How do we, as scholars of religion, interrogate the silences in our sources? And what do silences in religious texts reveal about sexuality, sickness and race? This was the framing question of the panel “Silences in Protestant Autobiography: Exploring Sickness, Sexuality, and Race in American Religion,” which I organized for the winter meeting of the American Society of Church History/American Historical Association in New York City in early January. The panelists were Seth Perry, Eva Payne, Vernon Mitchell, and myself, and we received a formal response by Catherine Brekus.
Silence has long been revered as a contemplative practice within Christianity, but it is a reverence variously challenged by–or held in balance with–written and oral forms of spiritual expression and reflection, including prayer, preaching, music, and writing. The panel sparked conversation about how authors could be silenced by physical pain, generic conventions, religious norms, and imagined audiences. We discussed the significance of writing as a Protestant religious practice, and we explored the way our diverse sources both revealed and concealed their authors’ autobiographies.
A critical question, however, remained: “Is it possible,” Brekus asked, “to interpret absence rather than presence?” We must be careful not to create stories for our subjects, stories based on our own presumptions, knowledge, and bias. If we proceed with caution, however, interpreting the silences in our sources can be a starting point for thinking about our subjects and their contexts, for considering how historical authors lived in the world and how they interacted with and were affected by their neighbors, prevailing social norms, and religious beliefs.
As one audience member, Paul Erickson of the American Antiquarian Society, observed: silence is both a noun and a verb. Our sources could have carefully chosen to leave silence (n.) in their writings; silence (n.) could also have been an impending or threatening force that our subjects wrote against. But our sources could also have been silenced (v.) by the expectations of their audiences. The two papers on sexuality suggest that considering silence—in both the noun and verb sense—offers a fruitful approach to studying religion and sexuality.