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November 21, 2006

You Forgot Something

The December Atlantic Monthly has a list of the 100 most influential people in American history (subscription required) as determined by a panel of ten eminent historians.

As Ross Douthat acknowledges in his introduction, influence is a "nebulous concept" and any such ranking is not only, as he also acknowledges, "unscientific" but is also bound to be contentious.

Still, it's a very good list with one glaring exception: religion. Five religious figures made the top 100: Jonathan Edwards, Lyman Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe's father), Mormon leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and Mary Baker Eddy. Mary Baker Eddy? Are you freaking kidding me? No disrespect (okay, maybe a little) intended but Christian Science isn't exactly a growth stock in American religion. What's more, it never has been.

Judging by the Atlantic Monthly's list, the panel has never heard of the Second Great Awakening, or if they did, are unaware about its impact on American history. Ditto for revivalists like D.L. Moody in the latter part of the 19th century or Billy Graham in the 20th. Maybe none of these figures deserve a place ahead of George Eastman, Stephen Foster or Albert Einstein (an undoubted giant but he wasn't an American) but they belong on the list a lot more than Beecher or Eddy.

If they open the newspaper or watch the news, the panel can still see how men like Moody and Graham defined modern America and how the legacy has proven to be a lot more enduring than that of many of those on the list. Sounds like "influence" to me.

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