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The American Religions Collection represents a major curatorial division of the University of California, Santa Barbara Library’s Special Research Collections. Its holdings comprise monographs, serials, and archival and manuscript collections primarily relating to new religious movements and splinter groups of larger religious bodies in North America. The core of the collection was assembled by religious studies scholar J. Gordon Melton, and it initially served as the research library for the Institute for the Study of American Religion. For the online project, Religions of America, contributions document two particular strengths of the American Religions Collection: the modern experience of Christian religious movements of American origin, such as Mormonism,* Adventism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses; and the work of nineteenth and twentieth-century religions based on metaphysical traditions, such as Christian Science and New Thought, and Western esoteric movements, such as neo-Paganism. In doing so it draws from collections of manuscripts and ephemera in the case of the former collecting area and from serial publications in the case of the latter.
As noted, the American Religions Collection is closely connected to the Institute for the Study of American Religion, which was founded in Evanston, Illinois, in 1968. However, the research library that stood at the heart of the Institute’s formation had an earlier origin, reaching back to the childhood interests of its founder, J. Gordon Melton. Dr. Melton, a lifelong Methodist whose call to ministry led to his ordination that same year, was fascinated by the religious variety in his native Birmingham, Alabama. In high school, he began to read voraciously on the differences in churches and denominations and has cited Elmer Clark’s Small Sects in America as one of the books that turned his intellectual interest into an impulse to collect.
As an undergraduate, Melton began to see that his hobby of collecting books and other printed material about different religious bodies could serve as the basis for a legitimate area of academic study, which he then actively pursued as a seminarian at Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston. A substantial donation of literature by Mary Yarbrough Clark, the widow of Elmer Clark, whose book had been so influential on Melton, prompted him to establish and incorporate the Institute for the Study of American Religion.
In the press release that had announced the formation of ISAR, Melton stated that the aim of the institute was “to spearhead research and to assist scholars in the study of … [the] …”“over 700 groups in the United States who think of themselves as separate denominational structures. These groups run the gamut of religious phenomena from psychics to snake handlers, from humanists to mystics, from monastics to secularists, from small offices to large temples, from individual cults to substantial denominations,” together representing “[a] vast scope of religion in America [that] has been little touched by the scholars.” Then located on the Garrett campus, the Institute’s nascent collection comprised “over 5,000 volumes … [with] a large collection of periodicals, pamphlets, and file material [to] supplement the book collection.”
A meeting with Marcus Bach, another writer dedicated to understanding religious diversity and ecumenism, the year following ISAR’s founding led to further donations, and by February, 1972, having added 2,000 additional volumes and over 200 serials titles, the library had grown to the point that the basement room at Garrett in which it was housed afforded no more space to permit use of the materials. The rest of the ‘70s saw the collection move several times in search of a suitable location, even spending nine months in a storage locker at one point before the Institute was able to purchase adequate space in a building on Chicago’s North Side in 1980.
Melton’s benefactors had provided an enviable library almost instantaneously, but much of the growth in the 1970s came from collecting contemporary literature and ephemera being generated by religious groups themselves. Early on, the Institute’s single filing cabinet held brochures and other material on approximately 700 small religious bodies, but Melton knew that there were many more to document. Faced with a tight budget, a creative approach to collecting was necessary. Having decided to leave the documentation of the major religious bodies in America to their own archives and seminaries, Melton would, when traveling for work or to conferences, try to meet in person with as many under-documented groups as he could, always asking if they had any literature they would like to donate to the Institute. Far more often, he contacted them by mail. The volume of correspondence, publications, catalogs, and other ephemera in the American Religions Collection is testament to the willingness of so many of these groups to say yes to his requests.
The Institute’s collections had grown by about 10% per year throughout the ‘70s, and by the time it moved to what was supposed to be its permanent home in 1980, there were more than 20,000 books, 400 journal titles, and files documenting over 1,300 religious bodies in the United States and Canada, arranged according to the same religious family-based classification system that had been used to create the Encyclopedia of American Religions.
Though intended to be all-inclusive in scope, the collection had developed some areas of particular strength due to individual donations or research interests and the decision to pursue less aggressively materials from major religious organizations that had established their own archival depositories. Some religious families thus represented more strongly include:
- American religious groups with origins in Asian and Middle Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and Zoroastrianism;
- Nineteenth and twentieth-century religions based on metaphysical traditions, such as Christian Science and New Thought, and magical traditions, such as neo-Paganism;
- UFO “contactee” groups and individuals;
- Religious movements of American origin, such as Mormonism, Adventism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses;
- And mainline American religious traditions that—like those Christian organizations of specifically American origin just mentioned—emphasized the myriad small denominations that split from the main branches of these organizations.
In June 1985 ISAR moved onto the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Dr. Melton, continuing to serve as the director of the Institute, had been named a visiting professor in the department of Religious Studies. This move also provided a new home for the Institute’s holdings, which it donated to UCSB Library in exchange for space, access, and organization. Upon receipt it was named the American Religions Collection and housed in the closed stacks of the Department of Special Collections. Dr. Melton continued to add materials throughout his time at UCSB.
The collection immediately attracted the attention of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. In 1988, Professor Catherine Albanese identified the American Religions Collection, with its strength in the occult and metaphysical traditions, as an important factor in her decision to move to UCSB’s Department of Religious Studies, predicting that “the story we construct of religion in America will be different because of it.”
The collection begun as a hobby has indeed become a major resource for the study of religion in America, known for both the breadth and uniqueness of its holdings, and which now includes more than 35,000 volumes, 5,000 serial titles, and over 1,000 linear feet of archival and manuscript collections. A recent scarcity analysis of some of the more mainstream serials titles found that approximately one third were not found in any other library on WorldCat, and that an additional third were found in five or fewer libraries. Samplings of the book collection have revealed a similar level of scarcity. Melton’s research files—comprising personal communications, unpublished articles, training manuals, correspondence courses, newsletters, and other ephemera—contain some truly unique materials.
The entire collection—books, serials, the files on groups and subjects, and the discrete manuscript and archival collections—were moved once more, this time into Special Research Collections’ three-story, state-of-the-art facilities after its completion in 2016. At the time of the move, the files were resurveyed, rehoused in new, archival quality cartons, and the guide to the collection was updated.
Items from the American Religions Collection remain among the most requested from the Special Research Collections’ twelve curatorial divisions, both in the on-site reading room and through inter-library loans. The book and serials collections, as well as the files on groups and subjects, continue to be open collecting areas to which materials are added regularly, and curators and archivists still actively acquire and process new collections of primary source archival and manuscript materials related to the American religious experience, particularly in the area of new religious movements.
Materials selected for Religions of America, as noted, concentrate on two especially strong areas of the collection: movements within Judeo-Christian traditions that were either founded in America, or significantly shaped by the American experience; and traditions within the New Age movement or Western esotericism.
Whether there is something uniquely American about the impulse to form new religious movements, or whether that impulse was more allowed by American traditions of religious freedom, is the subject of much academic debate. What is certain is that these movements were nascent early on in the history of the United States, largely in the form of religious revivals and the reshaping of established denominations within what can be called the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition. By the nineteenth century, American Christianity had, through the Second Great Awakening, responded to the spirit of millennialism, the belief that the second coming of Jesus Christ was imminent, and that individuals and society must be made pure in preparation.
It was during this period that some of the earliest new groups represented within the American Religions Collection emerged, often influenced by the writings of William Miller, a Baptist farmer from New York who in the 1830s began writing and preaching about the end of the world. Miller based his assertions on his independent study of the Bible, and his followers, known as Millerites, placed a similar importance on personal interpretation of scripture. When the predicted upheaval did not occur in 1844 (designated “the Great Disappointment”), some Millerites formed their own identities and institutions in what is now known as the Adventist tradition. It is from this tradition that Seventh Day Adventists, and, later, Jehovah’s Witnesses, emerged.
Although not a product of Miller’s millennialism, it was during the same period that Mormonism began to emerge in New York, more specifically the “burned-over district” of the western part of the state, so called because of the frequency with which fiery revivalists visited it. It was here that a young Joseph Smith, praying for guidance, claimed to receive visions and visitations from the angel Moroni, gradually revealing the doctrines and writings necessary to found a New Jerusalem in the American West. Like the Adventist groups, the new movement founded by Smith and led west by Brigham Young still exists but has also spawned an array of related organizations over the years through schisms and splinter groups, many of which are represented in the American Religions Collection.
Although the materials from New Age and esoteric groups presented here are largely from the second half of the twentieth century, they, too, tend to have their antecedents in nineteenth century American religious thought.
The Spiritualist movement that emerged in the United States may have had Old World underpinnings in the works of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, but it shared with Adventism a New World emphasis on individualism, as well as a geographical origin in upstate New York, where the Fox sisters—Margaret and Kate—claimed in the late 1840s to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Spiritualism sparked a sensation, prompting the proliferation of books and serials, as well as many practitioners making claims similar to those of the Fox sisters. The rejection of hierarchical ecclesiastical structure, drawing together of disparate influences, the yearning to reach beyond to the millions of lost loved ones in the wake of the American Civil War, and new prominence of women as spiritual leaders represented by the movement certainly created fertile ground for the work of theosophists like Helena Petrovna Blavatsky later in the late nineteenth century and planted seeds for twentieth century neo-pagan religions such as Wicca.
Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, in particular, brought together religious and occult teachings from a wide variety of traditions—not just American or Christian—reflecting the nascent modern globalization during the age of imperialism as well as the growing American popular interest in archaeological discovery around the world. Blavatsky, not surprisingly, would claim that all her teaching stemmed from an ancient, universal system of “secret doctrines” revealed to her by a mysterious, unearthly group of adepts, or Masters. Through its many publications, and eventual splinter groups of successors, Blavatsky’s Theosophy exerted a profound influence, in turn, on the twentieth century New Age movement, particularly with respect to concepts such as reincarnation and the channeling of spirits.
By the 1960s and 1970s, at which point the representation of materials from The American Religions Collection in Religions of America becomes especially pronounced, this influence collides with the legacy of other metaphysical currents. These include such newly popularized works from the other side of the Atlantic from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley, representing practices of ceremonial magic originally promulgated earlier in the twentieth century, and the writings and initiatory traditions of Gerald Gardner, who brought modern witchcraft, now called Wicca, to a broad audience. Although these other “currents” originated in Great Britain, the collision in North America added two relevant factors: the political and social upheaval that was happening among young people, especially concerning feminism and attention to the natural environment; and the establishment of the Institute for the Study of American Religion by J. Gordon Melton in 1968. Melton’s surveys of American practitioners, collection of relevant literature, and connections with the burgeoning leaders and centers would lead to the strongest holding of any research library of Neo-Pagan and Wiccan periodicals of the twentieth century.
There is, of course, more to the American Religions Collection than is contained in Religions of America. In the end, considering how vast The American Religions Collection is—and the fact that materials continue to be added to it on a regular basis—any online project can only brush the surface of so vast an undertaking that seeks to contextualize the modern American religious experience. Scholars and students should know that The American Religions Collection holds far more among its manuscript, monograph, and serial offerings, all chronicling the distinctly American character of the Western Esoteric, Judeo-Christian, and even Eastern Religious traditions—from Shintoism to Buddhism to Hinduism and much more. In this light, Religions of America may well be regarded as the beginning of a journey into the heart of the American religious experience, and researchers and students would be more than welcome to continue this journey at the Special Collections division at the University of California Santa Barbara Library by reaching out to its curatorial staff.
David Gartrell, ‘American Religions: A Curator’s View’, Religions of America, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2019.