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Women, religion, and the Atlantic World (1600-1800).

The field of Atlantic studies has come into its own with the founding of the journal Atlantic Studies: Literary, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives in 2003 and the establishment of interdisciplinary Atlantic studies symposia and programs in the United States and Europe at schools such as Harvard, Rutgers, Louisiana State, the University of Iowa, the University of Liverpool, and the University of Padua. According to the editors of Women, Religion, and the Atlantic World (1600-1800), "Atlantic Studies rests on the premise that the Atlantic basin forms a community bound by economic, political, and cultural ties" (4). They intend this volume to contribute to the growing conversation regarding parameters and methodologies of the field, moving beyond a focuS on the economic, military, and political engines of empire that drove earlier studies. Taking a cultural studies approach, they want to place gender--especially studies of women--and religion at the center of the conversation. Attending to women ' s writings and experiences, they argue, better exposes the significant roles women played in creating a complex Atlantic world. This is surely true. More problematic, however, is the editors' presentation of religion, which appears as a kind of sui generis entity, separate from, rather than thoroughly entangled with, all other aspects of human life and culture: "Religion creates a category of identity sometimes independent of [race, class, and gender] and can provide people with sources of motivation and agency in its own right [A] focus on religion opens our eyes to alternative, nonpolitical ways of imagining space" (7).

Despite this apparent desire to treat religion as a special, independent category, the volume's essays, for the most part, ground the religious motivations and experiences of the women and men they study in the dynamic politics of everyday life. All of the essays use writings by women or about women, somemore focused on literary analysis than others. The book is organized intothree sections. Part 1, "Theoretical Reflections on Women and Religion from an Atlantic Perspective," includes a chapter by Lisa Vollendorf, "Transatlantic Ties: Women's Writing in Iberia and the Americas," that is the most literary of the collection. Vollendorf tracks the common rhetorical strategies (especially that of humility) and themes (such as the fashioning of Catholic femininity) in Hispanic women's writing, beginning in Spain in 1580 and then moving to the Americas about one hundred years later. Influenced by the literary productions of Teresa of Avila, most of the writing occurred in convents, where women were educated and literate and where there was an established institutional network allowing for the transatlantic exchange of texts and ideas. In her essay, Vollendorf provides tables of women writers in Iberia and Spanish America that include titles of their major texts and brief biographical sketches of the authors. These will be eminently useful for other students of Hispanic women's writing between 1600 and 1800.

Part 2, "Negotiating Belief and Ethnicity in the Atlantic Basin," includes four chapters, three of which are about Spanish Catholic America and use varying genres of written texts: records of the Church's interrogations of a woman accused of demonic possession; Spanish and German male-authored hagiographies of holy woman Catarina de San Juan, born in India, enslaved, and sent to New Spain; and court records of blasphemy cases that reveal class and gender dynamics in colonial Mexico. Unique in this section (and the volume) is Jon Sensbach's "Prophets and Helpers: African American Women and the Rise of Black Christianity in the Age of the Slave Trade." Sensbach demonstrates that African slaves on the Danish island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, who had converted to Moravianism through the work of German missionaries, had created an active Protestant community by the 1730s, "a hidden religious world ... in the heart of the violent plantation slavery system" led by "several hundred black Christian women organizing to preserve their spiritual domain" (116). These women wrote or dictated their testimonies of spiritual conversion, which included formulaic expressions of self-abasement and hope for divine mercy. Nevertheless, Sensbach argues, the testimonies may also demonstrate that the women experienced their conversions as a means of ameliorating the degradations of slavery: "Declarations of worthlessness expressed one definition of the self, but women's actions showed a new self-confidence" (123). Owners had outlawed Christianity on their plantations, fearing it would incite slaves to rebel, but Moravian slave women went so far as to write a persuasive letter to the Danish queen, requesting that she require plantation owners to allow their Christian slaves to worship freely, which she did. Freed female slaves traveled from St. Thomas to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (the primary Moravian community in North America), and Germany, and by the 1740s what Sensbach calls a transatlantic black Moravian "spiritual triangle had emerged" (129).

The volume's final section, "Authority and Identity in the Catholic Atlantic," continues the book's primary emphasis on Spanish American Catholicism, with chapters about monstrous births in colonial Guatemala, a Mexican Catholic woman accused of converting to Judaism, witchcraft in New Mexico, and nuns and monks in colonial Peru. Indeed, one drawback of the volume is that it offers only two essays not focused on Catholicism: Sensbach's chapter and Amy M. Froide's study of the religious lives of English singlewomen (Quaker missionaries, Protestant nuns, and "covert" Catholics) during the 1600s and 1700s. That said, the essays' microhistories demonstrate the value of attending to the significant roles women (and men's views of women) played in the creation of the Atlantic world during the early modern period, as they pursued individual lives shaped by the larger forces of empire and conquest. It should inspire similar studies that place women and religion front and center and that also, by following the actual travels of religious women and men, complicate Atlantic studies and expand its boundaries into landlocked Europe and Asia.

Edited by Daniella Kostroun and Lisa Vollendorf. UCLA Clark Memorial Library series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. xii + 354 pp. S85.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Martha L, Finch, Missouri State University
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Author:Finch, Martha L.
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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