Engines of Change and Chronology in American Religious History

Cross-posted from Religion in American History

While we are all aflutter over this weekends’ American Academy of Religion, I would ask us to take a moment and turn our attention to another scholarly society–the American Society of Church History. Earlier this month the ASCH launched its very own blog that is open to contributions from any of its members (ahem, AAR are you listening?) So far there has been some quite interesting content covering Christian history in America. Yesterday’s post from W. Clark Gilpin, “Wanted: A New Chronology of American Religious History,” especially caught my attention.

Gilpin points out that one of the central tasks of the historian is to track change over time and this requires some sort of chronology. How one builds that chronology, though, will depend on what one sees as the engine driving change.

In no small measure, decisions about periodization depend on the issues that a given author or group of authors have identified as the principal engines of change. Historians who link American religious history to immigration are likely to produce a different chronology from historians focused on the intersection of religion and politics, or the history of religiously motivated movements of social reform. And yet, a moment’s reflection will also suggest that these three sets of concerns display interesting chronological convergences, for example, with changes in U.S. immigration law and movements for civil rights during the 1960s.

The entire post is worth a read, but this point was especially interesting to me. As we think about the narratives we tell about religion in America, what are the engines driving our chronologies? What do they allow us to see? Where do they give us blindspots? For my current work I’d have to say “religious difference” drives the narrative. Gilpin names immigration, politics, and reform. Lately on the blog we’ve been talking a lot about the market. Are there other engines we’ve yet to put to use? Where could they take us?

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