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American Religious History

American Religious History

Course No.  897
Course No.  897
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

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.

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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.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Major Features of American Religious History
    American religious history is unusual for its diversity and for its sustained vitality, from the colonial period right through to the end of the 20th century. This course begins with Professor Patrick N. Allitt's discovery of American religious diversity and vitality when he came from Britain to live, work, and study in the United States. x
  • 2
    The European Background
    Not long after Columbus reached the Americas, the Reformation split Europe. The Puritans—English Protestant reformers opposed to the compromises of Anglicanism—were among the first religious separatists to contemplate moving to the New World. x
  • 3
    Natives and Newcomers
    Although native Americans had no word for or idea of "religion" as something distinct from other aspects of life, they had well-developed sacred ideas, rituals, and traditions, and it is possible to note both similarities and differences between their "religious" stance and that of the Europeans. x
  • 4
    The Puritans
    The Puritans wrote much; we can reconstruct their views in great detail. Here we consider how they created a religious and political way of life in New England; how they struggled to assure themselves of God's favor; how subsequent generations lamented the colony's loss of religious integrity; and the ways in which the Puritan outlook may have fed the Salem witch trials of 1692. x
  • 5
    Colonial Religious Diversity
    Even though few in the 17th century favored religious toleration in principle, the early presence of settlers from Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Holland, and Sweden created a situation of ethnoreligious diversity that would make toleration appealing. x
  • 6
    The Great Awakening
    The first truly "national" event in American history came in the form of a spellbinding English preacher named George Whitefield. He took the colonies by storm in 1740, founding the tradition of emotional revivalism that has played a central role in the nation's religious history ever since. By heightening the sense of immediate, individual ties to God, was Whitefield also helping to found the American Revolution? x
  • 7
    Religion and Revolution
    When the Revolutionary War began, both Rebels and Tories (as well as the pacifist Quakers) justified their actions in religious as well as political terms. Dozens of new, often millennial sects arose. Another outgrowth of this period was the First Amendment, which barred Congress from creating an established religion or preventing religion's free exercise. x
  • 8
    The Second Great Awakening
    This lecture traces the great revival of evangelical Protestantism in the early 19th century, the rise and significance of Methodism as a major Protestant group, and the links among the frontier, evangelicalism, social reform, and female leadership. x
  • 9
    Oneida and the Mormons
    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of several new religions founded in America. Facing intense antipathy at first (in part because it blessed polygamy), it eventually established itself as a permanent and respectable part of the American religious landscape. Less enduring was the "Perfectionist" community of Oneida, New York, which also held unusual views of sex and marriage. x
  • 10
    Catholicism
    The arrival in the 1840s of numerous Irish Catholics, many of them driven out by famine, tested the limits of American religious tolerance, especially in eastern cities. Anti-Catholic literature, political movements, and rioting made Catholics feel besieged. They reacted partly by asserting that they too were good Americans, and partly by building a parallel educational and social world. x
  • 11
    African-American Religion
    Since the 1950s, historians have shown that the slaves mixed African traditions of conjure and music with Christianity in a blend that vitally sustained them through awful hardships. Christian beliefs also powerfully influenced whites on both sides of the slavery issue, slaveowners and abolitionists alike. x
  • 12
    The Civil War
    Divisions among the Protestant churches over slavery anticipated the Civil War. During the war, soldiers and civilians on both sides thought they were fighting a godly fight. Slaves saw their liberation in 1863 as a religious as well as political event, and both sides found a way to interpret the outcome of the war as further evidence of God's blessing. x
  • 13
    Victorian Developments
    The mid- and late 19th century saw new variants of Christianity bloom. Old preoccupations took on new forms amid a growing, urban-industrial society. Among the most important of these developments were the creation of movements linking religion and health, the growing role of women in religious life, and a new interest in biographical and literary approaches to the life and person of Jesus. x
  • 14
    Darwin and Other Dilemmas
    In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developments in geology, biology, philology, and comparative religion threatened traditional ideas of nature and the Bible, provoking a crisis in American Christianity. Traditionalists and modernists both made intelligent and coherent cases for their views, but could find no common ground. x
  • 15
    Judaism in the 19th Century
    Between 1820 and 1860, America's scattered population of colonial-era Sephardic Jews was joined by a large German Jewish migration. Many joined the Reform movement and adopted American ways. A later and larger migration of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, by contrast, resisted adaptation. The Conservative movement was a distinctive American compromise between these two alternatives. x
  • 16
    Fundamentalism
    While liberal or modernist Protestants sought to adapt their faith to new social and intellectual conditions, another group, now called fundamentalists, upheld the infallible authority of the Bible and embraced "dispensational premillennialism," the theory that the prophetic books of the Bible spell out timetables for the ages of world history and the coming apocalypse. x
  • 17
    War and Peace
    The United States became a world power in the 20th century, and faced hard ethical questions about whether, when, and how to fight. Religious groups did much to shape public opinion often, but not always, in support of military action. Quakers and Mennonites remained pacifists, while the Catholic Church, superpatriotic early in the century, later became a critic of policies that involved the use or threat of nuclear weapons. x
  • 18
    Twentieth-Century Catholicism
    The Irish-dominated American Catholic Church became far more ethnically diverse after 1880, as new immigrants arrived from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Church's distinctive beliefs and strong presence made for tension between Catholics and Protestants. But John Kennedy's presidential victory and the Second Vatican Council transformed both the Church's inner tone and outward relations with American society. x
  • 19
    The Affluent Society
    Amid postwar prosperity and suburbanization, churches played an ambiguous role. More people belonged and attended than ever before, but they looked to church more for comfort and aid than for doctrine and discipline. The church buildings themselves were often magnificent structures, but many influential religious voices of the era warned against the spiritual dangers of materialism. x
  • 20
    The Civil Rights Movements
    Churches have long been key political as well as spiritual institutions for African-Americans. Clergy, notably Martin Luther King, Jr., led the civil rights movement, using a powerful biblical rhetoric that appealed to blacks and whites alike. Black Muslims, by contrast, preached racial pride and separatism, also based on a sustaining religious vision. In years since, other protest movements have borrowed the rhetoric and style of the civil rights movement. x
  • 21
    The Counterculture and Feminism
    The 1960s saw the rise of an array of religious cults and sects, many of them short-lived, but a few more durable. They revisited some familiar themes in American history, especially the idea of charismatic religious leadership and apocalyptic end-times, but they were linked also to the Cold War environment, the age's technology, and the protest movements and "isms" that came in the wake of civil rights. x
  • 22
    Asian Religions
    Despite scattered interest among intellectuals, Asian religions "arrived" culturally in America only in the 20th century. The 1950s "Beats" and the 1960s counterculture were taken with forms of Asian spirituality. But what seemed exotic to whites was for Asian immigrants a familiar link to the lands they had left, and their experiences in the late 20th century mirrored those of earlier immigrant generations from Europe. x
  • 23
    Church and State
    The First Amendment requires nonestablishment and free exercise, but has not foreclosed disputes over what those mean or just where the boundaries between religion and politics should be drawn. Court decisions, political campaigns, and societal changes over the last 30 years have made such disputes vigorous indeed. x
  • 24
    The Enduring Religious Sensibility
    This course has shown that religion has played a central part in shaping American society and its distinctive characteristics. Most striking in comparative perspective is the fact that American religious involvement and commitment did not decline at a time when such declines were the experience of the other Western industrial nations. x

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Patrick N. Allitt
Ph.D. Patrick N. Allitt
Emory University

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow. He was the Director of Emory College's Center for Teaching and Curriculum from 2004 to 2009, where he looked for ways to improve teaching. In this critical administrative position, he led workshops on a wide variety of teaching-related problems, visited dozens of other professors' classes, and provided one-on-one consultation to teachers to help them overcome particular pedagogical problems. Professor Allitt was honored with Emory's Excellence in Teaching Award and in 2000 was appointed to the N.E.H./Arthur Blank Professorship of Teaching in the Humanities. A widely published and award-winning author, Professor Allitt has written several books, including The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities throughout American History; Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985; Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome; and Religion in America since 1945: A History. He is also author of I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom, a memoir about one semester in his life as a university professor. In addition, he is the editor of Major Problems in American Religious History. He has written numerous articles and reviews for academic and popular journals, including The New York Times Book Review.

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