Review: Religion, Space, and the Atlantic World

Bradford J. Wood

Professor of History, Philosophy, & Religious Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. 

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Bradford J. Wood, "Religion, Space, and the Atlantic World," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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John Corrigan, ed., Religion, Space, and the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017. 368 pages. ISBN 978-1-61117-796-1.

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Academic essay collections rarely capture much of a common vision or purpose.  Instead, they usually present something more like a historiographic cross-section, and editors connect disparate topics, methodologies, and goals. Religion, Space, and the Atlantic World follows this tradition with an interesting and heterogeneous group of twelve chapters and an introduction that all relate to the themes in the title but do not have very much else in common. The essays are well-crafted, and they have much to offer, but they offer different things. Nor are the terms in the title handled in the same way. Of the three topics, religion is the most pervasive, though it may get the least explicit definition. The authors are scholars focused on religious matters, and they examine religious history and culture in their specialized times, places, and disciplines. Readers may be most drawn to the volume by its emphasis on spatial matters, which are getting more attention from scholars, especially because of the potential uses of GIS technology. However, after the introduction by John Corrigan, who has been involved in other important publications related to the “spatial humanities,” the authors have surprisingly little to say about GIS or about technology in general. Some authors consider space largely as a construction of language and narrative.  Along those lines, Brandon Marriot compares evolving and imaginative conversations within Europe that linked the Lost Tribes of Israel with Native Americans. Perhaps most often in the volume, “space” means distance, and many of the essays examine how religious lives and cultures adapted to the challenges distance posed in early modern worlds and especially in transatlantic worlds. Interestingly, while the concept of the Atlantic World gets uneven attention across the essays, several of the authors interrogate its limits and relevance. Most notably Luca Codignola devotes much of his essay to considering Atlantic history from the standpoint of missionaries sent out by the Catholic Church, and Richard J. Callahan, Jr. ponders the utility of an Atlantic perspective on nineteenth-century whaling voyages from the United States.  In this sense, the collection falls in line with recent historiography that has been more reluctant to embrace all aspects of Atlantic history.

Of course, sometimes eclecticism can be a strength as well as a weakness. If few specialists will find all of the essays in Race, Space, and the Atlantic World relevant to their work, those who take the time to read this book from cover to cover will undoubtedly learn new things, encounter new perspectives, and be encouraged to consider different methodologies.  Moreover, many specialists in a variety of fields will benefit from one or more essays in this volume.  Scholars interested in how space functions in Atlantic World texts will notice Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s fresh approach to Olaudah Equiano’s familiar narrative. Archaeologists and others who study religious life in highland Peru after the Spanish conquest will want to read perhaps the book’s most technically sophisticated chapter “Spatial Hegemony and Evangelization,” by Steven A. Wernke and Lauren E. Kohut. Much can be learned about the meaning of architecture in the early Spanish Empire from Sing D’Arcy’s contribution about cathedral space. Most of the other contributors can be categorized as historians, but they still use a variety of approaches to different topics.  The French Empire is considered in essays on cartography by George Edward Milne and on “cosmopolitan cloisters” by Jan Noel.  British America receives attention in a number of the essays, including Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe’s essay on Lutheranism and Heather Miyano Kopelson’s chapter on Puritanism. Ironically for readers of this journal, none of the essays focuses primarily on the southern mainland colonies or on the United States South, but historians of southern religion who read this book should be able to find many relevant comparisons and insights to bring to their own areas of expertise.