My main scholarly interest lies in the intersections of religion and race in American history and culture. In the study of religion, I prefer to analyze religion by focusing on its functions—what it does, how it works, how it reinforces or undermines power relations, and how it mediates the larger world around our subjects. Our religious subjects typically regard religion as an immaterial power, but their expressions and interpretations of religion take both immaterial and material form.
A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans
My first book, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (UNC Press, 2016), examines
how the beliefs and practice of Spiritualism helped Afro-Creoles mediate the political, social, and cultural changes in New Orleans as the city moved from the antebellum period through Reconstruction. The messages the Cercle Harmonique received from the spirit world and the spirits who sent them offered the circle a forum for airing their political grievances and looking forward to a more egalitarian world. Certain republican ideals, particularly those inherited from the memory of the French Revolution, were reinvigorated and reworked to relate to contemporary issues. This project brings together two historiographical genealogies: the history of race in New Orleans and the role of religion in New Orleans politics, culture, and society.
In the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, my research subjects engaged in the practice of Spiritualism and spirit communication through a medium. The message of this metaphysical religion—with its abolitionism and criticism of authority figures—threatened the status quo of the South, and thus, those invested in and in want of social and political changes found a religious orientation that interlaced with their goals. The world of spirits located a receptive audience in the free blacks in New Orleans who suffered increasingly restrictive laws and then met with violent resistance to suffrage and racial equality after the Civil War. For Afro-Creoles, their political aspirations had found a spiritual medium. Many messages—from spirits as diverse as Swedenborg, Saint Vincent de Paul, Montesquieu, and even Confucius—discussed government structures, the progress of humanity, and equality. The Afro-Creole Spiritualists were encouraged to continue struggling for “justice” with “courage and patience.”
Additionally, though many messages were critical of the Catholic Church
hierarchy (and it is worth noting that the Church officially supported the Confederacy) this circle received many messages from beloved former New Orleans priests known for their egalitarian perspectives and from Saint Vincent de Paul. They may have officially left the Catholic Church, but the impact of Catholicism on them and their “Creole” identity extended beyond cathedral doors. This intersection of Catholicism, race, and power in part inspired my next research project.
Jesuits, Native Americans, and Colonialism in the Pacific Northwest
My next monograph-length research project still in its very early stages, but it will focus on the archives of Jesuits in the Oregon Province. Housed at my current institution, these archives are in a mix of English, Latin, Italian, and various Native languages and the materials include handwritten dictionaries of native languages, an amazing collection of photographs taken by priests with old brownie cameras, the early house diaries of the Jesuit order headquarters, and numerous reports from the mission field.
Spanning from the mid-nineteenth century through the twentieth century, Jesuit missionaries in the Northwest provide an illuminating counterpoint and complement to the more famous Jesuits in seventeenth-century New France. Like the earlier French Jesuits, the Jesuits out west found themselves in a frontier that was both invigorating and hostile. They focused on learning Native languages and cultures and saw these processes as a key to successful evangelizing. Unlike the earlier Jesuits, these out west operated more systematically and often as part of the federal push to evangelize and “civilize” the Native tribes out west. Yet, the Jesuits lived their mission as foreigners—foreign Jesuits (mainly Italians but also Belgians and other Europeans) who didn’t view themselves as Americans, yet they were contributors to the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.” Thus, this project will be a complicated story of colonial missionaries evangelizing in a land not their own, which will pull the West into our transatlantic narratives of American religions.