I read a few dozen books in 2012. (See photo above!). You can see some of those books at my Amazon list for this year. Almost all of them were non-fiction, and most of them had something to do with American religious history.
What follows are the top picks: my twelve best books of the last twelve months, in the order that I read them. When I put this list together, I wasn't trying to be objective. These are just the books I liked and appreciated the most. After each title, I'll say a little about each one. One more thing before I get to the list: Please recommend to me at least one really good book that you read this past year. (But I don't mean books of the Bible. I'm talking about books I wasn't supposed to have read).
1. Legacy Churches, by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond (2009)
In the U.S. alone, about 3,200 churches close their doors every year. This book explains that all congregations eventually die, and offers wise counsel to churches that are nearing the end of the life cycle. The authors recommend that dying churches become "legacy churches" by using their financial resources to begin one or more new congregations. Earlier this year, I posted a complete review: "When and How a Church Should Close."
2. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, by Edmund S. Morgan (1965)
Who should be recognized as a member of the church? Morgan, one of the truly great historians of American religion, traces Puritan ideas and practices regarding this question, beginning with the rise of the Reformation in England to about the year 1700. A classic source for understanding Puritanism, this book has remained in print for many years now. For more information, see my full review.
3. Calico Joe, by John Grisham (2012)
I don't read much fiction. But I always enjoy a novel by the great John Grisham. Calico Joe is one of his few non-legal stories. And, like A Painted House, this one has connections to Arkansas. It's a tale about baseball, and it helps if you know something about the game, I think.
4. To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism, by Theodore Dwight Bozeman (1988)
In this highly-significant book, Bozeman starts out by identifying the biblical-restorationist strand in early English Puritanism. Then he shows how this principle was commonly assumed in American Puritanism as well. He convincingly argues that Puritans were committed to a radical application of an old idea: "restoration of primitive purity was to be achieved by massive imitation of the New Testament pattern." Anyone who grew up in a restorationist church will immediately recognize that language. It's been around for a long, long time.
5. Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1635-41, by Michael P. Winship (2002)
This book is a first-rate, detailed account of the so-called Antinomian Controversy, "arguably the single most important event in seventeenth-century American colonial history." A great researcher and a fine writer too, Winship makes this story come alive.
6. The Enlightenment in America, by Henry F. May (1976)
Scholars often speak of "the Enlightenment," as though it was just one thing. In this ground-breaking work on the subject, May says there were actually four distinct Enlightenments that impacted America. In more or less chronological order they were, says May: Moderate, Skeptical, Revolutionary, and Didactic. This book is about understanding these four types, especially as they relate to American religion. For more, see my review.
7. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd Edition, by Leigh Eric Schmidt (2001)
A careful historian, Schmidt makes the case that the religious camp-meetings along the western frontier of America, like the Cane Ridge Revival, were neither spontaneous nor unprecedented. They were, in fact, planned regional communion gatherings, a tradition that began in Scotland in the early 1600s.
8. The Democratization of American Christianity, by Nathan O. Hatch (1989)
A contemporary classic in the field, this book argues that the predominant theme of American Christianity is democracy. History, tradition, and creeds were all swept away to make room for the impulse of the common man. The critical period in the development of this distinctive outlook was 1780-1830.
9. Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler (2009)
A fine novel. The story's about a sixty-year-old man who's recently lost his job and has now packed it in, just waiting around to die, until he finds out that he's not through living. The author has a great feel for the quirky things that sometimes happen to people, double entendre, and how people sometimes get trapped by their own lies.
10. Religion and the American Nation: Historiography and History, by John Frederick Wilson (2003)
Originally three lectures in a series, this book is an overview of what's been written about religion in America. It's an excellent survey by one of the acknowledged masters of the subject. If you want to quickly get a handle on the topic, this is the place to go.
11. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South, by Albert J. Raboteau (1978)
How was slave religion in the South "invisible"? It was, says the author, hidden from the eyes and the ears of white society. Slaves who went to worship with their masters came to realize that Christianity was much greater and nobler, more liberating, than the moralistic lessons they were taught at church. So slaves sang to God and preached the gospel any place where they could find seclusion. Originally Raboteau's doctoral dissertation, this book is a ground-breaking, frequently-cited discussion of the topic.
12. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, by Matthew Avery Sutton (2007)
This is a carefully-researched, well-written biography that you're likely to enjoy. The author has family roots in the Foursquare Gospel denomination, which McPherson began. At times, he seems a little too sympathetic to his subject, and he claims too much for her. But it's still a fine book.