The Varieties of (American) Religious History

The terminology of American religious history is rather confusing. The phrase religious history can mean the author is religious or simply studying religion. Alternatively, the phrase history of religion connotes secularity, implying that religious history is the theologically biased opposite approach. Lest we get hung up on semantics, I will use the phrases religious history and history of religion interchangeably in this paper. Regardless of its name, the study of American religion has thrived within the historical profession over the last three decades. I argue that religious history has largely followed the twentieth-century evolution of American historiography, from modernist consensus to social history to cultural and transnational studies, while also reflecting the contentious debate in the parallel field of religious studies over how to define religion. However, the development of religious history is not a linear progression from apologetic to secular thinking, since longstanding assumptions about American exceptionalism and Christianity continue to appear in monographs today.

Many signs testify to the intellectual and professional vigor of U.S. religious history. Reports from the American Historical Association indicate that departments are hiring more religious historians, increasing numbers of historians self-identify as scholars of religion when joining the AHA, and there are more religious historians in degree cohorts.[1] Within the subfield of religious history circa 2009, North America was second only to Europe as a geographic specialty.[2] The extensive bibliography that John T. McGreevy provides in 2011’s American History Now shows that historians of American religion have produced a large number of monographs since 1985.[3] Finally, the blog Religion in American History features many contributors and is regularly updated with book reviews, calls for papers, and short articles.[4]

My visit to the AHA Annual Meeting in January 2015 convinced me that the study of religion in American history is a vibrant subfield. The American Society for Church History sponsored many panels, including a standing-room-only celebration of the retiring historian Grant Wacker, and two large receptions for graduate students and faculty. A considerable number of recent religion monographs were on sale at the book fair. At least two panels discussed the application of digital humanities technology to the study of American religion.[5] Lastly, the two best panels I attended — one on religion in America’s public schools, another on religion and foreign policy — revealed what may be the next major trend: analyzing aspects of society that are typically not considered religious, but which match the criteria for religions.[6] Leslie Ribovich argued convincingly that New York City’s morals curriculum for public schools sought to inculcate pseudo-religious values in children, and Andrew Preston and his fellow panelists contended that the widespread belief in American exceptionalism is a civil religion.

Historians like Ribovich and Preston work within a field that spans 160 years. Robert Baird was the first major scholar of U.S. religious history, essentially creating the field with his 1843 opus, Religion in America. Baird’s Christian beliefs thoroughly infused his research. He felt America had an inherently evangelical Protestant character, and he emphasized the importance of individualism and free choice in his writing.[7] In the introduction to the 1997 edited volume, Retelling U.S. Religious History, Thomas A. Tweed lists several themes that recurred in religious historiography in the wake of Baird, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those themes are organic rhetoric (e.g., describing religion with natural terms), Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, contestation, slowly diversifying identities, and ideas of declension and secularization.[8]

Robert Baird, the founder of the study of American religion. Source:
Robert Baird, the founder of the study of American religion. Source:

Declension is particularly important, as it constitutes existential concern over America’s supposedly Christian nature. Supporters of declension believe that Christian religiosity has declined over the course of U.S. history. Contemporary historian Ann Braude also defines the declension metanarrative as “a falling away from the intellectual rigors of a consistent Calvinism, expressed in relaxed standards for church membership, indicating a loosening of the doctrine of predestination.”[9] Perry Miller was the key architect of declension theory in the twentieth century, and many historians accepted Miller’s premises, although Braude, writing in the 1990s, rejects declension as simply a reflection of male Puritan (and, later, male Protestant) unease about their changing world.[10] Miller was an atheist,[11] yet his writing reflects the Christian assumptions of academia in the early twentieth century. Setting aside Braude’s gender-related objection to Miller’s ideas, the metanarrative of declension, much like Robert Baird’s nineteenth-century exaltation of evangelical Christianity, defines America in a Protestant Christian way, excluding what is not Christian from a place in U.S. religion. This Christian-centric and often white-centric mindset dominated religious history well into the mid-twentieth century.

The 1960s brought increased immigration, New Age religions, civil rights, and the women’s liberation movement to the United States. New social historians showed a greater awareness of this racial, economic, and gender diversity in their research, and scholarly notions that equated Christianity with all of American religion were destabilized.[12] Sydney Ahlstrom’s mammoth survey, A Religious History of the American People, and Paul Johnson’s slim volume on the Burned-Over District, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, were perhaps the most widely lauded texts of the new religious social history.[13] Next, the rise of postmodernist theory in the 1980s produced a cultural history movement. Although Tweed does not explicitly mention cultural history in his historiographic essay, his support for diversified understandings of gender and race in religion reflect the cultural turn of the 1980s to early 2000s. The cultural studies of religion from this period are numerous, but some notable volumes are Ann Braude’s 1989 history of women and Spiritualism, Radical Spirits; Catherine L. Albanese’s books on nature religion, a term encompassing everything from Native Americans to Transcendentalism to vegetarianism; and John Patrick Deveney’s jaw-dropping biography of a charismatic black mystic, Paschal Beverly Randolph.[14] Additionally, a group of historians including Catherine Albanese, Mark A. Noll, Peter Williams, Jon Butler, David Wills, and Albert Raboteau, among others, published books in the 1980s-90s that studied religion in new geographic sites, instead of simply the American Northeast.[15] The cumulative effect of these new approaches was a field that looked very little like the one Perry Miller knew in the 1930s.

Tweed notes that historians in the 1980s-90s disagreed whether to study elites and Protestants, the traditional mainstays of American religious history, or investigate previously overlooked stories.[16] He thus alludes to pushback against social and cultural revisionism from supporters of the traditional premises of religious history. Yet the diverse monographs of the last three decades show that the revisionist, more inclusive understanding of American religion ultimately displaced the traditional focus on WASPs. John T. McGreevy disagrees with Tweed by describing religious historiography in the last thirty years as largely harmonious and free from divisive theoretical debates.[17] The only grievances that McGreevy raises are scholars’ difficulty accounting for both religion and secularism in America, the lack of a definitive monograph on civil religion, and the need for more work on the de-Christianization of America.[18] Based on all of this material, I argue that, in the last fifty years, U.S. religious historiography followed the broader historical profession’s arc from modernist consensus to new social to cultural and now perhaps to transnational history. But this arc is not absolute: Social histories of religion still appear, as when David Sehat contributed a major review of the separation of church and state in 2011’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom.[19] The works of R. Scott Appleby and Martin E. Marty blend social and cultural topics. The old Christian-centric approach appears in contemporary research, too, but more on that later!

The complementary discipline of religious studies has its own literature that overlaps with the historiographic developments outlined so far. The key question from religious studies that affects this paper is how to define religion. During the nineteenth century, the German academic Friedrich Max Müller proposed a field of inquiry that would be distinct from theology, and he called this field Religionswissenschaft, or “science of religion.”[20] Western religious studies went through three major schools from the late 1800s onward – qualitative studies of religion, empirical social-scientific studies, and a combination of the two approaches. The qualitative studies assume that some sort of higher energy exists, to which humans respond with religious activities. For Rudolph Otto, that energy was a non-rational force he deemed numinous (numen, in noun form); for Mircea Eliade, that energy was the sacred, contrasted with the profane elements of the world. Scholars who assumed the presence of a sacred or numen were using a theological, and generally Christian-derived, concept to explain religion.[21]

Friedrich Max Muller, who created the idea of Religionswissenschaft. Source:
Friedrich Max Muller, who created the idea of Religionswissenschaft. Source:

The half-qualitative, half-empirical studies, beginning at the turn of the century with the modernist movement, still saw scholars believe in universally-present energies or thought systems (the first wave of structuralism). Yet these scholars moved away from a strict privileging of Christianity and considered empirical phenomena, psychology, and other new approaches when studying religion. William James was an early architect of the half-qualitative, half-empirical method. James believed that religion would always elicit a solemn and serious response on the part of humans, yet he felt Buddhism had as much spiritual insight to offer as Christianity.[22] Other scholars in this half-qualitative, half-empirical mold included Max Weber, the nineteenth-century social scientist who defined the Protestant work ethic and believed that the modern West was superior to primitive societies;[23] Émile Durkheim, who felt that primitive societies organized themselves around religious symbols, or totems;[24] Peter Berger, who in the 1960s argued that coherent belief systems explaining the world, or sacred canopies, are conveyed through social rituals; and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who in the mid-to-late twentieth century contended that scholars should study both historical evidence (the cumulative tradition) and faith.[25] These authors study a variety of nations, religions, and time periods, yet these authors remain linked by their tendency toward universalism, theological or spiritual feelings (with the exception of Weber), and determinism.

The fully empirical approach to religion gained traction in the 1970s, when postmodernism accelerated in the academy. While the historical profession moved from empirical social history to the abstraction of cultural history during the 1980s, the field of religious studies simultaneously moved from abstract, numen-based definitions of religion to studies based solely on empirical evidence. Wayne Proudfoot used his book Religious Experience to articulate the need for studies of religion that derived their arguments from data, rather than using religious data to reinforce existing theological assumptions. Simultaneously, the idiosyncratic historian Jonathan Z. Smith argued that religion is a map – and a bad one – invented by Western academics and superimposed upon the rest of the world, including upon societies that lack a Western conception of religion. For Smith, scholars must see the limits of Western thought and consider new interpretations of religion that incorporate historical data from all civilizations.[26] Postmodernism thus meant different things to different branches of the humanities. In history, postmodernism meant a move away from Wallace’s social science techniques to the cultural thought of Joan Wallach Scott, Lynn Hunt, and others. In religion, postmodernism meant a move away from theology (goodbye, numen) toward social science. To be clear, these three schools of thought are not linear. Otto and Eliade wrote decades after Durkheim and James. W.C. Smith argued for and taught about his half-history/half-theology at the same time Proudfoot and J.Z. Smith were doing their most famous work. Nonetheless, these three schools of thought reveal a genuine debate about whether to define religion along (Christian) theological lines, or whether to treat religion as another social science topic to be analyzed, no matter how upsetting the answers may be.[27]

Let us now return to historiography and review some of the most significant works from the last seventy-five years. Perry Miller’s 1939 monograph, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, is technically not a history of religion, but rather an intellectual history of New England that emphasizes Puritanism. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Miller was a professor of English at Harvard.[28] Contemporary intellectual historian Rivka Maizlish has described Miller as “a complicated person… a teacher, writer, reader, literary scholar, O.S.S. officer, world-traveler, messy-eater, social critic, academic, alcoholic, atheist, spiritualist, philosopher, and, of course, historian.”[29] Miller describes his New England Mind as “a topical analysis of various leading ideas in colonial New England” in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, not “a history of [those ideas’] development,” a task relegated to a second volume.[30] Miller “[takes] Puritanism for granted” instead of historicizing Puritanism’s origins so that he might understand the movement’s major intellectual tenets.[31] In this first volume, Miller seeks to “defin[e] and classif[y] the principal concepts of the Puritan mind in New England” and, slightly contradicting his intention not to track Puritanism’s evolution over time, “accoun[t] for the origins, inter-relations, and significances of the ideas.”[32] Miller contends that “the first three generations in New England paid almost unbroken allegiance to a unified body of thought,” and he “treat[s] the whole literature as though it were the product of a single intelligence.”[33] For evidence, Miller reviews New England textbooks, as well as works of Protestant theology from both New England and Great Britain.[34] He implies that America is fundamentally Protestant in national character, stating that Puritanism “achieved an organized synthesis of concepts which are fundamental to our culture.”[35] Miller is an atheist, but he still capitalizes personal pronouns referring to God, indicating that he respects Christianity while not subscribing to its teachings.

The cover to Perry Miller's New England Mind. Source:
The cover to Perry Miller’s New England Mind. Source:

According to Miller, the New England Puritans were pious people who recognized God’s providence in daily life, but the Puritans were not always dour. Rather, they were intellectual, rejoiced in their faith, and developed sophisticated systems of logic.[36] Miller contends that pious Puritans recognized “inexorable power” in their lives “which they called God.”[37] Covenant theology, which urged obedience to God “out of respect for his own given word,” was the high point of Puritan thought.[38] Miller slips in a jab at Progressive historians who found economic motivations in past individuals; he says the Puritans’ beliefs cannot be fully understood by “historical analysis, economic interpretation, or philosophical rephrasing.”[39] Miller also critiques modernist psychology, arguing that “psychology will recognize though it cannot explain” the Puritans’ religious convictions.[40] Ultimately, Miller argues that the deep fear of both God and nature lessened as time passed, so that rigorous Puritanism “relaxed” in the eighteenth century.[41]

The New England Mind reflects the historiographic standards of a bygone era. The volume’s small number of endnotes would not be acceptable in a contemporary monograph, and Miller focuses exclusively on elite white males. More importantly, Miller’s presentation of Puritan thought as a closed, unchanging, and uniform system is no longer convincing. Miller did write a second, more historical volume called The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, but Puritanism in The Seventeenth Century comes across like a closed structuralist system, a fixed system of signs and meanings, lacking inputs or outputs from individual humans. This structuralist Puritanism is too deterministic, and simplistic, a picture. Additionally, Miller’s references to an innate human inclination to piety or an “inexorable power” of religion make Puritan thought sound like a Platonic form – that is, pre-existing, perfect, and implemented, not invented, by human beings.[42] It is one thing to say that Puritans believed in a Platonic form or felt an inexorable, numinous power or form in their lives, but Miller writes as if those forms and numinous feelings are objectively verifiable (a premise not easily reconciled with Miller’s atheism). By modern standards of secular scholarship, Platonic forms and Otto’s numen are not empirically verifiable and thus belong in theology, not history.[43] Miller therefore has the strange distinction of being an atheist whose claims veer into theology and weaken his argument.

As discussed earlier, Miller’s claim that Puritanism relaxed over time marks an appearance of the declension metanarrative, one of the classic themes in religious historiography.[44] Miller’s support of the declension metanarrative – his praise for a unified, elite Puritan mind and his regret over its decline – is an overly teleological (and Protestant) reading of U.S. history. Miller implies that the Christianity of a past era was an intellectual high point, and we have all been drifting inexorably away from that golden age. Such a narrative equates a particular Protestant heritage with all of America, and places too linear a timeline on the diverse forms of American religion. Finally, Miller’s choice to present Puritanism as the product of a single mind obscures the complexities and individual personalities of Puritan writers. Miller deserves commendation for showing that Puritans were not the joyless figures portrayed in popular art, but his book is not a definitive study of Puritanism.

The next major work, jumping ahead nearly thirty years, is Anthony F.C. Wallace’s 1970 monograph, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. Wallace studies the Seneca Iroquois nation from upstate New York, focusing on the nation’s decline, move to reservations, and resurgence circa 1800, thanks to the religion of the prophet Handsome Lake.[45] Wallace therefore argues that religion was central to the revitalization of Seneca society. Reflecting his training in psychiatry and his professorship of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, Wallace conducted fieldwork with the Iroquois people from 1951 to 1956.[46] He clearly sees himself operating within a social science framework, especially since he mentions “the collection of data” and cites a helpful grant from the Social Science Research Council.[47] Although he alludes to historical sources such as Quaker diaries and transcriptions of Handsome Lake’s words, Wallace begins his text with an ethnography of Handsome Lake’s Old Way, as practiced on mid-twentieth-century Seneca reservations. The Old Way, or Gaiwiio, uses oral tradition and multi-day longhouse celebrations to transmit Handsome Lake’s teachings.[48] Moving back in time, Wallace uses ethnography, archaeology, and historical evidence to portray the Seneca culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The author emphasizes the importance in Seneca religion of dreams, ritual masks representing the gods, harvest festivals, and an elaborate creation myth.[49] Wallace’s ethnographic chapters recall Perry Miller’s topical analysis. However, by historicizing the topical analysis in the same book, instead of leaving the history and chronology for another volume, Wallace structures his argument in a more convincing manner than Miller. Wallace’s survey of a belief system allows for change over time and highlights individual involvement.

Cover to Anthony F.C. Wallace's Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. Source:
Cover to Anthony F.C. Wallace’s Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. Source:

Politics replaces religion as the main focus in the middle of the book, as Wallace relates the Senecas’ loss of power after the French & Indian War and American Revolution. This political defeat culminated in the creation of reservations, where the surviving Seneca settled and experienced serious internal divisions over preserving their society or accommodating to white civilization.[50] During 1799-1800, however, the Seneca leader Handsome Lake had several visions in which the Creator, Jesus, and various angels told him to root out the evils in Seneca society. Handsome Lake targeted problems brought by whites, such as alcoholism, but also issues internal to the Seneca, particularly witchcraft and dissension over accepting white society.[51] Eventually, Handsome Lake preached a less apocalyptic message; Wallace anachronistically dubs this second message the social gospel, since it emphasized temperance, good behavior, and accepting limited aspects of white civilization, such as agriculture.[52] Although Handsome Lake failed to parlay his Old Way into political power for himself, his followers organized his teachings into a formal religion.[53] This form of the Old Way has endured into the twentieth century, and the prophet’s once-radical ideas now seem traditional.[54]

Seneca reflects a burgeoning historical interest in subaltern studies and narratives that go against the grain of white Protestant religious history. Wallace shows that America has a rich religious heritage separate from the Abrahamic faiths. Crucially, this book gives the Seneca people historical agency and makes them into protagonists, rather than peripheral characters whom white Americans push aside for the sake of progress. The radical concerns of the 1960s, especially the civil rights movement, greater activism by ethnic minorities, and an increasing sensitivity to the nation’s troubled relationship with Native Americans, pervade this monograph. On a historiographic level, Seneca represents a shift from Perry Miller’s style of religious history, with its assumptions about Christianity’s centrality to America and borderline-theological references to numinous forces, to an empirically grounded form of history. For Wallace, religion is observed through ethnographic fieldwork – in other words, visible and quantifiable phenomena – instead of speculation about a numen, Platonic forms, or a priori concepts. Wallace belongs to the new social history tradition, and he foreshadows the empirical studies that Wayne Proudfoot and Jonathan Z. Smith advocated in religious studies during the 1970s and 1980s.

Seneca advanced the factual knowledge of American religion, but Robert Orsi’s 1985 book, The Madonna of 115th Street, presented both new information and new methodological approaches. Studying the recent religious history of Italian Harlem, especially the annual festa for the Virgin Mary at Manhattan’s 115th Street Catholic Church,[55] Orsi supplements his archival work with ethnography, interviewing past and present residents of Harlem.[56] Wallace and many other scholars blended history and ethnography before this book, but Orsi does not apply the combination of history and ethnography to Native American reservations or other peripheral locations. Instead, Orsi writes an ethnographic history about the center of a major American city, specifically about a festival that still occurs and whose participants are still alive, or at least were alive in the 1980s. As Orsi explans, his choice of time period and topic elicited skepticism and mockery within his graduate program,[57] yet he ultimately has the last laugh, for his book is an intellectual masterpiece.

Cover to Orsi's Madonna. Source:
Cover to Orsi’s Madonna. Source:

Orsi supplies a wealth of information about the immigrant community of Italian Harlem, Catholic life and material culture, and the festa proceedings. The book’s final pages are a cascading list of his findings,[58] so many that there is no one central discovery, and that is Orsi’s point. All facets of Italian American community life – struggles to fit into American culture; tensions between blustering, patriarchal fathers and quietly powerful mothers; adolescents’ desire to be more American and independent, despite an enduring shame-based culture imported from Italy ­– factored into religious practice at this one particular church. The annual festa was a chance to hide some of the tensions and exalt in ethnic community, while quietly enjoying the blessings that came with living in America. In other words, “[T]he path to the divine was the same dense and trying and joyous and painful path that they trod every day” (231).[59] Orsi therefore implies that virtually any aspect of human experience can factor into scholarly definitions of religion. Orsi prefers an inclusive and multivalent range of religious phenomena to one narrowly tailored definition.

The expanded introduction to the book’s second edition elaborates upon the methodological approaches Orsi privately honed while writing the manuscript. He seeks to abandon the term popular religion, which religious historians in the early-to-mid-twentieth century used as a catchall for religions and aspects of ordinary life that they would rather ignore. Instead, Orsi would have academics speak of lived religion, encompassing religious innovations and beliefs of ordinary people, not just clergy, and avoiding negative assumptions about daily religious experience.[60] Such an approach chips away at artificial dichotomies and classifications,[61] as well as longstanding assumptions that religion must be understood in “white, male, adult, Christian, ‘universal,’ [and] ‘rational’” ways.[62]

The Madonna Feast of Mt. Carmel, NYC, 1954. Source:
The Madonna Feast of Mt. Carmel, NYC, 1954. Source:

Orsi focuses on women in Catholicism and questions of community and home life, topics that twentieth-century academics often deemed women’s issues and thus not worth studying. Opposing that scholarly trend, Orsi interviews many female Catholics and tries to learn about religion and Marian devotion in Harlem.[63] This interest in women’s history and daily life reflects the new social history of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it also speaks to Orsi’s identity as an interdisciplinary historian, particularly as someone aware of trends in religious studies. Orsi notes that religious studies once focused on abstract ideas (e.g., Otto’s numinous forces), but grew more empirical and historical in the mid-twentieth century,[64] a trend that Anthony Wallace’s book reflects. To be sure, Orsi shares Wallace’s interest in observable religious phenomena; Orsi also identifies himself as an agnostic.[65] Yet even as he supports the empirical turn in religious studies, Orsi expresses serious interest in discourse analysis, gender, and power dynamics, topics that flourished in history’s cultural turn of the 1980s-2000s.[66] The author therefore blends different aspects of the postmodern academy. He is an early proponent of history’s cultural turn even as he argues for religious studies’ empirical and social history approach. It is hard to wear potentially contradictory theoretical hats at the same time, but Orsi pulls off the feat with aplomb. The Madonna of 115th Street is required historiography for those who would study religion today, and a delightful book to read.

Conversely, the eminent African American historian Charles H. Long’s 1985 book, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, is difficult to read, but important historiographically. Poststructuralism weighs on Long’s mind: Long recognizes a basic link between signifiers and their signified ideas, yet he contends that the ambiguous discourse of signification can give multiple meanings to religious symbols.[67] He raises two serious questions about the academic study of religion. First, given the creation of alternatives to religion during the Enlightenment, what should we make of religion’s place in the modern West?[68] Secondly, since the Western exploration (and conquest) of the globe exposed Western religions to new cultures, does religion as a concept even exist in other civilizations?[69] Like the famed religion scholar J.Z. Smith, Long answers these questions in a revisionist manner: “[B]oth religion and cultures and people around the world were created anew through academic disciplines,”[70] which reinforced Western assumptions about the rest of the world. In other words, the Western academic sees his (and it usually is his) interpretations as valid, and thus plasters his views over other global perspectives. Long deems this process a duplicitous form of signification.[71] Long’s book therefore is a postcolonial critique of religious studies, coupled with a brief consideration of the history of African American religion. Furthermore, Long defines religion as orientation, or “how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world,” and he applies his ideas of stereotyping, signification, and postcolonial theory to the not-exclusively-Christian religions of Afro-Americans.[72]

Millard Sheets, "The Negro's Contribution in the Social and Cultural Development of American Religion," 1939. Source:
Millard Sheets, “The Negro’s Contribution in the Social and Cultural Development of American Religion,” 1939. Source:

Long’s key implication is that, even as we study empirical religious history, there is a need to understand systems of thought, imagery, and symbolism that accompany the empirical data. When read from the perspective of the historical profession, Long clearly operates within the cultural history framework, influenced by continental philosophy, deconstruction, and a postcolonial outlook. When read from the perspective of religious studies, Long complicates but does not reject the empirical understanding of religion advocated in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, Long asks that scholars of religion deepen their understandings of what shapes the religious world – “those forms of meaning which lie between experience and category.”[73] Even as he works within a broadly secular and empirical framework, Long wants abstraction to be in the mix. That abstraction means not just cultural history ideas, but also Otto’s old theological tropes of mysterium tremendum and the holy.[74] Long couches this interest in theology in universalist terms, though: “Ontological analysis should arise from historical understanding,”[75] yet “any new ontology must take account of the historical expressions of all cultures – those prehistoric, archaic, colonial, Western, and Eastern cultures…”[76]

The first two-thirds of the book consider critical theory, postcolonialism in religion, and considerations of the sacred within historical studies, but the last third is devoted specifically to Afro-American religion. Long calls for new black models of theology that throw off old imperialist and European assumptions.[77] He believes “the hegemony of Western Christian categories and thought models has come to an end.”[78] Authentically black theology, informed by civil rights and a perception of “another reality… not under the judgment of the oppressors,” is a step forward.[79] Indeed, for true historical and social liberation, “The oppressed must deal with both the fictive truth of their status as expressed by the oppressors … and the discovery of their own autonomy and truth,” which Long couches in terms of black religious experiences.[80] For black scholars, this liberation should involve histories that eschew a strict delineation between social science and theology.[81] Specific historical questions worth researching include the role of Africa in black religion,[82] the “involuntary presence of the black community in America,”[83] and perceptions of God in black art and culture.[84]

Dr. Charles H. Long, author of Significations. Source:
Dr. Charles H. Long, author of Significations. Source:

Despite a few discussions of Afro-American art, such as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and a poem by James Weldon Johnson,[85] Long relies almost entirely on secondary sources. As such, Long operates strictly at a historiographic level. This volume does not supply new archival or field research, but rather lays down ideas for historians to pursue. With his willingness to reintroduce theology and the sacred to empirical studies, Long is somewhat out of place with the contemporary scholars surveyed in the rest of this paper. Most of the ensuing authors approach religion along empirical lines; if these authors tackle abstract ideas, it is in the form of cultural history ideas, and not religious thoughts about theology or a mysterium tremendum. Overall, Long writes a fascinating text with much to offer about global perspectives and black Americans’ place in historiography, but he stands apart from both contemporary historians and religion scholars by throwing theology back into the mix. Indeed, theology is very different from the relativism and avowed atheism that dominated cultural history in the 1980s.

While Long focuses on redefining the religions of black Americans, 1997’s Retelling U.S. Religious History tries to redefine the entirety of American religious historiography, drawing from social and cultural history to create a more pluralistic field. The book emerged from several conferences held between 1991 and 1995 in an effort to chart new research directions.[86] Conference participants agreed to dismantle the old Protestant, elite-oriented grand narrative of American religion and not put in place a single new narrative.[87] Instead, the book presents a variety of new stories to readers, even though the participating historians remain somewhat divided about whether there is any place for grand narratives anymore.[88] Reflecting Orsi’s earlier attention to lived religion, Retelling U.S. Religious History looks at a variety of popular social spaces, not just sites of elite religious activity.[89] Additionally, the contributors seek to add new themes of contact, boundaries, and exchange to the historiography of religion.[90] These themes, with their emphasis on movement, anticipate the transnational turn of the early 2000s. Within this context of diversification, cultural history, and a burgeoning transnational mindset, Ann Braude and Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp wrote two of the most interesting essays in the entire volume.

Cover to Thomas Tweed's Retelling U.S. Religious History. Source:
Cover to Thomas Tweed’s Retelling U.S. Religious History. Source:

Braude’s essay, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,” uses women’s history to disprove three key metanarratives of American religion – declension, feminization, and secularization.[91] Her two-part thesis is that women, the most frequent participants in American religious services, are the reason that religious institutions survive in this country.[92] Simultaneously, women have historically experienced systematic religious inequality, so that religious “institutions have relied for their existence on the very group they have disenfranchised.”[93] Having outlined this thesis, Braude turns to smashing, or rather inverting, the three metanarratives. Instead of supporting the decline of Protestant churches in New England, as Perry Miller argued and ensuing historians concurred, Braude contends that increasing numbers of women participated in Protestant churches. Male leaders felt their worldview was declining, yet Protestantism was merely changing, as women became more numerous in the colonies.[94] As for feminization – the idea that women became the majority in religious groups only in the nineteenth century – Braude argues that female majorities existed since the colonial era. Moreover, historians tended to “[use the] term [feminization] to describe something like a contagious disease,” so Braude dismisses feminization as “nostalgia for a religious landscape that never existed.”[95] Finally, Braude rejects the concept of teleological secularization in American society, for new quantitative studies show that religious participation has increased, not decreased, since the nineteenth century. Braude also suggests that secularization, like feminization, reflects male uneasiness about growing female participation in public.[96] Overall, Braude not only contradicts these metanarratives; she also shows that male bias against women undergirds major themes of American religious historiography.

In place of these metanarratives of declension and male ruin, Braude proposes a more uplifting narrative, namely the growing participation and importance of women in American religion. She describes how the Puritans led the way with a new interpretation of women that saw them in a more positive manner, instead of linking women eternally to Eve’s sin. Women participated in all the key social movements of American history and, in the twentieth century, approached full religious equality with men. Women now are a substantial portion of seminarians and other religious education students, and many women are now clerics in their own right.[97] At first, Braude’s new narrative of women’s religious progress sounds just as deterministic and teleological as the old narrative of Protestant (male) declension. However, Braude subverts a teleological reading of women’s history, reminding her reader that the idea of women as inherently sinful continues to appear in American society, that the Protestant love of female piety may not be the same as treating women equally, and that the story of women’s rights is “incomplete.”[98] She also points out that feminization still appears in religious historiography, advancing the notion “that there is something wrong with a majority female church, and that it is a symptom of social dysfunction.”[99]

Ann Braude in a 2014 interview. Source:
Dr. Ann Braude in a 2014 interview. Source:

Braude’s critique of feminization suggests that Braude finds something deeply right and positive about the centrality of women to American religion. She is clearly a feminist historian, shaped by the movements of the 1970s, now articulating an adamantly pro-women argument in the midst of the more socially conservative 1990s. It is deeply exciting to see Braude overturn longstanding assumptions of religious history, while simultaneously using history as a platform for advocating female equality. Braude’s activism is intertwined with and essential to her scholarship. Of course, this article, like Maffly-Kipp’s piece and all the others in the collection, is synthetic, relying mostly on secondary sources, yet Braude has nonetheless articulated a compelling interpretation of American religion from the perspective of women. She has challenged historians to place women at the core of religious scholarship.

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp’s article, “Eastward Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim,” opens with a brief selection of missionary diaries and memoirs, describing a Hawaiian man named Opukahaia who came to America and became a Christian.[100] Maffly-Kipp uses this anecdote to contrast the facts of Opukahaia’s life with the many condescending attitudes and incorrect facts that white Americans associated with him. Her point is that, by privileging the westward gaze of white Americans, scholars have overlooked much of America’s religious history. More importantly, Maffly-Kipp believes that scholars have long overlooked the eastward movement of Asians and Pacific Islanders, and their religions, to the United States. She therefore argues that American religious history needs a spatial reorientation, incorporating activities along the Pacific Rim and a much larger variety of migrants, ethnic groups, and religions than in the standard east-to-west continental narrative.[101]

Maffly-Kipp expresses interest in how space shapes religious consciousness,[102] but mostly she discusses new geographic terrains and perspectives. She briefly recounts some alternative patterns of religious and social migration, such as: Californians sailing west to Hawaii, then north to Canada; Iberian troops and missionaries traveling west to America and north from South America to North America; Russians sailing east to Alaska; Asian contact with America; U.S. missionaries in Hawaii and the broader Pacific; native Hawaiians struggling with new Western religions; Latino Protestants in California; and U.S. colonialism in the Pacific.[103] These anecdotes, which encompass more spatial directions than just the “Eastward” orientation of the paper title, show the variety of transnational perspectives for understanding religion in the United States, the broader hemisphere, and the Pacific Ocean. Within this transnational overview, Maffly-Kipp articulates an anti-exceptionalist reading of American history: “[P]lacing the ‘American colonial world’ alongside an earlier era of European colonization is intended to highlight the extent to which the nineteenth-century United States was an imperial power, rather than merely a fulfiller of its own internal destiny.”[104] By arguing against that internal destiny, so often couched in terms of white Americans and Protestant Christianity, Maffly-Kipp points out that the United States and American religion always have been part of global migrations and exchanges. It makes no sense to study U.S. religion in geographic or cultural isolation.

Dr. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp. Source:
Dr. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp. Source:

Maffly-Kipp shows her reader how arbitrary American assumptions of east and west really are. When she speaks of the Mormon Church moving westward and southward into the Pacific, she implies that the West is blurring with the East. As such, if we flip our traditional maps around and change our perspective, we will see history differently – a message applicable to the entire transnational turn, not only to a diversified study of American religion. Maffly-Kipp writes with genuine excitement regarding the transnational movement of peoples and religious ideas, while reiterating the desire of social and cultural historians to bring previously overlooked populations, such as Pacific Islanders, Mexican Protestants, and Native American populations, into the historical literature. Furthermore, Maffly-Kipp shows the importance of writing about non-white populations as active, not passive characters, respecting their agency in history.[105] Maffly-Kipp’s synthetic essay highlights the best ideas of the transnational turn.

So far, I have traced an orderly progression of historiographic trends – modernist-era consensus history (Perry Miller), new social history (Anthony Wallace), cultural history (Robert Orsi), deconstructive and racially inclusive approaches (Charles Long), gender history (Ann Braude), and transnational studies (Laurie Maffly-Kipp). Conversely, I have shown that the path of secular religious studies, especially when it comes to defining religion along empirical or theological lines, is non-linear and circuitous. (Recall Charles Long’s desire to reintroduce the numinous to history, coming the same year Robert Orsi avoided theology and embedded whatever cultural ideas he supported within empirical religious phenomena.) I now will complicate the historiographic progression, showing that religious history has been somewhat non-linear in its own development. In particular, Mark A. Noll’s 2002 monograph, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, is an example of how Christian assumptions and exceptionalism can still appear in historiography.

Noll belongs to a cohort of similarly minded evangelical historians that includes Nathan O. Hatch and Grant Wacker. These writers rose to the forefront of U.S. religious history during the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Noll consulted on Tweed’s Retelling U.S. Religious History, yet Noll also taught at Wheaton College, the conservative evangelical liberal arts institution. In the introduction to America’s God, Noll thanks Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies, and Notre Dame’s Pew Evangelical Scholars Program for supporting his book project.[106] Put simply, Mark Noll’s religious beliefs deeply infuse his approach to American history, even as he seeks to write thorough history.[107] Noll wants to expand serious evangelical scholarship, particularly in response to anti-intellectualism within evangelical ranks, but he wants his histories to support his evangelical faith.[108]

Photo of Mark Noll taken at Notre Dame University. Source:
Photo of Dr. Mark Noll taken at Notre Dame University. Source:

America’s God is an intellectual history of American theology during the early republic,[109] although Noll embeds intellectual and theological ideas within a social history framework, so that he provides “a story with flesh and blood instead of a bloodless ballet of abstract dogmas.”[110] Noll argues that America’s social environment caused a schism between Old World Reformation Protestantism and New World Protestantism.[111] American Christianity “adapted to modernizing, rational, and market-oriented societies,”[112] and an evangelical worldview, or synthesis, dominated American culture until the Civil War destroyed civil theological debate.[113] In this narrative, the evangelical synthesis is a wholly positive development that lined up neatly with republicanism and capitalism: “Americans were less traditional, less corporate, and less ecclesiastical, but also – in a difference [from European Protestants] with enduring effect – more effectively attuned to the convictions of the working and middle classes.”[114] American Protestants of the early republic identified evangelicalism as a necessary condition for good government, while also upholding a commonsense outlook and emphasizing the right of the individual to live his or her life freely and achieve salvation.[115] Noll’s argument is largely the same as Nathan Hatch’s in The Democratization of American Christianity,[116] but Noll diverges from Hatch by zeroing in on theology and comparing American theology to Protestantism in Western Europe and Canada.[117] Noll shows pride and respect for his evangelical heritage, no clearer than when he says, “And no comparable era in the history of Christianity ever witnessed so vigorous a defense of the simplicity of biblical interpretation.”[118]

Noll uses a tremendous number of primary sources to tell his story, drawing largely from the writings of elite white Christians. Still, he incorporates documents authored by Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, and African Americans, plus Americans with a non-elite level of religious education.[119] By charting in monumental detail the evolution of Protestant theologies and the role that thousands of people played in creating those theologies, Noll makes Perry Miller’s portrayal of Puritanism as the product of a single mind seem downright primitive. Ultimately, America’s God is the apotheosis of the Christianity-premised approach to U.S. history that began with Robert Baird and received great support from Perry Miller. Noll looks beyond white Protestants to account (somewhat) for other Christians and religious believers, as well as African Americans. Although he focuses on elite writings, Noll pays attention to historical context and common perceptions of Christianity. Noll rejects a narrative of Christian declension for American history. He even reflects the transnational impulse. At the same time, Noll sees a republican, capitalist, evangelical Christianity as the fundamental character of early America. Mark Noll thus shows how a believer in American Christian exceptionalism might incorporate some of the social and cultural turns into his worldview, while still equating Christianity with all American religion. The title may reference America’s God, and to Mark Noll the book really is about America’s God, but that deity is not the same God of Catholic Mexicans, nor is it the creator spirit of many Native American traditions. Noll’s story is accurate in its historical details, but in its implications the book reaches for a universality that, from a non-evangelical perspective, does not bear the weight of secular historical analysis.

As a dénouement to our historiographic journey, I turn to J. Spencer Fluhman’s 2012 monograph on Mormonism, A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. Studies of LDS theology and history have exploded in recent decades, so much so that two large-scale, multi-author historiographic reviews of Mormon historiography have been published in the last twenty-five years.[120] Leading historians of Mormonism in recent decades (including both LDS and non-LDS individuals) include Jan Shipps, John Turner, Kathleen Flake, D. Michael Quinn, Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Sarah Barringer Gordon, Matthew Bowman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and now Fluhman, a professor at Brigham Young University. In A Peculiar People, Fluhman examines the fluid relationship between mainline Protestant denominations and Mormonism, especially how that relationship shaped the LDS Church and also anti-Mormon thought in America. Fluhman’s thesis is that the Mormon Church has been and still is more Protestant than its leaders acknowledge, but the Church’s late-nineteenth-century abandonment of polygamy and other heterodox ideas for mainstream values made it harder for modern Mormons to understand their faith. Weathering anti-Mormon prejudice and achieving mainstream acceptance, at least in Fluhman’s telling, came at the expense of Mormons knowing their distinctive cosmology thoroughly. The author also contends that mainline Protestants portrayed Mormonism as the opposite of proper religious devotion.[121] Fluhman’s writing style is elliptical, so his thesis is not readily clear, but Fluhman draws from forty nineteenth-century newspapers, as well as several dozen essays and books about Mormonism published in the nineteenth century. For a 147-page book, A Peculiar People is exhaustively researched and thoroughly considers how the nineteenth-century Mormon Church affected popular and political conceptions of American religion. If Fluhman’s book is any indication, LDS history is an exciting subfield with many possibilities for incisive new research.

The cover to Spencer Fluhman's A Peculiar People. Source:
The cover to Spencer Fluhman’s A Peculiar People. Source:

Where should the entire field of American religious history go next? First and foremost, religious historians should draw more from the field of secular religious studies, especially when it comes to defining religion along empirical and not theological lines. Yet a focus on observable religious phenomena need not rule out all exploration of subjective cultural issues. After all, Robert Orsi argued persuasively that empirical studies of religion could still cover abstract cultural ideas such as power dynamics. I would not go as far in this embrace of abstraction as Charles Long, who suggests that historians should consider not just cultural ideas, but also some kind of reconceived sacred. From my perspective, there is enough on Earth, never mind the heavens, to keep historians of religion busy. Nonetheless, some kind of détente between the empirical and the ideological appears to be the next phase in historical methods. Notably, William H. Sewell Jr. in his recent Logics of History called for a reconciliation of social history’s focus on empiricism and continuity with cultural history’s relativistic and deconstructive precepts.[122] The issue now is for more religion scholars to write in this theoretically centrist manner and figure out just what a balance of empirical social history and more nebulous cultural history looks like. This historiographic challenge, walking a line between and beyond modernism and postmodernism, is one I intend to consider in my own work.

Based on Andrew Preston’s panel at the 2015 AHA meeting, there appears to be considerable interest in topics not typically deemed religious. Catherine Albanese’s inclusion of many diverse cultural events in her classification of nature religion was an early form of this work. Thomas Tweed also anticipated this trend in 1997, pointing out that historians may tackle “quasi-religions in popular culture,” using “public spaces such as war memorials, movie theaters, and sports arenas” as sites for research.[123] I would go a step further than Tweed and say that sports culture in the United States is a religion, or rather a cluster of religions, worthy of study. Additionally, the idea of American exceptionalism as a civil religion – the topic that concerned Preston and his co-presenters at this year’s AHA – seems a fruitful avenue of study with considerable implications for present-day American government. Indeed, the study of exceptionalism and other civil religions would give public historians and would-be public intellectuals a new set of ideas with which to engage the public. Another topic gaining academic attention is the role of esoteric movements in the United States, particularly in regard to the religion of black Americans.[124] Much historical work also must be done in regard to ethnicity and immigration. The introduction of so-called Eastern religions, especially Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to America and the rise of Latino-American religions are topics that demand more analysis, given the relevance of Islam to U.S. foreign policy and the continued diversification of America’s demographics. To summarize these trends, politics, popular culture, and ethnicity should be the major sites of religious historiography going forward.

Today, the study of American religious history is undergoing an academic renaissance. The field is embracing new perspectives, studying diverse populations and phenomena, defining religion in a secular way, eschewing the long-privileged assumptions of Christian theology and exceptionalism, and actively exploring social, cultural, gendered, and transnational approaches. It is almost impossible to say that America is a Christian nation and expect the statement to be self-evident. American religious history now lacks the simplicity of the old Protestant metanarratives, and devout American Christians may lament the lack of theology in modern historiography. Still, the academy’s understanding of religion in America is more nuanced than ever before, and that is without question a positive development. Instead of one American god, there are now many historical gods, all of whom shed tremendous light on our national heritage.

And how would I define religion? As any system of beliefs and/or rituals, imagined and/or actually practiced, that prompts its participants to perceive a heightened view of reality.

Cover photo: The baptism of Pocahontas, as painted by John Gadsby Chapman in 1840. Source:


[1] Robert B. Townsend, “What’s in a Label? Changing Patterns of Faculty Specialization Since 1975,” Perspectives on History (January 2007), accessed February 12, 2015,; Townsend, “A New Found Religion? The Field Surges Among AHA Members,” Perspectives on History (December 2009), accessed February 12, 2015,

[2] Townsend, “A New Found Religion?”

[3] John T. McGreevy, “Religion,” in American History Now, edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 243, 255-260.

[4] Religion in American History, edited by Cara Burnidge, Michael Hammond, and Paul Harvey (emeritus), accessed February 12, 2015,

[5] John Fea, Erin Bartram, Kyle B. Roberts, and Christopher Cantwell, “American Religion Online: How Digital Projects Can Change How We Teach, Research, and Interpret Religious History” (panel, 129th American Historical Association Annual Meeting, New York, NY, January 4, 2015); Brett Carroll, Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Marie Basile McDaniel, Lincoln Mullen, and Judith Weisenfeld, “Mapping Religious Space: Four American Cities from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century” (panel, 129th American Historical Association Annual Meeting, New York, NY, January 5, 2015).

[6] Candy Gunther Brown, Charles McCrary, Mark Chancey, Leslie Ribovich, and Sarah Barringer Gordon, “Religion in Public Schools: Church History, Law, Education, and Ethics” (panel, 129th American Historical Association Annual Meeting, New York, NY, January 4, 2015); Andrew Preston, Raymond Haberski, Darryl Hart, Christine Leigh Heyrman, and Leo P. Ribuffo, “Studying American Religion, Politics, and Foreign Policy All at the Same Time: Where Do We Go from Here?” (panel, 129th American Historical Association Annual Meeting, New York, NY, January 4, 2015). At Preston’s panel, I made a comment in which I contended that both North Korean juche philosophy and America’s Fourth of July spectacles could qualify as forms of religious expression.

[7] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford U.P., 2002), 441-443. For Baird’s text, see: Robert Baird, Religion in America: Or, An Account of the Origin, Progress, Relation to the State, and Present Condition of the Evangelical Churches in the United States (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1844).

[8] Thomas A. Tweed, “Introduction: Narrating U.S. Religious History,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, Tweed ed. (Berkeley: U. California Press, 1997), 14-15.

[9] Ann Braude, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, edited by Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: U. California Press, 1997), 93.

[10] Braude, “Women’s History,” 93.

[11] For appraisals of Perry Miller, see: Edmund S. Morgan, “Perry Miller and the Historians,” American Antiquarian Society (April 1964): 12, accessed April 18, 2015,; and Rivka Maizlish, “Perry Miller and the Puritans: An Introduction,” U.S. Intellectual History Blog, May 8, 2013, Society for U.S. Intellectual History,

[12] Tweed, “Narrating,” 2-3.

[13] See: Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale U.P., 2004); Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978; 2nd ed. 2004).

[14] See: Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (1989; 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 2001); Catherine L. Albanese, Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age, foreword by Martin E. Marty, Chicago History of American Religion (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1990); Albanese, Reconsidering Nature Religion, Rockwell Lecture Series (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002); John Patrick Deveney, Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician, foreword by Franklin Rosemont, SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997).

[15] Tweed, “Narrating,” 11.

[16] Tweed, “Narrating,” 3.

[17] McGreevy, “Religion,” 243.

[18] McGreevy, “Religion,” 243-248. McGreevy does not fully explain what he means by de-Christianization, though.

[19] See: David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford U.P., 2011).

[20] “Religionswissenschaft,” in A New Dictionary of Religions, edited by John R. Hinnells, Blackwell Reference Online, accessed April 18, 2015, DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631181392.1995.x, For an interesting discussion of Friedrich Max Müller and the ways that occultism and esotericism influenced his proposed science of religion, see: Jason Ānanda Josephson, “God’s Shadow: Occluded Possibilities in the Genealogy of ‘Religion,’” History of Religions 52, no. 4 (May 2013): 309-339, accessed January 4, 2015,

[21] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, translated by Willard R. Trask (1957; translation 1959; Orlando: Harcourt, 1987); Daniel Gorman Jr., “Revisiting The Power of Myth,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 5, no. 1 (April 2014): 76-77,; Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey (1923; translation 1950; reprint New York: Oxford U.P., n.d.).

[22] Gorman, “Revisiting The Power of Myth,” 77-78; William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, edited with an introduction by Martin E. Marty (1902; New York: Penguin, 1987).

[23] For Weber and modernity, see: Lynn Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), 7-9, 14-15. For the Protestant work ethic, see: Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons (1904-1905; translation 1930; New York: Routledge, 2006).

[24] David Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Carol Cosman, Oxford’s World Classics (1912; New York: Oxford U.P., 2001). For a discussion of Durkheim and modernization theory, see: Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era, 7-8, 26-27, 101.

[25] Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967; New York: Anchor Books, 1990); Gorman, “Revisiting The Power of Myth,” 78-79; Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (1962; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).

[26] Gorman, “Revisiting The Power of Myth,” 79-81; Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley: U. California Press, 1985); Jonathan Z. Smith, Map is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (1978; Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1993); Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism, Jacob Neusner ed. (1982; Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1992).

[27] Further reading: Melford E. Spiro, “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation,” in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Michael Banton (Frederick A. Praeger Inc., 1963), 85-126; Clifford Geertz, “Religion as A Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 87-125; William Scott Green, “Something Strange, Yet Nothing New: Religion in the Secular Curriculum,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 71, no. 2/3, The Santa Barbara Colloquy: Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Summer/Fall 1988): 271-278, accessed April 4, 2015,

[28] “Perry Miller Facts,” YourDictionary, accessed April 18, 2015,

[29] Maizlish, “Perry Miller and the Puritans.”

[30] Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1939), vii.

[31] Miller, New England Mind, viii.

[32] Miller, New England Mind, vii.

[33] Miller, New England Mind, vii.

[34] Miller, New England Mind, x.

[35] Miller, New England Mind, viii.

[36] Miller, New England Mind, 16, 35, 63, 70, 153.

[37] Miller, New England Mind, 489.

[38] Miller, New England Mind, 396-397.

[39] Miller, New England Mind, 489.

[40] Miller, New England Mind, 489. Rivka Maizlish also notes Miller’s divergence from Charles Beard and other Progressive historians of the modernist period (see: Maizlish, “Perry Miller and the Puritans”).

[41] Miller, New England Mind, 489-491.

[42] Miller, New England Mind, 4, 489.

[43] See: Gorman, “Revisiting The Power of Myth.”

[44] Tweed, “Narrating,” 14-15.

[45] Anthony F.C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Knopf, 1970), vii.

[46] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, vii, Index xiii.

[47] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, viii.

[48] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, 3-18.

[49] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, 21-107.

[50] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, 111-236.

[51] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, 239-262.

[52] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, 263-302.

[53] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, 303-337.

[54] Wallace, Death and Rebirth, 336.

[55] Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 (1985; New Haven: Yale U.P., 2002), xxxix.

[56] Orsi, Madonna, ix-xiii, xlix.

[57] Orsi, Madonna, xii.

[58] Orsi, Madonna, 226-231.

[59] Orsi, Madonna, 231.

[60] Orsi, Madonna, xiii-xxiv.

[61] Orsi, Madonna, xv-xvi.

[62] Orsi, Madonna, xvii.

[63] Orsi, Madonna, xi-xii.

[64] Orsi, Madonna, xix.

[65] Orsi, Madonna, xviii.

[66] Orsi, Madonna, xix-xxiv.

[67] Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Study of Religion (1985, 1995; Aurora, CO: The Davies Group, 2002), 2.

[68] Long, Significations, 3.

[69] Long, Significations, 3-4.

[70] Long, Significations, 4.

[71] Long, Significations, 4.

[72] Long, Significations, 7.

[73] Long, Significations, 9.

[74] Long, Significations, 9, 39.

[75] Long, Significations, 50.

[76] Long, Significations, 69.

[77] Long, Significations, 145-170.

[78] Long, Significations, 152.

[79] Long, Significations, 166.

[80] Long, Significations, 184.

[81] Long, Significations, 187.

[82] Long, Significations, 188-190.

[83] Long, Significations, 190-193.

[84] Long, Significations, 193-197.

[85] Long, Significations, 169, 214.

[86] Tweed, “Acknowledgments,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ix.

[87] Tweed, “Narrating,” 4-5.

[88] Tweed, “Narrating,” 5-6.

[89] Tweed, “Narrating,” 12.

[90] Tweed, “Narrating,” 17-19.

[91] Braude, “Women’s History,” 87.

[92] Braude, “Women’s History,” 87-91.

[93] Braude, “Women’s History,” 90.

[94] Braude, “Women’s History,” 92-94.

[95] Braude, “Women’s History,” 94.

[96] Braude, “Women’s History,”95-96.

[97] Braude, “Women’s History,” 96-103.

[98] Braude, “Women’s History,” 100.

[99] Braude, “Women’s History,” 105.

[100] Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, edited by Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: U. California Press, 1997), 127-128.

[101] Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward,” 129-130.

[102] Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward,” 131-132.

[103] Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward,” 133-146.

[104] Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward,” 136.

[105] Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward,” 128.

[106] Noll, America’s God, viii.

[107] Noll, America’s God, 18.

[108] See: Judy Valente, “Mark Noll Extended Interview,” Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS, April 16, 2004, accessed March 29, 2015,; and Peter Enns, “The Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: We Are Not Allowed to Use It,” Peter Enns: Rethinking Biblical Christianity…, Patheos, January 25, 2013, accessed March 29, 2015,

[109] Noll, America’s God, 3.

[110] Noll, America’s God, 6.

[111] Noll, America’s God, 3-4.

[112] Noll, America’s God, 4.

[113] Noll, America’s God, 5, 17.

[114] Noll, America’s God, 9.

[115] Noll, America’s God, 11, 13-15.

[116] See: Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1989).

[117] Noll, America’s God, 7.

[118] Noll, America’s God, 17.

[119] Noll, America’s God, 5, 12, 18, 573-576.

[120] See: D. Michael Quinn, ed., The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992); and Newell G. Bringhurst and Lavina Fielding Anderson, eds., Excavating Mormon Pasts (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2004).

[121] J. Spencer Fluhman, A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2012), 1-20, 141-147.

[122] See: William H. Sewell Jr., Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation, Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 2005).

[123] Tweed, “Narrating,” 23.

[124] John L. Crow, “African-American Esoteric Religion,” Religion in American History, September 30, 2013, accessed March 30, 2015, Additionally, Margarita Simon Guillory, Stephen C. Finley, and Hugh R. Page, Jr. recently co-edited a volume of essays on this topic [see: Guillory, Finley, and Hugh R. Page, Jr., eds., Esotericism in African American Religious Experience: There Is a Mystery, Aries Book Series: Texts and Studies in Western Esotericism (Boston: Brill, 2014)].


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