USAboundaries v0.2.0 available on CRAN

A new release of the USAboundaries package (v0.2.0) for R is available on CRAN. This package continues to provide historical boundaries of U.S. counties and states from 1629 to 2000, thanks to the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. In this release I have added current county, state, and congressional district boundaries from the U.S. Census Bureau. Both the historical and contemporary boundaries data gain higher resolution versions suitable for mapping at the level of the state rather than the nation. This higher resolution data is optional, and will be installed the first time that a user requests it. Finally, the entire package interface has been improved, adding geography-specific functions (e.g., us_states(), us_counties()) instead of forcing everything through a single function, and removing a bunch of needless package dependencies.

Where the Problem with Historical Data about U.S. Religion Really Lies

One of my side projects (eventually to turn into a main project) is figuring out what can be done with historical data about religious groups in the United States. This ground is in some ways well trodden. The field has a very fine atlas in the form of Gaustad, Barlow, and Dishno’s New Historical Atlas of Religion in America, as well as an experimental Digital Atlas of American Religion for the twentieth century. Then too, the field has more or less decided that this ground is not worth treading anyway. There are a number of sophisticated critiques of the whole enterprise of dealing with religious statistics and mapping. If I can sum these up in a broad statement, the point is that numbers don’t tell us anything that the field actually wants to know. As Laurie Maffly-Kipp puts it in a well-argued review essay, “our dazzling new technologies and spatial theories” might only have “brought us back to much more circumscribed definitions of religious experience.”1 I recognize the weight of these arguments, and a full justification for dealing with religious statistics will eventually have to take them into account.

But not yet. I want to argue that historians of American religion have barely begun to take advantage of the quantitative data available to them. While we have to keep the theoretical arguments I alluded to in mind at all times, the pressing issue at the moment is one of basic research. Until we make a fuller attempt at using these quantitative records, we can’t really know whether we will find anything useful from them.

Here is the argument. Mapping and quantitative analysis of historical statistics about U.S. religion have been sorely limited by the kinds of data that have typically been used, namely county-level aggregates of Federal census data, and by the way that mapping has focused on general comparisons rather than the specifics of the data.

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What the Map of Urban Religious Histories Shows Us

Earlier today Paul Putz wrote a post about an interactive bibliography that he and I created of books that study American religion in the context of cities. Paul explained our motivation for the project and how we created it. I’d like to offer a few observations about what I think we can learn from the map.

Figure 1: Screenshot of the Bibliography of Urban Religious History. [PNG]

First, and utterly unsurprisingly, the map basically aligns with the urban population of the United States. So New York, Chicago and Boston, followed closely by New Orleans, Washington, Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are the most written about cities.

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What Can You Do with Denominational History?

I recently read Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins’s Baptists in America: A History (2015). I must have liked it, since my father, for many years a Baptist pastor, says that I’ve tried to send him copies more than once. This book deserves a proper review, perhaps paired with David Bebbington’s Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (2010). But for today I want to use the book to think through what a denominational history can accomplish. Here are a few thoughts about the particular set of things the book is able to accomplish because it is a denominational history.

  1. A denominational history can cross the color line.

This book is not filled with “Baptists” and “black Baptists,” where unmarked Baptists can be assumed to be white. Rather, Kidd and Hankins are careful to write “white Baptists” when they mean white Baptists, and write “black Baptists” when they mean black Baptists. A denominational history is of course far from the only way to discuss race in the context of religious history. Yet we can contrast the effects of the decision to focus on Baptists with the decision to focus on, say, evangelicalism. Recent histories of evangelicalism or fundamentalism tend to take white Christians as their subjects, whether or not there are good reasons to question that demarcation, acknowledge the color line, and leave it at that. If race is the single most-important category in U.S. history (and it is), then our histories of U.S. religion ought to be able to discuss race at least as well as this denominational history.

  1. A denominational history can describe denominational distinctives.
Figure 1: Baptist distinctives. [JPG]

Baptists love their “Baptist distinctives,” by which they mean a set of beliefs, practices, and ecclesiastical structures which collectively distinguish them from other Christians. (See the image for a common formulation.) Kidd and Hankins quite rightly ask whether “the time is long past when we can make broad claims about what makes Baptists distinct” (251). Instead they organize their book around the argument that Baptists are “insider-outsiders” in this sense: Baptists were once at the very margins of church, law, and culture, and even though they have since become in many places the leading denomination with enormous political and cultural influence, they still regard themselves as an embattled minority. This ought to be obvious to Baptists but it is not, like a quirk in your family which you never noticed until your spouse pointed it out. (For that matter, if the journalists and pundits who talk about religion could learn this basic idea, then there might be a little more light in public commentary.) The distinguishing features of denominations are not the only thing worth understanding about American religious history, but like the family you come from, they go a long way towards explaining why different groups do what they do.

  1. A denominational history can be an institutional history.

What is the difference between the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. and the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated? Well, Kidd and Hankins can tell you. It actually turns out to be an interesting story about Richard Henry Boyd, an influential black Baptist publisher, and the struggle to control networks of influence within a denomination and through the legal system. It seems to me that we are pretty far away from the mythical bad old days where denominational history was just a history of denominations, proper. The reasons Baptists split and joined forces in struggles over denominational politics are actually revealing proxies for larger issues.

  1. A denominational history can connect to American history.

You might think that a denominational history would tend to be narrowly focused inward and not have a connection to the larger history. Kidd and Hankins convincingly pin their narrative to the larger narrative of U.S. history. Two examples: the sectional crisis over slavery connects to the split between northern and Southern Baptists, while the same denominational struggles were re-fought in the civil rights era. Actually, there are so many connections here that I suspect it was probably a constant problem for the authors to figure out how much of general U.S. history they had to fill in for their readers.

  1. A denominational history can appeal to, you know, people who read books.

I don’t know how many copies of this particular book Oxford is moving; I hope a lot. But it seems to me that among the many potential audiences for a work of history, one obvious one are the members of a denomination themselves. (An interesting empirical question: which denomination or religious group reads the most? Someone must have the answer.) Framing a book to help its subjects understand themselves is a worthy goal.

Corpus of American Tract Society Publications

I’ve created a small to mid-sized corpus of publications by the American Tract Society up to the year 1900 in plain text. This corpus has been gathered from the Internet Archive. It includes 641 documents containing just under sixty million words, along with a CSV file containing metadata for each of the files. I don’t make any claims that this includes all of the ATS publications from that time period, and it is pretty obvious that the metadata from the Internet Archive is not much good. The titles are mostly correct; the dates are pretty far off in cases.

This corpus was created for the purpose of testing document similarity and text reuse algorithms. I need a corpus for testing the textreuse, which is in very early stages of development. From reading many, many of these tracts, I already know the patterns of text reuse. (And of course, the documents are historically interesting in their own right, and might be a good candidate for text mining.) The ATS frequently republished tracts under the same title. Furthermore, they published volumes containing the entire series of tracts that they had published individually. So there are examples of entire documents which are reprinted, but also some documents which are reprinted inside others. Then as a extra wrinkle, the corpus contains the editions of the Bible published by the ATS, plus their edition of Cruden’s concordance and a Bible dictionary. Likely all of the tracts quote the Bible, some at great length, so there are many examples of borrowing there.

Here is the corpus and its repository:

Update September 11, 2015: I say this is a small corpus, which it is in the sense that you can store the texts in well under a gigabyte of RAM. But note that when making naive pairwise comparisons, there are 205,120 pairs of documents. In other words, the corpus is big enough that you need a non-naive approach.

New Release of the gender Package (v0.5.0)

I have released a new version (v0.5.0) of the gender package for the R programming language. The gender package predicts gender from first names and dates using historical datasets. You can install the package from CRAN or see the code at GitHub.

This release brings a number of improvements. First, there are significant performance improvements, which make the package more useful for anyone using it for large datasets. I have also simplified the package so it always returns data frames. This was my first R package that I published on CRAN, and let’s just say that I have since found a lot of low-hanging fruit when it came to performance and usability.

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The Business Practices of Corporate Evangelicals

Tim Gloege’s recent book, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (UNC Press, 2015), details the ways that business shaped the evangelicalism of the Moody Bible Institute in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book intervenes in several different subfields, including the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism and the history of religion and capitalism. But before I get to the historiography, first the history.

Gloege argues that Moody Bible Institute, including evangelists D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, and James M. Gray, as well as businessmen such as Cyrus McCormick and Henry P. Crowell, “weaved disparate ideas drawn from business and religion into a compelling, if unstable form of evangelical Protestantism” which he terms “corporate evangelicalism.” Corporate evangelicalism was an attempt to create a “respectable evangelicalism” which could resolve the tension between evangelicals’ rejection of “churchly” institutions and the very real excesses of unbridled individualism. By being respectable, evangelicalism could appeal to the middle classes, even if it lost its ability to appeal to the working classes. Being businesslike was a way of being modern without becoming a modernist.

According to Gloege the development of corporate evangelicalism fell into three chronological stages. First, the nineteenth century featured a “compulsory denominational identity” against which evangelicals like Moody rebelled. The evangelicals, borrowing techniques from the businesses they ran or that funded them, instead built the Moody Bible Institute into a “branded institution.” This brand guaranteed the purity, in terms of doctrine, practice, and associations, of the students it educated to be Christian workers. When the oatmeal magnate Henry Crowell took over the Institute he instituted stricter rules about dress and deportment, and segregated the living quarters of African American students off campus, in order to appeal to the respectable middle class. However, neither Crowell nor any other institution could entirely maintain their control over celebrity evangelists who had their own brands, and so we are left today with a “present in which the brand alone is all that matters.”

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How to Use Neatline with Map Warper Instead of GeoServer

TL;DR. You don’t need GeoServer to use historic map layers in Neatline: you just need any WMS server, such as Map Warper. Map Warper’s base WMS URL is{MAPID}; the layer ID is whatever title you gave the map in Map Warper.

For any map that needs to connect its elements to full metadata and/or narratives, Omeka and the Neatine plugin are a useful combination. I used Omeka and Neatline for a class on mapping Boston’s religions—the kind of class I hope to teach again—and most recently in a workshop session on deep mapping.

The trouble with Neatline is its recommended dependency, GeoServer. Omeka and Neatline require only a LAMP stack, which you can to find on any shared web host. (Shout out to Reclaim Hosting, which is far and away the best host for academics and students.) Installing Omeka and the main Neatline plugin is very easy. GeoServer, however, is a Java application and is a pain to install. At the very least you’ll need a virtual private server and some webmaster chops to get it up and running.

I’ve figured out how to use all of Neatline’s features without installing GeoServer by using a different WMS server instead. The people at THATCamp Prime this weekend indicated that an explanation would be helpful, so I’m writing up how to do that.

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