Kidd, Thomas S. 2019. America’s religious history: Faith, politics, and the shaping of a nation. Zondervan Academic.
Thomas S. Kidd is a distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. In 14 chapters, he covers religion in America from early times until the present problems of immigration diversity and culture wars.
The coverage is brief for each topic and, as Kidd says, it “can’t give adequate coverage to all possible topics” (11). However, he adequately examines the diversity found in American religion, one that has “escalated since transformative changes in American immigration beginning in 1965” (11).
Religion in America began in Massachusetts. One of the most successful missionary with the Massachusetts Indians was John Eliot, who established “praying Indian villages” and translated the Bible into the Massachusetts Indian language. At the time of Columbus there were probably 500 different “tribes” (and hence languages). in what is now America. Kidd relates some of the difficult times for the Indians as the Spanish and English colonization took place.
The Puritans were “driven by theological conviction” (24) and had come to New England to find religious freedom for themselves. Roger Williams was a Puritan but later became an outspoken critic of government and Puritan practices and founded the first Baptist congregation in America in Providence in 1638 (25). Further to the south, particularly in South Carolina, there was a mix of Anglicans, Puritans, Quakers, Scottish Covenanters, Huguenots and some Jews, as well as Indian indigenous worshipers.
Of all the religious groups, the Quakers were the most radical and had a more equality-based view of all people and by the mid-1600s they were the most persecuted group in the colony. However, the religious diversity in early America “played a part in fueling the violence that marked much of colonial America’s history” (30).
In the early and mid-1700s, revivals were a part of American history with Philadelphia playing a prominent part as an organizational hub. Men like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards left their mark, the former helped by his friendship with Benjamin Franklin. This was the period in American religious history known as “The Great Awakening” and it eventually led to the American Revolution.
Slavery was an engrained American institution at the time and one of the most powerful critics was Lemuel Haynes, an African American pastor and soldier from Massachusetts. Even Jefferson, who owned slaves, was convicted by such arguments. It was the Baptists who “were the most consistent advocates for religious liberty as the Revolution approached” (60). In 1776 the Virginia Declaration of Rights guaranteed religious liberty, “but it seemed not to touch the established Anglican Church” (61). Nevertheless, the Revolution was not directed towards religion, although it was inspired by it.
The second “Great Awakening” took place in the early 1800s and was dominated by church growth and revival. Charles Finney was influential and taught that “Christians could achieve a high level of holiness called ‘perfection’” (78). One outgrowth of Calvinism was deism, as articulated by Benjamin Franklin, and another was Unitarianism, with Walt Whitman an adherent. Another institution legacy, an offshoot of William Miller and led by Ellen White, was the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. (85). Mormonism followed with Joseph Smith claiming divine revelation from a visiting angel and the discovery of golden tablets which he translated into the Book of Mormon.
The early 19th century “saw a great flowering of Protestant missions and social reform movements” (92), but the Catholics had “articulate defenders in America” (96) as well. Missions had been fostered much earlier when Jonathan Edwards published a book in 1749 on the life of David Brainerd. A bit later, in 1806, the famous “Haystack Prayer Meeting” took place at Williams College in Massachusetts, leading to the formation of the Andover Mission Society. (99) and mission work among the Cherokees and Choctaws. Missionaries were soon found throughout the world: Adoniram Judson in Burma and William Carey in India are two prime examples. “By the mid-1880s, Americans had made significant advances in spreading the Christian gospel, and the Bible itself, throughout America and around the world” (109).
The slaves who arrived in America had, for the most part, little background in Christianity and were not given much education, so there were not many who had the ability to read. Their songs most often depicted their longing for freedom. However, such immigrants were sought be Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists and other denominations. Nate Turner’s rebellion was a part of the more militant abolitionist movement and raised moral questions about the slave trade (125). However, one of the “most compelling advocates of abolition was the former slave Frederick Douglass” (127). Slavery became a divisive issue in America.
Slavery led to the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln used “religious rhetoric” in his speeches to arouse the conscience of at least part of the nation. In 1844 the Methodists “became the first denomination to break apart over slavery” (134). Other denominations were not so quick to follow, and as late as in 1995 the Southern Baptists apologized for their role in slavery.
Writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) played a prominent role in opposing slavery and even Lincoln believed that God was judging both the North and the South because of slavery (144).
It was the immigration of millions into America that affected religious diversity, with Catholics from Europe prevailing, but also Hispanics and Jews in large numbers. Other religious groups, such as the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, also formed religious settlements. Less involved were American Indians, who had been evangelized for years but also suffered terribly at the hands of government and settlers. However, the waves of immigrants, “paired with concern about secularizing intellectual trends” began a backlash among many Protestants (167).
Reactions to evolutionary teachings led to the formation of many assertive (one could say, in some cases, hard-liners) Protestant evangelical churches and colleges. Evolutionary-minded scholars began to seriously question the veracity of the Bible, culminating to some extent in the Scopes Trial in 1925 (178). At the same time, the women’s rights movement became stronger under the leadership of women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Aimee Semple McPherson. Mixed in with the various movements was a wave of conservative theology and mainline denominational leaders.
During the World Wars, religious (and other) leaders “kept employing religious rhetoric to explain America’s involvement in its extraordinarily demanding wars” (189). Many members of some churches and denominations, such as the Seventh-Day Adventist, the Quakers and the Jehovah Witnesses, opposed war and practiced “conscientious objection.”
It was during the war periods and immediately after them that Americans began sending missionaries around the world—part of the “manifest destiny” belief and mentality. The most compelling and expanding part of this movement was from the Pentecostals, but it also included agencies like Wycliffe Bible Translators and World Vision (196).
The Great Depression gave rise to the YMCA and Salvation Army, as well as Catholic, Jewish and other welfare societies. The Holocaust “resulted in a loss of spiritual innocence” for many Christians and Jews (204). This was later followed by the fear of Communism and the “Cold War.” Some preachers and evangelists encouraged “positive thinking” and a spirit of ecumenical cooperation. By the 1950s “65 percent of Americans said they were members of a religious congregation” (214). In the decades that followed, Billy Graham was the most famous evangelist in America, with access to numerous U.S. presidents (227).
The civil rights movement, coupled with the ministry and non-violent movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. were effective in overcoming—to some extent—the bigotry and segregationalism that predominated in much of America, especially in the South. Some African Americans, such as Malcolm X, adopted an extreme anti-government position.
More recently, there has been a strong anti-God and anti-church denominational movement, led in part by the New Atheists. To counter this, strong new denominations, such as Vineyard and Pentecostal Charismatic churches have occupied a prominent position in American religious viewpoints.
Current issues facing the church include abortion rights, same sex marriages, the Equal Rights political movement, women’s rightful roles in church hierarchies (especially as ministers,) creationism, and educational perspectives (such as home schooling). Most of these continue to be major concerns.
Kidd concludes his book by noting that, “many Christian traditionalists [are] wondering whether they should seek to reclaim the nation or retreat from a secular American Babylon” (266).
American Religious History is a fascinating coverage of the major religious and secular issues in America, as well as the people that have helped to formulate and regulate current ideas and attitudes. Professor Kidd is well acquainted with all aspects of America’s historical problems and progress, the people who helped create them, as well as current and past proposed solutions.