Modern Christianity to 1900

Article excerpt

Modern Christianity to 1900. Edited by Amanda Porterfield. A People's History of Christianity, vol. 6. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007, Pp. v, 348. $35.00.)

In the sixth volume of A People's History of Christianity, editor Amanda Porterfield weaves eleven essays into a work whose surprisingly tight thematic cohesion belies its global scope and three-hundred-year chronology. Modern Christianity to 1900 uses the concept of modernization to connect popular religious experiences. Associating modernization with the phenomenal social, cultural, and political changes effected in the modern period and defining it as an "enthusiasm for rational explanations of life that privilege individualism, nationalism, scientific enterprise and strategic planning," Porterfield situates the volume at the nexus of modernization and Christian cosmology - at the place where seemingly timelessly-eternal truths encountered the rapid-fire change of the modern world (1). Focusing on the many changes that transformed life after 1600, the volume emphasizes how "Christian beliefs and practices mediated changes in the lives of ordinary people" (1).

The essays in Porterfield's collection emphasize Christian interaction with modern change in a variety of ways. In "New Ways of Confronting Death," Carlos Eire describes popular Christian responses to the individualization and secularization of death in the four centuries following the Reformation. Eire contends that eighteenth century skepticism increasingly separated death from Christian beliefs in an afterlife. Despite these changes, Eire notes the persistence of traditional spiritual views of death as manifested in Catholic confraternities, the Sacred Heart Movement, evangelical revivalism, and nineteenth-century spiritualism.

John Corrigan's essay, "Economic Change and Emotional Life" describes the theological and emotional implications attending the development of capitalism. Deftly arguing that emerging capitalism unleashed initial emotions of uncertainty and guilt that gave way to self-assurance, Corrigan shows that a community's view of God changed as their involvement with capitalism increased. Initially fearful of an unknowable and distant God whose relationship with humanity mimicked the capitalistic elongation of human relations, emergent capitalists grew more comfortable with their economic system and reimagined their God in more approachable terms.

Douglas L. Winiarski's essay, "Religious Experiences in New England" examines the changing nature of the Congregationalist conversion process from the lengthy, anxiety-filled "confessions" of the seventeenth century, through the formalized, creed-like statements of the early eighteenth century, to the emotionally charged, yet self-assured, "experiences" of eighteenth and nineteenth-century evangelicalism. The changing nature of how and why New Englanders underwent conversion underscores the emotional and theological mutation of Congregationalism over three centuries.

The theme of emergent, modern individualism also informs the Marilyn J. Westerkamp's essay, "Gendering Christianity." Tracing changing views of gender over three centuries, Westerkamp demonstrates ways in which Christian women - including Quaker prophets, evangelical preachers, pastor's wives, nuns, reformers, and missionaries - worked both within and outside the cultural restrictions of gendered identities to exert individual agency in religious affairs.

Peter Gardella's essay, "Controlling and Christianizing Sex," traces ecclesiastical views of sexuality manifested in seventeenth-century clerical attempts to control parochial sexuality. Importantly, Gardella describes Christian attempts to repress human sexuality as largely unsuccessful. …