By the Vision of Another World: Worship in American History

James D. Bratt
Published by Eerdemans in 2012

Reviewed by Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, Theology, Boston University

Harvard philosopher George Santayana once wrote regarding religion: “The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in.”1 Santayana’s quotation inspires not only the title of this edited volume, but also the approach taken in seven “case studies” which assume that this “other” world influences—and is also impacted by—the life and experiences (personal, institutional, cultural, and social) of Christian people. Worship, in these essays interpreted as Christian rituals and spiritual/devotional practices broadly construed, is regarded as the primary means by which the “other” world is accessed and engaged; thus, worship practices provide the focus for historical studies on a set of Chris-tian groups in America that represent different times, places, cultural/ethnic backgrounds, and denominations. A single guiding question links these seven studies: how do “worship, work, and worldview” interface in each group examined? In commenting on this common approach, editor (and historian) James D. Bratt notes in the “Introduction”:

The question forced the authors into the familiar pursuit of tracking how Sunday or feast-day carried over into the workweek, but also to follow traffic in the other direction: to see how the workweek shaped the worship. Behind, around, and between those separate flows, it is further assumed, lies a coherent set of assumptions, beliefs, norms, and hopes that frame all of experienced reality and its interpretation. That is, every community works life via a worldview, something larger than worship, though deeply informed by it; something animating and translating work into meaning, while also being nurtured by it. This approach militates against any simple sacred–secular, ritual–ethical, transcendent–immanent, or similar binary divide. It assumes steady interaction in a coherent matrix, both within the believer and within and among a believing community. (3)

The volume is the twenty-third book in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Liturgical Studies Series; yet five of the seven authors of the principal essays do not identify professionally as liturgical scholars or sacramental theologians but rather as historians who focus their work on U.S. history and/or American religious history. This disciplinary choice for the book is intentional, for all seven authors employ the methodologies of historical studies to support the volume’s clear twofold agenda: “to commend, to encourage, and to exemplify the study of worship practices to historians interested in American religion” (1); and to persuade scholars in other fields to consider employing “the historian’s techniques of fully contextual and developmental inquiry” (2).

The two other fields that Bratt explicitly invites into the conversation are (not surprisingly) liturgical studies and also practical theology because of the shared interest in “lived” religion, especially the meanings attached to religious/spiritual activities and experiences. The commitment to this interdisciplinary exchange is concretized by the inclusion of three commentaries, one by liturgical theologian Joyce Ann Zimmerman, who proposes foun-dational principles for liturgy drawn from the seven essays and from wider ecumenical dialogue, and another by practical theologian Dorothy C. Bass, who considers what practi-cal theologians and historians can offer each other in their research and for the purpose of “renewing Christian worship as part of a faithful way of life” (198). The third commentary by George M. Marsden, written from an historian’s perspective, supplies an insightful assessment of the book’s chief essays and concludes with an appeal to historians not to overlook or minimize the spiritual dimension in analyses of religious history. This move toward interdisciplinary engagement is certainly to be lauded. Scholars and students in fields other than the aforementioned will appreciate the material exposed in all ten chapters, though the use of extremely dated liturgical history sources in one essay somewhat spoils the intention of cross-field collaboration with liturgical historians.

While each of the major essays places the ritual practices of a community in its particular context and time(s), various affinities emerge. Four of the texts investigate Protestant “low church” traditions. The different theological and social perceptions of settled and immigrant communities of Calvinist heritage are highlighted in Harry S. Stout’s essay on New England Puritans and in James Bratt’s examination of Congregational and Christian Reformed congregations in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Meaning-filled spiritual places for corporate and private worship that were established in early Methodism especially by women and African Americans are the focus of Ruth Alden Doan’s work. Paul Harvey explores how the African-American “free” experience in Jim Crow Georgia, one that witnessed internal tensions as church leaders negotiated ecstatic worship with more “respectable” forms, was still able to serve as the foundation for what would become the civil rights movement. A wider representation inclusive of Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal groups would, of course, have offered a richer fare; yet the inclusion of two studies specifically on Reformed groups is able to show how Calvin’s descendants negotiated cultural minority and majority status, and also how theological, political, and social factors compelled Reformed congregations in American to change from austere, Bible-based worship practices, to more “liturgical” forms and finally to an eclectic and ecumenical “contemporary” style more or less “Reformed.” Bratt’s findings are similar to those of liturgical scholars who have observed that increasing liturgical formality in certain Protestant denominations is often related (along with other factors) to improving social status.

The other essays offer glimpses into the liturgical, para-liturgical, and popular devo-tional practices of Roman Catholics, with all three authors—for one of their several over-lapping themes—exposing in their investigations how liturgical transitions (in response to socio-political shifts or stipulated by the magisterium) affect the meaning of religious activities and experiences for individuals and their communities. Social, civic, and demo-graphic changes were among those that impacted the religious world of San Antonio’s Catholic Tejanos in the new Texas Republic, yet, as Timothy Matovina observes, the belief systems that undergirded their Mexican Catholic worship traditions were able to sustain them in a difficult environment even as some of those practices (for example, the festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe) took new forms. Michael Woods and Leslie Woodcock Tentler both consider the influence of the twentieth-century liturgical movement in their chapters, with Woods demonstrating the fruitful connections that existed between the theological and social agendas of the liturgical movement (as it took shape in the United States) and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. Tentler provides a reading of the reception of Vatican II’s liturgical renewal as part of her assessment of Catholic life since the 1950s, noting (sometimes anecdotally) generational distinctions in spirituality and devotional practices that are both cause and effect of an apparent disarray in American Catholicism.

Each essay successfully opens a window into the complex interrelations and interactions of worship, work and worldview of a particular community at a particular time and place. Yet as Marsden remarks in his essay, the studies provided here ultimately remain incomplete since in most cases resources are unavailable that would expose the meanings of religious experience for the ordinary worshiper and not just for religious leaders. Even so, the essays in the volume do demonstrate, by means of the historian’s craft, the different approaches taken to live by the vision of another world.

Cite this article
Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, “By the Vision of Another World: Worship in American History”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 305-307

Footnotes

  1. George Santayana, The Life of Reason; or, The Phases of Human Progress, vol. 3: Reason in Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 6; cited in James D. Bratt, ed., By the Vision of Another World: Worship in American History (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 1.

Karen B. Westerfield Tucker

Boston University School of Theology
Karen B. Westerfield Tucker is Professor of Worship at Boston University.