Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition


A broad, definitive history of the profound relationship between religion and movements for social change in America.

Though not well-remembered today, the United States has always had an active religious left. In Prophetic Encounters, Dan McKanan shows that encounters between people of differenct perspectives, races, and classes have been transformative for centuries, uniting those whose faith is a source of activist commitment with those whose activism is a source of faith. ...

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Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition

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A broad, definitive history of the profound relationship between religion and movements for social change in America.

Though not well-remembered today, the United States has always had an active religious left. In Prophetic Encounters, Dan McKanan shows that encounters between people of differenct perspectives, races, and classes have been transformative for centuries, uniting those whose faith is a source of activist commitment with those whose activism is a source of faith. Offering a history of the diverse religious dimensions of radical movements from the Revolution to the present day, Prophetic Encounters invites contemporary activists to stand proudly in a tradition of prophetic power. 

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In the current U.S. political environment, it's easy to forget the prominent role that the religious Left has played in our history. McKanan (Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer, Harvard Divinity Sch.; The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation) comprehensively chronicles the history of the "sibling" rivalry and relationship between religion and radicalism in the United States. Covering religious groups as diverse as Protestants, Catholics, humanists, Jews, and neopagans and radical causes such as labor, abolition of slavery, civil rights, women's rights, and opposition to war, McKanan highlights the important religious threads within the fabric of the Left over time. As "siblings," the connection between religion and radicalism has drifted between cooperation and combativeness through the years, but almost never reflects indifference as the two have found themselves intimately linked at many key historical moments. VERDICT A fine storyteller, McKanan may inspire readers to seek out more on many of the topics he covers here. An excellent starting point for those interested in learning about a frequently overlooked aspect of American history.—Brian T. Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews
Examination of religion's place in American political radicalism. McKanan (Theology/Harvard Divinity School; The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Christian Communities Transforming Society, 2008, etc.) explores the role of faith communities in movements ranging from abolitionism to environmentalism. He documents the individuals and organizations across the history of American radicalism, identifying and explaining links that may not be obvious to casual readers. Protestant Christianity necessarily plays the major role here, but McKanan goes to great lengths to discuss the radical aspects of Catholicism, Judaism and even such belief systems as Wicca. He begins with the nation-dividing anti-slavery question, illustrating not only white church involvement in the abolition movement but also the rise of historically black churches during this era. The author moves on to discuss the fight for women's rights, a decades-long process that witnessed a great deal of change in American Christianity. The energy of the suffragist and temperance movements, combined with mini-revolutions within the late-19th-century church, gave way to a new radical emphasis on urban needs and the labor movement. McKanan explores American socialism and especially its tie to immigrant Catholics in the era before the Great Depression and World War II. After the war, American radicals of faith turned their attentions to race relations and the civil-rights movement. With the deflation of mainstream Protestantism, the post-1960s era provides a new and changing template for faith involvement in radical politics. "Radicalism thrives in times of crisis," writes the author. So too does religion. An illuminating book.
From the Publisher
“McKanan challenges simple distinctions between religious and secular activism, showing that religious beliefs and practices have been integral to every movement promoting liberty, equality, and solidarity in the history of this nation. ”—The Tavis Smiley Show

“McKanan’s meticulous and thoughtful scholarship gathers a cloud of witnesses who testify to the success that can be achieved when religion and radical action coalesce.”
—Rebecca Parker, Journal of Unitarian Universalist History

 “Today’s radicals . . . may be inspired and urged onward by exploring the diverse religious traditions of radical movements through history. Prophetic Encounters invites them to follow the path of their predecessors and continue to encounter one another deeply, ‘glimpse the face of the divine, and change the world.’”
—Olga Bonfiglio, America

“McKanan narrates these tumultuous and dizzying developments with great lucidity and sympathy.”—Dissent

“…[H]is packed chronicle stands to be the book-of-first-resort on the intersection of religion and radicalism in America.”—Booklist   

“An illuminating book.”—Kirkus 

“Dan McKanan’s Prophetic Encounters is a revelation of a book. Beautifully written and boldly conceived, it the most accessible and comprehensive study to date of the ‘sibling’ relationship—and rivalry—between radicalism and religion in American history. Shattering the stubborn myth that politics and religion don’t mix, McKanan shows us instead that we can’t possibly understand one without the other. Prophetic Encounters insists that the American radical tradition itself is the strongest sign we have of our stubborn faith in the power of the nation’s founding ideals and the possibility of building a world where they are finally, and fully, realized. This book is a must-read for activists and academics, people of faith and non-believers alike.”—Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Harvard University, co-editor of The Radical Reader: A Documentary Anthology of the American Radical Tradition

“To be a radical means to go to the root of things. The root of American radicalism has been among religious people. Secularists, individualists, please take note! Encounters and dialogue between religiously motivated radicals and more secular activists remain important. America, ‘the nation with the soul of a church,’ cannot be changed by those who ignore or scorn religion. This book proves that in vitalizing stories. They go from our roots as a democratic republic to recent efforts to feed the withering branches of social activism with living waters for all souls. Blessings on Dan McKanan, a storyteller, theologian, and historian who feeds the activist soul!”—John Buehrens, co-author, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion in the 21st Century
“All too few historians have taken genuine heed of the diverse band of prophetic radicals who have stirred and galvanized the American Left. Dan McKanan’s history captures the spirit of that activist tradition. Casting a suitably wide net, he brings together evangelical abolitionists, Protestant progressives, Catholic Leftists, labor-agitating socialists, civil-rights protesters, post-Christian humanists, and Neopagan feminists in a compelling testimony to the nation’s radical inheritance. McKanan offers a prophetic history in sync with—and worthy of—the Left’s deepest aspirations.”—Leigh Eric Schmidt, Washington University, author of Heaven’s Bride

Prophetic Encounters is the most important book on the radical tradition in America to emerge in years. Spanning almost two hundred years of American history, and written with subtlety and grace, it tells the story of the intricate links between the radical reform tradition and the ‘prophetic power’ of religious belief. It is not only a brilliant work of scholarship, but a stirring handbook for present and future radicals—for in Dan McKanan’s deft hands, history becomes the activist’s muse.”John Stauffer, award-winning author of The Black Hearts of Men and Giants and Professor of the History of American Civilization at Harvard 

Prophetic Encounters is an endlessly fascinating history of America’s most creative dissenters. Dan McKanan’s vast knowledge and unflagging enthusiasm make this book essential reading for activists, for scholars, or for anyone interested in the religious dimensions of social change.”—Joseph Kip Kosek

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807013151
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 11/1/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Dan McKanan is the the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, where he has taught since 2008. Previously he served as associate professor and chair of the Theology Department at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University in Minnesota. McKanan is the author of three books on religious social activism in the United States: Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum United States, Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society, and The Catholic Worker after Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation. His writing has also appeared in many publications, including Sojourners, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, America, the Journal of Religion, Harvard Theological Review, and Journal of the American Academy of Religion, as well as in multiple anthologies.

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