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Emotion in American Religions

Summary and Keywords

Emotion is an important part of religions in America. There is great diversity among emotional styles. Some groups are highly emotional, others relatively low in emotional expression, and some occupy a middle ground. Religious life is characterized by cultivation and expression of many emotions. Four that are of particular importance for Americans are wonder, empathy, anticipation, and the feeling of emptiness. Some emotions are treated as commodities. The study of emotion in religion enables fresh perspectives on the interwovenness of emotion, religion, and culture. The investigation of the emotional lives of religious persons in America can be advanced through study of persons’ reporting of their experiences alongside research bearing on cultural expectations for emotional life.

Keywords: feeling, emotion, America, wonder, emptiness, anticipation, empathy, commodity

Religion, Emotion, and Culture

Religion in America is emotional. Americans practice their religions through personal and collective performances that express a wide range of affective experiences. They populate their conversations and writings about religion with the names of emotions. They report that they rely upon feeling as a guide to their relationships with others and, especially, in their religious lives, where they speak of affective bonds with holy personages. Americans profess their love for God, their hatred of sin, and their guilt over moral failings. Many Americans have a minimal grasp of the doctrines of the religious groups to which they belong and a poor sense of how their own religious group differs theologically from others,1 but they are certain of their feelings for those whom they worship and for persons with whom the worship. They “know” what is true by “feeling” it. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Rastafarians, Hindus, Navahos, practitioners of Santeria and Candomblé, Mormons, Buddhists, and others live their religion emotionally, to one degree or another.

Affect, passion, feeling, and sentiment all are words relevant to a discussion of emotion in religion. While it can be useful at times to make fine distinctions among the experiences signified by these words, this overview will not do so. More important is the observation that emotions in American religious life can be intense or weak, passing or sustained, stable or shifting, complex or relatively simple. A feeling of guilt typically is more complex, longlasting, and fluid than the experience of surprise, which is simple, immediate, and intense. Embarrassment, for example, is a different kind of emotion than fear. In short, emotions differ one from the other. Moreover, it is a mistake to universalize emotions. The feeling of sadness, for example, can differ from one cultural setting to another. Culturally constructed frameworks for feeling—what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called “feeling rules”2—play crucial roles in how persons express (or conceal) their feelings. Such rules shape emotional life in conformity with cultural expectations. Biology, including the genetic bases for certain kinds of behaviors, profoundly influences how persons feel, when they feel it, and how they express it.3 But culture also plays a formative role in emotional life.

One way in which culture forms emotional life is through religion. Religions in America provide norms for the expression of a wide range of emotions. Religious rituals, which typically mark important life passages such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, prompt and structure the performance of emotion. Rituals stage emotions. They make possible the enactment of emotions by providing scripts for their performance. Embedded in a religious ritual of mourning, for example, are understandings of what kinds of vocalizations, bodily postures, tears, and other physical displays are appropriate to the occasion. Similarly, in a wedding, tears of joy are shed instead of tears of sorrow, and physical collapse marks a respite from enthusiastic laughter rather than from deep sadness. In religiously structured performances of emotion—in settings ranging from solitary prayer to extended holy day gatherings—persons are prompted by religion to feel a certain way, for a certain length of time, and with a particular level of intensity. Religion manages emotion exceptionally well.

Diversity of Emotional Styles

Many religious groups in America have developed their own characteristic emotional standards and expectations or, in shorthand, emotional “styles.” Religious institutions authorize, protect, and police those styles. Those styles are a crucial ingredient, interwoven with other cultural materials, in establishing and maintaining group identity. Some religious groups guide their membership toward highly dramatic displays of emotion, foster a discourse rich with emotion words, and maintain an ambitious calendar for emotional performances. Other groups endeavor to join emotional occasions more concertedly to intellectual engagements with articles of belief. Yet others punctuate a decorous, subdued emotionality with moments of intense emotional display. Styles can vary widely.

There is much diversity of emotional style in American religions because there is much diversity of religion in America. If “ethnicity is the skeleton of religion”4 in America, we should expect that the patterns of emotional life that are deeply rooted in ethnic communities in America have collaborated with religion in the coalescing of emotional styles. While the latter 20th-century brought with it some dilution of a number of ethnic subcultures in America, for much of American history it is possible to talk of Italian American Catholics, WASP Episcopalians, African American Baptists, Lebanese American Muslims, Russian American Jews, or a Native American tribal religion, among many others, each with its own emotional codes. Religious guidelines for emotional performances vary, then, not only because of denominational differences apparent in doctrines, devotional traditions, or forms of authority, but also because religion often is joined to ethnic subcultures, which themselves afford scripts for emotional life.

There are many kinds of classifications and categories that can be deployed in advancing analysis of the emotional aspects of religion in American. One means of classifying is to consider religious groups as occupying different places along a spectrum from low to high emotion. Such a scheme, while roughing out a view of similarities and differences between religious groups, also supports a broader project of investigating how emotional styles of religious groups are related to the emotional styles of ethnic groups, to class stratifications, to gender, sexuality, region, and age. Such a spectrum, as a measuring instrument, does not presuppose that one level of emotionality is better or worse than another. Rather, it supports description of the diversity of emotional subcultures and serves as a framework for relating religion to other aspects of culture.

High Emotion Groups

Although we sometimes imagine the Puritans who settled New England to be lacking in emotional display—we think of their plain dress, plain houses of worship, and their valorization of plain speech—they cultivated an emotionally rich piety. The immediate roots of that piety can be glimpsed in the diaries and other writings of the English Puritans from whom New Englanders were intellectually and emotionally descended. The daily entries made by English Puritans Richard Rogers (d. 1643) and Samuel Ward (d. 1618), for example, are replete with detailed reports of religious delight, comfort, and joy alongside remorse for sin, fear of judgment, and the shedding of bitter tears.5 Puritan ministers confirmed those experiences as important aspects of Christian piety and exhorted their audiences to aspire to that intense and varied emotional repertoire.

The emotional culture represented by Puritan ministers and their congregations in England transmitted to New England largely intact. The records of the conversion accounts given by members of the church in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1630s evidence the same deep emotionality with regard to shame, hope, joy, surprise, and a determination to resist pride. There is no mistaking the intensity of the emotional lives of those early New England Puritans. Cambridge church member Robert Daniell’s confession that he emerged from his “state of fear” by feeling “God’s love,” that is, “by feeling a qualification, as mourning not only for wrath but because of my sins,” was typical of the emotional tenor of the reports about the experiences of grace that were manifested in members of the congregation.6 Eventual changes in New England society brought a generally more sober tenor to at least public worship (though some individuals remained deeply invested in emotional piety) until a series of “awakenings” or revivals in the 18th century. Those revivals included a cluster of highly emotional gatherings in the 1740s, in which persons from the middle colonies to Maine enacted what one unsympathetic observer dubbed the “bodily agitations, convulsions, tremblings, swoonings, . . . groanings, quakings, foamings, and faintings” of emotional excitation.7

Revivalism throughout its subsequent history in America has remained an emotional enterprise. The early 19th-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney articulated some of the framework for Protestant revivalism in his Lectures on Revivals (1830), which included an explanation of the purpose and means of a revival. Finney’s innovative “anxious seat”—where revival attendees could sit to be near the exhorting preacher and nearer, presumably, to their conversion—was one of several New Measures he implemented in order to emotionalize the setting. More pointed and direct was his claim that conversions that occurred in revivals were “a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means,” whereby he meant that “if a man thinks of God, . . . he will feel—emotions will come up by the very laws of mind.” For Finney and his successors, the revival machinery—the long meetings, the heartfelt performance of collective prayer, the dramatic extempore preaching, the images of hell and the visions of heaven, weeping, rolling on the ground, clapping, and the anxious bench—all were means that could reasonably be deployed to elicit emotion.8 Subsequent revivals and prayer meetings led by Phoebe Palmer, Billy Sunday, William J. Seymour, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, and a host of television ministry revivalists followed in the footsteps of Finney. The evangelical goal of being “born again” coalesced as the desired outcome of an intense emotional journey. In Pentecostal denominations, such as in the Assemblies of God or Church of God in Christ, where conversion was understood as a profound emotional experience, speaking in tongues was taken as a God-given sign of the authenticity of the feelings experienced by the convert. Such occasions typically unfolded as complex emotional displays that included an interconnected repertoire of facial expressions (layers of smiling, sternness, pain, surprise), pleading vocalizations, the shutting of eyes, and in many cases a board-like stiffness to the body. In public gatherings and in private sessions of prayer and meditation, Protestant evangelicals, then, took their feelings as guides to their spiritual state and as data by which to measure their spiritual progress. Doctrine often was less important than how one felt. Emotions formed the core of evangelical experience, and their display served as a network of signs marking the way forward.

African American Christianity sometimes has been narrowly portrayed as loud, kinetic, vivid theatre performed by emotional adepts.9 Some black congregations, in fact, are decorous or modest in their display of emotion. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that a distinctive style of emotional expression characterizes the public worship of many black religious communities. Emotionally tuned musical sensibilities and performative traditions of African provenance are imbedded in the religious expression of many congregations. Gospel music, call-and-response preaching, aisle dancing, rhythmic clapping, among other aspects of religious services, when they are present in black churches evidence the emotional tenor of the proceedings. Such religious practice also represents something of the emotionally rich character of much American black theology. The very superstructure of black preaching is constructed out of anger about injustices, hope for freedom and equality, compassion for those who suffer, pride about what the community has accomplished, and joyful celebration of events attributed to divine benevolence.10 Those feelings, as much as theological ideas, make up the bones of black Christianity in America. Accordingly, the styled display of emotion in African American houses of worship evidences immediate impulses even as it channels a historically ingrained emotional culture.

There are other religions in America that are highly emotional but convey it less spectacularly than congregations in revivalist traditions. One would not think that emotion played a central role in the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Quaker gatherings generally are quiet and restrained occasions, with persons sometimes sitting together for long periods of time with little or no display of feeling. Occasionally, as persons in the community rise to tell a story, say a prayer, read from the Bible, recite a poem, or otherwise speak, there might be a modicum of emotional expression. Quakerism is a highly emotional religion, however, because its members report, during such gatherings and at other times outside of the meetinghouse, intense emotional experiences of the Inner Light. Historically suspicious of theology, Quakers rested their faith on religious experience and, specifically, the experience of the Inner Light. Described by them as very intense, that experience, often repeated throughout their lives, became the touchstone of their piety. Within that framework of understanding of the spiritual life, even the silence of the meeting house was emotionalized, portrayed as both an intrinsically emotionally rich behavior as well as a joyous relief from the burden of emotions such as anger, jealousy, hatred, and fear.

Few would compare Quakers with Sufis and Spiritualists. One of the advantages of focusing on emotion in American religious history, however, is that it opens opportunities to detect similarities and differences among religious persons and groups that we would not anticipate from more traditional approaches. The emotional aspects of American Sufism—which is organized into a half dozen orders in America—are not markedly different from Puritanism. Though there are shadings of emphasis among the various orders, all in general are inclined to some measure of asceticism, as were the Puritans who, according to sociologist Max Weber,11 sought to live “in the world” as ascetics. Sufism, like the strain of Puritanism descended from Francis Rous and other English writers, also has a strong mystical dimension, including an emphasis on personal union with God that compares with Puritan conversion experiences. Sufi dancing has no correlate in Puritanism, but the mystical poetry of Edward Taylor (echoed in the 19th century by Emily Dickinson and by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was strongly influenced by Persian Sufi poetry12) represents an emotional register in the religion of early New Englanders that can be likened to the emotionalism of Sufi piety in the late 20th century, in communities such as those in Hawaii, California, Illinois, and New York.13

Spiritualism, a largely 19th-century religious practice, by the same token revolved around intense emotional experience, and the cultivation of mourning and surprise in particular. Spiritualists were not ascetics, but the middle and upper class participants in Spiritualism, especially in Victorian America, were constrained by social codes governing the public expression of emotion. Again, like Puritans, the emotional framework of Spiritualism consisted of a core of intense emotion—sorrow, anger, hope—expressed in ritually controlled semi-public settings of séance (the medium’s room as meeting house), alongside obedience to a social code that set limits on the public display of feeling.14 Spiritualism and Puritanism might have little else in common, but both represent highly emotional religious communities whose practice of emotional display took place within a broader emotional culture that policed public enactment of feeling. One difference is that emotion among Spiritualists was limited to very intense but brief episodes, while Puritans cultivated their emotions constantly.

Low Emotion Groups

To speak of “low-emotion groups” is not to identify group cultures as unfeeling or even, technically, low emotion in an absolute sense. All humans feel, most feel intensely, and persons’ emotions typically are accommodated in religious practice. Low emotion groups are those that can be placed on a spectrum of emotional styles in American religion at an end opposite high emotion groups. It is not intrinsically useful to define a religious group as “low emotion.” The value of doing so comes from what is gained in considering the how religious groups are similar or different, and why that is so. The characterization of emotional styles in religious groups in America is valuable because of how it arranges groups relative to each other, and how that ordering provides fresh perspectives from which to view the ideas, practices, and institutional aspects of those groups in new ways.

Obvious examples of low emotion religions in America are those that emphasize the intellectual content of faith, the theological arguments and philosophical analyses that lead to statements of doctrine. Although it would be a mistake to generalize that a strong intellectualism routinely limits emotionality, there are numerous cases in which intellectualism and reduced emotionalism can be correlated. The followers of Mary Baker Eddy, the 19th-century founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist (otherwise known as Christian Science), participated in healing rituals and other formal gatherings that could have emotional undertones. Belief and religious experience, however, were understood to be grounded not in a feeling but in assent to the philosophical arguments of the church. The centerpiece of regular collective worship remains the “Lesson-Sermon,” consisting of readings from the Bible and from Eddy’s Science and Health, a complex work of theology. Some services include testimonies from persons who have been healed through implementation of principles set out in Science and Health, but on the whole emotion plays only a minor role in official church exercises.

Christian Science frequently is understood to be a branch of New Thought, a cluster of 19th-century movements that include the Unity Church and Church of Divine Science, among others. New Thought stressed spiritual “principles” and metaphysics, and although notions of sickness and healing were important, there was little concern for the kind of redemptive personal transformation that was crucial to Puritanism or revivalism. Accordingly, New Thought movements have not prescribed the dramatic emotional performances that typically accompany remakings of self—the “born again” experience reported by evangelicals. In the Unity Church, which eschews doctrine in place of affirmations of a small set of general principles, there is no formal ritual. Accordingly, there is no ritually defined space and time for the expression of deep and potentially disruptive feelings. If vibrant, effervescent emotional expression in religion, as Durkheim claimed, emerges in performative settings where mundane frameworks of everyday life have been abandoned in favor of ritually consecrated space and time, we should not expect groups such as the Unity Church to promote an emotional religion. The case is similar for the various religious movements that took shape as “mind-cure” religions in the 19th and 20th centuries, associated with figures such as the Swedenborgian minister Warren Felt Evans (d. 1889), or the positive-thinking approach of Reformed Church pastor Norman Vincent Peale (d. 1993).

The American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education, edited by “religious experience” researcher G. Stanley Hall of Clark College, claimed in 1909 that “the typical Unitarian is unemotional,” and his “cold intellectualism” rendered him “frigid in his piety.”15

While overreaching in the stark juxtaposition of “intellectual religion” with “emotional religion,” the journal nevertheless managed to express what many observers saw in Unitarianism previously and since. Part of that judgment was the comparison of Unitarianism to Methodist and Baptist practice. Against the latter, Unitarianism indeed seemed much less emotional. But given the subsequent efforts made by some Unitarian writers to foster an affective theology, and to imbue liturgy with emotional prompts, it is fair to say that even in the early 21st century, there is a perception, both inside and outside the denomination, that it represents a low emotional style in need of remaking.16

The Missouri Synod Lutherans historically also are a low emotion group. Formed in the mid-19th century, the group developed a distinctive perspective by pushing off against Lutherans who were more inclined to a pietistic style of Christianity. Pietism stressed the emotional experience of God. Other Lutherans in America, however, held that God was to be found foremost in the Word and Sacrament rather than through cultivation of emotion. Anxious about the dramatic Methodist emotionality of the frontier as well as pietism, those other Lutherans set out to define their religious life as an emotionally controlled piety, rather than an emotionally effusive one. Their view of emotion remains a distinguishing feature of the Missouri Synod. In 2015, an official Missouri Synod website articulated the Church’s view of emotion in answering the question, “Is Emotion Proper?”: “One of the greatest dangers of an emphasis on emotions or feelings is that it can imply that the way we feel affects our acceptance with God. That was one of the most spiritually debilitating features of Pietism. It actually caused people to believe that the sign of God's acceptance was whether or not they felt accepted. When the level of our emotional uplift becomes the criterion of worship's effectiveness, then we become prisoners of a very uncertain power.”17

Buddhism in America is not always the same as it is practiced in Asia. Nevertheless, there are certain features that have carried over to American practice that warrant some comparison as far as emotion is concerned. The ethnographer Jeff Wilson, who reported on the practice of Zen Buddhism in Rochester in the early 21st century, observed that, in America, “displays of emotion are subtly but persistently discouraged at Zen centers.”

Emotions such as desire and anger lead to suffering and thus should be eliminated, along with a cluster of “negative emotions.” Other emotions are to be very carefully managed so as not to distract from meditation and the cultivation of a proper demeanor. Wilson concludes that within the community “strong emotion can be taken as an indicator of inadequate religious practice and contrasted with the perfectly calm, self-possessed image of the Buddha seated in quiet meditation.”18 While not all Buddhist practice in America is identical, and certainly some feelings, such as happiness, are valued, the image of the tranquil meditating Buddha nevertheless represents something of the suspicion of emotion in Buddhism in America.

Lastly, the Amish are an example of a low emotion religious group. Amish, like Puritans, can have a rich inner life. What differentiates them from Puritans are their traditions, first of all, of exercising tight control over their emotions when they are among the “English” (their term for non-Amish), which is a social performance that carries over, though as a less-pronounced behavior, to their cloistered communal lives. Secondly, their collective worship is solemn and serious. The caricature of an elder Amish male as a stern, affectively flat actor is more relevant to Amish-English encounters than it is to Amish in-group sociality. Nevertheless, that sternness is visible in worship, and there is little in Amish religious gatherings to compare to the late Puritan expressiveness during collective worship or family religion.19

Medium Emotion Groups

Groups whose emotional styles are neither high nor low typically are those that have long histories. Such groups have developed, through debate and adaptation, theological standpoints that provide a view of emotion, “reason,” belief, material piety, and transcendental imagination as intertwined and co-dependent components of religious life. With a few exceptions, such groups have fought many battles over doctrine and ritual. They have tested their schemes of organization and their definitions of authority extensively. They have seen cycles of theological innovation and retrenchment that include much discussion about the ways in which feeling plays a role in religious life, and how it is involved in belief. They sometimes have borrowed from the emotional styles of other groups, grafting new branches of private and public devotion onto the trunk of tradition.

Roman Catholics in America decorate their churches, and organize public worship, in ways that stimulate the senses and cultivate feelings. Beginning with the crucifix—which differs from Protestant design by depicting the tortured body of Jesus on the cross—and continuing through all of the various kinds of sensual imagery present in the church, it is clear that emotional response is invited in every instance. Incense, music, art, bread and wine, rosary beads in the hands, all such media are prompts to smell, hear, see, taste, and physically feel, and in the process to experience emotional states concordant with the religious themes of the occasion. Music can prompt joy, or incense may spark wonder. Other aspects of the material culture of Roman Catholicism can excite other emotions, across a very broad range of feeling. Catholics, as participants in Lenten rituals, Christmas masses, requiem services, or other formal practices are expected to experience emotional stirrings and to express them in vocalizations, gestures, and postures. At the same time, such performances are carefully scripted and closely supervised. While all emotional expression is to some extent shaped by in-group codes, the performative space made for emotional expression in Catholic dramas is particularly well defined. The emotionality that is encouraged has been well tested as compatible to articles of belief and doctrine and conducive to maintaining hierarchies of authority and the official patterning of the spiritual life. So, for example, even in late 20th-century gatherings of Charismatic Catholics (occasions roughly similar to emotionally vibrant Protestant prayer meetings), the practice of speaking in tongues and the loud emotional praying typically were balanced by recitations of formal Catholic prayers, affirmations of belief in Catholic doctrines, and discussion of the intellectual components of the faith. As one Catholic writer observes, Charismatics “stress that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are normally poured out in the sacraments, initially in baptism, and in a renewed way in confirmation, and daily in the celebration of the Eucharist . . . ” Danièle Hervieu-Léger more pointedly notes that the management of emotion, including the Church’s strong encouragement of the emotional expressiveness of Catholic Charismatics, has been a product of “compromise between the interests of the movement . . . and the interests of the religious institution.” 20

The emotional tenor of Anglicanism and Episcopalianism in America is much the same as Roman Catholicism. As in Catholicism, there is much to stimulate the senses and prompt feelings. Care is also taken to guide emotion into channels formed by doctrine, liturgical traditions, and recognition of the authority of church leaders. As a result, there is a long history of give and take between traditions of intellectual formality, doctrinal uprightness, and emotional spontaneity.

The case has been different with Mormons, and that is because their short history has not allowed the maturing of mediations that have developed over long periods of time in Episcopalianism or Catholicism. Important changes took place as Mormonism developed from a small core of believers into a large denomination, and change still regularly occurs, sometimes in ways that redirect the denomination into uncharted territory. As historian Matthew Bowman has observed, during their first century as an American religious denomination, Mormons “celebrated the effusions of spirit, the ecstasy and joy that flowed through their meetings.” In the mid-20th century, church leaders reshaped the emotional culture of Mormonism by stressing the mood of reverence above all, a development that served to limit the emotional vibrancy and expressiveness of earlier Mormonism. Silence replaced organ music in some church gatherings, emotional gospel tunes were purged from Mormon hymnbooks, the requirement of formal dress—such as a white shirt and tie for males—was established, and emotion was constrained under disciplines (e.g., sitting still in services) designed to foster reverence. While the effusive emotionality of earlier Mormonism was diminished, emotion did not vanish from practice. Mormon vernacular religion retained a strong appeal to emotion. Mormons tell emotionally charged stories about the end of the world, the destiny of the church, and the dramas of good versus evil that often reference the roles of angels, devils, and holy personages. Moreover, Mormon missionizing, which is among the most ambitious religious mission projects in the world, still is informed by the notion that “the gospel is feeling.” It remains to be seen whether the solemn tone promoted by official Mormonism will largely dampen that mood, or whether at some point the 19th-century emotional registers of Mormonism, kept alive in various ways, will survive in a compromise with the direction set by recent church leadership. For now, it is best to consider Mormonism as poised between high and low emotion, but for different reasons than other groups in that category.21

Jews in America, perhaps more than any other group—and likely because of the antiquity of the religion—balance emotional practice with reverence for doctrine and religious law. 22 Jewish family religion, during celebrations of Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and other dates on the religious calendar, typically is constituted by the emotional engagement of all involved. Joy and wonder, expressed in laughing, shouting, singing, and clapping, are common in such gatherings, as are more solemn but likewise rich feelings of sadness and remorse. Jewish public worship likewise can be emotional. There is no American equivalent to the solemn but emotionally charged prayer observable at the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem. But emotions are strongly present during ritual occasions such as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or a visit to the purifying bath of the mikveh or, in some communities, the weekly Sabbath observance. Jewish scripture, overflowing with depictions of the emotions of God, prophets, Jewish rulers, and the people, is an easy prompt to feeling when it is read or recited. Amidst this, Judaism retains the character of an ethical-legal and intellectual religion in the sense that its traditions of law and interpretation of law are foregrounded in religious life. Knowing what to do, and why, is as important as feeling joy or gratitude. Jewish law frames the occasions for the cultivation and expression of emotion.

American Muslims belong in roughly the same category as Catholics, Episcopalians, and Jews when it comes to emotion. The practice of Islam in America is punctuated by praying that depicts the feelings of the worshipper through a series of washings, postures, and vocalizations. To kneel and then bow to the ground (for some, several times a day) when making prayer is a vivid performance of feelings of awe, gratitude, and meekness. As in Judaism, there also is a pronounced orthopraxy, an emphasis on correct behavior and the expectation that persons will engage intellectually with doctrine in order to know what is correct. Emotion and grasp of doctrine are both important, each reciprocally conditioning the other in constituting the religious life of the believer.23

The Problem of Emotional Classifications

Any attempt to locate religious groups along a spectrum from low to high emotion involves cases that are not clear. Whether a group should be defined as low emotion or located in the middle ground of the spectrum, for example, can be open to debate. In other cases, the organizing scheme of “level of emotion” represents the religion of a group so poorly that it is inappropriate to reference it. Native American religions exemplify traditions that are very difficult to assess. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that it is difficult for non-Native Americans to understand the feeling rules, the emotional cultures, of Native American tribal groups. It is not a question of whether there are emotions that are experienced across cultural lines. Cree scholar Louise Blacksmith believes it is possible to avoid ethnocentric bias in identifying emotions among the Cree, for example. But linking an emotion to a certain religious setting poses a much greater challenge because of the difficulty in defining what we mean when we talk about Native American religion. Scholars ask whether a religious setting is distinct from other settings in Cree life, for example, or if there is such a connectedness between all aspects of everyday practice that what is “religious” cannot be sorted out even provisionally from other aspects of culture. This problem in studying religion and emotion is present to some extent in analysis of every tradition: how we define emotion and how we define religion matter greatly. When we are familiar with the ethnie, that process goes better than when we remain at a cultural distance from it.24

Specific Emotions

Consideration of specific emotions that are broadly evidenced in the religious lives of Americans makes possible another view of the diversity of emotional styles in America. It also enables understanding of how groups often have common orientations towards the cultivation of spirituality and the envisioning of the role of religion in American life. Four important emotions in these regards are wonder, emptiness, anticipation, and empathy.


The Europeans who reported on their voyages to America, beginning in 1492, decorated their narratives with frequent musings about the wondrous lands, people, creatures, and events that they encountered. The stories of explorers, colonists, clergy, military, and official overseers are filled with references to the wonder of the Americas. Christopher Columbus, observing the colossal flow of water at the mouth of the Orinoco River, concluded that it signaled the location upriver of the Garden of Eden. Ponce de Leon, among others, set out in Florida to find the Fountain of Youth, where one could sip and be restored to youth. The shipwrecked Cabeza de Vaca related to an eager audience in Spain his extraordinary adventures, complete with miraculous cures, amazing landscapes, strange peoples, and startling providential interventions. Spaniards searched for the city made of gold, Puritans stepped into a wilderness populated with fearsome diabolical spirits, and French missionaries created their own stories of clerical martyrs whose sufferings, frighteningly gruesome in detail, were in their own way wondrous. What historian David D. Hall has called the early New England experience of “worlds of wonder” was in fact an emotional experience shared by a great many new Americans from an assortment of different European backgrounds.25

The wondrous landscape of North America, its vegetation, fauna, and weather, has continued to inspire wonder. As the American religious historian Robert C. Fuller has noted, American nature writing—and there is a lot of it—overflows with wonder and a deep spirituality grounded in the experience of nature. In the writings of Rachel Carson, John Muir, and many others before and after them, there is an American triangulation of nature, wonder, and spirit.26 That emotional disposition to nature has framed many aspects of American religious life, from the early New England Puritan imagination of an eerily enchanted landscape to the Mormon sense of holy place in Deseret, to the golden surprises of 20th-century pilgrims to California. Wonder has been more than the American experience of nature, however. Through various programs of spiritual improvement, framed by the historically ingrained sense of wonder at nature, American religions have networked that feeling with other aspects of religious life and culture. Wonder spills over into experiences of the majesty of God, recognition of the achievements of religious institutions, engineering and scientific feats, a notion of the “American way of life,” and the seemingly wondrous display of American power in the world. The wonder that is central to religious life in America, that helps inform and define the experience of Americans when they think and act as members of religious groups, is also the wonder that animates other aspects of American culture. American professions of fascination with the beauty of the land, and claims for the spirituality of that beauty, remain the cutting edge of American representation of wonder. What historian Catherine Albanese called “nature religion” in America, and the broader phenomenon of “metaphysical religion,” are deeply rooted in the feeling of wonder. It is an emotion that always has played an important role in religion, in America and everywhere else. But in America, it has been extended, as it were, drawn out over time into a vast culture of networked triumphs of the spirit. There is a religious aspect to American wonder at the rocket liftoffs at Cape Kennedy, Florida, just as there is wonder in a room of Pentecostals praying in tongues. Wonder has a long history in America and is interwoven with many events, images, and ideas that represent Americanness.


The feeling of emptiness is central to the experience of Christians in America.27 In as much as American culture has a Christian inflection, the feeling of emptiness is important in some measure to many non-Christians as well. Cultivation of the feeling of emptiness has long been a part of Western religious cultures. Different from the idea of nothingness in Buddhism, but overlapping it in certain ways, Christian emptiness consistently has been described by religious writers as a necessary precondition for being filled with the grace of God. Because one must be emptied to be filled—to be “born again” in the parlance of American evangelicals—any effort expended in self-denial is a step toward arriving at emptiness. Christians and others actively cultivate the feeling of emptiness, recognizing that one can always become emptier, and thus more prepared to be filled with grace. In religion, emptiness can be a feeling of longing for God, or a frightening sense of distance from God, or a sense of hollowness or the absence of a self, or all of those. The feeling is reported throughout American history in diaries, journals, correspondences, and autobiographies, and is recommended constantly in sermons, theological literature, and in other writings.

American Christians read in their New Testaments that Jesus “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7). They, as well as some non-Christians, cultivate that feeling of emptiness, in some instances imitating the example of Jesus as they imagine his life. They embrace bodily disciplines that deny self, engaging in ritualized behaviors that frustrate gratification and repress physical desire. Such activities also serve to represent the feeling of emptiness, to characterize it in ways that make it more easily recognizable, more precisely expressed and communicated. Physical disciplines, like language, serve to cognize the feeling of emotion.

Fasting is a religious discipline. To fast is to empty the body of food. The empty stomach represents the empty person. Most religious groups in America urge fasting upon their membership. When American Christians fast, they engage in an exercise that is meant to cultivate the feeling of emptiness, physically, and also to cultivate it spiritually. Empty the stomach, empty the self, and be filled with the grace of God. Silence empties the throat of words. Like fasting, it both cultivates and represents the feeling of emptiness, expressing it and deepening it. Tears are much the same. In devotional settings, persons empty the body of tears. To shed a tear in devotion to God is to recognize one’s smallness before God, to signal one’s emptiness, and to endeavor to enhance that feeling of emptiness. Work likewise can be engaged as a spiritual project that empties the body of sweat. Some monks in medieval Europe embraced the axiom laborare est orare: to work is to pray. In America, the 20th-century television image of the blue-jeaned, pickup-driving rural male worker is the picture of a person who empties himself of sweat in an “honest” and presumably spiritual way. Just as Jesus bled, Americans empty themselves of blood, in holy causes such as the Civil War, as well as through service as “victim souls” (in Roman Catholicism), as stigmatics or aspiring stigmatics, or though self-cutting. For some evangelical Protestants, as Amy DeRogatis has shown, sex becomes a performance that connects a married man and woman to a God who fills them with grace and joy as they physically and emotionally, and presumably spiritually, all three empty into each other.28

There are many instances of Americans projecting their feeling of emptiness onto the space of the nation. Puritans in early New England imagined the continent to be a wilderness or, more appropriately, a “desart” that was absent Christianity and culture. With westward movement, came the invention of the Great American Desert, an imagined “Sahara” located between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. It typically was characterized as a vast emptiness. It extended westward the Puritan idea of American wilderness, which was a mirror of the spiritual emptiness Puritans felt. In the 20th century, the American fascination with the highway and the depiction of that in novels and film, is about longing, the pursuit of emptiness, and the simultaneous search for some kind of “grace” to fill it.


European explorers and settlers arrived in North America expecting things to happen. They felt as if momentous events were to occur in America. The Puritans were especially expressive about that feeling, constructing their arrival in America as the first step toward founding a “city on a hill” for all the world to see and emulate. Some persons, including the 18th-century Massachusetts clergyman Jonathan Edwards, imagined that the millennium was to begin in America. Many Americans following Edwards rallied to the same vision, some anticipating the imminent dawn of a thousand–year period of Christian peace and prosperity that would prepare the way for the triumphant return of Jesus Christ. Some anticipated a more dangerous future. They wrote extensively about their expectations. As historian Baird Tipson wrote, 17th-century New England literature “reeks with apocalyptic.”29

In the 19th century, that feeling of anticipation increasingly was expressed in a pessimistic version of the imminent end. Groups formed in anticipation of the utter destruction of the world in a premillennial cleansing that would bring a violent end to a human history that had tipped hopelessly toward sin. From Jemima Wilkinson’s (b. 1752-d. 1819) Quakers and Mother Ann Lee’s (b. 1736-d. 1784) Shakers (otherwise known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing) to the Millerites, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believed that the end was near, Americans in the 19th century cultivated anticipation. They expected something great, something remarkable, to happen.30

Subsequent expressions of the feeling of anticipation have intensified and proliferated in America. Catholics were drawn to predictions of the imminent end given in visions by the Virgin Mary. Evangelical Protestant leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson warned their amphitheater and television audiences to expect the end and to prepare for it diligently. Literature such as the popular Left Behind book series and the many movies with themes about the imminent end of the world made large and steady profits. The American anticipation of doom as the year 2000 approached was grounded in a blend of religious ideas and (often-misunderstood) technological concerns. It primed Americans for the revelation given by Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping (b. 1921- d. 2013), whose prediction of the end of the world for 2011 prompted persons to wholeheartedly indulge their feeling of anticipation, quit their jobs, and leave their crops in their fields in expectation of the end of the world.

The anticipation of the end, expressed in various kinds of religious stories, and supplemented with claims about “scientific” proof of the approaching end is, most importantly, a feeling. Americans who feel constant anticipation of a cosmic crisis are Americans who feel time. Sometimes Americans use the word “intuit,” but at bottom Americans trust that they can feel time, feel its movement in a particular direction, and so can feel a coming future—whether that future is a Christian apocalypse or the imminent dawn of a utopian millennium.31


Americans value the emotion of empathy in their religious lives. They express empathy through displays of what the 16th-century English Bible translator Miles Coverdale called “lovingkindness,” a term that also has strong resonance in Buddhism (metta̅). While not exactly what Christians refer to as agape, or Jews as chesed, empathy in American religion is related to those feelings. In this context, it refers not to the sense of connecting intimately with another person’s feelings but to the practice of behaving towards others with care. It is what D. C. Batson has called, “an other-oriented emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another person—today usually called empathy.”32 Empathy in American religious history is about care for others. It is a feeling that is expressed largely in actions.

A 2011 poll ranked Americans the most generous in the world in terms of philanthropic giving.33 While such polls can have bias, Americans’ generosity, first of all, toward their religious institutions is an important fact of American history. The separation of church and state in America officially ended the public funding of religious groups, leaving organizations dependent on their memberships. Religious denominations that survived did so because their members supported them. It became a habit that spilled over into other ventures. Such charitable giving has a measure of self-interest—one supports the group to which one belongs—just as most charitable giving has certain ends in mind over and above the tendering of care to others. Religious Americans at times have claimed to be acting empathetically, practicing care towards others, even as they attempt to dominate others (e.g., the effort to outlaw abortion out of empathy for those thought destined to eternal damnation for terminating their pregnancies). Overall, however, the importance of empathy is obvious in the record of campaigns for social reform, civil rights, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief. The roles of religious groups in leading such causes have been particularly in evidence during efforts such as abolitionism, the anti-segregation campaigns of the 1960s in the South, the Peace Movement, and the various forms of the Social Gospel. The religious expression of care for others is most clearly in evidence in response to natural disasters, domestically and internationally.

Other Emotions

There are many emotions that play strong roles in the religious lives of Americans in addition those already discussed. Feelings such as fear, guilt, love, hatred, anger, and joy—what most persons think about when they think about emotion—are well evidenced. Such emotions also are present in the religious lives of persons in other parts of the world. A fuller inventory of important emotions in American religion not only can name those emotions, however, but also should indicate how they form networked clusters. It is important, for example, to know that Americans feel empty, but it likewise matters that emptiness is related to longing, joy, hope, and fear.

Emotions and Capitalism

A willingness to imagine emotion as a commodity is not a development of capitalism per se. Long before late medieval commercial revolutions and the coalescence of capitalism in the West, human feelings were treated as commodities that could be made available for exchange in religious transactions. One gave the heart to God in exchange for blessings material and spiritual. In America, that idea was refined among 19th-century evangelical Protestants. In the appropriately named Businessman’s revival of the 1850s, participants—including many businessmen who attended prayer meetings on their lunch hour in the city—imagined exchanging their heartfelt feelings of love and hope for the granting of requests that they wrote on slips of paper prior to the meeting.34 What psychologists call “emotional transactions” are present in all of human life, and in religion the transactions have been formalized in public rituals and in prayer. Emotion sometimes plays a role in Americans’ bargaining with their gods.

The Study of Religion and Emotion

The study of religion and emotion in America can advance through close attention to the literary traces of persons’ emotional lives. By consulting persons’ reports of how they feel, and by critically analyzing those reports, we begin to understand the range of persons’ feelings as well as the social and cultural contexts in which they feel them. In diaries, journals, notebooks, correspondences, and autobiographies, we can read the emotionality of individuals and sometimes groups, and learn how different feelings form clusters, how groups vary in their emotional styles, and the extent to which reported feelings are in accord with feeling rules, or what Peter N. Stearns has called the “emotionology,” the culturally derived expectations for emotional expression and concealment.35 Those expectations are redolent in writing as well, in popular literature, magazines, sermons, and other kinds of writing, as well as in material culture, and they are expressed in a multitude of ways, from novels and movies to musical compositions, fashion, and speech. Art and architecture, visual and auditory cultures, food ways, and traditions of dress all can represent understandings of standards in emotional performance. There is much to say about gender, ethnicity, and class in connection with emotional life as well.36 Finally, there is a biological factor in the investigation of emotion. The study of religion and emotion in America has begun to integrate science about genetics and adaptive behavior into research from the social sciences and humanities.37

Further Reading

The endnotes to this article identify examples of scholarship on specific aspects of religion and emotion in America. Several studies addressing the broader investigation of emotion and its relevance to research in religion are included in the following list.

Corrigan, John, Eric Crump, and John M. Kloos. Emotion and Religion: A Critical Assessment and Annotated Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000. An overview of research in the area of religion and emotion through the 20th century.Find this resource:

    Hopewell, James F. Congregation: Stories and Structures. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987. While there has not been space in this article to fully assess the importance of congregational studies in the investigation of religion and emotions in America, much excellent work is available on the topic. At the level of the congregation, we can glimpse ways in which shared understandings about the nature and role of emotion are present in the condensed local symbology and practice of the group. Hopewell describes the construction of emotional cultures within congregations.Find this resource:

      Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion and the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. A historical study of one English background to emotion in American religion.Find this resource:

        Matt, Susan. “Current Emotion Research in History: Or, Doing History from the Inside Out” Emotion Review 3 (2011): 117–124. A survey of the current state of the study of emotions in history.Find this resource:

          Matt, Susan, and Peter N. Stearns. Doing Emotions History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. A representative sampling of approaches to studying emotions history, including religion.Find this resource:

            Owen, Amy D., et al. “Religious Factors and Hippocampal Atrophy in Late Life,” PLoS ONE 6.3 (2011). One kind of neuroscientific research in the study of religion and emotion.Find this resource:

              Scheer, Monique. “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (And Is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion.” History and Theory 51 (2012): 193–220. Emotions as practice are discussed.Find this resource:

                Riis, Ole, and Linda Woodhead. A Sociology of Religious Emotion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. An example of a sociological approach to the study of religion and emotion that offers useful models for approaching the American context.Find this resource:


                  (1.) “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey: Executive Summary,” Pew Research Center, September 28, 2010.

                  (2.) Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, updated with a new preface (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

                  (3.) Robert C. Fuller, The Body of Faith: A Biological History of Religion in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

                  (4.) Martin E. Marty, “Ethnicity: The Skeleton of American Religion,” Church History 41 (1972), 5–21.

                  (5.) M. M. Knappen, ed., Two Elizabethan Puritan Diaries (Chicago: The American Society of Church History, 1933).

                  (6.) Thomas Selement and Bruce Wooley, eds., Thomas Shepard’s Confessions (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1981), 60–61.

                  (7.) Charles Chauncy, quoted in John Corrigan, The Hidden Balance: Religion and the Social Theories of Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 28.

                  (8.) Charles Grandison Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 2d ed. (New York: Leavitt, Lord, 1835), 34.

                  (9.) Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

                  (10.) Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

                  (11.) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Stephen Kalberg (London: Roxbury, 2001).

                  (12.) Mehdi Aminrazavi, Sufism and American Literary Masters (Albany: SUNY Press, 2014).

                  (13.) M. Hermansen, “Hybrid Identity Formations in Muslim America: The Case of American Sufi Movements,” The Muslim World 90 (2000), 158–197.

                  (14.) Molly McGarry, Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

                  (15.) Jean du Buy, “Four Kinds of Protestants. A Comparative Study in the Psychology of Religion,” The American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education 3 (1908–1909), 185.

                  (16.) See the revised keynote address to the 2013 meeting of the Continental Gathering of Unitarian Universalist Seminarians [CGUUS) at Harvard Divinity School, delivered by Thandeka, “Affect Theology: A Roadmap for the Continental gathering of Unitarian Universalist Seminarians.”

                  (17.) Dr. Ronald Feuerhahn, “Lutheran Worship and Emotions,” LCMS Worship Library, 1994; see under “resources.”

                  (18.) Jeff Wilson, Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 123.

                  (19.) Ruth McKnight, “The Quaint and the Devout,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 23 (1964), 314–328.

                  (20.) Thomas Langan, The Catholic Tradition (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998), 442; Danièle Hervieu-Léger, “What Scripture Tells Me,” in Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, edited by David D. Hall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 31.

                  (21.) Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (New York: Random House, 2012), 186–188, 198; Christopher Blythe, “Vernacular Mormonism: The Development of Latter-day Saint Apocalyptic, 1830–1930,” PhD diss., Florida State University, 2014.

                  (22.) Sarah Ross, Gabriel Levy, Soham Al-Suadi, eds., Judaism and Emotion: Texts, Performance, Experience (New York: Peter Lang, 2013).

                  (23.) A detailed contextualizing discussion of this is found in: Anna Gade, “Islam,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion, edited by John Corrigan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 35–55.

                  (24.) Marie-Odile Junker and Louise Blacksmith “Are There Emotional Universals? Evidence from the Native American Language East Cree,” Culture Psychology 12 (2006), 275–303.

                  (25.) David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

                  (26.) Robert C. Fuller, Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

                  (27.) John Corrigan, Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

                  (28.) Amy DeRogatis, Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

                  (29.) Baird Tipson, “Review of Avihu Zakai, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America,” Church History 63 (1994), 632.

                  (30.) James H. Moorhead, “Apocalypticism in Mainstream Protestantism, 1800 to the Present,” in The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, edited by Stephen J. Stein (New York: Continuum, 1999), 103.

                  (31.) Corrigan, Emptiness, 140–149.

                  (32.) D. C. Batson, “Altruism and Prosocial Behavior,” Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2, edited by Susan T. Fiske, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Gardner Lindzey (Boston, McGraw-Hill, 1998), 300.

                  (33.) “Americans Are Most Generous, Global Poll Finds,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy (December 19, 2011).

                  (34.) John Corrigan, Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth-Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

                  (35.) Peter N. Stearns and Carol Z. Stearns, “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards,” American Historical Review 90 (1985), 813–836.

                  (36.) Corrigan, Business of the Heart.

                  (37.) Fuller, The Body of Faith.