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

by Matthew S. Hedstrom. New York. NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. 278 pp. $55.00 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-0-19-537449-0.

Matthew S. Hedstrom’s The Rise of the Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century explores the interaction between American religion and religious book reading in the first half of the twentieth century. The Rise of the Liberal Religion is the history of how mainstream American religion became liberalized; it is also the story of the growth of religious book publishing in those same years. Hedstrom, assistant professor of American and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, suggests a two-way road of influence between books and religion. Where churches (along with libraries, schools, and book clubs) originally helped establish a market for religious books, religious books themselves became essential in spreading liberal religious ideas. It was through such books that these ideas became an indelible part of American culture.

For Hedstrom, an important trait of liberal religion is its tendency to accommodate itself to modernity, especially the findings of science. While we now often speak of religion in conflict with the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology, earlier popular religious writers tended to engage most often with the new science of psychology. The first important book discussed by Hedstrom is Rufus Jones’ 1904 Social Law in the Spiritual World. A popularizer of the ideas of William James, Rufus Jones explored mysticism and its relationship to psychology and how both could be applied to everyday living. Where James could be perceived as difficult, Jones aimed his ideas squarely at the practical, middlebrow reader. Where previously arcane, mysticism and psychology were now the subject of bestsellers.

The concept of the middlebrow reader is essential for Hedstrom’s thesis. The middlebrow reader is defined as one who reads with purpose, who wishes his religious ideas to offer practical value, and who, if he has a book in one hand, has a pencil in the other. It was through the middlebrow reader that religious books became so widespread and, consequently, how liberal religious ideas entered into the culture. Rabbi Joshua Liebman’s Peace of Mind, published in 1946, proposed to fulfill the promise of its title by again reconciling the wisdom of psychology with that of religion. This time, however, the psychology was that of Freud (Liebman had undergone psychotherapy for three years) and the religion was Judaism. Many readers wrote to Liebman thanking him for his helpful book and asking for advice. Liebman himself expressed surprise that Christian men and women would be so eager to learn from a rabbi.

This development of American religious pluralism can be observed in the development of the religious book club. Originally an idea of religious book publishers, the book club succeeded with the aid of schools, libraries, and churches. Perhaps most ubiquitous in general culture were book posters with slogans like “Religious Books Build Character.” Those presented by Hedstrom evolve from showcasing scenes of reading, American life and history, and broadly Christian themes, to including Jewish and Catholic iconography. The inclusive nature of religious books and religious liberalism soon became new defining traits. Yet, although Hedstrom identifies the work of William James as the fountainhead of religious liberalism, little is mentioned of James’ pluralism or the continued influence of Jamesian psychology as religious books continued to expand in popularity in the thirties and forties.

Although comprehensive within his scope, there are several such places where Hedstrom leaves topics of interest unexplored. The response of traditional or conservative religions to the growth of religious liberalism is rarely mentioned, nor are the publications of conservative writers. Hedstrom endeavors to show in his narrative that while religiously conservative congregations are now more numerous, religious liberalism has been more completely absorbed into our culture and way of thinking. Yet, this is no reason to ignore historical interactions between the liberal and conservative faiths. Similarly, in his first chapter, Hedstrom mentions Bruce Barton’s extremely popular The Man Nobody Knows, which Hedstrom says was rejected by both liberals and conservatives. Barton, an advertising executive, wrote of a “muscular,” capitalistic Christianity which embraces worldly success. Such literary antecedents of today’s popular prosperity preachers, including New Thought writers like Napoleon Hill, are mentioned in early chapters, but the relationship between such books and religious liberalism and book publishing goes largely unexplored.

Libraries are given careful attention where they are mentioned. There is specific research into the religious book campaigns of individual public libraries. Moreover, the involvement of the American Library Association in promoting religious books through the Religious Books Roundtable, Religious Books Week, and the publication of religious book lists are given important historical grounding. However, in the chapter on the book programs of World War II, libraries are largely ignored. The vigorous attempts of the library movement to justify itself in wartime might have added an interesting wrinkle to the account of religious books in the war. Nevertheless, The Rise of the Liberal Religion is an important book for anyone interested in the influence of libraries on American thought. Hedstrom suggests an unexpected angle in which libraries have repeatedly shaped our present culture.

Those interested in religious thought or book culture have here an invaluable resource. Even topics only slightly explored receive essential historical grounding and contrast in Matthew S. Hedstrom’s new book.

Peter Ward, West Islip, New York