- Religion and the American Nation: Historiography and History
This brief but helpful book contains the inaugural George H. Shriver Lectures, which were delivered by a distinguished interpreter of U.S. religion, John F. Wilson. Wilson's "primary interest is in the historiography of American religion, that is, how the topic has been written about" (p. 3). So it is not surprising that the first two chapters of this three-chapter volume deal with "self-conscious" historical interpretations of religion in America (p. 10). Chapter one traces the history of writing about U.S. religion from the nineteenth century to the publication of Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People (1972), which served as "the culmination of an era" (p. 28). Wilson considers a wide range of interpreters in that era, from Robert Baird and Philip Schaff to Peter Mode and William Warren Sweet. What they shared, he argues, was an inclination to construct an overarching narrative that emphasized "the long shadow of the Puritans." In chapter two, Wilson analyzes historiographical patterns since the 1960's. He suggests that Henry May's 1964 essay, "The Recovering of American Religious History," marked a "transition point" (p. 53). The last several decades have been characterized by two impulses: "One is the approach to American religious history that undertook to make the case that multiple narratives should replace a master narrative; the other is the approach that took seriously studies of religion among social scientists" (p. 33). Wilson ends his historiographical survey by pointing to the importance of "comparative studies" for the future of the field (p. 51). [End Page 346]
In his remarkably judicious account of the historiography, Wilson acknowledges the usefulness of some recent approaches while trying to preserve insights from earlier interpretive traditions. In particular, he aims to "rehabilitate" the term "Puritanism" (p. 4). Wilson proposes that Puritans remain important because they were "the first of many concentrated immigrations" in U.S. history, and that emphasis on migration is "entirely congruent with the broad historiographical preoccupations of the last half of the twentieth century" (p. 55). More important for his argument, Wilson suggests that attention to Puritanism "may display prototypical dynamics for how religion has functioned in American history" (p. 26). Those "dynamics" are his focus in chapter three, where Wilson identifies some "dimensions" of U.S. society that "embody cultural codes that carry the American religion" (p. 71). He emphasizes media practices and consumer behavior: the media evoke "the American Way of Life" just as a visit to the mall can function as "a kind of temple-work of the American religion" (pp. 72-73). He concludes that "American society at the beginning of the twenty-first century embodies a cultural life that includes a spiritual or religious dimension" (p. 73). So as the earliest narratives proposed, Americans do share a great deal religiously, though it is not Protestant beliefs or practices.
Even if some readers might not fully accept the third chapter's provocative conclusion, many will welcome its insights about public religion—for example, the suggestion that civil religion is "episodic" in U.S. history (p. 64). Some readers of this journal might be slow to celebrate the "rehabilitation" of Puritanism as an interpretive theme for inclusive narratives, and they might want more attention to historians of Catholicism and Catholic historians in chapters one and two, even though Wilson mentions the American Catholic Historical Association in a footnote (p. 85). Yet, overall, this is an extremely valuable contribution to the conversation about interpretations of U.S. religion. Not since Edwin S. Gaustad's Religion in America: History and Historiography (1973) has there been a short volume that provides as helpful an overview of the field. This is essential reading for all scholars of American religious history.