Thursday, 21 January 2010

What God hath Wrought!

I picked up a copy of Daniel Walker Howe's, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007), the other day. Its the latest volume in the Oxford History of the United States, and at an impressive 900 pages covers the period between the end of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and the American victory in Mexico, the age of expansion, innovation and improvement associated with the name of President Andrew Jackson, of course. Its one of those encyclopaedic books packed full of intriguing vignettes about people and events you previously knew little about.

I bought it up largely because religious developments figure prominently in Howe's narrative. This was the era of course of what's become known as the Second Great Awakening. Howe takes a very broad brushed approach; obviously Charles Finney figures prominently in his interpretation, but his Finney is not the wild-eyed enthusiast that some of his more Reformed evangelical biographers have tended to portray. Howe's Finney is the theologically sophisticated, urbane and enlightened anti-slavery campaigner. For widespread influence, personal integrity, social conscience, and spiritual power, few American evangelists of a later age could equal Charles G. Finney' (pp. 175-6). Howe then casts the net much wider, and sees the Second Great Awakening, unleashing tremendous spiritual energy, the result of which was not only revivalism among the more mainstream denominations, but the upsurge of pseudo-Christian groups with finely tuned millenial expectations, not least of which were the Mormons. There's nothing in Howe's interpretation that's not also in Nathan Hatch's, The Democratization of Christianity (1989), but for the sheer sweep of its narrative, Howe's book is hard to beat.

I freely admit to not having ploughed my way all the 900 pages of Howe's book - it would certianly repay that kind of reading, but its an equally good book in which to dip in and out of at those points of greatest interest. Warmly recommended!

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