Master your Minecraft

The New Republic Online
Thursday, September 4th, 2003


America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln

by Mark A. Noll

God Without Thunder

A review by Eugene D. Genovese

Those who today most vehemently protest religious display in public life usually refer to America's plurality of faiths. It is certainly true that many religions have flourished here, but these impassioned protests obscure the long-undisputed centrality of Protestant Christianity to America's society and politics. In late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century America, Mark A. Noll writes, "Republican and Protestant convictions merged as they did nowhere else in the world." This contention grounds Noll's magisterial book, in which the merger's impact on theology figures as "a central theme." As Protestantism "adapted to modernizing, rational, and market-oriented societies," a transcendent, self-contained God became immanent and relational. This uniquely American synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republicanism, and commonsense moral reasoning endured because its "morally powerful if conceptually vague concepts" appealed across ideological and political lines.

The wonderfully prolific Noll -- as fine a historian as America now boasts -- offers a rich and learned and deeply thoughtful magnum opus that is destined to shape discussions of the history of American religion and politics for a long time. His incisive and readable account of the developments within American Christianity from the early eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century shows that a peculiarly American "Christian republicanism" retained the Puritan conviction of a God who directly punishes evil and rewards virtue, but that under the impact of the doctrinal "sea changes" after 1750, evil increasingly became "vice" and piety "virtue." Noll skillfully recounts the privatization of the republican conception of virtue and its transformation into an egalitarian cult of unrestrained competition and self-gratification. He renders difficult doctrinal material accessible to the general reader without vulgarization of content.

When American religious leaders -- unlike their monarchist European counterparts -- spoke and acted as republicans, they profoundly affected the ideology and the politics of an emerging country. No less portentously, they adopted eighteenth-century Scottish "commonsense" moral philosophy, which Noll well characterizes as "ethics self-consciously grounded upon universal moral instincts." Commonsense reasoning rescued Protestants who wanted to preserve traditional forms of Christianity without having to appeal to traditional religious authorities. This proved costly, as Noll demonstrates. Morality became the foundation of Christianity, rather than the reverse. As a result, the authority of religion waned along with the mystery of the sacred. Noll's carefully honed and finely detailed account of the disastrous transformation of Christian doctrine into ethical philosophy alone establishes the indispensability of this remarkable book, though it is only one of its many achievements.

America's God is a reviewer's nightmare. The range of Noll's scholarship and the boldness of his interpretations tempt one to devote this limited space to pursue quarrels rather than to acclaim an extraordinary achievement. To succumb to such a temptation would be to do Noll a grave injustice. But I intend to commit this injustice -- confident that Noll, who is candid about his own Christianity in an affecting preface to his book, will forgive me.

Noll displays a disquieting tendency to hedge his finest insights. Protestant evangelicals, he trenchantly observes, "were creating not a single Christian America but Northern and Southern versions of the godly republic." Yet he does not elucidate clearly the differences between the right's constitutional republicanism and limited democracy and the left's radical republicanism and majoritarian democracy. He convincingly argues that Southerners invoked earlier forms of republican values and that the Southern interpretation of republican freedom neither became as democratic as the Northern one nor so firmly accentuated individual spiritual rights. Good Yankee that Noll is, he cannot resist caricature and thinly veiled sarcasm when he reduces the Southern idea of freedom to the privilege of acting in one's rank in organic communities protected by "benevolent patriarchs."

America's God features a civil war between "proponents of alternate versions of the same ideology made up of evangelical religion, republican political principles, and commonsense moral reasoning." Yet Noll acknowledges that the South remained closer than the North to "the deferential, class-stratified, and socially organic" republicanism of the eighteenth century. Southerners tended to view "commercial individualism as the enemy of republican liberty." Noll's acute recognition of "alternate versions" trips over his reservations. The problem arises from his acceptance of Lincoln's grand but historically dubious assertion that Northerners and Southerners "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God." Southerners did not think so. James Henley Thornwell and George Frederick Holmes, among others, foreshadowed J. Gresham Machen's powerful work Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923: they charged liberals with espousing an essentially different religion.

By any reasonable standard Noll qualifies as an orthodox Christian, but his palpable yearning for Christian unity leads him to squirm when he confronts deep doctrinal differences. In a quest to minimize such differences, Noll seems to concur with George Marsden's interpretation of the New School Presbyterians as, in the main, theologically orthodox. He regrets the abandonment of the Plan of Union that established close links between Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The plan opened Presbyterian and Congregational churches to each other's ministers, but many Congregationalists did not subscribe to the Westminster Confession, which enshrined Calvinist orthodoxy. Hence, the orthodox Old School Presbyterians viewed the plan as a Trojan horse packed with theological backsliders. Grimly, Noll muses that "Calvinists got down to the serious business of beating up each other" during America's "greatest" but "most self-destructive era" of Christian theology -- its "golden age" and its "self-immolation."

An irritated Noll refers to the Presbyterian Church's "draconian" excision of four anti-slavery Northern synods in a purge that precipitated the split between Old and New Schools in 1837. "Gone at a stroke were 28 presbyteries, 509 ministers, and 60,000 communicant members." But although the New School contained many orthodox Calvinists, especially in the South, Noll's account shows that it also tolerated exponents of what the Old School saw as dangerously erroneous doctrines that denied predestination, promoted watered-down versions of sin, and questioned Calvinist teaching on Jesus's sacrifice and the Atonement.

Noll describes Samuel Hopkins and his "New Divinity" followers in New England as men who "tried to extrapolate [Jonathan] Edwards' insights into a full theological system." He defends them as essentially orthodox but acknowledges their "traces of a more progressive theology." If Hopkins tried to defend orthodoxy, his notions of "benevolence" and "love" nonetheless swerved from the doctrine of imputation, according to which God holds humanity responsible for Adam's sin. As Noll's account shows, those "traces" opened the floodgates to a liberalization that less generous critics condemn as apostasy. What cannot be denied is that Hopkins gave up on original sin, contributing to a long retreat from the belief in inherent human depravity.

For all Noll's graciousness, I doubt that he believes in a Christianity without original sin and human depravity. Indeed, writing of the early phase of mainline American Protestantism, he admirably recounts its disintegration into ethical philosophy, but he then shies away from a full unraveling of its later phases. Thus he inadvertently mutes an understanding that Christianity as a way of salvation rather than a moral theory makes no sense apart from man's inherent sinfulness. Liberal Protestantism, not to mention liberal Catholicism, ends up vulnerable to H. Richard Niebuhr's delightful thrust: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

Noll may not like the following generalizations, but I believe that his book supports them. It was a steady declension from Jonathan Edwards to Hopkins's New Divinity and on to the New Haven Theology of Nathaniel Taylor and Lyman Beecher, which "left behind Jonathan Edwards' Augustinian principles in order to save Edwards' concern for evangelism and his style of careful philosophical reasoning." With that slide loomed a universe without a God of wrath: for if man never fell, what has God to be wrathful about? Hopkins gagged on this: "If I give up this doctrine, I must give up Christianity." He was right. He nonetheless soon fell prey to angry criticism from orthodox Calvinists for doing just that. Step by step Hopkins adopted his opponents' premises and moralized his theology.

Liberals, concerned to attract more church members, increasingly championed a gospel centered on a good, moral, Christian life rather than on the glory of God. In Piety Versus Moralism (1931), Joseph Haroutunian concluded harshly but fairly that the New Divinity abandoned Calvinism: "It was Calvinism soiled and bruised in its struggle against the humanitarianism of the age, exaggerated here, distorted there, sheepish and worried, and weakening." Noll has some fun with the social implications. Beecher and his reformist colleagues "determined to (and the list is nearly endless) outlaw dueling, promote revival, found literary magazines, combat the Episcopal menace, publish books that the public would read, and on and on." Noll spares us elaboration of the "on and on," but he might have added Theodore Dwight's campaign against cruelty to lobsters.

Southerners responded to these liberalizations with a theologically sound outrage, but these days even Noll keeps the pro-slavery theologians at arm's length. This aversion constantly gets him into historiographical trouble, since -- along with Charles Hodge's embattled orthodox Presbyterian remnant at Princeton Theological Seminary -- it was the Southerners who firmly refused to abandon the essentials of Christian doctrine. Noll refers to theologians who "were readier to use conscience to interpret Scripture than either Edwards or Hopkins had been." He cites Lewis O. Saum's The Popular Mood of Pre-Civil War America (1980) to maintain that the common people remained closer to Christian -- and Calvinist -- orthodoxy than the elites did. These are sound generalizations about the North, but they do not hold for the South, and Noll may not mean to suggest that they did. In any case, Robert Lewis Dabney of Virginia accused Taylor and all anti-slavery men of abandoning Calvinism, denying the divinity of Jesus (the heresy known as Socinianism), and making benevolence God's central quality while ignoring the justice of His self-proclamation as a "consuming fire." Dabney charged that they were transforming benevolence into a doctrine of utilitarian selfishness and marketplace ethics.

In the North, orthodox Calvinists fought Taylor tenaciously, but they could not stem the retreat of the mainline churches from the doctrine of original sin. Even Trinitarianism went up for grabs. As Vincent Harding makes clear in A Certain Magnificence: Lyman Beecher and the Transformation of American Protestantism (1991), the self-proclaimed orthodox Beecher defended the doctrine of the Trinity vigorously in his early years, but thereafter mentioned it less and less and with little discernible conviction. The popular and heterodox Horace Bushnell developed a spirited defense of sorts of the Trinity that made the skin of the orthodox crawl. Declaring God directly related to his creatures, Bushnell described the Trinity as a "symbol." The Unitarians sneered as they accepted the capitulation of nominal Calvinists, who were steadily shedding "the five points of Calvinism" or "TULIP" (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints). It took little perspicacity to recognize that liberal modernizers were embracing radical individualism and sloughing off the corporatist tendencies of the Christian tradition. The Southern divines and secular social critics had more than a little perspicacity.

If Noll has an American Protestant hero, it is Jonathan Edwards. He incisively criticizes Bushnell, Charles Finney, Nathaniel Taylor, and others who "honored Edwards's memory" while eviscerating his teaching. They espoused doctrines that Noll exposes as heretical, although he shuns the label and treats Bushnell and even Emerson with kid gloves. While pillorying Bushnell's romantic nationalism, he links him with Dabney and John Adger of South Carolina as a "master of the Scriptures." Does he mean to be facetious? Dabney and Adger, yes, but Bushnell? Noll has Bushnell "often regarded as the most creative American theologian of the age." No doubt he is "often regarded," but by whom? And for what? For his "creative" dismantling of the basic Christian doctrine? I doubt Noll numbers himself among those who have regarded Bushnell as such.

Noll's determined preference for Northern theologians who seem at odds with his own deepest convictions emerges most dramatically from his idealization of Abraham Lincoln. In Noll's view, American theologians offered "little of theological profundity" on the meaning of the Civil War, but Lincoln did just that in his "moral reflections," especially in the second inaugural address. "None probed so profoundly the ways of God or the response of humans to the divine constitution of the world. None penetrated as deeply into the nature of providence. And none described the fate of humanity before God with the humility or the sagacity of the president." And he notes without laughter that "Emerson betrayed no doubt about his certainty that Lincoln had been divinity's agent to bring all of the human race toward perfection." He does not note that Emerson -- and not a few other Northerners -- said as much about the psychotic and mendacious John Brown. In Noll's reading, Lincoln refused to play a virtuous North against a sinful South. He sought to draw the nation back together after the war, and his "magnanimity and moral even-handedness" contrasted with the calls for blood and vengeance that were coming from Northern divines.

I do not wish to quarrel with colleagues who rank Lincoln as America's greatest president, nor would I presume to tell Protestants how to be good Protestants. But the determination to canonize Lincoln by those who denounce Catholic "idolatry" is, well, unseemly. And they stretch much too much. Lincoln, like Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, "may have been pushed by the successes of 'American Christianity' into post-Protestant, even post-Christian, theism." Such people, to be faithful in their hearts, had to reject organized Christianity and Jesus as the Way and the Truth. Noll has Lincoln stand almost alone among public figures: "Lincoln's concept of providence combined the conventions of his age with a much more primordial vision." The content of that vision is much clearer to Noll than it is to me. I am not at all sure what he is talking about. There is no reason to believe that Lincoln accepted Jesus as Lord, Savior, Redeemer -- as the Resurrection and the Life -- however sincerely he embraced a code of ethics compatible with or even derived from Jesus's teachings, but every reason to credit him as a statesman who sought a post-war reconciliation that would facilitate the spread of the Republican Party in the South.

On a more concrete matter, Noll paraphrases Lincoln as saying that the United States "might not necessarily be a uniquely chosen nation, or at least that the moral constraints operating on America were the same as those for other nations, and that these universal standards of justice were of greater consequence than any supposed chosenness of the United States." Lincoln came to doubt what America's best theologians long asserted, "the long-treasured axiom that the United States had enjoyed and would continue to enjoy, a unique destiny as a divinely chosen people."

Noll's "best theologians" are Yankees. I shall not here protest that the South had theologians at least as impressive as the best the North had to offer. But I cannot imagine James Henley Thornwell or Robert Lewis Dabney -- or John Girardeau, John Adger, or John Leland Dagg -- suggesting that the moral restraints imposed on other nations did not apply to the United States. On America as "a uniquely chosen nation," hear Thornwell, in his great fast-day "Sermon on National Sins." With secession and war imminent, he chose as his text Isaiah 37:1 ("And it came to pass, when King Hezekiah heard it, that he rent his clothes, and covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord"). Thornwell began:

I have no design, in the selection of these words, to intimate that there is a parallel between Jerusalem and our own Commonwealth in relation to the Covenant of God. I am far from believing that we alone, of all the people on earth, are possessed of the true religion, and far from encouraging the narrow and exclusive spirit which, with the ancient hypocrites denounced by the Prophet, can complacently exclaim, The Temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are we. Such arrogance and bigotry are utterly inconsistent with the penitential confessions which this day has been set apart to evoke.

"If within the dominant interpretive framework of the period," Noll writes, "proslavery won the exegetical battle, no Bible-believing abolitionist would believe it." He remarks that, while a majority of Americans probably believed in biblical sanction for slavery, no significant body of Protestants elsewhere in the English-speaking world agreed. True enough. But it is hard to fathom Noll's conclusion that the inability of the pro-slavery side to win adherents abroad somehow rendered their interpretation of Scripture wrong.

How strong were the abolitionist and pro-slavery appeals to Scripture? Twentieth-century Americans might not wish to bother, but millions of nineteenth-century Americans cared passionately. The Reverend Leonard Bacon pleaded, in words made famous by Lincoln without attribution, that if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. The Reverend Ferdinand Jacobs of Charleston replied, "If the scriptures do not justify slavery, I know not what they do justify. If we err in maintaining this relation, I know not when we are right -- truth then has parted her usual moorings and floated off into an ocean of uncertainty."

The pro-slavery arguments were straightforward. Nothing in the Old Testament condemns slavery. The great patriarch Abraham and other of God's worthies held slaves with God's blessing. Solomon built the Temple with slave labor as well as a corvée. Jesus drove moneychangers, not slaveholders, from the Temple. Every church mentioned in connection with the Apostles included slaves and slaveholders. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles uttered a word against slavery, much less declared it sinful. The strength of the pro-slavery performance makes comprehensible the ease with which Southern whites satisfied themselves that God sanctioned slavery.

The abolitionists did not successfully make their case for slavery as sin. Noll recognizes but dangerously underestimates the influence of radical abolitionists, including leading clergymen, who declared that if the Bible could be shown to sanction slavery, it should be discarded as the devil's own book. By the 1830s abolitionists were leading the war against Christian orthodoxy. They unfolded an interpretation of higher law that played the Spirit of the Bible against the Word and then transformed the Holy Spirit, as objectively manifested in the Word, into the subjective spirit or opinion of every man. Thus they transformed conscience from being the impress of the Holy Spirit on men's minds into a higher standard than the Word. Noll, his verbal restraint notwithstanding, demonstrates that rejection of the letter for the spirit undermined belief in Christianity itself.

Abolitionist arguments from Scripture ranged from the laughable to the flagrantly dishonest, as when leading lights made themselves ridiculous by denying that the ancient Israelites held slaves at all. Noll acknowledges the pro-slavery biblical argument as "formidable." He recognizes, too, the intellectual power of Thornwell and Dabney, but like other historians he does not consider the form of the antebellum debates. The principal defenders of slavery cited the abolitionists' books, often quoting at length to assure readers that they were quoting in context. The abolitionists did not return the courtesy. They did not even mention pro-slavery books, much less present their arguments concretely and in context. Their preferred method was to dismiss pro-slavery positions with sneers, or with elaborate argumentation against views that their opponents did not hold.

Noll's back-of-the-hand to the Southern divines is all the more unfortunate since he provides a stunning context for his account of the coming of the Civil War. In the first half of the nineteenth century, he writes, the Bible remained a powerful factor in transatlantic society and politics: in Europe in association with monarchical conservativism, and in the United States with democratic republicanism. The ideologies of America's revolutionary and constitutional periods undermined trust in traditional authorities and thereby "had the ironic effect of scripturalizing the United States." Democratization and anti-traditionalism in American religion and politics called forth a literal interpretation of Scripture -- the view that Scripture meant what it said. "Once interpretation had become a democratic enterprise, attempting to understand the Bible literally became the only possible goal."

Noll perceptively notes that every man was being invited to interpret the sacred texts for himself -- the Constitution as well as the Bible, in an analogy "sometimes drawn explicitly." Incredibly, he then cites William Ellery Channing, although it was Thornwell, Dabney, and a host of Southern divines who were holding the fort for the curious notion that words ought to mean what they say and the more curious notion that those who were ready to deny the plain words of the Bible were no less ready to deny the Southern states rights clearly annunciated in the Constitution.

Noll has sport with Henry Ward Beecher's announcement that he could easily prove the Bible to be anti-slavery. Alas, Noll observes, Beecher "did not adduce a single text to that end." Elsewhere Noll quotes Beecher at length only to expose his statements as false. As religious thinkers, Noll lets the abolitionists off lightly. He sighs that those who tried to reconcile the Bible with anti-slavery had to "perform an intellectual high-wire act." They had to show how anti-slavery arguments could be read as other than "infidel attacks on the authority of the Bible itself." Noll claims that the Bible, like commonsense moral reasoning and republican principles, simultaneously sanctioned and condemned slavery. But whereas the pro-slavery divines piled up evidence of biblical sanction, Noll bypasses textual evidence of condemnation and regrets that the debate reduced to a "forced dichotomy" of orthodoxy with slavery or heresy without it. He arrestingly suggests that a faulty hermeneutic imposed severe rigidity on both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery theologians, and that peculiarly American conditions prevented a turn to the alternative hermeneutics offered by African Americans, Roman Catholics, and certain Reformed Protestants, which could have established the anti-slavery case. His illuminating discussion clarifies much, but it does not demonstrate how any of the alternatives convincingly grounded the opposition to slavery in Christian doctrine.

In considering alternative hermeneutics, Noll uncharacteristically engages in sleight of hand. He credits African Americans with "the most radical alternative to Reformed literalism," but he demonstrates conclusively that they contributed nothing of substance to the theological debate. He tries to save his unfortunate concession to current prejudices by claiming that only African Americans clearly distinguished between the Bible on race and the Bible on slavery. He adds that the distinction between slavery in general and black slavery in particular was completely lost on Southerners. In a book that is a model of scholarly accuracy, he is on this matter breathtakingly wrong. Thornwell, Dabney, and other leading Southern theologians could hardly have been clearer on the distinction. They defended "slavery in the abstract" -- slavery as the proper condition of labor regardless of race. One after another they demonstrated that the Bible sanctioned slavery without racial referent.

Noll laments that Bible-believing emancipationists felt they had to find slavery malum in se in Scripture in order to campaign against it. But he shows that while Charles Hodge and other Northern conservatives found nothing in Scripture to condemn slavery as sin, they found other grounds to oppose modern slavery as incompatible with Christian practice. The issue, in Noll's view, concerned "cultural hermeneutics as well as biblical exegesis." He credits Hodge with seeming to recognize "that when conditions in which words were spoken changed, the meaning of the words also changed." He charges, unjustly I think, that Hodge ended by being "hamstrung by a constitutional conservatism that left him more troubled by the abolitionist threat to biblical truth than by slavery's threat to holiness."

In my reading, Hodge, like Thornwell and no few Southerners, made the final test the extent to which Southern slavery could be made to approximate an Abrahamic or Christian model for master-slave relations. But the radical abolitionists cast anathema on the adherence to such a standard. For if accepted, emancipationists would have to work patiently with Southern slaveholders, not assault them as the anti-Christ. The radicals may well have been right that the South would not give up slavery without war. But they failed miserably to make their case for scriptural condemnation of slavery as inherently sinful, and therefore they could not justify the holy war that they desperately sought.

From the Revolution to the Civil War, Noll writes, evangelical Protestants campaigned to civilize and to Christianize the United States. To a notable extent they succeeded, but in the process they became domesticated. The Civil War trivialized the Christian theology that had brought American Protestantism into existence. Noll ends with a caveat: the theologians wrought all too well and may have been too successful. Their evangelization opened the way to secularization. The merger of Reformed biblicism with principles of American freedom, expounded by the canons of commonsense philosophy, proved too strong to be destroyed, but "they were nonetheless permanently damaged."

With extraordinary learning and intellectual sophistication Noll re-opens and re-interprets the enduring questions of the relation of religion to politics in America's great national tragedy. So forget my carping. Everyone who pretends to an interest in American history and American politics, to say nothing of American religion, must read this book.

Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at