The American Society of Church History has awarded Matthew S. Hedstrom, assistant professor of religious studies and American studies at the University of Virginia, the Brewer Prize for the best first book in the history of Christianity for his volume, “The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century.” The book was published last year by Oxford University Press.
Hedstrom will receive the prize at the society’s winter meeting in January.
The book was also named one of 11 Notable Titles in American Intellectual History for 2012 by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.
Hedstrom contends in his book, according to the publisher’s description, that the story of liberal religion in the 20th century is a story of cultural ascendency. This may come as a surprise; most scholarship in American religious history equates the numerical decline of the Protestant mainline with the failure of religious liberalism. Yet a look beyond the pews, into the wider culture, reveals a more complex and fascinating story, one Hedstrom tells in “The Rise of Liberal Religion.”
Hedstrom attends especially to the critically important, yet little-studied arena of religious book culture – particularly the middlebrow religious book culture of mid-century – as the site where religious liberalism was most effectively popularized. By looking at book weeks, book clubs, public libraries, new publishing enterprises, key authors and bestsellers, wartime reading programs and fan mail, among other sources, Hedstrom provides a rich, on-the-ground account of the men, women and organizations that drove religious liberalism’s cultural rise in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Critically, by the post-World War II period the religious middlebrow had expanded beyond its Protestant roots, using mystical and psychological spirituality as a platform for interreligious exchange. This compelling history of religion and book culture not only shows how reading and book-buying were critical 20th-century religious practices, but also provides a model for thinking about the relationship of religion to consumer culture more broadly. In this way, “The Rise of Liberal Religion” offers both innovative cultural history and new ways of seeing the imprint of liberal religion in our own times.