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American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity
By Paul K. Conkin
Univ. of North Carolina Press
336 pp.; $55, hardcover; $18.95, paper
The most helpful thing about this study of six religious movements originating in America is the author's seriousness about what adherents to the movements have believed and practiced. Conkin is a veteran historian of cultural and scientific as well as religious subjects; this book is a complement to another recently published synthesis, The Uneasy Center: Reformed Christianity in Antebellum Minds (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1995), which focuses on the mainstream Protestant traditions lying behind modern Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Episcopalianism.
The six groups that Conkin gathers as "American originals" are the Restorationist churches (Disciples, Christian Church, Churches of Christ), Unitarian-Universalists, Adventists (with Jehovah's Witnesses appended), Latter-day Saints, Christian Scientists, and Pentecostals (with Holiness churches considered alongside the Pentecostals). Most of the volume is given over to the kind of lengthy, intelligent, moderately interpretative articles found in specialized encyclopedias. Engagement with critical scholarship is minimal, but Conkin offers just the sort of introductory overview that many will find useful for these groups.
Conkin's account takes much less notice of the way the American environment shaped the new religious movements than one finds in works like R. Lawrence Moore's Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986). But for questions like the contested status of Mary Baker Eddy among Christian Scientists (did she really call herself a second Christ?), on how Latter-day Saints take Joseph Smith's teaching on the potential of all humans to become gods and how they continue the practice of temple "endowment" that stretches back to Smith, or on the forces that have drawn some Seventh-day Adventists closer to more conventional evangelicals, this book offers—with ...