The Chance of Salvation deftly captures the chaotic nature of American religion in the 19th century. It handles conversion narratives with respect, but without abandoning a critical, scholarly eye. And yet, while the book demonstrates the centrality of religious choice in the United States, it is largely silent on why this transformation occurred. While Mullen points to religious disestablishment (freedom of religion) as one piece of that puzzle, he neglects any discussion of what historian Nathan Hatch calls “the democratization of American Christianity,” a force that gave common people unprecedented power in defining their religious traditions and choosing their religious loyalties.
Like all works of synthesis, the book cannot give as much attention to nuance and distinction between different traditions. However, to use an old cliché, we often miss the forest for the trees. While focusing on one religion or movement opens our eyes to the rich details of a specific tradition, it can also blind us to commonalities and larger trends across religions. Mullen helps us see how a distinctly evangelical approach to salvation had ripple effects beyond evangelicals, and he should be commended for it.
Josh McMullen is the general education department chair at Regent University. He is the author of Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture, 1885-1925 (Oxford University Press).