Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Summer Read for the History Fans

From David Goldfield's, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (Bloomsbury Press, 2011).

Evangelical Christianity did not disappear after the war. Rather, it was increasingly secular, a function of the prevailing postwar culture rather than the other way around. Dwight L. Moody packed his revivals with the simple message of eternal salvation and banned politics from his pulpits. He offered little in the way of theological exegesis. Most of his "sermons" took the form of secular stories sprinkled with treacly aphorisms much more than biblical texts. As the Wild West and minstrel shows made caricatures of Indians and blacks, Moody succeeded in making religion a spectacle. Many of his middle- and upper-class congregants came to see a show and to be part of an event. It was comfort religion, part of the culture of affluence and prosperity. (p. 13)

Goldfield's work comes to me highly recommended and I am enjoying it immensely. Unlike many other works on American history, he pays keen attention to religion. The basic thesis of Goldfield's book is that evangelical Christianity's political ascent among a mediocre generation, the second to come of age after the Revolution, led the nation into war as bombasts on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line lost all sense of compromise and any hope of peaceful solutions. Why was America the only country to rid itself of the sin of human bondage at the cost of a catastrophic war? Rome, Britain, France, Brazil, even Russia managed a peaceful transition to freedom. What went wrong here? Goldfield seeks to answer that question and finds a great deal of that answer in the realm of religion.

As the quotation above shows, Goldfield casts a keen eye on the religious scene. Even if you find yourself at loggerheads with his conclusions, you will certainly learn something about how the current religious milieu of America came to be - and perhaps where it is headed.


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