By Shelby Blair Martens
At first glance, the Anglican women of the coastal communities of Conception Bay, Newfoundland in Bonnie Morgan’s Ordinary Saints: Women, Work and Faith in Newfoundland are very different from the Calvinist farm women of Southern Alberta of my own research. However, Ordinary Saints showed me how despite the obvious differences in region, religion and occupation, the women’s life stories speak to similar themes and situations.
Morgan’s recently released Ordinary Saints uses oral history interviews with Anglican women in the rural communities of Conception Bay, in addition to material culture and archival research, to highlight the impact of women’s lived religion on their labour, and vice-versa, the impact of their labour on their religion. Morgan brilliantly demonstrates that Conception Bay women’s religiosity and feminism often worked together to inform their labour. Ordinary Saints not only builds on scholars such as Lynn Marks and Robert Orsi in the study of lived religion and labour, but also shows the clear need for more work in these intersecting fields.
After benefitting so much from Ordinary Saints, I was thrilled when Morgan agreed to be interviewed about her research and writing process, as well as her goals and intentions for her study. As an oral historian myself, I know the challenges associated with conducting ethical community-based research while balancing academic rigor. I asked Morgan how she handled this delicate line in her own study:
Morgan: “I think this comes down to working from a place of respect. That applies to engagement with the works of other scholars as well as with informants. I believe when looking at other historians’ approaches and interpretations that it is better to stand on shoulders than to step on heads. You may not accept or agree with every interpretation or argument, but you do need to treat those voices with respect. The same applies to the interpretations presented by informants. I would look at their views and experiences in relation to a topic such as family prayer. I would read or revisit the relevant literature. Rather than discount any of it, I would reflect and think about what was going on. What was being revealed in the place where informant and scholarly voices met? Some of the feedback I have received from readers of Ordinary Saints is that it gets the balance right between empathy and empirical rigor, and that they appreciate how it is scholarly yet respectful of belief. That means a lot to me.”
Morgan showed “empathy and empirical rigor” throughout the book, and it is, I believe, a strength of her book that scholars could all strive to emulate.
Considering the difficulties of community-based oral history that Morgan overcame in writing her book, I asked what advice she could give to anyone else conducting similar work on women’s lived religion:
Morgan: “Picture the women you interviewed, their families or interested people from the community engaging with the book and being able to understand and appreciate it. That does not mean throwing away academic rigor but instead thinking about how to express concepts or interpretation in an accessible and engaging way. Embrace contradictions in evidence from different types of sources. They are not difficulties: they are the challenges from which new knowledge and understanding of history emerges.”
Morgan’s delicate handling of personal life stories serves as an example to us all of the beauty in community-based oral history when it is done so with genuine respect and tact.
Ordinary Saints shows how religion, occupation, and location do not necessarily limit a microhistory to its particular area of study, rather, themes and arguments can often be applied more broadly to others in very different settings. I asked Morgan if she considers her work solely a microhistory or if she saw trends or themes extending into other communities:
Morgan: “I hoped to present a model of how to explore and discover lived religious practices in places or among classes of people that could be neglected because they did not leave behind written records. That was a major goal. I wanted to demonstrate the complexity of belief and how employing diverse research methods and sources such as oral interviews, material culture, print media, census data and so on, can help reveal that complexity. Some of what I discovered in Conception Bay fits with beliefs and practices from other communities, some are unique. Perhaps as scholars explore other communities in Canada in this way broader patterns of lived religious beliefs and practices will emerge, or perhaps we will find a pattern of religion being highly informed by local dynamics and expressed in local ways.”
Ordinary Saints shows the power of microhistory studies when they are conducted with a broader community in mind. Morgan’s belief that we may find similarities to her own work in Conception Bay across communities throughout the world has already proved true through my own use of her book.
I asked Morgan what I consider the most important question for any scholar. What contribution did your study make to the community of study, as well as to the discipline:
Morgan: “For me, the most significant contribution to the community was showing how women’s work was central to the social and economic life of the place, including the religious life, and how women had an understanding of their roles in households and in the broader community that did not always match up with prescribed gender expectations. I think the most significant contribution the work makes to the discipline of history is showing the importance of interdisciplinarity and casting a diverse methodological net in order to capture the nuance of experience and agency at the community level. Hidden complexity can be revealed when studies go deep rather than wide. I like to think that my study will lead scholars to rethink the assumption that working people are disinterested in religion, and that it would inspire new research into diverse populations with few written records. I hope it sparks studies of rural and working peoples’ religion and, especially, exploration of the relationship between feminism and Christian commitment.”
Morgan’s Ordinary Saints is sure to become a classic for students of lived religious history and usher in a new generation of women’s studies in which both labour and religion are not written off as solely constricting to women, but rather are studied as complicated factors that women actively navigate and participate within. As shown above, the goals of Morgan’s book were lofty yet they were brilliantly met.
Shelby Martens is a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick who recently completed her MA, entitled, Just a Farmwife? An Intergenerational, Intersectional Study of Women’s Labour on Southern Alberta’s Dutch Reformed Family Farms, 1950-2019. Shelby is now working on her SSHRC funded doctoral project studying Canadian faith-based girls’ groups from the 1960s to 1980s.