Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America

By Wiewora, Nathaniel | The Historian, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America


Wiewora, Nathaniel, The Historian


Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America. By Elizabeth A. Clark. (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 561. $69.95.)

In this focused and weighty book, Elizabeth A. Clark uncovers how the study of early Christian history developed as a distinct discipline during the nineteenth century. She examines how four Protestant seminaries--Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Union--transitioned from institutions of ministerial training to America's first full-fledged graduate schools in the humanities. Clark zeroes in on six professors of early church history at these schools: Samuel Miller, Henry Smith, Philip Schaff, Roswell Hitchcock, George Fisher, and Ephraim Emerton. She delves into their lectures, personal papers, and students' notes in order to see how the study of religion became a nonsectarian, academic enterprise.

Case studies form the heart of Clark's argument. When she discusses the dearth of libraries and textbooks in antebellum America, she explains how these individuals and seminaries adapted to their lack of infrastructure. In the most convincing part of the book, Clark shows how these educational efforts fit into larger, transnational currents. These Protestant professors opposed any efforts of German higher criticism to deny traditional American Protestantism or to question the literal nature of the New Testament. However, these transnational ideas and practices did affect American seminaries. Professors taught history as an organic process, and students grappled with primary sources in their historical context.

Higher criticism also had a profound influence on the way these church historians interpreted the past. Traditionally, Protestants believed the church declined early and rapidly. The new historiographical orientation led these Protestant professors to treat the patristic and medieval periods with more sympathy, albeit through the lens of Providence.

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