The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past
By Paul J. Gutacker.
Oxford University Press, 2023.
Paperback, 264 pages, $29.95.
Reviewed by Glenn A. Moots.
Paul Gutacker’s The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past is a remarkable book. Gutacker, who earned his PhD in history at Baylor under prolific scholar Tommy Kidd, defends a straightforward thesis: early American political contests were deeply informed by appeals to history. To readers of The University Bookman, this might not seem like much of a thesis. But Gutacker is contending against a prevalent popular and academic caricature about American Protestants. Gutacker summarizes this caricature as “Evangelical Protestants are biblicists.” To be a biblicist in this context means rejecting other religious authorities and relying on “a plain reading of scripture.” Religious authorities would, of course, include the past. Instead, biblicism obliged “clearing away the rubble of history and abandoning the old wineskins of tradition,” thereby leaving only “common sense and the Bible.”
Unfortunately, the caricature is self-inflicted: both Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch, arguably two of the most important evangelical scholars of American Protestantism over the last half-century, have advanced this caricature and so have others. Journalists and others have taken the cue, characterizing evangelicals even now as unscholarly and necessarily given to populism, anti-intellectualism, and an embrace of novelty. Gutacker demonstrates this also to be false. For example, credobaptism (baptism only following a profession of faith) was defended by American sects (including Baptists) not as an innovation, but as restoration of early church practice. Hence, credobaptists cast themselves as submissive to the authority of the past and cast their paedobaptist opponents as innovators.
Before getting to the details of Gutacker’s refutation, however, I must emphasize that the argument at hand is not simply about what American Protestants (and Catholics, who are featured in later chapters) did in the nineteenth century. Nor is it simply an argument about methodology: why historians of American religion must pay more attention to the past’s use of the past. While I do think that Gutacker’s book should force academics or journalists to question what they think they know, Gutacker is implicitly raising questions about a future being debated by American Christians right now. These controversies include the significance of the medieval patrimony and the importance of “Western civilization” in education, race relations, theology, and the relationship of church and state.
Who Cared About History?
In an increasingly nondenominational Protestant America, it is safe to say that doctrinal, confessional, or ecclesiastical differences may matter less to churchgoing (or increasingly non-churchgoing) Americans than ever before. Such questions mattered deeply to the new dissenting traditions and sects in the early nineteenth century, however. While cerebral Presbyterian or Episcopalian seminarians parsed Greek and split theological hairs, Baptist circuit riders and Disciples of Christ revivalists fanned out across the new nation. Gutacker calls the period of 1780-1830 a “remarkable reversal of market share” favoring “populist, innovative, and activist groups” like these. But these terms are relative. Whether proliferating or planting for the first time, these new American sects defended their differences much in the way that the magisterial denominations before them did: our teaching is not ahistorical and we are restoring true Christianity.
Such arguments, of course, require historical sources, and those sources may come as a surprise to the reader. While some earlier sources such as John Foxe’s martyrology or the writings of the church fathers were used, the most popular sources came from the eighteenth century: Anglican evangelical Joseph Milner’s popular multi-volume history and the work of German Lutheran Johann Lorenz von Mosheim. Both men tried to highlight achievements in every era of church history and eschewed the biases typical of denominational histories. Milner, for example, praised Gregory the Great, Boniface, and Anselm of Canterbury and wrote that Protestant historians should not be prejudiced against the real church “because she then wore a Roman garb.” Mosheim had more in common with the German Enlightenment, paying more attention to human factors making doctrinal and ceremonial changes more complex than denominational historians had, but his goal was to improve both the piety and the knowledge of his reader.
The same cannot be said for the other popular histories of the day, those written by skeptics: David Hume’s History of England, William Robertson’s History of Scotland and Charles V, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Joseph Priestley’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity. None of these authors were much interested in piety. Taking Priestley or Hume seriously meant taking a cynical view of most of church history. Insofar as that dim view was bound up with the philosophes’ radical character, the perceived revolutionary character of America (including her relative religious freedom) encouraged belief in American exceptionalism and bolstered (ironically enough) the idea that America was a truly Christian nation. She had, after all, thrown off the corruptions of medieval Christianity, especially religious establishment, and opened space for a restoration of primitive Christianity. If Gutacker is right, the characterization of Christendom as the “Dark Ages” is therefore owed to historians faithful and skeptical.
From Milner, Mosheim, and others were published derivative histories and new histories in the context of controversies about religious freedom, immigration, or race and slavery, for example. Furthermore, the proliferation of educational institutions (including seminaries and schools for women) and educational associations (e.g., the American Sunday School Union) forced choices about where the lines fell in church history. Women increasingly made up the audience for church histories, and female authors joined the fray, as did both African Americans and apologists for slavery. Historians weren’t simply writing books and essays; they were defining America itself. For example, if Philip Schaff was right and there was continuity between Protestantism and medieval Catholic teaching, what would become of America’s exceptionalism? How could American Protestants defend marginalizing Catholic immigrants and Roman Catholic schools? One can easily see how these controversies influenced Americans well into the twentieth century.
History as High Stakes
The consequences of these debates, including the alliances created, had disappointing results. Jeffersonian religious liberty, for example, was defended by casting Constantine and Theodosius as worse than Nero or Domitian. Skeptical philosophers tricked devout Americans into parroting their own ideas about “primitive Christianity.” Magisterial Protestants who more closely followed their medieval predecessors on religious establishment were discounted even though they were the ones who enabled reform in the first place. Instead, America became the real fruit of the Reformation. Gutacker summarizes the argument at the time as, “The US Constitution, by keeping civil authority apart from religion, fulfilled the Reformation and restored the purity of the pre-Constantinian church.”
In order for this to be true, one had to believe that the Church had been declining since Constantine. Hume, Priestley, and Gibbon said so, after all. Insofar as Milner and Mosheim did not comply with this narrative (they defended minimal religious establishments), they were abridged, footnoted, re-translated, or replaced. Baptist historians such as Joseph Leland recast Christianity since the Roman empire as “a stirrup to mount the steed of popularity, wealth, and ambition.” Unitarians followed the Baptist lead. Hannah Adams’s View of Religions (1784) purported to be an objective denominational and doctrinal catalogue, but cast medieval Christianity as essentially pagan. Her history, which reflected her Unitarian prejudices, was widely read in New England—no doubt encouraging that region’s growing apostasy.
Denominational controversies soon gave way to what Gutacker calls pan-evangelical and providentialist American exceptionalism in the Era of Good Feelings. More controversies followed. Whig histories equated Protestantism with republicanism. The threat posed by millions of Irish and German Catholic immigrants necessitated perpetual reminders about the Roman Catholic Dark Ages. Tensions over the rights of women and black Americans catalyzed new histories of America as essentially Anglo-Saxon, white, and Protestant. African American periodicals and books retorted: weren’t church fathers from Africa? Didn’t this make white Christians hypocrites for degrading Africans? Some, but not all, female authors featured female saints, heroes, evangelists, and magistrates, and a few began to leverage these presentations for women’s rights. Augustine’s mother Monica was a favorite in religious periodicals.
Gutacker’s chapters on slavery are particularly interesting. He demonstrates how black abolitionists took the lead in their use of history, blaming medieval Catholicism for chattel slavery. White abolitionists followed, arguing that European slavery declined thanks to Christianity. The history of Christianity did not emerge as a plank in antislavery discourse until 1831, however. Some even argued that modern slavery was far worse than the relatively “humane” slavery in Greece and Rome that Constantine and early Christianity made impossible to maintain. Gutacker also turns his attention from Protestants to American Catholics. When anti-slavery advocates welcomed Pope Gregory XVI’s In supremo apostolatus (1839), some pro-slavery authors saw it as the beginning of a Vatican plot. Some Southern Catholics stood up against abolition, most notably John England, Bishop of Charleston. Already an apologist for American democracy and founder of a Catholic newspaper, England emphasized that the pope was only against the slave trade, not slavery, and that slavery was conceded by God as a consequence of sin. Abolitionism, England said, was a kind of fanaticism.
What’s Past is Prologue
Gutacker writes that with few exceptions, virtually every Protestant in his book believed in a general narrative of medieval decline from a pure apostolic church. What is particularly interesting about such a timeline is how America achieved a kind of divine status. I think it would be hard to find Americans who would offer a similar argument today, not because they don’t find American exceptional or even essentially Christian. They do. Rather, they would not consider the bona fides of a nation to include any connection to the early church. In this way, American Protestants are less historically conscious than those in the nineteenth century. Noll and Hatch were therefore off by at least a century.
Nevertheless, one still sees elements of the old boastings and prejudices. Many American Protestants would still quickly associate American ideals with their faith, but they care little for the magisterial reformers except perhaps as theologians (“Are you a Calvinist?”) or historically significant persons (“Luther nailed the 95 Theses”). If they were to learn the political ideas of the magisterials, many American Protestants would no doubt either be embarrassed by them or contort them into a Whig history in which the magisterial Reformation is the efficient cause of the U. S. Constitution. American evangelicals of the conservative variety still tout American exceptionalism, but mainly for liberal criteria: America is a place where people have rights and freedom. You wouldn’t hear much about flourishing or unity or authority, for example. And though histories of the nineteenth century (including Gutacker’s) reveal America to be a hothouse of sects and heresies, these same conservative Christians will not shrink from praising American exceptionalism even if only on vague grounds of church attendance or general religiosity. We are certainly not like those godless Europeans, after all. Not yet, at least.
But even while some thread of continuity is maintained with our American Protestant past, so much has changed. Many evangelicals, especially those not given to fundamentalist sensibilities, have over the last quarter century joined a “classical education” movement enjoining appreciation of classical and medieval Christian civilization. Nineteenth century Americans might have read Augustine, including some because they thought he was black, but it is questionable how many read The Rule of St. Benedict, Boethius, or Thomas Aquinas. In other words, the new classical curriculum isn’t particularly Protestant in orientation. Additionally, Protestant theologians like Richard Muller or Matthew Barrett have written on the Protestant debt to Thomism, for example, and this is becoming an increasingly popular view among American Protestant literati. Popular authors like Rodney Stark or Tom Holland, for example, do not jump from the third century to America but instead defend a long progressive march of Christianity through centuries of Western civilization that improved freedom and equality.
Not everyone feels so grateful or exceptional, however. Progressive evangelicals, not simply those in dying mainline theologically liberal denominations like the Episcopal Church but in thriving megachurches, the Southern Baptist Convention, and otherwise theologically conservative evangelical colleges dwell on America’s past moral failures, “systemic injustices,” or advance dissenting American histories like the 1619 project. On the other side of the political spectrum, so-called “postliberal” Christians are likewise critical of America. But whereas progressives complain that America doesn’t have enough freedom and equality, postliberals complain that it has too much.
The future of America, and America’s perception of itself, will likely not be defined by the evangelical belief in American exceptionalism popular in the 1980s or 90s, some of it a holdover from past centuries. It will more likely be defined by this increasingly reactionary contest between Protestant progressives and postliberals. The battle is already joined. And while each will want to treat the other as populist or pandering, anti-intellectual, or revolutionary, the smarter cadre on both sides will likely imitate their nineteenth century predecessors and argue from history. The histories they consult, or create, will make all the difference.
Glenn A. Moots is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Northwood University and also serves as a Research Fellow at the McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship there. He is the author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology and coedited, with Phillip Hamilton, Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution.
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