What Periods are Pivotal in American Religion?

10 Feb
American cartoon by Grant Hamilton, 1896, on W...

Bryan's Cross of Gold via Wikipedia

I’m beginning the early course design work for a summer course on religion in America. It’s 6 weeks, 5 days a week with two dozen or so undergraduates. I’ll have daily access to powerpoint and other media devices in the classroom, but given the nature of summer coursework I can only ask so much of my students in readings, assignments, and field trips. If it were a more leisurely arrangement field trips to see local religious groups would absolutely be integral to my course, and if I were able to have a computer classroom everyday like I did for writing courses I’ve taught, I’d seriously consider using it.

I’ve been thinking that the way I’ve previously done the course, a roughly chronological approach to introductions to denominations is probably not the way that I’ll arrange things this summer. It’s always frustrated me that such organization can feel like a laundry list of religious groups.  Avoiding that kind of whirlwind introduction to more than a dozen major religious groups will leave me engaging in more serious discussions and fewer lectures. It may seem odd that you can cover more religions when you’re only meeting 3x a week for a long lecture slot with hundreds of students than you can if you’re going to see your two dozen students every single day, but it seems the way of things if I want to really get into some of the primary sources and get the critical thinking juices flowing every day.

To that end I’ve been considering taking each of the 6 weeks and using each of them to look at a specific period in American history. I may take some liberty with the idea of periodicity. After all, there may be some instances were a single event or year or decade are enough to really capture something pivotal about religion in America. They need not be the essential historical turning points, because this course is not American religious history or a history of religion in America, but rather “An Introduction to Religion in America.” With that in mind I need to pick diverse topics that cover a full range of religious experiences, religions, gender dynamics, racial and ethnic makeup, and so on.

Hence my title’s question: What periods are pivotal in American religion?

If you had 5 choices of periods (read: events, years, decades, etc.) to cover, what would you select?

This is certainly a less is more approach, but if you picked the right years, I think, it could be a really persuasive and exciting tour of American religion. If you wanted to emphasize Pentecostalism or Fundamentalism or Slave religion or New Thought or the Great Awakening or Puritans or the role of religion in politics, there are easy ways to get at all of these concepts and more.

Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling. I know there are folks lurking–time to speak up!


  • Salem (1690-93) — I love the witchcraft trials. Sure, they can be overdone, but they’re a great early American event that has a number of visual representations and which has retained its value as a phenomena  (cf. McCarthyism). I prefer the interpretations that highlight psychological and political motives, but I also think sermons by Cotton Mather and other Salem ministers deserve more attention. (I already have all of the primary and secondary sources readily available.)
  • New France — I could use some pointers here from experts of early American settlement. I agree very much with our field’s desire to avoid always and forever beginning with Massachusetts and Puritans. (See my review of a panel that argued this point.) Perhaps King William’s War would be an interesting topic? Anyone know good sources for this?
  • New Spain — Perhaps the best event to lead with would be the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. There’s empire, religion, and compelling characters: Popé. We get to talk about martyrdom, colonial rule, and have a great opportunity to see the differences between French, Spanish, and English colonial interactions with Native Americans.
    William Miller

    William Miller via Wikipedia


  • Millerites — William Miller and his followers believed that the world would end in 1843. One of many millennial movement in America, there’s a lot to be said for the vigor and liveliness of the story of the Millerites, and its great advantage is how well documented it was. The repeated highs surrounded published dates and then lows following the lack of, well, world ending were fabulously publicized in newspapers around the U.S.
  • New Thought, Mesmerism, Mental Healing — Between Phineas P. Quimby and Warren Felt Evans, there are two major New Thought thinkers to wrestle with. Their writings are challenging, but they are compelling, intriguing figures that help give birth to a wide variety of religious practices and movements. Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, for instance are integrally tied to the work of Phineas P. Quimby. Likewise, we can trace several of the roots of the Theosophical movement to shared roots in the Hermetic tradition. Size-wise these are fairly small movements in the American fabric, but their influence is much wider. You can’t account for the continuing popularity of shows like Ghost Hunters or the movie Paranormal Activity without acknowledging this older American lineage. You can pick any date for this around this era and it works pretty well since the air was positively humming with the buzz of this stuff.


  • Wounded Knee (1890) — I’ve used the Oglala story of White Buffalo Calf Woman in several courses before. It’s a great entry into rituals (Sun Dance, sweat lodge and vision quest) as well as a way to talk about the zone of contact in the Midwest between the army and Native Americans. Wovoka and the Ghost Dance always appeals to students.
    1891 Sioux Ghost Dance. Ghost Dances influence...

    Sioux Ghost Dance 1891 via Wikipedia

  • World’s Parliament of Religions (1893) — The 400th anniversary of Europeans’ arrival in the Americas was an inter-religious event where, for the first time, major figures representing Asian religious groups such as Hinduism and Zen Buddhism were side-by-side with Protestants. It’s a fantastic spectacle with great stories and no lack of controversy either. It’s a pretty stark contrast to the brutal treatment of Native Americans at Wounded Knee.
  • Utah becomes a State (1896) — Utah’s entry into the union is an opportunity to discuss The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and the concessions they made religiously to do so). There are 6 million Mormons in the U.S., about 1.7% of the population, which is about the same as the number of Jews living here today. Giving the strong possibility of Mitt Romney’s candidacy for President in 2012, I think we owe our students a more thorough examination of LDS, especially beyond Mormonism’s origins.
  • Cross of Gold (1896) — If you want classic Gilded Era evangelicalism you can head straight for William Jennings Bryan and his brand of populism. It’s a nice introduction to Bryan if you also intend on discussing the Scopes trial. As a prohibitionist and anti-Darwinist, he’s a figure that gets you deep into the thick of the entanglement of politics and religion. (You can introduce Carry Nation if you want to see hatchet-swinging prohibitionists, her vision was in 1899.)


  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination (1968) — King’s integration of religion and civil rights is an verdant field for discussing the religion of blackness, as well as black theology using James Cone’s 1969 Black Theology and Black Power. It would be remiss to not introduce African Americans to the scene prior to 1969, and likewise it is generally the case to discuss King and Malcolm X in the same unit. The contrast between the Black church (problematic construct, I know) and the Nation of Islam highlights the alternatives open to African Americans beyond non-violence and black Christianity.
  • Billy Graham

    Image by Dean Terry via Flickr

    Woodstock (1969) — Here I am stretching a bit, but the Summer of Love is actually a great opportunity to talk about the Age of Aquarius and the spirit behind the New Age. This is less a specific religious event than it is an event that captures some of the energy of the movement. Often the New Age’s many variations make it tough to discuss, but here’s something nearly everybody can recognize.

  • Billy Graham’s “Big A” Revival (1969) — Southern California often gets far more credit for its New Age contributions than for its role in major evangelical revivals. In 1969 Billy Graham held his second major revival in L.A. and thousands heard the altar call. At the end of the 1960s not only was it the age of Aquarius but the dawning of modern Evangelicalism. Soon Hal Lindsey would publish his Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and launch a new era of millennial expectation. This would be especially valuable if I were dropping (gasp!) the First and/or Second Great Awakenings.
  • Alcatraz Occupation (1969) — We can return to the intersection of religion and activism by turning to one of the defining moments of Native American activism. This is a great chance to bring in the works of great writers like Vine Deloria, whose 1969 Custer Died for Your Sins brought Native American history squarely into conflict with traditional Christian narratives of America’s past. Just as Americans were at the height of involvement in Vietnam, attention was being drawn to the ways in which the American empire had operated similarly in past and present. Powerful stuff that stands very well alongside Cone and King and Malcolm X.

One Response to “What Periods are Pivotal in American Religion?”


  1. Do Our Students Need Our Teaching Philosophies? « A Lively Experiment - April 7, 2011

    […] a lot about the course I’ll be teaching this summer. I’ve already said a bit about curriculum development, but what about classroom philosophy? Let me give it a quick go and see where I get to […]

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