- Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and the Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America by Elizabeth A. Clark
Anyone who reads Elizabeth Clark’s books cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer depth of research that underlies her writing. Whether or not one agrees with a particular interpretation or theoretical perspective, it is clear that a real professional is at work. This latest volume is no exception, demonstrating both a deep grounding in theoretical reflection on the links between institutional and intellectual development, and the fruit of painstaking archival research. Those who know her will find here the summation of themes Clark has been presenting at conferences and in the occasional article for some years.
Fundamental to this project is a concern to see how the study of early Christianity formed as a discipline in particular institutional contexts. Indeed, the introduction is prefaced with a quote from Hayden White that sets the tone for the volume as a whole: “The question is, What is involved in the transformation of a field of studies into a discipline?” (1). Clark explores this question by studying six nineteenth-century figures in four institutions: Princeton, Union, Yale, and Harvard. Doing so enables her both to explore the changing self-understanding of the teacher of this period, and to explore how the institutions themselves changed—in particular how they gradually became institutions that nurtured specialized academic research. But just as her individual professors are placed in the context of their institutions, the development of these institutions is placed in the context of debates over what it meant to be an American intellectual: How did the chance to shape institutions away from Europe affect the figures she studies? How was the centrality of Germanic scholarship on early Christianity adopted and adapted in the United States context during this period? The discipline of early Christian studies is presented as emerging because of the pressures exerted by each of these contexts.
The book is organized into three parts. The first explores the professors and [End Page 467] institutions that Clark will study, along with the character of the libraries available and the sorts of textbooks that were used in teaching. The second part focuses on debates over the nature of history and historical development. It is here that debates over the use of German thought are seen in their full complexity. The story, as one might expect, concerns the ability of Clark’s Protestant scholars to engage the theories of development that emerged in Tübingen and gradually came to be fundamental for scholars across Christian traditions. For Clark’s scholars such theories conflicted with a strong rhetoric of Christianity’s “fall” into early Catholicism following the apostolic period. But, as belief in theories of doctrinal development grew, a foundation was gradually provided for the discipline. If Christianity underwent a fundamental development and flowering during this period, then surely it necessarily demanded study? Some turned to conceptions of God’s providential ordering of history to justify their new attention to the period. Clark argues that it was ultimately only in the transcending of such a belief that the truly historical study of early Christianity could emerge.
The third part takes forward the second by exploring three key topics that occupied a good deal of attention and reveal a good deal about the scholars in question: church polity, Roman Catholicism, and asceticism. Clark explores each fascinating case study against the background of her treatment in the previous part of the volume concerning conceptions of “fall” and development.
Not surprisingly, Chapter Eight, “Asceticism, Marriage, Women, and the Family,” is one of the highlights of the book as a whole. Clark’s own prior expertise, the attitudes of her subjects, and her ability to spot the very best quotations make this a masterpiece of the historian’s art. It does not take much for the reader to imagine Clark’s delight at finding in an 1808 sermon by Samuel Miller of Princeton (1769–1850) the following comment about...