A Documentary History of Religion in America

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Edwin S. Gaustad, Mark A. Noll, Heath W. Carter
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , July
     800 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


And a lot of college professors said, “Take a two-volume classic anthology that I really can’t use because it’s just too long for one semester, and condense it into one volume, and while you’re at it update it and bring it up to the present, but also shorten it a lot, I mean a lot, and then I might use it.” 

And they received the volume, and they said, “It is good.” And the light shone onto the darkness of their syllabi. 

There is my review, in a nutshell, of this most worthy (and difficult) effort. The two-volume Documentary History of Religion in North America, long a standard in the field, originally was put together by Edwin Gaustad, later with help from Leigh Schmidt. Second and third editions were published in 1993 and 2003 (I have the 1993 edition, which I’ll use here for some comparison with the present volume). The volumes were divided into pre and post-1865 versions, as are many American history textbooks generally. The luxury of all that added space and extra pages allowed for plentiful representation of a huge variety of documents, sometimes printed at considerable length, but perhaps at the cost of classroom use. Surveys of American history typically are divided into pre- and post-Civil War semesters; surveys of American religious history, not so much. A quick skim through the syllabi posted through the Young Scholars in American Religion program suggests that these courses often cover the entirety of American history from pre-colonization to the present, or take up particular themes that range over a long period of time (“Race and American religious life,” for example; or “Religion and Politics”). 

That makes a one-volume updating of this older classic most welcome, and likely to be a hit. Much of the structure of the older volumes remains, sometimes with the same chapter titles. And reviewing the older volumes, which I had not looked at in awhile, reminded me of the admirably diverse coverage they afforded. The current editors have nudged it further in that direction, but that’s not a radical change from what was present before. 

There is one primary competitor for this volume: the internet. Given that many of these documents are public domain or are pretty readily available, it’s not that difficult to imagine professors coming up with their own self-selected “readers” to go along with their classes. They might do so just to save students money, or to produce a set of documents that is more specifically attuned to exactly how they teach their particular class. If it’s a class on, say, Religion and Popular Culture, or Religion and Music (or whatever), they may not want to make students buy a volume in which most of the readings aren’t specifically focused on those topics. 

All of the above being noted, I’m going to use this book in class, and here’s why. First, when students download documents from the internet, they generally don’t give them the same attention that they do to documents that are in a printed volume. I don’t blame them; neither do I, to be perfectly honest. Our skim-reading skills get kicked into high gear when we are scanning internet pages, in a way that’s just not true of printed pages. Numerous studies have demonstrated this, and so does common sense. 

Second, this volume retains the virtues of the older anthology while tweaking it to bring it further into contemporary discussions. This is particularly the case with religion and sexuality, a topic receiving (relatively) little coverage (beyond 19th-century communitarian groups and the like) in previous editions but one brought up to date here with (for example) excerpts from the Obergefell decision. 

Third, the one-volume edition shifts the focus a little towards more pages on contemporary issues, and a little less on older historical issues like the glebe land controversy that don’t exactly thrill a contemporary generation. This gets down into the last few pages of the new work, which includes varied reactions (for example from the thoughtful scholar Yolanda Pierce and the egregious but important Mother-of-All-Twitter-Blockers, Eric Metaxas, here representing pro-Trump “intellectuals”), to the election of you-know-who. The latter section of the book also updates the previous volume with more inclusion of figures such as Dolores Huerta, the evangelicals who produced the Left Behind series, feminist theologians, mega-churches, responses to 9/11, and so forth. 

In short, the editors have taken up an impossible task of doing more with less, and have succeeded admirably. Yes, I myself might have chosen different documents for this or that particular thing, but it’s the fate of editors of such volumes (I’ve done them myself) that reviewers will always go to what-about-isms in their reviews. These volumes are zero-sum games; if you want that thing you suggested, something else has to be omitted, and what, exactly, would that be? 

Beyond the classroom, these volumes exist to provide a broader audience a “state-of-the-art” view of a particular field of historical scholarship. What are the documents that, taken collectively, best narrate the history (and are not, don’t forget, egregiously expensive to reproduce due to copyright costs—always a consideration, especially if you’ve ever had to deal with the Martin Luther King estate)? 

On that latter point: I geeked out in reading the “Acknowledgments” section, where the “permissions to reprint granted by ...” boilerplate statements are presented (bringing back chilling memories, for me, of having to fight for these statements). And in reading over them, it seems that the richness of the volume can be quickly summarized just in scanning the names listed here. Let’s start with the M’s and move forward: James Madison, Malcolm X, J. R. Marcus, Martin Marty, Thomas Merton, Joyce Meyer, Russell Moore, Reinhold Niebuhr, Sarah Osborn, G. Bromley Oxnam ... Pew Research Center, Yolanda Pierce ... Hernando de Soto, Rick Warren ... Just scanning and skipping down the list, my heart is strangely warmed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Harvey is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edwin S. Gaustad (1923–2011) was Professor Emeritus of History and Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Heath W. Carter is Associate Professor of History at Valparaiso University and coeditor (with Mark Noll) of the Library of Religious Biography series.


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