- The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century by Matthew S. Hedstrom
In The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century, Matthew Hedstrom offers a new narrative of twentieth-century liberal religion and of American religious history more broadly by focusing on book culture. Examining the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, he argues that the “popularization of religious liberalism happened largely in and through books” (4). While many recent projects on religion in the twentieth century focus on the rise of religious conservatism, Hedstrom provides a new narrative that identifies how the publication and reading of religious books propagated liberal ideas in both overt and less obvious ways and infused liberalism into middle-brow culture. Similar to how Amanda Porterfield tracks “the persistence of this Protestant-based fusion of spiritual idealism and pragmatic concern” (2001, 5) in the late-twentieth century, Hedstrom’s examination of book culture demonstrates how “religious liberalism flourished beyond the bounds of churches, making this a story of rise rather than of decline” (6). Hedstrom analyzes what he calls book culture—all cultural processes related to the publishing, advertising, selling, and consumption of books—to identify how ideals of liberal religiosity traveled beyond the walls of institutional religious life. In particular, liberal religion’s “claims of universal truth”, often found in the fields of mysticism, mind cure, and psychology, were translated into books (16). These three understandings of human experiences helped liberals cope with the rise of modernism by bridging gaps between religion and science, illustrated most notably by the popularity and influence of Williams James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and other authors’ attempts to make James more accessible to middle-class readers. Later authors and editors like Rufus Jones, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Emmet Fox, Dr. Henry Seidel Canby, Rabbi Joshua Loth Leibman, Thomas Merton, and Frank Laubach are also influential in the narrative.
As the country urbanized and Americans became more educated, religious books emerged as a strategy to provide “a spiritual center in a divided and diversifying country” (35). To transcend sectarian divides, religious books would need to “speak plainly to higher, universal truths” (36) and thus “serve as guides to troubled moderns” (41). Books could redeem modern America, provided that Americans would read them and do so with pencil in hand. As long as a reader was engaged with the text, “proper reading [End Page 137] would lead to self-improvement” (56). Religious Book Weeks and the publication of recommended book lists, like the Religious Books Round Table, embedded religious books into middle-brow culture and provided reading programs in liberal religion for Americans across the country. Book clubs would structure readers and guide them through these lists, thus allowing for liberal ideas to further develop in the home. Though scattered across the country, book lists helped cultivate and unify a liberal religious culture and guided Americans on the path to “personal betterment in matters of psyche and spirit” (71). Additionally, books on mind cure, mystical spirituality, spiritualism, and inspirational psychology indicate liberal book culture’s appeal to spiritual seekers and its ability to bring outsiders closer to the liberal center.
Books on the mind, personality, science, and even religions outside Euro-American Protestantism (such as Hindu meditation as taught by the Vedanta Society) fostered spiritual, practical, and intellectual improvement. What bound these books together was an interest in the essence of religion, which often centered on authentic experience, the sacredness of all humans, and divine beauty. The New Thought movement was brought into the mainstream through books on prayer and bodily health and the affirmation of positive thinking. The success of sales of books like this and their publishers’ survival through the Great Depression attest to their popularity and demand.
The Council on Books in Wartime continued the fight for liberal spirituality during World War II, and the war would lead to “the mass reading environment of the postwar decade...