When entering the field of religious history there are three things that religious historians focus on most.  The first is answering the questions why and how religions have emerged, instead on whether they are valid.[1]  Second, is change that is seen in religion over time, through the context of historical happenings.  Thirdly, is where a religious group developed and emerged in relation to the social, cultural and environmental contexts.

When encountering new religions, the first question to be asked is how did this religion form and why?  To answer this question, religious historians use a variety of sources to fill these gaps in knowledge.  For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints formed when their prophet Joseph Smith had a vision of the angel Moroni who told him where to find the golden tablets.[2]  These tablets were to become a new book in the Bible; the Book of Mormon.  Joseph copied down the tablets then reburied them; he then proceeded to teach this new book of the Bible to people.  This was the forming of a new religion.  When religious historians look back at other religions, they often form when at first there is some ‘miracle’ that occurs.  Take Christianity for instance, if began to form after Jesus rose from the dead—a miracle.  The people who believe in these divine happenings begin to follow those who preach or lead the religion and thus a new religion in created.  For the why of a religion forming it can be attributed to people wanting something more to believe in than just themselves on this earth.

Religion is constantly changing and evolving.  If a Lutheran today were to talk to a Lutheran from the 1600’s there would be huge differences in religious practices.  These changes reflect what is happening in the world; the historical implications.  One of the most famous examples of how religion changed because of historical happenings is in Tudor England.  King Henry VIII needed a son; with his wife reaching an age that meant she could no longer bear children Henry needed a plan B.  He had no sons and needed an heir, so as any good Catholic he went to the Pope to seek an annulment of his marriage.  When this was not granted to him he broke with the Catholic church so he could divorce his wife Catherine.  This is prime example of when historical happenings changed the course of a religion.  There are some specific types of evidence that religious historians look at when there is a sharp change in religious practices.  With Henry VIII it would be his need to produce an heir to his throne, being unable to do this and stay with the Catholic church he changed to course of his country by changing religions.  For religious historians looking at the history of someplace can bring to light how religion changed.

Looking at where a religious group developed in relation to social, cultural and environmental contexts is as important as the other 2 questions that religious historians try and answer.  With an eye towards how the environment affects religion religious historians will look at the weather patterns in an area and if they coincided with changes in the religion and the practices. Another source of evidence that religious historians will look at are minutes from meetings; these meetings provide a synopsis of what is happening in the religious community and how what is happening outside this community influences the religion.  The ability to do this is very important because it allows religious historians to connect different things in the social, cultural and environmental strata to changes in the religious world.

Throughout this course, my understanding of religious history has expanded and allowed me to have a better understanding of women in religion.  I can in with a very limited knowledge of this field; even though I come from a religious background, I am a member of the Lutheran Church and for the first ten years of my life was raised Catholic.  Being from Seattle religious practices are often more liberal than in some other parts of the country and world.  Three ways my thinking about the field of religious history has changed include the impact women had on a religion, how a religion can succumb to political pressure and how it resembles the study of history more than the study of religion.

One of the first things we read, an article written by Ann Braude, stressed how women’s history was religious history and that women have always populated the pews more than men.  This idea of women populating the pews more was not surprising to me because of the prominence that I have seen women in church for all my life.  That women’s history was American religious history, was a new idea that I wasn’t sure how to come to terms with.  Through this course, I was able to understand more about how what Braude said had truth to it.  For a long period, women were viewed as an Eve, the downfall of humanity.  When women began to be fed up with this idea it began to change and women are now equated more with Mary the mother of God.

While we are taught to believe that our government has a separation of church and state and the first amendment to the constitution guarantees our right to freedom of religion, this is not always the case.  For the Mormons in Salt Lake City there was intense pressure to discard their practice of plural marriage, even though it was part of their religious practices.  The Mormons were told that until they stopped practicing plural marriage, Utah would not become a state.  Although the Mormons resisted becoming part of the United States and the women were very vocal about their support of plural marriages, eventually they succumbed to the pressure and made plural marriages illegal.  This was something that I had not really thought about, how much influence that a government could have on a person’s religion until I learned this about the Mormons.  This relates to one of the three things that religious historians focus on most, how a religion will change over time.  For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the government influenced drastic changes in their religion that shaped their history.

When I came into this class I was expecting to learn all about what women did in religion and not much else.  When I encountered the books for the class my perceptions were altered a bit, having a book about a same-sex marriage in America in the 19th century and a book about plural marriage was a bit of a shock.  The book about a same-sex marriage in America, Charity and Sylvia focused on how the two women battled everyday with the religious guilt they felt about their relationship, and how their religion also saved them.[3]  The book on plural marriage and early Mormonism allowed me to see how this religion that is now viewed as misogynistic was truly radical and feminist in the period which it was formed.[4]  As a person who loves history this was an amazing class that allowed me to look at history more.  The final paper was a research paper done on women in religion, mostly about women in missions, to start we had to do archival research.  People focused on a variety of topics but I chose to focus on how women were instrumental to the running of missions.  This prompted me to try and look at documents that focused on the work as missions and how women were so important, the women I focused on were part of the Augustana Lutheran Synod.  Using archival documents and secondary sources to support my findings, I began to craft stories about the missions in India, China and Africa.  These stories and analysis would be my final paper.  This paper, although had a religious lens to it, was very much a history paper similar to what I wrote last term in history.  This changed how I had been thinking about religious history and made me realize how similar this two fields are, religious history is the same as regular history, it just has a religious lens applied to all aspects of it.

This class has afforded me the opportunity to learn about a field that is new to me, religious history.  With this experience, I have expanded my knowledge of other religions that were unfamiliar to me and reduce the stereotypes that may be associated with them.  My knowledge of women in religion has also grown immensely, from coming to this class with almost no familiarity of women in religion to leaving the class with in-depth knowledge of how much women contribute to religion in America and in American missions abroad.  This class taught me to think like a historian and how to look for deeper meanings in pieces of writing and how that could have to do with religious history.


[1] Seth Dowland, “FYEP 190 – Religion & Gender in American History,” (Course syllabus, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington, Spring 2017).

[2] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A House Full of Females Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 (Alfred P. Knopf, 2017).

[3] Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia A Same Sex Marriage in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[4] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A House Full of Females Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 (Alfred P. Knopf, 2017).