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American Scriptures (Spring 2024)

Course: HIST/RELI 334. Spring 2024. Department of History and Art History, George Mason University. 3 credits. Meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:30pm to 2:45pm in Horizon Hall 1010.

Instructor: Lincoln Mullen <>. Office: Research Hall 483. Office hours: By appointment on M/Tu/Th. Book an appointment.

Course description

In this course, students will analyze texts that Americans have treated as “scripture.” Students will read texts that present themselves as scripture, such as selections from the Book of Mormon and a Holy Sacred and Divine Roll and Book (a Shaker text). They will also read texts that have attained a sort of canonicity within American culture, such as the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Students will thus gain more than a valuable familiarity with a variety of American religious traditions. They will also reflect on the way that, even in a digital age, texts continue to shape American identity. Finally, the course invites students to reflect on the meaning and function of “scripture.” Although many Americans reflexively define scripture as “the Word of God” or think of the Bible or the Qur’an, the scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith cautions that “no text is a scripture in itself and as such. People—a given community—make a text into scripture, or keep it scripture.” Along those lines, Americans, and different groups of Americans, have granted such authority to a wide variety of texts.

Learning goals

In this course you will

  • gain familiarity with a variety of American religious traditions, including Shakerism, Mormonism, Christian Science, Adventism, Judaism, and the Nation of Islam.
  • develop your ability to carefully analyze texts, paying attention to issues such as authorship, intertextuality, and reception.
  • articulate historical insights clearly and memorably in prose.

This class fulfills the Mason Core Literature requirement. The readings and assignments are designed to fulfill these learning goals. Students will be able to

  • read for comprehension, detail, and nuance.
  • identify the specific literary qualities of language as employed in the texts they read.
  • analyze the ways specific literary devices contribute to the meaning of a text.
  • identify and evaluate the contribution of the social, political, historical, and cultural contexts in which a literary text is produced.
  • evaluate a critical argument in others’ writing as well as their own.

Essential information

This class will include a combination of lecture, discussion, and active learning. Doing the reading is absolutely essential. There will be a reading quiz every class period: if you’ve done the reading, you can expect to do well on the quizzes. Attend class having read any assigned material and be prepared to discuss or otherwise engage with those readings in class. You must have a copy of the texts assigned for each day available to you during class (electronic copies are fine).

You are always welcome to talk with me during office hours. To do so, please book an appointment. If the scheduled times don’t work for you, email me and suggest a few other times that would work for you. I try to come to class early and stay briefly after class for short conversations.

You are likewise welcome to email me at any time: You can generally expect a response within 48 hours, though never on the weekend.

Required readings. The following books are required. Any edition will do.

  • Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F. American Scriptures: An Anthology of Sacred Writings. Penguin, 2010. ISBN: 978-0143106197.
  • Prothero, Stephen. The American Bible: How Our Words United, Divide, and Define a Nation. HarperOne, 2012. ISBN: 978-0062123459.
  • Rothschild, Mike. The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything. Melville House, 2022. ISBN: 978-1685890186.

Other readings will be available on Blackboard or through the GMU libraries.


This class will have two essential activities. The first is reading texts and then discussing them and writing about them. Most days we will read primary source texts which have been regarded as scripture by one group or another. While I will give lectures to set the context, much of our class time will be spent discussing these texts. You will also be asked to write several short analytical essays about these texts. I may bring additional sources to class for us to read together in class.

The second main activity for this class will be creating a collaborative explanation of the Qanon conspiracy theory and the the “Q drops” as a new American scripture. The purpose of this capstone assignment is to collaboratively understand a recent phenomenon in American life in terms of what we have learned in this course about how communities and texts co-constitute one another. Details about this assignment will be provided separately by the mid-point of the semester.

Reading quizzes and class participation (20 points): Every class will have a brief quiz over the assigned reading, which will pose no difficulty if you have read thoroughly. I will also give you a few participation assignments to prompt class discussion (some of these are listed on the syllabus already). Participation in class discussions is vital. I will assign a grade for this section at the end of the semester.

Short response papers (4 papers × 10 points/paper = 40 points): You will write four short papers responding to some texts that we have read. There are six possible papers throughout the semester; the prompts are listed in the schedule below. The papers should be a minimum of three and a maximum of five double-spaced pages; 12pt font; 1 inch margins; footnotes in the Chicago Manual of Style format. These are due at the start of class; no exceptions or extensions. These must be submitted both in paper in class and on Blackboard.

Qanon assignment (40 total points): As a capstone assignment for the course, we will work collaboratively to explain the Qanon conspiracy theory as a new American scripture, using what we have learned from our readings and class discussions. Details of this assignment will be provided separately at the midpoint of the semester. We will allot a significant part of our time to working on this collaboratively in class.

Final grades will be calculated using this scale: A = 93–100, A- = 90–92, B+ = 88–89, B = 83–87, B- = 80–82, … F = 0–59.


Tuesday, Jan. 16: Introduction

In class: Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address.

In class: What do different Bibles contain?

Thursday, Jan. 18: What is scripture?


  • Wilfred Cantwell Smith, What Is Scripture? A Comparative Approach (Fortress Press, 1993), introduction. PDF on Blackboard.
  • Stephen Stein, “America’s Bibles: Canon, Commentary, and Community,” Church History 64, no. 2 (1995): 169–184. Article through GMU libraries.

Tuesday, Jan. 23: Exodus


  • “The Exodus Story,” in Prothero, 18–33.
  • John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in Prothero, 34–51.
  • Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2000), ch 2. PDF on Blackboard.

Thursday, Jan. 25 6: Texts of the American founding

Participation assignment: Bring a sacred text of your choice. Be prepared to argue why it is a sacred text and what distinguishes it from ordinary texts.


  • Thomas Paine, Common Sense, in Prothero, 52–72.
  • Declaration of Independence, in Prothero, 73–97.

Tuesday, Jan. 30: Texts of the American founding


  • Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptists,” in Prothero, 452–461.
  • Thomas Jefferson, “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” in Maffly-Kipp, 1–31.

Thursday, Feb. 1: Shakers and Adventists


  • “A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book,” in Maffly-Kipp, 63–93.
  • “The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan,” in Maffly-Kipp, 266–289.

Tuesday, Feb. 6: Latter-day Saints


  • “The Book of Mormon,” in Maffly-Kipp, 32–62.
  • “A Warning to the Latter Day Saints,” in Maffly-Kipp, 94–115.

Thursday, Feb. 8: Latter-day Saints

Short essay 1. Compare selections from the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s History, and Doctrine and Covenants 89. These texts all function as authoritative “scripture” for several American religious groups, yet they are very different sorts of texts. Consider differences in genre, rhetoric, literary devices, and setting. What makes these varied texts each function as scripture?


  • Joseph Smith History. PDF on Blackboard.
  • Doctrine and Covenants 89. PDF on Blackboard.

Tuesday, Feb. 13: Texts of the Civil War


  • Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” in Prothero, 330–345.
  • Maria Stewart, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” excerpts from Valerie C. Cooper, Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans (University of Virginia Press, 2011). PDF on Blackboard.
  • Robert L. Dabney, A Defence of Virginia. PDF on Blackboard.

Thursday, Feb. 15: Race in the literary canon


  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in Prothero, 162–180.
  • Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in Prothero, 181–198.

Tuesday, Feb. 20: Class canceled

Thursday, Feb. 22: Spiritualism and Christian Science


  • Principles of Nature, in Maffly-Kipp, 116–139.
  • Science and Health, in Maffly-Kipp, 194–218.

Tuesday, Feb. 27: Metaphysical religion


  • OAHSPE, in Maffly-Kipp, 219–240.
  • Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, 378–406.

Thursday, Feb. 29: Texts as material objects


  • Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford University Press, 1999), ch. 2. PDF on Blackboard.

GMU spring break, March 4–8

Tuesday, Mar. 12: The Qu’ran in America

Short essay 2. What circumstances shaped Omar ibn Said’s conclusion? How does he make use of both the Qur’an and the Bible in his life story?


  • Omar ibn Said, Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina. PDF on Blackboard.
  • Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America. PDF on Blackboard.
  • Amina Wadud, Qu’ran and Woman, from Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States. PDF on Blackboard.

Thursday, Mar. 14: Women’s interpretation of the Bible

Short essay 3. What arguments do Stanton and Bushnell advance about women and the Bible? What strategies do they employ for reading the text and for understanding it as authoritative?


  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman’s Bible, in Maffly-Kipp, 345–377.
  • Katherine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women. PDF on Blackboard.

Tuesday, Mar. 19: The Jewish Bible


  • Jonathan D. Sarna, “The Bible and Judaism in America,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America, ed. Paul C. Gutjahr (Oxford University Press, 2017), 505–16. PDF on Blackboard.

Thursday, Mar. 21: How the Bible was used

Short essay 4. Pick two verses from the Christian Bible that relate to one another. Using America’s Public Bible, trace the trends in how these verses were quoted over time. Then follow the links to Chronicling America to read the context of those quotations in newspapers. How were those verses used? Were used differently by different people? How did their interpretations change over time? Include footnotes to and quotations from the newspapers.


Tuesday, Mar. 26: Patriotism Civil rights

Short essay 5. Compare the rhetoric and arguments made in King’s “Letter” and Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet.” What are the settings for these two texts? What circumstances explain the differences in their arguments?


  • Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail," in Prothero, 462–482.
  • Malcom X, Autobiography of Malcom X, in Prothero, 308–328.
  • Malcom X, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” PDF on Blackboard.
  • “The Pledge of Allegiance,” in Prothero, 408–418.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, inaugural addresses, in Prothero, 260–263.

Thursday, Mar. 28: Songs, hymns, and spiritual songs

Participation assignment: bring a sacred song or hymn to class.


  • “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” in Prothero, 214–43.
  • “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “We Shall Overcome.” (Find these online.)

Tuesday, Apr. 2: Zodiac and horoscopes

Participation assignment: bring some cultural text about the Zodiac, horoscopes, or the like to class.

Thursday, Apr. 4: Museum of the Bible

Short essay 6. Consider the Museum of the Bible not as a secondary source but as a primary source. What narrative is it trying to tell? What evidence and texts does it use in support? To whom is this narrative addressed? Answer these questions in an essay which explicates the Museum of the Bible as a text.

Read each of the following brief essays:

Read at least one of the following:

Tuesday, Apr. 9: Qanon


  • Rothschild, The Storm Is Upon Us, introduction and part 1.

Thursday, Apr. 11: Qanon


  • Rothschild, The Storm Is Upon Us, part 2.

Tuesday, Apr. 16: Qanon


  • Michael J. Altman and and Jerome Copulsky, Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021, University of Alabama and Smithsonian National Museum of American History (2022):

Thursday, Apr. 18: Qanon


  • Rothschild, The Storm Is Upon Us, part 3 and epilogue.

Tuesday, Apr. 23: Qanon


  • Mia Bloom and Sophia Moskalenko, Pastels and Pedophiles: Inside the Mind of QAnon (Stanford University Press, 2021), ch. 3. PDF on Blackboard.

Thursday, Apr. 25: Conclusion

Final projects due Friday at 5:00pm.

Fine print

This syllabus may be updated online as necessary. The online version of this syllabus is the only authoritative version.

You are expected to attend each class and to participate actively (exceptions made only for health reasons, religious holidays, and other university-approved excuses). Whether or not students attend class consistently is the best indicator of how well they will do in the class. Participation grades may be reduced due to repeated absences. If you wish to be excused for an absence, please email me before the absence if possible, or as soon as possible after the absence. I understand that life happens, and I will do my best to work with you.

Computers, phones, and the like are to be used only for course work while class is in session. Please don’t distract your neighbors.

Complete all the readings before the start of each class. No unexcused late work will be accepted. No work will be accepted after the last day of class. I will discuss grades only in conversation during office hours, not over email.

Class communications will be sent to your GMU email account, which you must check.

If the campus closes, or if a class meeting needs to be canceled or adjusted due to weather or some other concern, students should check their email for updates on how to continue learning and for information about any changes assignments.

Unless otherwise specified, you should work on your own for assignments. In general, every source that you use should be acknowledged in a note or bibliography entry. Sources must be adequately paraphrased, meaning (at a minimum) that word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, and the order of ideas must be made your own. Whenever you use others’ exact words, you must mark them as such by quotation marks or block quotations with accompanying citations. Plagiarism consists of presenting the writing, research, or analysis of others as one’s own. It applies not only to using the text of another author’s work verbatim without quotation marks and accurate citations but also to the taking of specific information, analysis or opinions—even if not in the exact words of the author—and presenting them without citation in one’s own paper. Using AI-assistance for any paper is also plagiarism. Any instance of plagiarism will result in, at minimum, the student receiving a grade of 0 on the assignment, and the student will not be given the opportunity to rewrite the paper.

George Mason University has an Honor Code, which requires all members of this community to maintain the highest standards of academic honesty and integrity. Cheating, plagiarism, lying, and stealing are all prohibited. All violations of the Honor Code will be reported to the Honor Committee.

See the George Mason University catalog for general policies, as well as the university statement on diversity.

If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Office of Disability Resources. All academic accommodations must be arranged through that office.

Students are responsible for verifying their enrollment in this class. Schedule adjustments should be made by the deadlines published in the Schedule of Classes. (Deadlines each semester are published in the Schedule of Classes available from the Registrar’s website.)

“Render therefore to all their dues”: This syllabus is based on a version of this class taught with my colleague John Turner.