The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict

By Fishwick, Marshall | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict


Fishwick, Marshall, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict. Robert Ellwood. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997. 272 pp.

The Fifties were boom-time for religion. Bestseller lists were crowded with religious titles, and 99% of Americans said they believed in God. Popular religion produced superstars on three fronts: A Roman Catholic (Fulton Sheen), a liberal Protestant (Norman Vincent Peale) and an evangelical Protestant (Billy Graham).

Well-informed and well-intentioned, Robert Ellwood, who began his own ministry in a small Nebraska town in 1957, divides the decade into three periods:

The Years of Dark and Dreaming, 1950-1952 Shadows at High Noon, 1953-1956 Signs Appearing in Heaven, 1957-1959

Having sketched in the major events and themes of these three segments, what does Ellwood conclude? That the Fifties were quiet, confident, but troubled: the last "Modern Decade" in religion. Just what does "modern" mean here? He suggests two metanarratives: that of the emancipation of humanity by progress, and a second of the unity of knowledge. These essences of modernism were best spelled out by Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984). …

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