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The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century
The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century
Matthew S. Hedstrom
Oxford University Press, 2015
290 pp., $26.95

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Elesha Coffman


High Priests of Middlebrow Culture

Bestsellers of liberal American religion.

Pastors have long admonished their flocks that faith isn't just for Sunday, and many a sermon has played on the theme, "Show me a man's checkbook, and I'll tell you what he truly values." It is an insight that has taken scholars of American religion awhile to recognize, but thankfully some are now examining everyday behaviors and purchasing patterns to better understand trends in spirituality.

Matthew Hedstrom, assistant professor of history and American studies at the University of Virginia, contributes to this vein of scholarship with his lively first book, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century. Though he attends to liberal Protestantism, he does not trace his narrative through theological debates, denominations, or institutions such as the Federal Council of Churches. Instead, he looks at book cultures, specifically the practices of producing and consuming the middlebrow religious bestsellers that still line the shelves of thrift stores and older church libraries, including books that enjoyed wide dissemination thanks to the paperback revolution. "In material ways that go beyond adherence to broad cultural norms," he argues, "participation in religious and spiritual life happens through commodities bought and sold, and for much of the twentieth century the most significant of these religious commodities was the book."

The selling of books looms larger in this tale than does the buying of them. Hedstrom excavates the massive marketing and distribution campaigns that launched these books into public consciousness, starting with Religious Book Week in the 1920s. Spearheaded by Frederic Melcher, the man who had instituted the Newbery and Caldecott Medals to promote quality children's fare, Religious Book Week aimed to bring the best in spiritual literature to a population hungry for uplift following the disillusionment of World War I. The promotion also, of course, ...

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