Columbia Guide to Religion in American History

Paul Harvey

It's always nice when a book finished in the previous decade appears in the subsequent decade. That's the case with our new one, Columbia Guide to Religion in American History, which took a leisurely stroll from manuscript completion to actual book appearance (as rather lengthy books tend to do), but is now ready for your university library purchase! We're very pleased with the look and appearance of the final product, and the extensive vetting of the manuscript made for a better final book as well.

We blogged about this work before, but in case you don't set to memory my blog posts from 2 years ago, I'll repeat some description here. This work is part of the Columbia Guide to American History and Cultures series, intended to provide authoritative introductions to topics in American history/studies. My co-editor Edward J. Blum and I are very proud to be part of that excellent series. Our book begins with a lengthy introduction outlining and exploring what we call ten "paradoxes of American religious history." Following that are a series of twenty essays by top scholars in their respective specialties. One real treat in the book is the outstanding essay on "colonial encounters" by our own Linford Fisher. Mark Noll provides a concise essay on Theology, the ever-perceptive Jason Bivins on Religion and Politics, and the noted scholar of Islam in America Jane Smith on that topic, Timothy Tseng writes about Asian-American religion, Andrew Manis on "Civil Religion and National Identity," and Ira Chernus supplies a brilliantly incisive essay on "Religion, War, and Peace." I could go on, but that's just a sampling. At the end of the work, we provide a fifty-page "A-Z glossary" defining major terms, people and events of American religious history. Concluding the book is an extensive bibliography, filmography, webliography, and discography compiled by my co-blogmeister Randall Stephens; I think a lot of you will find the discography and filmography hugely helpful in selecting materials to show/listen to in class.

I admit personally a lot of emotion invested in this work, too, as we were completing the original draft manuscript just as my father, William Gipson Harvey (1925-2008), passed away. So the book is dedicated to his memory, as someone who ceaseless work in improving his personal knowledge and practice of medicine showed me the virtues of dedication to and love of a craft. My craft is history, not medicine, but the love of the search for knowledge and understanding, and humility before what one doesn't know and understand, are much the same.

Just as a teaser, here's a bit from the beginning of the introduction that Ed and I authored, which gives a sense of the rest of the work:

We begin with a thematic exploration of American religious history from the colonial era to the present, setting the stage for more specific chapters that follow. Readers can then survey the variety shorter essays, as well as bibliographic guides and statistical appendices. In the specific essays that follow, authors have been asked to attend to the following tasks:
a) suggest a brief narrative overview of the theme;
b) illuminate some of the major questions and lines of inquiry that have guided scholarship on that theme;
c) articulate a thesis statement summarizing the most up-to-date thinking on the topic;
d) outline areas where more research is needed on a particular theme/topic, as well as areas of major scholarly argument between contending interpretations
e) provide a brief bibliography pointing to the major scholarly resources on their topic

This book features tension, conflict, and creativity in America’s rich religious history. The specific set of twenty essays, written by top scholars in their respective fields, follow specific religious traditions, movements, and time periods. In this broader introduction, we will first explore ten themes, hoping to knit together particular threads of the diverse and ever-multiplying scholarship. Each theme highlights a central tension within the larger framework of American religious history. They can be taken as suggestive starting points for deeper inquiry: 

·          religious freedom and repression; 
·         (In)tolerance, diversity, and pluralism; 
·         racialized religion and the desire for a universal god
·         male hierarchies and the feminization of American religion
·         communalist visions and their consequent commercial capitalist dreams; (or, the Protestant ethic and the spirit of therapeutic consumerism)
·         the folk origins of high theology, and the theological base of popular religious movements
·         proselytization, spiritual recruitment, and the market economy of religion
·         the sacralization of secular politics, and the politicization of the sacred
·         immigration, the globalization of American religious communities, and ethnic insularity and self-definitions
·         regional homogeneity amid national diversity

We hope this book provides an introduction and guide to studying American religious history in all its dynamism and diversity. 

The reviewers of the manuscript noted that the book never settles on one approach exactly, that the essays sometimes stand in contrast or contradiction to one another, and that different scholars provide different ways of looking at the same narrative. That, of course, was precisely the point! The introduction attempts to guide the reader through some of the various approaches, pointing out essays that stand in distinct contrast to each other in method, approach, and conclusion. We hope this provides readers with a way of understanding how the field has been shaped over the last generation in constant dialogue, frequent contention, and, at times, fruitful syntheses. 


Ralph Luker said…
Congratulations, Paul and Ed! This is a great accomplishment.