Early American History Seminar: Louis P. Nelson, University of Virginia

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Thursday, March 17, 2005

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

“Sensing the Sacred”
Louis P. Nelson, University of Virginia
Seventeenth and eighteenth-century Anglicans had a problem. They loved building great churches. But together with other Protestants, Anglicans held a theological commitment to the omnipresence of God, a commitment that undermined the possibility that God was somehow more present in the space of the church. To resolve this problem, Anglicans enlisted the senses to communicate the present of God and defend the sanctity of the church (small “c” as in the building) without having to constrain the divine. Depending on a case study of early colonial South Carolina, this paper examines the ways Anglicans used early modern understandings of sight, sound, and smell to imbue their churches with sanctity. It raises questions about the cultural work of signs and symbols, the power of the written word, and the complexity of metaphor in the context of a world deeply invested in the reality of the supernatural to explore the construction of sacred space.