God's triptik across America

A study of religious development through demographic maps

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This huge volume is an updated and expanded version of Edwin Scott Gaustad's "Historical Atlas of Religion in America," which was first published in 1962. The purpose of both books is to explore the importance of geography to the spread of religious denominations.

As the authors write in their preface, "Anyone hoping to comprehend religion in its historical context ignores geography at severe peril. Among the many useful ways to read the Hebrew Bible, for instance, is to imagine it as a vast tract arguing and probing the thesis, 'This land is mine; God gave this land to me.' " With that in mind, the volume includes extensive maps that show the growth and spread of denominations in the United States from Quakers to mainstream Protestants to Roman Catholics, Buddhists, and Hindus. The maps are fascinating, and show, for instance, that some parts of the country are likely to be more church-going than others, some denominations are more dominant in certain areas than others (e.g. the Mormons in Utah, Lutherans in the upper Midwest).

If the authors had stopped there, the book would have been better focused and more uniformly accurate. Instead, the authors provide a history of each denomination. Some of the accounts are so sketchy that one doesn't come away with much understanding of individual beliefs and aspirations. Generalizing about an individual denomination's beliefs can lead to inaccuracy.

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For example, the passage on the Shakers is disorganized and leaves out details that would increase an understanding of how these people came to be. The section on Christian Science presents a mistaken picture of the church's mode of government and approaches church activities with apparent negative bias. Although the book speaks of the Jehovah's Witnesses' legal difficulties over refusing to serve in the armed forces, it does not mention the legal challenges they have faced through resisting medically required blood transfusions.

The book is divided into four sections: institutional and ethnic religion before 1800; institutional and ethnic religion after 1800; three case studies (Lutherans, Mormons, and Roman Catholics); and broader perspectives (Canadian religious beliefs). Aside from flaws in some of the historical overviews, these maps of religious expansion and decline are a valuable reference.

Rosalie E. Dunbar is a senior staff editor for The Christian Science Sentinel.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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