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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 598-603

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Religion in the Making

Leigh E. Schmidt

John P. Burris. Exhibiting Religion: Colonialism and Spectacle at International Expositions, 1851-1893. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. 211 pp. $39.50.

That modern fields of inquiry—whether art history or optics, acoustics or musicology—have complex intellectual genealogies is axiomatic. That the constitution of such disciplinary domains have equally intricate social and cultural histories is becoming ever more evident. The emergence of religion as a distinct object of study in American culture has heretofore been located primarily within the history of divinity schools and universities, and that emphasis is readily understandable. Whether it be the considerable influence of American intellectuals on the emergence of the psychology of religion (William James, Edwin D. Starbuck, James Leuba, and James Pratt) or on the development of the philosophy of religion (James again, Josiah Royce, Alfred North Whitehead, and John Dewey), the making of religion as an abstracted object of scientific study was an international enterprise in which American academics participated with vigor. From this perspective, the history of the study of religion becomes another history of professionalism and specialization, best scripted as a struggle for respectability within the modern research university. As Eric J. Sharpe remarked in Comparative Religion: A History, "An academic subject, it might be argued, comes of age when it first attains the dignity of a University Chair, and the comparable privileges of scholarly journals, lectureships and congresses." 1

In Exhibiting Religion, John P. Burris suggests that such dignity is overrated—or, at least, overrated as a measure of how religion as a field of study was constituted in American culture. He attempts to shift the story from intellectual histories of the Enlightenment and the universities to histories of popular and material culture, from David Hume and William James to "a cultural history of a field of religion in its formative stages" (p. xviii). In concentrating on Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and its auxiliaries, especially the World's Parliament of Religions, Burris places the making of religion within the context of international exhibitions stretching back to London's Crystal Palace in 1851. That focus allows him to foreground the [End Page 598] material display of colonial relations and the religious and cultural hierarchies embodied in such spectacles of modern progress. The rise of comparative religions is thus inextricably linked to colonialist and class politics, especially a Spencerian philosophy of social evolutionism in which different cultures become specimens within a hierarchy stretching from the primitive upward to the civilized. The emphasis that knowledge about religion served as a colonialist tool, that it reflected the asymmetries of power between colonizer and colonized, puts Burris's book in the esteemed company of Talal Asad's Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993) and David Chidester's Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in South Africa (1996).

To locate religion's emergence as an object of scrutiny within the context of the burgeoning international exhibitions, with their celebration of advancing industrialism and multiplying commodities, proves a productive exercise. Throughout Burris shows a fine grasp of the European and British precedents for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and Chicago's Columbian Exposition seventeen years later. At London's Great Exhibition all attempts to use the gathering as an international religious assembly fell flat, even when narrowly imagined in pan-Protestant terms. Aside from the expected Protestant mobilization to distribute mountains of Bibles and tracts to the multitude of visitors, religion took a back seat at the Crystal Palace to commerce, science, and the arts. Religion instead was inseparable from wider cultural judgments and material hierarchies (the relative backwardness of Catholic Spain and Italy or the grotesquely inferior productions of "savage" cultures). Indeed, some observers thought the Great Exhibition was a success precisely because it kept religion hidden in the background. The Crystal Palace, H. W. Burrows observed, "is for man rather than for God. It is easier to get men to combine. . . for science and commerce. . . In order to unite, men...


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