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Spring 1997 Newsletter

Getting into the material

What do we mean by "material?" That's the first question people ask us when they learn about our project. In studying the material history of American religion we are interested in the material in two distinct but related senses. Material history is history examined from the viewpoint of material culture and artifacts, but it is also the history of the material or economic aspect of, in this case, religious life.

In either case, the scholars associated with this project have set out to pay attention to a neglected dimension of the history of religion in America. Too often the story of religion has been told as though it were a matter of thoughts and ideals alone. Material history is embodied history and recognizes that religious people have enacted their spiritual beliefs and religious ideals in a very material world. We are looking at the material evidence, getting into the material, and finding out a great deal in the first year of this project. This newsletter will give you a sample of what we've learned.

Focusing on the material aspects of religious life allows--and requires--us to look at previously untapped sources. Robert Orsi has been having stimulating and revealing discussions with laypeople about their memories of the material environment of their childhood in the Catholic church. James Hudnut-Beumler has presented work on the historical roots and theological meanings of  church endowments. Dan Sack has perhaps had the most "fun" examining collections of religious entertainment and cooking books. This issue contains a small taste of these amusing and revealing witnesses to the past.

This approach changes and challenges many of our previous understandings of American religion. As you'll see in the interview in this issue, project scholar Marie Griffith's study of prayer handkerchiefs has shed new light on the Pentecostal tradition, and suggests interesting new connections to other nineteenth century religious movements.

In this issue:
Material devotion: Pentecostal prayer cloths
Project news
Church menus, 1962 and 1982

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