Tourist pilgrims at Mission San José in San Antonio, Texas
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Pilgrim or Tourist: How do we know the difference?

Peter Brown loved a road trip. This was common knowledge about the renowned historian of Late Antiquity around the Princeton University History Department in the 1990s when I was on campus (to be clear, I was a graduate student in Religion, although I had much contact with the History Department). Wherever in the world he would travel, Professor Brown made it a habit to get a car and drive himself.

Road Trip to Memphis

So when his daughter came from Britain to visit him, it was no surprise that he would introduce her to America with a road trip. And what more American destination than Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee?

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee
The Graceland mansion, home and burial site of Elvis Presley, a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination in Memphis, Tennessee (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2007)

I had heard this story of Peter Brown’s pilgrimage to Graceland, and when I learned that I would be moving to Memphis, I arranged to have lunch with the eminent scholar who had uncovered the early history of Christian pilgrimage in the ancient world. I remember our conversation fondly. We rambled through the story of his daughter’s visit to America, the trip to Memphis and the tour of Graceland, their stop at Loretta Lynn’s ranch in central Tennessee, and his thoughts on the enduring popularity of Elvis Presley (he related it to the desires of a generation raised during the Great Depression). Most interesting to me were Professor Brown’s thoughts about the differences between pilgrims and tourists.

Pilgrim versus Tourist

As someone who has been thinking about religion and tourism for a couple decades, the differences between pilgrims and tourists is a perennial question. The best answer I have found came from my conversation with Professor Brown. Here is how I explain it in an essay I wrote some years ago (see below for the reference):

The eminent historian of the early Christian world Peter Brown once remarked that the difference between pilgrimage and tourism has to do with the worthiness of the traveler. Pilgrims, he explained, go on their journeys to make themselves worthy to experience praesentia, the physical presence of the saint. They spend days, weeks, months, sometimes years, enduring the hardships of travel in an effort to transform themselves into individuals worthy of the sacramental presence that they experience at their destination. Pilgrims’ travels, at least ideally in Christian practice, amount to an exercise in humility, dedication, and faith. The hardships they undergo purge pilgrims of their worldly pleasures and offer them an ascetic focus on the sacred power entombed in the holy precincts of the pilgrimage destination.

In contrast, tourists travel with an attitude of entitlement. They enter holy grounds as consumers of the sacred, rather than as humble souls worthy of the sacred presence, although, as we will see, many tourists at religious sites delight in consuming the aesthetic experience of sacred power. Caught up more in the logic of modern capitalism than in the ascetic demands of religious exchange, tourists expect an experience worthy of their expenditure of time, money, and energy. Thus, whereas the pilgrim seeks a self worthy of the experience, the tourist seeks experiences worthy of the self.

Of course, the distinctions are both more and less pronounced than this simple characterization suggests. In practice, distinguishing between pilgrims and tourists is no easy task. As anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner proclaim in their book on Christian pilgrimage, “a tourist is half a pilgrim, if a pilgrim is half a tourist.” Yet, Professor Brown’s formulation that distinguishes between becoming a worthy self in contrast to seeking an experience worthy of the self makes much sense. It also sheds light on the different worldviews of medieval Christianity versus modern capitalist consumerism. This too deserves more careful and nuanced consideration, but it raises the question of whether religion in the contemporary world can ever escape the clutches of a consumer mentality. Perhaps we have all become tourists all the time. ♨

Tourist pilgrims at Mission San José in San Antonio, Texas
Tourist pilgrims at Mission San José in San Antonio, Texas (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2016)

[My essay that considers the differences between pilgrims and tourists is “A Touristic Spirit in Places of Religion,” in Faith in America: Changes, Challenges, New Directions, Volume 2: Religious Issues Today, ed. Charles H. Lippy, Greenwood (2006): 37-57. The Victor and Edith Turner quotation can be found in Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives, Lectures on the History of Religions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), 20.]

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