Editors’ Choice: Where the Problem with Historical Data about U.S. Religion Really Lies

One of my side projects (eventually to turn into a main project) is figuring out what can be done with historical data about religious groups in the United States. This ground is in some ways well trodden. The field has a very fine atlas in the form of Gaustad, Barlow, and Dishno’s New Historical Atlas of Religion in America, as well as an experimental Digital Atlas of American Revolution for the twentieth century. Then too, the field has more or less decided that this ground is not worth treading anyway. There are a number of sophisticated critiques of the whole enterprise of dealing with religious statistics and mapping. If I can sum these up in a broad statement, the point is that numbers don’t tell us anything that the field actually wants to know. As Laurie Maffly-Kipp puts it in a well-argued review essay, “our dazzling new technologies and spatial theories” might only have “brought us back to much more circumscribed definitions of religious experience.”1 I recognize the weight of these arguments, and a full justification for dealing with religious statistics will eventually have to take them into account.

But not yet. I want to argue that historians of American religion have barely begun to take advantage of the quantitative data available to them. While we have to keep the theoretical arguments I alluded to in mind at all times, the pressing issue at the moment is one of basic research. Until we make a fuller attempt at using these quantitative records, we can’t really know whether we will find anything useful from them.

Here is the argument. Mapping and quantitative analysis of historical statistics about U.S. religion have been sorely limited by the kinds of data that have typically been used, namely county-level aggregates of Federal census data, and by the way that mapping has focused on general comparisons rather than the specifics of the data.

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Lacey Wilson based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: Harika Kottakota.