cover image The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848–1898

The Religious Revolution: The Birth of Modern Spirituality, 1848–1898

Dominic Green. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (464p) ISBN 978-0-374-24883-3

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 Übermensch 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.)