Matthew S. Hedstrom
Historian of Religion in the United States, University of Virginia

PhD Supervision in American Religious History

I supervise PhD students in the American Religions track of the PhD program in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, always in concert with colleagues in American Religions and Religious Studies. I work with all PhD and MA students in American Religions, as well as PhD and MA students elsewhere in Religious Studies, in US History, and in various other fields.

I currently serve as formal adviser for five doctoral students:

Daniel Wise (entered fall 2013)
Isaac May (entered fall 2014)
Jesse Robinson (entered fall 2015)
Kevin Rose (entered fall 2016)
Max Pingeon (entered fall 2017)

and have supervised two PhD graduates, Guy Aiken (2017) and Charlie Cotherman (2017).

I am eager to supervise doctoral work ranging widely in the histories of American Protestantism, American religious liberalism, and spirituality in the US. Please contact me directly if you have questions about graduate study in American religious history at UVa.

Thoughts on Teaching History, Religion, and American Cultural Studies

I view teaching as a vocation. Along with professional scholarly writing, it is my primary form of public engagement. Though teaching excellence is undoubtedly a life-long pursuit, and more art than science, I have developed a philosophy of teaching that centers on excellence, ethics, and fostering independence.

Calling students to excellence stems from showing respect for their intellect and curiosity. Excellence also means, as a historian, cultivating the faculties of empathy and imagination. To this end I have found, like all historians, engagement with primary sources to be indispensable. I also use images in nearly every class I teach, sometimes as illustration and sometimes as text, recognizing the emotional power of images to give ideas a shape and context. I often employ new technologies in the classroom as well, including digital images, movies, music, and self-designed web content, all with the aim of making the sources come alive. The engagement with sources, whether traditional or in new media, requires careful training in historical methods, because excellence ultimately comes from taking the natural curiosity of students and disciplining it, and from making the case that a disciplined curiosity is worth the struggle.

I have come to believe, in addition, that intellectual excellence cannot arise unless it is rooted in an encompassing ethical framework. Concerns about social justice and personal integrity are not just platitudes, but are central to successful intellectual pursuits. My undergraduate years at Haverford College, a Quaker school, first impressed these connections upon me, and my time at Valparaiso allowed me to reflect even more carefully on the intellectual consequences of social and personal ethics. These connections came to light in a class as a group of students began to laugh as we listened to a radio documentary about Lutherans who speak in tongues. Our conversation turned first to why they laughed, and then to how their social and religious preconceptions inhibited the intellectual work of understanding. Many students are wonderfully talented skeptics—certainly an important intellectual skill—but I encourage students to approach new ideas first with humility, to remain open and teachable before turning critical. Humility, charity, and honesty create an environment in which intellectual excellence can flourish.

These ethical considerations bear out in particular ways for me as a historian of religion in the United States. On the one hand, historical study exposes injustices to be human creations, and therefore open to undoing by human agency just as they were done by human agency. “History,” Grant Wacker observes, “can be made to speak a healing word to a broken world” by opening one’s vision to a wider range of human possibilities than previously imagined. On the other hand, historical study entails real possibilities for undermining faiths of all kinds. Students often greet historicizing projects with anxiety, because they instinctively recognize the power of historical inquiry to dismantle accepted truths—and losing truths can be painful. So a discussion of civil religion, for example, which I take up in a number courses, might seem to threaten patriotism. Though I never utter a partisan political word in class, I understand that some loss of faith in the American project might occur when we consider the ways myths of chosenness serve to mask the workings of power. When the spotlight of historical investigation turns to the religious traditions with which students themselves identify, this threat to faith can seem particularly profound.

Yet teaching is not, finally, an exercise in dismantling. Deconstructive work is indeed valuable, but our teaching must ultimately serve constructive ends if it is to lead to a mature intellectual independence. Constructing narratives is what we do as professionals, relying on our aesthetic and moral sensibilities, in addition to strict rules of evidence, to conduct our scholarly writing, craft syllabi, lecture, and lead discussion. My classroom reflects the aesthetic and moral dimensions of my use of historical evidence primarily in the subjects I choose to present for investigation. How I have emploted history—given it shape and significance—determines what I consider worthy of my students’ attention and energy. In my classes, this means we attend frequently to race and gender, to religious diversity, to the struggle toward democratic ideals, to conflict and violence, to reform movements, and to the history of ideas.

This crafting of narratives, of course, is also what our students do with what we teach. They emplot history too. They work, rooted in evidence (one hopes), to inscribe narrative coherence on the past, a coherence shaped by their own evolving aesthetic and moral registers; then, with these always-updating narratives, they find their place in the larger human story. Passive learning of information has its place in the classroom, but finally this information must serve the higher purpose of allowing students to find their own voices and tell their own stories. Letting go as a teacher in this way requires, I have found, more preparation than running a classroom from a careful script. Material cracked open by contact with students must be truly mastered in all its complexity. When this is done, it creates the space for students to become the careful, critical, and independent thinkers we want them to be, curious and engaged with the world even as they delve deeper into themselves.

The greatest influence on my teaching has been, of course, my own teachers, and I have been fortunate to have had some great ones in high school, college, and grad school. My parents, as well, were both teachers and great models of teaching excellence. Workshops and colloquia organized by the Lilly Fellows Program at Valparaiso University, the Society for Values in Higher Education, and the Excellence in Diversity Fellows Program at the University of Virginia all contributed to my pedagogical thinking and practices.

A few books have also been important to my development as a teacher: Mark Edmundson, Why Read?; Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do; and Bill Stott, Write to the Point come most readily to mind.


•Historiography Seminar in American Religion
• American Spirituality

•“Spiritual But Not Religious”: Spirituality in America
•Theories and Methods of American Studies
•Introduction to American Studies
•COLA: Varieties of Religious Experience
•Visions of Apocalypse in American Culture
•Early American Religion
•Christian America?: Religious Diversity and National Identity

Taught Elsewhere
•Introduction to American Studies
•United States History, 1607-1865; 1865-present
•Religion in America (Survey)
•Religion and the Counterculture in America (1960s and 1970s)
•Popular Religion in 20th-Century America
•War, Society, and Culture in the 20th-Century US

Course Descriptions

Historiography Seminar in American Religions
RELG 8400 (Graduate)
This course introduces graduate students to the study of American religious history, and prepares them for advanced research, through a survey of key texts, subjects, and historiographical trends. We will attend to recent debates and developments in the field regarding method while aiming to balance an appreciation of diversity with the search for unifying themes. The primary focus will be on the 19th and 20th centuries. Students will produce a final, article-length research paper.

American Spirituality
RELG 7559 (Graduate)
What is “spirituality” and why has it become such a pervasive term in contemporary American culture? This course explores this question through historical interrogation of the category and its development since the early nineteenth century. The encounter of historic religious traditions, especially Protestant Christianity, with the intellectual, cultural, economic, and social currents of modernity will form the larger background for our analysis. We will read primary and secondary texts that investigate religious liberalism, the rise of psychology, secularism and secularization, consumerism, media, and globalization. Students will produce an article-length research paper.

“Spiritual But Not Religious”: Spirituality in America
RELG 2660
What does “spiritual but not religious” mean, and why has it become such a pervasive self-description in contemporary America? This interdisciplinary course surveys spirituality in America, with a particular eye for the relationship between spirituality and formal religion, on the one hand, and secular modes of understanding the self, such as psychology, on the other. Along the way we’ll study everything from AA to yoga to Zen meditation, with stops in Christian rock, Beat poetry, Abstract Expressionist painting, spirit photography, the feminist movement, environmentalism, and recent film. The study of spirituality forces us to confront many of the central concerns of modern American life: psychology, self-help, and therapeutic culture; global religious and cultural encounters; gender and sexuality; and consumerism and mass culture. In the end, we’ll come to see spirituality in America as a complex intermingling of the great world religions, modern therapeutic psychology, the politics of movements for social change, and a crassly commercialized, billion-dollar culture industry.Is this the fate of religion in a modern, capitalist, globalized society?

Theories and Methods of American Studies
AMST 3001
The aim of this core course is to introduce students to the tools necessary for advanced work in American studies. In the first six-weeks we explore models of American studies scholarship covering the period from 1880-1930. Our primary and secondary readings address, in particular, issues of urbanism, reform, race, and empire, and from this introduction we develop a good sense of what American studies scholars do. The final eight weeks of the semester attend more specifically to the history of the American studies movement and specific theoretical and methodological approaches that practitioners in the field have developed.

These final eight weeks proceed in stages, each linked to a critical phase in the development of American studies since World War II:

•the Cold War-era search for the American character;•the liberation movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and the study of previously excluded communities and cultures (our focus here will be in theorizing race and ethnicity);
•the rise of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s, and especially the relationships between cultural hierarchies (high culture, low culture, mass culture, etc.) and social class;
•and the transnational turn of the “new” American Studies in the last two decades.

Here our readings consist of major secondary scholarly works in the field and various articles about the state of American studies itself. We close each unit with the out-of-class viewing and in-class discussion of a film that both highlights and complicates our understanding of the themes under consideration.We come to see, I hope, that while each new set of analytical tools and perspectives arose in response to particular historical circumstances, the field as a whole has continued to make use of the various methodologies and theories developed under previous circumstances, thereby adding to the richness of American studies approaches. Along the way, students might also learn a thing or two about the social and cultural history of the United States from the late nineteenth century to the present.

Introduction to American Studies
AMST 2001
This course introduces students to the broadly interdisciplinary study of US culture in all its various forms, from everyday life, historical memory, politics, and religion to art, literature, film, photography, and music. Our emphasis throughout will be on doing American Studies, which we will model during the course’s six tightly focused units. Students will then put this learning into practice for your semester project on American foodways. All along we will examine issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, transnationality, and citizenship that have shaped key moments in the history of American culture and society. This course consists of 2 lectures a week and a separate discussion section. Materials for this course are posted on Neatline at Neatline is a digital tool set, developed at UVA, that generates interactive maps and timelines enabling us to locate the documents, images, sounds, and artifacts we will examine in both time and space.

Visions of Apocalypse in American Culture
AMST 4440
Prophets may envision the future, but their visions are always comments on the present. End-time scenarios—whether of ultimate destruction or eternal bliss—help us make sense of unspoken hopes and unspeakable fears, express outrage, mobilize movements for change, and relate our individual lives to a larger order. In this course, we will study some of the many ways Americans have envisioned the end of the world, and what those visions have to teach us about them and the America they inhabited. The course, therefore, is an exercise in religious and cultural history and contemporary cultural studies.We begin with a broad introduction to apocalypticism in Western religious traditions dating back to Biblical literatures, but soon narrow our focus to the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our explorations take us from slave revolts to UFO cults to Dr. Strangelove, from Edward Bellamy to genetic engineering, from the space program to Left Behind, and from the Great Disappointment of the 1840s to the New Age of the present. We meet a host of Americans—black and white; Roman Catholic and Protestant; members of new religious movements and adherents to secular ideologies of doom or bliss—and ask: what can the imagined futures of yesterday teach us about the hopes and fears of previous generations? In what ways are social, political, and economic tensions reflected in visions of the apocalypse? How have ideologies of the end, whether religious or secular, shaped social movements, politics, and popular culture?

Varieties of Religious Experience
COLA 1500
This class operates on three levels: subject matter, skills, and advising.Subject matterWe’ll explore some big questions together: What is religion? What is spirituality? How do they relate to well-being, or to being a good person? What can science teach us about these human phenomena – and what are the limits of science in this regard? We’ll pursue these questions through a semester-long reading of William James's great work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). James was one of the foremost thinkers of American history, a founder of the modern disciplines of psychology and religious studies, and of the pragmatist approach to philosophy. We’ll relate his thought and trace his influence to our own lives and moment, a moment when more than a third of young adults declare themselves “spiritual but not religious.”SkillsThe primary skill we’ll think about in this class is how to read. I assume you all think you already know how to read, and in a sense of course you do. But the structure of this course—an entire semester devoted to reading a single major work—will allow us to think more deeply about ways of approaching a complex text. We’ll also talk about writing, research, discussion, and the other essential skills of a liberal education.AdvisingFinally, we’ll use this class as an “orientation to college.” I’ll serve as your first and second-year academic advisor, and we’ll talk about choosing classes, finding a major, and other strategies for making the most of your time at UVa.

Early American Religion
RELG 3559
Where does evangelicalism come from? Why do we have separation of church and state in the US? What is Mormonism? How did Christianity spread among African-Americans? Who were the Puritans? What role did religion play in the Revolution, the debates over slavery, the Civil War? Let’s find out.This course surveys religion in colonial North America and the United States from the first European settlements through the Civil War. We will use a variety of sources, including film, art, music, and primary documents, to investigate two kinds of questions: first, what was the role of religion in early American history—meaning, how did religion influence social development, culture, region, economic life, politics, slavery, settlement and expansion, war, and family life? And second, what is the history of religion in early America—meaning, how did various religious groups (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Native American, African American, Evangelical, Mormon) grow, develop, and change over time? The time period under consideration saw immense change in religious life and thought, change driven by immigration, revivalism, new religious movements, and—most spectacularly—the republican ideology of the American Revolution, which saw the United States emerge as nation without a formal religious establishment. The drama and debates of this period—about unity and diversity, about political freedom, national character, and religious belief—still resonate today.

Christian America?: Religious Diversity and National Identity
AMST 2500 / RELG 2450
This general religious studies and American studies course tackles the large and multifaceted question of American religious identity, understood both in terms of the religious significance of the nation and the religious identities of the American people. To do this, we move between the realms of politics, culture, and everyday social interaction. Topics of particular concern include: debates about religion during the drafting of the Constitution, and the subsequent history of religion and public life; the historical development of religious diversity in the United States; the history of religious intolerance in America; and contemporary social, political, legal, cultural, and spiritual implications of pluralism. The unifying theme is the ongoing debates over the religious identity of the United States, a country at once profoundly Christian, on the one hand, and both officially secular and demographically diverse, on the other.

As part of our historical work, we will chart the trends that led this nation, once characterized as a triple melting pot of Protestant-Catholic-Jew, to become, by the late twentieth century, one of the most religiously diverse societies in the history of the world. Alongside our historical survey of religious diversity, we will also read reflections on the challenges and opportunities posed by religious pluralism. This component of the class covers matters of public policy and law, as well as more intimate matters such as interfaith marriage. We draw on sociological data to understand how Americans have dealt with these matters in practice, but also examine the ways various faith traditions understand religious diversity as a matter of theological and spiritual challenge and opportunity.In addition to acquiring greater knowledge of the course content, by the end of the course students should be accustomed to thinking about religion as a cultural system, and about the interplay of the religious and non-religious in American history.

To investigate religion as an aspect of culture we employ the tools of cultural studies and cultural historical study. Finally, this course, like all courses in the humanities, aims to sharpen students’ abilities to read, reason, research, write, and discuss. These are the essential skills of educated life, and we hone them through continual practice.


Postal Address

Department of Religious Studies
University of Virginia
PO Box 400126
Charlottesville, VA 22904

Office Location

Gibson Hall
1540 Jefferson Park Ave.
Room S013 (Ground Level)