Title Reviewed:
A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada

Author Reviewed:
Robert T. Handy

Jan Shipps


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 75, Issue 2, pp 217-219

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada. By Robert T. Handy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Pp. ix, 471. Notes, bibliography, maps, index. $19.95.)

Trying to write this nation's religious history is "like swimming in muddy water," said an eminent and venerable historian in 1960. At that time perhaps he was right. Considerable confusion then existed in the American mind about the difference between church and Christianity, on the one hand, and Christianity and religion, on the other. This confusion was both reflected in and perpetuated by countless works about American religion in which the separation of church and state was celebrated and the distinction between state and church made plain. Other distinctions, however, were so blurred that—from the 1840s when Robert Baird made the first important survey of the religious scene in the United States until the 1950s when William Warren Sweet finished working—studies of American religion were concerned almost exclusively with this nation's Christian churches. But that situation has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years. Sidney Mead made differentiation between church and Christianity sharp enough in his Lively Experiment (1963) to reveal how mistaken is the notion that American churches and American Christianity are synonymous. Robert Bellah's 1967 essay on "civil religion" showed that, despite the minimal importance here of religious formulations totally divorced from the Judeo- Christian tradition, Christianity and religion are likewise not one and the same in the United States. Martin Marty worked through some of the implications of making these careful distinctions in Righteous Empire (1970). Sydney Ahlstrom carried the course of rigorous discrimination forward by choosing to write A Religious History of the American People (1972) rather than a history of American religion. And now, Robert T. Handy has pushed the clarification process to its outer limits and cleared away the muddy water by writing A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, a work which makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is: an institutional history of America's churches.

As does all good institutional history, this account places much emphasis on organizational structure and leadership; as does all good church history, it puts stress on ecclesiastical doctrine and polity, modes of worship, and patterns of belief. But since his work is a part of Oxford's series on the History of the Christian Church, placing American church history in the larger context of the history of all organized Christendom was Handy's overriding concern. Therefore, major attention rests on the clergy rather than the laity (so much so that the book is a veritable directory of church leaders and their accomplishments); changes in ecclesiastical structure are viewed from the standpoint of church precedent as well as within the innovative organizational arrangements which developed in the new world; and belief patterns and worship modes are related to traditional Christian theology and practice as much as to the indigenous cultural situation.

This work is not valuable simply because it sets the church history of North America in a wider framework and because it is a church history which refuses to masquerade as a history of religion. New ground is broken with the adding of the history of the churches in Canada to the already familiar story of what happened to the churches in the United States. As important as this addition is, however, its proper integration into the story required a straightforward presentation of the materials. Such an organization precluded the systematic use of some scheme of taxonomy—the location of American churches along an evangelical-liturgical continuum, for example—which in the past has been employed to impose order on the chaotic ecclesiastical situation in this nation. The result is a choppy narrative that moves forward from the time of settlement until the day before yesterday, with the focus shifting back and forth from coverage of all the many ecclesiastical developments in one geographical region to a like coverage of a multiplicity of churches and church-related events in another. The book is a worthy reference tool, but read straight through, it makes even church history seem to be "just one damned thing after another."

Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis Jan Shipps

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.