Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.
This “book was written in the firm conviction that the moral and spiritual development of the American people is one of the most intensely relevant subjects on the face of the earth” (xiii). So Sidney Ahlstrom begins his massive and now classic synthesis of American religious history, a work with a narrative that extends from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. The relevance of his subject persists and the quality and breadth of his presentation remain unsurpassed.
Ahlstrom wrote A Religious History of the American People in the last years of the 1960’s and first years of the 70’s. In some ways the book bears the marks of these years. Ahlstrom is self-conscious about the need for a restatement of American religious history in an effort to understand the American “present,” i.e. “the turbulent sixties”: “Post-Protestant America requires an account of its spiritual past that seeks to clarify its spiritual present. And such an account should above all do justice to the fundamentally pluralistic situation which has been struggling to be born ever since this country was formally dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (8). The author’s commitment to present the plurality of the American religious tradition in fact accounts for the signal contribution of the book. Ahlstrom moves beyond “church history” both methodologically and topically. He is committed to doing “religious history” that abides by the same criteria as “secular history” and covers more than the history of American Protestantism. Ahlstrom spends the first fifty pages of “Part I: The European Prologue” accounting for the origins of Roman Catholicism in North America via the expansion efforts of Spain and France, before moving on to the eventually far more dominant impact of the Protestant Reformation and its proliferation in Great Britain. Numerous subsequent chapters are dedicated to the Roman Catholic experience, along with other chapters giving healthy treatments of Unitarianism, humanitarian reforms, the black churches surrounding the Civil War and in the twentieth century, and eight chapters on “countervailing religion” in the mid-19th century. In short, one of the major achievements of Ahlstrom’s Religious History is the breadth of its coverage that succeeds in demonstrating that the history of American religious life is not simply the history of white mainstream Protestantism.
That having been said, it must also be said that Ahlstrom understandably gives center-stage to New England Puritanism as the story around which American religious history coheres. As with most surveys of American religious history, the religion of New England receives a good deal of attention in the book, from the early colonial days to the Edwardsian era, Unitarianism, Second Great Awakening, Romanticism, Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, etc. The section on “Countervailing Religion” can in large part be read as an account of those religious forces striving against the dominant forces of New England. Puritanism, moreover, was behind mainstays such as the American trust in Providence, the tradition of revivalism, the vision of itself as a redeemer nation, and the nineteenth-century efforts at world evangelization. While a southwestern American surrounded by pockets of Roman Catholics and Native Americans might find such attention disconcerting, Ahlstrom can hardly be faulted for following the line of what is legitimately considered “mainstream.” Even a survey of nearly one thousand pages must make choices and choose dominant strands around which to weave its narrative. It is worth pointing out, again, that the outstanding feature of Ahlstrom’s book for its time is not its attention to the dominant forms of American religious history but its attention to those generally considered to be in the margins.
Throughout the book, there is what appears to be an interesting tension that never quite achieves resolution, and it is a tension that may be at the center of Ahlstrom’s diagnosis of the American problem. On the one hand, Ahlstrom makes Puritanism the foundation of the strong religious vision of mainstream American religious life, a vision that was clearly lost by the 1960’s, resulting in uncertainty and American instability. On the other hand, Ahlstrom seems decidedly in favor of American religious pluralism, an ideal that has never been attained. The tension that appears to this newcomer, on first reading, is the following: how can one advocate a religious pluralism while at the same time be so in favor of the unifying vision provided by the strength of New England Puritanism? Left with this question, I turned to read a couple of old reviews of Ahlstrom from the early 1970’s, and I was interested to find that one reviewer highlights Ahlstrom’s commitment to pluralism and is inattentive to the dominant position given Puritanism, while another reviewer focuses on the dominant position given Puritanism and virtually ignores Ahlstrom’s commitment to pluralism. This at least testifies to the presence of both elements. One resolution to the apparent tension is to locate Ahlstrom’s aspirations somewhere amidst the ideals found in the early chapter 11, entitled “Religious Diversity in Rhode Island.” Ahlstrom credits the work of Roger Williams and the commonwealth of Rhode Island for exercising a religious liberty that was fundamentally different from the later “secular” basis of pluralism:
The Puritan mentality of Rhode Island’s founding fathers, moreover, stands in an almost polar relation to the Enlightened conceptions of the “rights of man” which prevailed among the nations Founding Fathers. The ground of Rhode Island’s early liberties was neither practicality nor natural law philosophy; nor can it be interpreted simply as religious indifference. (182)
Rather, there was in Rhode Island a decidedly religious basis for pluralism itself, effectively wedding the ideals of pluralism and faith-based moral initiative. Viewed from this perspective, at the root of America’s instability in the 1960’s is a failed secular vision of pluralism based on the supposedly Enlightened, secular “rights of man” rather than in religious strength.
The historical problem with this assessment, of course, is the fact that Rhode Island’s experiment failed to have much influence elsewhere. This may, however, simply be one of those moments where the historian encourages his readers to learn from the past. Ahlstrom cites Rhode Island as being “in an almost tragic way the political corollary of a dictum often voiced by historians of science, that premature discoveries are uninfluential” (183). Indeed, such a discovery may be what Ahlstrom has in mind in the last sentence of his book, when he encourages his readers to be in the process of “finding new sources of strength and confidence, and thus vindicating the idealism which has been so fundamental an element in the country’s past” (1096).
In any case, pointing to Ahlstrom’s separation of the Founding Fathers’ vision from that of the dominant religious force in America (Puritanism), affords us the opportunity to comment briefly on Ahlstrom’s relation to another interpreter of American religious history. Sidney Mead, who reigned over American religious history at the same time as Ahlstrom, provides a rather different perspective. If Ahlstrom played up Puritanism and tended to separate it from the ideals of the Founding Fathers, then Mead downplayed Puritanism and made the ideals of the Founding Fathers the very basis for “the religion of the republic.” Whatever their disagreements or tacit proposals for solutions, both would seem to agree that the 1960’s demonstrated a need for recovery of one sort or another.
In any survey of this scope, specialists will find a few annoying errors or descriptions that lack adequate nuance. Others might express legitimate discontent with certain aspects of Ahlstrom’s periodization, such as placing the theology of Old Princeton in the category of “Dissent and Reaction,” immediately after a chapter on the Social Gospel. Such problems probably ought to be expected in such a work (though the difficulty of arrangement could at least briefly be noted in a footnote at critical points such as this).
A more significant issue surrounds Ahlstrom’s own claim that American religious history ought to be written in an effort explain the present (while, presumably, still writing history forward). What are the new questions of the 21st century? Certainly religious pluralism has advanced to a degree far beyond that experienced by Ahlstrom at the time of writing. It seems to me that such pluralism can lead historiography in two directions. On the one hand, one can self-consciously focus on a particular tradition and not attempt comprehensive treatment. Nowadays, “a particular tradition” might be as broad as “American Protestantism,” making this approach adequately descriptive of Noll’s survey. On the other hand, one could continue to emphasize diversity to a greater degree and sacrifice the depth of treatment given to any one tradition, which, according to a recent review, is the approach taken by Butler, Wacker and Balmer in their Religion in American Life (2002). Regardless of approach, no one has yet equaled the combined force of breadth and depth present in Ahlstrom’s synthesis. Surely this is the reason why A Religious History of the American People maintains its prominent place on the desks of contemporary students and shows no signs of losing its place.