American -- the Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America by Paul K. Conkin

Article excerpt

The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum America. By Paul K. Conkin. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1995). Pp. xx, 326. $39.95 cloth; $16.95 paper.)

In this era of margins and rivulets, it is startling to find a survey text on American religious history (or on anything else, for that matter) that so unswervingly pursues a Protestant "center" or "mainstream" Paul Conkin serves up such a volume. Without being cranky, obstinate, or unseeing, Conkin valiantly attempts to define a Reformed center in American religion in the colonial and antebellum periods--one that, however factionalized or attenuated, has survived into the late twentieth century. With all the new ways of "siting" America's pluralistic pieties and practices, Conkin returns to seasoned narratives about Protestant hegemony and offers a fresh, balanced rendering of some familiar, important tales.

After a broad-brush sketch of pre-Reformation Christianity, Conkin sets upon his synoptic account of Reformed Protestantism--a slippery label under which he includes Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Separate Baptists, as well as (somewhat surprisingly) Anglicans and Methodists, but not, for example, Lutherans, Campbellites, or Holiness groups. Conkin's interpretive aims, rooted in intellectual history, revolve around four themes: theology, doctrine, polity, and worship. In giving attention to the first three of these--for example, the New England theology from Edwards to Bushnell--Conkin holds to well-traversed terrain, but in turning to the fourth, worship, he adds a more innovative component to his survey as he scrutinizes the ritualistic texture of revivals or summarizes the High Church/evangelical tensions within the Protestant Episcopal Church. By way of afterword, Conkin is sensitive to the damming or diversion of this "mainstream" through outside competition and internal fragmentation. …