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

By Thomas, Benjamin | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Thomas, Benjamin, Anglican and Episcopal History


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

Although Founding the Fathers does not present an irrefutable argument for its stated thesis, namely, "seminary education as here described ... was the closest approximation to graduate education in the Humanities that America could boast until the late [nineteenth] century" (343), what it does show is no less important: The foundation for the field of church history in America was largely laid by a handful of professors working at prominent northeastern institutions. It also provides ample historical evidence to show that the nearly ubiquitous theme of development in historiography as well as its popular consort, the myth of progress, have been imported from Hegelian philosophy rather than being established by historical research.

This volume considers the academic lives of six professors at Harvard, Princeton, Union, and Yale through the lens of their own class notes as well as those of their students. Each professor is treated as a case study for various themes, such as teaching methods, use of historiographie categories, church polity, and the role of women. What is especially clear by the book's end is that certain aspects of the German educational system which are now taken for granted were fairly recent additions to American higher education and that the pedagogical changes these six professors brought about were truly remarkable.

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the dominant model of instruction in church history consisted of someone, usually a local clergyman, reading to or, alternatively, listening to students read a textbook on church history. This approach was replaced by the German style lectures and seminars, and furthermore, students were encouraged in these seminars to make use of primary sources, such as Migne's Patrología (1844-1855) and the newly available translations of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Although the number of primary sources was small, and the available secondary sources were often woefully inadequate, this interaction with primary sources marked a significant turning point in the field of church history.

Another important element of the book is the documentation of how the Hegelian meta-narrative of Entwicklung; that is, development, was introduced to an American audience. …

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