Book Review: The Soul of the American University Revisited, From Protestant to Postsecular

The Soul of the American University Revisited

From Protestant to Postsecular

George M. Marsden

Oxford University Press, 2021 (ISBN: 9780197607244, 477pp, £81)

George Marsden’s 1994 Soul of the American University was a landmark volume documenting and assessing the religious character of North American colleges. A generation later, and the same author now offers his updated and revised take on the same subject. Although much material remains similar, the whole work has been streamlined and refined with the benefit of Marsden’s mature thought. Moreover, the new challenge of the ‘postsecular’ environment has prompted important re-evaluations.

Marsden is deft in his use of micro-historical episodes to expose cultural phenomena and trends. Three opening vignettes from Yale in the 1950s, 1890s, and 1880s whet the reader’s appetite for the discourse which follows. We are then treated to a work which few other living writers could achieve, marrying as it does Marsden’s depth of insight on topics as diverse as scholasticism, Puritanism, colonial and academic government, and postmodernism. The selection of Yale in particular as an indicant of American scholarly spirit is judicious given its role with Harvard in setting the tone of university life on the continent, and in the influential early tensions between New and Old Lights. 

The significance for the world in general of intellectual life in the American colonies has been previously remarked upon in this column (see EC8084). Insofar as the colleges have provided much of the firepower behind this life, Marsden’s masterful exposition of their evolving spiritual character is a contribution of the first importance. The sustained easy readability of the text further reflects on the success of this revision.

Edward Keene, Little Shelford