A classroom perennial and comprehensive guide, America’s Religions lays out the background, beliefs, practices, and leaders of the nation’s religious movements and denominations. The fourth edition, thoroughly revised and updated by Peter W. Williams, draws on the latest scholarship. In addition to reconsidering the history of America’s mainline faiths, it delves into contemporary issues like religion’s impact on politics and commerce; the increasingly high profile of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam; Mormonism’s entry into the mainstream; and battles over gay marriage and ordination.
Over the past decade, scholars of American religion have undergone a crisis of narrative. Recognizing that earlier generations of historians have focused their work too narrowly on the experiences of white, male, middle-class Protestants, they have struggled to find a means of representing the incredible variety of spiritual expression that has always existed throughout an ever-diverse population. The solution offered here by Williams, a professor at Miami University (Ohio) and the editor of The Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, is to abandon narrative altogether. The result, regrettably, is not altogether satisfactory. This volume is astounding in its breadth; 11 of its 55 chapters offer cursory surveys of the major religious traditions. The remaining chapters digest the progress, since 1492, of dozens of spiritual movements and hundreds of religious leaders across a wide spectrum of ethnic and regional identity. However, Williams's resolute dedication to pluralism comes at the expense of both coherence and balance he devotes almost as much space to Victorian Anglicanism as he does to the Second Great Awakening. Although Williams intends this as a college textbook, he takes pains to italicize and define even such familiar terms as "pope," and offers too many simplistic generalizations. His methodological framework, built on the assumption that each group has its own distinct tradition, prevents him from examining crucial processes of cultural contact and exchange. The final product resembles more a collection of brief, loosely related essays than a mature work of synthetic analysis.