Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

Noll_review_06272015Mark A. Noll.  2002.  The Work We Have to Do:  A History of Protestants in America.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live stories.

When I worked as a chaplain intern, I discovered that I had a special connection with the drunks that came in and were strapped in gurneys to dry out. From their gurneys they would rage—often in Spanish—and many of the interns were intimidated. I talked with them; cried with them; and defended them in group. My affinity with these men was a mystery—I had never been drunk and strapped in a gurney.  Much later, I realized that although the gurney treatment was not a personal experience, my emotions had long been bounded and gagged—too dangerous to be expressed the omnipresent, polite company—for most of my life.  My affinity with the plight of the gurney men was a metaphorical story, not a life experience story.

We live stories. Stories give life meaning. This is why history is so important.  We find meaning in the stories that we tell and those that we cannot express.

Introduction

Mark Noll starts The Work We Have to Do with the story of David Brainard.  Brainard, a young man infected with tuberculosis, got into trouble:

“In 1742 he was expelled from Yale College when he claimed that one of his teachers did not have any more of God’s grace than a wooden chair” (ix).

Expelled from college for a private conversation, Brainard could not be ordained so he embarked on a career as a missionary to the Indians in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. A man of great passion, Brainard died at the age of 29.  In the end, he was a friend of Jonathan Edwards and was at the time of his death engaged to marry Edwards’ daughter, Jeusha (ix-x).  Edwards, of course, went on to inspire a revival known as the Great Awakening; it was Brainard who inspired Edwards.  Brainard also inspired the founding of Princeton University and, in the nineteenth century, a generation of missionaries.

Noll’s title, “the work we have to do”, is taken from Edwards’ eulogy over David Brainard (14). Noll focuses on providing a short overview of the role of protestants in American history. He writes:

“Even if Protestant beliefs and practices have often worked at odds with each other, there can be no mistaking the importance of Protestant religion for the national history. Although a short book on a big subject can hit only high points it is able to suggest some of the depth, drama, dynamism, and diversity in this story.” (xi)

Organization

Noll writes in 7 chapters, preceded by a preface and followed by an appendix, chronology, reading list, and index. These chapters are:

  1. Who are the Protestants?
  2. Where do Protestants Come From?
  3. Protestants in Colonial American, 1607-1789.
  4. Protestants in Charge, 1790-1865.
  5. Times of Trial and Renewal, 1866-1918.
  6. Protestants in Modern America.

Noll was (1979-2006)  professor of history at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, a school famous for its one-time student, Billy Graham.  He is now the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at Notre Dame University [1].

One of the histories which I was not familiar with was the story of Methodist Francis Asbury.  Noll writes:

“In 1771 Wesley asked for volunteers to go to America, and Asbury responded eagerly [at age 13].  Before he died, Asbury traveled nearly 3000,000 miles, mostly on horseback, into all the former thirteen colonies and the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky” .

Asbury himself wrote about his daily schedule as:

“My present mode of conduct is…to read about 100 pages a day; to preach in the open air every other day; and to lecture in prayer meeting every evening.”

Noll notes:

“When he arrived in America there were 4 Methodist ministers looking after about 300 laypeople.  By the time of his death in 1816, there were 2,000 ministers and more than 200,000 members of Methodist congregations.”

How many pastors today can make a claim like that? (52-53)

Noll is in a clear position to opine about what it means to be protestant today.  He writes:

“In some sense Protestantism in America began with Puritans battling with the English state church over questions of innovation, experimental spirituality, and adaptation of worship to the people.” (116)

Does that sound familiar?  Noll sees the strengths of Protestantism as:

“[There are] twin, but often competing strengths of Protestantism.  There strengths are a connection with the historic Christian faith and a drive to express that faith in an up-to-date, contemporary manner.” (116-117)

Do you feel the tension in this statement? Sounds like the theme for a new book![2]

Assessment

Mark Noll’s The Work We Have to Do is a good summer read.  Clearly, he is writing for an introductory college course in church history, but his accessible style makes it a book that just about anyone can enjoy.

Footnotes

[1] http://history.nd.edu/faculty/directory/mark-a-noll/

[2] Bothersome Gaps:  Life in Tension (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-OT).

Noll Tells the History of Protestants in America Briefly

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