Religious Thought and Writings

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RELIGIOUS THOUGHT AND WRITINGS. If Sydney E. Ahlstrom was correct when he wrote that "the country that declared its independence in 1776 was more clearly a product of Protestantism than any other country in the world" (Theology in America, p. 24), then it would hardly be surprising to find that Protestants have dominated those systematic and formal treatments of religion that have gained the widest circulation and been most influential in the United States. After 225 years of American history, Protestant hegemony in religious literature may be a source of embarrassment to scholars of religion. In a report of the National Endowment for the Humanities to Congress in 1985, A Report to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Humanities, for example, the American Academy of Religion—the professional scholarly organization devoted to the formal study of religion—concluded that writing about spiritual and divine matters had "taken a quantum leap" from "WASP theology" to the "unique religious vision of Blacks, of American Indians, of Chicanos, of American Orientals." But to ignore the former dominance of Protestantism in the religious thought and writings of the United States for the sake of contemporary religious diversity is to distort the nature of intellectual endeavor and overestimate the opportunity for religious reflection that has existed throughout the history of the United States. Furthermore, to ignore the institutional setting for such thought and writing is to obscure the purpose and character of the influential churchmen and scholars who put their ideas about divinity into print. For good or ill, throughout much of American history the occasion for most systematic treatments of religion has been the training of clergy. Without the context of church-sponsored ministerial training, attempts to make sense of the variety of religious literature would appear almost arbitrary.

Colonial Protestantism

As much as New England Puritanism receives credit for cultivating the life of the mind in America, the Puritans who in the early seventeenth century settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony inherited theological and educational patterns from England that colored the way religious thought was conducted in the New World. Training for ministry in the Church of England consisted primarily in a classical education with theology and spiritual counsel supplementing literary training. As such, English universities were not the sites of sustained reflection on religious topics. In fact, England did not develop posts in technical or academic religious learning until the nineteenth century. Instead, religious writing took place in the studies of pastor-theologians—that is, bishops or rectors of large parishes—and was decidedly occasional, conducted in response to particular controversies, whether over the prerogatives of the church or the dubious views of wayward priests. Consequently, Puritans had no model for establishing religious learning as part of higher education. Where it existed, it was either vocational or polemical, either training future ministers or protecting the views of those who already were.

This pattern prevailed throughout the British colonies in North America, Puritan New England included. Harvard and Yale Colleges perpetuated the English tradition of providing education for the governing class. Religious scholarship was only a minor part of this training. Graduates from Puritan colleges received religious instruction sufficient to maintain the commonwealth's godly ways. But the colleges themselves offered rare opportunities for sustained reflection or serious scholarship on religious matters. The same was true for William and Mary in Virginia. In this context, religious writing took place in response to particular issues of public or ecclesiastical significance and its practitioners were ministers with sufficient talent and resources. The only exception to this depiction was the sermon, a form of religious learning that in the hands of the Puritans was every bit as technical as scholastic theology. Puritan preaching, which functioned in many ways as the public discourse of New England villages, followed a set form that assumed a high degree of theological literacy. Because of Puritan notions about the importance and techniques of preaching, New England ministers were engaged weekly in the most sustained form of religious learning in colonial America, whether their sermons were printed or remained in manuscript.

For this reason, the religious literature of the British colonies in North America was far more likely to come from the pens of ministers than college professors. Noteworthy examples of the Puritan minister as pastor-theologian were John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, and Cotton Mather. Cotton (1585–1652) was pastor at Boston's First Church and was embroiled in a number of controversies owing both to his own endeavors as well as to the Puritan understanding of religion's importance to society. Even so, these conflicts afforded Cotton the opportunity to give masterful expression of Congregationalism as a system of church government and the ideal pattern of church life in Massachusetts Bay. Hooker (1586–1647), who arrived in Boston after Cotton, founded the colony of Hartford owing in part to rivalry with the older Puritan minister. A gifted preacher, Hooker's learning was manifest in a large body of published sermons and, as with Cotton, in a book on Puritan church government. Mather (1663–1728) was the first native-born American religious thinker of significance. The grandson of John Cotton, Mather ministered at Boston's North Church and left behind a body of writing that exceeded his sermon preparations, with books on church history (Magnalia Christi Americana, 1702), moral theology (Essays to Do Good, 1721), and science (The Christian Philosopher, 1721).

These pastor-theologians, however, could not rival the accomplishments of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), whose achievements were all the more remarkable given his location in the town of Northampton, situated on the western frontier of colonial society. Like his predecessors, Edwards was first and foremost a pastor, having trained at Yale College before settling in western Massachusetts, where he ministered for most of his career. But he was no ordinary pastor. Edwards read widely in philosophy and attempted to turn Enlightenment thought to pious ends. The particular aim of much of the Northampton pastor's writing was a defense of the revivals that occurred locally in Northampton during the 1730s and then became a transatlantic phenomenon with George Whitefield's arrival in 1739. In one of his most important books, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Edwards used the philosophy of Nicolas de Malebranche and John Locke to argue that true religion began with a sense in the heart but that religious experience combined subjective and objective elements. In addition to advocating revivalism, Edwards attempted to express traditional Puritan divinity in the idiom of recent trends in philosophy. After a controversy with town officials in which Edwards lost his call in Northampton, he moved to nearby Stockbridge and while evangelizing among the Native American population wrote three important treatises on themes central to Calvinism: Freedom of the Will (1754); The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758); and The Nature of True Virtue (1765).

Aside from the significance of Edwards's thought in its own right, his work launched what Bruce Kuklick, in Churchmen and Philosophers: From Jonathan Edwards to John Dewey (1985), has called "the most sustained theological tradition that America has produced." Known as the New England Theology, or sometimes as the New Divinity, it arose informally with Edwards as its center and once again demonstrates that sustained and formal religious learning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries developed most often outside the colleges. The New Divinity's proponents were Congregationalist pastors laboring in the Connecticut River valley who often had apprenticed with Edwards or knew the great Northampton preacher directly. Its themes drew directly on Edwards's legacy: the restatement of Calvinism in philosophically informed expressions; the defense of revivalism's compatibility with Calvinist theology; and moral theology rooted in Edwardsian psychology.

Among the New Divinity's ablest proponents, Joseph Bellamy (1719–1790) and Samuel Hopkins (1721–1803), both Yale graduates whom Edwards tutored in divinity, carried forward the Northampton pastor's experimental Calvinism to another generation of pastors by attempting to systematize their mentor's theology. Bellamy did this by writing books on Edwardsean themes, such as true piety and original sin, while Hopkins attempted a comprehensive system of doctrine. Because of the occasional nature of many of Edwards's writings and the sheer originality of his thought, trying to imitate or summarize his theology led to a number of ambiguities in the New Divinity movement. Even so, Bellamy and Hopkins instructed another set of disciples who extended Edwards's influence into the nineteenth century. These younger Edwardseans included Jonathan Edwards Jr. (1745–1801), the ninth child and namesake of Edwards, and Nathaniel Emmons (1745–1840), both of whom were too young to learn divinity from Edwards directly and so relied upon his closest colleagues. Like Bellamy and Hopkins, Edwards Jr. and Emmons perpetuated the themes of experimental Calvinism by trying to justify and restate Puritan divinity in the latest philosophical and ethical thought.

From Parsonage to Seminary

What may have accounted for the influence of the New Divinity, apart from Edwards's own genius, was the sustained reflection over time, accompanied by a series of texts, on a number of set themes of Protestant divinity. To be sure, ministers in New England who did not identify with the Edwardseans and others outside New England in other religious communions addressed the issues that animated the New Divinity theologians in similarly learned ways. But these other clerics lacked the institutional base and the network of apprenticeships and collegiality that the Edwardseans had possessed. This changed profoundly in the early nineteenth century with the rise of the theological seminary, which had the unintended consequence of professionalizing religious learning and moving it away from pastors and assigning it to full-time theologians.

The seminary emerged with lasting significance when Massachusetts Congregationalists founded Andover in 1808 and four years later, when Presbyterians began Princeton Seminary. Although the divinity school was under the governance of the college (later the university), like the seminary it gave Protestant divinity a degree of institutional muscle that it had previously lacked when it relied upon the unpredictable abilities of pastors. Yet at the same time, divinity schools and seminaries explicitly segregated formal religious learning in faculties outside the arts and sciences where the chief task was not academic but professional, namely, the training of ministers. Even so, the establishment of separate schools for ministerial preparation provided resources for the flourishing of theology among the largest Protestant denominations.

In New England three schools, Andover Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School, were the main contenders for Protestant support. Andover was the most self-conscious of the three in attempting to preserve the heritage of Edwards. Here Edwards Amasa Park (1808–1900), his Christian name revealing the Northampton minister's ongoing influence, was the last of the line of Edwardsean theologians. Although Park had studied in Germany and begun to refashion New England Calvinism according to idealist philosophy, by the end of his tenure at Andover the faculty had grown restless with the metaphysical direction of the seminary's theology and fashioned a system of religious reflection geared toward experience, not scholastic categories. At Yale Divinity School, Nathaniel William Taylor (1786–1858)continued in paths established by Edwards, not always supplying the same answers but usually interacting with the same questions about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility and the nature of religious experience. Taylor's views became so dominant at Yale that when he died the divinity school experienced such a loss of students that administrators almost closed it. The pattern at Harvard was even graver than at Yale. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Unitarians took control of the divinity school there, thus forcing orthodox Congregationalists to establish Andover. Andrews Norton (1786–1853), a biblical scholar who made use of new developments in German religious learning, was arguably the leading Unitarian scholar prior to the Civil War. But the divinity school's sway outside Unitarian circles was negligible and the rise of transcendentalism further weakened Harvard's reputation.

Outside New England, three theological seminaries—Princeton in New Jersey, Mercersburg in Pennsylvania, and Union in New York City—shaped the professionalization of religious inquiry. Charles Hodge (1797– 1878) taught more students during his tenure at Princeton Seminary than any other nineteenth-century theologian. In contrast to New England theology, Princeton repudiated scholarly innovation and attempted to pass on the received views of Presbyterian orthodoxy to aspiring ministers while also carrying on extensive polemics with wayward academic peers. At Mercersburg Seminary, an institution of the German Reformed Church, John Williamson Nevin (1803–1886) and Philip Schaff (1819– 1893) positively appropriated developments in German theology to emphasize the historical development of religious truth and negatively criticized the novelties of American Protestantism such as revivalism and denominational fragmentation. In New York City at the Union Seminary, a Presbyterian institution, Henry Boynton Smith (1815–1877) stood midway between the speculative efforts of New England theology and the conservatism of Princeton.

No matter what the differences in doctrine, the rise of the seminary replaced the pastor-scholar with the academic theologian. To be sure, theologians in Protestant seminaries and divinity schools were oriented primarily to the church by their function of training ministers. But the urge to locate religious learning in formal academic structures was so great that even the revivalist Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), who fulminated against the scholastic theology of the Presbyterian Church, ended up teaching moral philosophy and theology to future pastors at Oberlin College. The pastor-scholar model only survived in such figures as William Ellery Channing(1780– 1842), a Unitarian pastor in Boston, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), a Unitarian pastor in Boston who left the church to become a popular lecturer and writer, and Horace Bushnell (1802–1876), a liberal Congregationalist pastor in Hartford.

Among Roman Catholics and Jews, however, religious learning and writings remained in the hands of able bishops, priests, and rabbis. The nonacademic character of Catholic and Jewish thought was partly the function of the poverty of the immigrants of those religions, which made formal learning a luxury, and partly the result of Protestant dominance in American higher education. In the case of Catholics the primacy of Rome in the training of clergy also restricted the development of professional theologians for the church in the United States. Although Catholic spokesmen often directed their thoughts more to the establishment of an American church than to formal Catholic teaching, such bishops as John Carroll (1735– 1815) and John Hughes (1797–1864) provided a necessary foundation for advanced religious learning among American Catholics. A similar pattern prevailed among Jews, for whom the rabbi functioned as a jack-of-all-trades. Isaac Meyer Wise (1819–1900) was among the ablest and most vocal of American Jews during the nineteenth century and he founded in Cincinnati a preparatory school, Hebrew Union College, for training rabbis that became a model for Jewish learning. His understanding of Judaism in the New World did not receive unanimous assent and in 1886 a more conservative group, led by Sabato Morais (1823–1897), founded in New York City the Jewish Theological Seminary, a school that not only provided rabbinical education but also a place for sustained religious reflection.

From Seminary to University

Although the emergence of seminaries and divinity schools supplied institutional support for the task of formal religious learning, these schools could not overcome the Anglo-American legacy of religious scholars working in isolation from the university. The emergence of the research university after the Civil War only increased religious scholarship's seclusion. To be sure, new institutions such as the University of Chicago (1892) included a faculty of theology. But this was rare and turned out to be the equivalent of the divinity schools at Harvard and Yale, which although they may have granted doctorates, were primarily oriented to ministerial training. Formal religious learning, in effect, remained segregated from the arts and sciences.

Developments in the churches that the seminaries and divinity schools served did not make religious learning any more appealing in higher education. The modernist-fundamentalist controversy, which flared up visibly during the 1920s but had been evident from 1890 on, pitted traditionalists against progressives. The latter were eager to provide universities with a form of religious learning more in tune with the research and pragmatic aims of the university, but the former were unwilling to modify religious teaching. Over time the progressives won, in part because traditionalists either lost control or left the leading seminaries and divinity schools, founding instead Bible colleges that dispensed an egalitarian and arcane brand of religious thought. By 1935 progressive Protestants occupied the field of religious scholarship and over the course of the next three decades would consolidate their position by establishing the discipline of the academic study of religion.

The political and cultural climate of the United States during the middle decades of the twentieth century was one to which the Protestant initiative in religious studies could well adapt. Thanks to a renewed sense of liberal democracy's stake in the West's cultural heritage, the humanities and liberal arts reemerged as higher education's contribution to the battle with totalitarianism. At the same time, the study of religion received support because of Christianity's influence upon European society and the United States. Between 1940 and 1965 religious learning finally had moved from the periphery of the parsonage and seminary to a formal area of instruction and study in the modern research university. Yet because Protestants controlled the field, the curriculum in the newly founded departments of religion differed little from the sequence of courses at seminaries. As anomalous as the academic study of religion may appear in hindsight, this was an era when Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) were America's public theologians. Although the Niebuhr brothers taught in the seminary and divinity school setting, their ability to relate Christian concepts to politics and culture found a wide and receptive audience.

After 1965, around the same time that the United States entered a period described by many as post-Protestant, the academic study of religion moved outside Protestantism's orbit toward greater pluralism and scholarly sophistication. The result is that religious thought and learning in the United States became polarized between academic theories at one end and the practices of religious adherents at the other, with university departments of religion studying religion as an abstraction, clergy-scholars embedded in concrete religious traditions, and seminaries and divinity schools trying to harmonize generic and particular conceptions of belief. As such, the systematic study of religion in the United States continued to bear the consequences of religious learning's initial location in the colleges that English Puritans replicated in the New World.


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———, eds. Sources of Christian Theology in America. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1999.

D. G.Hart

See alsoCatholicism ; Education, Higher: Denominational Colleges ; Edwardsean Theology ; Evangelicism and Revivalism ; Fundamentalism ; Judaism ; Modernists, Protestant ; Protestantism ; Puritans and Puritanism .

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