The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants in the Christian Past by Paul J. Gutacker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2023. Paperback. 264 pp. $13.
Early nineteenth-century Americans undoubtedly considered America to be a “Christian nation.” This, however, did not mean what many of today’s proponents of “Christian nationalism” might wish that it did. Indeed, whether Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Campbellite, or Episcopalian, many Christian writers in the early American republic agreed on this one thing: the United States of America was perhaps the most Christian of all the Christian nations that had ever been established in human history, precisely because it was the opposite of medieval Christendom, which virtually everyone seemed to agree had been filled with unspeakable horrors. Presbyterian minister William Findley went so far as to write, in 1811, that Christendom had resulted in worse persecution for Christians even than that which they had faced at the hands of “the inhuman monsters Nero and Domitian” (11).
In his debut manuscript, Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants in the Christian Past, Paul J. Gutacker sets out to prove that American Protestants, in the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, contrary to received wisdom, did not only care about “Jesus, the Bible, and me.” Rather, Protestants in every denomination, ranging from the old established denominations, like the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, to the brand-new “Restorationist” denominations, like the Churches of Christ, interacted deeply and extensively with the Christian tradition. Throughout Old Faith, he engages, with “sermons, books, speeches, legal arguments, [and] political petitions” to show how early American Protestants did so in a variety of settings (3). Gutacker recently completed his Ph.D. dissertation at Baylor University under the direction of Thomas Kidd and now directs the Brazos Fellows program at Christ Church, an Anglican (ACNA) church in Waco, TX.
Previously, historians such as Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll have largely agreed that nineteenth-century American evangelicals, influenced by the forces of Scottish commonsense reasoning and Jeffersonian republicanism, moved away from the authority of Christian tradition and towards a mere “biblicism.” Nathan Hatch, for example, argues in The Democratization of American Christianity (1987) that as American evangelicalism developed following the American Revolution, it did so in a way that increasingly conformed to the logic of republicanism—especially the Jeffersonian sort. Evangelicals, he shows, gravitated toward populist manifestations of the Christian faith while generally rejecting hierarchical authority structures. In this process, the period was defined, as Gutcaker points out that Hatch wrote, by a “decisive expatriation from the past” (2). Mark Noll, for his part, argued in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis that American evangelicals’ biblicism and detachment from tradition explains, in part, why Americans—who were overwhelmingly evangelical by 1860—were unable to agree with each other on slavery.
Gutacker thoroughly proves that Noll overestimates American evangelicals’ “biblicism.” Evangelicals, in the lead up to the Civil War, on both sides of the issue of slavery, extensively appealed to the Christian tradition. For example, Gutacker points readers to a public, printed debate between two prominent Baptist ministers—Francis Wayland of Rhode Island, and Richard Fuller in South Carolina. During these debates, Wayland appealed to Church Fathers such as Clement, Paulinius, Cyprian, and Ambrose, as well as the recent scholarship of Bela Bates Edwards which he thought demonstrated the early church to have been, largely, anti-slavery, whereas Fuller appealed to Chrysostom. Other pro-slavery Southern Protestants appealed to Church Fathers like Ignatius and Jerome. Meanwhile, abolitionists—especially black abolitionists—repeatedly appealed to the fact that many of the Church Fathers were, in fact, Africans, and that Africans had played a large role in the early church.
However, in my assessment, Gutacker’s work mostly confirms, rather than challenges, Hatch’s portrayal of early American evangelicalism as having developed in a way that conformed to the logic of Jeffersonian republicanism. Though nineteenth-century American Protestants were very much concerned with reading, studying, and teaching about the Christian past, it must be granted that the way that they interacted with the Christian tradition was peculiar and that their perception of the Christian past was mostly negative. They were trying to break away from the perceived oppressiveness of the Christian past! And due to the United States’ unique lack of an established church (at least at the federal level, and by 1833, in every state as well), they viewed Christianity as having entered a new golden era, the likes of which had not seen since Constantine first corrupted the religion. This perspective was, in large part due to whom evangelicals were learning about the Christian tradition from.
In the first few chapters of Old Faith, Gutacker shows that in addition to reading older Protestant classics, like John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, American Protestants were predominately interacting with the Christian tradition through the works of those whom he terms “Enlightenment” historians. Such works included Johann Lorenz von Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History (1726), Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-78), and Joseph Milner’s History of the Church of Christ (1794-1809). These books donned the shelves of founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and seem to have been influential on their move to disestablish the church. These “Enlightenment” historians, some of whom were not orthodox Christians in the slightest, were captivated by the narrative not too dissimilar in structure from Rousseau’s famous idea that primitive men were “noble savages” who lived in relatively egalitarian society, until being corrupted by civilization. Similarly, these historians portrayed Christianity as having begun as a pure, largely non-hierarchical, and egalitarian religion that challenged the centers of authority in the Roman Empire. However, Christianity had then fallen into corruption after being legalized by Constantine and then established by Theodosius, and as medieval Christendom emerged, the Roman Catholic Church gradually became a more oppressive, corrupt, and perverse institution. Gutacker shows that Constantine, especially, became a stand-in for everything that had gone wrong with Christianity and that “Constantine bad!” became an almost universally accepted truism in early America.
Over the ensuing chapters Gutacker demonstrates the pervasiveness of the “Constantine bad!” narrative among early American Protestants, and how much they cared about making sure people were educated with it. One might assume that a narrative centered around the evils of Christendom and religious establishment would greatly appeal to lower-church groups like the Baptists and the Methodists but not to traditions in the magisterial Protestant tradition. Gutacker shows, however, that this narrative had great caché even among Presbyterians and Episcopalians. In chapter three, for example, he points to Episcopal minister John Bowden (1751-1817), who used this narrative of church history to warn Americans about the danger of Roman Catholics establishing their own institutions of learning in the United States. In chapter four, Gutacker points to David R. Kerr, a professor at the Presbyterian Union Theological Seminary in New York, who used this narrative of church history to counter the Oxford Movement that was growing in influence in the Church of England in the mid-1800s.
Gutacker also shows that this “Constantine bad!” narrative was widely taught to children through the new Sunday School movement. “Sunday Schools,” in their origin in early nineteenth century America, were not the same as they are today—an informal equipping hour for children or adults that churches schedule alongside their main worship service. Rather, it was a more formally institutionalized effort spearheaded by the American Sunday School Union that sought, primarily, to teach children how to read so that they could read the Bible, but also taught lessons in civics, history, and other subjects. One of these subjects was church history, and Gutacker points out that Susannah Rowson, who wrote one of the most utilized materials for this, drew heavily on Joseph Milner. Her materials taught children around the country that Constantine, and government establishment of Christianity, had corrupted it, and church history should demonstrate the wisdom of American republicanism. In her material, children were exposed to editorial claims such as the notion that “the Arian controversy ‘ought to make us grateful that the government of our country has no control over our religion’” —a curious claim, considering that the controversy was resolved by the Council of Nicaea, which Constantine convened (53).
Then, in chapter five, Gutacker details how the “Constantine bad!” narrative of church history was utilized by female activists in the first-wave feminist movement. Activists such as Lydia Maria Child blamed inequality within Christianity on the corruption that began, originally, with Constantine. They asserted that in the early church, prior to Constantine, Christianity boldly challenged the patriarchal gender hierarchies of the Roman Empire, and women had played a central role in promoting the early Christian movement. As the church descended into its medieval corruption, however, after Constantine, gender inequality followed. Indeed, Gutacker explains that “[Child] associated the elevation of women with the purity of the apostolic church, while conflating gender inequality, ecclesiastical authoritarianism, and Roman Catholic superstition.” (88). For first-wave feminists such as Child, America being a truly Christian nation—as opposed to Christendom—meant that equality for women should logically follow.
What are the takeaways from all of this, for those of us who are interested in the Christian Commonwealth project? I have two for us to consider.
One takeaway is that attempting to draw from American history to establish a “Christian commonwealth,” or, even more boldly, a “new Christendom,” is much more complicated than many of us would probably like to admit. As conservative Protestant intellectuals have increasingly realized the limitations of liberalism, their writings have become filled with reminders that America’s religious liberty tradition is not nearly as secular as the phrase “separation of church and state” might suggest. Several of the states had established churches for decades after the founding, after all! However, while early America was certainly not secular, it is manifest that magisterial Protestantism was not the dominant political theology—by a long shot. Even though we can look to the Puritans, or we can argue that certain magisterial Protestant influences affected the framing of the Constitution, at the end of the day, the story that bound early American Protestants together, more than any other, and gave them a conception of what their Christian nation was, was “Constantine bad. America the opposite.”
The second takeaway, however, is that we can have even more confidence that pundits who use the religious liberty enshrined in the American founding to suggest that America was not, and has never been, a “Christian nation,” do not know what they are talking about. This notion is perhaps the dominant mood within the Democratic Party today. For example, on December 1, during a monologue on his nightly show, Bill Maher slammed Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana), the newly installed Speaker of the House, as a “theocrat,” bemoaning that “Mike says that we began as a Christian nation. We didn’t. If you don’t know that the Pilgrims came here to get away from the Church of England, then you literally don’t know the first thing about our country.”
In response to Maher, however, it is intriguing to notice that during the early nineteenth century, as Americans continued to establish for themselves an independent national identity, rates of church attendance and membership, especially in evangelical denominations, skyrocketed. Evangelical Protestantism became core to Americans’ national self-conception, but that went hand in hand with—rather than standing in contrast with—American pride in religious liberty. Indeed, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” a hymn to America written in 1831 by Baptist seminary student Samuel Francis Smith, extols “the Pilgrims’ pride,” and in verse four, acknowledges God as both the “author of liberty” and America’s “king.” Ironically, while Maher thinks that the Pilgrims coming to America to escape the Church of England is one example that shows that America began as a secular nation, many early nineteenth-century American Protestants would have seen it as proof of the opposite. They would have looked to the Pilgrims and taken pride in them as one example of why America was, in fact, the most Christian “Christian nation” that had ever been established.
Jacob Huneycutt holds an MA in history from Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, where he focused on early American and Baptist religious history. Previous to that, he did his BA in history at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, where he was born and raised. He currently resides in Tampa, Florida, where he works as an intern for a college ministry, and he attends a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church in Lakeland, Florida.