I teach a wide range of courses on early American religious history.
Here are some of my favorite syllabi from past semesters.
American Gods (FYS 100)
An obscure man living in one of New York City’s dingiest neighborhoods is reborn as an Old Testament prophet. An immigrant Jewish peddler struggles to practice his faith in Yankee New England. An enslaved African American receives visions of a bloody Christ that ignites an insurrection. The early American republic was awash in a sea of gods both old and new. In this first-year seminar, we will explore the alternative religions that flourished in nineteenth-century America, then turn to the study of religion in contemporary popular culture. The course concludes with an extended journey through Neil Gaiman’s award-winning science fiction novel, American Gods.
Devil in the Details: Microhistory & Historical Narrative (FYS 100)
Witches and heretics, religious prophets and confidence men, Indian captives and murdering mothers, cat massacres and slave conspiracies: these are the subjects of “microhistory,” a distinctive approach to the study of the past that seeks to reveal broader forces of historical change through detailed stories of obscure individuals and unusual events. In this First-Year Seminar, students learn how scholars research and write these gripping historical narratives. We will probe beneath the grand narratives of conventional history textbooks and develop theoretical and methodological competencies in the subfield of cultural history. The seminar will provide opportunities to read and analyze a challenging array of primary texts ranging from diaries and letters to court records and tax lists. Toward the end of the semester, students will research and write their own microhistories based on rare archival documents.
Occult America (RELG 210)
This course introduces students to historical methods and perspectives through an investigation of selected “occult”—meaning “hidden” or “mysterious”—religious traditions in British North America during the long eighteenth century (1690–1815). Topical units explore unusual religious phenomena ranging from witchcraft and ghost stories to dreams, trances, and visions, as well as outsider religious communities, such as the Ephrata Cloister and the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming (the Shakers). Students will learn to formulate interpretive questions and develop historical arguments based on a broad array of challenging primary texts (including rare archival manuscripts) and related secondary scholarship.
Native American Religions (RELG 257)
This course surveys selected themes in Native American religious history from prehistory to the present. We will investigate the development of complex religious traditions among the Mississippian mound builder cultures of the southeast; rituals of trade, healing, and warfare among the Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples of the colonial northeast; and the emergence of trans-Appalachian prophets and visionaries who developed innovative religious codes and rituals in an attempt to resist invading American settlers. Later in the semester, we will study the life and teachings of Black Elk, a Lakota holy man and Roman Catholic catechist. The course concludes with a case study of Pueblo Indian religious traditions and the ethical obligations incurred by non-native scholars conducting research on indigenous communities.
Richmond: City of the Dead (AMST 381/RELG 358)
This community-based learning seminar explores attitudes toward death in early America expressed through material culture artifacts: gravestones, landscape architecture, and monuments, as well as mourning art, photographs, jewelry, and clothing. Seminar participants conduct fieldwork at cemeteries, museums, and Civil War sites in Richmond, including Hollywood Cemetery, one of the finest examples of the rural cemetery movement in the United States. Assignments emphasize the strategic use of new technologies to convey historical research to a public audience.
Witchcraft in the Atlantic World (RELG 358)
The early modern era of world history (roughly 1450 to 1850) witnessed a dramatic surge in the religious and legal persecution of men and women suspected of witchcraft. The infamous 1692 trials in Salem, Massachusetts, are perhaps most familiar to American students, but witch-hunting was a global phenomenon. In this advanced seminar, students read a selection of records from witchcraft trials in British North America alongside related primary texts and a broad array of social history sources. During the second half of the semester, we explore witch-hunting in comparative Atlantic world and global history perspectives.
Cults, Communes & Utopias in Early American (RELG 375)
This advanced seminar surveys what one prominent scholar has called America’s “sectarian heyday.” Participants will examine the eccentricities of the traveling Vermont Pilgrims, gender relations in Jemima Wilkinson’s New Jerusalem, Native American prophetic movements, the visionary world of early Mormonism, socialist experiments at the North American Phalanx, and Charles Brockden Brown’s classic gothic novel of murder and religious insanity, Wieland. The seminar concludes with a research project involving Boatwright Library’s extensive microfilm collection of Shaker manuscripts.