American Protestantism

Classes here at Trinity Christian College are in full swing. But I did get to read a short book this week: American Protestantism by Winthrop Hudson. The book is one of three topical books in the series “The Chicago History of American Civilization,” edited by Daniel Boorstin and published by the University of Chicago Press during the 1950s and 1960s. The other two topical books are American Catholicism and American Judaism. American Protestantism was published in 1961.

Hudson’s book is divided into three parts. The first is devoted to Protestantism in the British American Colonies and during the American Revolution. The second covers “Protestant America” from 1787 to 1914. The last is on “Post-Protestant America,” from 1914 to when the book was published. Hudson’s argument is similar to Mark Noll’s—that society and culture in the United States were dominated by Protestantism during the early nineteenth century, but Protestantism fell from that place of dominance during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The twentieth century has seen greater diversity and pluralism among Christian groups and religious groups overall.

I believe that I learned two important ideas from American Protestantism. The first is a detailed definition of “denominationalism” given in the first chapter. Hudson argues that the many divisions in Protestantism did not develop into sects where each does not believe that any of the others have the truth. Instead, they became denominations, where most believe that while there may be significant differences between different bodies, there are true Christians in other churches. He outlines the principles of denominationalism as follows: 1) people have differences in opinion; 2) they are not matters of indifference; 3) they can lead to fruitful discussions; 4) multiple churches can exist; 5) separation does not necessarily mean schism. (40-43) Hudson traces these impulses especially to the Westminster Assembly of the mid-1600s, which produced the documents that serve as the secondary standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which I am a part of. Throughout his treatment of the idea, Hudson refers to Jeremiah Burroughs, a Puritan and Congregationalist who was a member of the Assembly. Hudson concludes:

When it is remembered that, although Christians may be divided at many points, they are nonetheless united in Christ, it then becomes possible, Burroughes [sic] insisted, for them to work together for the common ends of “godliness.” What is required of the Christian is to “join with all our might in all we know, and with peaceable, quiet, humble spirits seek to know more, and in the meantime carry ourselves humbly and peaceably toward those we differ from, and Christ will not charge us at the Great Day for retarding his cause.” (44)

This is a great argument for humility or modesty in the presence of difference, a virtue that I believe would greatly improve public discourse in the United States today. It also connects in helpful ways to the concept of “confident pluralism” developed by John Inazu, a Law Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who will be speaking here at Trinity today. I do believe that there is a tension in some Protestants’ conception of denominationalism. I have known some Protestants who do believe that they have the only truth. While some would disavow that belief, their actions tend in that direction. But I think this is a human tendency, not just a problem for Protestants or Christians.

The other idea that I got from Hudson is the argument that because Protestantism dominated American culture and society for a while, it became influenced by American culture and society. This helps me understand why some Protestant churches have embraced American values and abandoned traditional Christian doctrines. Some call this cultural Christianity.

How useful might these ideas be for understanding the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder? They are both pretty large ideas, probably too large for a family or a person to exemplify. One way to understand Laura is as fairly wedded to a particular denomination, since she never joined the Methodist church in Mansfield even though attended services there for over sixty years. On the other hand, I’m not completely and totally sure if we have evidence that she actually ever joined the Congregational churches she attended in Minnesota or South Dakota either. One might also argue that the Christianity portrayed in the Little House books might show the influence of American culture and values. On the other hand, at times it is difficult to separate the religious ideas of Laura and those of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane in the book’s depictions of the church. My plan is to keep mulling over questions like these. Lord-willing I’ll be able to make progress on them once I get back to research on the Ingalls and Wilder families.

Thanks for reading.

(Page number references are from Winthrop S. Hudson, American Protestantism [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961].)

Links:

Trinity Christian College

American Protestantism

My blog post on Mark Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Westminster Standards

Jeremiah Burroughs

David Brooks on Modesty

John Inazu and Confident Pluralism

Trinity Christian College’s Worldview Series

 

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A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada

Welcome to September. I just finished my first full week of classes and am looking forward to the long weekend.

I also just finished reading Mark A. Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. It is a textbook for courses in American Church History, published by Eerdmans Publishers in 1992. It traces an enormous number of churches, Christian leaders, and social movements that have shaped Christianity in the United Sates. Noll includes the history of Christianity in Canada so that he can compare the shape that Christianity has taken in the two countries.

Noll was for many years a history professor at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school in the western suburbs of Chicago. Wheaton is both a highly-regarded academic institution and a place where Evangelical Christianity is respected and believed. At the end of his career, Noll taught at Notre Dame. He retired from the University at the end of this year. I met him at a conference several years ago and have heard him speak several times. I should also note that he is one of the co-editors of the Eerdmans series that I am writing for, the Library of Religious Biography.

Since I am a devout Christian, I have long been interested in the history of the Christian Church. However, during graduate school, I decided to specialize in the history of the American West rather than American Church history. I am pretty sure that I read Noll’s book when I was writing my dissertation, because one chapter addressed the depictions of the rural church in Midwestern farm newspapers. But if I did, I can’t find my notes. Reading it now has strengthened my understanding of American church history in multiple ways, several of which clearly contribute to my project on the faith of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

First, the book provides a concise and helpful definition and description of Puritanism as it was manifested in New England during the 1600s. Noll describes Puritans as believing that 1) God alone saves, 2) the Bible is the authority for faith and practice, 3) society is a unified whole, so church and civil government work together, and 4) God works through covenants. He concludes that Puritan teachings were “constant for over 150 years: individuals are sinners who need divine salvation; God has provided that salvation by grace, from his mercy alone; saved sinners now have the right and privilege to serve God by following his law.” (46) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ancestors came to Massachusetts as part of the Puritan migration during the 1630s, and the Congregational Churches she was involved with in the upper Midwest were descended from Puritanism. So Noll’s definitions and descriptions provide welcome context.

Second, Noll characterizes the early nineteenth century as an age where Evangelical Protestant Christianity dominated American culture, society, and politics. Revivals in the early 1800s (the Second Great Awakening) caused hundreds of thousands of Americans to become Christians or to become more serious Christians. Reform movements such as abolition, temperance, and the women’s movement were national in scope. During the Civil War, leaders in both the North and South saw their causes as fully supported by the Bible. However, during the period between 1865 and 1920, a great transition occurred in American church history. Challenges from new intellectual movements, immigration, industrialization, urbanization, and commercialization led to a loss of Evangelical Protestant dominance. The Christian church since roughly the 1920s has existed in both a pluralistic and a secularizing context. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s long life (from 1867 to 1957) witnessed these upheavals.

Finally, Noll’s book provides several interesting specific observations about Christian Churches in the American West both before and after the Civil War. Noll describes how during the early nineteenth century, “earnest clergymen, Sunday School workers, and organizers of voluntary agencies (many of them women) cooperated with the settlers to impart the institutions and practices of Christian civilization” to new areas of the west. (223) Later, he provides a more melancholy meditation on life in rural areas:

Whatever their formal religious beliefs, ordinary Americans seemed to retain a generally sober, even Calvinistic, view of humanity, concerned much more with human limitations than with human potential. Ordinary people, in a life made difficult by unexpected death, families separated by vast distances, and the unpredictability of weather and crops, tended toward personal resignation. They were earnest, wary of pretension, and above all pessimistic about human nature. They were less concerned with controlling other people for their own ends than with controlling themselves and their immediate environments. Common people had a vital interest in order and a deep-seated fear of disorder. They dealt with these inner needs, it seems, with efforts to control the self, respond to God’s particular call for salvation, and accept the more general designs of Providence. Most common people worried about controlling themselves in the face of personal guilt, anxieties due to the vicissitudes of love and marriage, the uncertainties of birth, the unknown possibilities of the West, and the ever-present reality of death. These are generalizations that did not apply to many antebellum Americans, but for many others—perhaps even a majority—this vision of life shaped the daily round. (229)

Certain parts of this description seem to fit the mindset of Laura and the Ingalls family well. They certainly confronted their share of family separation, crop unpredictability, and anxieties about life passages. A tone of resignation or stoicism can be seen particularly in The First Four Years, but also in some of her correspondence, and at times in the Little House books themselves.

Finally, the book notes that churches in the West in the late nineteenth century confronted realities that made it impossible for Protestant churches to have the central role they did in the east or in earlier decades. Churches faced religious pluralism from the start, had no government support, and dealt with communities made up of many men without families and with little education. Noll argues that “These conditions… ensured that the role of the churches remained auxiliary rather than central to the new societies.” (328) He concludes:

The Civil War, in other words, marked a fresh opportunity for opening the West to settlement and for introducing Christianity. But conditions in the region combined with the instant pluralism of postbellum faiths to shape a context in which religion never meant the same thing, or perhaps as much, as its most earnest adherents had hoped when they contemplated the chance to fill the West with churches as well as settlers. (328)

These descriptions are applied to the years when Laura was growing up in Minnesota and South Dakota. I’m not sure how well they describe the situation in those states, being closer to the settled Midwest and further from regions characterized by mining booms and busts. But it is a place to start. During the next few months, I plan to read several more academic surveys of American Religious history.

So far this semester I have been successful in leaving my office on Thursday mornings to read and think and write. My wife and I have been reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and it has greatly helped my thinking about how to carve out time for important tasks. I highly recommend it.

I hope that everyone has a great Labor Day break. Thanks for reading.

(Page number references are from Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992].)