Matthew S. Hedstrom



The story of liberal religion in the twentieth century is a story of cultural ascendency. This may come as a surprise. Most scholarship in American religious history, after all, 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. Here, we see that the defining features of religious liberalism—its cosmopolitanism; its engagement with the latest historical and scientific thought; its ethics; its focus on psychology, mysticism, and individual religious experience—arose among a spiritual vanguard in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but by the middle decades of the twentieth century had become commonplace among the American middle class. This book tells that story.

The Rise of Liberal Religion attends especially to the critically important yet little-studied arena of religious book culture—particularly the religious middlebrow 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, I provide a rich, on-the-ground account of the men, women, and organizations that drove religious liberalism’s cultural rise in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Critically, by the post-WWII period the religious middlebrow had expanded beyond its Protestant roots, using mystical and psychological spirituality as a platform for interreligious exchange.

This history of religion and book culture not only shows how reading and book buying were critical twentieth-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.


Reviews Available Online

Protestant Bibliophiles.” Reviewed by John Turner, Christian Century, August 5, 2013. (August 21, 2013 print issue.)

Redeeming the Times: Consumerism and the Cultural Victory of Liberal Religion.Review by Jon Wood at US Intellectual History Blog (Posted June 30, 2013)

Journal Reviews

American Historical Review, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Textual Criticism, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Journal of Unitarian Universalist History

Related Essays, Posts, and Interviews

When the Mainline Told Us What to Read,” Christian Century, Now and Then blog, June 5, 2013

“Historian Matthew Hedstrom Details the Evolution of ‘Post-Protestant Spirituality’” ShelfLife@Texas Blog

Book Culture and the Rise of Liberal Religion,” Religion and Politics January 29, 2013

Interview, Religion in American History blog, “Liberals Rising.”  Part 1  |  Part 2

Interview, WMRA’s Virginia Insight, “Religion and the Hidden Impact of Books.” December 6, 2012

“A History of the Unaffiliated: How the ‘Spiritual Not Religious’ Gospel Has Spread,” Religion Dispatches, October 24, 2012


“Hedstrom shows that the prevailing values of liberal Protestantism were widely disseminated through mass-market, ‘middlebrow’ books during the middle decades of the twentieth century, influencing ostensibly secular domains of popular culture in ways that no previous scholar has established.  This is a strikingly original, crisply argued contribution to cultural and religious history.”

—David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley

“Hedstrom dexterously knots together several cultural threads: liberal Protestantism, middlebrow reading habits, corporate publishing, popular psychology, and seeker spirituality. The expectation that the right religious books—mystical, adventuresome, psychologically attuned, and affordable—would arrest modernity’s dissolutions was perhaps another instance of liberal Protestantism’s unrequited optimism, but Hedstrom makes a compelling case for just how potent this publishing mission was from the 1920s through the 1940s and beyond.”

—Leigh Eric Schmidt, Edward Mallinckrodt University Professor, Washington University in St. Louis

“An original and eye-opening study, planting liberal religion in the wider history of liberalism, including its middlebrow culture of print.   Hedstrom shows how liberal religion keeps renewing itself by sidling up to secular culture, and by welcoming wave after wave of refugees from orthodoxy on the one hand and agnosticism on the other, all of them drawn to the premise of liberal spirituality that science and religion make excellent bedfellows.”

—Richard Fox, Professor of History, University of Southern California

“In the modern age of mass-culture and commoditization, liberal religious intellectuals reasoned that the consumption of good books could make a far-reaching contribution to the spiritual formation of American readers. Matthew Hedstrom delivers a deeply thoughtful and thoroughly researched study that urges us to recognize how liberal religion used mass-culture rather than just sneered at it, and to think hard about reading and spirituality today. The legacy of liberal religion is larger than we might have thought.”

—David Morgan, Professor of Religion, Duke University

“In this engrossing study, Matthew Hedstrom provides nothing less than a series of revelations—about the construction of liberal religion, the circulation of books, and indeed the making of modern spiritual selves.  Hedstrom's work will reshape historians' understanding of religion in 20th-century America.  For those who wish to push the historical analysis, this book will also invite new questions about liberal religion in 2013 and beyond.”

—Lauren F. Winner, Assistant Professor of Christian Spirituality, Duke Divinity School

The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century

Oxford University Press (2013).  Release Date: November 2012

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