The Religious Meanings of Borders

For Janette Oke, the border meant she was alone.

The young evangelical women followed her husband from the Canadian prairie to the American Midwest in 1957. The border crossing was not dramatic. Their car loaded down with the household items of newly weds, they crossed from Canada to the United States without much to-do. Recounting the trip for her biographer years later, Oke remembered a flat tire more than the border crossing. Nonetheless, the border was real. Crossing it had its effect. It separated her from family, friends, and the life she’d known.

Edward Oke was studying for his degree at Bethel College, the Missionary Church school in Mishawaka, Indiana, and also pastoring a congregation in nearby Elkhart. He was so busy he didn’t have time to notice. But Janette noticed. She cleaned the $65-a-month apartment. She made her husband dinner. She prepared for her baby to be born. And home was very far away.

When she miscarried, the border was very real to Janette Oke. The cost of calling home, an international call, was so expensive, she could only afford to say a few words to her mother.

“In the strange apartment,” Oke’s biography says, “miles from her mother, and with no doctor’s care, she lay on the fold-out bed and cried” (Logan 139).

The border meant she was alone in her grief. Oke was also an evangelical Christian, though, so in her grief, she turned to Jesus. She had, as she understood it, a personal relationship with Jesus. He loved her and she trusted him. His ways were higher than hers, so she trusted in him. In the cheap apartment with an empty crib, Oke sang hymns to herself about trust and surrender, and that’s how she got through it.

Borders are not inherently meaningful. And yet they have meaning.

Daniel Gorman Jr.’s conversation with historian Laurie Maffly-Kipp for the Religious Studies Project is ostensibly about American Jesuits and Mormons, occasioned by Maffly-Kipp’s invited response to John McGreevy’s new book, American Jesuits in the World (Princeton 2016) at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. But really, it’s a conversation about borders. Gorman, a history PhD. candidate at the University of Rochester, starts by asking Maffly-Kipp, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis’s John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, about her work on the importance of geography in the narration of American religious history. Maffly-Kipp has long argued that geography and the ways that space is mapped can be, as she tells Gorman, “a way to think about religion differently.”

From there, the conversation goes—the pun is unavoidable—all over the map. They talk about difference between Mormons and Catholics in U.S. history, the difference between de facto and de jura religious persecution, the difference between the global history McGreevy has written with the one Maffly-Kip is writing. They talk about the disciplinary divisions in the history department at Rochester (goods, nations, ideas), the future of the American Catholic Church, and the importance of demographic changes to religious institutions. They talk about historian Mark Noll’s work on global Christianity and his influence on the field of religious history and what change is marked by his recent retirement from Notre Dame. The conversation can seem like it has no thesis. But really, it’s about borders. The underlying logic of the conversation is about meaningful distinctions, and lines, and how different divisions can be different ways of thinking about religion.

Maffly-Kipp offers what might be thought of as a mandate for borders for religious historians towards the end of the conversation. She and Gorman are talking about global histories, and specifically how global history re-shapes American religious history. Maffly-Kipp says it’s not enough to note borders and the crossing of borders, in religious histories. Instead, the meaning and affects and effects of borders on religion must be carefully examined.

“The question,” she says, “of what globalism … actually means for piety, for spirituality, for institution life, is, I think, the next big question. We know what it means in terms of bodies moving from one place to another, but how that actually then plays out in building institutions, in building structures, is anybody’s guess.”

My guess, personally, is that the religious meanings of borders are intensely local. Partly this is because all global history is local. And partly it’s because borders are not inherently meaningful, or even, in and of themselves, real. They become real because of what crosses them and what doesn’t. They become real when they have an effect. Thus the religious, historical meaning of a border depends on the specific, religious historical effects on particular things (goods, nations, ideas, to be sure, but also and especially people) that cross them, or don’t.

What does it mean for a body to move from one place to another in terms of piety, for spirituality, for religious institutions? For Janette Oke, as a newly wed mourning the loss of a child, it meant the realization of a very personal sense of religious space. Her spirituality was private prayers. Her hymns were sung without a choir. Her prayers were composed spontaneously and in the first person.

That wasn’t the first time the U.S.-Canadian border shaped her religious life, either. As a child, Oke was converted at a summer camp run by the Missionary Church, an evangelical, Wesleyan-Anabaptist denomination. The camp evangelist was a woman. In fact, much of the church on the Canadian prairie was run by women. The denomination did not really approve of women in leadership, but it made an exception because so few men were available or willing to cross into the “needy prairies” of the Canadian West. So “Sister Workers” did the jobs ordained men did in the U.S. This meant that when a minister urged the little children, day after day, to yield their lives to Jesus, it had a different tone than it would have, if the ministers had been men. For her, conversion was like accepting a hug. Evangelical Christianity was comforting, nurturing, and motherly. In Oke’s biography, written by her daughter in 1993, it’s appears that her religious life was made up almost entirely of women until she met her husband at college and he became a minister.

Oke is known, today, as the pioneer of inspirational fiction. She wrote a successful evangelical romance novel in 1979 and launched an industry. Her novels dramatize a specific kind of evangelical spirituality on the stage of a romance story. That spirituality, notably, is comforting and personal. It’s reassuring and private. It’s depicted as the faith of a woman crying alone, singing a hymn to herself about Jesus, and trusting that God will take care of her even on the wrong side of the border. Real borders, it would seem, had a role in shaping that vision of Christian faith.

The meaning of the border, for Oke, is not by any means universal. She’s quite particular, it would seem. Yet if religious scholars are going to attend to geography, and the religious impact and import of crossing mostly imaginary lines, the particular is a good place to start.


Logan, Laurel Oke. Janette Oke: A Heart for the Prairie. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 1993.

Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. “If It’s South Dakota You Must Be Episcopalian: Lies, Truth-telling, and the Mapping of U.S. Religion,” Church History 71/1 (March 2002): 132-142.

—-. “Looking West: Mormonism and the Pacific World,” Journal of Mormon History 26/1 (Spring 2000): 41-63.

—-. “Mapping the World, Mapping the Race: The Negro Race History, 1874-1915,” Church History 64/4 (December 1995): 610-626.

—-. “Putting Religion on the Map,” Journal of American History 94:2 (September 2007): 515-19.

McGreevy, John T. American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Noll, Mark. The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Oke, Janette. The Calling of Emily Evans. Bloomington, MN: Bethany, 1990.

—-. Love Comes Softly. Bloomington, MN: Bethany,  1979.

Mormon, Jesuits, and the Pain of Replication: A Historical-Social Excursus

In their interview dealing with the place of American religion in the world and ‘bodies in space’, Dan Gorman and Professor Laurie Maffly-Kipp cover a wide range of topics relevant to both American religious history and Mormon studies as they reflect on several important suggestions made by John McGreevy in his American Jesuits and the World.  In composing a response, one could introduce Maffly-Kipp’s exemplary list of historical studies, all of which explore relatively marginal religious communities and alternative religious narratives.  Indeed, within Mormon studies specifically, her recent presidential address to the Mormon History Association called for more such studies which may focus on the fringes of Mormonism’s history so that the retrospective picture of the tradition is fuller, more accurate, and less monolithic.  This seems to be more than a call to ‘problematize’ a narrative, instead it is born of one historian’s well-founded argument that America’s religious history is not simply the history of religion in America.  Undoubtedly, much could be said on this.

Of course, it also tempting to pick up some of the topics left scattered by the end of the interview.  For instance, Gorman’s assertion that Mormonism faced persecution that was unlike, or at least more severe than, Catholics in America could be gently rebutted with a reminder that a number of colonies did ban Catholicism through various legal manoeuvres – New Hampshire and Virginia to name but two.  Additionally, for those familiar with the intersection of history and social science in Mormon studies, it requires little coaxing to revive the dialogue initiated by sociologist Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Mormonism which used available data to project ‘world religion’ status in Mormonism not-too-distant future and which was rebuffed by others precisely because of the unique challenges facing a religious tradition governed by a centralised church if it wished to be categorically equivalent to Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.  After all, something like Roman Catholicism is not usually conceived of as a world religion.  Categories matter in religious studies and should be debated accordingly.  However, in the response below, I seek to address a different aspect of blending history with social science in an attempt to better understand global religion.

In a passing comment on the difference between the missionary tasks of Jesuits and Mormons, Maffly-Kipp notes that Mormon missionaries are ‘trying to replicate themselves’.  This is an incisive observation and underscores the unique challenges for Mormon expansion/proselytizing, as the ‘self’ is largely a bio-cultural phenomenon, even if it has been wrapped in sentiments and symbols of transcendence and eternality by the myths and rituals of the religious system.  Furthermore, the goal of self-replication relates directly to the notion of ‘cosmopolitan’ religion mentioned by Gorman and Maffly-Kipp.  By ‘cosmopolitan’ I assume they (and perhaps McGreevy if it is his phrasing) intend something like a tradition which is accommodating of, and integrative with, the various cultures that it encounters so that it is capable of longevity and expansion.  For a religious movement to be ‘cosmopolitan’ in that sense, then, it need not simply contain elements of diverse cultures.  Instead, it must contain elements that can be read as a cohesive whole whilst bending and flexing enough to accommodate and to order the existential needs and expectations of ‘the locals’ in each culture.

This is where social science can enhance historical analysis by illuminating not only the differences between cultures but also the differences between contextually-dependent cultural systems and the ‘cosmopolitan’ religious systems highlighted by McGreevy’s book and discussed in the Maffly-Kipp interview.  Cultural systems qua systems order, define, constitute, and reflect the cumulative and collective experiences and hopes of a social group and its members.  They are the hermeneutics of society.  Insomuch as they are a type of cultural system, then, religions seem to operate similarly.  Religions give meaning to experience and, thus, alter both personal and collective expectations, a process mediated by various restrictions – whether of a biological, economic, or psychological sort.  Yet, as religion strives to make meaning out of the life-course of every individual, its outputs are necessarily all-encompassing and often expressed in transcendental terms.  In this way, religions become the hermeneutics of existence for their adherents, gradually untethered from any one culture as they accumulate broad adaptations afforded by their encounters with a multitude of people, places, and periods.  In other words – as everything from the sociology of knowledge to the ‘subjective turn’ generally, or from Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus to the contemporary emphasis on ‘lived religion’ specifically has suggested – systems of thought and behaviour are indissolubly linked to the nexus of meaning-making and experience.  As a religion is sustained over time, it necessarily reflects the contours and exigencies of its members’ lives.  There is a sort of dialectic at work in such a relationship; habitus constructs and perpetuates the socio-cultural structures even as it internalises and embodies them.

So what could this mean for missionary activity and the international expansions/exportation of a religious tradition?  In short, it is only a ‘tradition’ so long as it remains salient.  Yet, the greater insight is that a religion, as a meaning system, accrues existential adaptations like antibodies building in the blood.  Social anthropologist Douglas Davies refers to this as a ‘pool of potential orientations’, and I have described it as ‘elasticity’.  No matter the term, the basic observation is that each component of the system – its mythological elements, rites, emotions, doctrines, sacred texts, politics – combines with its cumulative record of successful resolutions of crises to increase the potential for a bright future by providing an ever-expanding set of tools useful for survival at both the personal and the collective levels.  As long as a sense of identity is still conferred and maintained amidst the challenges and socio-cultural negotiations, the religion may succeed and may become ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘global’.  This is the process of ‘growing pains’.

Bringing it back to Mormons and Jesuits, then, we see that Maffly-Kipp’s observation that LDS missionaries are trying to ‘replicate themselves’ indicates potential cultural inflexibility applied to an inherently tricky enterprise.  Do they want to replicate personalities?  Emotions?  Rocky Mountain cultural norms?  Is it possible that the priesthood/laity separation mentioned by Gorman as integral to Jesuit missions abets the adaptability of the tradition precisely because the clergy do not expect or chase self-replication?  Either way, one does wonder how fair it is to compare Jesuits to LDS Mormons.  It seems feasible to claim that this is a comparison of sect and sect, but others in the past have seen more parallels between Mormonism and the whole of Roman Catholicism (presumably understanding this as a church-church comparison).  More importantly, as the above precis on social theory implies, the older and more intentionally adaptive the religion, the more likely it is to weather the storm of worldwide growth as it encounters new cultures and new people.  With that in mind, it is important to note not only that the Jesuits had been in formal existence for over 250 years before the Mormon Church was founded in 1830 but also that they remained under papal authority and conceived of themselves as a particularly innovative/amendatory movement from the outset.  The LDS church is only now not quite 200 years old, and those familiar with contemporary Mormonism will recognise that their relatively rapid rise to approximately 16 million members is beginning to cause a few significant pangs (e.g., disaffecting members in Europe).  Growth hurts, for the religious system as for the individual, but the story of that pain is the story of those people.  Fortunately, it is a story helpfully elucidated by social science and admirably told by exceptional historians like McGreevy and Mafflly-Kipp.