The Cambridge History of Religions in America

Here is an absolutely tremendous 3-volume resource that should be of interest to all students of American history: The Cambridge History of Religions in America, to be published by Cambridge University Press in July and edited by Stephen J. Stein (Indiana Bloomington).  The publisher’s description follows.

The three volumes of The Cambridge History of Religions in America trace the historical development of religious traditions in America, following both their transplantation from other parts of the world and the inauguration of new religious movements on the continent of North America. This story involves complex relationships among these religious communities as well as the growth of distinctive theological ideas and religious practices. The net result of this historical development in North America is a rich religious culture that includes representatives of most of the world’s religions. Volume 1 extends chronologically from prehistoric times until 1790, a date linked to the formation of the United States as a nation. The first volume provides background information on representative Native American traditions as well as on religions imported from Europe and Africa. Diverse religious traditions in the areas of European settlement, both Christian and non-Christian, became more numerous and more complex with the passage of time and with the accelerating present. Tension and conflict were also evident in this colonial period among religious groups, triggered sometimes by philosophical and social differences, other times by distinctive religious beliefs and practices. The complex world of the eighteenth century, including international tensions and conflicts, was a shaping force on religious communities in North America, including those on the continent both north and south of what became the United States. Volume 2 focuses on the time period from 1790 until 1945, a date that marks the end of the Second World War. One result of the religious freedom mandated by the Constitution was the dramatic expansion of the religious diversity in the new nation, and with it controversy and conflict over theological and social issues increased among denominations. Religion, for example, played a role in the Civil War. The closing decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the rising prominence of Roman Catholicism and Judaism in the United States as well as the growth of a variety of new religious movements, some that were products of the national situation and others that were imported from distant parts of the globe. Modern science and philosophy challenged many traditional religious assumptions and beliefs during this century and a half, leading to a vigorous debate and considerable controversy. By the middle of the twentieth century, religion on the North American continent was patterned quite differently in each of the three nations – the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Volume 3 examines the religious situation in the United States from the end of the Second World War to the second decade of the twenty-first century, contextualized in the larger North American continental context. Among the forces shaping the national religious situation were suburbanization and secularization. Conflicts over race, gender, sex, and civil rights were widespread among religious communities. During these decades, religious organizations in the United States formulated policies and practices in response to such international issues as the relationship with the state of Israel, the controversy surrounding Islam in the Middle East, and the expanding presence of Asian religious traditions in North America, most notably Buddhism and Hinduism. Religious controversy also accompanied the rise of diverse new religious movements often dismissed as “cults,” the growth of mega-churches and their influence via modern technologies, and the emergence of a series of ethical disputes involving gay marriage and abortion. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the national and international religious contexts were often indistinguishable.

Bebbington, “Victorian Religious Revivals”

Another terrific looking book about religious history in Great Britain which also delves into some sociology of the religious “awakening” —  this one by David Bebbington (Stirling), Victorian Religious Revivals: Culture and Piety in Local and Global Contexts (OUP 2012).  An especially interesting feature of this book looks to be the study of the structure or organization of the revival, which is perhaps in some cases less spontaneous than one might believe.  The publisher’s description follows.

Revivals are outbursts of religious enthusiasm in which there are numerous conversions. In this book the phenomenon of revival is set in its broad historical and historiographical context. David Bebbington provides detailed case-studies of awakenings that took place between 1841 and 1880 in Britain, North America and Australia, showing that the distinctive features of particular revivals were the result less of national differences than of denominational variations. These revivals occurred in many places across the globe, but revealed the shared characteristics of evangelical Protestantism. Bebbington explores the preconditions of revival, giving attention to the cultural setting of each episode as well as the form of piety displayed by the participants.

No single cause can be assigned to the awakenings, but one of the chief factors behind them was occupational structure and striking instances of death were often a precipitant. Ideas were far more involved in these events than historians have normally supposed, so that the case-studies demonstrate some of the main patterns in religious thought at a popular level during the Victorian period. Laymen and women played a disproportionate part in their promotion and converts were usually drawn in large numbers from the young. There was a trend over time away from traditional spontaneity towards more organised methods sometimes entailing interdenominational co-operation.

Worden, “God’s Instruments”

Very interesting book about the religious dimensions of Puritan politics in 17th century England by Blair Worden (Royal Holloway College London), God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell (OUP 2012).  The publisher’s description follows.

The Puritan Revolution escaped the control of its creators. The parliamentarians who went to war with Charles I in 1642 did not want or expect the fundamental changes that would follow seven years later: the trial and execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords, and the creation of the only republic in English history. There were startling and unexpected developments, too, in religion and ideas: the spread of unorthodox doctrines; the attainment of a wide measure of liberty of conscience; new thinking about the moral and intellectual bases of politics and society. God’s Instruments centres on the principal instrument of radical change, Oliver Cromwell, and on the unfamiliar landscape of the decade he dominated, from the abolition of the monarchy in 1649 to the return of the Stuart dynasty in 1660.

Its theme is the relationship between the beliefs or convictions of politicians and their decisions and actions. Blair Worden explores the biblical dimension of Puritan politics; the ways that a belief in the workings of divine providence affected political conduct; Cromwell’s commitment to liberty of conscience and his search for godly reformation through educational reform; the constitutional premises of his rule and those of his opponents in the struggle for supremacy between parliamentary and military rule; the relationship between conceptions of civil and religious liberty. The conflicts Worden reconstructs are placed in the perspective of long-term developments, of which historians have lost sight, in ideas about parliament and about freedom. The final chapters turn to the guiding convictions of two writers at the heart of politics, John Milton and the royalist Edward Hyde, the future Earl of Clarendon. Material from previously published essays, much of it expanded and extensively revised, comes together with freshly written chapters.