It is a kind of commonplace that Protestantism is anti-traditionalist in orientation, preferring a view in which unmediated, personal relationships with God and scripture are what matter, while Catholicism is traditionalist, emphasizing the accretion of authorities that mediate the connection between religious source and the believer. This is a story often told in relation to America’s own famed Protestant founding to suggest something about the distinctiveness of American religiosity.
But not so fast, says a new book that questions key features of the usual story, The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past (Oxford), by Paul J. Gutacker.
Conventional wisdom holds that tradition and history meant little to nineteenth-century American Protestants, who relied on common sense and “the Bible alone.” The Old Faith in a New Nation challenges this portrayal by recovering evangelical engagement with the Christian past. Even when they appeared to be most scornful toward tradition, most optimistic and forward-looking, and most confident in their grasp of the Bible, evangelicals found themselves returning, time and again, to Christian history. They studied religious historiography, reinterpreted the history of the church, and argued over its implications for the present. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, American Protestants were deeply interested in the meaning of the Christian past.
Paul J. Gutacker draws from hundreds of print sources-sermons, books, speeches, legal arguments, political petitions, and more-to show how ordinary educated Americans remembered and used Christian history. While claiming to rely on the Bible alone, antebellum Protestants frequently turned to the Christian past on questions of import: how should the government relate to religion? Could Catholic immigrants become true Americans? What opportunities and rights should be available to women? To African Americans? Protestants across denominations answered these questions not only with the Bible but also with history. By recovering the ways in which American evangelicals remembered and used Christian history, The Old Faith in a New Nation shows how religious memory shaped the nation and interrogates the meaning of “biblicism.”