Historians of American religion have been congratulating themselves of late on the booming state of scholarship in their field. In the past thirty years, according to the editors of a recent anthology, no field of U.S. history “has enjoyed a greater renaissance.” Moreover, what used to be called “church history” was concentrated in seminaries and denominational colleges; today, religious his tory pours forth from major research universities. Mark Noll teaches at Wheaton College, which might be described as pan-denominationally evangelical, but he is an outstanding historian of American religion, and his book confirms the excellence of work being done in the field. Before taking it up, however, a look at the larger picture is in order.
It is certainly true that religious history is booming, but rapid growth has generated some problems too. One is the troubling fact that the new research has had little impact on the writing of general U.S. history textbooks, where religion is still virtually invisible. There is also sharp disagreement over whether personal religious beliefs can legitimately enter into the historian’s scholarly work. For despite the rise of postmodern “perspectivism,” a religious position is not as acceptable as, for example, a feminist stance. However, these issues have gotten less attention than a more diffuse concern about what American religious history really is, and how it should be approached.
The explosion of scholarship itself naturally blurred the boundaries of the field. In addition, more general shifts in American society—racial strife, massive immigration, multiculturalism, identity politics, postmodernism, and a succession of culture wars—abetted “revisionist” tendencies among all historians, including those who work in the field of religion. Some scholars question the idea of American religious history as too narrowly nation-bound, if not offensively nationalistic. Other revisionists deny the possibility of any master narrative, or call for a de-centering that would recast the story of religion in America as multiple stories, most of them previously overlooked.
Virtually all agree that historical scholarship must reflect the fact that the U.S. is a post-Protestant land. Others argue that the recent influx of Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christians—along with the historic presence of Jews and Native Americans—requires giving the religions of these groups something like equal billing with Christianity. The role of women in American religion also claims greater attention. The same is true of “spirituality,” understood as the way religion is internalized and reflected in the lives of ordinary believers.
Where does Noll’s book fit into this picture? In tackling that question, we begin with a quick look at its contents and structure. The Old Religion in a New World, Noll reports, is a revision, expansion, and update of a volume he published a few years ago in Germany as an introduction to the subject for readers in that country. One of its principal aims is to highlight aspects of North American Christianity that distinguish it from Christianity in Europe. To supplement the text, Noll has added two appendices of statistical information on church membership and its regional distribution in the U.S. and Canada, an eight-page chronology of significant events, and a bibliography listing some five hundred books under three major headings and forty-plus subheads.
The contents proper include an introduction, six narrative chapters, five thematic chapters, and a short epilogue. The narrative stresses religious diversity from colonial days on; the hegemonic cultural role of evangelicalism in the early nineteenth century, and its waning influence after the 1830s; the impact of increasing racial and ethnic pluralism after the Civil War; and a mixed scene in the first half of the twentieth century, marked by deep divisions in mainline Protestantism, the impressive growth of Catholicism, and the emergence of new Pentecostal, charismatic, and neo-evangelical impulses. Since the upheaval of the 1960s and the influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, the religious picture has become even more mixed, with conservative Christians taking a more active interest in politics and what Noll calls “charismatic spirituality” exerting a pervasive influence on religion itself.
In situating Noll’s book within the context of recent scholarship on American religion, the most obvious point to be made is that it couldn’t have been written without the flood of new research. In a chapter selected at random, only fifteen of the sixty books and articles cited were published before 1975. It is likewise obvious that Noll has few peers in his mastery of this enormous literature, and in his ability to synthesize it cogently and present the results in lucid and readable prose. His brief but meaty sketches of Christianity’s development in Mexico and Canada provide a useful comparative dimension, and the attention he gives to the views of foreign observers reflects the same aspiration to transcend a narrowly national perspective.
Noll’s emphasis on diversity as a defining feature of the American religious scene is also in keeping with recent interpretive trends. Present from the beginning and nourished by the freedom of action valued so highly in the national culture, pluralism among Christian denominations has reached staggering proportions (there are, for example, twenty-two distinct Orthodox churches, thirty-six branches of Methodism, 241 of Pentecostalism), and produced a bewildering array of church-related or religiously inspired organizations that extends from Bread for the World to the National Catholic Conference of Airport Chaplains. Along the same line, Noll singles out racial and ethnic diversity as a key element in the distinctive development of American Christianity. He discusses African-American churches in considerable detail, and ethnicity gets careful attention in the narrative treatment of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Orthodoxy, as well as in a thematic chapter on religio-cultural assimilation.
Noll takes note of the role played by women at various points in the narrative—most notably in discussing Phoebe Palmer’s influence in the antebellum shift toward inward spirituality and “holiness”—but he does not treat gender as a way of looking at the whole subject. His thematic chapter on day-to-day spirituality is more clearly in accord with the latest thinking. It covers such topics as the intermingling of formal religion and magic, spiritual reading, hymns, and “material Christianity” (that is, the use of religious artifacts). Noll finds that most of these popular beliefs and practices are as characteristic of Christianity in Europe as in the United States. Two, however, he identifies as distinctive to this country: the emphasis on personal conversion, and the salience of the Bible in American history and culture. He links conversion to Americans’ deep respect for the principle of free choice by individuals, and he calls the Bible the only form of religious authority “exempted from America’s profound suspicion of the past.”
While he thus incorporates in his work a number of revisionist tendencies, Noll is quite clearly a traditionalist in terms of aim and approach. First of all, he has no qualms about offering a master narrative—a synthesis that provides a comprehensive and coherent story. True, he presents it as the story of American Christianity, rather than American “religion.” But the Christian story reaches so far into the nation’s past, and is so interwoven in the fabric of national development, that it inevitably comes across as pretty nearly the whole story of American religion. Noll sees the pres ent religious situation as problematic; indeed, he might even concede that “post-Christianity” is a future possibility. But his book leaves no doubt that he would regard historical “equal billing” for non-Christian religions as a gross distortion of the past.
On the post-Protestant question, Noll’s position is more complex. He brings out Protestantism’s overwhelming dominance of the religious scene throughout the nineteenth century, and its continuing importance in the twentieth. He also argues that Protestantism played a centrally shaping role in the broader national culture before the Civil War. He cites here the relevance of the idea of covenant for the polity, and the nice fit between Protestant voluntarism and republican liberty. He even strikes a Weberian note in stressing the point that most of the Protestants of the colonial period were Calvinists of one sort or another. That made a difference culturally because Calvinism tied religious concerns more closely to this-worldly activity than was true of other forms of Protestantism.
But Noll also shows that harmony between the dominant religion and the national ethos could lead Protestants to bless prevailing social trends uncritically, thus inadvertently reinforcing secularizing tendencies. And he readily concedes that America is now a post-Protestant land, if by that one means that Protestantism has long since lost its cultural dominance and, though still quite significant religiously, takes its place today as only one among many traditions of belief.
That might be sufficiently post-Protestant to satisfy most revisionists, but Noll’s efforts to break out of the narrowly national mold would probably be viewed as less satisfactory. The problem here is “American exceptionalism”—which to the historiographically virtuous is a grievous matter indeed. The objection that Noll does not claim that American Christianity is an “exception” to anything would not acquit him of offense, since whatever even squints toward national uniqueness falls under the ban. Noll, of course, explicitly sets out to highlight the differences between American and European Christianity; moreover, purists would probably complain that his sidelights on Mex ico and Canada—despite being in tended to enlarge our horizons—actually serve to reinforce the perception of American distinctiveness.
Noll’s book would be open to objections of this sort, but if made how seriously should they be taken? Not at all, in my opinion. Chauvinism, to be sure, distorts, and must be guarded against. But to make a bugaboo of “American exceptionalism” is just as great a distortion, and it is one to which U.S. historians who came of age since the ’60s are far more susceptible. In the case at hand, Noll draws attention to real conditions and actual developments—most notably separation of church and state, unprecedented religious, ethnic, and racial diversity, and the relative harmony that has prevailed between dominant religious and political principles—that have combined historically to make American Christianity distinctive. Surely there is nothing wrong with that.
This book is a splendid achievement, which triumphantly vindicates the author’s way of combining new historiographic perspectives with a traditional approach. It is the finest introduction to the subject available, and should be read by anyone who wants to understand our national religious past.
Philip Gleason is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.
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