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date: 06 July 2022

Feeling of Emptiness and Religion in Americafree

Feeling of Emptiness and Religion in Americafree

  • John CorriganJohn CorriganDepartment of Religion, Florida State University


As part of a broader turn in humanities scholarship toward emotion since the late 20th century, scholars of religion increasingly have explored how emotion has been a key component in the lives of religious Americans. The relation of emotion to religious ideas has been particularly important in this nascent scholarship. In exploring how emotions and religious ideas are intertwined, scholars have focused on emotions such as love, melancholy, fear, and anger, among others. However, for reasons having to do with the historiography of American religion, as well as with categories that have governed much academic study of religion in America, the feeling of emptiness, which is so crucial to understanding Buddhism, and other Asian religions, has been underestimated for its role in American religions. In America, the feeling of emptiness plays a central role in religious practice, community formation, and identity construction, among Christians (the religious majority) but also in other religious communities. This essay describes some of the ways in which the feeling of emptiness has been expressed in American religions, and in American culture more generally, comments on how it has been joined to certain ideas at various times, and suggests how it has played a central role in shaping relations between religious groups in a society where religion is disestablished. The approach here is eclectic, blending historical narrative with cultural analysis, and the essay proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. Focusing on the feeling of emptiness allows a fresh perspective on religious practice in America, prompts new questions about belief and community, and enables new lines of interpretation for the development of religious ideas in America. Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and other religious communities in America have distinct ways in which they interpret the feeling of emptiness as a spiritual phenomenon. Religious persons often conceptualize it as an emotional experience of great value. Among Christians, it is important as a sign of an emptying of the self of immorality, distractions, and worldly clutter in preparation for being filled with the grace of God. Accordingly, Christians and others in America have developed spiritual disciplines aimed at cultivating the feeling of emptiness and advancing it to a point where deep longing becomes deep fulfillment. Religious practices involving the body include fasting, which is emptying the body of food, and tears, which empty the body of fluids. Bloodletting is also a notable practice, and, for those who do not cut or otherwise make bloody sacrifice (including war and lynching), bloodletting nevertheless is revered as a model discipline of emptying. There are aspects of sexual practices and the performance of work that also are exercises in self-emptying. All such disciplines are expected to prompt and enrich the feeling of emptiness. The severe fast, the deep feeling of emptiness, the desperate longing, the distancing from God becomes, paradoxically, a drawing closer to God. From the earliest settlement of North America, white Europeans and their descendants constructed the emptiness of the land to match the emptiness of their souls. Americans claimed to feel space. They expressed the spiritual feeling of emptiness in ideas about North America as a barren desert, crying to be filled by colonists and their descendants. The Great American Desert, a fiction created in the early 19th century, was one way in which Americans continued to imagine space as empty and themselves, as God’s exceptional nation, as the agents of fullness. American fascination with millennialism was a valorization of the fullness of eternity over the emptiness of history. Millennial movements and communities in America felt time as they did space, and when American Christians felt historical time they felt its emptiness. Americans have constructed elaborate and richly detailed depictions of the end as they look forward to a time when empty time will become eternity, fullness. Christian groups in America, populated by persons who cultivate emptiness, have defined themselves largely by saying what they are not. Both persons and communities, invested in the feeling of emptiness, mark personal and collective boundaries not by projecting into the social world a pristine essence of doctrine so much as by pushing off from other groups. Committed to emptiness, there is little to project, so the construction of identity takes place as an identification of Others. Such a process sometimes leads to the demonization of others and the production of identity through the inventorying of enemies.


  • Mysticism and Spirituality
  • Religion in America
  • Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology of Religion

Although emotion is an important part of American religious history, it is strikingly understudied. Some scholarship, unaware of or lacking confidence in methods for emotions history, has ignored emotion entirely. Other studies have steered around emotion for more complex reasons, reticent to critically parse it out of concern that analysis might discount something believed to be essential and irreducible in a posited “whole” human subject. Much historical writing about American religions, already invested in academic debates about doctrine, institutions, politics, and practices, simply declines to make room for it, unwilling to further complicate already tricky narratives.

When we exclude emotion from stories about historical actors, we limit our opportunities to understand their motivations to act. The inquiry into cause and effect that is central to historical narration is qualitatively diminished when it marginalizes or dismisses emotion. People lose their complexity and historiography surrenders explanatory power when we write emotion out of the world. Religion, especially, is mismeasured when the feelings of persons are not included in the calculus of why people pray, worship, form communities, build things, and make culture. If we presumed in our daily lives that we could understand why people do what they do without considering emotion, we would fail completely. Historiography should be no different.

People feel many things. The limited forays scholars have made into the emotional lives of religious Americans have considered love, hate, fear, guilt, hope, melancholy, and wonder in individuals, and sometimes note as well how those feelings are in evidence as collective emotion.1 Researchers presumably have been drawn to those emotions partly because of their name familiarity. Such names of emotions populate a vast academic psychological studies literature, and they are everywhere in the pages of a highly visible self-help/home wisdom/pop medical/devotional literature publishing industry. But gravitation to the study of familiar feelings risks curtailing investigation of emotions that less often are named. One of those emotions is the feeling of emptiness.

Psychology journals discuss the “feeling of emptiness” in various ways, and often as a basic emotion, or, at least, a raw emotion that is only weakly cognized. Philosophical research, especially recently, has been interested, on the other hand, in the ways in which it is strongly cognized. That is, philosophers who study the feeling of emptiness attend to the ways in which it is intertwined with cognition. In existential philosophy, the “soul-killing boredom” referenced by Jean Paul Sartre and the “fear and trembling” of Søren Kierkegaard were analogs to feeling empty. The feeling of emptiness is present in many cultures according to anthropologist Richard A. Schweder, who suggests the term “soul loss” as a cross-cultural descriptor of the experience of emptiness. Around the world, it is a feeling associated with death, vulnerability, blood stagnated in the veins, cold, and darkness, as well as a missing soul.2 In America, it is central to most Christianities. In Judaism, the feeling of emptiness as a spiritual experience is present—the Old Testament figure of Job represents something of Jewish acquaintance with it—but is not theologized as it is in Christianity. And among American Buddhists, who have grown substantially in number since the late 20th century, emptiness is important as well, although, as in the case of Judaism, it is often represented in ways that differ from Christians and Jews.3 There is some overlap in the ways that Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others understand emptiness and this chapter will attempt to capture some of that. Nevertheless, the focus here is on Christianity because it has been Christians who have exercised their power to shape a dominant culture grown from their own understandings of what it means to feel empty, why that feeling is good, and how communities create identities based upon that feeling.

The feeling of emptiness long has been a part of Christianity. It is easily recognizable in the lives of mystics such as St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and Catherine of Genoa, among a great many others. For such persons, the feeling of emptiness was also a yearning for God, so that the stronger the feeling of emptiness, the more profound a sense of longing; and paradoxically, the further one felt lost in emptiness, the closer in fact one drew to God. Other Christians often thought similarly. St. Augustine, for example, looked forward to the day when God “wilt destroy this emptiness with an amazing fullness.”4

The point of feeling empty was that it prospected fullness. To be filled with God, one needed first to empty oneself. Protestants such as the Rev. Thomas Hooker, the “Father of Connecticut,” maintained that “you must be empty if ever Christ will fill you.” Americans took that message to heart. Each generation found its own ways to elaborate upon it and to protect it as a core Christian practice. When the 19th-century Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White advised her readers to “empty themselves of self,” she intended it as the only means by which to experience “God’s Amazing Grace.” Christians were meant to become empty vessels, a Quaker writer counseling that “we can never ‘draw water from the wells of salvation,’ until we come thither with empty vessels.” Christians were confident that once emptied they would in fact be filled, and many reported their successes, although typically they soon again lamented their emptiness, their deepened longing, and a sense of distance from God. A 19th-century minister’s wife, Deborah Porter of Bangor, Maine, explained that “Oh, can I ever forget the time when, and the place where, Infinite Fullness vouchsafed to notice and bless exceeding emptiness?” But most were at a loss to explain what that fullness felt like, a point made by a Protestant newspaper writer: “The experience is beyond words. Such joy ‘only he who feels it knows.’ … After all, it is full, perfect.” The feeling of emptiness often was similarly hard to describe, and the path of progress toward fullness difficult to plot.5

Roman Catholics in America have valued the feeling of emptiness and like Protestants think of it as a precursor to feeling filled. Christian mysticism, which historian Leigh Eric Schmidt has characterized as being about “lack and loss, an emptied space of longing,” has its deepest roots in Catholicism. American Catholics accordingly were at least as well situated as Protestants when it came to describing their feelings of emptiness and their aspirations to being filled. Protestant converts to Catholicism such as Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker found in Catholicism a rich language to do just that. Later Catholic writers such as Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan likewise drew deeply on Catholic traditions in representing their feelings, the latter in fact acknowledging a debt to St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul in titling a book about 1960s political struggle Dark Night of Resistance. Most important, for the American Catholic side of the history of emptiness, the means to emptying oneself were exceptionally well-developed within Catholicism. Not only were religious ideas and religious language tuned to thinking about feeling empty, but liturgical events and other religious exercises were effective aids to vacating the soul and preparing it to be filled.6

Christians—both Catholics and Protestants—did not wait for self-emptying to suddenly take place. Because it was prized as a measure of progress in coming much closer to God, many vigorously pursued it. They cultivated it through personal means and through participation in religious exercises fostered by their churches. Christians piously reflected on their feelings of emptiness and they prayed for them to be deepened, even as they suffered through the pain of that process, which typically was experienced as a further distancing from God. Christians prayed to be empty, and they engaged in various makeshift intellectual disciplines to supplement their praying. The innovative 19th-century educator Catherine Beecher credited her own homegrown plan for emptying herself as the key to her success in spiritual development: “It was by withdrawing my thoughts and attention from everything else, and by a continued exercise to continue that vacuity and emptiness of soul which is felt when there is nothing to stimulate or interest that I succeeded.” Sarah Pierpont Edwards, the wife of Connecticut minister Jonathan Edwards, was less systematic than Beecher in her cultivation of emptiness, but in her case a feeling of disassociation from the body was key. Moreover, she equated separation from her body with a separation from her own selfish interests. She reported that she had “very little relation to my body … I seemed removed from myself … I have never felt such an entire emptiness of self-love, or any regard to my private, selfish interest of my own. It seemed to me that I had entirely done with myself.”7

Embodied Practice

Sarah Edwards’s sense of her separation from her body was not unusual. While American Christians do not typically report a full-blown perception of existing apart from their body, many have practiced physical disciplines aimed at diminishing the body by emptying it in one way or another. Within the framework of religious feeling, an effort to empty the body was a bid to empty the soul (in order to achieve union with God). Christians have fasted, bled, sweated, shed tears, vowed silence, and formed sexual unions all with emptiness in mind. Performances of emptying the body reflected a desire to empty the self, and were thought to be effectual in progressing toward that goal.


American Catholics and Protestants correlated a purposely empty stomach with an empty soul. To deny food was to deny the self, and to deny the self, amplified longing for God. An essay titled “Soul Starvation,” published in the Christian Observer in 1907, taught that “an empty stomach means physical hunger and physical hunger is sharp … An empty soul means hunger for God and hunger for God is overpowering … a frantic desire to fill the vast emptiness of the soul.”8 Catholics and some Protestant denominations accordingly practiced fasting from colonial times, and in later centuries most other Christian groups also adopted fasting as a devotional exercise meant to empty the stomach, to increase longing for God, and to prepare a person to receive Jesus, “the bread of life.” While the theological backgrounds of American Jews and (later) Muslims did not overlap precisely with Christian thinking, such groups likewise practiced fasting as part of a program to deny the self—often, as was the case with Christians, as part of repentance, an acknowledgement of selfishness and an atonement for it. Just as the day before Yom Kippur is a day set aside in Judaism for self-denial (Leviticus 23–27) and fasting (as is the case with Purim) so also is Ramadan a season during which Muslims fast in order to abet a broader program of self-denial.


Christians emptied the body of blood as part of a plan to empty the soul. While the “empty tomb” of Jesus is a central symbol of Christian faith, it is the image of Jesus crucified, with all of the dramatic episodes of bloodletting in the passion narrative, that has proven particularly inspiring for Christians in America. It is why film director Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked interpretation of The Passion of the Christ (2004) set box-office records in the early 21st century. Americans Christians emulate Jesus, and cultivate the feeling of emptiness, when they shed blood in religious settings.

Taking the lives of self-cutting saints and other Christian heroes as exempla, American Christians have valorized a range of bloodletting activities as markers of progress toward God. Psychologists have observed that extreme fasting (anorexia) is sometimes associated with self-cutting, and especially in women. The bloody self-inflicted wounds of the 14th-century nun Elspeth von Oye and the mystic Blessed Henry Suso represent a zealotry not found among American Christians. That does not mean that self-cutting, informed at a deep cultural level by ideas about self-emptying, does not occur. Psychology and medical journals evidence it for both genders and across age groups. Among Roman Catholics it is related to fascination since the mid-19th century with stigmata, which is described as spontaneous bleeding from those parts of the body associated with the five wounds of Christ. Popular reports of stigmata in 20th-century American Catholics Marie Rose Ferron (d. 1936), Rhoda Wise (d. 1948), and Irving Houle (d. 2009), among others, have attracted much attention and played a role in maintaining belief in the holiness of certain kinds of bloodletting. The widespread American Catholic culture of the “suffering soul,” whose physical afflictions are read as an emptying of the self and the inflow of grace, includes stigmatics, but also others whose wounds—mysterious, accidental, or self-inflicted—bleed. American Christians of all stripes who have engaged in self-cutting and bloodletting have such figures available as models.

The religious components of bloodletting have been more clearly discernible in performances that begin as acts of violence against other persons. Historian Harry Stout, stressing the religious dimensions of the Civil War, has observed how “all battlefield fatalities on both sides of the conflict were termed martyrs.” The Civil War was “a moral crusade with religious foundations for which martyrs would willingly sacrifice themselves on their nations’ altars.” Nineteenth-century religious observers referred to the Civil War, among other wars, as a “sacrifice of blood,” a great Christian mission. But blood sacrifice was also the essence of what historian Donald Mathews called “the Southern rite of human sacrifice.” The crowd that witnessed the public torture and death of African Americans admired their victims even while they destroyed them. They identified with the scapegoat even as they drained that person’s body of blood, a perverse but no less potent an emptying of both victim and mob.9


The American valorization of work as “good honest labor”—a theme ubiquitous in American literature, politics, and education—was, for many, more than a secular platitude. The example of Jesus as a carpenter who sweated when he worked was imitable for the way he made work part of a larger emptying of himself, according to Christian theologies. Medieval monks were known to abide by the adage laborare est orare: to work is to pray. American Christians carried that spirit forward into their own undertakings as part of a worldview that emphasized the importance of emptying oneself in order to be filled. Henry Ward Beecher lectured to young men in the late 19th century: “Work. Let your sweat-drops wash your gains from all dishonesty,” and the middlebrow magazine Christian Work discussed work as the physical extension of the “self-emptied mind to which the grace of God is welcome.” As sweat fell from the body, so, too, did self, in as much as hard work was considered an exercise in humility and self-denial.10

Work was not activity that churches directly regulated. It was a different kind of religious practice than, for example, attending services, reading the Bible, discussing personal morality with clergy, or engaging in formal rituals. It was, however, an activity closely interwoven with all of those. The German sociologist Max Weber argued in the early 20th century that religion and work have been closely intertwined for the descendants of the Puritans. It is clearer now that the diligence, self-control, and fortitude demonstrated in hard work, which were deemed praiseworthy in themselves, were especially important as part of a broader Christian viewpoint about preparing the soul to be filled by God. How work as self-denial, an emptying, became the foundation for the vast accumulation of wealth, personal luxuries, and comfortable indulgences of the self was one of the issues that fascinated Weber, and many scholars since. When 21st-century Christian writers in America publish manuals such as Christ-Centered Selling: A Scripturally Based Guide to Principled, Profitable Persuasion (2007), or Spiritual Capital: Wealth We Can Live By (2004), they draw upon a complex intertwining of ideas about work as self-denial, as emptying of the self, alongside a belief that emptiness brings the reward of fullness.11

Weeping and Silence

Religion scholars have noted the ways in which tears play a central role in ritual, and how they are associated with different kinds of feelings depending on the context. The emptying of the body of “essential” fluids through the eyes (as Derrida wrote)12 has been a standard feature of revivalism in America for centuries and is widely practiced among Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and in many other denominations. Collective weeping, what the Methodist leader Francis Asbury called “weeping on all sides” at camp meetings, has been especially noticeable as a core aspect of the dramatized “death of the old, birth of the new” in born-again religion.13 Tears emptied the soul so it could be filled with grace. The teary Passion Week devotions of Roman Catholics, and Muslims’ crying during salat, among other instances, are similar cultivations of emptiness. Roman Catholic statues of saints weep as well, modeling piety for those pursuing emptiness. For Catholics and some other Christians, blood, sweat, and tears sometimes are mixed in a multilayered representation of the emptying of the religious body. Just as Jesus sweated blood anticipating his crucifixion (Luke 22:44), statues and people are said to shed bloody tears on occasions.

Silence empties the throat of words. Americans across the religious spectrum have practiced silence as part of their piety. Among Christian denominations, Catholics, Anglicans, Quakers, and Episcopalians have deep traditions of silence, especially during important occasions set in the religious calendar. The majority of Protestant groups, while not as historically committed to silence as Catholics, nevertheless in the late 20th-century began to promote it widely as meditative prayer. For all such groups, silence was self-denial and a wish to be filled. It was a prayer that brought one closer to God even as it cultivated the feeling of emptiness. When the 20th-century Catholic writer William Cunningham proposed that “silence indicates the absence of God … God as absence,” he captured something of the paradox of the feeling of emptiness, in that he identified the practiced distancing of oneself from God as equally an approach to God.14


In some South Asian religions, the emptying of sexual fluids from the body has important devotional meaning for the actors involved. In America, the case is different. Christian sensibilities historically have legislated against discussion of sexuality—except to conserve received meanings of sexuality—and certainly have not ventured into any association of sexual fluids with religious devotion. Accordingly, there has been little interest in representing sexual fluids leaving the body as a religious practice of emptying the self. Some Christian writers, and especially Protestant writers from the late 20th century onward, nevertheless have offered interpretations of sexual behavior as a complicated process of self-emptying that is at the same time fulfilling.

Protestant writers after 1960 who commented on sex generally sought to indicate how Christian sexual behavior (i.e., between a married man and woman) incorporated prayer-like exchanges with God during the sex act. They proposed that “loss of self” in that process was a key ingredient to holy sex. But they asserted that couples experienced a “filling up” as well. Summarized in 2010 by the popular manual Sexy Christians: The Purpose, Power, and Passions of Biblical Intimacy, sexual relations between a man and a woman led to a performance of emptying and filling that involved a man, a woman, and God. In other words, Christian performance of sexual congress “transcends our natural self-centeredness and moves us to lose ourselves in the depths of a relationship with ourselves and our God.”15 But even then, such a threesome, an experience of delight at being filled, was a prompt to grasp the meaning of an even deeper emptying of self, because “love-making, is exceeded only by God’s self-abandonment on a cross, the complete giving over of Godself in self surrender.”16

The Emptiness of the Desert

Americans have often claimed that they could feel not only emotions such as love, anger, fear, hope, and jealousy but space and time as well. The psychologist and philosopher William James, early in his career (and before his empiricism became pronounced), proposed that persons experienced space through “the spatial feeling,” a “sui generis” and “peculiar” kind of feeling that enabled persons to understand space as a category and to apply it to their daily experience. Although that “intuitionist” approach declined among philosophers, theologians and churchgoing American Christians retained it as part of their theologized understanding of the world. American Christians continued to “feel” space alongside wonder, joy, or disgust. They felt the space of the North American continent, their churches, homes, prayer closets, and bodies. Oftentimes, they felt the emptiness of those spaces.17

The Puritans who settled in New England felt the New World as a “desart,” an empty, howling vastness, unmarked and placeless. Rarely did they recognize Native Americans as inhabitants of that world, in the sense that they took them to be insignificant or meaningless figures in a larger cosmic blueprint for the Christianization of America. New Englander David Brainerd’s report that “the world is a vast empty space” captured the depth of the feeling about space among Puritans. It also represented something of the Puritan projection of the feeling of emptiness onto the American continent. Puritans constructed the land as empty to match their experience (often idealized experience) of the emptiness of their souls. Feeling empty, they imagined a land likewise empty, and they decorated their images of the land with signifiers of its vacancies: horrid, squalid, dismal, desolate, barren, and bleak. Historians noticed that, partly because their own investment in the ideal of emptiness guided their own understandings of American history and accordingly kept Puritan complaints about the empty desert familiar to their ears. Many followed in 20th-century Puritan scholar Perry Miller’s footsteps when he characterized American history as “the massive narrative of the European movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America.”18

As Americans moved West they continued to feel the emptiness of space. They expressed that feeling of emptiness in the invention of the Great American Desert. When Jefferson reported to Congress on the Louisiana Territory in 1803, he mentioned its “trackless deserts” and a “salt mountain” a hundred and eighty miles long that had not a tree or shrub on it. Zebulon Pike shortly thereafter described the “sandy, sterile desert” that was like “the sandy deserts of Africa” and on which “not a speck of vegetable matter existed.” By 1820, the Long Map had emblazoned across the face of a map of the middle of the continent, “Great American Desert.” By the 1830s the meme was firmly established in geographical accounts and in maps. Timothy Flint’s geographical overview of 1833 typically observed that the land mass west of the Mississippi “may be likened to the Great Sahara of the African deserts.”19

The idea that the land was a Great Desert remained a central part of American understanding of the geography of the continent up to the end of the 19th century. Explorers in the Southwest, Northwest, and California for a time crafted their reports of the land to correspond with the feeling of emptiness that Christians so valued. Religious publications such as the Friend’s Intelligencer, in the meantime, fed the image back into an established narrative about exploration of the continent and the Christian experience of emptiness, instructing that “the world is a vast Sahara, a vast desert full of pilgrims that are way-word and weary.” The message, at bottom, was always that emptiness preceded fullness, however. The 19th-century Sabbath-school advocate Mrs. Joanna Bethune spoke for many others when she wrote: “I am like an owl in the desert—a pelican in the wilderness. I feel empty of everything.… Come, then, Lord, take complete possession of my heart.”20

An important part of American religious history concerns the rise and ongoing popularity of revivalism, and of Protestant evangelicalism in general. The religious ideas of evangelicals have been subjected to many analyses by historians and theologians—including evangelical scholars—but little has been written about the importance of the feeling of emptiness in born-again religion. It may be that it has been taken for granted, or been too close to see clearly, or just not considered relevant to dominant narratives about Protestant history in America. Until the recent emotional turn in humanities scholarship, there have not been many examples for how emotion can be studied as part of religious history, and that likely has played a role in scholars’ overlooking that aspect of evangelical religious practice. Nevertheless, scholars have commented on some of the spatial aspects of evangelical history in a way that invites joining those observations to an emotions history focused on the feeling of emptiness.

Historians have remarked on how colonial era revivals sometimes were held in open fields rather than in churches or indoor meeting halls. George Whitefield, who carried with him a portable pulpit, was known to set it up in the middle of a pasture on the edge of a town, drawing a large crowd out from their houses and places of business into a territory that was in-between the structured culture of town life and the woods and uncultivated fields that lacked the rhythms and organization of town life and that was conceptually defined as such. That liminal setting—neither town nor country—was a place of emptiness, experienced as vacant, hollow, not really culture and not really nature. It was space that was well-suited to Whitefield’s sermon messages of the need for complete self-denial, of emptying the self of everything, before rebirth was possible. The case was similar with the woodsy camp meetings of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So also, the urban revivals of Billy Sunday and others in makeshift tabernacles on the waterfronts or in the railway districts of cities took place in liminal space. Later the televised revivals of Billy Graham and the electro-evangelists—the electronic medium reinforcing the sense of emptiness for the solitary figure sitting beside his or her radio or television—arranged religious space as the mirror of the empty soul. Revivals often took place “nowhere,” meaning that persons attended them as if they were populating a desert space, waiting for the saving inflow of Christian grace.

Did men and women think that women felt space differently? A common way of thinking about women among Christians in America was as empty vessels. Christians imagined women waiting to be filled by God with grace, virtue, and moral sense. In many cases, that understanding could be applied to men as well. For women, however, insufficiency and absence were foregrounded to a degree that enabled a distinguishing of women’s bodies from men’s, and fostered the occasional notion that women’s souls likewise were characterized by their particular lack and were in urgent need of being filled. In other words, the gendering of Christian space typically rested upon the understanding that women were empty spaces. The Christian home, the domestic domain of women, often was gendered feminine, as was the prayer closet, the place where men and women both—but especially men in their escape from the “public” world—settled themselves down to pray. There were exceptions to such gendering, but feelings of emptiness generally were joined to thinking about women as empty spaces, and the places women lived and worked—especially the home—were rendered as spaces where the “world” and its selfishness were left outside. Men and women both embraced the home and the prayer closet therein as places to be empty.

History, Eternity, and Apocalyptic

American Christians felt time like they felt space. What the 19th-century Congregationalist minister Charles Beecher called “a feeling of time” made possible, he explained, the “common measure of time.” That shared sense of minutes and hours, and the movement of time in general, wrote St. Louis philosopher Denton Snider, was in fact the “Cosmical Sense of Time” that was “like the soul itself.” Orestes Brownson, echoing the Kantian intuitionism of his 19th-century peers, employed the common academic terminology, emphasizing “the transcendental intuition of time.”21

Feeling time was not a matter of merely letting intuition guide one down a certain path to understanding. American Christians, in fact, felt at least two kinds of time. They felt history, the time of the world and the humans who lived in it, and they felt eternity. The feeling of historical time often was the feeling of the emptiness of time, a feeling of loss, hollowness, and pointlessness. Worldly time was time without meaning or purpose, what some called “secular time.” Even though it was felt, it was not of much use ultimately in temporally framing truth, beauty, or meaning. Eternity, on the other hand, was, in the phrase common throughout American Christian history, the “fullness of time.” Eternity, in fact, was paradoxically not only the fullness of time, but timelessness. It was felt as both a complete emptiness of time and as hyperabundant, fully realized time. Eternity was idealized as the perfect dialectic of emptiness and fullness.

Americans, feeling the emptiness of historical time, sought the fullness of time. Their mission was as well the paradoxical pursuit of the timelessness of eternity in as much as historical time was judged to be filled with the meaningless artifacts of secularity. They sought eternity through apocalypticism, which they created and fostered with extraordinary enthusiasm throughout the history of Christianity in North America. Wishing for the end of historical time, American Christians invented scenarios for just that. Borrowing from centuries of Christian millennial traditions, they fashioned narratives about the translation from historical time to eternity and decorated their plots with prophetic timelines, symbols, good and evil characters, visions, tragedies, and slaughter.

Catholics in New Spain, long before the Protestant settlement of the Atlantic seaboard, embraced in innovative religious practice the story of the Virgin Mary’s appearance at Guadalupe. The transition from a more orthodox Spanish apocalypticism took place that year, 1531, and grew rapidly among Spanish Catholics throughout the region. The “Woman of the Apocalypse”22 became a central part of the piety of Spanish colonial era Catholics and informed the devotions of millions of American Catholics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as migration brought Catholics northward to the United States. Marian apocalyptic also developed in Catholic communities where other ethnicities predominated. Twentieth-century American Catholic communities rooted in Euro-American immigrant traditions provided the settings for visions of Mary—and her prophecies of impending doom—in Kentucky, Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois, California, Arizona, and elsewhere. During the 1970s to 1990s, Veronica Lueken kept her crowd of followers in Bayside, Queens, informed about scenarios that Mary imparted to Lueken in regular visions. Lueken emphasized that during the approaching end times the faithful—“their hearts, theirs souls, are empty”—would “pass through the veil” into a realm where “time is endless.” Marian apocalypses in the United States addressed in such manner the transition from an empty heart to the fullness of time.23

Protestant interest in apocalypse was more pronounced than among Catholics, occupied a more central place in their thinking about emptiness and time, and was represented in more dramatic and colorful terms than was the case for Catholics. Protestants felt the end approaching in almost every community and through every generation. The historian Avihu Zakai argued that America was founded on a Puritan “apocalyptic dramatic vision of the removal to America” from England. Early New England literature cultivated that vision, to such an extent that, as Puritan scholar Baird Tipson observed, that literature “reeks with apocalyptic.”24 From Cotton Mather’s dozens of writings about the approaching end and Jonathan Edwards’s notes for the timetable of the coming millennium, to a blossoming multitude of apocalyptic sects and movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, American Protestants, feeling empty, imagined salvation in eternity. Condemning the false fullness of the world—a world that filled the soul with the meaningless detritus of secular time and therefore left the soul empty of what it really needed—they looked forward to an eternity of extravagant time, of time so full as to be indescribably luxuriant.

Jemima Wilkinson (d. 1819), a Quaker evangelist, urged her followers in New York to “feel it daily and mortify that which remains in any of you, which is of the world.” She expected an imminent end to the world, as did her counterpart, Mother Ann Lee (d. 1784), leader of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Lee’s community, which earned the nickname Shakers, embraced her reports of her travel out of historical time into eternity, where she met with various divine personages before crossing back through “the veil” into history. Preaching self-denial and aspiration to be filled by God, Lee, through her time travels, acquired the title “the woman of the Apocalypse,” her prophecies the Protestant counterpart to the Marian visions of Roman Catholics. Millerites, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups followed, broaching similar schemes of escape from the emptiness of historical time into the fullness of eternity. Preachers such as Dwight L. Moody, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson offered their own brands of apocalypticism, gaining strong followings among persons who, as Graham said, had rejected history and the hopeless effort of “trying the fill the empty spaces with other things.”25 People of color, on the other hand, were less attracted to such messages, their lives structured within what Mark Hanchard called “racial time.” African Americans enslaved on plantations, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggested, already lived “outside of time” because they had no free time, no freedom to schedule their own activities, including religious life, and because their calamitous everyday lives already were situated on the edge of apocalypse. Moreover, the program of cultural erasure, direct and indirect, that informed the enslavement of Africans allowed little room for denial of a presumed “self” within that extratemporal framework.26

The Emptiness of Language

For many American Christians, to feel is to believe, and failure to feel forecloses the possibility of believing. Christians in America tend to trust feeling and sidestep doctrinal details. The feeling of emptiness is conclusive experiential evidence that can locate a person within a religious practice. Doctrine, on the other hand, is constructed of words, and words themselves are often empty, so that no matter how artfully arranged, empty words make empty doctrines.

Distrust of words as empty signs is powerfully interwoven with personal experiences of emptiness. Christians who feel empty might arrive at a distrust of words in various ways, but a cultivated familiarity with the cautionary advice of Ephesians 5:6 enabled the coalescence of that distrust: “Let no man deceive you with empty words. For because of these things, the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience.” Roger Williams of Rhode Island had warned early New Englanders that “wolves covered only with sheepskins” will “prate of Scripture, and speak brave swelling empty words as Jude speaketh.” American Christians of all stripes subsequently evidenced various degrees of distrust of words, and the cumulative effect of that could be seen in the early Republic, in the broader cultural anxiety about words. Renewing and enriching previous European traditions of distrust of language, Americans between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War produced literature, according to historian Thomas Gustafson, that actually “called upon its readers to distrust language as an instrument of representation.” In religion, that was fully evident in Christian sermons, popular publications, theological tracts, and academic scholarship. Alongside the denominations, new religious movements, grown out of Christianity or otherwise informed by it, likewise preached wariness of empty words. On the fringe of Christianity, writers delivered equivalent messages of distrust. Mary Baker Eddy taught that words were hollow and illusory and her Christian Science Journal worried about “truth-empty belief” while her contemporary, Madame Blavatsky, a force in the emergence of the Theosophical Society, argued that “it stands to reason, that life and death, good and evil, past and future, are all empty words.”27

Because empty words led to empty doctrines, doctrines were always suspect. Doctrines yet played a central role in the formation of religious communities. The Methodist Advocate could remind its 19th-century readers that Jesus “had cast out the Pharisees magic and their empty doctrine”; George Fritschel, a Lutheran, could complain about “the empty doctrine of Zwingli”; and the Protestant Episcopal Church Bishop Charles Pettit M’Ilvaine could protest that the medieval Roman Catholic Church promoted “empty doctrine” under the glossy surface of which there was “nothing left but a name.” But religious leaders, preachers, and writers at the same time sought to persuade persons of the truth of the doctrines that informed their own brands of Christianity. That effort to persuade was made more complicated still because evangelists’ suspicious oversight of doctrine not only always broached the possibility of undermining their own words, it had to address and disarm another kind of distrust, the self-doubt of Christians, which was deeply ingrained in much American Christianity since colonial times, and as such severely framed the whole messy business of belief. When the Mormon leader James E. Talmage recommended “actions, not empty belief,” and the Unitarian Joseph Allen declared that religion “means something more than the empty belief in God,” they laid down a wager, and it was a risky one, betting on their audiences’ judgement about their trustworthiness as religious leaders.28

A crucial articulation of Christian ambivalence about doctrines as assemblages of empty words was the “Dissertation on Language” published by Congregational theologian Horace Bushnell in 1849. Bushnell argued that religious truth simply could not be expressed in language, contending that “there are no words, in the physical department of language, that are exact representatives of particular things.” Such a claim, while asserted in purportedly productive conversation with philosophical and theological scholarship in America and Europe, buttressed popular understanding of the tenuousness of doctrinal statements. In a culture where persons already distrusted words, it reinforced a sense of the emptiness of religious doctrine, and, in the wake of Bushnell’s emphasis instead on the role of “poetic language” in theological statement, additionally bolstered the reliance upon feeling as the pathway to truth. The feeling of emptiness accordingly had the effect of an acid that corroded the reliability of doctrinal statements and at the same time underwrote feeling itself as the grasp of religious truth. One measure of the extent to which such views were ascendant among American Christians was the vigorous opposition mounted in response to them. Charles Hodge, the de facto leader of Reformed theology, at Princeton, directed a point-blank challenge to Bushnell’s ideas by strenuously arguing for literal meaning of words in the Bible, writing, “the inspiration of scripture extends to the words.”29

Emptiness and Identity

American Christians since the early Republic have found themselves in a difficult position socially because of their valorization of the feeling of emptiness and their cognizing of that feeling through bodily practice and thinking. The central problem, phrased as a question, has been: How do religious persons know who they are, what their identity is, if their religious practice is aimed at erasing their identities? The intellectually developed and ritually enabled process of denying what was conceptualized as a “self,” of emptying that self to rock bottom so that God might fill it with new life undermines the task of identity formation. The problem is particularly tricky with regard to collective identity. Groups whose membership is steeped in cultivated feelings of emptiness are themselves at a disadvantage in coalescing and projecting identity. The collective ideal of emptiness, and the various details implied in that—distrust of language and wariness of doctrine being especially important—undermines efforts to state clearly what a group is, what it means, what it stands for, what its core credo is.

With some exceptions, American Christian groups historically have chosen to define themselves as much by saying what they are not as by saying what they are. In many cases, that attempt at self-definition in the negative has been the predominant means of drawing the boundary lines required for marking religious community. In 1891, Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf observed his fellow Americans who were Christian, hoping to understand how they differentiated themselves from each other as members of religious denominations. “After long search and study,” he wrote, “I find it easier to tell what Christianity is not, than what it is.” Krauskopf, enumerating various Christian groups, concluded that Protestants, Catholics, Calvinists, Swedenborgians, Episcopalians, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and Unitarians “indignantly and emphatically declare that” each of the others is not truly Christian.30 That observation, which was reported by many other Americans as they studied the Christian religious landscape, summed up the predicament of Christians when they attempted to form themselves into groups and maintain group cohesion. In the atmosphere of vigorous competition for members that followed in the wake of the constitutional rule against establishment, religious groups discovered an exceptionally rich field of opponents against which they could seek to define themselves. In America, among Christians who felt empty and liked it that way, the search for opponents and the condemnation of them as inauthentic in their Christianity became the method by which denominations marked out who they were. In short, Christian groups constructed identity more by pushing off from other groups—whom they sometimes attacked as heretical or demonized as truly evil threats to the nation—rather than by projecting a pristine core or quiddity.

Further Reading

  • Corrigan, John. Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

A study of the ways in which Christians in America have cultivated the feeling of emptiness and how that expression of their piety has shaped American culture with respect to body, space, time, and language.

  • Cushman, Philip. “Why the Self is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology.” American Psychologist 45.5 (May 1990): 599–611.

Explores the early 20th-century emergence of intense focus on the “empty self” and the ways in which it is “filled up” with food, consumer products, and celebrities. Critical analysis of how psychology as professional practice has collaborated in the construction of the empty self and its role accordingly in reproducing the current hierarchy of power and privilege.

  • Shweder, Richard A. “Menstrual Pollution, Soul Loss, and the Comparative Study of Emotions.” In Culture and Depression: Studies in the Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Psychology of Affect and Disorder. Edited by Arthur Kleinman and Byron Good, 182–205. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Examines the ways in which the feeling of emptiness is expressed in different cultures, through language and the somatization of feeling.

  • Streng, Frederick J. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning. Nashville: Abingdon, 1967.

An overview of religious ideas about emptiness with emphasis on South Asian texts and religions.


  • 1. Examples of different kinds of approaches are Robert C. Fuller, Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Julius H. Rubin, Religious Melancholy and the Protestant Experience in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); and Philip J. Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America (New York: Knopf, 1977).

  • 2. Richard A. Shweder, “Menstrual Pollution, Soul Loss, and the Comparative Study of Emotions,” in Culture and Depression: Studies in the Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Psychology of Affect and Disorder, eds. Arthur Kleinman and Byron Good (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 182–205.

  • 3. On emptiness in Buddhism and its relation to Christian ideas, see John Corrigan, Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 17–19.

  • 4. St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. and ed. Albert Cook Outler (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002), x. 43–44.

  • 5. Thomas Hooker, The Soules Humiliation (London, 1640; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1981), 145; Ellen G. White, Gods Amazing Grace (n.p.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1973), 230; “Self-Emptiness,” Friend’s Review 17 (1864): 452; and Deborah H. Cushing Porter, “Diary of Deborah H. Porter, April, 1838,” in Memoir of Mrs. Deborah H. Porter, ed. Anne T. Drinkwater (Portland, ME; Sanborn and Carter, 1848), 78; “This Sunday School. Second Quarter. Lesson VI,” Christian Advocate, April 27, 1899, 674.

  • 6. Leigh Eric Schmidt, “The Making of Modern ‘Mysticism,’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71 (2003): 294; and Daniel Berrigan, The Dark Night of Resistance (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971).

  • 7. Catharine Beecher, “Letter to Dr. Beecher, New Year, 1823,” in Lyman Beecher, Autobiography, Correspondence, etc. of Lyman Beecher, Part 4, ed. Charles Beecher (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1865), 502; “Mrs. Sarah Pierrepont Edwards: Narrative of Personal Experience,” Circular, July 4, 1870, 126. Her account, edited by her husband, Jonathan Edwards, was included in Sereno Dwight, The Works of President Edwards: With a Memoir of His Life, Vol. 1 (New York: G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830), 171–186.

  • 8. “Soul Starvation,” Christian Observer, February 27, 1907, 5.

  • 9. Harry S. Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (New York: Viking, 2006), 405, 72, 454, 82–83, xxi, 249–250; and Donald G. Mathews, “The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice,” Journal of Southern Religion 3 (2000).

  • 10. Henry Ward Beecher, Seven Lectures to Young Men (Indianapolis, IN: Thomas B. Cutler, 1844), 14; Christian Work Illustrated Family Newspaper, 66, January 5, 1899, 867.

  • 11. Christ-Centered Selling: A Scripturally Based Guide to Principled, Profitable Persuasion (Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2007); and Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall, Spiritual Capital: Wealth We Can Live By (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2004).

  • 12. Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 126–127.

  • 13. Francis Asbury, The Journals and Letters of Francis Asbury, 3 vols., eds. Elmer C. Clark, J. Manning Potts, and Jacob S. Payton (Nashville: Abingdon, 1958), 3:433, 324, 415, 341–345.

  • 14. Lawrence S. Cunningham, The Catholic Experience (New York: Crossroads, 1985), 65, 73.

  • 15. Diane Roberts and Dr. Ted Roberts, Sexy Christians: The Purpose, Power, and Passion of Biblical Intimacy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010), 168.

  • 16. Adrian Thatcher, God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2011), 112.

  • 17. William James, “The Spatial Quale,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 13, ed. William T. Harris (Saint Louis, MO: G. I. Jones, 1879), 68, 66–67.

  • 18. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956), preface, i. Miller, for his own reasons having to do with a certain understanding of the Puritan theological vision that he sought to explicate, preferred the term “wilderness,” which appeared throughout early New England writing. “Desart” (or variant spellings) appeared almost as often, but carried with it a different kind of emphasis, and one that did not comport with Miller’s grand view—or the views of many historians who followed him. Thomas Brainerd, The Life of John Brainerd (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Publication Committee, 1865), 62.

  • 19. Thomas Jefferson, “Description of Louisiana. Communicated to Congress, on the 14th of November, 1803,” in American State Papers, Miscellaneous, 1:344, 345, 346, online at American memory; The Southwest Journals of Zebulon Pike, 1806–1807, eds. Stephen Harding Hart and Archer Butler Hulbert (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), 126; The Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike, vol. 2, ed. Donald Dean Jackson (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 27; Richard H. Dillon, “Stephen Long’s Great American Desert,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 111 (1967): 95, 103; and Timothy Flint, History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley (Cincinnati: E. H. Flint, 1833), 459.

  • 20. “A Cup of Cold Water,” The Friends’ Intelligencer, May 25, 1867, 180; Mrs. Joanna Bethune, journal entry for March 26, 1827, in Memoirs of Mrs. Joanna Bethune, by her son, The Rev. George W. Bethune, D.D. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1863), 159.

  • 21. Charles Beecher, Spiritual Manifestations (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1879), 96–97; and Denton J. Snider, Feeling Psychologically Treated, and Prolegomena to Psychology (Saint Louis, MO: Sigma, 1905), 75, 72.

  • 22. David A. Brading, Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe: Image and Tradition across Five Centuries (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 153.

  • 23. Quotes are taken from the collected messages on the Baysiders’ Our Lady of the Roses website.

  • 24. Avihu Zakai, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 134–135; and Baird Tipson, “Review of Avihu Zakai, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America,” Church History 63 (1994): 632.

  • 25. Jemima Wilkinson, Some Considerations, Propounded to the Several Sorts and Sects of Professors of the This Age (Providence, R.I.: Bennett Wheeler, 1779), 88, 75, 81, 92; Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations, and Doctrines of Mother Ann Lee and the Elders with Her (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons, 1888), 206, 216, 9, 1, 189, 175, 4, 13, 5; and Billy Graham, Storm Warning: Whether Global Recession, Terrorists Threats, or Devastating Natural Disasters, These Ominous Shadows Must Bring Us Back to the Gospel (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 163, 109.

  • 26. Mark Hanchard, “Afro-Modernity: Temporality, Politics, and the African Diaspora,” Public Culture 11 (1999): 254–255; and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 100–101.

  • 27. Roger Williams, George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes (Boston: John Foster, 1696), 92; Thomas Gustafson, Representative Words: Politics, Literature, and the American Language, 1776–1865 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 4, 33, 43, 143; Samuel Greenwood, “Wisdom and Foolishness,” Christian Science Journal 33 (October 1915–March 1916): 375; and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy, vol. 3 (Madras, India: Vasanta Press, 1952), 488.

  • 28. Ralph W. Wyrick, “The Tragedy in Life and Its Break,” Methodist Review (September 1913): 794; George J. Fritschel, The Formula of Concord: Its Origin and Contents (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1960), 51; Charles Pettit M’Ilvaine, Righteousness by Faith, 3d ed. (Philadelphia: Protestant Episcopal Book Society, 1868), 411; James E. Talmage, “Knowing and Doing,” in The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star 12 (Manchester, U.K.: Parley P. Pratt, 1850), 374; and Joseph Henry Allen, “The Two Worlds One,” Unitarian Review and Religious Magazine, April 1883, 310.

  • 29. Horace Bushnell, God in Christ: Three Discourses (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1876), 43; and Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (London: Thomas Nelson, 1871), 1: 164–165.

  • 30. Joseph Krauskopf, “A Sunday Lecture before the Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, January 4, 1891,” in Jewish Converts and Perverts, vol. 1, True and False Converts (Philadelphia: W. Goodman, 1891), 11.