- Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War
A book like Theology in America is a rarity these days. An ambitious tome, it traces the ideas of nearly 300 theologians in the Anglo-American colonies and the United States between 1636 and 1865. It does so at a time when most historians of religion have shifted their focus away from the ideas and debates of literate, intellectual elites and toward such topics as everyday practice and popular ideology. Holifield's work can be read as a valuable counterweight to this trend, as "rare was the discourse in early America in which theology had no role"(p. viii).
Holifield's work draws narrative coherence from the argument that early American theologians shared a concern with the reasonableness of Christianity that led them to infuse their arguments with philosophical theory. This overarching theme interplays with five others:"the continued insistence on theology's 'practicality' and its ethical functions, the importance of Calvinism, the interplay between Americans and Europeans, the denominational setting of theology, and the distinction between academic and populist strands of thought"(p. 4).
The first part of the book treats the Reformed tradition from the first debates in New England to its fragmentation in the wake of Jonathan Edwards. Initially, seventeenth-century Calvinists relied on Protestant scholasticism and humanist logic in making their arguments. But a mounting challenge from English deists led subsequent generations of New Englanders to evidentialism and natural theology to defend truth as revealed only in the Bible. The second part of the book elaborates upon the use of evidentialism beyond New England and through the early national and antebellum periods. It covers a broader array of denominations including, among others, Unitarians, Universalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Shakers, and Mormons. Uniting these disparate and competing strands, according to Holifield, was a methodological foundation based on Scottish Common-Sense traditions and an exaltation of Baconian science.
By the 1830's, many dissenters found limited utility in Baconian Science. The book's third part traces the work of Lutherans, Catholics, and Transcendentalists, and how they turned to intuition, historical communities of faith, and other alternatives to Baconian empiricism. A short chapter on the challenge presented by [End Page 349] slavery details how the institution forced many theologians to question the practicality of theology and consider "a form of interpretation that took into account historical criticism, the social and cultural context of the biblical writings, diversity and development within the canon, and the force of presuppositions in biblical scholarship"(p. 495). A brief afterword, however, points to the persistence of evidential theology into the twentieth century.
In devoting a chapter to the debate over slavery, Holifield provides an excellent example of theologians attempting to put their work to practical use. But in so doing, he makes one wonder if he should have done more on the relationship between theology and the rhetoric of the American Revolution, antebellum reform, nativism, or anti-Catholicism. To what extent did theology play a role in these movements, and what effect did they have on theology? To be sure, this would entail Holifield's veering somewhat from his stated purpose, but his theme of practicality begs for just a bit more sociopolitical contextualization of the ideas discussed.
It is also noteworthy that Holifield departs from the current tendency of many colonial American historians to approach their subject from a broad, continental perspective. Jesuit activities in New France and New Spain receive only passing mention. While it would not be fair to insist that Holifield should have devoted comprehensive attention to all of North America—his work is magisterial as it stands—he might have chosen a less ambitious title.