The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century

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Winner of the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Best First Book Prize of the American Society of Church History

Named a Society for U. S. Intellectual History Notable Title in American Intellectual History

The story of liberal religion in the twentieth century, Matthew S. Hedstrom contends, is a story of cultural ascendency. This may come as a surprise-most scholarship in American religious history, after all, equates the numerical decline of the Protestant mainline with the failure of religious liberalism. Yet a look beyond the pews, into the wider culture, reveals a more complex and fascinating story, one Hedstrom tells in The Rise of Liberal Religion.

Hedstrom attends especially to the critically important yet little-studied arena of religious book culture-particularly the religious middlebrow of mid-century-as the site where religious liberalism was most effectively popularized. By looking at book weeks, book clubs, public libraries, new publishing enterprises, key authors and bestsellers, wartime reading programs, and fan mail, among other sources, Hedstrom is able to provide a rich, on-the-ground account of the men, women, and organizations that drove religious liberalism's cultural rise in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Critically, by the post-WWII period the religious middlebrow had expanded beyond its Protestant roots, using mystical and psychological spirituality as a platform for interreligious exchange. This compelling history of religion and book culture not only shows how reading and book buying were critical twentieth-century religious practices, but also provides a model for thinking about the relationship of religion to consumer culture more broadly. In this way, The Rise of Liberal Religion offers both innovative cultural history and new ways of seeing the imprint of liberal religion in our own times.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (November 23, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195374495
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195374490
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 0.8 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds

Customer Reviews

Five Stars

 on June 6, 2016
By John E. Banks
This is a fine book.

Five Stars

 on September 26, 2014
By Marlin S.
Excellent volume!!!

Liberalism Ascendant

9 people found this helpful.
 on November 5, 2012
By Mark Thomas Edwards
Hedstrom’s rigorous, accessible, and already widely acclaimed study has something for everyone. For those interested in ideas and culture, Hedstrom offers a fascinating window into American book culture in the years before, during, and after World War II. To be sure, Protestants have always been a people of the books–or what the author terms a “priesthood of all readers.” Yet Hedstrom’s accounting moves beyond the churches to examine how liberal religious beliefs and values integrally shaped the consuming passions of middle class or “middlebrow” culture. As the author notes, culture critics have been quick to dismiss religious liberalism and its highest priests, namely Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, as major contributors to contemporary American narcissism. Through admirable attention to the popular reception of religious books, Hedstrom proves that liberal religiosity has been built of tougher stuff.

People of the books

11 people found this helpful.
 on November 4, 2012
By Paul Erickson
Matthew Hedstrom’s “The Rise of Liberal Religion” offers an excellent study of a topic that has mysteriously been long neglected–the role of print culture in the transformation of mainline Protestantism in 20th-century America. Examining a vast archive of material–publisher and library records, fan letters, and book club materials, among others–Hedstrom shows how what he refers to as “religious book culture” served as a conduit for the ideas of liberal religion into the broader culture in the first half of the century. As liberal Protestants became increasingly distanced from the scripturalism of their more conservative fellow Christians, the books with which they surrounded themselves (other than the Bible) became increasingly significant as both cultural markers and as articulations of their faith. Elegantly written and rigorously researched, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between religion, secular culture, and the market in 20th-century America.

Religious Liberalism Won … Through Books … Who Knew?!?

10 people found this helpful.
 on November 27, 2012
By Edward J. Blum
I had the pleasure of reading this tremendous new book on the plane between Miami and Los Angeles … and the five hour flight felt like thirty minutes. The author brings us into the world of religious books – where a group of liberal Protestants endeavored to make Americans “good”, “civil”, and full of “character.” Through book clubs, reading suggestions, posters, and lessons in how to read, liberal Protestants put into broad American culture an emphasis on book ownership, on reading as the fundamental way to change one’s moral fiber, and on the power of material objects in everyday life. For anyone interested in how and why Americans venerate books so much, especially books that propose to make us better people, this is a the book for you. I’m thrilled that I followed the “reading guidelines” of some of these liberal Protestants: I bought the book; I read it pen in hand; and it definitely changed how I think about America’s historical character.

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