The American Religion: The Development of American Theology, Part 1 of 4

The religious experience of the United States is perhaps the most unique among the history of any nation. The history of America is the history of Christian denominationalism and the fusing of individualistic idealism with democratic utopianism. In between the planting of the colonies and the establishment of the United States of America, theological concerns were guided by the philosophical ideals of John Locke and the age of Enlightenment. While many Christians within the American experience have been grounded in Scripture with an orthodox understanding of the faith, others have extracted the libertarian ideology of the new world and grafted this onto new interpretations of Christianity. The purpose of this series is not to dissect every specimen within the American religious experience, but rather to interact with William C. Placher’s second volume in the Readings in the History of Christian Theology, specifically chapter five, and provide a summary of the theology in the United States as illustrated in the selected readings.

John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity

The language of Winthrop conveys an Old Testament covenantal understanding between God and his people. The divinely inaugurated work includes crossing the Atlantic sea to settle into a new land and proclaim the glory of God as a “city upon a hill.” One can’t help but notice the explicit biblical imagery conjured in the telling of these colonists’ story. The covenant which they established among themselves was to be carried out with “a strict performance” lest they endure God’s wrath for disobedience. Winthrop’s expressions reveal a focus on the colonists being more like an Israel under the leadership of the law rather than the church underneath the headship of Christ.

The understanding within this Massachusetts Bay colony was that God would bless his people if and only if they abided within the stipulations of his law. Though there seemed to be an implicit understanding of the responsibilities to one another as members in a body of Christ, Winthrop and the early colonists nonetheless downplay the role of Christ as the one who has fulfilled the law and inaugurated a new covenant by means of his atoning death and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.[1] Missing is explicit language of the church moving forward and in its place one can see a language of a revived Israel seeking to live within the God’s covenant. This idea of the new world being a city on a hill would forever be cemented in the minds of its habitants from this point onward.

Thomas Hooker, The Activity of Faith: or, Abraham’s Imitators

Thomas Hooker, being the first minister in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began to preach the message of faith without works being a dead faith. Christian conversion truly manifests itself with Christian fruit. In this sermon, the reader will immediately pick up the Puritan spirit of piety against what they perceived to be a dead faith among churches back home in the motherland of England. Though the Church of England was Protestant in her theology, the Puritan perception was that she was dead in her faith due to the miasma of Catholic liturgical practice. Hooker’s sermon runs deep with such a concern. Acts such as baptism into the Church, hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament (communion) are as “fig-leaves” which “poor and ignorant Christians” hide behind thinking themselves accepted of God.

Hooker, instead, argues that any true Christian will be wont of good works. True faith produces true fruit. Drawing from the example of Abraham which Paul referred to in Romans 4:12, Hooker enlightens his hearers with the fact that the act of faith is a God-given grace and hence faith causes fruit which cannot be contained. One who is truly touched by God through faith will have a faith that “cannot be kept secret,” having a heart that is “enlarged” with a soul that is “quickened.” Faith for Hooker is not the mere externals that make up church participation, rather they are the outward works caused by an inward grace. Such a manifestation of faith apart from church participation would appear throughout the landscape of American Evangelical preaching. The danger of this preaching, however, emphasizes that the externals have no significance whatsoever, which is not the testimony of Scripture and the historical church. The idea of true conversion would also become characteristic of the First Great Awakening ideals and the style of preaching would be one which carries over to the likes of Frelinghausen, Tennant and Jonathan Edwards.

Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative

Being America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards stands out among a sea of other First Great Awakening contemporaries. He is praised for his Calvinistic commitments and his preaching which called for repentance yet was grounded in orthodox understandings of sin and Christ’s atonement. Here in this selection, Edwards reminisces on his experience of understanding God’s sovereignty. This doctrine, which was once a “horrible doctrine” to Edwards, became the guiding doctrine undergirding his ministerial life. The language Edwards employed included a sense of poetic verse in its descriptions of grace and glory. Through contemplating nature, he experiences the “sweet glory of God” as well as a sense of “holy majesty” and “majestic meekness.” This experience is one that gives way for Edward’s newfound desire for holiness and righteousness. It was in this experience that he saw the “bottomless depths of secret corruption and deceit” which were found within his heart.

It was this style of language which was translated into sermons and other writings and became characteristic for the First Great Awakening. This was a conscious experience of salvation, yet an understanding that it comes from the sovereign Creator alone. This experience was to be coupled with the feeling of “constant delight and pleasure” and one’s “exceeding dependence on God’s grace and strength.”  This should not, however, be an experience that is necessarily manifested by extreme external evidences; rather, it is a humble realization of depravity and one’s utter need for the grace of God in Christ. For Edwards, a “delight in sovereignty” and a “sense of the glory of Christ” were to be sure signs of one’s salvation. This, we could say, is the theological summit of the American religious experience, one to which preachers would either aspire to return to, or desire to depart from.


[1] New Testament ecclesiological language comes forth as he says, “We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. He continues to communicate that by this measure, the people will receive the blessing of God which brings us back to the OT idea of Israel and their covenant with God (cf. Lev. 25:18).

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