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by Bruce Kuklick

Evasive Maneuvers

Can Protestant historians play by the rules of the secular academy without giving the game away?

This volume, which is a culminating effort in Holifield's writing career, embodies all that we have come to expect from this careful scholar. The writing is elegant. The treatment is comprehensive, authoritative, and judicious. And the analysis is fair-minded and impartial. Holifield aims at encyclopedic coverage, and lucidly describes the high religious thinking of what he counts as 25 theological movements.

Various readers will have different assessments of the details of Holifield's summaries. I found the survey of "Baconian" Christianity in the early 19th century more than illuminating, and the discussion of an American Roman Catholic theology tinged by the concerns of Edwardsean individualism opened an area of knowledge of which I was entirely unaware. I wished Holifield had spent more time on Nathaniel Emmons, and thought he did not sufficiently appreciate Horace Bushnell's systematic achievement. Bowing, I believe, to current ideas of what is appropriate, the author has an account of Black theology, but he is careful to argue, persuasively I believe, that while he is moving "outside the self-understanding of the era," all traditions are partially "constructions of successive generations" and a product of "changing self-understanding." The book covers everything, and however one appreciates an individual item, everything receives thorough and prudent examination.

Readers will also differently estimate the minimalist interpretative framework that Holifield employs. In a meticulous and alert chapter on those theologies that rested on contemporary revelation and that are centered in the Mormons, Holifield describes with a straight face the stories of Joseph Smith's reception of his golden plates, his interaction with the heavenly visitor Moroni, and Smith's own miracles. Holifield writes that "despite the scorn of the learned," many converts to Mormonism lived in a magic world of folk culture. In such a setting, Smith's reports "had extraordinary evidential force." Now one may argue that this Mormon set of beliefs is so madcap that it requires no further comment from Holifield: we all know that the events that are the basis of Mormon faith did not happen. It strikes me, however, that the student of religious thought today must understand that the falsity of the beliefs on which a theology rests must have some bearing on our understanding of the thought and cannot just be ignored.

The problem is not only Holifield's unease with making evaluations about Christian thought. In a chapter on Presbyterian theology, the author rightly turns to the accomplishments of Charles Hodge and tells us that, for Hodge, both reason and science had authority. In discussing Hodge's famous What is Darwinism? (1874), Holifield notes that even Hodge's "critique of Darwin reflected his admiration for science." But this judgment of Hodge's brilliant and percipient analysis of the true meaning of Darwin misses what is more than clear in Hodge's treatment of science: a fury at its practitioners who have overstepped the boundaries of their social class—their place in the cultural hierarchy—in challenging their divine betters. To say that Hodge admired science is like saying George W. Bush admires Al Gore.

The problem, then, is not just that Holifield offers an economical interpretative slant but that the limited slant sashays around some heavy questions. This is most evident in the overall structure of the book.

The narrative begins with the arrival of the Calvinist clergy in the 17th century and stops with the Civil War, but there is no good reason for this conclusion, except that the war is a conventional divide for all fields in American history. It is particularly irrelevant in intellectual history, where Darwin is such a crucial figure. Holifield recognizes this puzzle with a penultimate chapter that ties theological dispute to slavery. He argues that confronting African American bondage forced reflective Christians to engage with fundamental questions of biblical interpretation; the growing sectional crisis made manifest how cultural assumptions governed scriptural exegesis. The debate over slavery, in short, helped to "subvert" the pre-Civil War theological discourse. Thus, we can end with the war.

This argument is not without merit, but Holifield's chapter on slavery is the shortest in the book, and with the exception of three pages on the issue in the chapter on Black theology, the peculiar institution is unmentioned and undiscussed in its connection to high religious ideas in the other 500 pages of this volume. Moreover, if Holifield is concerned with the cultural sources of biblical interpretation, there are many other shaping factors—the colonial context of theology, the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional period, Jacksonian Democracy, reform movements, and the Mexican War. More important, a concentration on the Civil War determinedly dismisses American Christianity's meeting not merely with Charles Darwin but also with the rise of Higher Criticism. In his final chapter, an afterword, Holifield concludes with a survey of theological opinion from the late 19th and early-20th century, where the consensus was that the age of "orthodox rationalism"—the age of Edwards and his many epigoni—had ended. Holifield balances this revolutionary transition against later continuities, which he suggests essentially include a stress on the reasonable and the ethical.

This too is not inaccurate, but in averting his eyes from, or sidestepping, the confrontation of theology with Darwin, Holifield permits the reader to believe that after the Civil War, Christian thought in America was, let us say, somewhat the same but somewhat different from the way it was in the earlier period. Well, yes—except that in the later period the study of divinity was no longer central but peripheral to intellectual life in the United States; that the leading institutions of learning in the United States had devalued theology; and that divinity no longer attracted the finest thinkers in the nation.

There is a reason, I think, that Holifield sneaks around these concerns. For committed Christian historians to give anything like what they believe to be an adequate analysis of Darwin and the Higher Criticism requires that the scholars draw on their living faith; this is not permitted in the secular academy. Readers of Books & Culture may have noted the same fearfulness if they have read George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards (2003) or Mark Noll's America's God (2002). These two outstanding volumes similarly dodge around without tackling secular presuppositions that pervade the writing of professional history but that might be appropriately examined in their books.

The principles of Christian, and more specifically, Protestant scholarship, especially in the field of history, fit uncomfortably with the premises of the academy today. We are not consciously allowed to display bias as professional historians, but when work is analyzed and bias turns up, it is conceded that it may be inevitable, and in any event the assumption is that ongoing inquiry will uncover it—if not immediately then in the future. But the display of faith as a mechanism of explanation is not allowed at all. It is mistaken (and degrading), however, for the faithful to argue that faith is a form of bias, and that mainstream historians only exhibit their hegemonic blinders when they rule it out. Faith is different from bias. For one thing it concerns the supernatural world, and not the natural. And just because it is faith, ongoing inquiry will not falsify it—that is the whole idea of faith. Reflective historians began to recognize this more than 150 years ago; that is what the Higher Criticism—to which Holifield does not attend—is about. But he also ignores that the victory of the Higher Critics left many problems about the nature of the past and of history unresolved. It is by no means clear that the axioms of secular, "critical," history are coherent.

With the rise of committed history over the last generation, the response of Protestant thinkers has been awkwardly and nervously to adopt many of the secular conventions on offer. Yet the kind of history they have written—they must know in their heart of hearts—avoids confronting the deepest issues of their faith, indeed denies that these issues are relevant to history. It may be that the contemporary collegiate world is not the place for robustly Protestant historians. But if it is, it may be that that they need to rethink their connection to what happened in the intellectual history of the United States in the last part of the 19th century.

Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author most recently of A History of Philosophy in America: 1720-2000 (Oxford Univ. Press).

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