Updating the Dissertation Description

Dissertations can be fickle things. When I started my A.B.D. journey in 2014, I had a very ambitious project outline, and very little understanding of the technical skills I needed to see it through. Since then, through a lot of hard work and a number of false starts, I have greatly expanded my technical skills, learned a good deal about data management (thanks, Wendy!), and discovered how true it is that even (especially?) with computers, less is more when it comes to scholarly projects. While I hope in future iterations of the project to bring network and geospatial analysis to bear on my examination of the evolving relationship between beliefs, health practices, gender dynamics, and temporal imaginaries in the development of the Seventy-day Adventist Church, the dissertation itself will focus on textual analysis of the periodical literature produced by this prolific religious movement.

What follows is my revised dissertation description, submitted to the history faculty at George Mason in pursuit of the department’s completion grant. In the coming months, I will be posting drafts of my technical essays and code notebooks, documenting the computational work that undergirds my historical analysis. This description provides the context for those technical essays.

A Gospel of Health and Salvation: A Digital Study of Seventh-day Adventism, Health, and American Culture, 1843 - 1920

Graham cakes, corn flakes, and therapeutic baths. These are not the first things that come to mind when thinking about religious practices in American history. Yet in 1866, the newly-formed Seventh-day Adventist church opened the Western Health Reform Institute dedicated to providing water cure treatments and health education within a Sabbath-keeping environment.1 Embracing elements of homeopathy, water cure, diet reform, and dress reform, this health-minded Protestant sect incorporated vegetarianism, health reform, and medicine into their evolving understanding of salvation as they grappled with an ever-anticipated but perpetually-delayed millennium.

Seventh-day Adventism began as a community united by their shared belief in the coming return of Christ according to a particular interpretation of biblical literature, rather than as a group tied together by a particular liturgy or by geographic area. As a result, the community organized itself primarily through the publication and distribution of books and periodicals. This reliance on the printed word to orient, build, and maintain a community of faith provides a distinct opportunity for studying the development of this religious movement through their publications. Working with approximately 13,000 periodical issues (nearly 200,000 pages) produced in four geographic regions in the United States by the denomination, I am using text mining to examine the shifting and mutually informing relationship between the theological commitments of the denomination and their gendered health practices in relation to their shifting conception of time.

Seventh-day Adventism is an apocalyptic and millennialist belief system, meaning that they anticipate the imminent return of Jesus Christ, the start of his thousand-year reign, and the end of the world. The movement’s early followers embraced William Miller’s teaching that Christ would return in the period between 1843 and 1844. In the wake of the Great Disappointment, the small group that would become the Seventh-day Adventist church organized around the belief that October 22, 1844, marked the day Christ entered into the inner sanctuary of the Temple in heaven and there began the work of judging all of humanity.2 They also adopted seventh-day Sabbatarianism, holding that Saturday, rather than Sunday, was the proper day for Christian observance, as decreed in the ten commandments. These beliefs contributed to Seventh-day Adventism’s distinctive and shifting temporal imaginary, their shared understanding of time as ordered by God to rotate around the Jewish Sabbath and as rapidly approaching the end of human history.3 I argue that we can see the contours and effects of this shifting temporal imaginary in their health practices and the roles women assumed within the denomination, and that attention to the temporal imaginary provides an additional framework for understanding the flourishing of alternative religious movements during the nineteenth century.4

A Gospel of Health and Salvation is a web-based project composed of five modules, one framing, two methodological, and two interpretative, all of which combine narrative elements with interactive visualizations and computational analysis. Module 1, “A Gospel of Health and Salvation,” provides a non-technical overview of the project and situates my discussion of early Seventh-day Adventism and their beliefs and practices around health within the historical context of the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. Module 2, “Of Making Many Books,” explores the history of Seventh-day Adventist publishing and outlines my methods for selecting, collecting, and preparing the corpus of materials for analysis. Module 3, “Modeling Time,” is a study of different ways to algorithmically identify and highlight changes in discourse over time, particularly when considering time as fluid, rather than constant or static. Module 4, “Work Out Your Salvation,” examines the ways the changing temporal imaginary of Seventh-day Adventism shaped their health practice, particularly their attitudes toward faith healing and the relationship between the healthy body and salvation. Module 5, “Teachers, Mothers, Healers All,” focuses on the ways the changing temporal imaginary of Seventh-day Adventism shaped gender relations and hierarchies within the denomination, as seen in their health practices and their denominational structures. Together, these modules engage critically with the computational methods of the digital humanities within the context of religious history, and reveal the ways the community’s conception of time shaped the possibilities of their theology and their health practices, providing the framework within which they defined and sought to achieve flourishing human lives.

  1. Numbers, Ronald L. Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008. pp. 156-7. 

  2. “The Great Disappointment” refers to the period after October 22, 1844, the date the Millerites believed Jesus would return. Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart place the number of early Seventh-day Adventist followers in 1849 at approximately 100. Bull, Malcolm, and Keith Lockhart. Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream. Indiana University Press, 2006. p. 7. 

  3. I am using “imaginary” in the sense of Charles Taylor’s “modern social imaginary,” namely, that which “enables, through making sense of …” or “that common understanding that makes possible common practices …” Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2004. pp. 2, 23. 

  4. One common framework for interpreting 19th-century revivalism is Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s economic interpretation. See Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Cross and the Pedestal: Women, Anti-Ritualism, and the Emergence of the American Bourgeoisie,” In Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, Oxford University Press, 1986. My approach is similar to that of Robert Abzug in Cosmos Crumbling, but is focused on the temporal aspects of the religious cosmology. Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination. Oxford University Press, 1994.