Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianising the American People by Jon Butler (Harvard University Press £19.95) Jacques timers SJ THE topic of this book is a religious history of the United States up to the time of President Abraham Lincoln. The Yale historian Jon Butler prefers a substantive approach to his subject, so that religion "is taken to mean belief in and resort to superhuman powers, sometimes beings, that determine the course of natural and human events".
This means very concretely that the author shows a detailed interest in what one could call the religious perceptions and experiences of people. The source material in the book is used to illustrate more what religion meant to people and what was its impact on their lives than to provide some sort of temporal sequence of events.
Butler stresses lay-religion (the religion of lay-people) more than institutions, and popular religion more than structured theological systems. Moreover, the reader is invited to use all this material to better understand America's religious identity today.
The first chapter, The European religious heritage, reflects the view of the author that American religious history can only be understood from the perspective of the complex pattern of religion in Europe. Of
course one thinks first of the different denominations that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it is characteristic for Butler to stress the importance of magic, the occult and facts such as the results of a 1548 Antwerp census that show that one third of the population didn't claim any religious affiliation.
This is the background to The crisis of thristian practice in America, the second chapter. The view of an early exclusively puritan American is mistaken. Christian practice was on the decline during the larger part of the 17th century, in Virginia, Maryland, New England and even Pennsylvania.
The skyline of such cities as Boston, New York and Charlestown bore poor witness to a strong ecclesiastical commitment. This lack of influence of an institutionalised church was compensated by a growing interest in magic, divination and occultism. The 18th century, though, brought a strong revival. State churches and dissenters put heavy stress on strong institutions. Butler makes interesting comparisons, as for example between New York's skyline in 1679 and in 1730.
Butler also deals with the interaction between religion and slavery. A large number of examples show how established religion managed to condone slavery. The consequence of this was an "African spiritual holocaust" in which African religious expressions — the expressions of the slaves — became very difficult.
The 18th century was characterised not only by the spiritual renewal inside the existing state churches, but also by a growing proliferation of denominations: a wide pluralism of religious expression was growing rapidly. The Revolution taking place during this period was foremost a secular event, though it had 'wide-ranging implications for religion in the long run. Organised religion was probably fostered by it, though this was not clear at all times (the war chaplains seem to have had a difficult job). It was truly a period of spiritual creativity. The period between 1790 and 1860 — the American republic before the civil war — saw the emergence of new relationships between state and religion, with the colonial church-state pattern very much on the decline.
Butler shows how fascinating history can be. The wealth of details and the broad interest in aspects of lay-religion make it a challenge even to a modern christian who wants to take a closer look at his own time. Sometimes, though, the reader needs a pause. One is confronted with much detail and it is easy to lose the global view. Some kind of overview or scheme which could be referred to would have helped.