Reviews for The religious revolution : the birth of modern spirituality, 1848-1898

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Sprawling history of “an age that believed in the infinite advance of knowledge, endured the infinite emptiness of a universe without purpose, and succored a pantheon of new gods.” Beginning with Emerson’s famed address to Harvard Divinity School in 1838—in which the philosopher “deliberately provoked the divines by contrasting ‘the Church with the Soul,’ and in a manner reflecting dimly on the Church and radiantly on the Soul”—Green explores the manifold ways in which traditional Western religion was challenged in the decades that followed by advances in science, contact with other cultures, social and political challenges, and the sheer power of individual personalities. “This is the age of the Religious Revolution,” he writes. “It is also the age of science and race. This is the age of the Religious Revolution because it is the age of science and race.” Indeed, science and race, in their broadest definitions, undergird most of this history, as Western intellectuals and spiritual leaders grappled with everything from Darwin’s theory of evolution to growing obsessions with the culture of India. Spiritualism, “the West’s first post-Christian faith,” plays an important part in this story, but only a part. More broadly, Green delivers a history of the 19th-century revolt against tradition, when feminism began to find its voice and both sexuality and socialism became more mainstream. These and many other changes found corollaries in the spiritual lives of intellectuals, especially, but regular folks as well. The author offers us intriguing glimpses into the lives, work, and interactions of such leading lights as Thoreau, Whitman, Marx, Baudelaire, and Freud, to name just a few. Green’s reach is perhaps too ambitious, and his prose and storytelling style are sometimes overheated. Still, his book is an interesting examination of how nascent globalism and resentful political machinations affected the spiritual tenor of the 19th century and laid the groundwork for movements in the 20th century. A hefty, erudite examination of a crucial turning point in modern history. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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Critic and historian Green (Three Empires on the Nile) delivers an incisive study of the Western world’s shift from institutional religion to more personal beliefs in the second half of the 19th century. He contends that interaction between “innate religiosity” on the one hand and science and technology on the other produced “the irrational appeals to salvation by nationalism, socialism, and racism that derailed the global civilization, once in 1914 and again in 1939.” Not all the era’s “isms” were so catastrophic, however. The Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, the Spiritualism of John and Margaret Fox, and the protofeminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton either encouraged Westerners to take in ideas from the Middle and Far East or expanded the rights-based society first espoused by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Green also explores how Charles Darwin’s theories about the “common origins” of all species were disputed by “polygenists” including Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon, who believed in “fixed racial differences” between Africans and Europeans, and documents how composer Richard Wagner’s racist ideas were eventually rejected by his devotee, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose conception of the ‹bermensch looked beyond simplistic moralizing and dubious racial claims. Throughout, Green draws illuminating connections between these transformational thinkers and briskly contextualizes the political, economic, and technological shocks of their epoch. This is intellectual history at its most comprehensive and convincing. (Apr.)

Library Journal
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Arguing that the mid-19th century began an age of scientific and technological discovery that spawned an era of frantic religious activity, historian Green (Armies of God) offers a sweeping view of the religious world that developed in the aftermath of Darwin's era and the scientific worldview he represented. Green deftly moves through descriptions of various philosophical and religious movements that define modern spirituality, with some diversions into art and science. Among the many subjects he treats are Friedrich Nietzsche; Madame Blavatsky and theosophy; John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement; Eastern religions as they were transformed by their contact with the West; Gandhi; Freud; Zionism; and cubism. Green's narrative moves back and forth as personages appear and reappear as they influence or are influenced by others, and so he weaves a tapestry that brings together the various strands that the spiritual/religious revival exhibited in the 19th century, showing the interrelations and aspects of the thought of individuals which only come to light when they are seen in the context of their times. VERDICT While some of Green's interpretations might not stand up to academic criticism, he does offer a fascinating picture of the intellectual world of the late 19th century.—Augustine J. Curley