Isaiah Ellis

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Isaiah Ellis

Area of Focus: Religion and Culture


M.A., Religious Studies, UNC-Chapel Hill
B.A., Religion, Trinity University

Research Interests

  • Religion in the Americas
  • Race and Empire
  • Networks and Infrastructures
  • Material and Visual Culture
  • U.S. urban and cultural history
  • Southern Studies

Professional Biography

I am a Louisville Institute Dissertation Fellow (2021-22) and Ph.D. Candidate in the Religion and Culture track at UNC, completing my dissertation, titled “The Southern Gospel of Good Roads,” while also teaching U.S. urban and cultural history in the History and Geography Department at Elon University.

My research and teaching combine approaches from U.S. history, the study of religion, and contemporary cultural theory to examine how religious and secular understandings of race and space intersect, shape one another, and become contested through the built environment. In my M.A. thesis I examined modernist and commercial architecture in Chicago, detailing religious impacts on the aesthetic forms of industry and commerce. I have since begun to explore the concept of “infrastructure” at points of connection between religious studies, cultural anthropology, urban geography, and United States history.

My doctoral dissertation examines the first modernized roads in the early-twentieth century U.S. South as sites where white and Black southerners constructed new, religiously informed ethical visions for the South after the end of Reconstruction in 1877. It shows how and why early roadbuilding projects found their ideological anchors in ideas of missionization, redemption, civilization, and moral improvement originating in in the Jim Crow South and in religious interpretations of U.S. imperial expansion. It ranges in scope from the large-scale economic narratives of road promotion to the intimate cruelties that Black convict laborers endured and resisted on chain gangs, and from the racial fantasies fueled by the promise of new roadbuilding technologies to the formation of racialized geographies of worship along emerging interstate networks. Even when efforts to fund and build roads in the South failed, as most of them did at the turn of the twentieth century, they–and their underpinning logics–still shaped public understandings of infrastructure as a powerful technology for redeeming lands, bodies, and souls. The project’s central concept, the “southern gospel of good roads,” thus describes an entanglement of religious, economic, and political life in the building of the modern American South and in the national landscapes of white supremacy we still contend with today.


Courses Taught

The City in American History

Place, Space, and Religion

Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Amerca

Religion in America