The Old Religion in a New World. the History of North American Christianity

Article excerpt

American The Old Religion in a New World. The History of North American Christianity. By Mark A. Noll. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2002. Pp. xii, 340. $24.00 paperback.)

Finding out about a book on how European religion fared in the New World, one can safely expect a "must read" if the author is the one authority on evangelical Protestantism and has also published widely on American religious history as on the history of Christianity in general-and the reader will not be disappointed in his expectations.

What sets the book apart is the emphasis on what is American about religion inAmerica to begin with but also the combination of comprehensive narrative and analytically reasoned treatment of such recurrent if not perennial issues like church-state relations, concepts of pluralism, or the relation, if any, of religious practice and theology.

The first one of these characteristics makes for good reading, because it focuses the story Noll is providing, whereas the second one leads to a book divided or two books in one. The author was aware of this risk and took it deliberately. He "divided" the book as he says between some chapters "offering a sketch of developments in a specific historical period and others attempting a more general interpretation of a major theme or circumstance."

Therefore, one can read seven of the twelve chapters (jumping one that is interspersed and ignoring four others that follow) as a comprehensive but nevertheless wide-ranging description of how the old European forms of Christianity developed in and adjusted to America. One effortlessly follows the author from the period of colonization through the era of national formation that already showed distinctly American religious forms, the nineteenth century, when the Protestant influence peaked, the interwar period of the last century that saw the first cultural wars between Protestant fundamentalism and modernism, to the 1960's when Protestantism at first looked more like "a very rough general category for non-Catholic Christians than a cohesive religious force," and finally the years since, which witnessed"a shifting balance of power among the churches, several new movements of spiritual renewal, and increasing antagonism with some secular elements in the broader culture. …