A Short Interview with Professor Hillary Kaell

As part of our coverage for the March issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, we are pleased to present a short interview that we conducted with Hillary Kaell, one of the contributors to the issue.

Hillary Kaell is a professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal. Her research examines the history and practice of North American Christianity, particularly how the divine manifests in particular times and places through material objects and commercial practices. Her first book, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage, considers the cultural and religious significance of Americans’ travel to the Holy Land after 1948. We would like to thank Professor Kaell for taking the time to answer a few questions for us related to her upcoming article, “Evangelist of Fragments: Mite-Box Capitalism in the Late Nineteenth Century,” which will appear in the March issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture.

How did you come across the topic of your article?
I had never heard of mite boxes, but they kept coming across my path at the United Methodist Archives (GCAH) at Drew University. I was searching for evidence that women in the Foreign Missionary Society sponsored children in India and China, as part of the research for a book I’m writing about U.S. Christianity and globalism. I am tracing embodied practices associated with globalism so I was struck by the rich ritualization of mite boxes (like the “opening ceremonies” I describe in the article).

What inspired you to write this article?
I realized that there was a really interesting story to tell about mite boxes — which eventually evolved into this article — when I came across an unprocessed pamphlet at the GCAH where a chatty mite box told its story. As someone who is interested in the kind of power that things exert in the world, I was fascinated. These boxes allow us to think a bit differently about the circulation of money as a physical process, and more broadly about the ways people interact with objects that may not at first glance be “religious” (e.g. consecrated) but can still play a major role in the everyday moral worlds that organizes homes, lives, churches, and even global spaces.

Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?
When I mentioned the boxes to archivist Mark Shenise he recalled that there was one tucked away in the archive’s cabinet curios (really, there is an amazing treasure trove at the GCAH. Travel to New Jersey! Go visit!). A couple days later, he managed to dig it up. It was so much more intricately decorated than I expected, and I was hooked — I couldn’t stop googling mite boxes for months to see what popped up on Ebay. That box is pictured in the article.

Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?
I was at the Drew University archives in Madison, NJ a couple times while I was a fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion in 2014. After that I didn’t expressly seek out mite boxes, but I did keep noting them as I continued to research my book. I found examples of them throughout the twentieth century in the archives at Compassion International (Colorado Springs), World Vision (Monrovia, CA), and ChildFund (Richmond, VA), as well as in collections at Stanford and Columbia. I also spent some time going through the ABCFM materials at Harvard, where I got a better sense of the kind of penny fundraising that women did in the period just before I pick up the trail in this article. Now I can’t stop seeing mite boxes outside of the archives too. I looked for UNICEF boxes last Halloween and I always notice them beside cash registers (where I briefly contemplate the invention of cardboard and those little tabs that hold them together–genius!). Right now I’m in Mexico and the village church near my place is open all night: next to the door is a mite box for donations.

Abstract of “Evangelist of Fragments: Mite-Box Capitalism in the Late Nineteenth Century”
A century ago, the mite box (penny collection box) was ubiquitous in North America as a religious fundraising tool, especially for women and children. Using the Methodist Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society as a case study, I ask what these boxes reveal about the intersection of gender, consumerism, and capitalism from c. 1870-1930. By cutting across traditional Weberian and Marxist analyses, the discussion engages a more complex understanding of religion and capital that includes emotional attachments and material sensations. In particular, I argue that mite boxes clarify how systematic giving was institutionalized through practices that created an imaginative bridge between the immediacy of a sensory experience and the projections of social policies and prayers. They also demonstrate how objects became physical points of connection that materialized relationships that were meant to be present but were not tangible. Last, they demonstrate the continued salience of older Christian ideas about blessings and sacrifice, even in an era normally associated with the secularization of market capitalism and philanthropy.

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