Finding religion in The Atlantic’s Top 100

atlantic coverI generally like lists. But only if they’re good lists. And by good I mean lists that generally agree with how I see things. In other words, this week’s Washington PostRanking the League” (about the National Football League) is a bunch of garbage. The Indianapolis Colts are not #1. Somehow the geniuses over on 15th Street think that the San Diego Chargers and the Chicago Bears are better than the Peyton Manning’s Colts. Go figure.

I hope this intro gives you an idea where I am coming from when I say that I liked The Atlantic‘s “Top 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time” list. I particularly liked the project’s open-ended, transparent method for determining who made the list: Ask 10 historians what they think and then compute and compile.

From the GetReligion perspective, all I’m able to do is quibble with The Atlantic‘s choice of historians. The list of historians is appropriately diverse. And I think the list reflects this diversity. The list also reflects that a number of the historians could have placed a couple more religious figures in their Top 100. But that just reflects the historians’ biases, and The Atlantic seemed to realize this point.

I’ll stop there and let the article, written by Ross Douthat, do the analysis on religion:

Mark Noll, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, shared [H.W.] Brands’s expectation that politics would dominate the final list, but suggested that this was a reflection of how history has been taught — “as a political narrative or as a reaction against the political narrative.” He contended there is “little room for religion” in either of these narratives — even though religious organizations “have been the main glue in American society since before there was a United States.” His own list drove that point home, by including little-remembered but hugely influential figures like the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney, or the itinerant Methodist bishop Francis Asbury.

. . . Take America’s religious leaders — represented on the list by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Mary Baker Eddy, Jonathan Edwards (90), and the Presbyterian clergyman Lyman Beecher (91), as well as a number of ministers best known for their efforts at political reform, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (46). Worthies all, but you have to look farther down the winners’ list to find the people who actually built the churches where most of today’s Americans worship. Several Jews are in the Top 100, but the only rabbi to receive votes was Solomon Schechter, the architect of Conservative Judaism. The only Top 100 Catholics are George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Louis Armstrong, and James Gordon Bennett (69), the great nineteenth-century newspaperman; two panelists, however, suggested John Carroll, the nation’s first Catholic bishop. There were also two votes for Fulton Sheen, another Catholic bishop, whose 1950s media ministry, as Mark Noll put it, “certified Roman Catholicism as a benign religious, political, and cultural influence” (and made him a trailblazer for today’s rather-less- eloquent crop of televangelists).

Also falling short of the Top 100 were the architects of American evangelicalism, the most successful species of Protestantism in this largely Protestant nation. Two panelists listed Francis Asbury, the eighteenth-century Methodist bishop whose indefatigable missionary efforts created a model of entrepreneurial religion that successful evangelical pastors have followed ever since. The aptly named Evangeline Booth, the first female “general” of the Salvation Army, received one vote, as did Dwight L. Moody, arguably the nineteenth century’s most famous evangelist; two votes went to Billy Graham, the twentieth-century heir to that title.

Another Noll pick, William Seymour, is perhaps more obscure than the other religious figures in the Top 100, but in the long run may prove more influential than any of them. The son of freed slaves, Seymour in 1906 lost his job as pastor of a Los Angeles church over his belief that glossolalia — speaking in tongues — was available to contemporary Christians; undeterred, he set up shop in a ramshackle building on L.A.’s Azusa Street, and thus touched off the “Azusa Street Revival,” the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement. Today, Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing form of Christianity in the world.

I guess one of the challenges of putting people known for their work in religion into a list like this is that their influence is very difficult to measure. While there is no doubt the Booths, Grahams and Finneys of the world had great influence of the lives of the people they touched, the result is much more subtle than with writers, politicians and inventors.

Outside the founders of Mormonism and Christian Science, only Jonathan Edwards and Lyman Beecher are on the list for their work as ministers. As Douthat notes, the historians placed little emphasis on American Protestant and Catholic leaders. While Edwards is on the list, there is no mention of the Puritans. Like him or not, Cotton Mather played a key role in early American history.

Why is this the case? Again, it is a reflection of the historians’ biases. For example, as much as I enjoy Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work, I don’t see her placing Peter Cartwright anywhere in her Top 100 list. But that’s OK, because Douthat does an excellent job discussing Noll’s thoughts on why other American preachers are not on the list, such as Charles Finney, Francis Asbury, Fulton Sheen, John Carroll, Evangeline Booth and Dwight Moody. Then there is the absence of Billy Graham.

Another problem: Once you place Finney on the list, you would have a hard time explaining why Asbury or Carroll or several others are not on the list. One could say that, apart from Edwards and Beecher, it is tough to find an American religious leader who truly belongs in the realm of most influential, primarily because America has done little other than embrace and expound upon the work of the Catholic Church and the original Protestants. But then again, is that how we want to measure influence?

For the sake of discussion, why wasn’t Billy Sunday mentioned? Or the Hoosier Lew Wallace, whose Ben-Hur was the bestselling book of the 19th century?

I’d like to also make the argument that the theologian Francis Schaeffer should have been on this list. While not very well known, this 20th century thinker, through his writing and teaching, laid much of the groundwork for today’s opposition to theological modernism. His work is the basis for much of what we see today from the Christian right, which — like it or not — has become a major influence in today’s politics.

That’s all for now. Please discuss. What major religious figures in American history were left off this list?

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The issue gets even more complicated if you start looking at prominent Americans who had official Church positions and whose philosophy and politics clearly were strongly impacted by their religious understanding. I am thinking of George Washington who was a long-time Anglican Church vestryman and whose family said he was extremely devout and that this created the humility and compassion which guranteed he would not set himself up as an American dictator or king. According to them it was his religion that drove his politics, not his politics that drove his religion. But does such a list such as this give justice to the religious aspect of George Washington.
    I also like the fact that Sam Adams–who some claim that through his work as a master propagandist–virtually created the conditions that led to the American Revolution, was a devout and long serving influential deacon in his
    These two are,of course, not known as “religious” leaders, but should show us that–
    as with ministers known for their politics–such as MLK,Jr.–there are people known virtually only for their politics–but who were steeped in and formed by their religion to a point one could consider them as religious figures as well as political figures.

  • Kendall Harmon

    My reflections are here.

    Harry Emerson Fosdick is worthy of consideration, too.

    One of the things they got right that most people today miss is the importance of the Civil War. There is no question to me that is the single most important event in America to this day. That is why Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s exclusion is so troubling.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As for actual influence on our country, I don’t see how Mary Baker Eddy, Brigham Young, and Joseph Smith made the list. Some choosers must have been devoid of thinking about Catholic religious figures such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She is considered the founding inspiration for the massive Catholic school enterprise that eventually would help millions upon millions of Catholic immigrants become loyal, patriotic Americans while not losing their Faith. Eddy, Young, and Smith seem to me to be rather colorful footnotes to American history, but more like for a tabloid history than the real thing.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    There is no question that Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy deserve placement on this list. It is precisely the biases of history and historians which have made such religious trailblazers previously invisible in our common history. The founders of the LDS Church left a profound effect far more than the millions of their followers. For the first time in Anglo-American history, the land of North America itself was written into the foundation of Christian sacred history and the story of Jesus. Likewise, Mary Baker Eddy was a major figure who crystallized the spiritual impulses of millions of Americans who saw themselves outside the organized churches. Moreover, like Aimee Simple McPherson (who should also be on that list) she became influential as a religious woman leader at a time when most women weren’t even allowed near a pulpit in the mainstream churches.

    As for other religious influential Americans, Starhawk (Miriam Simos) certainly deserves a place in shaping the religious contours of post-1960′s U.S. culture. I also agree that Francis Schaeffer deserves a place in that list as well as Charles Finney, the original flame of the Burned-Over district. John Humphrey Noyes, the Oneida architect and archtypal foreparent of many subsequent American utopian religious communities and the impulses they fed into the larger mainstream life also deserves a place on that list.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Also, I certainly think Elijah Muhammad overall made a much larger impact than Booker T. Washington (98) –and transplanted Washington’s philosophy of self-help into a prophetic and widely shared religious narrative far removed from European Christianity and its ideological debts to the slave trade.

  • MattK

    The effect might be local and not natinal. But among the native peoples of the frozen north St. Herman of Alaska was and is influential.

    And I am amzaed DL Moody is not on the list. Every little kid in a christian grade school is familiar with film strips and movies produced by the organization Moody founded.

  • Bob Moe

    Too expansive. The most important religious figures with the most impact on America were the leaders and participants in the Azusa Street Revival. Truly there are many godly men and woman in American history and I recognize many of the listed figures. My criteria is “Who did God work through?” I offer Charles Parnham and Frank Bartleman along with William J. Seymour who was mentioned in the list. Flawed men who were searchers yet they preached and taught the Holy Spirit as a presesnce even before the Spirit was manifest. My reasoning is simple. While one can argue the theology of speaking in toungues the bible is clear about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The effect and the “Gifts” of the Spirit are tools and also provide motivation to evangelize.

    Praise God
    Bob Moe

  • Eric

    I’d go with putting McPherson, Schaeffer and Moody on the list, although maybe it’s a bit too early for Schaeffer. Another one I’d consider, although it may be too early for him too, is James Dobson, not so much for his political activities as for the way he shaped parenting methods among evangelicals. Along the same line, one who wouldn’t make the top 100, but could make the top 250, is Tim LaHaye, not so much for his dreadful fiction but for the fact that he actually made it OK for evangelicals to talk about sex and was influential in the organizing of the religious right.

  • Dennis Colby

    I’m generally suspicious of the “listification” of journalism. Most pop music journalism, for example, consists of almost nothing more than a series of wholly subjective lists. This one is a case in point, because “influential” is purely in the eye of the beholder. I mean, how does one quantify Walt Whitman’s intelligence? And even if that can be done, how can you meaningfully compare it to the influence of, say, Cyrus McCormick?

    But, in the spirit of things, I’d say the list should probably include Charles Taze Russell along with the founders of Pentecostalism; Archbishop John Ireland; Cotton Mather; Thomas Hooker; Roger Williams; Billy Graham; Bishop James Pike; St. Alexis Toth; Hal Lindsey; Thomas Merton.

    Also, as a Bears fan, I’d humbly suggest that the Colts can be considered a candidate for best team in the NFL as soon as they manage to come up with even a rudimentary run defense.

  • Herb Ely

    Bill Wilson, the father of the spiritual program known as alcoholics anonymous would be on my list. Maybe the ten historians just don’t see the fact that almost any American city can give you a list of AA meetings for every day of the week doesn’t impress the historians. Not being attuned to religion, they would miss it because it is a spiritual program. religion historians will miss it because it welcomes all, no matter what their previous religious background or experience.

  • Eric

    I hadn’t thought of Bill W. His influence on popular psychology, to say nothing of people’s lives, has been tremendous.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Bill W is a GREAT choice!

  • Jeff Sharlet

    I’m surprised to find myself in near complete agreement with Pulliam. Finney should absolutely be on the list. Of course, I have a bias, since I write about Finney. But Elijah Muhammad should be on the list, too, and I imagine we can come up with a few more Catholics besides Fulton Sheen. What about Dorothy Day? No great mass of followers, but by the list’s criteria she could be a symbol of the radical Catholic social justice tradition.

    Pulliam’s suggestion of Schaeffer is sharp, too — without Schaeffer, it’s questionable as to whether abortion would have ever emerged as a definining culture war issue.

    But, of course, lists are pretty dumb. And this list is dumber than most. Did anyone notice that there’s only one labor leader on the list? So much for a century of labor wars. Or the fact that Latinos didn’t make the list at all?

    I have work by most of the historians on the panel on my shelves. They’re very good. But that is a group from one narrow school of American history (with the exception, perhaps, of Noll).

  • Dan

    As Catholicism is not defined by national boundaries and Americans have not distinguished themselves within the Church, for Catholics it does not really make sense to mix the concepts of “Most Influential Americans” and “religion.” That said, I agree that St. Seton had some impact on U.S. history through the institution of the Catholic school system (which makes it so much easier for us to receive our instructions from Rome! (just joking)).

  • Dan

    Also, I agree that the Colts are better then the Bears, and I am a long time Bears fan (the last Super Bowl I watched from start to finish was Super Bowl XX). Do not mistake the 2006 Bears for the 1985 Bears. I knew the 1985 Bears and the 2006 Bears are no 1985 Bears.