The 50 Most Influential Religious Figures in American History

Joe Carter has published his list of the 50 Most Influential Religious Figures in American History. I won’t reprint the list here, but it’s an interesting list. Unfortunately, he gives the list in alphabetical order. I would have liked to see him try to rank these people in order of influence/significance. That’s always an impossible task, but it’s fun to watch people try.

I did notice some surprising omissions.

  • American liberal theology was noticeably underrepresented. What about William Ellery Channing, Harry Ward Beecher, and Harry Emerson Fosdick?
  • And, since we’re talking about American religiosity in general, where are the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?
  • What about U.S. Hispanic religious leaders? Certainly figures like Padre Martinez or Virgilio Elizondo are worthy of consideration.
  • And, of course, let’s not forget Gary Larson. I think my generation learned more about religion from the Far Side cartoons than any of the above combined.

Is there anyone that you would want to see included in a list like this?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 20, 2010, in Historical Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Aimee Semple McPherson. Malcolm X.

  2. Oh. And George Whitfield (not technically an American, but then he ministered before there was technically an America).

    If we were going to rank them it would have to be a toss-up between MLK Jr., Jonathan Edwards, and Finney for top-spot, I think.

    • His primary criterion was that they had to be born in America or live and work here for most of their life. That’s probably not the best way to determine if someone’s an influential American religious figure, but I’m sure he was trying to avoid deciding how much they had to do here to qualify. So, Whitefield wouldn’t fit his criteria. Otherwise, I’m sure he would have ben included.

      It’s hard to argue with any of those for the top spot. I’d probably also argue that Billy Graham should be considered for top honors, though it’s hard to measure yet how long-lasting his impact will be compared to those others.

  3. I think you could argue, though, that there would not be a Billy Graham w/o a Charles Finney, and that Graham’s ministry, while more extensive, is still derivative of Finney. So, I would have Graham below CGF, no matter what (hence BG could never be #1 on my list).

    • That’s true. But it does raise the interesting question of influence. If I influence someone who goes on to influence millions of people, does that make me more influential than he or she is? Should we say that Staupitz was more influential than Luther just because Luther probably wouldn’t have gone on to have the influence that he did without Staupitz? (Depending, of course, on how you understand their relationship. But that’s a question for another post.) Still, I’d be inclined to agree with you at this point. If Billy Graham’s influence holds up for another generation or so, then maybe he’s worth considering for the top spot.

  4. I don’t even know if BG would claim CGF as an influence, but CGF helped make what BG plausible in the first place (i.e. revivalism), as well as having a strong imprint on the shape of American history (religious and otherwise), in his own right.

    BG, in terms of the extent of his influence, is international, not just domestic. In that regard, he trumps all of these guys, and in terms of an American figure who had the most influence beyond America, BG is the man…unless maybe you put Bill Bright in there (who was also egregiously overlooked on the list as well).

  5. Let me just point out that W.J. Seymour’s leadership in the Azusa Street revival–for better or for worse–has led to the second largest and the quickest growing expression of Christianity in the whole world–Pentecostalism. Billy Graham would be up there as well since he has had a global impact in “Americanizing” Christian ministry. Joseph Smith is a pretty big deal as well since Mormonism is one of the quicker growing religions.

    • Smith is on the list. I’m away from my computer right now, so I can’t check on Seymour. If he’s not there. He should be.

      I made a tongue-in-cheek comment about Gary Larson in the post. But now I’m wondering if there are any pop culture figures that we wouldn’t normally think of as religious figures who should be on the list. Does anyone come to mind?

  6. Seymour is on the list as well.

  7. I found the order of the list to be surprising. Is the list in a particular order (1 being most influential) or is it simply a list of 50? I find Ann Lee to be very surprising because the Shakers movement didn’t last very long. That’s what a strong belief in lifetime celibacy will do to your people/movement.

    And what about Pheobe Palmer and the holiness movement?

    • I believe the list is just in alphabetical order (last name). So, it doesn’t reflect any particular order of significance.

      I agree that Ann Lee is an odd choice. In the comments on the post, Carter defended this because of the influence that the Shakers in general had on technology, art, and culture in general. But, their overall religious influence was pretty limited.

      Phoebe Palmer is a great suggestion. I’m not sure why she wouldn’t have been included on the original list.

  1. Pingback: More on Influential Figures in American Religious History « scientia et sapientia

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