A Religious History of the American People
Ahlstrom, Sydney. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1972.
Although Ahlstrom’s widely accepted categorization of ‘harmonial religion’ has been critiqued and somewhat abandoned in more recent scholarship, his 1972 analysis of American religious history made a significant impact on religious scholarship. “Harmonial religion,” as he defined it, “encompasses those forms of piety and belief in which spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person’s rapport with the cosmos” (1019). Christian Science is one of the five harmonial religions identified by Ahlstrom, and it is the most clearly defined and best organized of them. Whether people officially joined the church…or not, Ahlstrom claims that Mary Baker Eddy’s message probably brought health, serenity, and prosperity to many. Yet, he conceives of Christian Science as a paradox: while it inspires lofty morals and “the religious fervency of classic pantheism,” it also “manifests itself as a this-worldly, health-oriented immaterialism” and a dogmatic denial of medical knowledge (1025). Eddy “dramatized a new approach to religion and biblical interpretation, and she clearly stimulated much interest in the ministry of healing which the Protestant churches had virtually abandoned” (1025). The largest significance of Christian Science, Ahlstrom claims, is the evidence that Americans in large numbers were developing a new kind of religious interest.