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Turning Points in American Church History

How Pivotal Events Shaped a Nation and a Faith

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"An excellent resource for those eager to learn more about the evolution of American Christianity."--Publishers Weekly

"Well-informed and highly readable."--Christianity Today (5-star review)

American history has profoundly shaped, and been shaped by, Christianity. This engaging introduction provides a brisk and lively yet deeply researched survey of these intertwined forces from the colonial period to the present.

Elesha Coffman tells the story of Christianity in the United States by focusing on 13 key events over four centuries of history. The turning points are as varied as the movements they track, including a naval battle, a revival, a schism, a court case, an outpouring of the Spirit, an act of terrorism, the election of a bishop, and the election of a president. Coffman highlights women and men from a range of traditions and shows how, throughout these events, Christians endeavored to discern what it meant to live faithfully in the diverse and rapidly changing place that became the United States.

This book helps readers understand their own faith and the landscape of American religion. Each chapter includes a hymn, a prayer, relevant historical images, excerpts from primary sources, and resources for further reading. Foreword by Mark A. Noll.

Foreword by Mark A. Noll
1. The Old World Order Upended
The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588
2. The Limits of Religious Freedom
Roger Williams Banished from Massachusetts, 1635
3. A Collision of Cultures
King Philip's War, 1675-76
4. Evangelicalism Sweeps America
George Whitefield Sparks the First Great Awakening, 1740
5. A Faith for Enslaved and Free
First African American Church Founded at Silver Bluff, South Carolina, 1773
6. Far from Rome
John Carroll Elected First Roman Catholic Bishop in the United States, 1789
7. The Benevolent Empire
American Bible Society Founded, 1816
8. Houses Divided
Methodist Church Splits over Slavery, 1844
9. Muscular Missions
Student Volunteer Movement Launched, 1886
10. Los Angeles Fire
Azusa Street Revival Catalyzes Pentecostalism, 1906
11. Science versus Religion?
The Scopes "Monkey" Trial, 1925
12. Civil Rights and Uncivil Religion
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Birmingham, 1963
13. Religion Moves Right
Ronald Reagan Elected President, 1980


"This is a gem of a book. Masterfully conceived and executed, Turning Points in American Church History is smart, lively, and highly instructive. With expert command of the scholarly literature and the voice and heart of a teacher, Elesha Coffman brilliantly distills nearly five centuries of Christian history into thirteen vibrant episodes. Christians and non-Christians, scholars and novices, college and seminary students, church groups and armchair readers will all find the book illuminating, accessible, and engaging. A rare feat."

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, professor of history, Calvin University; New York Times bestselling author of Jesus and John Wayne

"More than a dozen academic surveys of American church history grace the field, and each displays distinctive strengths. Yet Coffman's volume offers the strongest overall combination of focus, clarity, research, conciseness, and wit (yes, wit). I would assign this work before any of the others to virtually any seminary, university, or Christian formation class. It is a truly brilliant contribution."

Grant Wacker, Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Duke Divinity School

"Colonialism, race, religious freedom. Coffman reminds us how much of American history is bound up with the history of Christianity. After reading this accessible work, Christian readers in America will better understand their own story, and those outside the faith and outside the nation may get a better idea of what all the fuss is about when it comes to American Christianity."

Malcolm Foley, special advisor to the president, Baylor University

"If you are looking for a captivating introduction to the story of American Christianity, you would do well to start here. This sweeping, swiftly paced book brims with insights and is guaranteed to leave readers with much to ponder and debate. Coffman not only brings church history to life but also underscores its undeniable, ongoing centrality to United States history writ large."

Heath W. Carter, associate professor of American Christianity, Princeton Theological Seminary

"Elesha Coffman's smart, carefully constructed, and richly informative book shows us the power of a really good question, a gift more valuable than a library full of answers. She has issued the best invitation possible, asking us to think, consider, and then keep on asking good questions about what she aptly calls the 'lumpy and angular' story of American Christianity in all its diversity and depth."

Margaret Bendroth, author of Good and Mad: Mainline Protestant Churchwomen, 1920-1980

"Believe it or not, church history is essential for understanding the origins of the United States and the development of our national culture. Elesha Coffman selects a few well-chosen events from the past five hundred years, each one yielding vivid insights and revealing just how often the church lies at the center of American society. This surprisingly comprehensive series of historical highlights demonstrates the numerous yet profound and often unseen connections between religion, race, gender, and politics. A reliable guide and handy resource, Turning Points in American Church History is not to be missed."

Gerardo Martí, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology, Davidson College; author of American Blindspot

The Author

  1. Elesha J. Coffman

    Elesha J. Coffman

    Elesha J. Coffman (PhD, Duke University) is associate professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She previously served as the editor of Christian History magazine and has taught at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She spent...

    Continue reading about Elesha J. Coffman


"[Coffman] weaves a colorful account of how 13 pivotal events shaped the Christian church in America. . . .  Interspersing the account with a wealth of fascinating visual materials (newspaper clippings, cartoons, photos), Coffman vividly brings church history to life, and pulls no punches in her portrayal of troubling matters. . . . The result is an excellent resource for those eager to learn more about the evolution of American Christianity."

Publishers Weekly

"Histories of American Christianity look very different now than they did 50 years ago. 'Church history," as it was then called, used to focus on individual leaders (mainly 'great men'), major events in denominations, and developments in theology. Its historians were typically trained in seminaries and divinity schools. In the 1960s, historians began writing 'the new social history,' which emphasized the lives of ordinary people in their social settings. This produced a new generation of scholars, largely trained at secular universities, who studied American Christianity as a social and cultural phenomenon. Turning Points in American Church History, Elesha J. Coffman's well-informed and highly readable new book, is a prime example of the insight and energy generated by this new approach."

Michael Hamilton,

Christianity Today (5-star review)