“People see religion as a personal matter. They think it’s about feeling and experience more than it is about dogma or doctrine or ritual. They don’t think it takes place inside institutions. They think it takes place in the human heart. How does that idea make its way into contemporary American consciousness? I think one big way is through the books that were published by Exman.”
(RNS)—Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero doesn’t believe in fate. Or in divine providence.
But about a decade ago, the universe tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a job to do.
Prothero, who lives on Cape Cod, was at a Labor Day party when Judy Kaess, who lived nearby, asked him a favor. She’d inherited some old religion books from her father and wondered if he’d come by and look at them. By the time he’d arrived at Kaess’ house a few months later, she’d passed away of cancer. But her husband welcomed Prothero and led him to the family’s library.
Prothero thought he spend an hour looking at the books.
Ten years, later he’s still at it.
Those books—from legendary authors like Harry Emerson Fosdick, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Albert Schweitzer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous—traced a history of American religion from the heyday of mainline Protestantism to the rise of the spiritual but not religious. The man who connected them all together was Eugene Exman, Kaess’ father and the longtime religion editor for Harper & Row, who had published them all.
Prothero knew he was on to something when he opened up a copy of “Strive Toward Freedom,” King’s 1958 account of the Montgomery bus boycott, and found a handwritten note from King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, thanking Exman for his help with the book. Then he found a similar note in a first edition of the Big Book of AA, this time from Wilson to Exman.
“Who is this guy that I’ve never heard of,” Prothero recalled thinking at the time.
That question sent Prothero on a search for Exman’s story and how the editor’s spiritual quest and knack for finding big ideas helped reshape religious publishing and American spirituality. He found the answers in a treasure trove of the Exman’s papers—stored in the family’s barn and file cabinets—including Christmas cards from Wilson and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr, which Prothero rescued from a trash bag bound for the dump.
Those documents detailed Exman’s publishing career and his spiritual quests—which ranged from a boyhood encounter with God that haunted his life, to founding an ill-fated spiritual commune, to traveling to Africa to visit Schweitzer, to dropping LSD. Prothero tells that story in “God: The Bestseller,” due out March 14 from Harper One.
Prothero spoke with Religion News Service recently about the new book. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The book opens with the story of visiting the home of a neighbor and discovering what her father had left behind. When did you realize there was a book here?
When I first visited the house, I didn’t know why I was there. Usually, in a case like this, people want me to tell them what a collection of books like this is worth—and how to get rid of it. But Walter said, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want to sell the books. We want to give the books away.’ He said, ‘My wife has passed away recently. I’m worried that if I die, this stuff’s just going to end up in a yard sale.’
I started cataloging the books, and as I’m doing that, Walter keeps showing up with boxes, and I keep going through them. I got really curious.
It didn’t take long before I thought somebody’s got to write a book. And obviously, it was me. This was too perfect. I’m not really a providential or even a synchronicity person, but it felt kind of uncanny.