World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


Stark, Rodney. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). 496 pp, $45.00 Cloth..

It is rather cliché to say that ideas have consequences. It is another thing to argue that monotheistic ideas about God have positive and meaningful (and sometimes condemnable) consequences. Rodney Stark does just this in For the Glory of God, the second of a two-volume study of monotheism and its historical consequences. In short, Stark carefully argues that conceptions of and about God have profoundly shaped important moments in western history, all with a particular connection to the sixteenth century: the Protestant Reformation, the rise of science, the witch hunts, and abolitionism. 1
     Stark's first chapter focuses on the span of western religious history through the sixteenth century and locates the germ of various sects and the two reformations (Protestant and Catholic) within monotheism itself. Here Stark engagingly suggests that within religious organizations there resides pluralism, in essence the religious rhythms of supply and demand, that creates space for alternative versions of expressed belief. This explains, for instance, why heretical and sectarian groups emerged and why under considerable stress and tension religious tolerance often disappeared. This model, Stark attentively explains, gives meaning to the "orthodoxy" and "heresy" of western Christianity from the early church to the era of reformations. 2
     Stark's chapter on science makes the audacious yet intelligently supported claim that science arose because Christianity believed a rational God created an orderly universe with "immutable principles" (157). Humans, in turn, possess the rational faculties to observe and explain such principles. In other words, Stark squelches the popular idea that science and religion are mutually exclusive. Stark marshals quotes from church fathers like Tertullian and Augustine to demonstrate that in previous eras science bore the visible imprint of faith. The nexus of theology and philosophy, Stark effectively suggests, fostered the scholastic desire to contemplate how and why the natural world functions as it does. 3
     In a chapter on witchcraft Stark dismantles eight "myths" about the infamous trials, including their attribution to sexism, to mental illness, and to the vaguely broad claim of "social change" (214), and instead argues that witchcraft trials occurred because church leaders followed the rational and logical conclusions of their religious propositions. Thus, Stark thoughtfully observes, witchcraft trials occurred most prominently in places like Spain, Germany, England, Sweden, Norway, and even Iceland because in each of these countries significant effort was put forth to combat magic, because there existed significant conflict between competing religious groups that resulted in intolerance for nonconformity, and because local authorities addressed witchcraft, often away from national or ecclesiastical eyes. 4
     Stark's discussion of abolitionism counters the assertion that religious argument and meaning did not frame antislavery movements. Stark convincingly claims abolitionism flourished when a feeling of moral responsibility fostered by religious communities shaped societal sentiment. Furthermore, Stark helpfully reminds readers that religious images infused abolitionist discourse. 5
      How does one evaluate Stark's provocative claim that monotheism – specifically Christianity – inspired some of western history's most admirable achievements (and deplorable failures)? First, Stark has performed a great service to historians – as many interdisciplinary ventures can do – by canvassing the massive body of secondary literature on a number of important subjects and offering perceptive and insightful observations. This kind of exhaustive analysis is surely commendable. Second, Stark intelligently dismantles a number of historical inaccuracies (e.g., reform movements sparked by lower-class discontent and resistance). Third, Stark offers a new narrative of western history borne of an historical-sociological consciousness, shaped by cogent analysis, replete with rigorous interdisciplinarity, and full of questions and perspectives with which future discussions of western history (and world history) must grapple. 6
In the introduction and in a postscript Stark laments that many modern academics unfairly marginalize religion as an institution incapable of making a meaningful impact on society and takes his fellow sociologists to task – notably Emile Durkheim – for replacing the "Gods" of supernatural religions with emphases on earthbound rites and rituals. As Stark makes clear, he wrote One True God (Princeton University Press, 2001) and For the Glory of God to balance these claims and demonstrates that monotheistic faith had both meaningful and regrettable effects on western society. 7
Though One True God provides a broad and helpful introduction to monotheism as history, For the Glory of God stands on its own. My own AP European history students, for example, read a short section on witchcraft and instructively compared Stark's claims about the frequency and severity of punishment for witchcraft with several widely-used textbooks. In addition, energetic undergraduates might profit from reading sections of the book, and graduate students will not only find Stark's work challenging and engaging, but will find a shining example of interdisciplinary history. 8
Phillip Luke Sinitiere
Second Baptist School (Houston)
University of Houston (History)

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use