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Mark Noll: The innovation of the early American church

Although it is commonplace today for Christians to create organizations that tackle social problems, that approach was an innovation in the American Protestant church, says one of the nation’s top church historians.

April 23, 2013

The American Protestant church’s great innovation was its voluntary organization, but organization alone did not guarantee success. The real key to thriving is focus on mission, said Mark Noll, the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

In the 1800s, Christians created hundreds of groups to address important issues, and “it was very new,” Noll said. “It was innovative, and the scale in which it was carried out in the United States really did transform the public landscape as well as the landscape for the churches.”

But as American Christians developed a voluntary form of church, the institutional structures were less important than a focus on doing Christ’s work in the world, he said.

NollNoll, who is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is one of the foremost scholars of American religious history. He received the National Humanities Medal in 2006 and co-founded the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals when he was a professor at Wheaton College.

His many books include “America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln,” “God and Race in American Politics: A Short History” and “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” He is currently working on a book about the Bible in American history.

Noll spoke to Faith & Leadership while at Duke University to give the 2012-2013 David C. and Virginia Steinmetz Lecture, which is on iTunesU.

Q: You’ve described the United States as a “biblical civilization.” What do you mean by that, and is this different from the question of whether America is a Christian nation?

The Christian nation question is very complicated, and it means bringing to the table a standard by which the question should be answered. So that’s one question.

The other question, about a Bible civilization, is a problem that’s worked out historically and objectively.

What were the shapers of the language? By any stretch of the imagination, the one great shaper of the language of Americans for the first 100 or more years of national history was the King James Version of the Bible.

This was true for all Protestants who spoke English. It became true for Protestants who didn’t speak English when they began to speak English, and became true for Catholics, who used actually a different translation but often, when they talked about the Bible in public, would use the language of the King James Version.

It was true for the first Jewish Bible translations in America, which sounded an awful lot like the King James Version.

In the 1850s, there wasn’t any television. There wasn’t any radio. There wasn’t any Internet. People read, and what they read was almost always, in some way, influenced by the King James Bible.

And I’ve studied the way in which the national schism that led to the American Civil War was a schism over how to interpret the Bible.

From the early 1830s onward, there was a strong abolitionist attack against slavery, and those attackers drew liberally on the Bible. That attack generated a response. The respondents drew liberally on the Bible.

All the sides to the debate brought the Scriptures to bear. It wasn’t the only authority or the only warrant that was brought to bear on this issue, but it was … by far the most often-cited authority.

Q: Did the argument over slavery introduce the notion that the Bible could be used in different ways?

The debates over slavery were not the first time that serious Christians had differed on how they interpreted the Bible, but for American history, it was the decisive one.

It’s really in the early 1830s that [the slavery debate] begins, and it lasts for 30 and more years.

Q: How did that change the way that Americans viewed the Bible?

Well, the argument that I tried to develop is that this public disagreement, extended over a long period of time, over how to interpret the Bible actually affected a number of elements in the broader American society.

One of the elements was changing opinions on what the Bible itself really was. There was a substantial group of people who felt that if the Bible could be used to defend slavery, it was necessary to have a new conception of the Bible.

I think also a second result was that there were people who continued to believe very deeply in a traditional Bible but realized that putting that traditional belief out in public to be debated had not been helpful.

And then a third is that, having not succeeded in bringing a unified biblical testimony on the question of slavery, it was harder and harder to bring a unified biblical testimony to any major social problem.

Q: You’ve written about the innovation of voluntary religion in the United States. Is that a particularly American way of going about being a Christian?

The way in which Christian believers in the United States have voluntarily joined together to create organizations to do specific tasks is not unique to the United States, but the United States is a place in the world where that way of operating has developed most extensively.

The separation of church and state that was national from the 1790s and then came to all the states by the 1830s was almost unprecedented in the world. All of the European places where the church people came from had some kind of a church establishment where the institutions of government and institutions of church were interwoven.

European Christian believers looked at America and said, “We will have a democratic mob ruining the Christian tradition.” But they were wrong.

In fact, what happened was that the church people adjusted to a situation where the state was not telling the churches what to do and the churches were not, by and large, telling the state what to do.

They adjusted and then adopted this pattern of forming churches by voluntary activity, voluntary support, voluntary patterns of naming leaders, and then other organizations. That was a real innovation.

In the United States from 1800 onward, there’s just a plethora of groups like the American Bible Society, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Sunday School Union, the American Anti-Slavery Society and philanthropic groups aimed at prison reform.

There were hundreds of them formed by people who didn’t wait around to say, “Well, what’s the government going to do?” Or didn’t wait around to say, “What’s my denomination going to do?” But they said, “We’ve got a problem; we need to band together and solve it.”

Now that seems like just what everybody does all the time, because that’s still an American way of doing things, but it was very new. It was innovative, and the scale in which it was carried out in the United States really did transform the public landscape as well as the landscape for the churches.

I would put it this way: it was the adaptation of traditional Christianity to a new social structure, new social forms. The adaptation was successful from one angle, because churches figured out how to organize without relying on the state.

The difficulty was that there was little motive to bring these energies together. So you had free space, and people took advantage of it and did wonderful things.

But as the Christian disputes over the American Civil War showed, if these self-created, self-funded, self-motivated groups disagreed, and they disagreed on an issue that you could only choose one or another, then you had a real problem.

If you disagreed that you should print the Bible and pass it out without the Apocrypha or you should print the Bible and pass it out with the Apocrypha, the United States was big enough that groups could choose to do either one. That is an example that happened.

But with the question whether to extend slavery into the territories or not, there was no mediating ground. An informal, voluntary, ad hoc way of organizing was just not really able to handle that particular problem.

Q: Was that impulse primarily an evangelical mindset, or is that more of an American Protestant mindset?

I think the free-form entrepreneurial attitude and practices in the United States were a combination of strongly evangelical Protestant impulses and democratic impulses.

Evangelical Christianity does not require a free-form democratic system. There were strong evangelical elements in the Church of England in the 18th century that remain to this day.

But there was a kind of elective affinity, a kind of -- a kind of alliance between a religious emphasis that stressed the need for individuals to hear the Christian message, respond to the gospel and act on that response, and a more democratic form of society in which you looked to the people as voters to select the leaders that would guide the society.

So there is this strong affinity, and I think it’s one of the reasons why we have, for example, in the United States a much higher proportion than anywhere in the world of Baptist churches. That was a form of Christianity that fit very nicely into American patterns.

Q: Are there threads in this history that pull through to the current day?

There probably are a number of threads that link the late-18th-century and the 19th-century American religious life and the present.

One would be that the success of churches like the Methodist under Bishop Francis Asbury had a great deal to do with the ability to compete.

They really were not nervous about saying, “We’ve got to provide a religion that is every bit as gripping and as …” -- they wouldn’t have used the word “exciting”; that’s a modern word, but -- “… every bit as gripping and as worthy to be committed to as anything economic, anything political in our society.”

Since the Second World War, competition in American culture has become fierce, has become intense. Some of the churches have competed better than others because they have not relied upon bureaucratic or group decisions but have relied upon entrepreneurial activity.

That’s, I think, one tie back to the early history.

Q: In the contemporary context, do you think that those more entrepreneurial or competitive church organizations and church leaders are, again, the evangelical?

Since being at Notre Dame, I’m aware of ways that Catholics have mobilized to compete.

But probably it would be the case that forms of the Christian faith that emphasize personal decisions, personal responsibility and a personal tie to the organization are those that do better than organizations that rely upon past traditions and past achievements to gain success.

Groups like the Mormons continue to expand, and I think they’re an interesting group that, in form, is a lot like the early Methodists.

They do demand a lot individually, but then they also have a strong network of sharing and communication that somehow combines the need for individual commitment and individual choice with connections. And that certainly was a genius of the early Methodists in American history.

Q: Do current trends in the church have historical parallels?

My own historical sense is that churches that have been effective and have thrived mostly are concerned more about the communication of the Christian message. What turns out to be the most effective way of strengthening the organizations is not always looking at the organizations, but it’s looking at the message.

What is the church for? It’s to communicate the love of Christ and the doing of Christ’s work in the world. It seems to me that the effectiveness of institutions will depend upon, not clarity of thinking about institutions, but the success of church institutions will hinge upon the clarity of thinking about the message that they want to communicate.

That may be an evangelical prejudice in itself, as well as a historical prejudice.

I do have one example. I really am a great fan of Francis Asbury and his kind of dictatorial style with early Methodism, because he did have a very strong conception of how you organize things.

But when he died, people talked only a little bit about the organization.

They talked about his dedication as a preacher, his love for the Bible, his desire to help people out. The organizations clearly sprang from those desires, but what was really significant was his mission.