How Christian Was Early America?

Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People, by Jon Butler (Harvard, xii + 360 pp.; $29.50, hardcover). Reviewed by John G. Stackhouse, Jr., assistant professor of religion at the University of Manitoba.

Ronald Reagan was supposed to be the champion of evangelicals. Instead, this man of extremely limited church affiliation did little to advance the moral and social agenda of many Christians who supported him, and ended his term with embarrassing news reports about his and his wife’s interest in astrology.

Jon Butler of Yale University tells us in this prize-winning volume that this is not a new thing in American history. The evangelical religion of the seventeenth-century New England Puritans, eighteenth-century Great Awakening, and nineteenth-century Second Great Awakening was not nearly as dominant a current in American religion as many historians have led us to believe.

Instead, we learn that from colonial times to the Civil War (the chronological limits of this book) much of the American populace was indifferent to religion. And what religious interest there was often was directed toward folk religious practices—like astrology—that lay outside the pale of orthodox Christianity.

American Pluriformity

Butler’s book complements the excellent volume by Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (CT, April 9, 1990, p. 31), in arguing that American religion was much more pluralistic than previous generations of historians have allowed. Butler’s book goes behind Hatch’s as he reaches back to the early colonial days to demonstrate the strong links between American religion and the religious scene in Europe, a confusing panorama of official Christianity stretched over ...

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