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by Bruce Kuklick


Evasive Maneuvers

Can Protestant historians play by the rules of the secular academy without giving the game away?

This volume, which is a culminating effort in Holifield's writing career, embodies all that we have come to expect from this careful scholar. The writing is elegant. The treatment is comprehensive, authoritative, and judicious. And the analysis is fair-minded and impartial. Holifield aims at encyclopedic coverage, and lucidly describes the high religious thinking of what he counts as 25 theological movements.

Various readers will have different assessments of the details of Holifield's summaries. I found the survey of "Baconian" Christianity in the early 19th century more than illuminating, and the discussion of an American Roman Catholic theology tinged by the concerns of Edwardsean individualism opened an area of knowledge of which I was entirely unaware. I wished Holifield had spent more time on Nathaniel Emmons, and thought he did not sufficiently appreciate Horace Bushnell's systematic achievement. Bowing, I believe, to current ideas of what is appropriate, the author has an account of Black theology, but he is careful to argue, persuasively I believe, that while he is moving "outside the self-understanding of the era," all traditions are partially "constructions of successive generations" and a product of "changing self-understanding." The book covers everything, and however one appreciates an individual item, everything receives thorough and prudent examination.

Readers will also differently estimate the minimalist interpretative framework that Holifield employs. In a meticulous and alert chapter on those theologies that rested on contemporary revelation and that are centered in the Mormons, Holifield describes with a straight face the stories of Joseph Smith's reception of his golden plates, his interaction with the heavenly visitor Moroni, and Smith's own miracles. Holifield writes that "despite the scorn of the learned," many converts to Mormonism lived in a magic world of folk culture. In such a setting, Smith's reports "had extraordinary evidential force." ...

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