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Two Centuries of Christianity in America: An Overview

  • Paul Boyer (a1)


While the year 2000 did not prove to be the eschatological blockbuster that some of our bolder Bible prophecy popularizers anticipated, nor the year when all our computers melted down, as some Y2K alarmists predicted, it did provoke some historians to step back from their usual topics of inquiry to attempt to sum up in a broad overview fashion some of the major developments in the century just past. A spate of books like Harvard Sitkoff's edited collection of essays, Perspectives on Modern America, with its subtitle, “Making Sense of the Twentieth Century,” were the result. In that spirit, as 2000 approached, I undertook an even more presumptuous venture: a brief overview of not one but two centuries of Christianity in America, from 1800 to the present, as a kind of outline sketch for a hypothetical book on the subject. The result is this essay. Once I had embarked on such a potentially foolhardy project, the practical question remained: What meaningful generalizations about two centuries of American Christianity could one offer in a relatively short space such as that provided by Church History's “Perspectives” feature? Still, Cotton Mather once boasted that he had boiled down the entire plan of salvation onto a single piece of paper, so from that perspective, five thousand or so words seemed ample indeed.



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1. An earlier version of this paper was given on 10 January 1999 at the Washington, D.C. meeting of the American Society of Church History. My thanks to then-ASCH president Ronald Numbers of the Department of the History of Medicine and the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the invitation to participate in that conference and to Professor R. Marie Griffith of the Princeton University Department of Religion for her thoughtful comments on that earlier paper.

2. Sitkoff, Harvard, ed., Perspectives on Modern America: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Readers of the present essay may also be interested in my contribution to the Sitkoff volume, chap. 12, “The Chameleon with Nine Lives: American Religion in the Twentieth Century,” 247–74.

3. Stout, Harry S. and Hart, D. G., eds., New Directions in American Religious History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). For my review of that work, see Boyer, Paul, “Testimony Time: Historians Reflect on Current Issues in American Religious History,” Evangelical Studies Bulletin 15 (1998): 15.

4. Gogan, Mattei, “The Decline of Religious Beliefs in Western Europe,” International Social Science Journal 47 (1995): 405–18;Gallup, George Jr. and Castelli, Jim, The People's Religion: American Faith in the Nineties (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 14, 46.

5. Marsden, George, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

6. For an introduction to the vast literature on secularization theory, see Bruce, Steve, Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).Sommerville, C. John, “Secular Society/ Religious Population: Our Tacit Rules for Using the Term ‘Secularization,’ ” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998): 249–53, seeks to introduce some conceptual clarity and includes a useful bibliography.

7. For a specific instance of the way Christianity has served diametrically opposed groups and purposes in American history, see McKivigan, John R. and Snay, Mitchell, eds., Religion and the Antebellum Antislavery Debate (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).

8. Blight, David W., ed., appendix to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845; reprint, Boston: Bedford Books, 1993), 105.

9. Hatch, Nathan O., The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977);Tuveson, Ernest Lee, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America's Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).

10. Arrington, Leonard J. and Bitton, Davis, The Mormon Experience: History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Knopf, 1979).

11. Boyer, Paul, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), chap. 7 in “The United States in Prophecy,” 225–53.

12. Latourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 19371945).Robert, Dana L., “From Missions to Mission to Beyond Missions: The Historiography of American Protestant Foreign Missions Since World War II,” in New Directions in American Religious History, eds. Stout, Harry S. and Hart, D. G., 362–93.

13. Abzug, Robert H., Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994);Boyer, Paul, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820–1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978);Stein, Stephen J., The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

14. Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 54–64; Blumin, Stuart M., The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

15. Meyer, Donald B., The Positive Thinkers: From Mary Baker Eddy to Ronald Reagan, rev. ed. (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), originally published 1965.

16. For a preview, see Roberts, Jon H., “Psychotherapy,” in The Oxford Companion to United States History, ed. Boyer, Paul S. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

17. At the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, when Texas diver Laura Wilkinson won the gold medal, her first words to the world, via NBC-Television, echoed Peale: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).

18. Christian Bookstores Take a Worldly Lesson,” New York Times, 25 07 1996;Stirring the Waters of Reflection: How the Anguish of the 1960s Transformed the Role of Religious Publishing,” Publishers Weekly (125th anniversary special issue, 07 1997), 7374.

19. Waller, Altina L., Reverend Beecher and Mrs. Tilton: Sex and Class in Victorian America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982).

20. Rather than being touched on parenthetically here, revivalism, so central and distinctive in American Christianity from Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham and beyond, should probably have been treated as a distinct major theme in its own right. My only excuse for not including it as a separate point is that this would have expanded my list from twelve—certainly a resonant number in Christian history—to the more unwieldy and inauspicious thirteen.

21. Though less pronounced because of the hierarchical structure of church authority, this quality of innovation can be found in the American Catholic tradition as well, from Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and the Jesuit Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, who led numerous direct-action antiwar protests in the 1960s, to the popularity of St. Jude (“patron saint of hopeless causes”) and of Marian-visitation sites across the country. Orsi, Robert A., Thank You St. Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996);Wojcik, Daniel, The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (New York: New York University Press, 1997), chap. 4, “Apocalyptic Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in New York City,” 60–96.

22. Moore, R. Laurence, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

23. McDannell, Colleen, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840–1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986);McDannell, Colleen, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995);Morgan, David, “Imaging Protestant Piety: The Icons of Warner Sallman,” Religion and American Culture 3 (1993): 2947;Williams, Peter W., Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

24. Orsi, Robert A., The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985);Tender, Leslie Woodcock, “One Historian's Sunday,” in Religious Advocacy and American History, eds. Kuklick, Bruce and Hart, D. G. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 209–20. For one history of a local congregation—an inner-city mission—see Boyer, Paul, Mission on Taylor Street: The Founding and Early Years of the Dayton Brethren in Christ Mission (Grantham, Pa.: The Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 1987).

25. Wuthnow, Robert, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988);Loveland, Ann, American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942–1993 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996);Reed, Ralph, Politically Incorrect: The Emerging Faith Factor in American Politics (Dallas: Word Books, 1994). Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling and Boyer, When Times Shall be No More cited above. See also Hunter, James Davison, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

26. Redfield, James, The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure (New York: Warner Books, 1993);Albanese, Catherine L., Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990);Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, A Century of Islam in America (Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Islamic Affairs, 1986);Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, ed., The Muslims of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Stephen R. Prothero, “Islam,” in The Oxford Companion to United States History, ed. Boyer.

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Two Centuries of Christianity in America: An Overview

  • Paul Boyer (a1)


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