God's Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America

God's Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America

God's Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America

God's Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America


In God's Ambassadors E. Brooks Holifield masterfully traces the history of America's Christian clergy from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, analyzing the changes in practice and authority that have transformed the clerical profession.

Challenging one-sided depictions of decline in clerical authority, Holifield locates the complex story of the clergy within the context not only of changing theologies but also of transitions in American culture and society. The result is a thorough social history of the profession that also takes seriously the theological presuppositions that have informed clerical activity. With alternating chapters on Protestant and Catholic clergy, the book permits sustained comparisons between the two dominant Christian traditions in American history.

At the same time, God's Ambassadors depicts a vocation that has remained deeply ambivalent regarding the professional status marking the other traditional learned callings in the American workplace. Changing expectations about clerical education, as well as enduring theological questions, have engendered a debate about the professional ideal that has distinguished the clerical vocation from such fields as law and medicine.

The American clergy from the past four centuries constitute a colorful, diverse cast of characters who have, in ways both obvious and obscure, helped to shape the tone of American culture. For a well-rounded narrative of their story told by a master historian, God's Ambassadors is the book to read.


I incurred multiple debts while writing this book, and three institutions deserve special mention as the sponsors who made its completion possible.

First, the book is a product of the Pulpit and Pew Project, a comprehensive sociological, theological, and historical investigation of the clergy in America sponsored by the Lilly Endowment and administered by Jack Carroll, John James, Becky McMillan, and Kenneth Carder at Duke University. I am indebted to the seminars and other gatherings that occurred under the auspices of the project.

Second, I did some of the writing while serving as a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, and my work received support through a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. in our seminar on “The Child in Law, Religion, and Society,” our maestro, John Witte, made me newly aware of the important ways in which care for the child has been a consistent theme in ministry in America. My conclusions about these matters, as of others in the book, I must hasten to add, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views either of the Center or of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

And finally, I am profoundly indebted to the Luce Foundation and to the Association of Theological Schools, which awarded me a Henry Luce iii Fellowship that allowed me to have a sabbatical year to complete the book.

For incisive critiques of the manuscript, I am grateful to Scott Appleby, Mark Chaves, David D. Hall, Stephen Stein, and Grant Wacker. I learned much from conversations with Jonathan Strom, Rod Hunter, Stacia Brown, and Lee Smith at Emory; Ted Smith at Vanderbilt; Katarina Schuth at the University of St. Thomas; and the Rev. Robert J. Silva of the National Federation of Priests’ . . .

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