Practicing Protestants

Practicing Protestants
Kelly Baker

Emily Wright, a doctoral candidate in Dance at Arizona State University, reviews Practicing Protestants: Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630-1965, edited by Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Leigh Schmidt and Mark Valeri for H-Amstdy. I picked up this volume not too long ago, and I was impressed by the attempt on behalf of contributors to understand how Protestantism in America has been practiced by individuals and movements. Wright focuses upon the use of practice theory as an interpretative lens:

In their introduction, editors Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Leigh E. Schmidt, and Mark Valeri, describe two central strands of scholarship in the growing field of practice theory. These two strands, often found in opposition to each other, furnish a dialogic spectrum on which each author in _Practicing Protestants_ can be found. The first strand, that of social theorists of practice, draws on Marxist and Foucauldian theories, among others, to highlight "the intricate exercises of power, the procedures of enforcement, the spaces of negotiation, as well as the subtle tactics of resistance" found in various forms of Protestant religious practice (p. 3). The second strand, that of contemporary theologians, such as Dorothy Bass, and philosophical and ethical reconstructionists, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, offer a differing interpretation. Rather than view Christian practices as "generally hegemonic, with resistance being located in small-scale tactics of getting by or making room, Christian theorists view such regulatory structuring as largely humane, enabling, and supportive." As the editors and authors of this volume intended, the application of these opposing interpretive lenses to the examination of Protestant practice offers rich and varied descriptive and analytical scholarship in which the constructs of power, race, colonialism, class, and gender are held in productive tension with the intentional and meaningful conception of the Christian way of life (p. 4).

For the rest of Wright’s review, click here.

For American religious historians, this volume is useful way to move beyond presentations of Protestantism as a textual tradition and embrace that Protestants also embodied their faith as well. (This is not to say that American religious historians ignore Protestant practice, but I think that it is easy to present Protestantism as textual and Catholicism as embodied). From my reading of the text, it became clear that one of the larger goals of the volume was to present the lived religion of Protestants in various historical times and places from Mormon missionaries to Episcopal dancers to Protestant aesthetic sensibilities, and I think this proves to be a useful text as we consider again and again how to present the lived experiences of various religious actors. The press describes the text:

This collection of essays explores the significance of practice in understanding American Protestant life…Profiling practices that range from Puritan devotional writing to twentieth-century prayer, from missionary tactics to African American ritual performance, these essays provide a unique historical perspective on how Protestants have lived their faith within and outside of the church and how practice has formed their identities and beliefs. Each chapter focuses on a different practice within a particular social and cultural context. The essays explore transformations in American religious culture from Puritan to Evangelical and Enlightenment sensibilities in New England, issues of mission, nationalism, and American empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, devotional practices in the flux of modern intellectual predicaments, and the claims of late-twentieth-century liberal Protestant pluralism.


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