Long before earning an M.A. in history, I was an avid reader of Christian theology. My education in theology was mostly informal and sprang from my passionate Christian faith. Over time I became fascinated with its nuances, history, and various schools of thought.
When I decided to pursue further studies in American history, I naturally catered my research to these religious and philosophical elements. What I found was a surprisingly rich and important theological history that provided valuable context for key events. Historian E. Brooks Holifield‘s Theology in America: Christian Thought From the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War expounds on this idea. Here are a few of his key points:
“For more than a century in early colonial America, theologians ruled the realm of ideas. America’s first learned class consisted largely of Protestant clergy, and the relatively small number of pastors who published books of theology, or ‘‘divinity,’’ attained the status of the most learned of the learned … Until late in the eighteenth century, they were, in each decade, the most-published authors in America.”
“Theologians were the keepers of a language that flowed over into other fields of discourse. Confident that philosophy, rightly construed, supported theological truth, they crafted most of the early American philosophical texts.”
“Poets and novelists—including Herman Melville, Nathanial Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—struggled with, and often against, the pronouncements of the theologians to such an extent that one can hardly hope to understand the nineteenth-century literary renaissance without knowing something about the theological ideas current in the culture.”
“At the same time, the language of theology informed the piety of Americans who never immersed themselves in learned and artistic productions. Through the sermons and tracts of local Protestant and Catholic clergy, the ideas of theologians reached an audience that knew little of science or philosophy.”
Theology and the Study of History
Holifield’s detailed book on American theology is compelling. However, with it comes an important question:
If American theology is indeed as fundamental and widespread as Holifield suggests, why is it not taught in conjunction with early American history classes? What role should American theology play in the study of American history?
It seems that the logical answer to the first question is that it should indeed be taught in conjunction with American history classes (particularly early American). Theology explains the deep-rooted belief systems and worldviews of key historical figures, and provides essential context for their actions.
The answer to the second question is a bit more complex. The education that I am advocating is not necessarily indoctrination in a particular set of theological beliefs – this should be relegated to seminaries and Christian institutions – a separate category. What I am suggesting, however, is a course (or segment of a course) on the history of American theology. Such a course would encompass a broad range of American beliefs, including Old Calvinism, Edwardseanism, Deism, Baconian philosophy, Unitarianism, Universalism, and Transcendentalism (my guess is that current American history majors can only cursorily describe one or two of these systems).
In addition, a general knowledge of American theology would have relevant and practical implications. With much discussion surrounding the idea of America as a “Christian Nation,” increased theological insight may allow for more informed discussions. Rather than viewing all forms of theology as “Christian,” perhaps students, researchers, and politicians would be more acute in their descriptions and categorizations of men such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
Theological understanding, while not always orthodox, has always been united to the “American mind.” Even today, almost 90% of Americans affirm a faith in “God or a universal spirit.” Detailing the origins of these beliefs, and their rich intellectual past, should become more of a priority for history departments in American universities.