The Return of the <em>Longue Durée</em> in American Religious History

[This post originally appeared at Religion in American History.]

David Armitage and Jo Guldi have written an article forthcoming in Annales which will likely appear on many history department syllabi this fall. (It ought to appear on religious studies syllabi too.) In “The Return of the Longue Durée: An Anglo-American Perspective”, Armitage and Guldi describe how and why historians since the 1920s increasingly framed their work within shorter and shorter periods of time. (In addition to their own reading of the historiography, they draw on Ben Schmidt’s study of history dissertations.) But Armitage and Guldi also point out that since the 1980s historians have been more and more likely to write about longer periods of time. And they argue that “a return to … the longue durée is now both imperative and feasible: imperative, in order to restore history’s place as a critical social science, and feasible due to the increased availability of large amount of historical data and the digital tools necessary to analyse it.”

The pattern that Armitage and Guldi point out for the writing of history in general is one that I think also holds for American religious history. Though it follows the same pattern in its relationship to the longue durée, the field of American religion lagged several decades behind the history profession as a whole. In this post, I want to make a case for what I see as the broad pattern of historiography in American religious history, then for why scholars of religion ought to heed Armitage and Guldi’s call for a return to the longue durée.

In the common telling of how our field of American religious history came to be what it is, there is a bogeyman against whom we like to define ourselves. In the bad old days, the story goes, historians wrote about American religion but by American religion they meant Protestantism—even better if those Protestants were white, male, and ministers. But since the 1980s historians have been recovering the history of religion from the margins, destabilizing the Protestant center by writing about immigrant religions, new religious traditions, and the history of the marginalized, and also by paying new attention to race, gender, and class.

Doubtless the main lines of that story are true. Historians did write accounts of American religion that barely mentioned anyone except Protestants. And it is certainly true that in the last several decades scholars of religion have done a prodigious amount of work recovering the history of every kind of American religious tradition and, for that matter, of every kind of Protestant. But I think that story is fundamentally wrong in two ways. First, it misses that the aim of earlier scholarship was to provide a synthesis of American religious history. Second, it does a disservice to the self-described task of writing history from the margins, because it forgets that margins need a center to be marginal.

When I revisit works written before the development of the new historiography of American religion, I am surprised at how little they can be characterized by their supposed “narrowness,” and how expansive they were. They were expansive because they were aimed at synthesizing and thus explaining American religion. I’ll give two examples. Sidney Mead’s The Lively Experiment (1963 but assembled from essays published earlier) is as open to the charge of being a book just about Protestants as any other work. Yet the book is striking in its ambition to encompass all of American religion within its interpretative framework, which runs from the colonial period to Mead’s present where he thought the “lively experiment” was in danger of failing.

Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People (1972) is the work to which I continually return in trying to understand how the discipline has changed. Ahlstrom’s book was the flowering of the earlier historiography in that it tried to encompass all of American religion in a single history. It was also the seed of the new historiography, since any section of Ahlstrom’s book could be taken as the idea for a monograph. What is striking about Sydney Ahlstrom’s book is not the gaps exposed in his synthetic, longue durée treatment by the historiography since 1972, but that scholars who have all the benefit of that new historiography have not come anywhere close to writing such a synthesis, and indeed seem mostly to have given up on the attempt. 1

Ahlstrom’s work was watershed, in that later scholars have been fulfilling the goal of comprehensiveness in terms of topics of study, but at the expense of comprehensiveness in terms of chronology. In other words, at the same moment that historians were beginning to return to the longue durée, according to Ben Schmidt’s analysis, historians of religion turned to tackling both narrower time periods and narrower subjects. While I have not (yet) tried to chart the patterns for religious history separate from history generally, my reading of the historiography since Ahlstrom makes me think that the periods of time that religious historians wrote about got shorter even as their subjects got narrower.

The primary reason for that was both intellectual and economic. In order to write histories from the margins (a task with an excellent intellectual justification), scholars had to do laborious work in the archives. But work in the archives was also what, as Armitage and Guldi write, the increasingly tenuous job market rewarded: “a generation with limited prospects on the job market increasingly defined itself by its mastery of discrete archives.” They go on:

[A] flood of doctoral dissertations since that time has concentrated on the micro-local as an arena in which the historian can exercise her skills of biography, archival reading, and periodization within the petri-dish of a handful of years. In the age of micro-history, it was these minimalist dissertations that were most likely to impress a hiring committee, and advisors urged young historians to narrow, not to broaden, their focus on place and time, trusting that serious work on gender, race, and class comes most faithfully out of the smallest, not the largest, picture.

Given that professors tend to continue writing the kinds of books that they were trained to write in graduate school, and given that graduate students are or are required to be the most methodologically conservative of all scholars, it is not surprising that historians of religion have carried on this trend.

So are there are any American religious histories currently being written over the longue durée? I can think of several categories. One category are books that cover the entire history of a religious tradition in the United States, such as Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s A History of Islam in America (2010), Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism (2004), James O’Toole’s The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America (2009), and Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit (2006). These books are the kind of books that tend to be written by scholars at the height rather than the beginning of their careers. A second category are cultural histories, such as Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus and The American Bible and Paul Harvey’s and Edward Blum’s The Color of Christ which try to synthesize the history of a religious idea over a long time period. A third category are works which use some topic outside of the traditional purview of religious history as a unifying theme. I’m thinking of books like Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith which covers four centuries of religion and diplomacy, and the rapidly growing field of law and religion. But on the whole I find that American religious history is still narrowly written.

The consequence of the shorter and shorter periodization for American religious history is the same that Armitage and Guldi point out for history generally: “without the aid of longue-durée positioning and synthesis aimed at a popular audience, they [scholarly works] are indigestible to first-year students, non-specialists, and members of the public.” Yet that penalty is steeper for religious historians because we have not yet made the return to the longue durée that other historians are making, and so we have less of an audience among the public and, for that matter, even within the history profession.

That religious history is should be stuck writing about such short time periods puzzles me, since of all topics (except perhaps the history of agriculture) the history of religion is suited for the longue durée. Not only do religions in the main change slowly, but people’s experience of a religion (or multiple religions) are very various over the course of their lives, so that it seems that a history of religion is difficult to write in a shorter time period than the span of a human life.

But as Armitage and Guldi point out, the new resources and techniques of digital history are making possible a new longue durée history. They write that “the arrival in the past five years of mass digitization projects … announced an age of easy access to a tremendous amount of archival material.” Access to sources has been accompanied by the development of “tools for abstracting knowledge” that “invite scholars to constantly try out historical hypotheses across the time scale of centuries.” On this blog Chris Cantwell has written about the possibilities of digital history for the field of American religion, and I have contributed as well. There is much more to be said on this score, and many scholars have been doing the actual work of integrating digital history and religion. My hope is that as religion scholars take advantage of digital methodologies, they will return to writing more comprehensive works over longer periods of time.

As I mentioned before, I think that the problem of the longue durée (meaning comprehensiveness over time) is tied to the problem of synthesis (here meaning comprehensiveness across religious traditions). The place of synthesis in American religious history is something I’ll have to turn to in a later post. But I write this post as a question as much as an answer: How do you see the mainlines of the historiography of American religion? Have the chronological ambitions of Am Rel Hist shortened? And if so, is a return to longer periods of time desirable, and how might that be possible?

  1. Let’s not count textbook syntheses of American religion which are uniformly terrible. By synthesis I don’t really mean the synthesis that is aimed at classrooms, but the kind of “primary synthesis” that is genuinely original scholarship but that aims its sights more broadly than the monograph.