The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today
by Edwin Gaustad & Leigh Schmidt
454 pages, paperback
My first class on American religious history had Edwin Gaustad’s The Religious History of America as its primary text. Gaustad, former professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside, passed away on March 25th at the age of 87 at his home in Santa Fe. It is no understatement to say that he was a scholar’s scholar.
The highly assessable and brilliantly written The Religious History of America was first published in 1966. It underwent several revisions between then and 2002, when Leigh Eric Schmidt, a former student of Gaustad and the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School, helped to bring about its most recent revision. If one were to trace the history and revisions of Gaustad’s works over the years (such as his lauded Historical Atlas of Religion in America and Documentary History series), one would be tracing the history and development of American religious historiography itself.
The beauty of Gaustad’s scholarship, however, does not simply come from its ability to endure and its clarity, but from Gaustad’s reminder that American religious history is not simply the story of Puritanism or evangelicalism. Unlike some of the revisionist histories of conservative America that have appeared more frequently in recent years, Gaustad reminds us that history has a high thread count. It is layered with many interwoven stories and not all of which are the story of Christianity. As Amanda Porterfield writes, The Religious History of America is a “comprehensive, graceful narrative that truly represents the pluralism, momentum, and vitality of American religious life.”
Gaustad’s work will continue to serve as a text in my courses and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in American religious history.
Two helpful obituaries can be found here: LATimes; NYTimes.