Theology in the United States

By the era of the American Revolution, populist theological activity and a growing concern for scientific plausibility were assuming new importance. Both emphases reflected adjustment to the swiftly changing circumstances that created the new United States and then led to the construction of a democratic social order. Without a national state church, with few widely revered theological traditions, with no centralized scheme of national education, with all of the denominations compelled to enter into vigorous popular competition for adherents, with new modes of communication implemented by ordinary people, and with at least some wealth available for establishing colleges, publishing houses, and newspapers—the religious landscape was open for innovation but also desperate for intellectual stability.
In the realms of intellectual discourse, what E. Brooks Holifield, the foremost historian of American theology, has called “reasonableness: the evidential temper” came everywhere into view. Principles of the moderate Scottish Enlightenment associated with the ethics of Francis Hutcheson and the epistemology and metaphysics of Thomas Reid provided American thinkers with intellectual foundations for reconstructing theology without relying on tradition. Enlightenment principles also included a strong appeal to empiricism defined by reference to Francis Bacon; a belief that the human mind could be studied objectively as natural philosophers (i.e., scientists) studied the material world; a great respect for the labor of Sir Isaac Newton as the best model for knowledge in general; and a great confidence in reasoned discourse for establishing intellectual first-principles.

Armed with these weapons, a generation of American Christian thinkers diligently employed rational apologetics, natural theology, and common-sense interpretation of the Bible to advance Christianity and construct a national culture. For them, the products of scientific reasoning replaced Europe’s traditions as main props for the churches. Their number included college leaders like Congregationalist Timothy Dwight of Yale (president, 1795–1817), Unitarian Henry Ware Sr. of Harvard (professor of divinity, 1805–1845), Presbyterian Samuel Stanhope Smith at Princeton (president, 1794–1812), and somewhat later Baptist Francis Wayland of Brown University (president, 1827–1855). Energetic frontier organizers like Alexander Campbell of the Churches of Christ may have been even more influential in promoting common-sense reasoning as a substitute for church tradition. One of the most important reasons for the success of Protestantism in the period between 1790 and 1865 was the ability of these leaders to convince other Americans that Christianity met the highest standards of modern scientific discourse. Church traditions, inherited ecclesiastical practices, and the dictates of bishops who had never faced a popular election might lead the church astray, but the sanctified voice of scientific reason would not.
Populists also became skilled users of evidentialist reason, but their importance rested more on the new energy they brought to religious thought as they worked to form churches and create voluntary societies. In the early decades of U.S. his- tory, the growing influence of Methodist theology arose directly from the ability of Francis Asbury and his fellow itinerants to establish Methodist cells, circuits, and publishing networks in the open spaces of a rapidly expanding country. The dominant theology of the colonial period had been Calvinistic, with a strong emphasis on God’s control over the path that sinners took from the self to God. The popular colonial revivalist George Whitefield innovated in many things, but in his theology he held firmly to Calvinism. For Whitefield, humans responded to God’s initiatives, rather than originating the move to God in themselves. The Methodists, as Arminians, shared many convictions with the Calvinists—belief in the holy Trinity, belief in the Bible as a revelation from God, belief that God redeemed sinners by his grace. They differed in maintaining a stronger sense of human capability. Methodists believed that people had been given freedom by God to chose for or against the offer of salvation. With their founder John Wesley they also held that faithful exercise of the will could move a person toward Christian “perfection” (or an end to willful sin after conversion). These beliefs about human capability and the possibility of a higher form of Christian life after conversion fueled—and were fueled by—the rapid expansion of the Methodists. They became more important in the United States than anywhere else in the Western world.
Several other significant theologians and theological movements of the nineteenth and twentieth century also developed “from below”—that is, from the circles of ordinary people who, if usually not beneficiaries of formal education, nonetheless mastered popular means of communication, understood popular religious psychology, and were themselves gripped by a powerful religious vision. As one prominent example, Phoebe Palmer effectively used prayer meetings in her New York City home to promote “holiness unto the Lord.” Palmer was not fortified by formal intellectual resources, but her theology, which she eventually spread through effective public speaking, prepared the way for Holiness movements that emphasized physical healing and led on to Pentecostalism.
The same broad effects were exerted by the popular revivalist Charles Finney, who was the best-known preacher of the mid-nineteenth century. Finney’s scholarly aspirations rose higher than Palmer’s, as indicated by the publication of his formidable Lectures on Systematic Theology in 1846. Yet the considerable influence exerted by the common-sense Arminianism of this work, and the much greater influence of his Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835), lay in their power to shape the thinking of the ordinary laity.
The early nineteenth century also witnessed the emergence of influential African American religious leaders. More than any other Christian group in American history, blacks have lived under the cross. The result—from the early nineteenth century to the present—has been a series of significant theologians who saw more clearly than most of their white contemporaries the contradictions to Christianity that, along with the openings for Christianity, characterized American society. The founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen, expertly exploited the Methodism of John Wesley and Francis Asbury in preaching a message attuned to the status of slaves and freed blacks. One of his successors as guiding bishop of that church, Daniel Alexander Payne, put the traumas of enslavement, emancipation, and Reconstruction to excellent theological use through his sermons and writings in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In the era of the Civil War, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass adeptly contrasted the Christianity of the whip with the Christianity of Christ, as did numerous other black theologians (discussed further in Blum, chap. 10, this volume).
A similar combination of open intellectual space and energetic religious advocacy also empowered a host of more sectarian movements. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-Day Adventism, Christian Science, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the main religious movements that sprang to life in this fertile period of religious innovation. These movements all possessed clarity of theological vision, often elaborated in surprising detail to treat questions of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethical casuistry as well as central religious concerns. Their claims of special revelation—usually to the group’s founder—made them unacceptable to the broad range of Christian churches. But their dynamism in promoting those claims have preserved these groups as powerful religious forces. Sometimes, as with the Mormons in Utah and Idaho, they have become the dominant religion in a single region. Sometimes, as with the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists, missionary commitment has led to dramatic expansion of the group’s teachings overseas. Over time, the Seventh-Day Adventists have moved much closer to more common evangelical beliefs, and the Mormons have made preliminary moves in the same direction. But in the nineteenth century, their broader significance was to show the power of ordinary Americans to formulate and disseminate accounts of God that proved convincing to many of their contemporaries.
Even as populist theology became prominent in the early United States, the earlier pattern of interacting with European influences went on. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, works by the Scottish minister-scholar Thomas Chalmers guided some Americans in thinking about astronomy, natural theology, and the reform of urban blight. German and French scholarship on the life of Jesus, books growing out of England’s High Church Anglican Oxford Movement, and volumes introducing European controversies on the nature of sacred Scripture also had an effect on this side of the Atlantic.
Much of the best formal theology in this period combined attention to these European trends with skillful adaptation to American contexts. Throughout this and later periods, a style that might be called elite popularization has flourished in the United States. Characteristically, it has embodied high academic standards, has been written in dialogue with major theological voices in Europe, and has been read with appreciation by significant ecclesiastical communities. Although theology of this sort has not gained widespread attention from secular intellectuals and remains important mostly to those who share the theologian’s religious perspectives, this academic, mediated theology has provided effective anchorage for many religious communities.
The nineteenth century was the great period for such work. Trinitarian New England Congregationalists during the Revolutionary period, led by Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins, showed how historic Calvinism could be broadened to accommodate Revolutionary notions of law and moral responsibility. In the next theological generation, a broader range of New England theologians made further adjustments to the Puritan tradition in the effort to offer their communities theological self-understanding in an era of rapid cultural change. The most important of these theologians was Nathaniel William Taylor of the Yale Divinity School, who adjusted Calvinist tradition to meet the need for a theology of revivalism. The Unitarian William Ellery Channing made even more changes in Calvinism’s historic views of human nature and of Christ as divine, but also communicated his views very effectively to the increasingly wealthy upper classes of New England. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, several theologians propounded other versions of Calvinism and so contributed to the general sway of a Reformed perspective as the dominant religious discourse in the nation’s formal intellectual life. From Princeton Theological Seminary, Charles Hodge gained a reputation for thorough, often polemical, exposition of historic Calvinist theology. The Christo-centric New York Presbyterian Henry Boynton Smith drew more directly on European mediating theologies, but shared many of Hodge’s concerns. R. H.

Dabney and James Henley Thornwell were southern Presbyterians whose defense of slavery damaged their later reputations; but in their day they provided a wide range of southerners with expert tutelage in traditional Reformed thought.
Before the Civil War, a few theologians began to question the standard forms of Christian rationalism that prevailed so strongly from the late eighteenth century. In Hartford, Connecticut, Horace Bushnell made inherited New England Calvinism more Romantic by heeding insights from Germany’s Friedrich Schleiermacher and, even more, from England’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bushnell’s proposal that religious language should be construed symbolically rather than literally sparked intense controversy that, in altered form, continues to this day. Other theologians who also drew afresh on Europe to challenge standard American positions included John W. Nevin, a German Reformed minister who stressed the importance of the historic church and the sacraments. He was moved in his work by opposition to the standard practices of American revivalism and by reading the German neo-pietists of his day. Nevin taught at the German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, where he was joined by the Swiss-born, German- educated Philip Schaff, who wrote about the modern churches in positive relationship to historic forms of Christianity (including Roman Catholicism). Nevin enjoyed scant influence during his own lifetime, and Schaff became a widely noticed figure only after he moved to Union Theological Seminary in New York and oversaw prodigious scholarship on the text of the New Testament and in general church history. But because Nevin and Schaff made greater use of European organic theology, featured the sacraments prominently, and explored the development of theology over the centuries, they have enjoyed increased attention from modern scholars who share an interest in their main themes.
As an indication of America’s relatively modest place in the world, it is note- worthy that the only one of these nineteenth-century theologians with overseas influence was Charles Hodge, who was read in Canada, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but mostly among his fellow conservative Presbyterians. Otherwise, the influence of these worthy theologians was usually restricted to their individual ecclesiastical communities in the United States.
For American Catholics, the nineteenth century was mostly a period of adjusting inherited theological positions to the needs of immigrant churches and for defense against the nation’s overwhelming majority of often hostile Protestants. That defense was carried out with skill in several public debates undertaken by knowledgeable bishops like John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati and John Ireland of Savannah. Francis Patrick Kenrick, archbishop of Baltimore, pioneered in the production of formal theology, with a widely read textbook in dogmatic and moral theology; he also produced a translation of the Bible in order to provide the Catholic faithful with an alternative to the Protestants’ King James Version.
The most widely noticed Catholic thinker of the era was the lay convert Orestes Brownson, who published many books and hundreds of articles offering a self consciously Catholic assessment of all things American. Brownson’s public positions included the contention that American republican government required the historical stability of Roman Catholicism if it was to succeed. What Brownson had to say about political and social matters, as well as Catholic theology, was important in itself, but even more for showing that a distinctly Catholic voice could be heard in an American culture otherwise dominated by strong Protestant interests.

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