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Theology in America

Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 640
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  • Book Info
    Theology in America
    Book Description:

    This book, the most comprehensive survey of early American Christian theology ever written, encompasses scores of American theological traditions, schools of thought, and thinkers. E. Brooks Holifield examines mainstream Protestant and Catholic traditions as well as those of more marginal groups. He looks closely at the intricacies of American theology from 1636 to 1865 and considers the social and institutional settings for religious thought during this period.

    The book explores a range of themes, including the strand of Christian thought that sought to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity, the place of American theology within the larger European setting, the social location of theology in early America, and the special importance of the Calvinist traditions in the development of American theology. Broad in scope and deep in its insights, this magisterial book acquaints us with the full chorus of voices that contributed to theological conversation in America's early years.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12973-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 Introduction: Theology in America
    (pp. 1-22)

    For more than a century in early colonial America, theologians ruled the realm of ideas. America’s first learned class consisted largely of Protestant clergy, and the relatively small number of pastors who published books of theology, or ‘‘divinity,’’ attained the status of the most learned of the learned. Until almost the dawning of the American Revolution, theologians exercised a singular authority in American print culture. Until late in the eighteenth century, they were, in each decade, the most-published authors in America. Their position of eminence faded after the Revolution, but even throughout the early nineteenth century, theology continued to command...

  5. Part 1. Calvinist Origins

    • 2 The New England Calvinists
      (pp. 25-55)

      Theology as an enterprise of sustained reflection on claims of Christian truth began in America with the Calvinist clergy of seventeenth-century New England. Long before their arrival, European Catholics and English Anglicans had conducted a Christian mission to the New World, but it was the coming of the English Calvinists to New England that produced the first substantial corpus of theological writings—literature that would set the agenda for a debate that continued more than three centuries.

      They thought of theology as a delicate balance of human reasoning and divine biblical revelation, an appeal to ‘‘the evidence of scripture and...

    • 3 Rationalism Resisted
      (pp. 56-78)

      In the late seventeenth century, the New England theologians expanded their scope. The expansion had two sources, the first grounded in the practices of congregations, the second situated within a larger intellectual and cultural world. The congregational stimulus for change came especially through the employment of a religious genre—the catechism—that emphasized system and comprehensiveness. The growing use of the catechism within the churches of a provincial society impelled a number of New England clergy to write catechetical exercises that functioned as theological compendia for a popular audience. The change also reflected the continuing engagement of colonial theology with...

    • 4 Nature, the Supernatural, and Virtue
      (pp. 79-101)

      Calvinists believed that God governed the world through both natural causation and supernatural intervention. Most maintained a sense of balance between grace and nature, revelation and reason, and special providence and natural order. In their soteriology, they emphasized both special grace and the participation of the human will and understanding in the order of salvation. In their view of religious knowledge, they stressed the priority of scriptural revelation but left a considerable space for reason to operate. In their understanding of the cosmos, they found numberless signs of divine providence, but they also agreed that secondary natural causes displayed sufficient...

    • 5 Jonathan Edwards
      (pp. 102-126)

      In typical New England Calvinist fashion, Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) defined theology as ‘‘the doctrine of living to God by Christ.’’ In many other ways, Edwards was a typical New England theologian, a Calvinist concerned about piety in a local congregation. Yet no other theologian in America would equal him in intellectual depth or enduring influence on generations of successors. For a hundred years after his death, competing schools of theology either struggled for his mantle or strove to overcome his logic. He never lacked for critics: Arminians of every variety would continue to view him as a monumental defender...

    • 6 Fragmentation in New England
      (pp. 127-156)

      In 1787 Jonathan Edwards, Jr., divided the clergy of Connecticut into three groups: Edwardeans, Arminians, and ‘‘moderate’’ Calvinists. ‘‘A considerable number,’’ he added, failed to ‘‘think or study enough to have any distinct scheme at all.’’ A similar alignment prevailed throughout New England. Before 1750, most New England theologians would have described themselves as Calvinist. By 1760, some claimed not to be Calvinist, and Calvinists no longer agreed about what Calvinism was. In particular, the disciples of Edwards pressed the logic of his theology so vigorously that critics complained of a ‘‘New Divinity,’’ and by 1770 it had become the...

  6. Part 2. The Baconian Style

    • 7 The Deists
      (pp. 159-172)

      By 1795, when Thomas Paine published the second part of hisAge of Reason,American theologians had a long history of contending with the deist critique of Christianity, but Paine touched a nerve. His book gave deism a new visibility. Neither in Europe nor in America did a unified deist movement espouse a common set of positive teachings, but the thinkers usually designated as deists shared a critical attitude toward traditional Christianity, and their critique is a pivotal part of the history of Christian theology.

      They had an influence on Christian thought in America far out of proportion to their...

    • 8 Evidential Christianity
      (pp. 173-196)

      As the new century approached, Samuel Miller, a Presbyterian minister in New York City, assessed the intellectual achievements of the previous hundred years. His labors reached the public in 1803 asA Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century,a two-volume, encyclopedic summary of progress in every intellectual discipline from anatomy to zoology, not only in the physical sciences but also in philosophy, historiography, linguistics, classical studies, poetry, and fiction. In assessing the status of religion, he concluded that the century had been, from one perspective, an age of infidelity. Never before had revealed religion suffered ‘‘so many deliberate and systematic...

    • 9 Unitarian Virtue
      (pp. 197-217)

      In 1821 William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), the minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, delivered the Dudleian Lectures at Harvard on “The Evidences of Christianity.” He employed the standard internal and external proofs, but he also related them to a distinctive understanding of the purpose of Christianity as “the moral perfection of the human soul.” By incorporating the theme of moral virtue into a lecture on evidential Christianity, Channing expressed three of the defining notes of Unitarian theology: its appeal to the Bible, its respect for reason, and its honoring of virtue. The early Unitarians believed that they...

    • 10 Universal Salvation
      (pp. 218-233)

      In 1829, Hosea Ballou, the pastor of the Second Universalist Society in Boston, issued to the public a series of commendations and reproofs directed at the Unitarians. He commended them for their affirmation of the unity and fatherly character of God, for their rejection of the doctrine of depravity, for their belief that regeneration occurred through gradual growth rather than a radical alteration of character, and for their confidence in the right of the individual to exercise reason in reading scripture. He reproved them for refusing to acknowledge that their principles led necessarily to the doctrine of universal salvation. He...

    • 11 Episcopal Theology and Tradition
      (pp. 234-255)

      The American Episcopalians inherited an Anglican theological tradition that had been divided into party alignments ever since the seventeenth century, and like their English predecessors, the Americans fell into groupings of latitudinarians, evangelicals, and high-church theologians. The latitudinarians sought a reasonable faith that dispensed with doctrinal strictness. The evangelicals espoused views of scripture and religious experience that led them into a closer alliance with other American Protestants. The high-church theologians maintained a veneration of tradition that shaped a distinctive Episcopal agenda. These alignments found expression in Episcopal attitudes toward rationality. Latitudinarians defined themselves by their reasonable approach to religious faith;...

    • 12 Methodist Perfection
      (pp. 256-272)

      As theologians, the early American Methodists traveled light. They thought of themselves as an evangelical wing of the Church of England, and their self-understanding came initially from the Anglican theology of their founder John Wesley as it was filtered through the English Methodist revival. They got their start in America between 1764 and 1766 when Irish lay preachers formed local communities in Maryland and New York, and they remained for almost two decades a lay movement that ignored theological intricacies. Only in 1784 did they become a separate denomination, and even then some Methodist leaders sought reunion with the Church...

    • 13 The Baptists and Calvinist Diversity
      (pp. 273-290)

      Writing in 1860, the Baptist historian David Benedict recalled that at the turn of the nineteenth century the Baptists in America had been a “poor and despised people,” regularly “denounced as the dregs of Christendom.” The early Baptist movement took hold mainly among the uneducated, and many saw little need for educated theologians to guide them. They shared the view of New England’s Isaac Backus that “divine enlightenment” was preferable to “human learning.” John Leland, a native of Massachusetts who spent much of his time in the South campaigning for religious liberty, ridiculed the “learned clergy” and proclaimed that theology...

    • 14 Restoration
      (pp. 291-305)

      The restorationist theologians who called themselves “Christians” or “Disciples” came partly out of Presbyterian traditions and partly from a background in Baptist populism. Like both the early Presbyterians and the Baptists, they desired to restore the Christianity of the first century. They linked this restoration to confidence in the authority of ordinary people. They would reform Christian theology by ridding it of all “human invention,” including formal creeds and confessions, and they would ground their reform in a rational, commonsense reading of the Bible by ordinary Christians untainted by the erudition of a clerical elite. This would return the Church...

    • 15 Roots of Black Theology
      (pp. 306-318)

      To identify a distinct black theological tradition in the early nineteenth century is to move outside the self-understanding of the era’s African-American religious authors. The small company of African-American writers who gained access to printing presses had no conception of themselves as creating a theological tradition outside the boundaries of denominational allegiance. The notion of a specifically black theology during the era is the result of the emergence during the twentieth century of a black theology movement that looked to the past for anticipations of its interests. Yet all traditions are, in part, constructions of successive generations who identify themselves...

    • 16 The Immediacy of Revelation
      (pp. 319-340)

      The populist principle in theology—the claim that the unlearned, even more than the learned, could discern theological truth—often countered traditional theologies. It could sometimes blend with the quite different idea that God continued to provide new truth through immediate revelation to faithful believers or to chosen prophets. From an assertion of private revelation it was easy to argue that the canon of scripture was not closed and that new truths required new canons. In America, this logic of private revelation produced more than one new claim to theological truth. This chapter examines three prominent examples of radical departure...

    • 17 Calvinism Revised
      (pp. 341-369)

      In 1901 the Yale historian Williston Walker took a retrospective glance at theology in New England and concluded that after 1800, if “all shades of Edwardeanism” were taken into view, the Edwardeans took control of the theological conversation among the Calvinists. The result was a flourishing of theological debate in New England, upper New York, and the Ohio Valley. The admirers of Edwards divided into competing factions, but they created an “Edwardean culture” that furnished the dominant vocabulary in Congregational circles, gained a following within Presbyterianism, and attracted support among Baptists. It was a culture of revivalism. Nineteenth-century Edwardeans thought...

    • 18 “True Calvinism” Defended
      (pp. 370-394)

      The Old School Calvinists of the Presbyterian churches positioned themselves as the defenders of the true Calvinist tradition against critics and revisionists on every side. Appealing to the authority of the Bible, the Westminster Confession, and the seventeenth-century Reformed scholastics, they expounded a theology that set them against innovation. But Old School Calvinism was more than merely a repristination of scholastic ideas; it bore the marks of institutional and regional rivalries, social attitudes, party alignments, and changing philosophical assumptions, and as a result it not only differed from the Old Calvinism of eighteenth-century New England but also never itself coalesced...

  7. Part 3. Alternatives to Baconian Reason

    • 19 Lutherans: Reason, Revival, and Confession
      (pp. 397-414)

      When Philip Schaff described the status of Lutheran thought in America in 1855, he had to admit that “the multifarious differences of opinions and schools” within the tradition made it “no easy matter” to define a uniform Lutheran theology. Lutherans were on the verge of division over the normative status of the historic Lutheran confessions. One group hoped to restore the authority of the Augsburg Confession of 1530, in which the European reformers had presented their articles of belief before the Imperial Diet, and of the Book of Concord of 1580, which resolved theological disputes among second-generation Lutherans in Germany....

    • 20 Catholics: Reason and the Church
      (pp. 415-433)

      John Joseph Hughes (1797–1864), who would attain national recognition as the bishop of New York, expressed in 1840 a Catholic judgment about the Protestant quest for reasonableness: “They proclaim that theirs is a Christianity of reason; of this they boast, and let them glory. Ours is a Christianity of faith; ours descends by the teaching of the Church.” Hughes contended that reason was “not competent to decide anything,” whether the mysteries of revelation or even the puzzles of the material world. Yet this was only one side of the complicated Catholic conception of theology and its rationality. Hughes could...

    • 21 The Transcendentalists: Intuition
      (pp. 434-451)

      The transcendentalist controversy began as a dispute over evidential Christianity, pitting defenders of the external evidences against proponents of the internal. When Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed in his Harvard Divinity School Address of 1838 that the word “miracle” had become a “monster,” and that “to aim to convert a man by miracles is a profanation of the soul,” he exposed the depths of feeling that had arisen among some Unitarian intellectuals about the evidences of Christianity. By the time the dispute ended, it had become a debate about the truth and meaning of Christianity itself, but questions about the evidences...

    • 22 Horace Bushnell: Christian Comprehensiveness
      (pp. 452-466)

      The transcendentalists were not alone in finding through intuition an alternative form of evidential Christianity. A few church theologians also felt stirrings of discontent with Baconian induction in theology and an eagerness for other ways of thinking about Christian reasonableness. In 1848, Horace Bushnell (1802–76) concluded that the “theologic method in New England has been essentially rationalistic” because of its bondage to the “logical understanding.” As an alternative, he urged theologians to attend to what he called the “Christian consciousness” and to think of theology as an exercise of the imagination.¹

      Bushnell’s turn to religious experience as a source...

    • 23 The Mercersburg Theology: Communal Reason
      (pp. 467-481)

      In 1840 John Williamson Nevin (1803–86), an Old School Presbyterian graduate of Princeton Seminary, accepted an invitation to teach at the Theological Seminary of the German Reformed Church in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Four years later, he welcomed as his colleague Philip Schaff (1819–93), a native of Switzerland who had taught at the University of Berlin. The two men became the formative figures in what would be known as the Mercersburg theology, a school of thought that positioned itself against many of the assumptions that other American theologians took for granted. For Schaff and Nevin, the “problem of problems” in...

    • 24 Orestes Brownson and Isaac Hecker: Transcendental Catholicism
      (pp. 482-493)

      In 1844 Orestes Brownson joined the Catholic Church. Disillusioned with the romantic individualism of the American transcendentalists, he became convinced that apart from Catholic authority the mind sank in a sea of subjectivity. A similar background in transcendentalism marked the career of Isaac Thomas Hecker, who converted to Catholicism in the same year. They became the two best-known American converts of the decade, Brownson because of his essays inBrownson’s Quarterly Review,Hecker because of his founding of the Paulist fathers. Both exemplified the influence of romantic ideals on Catholic theology in the early nineteenth century. Both also represented the...

    • 25 The Dilemma of Slavery
      (pp. 494-504)

      American Christians believed that the Bible taught them how to attain a saving knowledge of God and live ethically. Theologians had both ideas in mind when they said that theology was practical. Most American Christians assumed, as well, that the same precepts that guided the individual could lead the nation toward righteousness. When the great struggle over slavery in America intensified in the early nineteenth century, it was natural for Americans on both sides of the issue to appeal to the Bible. The proslavery Virginia Baptist Thornton Stringfellow, confident that the Bible would support his position, claimed that everyone “ought...

    • 26 Afterword
      (pp. 505-512)

      In 1882, the liberal Congregationalist Newman Smyth looked back on the “orthodox rationalism” of previous generations of American theologians and decided that it had to be discarded: “Every doctrine is to be thought out afresh and taught in methods better suited to the temper of the times.” The older theologians had divided the mind into faculties of intellect, will, and sensibilities and failed to see that mind was an organic unity. Adhering to conventional proofs for the existence of God, they had also failed to see that God’s self-revelation was the presupposition of any thought about God. Relying on the...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 513-596)
  9. Index
    (pp. 597-617)