I read a lot of books. Most professors can make similar statements because we read for our jobs as well as for fun. I read anthropology and philosophy, religion and science, far too much Sci-fi and lately The Adventures of Captain Underpants. (Anyone with an eight-year-old boy will know that last title.) But for the last several years I haven’t read much in the way of Evangelical history in part because I felt as if I’d exhausted the genre. For several years in the early 2000s I taught courses at Concordia University and Connecticut College on the history and development of American Evangelicalism and preparing for those courses caused me to develop a fairly extensive library of Evangelical histories and anthropological treatments. As religious movements go, Evangelicalism is still in its infancy, so the histories deal only with a few centuries at most, and once you’ve read a dozen or so, the differences between them become largely academic. If you’re interested, I recommend Mark Noll’s The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity and George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture as good places to begin your study of the topic. But today I’ll recommend a new text to you.
Over Christmas break I devoured Steven P. Miller’s The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years. And while this is a blog and not a book review, I will tell you what I found so compelling about the text. First and foremost, it avoids the pitfalls of so many other histories of American Evangelicalism, so let me outline those shortcomings first. In my experience, most histories of A.E. fall into three camps. First, there are those histories written by professional historians of religion (Noll and Marsden fall into this camp.) that trace the history of modern Evangelicalism back to it’s roots in the First Great Awakening or even the European Reformations. For history and theology buffs like me, these are fun reads because they highlight continuities and connections between “mainline” traditions and Evangelicalism. The basic operating thesis of most of these texts is that Evangelicalism has always been there, but due to class associations, it has usually been an under-appreciated contributor to the American religious tradition. In short, these books rewrite the entire history of American religion so as to highlight the Evangelical strain and its contributions. They are, if nothing else, thorough.