American Religious History

Course No. 897
Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 897
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Course Overview

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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
    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
    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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Your professor

Patrick N. Allitt

About Your Professor

Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
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...
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American Religious History is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 98.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Questioning tone and accuracy This is a hard one, because Professor Allitt is a very engaging speaker, a good storyteller, and packs his courses with interesting information. However, there are two things that really detracted from this course--the tone and the accuracy of the information. First, the tone of this course. The stories and anecdotes often featured the most outlandish figures and extreme anecdotes of various faiths and movements. For instance, during the prohibition movement, we get a story of a woman who goes around with an axe and smashes up saloons. While quite amusing, does this story really give us a good sense of what most of the prohibition movement was like? In the lecture on Native American religion, I couldn't help but notice all the anecdotes were from Europeans, which were often biased. Having read up some on Native American religion, I felt like this lecture missed the core underpinnings and spirit of Native American religion and culture. What I was hoping for from this course was that we would come to understand and appreciate what drew people into like-minded communities in America. But this course was so focused on the amusing, the absurd, and the outlandish that I really don't feel like I came away with a better appreciation of the beliefs of communities different from my own. There was just a little too much poking fun for my taste. Second, there are some surprising inaccuracies in this course. I recommend that you read the long critique from a Mormon reviewer in this review section about certain inaccuracies. Additionally, I would like to note a needed correction to the section on Christian Science, a religion started in the Victorian Era. Professor Allitt proposes that the religion's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, went to a mesmerist/hypnotist named Quimby, received a healing from an illness, and then decided to combine hypnotism with Christianity. The true story is this: having not received healing from traditional medicine, Eddy tried several alternative forms of Victorian treatment, including homeopathy and Quimby. While she received some initial relief from Quimby, she was never healed, and ultimately his treatments proved ineffective. Later, she received a healing while reading her Bible and decided she wanted to dedicate her life to learn how to heal like Jesus, the disciples, and early Christians had. Professor Allitt mentions the popular "What Would Jesus Do?" slogan that appeared during the Victorian Era. Well, think of Eddy as starting the "How Would Jesus Heal?" religious movement. Since Jesus didn't use homeopathy, hygiene, hypnotism, medicine, spiritualism, etc. those were all out. As a matter of fact, she would later come to say that hypnotism/mesmerism was the opposite of Christian Science because the hypnotist was focused on the human will, whereas she believed all healing came from the divine. I puzzled a little bit about how an Oxford scholar could have brought such incorrect information into the course, when I remembered that there were Victorian journalists that wrote many critical articles about Mrs. Eddy, including that all her ideas came from Quimby. This was because the patriarchal society was much more comfortable with attributing a new religion to a man than admit the possibility that a woman had unique ideas of her own and was forming a fast-growing and popular religious movement. Professor Allitt must have read something attributed to these early patriarchal newspapers, because most non-denominational scholars correctly classify Eddy as a theologian, philosopher, and religious leader in her own right. Overall, I rate the section on Christian Science as perhaps 25% historically accurate. There were also several other times in the course that I felt like I was either not getting a complete picture or possibly inaccurate information, but am not enough of a scholar in those areas to give a definite critique. It's with remorse that I'm leaving a low review for this course, as the topic is a very interesting one and Professor Allitt is very engaging. But once you begin to question accuracy, you start to question everything you're learning.
Date published: 2020-01-14
Rated 1 out of 5 by from COLLAPSES INTO SENSATIONALISM As others have mentioned, the course starts off fairly well but falls apart in its latter half. AS AN EXAMPLE, consider L22 "Asian Religions": Mixed in with a very brief discussion of the arrival of eastern Orthodox Christianity, we have The Beat Generation. For those who don't remember: its Jack Kerouac was diagnosed with dementia praecox (schizophrenia) long before he got his Zen on. Novelty-starved college professors (who opposed religion on campus) elevated Jack and the very creepy Allen Ginsberg ("suicide, sex, & drugs") to a religion substitute. Unfortunately, those same professors graded us so we had to friendly-bobble our heads, though only those on drugs saw any religious meaning in mad Jack. Then Allitt relates that the Beatles (of England) visited the Yogi (of India) whose primarily NON-RELIGIOUS worldwide TM movement adherents were "tens of thousands". In America (the subject of this course) they found a market on “religion-free“ campuses & sold mail-order health supplements. (So why is this in a religion course?). Next we have Jacob Needleman, dissatisfied with Judeo-Christian tradition...yet his "famous" quotes plagiarize Judeo-Christian thought via paraphrase: "We are born for meaning not pleasure...", "The root of materialism is a poverty of ideas about the inner and outer world", etc. Finally, the chapter ends with a very, very brief discussion of the major religion of Islam (with 1.8 billion adherents worldwide rather than TM's "10's of thousands"). CONS: 1. Too many sideshows turn American Religious History into a freak show. L13's Sylvester Graham used religion as a handle but his over-arching thrust was dietary manipulation. Bruce Barton's "muscular, bronzed Jesus" (L13) is followed by an admission that this was about consumerism (ie: not religion). The False Dilemma logical fallacy evident in Social Darwinism's/Henry Ward Beecher's thesis of "poverty...(as) a reflection of God and evolution at work" (L14) is eviscerated by the Biblical passages of John 12:7 or Mark 14:6. Another sideshow, (L21) portrays Jesus as a proto-hippie? Excuse me? Experiments in feminine witchcraft/goddess worship (L21) might count as quasi-religious were they not so fringe and age-transient. Allitt confuses the main thrust of theological history with an overwhelming number of sensational sidebars. 2. This 2001 course shows its age: (L1) "Today...(p)ublic declarations of atheism...are almost unknown here (the US)." I guess that was before the secular humanist "Freedom From Religion Foundation", etc. Yet in L23, Allitt accurately describes "secular humanism" as a parody religion (a BELIEF system mocking religion). Because of its age, the course is unable to speculate whether the Supreme Court might next outlaw such parody religion in the school system and Public Square. One can only hope.
Date published: 2019-11-23
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Some incorrect information I ordered the course on Audio CDs. I was disappointed to hear incorrect information about Christian Science and its founder and wondered if I was hearing factual statements about other religions. Hopefully this wasn't due to a bias but perhaps through using biased and incorrect sources.
Date published: 2019-11-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Will Listen To This More Than Once This is an audio only course. I purchased this course for two reasons. One, I have purchased and taken several other courses by professor Allitt and he is in my opinion a wonderful instructor. So, that alone sold me on taking this audio only course. Normally, I only take video courses. Two, as someone highly interested in religion, I wanted to hear this professor's overview of church history in America. I have not been disappointed. I have listened to the entire set of lessons and will listen to several in particular again and take notes. I bought this course on-sale as I do for all Great Courses now.
Date published: 2019-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mostly Great, With One Dangerous Exception In general, this is an excellent overview of a topic that could have provided another 18 hours easily. However, there is dangerous case of whitewashing that occurs toward the end and must be addressed. In the lecture on civil rights movements, Dr. Allitt touches a third rail of American discourse when he talks about anti-abortion movements, and he (correctly) states that the organization Operation Rescue was an early example of conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics, and conservative Jews putting aside doctrinal differences to address what they all saw as an evil practice. Dr. Allitt mentions Operation Rescue again in the closing lecture as an example of an interfaith organization that emerged in the 20th century to influence politics. That's true, but that's only half of the story. Operation Rescue has been linked repeatedly through the decades to violent criminal activity meant to shut down abortion clinics or, barring that, to kill people who provide abortions. The group fits the definition of a terrorist organization, but Dr. Allitt minimizes it criminality by saying they shared Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s stance that breaking what one sees as an immoral law may be a moral necessity. King taught civil disobedience ... but he also taught nonviolence resistance. As Dr. Allitt notes, King's part of the civil rights movement required activists to receive training so they wouldn't fight back against police. Randall Terry's movement inspired fire bombings and snipers. To mention his name in the same breath as King's is shockingly tone-deaf at best.
Date published: 2019-04-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my favorite courses This is probably one of the best courses I have purchased. The instructor is knowledgeable and communicates his passion for the subject. His insights are fair and well-presented..
Date published: 2018-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good depth and excellent professor I am one-third of the way through. Tremendous integration of present American religion with its roots in our history. The course has a certain objectivity since the professor is a British Christian who can view the many American religious themes without pushing for his own "favorite".
Date published: 2018-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from God's Own Country As Professor Allitt points out, the American people are far more devoted to religion, mainly Christianity, than those of other Western countries. Yet the intensity and aims of that devotion have been in constant flux. First, there is an ongoing struggle between revivalism and skepticism. Protestant Christianity went through two great revivals in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that swept up believers in emotional frenzy. Yet there was also the Enlightenment, in which Ben Franklin subtly ridiculed traditional morality, Thomas Jefferson created his own personal Bible with all the supernatural events cut out, and Thomas Paine publicly advocated deism. In the late 19th century Darwinian evolution and German “higher criticism” helped spread doubt about the literal truth of the Bible, only to stir up the fundamentalist furor that grew in the early 20th century and continues up to today. Second, America has had a deeply ambivalent attitude toward religious toleration. In the 17th century, of course, the Puritans expected everyone in their colonies to conform to their state-supported beliefs or leave. In most other colonies, however, the mere fact of diverse churches forced authorities to admit toleration in practice if not in theory. After independence, the First Amendment to the US Constitution forbade the federal government from establishing religion or interfering with its free exercise, but only in the 1960s did the Supreme Court use the 14th Amendment to extend this prohibition to the states. Furthermore, voters have rallied at least three or four times to nativist movements founded on opposition to a competing religion—Roman Catholicism in the 1840s, Roman Catholicism AND Judaism in the 1920s, and Islam today. In 1954 Congress required schoolchildren to state that this country is “under God” when they said the Pledge of Allegiance—so much for the First Amendment! At the same time, Americans have felt free to experiment with exotic imports like Buddhism and Hinduism or create wholly domestic faiths like Mormonism and Christian Science. Third, for all that Christianity is supposed to focus on salvation in the hereafter, many factions have exploited it to promote social control or reform. The Puritans used the law to punish heresy, Sabbath-breaking and premarital sex yet also founded the colonies’ first colleges. The Second Awakening spun off the temperance, abolition and women’s suffrage movements. The Social Gospel of the late 19th century criticized poverty and inequality of wealth. In the 20th century, fundamentalists have opposed feminism, abortion, homosexuality, sex education, and the teaching of evolution, all in the name of preserving a Christian America. African-American Christianity has been a powerful force for racial equality. Pacifists have repeatedly objected to America’s foreign wars, even going to jail. On a smaller scale the US has repeatedly seen utopian communities, like Oneida, New York with its “complex marriage,” the short-lived Rajneesh presence in Antelope, Oregon, and (alas) the suicidal People’s Temple cult of Jim Jones in San Francisco and Guyana. I usually have at least one or two objections to a course, but for this one I have none. I especially like Lecture 3 on American Indian religions, a useful reminder that Christianity was not this country’s first faith. In twenty-four lectures, Professor Allitt does an excellent job of covering all possible topics across a four-hundred-year timespan.
Date published: 2018-10-11
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