A Religious History of the American People, by Sydney E. Ahlstrom (Yale, 1972, 1,158 pp., $19.50), is reviewed by Erling Jorstad, professor of history and American studies, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

In CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s report on significant books of 1972 (March 2, 1973, issue), the reviewer chose the Ahlstrom history as “the most significant book of church history to appear” that year. I would go beyond that to say the book is among the most significant to appear in several years. If nothing else, it is the largest single-volume history of American religion—1,096 pages of text—and it has the most complete up-to-date bibliography now available. Last month it was honored with the prestigious National Book Award as 1972’s winner in the area of philosophy and religion. It belongs in the library of every minister and congregation from Adventist to Zionist.

Sydney Ahlstrom, a professor of both American history and modern church history, and former chairman of the American Studies program at Yale, is ideally suited to produce such a history. He draws on this broad background to contribute what is a major breakthrough in the study of American religious history. He is convinced that on the basis of the rapid and deep-rooted changes that have taken place in American religious life in the 1960s, changes that he believes are more than temporary fads, it is time to take a long, hard look at the origins of religion in America to gain some perspective for the future.

Ahlstrom’s principal argument is that the 1960s “have marked a new state in the long development of American religious history,” and that this state could virtually eliminate traditional religious elements in American life. But the momentum of the 1960s, he concludes, could also be understood by Americans as a great opportunity to draw on “the profounder elements of their traditions,” there to find new sources of strength and confidence to vindicate “the idealism which has been so fundamental an element in the country’s past.”

So this is no old-fashioned history limited to describing just what happened, no straightforward fact-by-fact narrative, no denomination-by-denomination chronology, no eclectic, encyclopedic compilation of facts set into a narrative framework. It is, the author hopes, a resource that can help Americans find their bearings again after the storms of what he calls “the Turbulent Sixties.”

Yet having made this goal clear, the author follows the most strict and careful methods of traditional scholarly research, analysis, and exposition. He admits to having spent “a decade of his life” on this task, and the results of such labor are everywhere evident. He has worked through both the old master historians (e.g., Charles Andrews, George Bancroft) and the most recent scholarship, including the religious implications of the Beatles. He even has a sprightly little section on the Two Seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptists. He wisely avoids quibbling with fellow workers in the field such as Handy, Hudson, Marty, and Mead, yet shows his familiarity with their work. He openly acknowledges that he draws heavily on the standard secondary works. But it is evident in his chapters on theology that he has sifted his own way through the primary sources. In short, his scholarship is almost impeccable.

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That established, it is necessary to say next that Ahlstrom’s book is a landmark for several reasons. It is the culmination of a trend among historians in this field to break out of the older scope of subject matter, the practice made by prominent W. W. Sweet of writing church history as denominational history. Ahlstrom vastly expands the boundaries of the field to include all important religious phenomena and groups, not just the Christian and Judaic traditions within American history.

He breaks new ground, next, in fulfilling one of the aims he sets forward in his preamble: to see American religious history in the “larger frame of world history.” This he does admirably, especially in the first section, drawing from the salient aspects of medieval and modern European history to show its influence on American religious life.

He next gives extensive attention to the many religious movements outside the mainstream of his subject; his last few chapters are a tour de force in the difficult field of writing contemporary history, as he explains the rise of the Orthodox churches, Christian Science, New Thought, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, the occult, and such religions of the East as Vedanta, Bahai, and Buddhism. In each section, his discussion is a straightforward exposition of the group’s rise, its principal teachings, and its place in the general cultural setting of American life.

Finally, Ahlstrom’s book is a landmark methodologically because he carefully draws from a wide variety of sources—demographic, economic, political, and psychological, as well as the familiar social, ecclesiastical, and theological data of earlier historians. His work in the interdisciplinary field of American studies helped prepare him for showing clearly how intertwined these subjects are for religious history.

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Ahlstrom has overcome perhaps the most difficult problem of all: dealing with theological and ethical issues while at the same time keeping the narrative moving ahead with careful attention to chronological sequence. He does this by using two kinds of chapters, fast-paced narratives and then rounded, in-depth analyses of the decisive theological or social issues. Both types of chapters are reminiscent of classroom lectures: an introductory definition of the topic, an exposition of the chief issues involved, a brief and appetizing use of primary source to give flavor to the narrative, and a summary showing what changes took place and how they fit into the larger picture. The theological chapters are models of lucid, critical scholarship, taking up in some detail such complex issues as the Half Way Covenant, Jonathan Edwards’s theology, the Enlightenment, the “Communitarian Impulse,” and many others. I was especially impressed with the chapters on romanticism, immigration, and nativism; they are interdisciplinary history at its best.

Ahlstrom is also the first in this field to give serious attention to the religious ideas of the native Americans, rather than considering them only as subjects for missionaries or trigger-happy militia. A further impression is that the author shows remarkable familiarity with the peculiar problems created by the widely varying kinds of ecclesiastical polity among the many denominations. He seems at home discussing church government battles among both the tiny and the giant church bodies.

In scope, sources of information, clarity and achievement of purpose, and judiciousness of judgment, then, this book sets standards those in the future must use as their criteria for model scholarship. I reluctantly bring up some areas of disagreement, doing so not only because a reviewer is supposed to but because the author invites commentators to call attention to his hidden presuppositions and unexamined major premises.

I would have appreciated a more thorough discussion of a phase of American religious life outlined briefly by Robert T. Handy in his recent anthology, Religion in the American Experience, when he mentioned that in their haste and need to attract supporters American churches did not take the time to educate their people seriously in their particular traditions and histories. As a result many denominations today find far more serious controversy within the denominations than against other denominations. Followers of one or another style of piety feel more comfortable with like-minded believers in other bodies than with their own—hence internal conflict, such as witnessed today by Catholics, southern Presbyterians, and Missouri Lutherans. A closer explanation of this phenomenon would be of great help.

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In view of the author’s firm grasp of American social history, I wish he had given us a deeper discussion of the many problems facing the churches that made their programs so difficult to achieve. For instance, what effects have the automobile, the explosion of professional sports, and the growing secularization of Sunday had on religious life within the churches?

A few more quibbles, Ahlstrom could have used better sources of information on the National Association of Evangelicals than Gasper’s history; the works by Erickson and Shelley on new evangelicalism are more reliable and helpful. And Oscar Handlin’s heralded work The Uprooted has not stood up well under careful examination by specialists. Perhaps four pages of discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson is too much, when compared to the space given to others such as Bushnell and Rauschenbusch.

More of the theological turmoil and pluralism of mainline American Protestantism would have been clarified had the author more fully discussed the battles within the major seminaries. Some attention is given to the best-known struggles, but we find only brief reference to the warfare over the historical-critical method, an issue that is still very alive and bothersome today. This becomes evident when in discussing the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s Ahlstrom concludes that Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism “even after a half-century remains the chief theological ornament of American Fundamentalism.” The choice of the word “ornament” is regrettable, for its suggests that the book is only that. The works of the new evangelicals such as Henry, Ramm, and Carnell are representative of the heirs of Machen, but these are not discussed.

These comments should in no way discourage the reader from studying this enormously learned work. Ahlstrom has shown great courage and prepared himself for many criticisms such as those I just made by being willing to involve himself in the whole range of American religious history, just about as controversial a field as one can imagine. By covering the entire subject he leaves himself open to criticism on specific topics. But by his patient study, his careful organization, and his attention to detail and to the larger pattern he has provided us with a perspective by which we can fulfill his purpose for this volume: to use it and learn from it so we can draw from the more profound elements in our moral religious history to “vindicate the idealism” that is so vital a part of the religious history of the American people. (See editorial, page 29.)

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