Recovering US Church History (Davenant Hall Course Preview)

This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Church History in the United States from the Founders to the Fundamentalists”, running in the Summer 2021 Term (July – August), and convened by Dr. Miles Smith.

If you wish to register for the module, you can do so here.

Why another course on the history of American religion? It’s a worthwhile question given the cottage industry that exists to tell the story of Christianity in the United States. American telemedia assumes that White Christian Nationalism and devout Christians are fascinating (or revolting) to the American populace. But our cacophanous culture wars and partisan politics all too often cloud the question of what American Christianity actually is. There are certainly cultural battles to be fought, and political debates to be had, but we will make little real progress without a proper understanding of Protestantism in the United States, particularly in the long nineteenth century. And such an understanding is the goal of the Summer Term 2021 Davenant Hall course “Church History in the United States from the Founders to the Fundamentalists”.

Nineteenth century religious life in the United States created what we now understand as modern American religion. There would be no so-called “Evangelicalism” without the so-called Fundamentalist/Modernist debates in the 1910s and 1920s. But more importantly there would be no Fundamentalist/Modernist debates without the explosion of American intellectual life in the nineteenth century. Attemtping to protect orthodoxy, twentieth century conservative Protestant thought was paired down to the basics of soteriology and a few ethical issues (generally regarding human sexuality). It was largely dismissive of Protestant intellectual engagement with other aspects of social and civil life in the United States. Nineteenth century Protestant divines, however, engaged the great intellectual questions. Their answers represented the broad and diverse Protestant intellectual tradition. 

Exploring the breadth of the Protestant intellectual tradition in the nineteenth century will form a major part of this class. Many know the basic biographies of figures like Charles Hodge because they were influential, but also because of hagiographic works produced by major Evangelical publishers in the last half-century. This class will seek to avoid hagiography and treat clerics as historical figures – not to dismiss their spiritual contributions, but to contextualize them.

That context will also provide a vehicle for exploring lesser-known but equally important figures who made creative, dynamic intellectual debate a hallmark of nineteenth century Protestant life. How many Presbyterians know about the intellectual debate over Locke within the ranks of ministers in the 1850s? Do American Anglicans know about their rather unique relationship to the worldwide Anglican communion? How many conservative American Baptists imagine their ranks being filled with the brightest lights of Ivy League seminarians? Far from being intellectually impoverished, nineteenth century Protestants published widely, leaving a remarkable intellectual patrimony for future generations that is only now being recovered. 

That recovery, to a considerable extent, has its roots in Evangelicals. Dissatisfied with their tribe’s anemic responses to contemporary socio-cultural issues, they began reclaiming the Protestant intellectual tradition for laypeople and pastors without scholarly training. Important as that aim is, this class is not designed to replicate it, but to provide a look at the history of Protestant ideals. Terms like “theocrat” and “theonomy” and a host of Evangelical rhetorical soteriological tropes will be notably absent from our discussions. Many such rhetorical terms, and the conflicts associated with them, are creations of the mid-to-late twentieth century. 

Perhaps no aspect of studying history is more uncomfortable than the latent deconstruction that comes with scholarly pursuit. Study of religious history is no different. Can a religious conservative’s faith survive the reality that American nineteenth century American nationalism almost always lay downstream from Enlightenment liberalism and played a role in the rise of progressivism? Can a religious progressive’s faith confront the fact that reformist movements birthed by American churches in the nineteenth century led to some of the United States’ worst racial excesses? The desire to assign “sides” to history has conservative as well as progressive purveyors and should be avoided. 

This class will be less about finding answers to pressing social or political questions and more about opening doors. These doors will hopefully lead every student to a fuller understanding of the past and perhaps a fuller understanding of how that past defined and influenced our own twenty-first century moment. 

This Church History course will be taught by Dr. Miles Smith. This course will run from July 5th through August 27th. The syllabus will be available soon. Register here.

Dr. Miles Smith (PhD Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. His research is on the U.S. South and the Atlantic world. He generally writes on intellectual history—ideas, religion, slavery and freedom, etc.—but occasionally dabbles in political history, too. He is also interested in Europe and in Latin America. He edits nineteenth century works of historical theology and is revising a religious biography of Andrew Jackson. He has written for popular outlets like Mere OrthodoxyThe Gospel CoalitionPublic DiscourseThe FederalistThe University Bookman, and The American Conservative. He also co-hosts The Paleo Protestant Pudcast.