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Join historian Patrick N. Allitt in exploring the story of religious life in America from the first European contacts to the late 20th century. Along the way, you learn the answers to two important questions:

  • Why does America, unlike virtually any other industrial nation, continue to show so much religious vitality?
  • Why are the varieties of religion found here so numerous and diverse?

The best way to look for explanations of this truly remarkable vitality and diversity, argues Professor Allitt, is to study the nation’s religious history.

On the one hand, that study includes examining religion from the directions you might expect, including its formal beliefs, ideas, communal or institutional loyalties, and its styles of worship.

But Professor Allitt also examines religion’s influence on life “beyond the pews”—investigating the subtle but important links that have long brought religion into close contact with the intellectual, social, economic, and political concerns of Americans.

To give a notable and recent example: Professor Allitt explains how Martin Luther King, Jr., used a mixture of biblical references and appeals to patriotism to press the case for civil rights.

He also reflects on American religion as a sensory experience—a phenomenon whose deep spiritual and social meanings can in part be:

  • Seen in the design of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples
  • Heard in the sacred sounds of hymns, prayers, and chants
  • Smelled in Catholic or Buddhist incense
  • Tasted, as you discover in learning why the casserole may be the most “Protestant” of all dishes!

The Living Voice

A wonderful feature of these lectures is Professor Allitt’s practice of reading aloud from primary sources, including first-person documents, as if to give history back its voice. Some readings are quite famous; others are rescued from obscurity.

You will find them by turns sublime, deeply moving, informative, and at times even charming. They include:

  • Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
  • Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech
  • A Civil War veteran’s memory of how Catholic sisters cared for the wounded after the Battle of Shiloh
  • The heartfelt letter to Virginia’s governor in which John Rolfe explains his spiritual motives for wishing to marry Pocahontas
  • An account of the religious diversity of New York City—in 1683
  • An Anglican cleric’s impressions of revivalism in the Carolinas during the First Great Awakening of the 1740s.

Richly Detailed Personal Glimpses

You’ll also enjoy biographical sketches and anecdotes about dozens of brilliant, charismatic, or otherwise remarkable American religious figures, among them:

  • Puritan divine Cotton Mather
  • Mormon prophet Joseph Smith
  • Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy
  • The patriotic revivalist Billy Sunday, who during World War I said, “If you turn hell over, you’ll find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom!”

After scene-setting lectures that explain the religious situation of Europe in the early modern period and the spirituality of native Americans, Professor Allitt moves on to discussions of religion during the colonial and founding eras, including:

  • The Puritans
  • The Great Awakenings
  • The Revolution
  • The flowering of uniquely American religious tendencies such as Mormonism
  • The story of African American religion
  • The sectional crisis and Civil War.

Religion in a Changing Society

By the mid-19th century, the American religious landscape was growing more variegated. Large numbers of Catholics, first from Ireland and later from Germany, Poland, and Italy, were coming to what had been an overwhelmingly Protestant land. And growing numbers of Jewish immigrants further diversified the urban religious landscape later in the century.

You learn how both groups sometimes became targets of suspicion and intolerance.

Professor Allitt also discusses another rising reality of the times—the rapid growth of industrial cities and an economically vulnerable working class.

Challenges for Religious Leaders

Faced with these new conditions, religious leaders had to rethink the relationships among virtue, prosperity, and God’s favor.

And still another challenge came from 19th-century discoveries in geology, biology, physics, archaeology, and comparative religion.

All of these raised questions about the authority and origins of the Bible. Evolution in particular presented a world of constant predation and strife, promising anything but divinely sponsored harmony.

The 20th century inherited these dilemmas, and they continue to resonate up to the present, with strains between liberal and more traditional Protestants being only one example.

Professor Allitt leads you through these storylines very closely during the second half of the course, paying special attention to the possible implications they carry for church-state relations.

You learn how cherished First Amendment principles of church-state separation and religious freedom had to be applied, mid-century, to difficult cases involving minority religions.

And Professor Allitt explains how, in a string of controversial decisions, the Supreme Court has struggled to balance these two principles.

20th-Century Challenges

As America became a great power in the 20th century and played a leading role in the world wars and the Cold War, religious Americans agonized over how they should respond.

You learn how debates over the ethics of force and memories of cataclysms such as the Holocaust continue to haunt American religious life to this day.

And you see how the century’s sweeping social changes were partly shaped by religion and how they in turn powerfully affected religious life:

  • Fundamentalism proved highly adaptable
  • Immigrants and their descendants assimilated to American society, but religious ties proved far more durable than old languages and ethnic customs
  • Catholicism and Judaism each took on a markedly “American” flavor that could discomfit coreligionists abroad.

At the Center of the Storm

You also learn how religion stood at the center of the upheavals of the 1960s. Many African American civil rights leaders were ministers, inspired by the message of the gospel as well as the promise of the American founding. Religious convictions likewise intensified debates over the Vietnam War and helped energize the feminist movement.

As the times have changed, so, too, has religion in America. Some Americans who felt dissatisfied with the Judeo-Christian tradition turned to variants of Islam or Asian spiritualities such as Zen Buddhism. And new waves of immigrants brought their own versions of these traditions, sometimes bumping up against unfamiliar American versions of Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.

As this course shows, the story of American religious vitality and diversity continues to evolve.

Visit American Religious History (The Great Courses) to read more...

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