Sydney E. Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People is worth reading for anyone with an interest in American history and for anyone who has an interest in the history and sociology of religion and has heard of this boisterous place called America. However, it does take some time to read the book, which a bit more than 1100 pages--it is not a book to to carry through airports, or read without a bookmark. Ahlstrom first published the work in 1972, concluding it with reflections on the 1960s: in 2004, David D. Hall contributed about 25 pages that bring the history forward into the 21st Century.
The broad outlines of the history will be familiar to most Americans, at least those who haven't entirely forgotten high school history classes: the Puritans, the Great Awakening, Methodism, Mormonism, etc. Few of us, though, will know any of the history to anything like the level of detail that Ahlstrom gives. How and where did the camp meeting tradition come about? How did there arise an Arminian synod of Presbyterianism, and when did it reunite with those that had exscinded it? How did so much of the New England church, originally Congregationalist, defect to Unitarianism or Anglicanism? And there are the details for the German pietistic sects, the varying strains of Lutheranism, the different immigrant waves of the Catholics, and so on.
The book is organized in sixty-four chapters in nine parts. Most chapters are a dozen or fifteen pages long, so there are plenty of stopping points. The bibliography runs to about forty pages, out of which, time allowing, I may someday pick out two or three books to read. The index is here and there a delight for the names that American, and not only Americans, will give to their offspring.