Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Appreciation of Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People

In 1989 I took a master's in Cultural Anthropology at SUNY Albany. I was on the doctoral track but I decided not to continue after passing my comprehensive exams because, while I admired anthropology's totalism and its tactic of making the "common sense" of the West exotic by exploring so-called "exotic" cultures I was more of a social theorist and a historian, I did my thesis on seventeenth century English Quakerism, than an anthropologist and than anthropology would allow and I had little interest in doing field work in someplace like Chiapas. My interest, an interest that goes back to my days at Indiana University and my introduction to semiotics there in the late 1970s, was in ideology. As a semiologist who was also a social and cultural constructionist--thank you Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann--I was interested in how communities construct "reality" and it seemed to me that no domain of academic knowledge gave you a better understanding of how reality was socially and culturally construction than religion. Because I was interested in the construction of American ideology--chosen people, chosen land--I developed an interest in American Protestantism and Mormonism because Mormonism, as a new religion, gave one a glimpse into how ideology made Mormonism and Mormonism made Mormons. So off I went to Utah, Provo, Utah, and Brigham Young University to be more specific, to study the sociology of religion and the sociology of Mormonism. This brief appreciation and critique of Sydney Ahlstrom's massive--it is over 1000 pages--and still unsurpassed A Religious History of the American People (1975) is, along with the previous blog on Sidney Mead's The Lively Experiment, the fruit of my reading in American Religious History and particularly American Protestant and New Religious movement history, at BYU and my attempt to think Mormonism into the broader contexts of American religious and Christian history.

It is rather difficult to know how to approach a book which is considered one of the finest if not the finest book in American Religious history. Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People was voted the Religious Book of the Decade, won the National Book, and is repeatedly referred to by experts in the field as the book on American religious history.

Ahlstrom's accomplishment was to explore the character of the religious diversity of American religion from its beginnings. Before Ahlstrom most religious historians emphasized the homogeneousness of the American religious experience at the expense of its variety and diversity. In this tale, New England Puritanism was seen as the foundation on which American religious institutions were built and American religious exceptionalism, the notion that America was a chosen land, a beacon of light to the world, and that Americans were a chosen people was seen as a product of American Puritanism and its domination of the American religious scene and the impact of that Puritanism on America's subsequent Protestant history and of American culture itself.

What Ahlstrom does is to take this interpretation and transform it if only slightly. Ahlstrom continues to maintain that this Puritan derived ideology did underlie American religion right up until the end of the nineteen-sixties when the Puritan Epoch, as he calls it, came to and end in the United States. But he adds something new into this Puritan domination mix. Ahlstrom does not ignore, as so many did before him the diversity of religion within the American context. He notes that there were Puritans in New England, religious pluralism in Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Catholicism in Maryland, and Anglicanism and Baptists in the South. But Ahlstrom explores how in spite of this diversity an American civil ideology emerged thanks to the Great Awakenings which spread the choseness motif to the American masses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries via religion and how the choseness ideology of the great revivals threaded its way into American political culture giving rise to the ideology of America and her democracy and capitalist economic system as "city on a hill" that would bring political and economic light to the world.

Since Ahlstorm's book came out in the nineteen seventies much work has been done on American Religious history much of which takes off from the analysis done in his book. I have been particularly fascinated by the comparative analysis comparing American Protestantism, with its ethnocentric and millennialist fervour, with Canadian Protestantism which was not imbued with the same levels of apocalyptic expression. Such comparison, I believe, furthers Ahlstrom's point about the singularity of the American "city on a hill" ideology. Questions can be raised, however, as to whether this meaning system derived entirely from Puritanism. Perhaps the fact that it played such an important role in America's revivals, which were themselves ecumenical in that Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, as well as Congregationalists were involved in them, reflect the fact that virtually all of the religious denominations in the United States were imbued with this ideology from their American (if not post-American) beginnings and thus it did not derive it from Puritanism. That it resonated so well with the theologies of the churches involved in the Great Awakenings seems to me to suggest that the origins of the "city on a hill" ideology were more multiple than singular. Moreover, the fact that similar ideologies were present in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth century suggests the need for further reevaluation (see the work of Christopher Hill).

For those interested in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ahlstrom's tome offers an interesting analysis of the LDS. Though Ahlstrom's analysis is far too brief his characterisation of the LDS as finally a mysterious animal, as church, sect, cult all at once and not at all, is quite interesting. It is difficult to fit the LDS into the boxes Sociology provides since it is something new (vis-a-vis traditional Christianity), something old (it clearly derives from the Judeo-Christian tradition), and something singularly "true" (it maintains a theocratic self-image) all at once. In other words the LDS is simultaneously a cult, sect, church, and even denomination, since it currently exists as one religious institution among many, in the American religious scene simultaneously. Perhaps it is better to eliminate the ideologically loaded sociological jargon and simply refer to Mormonism as a new religious movement a la Jan Shipps (Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition).

Ahlstrom's book despite its age remains unsurpassed as the American Religious history. It is likely to remain in this position for some time given the fact that much of contemporary religious historiography begins with Ahlstrom even though it doesn't, thankfully, end there.

Today I think, in comparison to other settler societies like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Israel, that the US is, for the most part, not exceptional even ideologically. Most American's may believe that America is unique, singular, exceptional but most Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, and Israelis believe that Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel are exceptional too. Despite America not being generally exceptional, particularly when placed in its proper settler society frame, it is "exceptional" in some ways, religiously, for instance, because of its somewhat unique history. Even that may be changing, however, as those with "no religion" are looking more and more like their brethren in other settler societies.

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