Sources for the Survey: What Makes Your Cut?

Heath Carter

What are the essential primary documents for teaching the American religious history survey?  We all answer this question, more or less satisfactorily, every time we piece together a syllabus for the course. 

I'm facing it in a new way these days, as I've been charged with pulling together the latest edition of A Documentary History of Religion in America, first edited by Edwin Gaustad and most recently by Mark Noll.  I used the Gaustad/Noll reader one of the first times I taught the survey, because I liked the length and variety of the individual documents.  However, I haven't ordered it since, mainly because of the fact that it is two hefty volumes - a bit overwhelming, both in terms of cost and pages (1377 in total!), for my students.

This new edition will be a single volume that checks in at under 700 pages.  That's right, 700 pages.  That means a whole lot of documents are going to end up on the cutting room floor.  I don't expect you all to agonize with me over what should stay and what should go, let alone (gulp) what's missing and needs to be added into the mix (though, if you've used the Gaustad/Noll reader and have opinions, please don't hesitate to let me know!).

But I thought that, in the tried-and-true spirit of crowd-sourcing, it might benefit all of us to share some of those documents that we've found most helpful in the classroom.  I'll start.  One source I always love teaching is Thomas Bacon's "A Sermon to Maryland Slaves, 1749," which I first stumbled across in Jon Butler and Harry Stout's excellent reader, Religion in American History.  The document works well for any number of reasons, but perhaps the most important is that Bacon justifies slavery not in terms of race but rather divinely-ordained hierarchies ("God hath appointed several Offices and Degrees in his Family...").  By the time my students wrap their minds around that, we've made a lot of headway in terms of them realizing that the past is, indeed, a foreign place.

What about you?  Are there particular sources that you've found to be invaluable in the survey?  Others that you find difficult to teach?  What makes your cut?


I'm yet again teaching the "Religion in America" survey right now, and my chosen text is Marie Griffiths' "American Religions: A Documentary History." I used to use Patrick Allitt, "Major Problems in American Religious History," and do prefer it, but one big reason I switched to Griffiths is price: the second edition of Allitt has gotten too expensive for my tastes (considering the cost of university these days, I make a significant effort not to adopt more than $100 in textbooks per course).

I teach in Canada, and a large number of my students are international students (often, Chinese) both of which mean I can't expect students to have even rudimentary knowledge of American history, geography, politics, or religion. And our semesters are short (12 weeks of instruction), so a lot has to fall by the wayside in covering pre-Columbian religion up to about 2001 in a single course. Also, since I'm at a heavily science, math, and technology-oriented school, most of my students are new to studying religion (and many are new to the humanities and social sciences, even). So a lot of compromises need to be made in this situation, and I find Griffiths is fitting the situation best for now.
esclark said…
Heath - I'm so glad to see this post! I was just talking with a colleague about choosing textbooks and how I'm always on the hunt for the perfect documentary reader for my classes. We all teach the class a little differently and highlight different things.

I too am using the Griffith reader in my survey courses this fall and spring. Though a bit weighty, it's a size that students will still bring to class. But it lacks some topics that I choose to cover and I supplement it.

There are a lot of documents I find invaluable that also get responses out of students, such as: Jarena Lee's autobiography, Mabel Daggett's "Heathen Invasion of America" from Griffith's reader, a pairing of Sublimis Deus and El Requierimento, excerpts from the Jesuit Relations, excerpts from the FBI files monitoring the Moorish Science Temple (not only looks at the MST but also religion and the state), Modell of Christian Charity, something from Dorothy Day, something from Dubois, a pairing of Malcolm X both pre and post hajj, MLK's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," an excerpt from Rauschenbusch on the social gospel, part of Joseph Smith's "Revelation" ...
Mark T. Edwards said…
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. How much does the Documentary History bring in images? I'm more of a monograph over primary source person in the US surveys (this semester, it's Woody Holton's Abigail Adams, Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams, Lin Fisher's Indian Great Awakening, and always Gary Nash, Red, White, and Black), but the seal of the Mass. Bay Colony--"come over and help us"--is so rich.
For a book of its size and diversity, Griffiths is pretty light on images, and most of them are head shots or portraits of various authors. So I supplement the book with lots of in-class use of images for analysis (indeed, 40% of yesterday's midterm was analysis of images selected from our class material). Also, like Emily, I find I need to augment certain topics that the text neglects. Overall, though, Griffiths is pretty satisfying.
Jeremy Young said…
I really enjoy just about all the sources in Gaustad's Memoirs of the Spirit -- but I tend to teach through the lens of religious experience, rather than a general religion course.
Heath said…
Thanks, everyone, for these great insights. The Griffiths text is great. I have used it in much the same way as all of you. It's wonderful to have the rich, full-length documents for class discussion, but I've also found it necessary to supplement to get a greater variety into the mix. Mark, the Noll/Gaustad reader has some images but not too many. I will definitely keep that in mind as I work on this new edition. I think permissions can be one hang up there, but you're right that they are so valuable for teaching. Emily, thanks for the wonderful list of sources - I use many of these too. I love teaching "Modell of Christian Charity" for the same reason I love the Bacon sermon - it really underscores the past-ness of the past.
I have so many thoughts about this on the Catholic side of things, for which I've used the Massa/Osborne reader in the past.

I don't know if this is too 'edgy' for your purposes, but I always teach a document or images from ACT UP's "Stop the Church" protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral in December 1989. There's a set of documents in the LGBT history reader "We Are Everywhere" you could look at.

Because footage of the protest is readily available (and it chokes me up just typing this, thinking about it), it's something I teach over and over again not only to talk about religion and sexuality, or religion and politics, but also religion and space--what it meant to disrupt mass.

This is a fascinating set of comments--my own intro to Religion and American Culture when I was an undergrad was monograph-based, but I've had to look at a lot of readers since then. Good luck!
Heath said…
Thanks so much, Monica, for these great suggestions - I will definitely check them out!