Book Review: Major Problems in American Religious History, 2nd edition

By November 30, 2012

Major Problems in American Religious History, 2nd ed. Documents and Essays edited by Patrick Allitt. Major Problems in American History Series. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013. vii-xx, 519 pp.

Patrick Allitt (Emory University) has updated the American religious history volume in Wadsworth/Cengage’s Major Problems series for 2013 – the original edition was published in 1999, so a second edition was long overdue. And it turns out that it was worth the wait, if you can swallow the $95 price tag. Like others in this series, MP in American Religious History (MPARP) has a fifteen-chapter format designed to integrate easily into a college course and follows a roughly chronological outline through US history. Each chapter presents a collection of primary source snippets (and really, that’s all they are) followed by short excerpts from interpretive essays by scholars and suggestions for further reading. Allitt notes in his preface that about a third of the content is new to this edition; I’ve appended the table of contents to the bottom of the post if you want more details and to comment on what–and who–are included (What? No Mary Rowlandson? No Fox Sisters? De Tocqueville gets in twice, as does Gustav Niebuhr, but no Reinhold Niebuhr? No Benevolent Empire, Tract Society, or Foreign Missions? Nothing from interracial Asuza Street? Where is televangelism? Phyllis Schlafly? Jerry Falwell? And women of color seem particularly conspicuous for their absence) – yet for all that, the work is remarkably broad-ranging and inclusive without being too disjointed or scattered, and the array of included scholars would make a good starting point for any budding religious history scholar’s orals reading lists.

I’ve had MPARP on hand for a few months, sent to me as a review copy by my Cengage rep, and although I had it in time to consider using it in my current fall course on American religious pluralism, I decided against adopting it for student use. I wasn’t conducting a mainly chronological survey of American religious history, so the book’s basic structure didn’t suit my purposes this time around. That said, having a reader with thoughtfully selected excerpts like this can be a real help in the classroom. But compiling a reader that would satisfy everyone is, of course, impossible. Some would probably see the absence of editorial framing or suggested discussion questions as a plus, while I judge it a liability. The excerpts themselves are chopped so much that they are nearly unrecognizable, and making them nearly all equally 2-3 pages long has either a democratizing or a flattening effect, again depending on your perspective (though I suppose there’s no other way, to get all this material into under 520 pages). And I have to say I find the “headline”-style titles for the primary documents hokey and often anachronistic – although the well-initiated might have fun playing “guess that document” from the titles alone.

One thing I wish this series would include is some visual material – it’s a densely packed text, full of… just text. One longs for a single photograph, cartoon, map, etching. something. It’s a shame that there isn’t room for a comparison of vernacular religious architectural styles, or a gesture towards the rich visual legacy of images and media that religion in America has generated.

I observe that as the collection advances closer to the present time, that we get these religious perspectives more often in third, rather than first person – i.e. “Journalist X introduces us to Promise Keepers,” rather than the testimonial of a PK member himself. And also the notable negative slant of many of the verbs: these documents “Fear For,” “Warn Against,” “Denounce,” “Reject…” – which leads me to wonder, where did the joy get lost along the way? A non-religious student (like the majority of mine) might be justified in coming away from a collection such as this shaking her head and wondering why ANYONE would adhere to something so contentious, divisive, and which causes so much friction and misery in American history. And on some level, who can blame her? Few of the documents, especially few of the later ones, contain anything of the mystery and hope/wonder that religion can foster in its believers. The end result is somewhat bleak, or maybe I just have end-of-semester jaundice. There seems to be little to celebrate. I suppose it’s the tradeoff for taking the hagiography and sugar-coating off religion, and to portray something of its vast diversity especially in cultural encounters (which rarely end up with everyone around the campfire singing Kumbaya) – that religion itself begins to look a heckuva lot less appealing and more like a massive national problem that requires explaining. Right, I know – that’s the POINT OF THE SERIES. But I can’t help but contrast it with, for example, the book I’m reading now with my students, Diana Eck’s A New Religious America. Her book has its own shortcomings, to be sure, but at its core it celebrates the rich messiness of our current American religious landscape and conveys a swirling hum of activity, connection, and community from sea to shining sea. One doesn’t get the same lingering impression from a reader that carves up that richness into digestible bytes which just talk past one another and no way to tie them back together. That’s the task of the skilled adopter of this text – to get students to make those connections as they work through all this raw material together. Just be aware that little of that integrative work is present in MPARP’s text itself, as strongly curated as it is.

Table of Contents

1. Approaches to American Religious History

Philip Schaff, “Religious Vitality and Church-State Separation”
Alexis de Tocqueville, “Religious and Political Freedom Benefit Each Other”
Ann Braude, “Women’s History Is American Religious History”
Roger Finke and Rodney Stark “Church Membership Has Increased Throughout American History…”

2. European-Indian Encounters

Bernal Diaz del Castillo Describes Cortes’ Replacement of Human Sacrifice with the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1519)
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish Castaway, Becomes an Indian Healer (1542)
Joseph Jouvency, a Jesuit Priest, Discusses Death and Hell with Canadian Indians (1610)
Roger Williams Explains Rhode Island Indians’ Language and Religion (1643)
Mary Jemison Describes the Five Feasts by Which the Seneca Marked the Changing Seasons (1750)
Tecaughretanego Explains why the Great Spirit Sometimes Permits Men to Go Hungry Before Feeding Them (1758)
John Heckwelder Describes the Delaware Indians’ View of Bear Spirits (1750)
John Muir Witnesses the Conversion of Thlinkit Indians to Christianity (1876)


Daniel Richter, “Iroquois Ideas About Creation, Spirits and Reciprocity”
Denise and John Carmody, “Traditions of the Eastern Woodlands”

3. Religious Life in the British Colonies 1620-1775

John Winthrop Outlines His Plan for a Godly Settlement (1630)
William Bradford Sees God’s Mercy and Judgment in New England’s Changing Fortunes (1654)
Cotton Mather Advises John Richards on Detecting Witches (1692)
Jonathan Edwards Describes the Great Awakening in Northhampton MA (1738)
Nathan Cole, Connecticut Farmer, Hears the Preaching of George Whitfield and is Born Again (1741, 1765)
Benjamin Franklin Explains His Religious Views in a Letter (1756)
Charles Woodmason Struggles with Backcountry Carolinians


Perry Miller, “The Puritans’ Errand into the Wilderness”
Annette Laing, “Africans and Christianity in Colonial South Carolina”
Christine Leigh Heyrman, “The Beginnings of the Bible Belt”

4. Religion and Revolution, 1775-1795

Abraham Keteltas Preaches on the Godly Justification of the Revolution (1777)
Jonathan Boucher’s Loyalist Sermon Denounces the Revolution (1775)
Anthony Benezet, Quaker, Denounces War (1776)
Isaac Backus and the Baptists’ Dilemma (1773-1783)
Thomas Jefferson Establishes Religious Freedom in Virginia (1786)
The Federalist on the Benefits of Pluralism (1788)
Lucy Wight Meets Shaker Leader Mother Ann Lee (1780, 1826)


George M. Marsden, “Religion and Revolution”
Thomas Kidd, “How the American Revolutionaries Agreed to Differ Over Religion”
Stephen Marini, “How the Revolution Stimulated New Religious Movements”

5. Religion in the Early Republic 1790-1850

Peter Cartwright, Frontier Methodist Itinerant (1810)
Charles Grandison Finney Stirs Up Religious Emotions at Revival Meetings (1835)
Joseph Smith Explains How an Angel Guides Him to Found the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (1842)
Ralph Waldo Emerson Describes the “Over-Soul” (1841)
Anonymous Ex-Slave Sees the Ghost of Her Dead Master (1850)
Henry Bibb, A Slave, Uses Conjuring to Prevent Harm and Attract Women (1849)
Samuel Ringgold Ward Escapes from Slavery and Becomes a Minister (1820, 1855)


Jon Butler, “Awash in a Sea of Faith”
Albert J. Raboteau, “The Slaves’ Own Religion”

6. Immigrants and Reformers, 1830-1860

Alexis de Tocqueville Sees Catholicism and Democracy as Compatible (1835)
Maria Monk Shocks Protestant Readers with Allegations of Sex and Violence in a Nunnery (1836)
John Francis Maguire Recounts the Suffering of Irish Catholic Immigrants (1846)
Benjamin Roth Warns His Emigrant Son, Solomon about Moral and Religious Dangers in America (1854)
Angelina Grimke Uses the Bible to Justify Abolishing Slavery (1838)
Frederick Douglass Compares Southern Slaveowners’ Religion with that of Jesus (1845)
Thornton Stringfellow Argues that the Bible is Proslavery (1860)


Charles Morris, “Catholics and Urban Violence”
Eugene and Elizabeth Fox Genovese, “Slaveholders and the Bible”

7. Religion and the Civil War, 1861-1865

Chaplain Gregg Describes the Union Army at War (1862)
William Bennett Describes the Revivals that Swept the Confederate Army (1877)
Thomas Wentworth Higginson Witnesses the Religious Life of Black Soldiers (1864)
George Barton Remembers a Pious Irish-American Nun Nursing the Wounded at Shiloh (1863)
Bishop Quintard of Tennessee Ministers to Two Condemned Deserters (1863)
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural (1863, 1865)
Isaac Lane, a Freed Slave, Becomes a Preacher (1865)


James Moorhead, “Civil War as Battle of Armageddon”
Daniel W. Stowell, “Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God”
Steven Woodworth, “While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers”

8. Religion, Temperance, and the New Immigration, 1880-1925

Charles Sheldon Compares the Abolition of Alcohol to the Abolition of Slavery (1900)
Carrie Nation Takes Violent Direct Action Against Saloons (1900)
Booth Tucker Describes the Salvation Army’s Social and Gospel Work in Slums and Saloons (1900
Rosa, an Immigrant, Contrasts her Italian Catholicism with the American Version (1890)
Abraham Cahan Shows how American Business Life and Religious Pluralism Shattered a Russian Jewish Immigrant’s Traditional Faith (1916)
Anzia Yezierska Confronts an Orthodox Jewish Father over Changing Patterns of Religion and Women’s Work, (1925)
Swami Vivekananda Describes His Life as a Hindu Celebrity in America (1893)


Robert Orsi, “An Italian-American Street Festival to Honor the Virgin Mary
Jonathan Sarna, “How Should American Jews Preserve Their Distinctiveness?”

9. Intellectual Controversies, 1860-1925

Charles Hodge Denounces Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as Atheistic (1874)
Lyman Abbott Argues that Christianity and Evolutionary Theory are Compatible (1892)
Harold Frederic’s Fictional Methodist Preacher Discovers His Ignorance of Biblical History (1896)
Washington Gladden Explains Higher Criticism (1894)
William Jennings Bryan Defends Biblical Infallibility (1924)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Finds Feminist Implications in Genesis (1895)
George Herron Depicts Jesus as a Revolutionary Socialist (1899)
W.E.B. DuBois Depicts a Black Christ Meeting Texas Segregationists (1920)


Jon H. Roberts, “The American Christian Encounter with Darwinian Evolution”
Paul Gutjahr, “Ben Hur and Biblical Criticism”

10. Adapting to Modernity and Complexity, 1910-1960

Virginia Durr’s Father Loses His Pulpit Because He is Not a Biblical Literalist (1910)
Aimee [mispelled as Amy] Semple McPherson, Female Traveling Evangelist, Leads a Revival in Oklahoma (1919)
Clara Grillo Recalls Protestant-Catholic Tensions in Cleveland (1920)
Jacob Sonderling, Immigrant Rabbi, Observes American Jewish Life (1930)
Mordecai Kaplan Defends Jews’ Life in Two Civilizations (1948)
Will Herberg Analyzes Religion and Assimilation (1955)
Donald Thorman Assess New Roles for Catholic Laity (1962)


Joel A. Carpenter, “How Fundamentalists Adapted Their Message to Modern Conditions”
Mark S. Massa, “Catholics Enter the Mainstream of American Life After World War II”
Jenna Weissman Joselit, “Jewish Food and Jewish Identity”

11. Religion and Protest Movements, 1955-1990

Martin Luther King, Jr Preaches on the Power of Love (1963)
James Baldwin Becomes a Boy Preacher in Harlem in 1936 (1963)
Albert Southwick, a White Journalist, Meets Black Muslim Leader Malcolm X (1963)
National Conference of Black Churchmen Demands Equal Power (1966)
Christianity Today Criticizes Black Americans’ Intimidation of White Churches (1969)
The Catholic Worker Movement Escalates its anti-Vietnam Protests (1965-1968)
Tina Bell Joins an Anti-Abortion Demonstration (1988)


David J. Garrow, “Martin Luther King Jr’s Leadership”
John T. McGreevy, “Urban Catholics and the Civil Rights Movement”

12. Religion and Counterculture, 1970-1995

Jacob Needleman Discovers the Appeal of Eastern Religions (1970)
Jess Moody Describes the Outlook of the Jesus Freaks (1971)
Bob Geyes Leads the Church of Jesus the Saucerian (1973)
Alan Watts Explains the Fascination of Zen Buddhism (1972)
J. Stillson Judah Explains Why Hippies Join the Hare Krishnas (1974)
Starhawk Advocates Witchcraft (1979)
Carol Christ is Initiated into Goddess Worship (1987)


Patrick Allitt, “New Religions, ‘Cults,’ and Their Critics”
J. Gordon Melton, “Rise and Fall of the New Age”

13. New Immigrants and Religious Multiculturalism, 1970-2000

Karen Brown Meets a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (1991)
Charles Munzy Attends Vietnamese Funerals in Oklahoma City (1989)
Moises Sandoval Describes the Hispanic Catholic Response to the Civil Rights Movement (1990)
Kambiz GhaneaBassiri Explains Muslims’ Mixed Feelings About American Culture (1997)
Richard Wormser Describes Pressures on Muslim Teenagers in American High Schools (1994)
Prema Kurien Explains Hindus’ Adjustments to American Life (1998)


Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, “The Dynamics of Islamic Identity in North America”
David A. Badillo, “Religion and the New Hispanic Immigration”
Rick Fields, “Contrasting Immigrant Buddhists and ‘White Buddhists'”

14. Religion, Politics and the Constitution, 1960-2000

Billy Graham Urges a Troubled Nation to Turn Back to God (1965)
C. Stanley Lowell Explains His Fear of Catholics (1960)
Joseph M. Hopkins Deplores the Supreme Court’s Decision Against School Prayer (1963)
Evangelicals for Social Action Offer Guidance on Voting Biblically (1980)
Langdon Gilkey Opposes Creation Science (1985)
Christianity Today Describes Political Coalition-Building to Restore Religion in Schools (1984)
Wilfred M. McClay Warns Against Political Contamination of Religion (1988)
Michael W. McConnell Fears for American Religious Freedom (1990)


James Reichley, “The Supreme Court and the First Amendment”
Nancy Ammerman, “Fundamentalism and Politics”

15. Religion at the Turn of the Millennium, 1994-2010

Gustav Niebuhr Observes as Men Pledge Their Faith in Sports Stadiums (1995)
Andrew Sullivan on Being Gay and Being Catholic (1994)
Christianity Today Welcomes Homosexual People But Does Not Endorse Homosexuality (2000)
Gustav Niebuhr Describes the Fundamentalist Response to 9-11 (2001)
Construction Worker Frank Silecchia Describes the Cross at Ground Zero (2001)
Reverend Jeremiah Wright Preaches on ‘Confusing God and Government'” (2003)
Barack Obama Rejects Rev. Wright’s Remarks (2008)


Jane I. Smith, “Islam in America Post 9/11”
Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, “Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church”
Joanne Punzo Waghorne, “The Hindu Gods in a Split-Level World: The Sri Siva-Vishnu Temple in Suburban Washington DC”

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


  1. Many thanks for this, Tona; as one who is just now starting to consider text books and the like, this is a useful read.

    It’s becoming more and more of an issue, I think, that we can’t take readers like this for granted anymore. Especially at the hefty price tag, and especially when most of the primary sources can be found online for free. I think the future of textbook assignments is really up in the air.

    Comment by Ben P — December 1, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  2. Thanks for the review. Do you use any textbook readers in class? I find them really, really difficult to teach from. I usually just TA courses and thus, am expected to just lead discussion sections. I’ve found the shortened 2 – 3 pp. excerpts just don’t really spark discussion. I’d be interested if others have had the same experienced.

    Comment by Amanda HK — December 2, 2012 @ 8:42 am


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