“In the early 1980’s, G.E. built a $42 million ‘Automated Factory of the Future’ [in Lynn, MA]. Robots shuttled materials to computer-driven lathes that made parts for helicopter engines. But when orders slipped, the machines’ lust for metal did not. They built up mountains of useless inventory because they were too inflexible to be switched to other tasks.”


—Peter T. Kilborn, “An American Workplace, After the Deluge,” New York Times, September 5, 1993.

“And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”


—from “The Sermon” in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851)


Secularization teaches us that the world has become inevitably and increasingly less religious through history. It teaches us that the future is and will be automatic. It teaches us that a better world is ever on the horizon—more humane, more ordered, more rational, more free. In this short essay I would like to focus on the more of this story—what I and others haltingly refer to as secularism. Secularism is a discourse that does and does so in a particular way. Unlike secularization, secularism does more than merely describe or even prescribe. It is a ghost rather than a ghost story. Secularism seeps and transforms. It haunts and it makes. It is, in short, discursive. So if secularization is a story of rational, scientific, and secular progress—the banishment of ghosts being a preferred genre of the ghost story—then secularism is the energetic atmosphere in which this story comes to inhabit the dreams of individuals, infusing whatever freedoms they enact and fears they hold dear.

To adopt secularism as an analytic conceit allows one to entertain outrageous questions about the spatial sweep of modernity—how it all hangs together, the mechanics which transcend ordinary measures of space and time. For example, what did nineteenth-century American evangelicalism have to do with the colonial government of India? Why and to what effect did the New-York Evangelist celebrate the East India Company as the “wonder working hand of God” in its capacity to supply “the wants of the immense population”?[1] I ask these question not simply to enact a global frame of religious history but to conjure the limitations and occlusions of the secularization thesis—on the ground, as it were, but also, perhaps, in our own scholarly proclivities.

More specifically, by looking at the relationship between American religious revival and the Indian colonial government in the 19th century, we begin to see that secularization becomes its own kind of ghost—an utterly immanent discursive regime that both generates and gives lie to all those dreams of emancipation, which conjures and complicates visions of secular and religious progress. Through such comparison one is also able to get a sense for the fungibility of those ideologies that made of the nineteenth-century evangelical synthesis of Scottish Common Sense philosophy and republicanism.[2]  To illustrate this point, let me begin with an anecdote. The Indian rebellion of 1857 began in May in the town of Meerut and soon spread to other cities across central India, including Delhi about forty miles away. The rebellion was precipitated by native soldiers—sepoys, both Hindu and Muslim—enlisted by the British East India Company who quickly gained the support of a large numbers of landed elite, rural landlords, and peasants.

As troops were summoned to India during the summer of 1857—from Britain, Persia, and China, two columns of field forces emerged and both marched on Delhi—fighting, killing, and hanging numerous Indians along the way. Together they established a base on the Delhi ridge to the north of the city and the Siege of Delhi began.

For several weeks, Company forces were ravaged by disease, fatigue, and rebel incursions. The possibility of retreat and defeat loomed. Outbreaks in the Punjab also threatened. In the Punjab, however, British troops intercepted the sepoys’ mail, thus preventing their coordinating an uprising. The British also formed a force known as the “Punjab Movable Column” to suppress any revolts as they occurred. In August, because resistance was few and far between, the Punjab Movable Column was able to relocate and reinforce the Delhi Ridge.

To make a long and complicated story very, very short, the East India Company eventually put down the rebellion with a key battle being the Siege of Delhi. The containment of the Sepoy Rebellion was, by historical account, due to the leadership of John Lawrence. The relative quiet on the Punjab front was attributed to the relationships forged by John Lawrence with local Sikh princes and artisans. After the Punjab had been annexed in 1849 Lawrence became Commissioner and spent much of the next few years attempting to consolidate Punjabi infrastructure with such projects as a common currency and post office.

“Few men,” it was said, “had associated more with the natives than Sir John Lawrence; few men had more thoroughly pierced to the core [of] the national character, and few men possessed a more complete power of mental analysis.”[3] After dampening tensions in the Punjab, Lawrence was then able to lead the much-needed cavalry of troops to the edge of Delhi. “As it was reported, no one knew better than Sir John how great was the talismanic charm of vigor, on a native mind.”[4]


In this perpetual loop of freedom, however, some were more free than others and indeed, some were not free at all, at least according to the standards of evangelicals.


Lawrence, according to legend, had evangelical mojo, what evangelicals in the American grain called sympathy, their language of designating the mechanics of sociality, in general, and the specific process that allowed you to connect to yourself by way of other people, and vice versa. First and foremost, sympathy was not coercive but a way to idealize the population as a cumulative loop of freedom. Or as the Rev. Gardiner Spring declared, echoing Adam Smith and other Scotch philosophers, “sympathetic influence” is that which “affects others because it is itself affected by them.”

In this perpetual loop of freedom, however, some were more free than others and indeed, some were not free at all, at least according to the standards of evangelicals. This simmering contradiction, however, could remain unaddressed as long as evangelicals limited the scope of their religious anthropology, that is, as long as they equated “true religion” with a version of manly whiteness.

In my previous work on evangelical secularism, I focused on the space between evangelical media organizations such as the American Tract Society and the reader of tracts. The processes by which printed pages were imagined, inscribed, cut, bound, deployed, distributed, and read by firelight was tremendously complex. These processes depended on all manner of new technologies that moved beyond mere mechanics into the sphere of automation: the science of statistics, stereotypography, steam-powered presses, and the Fourdrinier papermaking machine.[5]

Representations of “true religion” emanated from these processes, which is to say that they were more than representations. On the contrary, they were narrative performances of a secular imaginary. Within this consequential space, “true religion” became the antithesis not to the “secular” world, in general, but to “false religion” in particular—animists, fetishists, polytheists, Catholics, “errorists,” and all those whose practices did not conform to civil society as constituted by evangelicals. For in addition to conditioning the relationality between true religion and the redemption of the population, evangelical narratives conditioned the meaning of their antitheses—infidelity and insecurity.

In the American antebellum era it is not to much to say that evangelicals were part of an immense and benevolent machine that ran on sympathetic energy and targeted, among others, individuals who threatened the coherence of a national imaginary: the young, the poor, the inebriated, the illiterate, the maniacal, the Native, negro, and womanly.


Whence did Lawrence’s charismatic distinction originate? Lawrence graduated from Haileybury College in 1829. Founded by the East India Company in 1805, Haileybury served to train civil servants in Indian history, language, and customs as well as administration. Alongside Addiscombe Military College (which trained colonial officers), Haileybury was central to the maintenance of colonial governance.[6] By the third decade of the nineteenth century, the training of soldiers and civil servants “had become regularized and professionalized with the eclipse of older patronage networks.”[7] This regularization coincided with the increased presence of evangelical missionaries in India and within the administrative ranks of the East India Company.

Haileybury was a major repository of Indian texts.[8] A course of study lasted two years and was divided into two disciplines, “orientals” and “Europeans.” As one graduate recalled, “the friendships and associations formed at the College constituted one of the several bonds of comradeship among the Civil Servants during the administrative careers… Every Civil Servant on first landing in India imagined himself to be a member of the most highly organized body of functionaries that had ever seen.”[9]

In an article that appeared on Saturday, December 15, 1849, the London Times provided an in-depth look into the training of Haileybury students and praised the college as “one of those mighty instruments which Divine Providence has raised for the civilization of the human race.”[10]


In other words, graduates must be free to execute their own will as it has been disciplined at Haileybury in order to discipline the wills of their colonial subjects.


Haileybury students, it was reported, learn to “cope with the subtlety of the Hindoo intellect… To do this efficiently presupposes no inconsiderable acquaintance with the springs of human action, the laws of the human mind, and the workings of the human heart.” In comparing the students of Addiscombe with those at Haileybury, the former are “brusque” and trained in strategies of military coercion while the “genius loci of Haileybury is, on the other hand, more metaphysical, so to speak; more studious, more literary, and more refined.”[11]

It is this metaphysical difference, I suggest, that signals the intense biopolitics coursing in and through Haileybury College in the mid-nineteenth century. For at Haileybury the lines of subjection were not at all clear. As the London Times reported, as students learned “the habits of nice metaphysical distinction, such habits “stamp[ed] the physiognomy and bearing of the student with a reflective air and courteous manner.” During the 1849 graduation ceremony, one East Indian Company Official declared that “every act of public duty you perform will affect others as well as yourselves.” For in addition to knowing native subjects better than they knew themselves, “you must know your own duty thoroughly… You must not implicitly rely upon any man. Hear all: judge for yourself.” In other words, graduates must be free to execute their own will as it has been disciplined at Haileybury in order to discipline the wills of their colonial subjects.

If we move from the colonial context to the shores of America, we can begin to see how this notion of sympathy—so central to colonial rule—possessed a more mundane pedigree. At mid-century, the notion of a sympathetic circuit was very much part of American primers on evangelical oratory. Indeed, it was precisely such reviews of the pulpit effect that marked what could confirm yet also exceed common sense frames of textuality and materiality. There was more—much much more—going on that meets the eye in a well-executed evangelical performance. And by tending to this more one begins to sense the impossibility of secularization as an adequate analytical frame.


Herman Melville was staying in London on Saturday, December 15, 1849. Although he did not write in his journal about the London Times article, he did write that he was excited to see the performance of his “famed namesake, Henry Melvill, a popular Anglican preacher, who, by chance was the Principal of Haileybury College. In addition to be much discussed in the article, the Saturday edition of the London Times included an announcement of Melvill’s sermon to be preached at St. Thomas at 11am the next day. Herman Melville attended that service and wrote afterward that “the church was crowded—the sermon was admirable (granting the Rev. gentleman’s premises). Indeed, he deserves his reputation.”[12]

Although I have not tracked down what Melvill preached that day, I imagine it could have been a revamped version of a sermon delivered a few years earlier in which Melvill reads the text of Jonah as a critique natural theology. According to Melvill, reasonable propositions about invisible powers at work in the world were self-evident to idolaters and heathen. Mariners in a storm would appeal to their own God out of fear or desire without experiencing the immense truth of the one true Christian God. Mere reason was an “inefficient” means of religious instruction because all it did was perpetuate a “Babel of worship.” Melvill then indicts his parishioners for their indifference to religion and declares that in terms of passion and commitment, “the heathen put us to shame.” Heathen are willing to sacrifice and submit but their premises are flawed. Moreover, because the heathen appreciate so readily the necessary and continual subjection to invisible powers that despite the fact that reason among idolaters is at present, flawed, their search for truth “amid the mysterious shadows” may soon outpace our own.[13]


Davis’s vision of perpetual visitations from around the world was nothing less than a new blueprint of global governance revealed by spirit delegations.


In many of his sermons Melvill celebrated the “efficient engine of the Church” and invoked militaristic language, notions of faith as a weapon, and calls for war upon superstition. True religion, and more precisely, true religious instruction was that which defined the truth of a great nation. Faith was a weapon that “embrace[d]” “every colony, every dependency” “within its circuit.”[14]

And Melvill’s circuit was wide indeed.

In the 1830s and 1840s the American Tract Society distributed thousands of copies of Melvill’s Bible Thoughts, a cut and paste job of his published sermons organized around various themes. Melvill also received many a positive mention in the evangelical press. Five months before Moby-Dick was published, the Christian Parlor Magazine wrote of Melvill’s “unaffected modesty… There is no pomposity, no glitter, none of that offensive ‘look at me’ idea which naturally belongs only to weak men.” But yet, everyone was looking at him! And it was this performance of authenticity, what was referred to as Melvill’s “pulpit effect,” that signaled Melvill’s invitation to his audience to enter into a sympathetic circuit of believers believing in each others’ belief in him.[15]

“A dry argument; a mere dry steam engine effort of logic—what is it?” asked The Christian Parlor Magazine in 1845. “The orator must have a heart; he must feel, or he will never touch the springs of feeling that lie ready to gush up in the hearts of the hearers.”[16] The key to oratory revolved around passion, imaged here not as the mere mechanics of a steam engine—no matter how elegant—but rather the movement it generates. Accordingly, economies of passion were impossibly comprehended. They were meta-technological. But it was in the space of epistemic impossibility that right reason and feeling coincided. “Like the electric fluid, passion thrills and lightens, and spreads itself from point to point, we know not how. It is this mysterious sympathy that gives enthusiasm its omnipotence… It is not the complicated machinery of words alone, communicating motion to the heart through the medium of his intellect, that makes man acquainted with the emotions of those around him; a glance speaks to the soul.”[17]

Such knowledge was immediate and not merely rational, not awkwardly mechanical but driven by what the “complicated machinery” had already produced. An effect becoming a cause. Not revolving around the manipulation of moving parts so much as revolving around a world that does not sit still.


I will end with one last sighting of Melvill at mid-century, one that perhaps best captures the strangeness of his circulation and the strange potential of secularism as an analytical frame. For perhaps the most convincing take on the empirical edge and scope of mid-century evangelicalism is that of mid-century spiritualism.

In August of 1852, while residing at “High Rock Cottage” in Lynn, Massachusetts, the renowned trance healer Andrew Jackson Davis had a vision of a Spiritual Congress. A “thin mellow atmosphere,” wrote Davis as he gazed out upon the sky, “full of glory and beauty, emanates from and surrounds” an “assemblage of men from the Spirit Land.” These spirits were righteous men “skilled in the divine art of self-government and individual culture.” They included philosophers, statesmen, and doctors from the ancients to the recently deceased. An emissary from this Congress, moving in an “immense white cloud” along a “river of electricity” toward Davis, told him that these designated spirits had assembled “for the purpose of weighing kings, emperors, tyrants, teachers, and theologians in the balance of Justice and Truth.” Davis’s vision of perpetual visitations from around the world—delegations from Japan, China, Turkey, Mexico, and Greece—was nothing less than a new blueprint of global governance revealed by spirit delegations.

As the Scottish delegation approaches, Davis lists a veritable who’s who of Common Sense philosophy—John Abercrombie, Dugald Stewart, and, curiously, without explanation, Henry Melvill. Indeed, Davis insisted that the make-up and purpose of these delegations would remain “incomprehensible” and “impenetrable,” at least for the time being.[18]

John Lardas Modern is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. His work has appeared in Method &Theory in the Study of Religion, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Church History and Religion. He is the author of The Bob Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs and Secularism in Antebellum America. 


[1] “British Empire Extension in India,” New-York Evangelist 20 (July 19, 1849): 116.

[2] John Lardas Modern, “Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan.” Church History 77:4 (December 2008): 801-76.

[3] Colonel G.B. Malleson, History of the Indian Mutiny, 1857-1858, [vol/ 3] Commencing from the Close of the Second Volume of Sir John Kaye’s History of the Sepoy War, (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), 470.

[4] William St. Claire, John Laird Mair Lawrence: A Viceroy of India (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1887), 134.

[5] Twenty-Seventh Annual Report of the American Tract Society (New York: American Tract Society, 1852), 53; see, also, David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[6] Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). As Pitts notes, civil servants trained at Haileybury came to be regarded a consummate professionals, particularly in contrast to the previous generation of administrators in the East India Company (16).

[7] Ibid., 13.

[8] C.A. Bayly, Empire & Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780—1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 150.

[9] Sir Richard Temple, Men and Events of My Time in India (London: John Murray, 1882), 19.

[10] “The East India Company’s College at Hailebury,” London Times, Dec. 15, 1849: 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Herman Melville, Journal of a Visit London and the Continent, 1849-50, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 148-51, 71-73.

[13] Henry Melvill, “The Shipwreck” in Sermons Preached on Public Occasions (London: Francis and John Rivington, 1846), 80-95.

[14] Henry Melvill, The Fall of Jericho: A Sermon on the Extension of the Church in the Colonies and Dependencies of the British Empire (London: Francis & John Rivington, 1848), 26.

[15] “Melvill, The Pulpit Orator,” Christian Parlor Magazine 8 (May 1851): 18-22; on the relationship between belief and mediation, see Michel de Certeau, “Believing and Making People Believe” (177-89) in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

[16] “Sympathy, Christian Parlor Magazine 1 (April 1845): 380.

[17] Ibid.

[18]Andrew Jackson Davis, The Present Age and Inner Life (New York: Partridge & Brittan, 1853), 82-89. See, also, The Principles of Nature, her divine revelations, and a voice to mankind. Edited, with an introduction and biographical sketch of the author, by William Fishbough (New York: S.S. Lyon and Wm. Fishbough, 1847).

Image from Flickr via Priyambada Nath


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