January 6, 2003


More Than Fire and Brimstone: a review of Mark A. Noll's "America's God" (STEPHEN PROTHERO, December 17, 2002, Wall Street Journal)
In the colonies and the early republic, Mr. Noll argues, European theology reigned. The sacred canopy of British Puritanism extended far beyond its New England stronghold, and Americans remained Europeans in spirit long after they had thrown off George III. Beginning in the 1790s, however, a truly American theology emerged, centered on evangelicalism rather than Puritanism and devoted to the proposition that all U.S. citizens were at liberty to read the Bible for themselves.

During the Civil War, this theology all but collapsed, as neither the Bible nor common sense seemed able to speak unequivocally on slavery. While Abraham Lincoln, a hero in Mr. Noll's tale, looked over the battlefield at Gettysburg and felt the awful mystery of providence, more orthodox heirs of Jonathan Edwards, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, deluded themselves into thinking that they could divine the purposes of God, which conveniently happened to be identical to their own. [...]

This "Christian republicanism" did not take hold anywhere else. Americans moved further away from Calvinism than the Scots; they invested more in the Bible and focused more on conversion than the Dutch; and they were less committed to the church and its traditions than the British. Their theology did far more than Christianize America. It helped produce a national culture as committed to the Bible as it was to liberty -- a country with roughly as many clergy as federal employees.

Like the first half of U.S. history, Mr. Noll's story ends in tragedy. Christian republicanism advanced in the U.S. only because its theologians eagerly translated the ancient truths of the Bible into language that ordinary Americans could understand. Their efforts popularized Christianity and empowered Christians, Mr. Noll explains. But they also domesticated evangelical theology. Over time, common sense started sounding more like Gotham than Galilee, and theologians began to take their marching orders as much from the marketplace as from ancient scripture.

[...] While others may sneer at Christian dominance and cheer its demise, Mr. Noll does just the opposite. He laments the passing of Christian republicanism and in the end suggests that a dose of Jonathan Edwards ("the last of the Puritans and the first of the evangelicals") may be just what contemporary America needs.

One must certainly prefer the lessons of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to any of the Kumbaya-singing pabulum you're likely to get in most churches these days. Posted by Orrin Judd at January 6, 2003 8:13 PM

Liberty? Not where I grew up.

Probably one of the main reasons that we did

maintain our liberties -- us white folk, anyway

-- was that lots of us lived in the backwoods

and were unchurched.

Not irreligious, just unchurched.

Then, as the review does not go on to say,

we got churched and enjoyed the blessings

of the Volstead Act, the Comstock Act etc.

Posted by: Harry at January 6, 2003 7:44 PM

Harry, never knew you were so old. Sounds like you're going on 140.

Posted by: pj at January 6, 2003 9:34 PM

Heck, he claims to have known the Inquisitors.

Posted by: oj at January 7, 2003 7:25 AM

You mean churches aside from Catholic ones are now filled with "Kumbaya-singing pabulum"? I don't know if I want to weep from relief, or from depression.

Posted by: Christopher Badeaux at January 7, 2003 7:29 AM