- Culture, History, and the “Religion Concept”
It would seem that now is a good time for scholars interested in American religious history. The field has become increasingly vibrant in recent years, as scholars investigating religion within the United States have extended their studies to include an increasingly broad range of topics, making use of diverse sources and dynamic models. As John T. McGreevy has noted, the study of American religion is among the most creative fields in twentieth-century history. 1 This growth and vitality is reflected in the recent publication of several edited volumes on religion in American history and culture, including the three books reviewed in this essay. 2 According to their editors, the production of [End Page 882] these collections reflects the accomplishments and shortcomings of American religious history; if there is agreement that the field’s rise is “novel and still peaking” (Stout and Hart, 4), then there is also widespread agreement that, even so, “[n]ew stories . . . are needed” (Tweed, 4). In other words, these volumes illustrate the ways in which the very concept of how scholars define “American religious history” is changing as a result of both new scholarship and reinterpretations of old scholarship. As Stout and Hart write, “For better and for worse, religion is at center stage, and the question is where it will all lead.” 3
Yet the picture of “American religious history” that emerges from a comparison of these volumes is fuzzy at best. Some differences no doubt stem from the different composition of these three volumes. While Tweed’s Retelling U.S. Religious History and Stout and Hart’s New Directions each offer a variety of synthetic and historiographic essays that assess the development of the field and point to new avenues of research, Hall’s Lived Religion is an attempt to “advance a way of doing American religious history” through the presentation of new research. 4 But this murkiness about the practice and boundaries of religious history also stems from a deeper difference. Judging by the methods, subjects, and assumptions of the essays that comprise these three anthologies, scholars in the field generally agree that the so-called “Puritan synthesis” is no longer viable and that religious history must take into account the social as well as the institutional and theological dimensions of religious life. At the same time, there appears to be, by the same criteria, substantially less common ground among the authors in these volumes regarding what counts as “religion” or even as “history.” Given the various disciplines of the contributors to these collections (as well as in the field as a whole), these definitional issues raise methodological questions about both the possibilities and prospects of an interdisciplinary study of religion in America and the appropriate strategies scholars should employ to communicate their findings to their audience(s). In short, the ferment, creativity, and fuzziness at the heart of American religious history bears no small resemblance to the current state of American culture studies as a whole, suggesting that these collections—and the serious questions they raise—deserve a sustained look.
Stout and Hart’s New Directions in American Religious History represents an attempt to assess the state of American religious history as a field of scholarship and inquiry. New Directions divides its subject [End Page 883] into four major sections, with three articles on “Protestantism and Region,” three on “The Stages of American Protestantism,” six on “Protestants and the Mainstream,” and three on “Protestants and Outsiders.” These essays are relatively standard historiographic pieces written by major historians (including David D. Hall, Jon Butler, Gordon Wood, John Higham, Daniel Walker Howe, and Susan Juster) that examine and reinterpret historical trends in their particular...