Cosmopolitanism and Religion in the Turn of the Twentieth Century U.S. Left

AHA Session 102
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 3
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Orleans Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Syracuse University
Leigh Eric Schmidt, Washington University

Session Abstract

Session Abstract

Cosmopolitanism and Religion in the Turn-of-the-Twentieth Century U.S. Left

            In response to the 2011 AHA’s call for papers, this session will focus on the spiritual and religious dimensions of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century progressivism in the United States.  The common starting point for the session’s three papers is Leigh Eric Schmidt’s book Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (2005) and its genealogy of a “religious left” in a “highly productive alliance among liberals, progressives, and spiritual seekers.”  Tolerance of difference, religious and otherwise, characterized important strains within post-Civil War liberalism, as an increasing number of theologians, intellectuals, and institutions adopted a cosmopolitan approach to belief that both emphasized the universal commonalities underlying all human distinctiveness and found something sacred in both the universal and the diverse. While most scholarship on progressive reform and democratic thought at the turn of the century highlights the growing secularism of social scientific approaches to society, this panel demonstrates that there was more to the intersection between religion and social reform than Social Gospel, and that what appeared to be secularization could as often be sacralization.

            The emergence of Protestant cosmopolitanism will be examined in Amy Kittelstrom’s paper on Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones and the National Federation of Religious Liberals.  Kittelstrom argues that what Jones and others called a “religion of democracy” allowed these progressives to bridge if not collapse their doctrinal differences in united pursuit of social justice—a goal that would ultimately take on global scale.   Transcendence of religious differences is the focus of Emily Mace’s study of New York City’s Ethical Culture School and its use of holiday festivals for inculcating values of shared humanity and tolerance.  As Mace points out, cosmopolitanism did not always jibe, though, with the Ethical Culturalists’ interest in creating ideal democratic U.S. citizens.  John Pettegrew will add to the historical understanding of cosmopolitanism within American liberalism by looking at the cultural evolution of the concept of empathy in early-twentieth century pacifism.  In conversation with the work on sympathy by scholars like Daniel J. Wickberg and Susan Pearson, Pettegrew examines the cognitive and spiritual practice of temporarily transcending one’s own perspective by imagining the subject positions of others. Pettegrew finds this spiritual empathy particularly active in Mark Twain’s monumental short story “The War Prayer,” a work that has shocked generations of readers into recognizing the massive death and destruction that necessarily follows American militarism.

This session balances several varieties of diversity: institutional, with participants from research universities, state universities, and a school of divinity; disciplinary, with participants trained in both history and religious studies, with experience in American Studies as well; social, with participants ranging from ABD to tenured chair, evenly balanced between women and men.  Chairing this session will be Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian of modern U.S. thought, culture, and social movements.  Commenting on the three papers, and in effect bringing the session full circle, is historian of religion Leigh Eric Schmidt. 

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