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Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Studies in Cultural History) Paperback – March 2, 1992

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Butler's fine scholarly summary of the first three centuries of Christian experience in America is both well researched and very readable. Butler ranges widely, showing how the elitist Christianity of early modern Europe co-existed with belief in magic and the occult and also discussing 18th-century church establishment in America, the negligible impact of the Great Awakening, the impact of the American Revolution on religion, and the democratization of 19th-century American religion. While many of his theses are arguable, they are all impressively defended. Recommended for large public and academic libraries.
- Susan A. Stussy, St. Norbert Coll., De Pere, Wis.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Throughout, the richness of detail, nuance, and illustration is superb and often eye-opening...In all, it is a daring work of synthesis...meticulously researched...This book ranks among the most challenging and far-ranging historical analyses of religion in America to date. (Leigh Eric Schmidt Journal of Church and State)

This is one of those rare books that historians await impatiently for years. It is also one of those rare and remarkable books that prove worth the wait. It fulfills extravagantly the promise of those pathbreaking and pugnacious articles that made magic an essential reality of the seventeenth century and the Great Awakening an interpretive fiction of the eighteenth. It is, by far, the best account we have of early American religious life, and the most radiantly original. (Michael Zuckerman Journal of the Early Republic)

Anyone who wants to know about religion in America up to the Civil War would do well to read Jon Butler's rich, comprehensive and--it must be said--contentious account. (David Martin Times Literary Supplement)

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Product Details

  • Series: Studies in Cultural History (Book 6)
  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (February 1, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674056019
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674056015
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #231,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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45 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Dennis R. Hidalgo on April 28, 2000
Format: Paperback
Awash in a Sea of Faith is a book of its time. The intellectual and historiographical context of Jon Butler's revisionist history of religion in America is found in the camp that Jack Greene, Keith Thomas and David Hall have been preparing for some time now. This trend, which Butler perfects, is marked by a strong skepticism toward the influence of Puritanism in American culture, toward the major claims of American Protestantism, toward the basic dogmas of traditional American religious history and by a desire for historical and geographical egalitarianism. A pervasive skepticism is not the only component at the foundation of Butler's approach. His historical logic is partially guided by a continuous dialectic between the sacred and secular, elite and popular, the barren colonial landscape and the rise of sacred structures, orthodoxy and occultism. Considering the large and long religious historiographies in North America, Butler's approach starts with profoundly untraditional premises and assumptions. It should not surprise us, then, that Butler would arrive to untraditional conclusions. After all that is what revisionism is- to change the way we perceive history and to challenge some rusty assumptions. His main argument, that the Christianization of America came through a process of syncretism, would have not only alarmed Protestant leaders in the 19th century, but would also have worried religious historians in the 20th century. In his presentation of European Protestantism and its journey toward the America continent, Butler emphasizes occultism as a transforming force in religion and society.Read more ›
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Craig Stephans VINE VOICE on March 28, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Butler provides a historical view of American religion that attaches less importance to Puritanism as the major force in shaping the nation's religion. He emphasizes the influence of the role of authoritarian and coercive religious practices that established and advanced religious causes in America. Additionally, Butler follows the emergence of a religious eclecticism throughout the colonies. The movement of religious influence was confluential with political and economic developments to shape the colonies. The state-church religion that primarily shaped 17th and 18th century colonial America held power based on its coercion, territoriality and public ceremonialism. He asserts that the religion of the colonists originated primarily in Europe and is incomprehensible apart from understanding its European influences. Paradoxically, Butler writes that the most enduring patterns of American religion were also created and not merely inherited.

Butler's chapters make the points that religious practice was not an organic evolution in the colonies. The governments were actively involved in dictating religious practices of their citizens. Dissenting beliefs and behavior were not welcome to the early colonies with the exception of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania which adopted more lenient libertine laws concerning religion. Religious practice was not standard throughout the colonies nor was it universal among the residents of the colonies. Butler also elaborates on the presence of magic and the occult in the New World of North America. Christians were militant against non-Christian spirituality, occult or magic. These were deemed to occur through diabolical means and were treated as such by the young governments and were later dismissed by children of the Enlightenment.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Matt Tippens on February 8, 2011
Format: Paperback
Jon Butler's Awash in a Sea of Faith turns many portions of both George M. Marsden's "Jonathan Edwards: A Life" and Perry Miller's "Errand Into the Wilderness" upside down. Instead of placing Puritanism at the center of American civilization, as both Marsden and Miller do, Butler claims that Puritanism was only one part of a complex American religious landscape. Butler also finds that American Christianity did not begin with the Puritans of New England or Virginia settlers, but rather it began in the eighteenth century and was peaking by the time of the Civil War. Butler challenges the conventional interpretations of America's religious history and gives his readers cause to reconsider what has generally been accepted.

Butler begins by describing the religious heritage that colonists brought with them from Europe. A low level of Christian understanding and practice characterized Europe. This religious apathy was then transferred to colonial America and the development of Christianity was a slow process. The Virginia and Maryland colonies experienced a lack of religious participation and in Puritan New England, Butler points out, by the 1680s the decline in church membership was real not imaginary. This is not to say that religion was nowhere to be found in colonial America, but rather colonists turned to other forms of practice. Butler treats magic and the occult seriously, using witchcraft, magic, and astrology to reveal the extent and importance of non-Christian belief in America, even though it was prohibited by law. Therefore, Butler examines a component of American religion that is frequently ignored by the mainstream, Christian only, historiography.

According to Butler, American society and religion underwent enormous change between 1680 and 1760.
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