A Religious History of America

The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today


Book: A Religious History of America

Author: Edwin Scott Gaustad

Publisher: Harper One, revised edition republished in 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0060630577 (Hardcover)

ISBN-10: 0060630574 (Hardcover)

ISBN-13: 978-0060630560 (Paperback)

ISBN-10: 0060630566 (Paperback)

Language level: 1

(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)

Reading level: Teens and adults

Rating: 4 stars (GOOD)

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

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     Gaustad, Edwin ScottA Religious History of America (published in 1966 by Harper and Row Publishers Incorporated, 49 E. 33rd St., New York City, NY  10016).  As I said earlier, several years ago I purchased a couple of volumes on American religious history to help in preparing lessons or classes on the history of religion in the United States to be included in a series about church history.    Compared to Sydney E. Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People, Gaustad’s work, of which I have the original edition, is not quite as detailed, is filled with illustrations to make it more eye appealing, and while it was probably also intended as a college textbook is written in a more popular than strictly academic style.   

          The 24 chapters are grouped into five parts.  Part I covers the Age of Exploration, Part II the Age of Colonization, Part III the Age of Expansion, Part IV This Nation Under God; At Worship, and Part V This Nation Under God: At Work.  The book starts with the first Catholic colonies established by Spain, Portugal, and France; moves on to the Anglican and English settlements; then covers topics that include the Puritans in New England, separation of church and state, slavery, the growth of the church in the twentieth century, and the effect that war has on religion.  Two complaints are that the book completely leave outs the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a bias seems to creep in about more recent events as the activities of the religious left have a tone of approval while the activities of the religious right are written with a tone of disapproval.

     Author Edwin Scott Gaustad, who was a Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside, and also wrote the Historical Atlas of Religion in America, said in his Preface, “Since the purpose of this book is to describe the role of religion in American life, national history more than denominational history is pursued.”  Like Ahlstrom’s book, one would not expect the subject to be covered from a conservative standpoint, but Gaustad does approach it with more of a traditional view than a purely sociological one.  It is a helpful resource for the student of American religious history.  A Revised edition entitled The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today edited by Leigh E. Schmidt, one of Gaustad’s students, was published in 2002.  It retains the core material with a revised chapter structure which replaces the five distinct ages of the previous editions with a four primary time-periods: the Colonial times; the Revolutionary War to the Civil War; Post Civil War to World War II; and World War II to the present, more explicit emphasis on specific historical markers that carry the multifaceted story of religion in the United States into the twenty-first century, updated bibliographies, and some text revisions.

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