Who lives, who dies, who reads your story?

When I was writing my second book, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars, I wrote with a pretty specific audience in mind. Perhaps selling myself a bit short and surely with a fair bit of white and academic privilege, I thought that the only people who would want to read about black evangelicals and their encounter with fundamentalism in the early twentieth century would be those historians who, like me, study fundamentalism and evangelicalism in American history. We’re not a big group. Heck, Katie Lofton managed to get pretty much all of us around a single conference table back in 2013. But much to my surprise, the book has found other audiences, and it’s thanks to them that it has sold so well in its first six months since publication.

Continue reading “Who lives, who dies, who reads your story?”

Keep your digital mitts off my great-grandmother!

My grandmother, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam
My grandmother, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam


A few months ago, after retelling a bit of family folklore to my husband’s siblings, I decided to Google the name of the relative involved in that epic adventure (which I will not relate on this blog–you’ll just have to ask me in person the next time you see me). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the hits did not refer to the person in question but to another of my relatives–my great-grandmother, Rose Kulamer. She’s internet-famous for having died from an illegal abortion.

I already knew the bare bones of that story. In 1989, Rose’s daughter, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam, told me that her mother had died from an illegal abortion when my grandmother was young. Grandma was nearing the end of her own life when she told me this story. According to her, my great-grandmother, when she learned she was pregnant again, confided in a friend that she didn’t know how she would deal with a fourth child. The friend told Rose that she knew someone who could provide her an abortion. In my grandmother’s account, Rose had the abortion and died from complications.

That story was pretty much all I probably needed to know at the time, and given that my grandmother died less than a month after passing this information on to me, I had little chance to ask follow-up questions. Nor was I particularly interested in asking additional questions–my great-grandmother had been dead for about 70 years, I had never known her, and I saw her death as a tragedy of her times.

Family lore also has it that my great-grandfather, at that point a widower, put his three daughters into a Catholic orphanage, promising to return to retrieve them after the weekend, only to vanish for some longer period of time (estimates range from months to years), reappearing with a new wife.

So how did poor Rose Kulamer become internet-famous for her death? She, and many other women who died under similar circumstances, have become fodder for anti-abortion bloggers. Rose’s story appears in at least two of their forums: Real Choice and Rhonda O. Goldman Life. Each site includes information, gleaned from newspaper articles, coroner’s reports, and other archives, to chronicle, as the authors see it, the dangers of permitting legalized abortion in the United States.

The use of my relative–and the relatives of many other Americans–for issue advocacy raises a set of troubling questions. First, while this information is certainly in the public domain, how much thought for the victims’ lives have the authors given? Second, how good are the blog authors’ historical methods? Third, have these bloggers given serious consideration to other questions that were clearly factors during some of these women’s lives, factors such as the efficacy of available birth control methods or the lack of sterile procedures in any medical procedure, legal or illegal? And fourth, what are the ethics of using and sharing information about people, whether in pursuit of historical research or issue advocacy?  Let’s take them in order.

First, on the issue of consideration for the victims’ lives, the blog authors appear to care sincerely that women have died from illegal abortions, even as they strip away any right to privacy these women (and their descendants) may have. Indeed, Real Choice includes intimate details about women’s symptoms as they fought septic infections, as well as photos when available of the women and abortion providers. The website appears to believe that women who died forfeited any right to privacy, and that such gruesome details and public airing of them are necessary evils when fighting abortion–legal or illegal. Real Choice covers abortions both pre- and post- Roe v. Wade, and its author, Christina Dunigan, has helpfully included a page on why she believes that rescinding the right to abortion would not result in a rise in abortion-related deaths. More about that page below in answer to question three.

Second, on the issue of historical methods, the blogs Real Choice and Rhoda O. Goldman Life both use information borrowed from Cemetery of Choice, a wiki administered by a group of contributors, including Christina Dunigan. She cites Cemetery of Choice in her entry on my great-grandmother, but Rhonda O. Goldman Life does not, despite the fact that the language is clearly copied straight from Real Choice and/or Cemetery of Choice. To give Christina Dunigan credit, she does provide the coroner’s report number in the Cemetery of Choice wiki entry, and she has recently uploaded a copy of my great-grandmother’s death certificate, in case you’d like to know how much she weighed or to confirm that the cause of death was indeed septicemia.

But the attention to detail here is lacking. The death certificate clearly states in three separate places that Rose died in 1918, yet the wiki and both blogs constantly refer to the year as 1919. While the non-historian might ask, “what’s the difference between 1918 and 1919?” when a date appears several different times on a pdf you’ve uploaded (and clearly was available on the coroner’s report), there’s no excuse for getting it wrong. It undercuts your credibility and raises questions about your other data. Dunigan has also placed an entry for Rose Kulamer at FindAGrave.com, but the entry notes only the names of Rose’s husband, John, and two of their three children. Nor does it mention the location of the actual grave site, which does appear on the death certificate.

Dunigan exhibits interest in illustrating different approaches to abortion over time, as in a recent blog post comparing early 20th century abortion deaths in Chicago and Pittsburgh with a later (1972) death in New York. That attempt to contrast abortion practices in Chicago and Pittsburgh appears to build on material Dunigan has read, used verbatim, and cited from Leslie Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1997).

Third, the blog authors do appear to have considered the medical advancements in the field of hygiene, blood transfusions, and antibiotics as they maintain their digital vigil against abortion. Cemetery of Choice provides a small notation at the bottom of each entry, noting that medicine was not well equipped to deal with abortion complications during much of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. But the authors make no distinction between abortion and any other procedure during a similar time frame. In other words, they do not note that in the early twentieth century, a ruptured appendix or stepping on a rusty nail–or even giving birth with a condition like placenta previa–could kill you just as easily as the sepsis following an abortion. Moreover, there’s no discussion on these websites about how effective birth control could have prevented unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Indeed, my great-grandmother was already a mother to three daughters. She likely already practiced some sort of contraception, as my great-aunt Louise was three years older than my grandmother, and my great-aunt Anna was five years younger. Three births spaced over eleven years suggests a measure of reproductive regulation. That my great-grandmother wondered how she would care for a fourth child (the family oral history from my grandmother) likely tells us that her birth control–whatever it was–failed her.

Fourth, and finally, Rose’s status as poster-victim for the right-to-life movement poses an ethical dilemma, one that has new repercussions in the digital age. Teenagers and their parents are routinely warned to protect their digital identities, yet my great-grandmother’s ignominious death does not garner her privacy. In fact, it’s the only reason she’s an internet “celebrity.” She would have remained anonymous to all but her family members’ memory had it not been for these bloggers and their issue advocacy. Earlier this month, Christine Dinsmore recently wrote in the Washington Post about her own grandmother’s death . At first blush, this approach seems more ethical–Dinsmore outed her own relative. But, like the right-to-life bloggers, it assumes that the victim, in this case Maria Consolazio, would willingly share an intimate part of her life to prevent other women from enduring similar deaths. She may well have, but we do not have the means to know for certain.

As a historian myself, I weigh carefully my decisions when using my sources, and I probably do let my political inclinations influence my final judgments. The family of J. Frank Norris, Texas fundamentalist in the 1920s and 1930s, would likely not appreciate my extended discussion of his racism in my forthcoming book. But my analysis of Norris contributes to a larger scholarly consensus on the matter. Moreover, Norris was a public figure–a man who actively sought press coverage of his life and work. Maria Consolazio, Rose Kulamer, and many others were private citizens in an age when computers were still a very distant dream.

To be sure, Leslie Reagan’s work on the history of illegal abortion in the United States also relies heavily on sharing information that descendants might well wish was buried with their ancestors. When Reagan published the book in the late 1990s, however, she could have had little idea that her publisher would include it in an online library and that Ms. Dunigan would copy and paste large swaths of her prose into the Real Choice website.

I’m fully aware of the irony here–I’m writing a blog post about my great-grandmother’s digital fame, a post that will only lead to more digital recognition of what happened to her, especially as I have my blog set to share my posts via Twitter and Facebook. In many ways, though, the damage is already done–people who never knew any member of my family have used my great-grandmother for their own ends, even if their goals are noble. The very least I can do is write this post and caution them and anyone else. Think twice before you post the autopsy report, the coroner’s report, the photos, and the names. I’ve been able to locate the name of the individual who was charged with (although apparently not convicted of) performing the botched abortion on my great-grandmother. And I’m not going to publish it here. Instead, let’s think twice before we start using someone’s dead relative to make our point.


Got (religious) diversity?


A couple of weeks ago in a Northern Virginia suburb, I saw a car festooned with four bumper stickers, From top to bottom, they read “got diversity?” “Ben Carson President 2016,” “Ted Cruz 2016,” and “Carly [Fiorina] 2016.” I’m guessing that the driver’s decision to decorate the car with these stickers, including the diversity question, was a proud exclamation that the GOP’s presidential field has, at least through tomorrow’s Iowa caucuses, one African American, one (actually two) Cuban American, and one woman.  Indeed, the Republican field has more ethnic diversity than the Democratic slate of contenders.

But my mind went back to an in-class exercise we did in my “Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in America” course last fall. At that point, there were still 17 Republicans in the race, and 5 Democrats. We checked online sources to determine each candidate’s public religious preference. That informal study revealed, like most studies do, that you can split the data a number of ways. If you rely solely on various denominations of Christianity, the Republican field in November 2015 won hands down in the religious diversity race. But if you use a different metric–how many non-Christians are in the race–the Democrats prevailed.

Here’s a quick sketch of our findings:


Hillary Clinton  Methodist

Bernie Sanders  Secular Jew

Lincoln Chafee   Episcopalian

Martin O’Malley  Roman Catholic

 Jim Webb  Protestant(?)



Donald Trump  Presbyterian                                                  

Scott Walker  Non-denominational Christian                       

Rick Perry Non-denominational Christian

Carly Fiorina  Episcopalian                                                      

Rick Santorum Roman Catholic                                           

Ben Carson  Seventh-day Adventist

Marco Rubio  Roman Catholic

Ted Cruz  Southern Baptist

Bobby Jindal Roman Catholic

George Pataki Roman Catholic

Chris Christie  Roman Catholic

Jeb Bush  Roman Catholic

Lindsey Graham  Southern Baptist

Jim Gilmore Methodist

Mike Huckabee  Southern Baptist

Rand Paul  Presbyterian

John Kasich  Anglican

So what does all of this tell us? In many ways, candidates of both parties reflect the traditional hegemony of Christianity in American politics. All but one–Sanders–identify themselves with some form of Christianity, with Bobby Jindal’s unusual conversion from Hindu to Catholic as a missed opportunity for more religious diversity in Republican, or even, American politics. Reading a little further into their faith biographies, you’ll find that while some have maintained the religion of their childhood (Clinton, Pataki, Huckabee, and O’Malley, for instance), others have engaged in a very “American” spiritual wandering (Rubio especially stands out here). Ben Carson is the only Protestant in the bunch who does not worship at what used to be called “mainline churches.”

Moreover, the field of all contenders for the 2016 White House do not reflect the religious character of the country as measured in a 2015 Pew study. In their findings, Pew researchers noted that “mainline” Protestants were only 14% of the American population, while Roman Catholics had dropped to 20%. Out of 22 candidates listed above, 7 are Roman Catholic–closer to 30% of the field. And 9 of the candidates are mainline Protestants–just over 40% of the total 22. The Pew study also found a rise in non-Christian faiths, but that is not reflected in the religions of the candidates. No Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists are running, and even Bernie Sanders distances himself from being an observant Jew.

Religious diversity has not yet arrived in the presidential field of either party. Does anyone want to bet that will change in 2020? Given the recent virulent Islamophobia in campaign ads and speeches, I sincerely doubt it will.



Religion in the Digital Age: Schedule planning weeks 1 and 2

Next up in course planning; when and what (also known as the framework of the syllabus). Below is a really rough draft of how I envision the course proceeding in the first two weeks, but by the end of the syllabus drafting, I may resort to Andrea Livi Smith’s most excellent way of planning. I’ve arranged topics tentatively by week; assignments will come later. For the time being, I’m planning on having the class do small group projects in which they build a domain that explores a digital community, digital version of a religious text, or some other digital interpretation of religion.

Week 1

What is religion?

I envision this week as an introduction to the various notions of religion and religious studies, including a very brief look at some theories of religion.

Week 2

What is the digital age? How did religious groups ever manage before the internet?

Since I’m a historian by training, I find it helpful to ground my explorations in what the past was like and how the present differs. *Spoiler alert: I fully expect that by the end of the semester, we’ll decide that the only thing that may have changed is the medium and not the message.* Nevertheless, we can start with ideas of community, message, doctrine, adherence, apostasy in “analog” times.

Then comes the hard part: how to tackle the next few weeks. Possible ideas include 1) taking the ideas above (community, message, doctrine, adherence, apostasy, etc) and turning them into one-week explorations; or 2)  looking at various social media platforms (Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) and how religious groups use them. These two ideas don’t need to be mutually exclusive: one could study message and outreach through Facebook, for example.

More to come…


Religion in the Digital Age: Course Objectives

Participating in the UMW Domain of One’s Faculty Initiative really helped me think about how to use digital learning in my classroom. That wasn’t an easy task, as I’m of a generation that came of age before all of this newfangled technology and someone who enjoys the thrill of the microfilm chase. But with a little coaxing, I can shed my Luddite proclivities and jump into the digital humanities with the zeal of the newly converted.

So I’ll be blogging about a course I’d like to offer sometime next year—Religion in the Digital Age. The basic idea of this course was to encourage students to investigate how individuals engage with notions of religion and the sacred in a digital way, as well as to examine how religious groups (denominations, etc.) contend with the challenges of getting their message across in a variety of electronic media. I really don’t know if anyone else has started a course like this; I’m just winging it here.

So, without further ado, here are the first draft course objectives for Religion in the Digital Age (RELG 331+prefix to be assigned later):

• Familiarize students with sociological concepts of religion (for example, why do people join religious groups; how do religious groups define their boundaries; why do people leave religious groups; how do notions of race, ethnicity, class, and gender influence these decisions)
• Explore how digital venues alter, reflect, or continue trends in religious affiliation, practice, and belief
• Encourage a web presence by the students in the course (either by blogging, setting up an interactive website, or using Tumblr)
• Promote an understanding of the methodologies involved in studying religion in an academic setting

(I’ll likely edit and add to these.)

Next up will be a draft syllabus, arranged by week and subject. Then I’d like to add some assignment/assessment ideas. Comments and suggestions are always welcome! Since I didn’t get the curricular development grant I applied for, I’m designing this in my “free” time and can use all the help I can get. Come join the fun!

Control-Alt-Delete (rebooting after the semester)

Spring 2015 is in the books. The grades are done, the graduates are off to new adventures, and the campus is quiet (except for the incessant construction noise). This semester was particularly hard on the students, faculty, and staff at UMW, what with (in chronological order) the arrests of student protesters, the murder of a beloved student apparently at the hands of another student, and the culmination of a particularly acrimonious faculty governance debate.

In light of these events, it’s been even harder to find my voice and write, now that I have the time to do so. I have traditionally found the first few weeks after the end of the spring semester to be the most challenging weeks for writing. Teaching a 4/4 load requires a certain amount of recharging when the grades are finalized, and it’s not easy to shift gears into researching and writing mode. So I lose a precious week or two to the simple need to relax and refocus. Yet I have to write now, because the same 4/4 load (plus service commitments) makes it exceedingly difficult to accomplish my professional and scholarly tasks during the academic year. It’s write now or write never.

I’m also in a holding pattern in terms of my book manuscript. One reader report is in; the other is not. I haven’t seen the first–nor should I without the second–and so I can only speculate about whether I’ll be asked to make minor or major revisions.

But I’m not completely without a writing voice. I’ve submitted a piece to Then and Now, and I’m making glacial progress in editing a piece I’ve written for the Journal of Southern Religion. Waiting for me to return to it is another article, only in draft form, about the black/white interactions at a black Baptist seminary.

Perhaps this blog post can help me make the transition. Maybe it won’t. We’ll find out soon.


SAE, Yik Yak, and the new issues of speech on campus

The civil rights struggle is nowhere near its goal. At least that’s my take on what’s going on at Oklahoma University as it bans SAE from campus (“as far as I’m concerned, they won’t be back,” President David Boren was quoted as saying). But banning a single fraternity won’t really address the problem, either at OU or anywhere else in the country.

The video of fraternity brothers and their guests, all in elegant attire aboard a chartered bus and destined to a celebration, reveals young people using the “n word” and casually referring to lynching as they declare and revel in the otherness of African Americans. Indeed, there are no faces of color in the short clip, which may indeed be why some on the bus felt comfortable enough to reveal their prejudices. But that comfort is surely gone now that the video has gone viral, two students have been expelled, and public outrage rises. In the same week that saw thousands of people gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, these students remind us that the struggle is far from over.

Addressing these students’ behavior is certainly important. But taking proactive steps to prevent such incidents is even more important. As Michael Twitty, scholar of foodways and race, so eloquently puts it, “I want to heal the cancer not blast the lesion.” As long as teachers, professors, administrators, and generally everyone pretends that we have settled the matter of race  in our society, videos like the SAE clip and incidents like the racist parties the movie Dear White People lampoons will continue.

Some faculty and many students have discovered the harm that can come from social media, as students take to Yik Yak to post anonymous comments, in one case notably ignoring a lecture to post “yaks” about the professors leading the class. Comments on the app range from racist to sexist to threatening and show how cruel their fellow community members could be when they can hide behind anonymity.

So what is the answer? More dialogue, not less. More exposure to history and current events. A requirement that the students on that bus write a detailed paper about the images found in Without Sanctuaryan interactive website centered around a collection of lynching postcards and images James Allen spent years tracking down. Perhaps then they’d be able to see why decent and honorable people do not joke about hanging anyone from a tree. Better yet, start a dialogue in our classrooms and residence halls and dining halls now about how words hurt. Encourage students to imagine themselves as members of a different ethnic group, sexual orientation, gender, or even as professors teaching a class. Developing empathy is a long-term process, and we must start now.


Vannevar Bush and the Jetsons and Bell Labs

After reading Vannevar Bush’s seminal (ugh, what an androcentric term) article on the need for integrated access to information,  I thought about how my own being owes its existence to the telephone company. My father and mother met at Bell Labs in New Jersey the early 1960s. Unlike Bush’s forecast, however, both were working in technology and science. My mother was not a “typist” or a “girl.”  She was a woman who used a degree in mathematics to program very early computers. Bush, like so many other futurists, could only see technological change not social change. Just like the creators of the Jetsons television show, his vision of future kept gender roles firmly rooted while imagining a world of technological advancements that would improve life for all involved.

Thankfully, my mother saw a world where she could take part in the future in a less gendered way than Bush saw.  And thankfully Bush’s ideas helped generate what became the Internet and search engines and all the wonderful things that the Jetsons couldn’t quite imagine. I have no need for a jetpack, but I love that I can use Google to discover my father’s patent. I may not understand what a convertible binary counter and shift register is, but if I want to get to the bottom of it, I’m sure the Internet can help educate me. Strangely, though, while my father’s patent lives on in an easily discovered search, his own life does not. He died in 1996, before digital profiles and web sites and social media would have immortalized more of him than just his 30-year-old invention.