OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

Jon Butler

Portrait of Jon Butler

Jon Butler is the Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies at Yale University, an adjunct research professor of history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a past president of the OAH. His award-winning books include The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society (1983); Awash in A Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990); and Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (2000). His newest project is a history of religion in Manhattan between the Gilded Age and the 1960 Kennedy election, entitled "God in Gotham."

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Almost all textbooks in American history generally as well as in American religious history specifically give exceptional attention to the seventeenth-century Puritans, and in popular culture, they are often described as creating the foundation for America's most important religious traditions. This talk asks a simple question: are the Puritans overemphasized? It's answer is yes - and no. Yes, in that even in the seventeenth century America's religious makeup proved exceptionally complicated and only became more so in the eighteenth-century and later. No, in that the Puritans' unusually abundant self-expression and the fortunate retention of so much of it has long provided historians with sources often lacking elsewhere, in addition to the fact that the Puritans own complexities provide critical clues to the emerging pluralism and religious vitality that would distinguish America for the next several centuries.
Most observers and visitors think of Manhattan as the capital of American secularism epitomizing the modern distance from religion. But the history of religion in Manhattan, especially between 1870 and 1960, suggests a much different story that the talk conveys — immense organizational industry by major and minor religious groups, significant religious architecture, minor and major, and something of a mid twentieth-century spiritual seedbed, home to Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Kaplan, Abraham Heschel, and Joseph Soloveitchik, among others.
We often think of the twentieth century as essentially secular and hardly "religious" in comparison with the nineteenth century, much less the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries. Is this right? If so, why did religion remain such a lightning rod for late twentieth-century U.S. politics from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama? And how is it that this political religiosity emerged? This lecture explores principal themes in the rise, not merely survival, of religion in twentieth century America, stressing its creativity, institutional resilience, interaction with popular culture, and its remarkable links to politics long before the emergence of either Martin Luther King or Jerry Falwell.