In my course the American Religious Experience, I ask my students to examine the relationship between personal spirituality and the role that religion plays in national identity. I have found that bringing my students into the archives to examine primary sources from a different period in American history makes the history of religion “real” for students.
It encourages them to appreciate that many different people, throughout history, have used religion to make sense of their place in society and to define their personal beliefs. Students often observe striking differences in the ways that individuals expressed their faith and practiced their religion in the past. At the same time, they learn that religion and politics were deeply intertwined in the 19th century in ways similar to today.
Correspondence from the Civil War era show how central religion was to many Americans. For example, in a letter lamenting the death of her soldier son, a mother is deeply concerned, almost panicked, about the state of his soul at the time of death. She wants someone who was with him at the time of his death to assure her that he went to heaven.
Our archival visits allow students to learn about the daily thoughts, fears, and beliefs of real people, and to reflect on what they may or may not have in common with these historical individuals.
Civil War documents also allow my students to examine the relationship between religion, politics, and patriotism. A scrapbook of hate mail sent to Henry Ward Beecher, a noted abolitionist preacher, contains scriptural justifications of slavery, scathing political cartoons comparing him to the devil, and even death threats. Both Beecher and his opponents used religion to justify their different positions on slavery.
By examining this scrapbook, students gain a better understanding of the deeply disturbing and divisive attitudes towards slavery in the 19th century. They observe that today, people on opposite ends of the political spectrum often defend their positions on contentious issues, such as marriage equality, with religiously-rooted logic much as 19th-century Americans did. Students learn through visits to the archives that the sometimes vitriolic religious rhetoric that permeates the political sphere today is nothing new.
In fact, during the 2012 presidential election, I asked my students to compare the way that religion informed public discourse in the 19th century and in the present day. Americans questioned whether candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were suitable leaders based on their religious affiliations, whether perceived or actual.
The public discourse often included insinuations and misunderstandings which had very real effects on the opinion of the electorate. By observing the intensity with which religious rhetoric was deployed for political purposes, these currents events offered students a bridge between the American religious past and present.
Working with primary sources in the archives illustrates the personal and the political aspects of religion to students in ways that lectures and textbooks cannot. Students learn to view individuals in the 19th century as multi-dimensional people with complex interests, concerns, fears, and beliefs.
They also appreciate the tremendous role played by religion in the nation as a whole throughout various time periods. Analyzing primary sources offers profound insights into the American, and human, religious condition. It also allows students to connect deeply to their own religious perspective or lack thereof. By asking students to make this investigation, my hope is that they see themselves as part of the evolving American religious experience.
Alexandria M. Egler, “Witnessing the American Religious Experience in the Archives,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/religious-experience/.