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

By Roy M. Anker | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Introduction

This is the second of two books on the history and historiography of selfhelp traditions within the popular religions of American culture. Separate chapters in the first volume on early American culture surveyed past treatments of the topic: specifically, the celebrated "Weber thesis" in relation to the conclusions of the new social history of New England, the supposed Puritanism of Enlightenment thinker and self-help publicist Benjamin Franklin, and the religious and cultural context for the emergence of the "mind-cure" movement amid the cultural disarray of the early nineteenth century. This successor volume continues that account of the history and the historians of self-help and popular religion by looking at the long debates that have surrounded the controversial messages and movements of religious leaders Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, and Robert Schuller. As in the first book on early America, the focus here is on what historians have written and what they have understood to be salient, distinctive elements in the development and expression of the self-help emphases in America's popular religions. Both books have the common purpose of providing reliable guides, first, to the "facts" of prominent movements and figures, insofar as they can be assessed, and second, to the interpretive debates that have always swirled about ideas, movements, and personalities within America's popular religions. In this regard, this inquiry has eschewed inclusion of a veritable host of self-help popularizers and derivatives to focus on the most prominent and influential events and figures and the cultural settings that gave rise to them. We are, in other words, most interested in what has mattered most in how both historians and the general public have experienced and understood self-help and popular religion.

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