The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History

By Sutton, Matthew Avery | The Christian Century, May 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History


Sutton, Matthew Avery, The Christian Century


The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History

Edited by Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum

Columbia University Press, 480 pp., $75.00

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There are probably few reference books that vacationers will drag down to the beach this summer. And though I make a living in academia, there aren't many works of reference that I want to read from cover to cover. I love history because I love stories, storytelling and engrossing narratives--not because I'm taken with the facts, figures and dates that populate reference books. But once I agreed to review The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History I had no choice but to crack the spine. I am glad I did.

The guide, edited by Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum--the former a highly respected and accomplished historian of American religion, the latter one of the rising stars in the profession--provides an excellent overview of many of the most important trends, topics and issues in American religious history.

Harvey and Blum open the book with a comprehensive introduction in which they explain how the field of American religious history, like most historical fields, has both grown substantially and become more fragmented in recent decades. There is no longer an overarching narrative that holds American religious history together. This has "left many readers and scholars searching for reliable narratives as well as resource texts," Harvey and Blum write, and with this volume they aim to fill that need.

The editors suggest some major themes that characterize religion in the United States, including tolerance, intolerance, diversity and pluralism; the tension between religious freedom and repression; issues of race, ethnicity and gender; the relationship between elite religious leaders and laypeople; religion and politics; and national versus regional expressions of faith. These themes provide the foundation on which the rest of the book is built.

The authors of the 20 essays collected here approach their specific topics as well as the themes identified by Harvey and Blum from a variety of angles. As the editors explain, "We have made no attempt to impose artificial uniformity on a field that features fruitfully contending approaches. …

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