26 Mar

Leigh E. Schmidt, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (2005)

Leigh E. Schmidt historicizes the search for spirituality in America by examining leading intellectuals and their religious seeking from the 1830s to 1940s. Restless Souls argues that America’s liberal tradition was central to the development of American spirituality. Liberalism, for Schmidt, “allows an array of movements, within Christianity and beyond it, to be considered under the same umbrella” (11). Liberalism refers to “as much a religious vision of emancipated souls as a political theory of individual rights and civil liberties or an economic calculus of the beneficence of free markets” (11). It grew out of a radical form of Protestant Christianity in the 1820s and eventually moved beyond Protestantism. In the mid-nineteenth century, religious liberalism culminated in: (1) individual aspirations for mystical or religious feeling; (2) the elevation of silence, solitude, and serene meditation; (3) the immanence of the transcendent – in each person and nature; (4) “the cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety as well as unity in diversity”; (5) social salvation through moral reforms; and (6) an emphasis on creative self-expression and adventure seeking. From the 1830s to 1910s, religious liberals helped move “mysticism” and “spirituality” from obscurity to prominence, thought of themselves as “seekers,” located religion’s essence in individuals, and appreciated and appropriated other religious traditions as spiritual resources. Religious liberals of the nineteenth-century were the progenitors of the religious seekers of the 1960s and 1970s.


Restless Souls traces the beginnings of American spirituality to Transcendentalism in the 1830s and 1840s. Transcendentalists’ love of mysticism forged the path for American individuals’ inner search for and experience of the meaning of religion and life. From the 1850s to 1880s, Transcendentalists elevated the importance of the individual in religious and mystical experience through the trope of the hermit. The hermit was transformed in the American imagination from the social outcast to a figure who gloried in solitude and the “oasis of redemptive isolation amid myriad alienations of modernity” (16). Transcendentalists elevated the lone individual to a mystical status.

From 1890 to 1910, American spirituality emphasized the unity of all religions or their common, shared nature. Schmidt traces American spirituality’s focus on unity to its encounter with Asian religions from the Transcendentalists in the 1830s to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. The importance of Asian religions to American spirituality emerged clearly in Americans’ “heightened emphasis on the practice of meditation and the value of the concentrated mind” (16). Spirituality’s focus on religious unity continued after the Parliament at spiritual retreats like Greenacre run by Sarah Farmer. Many Americans attended these retreats, including Society of Friends members. Between 1900 and 1940, Friends revived and populairzed the concept of “seekers,” and applied it to “a universalized way to the modern religious world” (18). The seeker concept remains an important aspect of American spirituality, which flourished through the babyboomer-years and is still evident in recent spiritual upsurges.


Restless Souls is significant for the study of American religions as it departs from several trends in the historiography. First, it situates the study of American “spirituality” or “spiritual, but not religious” in historical terms. Rather than looking to the baby boomers of the 1960s and 1970s as the progenitors of contemporary spirituality, Schmidt searches for the roots of spirituality in American history. Americans have been religious seekers long before the mid-twentieth century. In fact, Schmidt suggests that the religious liberalism of contemporary spirituality emerged in the mid-nineteenth century.

Restless Souls also departs from other studies in its de-emphasis of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, for Schmidt, is not essential to the story of American spirituality. Early American Protestants did not use the term spirituality in the way that later Americans did. Moreover, “the American invention of ‘spirituality’ was, in fair measure, a search for a religious world larger than the British Protestant inheritance” (5). Thus, for Schmidt, “it is not particularly fruitful to ground the history of American ‘spirituality’ in early American Protestantism” (6). Schmidt’s point is well-taken. American spiritualism is not a restoration movement looking back to the Puritans. American spirituality emerged from the development of religious liberalism in the 1820s, but grew beyond evangelicalism.  According to Schmidt, “The point is not to diminish [Protestants’] importance, but to recognize that American ‘spirituality,’ as the term is now broadly configured in the culture, was invented through a gradual disentanglement from these model Protestant practices or, at minimum, through a significant redefinition of them” (5).

Schmidt shows the beginnings of this disentanglement in the chapters on Transcendentalists who desired to move beyond traditional forms of Christianity. But, Schmidt does not draw out this disentanglement in any significant ways throughout the book. American spirituality survives through religious liberalism, which emerges as the driving force of religious progress. I understand historians’ desires to decenter evangelicalism. However, in many ways, Americans’ encounters with evangelicalism, like Asian religions, drove the development of American spirituality. The story of American spirituality must be situated in the longer history of American Protestantism to understand the deep tensions, disgusts, and searches for something else. Religious liberalism alone cannot explain the growth, expansion, and popularity of American spiritualism. Something else seems to loom in this history that bubbled and drove the seeker religion, something behind religious liberalism. Nineteenth-century Americans would have supported this notion of “religious liberalism” and progress. But, as historians look back to the World Parliament of Religions, we see that liberal Protestants were not all that liberal. They recognized white, liberal Protestantism as the pinnacle of religious progress.

Restless Souls also departs from other studies that seek to frame American spirituality by the marketplace. Schmidt moves away from analogies that compare American spirituality to “economic models of free competition, entrepreneurial promotion, and consumer demand” (20). This is not to say that American spirituality has not been influenced by commerce. Commerce “has been a powerful agent in the production and distribution of everything from Bibles to balloons; likewise, inner quests…never transcend the market” (20). Schmidt’s point is that historians need to move beyond “the trope of spiritual shoppers” as if “religious seekers were little more than spiritual gluttons gobbling up anything and everything that they can heap on their plates.” Schmidt’s points is, again, well-taken. However, it may be as equally helpful to historicize the influence of the marketplace on American spirituality. The spirituality that Schmidt describes developed with and within American capitalism, commodification, industrialization, and the printing press. True, scholars must look beyond the tropes. But, we must also historicize the tropes themselves. Rather than brushing off the marketplace, scholars can ask: How did nineteenth-century industrialization and commerce drive American spirituality in ways that the tropes do not fullly develop? Perhaps one reason Schmidt does not want to focus on the marketplace and economy is because he concentrates too heavily on individuals.

American spirituality is a history of individuals. “The spiritual life, as religious romantics imagined it, was nothing if not personal, and any adequate history of these developments has to emerge out of the inner lives of distinct figures” (14). In a history of individuals, religion, and the marketplace, individuals can only be conceptualized as gluttonous consumers. Individuals buys things, they do not work together to create and developed things and ideas. Schmidt’s concentration on individuals does more than obscure the importance of the marketplace for emerging American spirituality. It also reinforces the deceptive notion that American spirituality is ruggedly individual. It is true that religious seekers often looked to their inner selves to find and commune with the divine; to have a mystical experience. But, religious seekers shared these experiences with other people to make sense of them. They formed reading and discussion groups, reform movements, and retreats. They missionized, much like evangelicals, in newspapers, tracts, and at meetings. The hermit was elevated, but even Henry David Thoreau shared his experiences with others. Walden; or, Life in the Woods was meant to show how lone, personal reflection helped individuals understand society. A history of the inner lives of distinct figures reinforces romantics’ notions that the spiritual life was primarily solitary and personal. American spirituality was these things, but it was also social and filled with things, people, and organizations.

Restless Souls is an important contribution to the study of American religions. It historicizes American spirituality, rather than seeing the phenomenon as a mid-twentieth century invention. It moves beyond the trope of the marketplace to explain contemporary American spirituality. It also decentralizes the story of evangelicalism and makes way for the study of non-Protestant religions in American history. Restless Souls appropriately challenges many trends in the historiography of American religions, but it leaves room for further inquiry. Future studies of American spirituality may seek to incorporate more of the tensions between American spirituality and evangelicalism that drove “religious liberalism,” the historical role of the marketplace in American spirituality, and the material, social, and organizational cultures that transformed American spirituality.