The Old Faith a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past, by Paul J. Gutacker, Oxford University Press, 2023, 247 pp.
Paul Gutacker writes against the stereotype (from Phillip Schaff, etc.) of American Protestants as ignorant or uninterested in history. His thesis is that American Protestants – though usually dedicated to the tenant of Sola Scriptura – have, in fact, been keenly interested in church history and have argued their positions with great attention to that history. 19th century “biblicists” are not as ignorant of the past as they have been portrayed.
This book shows that American Protestants did care about the past and read history voraciously. They studied the Christian past and thought it was extremely important and argued over it in relation to the contentious issues of their day. Gutacker looks especially at American Protestants in the formative years of 1780-1860 to see how their reading of history affected their positions on several big questions of their day (education, catholic immigration, women’s rights and roles, and slavery).
In the earliest years of the nation, the resources on church history were few, mostly written in Europe. As time passed American churchmen (and women) joined the discussion. I found particularly interesting the big themes that various Christian groups picked up to understand history. Many held the view that the early church was ruined by Constantine. Others pointed to the rise of episcopacy and pagan influences destroying the purity of the Christian faith in the first few centuries. The nearly universal opinion was anti-Catholic.
Particularly interesting is to see the variances in how each denomination viewed history and used their views of history to to defend their theological distinctives. Their understanding of history, in fact, explains much of the denominational differences. “The transformation of American religion in the early republic did not rely on indifference toward history, but rather the opposite. … Innovative popular religious groups thrived not because they were disconnected from history or tradition but rather because they creatively resourced preexisting historiographic narratives.” (p. 47) Even the Restorationists had great interest in church history.
This book is well-researched, dense with information, and fair to the issues and positions.
As I’ll be a panel discussion soon at a conference with Dr. Gutacker, I’ve formulated some questions to ask him regarding the book:
– Is the role of Constantine in changing the church overemphasized in Protestant histories? What is he to be blamed for? Is he ever praised in any way by Protestants?
– Other than Constantine, who/what gets blame in Protestant histories? (Rise of Episcopacy, Pagan Philosophy & Jewish Degredation (p. 41), what else?)
– What is your assessment of the various denominational readings of the past? How accurate, valid? Do you find one more persuasive than others? (Gutacker has well described the various positions, but doesn’t evaluate them as much)
– Thought on Landmarkism? How does this fit into the discussion?