- Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America by Elizabeth A. Clark
Founding the Fathers explores the earliest decades of church history as an academic discipline in American higher education. Elizabeth Clark, a distinguished historian of early Christianity (with its largely German early historiography), tells this story about now-forgotten American church historians who, for complex cultural reasons, develop an interest in the early church but stand at a critical distance from the German tradition that shaped later American scholarship. Her book carefully examines and critiques the nineteenth-century American tradition, showing that “scholarly assumptions and personal convictions” would need to be “modified or abandoned” in order for “a more advanced level of education in religious and theological studies [to] flourish in America” (p. 346). There is an intriguing triangulation happening in this account: as an American historian of early Christianity, Clark very much stands generationally downstream from her subjects, even while she and her profession have in many ways disowned them in favor of a German genealogy.
Clark’s principal concern is the formation of early Christian history as a scholarly discipline, and her work provides new material for understanding the seminary roots of higher education in America. She makes a compelling case that her story can be told through the careers of six church historians at four Protestant theological institutions: Samuel Miller at Princeton; Henry Smith, Roswell Hitchcock, and Philip Schaff at Union; George Fisher at Yale; and Ephraim Emerton at Harvard. As a cohort, they recognized the importance of German scholarship for historical study even while most rejected the radical implications of German ideas. Five of the six actually studied in Germany.
Clark provides a nuanced account of the considerable obstacles faced by her subjects as they sought to understand early Christianity, obstacles that especially [End Page 680] plagued the historians writing in the early and mid-nineteenth century. American Protestant seminaries were then institutionally in their infancy, with “inadequate textbooks and libraries, students untutored in history, [and] few colleagues … with whom to organize a theological curriculum” (p. 1). Seminary professors were also beholden to theological frameworks and assumptions, especially to the idea of a divinely-inspired Bible and a Protestant reading of history in which the writings of the Church Fathers (even St. Augustine) were mostly viewed as problematic. Thus their approach to history was “apologetic, confessional, and moralizing” (p. 343). Still, despite such obstacles, the story is one of subtle adjustment to German ideals. The professors warmed to the notion of ecclesial development through the doctrine of Providence, which safeguarded a Protestant rendering of church history, even while their new familiarity with the Church Fathers immunized them from some of the more reactionary forms of anti-Catholicism.
Emerton stands at the end of Clark’s account because, unlike the rest, he challenged some key tenets of Protestant and even Christian exceptionalism. He alone avoided a confessional approach to church history, arguing for better and more historical sources over the right theological framework. In doing so, he opened up room for a more thoroughgoing importation of German models of history and biblical criticism into (some) American seminaries and institutions of higher education.
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