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Religion Department Newsletter

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June 2020

From the Chair

Dear Smith College Religion Department Alums and Current Religion Majors/Minors,

It has been a very unusual academic year at Smith. We have been greatly saddened by the cancellation of in person classes for the second half of the spring semester and we acutely feel the absence of the annual festivities surrounding Reunion and Graduation. This underscored our wish to reach out to all of our current and former Religion Department students and send along our second annual departmental newsletter. As always, we welcome you to be in touch with us. Once things return to some state of normalcy, if you find yourself on campus, be sure to drop in and visit. You can keep up with Religion Department goings-on through our Facebook as well as our Smith web pages. Almost all events are open to the public should you live nearby or be passing through town.

After sending our first newsletter in June 2019, we received many updates from alums. We’ve included many of these in this year’s newsletter. We look forward to receiving more updates from you that we would be happy to add to next year’s publication. Send news—and any queries—to administrative assistant Phoebe McKinnell at pmckinnell@smith.edu.

With cordial wishes from the department to each of you,

Joel Kaminsky, Chair 

Faculty Updates

Professor Kaminsky was very happy to have a visit from Ryan Shepard (Hughley) ’09 at his Wright Hall office in February
Department Chair

In 2019–20 I taught my first-year seminar “The Bible and American Public Square,” a high-level seminar, “Why Do the Innocent Suffer?” and a 200-level course on “Women in the Hebrew Bible.” Harvard Theological Review published an essay I co-authored titled “The Meaning and Telos of Israel’s Election: An Interfaith Response to N.T. Wright’s Reading of Paul,” which critiques the work of one the most widely-read scholars writing on Paul today.


Photo: Professor Kaminsky was very happy to have a visit from Ryan Shepard (Hughley) ’09 at his Wright Hall office in February.

The Jewish Tradition: Food and Foodways class, at Abundance Farm
This year I taught some of my favorite courses! In The Jewish Tradition: Food and Foodways, we supplemented in-class learning with the fun activities of cooking workshops and visiting Abundance Farm (at Congregation Bnai Israel). Students in Women and Gender in Jewish History did fascinating archival research in the Sophia Smith Collection. In spring, both classes — Philosophers and Mystics, and Ritual: Performance and Paradoxes (co-taught with David Howlett) — transitioned well to Zoom teaching because we had already formed close communities and because the subjects took on new urgency; I am grateful for the deep bonds forged by students in these classes. Also delighted to serve as Honors Director during a banner year in which four students wrote Honors theses! 


Photo: Students in Professor Dubin’s fall 2019 The Jewish Tradition: Food and Foodways class, at Abundance farm in Northampton. They also visited the kitchen, with delicious results

In 2019–2020 I had my sabbatical year, which featured a lot of research travels and much quality time for writing. I published a book on the religious merits of Jerusalem in Islam (it came out in a simultaneous edition by two publishers in Jerusalem and Beirut), and I also finished another book on an important Muslim figure from the Crusader period called Ibn Asakir, highlighting his contribution to the revival of Sunnism in the Middle East and the way he and his works have been employed by modern Syrian nationalists in the creation of a national identity and historical memory for Syria (a rather secular one at the beginning of the 20th century, and a religious one at the end of it). I wrote as well many articles for general audiences, such as the one criticizing modern scholarship on the Crusades which appeared in BBC History magazine, and several other pieces on different topics, which were published in online and print journals in Europe and the Middle East (in French, Arabic and English). 

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Last summer, I was fortunate to accompany a group of Smith alumnae on a Smith College Travel Program, The Waterways of Russia, during which I offered lectures on topics related to Russian sacred art. The trip included visits to ancient churches and monasteries along the shores of Russia’s northern lakes and the Volga River, several of which are included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. I spent a month prior to that trip conducting research in archives in St. Petersburg and Moscow on the topic of religion and atheism under early Bolshevik rule. I also lectured to American students pursing intensive Russian-language study at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, among whom was one of our very own Smith Religion majors. On my return from Russia, I completed an essay on religion in revolutionary Russia for The Oxford Handbook on Russian Religious Thought. In the fall, I headed to Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music for a year-long Fellowship, where I pursued my current book project on liturgy, narrative, collective trauma, and post-Gulag witnessing in Russia. Yale Institute of Sacred Music boasts many of our own Smith Religion majors among their graduates. In fact, just weeks before the Covid-19 outbreak, it was a treat to hear a lecture by Emily Floyd—both a Smith Religion major (’09) and Yale ISM graduate (’12)—who now teaches at University College London. While at Yale, I taught a course on the “Politics and Culture of Russian Sacred Art.”
Professor Shevzov’s trip with Smith alums "The Waterways of Russia"
Needless to say, my pursuits during the spring were somewhat derailed as COVID-19 set in, and libraries and academic buildings closed. Along with my academic colleagues across the country, I made that rapid transition from lively, in-person weekly seminars to the Zoom classroom. The most rewarding work of this past year, however, has been with Smith students. Even though I was on sabbatical leave, I remained in touch with my advisees. I was particularly pleased to oversee two magnificent Honors Theses, and mentor one of our graduating seniors through the process of applying for a Fulbright Fellowship (which she was awarded). In addition to completing two articles based on my current project, this summer I look forward to preparing a new course on “Religion, Beliefs and Human Rights,” which is scheduled to be offered next spring semester (2021). 


Photos: Top left, a wooden church in Russian orthodox tradition; right, Professor Shevzov’s trip with Smith alumnae in summer 2019—The Waterways of Russia

Hello all. I hope that you are doing well in this difficult time. I am not teaching this semester, so in a sense I “dodged a bullet” and don’t have to conduct classes via Zoom and learn other new technology. On the other hand, as Professor Dubin said the other day in a Zoom gathering of Religion faculty and students, her “virtual class-time” with students is a treasured time of her day, as it is during a normal semester as well. So yes, I miss my students! Last year at this time I was in Kyoto, preparing for a Global FLEX study program, Buddhist Culture and Thought of Japan, which was to have been offered for the first time this May in Kyoto. But of course the program has been canceled. My wife Maki (just retired in December from the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department at Smith) and I have a lot to do with various international programs and international students, and this has been very hard for them. It is hard to grasp the upheaval in a student’s life.

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Of course, many of you reading this are graduates from years ago, and so you too are sorting through issues other than online classes—childcare, loss of income, friends and relatives with underlying conditions—maybe you too are vulnerable? My wife and I keep wondering if “old age” means more like 80’s than our own 60’s, but our children assure us that we are indeed old, if not ancient. 

At the risk of sounding callous, this moment presents many opportunities for students of religion, whether volunteering somehow (remotely teaching remote technology to various “inmates” in hospitals, nursing homes, or jails who really need social interaction but often don’t have access), watching the myriad responses of religious leaders (and political leaders responding to religious leaders) and the practice of religiously-minded folk in general. I am collecting info on the many Buddhist and Japanese responses, and many of the professional list-serve groups that I belong to (Buddhist Studies, classical Japanese texts, etc.) have become filled with history, manuscripts, and other tales of epidemic/pandemic disease and religion. Lately I have been tracking “Tsuno Daishi,” the “Great Horned Master,” the incarnation of a 10th-century Buddhist monk who fights deities that transmit epidemics. His amulets have long protected our home, and. . . so far so good! I hope that your protectors are also doing a good job! 


Photo: Tsuno Daishi, a protector demon that wards off disease—very popular in Japan (especially these days); this amulet is from Myoho-ji Temple and hangs in Professor Hubbard's home 

The year started out in an unremarkable but happy way – I moved into a new office in Seelye Hall and taught my favorite bread-and-butter courses (Introduction to World Religions and Philosophy of Religion). In the first week of the spring semester, I gave the 62nd Katherine Asher Engel Lecture, Unfinished: William James and the Making of America’s Religious Classic, and I began teaching The Catholic Philosophical Tradition and the Afterlife course (in a delightful collaboration with our new colleague David Howlett). Then the coronavirus struck, turning everything upside down. Smith College has responded to this crisis with wonderful compassion, wisdom, and efficiency. With the guidance of President McCartney, Provost Michael Thurston, and the whole COVID-19 team, we have entered a strange new world, buoyed up by our virtual connections to students, friends, colleagues, and family. Learning still goes on and in many ways is deepened by this crisis. 

Visiting Mellon Professor

As part of a three-year Mellon grant, I developed a new course with Andy Rotman, “Spiritual But Not Religious,” and team-taught courses with Carol Zaleski and Lois Dubin. In my first-year seminar, “American Gods,” students conducted ethnographic research and constructed a virtual walking tour of eight of Northampton’s religious communities. Students are writing and producing a seven-part podcast in my “Mormonisms” course. Their project, titled “Women’s Rites,” tells the story of women’s ordination in a progressive Mormon denomination. Finally, I published a book review in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and finished revisions for an article that will appear in Church History in September. 

In Fall 2019, I did a lot of teaching and writing, and I loved it. I taught Approaches to the Study of Religion, courses on South Asian visual cultures and masculinities, and a special studies in Sanskrit. I also finished an article about the moral economy of the bazaars of Banaras, India, and then spent winter break there doing more research. In Spring 2020, I’ve been teaching Religions of Ancient India, a seminar on violence, nonviolence, and revolution, and spending lots of time helping students, colleagues, friends, and family cope with the pandemic. It feels good to be of service. 
Religion faculty on Seelye Hall steps in fall 2019

Religion faculty on Seelye Hall steps in fall 2019 (not pictured: Professors Mourad and Shevzov, each on sabbatical) Seated, l-r: Professors Kaminsky, Howlett and Rotman. Standing, l-r: Professors Hubbard, Dubin and Zaleski. 


Upcoming Religion Courses

Fall 2020

Introduction to World Religions
Carol Zaleski 

Spiritual But Not Religious
David Howlett and Andy Rotman

Putin’s Russia: After Communism, After Atheism 
Vera Shevzov

Introduction to the Bible I
Joel Kaminsky 

Introduction to Contemporary Hinduism 
Andy Rotman

Approaches to the Study of Religion
Joel Kaminsky

Philosophy of Religion
Carol Zaleski

Jesus 
Vera Shevzov 

Introduction to the Islamic Traditons 
Suleiman Mourad

Race, Resistance and Religion in the U.S. 
David Howlett

Muslims and Shari'a Law
Suleiman Mourad 

 

Spring 2021

American Gods
David Howlett 

The Meaning of Life
Lois Dubin and Jay Garfield 

Introduction to Jewish Civilization
Joel Kaminsky

Afterlife 
David Howlett and Carol Zaleski

Morals vs. Markets 
Rick Fantasia and Andy Rotman

The Good Life 
Joel Kaminsky

Mary: Images and Cults 
Vera Shevzov

Ordaining Women in America
David Howlett 

The Modern Jewish Experience
Lois Dubin 

Muslims, Modernity and Islam
Suleiman Mourad

The Inklings 
Carol Zaleski

The Quran 
Suleiman Mourad

Religion, Beliefs and Human Rights
Vera Shevzov 

 
Carol Zaleski Delivers Engel Lecture

Thumbnail image of January 2020 Engel Lecture by Carol Zaleski, "Unfinished"
In January, Professor Carol Zaleski presented Smith’s 62nd Katharine Asher Engel lecture, “Unfinished: William James and the Making of America’s Religious Classic.” The Engel lecture is given annually to a member of the Smith faculty who has made an outstanding contribution to knowledge in his or her field (we couldn't agree more!).
 

For William James, the “right to believe” was a life-or-death matter: he attributed his recovery from suicidal depression to a decision to permit himself to believe in free will. In his Gifford Lectures, published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience, he extended this privilege to religion, providing a naturalistic but sympathetic interpretation of conversion, mystical states of consciousness, saintly affections and prayer. Though it lacked the fully worked out philosophical conclusion James had hoped to provide, the Varieties became an instant classic, prized by figures as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Muhammad Iqbal, D. T. Suzuki and Bill Wilson (co-founder of AA). James’s admirers praise him for his robust defense of religious experience and its life-changing power; his detractors criticize him for his emphasis on private, eccentric, and extreme mental states. But the Varieties is best understood in the way James understood himself, his philosophical system, and reality as a whole: as an unfinished project. In recounting the making of the Varieties, Professor Zaleski’s talk suggested ways in which James’s oversights can be corrected, his exuberant pluralism more fully realized, and his religious classic rediscovered for today. 

Graduates & Awards

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Religion Department Awards

James Gardner Buttrick Prize

For the best essay written by a Smith undergraduate on a subject in the field of religious studies
Halley Haruta ’20 “Simone Weil’s Theology of Mathematics”

Henry Lewis Foote Memorial Prize

For the best essay written by a Smith undergraduate on a subject in the field of biblical studies
Naomi Brill ’22 “Jesus, James, and Job: Christian Perspectives on Innocent Suffering”

Jochanan H.A. Wijnhoven Prize

For the best essay written by a Smith undergraduate on a subject in Jewish religious thought
Liel Green ’20 “Anticipatory Illuminations: The Performance of the Jewish Sabbath as Queer Futurity”

Class of 2020

Rebecca Angstadt

Caroline Dunbar

Halley Haruta

Kimraj Jordan

Avery Masters

Cali Nathanson

Clarity Phillips

Sophia Pellis

Htet Thadar Aung 

Zoe House

Lily McGartland

Natalie Zimmerman 


Religion Department Senior Honors Theses 2020

 

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Naomi Brill

"Repetence, Redemption, Resurrection: Early Christian Art and Exegesis of the Book of Jonah" 

The prophet Jonah was a popular figure in early Christian art; his story is illustrated in a distinctive set of three scenes called the Jonah cycle, which appears over fifty times on the walls of the Roman catacombs. After Constantine, however, the Jonah cycle disappears. Why? Well, analysis of early Christian exegesis of Jonah reveals that exegetes' characterization of the prophet changed over time, becoming significantly more negative in the fourth and fifth centuries. These exegetes’ work would have influenced public opinion on Jonah, and thus I suggest that the decline of the Jonah cycle was in part caused by increasingly negative views of the prophet, which would have made the Jonah cycle less impactful for early Christian viewers in the fourth century.

 


Melinda White

"'The Song and the Weeping': Death, Love, and Gift in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings"

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My thesis contains a discussion of how reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in conversation with Marcel Mauss’ “The Gift”, can expand our understanding of both texts. The deceased and their lives are recounted often in The Lord of the Rings, primarily through song. This remembrance is given as a gift for the deceased. Mauss’ theory regarding gift exchange argues that in the exchange, social relationships are formed and maintained. If we understand this recounting of someone’s life to be a part of this gift exchange, then we can understand it as a way of maintaining social relationships after someone has passed away. Rather than viewing death as an end to someone’s life and your relationship with them, we can instead see the relationship continue on in the living, because of the gift of remembrance. This is an especially poignant way of understanding death for those who have lost people. It’s a way of maintaining family and friendships even after someone has died, and a way of finding a kind of religion within a text.

 

 

In addition, Grace Mason-Brown wrote an honors thesis on “Popularizing Mysticism: William James, Carl Jung, and the Development of American Psycho-Spirituality” and Phoebe Rendon-Nissenbaum wrote an honors thesis on “When the Realms of Life and Death Collide: a Literary Katabasis.” 

Each student finished their project with very successful results. Congratulations to all!

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Avery Masters

Lev Shestov: Faith, Reason, and Experience

“My honors thesis is about the Russian religious philosopher Lev Shestov (1866–1938). In this project, I focus on Shestov’s analysis of the relationship between faith and reason, particularly his emphasis on the role of faith and the biblical God in religious and philosophical thought. I also explore how Shestov’s upbringing in Jewish tradition and his encounter with Christianity played a major role in the development of his thought, and I pay close attention to the interplay of Christianity and Judaism in his ideas. My aim is to show that Shestov's work should be viewed as a unique religious philosophy in which Shestov employs the biblical stories of both the Old and New Testaments to highlight his central argument that faith must triumph over reason at all costs.”


Alumnae Updates

Now retired from three years as a dean and over 17 years as a mentor/advisor/teacher at SUNY Empire State College, I finally have had the time to get some major and less major projects completed and really underway. The fall of 2019 finally saw the publication in October of my long overdue book (better for the delay), Five Egyptian Goddesses: Their Possible Beginnings, Actions, and Relationships in the Third Millennium BCE, a discussion of the Egyptian goddesses Neith, Hathor, Nut, Isis, and Nephthys. Getting this work completed has freed me up to truly get back to work on editing (and writing for) the Oxford Handbook on Ancient Egypt and the Hebrew Bible that Oxford University Press asked me to do several years ago. With 37 authors and 41 chapters (two by me), I’ve a task ahead of getting this very important volume out for lay people and specialists alike. It’s actually fun, updating me on topics I know something about and learning new things about them and other topics I know less well.

I retired in January 2017 but continue to keep busy. I published a new article in the January/February issue of Nile magazine, have a chapter newly out in a Blackwell Companion on “Literature of Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East,” and have just agreed to write a short discussion in response to the question “Is/Was the Bible Plagiarized.” It’s truly fun to keep learning. I recommend it. The published form of my doctoral dissertation, The Ancient Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers": A Mythological, Religious, Literary, and Historico-Political Study is still used in classrooms around the world. I’ve edited some additional books and published a number of articles on various topics, but my current works are in a sense the coming together of all these kinds of things over the years. 

I graduated from Smith in 1968 with a major in Religion although I had no idea what I would "do" with it and against my parents' wishes that I major in something practical. My professors did teach me how to think theologically and for that, I am forever grateful.I went on to other adventures, including living in Iran, working in medical centers, serving as a volunteer chaplain, advocating for peace and justice, and exploring religious life.Then, in 2000, I graduated from General Theological Seminary, NYC and was ordained an Episcopal priest in the same year. I'm now a life-professed sister of the Order of Saint Helena (Episcopal). By a totally circuitous route, I came back to fulfill my fascination with theology and biblical studies! 

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Photo: Ellen Poisson at an outdoor blessing of the animals on St. Francis day (there are little sheep on her stole)

I’m a Department alum from the class of 1975, mentored at Smith by Karl Donfried. My life after Smith has included two further religion-related degrees, ordination, ministry in parishes and on a Five College campus (Mount Holyoke), and teaching. I’m currently a parish pastor in Connecticut and adjunct faculty at Yale Divinity School. Not a week has gone by in all these years that I haven’t been mindful of the foundations from my undergraduate education that I still draw on to this day. 

I have been in the process of completing a series of (solo, very long) “pilgrim walks” from Northern Scotland ultimately all the way down through Southern Britain, linking together over the course of several stages (average 250–300 miles per stage: “stage three” planned for September–October 2019) a chain of sacred Celtic (pre-Christian) sites that became, in the Middle Ages, major Christian sacred sites. The question of sacred space and architecture in pre-Christian, Paleo-Christian and Medieval Europe has long been an interest. I lived in France for 20 years and did my graduate study there and I’ve enjoyed teaching seminars on this subject.

At Smith, I was an advisee of the late, much missed, Dennis Hudson and I was moved to see from last year’s newsletter that there is an award named for Jochanan Wijnhoven, also gone too soon, whom I also knew well. While Dennis Hudson was my advisor (and thesis advisor), and became with his family a lifelong friend, I also worked with Jochanan, with Jean Higgins, Quentin Quesnel, Ty Unno, Sten Stenson, Karl Donfried, Bruce Dahlberg and Marylin Rhie (at the beginning of her career). What a blessing, and foundation for life, to have received my undergraduate education in the Religion Department of Smith. 

After graduating from Smith in 1998, Emily received an A.M. from the University of Chicago Divinity School, an M.S.L.I.S from the University of Illinois, and a Ph.D. from Rutgers School of Communication and Information. She was the Associate Director and Reference Librarian at the St. Mark’s (now Keller) Library of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City for five years. Emily is an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Her research interests include information access, intellectual freedom and censorship, information ethics, information policy, and the intersection of print culture and reading practices. She was recently named the iSchool’s Centennial Scholar, is president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, and on the boards of the Association for Information Science & Technology, Beta Phi Mu, and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

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Photo: Emily (on left) and Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress. 

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In October 2019, Natalie successfully defended her doctoral thesis in history at Notre Dame. Last summer she took the position as the new academic advancement director for the Mendoza College of Business there, responsible for managing philanthropic efforts on Mendoza’s behalf. 

In early April, Caroline (Von Herrmann) Cruz and husband Ivan welcomed twins William and Claire to the world! 

William Doksee and Claire Katharine, born on April 2, 2020 to Caroline Cruz and husband Ivan

Event Sampling

A sampling of campus events sponsored or co-sponsored by the department in 2019–20:

Jewishness, Historiography and the Victorian Novel

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Dr. Megan Dent ’11, D. Phil. | Oxford University

 

September 12
Portrayals of Judaism and Jewishness feature prominently in many important 19th centrury novels, from Eliot’s Daniel Deronda to Disraeli’s Coningsby. A study of representations of Jewish people in fiction provides insights into the politics of Victorian identity and ethnicity.

 

Buddhism and Extremism 
A Buddhist Perspective on the Climate Emergency

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Karin Meyers Visiting Assistant Professor | Smith College

 

September 19
When confronted with the truth of the climate emergency, Buddhists offer a range of responses, some inclining towards activism and others towards passivity. This lecture examined these responses in light of a variety of Buddhist philosophical perspectives and the historical development of Buddhism in Asia and the West. Meyrs argued that the climate emergency ought to be a central Buddhist (and human) concern and that calls for a deepening and evolution of Buddhist practice.

 

Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals and the Emergence of Holocaust Consciousness in the United States

Cover: The War Against the Jews 1933–1945 by Lucy S. Dawidowicz
Nancy Sinkoff Professor of Jewish Studies and History | Rutgers University New Brunswick

 

November 4
This lecture explored the contribution of Lucy S. Dawidowicz (1915–90), American Jewish public intellectual and historian, to the emergence of post-war Holocaust consciousness. Dawidowicz’s 1975 book The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945 (1975) was a path-breaking work in the field now known as Holocaust Studies. Witness to the vital Jewish world of pre-war Poland and to its destruction, Dawidowicz devoted her life to raising awareness of East European Jewish civilization in America.

 

From Eve to Zelophehad’s Daughters
Biblical Stories of Courage and Agency

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Esther Menn | Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

 

March 2
Women appear prominently in the Hebrew Bible, although rarely in official leadership roles. Women’s stories provide a different perspective on biblical history, in which the impact of events and social structures are viewed from below. These counter-narratives reveal the wisdom, tenacity, and worth of women and others without formal power in a patriarchal culture. They also highlight the central values of preserving life and human thriving. The women of the Bible still speak to us today, when many feel powerless within challenging social and political circumstances and are seeking alternative models of resistance and flourishing. 

 

The Story of Jane
How an Obscure Black Woman Changes American History

Photograph of Jane James
Quincy Newell | Hamilton College

 

March 3
How does our understanding of American history change when we consider the life of Jane Manning James, a Connecticut-born African American who joined the fledgling Mormon movement in the early 1840s? Quincy D. Newell, author of the first full-length biography of James, discussed how James’s life adds depth and nuance to our histories of African Americans, American religion, American women and the American West.