A History of Religion in America

From the End of the Civil War to the Twenty-First Century

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Bryan F. Le Beau
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , September
     2017.
     268 pages.
     $150.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138711297.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Bryan F. Le Beau has produced two concise volumes that together constitute “a history of religion in America.” The first volume covers “from the first settlements through the Civil War,” and the second, “from the end of the Civil War to the 21st century.” Le Beau has in these volumes married a basic chronological structure to a thematic approach. Each of the chapters, seven in the first volume and eight in the second, has a theme, and they control the narrative. From volume 1 these chapters flow: Native American Religion and Its European Encounter; British Colonization and the Origins of American Religion; Religion and the American Revolution; Religion and the Early Republic; Religion and the Age of Reform; A People Apart; and Civil War and the Churches. This thematic-chronological hybrid approach has consequences. On the plus side, it focuses student and faculty minds on important lessons of history from a particular time in history. Students who already believe that history is “one damn thing after another” are more likely to be able to say some definite things that they learned from the book and consequently the course using these texts as a result.

As to weaknesses, the strong thematic drive has a tendency to push some subjects—and important human subjects of history—to the margins. Slavery and enslaved people only appear in chapter 5 of the first volume as part of “the first religious outsiders” along with Mormons and Roman Catholics. Some chapters are remarkably thoughtful examples of synthesis of large bodies of scholarship. (“Religion and the Age of Reform” sticks out in this respect.) Others are overly derived from other textbooks, and the chapter on British colonialization is an example of this with more than three dozen references to other textbooks. As an author, Le Beau is excited by questions like “was America founded as a Christian nation?” and rises to the occasion of answering these sorts of questions especially well. The opening chapter, on Native American religion begins, as many American religious history texts now do, with the pre-Columbian diversity of indigenous people and their religious beliefs, but at the end of the chapter, featuring Cherokee President John Ross, Andrew Jackson, and the Trail of Tears, the Indians are effectively banished from Le Beau’s history until they briefly reappear in volume 2 for the Lakota Ghost Dance. 

LeBeau's approach works considerably better in the second volume. This is in part due to the better fit of American religious history's great themes with particular (shorter) periods and in part because of Le Beau’s skill in following the key events and issues of his chapters in a way that neither the theme nor the historical characters seem to crowd one another. Here again the chapter themes provide a sense of the narrative: The Challenges of Immigration, Growth, and Diversity; 

Industrialization, Urbanization, and the Social Gospel, Here and Abroad; Science Versus Religion: Action and Reaction; Religion in America between the World Wars; Religion in Post-World War II America, 1945 to 1960; Religion in an Age of Turmoil—the 1960s and 1970s; An Equal and Opposite Reaction: Conservative Retrenchment in the 1980s and 1990s; Whither Religion in the Twenty-First Century? Le Beau is strong at conflict and religious difference which is a kind of virtual theme that serves as a red thread through the second volume, as indeed it has the modern history of America. Le Beau ends the second volume of his history somewhat unusually with a speculative chapter on the future of religion in the 21st century that should stimulate classroom conversation as much as anything else students will have read in his book, for it is in this chapter that the question of the “Nones” and people who declare themselves as “spiritual-but-not-religious,” together with the growing ethnic diversity of contemporary America are engaged—topics near and dear to the hearts of today's college students. Before they reach the end of the second volume, however, they can be expected to struggle with the presentation of “great men” and “great ideas” at the expense of other American religious stories and peoples, especially in Le Beau’s first volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Hudnut-Beumler is the Anne Porter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as professor of history, provost, and vice president for academic affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

Keywords: 

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