Book Review of Mark Noll’s “America’s God” (Chapter 7-9)

Posted: July 3, 2009 by Scott Kistler in History, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism

In Chapters 7-8 of America’s God, Mark Noll shows himself to be a careful historian as he documents how traditional and “innovative” theologies did not become “American” theologies during the period of the American Revolution.  In other words, even as “commonsense” moral philosophy and republican political theory became more accepted by evangelical Christians, they did not produce a paradigm shift in American theology.  Evangelicals like Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists became comfortable with the republican and commonsense language, though.  Noll intends to show that after the 1790s, American evangelical theology would be transformed by these ideas.  But the American Revolutionary period was not the period where this happened.  Even the nonevangelical theologies of liberal Congregationalism (marked by rationalism and universalism) and Deism did not fully acclimate themselves to American society after the Revolution.

For Noll, the transformation of evangelicalism goes along with the evangelical transformation of America.  Chapter 9 shows the amazing growth of evangelical denominations, especially the Baptists and Methodists, in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Interestingly enough, evangelicals had not been a major force during the Revolutionary period, certainly not at their level during the Great Awakening in the 1740s.  Revivals were a local rather than intercolonial or national phenomenon.  But in the new climate after 1790, evangelicals returned as a major cultural force, bringing new members into the fold and expanding along with the American population into the western frontiers of the nation (at this point not very far west from our perspective).

Noll notes that American evangelicals’ “attachment to Scripture was also accompanied by a bias — sometimes slight, sometimes intense — against inherited institutions” (174).  An important part of the climate was that the American religious scene was being transformed from the European model of established Protestant churches (like Congregationalism in New England) to the familiar model of nearly complete religious freedom.  Furthermore, American evangelicals did not feel bound to traditional interpretations of Scripture either, believing that the individual was capable of interpreting Scripture outside these traditions.  In this way, American evangelicalism looked very different from the European (including British) Protestantism from which it had descended.

Noll notes that four “polarities” help to explain differences within American evangelicalism.  Formalist denominations (Congregationalists, Prebyterians, Episcopalians, and Dutch Reformed) were the old established churches that had a tradition of theological education and writing, and they contrasted with the antiformalists like the Methodists, Baptists, and members of Restorationist movements.  Formalists tended to be Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans from the Northeast, while the antiformalists tended to be Jeffersonians and Democrats from the South and on the Western frontiers.  The formalists tended to have a national vision, while antiformalists were more associated with local community independence.

Racial divisions also formed a polarity, as white and black Christians began to develop different church cultures after the conversions of slaves, largely by Baptists and Methodists, began to take off.  Going along with this, slave and free states developed differently as well, as the leading theologians in the North were often Congregational while in the South they were Presbyterian.  Finally, evangelical Christians tended to accomodate to 19th-century ideas of separate spheres for men and women, showing a belief in the polarity of male and female roles.

After 1830, Noll writes, evangelicals began to divide.  Their remarkable expansion had not resulted in a fully transformed and converted nation.  Baptists and Methodists split in 1844 into southern and northern groups over the issue of slavery, and slavery also helped to divide Presbyterians into New and Old School in 1837.  Even the American Anti-Slavery society split in 1840.  New groups like the Restorationists and Millerites appeared, and Joseph Smith introduced the new religion of Mormonism.

Now that Noll has chronicled the expansion of evangelicalism, he intends to show what role in played in creating the culture of the new nation.

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