Visualizing American Religious History

ARDA Timeline

This summer I continued my work for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). ARDA’s director is Roger Finke, a sociologist specializing in religion. Long before the current interest in digital humanities or the resurrection of quantitative history from the ash heap of econometrics, Roger was challenging religious historians to grapple with hard data. The ARDA website is the repository of a vast amount of information about religion in America, from denominational statistics to survey responses. You can find out which state has the most churches (Texas, of course), look up your denominational family tree,  or, and this is my personal favorite, discover that a belief in bigfoot is positively correlated with not regularly attending church.

The latest additions to the ARDA website are several interactive timelines of American religious history that have been made possible by generous funding from the Lilly Endowment. For the past several summers I have been working on these timelines along with the rest of the ARDA timeline development team. Three summers ago we compiled lists of ~500 events and people from a range of religious traditions. My contribution to the timeline has been to write up descriptions for those events and people. Some articles are merely a few dozen words while others run much longer. Thus far I have written approximately 120 separate entries for the timeline. It’s been an invaluable learning experience, both from witnessing Roger’s ability to harness the creative energies of a small team while running a grant project and in firming up my grasp of American religious history.

I’m proud of the work our team has done and now that the first few timelines have gone public I can show it off. If you have a few moments, try navigating around the Baptist or Catholic timelines. More timelines will be going up over the coming year. Our hope is that these timelines will be a valuable classroom resource for high school and college teachers. It could easily be used as the centerpiece of a homework assignment, something like playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, er, Roger Williams.” Through a web of internal links between people and events, we are also aiming for the kind of serendipitous discoveries you have while clicking your way through wikipedia. Sure, you’ve heard of the First Great Awakening, but did you know about Samson Occom, a Native American Presbyterian who was a leader in the Mohegan tribe, met English hymn-writer John Newton, and founded a new, pan-tribal Indian community that still exists today? Fascinating, right? I hope you have as least as much fun with this timeline as we did!

One thought on “Visualizing American Religious History

  1. You are doing a great job. Its important for Americans to have easy access to this content. For many people its a big step to go out to libraries and read up on their history. By making it easy to access and visually attractive more people will take notice of it.

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