Institutions Theology as a Profession

It is no accident that most theological movements in nineteenth-century America must be described with denominational labels. To write the history of American theology during that period without reference to the denominations would be to tell a story detached from the self-understanding of most of the theologians. Denominational categories structure much of the organization of this book for the period after 1800. They were not the only categories that defined theological self-understanding, for theologians also represented traditions, such as Reformed or Lutheran, that could overflow particular denominational boundaries. They also participated in ''schools'' of thought, such as the New England theology, the New Haven theology, the Oberlin theology, the Princeton theology, or the Mercersburg theology. But neither the category of ''tradition'' nor that of ''school'' is adequate to grasp the function of theology in early America, which must be located within the institutional setting of denominationalism.

By the end of the eighteenth century, most American theologians understood themselves as advocates for a particular denomination. They wrote, for example, as Presbyterians, Baptists, or Catholics, and in debates the denominational identifications pushed toward the forefront. Debates also occurred within denominational boundaries, as competing factions strove to impose definitions on each other, but theological concepts and slogans usually functioned to distinguish one denomination from another in the religious marketplace. This emphasis on the institutional setting of theology highlights the fragmentation of Christian theology in America. To take theology seriously, and to recognize its denominational locus, is to emphasize the extent to which theological differences could separate Americans from each other, creating local tensions and disrupting national religious organizations.

To advance this argument is not to disregard the importance of localism — and therefore of the local religious congregation—as an important secondary institutional location for theology. Theologians thought of themselves as addressing the topics important for local congregations, and most early American theologians spent most of their lives serving a congregation. Questions of parish ministry often stood in the background of what the theologians wrote. This book draws its conclusions chiefly from the writings of 282 authors active between 1636 and 1865. Eighty-nine percent of them had experience as local ministers and priests. Twenty-three percent of the authors who published their books before 1789 spent some time teaching in colleges, but 90 percent of the authors for that period served in parishes. For the next seventy-five years after 1789, they still moved back and forth from parishes to schools, with 88 percent laboring for at least a portion of their careers as parish clergy.

On the whole, the clergy were among the most educated people in their communities. Between 1636 and 1718, 90 percent of the theologians had a collegiate education, and the same pattern continued for the next seventy-five years, when about 73 percent had college training. Even during the decades between 1789 and 1865, when populist theologians made their most successful efforts to break theology away from the educated, 70 percent of the theologians in this book studied in colleges, 32 percent in seminaries, and 5 percent in graduate institutions beyond the seminary.

After the American Revolution, theologians spent more of their time teaching in the academy. Between 1789 and 1865, 36 percent taught in colleges and 22 percent taught in seminaries, even though they still moved back and forth from the academy to the parish. The professionalization of theology as a calling distinguishable from parish ministry began symbolically with the creation of the first chairs of divinity at Harvard in 1721 and Yale in 1755, but it intensified after the Dutch Reformed founded a small seminary at New Brunswick (1784), the Catholics founded St. Mary's in Baltimore (1791), and the Congregationalists founded Andover in Massachusetts (1808).

The seminary — an institution designed to educate ministers and priests — soon rivaled the parish as a center of theological production. Between 1784 and 1859, the Protestant churches founded at least thirty-nine seminaries and the Catholics founded even more. Schaff reported in 1854 that "almost every responsible denomination and sect has one such seminary or more.'' Most were academically insignificant, with one or two faculty members teaching ten to twenty students, and Schaff echoed a common complaint when he wrote that "the tendency to multiply them is, in truth, only too strong,'' creating weak institutions that could barely be sustained.20

From Schaff's perspective, it seemed that the "honor of a theological professor" in America was "not very enviable,'' but he did note that some of the older schools, such as Andover and Princeton, had large endowments, faculties of four or five, fine libraries, and "literary energy.'' He thought that the seminary enabled "scientific theology'' to find a "more genial soil,'' with the result that American theologians during the 1820s and 1830s "accomplished proportionally more'' than their counterparts in England and Scotland.21

As theology became more professional, it became more specialized. An-dover set the pattern for Protestants by adopting the fourfold curriculum of biblical, historical, systematic, and pastoral studies, and Park in 1844 called for more "division of labor'' among theological professors on the grounds that no one could "treat so extensive a class of themes'' as teachers at seminaries were expected to treat. Yet Park also lamented that the theologians at Andover had already become so specialized in their reading that "an individual theolo gian is often thoroughly versed in but a small part of the whole science,'' and that the specialists could not always get along with each other: "Every single department comes, in this way, to have its partizan-admirers . . . apt to become indifferent to all the others, if not openly opposed to them.''22

The advance of specialization encouraged the formation of the quarterly journal, which by the 1830s became one of the chief means of scholarly theological debate. In the journals the theologians had free rein to explore what to most Americans would have been esoteric and obscure subjects, and the journal article soon rivaled the sermon and the monograph as the vehicle of influence and celebrity within educated theological circles. Between 1730 and 1830, Americans founded some 590 religious periodicals and newspapers, and their editors set the agenda for theological writing. At least 31 percent of the authors in this book who were active between 1789 and 1865 edited a religious journal. Some of the journals — like the Biblical Repertory (1825) at Princeton Seminary, Bibliotheca Sacra (1843) at Andover, the Christian Spectator (1826) at Yale Divinity School, the Christian Examiner (1831) at Harvard, the Southern Presbyterian Review (1847) at Columbia Seminary in South Carolina, the Mercersburg Review (1849) at Mercersburg, and Brown-son's Quarterly Review (1838), which became after 1844 the leading Catholic journal—were among the most learned periodicals in America.

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