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“The Problem of Religion: Faith and Agency in History”: A Report from a Conference at Boston College

Today’s post is from Pete Cajka.  Pete is a doctoral candidate in the Boston College History Department. He studies religion in American History. He is also a Graduate Fellow with the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy.  Earlier this spring, Pete attended the Biennial Conference on the History of Religion at Boston College, one institutions in the Lilly Fellows Program National Network of colleges and universities.  Pete, in summarizing this conference for our blog, showcases the good work going on at Boston College where institutions and scholars of diverse backgrounds can come together for the pursuit of higher learning.  


Pete Cajka

In late March 2014, members of the Boston College History Department held the fifth edition of their Biennial Conference on the History of Religion.  Doctoral students who work on the history of religion in America and Clough Millennium Chair in History James O’Toole have planned and conducted this conference every two years since the inaugural gathering in 2006. The conference has grown in tandem with historians’ interest in religion and it offers the Boston College History Department a chance to display its strengths in religious history.  The collegial atmosphere, focus on the core questions, and, we are told, plentiful supply of B.C.’s award-winning New England clam chowder, has helped the conference acquire a cohort of regular attendees and attract new participants, from a widening geographical area, to each meeting.

The planning committee, in sifting through the paper proposals and setting up the panels, ensures that each Biennial Conference on the History of Religion has a new and unique set of contents. But, aside from a few minor modifications over the past 8 years, the committee has kept the form of the conference consistent. The first decision has always been choice of theme. The committee decided on “The Problem of Religion: Faith and Agency in History” as a theme for the 2014 conference. Here is how we explained our theme in the call for papers:

In recent years, scholars have increasingly considered how religious institutions, beliefs, or practices challenge our conceptions of the past while also recognizing that religion is but one of a number of forces that interact, collide, and impel human history. As we try to determine when religion has been important in human history and when it has not, we grapple with understanding how internal matters of faith provoke and direct acts of human agency, manifest in the exercise of devotional practice, institutional power, and other arenas. Finally, scholars of religion are considering the most appropriate ways to contemplate, research, and write about faith, belief, and agency during what some intellectuals argue is a secular age.

The theme is meant to offer presenters common threads that they can use to weave their respective projects together, but seeks to avoid being so cumbersome as to overpower the motifs that crop up organically as panel discussions inevitably flow into hallway and dinner conversation. Previous conferences have had themes of “Religion and the Transnational,” “Religion as a Fourth Lens” (accompanying gender, class, and race), and “Religious Identities.”

We invite a keynote speaker to give an address on the questions that are driving the field of religious history. David Hempton, Dean of the Faculty of Divinity at Harvard University, gave the keynote address at the 2014 conference, following in the footsteps of previous keynote speakers Jonathan Sarna, Bob Orsi, Lia Matthew Brockey, and Jon Butler.  Hempton’s address showcased research for a project that compares secularization in Europe and America after 1750. Hempton’s address invited presenters to deal with questions of secularization in various national settings and theoretical frameworks. As in the past, the keynote was presented at the beginning of the conference, giving presenters and panel chairs a common intellectual ground for the questions that follow.

The conference hosts approximately 30 presenters who give papers on topics from a wide variety of historical periods and geographical settings. The committee usually receives over 100 applications. We accept papers from graduate students and professors at any stage of their careers. Applications can take the form of individual papers or panel proposals – we welcome both. The 2014 Conference had panels on “Medieval Objects and Agency,” “Religion and Activism in 1960s America,” and “Religious Identity in Early Modern Europe.” The 2014 conference featured a panel on mainline Protestants in twentieth century American life – a hot topic right now – with papers by Margaret Bendroth on “Congregationalists and Liberal Piety,” Patricia Applebaum on “Following Jesus in Mainline Protestantism,” and David Mislin on “‘Evil’ in the Late Social Gospel.”  Christopher Evans of Boston University chaired the panel. Other topics, examples of the conference’s global reach, included fraudulent clergy (i.e., “strolling priests”) in the nineteenth century American West, Jehovah’s Witnesses in twentieth century Ukraine, Christian Brothers’ schools in Ontario, Canada, and “regenerating” New England Puritans.

We ask faculty members of the Boston College history department and advanced graduate students to chair the panels. In the past, we have invited faculty members from the Boston area to chair panels. These chair/commentators offer analyses of the individual papers as well as a synthesis of the papers in light of the panel’s theme. Boston College History Department faculty members who chaired panels at the 2014 conference – many of whom engage the question of religion in history, whether in full length monographs or in other corners of their oeuvres – included Virginia Reinburg (French Book of Hours: Making an Archive of Prayer, c. 1400-1600), Devin Pendas (editor, Human Rights and Religion), Robin Fleming (Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, c. 400 to 1070), James O’Toole (The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America), and Charles Gallagher, S.J. (Vatican Secret Diplomacy: Joseph P. Hurley and Pope Pius XII). Two postdoctoral fellows, Gráinne McEvoy and Ian Delahanty, and two recent alumni, Jared Hardesty and Laura Baines-Walsh, all of whom have earned a Ph.D. from the Boston College History Department, also served as chairs.

Since 2010, the conference has included a teaching panel as a complement to the research aspect of scholarship on religious history. Previous conferences featured a panel of several historians from the greater Boston area who spoke to conference attendees about their experiences teaching the history of religion. The panel addresses those questions that are perennial in the teaching of religious history: what is the best way, for example, to explain the differences between Antinomians and Arminians? This year we invited Andrew Finstuen and John Bieter, both of whom coincidentally work at Boise State University and are Boston College History Department Alumni, to talk about a senior seminar course they teach on “the big questions” that confront soon-to-graduate students as they leave one phase of life for another.  Andrew and John titled their panel, “What We Should Do and Who We Should Be: A Senior Seminar Dedicated to Undergraduate Exploration of Vocation.” They discuss how they assign their students complex academic texts and then ask them to ponder their own ethics, vocation, and journey of life in relation to the text, all within the context of a large state school. As such, the teaching panel led presenters and audience into a discussion about the role that religion and theological texts might play in helping students (and teachers) to answer those big questions about vocation. Important conversations about religion and vocation, Andrew and John stressed, can take place in many corners of higher education. The Boston College Biennial Conference on the History of Religion is committed to helping scholars – graduate students and faculty – to reach a deeper understanding of religion in history so that it can be taught more effectively and in order that religion can continue to assist us in asking and attempting to answer those perennial questions about agency, ethics, faith, vocation, and mentorship. Those who are interested in presenting at our next meeting can expect to see our Call for Papers in the early summer of 2015. We’re looking forward to welcoming new and returning attendees to Boston in 2016!


The Planning Committee for the 2014 Boston College Biennial Conference on the History of Religion included Peter Cajka, Jared Hardesty, Joanna Kelly, Gráinne McEvoy, Chris Staysniak, and Allison Vanderbilt Broek.  And, for the fifth consecutive time, Clough Millennium Professor of History James O’Toole.

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