Introduction Theology in America

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 respect in American intellectual circles at the same time that it provided a vocabulary that informed the lived religion of ordinary Americans. When the Presbyterian minister Robert Baird interpreted American religion for European readers in 1843, he could boast of "a vast number of publications in every department of Christian theology,'' and he might have added that American theological journals were the most scholarly publications in the culture.1

Theologians were the keepers of a language that flowed over into other fields of discourse. Confident that philosophy, rightly construed, supported theological truth, they crafted most of the early American philosophical texts. They were the primary expositors of the new discipline of "mental science,'' the chief proponents of "moral science,'' and avid participants in the formation of "natu ral philosophy," which would eventually transform itself into natural science. Poets and novelists — including Herman Melville, Nathanial Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson — struggled with, and often against, the pronouncements of the theologians to such an extent that one can hardly hope to understand the nineteenth-century literary renaissance without knowing something about the theological ideas current in the culture. In an era when the common law allowed free latitude to local judges, theology often figured prominently in American legal decisions. American politicians spoke a public language that drew amply on theological conceptions. Notions of sin and redemption suffused the rhetoric of nineteenth-century social reformers. For almost three centuries, theologians enjoyed a position of substantial authority in the intellectual life of America.

At the same time, the language of theology informed the piety of Americans who never immersed themselves in learned and artistic productions. Through the sermons and tracts of local Protestant and Catholic clergy, the ideas of theologians reached an audience that knew little of science or philosophy. Early American theologians were themselves usually local pastors, speaking weekly to congregations as well as writing treatises for the learned. When an African-American servant named Jarena Lee wrote her Religious Experience and Journal in 1849, she described her religious experience — using words like "guilt," "pardon," "conversion," and "sanctification" — in ways that followed the informal rules of her Methodist theological background. She had learned to make distinctions that defined religious experience as Methodists understood it. For Jarena Lee, as for countless other American Christians, theological language drew boundaries around practices and institutions and provided markers of communal identity.2

Interested observers, then and now, have debated about the extent of popular interest in theology. More than one observer of Christian theology in early nineteenth-century America noted the disinclination of Americans to rally around speculative systems, including the systems of theologians who ventured too deeply into complexity. The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured the country during 1831-32, said that it was hard to find Americans who devoted themselves to "the essentially theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge" and that "doctrine" occupied a secondary place in the religious landscape. A reviewer in the New England journal The Spirit of the Pilgrims reached a similar conclusion in 1832 about popular habits of thought: "The spirit of religion in this country is active rather than contemplative. The nature of our institutions gives full scope to action, and the bustling character of our population is more favorable to doing than to thinking. Everything is submitted to the judgment of the people; the standard of excel lence is fixed by them; and they can more justly appreciate the active laborer than the profound thinker.'' More than a decade later, Edwards Amasa Park at Andover Theological Seminary tried to counter the charge of German divines that Americans had "no taste for theological science'' or for any other study "save that of the laws of steam and of political government," but Park had to concede that both ministers and laypeople often lacked the time to read, that publishers respected only market demand, and that theologians found it hard to speak clearly and winsomely to institutions of a "popular character."3

Such descriptions illumine one side of a complex story. Tocqueville was also struck by the "enormous quantity of religious works,'' including books of "controversial divinity,'' that he found in the booksellers' shops. The Connecticut minister Horace Bushnell claimed to have grown up in a village whose residents often discussed the complexities of "free will, fixed fate, foreknowledge absolute, trinity, redemption, special grace, eternity.'' Harriet Beecher Stowe created in her novels an imaginative world in which such conversations punctuated the routine of daily life. In 1850, the Unitarian George Burnap marveled at the extent of popular theological interest. He found knowledge of both the Bible and of "different theological systems'' to be "generally diffused." Even the "most illiterate, on hearing a doctrine advanced,'' were able "immediately to recur to those texts of Scripture, which seem to be inconsistent with it,'' and people of ''common education'' could discuss the "metaphysical" side of theology with "no small amount of ingenuity and acuteness.'' Through the popular institution of oral debate, nineteenth-century Americans treated theology as a form of popular entertainment, and celebrated debaters attracted large audiences to contests that extended over days.4

We simply do not know the extent of popular interest in the writings of theologians in early America or the degree to which formal theology guided religious practice. Many American Christians had a rudimentary theological knowledge even though presumably only a few occupied themselves with intricate distinctions. Although Americans sometimes bristled at the idea that theology was the preserve of a learned elite, some conceded that it was a form of discourse distinct from the language of worship and devotion. ''Religion is for the people,'' wrote Josiah Willard Gibbs at Yale, ''theology is for the schools. Theology is difficult to obtain; sources are in ancient and obscure books; it treats of invisible objects; in inculcates many things ungrateful to our natural feelings.''5

In early America, theology was normally understood to be a discipline that combined biblical interpretation with one or another form of background theory. What distinguished theology from devotional or inspirational writing or narratives of religious experience was its interdependence with various branches of philosophy, whether logic, metaphysics, epistemology, hermeneu-tics, rhetoric, or mental science, or of history, especially the historical study of the books of the Bible. The standard text used at seventeenth-century Harvard, The Marrow of Theology (1623) by the English divine William Ames, defined theology as the "doctrine of living to God'' and insisted that it was derived from "divine revelation" rather than human inquiry, but he explained that any understanding of this revelation required "skill and experience in logic, rhetoric, grammar, and the languages.'' When the late seventeenth-century New England Puritan Samuel Willard described "the Study of Divinity'' to young scholars, he said that scripture was its sole source but that it required grammar, rhetoric, and logic to get the "theological truth," and he commended as well the mastery of natural philosophy and history. Two hundred years later, the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge defined "systematic theology" as a science that related biblical "facts" not only to each other but also "to cognate disciplines." The southern Wesleyan Thomas Ralston explained that theologians derived their truths from the "inspired volume" but that part of their duty was to show that scripture, properly understood, was consistent with "the principles of sound philosophy and correct reason." Henry Tappan, the chancellor of the University of Michigan, wrote in 1856 that theology, in "form," grounded itself in "the sacred writings" but that it "called in philosophy as an adjunct authority, and to aid in interpretation and exposition.'' Such definitions did not escape criticism, but they represented a rough consensus that endured for more than two hundred years.6

The definitions were always sufficiently broad to include a variety of genres, such as sermons and popular tracts, and any history of theology in America must consider such sources. Seventeenth-century sermons, in any event, usually presented biblical themes in accord with formulas defined by sixteenth-century logicians and rhetoricians. Nineteenth-century tracts often reflected the assumptions of eighteenth-century Scottish philosophy. Such productions, as well as technical books and journal articles, joined biblical interpretation to a background theory, explicit or implicit, in a way that constituted "theology."

The overarching theme of this book is the claim that a majority of theologians in early America shared a preoccupation with the reasonableness of Christianity that predisposed them toward such an understanding of theology. The book interweaves this claim about the quest for reasonableness with five other themes that amplify and qualify it: the continued insistence on theology's "practicality" and its ethical functions, the importance of Calvinism, the interplay between Americans and Europeans, the denominational setting of theology, and the distinction between academic and populist strands of thought.

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