U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Henry May as a religious historian (by David Watt)

From David Watt:

In the present context, there’s no need for me to discuss Henry F. May’s contribution to the field of intellectual history. Others are in a far better position than I am to talk about that. What I would like to do instead is to make an observation or two about May’s contribution to the study of religious history.

These days, scholars who work in the field of American religious history can say, with a good deal of justification, that that they are working in a remarkably lively field—a field with a steep upward trajectory. The courses those scholars teach are often overenrolled and editors now routinely vie for the manuscripts they have produced. Conferences (such as those organized by the American Historical Association) that used to confine American religious history to the margins now feature American religious history front and center. Historians who used to squirm uncomfortably when religion was discussed now find the subject engrossing.

Of course, things in the field of American religious history are far from perfect. The field seldom exhibits, for example, as much theoretical sophistication as it should. But for our present purposes, the field’s weaknesses are less important than its achievements. The sustained attention that American religious history has received in recent years has produced an explosion of knowledge about actors in American religious history—Latina/os Muslims, Spiritualists, Pentecostals, African-Americans, Buddhists, Haitians, and Hindus, for example—about whom we were largely ignorant thirty years ago. And in the past thirty years, scholars have explored a set of questions having to do with lived religion, material culture, identity, social movements, gender, and sexuality that have transformed what it means to do religious history. Students of American religious history have also demonstrated that a great deal is gained when scholars analyze the religious and
the secular not as past and present but rather as two phenomena that constitute one another. The religious, scholars have come to see, helps to create the secular and the secular helps construct the religious.

May observed, charted, and celebrated the maturation of American religious history. But his attachment to religious history was a longstanding one and it dates back to an era when U.S. historians were far less interested in religion than they are today. May’s first book, which was published in 1949, is a classic account of the Protestant social gospel. His path-breaking “The Recovery of American Religious History” was published in the American Historical Review in 1964; his award-winning study of The Enlightenment in America—a book which made a major contribution to our understanding of American religious history as well as to our understanding of American intellectual history—was published in 1976.

In the late 1970s (which was when I first had the good fortune to encounter him), May’s interest in religious history clearly rivaled his interest in intellectual history. In those years, May took great pleasure in teaching undergraduate lecture courses that surveyed American religious history and in offering small seminars on topics such as the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. May’s Ideas, Faiths, and Feelings: Essays on American Intellectual and Religious History 1952-1982, (1983) included sophisticated explorations of what is actually entailed in the study of religious history and of how the relationship between religious history and intellectual
history ought to be conceptualized. Those questions were taken up again, to very good effect, in a book that May published in 1991: The Divided Heart: Essays on Protestantism and the Enlightenment in America.

When he wrote about religious history, May usually displayed a certain tough-mindedness. He was not one to offer hymns of praise to religion’s social or political effects. But May nearly always wrote about religion in ways that made it clear that he had good deal of respect for religious people—even for those religious
people whose beliefs were very different than his own. This reflected, perhaps, his own temperament. May was one of the most generous men I have ever met. It would not be accurate to say that May was the founder of American religious history. And these days scholars think about American religious history quite
differently than May did in 1949. But one could make a case for saying that May helped lay the groundwork for the remarkable vitality that religious history has displayed in recent years. Scholars who work in American religious history can be forgiven, I think, for insisting that they too can claim May as one of their own.

Focusing exclusively on May’s work in intellectual history makes it sound like he was a less interesting and less important historian than he really was.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Focusing exclusively on May’s work in intellectual history makes it sound like he was a less interesting and less important historian than he really was.”

    I guess so, if you think that intellectual history is a marginal field or less interesting or important in its own right. Perhaps I misunderstand this statement, but if David Watt is going to address an audience of intellectual historians on an intellectual history blog, it would be best not to condescend to us. I hesitated to say anything, since the recognition of May’s significance and influence is central here, and my comments might be seen as detracting from the rightful acknowledgement of May’s importance. But having repatriated May for religious history, Watt presumes to explain to intellectual historians why that makes him really important. I have no problem, I should say, with the idea that May was an important figure in the field of religion, but I think the kind of religious history May was concerned with was intellectual: matters of belief, ideas, and thought. The line drawn between history of religion and intellectual history here, serving to elevate one by denigrating the other, is misplaced for an understanding of May and his work.

  2. Thanks for your post, Dan. I certainly do not think that intellectual history is either marginal or unimportant. And I take your point about the dangers connected with drawing too sharp a line between religious and intellectual history. What I was trying to say was that May was an important religious historian AS WELL AS an important intellectual historian. As I read his work, May’s exploration of religion focused largely, but not exclusively, on “matters of belief, ideas, and thought.” David

  3. David–
    Thanks for you response. Sorry if I was a little testy or defensive about this. As I said, I realize that the point is to recognize May’s central contributions and the ways in which he helped to shape the broader field of American historiography, and your piece did a good job of that.

  4. Dan,
    Your response was not at all testy. In truth there was a certain note of triumphalism in my account of American religious history. Sorry about that! In another context, it would be worthwhile focusing on the many problems that beset the field.

  5. As some one who is interested in both religion and intellectual history the bifurcation of these two fields in this post appear artificial. Religion and cultural, political and philosophical current run concurrently continually interpenetrating each other. To think one can study intellectual history without understanding the theological ideas that run through out American thought, or that one can study religion as an autonomous hermeneutically sealed domain is absurd. Religion as a social experience and theology as discourse about ultimate values must be considered part and parcel of intellectual history.

    • Dear Lilian,

      Thanks for your note. You make several good points; I agree with a great deal of what you say.

      My impression is that the study of “religious beliefs” now plays a somewhat less prominent role in the scholarly literature on American religion than it used to and the study of “religious practices” now plays a larger one than it did in the past. Does that seem accurate to you?


  6. Yes, I think it is of limited benefit to focus on religious practice rather than thought. Religious beliefs has profound affect on American thought as seen from Winthrop to King. What people believe about the ultimate nature of the world shapes their political and cultural ideas. May understood that. Now historians may be afraid to take on a critical stance towards religious ideas and its consequences , so let’s just focus on practice, agency, and its effects. After all belief justifies itself.

  7. Henry May, a student of the elder Schlesinger, was associated with a “social and intellectual history” school that embraced religion, science, economic thought, and American culture in general – the current categorizations really don’t fit well. (To further complicate matters, he was reportedly offered a chair in English at Harvard, and his closest colleague at Berkeley, Henry Nash Smith, was in the English department.)

    I’d add that while May was very much aware of the more enthusiastic aspects of religion, he worked in a period when “mainstream” Protestantism (he was an Episcopalian) and its liberal Christian variants dominated American religious life and historical scholarship.

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