Sydney E. Ahlstrom A Religious History of the American People, with a foreword and concluding chapter by David D. Hall, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). xxiv + 1192 pages. $30.00.
The 1973 National Book Award review for Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People observed that the book was "no survey, but a saga."
The great majority of reviewers echoed this sentiment and lavished praise upon Ahlstrom for the remarkable sensitivity by which he wove together so many disparate
traditions and intellectual movements into a coherent and lively narrative. The book quickly became a mainstay and an authoritative source for a new generation
of Americanists—including this one—who esteemed A Religious History as a first-rate reference work for themselves and their students.
"By underscoring many of the
key issues that
since Ahlstrom wrote and shedding light on themes that were emergent in the 1960s and
'70s but were yet unrecognizable, David Hall contributes much that is valuable to the text."
Thirty years after they first published A Religious History, Yale University Press is to be congratulated for its decision to again publish Ahlstrom's monumental work.
The second edition includes a foreword and a new concluding chapter written by another noteworthy American religious historian, David D. Hall.
Writing with a palpable sense of objectivity (something that is difficult to pull off given the chronological proximity of his subject matter), Hall
takes on the unenviable, if not daunting, task of crystallizing the last thirty years of American religious history in twenty pages.
In this woefully inadequate space, he manages somehow to recognize and articulate the complexity of mainly intellectual patterns still emerging among
conservative, moderate, and liberal Christian groups while avoiding the patent explanations (e.g., deprivation theories) to explain why individual
Americans align themselves with specific cosmologies and incorporate either transcendent or secular values. Hall also traces the vigorous contribution
of a now mainstream, post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism to the American religious matrix. Moreover, he helps his reader recognize many of the critical
developments that have occurred among American Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, which in some respects have assumed the Catholics'
former role as America's "newcomers and outsiders".
These strengths notwithstanding, Yale University Press should have requested that Hall compose at least two or three concluding thematic chapters—the physical
size of the book is already such that it probably should be divided into two volumes—because a great deal of what needs to have been mentioned and
interpreted remains untouched. For example, Jim Jones, Heaven's Gate, the emergence of the New Age, radical Islam and the rise of
anti-Muslim nativism in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and many other culturally relevant persons and movements receive no treatment.
Moreover, Hall's effort to cover the major African American groups (both Christian and Muslim) leaves the reader pleading for more information—a lot
more information. Yet it is worth mentioning again that in the space within which he works, Hall masterfully performs the task allotted him.
Thirty-two years after it first appeared in print, A Religious History of the American People remains an exquisite scholarly work.
By underscoring many of the key issues that have developed since Ahlstrom wrote and
shedding light on themes that were emergent in the 1960s and
'70s but were yet unrecognizable, David Hall contributes much that is valuable to the text. Despite its obvious limitations, the second edition
of A Religious History continues to rank among the classics in the field.