Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Cross and the Pedestal”

In this essay, Smith-Rosenberg investigates the structure of radical religious movements, movements that challenge the prevailing social order. Her primary example is the religious revivals of the 19th century and her main focus is on explaining why these movements seem to be especially appealing to women.

She refers to movements such as these as periods of “religious anti-ritualism,” a concept she develops from the work of Mary Douglas. She notes that periods of anti-ritualism tend to correspond with periods of social change and can be understood as a “social language” to express social experiences (137-9).

To answer the question of why women were particularly attracted to religious anti-ritualism, Smith-Rosenberg draws on the theoretical work of Victor Turner and the structure of “rites of passage” that he identifies. She identifies periods of revival as periods of disorder between systems of order, while acknowledging that these had their own ritualistic form. She describes them as “liminal” periods, as periods where roles and power are renegotiated and when those on the margins of society are able to claim some amount of power. Women, she argues, are always marginal, and so find anti-revivalism more appealing and often remain in the anti-revival mode longer than others.