Religion in America

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Course Level:
Course Length:
15 weeks

Course Description:

A study of the variety and persistence of American religious beliefs and practices from the meeting of European and Native American peoples in the 16th century to the turn of the 21st century.


Required Materials:

  1. Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. 1991.
  2. Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
  3. Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias. 1994.
  4. Patrick Allitt, ed., Major Problems in American Religious History. 2000.


Course Objectives:

As a result of studying the history of this period, the student should be able to:

  1. Recognize and understand the significance of the major events, people, and developments;
  2. explain how these events, people and developments have shaped North American religious history;
  3. appreciate more fully the spiritual traditions that have shaped their faith communities and others’;
  4. apply critical and philosophical analysis to the interpretation of specific historical events;
  5. enhance their writing, communication, research, and study skills through readings, discussions, writing assignments, and examination.


Course Grade:

The course grade will be based on the following:

  1. Class Participation 10%
  2. Short essays 30%
  3. Exams 30%
  4. Research Paper 20%
  5. Online journals 10%


Attendance and Discussions:

  • Students are expected to be present for all classes, and all absences “count” against your total, no matter what the reason. Since class participation will constitute 10% of the students’ grade, and because class participation always improves other aspects of a student’s course grade, absences for any reason are strongly discouraged. Beyond four absences, ten points per absence will be deducted from the student’s final participation grade.
  • Only students who demonstrate regular, thoughtful, verbal interaction will receive ‘A’ grades for class participation. Students who attend faithfully but infrequently contribute can expect no higher than a ‘B-/C+’, and negligence in attendance, regular tardiness, sleeping, etc. will be grounds for grades of ‘C’ or lower. According to University regulations, any student who misses eight classes or more will normally fail the class regardless of class grades.


Use of personal technology:

  • Students may take notes on a laptop after getting approval from the professor, but students are not allowed to surf the internet, send or receive text messages, make or receive cell phone calls, or otherwise use devices in ways unrelated to class. Misuse of personal technology will result in major reductions of overall class participation grade and/or dismissal from that day’s class meeting.


Academic Honesty:

  • Cheating on tests and/or plagiarizing papers will result in a “zero” for that assignment with the possibility of further disciplinary action at the discretion of the Dean’s office. Students may not use the same paper to satisfy requirements in more than one class. Students may not copy material and present it as their own, and this includes material or papers from Internet sites. Suspicious papers will be checked with web or other relevant searches. On any assignment for this class or any other, if the words or interpretations you use are not your own, you must give credit to the original author. If you are not sure about something, please ask.


Extensions and Late Assignments:

  • Students are expected to complete all tests and assignments on time. If a student is going to be absent from class, she should arrange to complete and turn in any assignment due before the absence occurs.
  • Except in extreme cases, students not present for tests who do not arrange to take the test early will fail the test. If a student is terribly sick at exam time, she must present a note that she has gone to student health services or another clinic. If you are sick enough to miss an exam, then you are sick enough to go to the doctor. If you miss an exam for a legitimate reason (hospitalization, death of close relative, etc.), you must take the initiative to explain why and reschedule as soon as possible- in all but extreme cases if you do not contact the professor the day of the exam to arrange a make-up, you will receive a “zero.”
  • The professor strongly discourages extensions, and will in most cases not allow them. The primary reason for this is because the whole class should be allowed the same amount of time to complete an assignment, and extensions therefore will only be allowed in extreme cases such as documented debilitating illness or a death in the family.
  • Assignments not turned in at the class period due will receive a lowered grade, and assignments not turned in within 48 hours of the original time due will receive no higher than a C. Assignments turned in later than a week after the due date will receive an F. If a student fails to turn in an assignment in class, then he must e-mail an attachment of the paper to the professor within the time limit to receive credit- students may not turn it into the professor’s box and assume that the professor will know that it is there. STUDENTS SHOULD PLAN AHEAD SO THEY COMPLETE ASSIGNMENTS ON TIME.
  • One caveat is in order to this rather unbending policy: if a student chooses to do so, she may turn in a very late assignment despite knowing that it will receive an F. This in cases of borderline final grades may help the professor see that this was not a case of utter negligence, but instead that the assignment was completed, just not in time to pass. An ‘F’ with no assignment turned in is counted as 0 points.



  • I commonly use e-mail to communicate with the class and individual students. Because of this, I require that all students regularly check their e-mail accounts. I define “regularly” as about once per day, except on weekends and holidays. I will not make critical course changes by e-mail alone, but I do regularly communicate schedule changes or course announcements by e-mail and each student is responsible for these. I also use e-mail to notify students of problems or questions concerning their work, and students are advised to respond to these as promptly as possible. “I didn’t get the e-mail” is not a legitimate excuse in this class.


Final Word:

  • This course intentionally introduces you to a wide range of perspectives and information and encourages philosophical and moral inquiry about history, which will be expressed in writing assignments, examinations, and discussions. If you improve your ability to make compelling arguments based on factual evidence during this class, then you should consider the class a success.



  • Online Journals

I. You will regularly complete online journal entries on Blackboard. During the semester, we have 21 class meetings in which you are responsible for readings, but have no formal essay due. You are to write journal entries for 20 of these meetings. You are to write one-half to one (1) double-spaced page in Microsoft Word of critical reflection for each entry. These reflections will be graded pass/fail. Not every entry will pass- they must show conclusively that the student has completed all the readings. The entries should reflect basic comprehension of all the assigned reading, and raise at least one analytical question about the readings (that is, a question or issue we could discuss in class, such as, to what extent was the Civil War a religious war?).

You should initially compose entries in a Word document (which you should save as an ongoing course journal), then copy and paste that entry into an online journal entry on Blackboard (under “Tools”), and submit the entry to me by class time. No entries will be counted if received after class time. If (only if) Blackboard is down, you may print out your entry and bring it to class. Your journal grade will be counted as the number of passing entries divided by 20.

Short Essays

II. Each student will write three short papers of 3-4 pages during the semester, and the due dates are listed in the syllabus. The basis for each review will be a book, but reviews should integrate thought and criticism of other relevant articles and primary source readings. Instead of simply listing what the readings are about, the student will be expected to evaluate the readings, both commending their strengths and criticizing their weaknesses. The reviews that will receive the highest marks will be those which demonstrate original and critical analysis while integrating material from multiple class materials, including readings, lectures, and discussions. The instructor highly encourages students to seek advice and criticism of their work from the instructor during the semester by visiting during office hours or scheduling timely appointments.

Essay Assignments:

Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (1991).

  1. Read the book and respond to the following, or a topic of your choosing:
    1. Do you think we should see Whitefield as a hero, or a sell-out? Was he honestly motivated by his faith to use any tactic to bring others to faith, or was he a huckster who loved fame and attention?
  2. Outside research is not necessary for this assignment, though you may include evidence already read or heard in class. If you do use other sources, footnoting (as always) is required. As long as the form is consistent and understandable, it does not matter how you footnote sources (you may want to use the Chicago Manual of Style form seen above). Citations of the book need only be page numbers in parenthesis, with quotations when appropriate.
  3. The essay should be 3 to 4 pages in length, with normal margins, double-spaced and a 12 point font. Papers shorter than the required length will almost certainly receive a lower grade, and I will stop reading at the end of 4 pages.
  4. See policies on late papers and extensions- please plan to turn the paper in on time.
  5. The best essays will accomplish the following:
    1. It will make a strong, clear, and thoughtful argument. It will not be a book report, but instead will express the student’s own thoughts on argument, style, and evidence, as well as the essay question above.
    2. It will demonstrate that the student has not only read but also thoughtfully engaged with the book and other class materials.
    3. It will be clearly written with no spelling or grammar errors.
  6. Please come see me (Tidwell B08) or e-mail me ( if you have any questions or concerns.

Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias (New York, 1994).

I. Read the book and consider the following question:

What is it about American religious history that has opened up the possibility for groups like the Matthias’s cult? Do you believe that this is an outgrowth of a distinctively revivalist and market-oriented American culture, or does Matthias tap into tendencies present everywhere? Make an argument about these or other issues.

II. The same parameters as above apply here, as to the other two essays.

Malcolm X (with Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (orig. published 1965).

I. Read the book and consider the following question:

Why did Malcolm X convert to Islam, and what did he find in Islam that was more attractive than Christianity? What was the nature of Malcolm X’s complaint against white America? Make an argument about these or other issues.

  • Research Paper
    • III. Each student will complete a research paper of 11-13 pages on a topic of their choice. This paper will require engagement with primary sources from the relevant time period and secondary sources that are recent, scholarly, and historical analyses of your topic. Students’ papers should show significant engagement with the primary sources at hand, and also discuss at least 4 secondary sources (books or articles) directly relevant to your subject. At least three of these should have been written after 1985, and all must be from scholarly sources (i.e. university presses, peer-reviewed journals, etc.). You must cite these sources properly, preferably in the style of Kate Turabian, Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers (University of Chicago Press), which is the style used by academic history books and articles. Sources such as internet sites of dubious reliability, encyclopedias, and popular magazines should be avoided.
    • In order to move along toward timely completion of the project, each student will turn in a topic and list of sources for the instructor’s approval in week 5, and then will turn in a good, complete first draft of the project for comment in week 11. Failure to complete either of these steps on time will result in a 5 point deduction from the final paper grade. The final papers will be due the last day of class. Students must turn in their first drafts with the final draft--failing to do so will result in a 5 point penalty on the paper grade.
    • You may do any project you like (with instructor’s approval) but I often recommend that students choose a project related to some major historical text or figure on which there is a great deal of scholarship. Remember that whatever you choose, you will be writing about it as an historian, not for devotional or polemical purposes, and will engage historical debate about the topic and offer your own take on some big question(s) related it to it.
    • Note also that if you choose a major historical figure such as Jonathan Edwards or Martin Luther King, Jr., you MUST NOT set out to write a biographical sketch of that figure, but instead you must choose some specific topic or issue relevant to that figure (“Edwards and women,” “King and nonviolence”). Please also focus on figures whose major work/lives ended before about 1975-for instance, Billy Graham is not an option.
    • Among the books, topics and persons I might suggest for historical interest and accessibility of the primary sources:
    • Native American religions (choose specific group(s) and time period)
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation.
Roger Williams
Anne Bradstreet, poetry
Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.
Allen Greer, ed., The Jesuit Relations.
William Penn and the Quakers
Jonathan Edwards
Isaac Backus and the New England Baptists
Baptists and the separation of church and state
First Great Awakening
George Whitefield
Thomas Jefferson and religion
Mother Ann Lee and the Shakers
Second Great Awakening
Charles Finney
Joseph Smith and the Mormons
Catholic immigrant identity
Anti-Catholicism in American politics
Nat Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Christian defenses of slavery
John Brown
Revival of 1857
Charles Hodge
Washington Gladden
Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science
Women’s rights and Christianity
Dwight Moody
J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism.
Scopes Trial
Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, Moral Man and Immoral Society.
Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House.
Billy Sunday
Alternative Bible translations (i.e. RSV, NIV)
Aimee Semple McPherson
Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World.
Malcolm X
Latino churches and Protestant/Catholic conflict
Asian-American churches
  • You should also feel free to scan the bibliographies in Allitt for examples of topics and books reflecting current scholarship in American religious history- these may give you ideas for topics and good secondary sources.
  • Exams

IV. A midterm examination and final examination will both involve a selection of essay and identification questions. Study guides will be handed out a week or so before each.


Course Outline and Assignments:

  • WEEK 1: August 26 and 28 Introduction to American religious history
    • For Thursday, Allitt, pp. 12-22 (articles by Finke and Stark, R. Laurence Moore)
  • WEEK 2: Sept. 2 and 4 Colonial religious encounters- European missions, New France and New Spain
    • For Tuesday, read Allitt, pp. 25-29 (docs. 1,2)
    • For Thursday, read Allitt, pp. 30-32 (doc. 3), 50-57 (Ronda article)
  • WEEK 4: September 16 and 18 Awakenings
    • For Tuesday, read Allitt, pp. 95-99 (doc. 2); Kidd article, “The Healing of Mercy Wheeler,” at[Baylor access only
    • For Thursday, read Stout, The Divine Dramatist, essay 1 due.
  • WEEK 5: September 23 and 25 Awakenings, continued
    • For Tuesday, no class meeting
    • For Thursday, read Allitt, pp. 99-100 (doc. 3); 132-134, 145-152 (doc. 3, Hatch article)
  • WEEK 6: September 30 and Oct. 2 The Antebellum Hothouse
    • For Tuesday, read Allitt, pp. 127-130, 134-137 (docs. 1,4), 152-159 (Raboteau)
    • For Thursday, read Johnson and Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias
    • Essay 2 due
  • WEEK 7: October 7 and 9 Religion and the Civil War
    • For Tuesday, read Allitt, pp. 176-183 (docs. 6,7,8), 188-194 (Genovese article)
    • For Thursday, read Allitt, pp. 198-199, 202-203, 213-225 (docs. 1,3 Moorehead, Wilson articles)
  • WEEK 8: October 14 and 16 Gilded Age Religion
    • For Tuesday, read Allitt, pp. 232-234, 236-239, (docs. 3,5) 249-256 (Taiz article)
    • For Thursday, MIDTERM EXAM
  • WEEK 9: October 21 and 23 Fundamentalism and Modernism
    • For Tuesday, read Allitt, pp. 266-269 (docs. 4, 5) 275-281 (Marsden article)
    • For Thursday, read Allitt, pp. 259-263 (docs. 1, 2), 475-477 (doc. 5); George Marsden, “Why Creation Science?” in Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1991), 153-181 (on Blackboard).
  • WEEK 10: October 28 and 30 American Catholicism
    • For Tuesday, read Allitt, 228-230 (doc. 1); 245-249 (Orsi article)
    • For Thursday, read Allitt, 434-437 (doc. 3), 448-452 (Villafane article); Rod Dreher, “What Juan Diego Saw,” National Review, Sept. 2002,…

  • WEEK 11: November 4 and 6 African-American Piety and Protest in the 20c
    • For Tuesday, read Allitt, pp. 360-365 (docs. 1,2) 379-384 (Garrow article)
    • For Thursday, read Allitt, pp. 366-369 (docs. 3,4), 384-392 (McGreevy article)
    • Complete draft of term papers due Nov. 6
  • WEEK 13: November 18 and 20
    • Post-WWII American religious/cultural conflict
    • For Tuesday, “With God on our Side” video on Religious Right
    • For Thursday, read Allitt, pp. 398-400 (doc. 2), 471-475 (docs. 3,4), 483-86 (doc. 8), 495-502 (Ammerman article)
  • WEEK 14: November 25 and 27
    • For Tuesday, no regular class meeting. Screening of The Apostle [schedule TBA]--write a review of the movie, no more than 2 pages long. Review will count toward class participation grade. You may respond to the question, “Is Sonny a man of God or a scoundrel?”
    • No class Thursday, Thanksgiving Holiday
  • WEEK 15: December 2 and 4 America and global Christianity…

  • Final Exam on TUESDAY, Dec. 16, at 9:30 a.m.