Secularization and Religious Innovation in the North Atlantic World

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David N. Hempton, Hugh McLeod
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This engaging book edited by David Hempton and Hugh McLeod presents itself as a series of responses to the book Religious America, Secular Europe? edited by Peter Berger, Grace Davie, and Effie Fokas and published one decade ago in 2008. Secularization and Religious Innovation in the North Atlantic World is structured thematically and chronologically (beginning with the early nineteenth century) in nine parts with two chapters each. It wrestles with the question of whether it is accurate to say that there is a “God gap” between a more religious America and a more secular Europe.

In Part I, “Church, State, and Money,” Stewart J. Brown writes in the first chapter about the established churches’ strategies to fund the parish system in England and Scotland between 1830 and 1930, at the height of imperial Britain’s power and influence in the world. Eric Baldwin follows with a chapter that studies the role of religion in the flourishing of the industrial city of Lowell, Massachusetts in the mid nineteenth century, between “establismentarianism” and voluntarism.

In Part II, “Evangelicalism,” David Bebbington’s chapter underlines the similarities between British and American evangelicalism especially around the beginning of the twentieth century: from this moment onwards divergences set in. Heather D. Curtis’s chapter compares the use of the media in British and American evangelicalism, noticing the innovative character of the use of the press for popular Christian culture in America, and telling the story of the American edition of the Christian Herald by noting its differences from its English antecedent.

In Part III, “Born in America,” David Holland’s chapter studies the issue of the relationship between secularization and religious diversification using the case of Christian Science and a 1907 court case against Mary Baker Eddy, the movement’s founder. Colleen McDannell focuses on the Mormons since the 1970s and their ability to convert materialism to theology, connecting the “very corporate nature of modern Mormonism” with its rejection of the separation between religion and the world.

In Part IV, “Gender,” Ann Braude analyzes the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as a women’s rights movement within Protestant Christianity in the late nineteenth century, in a contribution that connects the history of women’s organizations and secularization. Tine Van Osselaer discusses the late nineteenth century male Catholic movement of devotion to the Sacred Heart in Belgium, Germany, and France.

In Part V, “Popular Culture,” Randall Stephens compares British and American Pentecostalism and their differences in relating to popular culture, and the differences between Pentecostals, charismatics, and neo-pentecostals on one side and mainline Protestants on the other. Hugh McLeod looks at the relationship between sport and religion from the mid nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, highlighting the 1970s as the beginning of the God gap between Europe and the United States.

In Part VI, “World War, Cold War, and Post-War Revival,” Michael Snape links the revival of religion in post-war America with the presence of religion in the US armed forces during the war, and also with the effects of the GI Bill in shaping a new middle class which would in turn support American churches. Uta A. Balbier compares the impact of Billy Graham in the context of the Cold War and the different receptions of his spiritual crusades in Europe and America.

In Part VII, “Catholicism in the Era of Vatican II,” Wilhelm Damberg’s compares Catholicism in the US and Germany in the twentieth century, stressing the differences between American and German Catholicism more in terms of degree than of essence. Leslie Woodcock Tentler compares American Catholicism with that in Europe and Quebec from the point of view of an American religious picture that is not static, with alternate signs of weaknesses and vitality.

In Part VIII, “The 1970s and After,” Kip Richardson analyzes the phenomenon of megachurches. Grace Davie addresses the issue of the differences between American and Europe and talks about “European exceptionalism.”

In Part IX, “Conclusions,” the two editors offer their perspectives. Hugh McLeod rejects the contrast between a religious America and a secular Europe, and emphasizes the changes in the picture if we consider regional differences within America and Europe. David Hempton, in contrast, recognizes the distinctive religious character of the US and articulates its differences from Europe.

Secularization and Religious Innovation in the North Atlantic World is a well articulated and internally diversified set of responses to questions of secularization that significantly enriches our knowledge and understanding of an issue that has different dimensions—historical, theological, and political. The essays in the book offer a complex picture of the parallel paths taken during these last two centuries in Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) and in the process of secularization in Europe and in North America. The book paints a picture of the “God gap” between Europe and North America, but argues that this gap is not the one offered by previous studies, and in particular by Religious America, Secular Europe? Hempton and McLeod’s volume makes clear that the idea of the “God gap” and its features depend on the chronologies identified for particular churches and groups, and that the dynamics of the creation and movements of this “God gap” vary according to what kind of North America and what kind of Europe (geographically and confessionally) we are talking about.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Faggioli is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David N. Hempton is dean of the faculty of divinity, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, and John Lord O'Brian Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.

Hugh McLeod is emeritus professor of church history at the University of Birmingham.


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