Welcome back to the (very) occasional newsletter Working On It. It has been 277 days since the last issue.

Antisemitism, U.S.A.

A couple of years ago, my colleague John Turner and I bounced around ideas for a podcast on the history of antisemitism in the United States. We were sure it was necessary topic that public audiences would benefit from learning about. Regrettably, it has become painfully obvious that we were right.

However unfortunate the need for the podcast, John has ably led a team of scholars and podcasters to create it. In October of 2022, we convened the project team at my home for a kickoff meeting. As I looked around the room and listened to the conversation, I congratulated myself on being good at my job, because every person in the room was obviously more knowledgeable and talented than me. The result of their hard work is Antisemitism, U.S.A, launching this June.

Antisemitism, U.S.A. cover art

I’ve had a pretty good career so far (more on that in a moment), and I have the good fortune to lead a research center that affects millions of people each year. Still, I have a feeling deep down that this podcast might be the single most important thing that I will ever be a part of. So, can I ask you to do two things, please?

  1. First, on Thursday, May 23rd at 7:00pm, the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History (part of the Smithsonian) will be hosting an online pre-launch event for the podcast. The event will be moderated by John Turner and will feature show host Mark Oppenheimer and experts Zev Eleff, Kirsten Fermaglich, Sarah Imhoff, and Britt Tevis. Will you consider attending that event? You can register for free here.

  2. Second, stay tuned: the podcast trailer will be releasing soon, at which point you can subscribe to it. I’ll mention it in an upcoming newsletter. Will you plan to subscribe then? Here is the show page in the meantime.

If you want to know more, here is the overview of the podcast

Antisemitism has deep roots in American history. Yet in the United States, we often talk about it as if it were something new. We’re shocked when events happen like the Tree of Life Shootings in Pittsburgh or the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, but also surprised. We ask, “Where did this come from?” as if it came out of nowhere. But antisemitism in the United States has a history. A long, complicated history. A history easy to overlook. Join us on Antisemitism, U.S.A., a limited podcast series hosted by Mark Oppenheimer, to learn just how deep those roots go. Coming this summer from R2 Studios, part of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Antisemitism, U.S.A. is written by John Turner and Lincoln Mullen. Britt Tevis is the lead scholar. The series is executive produced by Jeanette Patrick and produced by Jim Ambuske.

Shadows and Solid Things

Congratulations to Kris Stinson, who defended his dissertation a couple of weeks ago and graduated today at George Mason University’s commencement. Kris’s dissertation is titled “Shadows and Solid Things: Religion and Archaeology in the Atlantic World.” While of course I am biased, I think it is a remarkable dissertation. Kris is an excellent writer, and if you hear the word dissertation and think “snoozefest,” you are wrong in Kris’s case.

Here is the abstract:

My dissertation examines the relationship between religion and archaeology in Britain and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pulling together travel narratives written by early archaeologists, newspaper accounts, and the material artifacts and excavated sites themselves, I show how archaeology, which allowed investigators to determine the historicity of ancient places and texts, implicated religious beliefs. With the Bible, Herodotus, and Homer in one hand and a shovel in the other, many archaeologists set off to prove that these works were history in the most real sense. Yet what they found often left them with more questions than answers. I argue that the rise of archaeology challenged the literal interpretation of ancient texts, including the Bible, even as it formed a new kind of “empirical literalism” that prioritized material presence above all. As such, archaeology became the ultimate mediator between myth and history in a way that had previously been the function of ancient texts like the Bible. The histories of religion and archaeology have largely been kept apart by scholars while even fewer have included early America in the story of archaeology. I address both gaps in scholarship by expanding the scope of both Methodist and early American studies to include archaeological excavations. Doing so also impacts our understanding of religion in America by illustrating that the story of archaeology was thoroughly religious. As such, I complicate notions of religious enchantment by deploying more recent scholarship on archaeology that emphasizes “presence” rather than “absence,” as seen in the works of Jennifer Wallace and Karen Bassi. Their discussion of presence, I suggest, should be paired with the work of religious scholars such as James Turner and Robert Orsi to provide a more accurate account of early archaeology as both a scientific and religious operation. The early-modern world was one of ancient stories—a world of “shadows.” Thanks to a potent blend of forces that scholars have labeled “classicism” and “primitivism” people across the Atlantic and beyond turned to ancient texts for guidance and instruction regarding both how the world once was and how the world should be. These ancient stories were not only authoritative but were, in many instances, sacred, forming a veritable canon in both schools and churches. Readers in the United States and Britain approached their ancient stories with a posture of trust that reflected a pervasive literalism that treated ancient texts as history. Specifically, it formed a sense that the places they read about existed beyond their libraries, beyond their armchairs, and beyond their sanctuaries, in the real world. Ultimately, these ancient texts were authoritative because readers trusted that they were real – trusted that they were history and not mere myth (Chapter 1). Yet thanks to the newly developing science that would come to be “archaeology,” the early modern world was also increasingly a world of “solid things.” The central question became how might shadows and solid things interact? How might the sacred stories of antiquity be affected by the discoveries archaeologists were making? Indeed, beginning with the excavations at Herculaneum in the early eighteenth century, contemporaries were convinced that these were questions in need of answers (Chapter 2). The next several decades served to shape the relationship between texts and archaeology in various ways, with each harboring distinctly religious implications. In Egypt, it became clear with such artifacts as the Rosetta Stone that archaeology would serve to reveal new truths that went beyond people’s established canons, giving voice to peoples long voiceless (Chapter 3). In Babylon, archaeology served to illustrate these canons more fully, helping to indicate to readers when stories were to be taken literally and when, perhaps, they were not quite “history” as contemporaries understood it (Chapter 4). Finally, in the Holy Land, as the American Edward Robinson crafted a new subfield of archaeology known as “biblical archaeology,” archaeology came to mediate between fiction and fact, myth and history – shadows and solid things (Chapter 5).

I am entirely confident this dissertation will be coming out soon from a good press, but if you really can’t wait, write to Kris and ask for a copy.

Kris Stinson, PhD, and Lincoln Mullen

Personal news

In elementary school, I failed a self-esteem test. My family brings it up regularly. As a result, even in a personal newsletter to which you subscribed and then confirmed your subscription, I am reluctant to mention anything about myself. But here goes.

In August of 2023 (it’s been that long since I wrote a newsletter!) I became the executive director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the oldest digital humanities center in North America, and possibly the world. It’s an amazing group of people, now in its thirtieth year. Please check out our website.

And then, this month I was promoted to professor (I refuse to use the stupid term “full professor”) and received GMU’s Presidential Award for Research Excellence.

Do I get credit for the test now?

Updates

Reflecting (on the past year): Colter Wall, “Codeine Dream.”

Reading: James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Wake.

Also reading: Jackson Lears, Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality from Camp Meeting to Wall Street.

Working: Trying to write an article on “The Place of Data in American Religious History.”

Backpacking: The PATC has three maps of Shenandoah National Park. I’ve made it off of one, and on to the second.


My student Kris Stinson will be defending his dissertation at the end of the semester. Here is the formal announcement:

The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to announce the following dissertation defense:

Shadows and Solid Things: Religion and Archaeology in the Atlantic World

Kristofer Stinson, History
Advisor: Dr. Lincoln A. Mullen

Friday, April 19, 2024
01:00pm–03:00pm
George Mason University
Fairfax Campus
Horizon Hall, Room 3223

My dissertation examines the relationship between religion and archaeology in Britain and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pulling together travel narratives written by early archaeologists, newspaper accounts, and the material artifacts and excavated sites themselves, I show how archaeology, which allowed investigators to determine the historicity of ancient places and texts, implicated religious beliefs. With the Bible, Herodotus, and Homer in one hand and a shovel in the other, many archaeologists set off to prove that these works were history in the most real sense. Yet what they found often left them with more questions than answers. I argue that the rise of archaeology challenged the literal interpretation of ancient texts, including the Bible, even as it formed a new kind of “empirical literalism” that prioritized material presence above all. As such, archaeology became the ultimate mediator between myth and history in a way that had previously been the function of ancient texts like the Bible. The histories of religion and archaeology have largely been kept apart by scholars while even fewer have included early America in the story of archaeology. I address both gaps in scholarship by expanding the scope of both Methodist and early American studies to include archaeological excavations. Doing so also impacts our understanding of religion in America by illustrating that the story of archaeology was thoroughly religious. As such, I complicate notions of religious enchantment by deploying more recent scholarship on archaeology that emphasizes “presence” rather than “absence,” as seen in the works of Jennifer Wallace and Karen Bassi. Their discussion of presence, I suggest, should be paired with the work of religious scholars such as James Turner and Robert Orsi to provide a more accurate account of early archaeology as both a scientific and religious operation. The early-modern world was one of ancient stories – a world of “shadows.” Thanks to a potent blend of forces that scholars have labeled “classicism” and “primitivism” people across the Atlantic and beyond turned to ancient texts for guidance and instruction regarding both how the world once was and how the world should be. These ancient stories were not only authoritative but were, in many instances, sacred, forming a veritable canon in both schools and churches. Readers in the United States and Britain approached their ancient stories with a posture of trust that reflected a pervasive literalism that treated ancient texts as history. Specifically, it formed a sense that the places they read about existed beyond their libraries, beyond their armchairs, and beyond their sanctuaries, in the real world. Ultimately, these ancient texts were authoritative because readers trusted that they were real – trusted that they were history and not mere myth (Chapter 1). Yet thanks to the newly developing science that would come to be “archaeology,” the early modern world was also increasingly a world of “solid things.” The central question became how might shadows and solid things interact? How might the sacred stories of antiquity be affected by the discoveries archaeologists were making? Indeed, beginning with the excavations at Herculaneum in the early eighteenth century, contemporaries were convinced that these were questions in need of answers (Chapter 2). The next several decades served to shape the relationship between texts and archaeology in various ways, with each harboring distinctly religious implications. In Egypt, it became clear with such artifacts as the Rosetta Stone that archaeology would serve to reveal new truths that went beyond people’s established canons, giving voice to peoples long voiceless (Chapter 3). In Babylon, archaeology served to illustrate these canons more fully, helping to indicate to readers when stories were to be taken literally and when, perhaps, they were not quite “history” as contemporaries understood it (Chapter 4). Finally, in the Holy Land, as the American Edward Robinson crafted a new subfield of archaeology known as “biblical archaeology,” archaeology came to mediate between fiction and fact, myth and history – shadows and solid things (Chapter 5).

Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Shadows as Solid Things
  • Chapter 2: The Incarnation of Classicism
  • Chapter 3: The Land of Egypt
  • Chapter 4: By the Rivers of Babylon
  • Chapter 5: Holy Ground
  • Epilogue: Faith of Stones

The first time that I came across the name Roy Rosenzweig was in the textbook for a class titled simply, “Historiography.” The book discussed Rosenzweig’s 1983 book, Eight Hours for What We Will, as a key work in American labor history. Since Eight Hours is a history of workers in Worcester, Massachusetts, just thirty miles from where I grew up, I went to the library and checked out the book. As I read, I was captivated by how Rosenzweig had captured the lives and labors of working-class people.

Sometime later I had my first encounter with the Center for History and New Media, which was not yet named after Roy Rosenzweig. I was trying to create a website and couldn’t get it to look the way I wanted. (I am still terrible at CSS.) I wrote to a graduate student who was working at CHNM and asked if I could copy and paste the design for his website. He graciously said yes, introducing me to some of the key values of CHNM: collaboration and openly sharing with all.

Read the entire post 


I am grateful to have worked for Mills Kelly for the past four years as he has served as the executive director at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. In a blog post on our website, he reflects on the last four years at RRCHNM, and a bit beyond.


Summertime countdown on the whiteboard

According to the whiteboard outside our kitchen, there are fourteen days left of summer. So here is a summertime newsletter, heavy on the pictures and light on the prose.


Currently listening

Merle Haggard's album, The Land of Many Churches

I found this double LP album for $3 at the CD Cellar in Falls Church. Merle Haggard and The Strangers were recorded live during services at four different churches or chapels. I’m listening it to it for a book I’m researching.


Currently visualizing

A visualization from our paper

Kellen Funk and I recently presented our work on Legal Modernism at the Conference on Data Science and Law held at Fordham University. Above is one of the many visualizations from the paper. This one is drawn from the dataset we have generated, which includes 8.2 million citations from 9,749 U.S. legal treatises published before 1926 to some 368,000 distinct U.S. cases.


Currently collaborating

Part of the American Religious Ecologies team, current and former, at AHA 2023

Since I last wrote, John Turner and I have received another $350k grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for our American Religious Ecologies project. Our wonderful project team (a few of whom are pictured above) also presented a poster at the American Historical Association annual meeting.


Currently defending

Committee for Greta Swain's dissertation

Greta Swain—a PhD student in history at George Mason and a key contributor to the Mapping Early American Elections and American Religious Ecologies projects at RRCHNM—successfully defended her dissertation on “Potomac Networks” last week. Here is why the dissertation is a masterclass in using digital methods for historical interpretation. Greta is off to Southern Methodist University as a postdoc.


Currently moving

Moving day Moving day

I am packing up all of the books in my office at RRCHNM to move to the other side of the wall. More on that next time.


Greta Swain—a PhD student in history at George Mason and a key contributor to many projects at RRCHNM—has successfully defended her dissertation. For a long time now I’ve been trying to persuade people to use digital history methods to say something meaningful about the past, and not to stop with creating tools and databases. And that is just what Greta has done in a remarkable way. In her dissertation she has created a fantastic database tracking the social history of the family of George Mason IV and the people he enslaved. And she has created a compelling series of maps and network visualizations showing how both free and enslaved people used the upper Potomac River for kinship and economic development. Besides being a masterclass in how to use digital methods for historical interpretation, the dissertation has broad implications for the understanding the history of waterways and commercial development in early America.

Below is the title and abstract for the dissertation. As with all dissertations, it will take some time for the final version to be submitted, but you’ll want look it up once it has been.

Greta is off to be a postdoc at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University this fall.

Potomac Networks: Waterways, Commerce, and Enslavement in the George Mason Family, 1700–1828

While George Mason IV is best known as a Virginia political writer, tobacco planter and slaveholder, Mason IV was also an opportunistic Chesapeake businessman, taking advantage of an aqueous landscape bisected by the Potomac River. Through a focus on waterways, aquatic business ventures and local connections, this dissertation presents a new approach to the Mason family. In the eighteenth century, the Potomac River was not a divider, but rather a connector of people, places and enterprises along its shores. The Mason family built landholdings and houses, networks and businesses, on both sides of the river. Through digital analysis and visualizations, this dissertation argues that both the Mason family and the people they enslaved deployed waterways like the Potomac River to create opportunities and form strategic connections which furthered their own economic or personal goals. For the people the Masons enslaved, waterways often perpetuated the cycle of enslavement, but sometimes furnished opportunities for freedom. At a time when many of Mason IV’s peers were failing financially from their almost exclusive investment in land-based tobacco agriculture, Mason IV maintained economic stability by using waterways to diversify his sources of income. Ferries and fisheries, fueled largely by enslaved labor, became main contributors to the family’s eighteenth-century Potomac prosperity. In addition, the family’s success was bolstered by Mason IV’s skills as an expert networker. Mason IV did not hesitate to use the people with which he was connected as resources. He promoted his businesses and the family’s power and prestige through dense webs of relationships that stretched across the Potomac region and beyond. Mason IV’s networks and influence allowed him to manipulate Potomac region events and decisions so as to benefit the community but also himself. In short, we see how the Potomac River played a critical role in the lives, networks, and socioeconomic trajectory of the Mason family over several generations.


A new podcast—or rather, a longstanding podcast—has joined R2 Studios at RRCHNM.

Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant is a women’s history podcast that showcases 18th and early 19th-century women’s letters that don’t always make it into the history books. Using her training as a historian and documentary editor, Kathryn Gehred and her guests dig into the story behind each letter and the lives of the women who wrote or received them.

Gehred began the podcast in 2020 and has released 38 episodes with approximately 50,000 downloads to date. “I am THRILLED to announce that Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant is joining the R2 Studios podcast network!,” Gehred said. “This means you’re going to see more episodes, with better editing, produced on a regular schedule, with all the same great 18th and 19th-century scandals you’ve come to expect.”


News about four students from GMU’s PhD program in history: one off to be a postdoc, one off to work at the Center for Military History, two off to positions as assistant professors.


The May newsletter from RRCHNM contains news of a visualization about Victor Recording’s expeditions in Latin America, two graduate student successes, and a grant for American religious history. Subscribe here.


We are grateful to acknowledge a second NEH grant in support of our American Religious Ecologies project. The National Endowment for the Humanities announced this week that RRCHNM will receive a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant for $350,000 to continue our work with the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies for the next three years. This new grant follow on our previous award, also from the HCRR program in the NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access, which was received in 2019.

At the start of the twentieth century, Congress authorized the U.S. Census Bureau to survey the nation’s “religious bodies.” For five decades, the Bureau partnered with religious organizations to identify hundreds of thousands of individual congregations across the country. Though the Census Bureau conducted several censuses of religion, only for the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies are the original schedules, or forms, preserved.

A schedule from the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies, showing a Seventh Day Adventist congregation in Maine.

A schedule from the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies, showing a Seventh Day Adventist congregation in Maine.

These schedules are a rich source of information about American religious institutions in the early twentieth century. They contain a wealth of information about each congregation, including its membership by age and sex, its expenditures on buildings and missions, its minister’s name and whether he or she had gone to seminary, and its denominational affiliation, which the Census Bureau cataloged into 213 different groups. The schedules also include the location of the congregations, usually by county and city or town, and in many cases the street address as well.

Thanks to the previous support of the NEH, the American Religious Ecologies project team has already photographed many of the census schedules at the National Archives, despite the delays and closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those schedules are then cataloged by denomination and county and made publicly available. Using the NEH-supported DataScribe software created at RRCHNM, a team of researchers is also transcribing the schedules into datasets which can be analyzed and visualized.

“Thanks to the NEH’s continued support, we will be able to complete our digitization of the 1926 census, which is already well underway” said co-project director Lincoln Mullen. “Those schedules will be of interest to local historians, as well as to scholars of American religion. But just as important, we will be able to create datasets from these schedules which will be useful for understanding the demography and geography of American religion. And we will be able to fill in gaps for religious groups that the Census Bureau failed to count. Once completed, the 1926 census will be the single most comprehensive dataset for the study of American religion.”

A large team at RRCHNM, including thirty-nine different people over the course of the past several years, have been working on the 1926 census. A large number of those team members are students at GMU, who get hands-on experience learning how to work with historical sources and ways of thinking about the past. “Undergraduate, M.A., and Ph.D. students have been central to American Religious Ecologies,” said co-project director John Turner. “They photograph census schedules, catalog batches of photographs, and prepare items for public display. Students have learned a variety of research skills, but they have also contributed to the project in many unexpected ways. They notice quirks in the ways that congregations recorded data and raise key questions about the procedures of the Census Bureau.”

You can see the work that the American Religious Ecologies team has already published at the project website. To follow the work, subscribe to RRCHNM’s newsletters, including the “Religion@RRCHNM” newsletter.