Edwin Gaustad, Religious Historian, Is Dead at 87

Historians in the News

Edwin S. Gaustad, who took his place in the front rank of American religious historians with seminal works on the religious ideas of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, and the arguments about church versus state that evolved from the dissenting sects in colonial America, died on March 25 at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 87. The death was confirmed by his daughter Susan.

Although his principal field was colonial religious history, Professor Gaustad ranged far and wide as a scholar. He explored the contested territory of religious liberty, pluralism and dissent in colonial America, but he also wrote general histories that carried the story forward to the present day and published a series of atlases, frequently updated, that gave a geographical picture of religious belief in the United States. His first book, “The Great Awakening in New England” (1957), made the case that the religious revival fanned by preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield had more than religious importance, profoundly affecting political and intellectual life in America. He also challenged the revisionist view that the movement was really an economic and class insurgency, arguing that it enjoyed support among all classes.

“The Awakening was ‘Great’ because it was general: none escaped its influence or avoided its controversy,” he wrote. “In both coastal and frontier areas, within cities and rural communities, in churches and in open fields, people gathered to hear an earnest evangelistic gospel, be it preached by their own minister, a neighboring pastor, a trespassing itinerant or an exhorter.”

He went on to write several histories of religion in America that became classic texts for students and historians alike, notably “A Religious History of America” (1966), revised with Leigh Schmidt and republished as “The Religious History of America” in 2002; “Dissent in American Religion” (1973); and “Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation” (1987)....

comments powered by Disqus