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Religion in American History

Amanda Porterfield and John Corrigan
Published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2010

Historians by nature seek new methodologies in understanding old stories, and this work deftly reexamines a familiar narrative in novel fashion. The story of American religionis generally told chronologically, moving from century to century, or topically, such as examining Puritan communities in New England or Quaker communities in Pennsylvania. Amanda Porterfield and John Corrigan, two prominent historians of American religious history, have reconfigured these standard patterns by skillfully editing a sixteen-contributor work on the religious history of the United States. Contributing one essay each themselves, the editors have collaborated with fourteen other prominent historians in producing a unique and ultimately satisfying work in American religious studies. This unique arrangement of the text promises to offer new directions for future scholarship and uncharted pathways in re-examining an old story through new lenses.

The text is divided chronologically into four time periods, each covering the major “eras” in American history. Part I: Exploration and Encounter (1492-1692) analyzes the early explorers, colonization by the Spanish, French and English, and its impact on Native American cultures. Part II: The Atlantic World (1692-1803) examines the religious diversification and political unification of the American colonies and the rise of the American Republic. Part III: American Empire (1803-1898) analyzes the role that religion played in the formative middle period in American history and how the evangelical juggernaught both triumphed due to its aggressive evangelization, church planting, and benevolent associations, and how it declined due to the increased diversification of American religion, its inability to resolve the slavery question, the rise of religious skepticism, Darwinism and the added strain of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Part IV: Global Reach (1898-Present) examines the era of the “third disestablishment,” whereby the unofficial Protestant establishment in America suffered loss of influence in legal, academic, artistic, and political circles as evangelicals shared more space with non-Christian groups and secularist influences.

Within these four chronological eras, the analysis is further divided into the four overarching frameworks of politics, cosmology, community, and practice. The first, politics, looks at organizational structures in church-state relations. The second, cosmology, examines the worldview and explanatory grids by which religion shapes and provides interpretational strategies in understanding the everyday world. The third, community, analyzes the organizational patterns in which affiliates and members congregated together and formed selective communities of like-minded individuals. The fourth, practice, examines the hands on work of each community such as praying, dancing, rituals, ceremonies, and daily spiritual exercises as members outwardly expressed themselves. As the editors explain, this work can be read chronologically through-and-through or thematically through the lens of politics, cosmology, community, and politics. This selectivity nicely affords scholars the advantage of isolating and mining selective chapters for information without having to read the chapters in sequence.

As the essays by Porterfield, Corrigan, Sarah Rivett, and Tracy Leavelle explain of the colonization period, not only were the varied European approaches to evangelization different, but so were the competing world views and cultural barriers between the Native American and European cultures. No two experiences were exactly the same. The Spanish for example, with large population numbers and greater economic wealth in the Americas, established missions stocked with long-term missionaries who evangelized the Indians through forced acculturation and theological sermonizing. By comparison, the French, reflective of their smaller numerical population and the unpredictive nature of the fur trade, evangelized through isolated outposts and individual missionary efforts. In contrast, New England Puritans established praying towns to improve evangelization and to eradicate indigenous beliefs. However, evangelization was tough going, because Christian doctrines had to be filtered through a tangled web of indigenous belief systems that were often unreceptive, incompatible, or threatening to cultural norms. Native Americans, for example, understood time, the life cycle and seasons as cyclical, whereby Europeans understood time as linear and culminating in the Final Judgment. Native American connectiveness to the land was communal, sanctified, and holy since it was spiritually endowed through ancestral communal possession. Europeans understood land as a commodity to be bought and sold by individuals both to enrich status and to produce economic gain.

The essays of Jon Sensbach, Stephen Marini, Kenneth Minkema, and Martha Finch nicely sum up the transitional eighteenth century born of the Great Awakening, the Puritan ideal that America represented a Second Israel, the French-Indian War, and the subsequent American Revolution in which the former appeared to validate the Protestant vision and the latter a distinctive American one. Native American responsiveness proved equally divided as reflected in the contrasting visions of the acculturationist Seneca prophet Handsome Lake and the more traditionalist Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa. Alongside these political and religious changes were the new intellectual and scientific trends of the Enlightenment, the expansion of scientific and geographical knowledge, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Deistic, Arminian, rationalistic, and liberal theologies that challenged both Calvinistic and confessional theologies.

The essays of Mark Noll, Robert Fuller, Heather Curtis, and Christopher White note the expansionary success of a more voluntaristic and democratic American evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, but also its precipitate decline as its mid-century success was tempered by its mixed record on slavery, heightened immigration pressures, urbanized social and economic concerns, and mounting scientific and literary assaults on Biblical literalism. Although American evangelicalism expanded globally in the 20th century, as noted by Charles Lippy, Kathryn Lofton, Peter Williams, and Candy Gunther Brown, its influence declined internally as Protestant hegemony was challenged in the first half of the century by non-Protestant immigrants for whom America’s vision as a “Christian nation” held little appeal. Furthermore, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed a marked declined of evangelical and Protestant influences in academic, legal, and political circles in what is touted as the “third disestablishment.”

As with all books composed of essays there are a few quibbles, but none that detract from the overall work or individual essays. Charles H. Lippy for example, oversimplifies the complexities of the creation/science controversy by incorrectly dubbing the Intelligent Design movement as nothing more than “reformulated” Creation Science in disguise even though both movements differ in personalities, methodologies, starting points, and overall goals. This is a minor point in his otherwise fine essay, but increasingly an important legal one as evolution/intelligent design cases continue to appear in the courts. Similarly, Robert Fuller equally oversimplifies a complex situation in suggesting that evolutionary science “eroded the entire foundation of evangelical Christianity” (205), and teasingly rehashes the “conflict thesis” of John William Draper and Andrew Dickinson White by suggesting that religion was overwhelmed by the new interpretational framework of Darwinian evolution, thus over-looking how many Protestants reinterpreted the Genesis account of creation in lieu of long ages or failing to note how Darwin himself originally retained a theistic framework for evolution in the Origin of Species. Furthermore, though Fuller correctly notes that the new Biblical Higher Criticism challenged the historical reliability of the Bible, it hardly established its unreliability, in the same manner that Fuller assumes that the plethora of non-western religions undermined “the existence of fixed religious truths” (205), by the mere presence of diversity.

Behind these assertions is the larger assumption that liberal theologies, Higher Criticism, Darwinism, religious diversification and the rise of secularism inevitability overwhelmed an inherently intellectually weak evangelicalism “which had no choice” according to Fuller, but to surrender to the superior reasoning of science, and if not, either drifted into irrelevancy, accommodationism, fundamental retreatism, or religious abandonment. Fuller thus overlooks how many embraced science and religion as mutually reinforcing and compatible. True enough, Fuller recognizes some measure of accommodation, but Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield were more apt measures of the varied directions of evangelical responses to evolutionary theory than the idealism of Horace Bushnell.

In contrast, Kathryn Lofton correctly emphasizes how the science/religion divide is more fiction than fact and more overhyped media drama than real history, and perceptively notes how many Christian intellectuals intertwined science and religion rather than passively dichotomizing the two. Lofton’s most perceptive footnote of the direction of twentieth-century evangelicalism, however, is her positing of Billy Sunday as representative of the emergent fundamentalist movement, and the lingering—and competing—strength of American evangelical religion in contrast to Marcel Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 as representative of twentieth-century secularism that challenged all moral, ethical, artistic, and societal norms. These twin poles represented the directionality of American twentieth-century intellectual life.

In conclusion, this work breaks new ground in utilizing new analytical frameworks in understanding the religious context of the United States. Particularly gratifying is the interweaving of Protestant, non-Protestant and non-Christian bodies in capturing the religious diversity of the American religious landscape. Though this work joins a crowded field of general works in American religious history, Porterfield and Corrigan have aptly contributed a unique volume in this genre, first by rehashing the same terrain through different analytical lenses, and then through chartering new paths for exploration. An overdue contribution, this work should stand as a future model for religious studies’ scholarship and create new interest in American religious history among scholars who have neglected to incorporate American religious life into their subject areas.

Cite this article
Matthew Hill, “Religion in American History”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 236-239

Matthew Hill

Liberty University
Matthew Hill is a Professor of History at Thomas Edison State College, Columbia International University, and Liberty University Online.