Perspectives on American Religion and Culture

By Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Perspectives on American Religion and Culture


Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr., Anglican Theological Review


Perspectives on American Religion and Culture. Edited by Peter W.

Williams. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. xii + 418 pp. $64.95

(cloth); $29.95 (paper).

As Peter Williams observes in his introduction to this book, historians once assumed it was possible to describe the religious experiences of the American people in a single "master narrative" (p. 2) that placed European Protestantism at its center-an undertaking last attempted in 1972 by Sydney Ahlstrom, who argued that Puritanism was the principal driving force in religion in the United States before 1960. However, despite the breadth of Ahlstrom's intellectual vision and the undeniable depth of his research, scholars have been engaged in exposing the limitations of this thesis over the past twenty-five years. Those who study American religion today generally emphasize its pluralistic, rather than unitary, character. Williams is himself an expert in this field, and consistent with recent academic trends, he has assembled a collection of essays on diverse subjects composed by twenty-seven scholars (some well known, others relatively unknown). The sheer number of articles is impressive, and together they cover a wide assortment of topics related to the history of American religion. Avoiding traditional denominational and hierarchical approaches, Williams groups these essays into seven sections that discuss not great clerical leaders and institutional affairs, but broader themes such as "Popular and Material Culture," "Gender and Family," and "Intellectual and Literary Culture."

Williams believes the volume he has edited will lead "a variety of readers-university students, academics, and a broader public concerned with religious issues" (p. 1) to an appreciation of how religion in the United States is studied in the early twenty-first century. Although he is well qualified to make such a judgment, this book falls a bit short of the goal he has set. Perspectives on American Religion and Culture does contain several excellent articles that doubtless will appeal to the threefold audience Williams identifies: for example, Leonard Primiano's discussion of his visit to a Roman Catholic religious goods store in Pennsylvania; Bill Leonard's firsthand account of biblical interpretation among serpent-handlers in Appalachia; Joan Bryant's analysis of attitudes toward "race churches" (p. 257) in the nineteenth century; and Karla Goldman's look at the role of gender in the design of synagogues in American Judaism. These essays not only examine unusual topics in an original fashion, but they are also extremely well written and engaging. In addition, a number of other articles in this volume will certainly be profitable as background reading to undergraduates and graduate students enrolled in courses on American religious history. …

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