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Philip Jenkins

Cotton Mather, Meet Bill Clinton

Two histories of religion in America

The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today
by Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt
HarperSanFrancisco, Rev. ed., 2002
464 pp.; $29.95

If you want proof that all the scholars involved in writing these two volumes are men, look no further than the fact that they have forgotten at least one very significant anniversary. Only by an effort of will can two major religious histories of America published in 2002 have failed to note that they appear exactly three centuries after the pioneering work that invented this whole genre, Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Three decades ago, moreover—in 1972—Sydney E. Ahlstrom published his Religious History of the American People (Yale Univ. Press), the book that taught a generation of scholars the crucial importance of moving beyond denominational boundaries to integrate religious history into the broader picture of political and social life.

Reading both the books to be discussed in this essay gives us a splendid opportunity to see how American religious history has evolved in the past generation. This process of development is all the more evident because The Religious History of America is a fully updated version of a book first published by Edwin Gaustad in 1966, and aptly described as a "modern classic." Just what have we learned in the intervening decades?

What has not changed—arguably, since Mather's time—is the realization of the central role of faith and faiths in the making of America. As Jon Butler et al. note in their beautifully written volume, "the story of religion in America therefore usually stands with the grain of American secular history, not against it." That formulation brings me up short only to the extent that I struggle with the concept of "secular history." In the American context, just what is that? Have not religious movements provided the organizing framework for most ...

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