For the Bookshelf: The American Church Experience
August 11, 2014—After I graduated from seminary I followed up on my promise to myself to read all those books I never got around to reading because of the interruptions of course schedules and meeting class requirements (it’s a promise that seems never-ending, for, as the Preacher said, “of the publishing of books there is no end.”). At one point I took up the reading of the two-volume set on the history of Christianity by Kenneth Scott Latourette. They remain on my bookshelf today—marked up, underscored, dog-eared, and full of notations. I remain aghast at the tenacity of my younger self to see that exercise through. While reading over 1500 pages of an obsessively comprehensive history in small dense type may be, in itself, an accomplishment, after a while, comprehension and recall took a back seat to the sheer force of will to get through that volume of information.
Reading Askew and Pierard’s The American Church Experience brought back some memories of that misguided experience in pedantry, in this instance, they were all good. Their subtitle, A Concise History is apropos—part of what makes this book a delight to read is the elegant economy of words and straightforward prose. The book would have been well-served by an Introduction. The content chapters are bookended by a Preface and an Epilogue that make the now seeming de rigour, but here unsatisfactory, allusions to September 11, 2001. The twenty chapters of the book fall under the organization of five parts: The Old World Heritage, which provides a background history, up to the Reformation, for the American religious history; Colonial Foundations (1607-1783) covering the initial migrations to North America up till to American Revolution and its immediate aftermath; The Nationalization and Expansion of the Churches (1784-1860), which covers the Second Great Awakening and emerging new groups, denominations, and social orders; Disruption, Devotion, and Debate (1861-1916) which covers the rise of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, regionalism, and the emergent international missionary movements; and The Churches in a Pluralistic Society (1917-Present), which does a more than fair job of recognizing the contribution and impact of ethnic Christianity and globalization on the American church experience. Throughout the book the authors include photos of personalities, events, and moments referred to in the text.
This is a comprehensive work that strives for balanced coverage but ultimately retains a decidedly evangelical Protestant orientation. Only in a few instances did the authors fail to avoid overstatements and generalizations, which is a hazard in trying to produce a short volume with such historical coverage. Overall, the precise and uncomplicated writing style is one of the book’s strength—–this is part of what makes this work a delight to read. Askew and Pierard have made a welcomed contribution to the field of American religious history. I wish I’d had this book as a choice over Latourette, way back when; my comprehension of the movement of American Christianity would have no doubt been much better.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans