Last week I wrote about my experience at the American Society of Church History conference, noting the discipline's inattention to, and even disdain of, coherent narrative. The approach many historians favor instead accounts for a much wider variety of people and practices, but it gives readers (or listeners) little guidance on what to make of the information set before them. I also noted that new, multidirectional research can bear fruit when tended by careful hands. As a case in point, let's look at two new books on the local religious scene: America's Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-First Century, by Peter W. Williams (University of Illinois Press), and The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity, by Mark A. Noll (Eerdmans).

The titles of these books reveal a lot about their authors' approaches. "America's Religions" privileges no any particular religion, and the subtitle suggests multiple origins and multiple trajectories over a very long period of time. "The Old Religion" does privilege Christianity, and the juxtaposition of "old" and "new" hints at an overriding interest in continuity as well as discontinuity.

Flipping to the back of these books also highlights contrasts. Biographical copy indicates that Williams is a professor of comparative religion and American studies, while Noll is a professor of Christian thought, based in a history department. Both are members of the ASCHB and, in fact, made presentations in the same room at different hours during the conference. Yet they do not ply the same trade. The contrasting approaches of religion scholars and historians contribute to the disjunction that permeates the study of church history.

In America's Religions, Williams endeavors to describe "the interaction of individual religious groups with the broader social order" of the United States. Chapters reflect a blending of these emphases, as Williams begins with the oldest religious groups-Native Americans, Africans, and Jews-in ancient societies, then introduces newer religious groups in a roughly chronological order. Forms of Christianity dominate most of the chapters, but the author also discusses fringe groups like New Thought, Christian Science, and the Occult (under "Health, Wealth, and Metaphysics") as well as Islam, Asian traditional religions, and even secularism. Williams explains the need for such variety by writing, "In telling the story of American religion, then, one must tell both one story and many stories. … These stories overlap and intersect, but are never identical, and no one can be accurately singled out as the paradigmatic story."

Williams sketches many stories. His chapters are well written and generally well focused, usually following either one religious movement or a cluster of related movements through the span of no more than a few decades. To further focus these stories, Williams makes sometimes puzzling interpretive choices, such as the decision to emphasize liturgy and polity in his coverage of modern mainline Protestantism but culture and politics in his coverage of modern conservative Protestantism. The effect of these choices, though, is to make each chapter a more palatable bite-sized portion, which should appeal to the religious studies professors who will teach from the text.

Williams has less success telling any one story about American religion. His chronological structure bears some resemblance to narrative, but he tells readers that other organizations are equally valid, going so far as to offer an alternative table of contents. And while limiting chapters to a few decades aids in digestion of the material, it also makes tracing historical development nearly impossible. Native Americans, for example, are featured in chapters 1, 21, and 39-chapters too different, contextually, to be strung together effectively. The conservative Protestants who emerge in the second half of the twentieth century appear unconnected to either Puritans, to whom critics of their political ambitions sometimes compare them, or Pietists, after whom many conservative Protestants style themselves.

Williams wants to argue that developments in religion grow organically from sociological shifts, but the way he writes about these developments gives readers the sense that they all spring from nowhere. Whatever merit his argument holds, it does not tell a story.

Noll, on the other hand, has a story. Granted, he set himself a much narrower assignment than did Williams. The Old Religion is even narrower than the text to which it will most likely be compared, Noll's A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. With an audience of "curious students and lay readers" in mind, Noll sets out "to highlight aspects of North American Christianity that set it apart from patterns of religious experience and organization more common in historic European Christendom." In other words, Noll wants to describe how Christianity has affected America, and how America has affected Christianity.

Noll never professes to tell more than one story among many, but observers outside the incessantly pluralistic culture of academia could easily determine that Noll has isolated the big story of American religious history. As of 2000, according to Gallup, 85 percent of Americans considered themselves Christians, while adherents of all non-Christian religions combined accounted for only 5 percent of the population. Some 75 percent of Americans claim European heritage, and while that percentage is falling, white Europeans have (for good and ill) played by far the largest role in the nation's history. To assert this is not to say that no one else matters, but that the transmission and adaptation of European forms of Christianity has mattered more, to more Americans, than any other religious force. This is our central narrative.

Even with a central narrative, though, Noll's book remains inclusive in important ways. He usefully compares the United States with Canada and Mexico, and he considers pluralism, divisions, and fragmentation significant-and not altogether negative-aspects of American Christianity. His narrative has room for Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox believers, blacks and whites (as well as other ethnicities), conservatives and liberals, clergy and laypeople, gains and losses. Still, the narrative hangs together, like the motto says: "Out of many, one."

Obviously, I have tipped my hand here. I am more compelled by Noll's narrative than by Williams' sweeping survey. Of course, if I sought information on the American Jewish community, a serious look at Unitarianism, or even more than a handful of pages on Anabaptists, I would find America's Religions a helpful resource. I just wouldn't make any attempt to read the whole thing.

Our partner store,, carries The Old Religion in a New World but features only an older edition of America's Religions. has the new one.