Sacred Subjects: Exploring the Connections Between Religion and Commemoration

A historical marker with information about the Ephrata Cloister, a historic site in Pennsylvania.

The Ephrata Cloister, a historical site in south-central Pennsylvania, offers an interesting case study of a much-ignored subject: the intersections between religion and commemoration in the United States. (WikiMedia Commons)

In America, religion is bound up in public memory — and vice versa. Historical markers adorn church buildings and synagogues across the country. Congregations celebrate anniversaries with memorabilia displays, historical reenactments, heritage pageants, and other festivities. Denominational archives stage exhibits using artifacts and documents drawn from their collections. Communities erect monuments to religious figures in public spaces. Devotees rescue, restore, and preserve the birthplaces of their leaders.

Meanwhile, many seemingly secular sites of national memory—battlefields, birthplaces, and museums—cast their significance in spiritual language, referring to themselves as “sacred sites” to which visitors make regular pilgrimages. And a few such sites even attempt to interpret the historical significance of American religions.

In these ways and many others, as the historian Christopher Cantwell has argued, “the institutions, experiences, and ideas marked as religious both inform and animate America’s relationship with its past.”

Unfortunately, only a few scholars of American religion have attempted to trace the many connections between religious faith and public commemoration. (Two great examples are here and here.) Others have invoked the language of religiosity as metaphor without critically examining its function within public spaces of memory. Virtually no scholars of public history have paid attention to religion’s role within their field; look through the index for the field’s flagship journal, The Public Historian, and you’ll see hardly a handful of articles on the subject. Thankfully, that is changing. But we still need to know more about how religion shapes the nation’s commemorative landscape, and about the ways in which public memory and civil religiosity have influenced America’s faith communities.

I’m vitally interested in these questions as both a scholar and as a practitioner. That’s why I’m grateful to Seth C. Bruggeman for inviting me to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming book on commemoration from the American Association of State and Local History. The book, designed as a practical guide for those on the front lines of public history work, will cover a number of topics in commemoration studies; my chapter will focus on “Religion and Commemoration in America.” Rather than making a scholarly argument, I’ve been tasked with providing a brief historical overview of the connections between religion and commemoration and offer some tips to would-be interpreters on how to exhibit religion in their museums and other historical sites.

I’m still in the early stages of the project, but I hope to share some more details and perhaps a few excerpts soon. Stay tuned!

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