America's Religions is a comprehensive survey that can be used as an academic text or a study of personal interest to anyone who wants to delve deeply and thoroughly into this subject matter. Peter W. Williams
is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Religion and American Studies at Miami
University, Oxford, Ohio, as well as the author of Popular Religion in America and
Houses of God. In this book, now in its third printing, he offers a journey into the heart of American culture: its spiritual life. The book has been called "the clearest, fairest, and most comprehensive surveys of the history of the American religious experience."
In his introduction, Williams makes it clear that he wishes to examine "the major features of public religion" - colonization, institutionalization, and culture – rather than the family aspect of religion or its personal qualities. Because he will be bringing all these religious streams together, he is not an advocate or a proponent of any. He gives their due to American strains of Buddhism and Islam, to Daddy Grace and Father Divine, to Mary Baker Eddy, to the Dunkers and the Moravians, to modern "morality" ideology, to Catholicism in its many manifestations, and to the largest and most predominant of American religious strains – Baptism and Methodism – and to the thorny subject of evangelism.
His book is both history and religious survey. Being from the South, I found his analysis of
Southern religion, embedded as it is in Southern history, most fascinating. A number of factors have affected religion south of the Mason-Dixon Line. First was the ethnicity and race of its earliest settlers. The whites were largely Celtic, either independent Scots (with some few English and French aristocrats) or that hybrid known as Scots-Irish. Many of these folks came to America as indentured servants who sometimes escaped and lived highly independent lives in the Appalachian region. The other important grouping was the influx of black African slaves who brought with them a mélange of religion, language and folkways. The Southern brands of religion, fairly or not, gained a national reputation as ignorant and primitive for several outstanding reasons: they defended slavery, they allowed the Ku Klux Klan to flourish, and they became seedbeds of fundamentalist evangelism. Holiness churches, which flourish in Appalachia and beyond and among both blacks and whites (not always segregated), still incorporate laying-on of hands for healing and speaking in tongues, gifts of the Pentecost, and in rare cases, the handling of snakes and drinking of poisons. The traditions of the "farmer-preacher" along with radio evangelism, store-front churches and unaccompanied singing are still prevalent in the South.
Then there was the Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925, which did much to vilify Southern spiritual beliefs in the national mind. The argument over whether humans descended from apes, over whether the world was created in seven days or billions of years, came into focus in this famous court battle which took place in Tennessee. As we all know, though the South took the rap for defending its right to teach creationism in schools, this is a struggle for minds and hearts that is still being waged in every state of the Union, between people who consider themselves intellectually superior and those who consider themselves scripturally correct.
America's Religions is a worthy keeper of a book which you can use to understand your own faith and its history better or to settle arguments with your in-laws. As Williams suggests that major national events such as the great Depression can have an impact on the character of religious thought, it will be interesting to see what religious history will be written in the twenty-first century, and "what rough beast" may even now be a-borning as the times change.