The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity

Article excerpt

By Mark A. Noll. Grand Rapids, Mich, and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. xii + 340 pp. $24.00 (paper).

This is a highly synthetic study of American Christianity by an important and productive evangelical historian. It has three great strengths. First, it builds on an impressive amount of recent and in many cases revisionist research, and so it provides an up-to-date overview of scholarship in the area. Second, it presents current debates about complicated historical issues in a simple and clear but fair and balanced way. Third, it offers a number of valuable insights and provocative interpretations.

Despite the subtitle, the book is not a history of American Christianity so much as an inquiry into what has made American Christianity distinctively American. Noll's answer is that it has been definitively shaped by the spacious geography and the social and ethnic diversity of the New World, and not just according to one or two standard patterns but in a multitude of contrasting ways. The book expands on this point partly through chronological narrative and partly through explorations of such themes as the separation of church and state and the use of the Bible.

As a corollary to the intimate connection of religion, culture, and geography an implicit theme of the book is that teachers of American history who have ignored religion have condemned their students to an incomplete understanding of their subject. Columbus was not merely looking for trade routes, but working towards the conversion of new peoples to Christ. The early American colonists were seeking not personal freedoms but the opportunity to build a religious society. Separation of church and state developed not from Enlightenment ideology but from the practical necessities of a religiously diverse population. The Civil War was a religious war.

The weakness of Noll's method is that he tends to identify the distinctiveness of American Christianity with those points in which it has moved away from its European origins. But European Christianity has moved away from its European origins, too, and sometimes in ways that Noll wants to regard as quintessentially American. …