cover image Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation.

Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation.

Leigh Eric Schmidt. Princeton Univ., $35 (360p) ISBN 978-0-691-16864-7

Despite widespread invocations of the separation of church and state in the United States, “the upper hand very much belongs to the God-affirming, not the God-denying, in American civic life,” according to historian Schmidt (Heaven’s Bride), who persuasively argues that the citizenship of atheists in America has been suspect from the colonial period and remains unresolved to the present day. The book offers biographical sketches of four exemplary “village atheist” types whose uneven fortunes are chronicled in a nuanced exploration of the lived reality of nonbelief in a nation of the faithful. Readers are introduced to Samuel Porter Putnam (1838–1896), a minister who wrestled with faith on his journey to secularism; Watson Heston (1846–1905), a political cartoonist whose anti-religious art enjoyed far more success than its creator; Charles B. Reynolds (1832–1896), whose experience as a revivalist preacher led to fiery notoriety on the secular lecture circuit; and finally Elmina Drake Slenker (1827–1908), whose atheist beliefs combined with her sexual radicalism brought her to the attention of moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Schmidt, a historian of religion, approaches his subject with the confidence of an expert well-grounded in his sources. He’s sensitive to the intersection of secular identity with the politics of race, class, and gender. Framed by a robust introduction and conclusion that provide a pre- and post-history of 19th-century atheism, this well-written and lively text will be of interest to both scholars and more general readers with an interest in American irreligion. [em](Sept.) [/em]