For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed American history. My young country has a fascinating history full colorful figures, incredible leaders, and vile accounts of how twisted humanity can be. When I started college I knew very little of America’s religious history beyond a few key Christian leaders that I had learned about in my years at a small Christian school. Imagine my surprise when I found out that American church history is just as fascinating and colorful as American history. Since starting college and my current status as a seminary student I have taken a number of church history classes. This semester I am taking a class that is focused specifically on American Christian History. One of out textbooks for that class is Mark Noll’s America’s God.
America’s God offers a fascinating look at American Christian history from the time of Jonathan Edwards through the time of the Civil War. The section that I read for class today was particularly interesting. Noll wrote about the “Americanization” of denominations like the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and the Methodists. After the Revolutionary War, republican political language and ideology came to be dominant in the minds of Americans. In the same way that today certain cultural terms are ingrained in our consciousness, the same could be said of republicanism in the decades following the Revolutionary War. Noll devotes a good deal of time discussing how denominations and religious leaders came to incorporate the language of republicanism into the church. There was a sort of marriage between theological language and the popular American political language of the day.
Here is my thinking on the matter. The world that early 19th century American church leaders found themselves in was one where the culture had embraced American republicanism. It was a cultural phenomena, a common ground that just about anyone had some knowledge of and could identify with. Whether consciously or not, I think the church leaders recognized this shift in the culture and felt that in order to continue to reach the American masses, they had to speak a language that they understood. Some people might cringe at that thought, thinking, “the Bible is the Bible and it does not change!” That is true, but throughout history, while Scripture is the solid foundation, the look of the house built on that foundation has changed it’s look repeatedly. A modern equivalent might be a church with a traditional and a contemporary service. The church is reaching out to two different generations and both generations are learning the same truths from the same Bible. The difference is only in method.
This becomes a problem when the church compromises too much to culture. If 19th century church leaders had incorporated so much republican language and ideology into the church that solid theology was compromised, that would be a problem. The church is not a political organization (although the teachings of Scripture should inform your politics and not vice versa) and the 19th century Presbyterians and Congregationalists were not seeking to make the church into political organization. Instead, they were simply trying to speak the language of the people while still imparting Scriptural truths.