Describing multiple aspects of a complex religious history is a task that could penetrate sensitive subjects, controversial themes, diverse beliefs, are trends difficult to identify and summarize. To obtain accuracy and to assure just such objectivity, the five editors of Eerdmans’ Handbook of Christianity in America sought assistance from sixty-five contributors. These included some of the best-known scholars of religious history, such as Sidney Ahlstrom, Martin E. Marty, and Edwin S. Gaustad. The editors wrote a brief history of religious developments in America, dividing this narrative into four major sections—”God and the Colonies”; “Christianity and Democracy: From the Revolution to the Civil War”; “The Era of Crisis: From Christendom to Pluralism”; and “Christianity in a Secular Age: From the Depression to the Present.” This general history serves as a setting and introduction for succinct essays (two or three pages) on people and movements. Reproductions of documents, citations of provocative statements by religious leaders and writers, maps, charts, timeliness, and more than three-hundred and fifty photographs are also inserted in the general narrative.
One of the strengths of this generally well-written work is the accumulation of knowledge from its various contributors. But the flow of the work is interrupted by the innumerable insertions and conflicting writing styles. Although a few authors tend to be wordy and ambiguous, most write with clarity. This handbook includes outstanding yet brief descriptions of religious trends in America as well as many exceptional religiously oriented biographical essays (such as sketches identifying contributions and beliefs of Anne Hutchinson, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Seaton, Frederick Douglass, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King, Jr.). This work, however, is weakened by inadequate historical sketches of some faiths (such as the Southern Baptist Convention, Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, Church of Christ, and Seventh-day Adventists) and by controversial statements or glaring errors in other accounts (such as in the essays on Christian Science and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The handbook also lacks consistency in describing belief patterns of religious communities. Some essays include references to unique beliefs (such as some beliefs of Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witness), but other articles (such as the essays on Seventh-day Adventists and Latter-day Saints) show almost a total absence of such information.