My first response to Noll’s work is to express my appreciation and respect for the amount of research and expertise that went into writing America’s God. Noll has a tremendous grasp of the different theological traditions of 18th- and 19th-century America, and displays impressive familiarity with the broader history of the United States in the same period. He shows convincingly that theology in America was adapted to the national culture of republican government, suspicion of tradition and claims to authority, and commonsense moral reasoning.
Noll realizes that a history of theology and intellectual developments doesn’t make a history of America, and he acknowledges that this does focus on an elite set of intellectual theologians. But he makes the case that these ideas were important for the broader society and that theology imported ideas from the broader society.
America’s God can be difficult to follow at times, and I sometimes felt like I was backtracking over the same ground that had been discussed earlier. Noll writes in his introduction that the length of time that it took him to write this book may have taken a toll on the clarity of the arguement, and I think that’s probably true to some extent. There are also times where the exploration of theology is incredibly deep, and others where I felt that brief summaries needed to be fleshed out more. At the same time, the scope of his work probably necessitated that this would be the case.
America’s God is a challenging book. For someone with a professional, academic interest in American religious history, I would strongly recommend it. I think that is Noll’s goal: to make a contribution to the field of early American history that includes theological development. For others, it would depend on your interests.
In his comments on this post, Joel asked me what Noll’s point of view is. In the conclusion of the book, Noll writes that he finds Jonathan Edwards to be the best American theologian “for the purposes of understanding God, the self, and the world as they really are.” He agrees with the intellectual and theological depth of the Calvinism of the Puritans, Edwards, and George Whitefield, but also appreciates the evangelistic and social activism of the 19th-century American evangelicals in a cultural environment “with tradition, heirarchy, and deference to historical precedent discredited by the ideology of the Revolution.” He states:
It is an oft-stated truism, but worthy of repetition, that if the theological and ecclesiastical changes described here had not taken place, it is not humanly conceivable that American religious beliefs and practices would have remained, by comparison with the rest of the Western world, so relatively vigorous as the remain to this day.” (444)
At the same time, he believes that the Civil War greatly damaged this American theology, meaning that “American theology lurched, rather than self-consciously thought, its way into the modern world” (445). I’d be interested to hear his explanation of what followed it.