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Ghosts in Antebellum America

John Turner

I just finished reading two books about ghosts. Well, not mostly about ghosts, but they both had lots of ghosts in them.
John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America is a remarkable, and remarkably complex, book. It has a subtitle (perhaps not quite the right term) befitting an antebellum publication, and the final four pages make for quite a climax.
Ghosts abound in Modern’s book. Moby-Dick haunts not just Captain Ahab, but antebellum Americans who struggled to understand the connections between themselves, society, and the supernatural. Various forces apparently beyond human control loom over the horizon.

A simple summary elides my reading of Secularism in Antebellum America. Graduate students beware — Modern states at the outset that his book does not reward skimming. That is true.

Somewhat germane to Paul’s post on American Christianities, Modern has written an extended critique of Common Sense philosophy and historians who have embraced it in their analysis of the history of religion in the United States (chapter one contains an extended engagement with Mark Noll). Modern “contends that human agency was an remains an open question … For those living within a secular imaginary, decision about religion were often one’s own, yet the range of available choices had been patterned and shaped by circumstance. Institutions making their invisible demands. Media generating models of particular choices. Machines enabling you to interact with your decisions and those of others. A choice being made before it presents itself as such. Unseen somethings haunting the day.” Toward the end of his book, Modern uses Foucault’s “notion of subjectivization” “to call into question a dominant paradigm of American religious historiography that continues to operate according to the same epistemological and political principles that gave rise to the discipline in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Modern is interested in how Americans of many Protestant varieties (evangelical, liberal Protestant, and spiritualist) in the years around 1851 (the year of Moby-Dick’s publication) collectively shaped what they came to understand as true religion and in the process created a “secular imaginary.”

A chapter-by-chapter summary would overwhelm this blog. Suffice it to say that whatever one thinks of Modern’s definition of religion or secularism, this book is amazing on several levels. The research is both broad and rich, and Modern excels at choosing an apt quotation. The book is beautifully illustrated, and the University of Chicago Press blessed readers with footnotes rather than endnotes (essential reading in this case). Graduate students will spend long hours with Modern for years to come.

At the same time, along with my class in American religious history, I read Nancy Schultz’s Mrs. Mattingly’s Miracle (see Paul’s post from last fall). Modern has Captain Ahab. As scaffolding for her story of apparently miraculous healings, Schultz uses Hamlet and Horatio’s disparate responses to the ghost of the former’s murdered father and C.S. Lewis’s Miracles.

At four in the morning on March 10, 1824, Ann Mattingly — sister of Washington, D.C.’s Catholic mayor Thomas Carbery — moved inexorably closer to dying from breast cancer. For the past nine days, Mattingly’s fellow parishioners had completed a nouvena of prayers on her behalf, beseeching God to heal her diseased body. They intended to time her receipt of the Eucharist with the German priest healer Prince Alexander Hohenlohe’s morning Mass across the Atlantic. After she finally swallowed the consecrated host, Mattingly reported herself free from pain or any debility, got up, and became one of the most famous Catholics in the United States.

Schultz reports that something extraordinary happened to Ann Mattingly. “How this happened, though,” she comments at the outset, “and whether the explanation is natural or supernatural, pushes deep into the realm of faith. This book does not try to guide you there.” Hamlet and Horatio will act according to their preconceptions. Still, she takes seriously the testimony of Ann Mattingly and many others who described her healing in affidavits. Somehow, it reminded me of Richard Bushman’s portrait of Joseph Smith, which privileged the testimony of those who were closest to Smith and accepted his reports of visions, angels, and golden plates.

There is a good bit of haunting in Schultz’s book as well. She opens each of her chapters with “adumbrations,” ghost stories that foreshadow or otherwise thematically relate to the subsequent material. In one such episode, a Protestant man refuses to call a priest for a dying Catholic stranger, and the stranger’s ghost wreaks havoc with his home until a priest expels the demons. Both the adumbrations, the story of Prince Hohenlohe’s cure of the Bohemian princess Mathilde von Schwarzenberg, and the account of the 1824 Mattingly miracle are master narrative pieces.

There are other forms of haunting in the book. American Catholics are very much divided about the Mattingly miracle. Some, especially those born in America or England, are haunted by the thought that tales of Catholic miracle cures will give vent to ugly accusations of superstition. One suspects, also, that even some Protestant cessationists were haunted by lost dreams of a restored “age of miracles.”

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