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American Religious History

Join an award-winning historian in exploring the vital and diverse story of religious life in America from the first European contacts to the late 20th century.
American Religious History is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 106.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Superb overview of American religious history. The work incorporates literature, theology, letters and historical analysis to bring to life the many currents involved. Would recommend expanding to 36 lectures and including the past two decades – exploring whether that same religious fervency is now being channeled paradoxically into secular passions such as environmentalism.
Date published: 2023-06-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Survey This is a good survey of religions and influence of religions in America. It does not provide much depth (as indeed survey courses are not designed to provide depth) but it does provide sufficient breadth of the religious scene. It addresses evangelicals and liberal Protestants. It discusses Roman Catholics, Jews, Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), and (to a lesser degree) Muslims. It discusses African-American influence and Asian influence. It discusses topics such as Civil Rights, feminism, ecology, war and peace, and political influence. And I think it does so even-handedly. The course was published in 2001 so there are decades of recent religious issues that are not addressed. Even so, this course is valuable as a foundational survey of religion in America. Dr. Allitt is British looking at religion in America so he has the perspective of a political (if not theological) outsider. His lectures are accessible. I used the audio version. I think that I did not miss much if anything by not having the visual aids. Thus, this course can be used while exercising or commuting.
Date published: 2022-03-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good overview. This is a very good overview of American religious history. With so many years to cover, Dr. Allitt cannot spend much time on any one religious movement so there is not much depth in his lectures but this is a good place to start in trying to understand the influence of religion on American life and how America has exerted its influence on religion. His use of lengthy quotes gives us an insider's view of the different religions.
Date published: 2021-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from American Religious History This is my first audio only class, and I really enjoyed it. I found the lectures to be well done, accurate in accord with my prior knowledge, easy to follow, and certainly enlightening in connecting so much in the world.
Date published: 2021-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting The professor's knowledge and presentation makes the subject very interesting and in depth. I do wish there was an updated and video version. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2021-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great topic that is too often overlooked This is an excellent survey of the theme of religion in the history of what evolved from the colonies to the United States. This is a thread that is often overlooked in many history courses, and Prof Allitt does an outstanding job of relating the importance and influence of religion in American history. The stories are vivid, and he links them very effectively with the overall theme of religion in our society. The contrast he draws between the religious molding of the individual vs. religion as a catalyst for social change is very important.
Date published: 2021-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good course Very informative & interesting presentation. Easy to understand & follow in the gym.
Date published: 2021-04-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Questioning tone and accuracy This is a hard one, because Professor Allitt is a very engaging speaker, a good storyteller, and packs his courses with interesting information. However, there are two things that really detracted from this course--the tone and the accuracy of the information. First, the tone of this course. The stories and anecdotes often featured the most outlandish figures and extreme anecdotes of various faiths and movements. For instance, during the prohibition movement, we get a story of a woman who goes around with an axe and smashes up saloons. While quite amusing, does this story really give us a good sense of what most of the prohibition movement was like? In the lecture on Native American religion, I couldn't help but notice all the anecdotes were from Europeans, which were often biased. Having read up some on Native American religion, I felt like this lecture missed the core underpinnings and spirit of Native American religion and culture. What I was hoping for from this course was that we would come to understand and appreciate what drew people into like-minded communities in America. But this course was so focused on the amusing, the absurd, and the outlandish that I really don't feel like I came away with a better appreciation of the beliefs of communities different from my own. There was just a little too much poking fun for my taste. Second, there are some surprising inaccuracies in this course. I recommend that you read the long critique from a Mormon reviewer in this review section about certain inaccuracies. Additionally, I would like to note a needed correction to the section on Christian Science, a religion started in the Victorian Era. Professor Allitt proposes that the religion's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, went to a mesmerist/hypnotist named Quimby, received a healing from an illness, and then decided to combine hypnotism with Christianity. The true story is this: having not received healing from traditional medicine, Eddy tried several alternative forms of Victorian treatment, including homeopathy and Quimby. While she received some initial relief from Quimby, she was never healed, and ultimately his treatments proved ineffective. Later, she received a healing while reading her Bible and decided she wanted to dedicate her life to learn how to heal like Jesus, the disciples, and early Christians had. Professor Allitt mentions the popular "What Would Jesus Do?" slogan that appeared during the Victorian Era. Well, think of Eddy as starting the "How Would Jesus Heal?" religious movement. Since Jesus didn't use homeopathy, hygiene, hypnotism, medicine, spiritualism, etc. those were all out. As a matter of fact, she would later come to say that hypnotism/mesmerism was the opposite of Christian Science because the hypnotist was focused on the human will, whereas she believed all healing came from the divine. I puzzled a little bit about how an Oxford scholar could have brought such incorrect information into the course, when I remembered that there were Victorian journalists that wrote many critical articles about Mrs. Eddy, including that all her ideas came from Quimby. This was because the patriarchal society was much more comfortable with attributing a new religion to a man than admit the possibility that a woman had unique ideas of her own and was forming a fast-growing and popular religious movement. Professor Allitt must have read something attributed to these early patriarchal newspapers, because most non-denominational scholars correctly classify Eddy as a theologian, philosopher, and religious leader in her own right. Overall, I rate the section on Christian Science as perhaps 25% historically accurate. There were also several other times in the course that I felt like I was either not getting a complete picture or possibly inaccurate information, but am not enough of a scholar in those areas to give a definite critique. It's with remorse that I'm leaving a low review for this course, as the topic is a very interesting one and Professor Allitt is very engaging. But once you begin to question accuracy, you start to question everything you're learning.
Date published: 2020-01-14
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Join historian Professor Patrick N. Allitt in exploring the vital and diverse story of religious life in America from the first European contacts to the late 20th century. Examine religion not only as a set of formal beliefs, ideas, communal or institutional loyalties, and styles of worship, but also as an influence on life "beyond the pews."


Patrick N. Allitt

We live in a world that has created many new incentives for us to become lifelong learners. Luckily, lifelong learning is a pleasure.


Emory University

Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. He received his PhD in American History from the University of California, Berkeley, and completed postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University. He is a widely published author whose books include A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism; The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities throughout American History; and Religion in America since 1945: A History.

By This Professor

The Industrial Revolution
The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales
The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy
The Art of Teaching: Best Practices from a Master Educator
How Railways Transformed the World
America after the Cold War: The First 30 Years
Major Features of American Religious History

01: Major Features of American Religious History

American religious history is unusual for its diversity and for its sustained vitality, from the colonial period right through to the end of the 20th century. This course begins with Professor Patrick N. Allitt's discovery of American religious diversity and vitality when he came from Britain to live, work, and study in the United States.

32 min
The European Background

02: The European Background

Not long after Columbus reached the Americas, the Reformation split Europe. The Puritans—English Protestant reformers opposed to the compromises of Anglicanism—were among the first religious separatists to contemplate moving to the New World.

30 min
Natives and Newcomers

03: Natives and Newcomers

Although native Americans had no word for or idea of "religion" as something distinct from other aspects of life, they had well-developed sacred ideas, rituals, and traditions, and it is possible to note both similarities and differences between their "religious" stance and that of the Europeans.

30 min
The Puritans

04: The Puritans

The Puritans wrote much; we can reconstruct their views in great detail. Here we consider how they created a religious and political way of life in New England; how they struggled to assure themselves of God's favor; how subsequent generations lamented the colony's loss of religious integrity; and the ways in which the Puritan outlook may have fed the Salem witch trials of 1692.

30 min
Colonial Religious Diversity

05: Colonial Religious Diversity

Even though few in the 17th century favored religious toleration in principle, the early presence of settlers from Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Holland, and Sweden created a situation of ethnoreligious diversity that would make toleration appealing.

30 min
The Great Awakening

06: The Great Awakening

The first truly "national" event in American history came in the form of a spellbinding English preacher named George Whitefield. He took the colonies by storm in 1740, founding the tradition of emotional revivalism that has played a central role in the nation's religious history ever since. By heightening the sense of immediate, individual ties to God, was Whitefield also helping to found the American Revolution?

30 min
Religion and Revolution

07: Religion and Revolution

When the Revolutionary War began, both Rebels and Tories (as well as the pacifist Quakers) justified their actions in religious as well as political terms. Dozens of new, often millennial sects arose. Another outgrowth of this period was the First Amendment, which barred Congress from creating an established religion or preventing religion's free exercise.

30 min
The Second Great Awakening

08: The Second Great Awakening

This lecture traces the great revival of evangelical Protestantism in the early 19th century, the rise and significance of Methodism as a major Protestant group, and the links among the frontier, evangelicalism, social reform, and female leadership.

30 min
Oneida and the Mormons

09: Oneida and the Mormons

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of several new religions founded in America. Facing intense antipathy at first (in part because it blessed polygamy), it eventually established itself as a permanent and respectable part of the American religious landscape. Less enduring was the "Perfectionist" community of Oneida, New York, which also held unusual views of sex and marriage.

31 min

10: Catholicism

The arrival in the 1840s of numerous Irish Catholics, many of them driven out by famine, tested the limits of American religious tolerance, especially in eastern cities. Anti-Catholic literature, political movements, and rioting made Catholics feel besieged. They reacted partly by asserting that they too were good Americans, and partly by building a parallel educational and social world.

31 min
African-American Religion

11: African-American Religion

Since the 1950s, historians have shown that the slaves mixed African traditions of conjure and music with Christianity in a blend that vitally sustained them through awful hardships. Christian beliefs also powerfully influenced whites on both sides of the slavery issue, slaveowners and abolitionists alike.

31 min
The Civil War

12: The Civil War

Divisions among the Protestant churches over slavery anticipated the Civil War. During the war, soldiers and civilians on both sides thought they were fighting a godly fight. Slaves saw their liberation in 1863 as a religious as well as political event, and both sides found a way to interpret the outcome of the war as further evidence of God's blessing.

30 min
Victorian Developments

13: Victorian Developments

The mid- and late 19th century saw new variants of Christianity bloom. Old preoccupations took on new forms amid a growing, urban-industrial society. Among the most important of these developments were the creation of movements linking religion and health, the growing role of women in religious life, and a new interest in biographical and literary approaches to the life and person of Jesus.

32 min
Darwin and Other Dilemmas

14: Darwin and Other Dilemmas

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developments in geology, biology, philology, and comparative religion threatened traditional ideas of nature and the Bible, provoking a crisis in American Christianity. Traditionalists and modernists both made intelligent and coherent cases for their views, but could find no common ground.

30 min
Judaism in the 19th Century

15: Judaism in the 19th Century

Between 1820 and 1860, America's scattered population of colonial-era Sephardic Jews was joined by a large German Jewish migration. Many joined the Reform movement and adopted American ways. A later and larger migration of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe, by contrast, resisted adaptation. The Conservative movement was a distinctive American compromise between these two alternatives.

31 min

16: Fundamentalism

While liberal or modernist Protestants sought to adapt their faith to new social and intellectual conditions, another group, now called fundamentalists, upheld the infallible authority of the Bible and embraced "dispensational premillennialism," the theory that the prophetic books of the Bible spell out timetables for the ages of world history and the coming apocalypse.

30 min
War and Peace

17: War and Peace

The United States became a world power in the 20th century, and faced hard ethical questions about whether, when, and how to fight. Religious groups did much to shape public opinion often, but not always, in support of military action. Quakers and Mennonites remained pacifists, while the Catholic Church, superpatriotic early in the century, later became a critic of policies that involved the use or threat of nuclear weapons.

31 min
Twentieth-Century Catholicism

18: Twentieth-Century Catholicism

The Irish-dominated American Catholic Church became far more ethnically diverse after 1880, as new immigrants arrived from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Church's distinctive beliefs and strong presence made for tension between Catholics and Protestants. But John Kennedy's presidential victory and the Second Vatican Council transformed both the Church's inner tone and outward relations with American society.

31 min
The Affluent Society

19: The Affluent Society

Amid postwar prosperity and suburbanization, churches played an ambiguous role. More people belonged and attended than ever before, but they looked to church more for comfort and aid than for doctrine and discipline. The church buildings themselves were often magnificent structures, but many influential religious voices of the era warned against the spiritual dangers of materialism.

31 min
The Civil Rights Movements

20: The Civil Rights Movements

Churches have long been key political as well as spiritual institutions for African-Americans. Clergy, notably Martin Luther King, Jr., led the civil rights movement, using a powerful biblical rhetoric that appealed to blacks and whites alike. Black Muslims, by contrast, preached racial pride and separatism, also based on a sustaining religious vision. In years since, other protest movements have borrowed the rhetoric and style of the civil rights movement.

31 min
The Counterculture and Feminism

21: The Counterculture and Feminism

The 1960s saw the rise of an array of religious cults and sects, many of them short-lived, but a few more durable. They revisited some familiar themes in American history, especially the idea of charismatic religious leadership and apocalyptic end-times, but they were linked also to the Cold War environment, the age's technology, and the protest movements and "isms" that came in the wake of civil rights.

31 min
Asian Religions

22: Asian Religions

Despite scattered interest among intellectuals, Asian religions "arrived"; culturally in America only in the 20th century. The 1950s "Beats" and the 1960s counterculture were taken with forms of Asian spirituality. But what seemed exotic to whites was for Asian immigrants a familiar link to the lands they had left, and their experiences in the late 20th century mirrored those of earlier immigrant generations from Europe.

29 min
Church and State

23: Church and State

The First Amendment requires nonestablishment and free exercise, but has not foreclosed disputes over what those mean or just where the boundaries between religion and politics should be drawn. Court decisions, political campaigns, and societal changes over the last 30 years have made such disputes vigorous indeed.

30 min
The Enduring Religious Sensibility

24: The Enduring Religious Sensibility

This course has shown that religion has played a central part in shaping American society and its distinctive characteristics. Most striking in comparative perspective is the fact that American religious involvement and commitment did not decline at a time when such declines were the experience of the other Western industrial nations.

31 min