There is, at present, no satisfactory history of Protestantism n America written for introductory seminary survey courses, for college students, or for adult laymen untrained in the technicalities of theology and history. This book is written for just such students and for adult laymen. It seeks to provide them with a concise yet comprehensive account of Protestant Christianity in America. The narrative style has been employed in an attempt to convey some of the excitement and drama which is its history.
That history is embodied in the past and present of many Churches. Because of this, some scholars insist that it is impossible to write the history of any movement called Protestantism in America. There are only the particular histories of many different Churches. This book rejects such a view and insists that it is possible to tell the story of Protestant Christianity in America. Nevertheless, the difficulty is real, and partially accounts for the fact that only ten such histories have been written in the past three hundred years, and of these, four have been written since the 1920’s.
It is not easy to characterize Protestantism in America, but two characteristics seem to mark it. One is a constant free experimentation and search for a fuller manifestation of God’s truth and will, and the other is a sustained effort to avoid going beyond the truth and light already known in the Bible and codified in certain basic beliefs and confessions. Thus Protestantism in America can be characterized in terms of a full, free experimentation and an enduring Biblicism.
In a statement which proved to be prophetic, Rev. John Robinson warned his Pilgrim congregation on the eve of their departure for the New World that "the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word."
Here are the two basic elements: the necessity of searching for yet more truth and light, and the centrality of the Bible. Protestants in America faced both the opportunity and the necessity of relating the past histories of various Churches to new conditions in order to make the gospel relevant. Thus, as they helped to shape national life, they were shaped by it and as a result took on certain common characteristics. In their search for more truth and light they had to confront such common questions as religious liberty, democracy, large numbers of unchurched peoples, vast expanses of land, the constant influx of immigrant peoples, and even such a reality as the presence of a large number of Protestant Churches within any given local community. Their surroundings tended to enhance and drive them toward a positive similarity in spirit and in organization in spite of their diverse backgrounds and beliefs. All these Churches were stamped with an indelible mark; they were a part of a greater movement -- Protestant Christianity in America.
The result was that all the Protestant Churches in America exhibited a certain spirit and embodied certain practices which made them closer to each other than to their European counterparts. All American Protestants have accepted religious freedom, and though none of the Churches have worked out the full implications of such a stand, it definitely sets them apart from European Churches in practice and in belief. Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican exhibit an activism in organization and practice that is utterly foreign to their sister European Churches.
Thus, in spite of all the differences which exist between Protestant Churches in America -- and these are profound -- they are bound together in a single movement which gives them a certain character not to be found in their European brethren. In some cases they possess a Biblicism and orthodoxy that far outstrips anything to be found in their sister European Churches, either in intensity or extent. In other cases, they exhibit a certain willingness for free experimentation in belief and/or practice, which likewise is not present in their European counterparts. Protestantism in America is not, then, radically different from its European counterpart. Nevertheless, in America it is a much more cohesive movement which possesses a more definite set of common characteristics.
Nobody can write in this area without acknowledging a debt to the writings of Professor William Warren Sweet. In the author’s case, the debt also extends to the classroom. The entire manuscript was read by my colleague, Professor James Hastings Nichols, whose many comments and insights proved extremely helpful. But above all, grateful acknowledgment is made to Professor Sidney B. Mead, teacher and colleague, who in classroom, in discussion, and in critical comment on the manuscript encouraged the author in his work, gave him invaluable help on questions of fact, and confronted him with a stimulating and challenging interpretation of Christianity in America.
Foreword to Revised Edition
This book was originally written to fulfill a specific need in American Church history and in American cultural history. Its use has been so extensive among college students and in introductory courses at the seminary level that numerous reprintings were required. Since so many exciting and unusual things have happened to Protestantism in America during the 1950’s and 1960’s, moreover, it has appeared imperative that a revision of the text be undertaken. The Vatican Council alone would have been sufficient reason to revise and to note a new stage for the history of Protestantism in America. It is hoped that this revision, bringing the text up to date in the mid-1960’s, will enable the book to retain its usefulness for students seeking to understand the nature and role of Protestantism in American life and in the history of the Christian Church. A new section of "Suggestions for Further Reading" has been provided as an aid to both students and their teachers.