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.