(Getty/Matt Cardy)

(Getty/Matt Cardy)

In 1904 the Quaker mystic and philosopher Rufus Jones published Social Law in the Spiritual World with a grand ambition. “The cure for skepticism,” Jones declared at the outset, “is always deeper knowledge,” and with this book he sought to bring deeper knowledge to a new generation of modern skeptics. Like many intellectuals of his day, Jones knew firsthand the struggle of the modern believer, as he had grappled first with Darwinian evolution and then with the even more unsettling theories of modern psychology. “There are few crises to compare,” he noted, based on this experience, “with that which appears when the simple, childhood religion, imbibed at mother’s knee and absorbed from early home and church environment, comes into collision with a scientific, solidly reasoned system.” Yet Jones had emerged from this collision of ideas with a deep sense of divine presence intact. The Varieties of Religious Experience, the landmark study from the Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James published two years earlier, had greatly excited Jones—it too had been the product of a profound spiritual crisis engendered by modern thought—yet Jones found James’s work too intellectual to inspire or comfort ordinary Americans. He wrote Social Law to meet this need. “The trouble with many of the best works on these themes,” Jones declared, “is that they are too learned and technical to help the wayfaring man who wants to get the newer insight and who yet cannot find any way to get into the onward moving current. This present book is an attempt to help such persons.”

Social Law was both a skillful reinterpretation of James by a practicing mystic and a bridge between James and the popular inspirational writers of the twentieth century. Though Social Law never reached a wide audience, its grand religious project succeeded better than Rufus Jones could ever have imagined. The liberal approaches to religion found in James and Jones—intellectually engaged, psychologically oriented, and focused on personal experience—characterized large swaths of middle-class spiritual life by the middle of the twentieth century.

I argue that this popularization of religious liberalism happened largely in and through books. Jones’s understanding in Social Law that modern religion required modern books in order to reach “the wayfaring man” was prescient: books and book culture were integral to the rise of liberal religion in the twentieth century. In order to succeed at all, the liberal project of renovating religion in light of modern knowledge had to succeed in the marketplace of print. And, by and large, it did.

Historians and social critics have long understood media and the consumer marketplace to be defining aspects of modern American culture. Yet my argument about the powerful and enduring cultural influence of religious liberalism may elicit a bit more surprise. After all, for decades now the dominant story in American religion has been the cultural and political mobilization of religious conservatives. The Protestant mainline and the various other institutional forms of religious liberalism garner much less attention, and the attention they do receive generally highlights decline and dysfunction. To some degree the media have rediscovered the Religious Left as a political force in recent years, yet the broad cultural significance of liberal religion in the twentieth century is still poorly understood. Nevertheless liberals coordinated massive, nationwide cultural programs during much of the twentieth century—especially reading programs—that exerted significant religious influence. While many liberal churches and denominations are indeed in significant demographic decline from their midcentury heyday, my examination of religious reading and publishing programs not only demonstrates the powerful cultural force of liberalism in the mid-twentieth century, but also suggests new ways of seeing the cultural imprint of liberal religion in our own times. As the sociologist Christian Smith (echoing Jay Demerath) has observed, “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” The legacy of Jones and James lives on in deeply significant ways, and an examination of religion and book culture in the mid-twentieth century helps us see how and why.

Despite this significant insight about the “cultural victory” of liberal Protestantism, scholarly work on religious liberalism has tended to focus, often exclusively, on Protestant churches and seminaries. Generations of scholars have exhaustively chronicled the intellectual history of Protestant liberalism— its Enlightenment roots; its romantic flowering in the transcendental movement; its embrace of history, Darwinian biology, and psychology; its postmillennial faith in progress and human nature; its Social Gospel activism—while failing to see that over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries liberalism’s seeds found fertile ground not only in churches but all across the American landscape. The “cultural victory” Smith and others observe happened not because more Americans joined liberal churches, but because liberal religious values and sensibilities became more and more culturally normative.

These cultural processes unfolded most importantly in the marketplace of print. In the decade after World War I, liberal Protestant leaders, executives of the American publishing industry, and other important cultural figures collaborated on a series of new initiatives to promote the buying and reading of religious books in the United States. In response to the moment of crisis, these cultural leaders sought to guide American moderns by offering their expertise in the field of religious reading. They believed that a common set of widely accepted religious ideas, practices, and presuppositions would hold together a fragmenting culture, expand existing markets for books, and maintain their privileged status in American religious discourse. In this last ambition they failed; the core values they proclaimed in fact undermined the very idea of religious authority. Nevertheless the reading campaigns that liberal Protestants crafted—Religious Book Week in the 1920s, the Religious Book Club, founded in 1927, and the Religious Books Round Table of the American Library Association, among others—formed the basis of a thriving religious reading culture that remained central to American cultural and religious life through much of the century. In addition major New York publishing houses, such as Harper and Macmillan, established religion departments for the first time in the late 1920s, a transformation at once rooted in changing economic realities and in religious liberals’ openness to market culture. From these reading and publishing endeavors emerged new structures for the promotion of reading, but even more significantly a greater entanglement of religious practice with the patterns of consumerism and an enhanced emphasis on spiritual forms emerging from and moving beyond liberal Protestantism.

The most important of the new spiritual forms for twentieth-century liberalism were psychology and mysticism. The centrality of mystical and psychological approaches to religion stemmed from the liberal search for a universal essence of religious experience. Both the German Friedrich Schleiermacher and the American Ralph Waldo Emerson had influentially argued in the nineteenth century that individual experience remained the inviolable heart of religion after the assaults of modern thought had stripped away dogma, revelation, and ecclesial authority. James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, first published in 1902, was the landmark text along these lines for twentieth-century liberals.

The Jamesian emphasis on religious experience permeated American religious liberalism in the twentieth century and branched in a variety of directions. Some drew most heavily on James’s conception of “the religion of healthy-mindedness” and became what I call laissez-faire liberals. Laissez-faire liberals blended psychology with the mind-cure spiritual tradition (often called New Thought or positive thinking) to argue for the practical, material benefits of religion. This branch of liberalism, according to critics, represented the final stage of the modernization of soul care and the ultimate victory of therapeutic consumerism over redemptive and prophetic religion.

Other twentieth-century religious liberals, however, moved in more mystical and ethical directions. Mystical and ethical liberals, such as Rufus Jones, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Joshua Loth Liebman, also understood religious experience psychologically but never embraced mind cure’s strictly utilitarian philosophy of religion. Their mystical sensibilities and ethical commitments tempered liberalism’s inherent individualism with an ever-present attention to realities beyond the self. The political quiescence and consumerist hedonism of laissez-faire liberalism was matched by the social activism and moral sophistication of mystical and ethical liberalism. The distinction, though not hard and fast, is a useful reminder that religious liberalism does not equate neatly with political liberalism.

World War II brought about a significant new phase in the course of religious middlebrow culture. As political leaders declared books to be “weapons in the war of ideas,” an interfaith organization, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, became the central broker of religious reading, coordinating a second, vast Religious Book Week campaign that ran from 1943 to 1948. This reading program built on the foundation of mystical and psychological spirituality formed in the 1920s and 1930s, and changes in American reading and book culture during the war, to advocate interfaith exchange as a cornerstone of modern American spirituality. During World War II spiritual openness was seen not simply as morally desirable for individuals but as essential to national survival. In this context the previously dominant understanding of the United States as a Protestant nation gave way to a new, pluralistic framework that included Jews and Roman Catholics, and the term Judeo-Christian entered the national vocabulary. These developments of the 1940s popularized and democratized a cosmopolitan spiritual outlook that had previously been the privileged domain of a cultural elite.

This remarkable energy in promoting book buying and reading, despite its significant cultural successes, was not enough to maintain the institutional vitality or privileged cultural status of the liberal establishment. In many ways, in fact, liberal elites were the victims of their own success, as their drive for a universal spiritual language and true pluralism—a drive rooted, at its core, in their own sense of Christian ethics as much as in their desire to stay culturally relevant—made their grasp on power, centralized and hierarchical as it was, increasingly untenable. The cultural victory of liberal Protestantism actually contributed to its institutional decline, partly because religious individualism naturally resists institutionalization. But even more, as religious liberals embraced the notion of redeeming the entire culture, they found increasingly meaningful outlets for their religious energies outside the churches, both in social activism and in cultural programs such as reading promotion.

Yet even as liberal Protestant institutions and leaders failed to hold their privileged place in the national discourse, the spiritual vocabularies and sensibilities liberals promoted gained ever-wider currency and legitimacy. Psychology and mysticism arose from liberal Protestantism in the nineteenth century, but eventually spilled beyond the banks of even that wide stream. Historians of religion in America, themselves often personally committed to institutional Protestantism, have too often simply failed to see the vitality and dynamism of this “shadow culture” or “invisible religion” occurring beyond the walls of church life. The pluralist turn of American religious print culture by the 1940s further enhanced the importance of these alternative spiritualities. This story, then, is an ironic tale of initial resistance yet ultimate complicity in the transformation of American religious culture from Protestant dominance, in spite of sizable and significant minority traditions, to a much more open, democratic, even chaotic spiritual environment. The psychologically and mystically rooted cosmopolitanism that came to characterize much of American religion and spirituality after World War II first emerged as a popular reality from the liberal Protestantism and book-buying consumerism of the interwar years—but ultimately took on a life all its own.

Matthew S. Hedstrom is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Virginia. This excerpt was taken from the introduction to his book, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century, released in November 2012 from Oxford University Press