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Kathryn Lofton

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies, Yale University; courtesy appointments in the Department of History and Yale Divinity School 
Area of Research: U.S. religious history, methods and theories in the study of religion, the history of sexuality 
Education: Ph.D., Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 
Thesis: "Making the Modern in Religious America, 1870-1935", 2005
Major Publications: Lofton is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (University of California Press, 2011). 
Kathryn Lofton JPGLofton is currently working on The Modernity in Mr. Shaw: Fundamentalisms and Modernisms in American Culture. 
Together with Laurie Maffly-Kipp, she has edited An Anthology of African-American Women's Historical Writings from Antebellum America to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2010). 
Lofton is also the author of several peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, including -- with Richard Callahan and Chad Seales -- "Allegories of Progress: Industrial Religion in the United States" in the March 2010 issue of Journal of the American Academy of Religion; "Queering Fundamentalism: John Balcom Shaw and the Sexuality of a Protestant Orthodoxy" in the September 2008 issue of The Journal of the History of Sexuality; "Public Confessions: Oprah Winfrey's American Religious History" in the March 2008 issue of Women & Performance; "Practicing Oprah; Or, The Prescriptive Compulsion of a Spiritual Capitalism" in the August 2006 issue of The Journal of Popular Culture; “The Methodology of the Modernists: Process in American Protestantism” in the June 2006 issue of Church History; “The Preacher Paradigm: Biographical Promotions and the Modern-Made Evangelist” in the Winter 2006 issue of Religion and American Culture. 
Awards: Lofton is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including among others:
She was been named a 2010-2011 Fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University; 
2008-2009 Fellow of Religion and Religious History at the Center for the Study of Religion, Princeton University; 
2008-2010 Young Scholar in American Religion at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.
In addition, she has won a College Arts & Humanities Institute Fellowship at Indiana University; 
2006-2007 LGBT Religious History Award from the LGBT Religious Archives Network; 
2005-2006 Stillman Drake Award for Faculty Development at Reed College; 2005 Students' Undergraduate Teaching and Staff Award, University of North Carolina; 2005 Tanner Teaching Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, University of North Carolina. 
Additional Info: 
Formerly Associate Research Scholar, Center for the Study of Religion, Princeton University, 2008 - 2009; Assistant Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies, Indiana University, 2006 - 2008, and Visiting Professor of Religion and Humanities, Reed College, 2005 - 2006

Personal Anecdote

I found myself in his basement after several overeager e-mails and one short walk from campus. "There are the boxes," he said, apologizing for the appealing squalor. "Use whatever you can find." He smiled, waved a little, and left me alone. This is the loneliness which launched 1,000 monographs, the isolation of papers disordered and waiting. Just for what they were waiting I knew, then: I would have said (as I walked to his house, as I poured through large, long histories, as I sat in undergraduate lectures on the Stamp Act and Mesopotamian agriculture) that the papers waited for our story-telling, for our discovery. On that grey day, I would have said simply: I am doing the work of finding out what has not been found, but needs to be heard.

Several gorging hours later, I had more then I could have hoped to have: not only meeting minutes, but also typescripts of speeches. For a student of African American religions, such transcriptions of ministerial expression are treasure nonpareil. In 1961, I heard a pastor bellow back at the South East Chicago Commission: "Those people over there have got to realize once and for all that Woodlawn is not their private colony." In 1965, I found the same man-president of The Woodlawn Organization, reverend in a growing Pentecostal parish-arguing, "This proposal is based on the long-standing American assertion that self-determining communities, with sufficient resources, can bring their members into the mainstream of American life." Later, in the middle of the summer of '66, he cajoled, "I don't think we ought to get mad. We ought to get smart." Finally, I heard this same man-the subject of my study, the target of my discovery-steam forward with his success, "The greatest danger to an organization is complacency. Let us stick together. If you stick together, you got to win. I'm sticking to Woodlawn." In his notes accompanying this speech, the annotator remarked, "on several occasions, there was loud applause and/or amens."

I think I lived on the pure positivist pleasure of that afternoon for exactly three days. For three days, I felt like the queen of all archiving, mistress of data, and doyenne of detection. I had found what I believed was a critical missing voice in the historiography. I had found him arguing, avidly, against King and his imported political strategies to combat de facto segregation. In one clearinghouse afternoon, I had pulled voices, power, and political consequences from disordered files. There was such a gorgeous cleanliness to my self-satisfaction.

Then, of course, the bubble burst. Running behind in my reading for a class, I flew through an assigned chapter from Michel-Rolph Trouillot's Silencing the Past, one which diagnosed Columbus Day and its peculiar formation. One sentence stopped me, cold: "The naming of the 'fact' is itself a narrative power disguised as innocence." Every historian realizes, at some point or another, that what they do is something may be more interpretive, more imaginative, and more manipulative than chatter of "objectivity" suggests. But when Trouillot named my glee an innocence-and my "discovery" an imperial format-I think I began, finally, to commit to history. Not as a romance with data, or a story to unfold, or a voice to ventriloquize, but as a practice of powerful criticism, one in which we unrelentingly seek the mess, especially when anything presents too easily, too neatly, too logically, to be true.


By Kathryn Lofton

  • From the start, it should be clear: this Oprah is maybe not your Oprah. She is most likely nothing like the Oprah you recollect, the one who hugs and helps and heals the world, one sympathizing smile at a time. For the purposes of this work, the materiality of Oprah Winfrey-her body, her biography, and her singularity-is interesting only insofar as it documents and creates Oprah. Shifting from her to it is not easy, since Oprah is a professionally lovable sort of she. But the move is necessary if we are to know just what it is, exactly, that she sells. Because whatever Oprah is, it will be, in perpetuity, a product. This book examines a person who is also a product, a woman who blends, bends, and obliterates the line between private practice and public performance and whose aesthetics completely ignore what we have historically conceived as a great divide between what is properly religious and what is not. This is the space between the eighteenth-century itinerant preacher George Whitfield and the twentieth-century incorporation of Coca-Cola; it is the charisma between the formation of churches and the formation of empires.  Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon argues that the products of Oprah Winfrey's empire offer a description of religion in modern society. Within the religious pluralism of contemporary America, Oprah extols what she likes, what she needs, and what she believes. These decisions are not just product plugs but also proposals for a mass spiritual revolution, supplying forms of religious practice that fuse consumer behavior, celebrity ambition, and religious idiom. Through multiple media, Oprah sells us a story about ourselves. -- Kathryn Lofton in "Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon" (University of California Press, forthcoming)
  • Divine parallels prove limiting, however, since it was the case that Michael never moved by magic. He invented that stage. He choreographed his dance. He hustled his single-glove wares. In this, he was not so incomparable. Something happened to the celebrity icon in the Eighties. Scholars identify this as a decade of exponential magnification of the paparazzo's lens, and the multimedia diversification which created a new sort of permeating brand identification. But the iconic shift noteworthy here is the differential work ethic. Marilyn and Jackie O. did work, but by the Eighties they seemed rather indolent when posed alongside the laboring stagecraft of other single-name celebrities. Consequentially the icon's eroticism calcified: Ms. Ciccione, Mr. Jackson, and Ms. Winfrey were working too hard to be sexy. Indeed, they worked too hard to be believed. The Eighties celebrity became a machine, one known as much for its handlers and backstage rigging as it was for its productions. The celebrity was no longer the demigod of Olympian descent; it served as its own deus ex machina....
    What is most tugging to those questing for the religious Michael Jackson is not to be found in biography. Rather, it is, always and forever, in the deus of those songs. It is difficult to think of another singer who has produced more music that serves such ritual function, be it Halloween ("Thriller"), peace summits ("We Are The World"), or the midnight club surge ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"). This musician knew how to capitalize upon the liminal gap between fear and pleasure, between acrimony and unity, between exhaustion and electricity, between rape and desire, between genders, between races, and between ages. He performed on the rite de passage. Perhaps righteously, the reporters and detectives found in that wobble foul play. But in the dancing delight of our most sentimental rites-at the wedding, at the middle school dance, or in the child's bedroom-such talk of Michael's molesting grotesque seems sacrilegious. Or it seems to miss the point: the glory of this voice, and the beats he pulled with a snap, was in its denial of this world, of its codes and clarities. The way you make me feel, you really turn me on, he sang. You give me fever like I've never, ever known, and you knock me off my feet. And so it was. And so it ever will be... - Kathryn Lofton in "The Way You Make Me Feel", The University of Chicago Divinity School
  • About Kathryn Lofton

  • Whether in schoolrooms or kitchens, state houses or church pulpits, women have always been historians. Although few participated in the academic study of history until the mid-twentieth century, women functioned as primary translators and teachers, offering explanations, allegories, and scholastic narrations of the past. Though often lesser known that white women in the historical literature, black women wrote textbooks, pedagogical polemics, popular poems, and sermons assessing ancient Ethiopia, contemporary Liberia, the role of the female historian, and the future of the black race. This anthology aims to bring together approximately sixteen writings by African- American women between 1832 and 1920, the period when they began to write for American audiences and to use history to comment on political and social issues of the day. The pieces are by more familiar nineteenth-century writers in black America--like Maria Stewart, Francis E. W. Harper, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson--as well as lesser-known mothers and teachers whose participation in their local educational systems thrust them into national intellectual conversations. Each piece will have a headnote providing biographical information about its author as well as contextual information about its publication and the topic being discussed. The volume will contain a substantial introduction to the overall enterprise of black women's historical writings. Because the editors are both trained in American Studies and religious history, their introduction will particularly highlight religious themes and venues in which these writings were presented. -- About "Women's Work: An Anthology of African-American Women's Historical Writings from Antebellum America to the Harlem Renaissance"
  • Lofton's research and writing on John Balcolm Shaw illuminates the contradiction between living in a society that simultaneously celebrates individual self-expression alongside the propagation of more socially restrictive structures. The Rev. John Balcom Shaw was a prominent Presbyterian church leader in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles who was deeply involved in the intellectual formation of American fundamentalism during the early twentieth century. After becoming president of Elmira College for Women, he was accused of the "crime of sodomy" by a series of anonymous letters posted to local preachers. Although initially discounted by his ministerial colleagues, stories and questions about his “improprieties toward young men” grew. Lofton’s paper traces how a subsequent investigation led to Shaw’s dismissal from ministry in 1918. Lofton uses this case as a point of departure to explore the complexity of early fundamentalism, and the interconnectedness of religious belief and sexual practice. A leader in the YMCA movement, Shaw's life signifies the ambiguity of male relationships produced by this era of "muscular Christianity." Her book-in-progress, The Modernity in Mr. Shaw: Fundamentalisms and Modernisms in American Culture, offers an analysis of the multiple ways modern men formed their identity through emergent institutions and contradictory social values. As Lofton states: "Like any human drama, [this] is a case maddening in its resistance to easy reduction." -- The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network (LGBT-RAN) honoring Dr. Kathryn Lofton as the 2006-07 recipient of its LGBT Religious History Award, for her paper, "Queering Fundamentalism: The Case of John Balcom Shaw (1860-1935)"
  • Top Young Historians' profiles edited by Bonnie K. Goodman