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Theology in America: Christian Thought from Age of the Puritans to Civil War

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Theology in America

Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War

It can be argued that understanding American history and politics requires understanding Christianity as well, but the connection between America and Christianity goes farther than that. For a long time theological language, imagery, and ideas were pervasive in American political and cultural discourse — Christian theology was the common language of Americans in all walks of life.

Summary

Title: Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War
Author: E. Brooks Holifield
Publisher: Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300095740

Pro:
•  Exhaustive resource on American theology
•  Would work well for academic courses of various sorts

Con:
•  Far too much for casual readers

Description:
•  History of Christian theology in America from early colonial days through the Civil War
•  Explains how theological discourse grounded political & cultural discourse
•  Describes how debates over slavery caused Americans to look beyond theology

 

Book Review

To say that theological discourse was fundamental to other forms of discourse does not mean that people talked about nothing but religion. It does, however, mean that religious ideas and images played significant roles in how people thought about the world around them. Understanding their language means getting a better grasp of theological language as well.

Unfortunately, the theology of early America is largely lost to Americans today. In early America there weren’t very many learned professions aside from theologian, giving ministers an unprecedented amount of influence. Although Christianity remains the predominant religion, theology is no longer a very popular topic. Even pastors, ministers, and priests rarely deliver sermons on theology specifically, and while politicians may make a lot of religious references, real theology hardly ever comes into the picture.

What people need is a good history of American theology, and they would be hard pressed to find any more detailed, exhaustive, and thorough work as E. Brooks Holifield‘s Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. This certainly isn’t the only history of American theology, but it provides such detail and description that it would be appropriate not only for religious studies courses but also professional training in seminaries. Indeed, it is so exhaustive that it probably wouldn’t be suitable for the casual reader. Only those with a very serious interest in theology and American history will want to make the effort to go through this.

Theology in America

Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War

There are probably two key themes which underlie a significant amount of Holifield’s text. First is that “Christian theology” should be understood primarily as “Calvinist theology.” Not all American Christians were Calvinists, but especially in the early days American religion was dominated almost entirely by debates within the Reformed tradition and its particular themes: nothing occurs outside of God’s will, only an elect few have been chosen for salvation, and sin is a dominant force in human society. Language about the extent of human freedom, the power of sin, and role of the church continue to influence political and religious discourse, although in ways less obvious to people today than it would have been in colonial America.

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