"Onward, Christian Soldiers:" American Populism and the Religious Imagination in the Wake of World War I
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CitationBossen, Colin. 2018. "Onward, Christian Soldiers:" American Populism and the Religious Imagination in the Wake of World War I. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Abstract“‘Onward, Christian Soldiers:’ American Populism and the Religious Imagination in the Wake of World War I” examines the relationship between the religious and political imaginations of populists in the early twentieth-century United States. In the years surrounding World War I, catastrophic violence and the perceived failures of progressivism combined to fuel social movements that predicted the present social order would be destroyed by cataclysmic events and superseded by a new social order. These movements included the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Pan-African Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the Protestant white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan. While diverse in composition and ideology, these groups relied on the same set of religious narratives, rituals, and symbols to mobilize and recruit members. The dissertation’s title highlights the movements’ shared practices. Each group sang versions of the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at political rallies that were indistinguishable from revival meetings.
The analysis is developed through the close reading of divergent texts. Placing incongruous work like white supremacist sermons, pan-African newspapers, and labor hymns alongside each other brings into focus the commonalities that compose what Charles Taylor and others have called the background, the set of assumptions that structure the human set of the possible. In the early twentieth-century the background of the United States contained many elements connected to biblical narratives and the practices of Protestant Christianity. These are highlighted through attention to categories from systematic theology like eschatology and christology. This approach reveals the religious dimensions of a supposedly anti-religious organization like the IWW, the proto-black liberation theology of UNIA, and the Klan’s connections to liberal white mainstream American Protestantism.
As the first project that studies the populist movements of the early twentieth-century as a single phenomenon, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” reveals populism to be infused with religious elements. It also demonstrates that the people whom populists claim to represent are not a natural category. They are a product of the imagination that has been developed alongside the cultural, social, and legal processes used to define racial and religious groups.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41129129
- FAS Theses and Dissertations 
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