During the past decade a young (at five years my junior, he’s obviously “young”) Wheaton College professor, Mark Noll, has emerged as one of the nation’s finest evangelical church historians. He’s confirmed that standing with the recent publication of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1992), a readable, up-to-date survey, a textbook which should enjoy a wider audience than the colleges and seminaries which offer courses on American church history.
Noll tells an important story, a story largely untold in the typical textbooks used in high schools and colleges in America–where more space is sometimes devoted to Native American religious practices than to Christian communities, where the Pilgrims and Puritans may be mentioned without a word concerning their religious faith and godly concerns. Just as the millions of church-going Americans rarely appear in today’s media, so earlier church-goers rarely appear on the pages of authorized school textbooks. Censorship is alive and well in academia!
But Christians, at least, should know some truths about their heritage. For. unfortunately, when they’re told about this nation’s religious background in church they’re too often fed some patriotic pablum, filled with ideologically-fueled examples which distort the historical record. Just as academic historians err by omitting the truth, Christian propagandists (seeking to make this nation a thoroughly “Christian” nation) err by over-stating it.
True, the United States is, in some ways, a “Christian” country. But, truth to tell, in perhaps more ways, the United States has failed to really be Christian. To get at the real story, we need historians like Noll to clear the record!
Noll divides his study, the “plot” of which follows “the rise and decline of Protestant dominance in the United States” (p. 4) into five parts: 1) “Beginnings”–seventeenth century transplants of
European churches; 2) “Americanization”–the eighteenth century emergence of a distinctively American church, shaped by the Great Awakening and War for Independence; 3) The “Protestant Century”–the nineteenth century, distinguished by the Second Great Awakening’s evangelicalism; 4) The “Emergence of Religious Pluralism”–late nineteenth and early twentieth century developments responding to immigration, industrialism, and intellectual challenges such as Darwinism and biblical criticism; and 5) “Wilderness Once Again?”–the turbulent twentieth century’s dislocating impact on a Protestant hegemony which seemed secure a century ago.
Each chapter begins with a religious song of the era to be considered–a nice touch which gives one a feeling for the period. The author (with his publisher’s assistance) includes ample pictures, maps, etc., which add to the book’s readability and comprehension. Brief bibliographical entries at the end of each chapter point to the latest research available to scholars. For years I’ve used Ahlstrom’s monumental study in my course on American Christianity, but it’s now dated and is always something of a hurdle (1000 pages!) for students. Noll’s new book would now be my choice for that course.
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Prior to publishing his general survey, Noll established himself as a reputable scholar by publishing some thoughtful monographs. In 1986 he published Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers), “a historical essay on evangelical interaction with critical Bible scholarship in America over roughly the last century” (p. 1).
As Kent Harold Richards notes, in his introduction to this volume, “Although the Bible emerged from a world distant in time and ethos, it has no rival as a founding document that shapes life in North America” (p. xii). It has fueled our cultural and political, as well as religious, life as a people. So how we understand the Scripture and its inspiration has truly infinite ramifications.
Throughout most of Church history, Christians generally took the Bible as God’s Word, fully inspired, historically accurate, clearly understandable in plain propositional language. Early in the 19th century, however, especially in German universities under Hegel’s historicizing influence, the Bible came under critical scrutiny and attack.
Scholarly battles in Europe, however, hardly intruded into the American churches until well after the Civil War. Thereafter, a few American academicians, often trained in German universities, secured positions in prestigious schools (such as New York’s Union Seminary, or Cincinnati’s Lane Theological Seminary), and began espousing such notions as the multiple authorship of the Pentateuch and the post-apostolic composition of many New Testament documents.
Such critical positions, however, elicited sturdy resistance from some of the finest biblical scholars in this country, several of whom were quartered in the halls of Princeton Theological Seminary. As Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield announced: “‘The historical faith of the Church has always been, that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained and interpreted in their natural and intended sense'” (p. 19).
In Noll’s judgment, conservatives such as Hodge and Warfield possessed what too many of their successors have lacked: scholarly depth and credibility. Certainly they brought to their task firm presuppositions, as do all scholars. But they considered themselves “critical” scholars, open to new evidence, willing to change their minds, able to listen to the European critics’ arguments. Thus, in doing battle for the Word, they took to the field adequately prepared and capably armed, accounting themselves worthy knights of the faith, successfully “maintaining the positions articulated in this exchange, and in maintaining them with academic rigor” (p. 27).
The first third of the 20th century, however, witnessed the “decline” of such conservative scholarship. As the field of biblical study became increasingly professionalized, as secularizing universities rather than the seminaries became intellectually dominant in this nation, scholars holding to a high view of Scripture were increasingly ignored as refugees in out-moded, second-rate institutions.
Complicating the picture, many conservatives, determined at all costs to oppose “modernism,” retreated into the safe bastion of Fundamentalism. Talking largely to themselves, they often failed to read and fully understand their “liberal” or “modernist” foes. Failing to meet them on their own ground, they failed to find a hearing in the academy.
Before the 1910-1915 publication of The Fundamentals, a 12-volume series of slender treatises, “there was no fundamentalist movement” (p. 38), though, of course, there had always been men of “fundamentalist” conviction. Following WWI, however, the modernist/fundamentalist controversy splintered the Protestant community. University-housed intellectuals, joined by mainline denomination’s seminary professors and their growing body of graduates, largely ignored the arguments set forth in The Fundamentals, even though some of them were composed by first-rate thinkers such as J.G. Machen, one of the refugees from Princeton who helped launch Westminister Theological Seminary. Meanwhile, the common man, represented by believers such as William Jennings Bryan, the “sub-culture of Fundamentalism” as it’s sometimes called, pastors (often without seminary training) and laymen alike, largely disdained the academic world and its “higher criticism” of the Bible. The King James Bible, taken as verbally inspired and inerrant in every detail, read without concern for composition or literary genre, sufficed for salvation and daily guidance.
An interesting “alternative” to the American approach developed in England, 1860-1937, where evangelical Anglicans ably considered continental scholarship without surrendering their confidence in supernaturalism and the Bible’s full inspiration. Three of England’s finest scholars, “The Cambridge Triumvirate” of Fenton A.J. Hort, B.F. Westcott, and J.B. Lightfoot, renowned for their piety as well as their intelligence, ably defended the integrity of God’s Word. They helped prepare a scholarly edition of the New Testament and effectively defused the radical arguments of New Testament critics.
In the United States, beginning in about 1935, evangelical scholars began to “return” to the task of scholarly scriptural study. “Neo-Evangelicals” such as Harold John Ockenga and Carl F.H. Henry, abandoning the insularity of Fundamentalism, insisted on engaging the academic world. Scholarly organizations, such as The Evangelical Theological Society and The Wesleyan Theological Society, encouraged conservative Christians to do serious academic work.
The result of their labors, Noll thinks, is significant. Evangelical colleges now encourage first-rate biblical scholarship, prestigious universities now employ evangelical scholars, and evangelical publishers now publish top-of-the-line biblical commentaries.
Despite certain successes, however, there are “contemporary uncertainties.” Not all evangelicals appreciate the scholarly work of “evangelical” professors, whose treatment of Scripture violates various Fundamentalists’ feelings. Noll fears that “Believing criticism . . . may require a breadth of tradition (to both value and restrain creative scholars), a stability of perspective (to provide revisionist proposals fair, but tough-minded assessment), and a strength of community (to adjust corporately to change), which American evangelicalism does not possess” (p. 167).
However great the difficulty, however, Noll clearly believes we need a “believing criticism,” a faithful commitment to the Bible which allows us to openly deal with questions concerning its authorship, transmission, interpretation, etc. Though I share some of Noll’s enthusiasm for evangelical scholarship, I’m less sanguine concerning its significance. There’s an implied assumption which Noll, in company with many academicians, makes: the Scripture is, ultimately, best interpreted by scholars. In my opinion, scholars’ views deserve consideration, but the tested traditions (often rooted more in the judgment of saints and martyrs than scholars) of the Church must guide us in evaluating them.
However one judges Noll’s assumptions and conclusions, this book provides much which illuminates the history of Christianity in America. The conflict (basic to the history of the Church of the Nazarene) between Fundamentalism’s commitment to inerrancy and other Christians’ adherence to “plenary inspiration” endures. The anti-intellectualism of many American evangelicals routinely surfaces in cultural and political as well as theological concerns. To understand ourselves, as American evangelicals, reading Noll’s work proves useful.
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Four years ago Noll addressed a different topic: One Nation Under God? Christian Faith and Political Action in America (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, c. 1988). In part he provides valuable historical vignettes, indicating the delicate relationship between politics and religion in this country. In part he voices his concern for any “civil religion” which reduces historical orthodoxy to some hybrid of patriotic sentimentality. Conjoined, both of Noll’s concerns, provide valuable insight into the nature of our nation.
His thesis is this: “. . . Christian values have often served to strengthen this country. At the same time, the history of America also shows that Christian values to the most good for a nation when believers remember the difference between God’s kingdom and their country, and also recall that only the Kingdom is forever” (p. ix).
In Part One, “Perspective,” Noll wonders, first, if it’s legitimate to consider America a Christian nation and, second, if the Reformed tradition is the main “Christian” strand in our history.
To answer the first question, as to whether there is, or ever has been, a “Christian America,” he says “No and Yes.” Our nation’s history is a mixed bag! Certainly it has secular as well as sacred aspects, irreligious as well as religious leaders. Anyone who blandly asserts that America is fundamentally Christian–or non-Christian, for that matter–just hasn’t studied the sources!
To the second question, Noll argues that Colonial America’s Christian tradition was thoroughly Reformed. Colonists came largely from lands of the Calvinist (not Lutheran) Reformation, with even Anglicans importing and implanting a highly Reformed perspective. Things changed somewhat in the Revolutionary era, however, for “The War for American Independence, and even more ‘the democratization of the mind’ that accompanied it, let to a rapid Americanization of the nation’s religion” (p. 23). Distinctive Reformed doctrines, such as predestination, were modified if not rejected as revivalistic Methodists and Free Will Baptists won the battle for men’s hearts and minds, especially on the frontier. Roman Catholic immigrants further complicated the American mix in the 19th century.
Yet, Noll argues, showing (I think) his own theological bias, the Reformed perspective has endured and is, in fact, the strongest Christian tradition in American history. Here he joins those who see a lasting imprint of Puritan thought on the American mind. To a degree I differ: I would argue that by the Civil War the Reformed tradition remained entrenched mainly in universities such as Princeton and population pockets in the East and South. But the revivalists’ successes made this nation more Arminian than Calvinistic by 1850 if not before.
The second, and most valuable, part of this book, “history,” is composed of six chapters, each focused upon a significant event, person, or movement in this nation’s history.
First, Noll studies the “Reformed Politics” of the American Revolution. Considerable pulpit rhetoric preceded the revolution; many prominent Christians espoused revolutionary themes. A German mercenary wrote: “Call this war . . . by whatever name you may, only call it not an American Rebellion, it is nothing more or less than an Irish-Scotch Presbyterian Rebellion” (p. 45).
Ironically, Noll thinks, Christian churches suffered considerable losses during and after the very Revolution they championed. The Enlightenment-birthed forces of “republicanism” which they supported often turned against them, showing their true irreligious colors.
The U.S. Constitution, though written by men such as Madison and Hamilton, lacking the enthusiastic Christian support and involvement given the Revolution, bore more favorable results! The Constitution, with its thoroughly realistic understanding of man (a sinner needing restraint and guidance), more nearly squares with Christian theology than the utopian rhetoric of the Revolution. Whether there is a cause-effect relationship or not, “it does seem as if the vitality of Christianity in America declined during the Revolutionary period and began to revive during the 1790’s” (p. 70).
Noll concludes: “Such a conclusion brings us back to the apparent paradox. When Christian involvement was intense–during the Revolution–Christianity suffered. When Christian involvement was much less intense–during the writing of the Constitution–the results were better for the faith” (p. 72). A word to the wise, perhaps, is sufficient! In fact much of this book argues that Christians usually fail when they try to accomplish spiritual aims through political means.
The next two chapters focus on Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Devout fears of Jefferson never materialized. Though hardly orthodox in his practice, Lincoln proved to be one of this nation’s most thoroughly “Christian” presidents. Noll’s discussion of these two men, their religious beliefs and public policies, is most instructive.
Then he turns to two great reform movements, abolition and prohibition, showing how Christians became involved and what price they paid for such involvement. Again, though Noll recognizes the worthy aims of reformers, he wonders if the churches suffered as much as they gained by getting too involved in the political arena.
In the book’s final section, “principles,” Noll sums up his case: “As a general rule, Christian politics has been most beneficial–in terms both of actual political influence and of fidelity to the Christian faith–at the level of general conviction. It has done most poorly–again in terms of both politics and Christianity–in the effort to create complete political parties around an individual or a set of Christian convictions” (p. 146).
Noll’s distaste for any form of “civil religion” pervades these pages. He certainly constructs a persuasive case to validate his conviction. We who seek to address the political realm with Christian convictions need to study such treatises!
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Finally, Noll and Roger Lundin edited a fine anthology, Voices from the Heart: Four Centuries of American Piety (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1987). The editors argue that “piety” is a good word, a strong word, a word needing rehabilitation. To do so, we must make it a public as well as a private quality of spiritual commitment and engagement.
“Piety” thus defined characterized the lives of diverse Americans. So this volume includes excerpts from John Winthrop to John Updike, excerpts a letter from Jean de Brebeuf (a Jesuit missionary in New France) as well as Flannery O’Connor, reprints parts of speeches of Abraham Lincoln (“Second Inaugural”) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I Have a Dream”), and cites journals from both obscure figures like Esther Edwards Burr and celebrities such as Henri Nouwen.
There are 55 selections, each carefully introduced by the editors. The selections are brief, interesting, quotable. For those of us looking for illustrations, this is a valuable source. It would serve well as a devotional work. It’s also just a fine collection of American history documents–the kind not typically found in public libraries!