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Formed From This Soil

An Introduction to the Diverse History of Religion in America

Thomas S. Bremer

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To the teachers who introduced me to the pleasures of learning, and to the students who inspire me to continue learning, this book is affectionately dedicated.


Like many professors who teach courses in American religious history, I had long been dissatisfied with the offering of textbooks in this field, and consequently I had taught courses cobbled together using a variety of primary- and second-source readings. So when Andrew Humphries, at that time a commissioning editor for Wiley Blackwell, first approached me with the idea of producing a new textbook in American religious history that would present a different narrative, one that focuses on diversity, I was enthusiastic about undertaking the challenge. Of course, without Andy's encouragement it would never have become more than an idea; he was instrumental in helping me think through the scope of the book and shepherding me through the proposal process at Wiley Blackwell. When he left for other opportunities in publishing, Rebecca Harkin took over editing responsibilities as I struggled through too many years of false starts and thinking through how to structure the book. Rebecca's patience and support allowed me to work through the myriad issues in producing a narrative that tells a different story of American religious history but is also teachable for a new generation of students. As I neared completion of the manuscript, Georgina Coleby took over the editing responsibilities. I am especially grateful for her help throughout the production process, answering my many questions and concerns with cheerful promptness and keeping me on track to finish this undertaking. As well, Hazel Harris's expert copy-editing has made the text far more readable. In short, this book has benefited tremendously from the many talented people at Wiley Blackwell.

A number of friends, colleagues, and students have made helpful contributions to the production of this work. Tisa Wenger of Yale University commented on an early draft of the proposal for the book. Gregory Johnson at the University of Colorado provided helpful guidance on the religious history of Hawaii, and iconographer Anna Edelman commented on the history of Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska. Several of my colleagues in Religious Studies at Rhodes College read parts of the manuscript and made useful suggestions that I have incorporated in the text. In particular, Luther Ivory offered helpful comments on discussions of African American religions; Kendra Hotz as well as former colleagues Michelle Voss Roberts and Ellie Gebarowski-Shafer read and commented on an early version of the second chapter, greatly helping me to summarize the Christian theological debates of the sixteenth century; and Rhiannon Graybill saved me from settling for inadequate discussions on voice, gender, and sexuality in Box 6.1, Box 6.2, and Box 9.2.

My attempt to construct a narrative that is accessible to students while incorporating additional elements to aid student learning has benefited from feedback from my students at Rhodes College. Student remarks in the “Religion in Colonial America” class that I taught during the fall semester of 2010 and in the “Religion in Nineteenth-Century America” class offered during the fall semester of 2012 helped me to reconceptualize key parts of the book. In the fall of 2013 I used a draft of the complete manuscript for my “Religion in America” class, and student comments on virtually every chapter have been incorporated into the final version of the text. In addition to those enrolled in my classes, three students in particular served key roles in producing this book. Bailey Romano read all of the chapters and commented specifically on the history of Judaism in America, a topic she has pursued in graduate school at Hebrew Union College. Both Leanne Naramore and Lauren Hales helped to identify images for the various chapters; in addition they each read early drafts of the manuscript and provided invaluable feedback.

Without question, the most important help came from Melanie, my partner in this endeavor. Besides putting up with my impatience and frustration working through this project, she read every chapter carefully more than once, making innumerable comments and suggestions about the content, organization, and grammar. She ably managed the complicated and often frustrating process of acquiring images for each chapter, a task I certainly would not have completed without her help. More helpful than all else, though, have been her constant inspiration and encouragement; without them, this work would not have been possible.

The comments and help of all of these people and others have improved this book immensely; its faults and shortcomings, however, are mine alone.

Prelude for Instructors
A Decentered Narrative of American Religious History

Scholars of American religious history have long called for a retelling of the story of religions in America.1 This book responds to such calls for new narratives by repositioning American religious developments in larger global contexts with an emphasis on diversity. The story here highlights the diverse origins of religious orientations, communities, and phenomena found in America, with attention to the influences of peoples originating in the Americas as well as those coming from Europe, from Africa, from Asia, and elsewhere. It presents the historical dynamics of how these diverse peoples have encountered and interacted with each other, and how their religious lives and experiences have contributed to the various meanings of America. This history is laid out in three parts arranged chronologically. The first part covers the initial periods of contact between peoples of the Americas, Europe, and Africa and the subsequent centuries of colonization. The second part encompasses the nineteenth century, while the final part covers the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century.

One primary goal in writing this book has been to make it teachable and flexible. As a pedagogical tool, it does not pretend to be comprehensive in telling a story of religion in American history. Some readers certainly will be disappointed by particular omissions: there is nothing, for instance, on Freemasonry, the Amish, or Scientology, and only scant mention of the Bahá'í Faith. On the other hand, several groups rarely mentioned in typical survey courses on religion in America get attention here, such as indigenous Hawaiian traditions, Sikhs, and Santeríans. In constructing a teachable and flexible textbook that will be useful in many different classroom situations, I have aimed more for the evocative and provocative rather than for comprehensive knowledge.2 Students will find much here to engage with, both in the historical narrative and in the various critical terms and interpretive concepts introduced throughout the book; the goal has been to evoke various interpretations of the historical record and to provoke students to become aware of, to engage critically with, and to synthesize their own understandings of the many perspectives and experiences that make up American religious history.

Individual instructors certainly will bring their own interests and areas of specialized knowledge to the teaching of this material, supplementing and enriching the narratives presented here; every teacher, I trust, will use this book in a way that reflects their own interests, strengths, and areas of expertise. In my own experience of teaching the complete draft version of the book, I was happily surprised by students' engagement with the interpretive concepts that are introduced throughout the chapters. These concepts, highlighted in boxes, give brief introductions to theoretical and methodological terms and concepts for analyzing and interpreting the historical materials; they include contact zones, animism, millenarianism, authority, sacred space, pluralism, syncretism, voice, gender, nativism, race, orientalism, fundamentalism, sexuality, civil religion, class, spirituality, and globalization. Not only do these concepts offer transferable knowledge and skills for student learning but they also provide structure for organizing class lectures and discussions and may serve as the basis for exam questions and paper assignments.

As a historical narrative, this book preserves the chronological integrity found in many renderings of religion in American history, but it departs from its predecessors in two important ways. First, regarding the narrative itself, the emphasis here is on diversity, not only regarding the variety of religious traditions found in America but also concerning the many and creative ways of being religious, as well as how religious orientations, practices, and communities have contended with other sorts of differences, specifically regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, and socioeconomic class. The story here lacks an obvious center or dominant teleological narrative of religion in America; instead, it leaves American religious history more open to various interpretations. In contrast to narratives of Protestant Christians triumphantly bringing Christianity to the New World, this book regards America as a place of interaction between groups from four areas of origin, each with peculiar religious orientations formed in their own complex histories of contact, conflict, and exchange; these four geographically oriented groups are the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Europeans and their descendants, Africans and their descendants, and Asians and their descendants;3 each of these populations remains part of the story throughout the book (with the exception of Asians, who do not enter the narrative until the nineteenth century). Certainly, Christian orientations are prominent among all of these groups, and Christianity receives much attention, but other religious orientations are kept in view in addition to the remarkable variations among Christians in America.

The second way that this book departs from earlier texts on American religious history is in how it encourages students to think of religion in broader terms. Besides the emphasis on the differences that underlie religious diversity, attention is given to the concept of religion itself as an analytic category. To help students think of religion as something more than church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or shrine, or even in more generic terms as beliefs and worldviews, the critical terms and interpretive concepts introduced throughout the book provide learning opportunities that go far beyond a mere historical survey of religions in the American context.

To supplement the historical narrative and the interpretive concepts offered throughout the text, other pedagogical features also aim to enhance student learning. Images add a visual-learning component to the chapters, and maps give geographical orientation to the historical materials. Each chapter includes questions for discussion that can be used for paper assignments, to initiate classroom discussions, and for exam reviews. All but the introductory chapter have a short list of relevant suggested primary-source readings for supplementing the topics covered. In addition, citations in the notes include numerous secondary sources; instructors can refer to these for additional background information, and teachers will find many of them useful as additional readings for students. Finally, the glossary includes some of the terms that students may not be familiar with; these glossary terms are emboldened in their initial appearance in each of the chapters.

In sum, the goals of this book are twofold. First, it is a chronological survey of American religious history; it introduces students to the diverse complexities of religious orientations, communities, and practices that have been crucial factors in American society over the centuries. Second, the materials found in each chapter equip students with critical tools for understanding and interpreting religious diversity in America. Together the chapters aim to prepare students for understanding and interpreting the ongoing tale of American religiosity.