The Making of American Religious Experience: a Socio-Political Critique of 'Experience' in American Religious History

Date of Graduation

Spring 1999


Master of Arts in Religious Studies


Religious Studies

Committee Chair

Russell McCutcheon


This is a methodological thesis aimed at evaluating the reliance of a significant number of scholars upon the categories "experience" and "religious experience" in their writing of American religious history. I will argue that as it is employed by most historians of American religion, the category of "experience" (in its many forms) fails to provide scholars with an adequate conceptual tool to aid in the writing of history that is emphathetic to the non-elite religious participant. It does not challenge, but reinforces the mechanisms of power which these scholars seek to distance from the practice of writing history. I wll argue for a re-description of "experience" that accounts for the constitution of social being. "Experience," I maintain, must not be for the scholar of religion an essentializing tool of analysis, whereby participant accounts are taken as reflections, articulations, and expressions of the essence of a community. Rather, the scholar must work to contextualize individual and collective "experience," and the concomitant operations of difference and sameness, within the structural relations of power that produce them.

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© Matthew S Waggoner