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Religion and the American Experience: A Century After

  • Catherine L. Albanese (a1)


Philip Schaff's America, newly translated from the German, appeared on these shores 133 years ago. Although that fact belies the title (and pushes the beginning of the American Society of Church History a third of a century into the future), I suspect that in 1888 Schaff would have concurred with much that he had thought as a younger scholar. He claimed, though, that he would not live in California “for any price,” and I have speculated about whether by 1888 he had changed his mind. The question is more than personal, for perhaps the most pungent metaphor in Schaff's America is his “Phenixgrave” figure for the land. “America,” he wrote, “is the grave of all European nationalities; but a Phenix grave, from which they shall rise to new life and new activity.” Beyond that he thought that America seemed “destined to be the Phenix grave not only of all European nationalities … but also of all European churches and sects, of Protestantism and Romanism.”



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1. Schaff, Philip, America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social, and Religious Character, ed. Miller, Perry (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), p. 51 (emphasis Schaff's); pp. 8081.

2. Ibid., pp. 51, 44, 81, 46, 71.

3. For a classic formulation of these issues, see Wach, Joachim, Sociology of Religion (1944; reprint, Chicago, 1967).

4. Marty, Martin E., “Ethnicity: The Skeleton of Religion in America,” Church History 41 (1972): 914.

5. Roof, Wade Clark and McKinney, William, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (New Brunswick, N.J., 1987), p. 4.

6. Marty, Martin E., A Nation of Behavers (Chicago, 1976);Roof, and McKinney, , American Mainline Religion, pp. 7681, 1516.

7. Roof, and McKinney, , American Mainline Religion, pp. 179, 233, 182.

8. Ibid., pp. 90, 102, 183, 168, 171, 90–91, 168, 100, 102. (Survey evidence is based on annual social surveys conducted from 1972 to 1978, in 1980, and from 1982 to 1984 as the General Social Survey.)

9. Ibid., pp. 23, 94, 100.

10. Ibid., pp. 168–169. Survey evidence is based on the General Social Survey; see n. 8 above.

11. Ibid., pp. 169, 170. Roof and McKinney also remark on the less-committed style of Roman Catholic belonging than in times past; see ibid., p. 183.

12. Ibid., pp. 169, 99, 176, 99, 181.

13. Ibid., pp. 255, 236, 59, 182.

14. Ibid., pp. 40, 147, 165, 15, 250, 38, 36, 38. For the “second disestablishment,” see Handy, Robert T., A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, 2d ed. (New York, 1984), pp. 159184.

15. Roof, and McKinney, , American Mainline Religion, p. 6;Bellah, Robert N. et al. , Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, 1985), pp. 221, 235;Roof, and McKinney, , American Mainline Religion, pp. 42, 246.

16. Ahlstrom, Sydney E., A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, 1972), p. 605;Bloom, Harold, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (New York, 1982), p. 145.

17. Bloom, , Agon, p. 145;Ahlstrom, , Religious History, pp. 603, 604605, 1019;Bloom, , Agon, pp. 147148.

18. Bloom, , Agon, pp. 177 (emphasis Bloom's), 171, 170, 161162, 172 (emphasis Bloom's).

19. For a brief discussion of the role of Freemasonry in the American Revolution and its religious meaning, see Albanese, Catherine L., Sons of the Fathers: The Civil Religion of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, 1976), pp. 129136; on the nineteenth-century misfortunes of Freemasonry, see the classic work by Tyler, Alice Felt, Freedom's Ferment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the Outbreak of the Civil War (1944; reprint, New York, 1962), pp. 351358.

20. Troeltsch, Ernst, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans. Wyon, Olive, 2 vols. (1931; reprint, Chicago, 1976), 1:376378; 2:799, 730.

21. Roof, and McKinney, , American Mainline Religion, pp. 245246.

22. I borrow the phrase “nexus between mysticism and modernity” from Biale, David, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, 2d ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), p. 146;Scholem, Gershom G., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1954; reprint, New York, 1972), pp. 79.

23. Warren Wolfe and Martha Sawyer Allen, “Minnesotans Overwhelmingly Believe There Is a Watchful God,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune (30 08. 1987), pp. 1A, 4A; cited in a manuscript version of Bednarowski, Mary Farrell, Many Paths to Heaven's Gate: New Religions and the Theological Imagination in American Culture (Bloomington, forthcoming).

24. See, for example, the remarks of hypnotist Dick Sutphen in recent issues of his publications, as in “The Plot to Destroy the New Age,” and “How the NCR Will Turn the U.S.A. into a Facist State” What Is 1 (Summer 1986): 69, and in Master of Life 38 (04. 1988): 16. I am indebted to J. Gordon Melton for relocating the former for me (the entire issue emphasizes the theme of militancy against the New Christian Right).

25. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature, in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ferguson, Alfred R. et al. , 3 vols. to date (Cambridge, Mass., 1971–), 1:7.

26. Melton, J. Gordon, Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, vol. 213 (New York, 1986), p. 107. My discussion of the New Age has been informed throughout by Melton's useful essay in ibid., pp. 107–121. Note also the title of New Age teacher Marilyn Ferguson's already classic work, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformatton to the 1980s (Los Angeles, 1980).

27. For an account of the Fisher King in the context of Arthurian legend, see Weston, Jessie L., From Ritual to Romance (1920; reprint, Garden City, N.Y., 1957), esp.pp. 1324.

28. [Schucman, Helen], A Course in Miracles (1976; reprint, Tiburon, Calif., 1985).

29. I include present-day Holiness-Pentecostal groups within fundamentalist ranks. Although it is surely important to point to the different histories of early Holiness-Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups, contemporary popular perception (in and out of the groups) tends to locate them together. In the era of televangelism, when a Jim Bakker, a Jimmy Swaggart, and a Jerry Falwell have moved—until the fall of the former two—on a common plane, it makes little practical sense to separate Holiness-Pentecostalism from fundamentalism in this analysis.

30. Frankiel, Sandra S., California's Spiritual Frontiers: Religious Alternatives in Anglo-Protestantism, 1850–1910 (Berkeley, 1988);Humbard, Rex, Your Key to God's Bank of Blessings! (Akron, Ohio, 1987). I am indebted to J. Gordon Melton for information on the Humbard book.

31. Personal conversation with Amylee, Iroquois medicine-woman initiate, Yellow Springs, Ohio, ca. 20 September 1986.

32. Schaff, , America, pp. 71, 81.

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