The book is the culmination of my research on nineteenth-century American Protestants, centered around the questions: how did evangelicals engage with church history? How did they see themselves fitting in the story of Christianity? And how did that shape their approach to the most pressing theological and social questions of the time? If you’re interested in reading, The Old Faith in a New Nation is now available here.
If you’d like to read some of the book, Oxford University Press is currently offering free online access to the chapter on women in Christian history. See here. You can also read or listen to some recent blog posts and podcasts I’ve done on the book:
At The Gospel Coalition, I explore the question, was evangelical reliance on “the Bible alone” to blame in the antebellum slavery debate? Read my account of the role of history and tradition in the theological crisis over slavery.
At Juicy Ecumenism, the blog of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, you can watch a video of my conversation with Mark Tooley. Mark asked some great questions about the theological and political views of various American Protestants in the nineteenth century–as well as some questions about what we might learn today from that history. You can watch our conversation here:
Over on The Anxious Bench, I dialogue with Dr. Andrea Turpin, Associate Professor of History at Baylor, and guest instructor for Brazos Fellows, about my newly released book. We had a great discussion about how nineteenth-century Protestants understood and used church history:
Andrea Turpin: What did evangelical Protestants believe about Christian history? What was the narrative?
Paul Gutacker: The typical narrative went something like this: Genuine Christianity was more or less maintained until the rise of Constantine, when power and wealth began to corrode the faith. The post-Constantinian church was corrupted by superstition, rife with bitter dogmatic disputes, and oppressive of the laity, degradations aided by the church-state alliance, the influence of Greek philosophy, and the growth of the papacy. By the middle ages the institutional church was thoroughly superstitious, authoritarian, and antichrist. Luther and the other sixteenth-century reformers broke the hold of the papacy and recovered the primacy of scripture—yet the ongoing connections between church and state kept Europe from fully recovering the vitality of early Christianity. But, with the disestablishment of state churches and the enshrining of religious freedom, American Protestants were finally completing what the Reformation had started.
As you can see, this historical narrative encouraged American exceptionalism. It was in the United States that the mistake of Christendom was being undone, where the story of Christianity was coming to its climax. And this narrative was also thoroughly anti-Catholic. Even when Protestants disagreed on when and why things had gone wrong in church history, all took for granted that Roman Catholicism was to blame. Those who challenged this assumption, such as Philip Schaff, were loudly criticized for undermining Protestantism. In other words, this historical narrative was used to shore up the Protestant nation against the threat of Catholic immigration.
Over at The Gospel Coalition, I’ve written a piece that explores the question, was reliance on “the Bible alone” to blame in the antebellum debate over slavery? Although nineteenth-century American Protestants are often represented as disinterested in the past, the argument over Christianity and slaveholding illustrates just how invested they were in the meaning of church history. The ways they used (and misused) Christian history in these debates challenge a reductionistic definition of evangelical “biblicism”:
Whatever else “biblicism” means, it did not entail ignorance of history, nor disregard of tradition. Even as they claimed to rely solely on the Bible, evangelical Protestants frequently turned to the Christian past to bolster their interpretations. Their disagreements over slavery show that an era sometimes portrayed as ahistorical and anti-traditional in fact saw extensive engagement with the history of Christianity. These evangelicals never read, nor argued over, the Bible “alone.”
“What is the secret of Christian community?” This I asked years ago, as an earnest twenty-something, of my great aunt Bernadine. My wife Paige and I were personally interested in the question—we currently lived in a community house, and hoped one day to be involved in teaching and mentoring in a communal context. My aunt was a School Sister of Notre Dame, who for decades lived with her vowed sisters, serving the poor and marginalized in Chile, Puerto Rico, and Connecticut. In 2009, the Gutacker family gathered to celebrate her sixtieth jubilee, and I had the chance to ask my question, eagerly awaiting some brilliant insight learned over decades of life in community.
Her answer was as quick as it was brief: “Well, we eat together and we pray together. That’s what makes our community.” I remember finding this slightly disappointing. I hoped Aunt Bernadine would offer something more sophisticated, some philosophical insight or brilliant quote; her answer seemed rather ordinary.
For some time now, community has been a buzzword. It serves as a catch-all for a set of hopes and aspirations to belong. It’s an innocuous idea—nobody is against community in principle—and that makes it ubiquitous. “Be part of a real community” is a promise that can neither be demonstrably broken or kept. As a quick Google Books search reveals, the concept has generated a not-so-small publishing industry, both for secular and Christian audiences. We know community is obviously important, but also difficult, and hope that the latest bestseller might reveal its secrets for us to master.
But my aunt Bernadine didn’t offer a secret. She simply told me the obvious truth: her community was committed, in particular, to the most basic practices: praying with each other, and eating with each other. Over time I’ve come to realize how her answer was not at all disappointing. Rather, she named a truth about community that is at the same time blessedly simple and deeply profound.
Corporate prayer and shared meals are both invitations into communion (a word not incidentally related to “community”). When we pray together, we commune with God and with each other. Week after week, day after day, we give thanks for God’s blessings, we name our hopes, fears, and disappointments, we rejoice and lament. We come to know and be known by each other; we bear each other’s burdens. This is not simply a therapeutic exercise. In prayer, we speak in one voice to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit, participating through grace in the divine community into which we have been adopted. This is the reality, the res, of community, in which we partake when we pray together.
Likewise, we enter into communion when we gather around the table, face to face, shoulder to shoulder, and share in the lifegiving bounty of God’s good creation. Our eating is communion most fully in Holy Eucharist, a sacrifice of thanksgiving in which Christ feeds us with his very body and blood. Yet every meal is meant to be eucharistic in some sense: whenever we break bread together, in thanksgiving to God our creator and redeemer, we commune.
“Pray together and eat together” might seem like a simple formula for community, but it certainly isn’t easy, especially with lives so characterized by busyness, mobility, and mediated relationships. It some ways it is both easier and harder to do these things regularly if you’ve vowed to do so, just as my great aunt did as at twenty years old.
But this way of living shouldn’t be reserved only for the vowed religious. It is possible to structure our lives so that corporate prayer and shared meals are built in to our days and weeks. Cultivating genuine community might be difficult, but the part that relies on our effort isn’t complicated. It’s as simple as making a real commitment to people to pray and eat together.
Nearly a decade after that conversation in 2009, Brazos Fellows launched, and it was only after the program was well underway that it dawned on us how much the fellowship was based on Aunt Bernadine’s words: the fellows’ Rule of Life is centered on daily prayer together and at least one weekly meal; our fall semester retreat is on the topic of prayer and our spring retreat is on the spirituality of food. Now, when I’m asked what the fellowship is like, I echo my great aunt and say, “Well, we pray together, and we eat together.”
This Christmastide my Aunt Bernadine went to her reward at the blessed age of ninety three. After seventy-three years of practicing for eternity, praying and eating with her sisters day after day, she now knows the reality itself. Recquiesat in pace.