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American Religious History  

Last Updated: Jan 21, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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The United States guarantees religious freedom in the constitution and is one of the most "religious" countries in the world. Groups seeking religious freedom were among the founders of the nation. As the country grew, so too did many denominations. Immigration and globalization have brought increased religious pluralism to the U.S. 

This guide will present resources to study religion's importance in the history of America.

Websites and Other Databases

  • Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life  
    The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, launched in 2001, seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.
  • American Memory: Religion
    Collections from the Library of Congress's American Memory project that contain religious content. Exhibits include: Sunday School books from 1815-1865; the Church in the Southern Black Community, 1780-1925; and early religious petitions from Virginia (1764-1802), among others.
  • Religion and the Founding of the American Republic
    An exhibit of the Library of Congress.
  • Divining America: Religion in American History
    This is a resource created by the National Humanities Center to assist teachers. Essays explore the importance of religion in the history and thought of America. Good background information with links in each essay to more resources.
  • American History in Video
    Streaming video from documentaries and newscasts that cover American history from the late 15th century through the end of the 20th century.

Finding Articles

Any of the following databases are good choices when searching for articles related to American religious history:

1. ATLA Religion Database -- a good general source for primary and secondary literature, particularly for American Protestantism.

2. Catholic Periodical Literature Index -- primary and secondary literature related to Catholicism.  There is little overlap with the ATLA Religion Database.

3. America: History and Life -- a good source for secondary literature. This database covers a broader range of topics than the religion databases.

4. 19th Century MasterFile -- Also known as Poole's Plus, this resource covers American and British periodicals published from the late 18th to the early 20th century.


Finding Books

Depending on your topic and time frame, a wide range of subject headings is possible.  It is valuable to take a few minutes to think about your topic and list keywords and their synonyms.  Try one or two of these keywords in discoverE, EUCLID, or WorldCat until you find an item that looks good for your topic.  Then look at the full record to see what subject headings have been used.  Use these to find additional items.  You can also use the Library of Congress Authorities Search to search for authorized subject headings and personal names.

Subject Headings

Use these major subject headings and refine with keywords such as catholic or women.  Also try beginning with the group or topic you are interested in (for example, Catholics or Evangelicalism) and adding the terms United States and History afterward to limit the scope to historical resources focused on the United States.


Types of Primary Sources

Many different types of primary sources are available.  This list may help you search for the types most relevant to your topic:

  • Public records
  • Official records
  • Personal documents (diaries, letters, emails, financial accounts, household records, etc.)
  • Artifacts (tools, clothing, music, art, etc.)
  • Business and organizational documents (meeting minutes, financial records, inventories, etc.)
  • Images
  • City plans, maps, and architecture
  • Media (newspapers, magazines, television broadcasts, pamphlets, broadsides, etc.)
  • Literary texts

(Compiled from Jenny L. Presnell, The Information-Literate Historian, New York: Oxford UP, 2007, p. 94-95).


Research Overviews

Cover Art
The Information-Literate Historian - Jenny L. Presnell
Call Number: OXFORD: 907.2 P934i
ISBN: 9780195176513
Oriented toward new students of history, this guide walks readers through the scholarly process, from finding an idea to using reference resource, web sites, maps, and images, to the selection of a format for the final presentation. It provides a good orientation to general history sources for the beginner, but does not delve deeply into religious sources in particular.

Cover Art
Church History: An Introduction to Research, Reference Works, and Methods - James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller
Call Number: THEOLOGY BOOKSTACKS: BR138 .B69 1995
ISBN: 0802808263
Not limited to American religious history, this volume provides an overview of themes and approaches in church history as well as describing stages of research and providing a helpful bibliography for helpful resources covering materials from the early church through contemporary historical method.

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