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Lauren F. Winner


Retold, Redirected, Rethunk

Form and content in the study of American religion.

Academic disciplines, like the people who study them, have life cycles.

If history and sociology lack bat mitzvahs and Sweet Sixteens, they nonetheless have rituals to mark their milestones. The "state-of-the-field" essays in two recent books, New Directions in American Religious History, edited by Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart, and Retelling U.S. Religious History, edited by Thomas Tweed, are such markers.

"A minihistoriographical revolution has occurred in studies of American religion over the past 20 years as they have proliferated at the epicenter of the historical and sociological enterprises," proclaim Stout and Robert M. Taylor, Jr., at the beginning of the first essay in New Directions. "Religious history has entered the mainstream of historical research." The field, in short, has come of age. But lest those of us who study American religion decide it is time to rest on our laurels, these two collections, along with David D. Hall's Lived Religion in America, have come to remind us that there is still much work to be done.

Taken together, New Directions in American Religious History and Retelling U.S. Religious History offer an invaluable assessment of where the study of American religion has been, and where it needs to go from here. Although the books share certain overlapping themes and questions, they are remarkably unalike. Readers familiar with the editors' earlier work will not be surprised by the differences in tenor. Stout's important study, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England, made an invaluable contribution to a well-established, ongoing scholarly discussion. By contrast, Tweed's first book, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent, set out to tell a new story. The same can be said for the collections they have edited. The essays in the Stout and Hart volume reconsider—sometimes radically—our understanding of familiar people, places, and events in ...

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