A Communion of Shadows

Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America

By Rachel McBride Lindsey

312 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 54 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-3372-5
    Published: October 2017
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4967-0
    Published: October 2017
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3648-1
    Published: October 2017
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-3373-2
    Published: October 2017

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit Bookshop.org
When the revolutionary technology of photography erupted in American culture in 1839, it swiftly became, in the day’s parlance, a “mania.” This richly illustrated book positions vernacular photography at the center of the study of nineteenth-century American religious life. As an empirical tool, photography captured many of the signal scenes of American life, from the gold rush to the bloody battlefields of the Civil War. But photographs did not simply display neutral records of people, places, and things; rather, commonplace photographs became inscribed with spiritual meaning, disclosing, not merely signifying, a power that lay beyond.

Rachel McBride Lindsey demonstrates that what people beheld when they looked at a photograph had as much to do with what lay outside the frame--theological expectations, for example--as with what the camera had recorded. Whether studio portraits tucked into Bibles, postmortem portraits with locks of hair attached, “spirit” photography, stereographs of the Holy Land, or magic lanterns used in biblical instruction, photographs were curated, beheld, displayed, and valued as physical artifacts that functioned both as relics and as icons of religious practice. Lindsey’s interpretation of “vernacular” as an analytic introduces a way to consider anew the cultural, social, and material reach of religion.

A multimedia collaboration with MAVCOR—Center for the Study of Material & Visual Cultures of Religion—at Yale University.

About the Author

Rachel McBride Lindsey is assistant professor of American religious history and culture in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University.
For more information about Rachel McBride Lindsey, visit the Author Page.


“A thoroughly researched, trenchant study of Christian America’s use of photographs, as visual and material objects, to construct narratives of personal and religious significance.”--Publishers Weekly

"The overall argument and her theoretical rigor allow Lindsey's analysis of neglected photographic media and their conditioned uses to shine once again and illuminate new paths in the study of religion, media, and history."--Reading Religion

“Lindsey's greatest strength is in her ability to recreate scenes from history. She has scrupulously consulted memoirs, archives, and literature to reconstruct the lived experiences of those depicted in her photographs. She is an engaging storyteller.”--Journal of Folklore Research

“What is eminently clear from Lindsey’s analyses is that photography and photographs allowed Americans to do creative theological, religious, and cultural work that frequently went well beyond the photographs themselves.”--Anglican and Episcopal History

"A Communion of Shadows charts a strong new direction in our historical understanding of religious history. Rachel Lindsey reveals how photography altered and remade religious life in the nineteenth century, becoming intertwined with the depths of human relations and people’s memories, persuasions, and sensual connections. This thoroughly researched and smartly executed study will have a long-standing impact on the study of religion."--S. Brent Plate, author of A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects

"Rachel Lindsey opens up new avenues of investigation by linking photography to religious practice, demonstrating how religious views are shaped by the interaction between material objects and the beholder of these objects. With her sharp insight and impressive research, Lindsey accents, complements, and complicates the all-too-sparse scholarship on photography in nineteenth-century America."--Paul Gutjahr, author of The Book of Mormon: A Biography

Multimedia & Links

A wealth of additional images for A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America is featured in a new MAVCOR Collection online.