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].)

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Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

2 thoughts on “A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada”

  1. Hi John,
    Reading church history is fascinating and enlightening – and relates to so much of what our nation deals with even now. Last year while I was comparing the lives of LIW and British author-illustrator Beatrix Potter, I made parallels of their respective church histories: Congregationalists (from Puritans as you noted) and Unitarians. Both came from the separatist and non-conformists movements in the pre-industrial UK. Thanks for your reading update and diligence in study.
    – Connie in Colorado

    Like

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