Self-Help and Popular Religion in Early American Culture: An Interpretive Guide

By Roy M. Anker | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Academic Histories of Self-Help

For all the supposed prominence and influence of self-help and individualism in American culture, very few books have dealt specifically with self-help ideologies or American individualism. Nor has any scholar undertaken an adequate, comprehensive history of self-help in relation to American popular religion. This situation is particularly unfortunate. In the last several decades, academic historians have come to modify traditional interpretations, ones still deeply entrenched in popular media and public myth, toward more complex renditions of the American past. While historians have often changed their minds about the origins, shape, and texture of American individualism, in which self-help plays a major contributing part, electronic media commentators, newspaper pundits, and countless academics, including many historians, still unblinkingly accept and even venerate ideas about the American past that have become, at the very least, historically ambiguous. Some of the most important realignments pertain directly to those widespread public understandings of self-help and popular religion in which many of the central themes of older historical accounts have undergone rather severe questioning. A prime example, recounted through two chapters of this guide, involves what has become known as the Protestant Ethic, an idea first set forth by sociologist Max Weber in the early part of the twentieth century. Weber set forth his idea as a speculative model that meant to explore the extent to which religious belief can influence social change. So attractive was Weber's idea to many historians, especially the liberal Progressive historians, that it was readily embraced as fact and has since largely been accepted as a well-established historical certainty in the popular media, amounting now to cliché and shibboleth. Subsequent historical work, largely by social historians of Puritan New England, suggest that there are large

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