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].)
Trinity Christian College’s Worldview Series