Church History

By Kaell, Hillary | Church History, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Church History


Kaell, Hillary, Church History


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Book Reviews and Notes

In Faith in Objects , Erin L. Hasinoff takes the reader on a journey from early museum anthropology to Protestant ecumenical organizing to women's sewing circles. In the process, she tells a comprehensive history of the "World in Boston," a 1911 missionary exposition organized by Boston Protestants led by Samuel Capen, former president of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The event, generally forgotten by scholars today, brought together over 10,000 mostly female volunteers from 300 congregations and was designed to showcase artifacts from the field. More than a mere display of African masks or Turkish furniture, however, the exposition was a performative space where life-size recreations of field locations (the Chinese temple or the Indian street) were filled with people: a few "real life" converts, as well as returned missionaries and costumed volunteers. Docents guided visitors through and also bolstered support for missions. At a broader level, the exposition was meant to confirm Christianity's place at the apogee of human spirituality and civilization.

Trained in anthropology and museum studies, Hasinoff also draws on history and material culture studies. As a result perhaps, Faith in Objects contains two distinct narratives: the first examines how Americans understood their relationship to the world through the material culture of missions; the second is an "ethnography of collecting" that explores how artifacts are acquired and displayed in museums. Much of this discussion centers on Franz Boas's efforts to obtain missionary artifacts for the nascent anthropology collection at the American Museum of Natural History (chapters 6-7). It is a welcome addition to the burgeoning historiography on missions in this period, demonstrating their wide-ranging impact even in devotedly "secular" spaces like museum halls (133).

Hasinoff identifies three overarching themes from the outset: religion as sensational form, charity, and lived religion (6). Drawing on anthropologist Birgit Meyer's 2006 work Religious Sensations: Why Media, Aesthetics and Power Matter in the Study of Contemporary Religion (Amsterdam: Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen, Vrije Universiteit), Hasinoff's first theme refers to how material objects structure and shape religious experience. One way that Hasinoff explores this theme is through the object lesson, a ubiquitous late-nineteenth century pedagogical tool. She does a great service by expanding the discussion of religious object lessons, which has thus far garnered too little attention (an exception is David Morgan, Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], 201-34). Her second theme comes directly from the source material: World in Boston's primary goal was to promote Christian charity. In the process, organizers struggled with how to compete with popular amusements while ensuring that visitors were moved to religious feeling (85). While this conundrum will sound familiar to historians of U.S. Christianity, Hasinoff offers an interesting twist by incorporating early-twentieth century anthropological (and missionary) literature on the fetish (91-4). …

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