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.
The first of the two papers on sexuality, by Seth Perry, told the story of William Smyth Babcock, an early nineteenth-century Freewill Baptist preacher, who left an extensive journal. Perry uses the silences in Babcock’s journals to explore Babcock’s religious and historical context and thus to challenge previous scholarship, which argued that Babcock’s conflicted writings on sexuality reveal his failure as a minister and a man. According to Perry, the silences in Babcock’s journal demonstrate his struggle between exercising and exorcising his sexual thoughts and experiences. In an era acutely paranoid about the dangers of print and “fever reading,” Babcock had to maintain a careful balance between edification and suggestion. Influenced by new pietistic moral standards, Babcock was explicit in recording his sins, but he also knew the risk of reading explicit texts.
Babcock’s journal hints at sexual indiscretions, contains lies and obfuscations, and also holds one major elision: the removal of five pages from a crescendoing account of a criminal complaint against him. Babcock had mentioned kissing a female congregant mid-sermon, but he also might have acted on temptations he had earlier described and cautioned against. Babcock warned, for example, not to touch “the naked skin of those thou sleepest with.” Perry suggests Babcock’s detailed admonitions were a form of silence about his own temptations. Perhaps Babcock, an itinerant preacher, touched a male bedmate at an inn, causing the criminal complaint. So why were the pages removed? Why the silence? Perhaps Babcock cut the leaves out, fearing the erotic nature of his admission might—instead of edifying—in fact tempt a reader to sin. Perhaps a scrupulous descendant destroyed them; As Perry puts it: Babcock “hoped that someone would impose silence upon him” when his own “self-silencing” was incomplete.
The second paper on religion and sexuality, by Eva Payne, described the Protestant reformers involved in the League of Nations’ investigation of sex trafficking and prostitution (1924-1927). Although the United States never joined the League of Nations, the US participated in the League’s efforts against sex trafficking and prostitution through the Bureau of Social Hygiene. Payne’s research relies in part on the 6,500 unpublished interviews that informed the investigation’s 1927 report.
Payne began with the example of George Worthington, an upstanding Presbyterian, who in his work for the investigation solicited unspeakable sexual acts. From this paradox, Payne argues that it is important to think about the silences in the reports on sex trafficking. While scholars often focus on the subjects of the investigation, Payne makes a case for thinking about the investigators themselves. Although the reports offer little explicit information on the investigators—indeed, papers relating to the inquiry were to be kept anonymous and confidential—Payne suggests that the identity of the observers is critically important.
Payne argues that although the League’s investigation claimed secular, professional training, the investigation and interviews are shot-through with Protestant values. The report may take on a very scientific tone of a removed observer, but, according to Payne, the observers and their Protestant values cast a wide shadow on the reports, affecting the tone and content of the reports’ writing and photography. For Payne, thinking about silences in the social research into sex trafficking and prostitution allows us to see the religious and moral reform that undergirded the research.
Although not solely focused on sexuality, the panel’s other two papers’ focus on genre raised pertinent questions for the study of silences and sexuality. Vernon Mitchell’s paper delved into the life, career, and autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Influenced by the work of V. P. Franklin and Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Mitchell makes a compelling case for the critical role of autobiography in the African American literary and intellectual tradition. Mitchell used Powell’s autobiography Against the Tide (1938), moreover, to illuminate the heteronormative standards of salvation embedded within this tradition.
Powell dedicated very few lines of his autobiography to his family, particularly to his mother, wife, and daughter. Mitchell argues that Powell’s relative silence on the women in his life was intentional: Powell offered just enough details to gird his authenticity as a patriarch and authoritative pastor. The women were presented as objects, who were part of Powell’s life but not autonomous individuals. According to Mitchell, these silences allowed Powell to narrate his story as a narrative of his race. By presenting himself as a self-made man, Powell offered a pronouncement of African-American personhood and triumph and also invited readers to see their own lives in his story.
My own paper examined the silencing effects of sickness in eighteenth-century Protestant writing, based on a collection of manuscript letters, journals, and memoirs. Influenced by the work of Elaine Scarry and Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, I argue that these sources demonstrate intense efforts to write despite physical pain, highlighting the importance of narrative for those suffering illness. Illness writing was not only, however, an opportunity for personal spiritual reflection, but also a task conceived and performed within a community of believers. Similar to conversion narratives, I argue, sickness narratives were expected to reflect an archetypal narrative, characterized by retrospective voice, an appeal to God’s providence, and a sense of spiritual resolution. The communal importance of these characteristics is highlighted, I show, when witnesses intervened and finished accounts silenced by the author’s pain or death.
The latter two papers turned the conversation from an explicit focus on sexuality. Our focus on how individual writers were shaped by generic conventions of autobiography, however, suggests worthwhile questions for Perry and Payne. Did Babcock read other journals? Was his journal shaped by other forms of Protestant autobiographical writing, such as conversion narratives or letter writing? Do these forms offer further interpretive lenses for considering how sexuality was—or was not—narrated? And in Payne’s case, can we consider the reports on sex trafficking as autobiography? Brekus raised two further questions: Is all writing autobiographical? Or do we want to maintain, as historians, limits in our definition of the autobiographical genre?
In turn, Perry’s and Payne’s careful analyses of sexuality offer important insights for the historical study of religion more broadly. Neither Perry nor Payne presumed to fill in the missing information—the stories hinted at, begun and not finished, or the individual details subsumed by the quest for scientific rigor or anonymity. In our focus on genre, Mitchell and I gave less attention to other important contexts. Was Powell’s silence on women due solely to the generic conventions of African-American autobiography? Or, as Brekus asked, did it reflect conventions within male autobiographical writing more broadly? And what were eighteenth-century attitudes toward silence and sickness more generally? Did everyone narrate sickness providentially?
As the conversation on silences and sexuality reminds us, we must attend not only to how sources reflect a genre, but also to how a source stands out or represents an exception to a norm. It is critical to include and interrogate sources that defy or belie the standards of genre, that are muted by social and religious expectations, or that voice a form of spiritual expression and release—even if the writing is strained by confidentiality, finished by another hand, or subsequently destroyed.
Philippa Koch is a PhD candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellow. She is a scholar of early American religion and history, currently writing a dissertation on religion and medicine in early America.
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