An optimistic, nonpolemical snapshot of the plethora of Christian denominations in America.
“Something strange always happens” in American churches, Cox (Literature and Humanities/Univ. of California, San Diego; Changing and Remaining: A History of All Saints' Church, San Diego, 2011, etc.) writes in this broad yet colloquial study. Churches want to harken back to the past, in tradition or orthodoxy, but continually strain toward revolution and renewal—hence the vitality of both the still-unfinished largest cathedral in the world, St. John the Divine in New York City, and one of most humble structures, the Taylor Prayer Chapel, in Farmersburg, Ind., a tiny church that is also modeled after a medieval cathedral. Both churches marvelously offer “a place where Christian experience can happen.” This is the spirit that Cox traces throughout his work, as messy and disorganized as it may be: Since the breakdown of the state church system in the 18th century, adherence to a church has grown from 17 percent in 1776 to 62 percent in 1980, with the gains going less to mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopal, Methodist) and more to smaller, evangelical sects like Pentecostals, Southern Baptists and “born-again believers.” Socioeconomic factors can only go so deep, writes the author—e.g., explaining the huge growth of black churches after the Civil War or the devastating effects of the Depression. Cox sees the religious landscape of America inhabited by a rich history of eccentrics, inspired by the revolutionary words of Scripture, who “found oil” among legions of believers. “The wall of separation” between church and state as identified by Thomas Jefferson did not, however, keep churches from assuming a political mantle, as evidenced in their important lobbying for abolition, women’s equality and prohibition.
An uncomplicated, evenhanded work. From hymns to architecture to personalities, American Christianity is simply “unpredictable.”