American Experience: Religion in America

Article excerpt

American Experience: Religion in America, by Timothy L. Hall. New York: Facts On File, Ine, 2007. 482 pp. $80.00.

Much like American religious history, American religious historiography has changed quite a lot over the past 150 years. From Robert Baird's early classic (Religion in America, 1856) to Syndey Ahlstrom's magisterial (and canonical) magnum opus (A Religious History of the American People, 1972), both the story and the writer reflected the overwhelming demographic and cultural dominance of Protestantism in American society; the subtitle of Baird's work ("An Account of the Origin, Relation to the State, and Present Conditions of the Evanglical Churches in the United States with Notices of the Unevangelical Denominations") and the title of Ahlstrom's last section ("Toward Post- Puritan America") reflect the dominance of Protestant narrators telling a Protestant version of American religious history. By the 1980s, however, not only were non-Protestants feeling confident enough to leave their respective intellectual ghettos to write of the larger story of religion in American history, but they were as a result paying greater attention to the increasingly visible nonProtestants who had been part of the history - but not a significant part of the story - from the beginning. More recently, most scholars working in this area have chosen one of two paths: either they (including Protestants) have innovated in the ways they present the story from multiple vantage points, or they revert back to what is often (ironically) called "church" history - that is, the historical narrative of one institutionally defined religious community - recognizing the great difficulty integrating all of the various trends and movements in American religious history.

Hall's work seems to be an unusual blend. On the one hand, his work is innovative, although less with the narrative than with its visual presentation. Each of the thirteen chapters is made up of 1) an historical essay summarizing events of a particular (usually 20-30 year) period; 2) a detailed chronology of major events in that time period; and 3) a collection of documents serving as "eyewitness testimony" attesting to the events described in Parts 1 and 2 of the particular chapter. Unfortunately, while the historical essays are well written and informative, they cannot do near justice to the richness of detail in even the relatively short period covered. The result is that many of the events listed in the chronology are not included in the historical narrative, and thus appear almost completely out of any narrative context. Second, the "eyewitness testimony" is often taken from other (secondary) sources, and many have been edited, requiring that the reader place a great deal of trust in the author/editor.

On the other hand. Hall's work - possibly because of this innovative structure - replicates many of the historical failings of American religious historiography. The work privileges major institutions, movements, and players - all of which are important, but at the expense of the richness of detail in human contact with the events of American religious history. …