Suffering and the Sacred in American Society: Protestant Debates about Faith and Affliction from the Puritans to the Present

AHA Session 164
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon A (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Tracy Fessenden, Arizona State University
W. Clark Gilpin, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

Ideas about the sacred influence how societies interpret and cope with suffering.  Since the seventeenth century, the doctrines and rituals of Protestant Christianity have shaped the ways in which many North Americans have experienced and responded to pain.  The papers in this session analyze how American Protestants in a variety of historical contexts have debated the meaning and significance of affliction.  Through a series of specific case studies, the presenters probe the connections among Christian theology and American approaches to religious persecution, corporal punishment, endemic poverty, and the politics of international relief and development.  In her opening paper on mid-seventeenth-century colonial New England, Adrian Weimer explores how reports of Protestant suffering in Europe challenged the ways in which Massachusetts Bay settlers understood their own identity as a persecuted people and provoked them to re-evaluate their harsh treatment of local outsider groups.  Jennifer Graber follows with a study of conflict between Protestant reformers and prison officials over the purpose and limits of inmate suffering in antebellum New York.  Her analysis shows that religious assumptions regarding the objectives of the penitentiary and proper forms of punishment influenced how opposing parties framed their arguments about appropriate treatment for the state’s criminal population.  Heather Curtis considers how American missionaries from the Holiness tradition interpreted and attempted to heal spiritual, physical, and social suffering they encountered among the “heathen” during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.  Her reflection on the complex and contested relationship between Holiness missions and "humanitarianism" sets the stage for David King’s presentation on the Christian relief and development organization, World Vision.  In the second half of the twentieth century, King argues, American evangelicals evolved both their theology and missionary methods in response to visible suffering both at home and abroad.  Together these four papers analyze how American faith communities from the seventeenth century to the present have wrestled with the vexing question of how to translate theological precepts about pain into practice.  As a whole, this session shows that Protestant norms of affliction have remained persuasive in shaping personal subjectivities, communal identities, societal institutions, and cultural conventions throughout American history.  At the same time, these careful studies of particular episodes in the past reveal that making sense of suffering has always involved conflict, contestation, and change.  By assessing how beliefs about sin, salvation and sanctification have affected both individual experiences of and collective reactions to suffering in a broad range of cultural and social settings, the authors demonstrate the persistent power of religious convictions in influencing American private life and public policy.   In so doing, the session hopes to encourage conversation on the connections among history, society and the sacred with an audience that would include historians of American religion, social reform, politics, culture, humanitarianism and international diplomacy in all periods.

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