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  • Queering Fundamentalism: John Balcom Shaw and the Sexuality of a Protestant Orthodoxy
  • Kathryn Lofton (bio)

The story begins with four copies of a single letter. The lazy days of August 1916 were almost gone when four Presbyterian ministers in Elmira, New York, opened their mailboxes to find copies of the same unsigned handwritten missive. While this letter would be endlessly analyzed and appraised in the coming months, none of the copies survives, and its contents are only known through the descriptions of Rev. James A. Miller, pastor of the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in Elmira and secretary for the narration of the letters and their aftermath. In his record of what he called “The John Balcom Shaw Case” Miller wrote that the copies had been postmarked from Los Angeles and that they questioned the moral character of John Balcom Shaw, a conservative Presbyterian pastor newly installed as the president of the Elmira College for Women. It was brief, only long enough to allege that Shaw was guilty of “the crime of sodomy.” The four ministers quickly conferred over these anonymous notes and decided, said Miller, “it was the work of some malicious person too mean and cowardly to write over his own name, and, of course, utterly unworthy of attention.”1

Within a year the accusation would be worthy of attention. By the winter of 1917 the case against John Balcom Shaw would sprawl across the continent and include testimony from ministers and laymen, brakemen and businessmen. When the dust had cleared and the case was settled, John Balcom Shaw had lost his job and any memorialized position within the fundamentalist movement he had fostered. This article explores Shaw’s [End Page 439] excluded position as a signifier of a larger exemption. Definitions of fundamentalism tend to linger on the vitriolic political actions of a vociferous theological minority. Historians have contributed to this profile, emphasizing the signal role of debates over evolution and the enclave mentality of twentieth-century Protestant conservatives. The case against John Balcom Shaw invites a reappraisal of fundamentalism to queer the tinny rigidity of this cantankerous image.

“Queering old time religion in the U.S. is not as easy as it looks,” decides feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt.2 The recent public pleasure in evangelical headliner Ted Haggard’s sexual indiscretions reveals the extent to which religious conservatives occupy a particular sexual position in society, representing the ironic idealization of a “natural” heterosexuality against the complexities of individual human desire. Miller’s record of the John Balcom Shaw case narrated the investigation from the 1916 anonymous letters until Shaw’s forced remittance from the ministry in 1917. This inquisition into John Balcom Shaw’s accused sexual indiscretions allows for a deconstruction of the imagined stridency of conservative religious fundamentalism, showing how discourses of textual inerrancy offer space for more fluid forms of self-interpretation. When Miller’s record is read in concert with documents relating to Shaw’s varied institutional roles, we see how elaborate rumor and social anxiety might collude to expose closeted preachers and closeted questions.3 How do we define a fundamentalist? What determines gender identity within orthodoxy? A pursuit of Shaw’s case leads us not only to predictable homophobia and paranoia but also to the possibility of an expansive fundamentalism, one that might include and even justify the myriad desires of a queer subjectivity.

The Man

John Balcom Shaw (1860–1935) was a typical member of the early- twentieth-century American Protestant ruling class. Born in Bellport, New York, to an established family, Shaw was educated at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Immediately following his ordination in 1888, Shaw was installed as the first pastor at West End Presbyterian Church. Located at Amsterdam Avenue and 105th Street in the Upper West Side of New York City, West End was at the time of Shaw’s arrival a gathering of only twelve parishioners. Shaw tore into the labor of church building, raising funds, purchasing artwork for the church interior, writing sermons, and establishing connections within [End Page 440] the presbytery.4 Within a year the chapel was completed, and by 1892 the church was...