Each fall I teach a unit on world’s fairs in my Introduction to American Studies class. I focus on themes of progress and civilization, exploring how and why these interrelated ideas mattered so essentially to nineteenth-century Americans. Fair leaders used the occasions of the national centennial and the Columbian quadricentennial to tell the world their grand stories about the progress of American civilization. To measure progress and define civilization were the great endeavors of the great American fairs of 1876 and 1893, and fair organizers understood only one way to do so—through comparison, to the past and to others.

Such feats of comparison took a lot of work. In 1875, Spencer F. Baird, a renowned naturalist and assistant secretary of the still-young Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, sent expeditions into the West to collect American Indian artifacts for a planned display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. With the US Army still fighting Native Americans in the West—Custer’s “last stand” at Little Bighorn occurred in the middle of the centennial summer—a proposed exhibit of living Indians was rejected as too inflammatory, but agents nevertheless gathered tools, weapons, tepees, clothes, and pottery to cart back east, the ephemera of a people they thought were on the verge of extinction. The exhibition of Indian material culture, chosen (as quoted in Robert W. Rydell’s All the World’s a Fair) “to present savage life in all grades and places,” was placed in purposeful juxtaposition to the massive displays of American industrial and scientific might that formed the heart of the fair. These displays worked in tandem, the so-called savage and civilized side by side, laying in stark relief before the eyes of the world the majesty of American civilizational progress.

“The extreme lowness of our remote ancestors,” observed Charles Rau, one of the assistants who worked on the project, employing a common evolutionary understanding of primitive peoples as the ancestors of the more advanced, “cannot be a source of humiliation; on the contrary, we should glory in our having advanced so far above them, and recognize the great truth that progress is the law the governs the development of mankind.” Or as Joseph Hawley, the president of the United States Centennial Commission, remarked in 1879, looking back at the fair: “comparison is vital to the success of any exposition. You can never discover your success or failure without comparison. You cannot gauge your status without comparison with other nations.”

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and, even more spectacularly, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 reveal the power of the taxonomic and comparative impulses in nineteenth-century America. Imperialism, slavery and segregation, urbanization, social Darwinism—these all led American intellectuals to great labors of grouping, classifying, measuring, and sorting the peoples of the world, projects of racial pseudo-science, phrenology, and innumerable other schemes of biology and culture. Race, nation, and religion were the foremost markers of human difference to undergo such systematic classification, though these were always also implicated in orders of culture, class, and gender. Tracking this cultural and intellectual history has been a vital project of the last two generations of American studies scholarship, resulting in works ranging from George M. Fredrickson’s The Black Image in the White Mind (1971) to Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow (1988) and Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1998).

Michael Altman’s new book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893, ends in Chicago in 1893, at the famed World’s Parliament of Religions, the greatest comparative and taxonomic moment in the history of American religion. This book’s attention to India and religion adds a rich new chapter to this scholarship on the intertwined histories of racial, national, and religious schemes of classification; I am already eagerly imagining the ways I will revise my lectures next fall based on Altman’s work. Others working in American religious history, to be sure, have similarly attended to the histories of religious classification—one thinks of Spencer Fluhman’s book on anti-Mormonism, Curtis Evans’s book on racial romanticism, and Tisa Wenger’s book on the Pueblo dance controversy, for example, in addition to numerous works in the history of American anti-Catholicism. Yet none has explored the taxonomic religious project with the same dead-eye focus as Altman, and none has explored the American history of representations of the religions of India.

In this way, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu makes a signal contribution to the intellectual history of Anglo-American Protestantism and post-Protestantism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like all similar histories, after all, this is a book more about the classifiers than the classified, more about New England Protestants, in this case, than about Indians. Altman makes this clear with his regular use of terms such as “invented” and “imagined”—this is a book about representation, about the Indian (religious) image in the white (Protestant) mind. Altman uses the familiar techniques of intellectual history to accomplish this task, looking primarily at the circulation of ideas in print, including both word and image. He is particularly deft at using the tools of book history, tracing editions across time and space to chart the movement and mutation of ideas and influences. The end result is a careful and deeply persuasive account of how eighteenth and nineteenth-century American Protestants and post-Protestants thought about—invented—the category of “religion” in general, and such related categories as “true religion” and “universal religion” on the one hand, and “heathen,” “hindoo,” and “hindu(ism)” on the other.

While the ever-present and ever-shifting matrix of perceived differences between the religion of India (and its racial and political implications) and the religion of America (also always national and racial) animate the book, in many ways the main fault lines are those between various groups of American Protestants and post-Protestants. As Altman makes clear, the function of Indian religion in the American mind was to help Americans sort out their own differences, differences between Protestant and Catholic, Unitarian and orthodox, evangelical and liberal, Christian and post-Christian.

My favorite character in this character-driven book is Ram Mohan Roy (1772/1774–1833), a Bengali intellectual and reformer who became a minor celebrity among American Unitarians and transcendentalists. Roy presented the religion of India as monotheistic and reasonable, an attractive combination for New England liberals. The immensely talented Roy read and published widely, and by 1817 his writings and translations began to appear in leading New England religious periodicals. “Americans wrote about Roy’s conflict with Calvinist missionaries,” Altman notes, “as if it were the second theater of theological dispute between Calvinism and Unitarianism,” and indeed Roy served as an important point of reference for American intellectuals arguing about Unitarianism, Trinitarianism, and religious orthodoxy. Vedanta also first came to the United States through Roy, and in this way his writings helped Americans like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau establish the trope of the mystic East, a notion that has enthralled generations of liberal and esoteric religious seekers ever since.

Roy comes across in Altman’s telling as a complex figure, eager to enlist American and British intellectuals in his cultural and religious reform efforts even as they enlisted him in theirs. Likewise, Swami Dayand Saraswati (1824–1883), head of the monotheistic reform movement Arya Samaj, briefly collaborated later in the century with Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavastsky of the Theosophical Society before a falling out precipitated by his realization of the vast differences between their vision of India as the source of a universal ancient wisdom religion and his own understandably more particular interests in the specific teachings and texts of his tradition. Indeed, Saraswati more than any figure in Altman’s book reminds me of Ida B. Wells’s protest against African American exclusion from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, or W. E. B. DuBois’s photography exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, efforts of the classified to resist cooptation into the schemes of the classifiers.

In addition to enlivening my introductory American studies lectures, this book will become a staple in the graduate seminars and tutorials I offer on American religious liberalism. While evangelicals certainly looked to India to find examples of sin, filth, and degradation, the comparative agenda of American Protestant liberals, and post-Protestant metaphysical and esoteric liberals, was much more complex, nuanced, and fascinating—and here is where Altman’s book shines. The universalistic demands of American religious liberalism, he shows, conformed the other into its own image just as surely as did evangelistic enterprises, yet more subtly, in the realm of discourse and representation. Altman is careful not to flatten American religious liberals as they might have flattened their subjects—I greatly appreciated his readings of the difference between Emerson’s and Thoreau’s relationships with yoga and the Vedas, for example, and among the various universalists and liberal triumphalists at the Parliament.

Altman concludes his book with an epilogue that asks for scholars of American religion to think more carefully about the category of religion, rather than to assume one knows it when one sees it. This is a welcome call, one I have taken some time to absorb myself, coming into the study of religion as I did from American studies, where religion is not studied with anything near the methodological sophistication applied to race or nation. Altman also hopes to convince historians of the study of religion to write the American experience into the standard German, French, and British histories of the field. This too is welcome. Given the long history of studying representation, taxonomy, cultural hierarchies, and the like in American studies, scholarly resources and models abound to head Altman’s call. Scholars such as Charles Mills and Jonathon Kahn and Vincent Lloyd have shown in recent years how deeply racialized the purportedly universalistic projects of liberalism and secularism are; indeed all claims to the true, the timeless, and the universal warrant historical particularization. Altman’s Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu reveals, above all, how necessary it has become to extend these insights across the study of American religion, and most especially into the history of religious liberalism.