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  • Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War
  • Jonathan D. Sassi (bio)
Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. By E. Brooks Holifield. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 617. Cloth, $37.50.)

This is a book of breathtaking ambition. E. Brooks Holifield analyzes the sermons, polemical treatises, academic journal essays, and tomes of systematic theology—in all their sometimes hair-splitting detail—produced by 282 writers across almost two and a half centuries, from first-generation Puritan divines through the Civil War era. These writers were typically ordained clergymen and local pastors, although by the nineteenth century there had emerged a new class of professional theologians, epitomized by Princeton Seminary's Charles Hodge, who spent his entire career as an educator and editor. Holifield also gives attention to "the theological populists" (16) who scorned academic learning and insisted on their own authority to interpret the Bible. In Holifield's account, the early republic emerges as a great era in the history of American theology; the majority of his pages deal with the time period covered by this journal.

It is impossible to do justice to a work of such encyclopedic scope within the confines of a brief review. Nevertheless, Holifield has identified a number of key themes that impose order on his vast subject. The book's central claim is that American theologians always emphasized "the reasonableness of Christianity" (4), which meant, in the early republic, that they employed a Baconian model of theological argument. "No other single philosophical movement," Holifield observes, "has ever exerted as much influence on theology in America as Scottish Realism exerted on the antebellum theologians" (175). As such, his findings comport with those of Mark A. Noll, who argued similarly for the importance [End Page 479] of commonsense theology in America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (2002).

Holifield divides his narrative into three parts. Part 1, "Calvinist Origins," begins in New England, where the earliest tradition of theological writing flourished from the 1630s. The Puritans laid the foundations of theology in America during the seventeenth century along Reformed lines. They began the tradition of trying to find the proper balance between revelation and reason, which would be a dominant theme for the next two centuries. Of course, the Puritans also quickly fell out among themselves as they sought to establish orthodoxy in controversies over conversion, baptism, and other matters. Calvinist theology reached its apogee with Jonathan Edwards, one of only two individuals to merit a chapter-length treatment, the other being Horace Bushnell. Edwards "carried New England theology into the mainstream of seventeenth-century philosophy and eighteenth-century aesthetic and ethical theory" (105) while he defended such Calvinist tenets as original sin, divine sovereignty, free will, and election. After Edwards, however, Holifield describes the New England tradition as irreparably fractured into Arminian, New Divinity, and Old Calvinist wings.

Part 2, "The Baconian Style," begins with the deists of the revolutionary era. Although few in number, the deists' spirited attacks on those elements of Christianity that defied reason, such as biblical miracles or the Trinity, scared theologians into action. In response, theologians enlisted Scottish philosophy to "show the rationality of faith while preserving the necessity for revelation" (178). Whatever their differing views of Christology, soteriology, or other controversial doctrines, everyone from Universalists to Old School Presbyterians claimed that their theology was built on a foundation of common sense. Holifield makes the interesting observation that even groups seemingly on the far fringes of the denominational landscape, such as the Shakers and Mormons, also based their appeal on "the evidential style" (340). The difference, however, was that while most denominations pointed for evidence to the fulfillment of prophecies or the miracles recorded in the Bible, Shakers would attest, for instance, to the prophecies fulfilled in Ann Lee, and Mormons to miracles performed by Joseph Smith.

By the second third of the nineteenth century, however, this prevailing style of theology was wearing thin for an eclectic group of dissenters. Part 3, "Alternatives to Baconian Reason," discusses such approaches as [End Page 480] the Lutherans' defense...


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