Thursday, September 21, 2006

America's God

[Note: this review was originally published under the title: "God in an American Mold: A Review Essay of Mark Noll's America's God," Fides et Historia 35 (2003): 141-3]

It is hard to imagine the recovery of American evangelical history without Mark Noll. Since the 1970s, Noll and his colleagues at Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals have produced a multitude of conference collections, exploring the vast and neglected reaches of American evangelicalism, as well as several significant monographs that have impacted the study of religion within the academy. Noll himself has authored a widely used text book on American Christianity as well as notable works on biblical study in the American academy, Christianity and the American revolution, and the intellectual impact of Princeton College. It is no stretch to claim that the current scholarly agenda in the field of American religious history has been guided, if not set, by Noll and his fellow workers.

In America’s God, Noll offers a synthetic history in the grand old style. Based on a wide reading of both primary and secondary literature, Noll tells the story of theology in America from 1740 to 1865, particularly highlighting a synthesis that scholars have come to take for granted—the synthesis of classical republicanism, evangelical Christianity, and commonsense moral philosophy. Focusing on intellectual elites, Noll’s story covers much familiar ground—the towering intellect of Jonathan Edwards, the rise of the New England Theology in his train, the opposition of the Princetonians, the bugaboo of Charles Finney, and the transformation of America into a “Christian nation” in the early republic period. However, Noll’s burden is to demonstrate that evangelical theology’s ascendance in the early nineteenth century was by no means a historical fait accompli; rather, evangelical theology moved to a position of cultural hegemony by accomplishing several unexpected alliances forged during the heat of the American revolution, namely, allying republicanism and moral philosophy, apparently antagonistic intellectual commitments, with Christian theology.

One could read Noll’s story as the intellectual counterpart to social and cultural histories such as Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross (1997) and Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity (1989). America’s God focuses on how evangelicals moved from a position of other-worldliness to this-worldliness, or perhaps better, cultural antagonism to cultural adaptation and transformation. As a result, it cannot help but feel like a declension story, but one with an ironic twist: “The pietistic instincts of disestablishmentarian evangelicals put them in the position of seeking the transformation of persons and society through revival. Increasingly in the early years of the nineteenth century, these evangelicals were successful beyond hope. Yet by limiting the goals of their activity, the evangelicals also increased the likelihood that dimensions of society they now neglected would influence them unself-consciously” (224). Evangelicals were successful in their cultural transformation during the early republic period, but the price they paid would cost them dearly—the compromise with the intellectual forces that granted them great success would in turn undermine religion after the Civil War.

Read another way, Noll’s book could be seen as the nineteenth century version of the argument that D. G. Hart made in The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (2002). Both Noll and Hart argue that pietism, which drove evangelicals to tear down the walls between the sacred and the secular and to seek the Christian transformation of American civilization, was the “American way of faith.” While this pietism was incredibly successful by appealing to individual consciences through anti-authoritarian rhetoric and appeals to “Bible-onlyism” to forge a “Christian America” and build mainstream Protestant churches, in the end, such pietism failed to meet adequately the challenge of the nation’s most weighty crisis, the Civil War. Clearly, in Noll’s telling, this failure was colossal—by failing to provide a biblically-nuanced answer to the problem of slavery and by allowing itself to be co-opted in a bloody war against one’s brothers, evangelical theology in both the North and South demonstrated why the synthesis that propelled it to intellectual prominence was doomed to collapse: “The key moves in the creation of evangelical America were also the key moves that created secular America. If in a great surge of evangelization and moral reform, American Protestants almost converted the nation, so too did the nation mold the Christian gospel in the contours of its own shape” (443).

While America’s God presents a powerful argument, one cannot help but wonder about some aspects of Noll’s presentation. Two examples will suffice. First, Noll presents American Methodists as the counterpoint to the Americanization that he faults in the theology of (mainly, northern) Congregationalists and Presbyterians. In doing so, Noll appears to adopt a Troeltsch-like movement from sect to church—when American Methodists were a sect, they proclaimed an other-worldly gospel, one that “was more shaping, than being shaped by,” local realities and cultural mores (341). But by the 1830s, the Methodists had adopted by “osmosis” the evangelical synthesis and became the fastest-growing church in America, caring more for civilization-building than disciple-making. However, using Methodism as a counterpoint to “American” theology strikes one as odd, and Noll himself wrestles with this in his text. He finds it “curious” that northern Calvinists by “their adjustment to American ideologies” were sounding just like Methodists, who allegedly “owed almost nothing to distinctly American ideologies” (341).

How did this happen? Noll does not explain this nor does he opine on how “the Methodist transformation of American religion” happened (170). Surely, there is some connection between Methodistic Arminianism and the intellectual forces Noll believes to be transforming northern Calvinists—appeals to the Bible alone read by common sense alone, and offers of salvation for all through an universal atonement and prevenient grace. And that connection probably had something to do with the way Methodists appealed to the “popular mind” of the new republic; how else can one explain that Methodist church membership tripled in the first decade of the nineteenth century and then doubled every decade after that until the Civil War (169)? Rather than being a counterpoint to American theology, Methodist theology was the most American of the bunch, offering in a non-technical way the same intellectual commitments that elites were discussing in the rarefied air of theological journals.

Second, by focusing on the problem of slavery and the Civil War as the cause of “exhaustion” for the synthesis of American theology, Noll may slight other massive intellectual sea-changes that he himself has recognized in other venues. For example, Charles Darwin receives relatively short shrift in this account, as does the rise of intellectual currents such as historicism and positivism. After all, ten short years after the end of the Civil War, Presbyterian minister David Swing was tried on charges of heresy for articulating positions indebted to these new intellectual movements. And these movements challenged evangelicals directly at the same weakness that Noll believes to have been exposed during the conflict over slavery—“the Reformed, literal hermeneutic.” Likewise, the importance of professionalism, which taking hold before the war, increased geometrically after the war, vaulting doctors, lawyers, and business men to new prominence over theologians and ministers, leading to a decline in theology’s intellectual prestige. To be sure, the Civil War was consequential as a social and cultural transformative catalyst. Still, there were other intellectual trends that led to the break-up of the American theology in postbellum America, ones that Noll would have done well to incorporate into this synthetic study.

All that being said, America’s God is a Sydney Ahlstrom-like work: a rich, vitally important synthesis with riches for specialists and generalists alike. It will certainly be required reading in every survey course of American religious history. And it demands a careful and attentive study by anyone who desires to understand the movements of Protestant theology and their contribution to antebellum America.

1 comment:

David Shedden said...

Thanks for this, Sean. I'm about to start working on the period 1840ish to 1920s in American Protestant history. I'm going to try and look at some of the theological issues around the civil war - but reading and writing on W.G.T. Shedd too.