A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada

2nd edition

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Mark A. Noll
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , October
     2019.
     592 pages.
     $55.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802874900.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Twenty-seven years after the publication of the first edition of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, Mark Noll’s already triumphant textbook has been revised and published in an outstanding second edition. In addition to including the many developments over the last quarter of a century, Noll incorporates lived religion and social history and elevates typically unheard voices. The result is a textbook on the history of Christianity in North America that introduces its readers to the diverse ways and diverse communities in which Christianity has taken root.

Noll intentionally writes a history of Christianity rather than a history of religion in America in order to present this Christianity on its own terms. This presentation attends to both the writings of major figures and the experiences of common people. This inclusivity is especially noticeable as the Christianities in the United States and Canada are compared and contrasted. As a whole, Noll’s textbook achieves its stated aims.

Noll lists the changes from the first to the second edition in the introduction. More scholarship of and from minority voices, social history, more measured language when referring to the so-called Second Great Awakening, rearrangements, revisions, and the new millennium add context and clarity to the stories of Christianity in North America.

Given that the first edition of the book was already the standard textbook for courses on the history of Christianity in the United States and Canada, evaluating the book’s place in the literature is almost superfluous. Noll’s updated lists for further reading on each chapter show the more recent scholarship that informed Noll’s revisions and expands the base of interlocutors for students. The second edition, therefore, holds a unique position in the literature as it bridges the gap between pre- and post-Y2K historiography. Students will encounter the influence of Sidney Ahlstrom and Martin Marty as well as Catherine Brekus and Allen Dwight Callahan. This historiographic inclusivity helps achieve Noll’s goal of presenting a more diverse vision of North American Christianity than in the first edition.

Space does not allow for a full account of the strengths of the book. A particular benefit of the second edition is the reworking of chapters 14–16, which provide better background and coherence to 20th-century developments. These chapters show the importance of social history in surveys of church history. An example may be seen in the change from grouping 20th-century women leaders in one category in the first edition (“A Public Role for Women”) to situating the stories of these women in wider discussions in the second edition. Such a change, however small, emphasizes that women’s leadership and experiences are not footnotes in the wider story of the church in North America.

Criticism can be directed toward the analysis of the 21st century. The first edition focused on the looming presence of secularization as Christianity in America moved toward a “wilderness” in the new millennium. This edition, however, eliminates much of the discussion of secularization, though some comments remain. The confusion comes during these persisting comments on secularization. Helpful discussions around postmodernism or postsecularism would have been appropriate to provide additional context for the discussions of secularization and the relative decline in church attendance. (Postmodernism receives a brief nod in a section on Christian literature.) Additionally, Pope Francis is hardly mentioned. Discussing the significance of a pope from the Western Hemisphere for Roman Catholics in the United States and Canada would have been illuminating and, stylistically, a nice bookend to a volume that begins with the Catholic mission to the New World. Such an absence demonstrates how the analysis of Catholicism gradually wanes through the end of the book. These criticisms, however, do not undermine the significant achievement that is the second edition.

Undergraduates and graduate students in survey courses will benefit most from the book, and a general audience interested in the development of Christianity in America will find the comprehensive, readable book illuminating.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alex Gunter Parrish is a doctoral student in the history of Christianity at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a postgraduate assistant at Manchester Wesley Research Center.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame. His other books include America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln and Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.

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