Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Founding the Fathers: ? Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America
by Elizabeth Clark
University of Pennsylvania, 576 pages, $69.95

If you wish . . . to understand German thought,” the German theologian August Tholuck wrote an American student in 1839, “I will furnish you with a key to it in one word”‘ Entwicklung ’”development.” And if you wish to understand the development of American Protestant thought in the nineteenth century, a key is to understand it as a response to the German idea of development and to the “gold standard” of German historical scholarship. As the English philosopher L. P. Jacks quipped, it was “the age of German footnotes.”

In the first half of the nineteenth century, conservative Protestant scholars and divines in America watched apprehensively as the publications of the “Tübingen school,” especially David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (1835) and those of his mentor, Ferdinand Christian Baur, “disturbingly dispensed with the boundary that had silently cordoned off the unique era of Jesus and the apostles from that which followed” and exposed the New Testament itself to critical skepticism, Elizabeth Clark observes in her Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America . Few American scholars were prepared to follow Baur in his skepticism, but the significance of his challenge could be measured in the ink expended to grapple with the questions that he raised.

To her credit, Clark also shows the influence of more “pious” German figures, such as Tholuck (a magnet for theologically conservative Americans studying abroad) and August Neander, a Jewish convert to Christianity, whose widely acclaimed General History of the Christian Religion and Church was studied and taught in Europe and America, even if later historians dismissed it for retaining too much of a “providentialist” point of view.

Clark, professor of religion and history at Duke University, examines how the American Protestant professoriate in the nineteenth century attempted to use the ideas they received from the redoubtable German university system, particularly the idea of historical development, to defend Protestantism and lay the foundations for the academic disciplines of church history and patristics. But, she argues, their embrace of the idea of development”the view that history (and, for Christians, the Church) marches not aimlessly but with progressive purpose discernible by the human mind”clashed with an older, Protestant belief in the primal purity of the Church and its rapid declension and then recovery at the Reformation.

Put differently, Protestant scholars remained habituated to see “a grievous decline” after the apostolic era while at the same time embracing new theories of historical development that suggested “a more sympathetic assessment of early and medieval Christianity.” This “unresolved tension” shaped the mind of America’s elite, Protestant institutions and scholars.

The aim of Clark’s book is to trace the beginnings of the field of modern church history, how it emerged from an older confessional milieu dedicated to training Protestant clergymen to conform to the advanced, largely secular research agendas that characterize the contemporary university’s programs in the history of Christianity. In a word, Clark sets out to find prototypes of herself and her peers, precursors of a field accountable only to professional peerage and the canons of modern, secular historiography, even if she elides their theological concerns. In doing so she offers a fascinating insight into the conflicts and challenges of nineteenth-century American Christianity.

Clark focuses her study on four leading centers of education”Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Union Theological Seminary in New York”and six leading professors of church history: Samuel Miller of Princeton, George Park Fisher of Yale, Ephraim Emerton of Harvard (the only Unitarian in the bunch), and Henry Boynton Smith, Philip Schaff, and Roswell Dwight Hitchcock of Union. The preponderate focus on Union is not incidental. The seminary’s general outlook (“evangelically pious, yet colored by German historiographical and philosophical assumptions”) helped forge a “theological persona” that would exert tremendous influence over the American modern Protestant imagination and its educational and scholarly sensibilities. This “persona” wanted to hold on to core reformational emphases, such as the supremacy of Scripture over tradition, and of faith over works, while embracing a progressive view of history and critical methods that tended to lead the professors of church history to soften hard-edged theological commitments in favor of purely historical investigation.

In their efforts, Clark’s subjects encountered difficulties. Chief among them was how to allow for the “development of doctrine” (and of church praxis and polity) over the ages while also upholding the sixteenth-century view that the early Church quickly forfeited its purity. Their embrace of “development” allowed them to engage patristic sources more enthusiastically and sympathetically than their co-religionists content with the “Bible alone,” because even in early practices that they rejected, such as asceticism, they recognized the seeds for the progression of the faith. Typically anti-Catholic, they drew material from church fathers (Augustine foremost) to question allegedly “diseased” and “Judaizing” elements like the “ritual” of medieval and Tridentine Catholicism and the proliferation of “works” therein, where development had apparently arrived at an enduring cul-de-sac.

Yet they largely sought to preserve not only the New Testament from critical consideration against the efforts of Baur, Strauss, and others but also the doctrines and practices of their own confessions from the possibility of development into something else. For such “pious” timidity, Clark reproaches them for being too “apologetic, confessional, and moralizing.”

Clark’s book is an impressive achievement, and Clark is a historian’s historian, interested in explaining the past, not moralizing about it. Even so, the book suffers from a whiff of Whiggishness; her desire to chart the advance of a less providentialist, less confessional historiography sometimes curtails a nuanced, sympathetic engagement with the theological concerns of her subjects.

What is more, the evidence that she marshals at times works against the theses she wants to advance. Take Philip Schaff, for example, the Swiss-German émigré scholar whose indefatigable labors in church history (and so much more) have placed all subsequent American theologians and historians in his debt. Believing that the Reformation had reset the Church to its original mission and enabled a more progressive Christian future, he was always keen to criticize the biblicist and sectarian proclivities of American Protestantism.

But if Schaff fits Clark’s story in some respects, in others he does not. Unwilling to accept that the Holy Spirit had been asleep at the helm for some fifteen hundred years, he went much further than his peers in embracing a developmental, “organic” vision of the Church, one that included esteeming aspects of the Middle Ages quite favorably. He was even tried for heresy twice for his “Romanizing” tendencies”a fact that reveals the limits of his anti-Catholicism and his more developed critique of the abuses of sola scriptura . Clark mentions these episodes but does not elaborate.

Moreover, desirous of transcending sixteenth-century polemics, Schaff took ecumenical concerns much more seriously than did other subjects in the book, as is evident in his famous address “The Reunion of Christendom,” prepared for the Parliament of World Religions at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In short, for his “Romanizing” proclivities and interest in ecumenism, Schaff is more of an outlier in nineteenth-century American Protestantism than Clark recognizes.

Clark also suggests that the idea of historical development was a product of German Protestantism. She makes only passing reference to John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine , published in 1845, and altogether ignores the Catholic Tübingen school, where scholars such as Johann Adam Möhler and Johann Sebastian von Drey, whose major works appeared in the 1820s and ’30s, also advanced theologies of development in dialogue with their Protestant colleagues. There were other ways of approaching the question of development than the German Protestant one.

If the book has a hero, it is Emerton, who “more than the other professors here surveyed . . . moved the study of church history from its confessional orientation to an academic discipline that began to resemble the History of Christianity.” In her conclusion, Clark generalizes this point to all of her subjects; abjuring their confessional outlooks, she admires them primarily “as builders of a discipline,” as shapers of “scholarly and institutional infrastructures” that, however remotely, began to approximate present-day “graduate study.”

One might ask whether there are some aspects of the history of Christianity that only a stakeholder of the living tradition could compellingly apprehend and that a “detached” historian interested in “the field” might altogether neglect or misconstrue. Whether, for example, the history of Christianity can be seen merely as the outworking of certain laws of historical development discernable to the scholar or as the organic growth and elaboration of something given in seed, as Newman put it, an insight more available to the believer than to the scholar. Clark offers no answer because the question (largely inadmissible by the rules of modern scholarship) is never posed.

Clark uses a quote from Henry Adams as the book’s epigraph and its final paragraph: “To [the American of the year 2000] the nineteenth century would stand on the same plane with the fourth”equally childlike”and he would only wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much.” Damning her subjects with faint praise might, finally, be too harsh a summary of Clark’s admirable, learned book. But one might hazard that she has managed to faintly damn them, even with high praise.

Thomas Albert Howard holds the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College. His most recent book is God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide (Oxford, 2011).