Secularism in Antebellum America
Ghosts. Railroads. Sing Sing. Sex machines. These are just a few of the phenomena that appear in John Lardas Modern’s pioneering account of religion and society in nineteenth-century America. This book uncovers surprising connections between secular ideology and the rise of technologies that opened up new ways of being religious. Exploring the eruptions of religion in New York’s penny presses, the budding fields of anthropology and phrenology, and Moby-Dick, Modern challenges the strict separation between the religious and the secular that remains integral to discussions about religion today.
Modern frames his study around the dread, wonder, paranoia, and manic confidence of being haunted, arguing that experiences and explanations of enchantment fueled secularism’s emergence. The awareness of spectral energies coincided with attempts to tame the unruly fruits of secularism—in the cultivation of a spiritual self among Unitarians, for instance, or in John Murray Spear’s erotic longings for a perpetual motion machine. Combining rigorous theoretical inquiry with beguiling historical arcana, Modern unsettles long-held views of religion and the methods of narrating its past.
“Modern has done something very important in this smart, generous, and beautifully written book. He has shown why and how evangelicals, liberals, and spiritualists, perennial actors on the American religious stage, actors who are often viewed as competitors, even enemies, inhabit the same secular space, now and in the past, and share responsibility for the peculiar and powerful formation that is American religion and politics. We learn how they have together created the taken-for-granted immediacy of ‘true religion’ out of Scottish common sense philosophy and faith in technology, systematicity, and progress, all through a bewildering amount of surveillance, self-culture, and media production. We both recognize and gasp at the strange but always energetic feats of our forbearers and the dangerous circularity of their never-ending networks and feedback loops.”
“Reading Secularism in Antebellum America brings pleasure on many levels, not least in the knowledge that in our age of sound bites, tweets, and branding there remain books this intellectually satisfying and meticulously made. Modern’s commanding, often inspired analyses of penitentiary reform, the primitivist strain in American anthropology, and the beginnings of our preoccupation with spirituality are deft and elegantly rendered. This subtle, substantial, venturesome book raises the stakes for all of us who read and write about American religion.”
“Secularism in Antebellum America transforms our understanding of evangelicalism in the nineteenth century through its meticulous documentation of ideas and lives as well as through its pointed critical commentary on the last thirty years of evangelical history. Imaginative and rewarding, this is an exemplary instance of interdisciplinary historical inquiry. A brilliant, groundbreaking book.”