Manning noted, “It is remarkable. . .how little discussion of religion appears in world history literature for recent centuries” (Navigating World History, p. 248.). One reason for this deficit may be the relative paucity of theoretical models that address cross-cultural religious interactions, particularly the question of how to integrate their “material” and “spiritual” aspects. Most  scholars of modern history tend to be more comfortable discussing the former than the latter. The subject of conversion to Christianity as a result of missionary activity—surely a global phenomenon--offers a rich empirical field of study for such interactions. We need, however, to construe “conversion” in a sufficiently broad sense, not limited to a moment of epiphany within a single individual, but also including groups of people, often over an extended period of time and with multiple stages, and not infrequently involving a shift from one Christian denomination to another. Studies of missionary history are increasingly emphasizing the role of indigenous agents, particularly women, in the conversion process.

The papers in this panel deal with cases of such extended conversions in three disparate geographical regions: nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, twentieth-century Mexico and China. They invoke a number of theoretical approaches, most prominently those of Michel Foucault--albeit in ways that go beyond how Foucault himself applied these concepts to religious phenomena. Thus his notion of Power/Knowledge seems to capture the fact that many religions conceive spirituality itself in terms of power or force which directly affects one’s material circumstances. Moreover, Foucault deliberately contrasts this Power/Knowledge with power in the sense of governmentality and the state—another dimension which Christian converts can often ill afford to ignore. Each of the papers demonstrates how conversion processes, power/knowledge, and the role of the state can be integrated.

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