Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wilson on the Historiography of American Religion

Wilson, John F. Religion and the American Nation: Historiography and History. Athens. GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

This is one of the few sweeping historiographies of American religion to be published in recent times, and that makes it an important book. It likely deserves more attention than it has gotten.

In his "Introduction," John F. Wilson says that because American exceptionalism has been related to religion--he cites Sidney Mead as an example of what he's describing--the subject of this book is even more significant. He goes on to give an overview of his three lectures, which make up the rest of the book. The primary subject, says Wilson, is "the historiography of religion in the United States" (3).

Lecture One provides a survey up to the 1970s. Wilson acknowledges that, because it tries to account for so much, he necessarily leaves out several worthy figures. In this lecture, one of his main points is that the term "Puritan" could stand to be redefined and rehabilitated so as to serve as a useful, not-so-anxious expression.

Lecture Two is about more-recent attempts by historians to get past or to overturn the dominance of Puritanism in American religious historiography. Such attempts fall into to difference categories: (a) the position that says a variety of narratives, and not just the Puritan one, truly represent American religious history, and (b) the position that says historians can use social-science approaches in order to get at the paradigms and mechanisms of religion in America.

Lecture Three then explores "the religiously generative dimension of the American society" (5).


If I have a complaint about this book, it would be that if left me wanting a lot more. Part of that is just a result of Wilson attempting to tackle this subject in a mere three lectures. The other part of this frustration is Wilson's neglect of certain historians and their work, while giving attention to others that are less deserving. For example, he mentions that P. G. Mode assumed Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis." But he doesn't say anything more about Turner. He also mentions that W. W. Sweet assumed the same (15-16). But, again, we hear nothing about Turner. If he's so seminal, why not more information about him, at least in the notes?

On the other hand, I wondered about Wilson' inclusion of Harold Bloom's book and ideas in the third and final chapter. Bloom certainly is an interesting guy. But I thought that when he proclaimed himself a gnostic and basically said that most all other Americans are gnostics too, well, that was just sort of bizarre.

But this is mostly nit-picking on my part. The fact is, there aren't many people who can equal John Wilson in what they know about the historiography of American religion. This book introduces and sorts through the material about as well as it can be done, I suspect. For that reason, it is an important resource for graduate students and for non-specialists who would like to quickly get up-to-speed on the topic.

For a useful, comparable resource, see Catherine L. Albanese, American Religious History: A Bibliographical Essay.

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