Plenary 101: Richard P. Howard Lecture (7:00 p.m., Thursday, September 15)

Title: “Intimate Exposure: The Charley Douglass Daguerreotype and American Religious History” by Dr. Amy DeRogatis, Michigan State University

Abstract: An extraordinary image has been on my mind for about a decade. The image, that sits on my desk, is a printed copy of a digital photo of a daguerreotype of Elvira Eliza Field, the first plural wife of Prophet James Jesse Strang. In the photograph Field is cross-dressed as Charles J. Douglass, or Charley, as Field was called for six months during fall 1849 and spring 1850. Elvira Field, a young Mormon woman from Michigan, secretly married Prophet Strang and travelled with him on an East Coast church mission. Dressed as his fictitious nephew, Field served as Strang’s personal secretary and close confidant during the mission.

It’s certain that Field cross-dressed for six months, but the authenticity and provenance of the daguerreotype remains uncertain. In this talk, I investigate the ways in which seeing operated in this religious group to support believing both the supernatural and the mundane. I also consider how the image worked on me, directing my research and maintaining my interest in the Strangites. The portrait (if authentic) was taken during a transitional theological and sexual moment in the community. Field’s cross-dressed body was at the center of that change. To interpret the significance of the image, I attend to the historical and religious context of early Mormonism, nineteenth-century female cross-dressers, and optical technologies. The story I tell relies in part on conjecture and is shaped by the archive that houses the photograph. It is also informed by conversations around the recently discovered Smith/Larsen daguerreotype. Throughout the talk I will ask the audience to consider what is the power of seeing and holding physical objects for believing, not just for the nineteenth-century Strangite community, but also for religious groups throughout US history.

Biographical Sketch: Dr. Amy DeRogatis is a professor of religion and American culture and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University. She is the author of Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2015), Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier (Columbia University Press, 2003), and numerous articles and essays on religion, sexuality and gender.

She is currently at work on a third book, “Mormon King” about James Jesse Strang and the Strangite community on Beaver Island, MI. DeRogatis is the co-director (with Isaac Weiner, OSU) of the American Religious Sounds Project, a collaborative digital initiative, supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, to document and interpret the diversity of American religious life by attending to its varied sonic cultures.