Title Reviewed:
American Protestantism.

Author Reviewed:
Winthrop S. Hudson

Aaron Abell


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 58, Issue 2, pp 161-162

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

American Protestantism. By Winthrop S. Hudson. Chicago History of American Civilization. Edited by Daniel J. Boorstin. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Pp. vii, 198. Illustrations, chronology, bibliographical notes, suggested reading, index. $3.95.)

The Chicago History of American Civilization devotes a volume to each of the major religious faiths of America. Monsignor John Tracy Ellis and Nathan Glazer wrote on Catholicism and Judaism respectively, and now Winthrop S. Hudson, professor of the history of Christianity in the Rochester-Colgate Divinity School, examines the past and contemporary role of Protestantism in American life. He finds that the shaping Protestantism received in the Colonial period enabled it to fashion a Protestant America in the course of the nineteenth century. In post-Protestant America, as he calls the years since 1914, the influence of Protestantism visibly declined, partly because of Catholic and Jewish competition but chiefly because of internal weaknesses.

Throughout the volume Professor Hudson associates Protestant strength or weakness with denominational structure and change—this with an insight and clarity that is truly illuminating. As elaborated by the Independent Puritan divines the concept of denominationalism denied that the true Church of Christ could be identified with any single ecclesiastical system. As this theory gained general acceptance it justified religious diversity and religious freedom without impairing essential unity, which assumed a Calvinist expression in the Colonial period and increasingly a Methodist orientation in the early decades of the nineteenth century. This unified Protestantism, making extensive use of voluntary societies, overcame irreligion and incipient barbarism on the expanding frontier and sought to reach the unchurched masses in the growing cities by YMCA's, institutional churches, and other religio-social agencies.

In this Protestant America that took shape the stress was on conversions, not on the passage of "wholesome laws" to usher in a Christian society. More inexcusable, laissez-faire philosophy was invested with divine sanction. But these shortcomings, in time partially overcome, proved less damaging than the "theological erosion" which in post-Protestant America severed the identity between the major old-line denominations (Congregational-Christian, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, etc.) and the symbols and creeds of historic Protestantism. These denominations became community churches (in degree but scarcely in kind different from "the world"), and their federational agent, the National Council of Churches, preferred an ecumenical to a Protestant witness. Having lost their identity, the old-line denominations have gained far fewer recruits than Adventist, Holiness, and Fundamentalist denominations which with their uneasy allies in other churches, notably Lutheran and Southern Baptist, constitute about half the numerical strength of present-day Protestantism. Hudson thinks that a "neo-Fundamentalist" version of theological conservatism may in time serve to revitalize and reunify American Protestantism.

Professor Hudson's American Protestantism is a fine piece of historical writing. True it is that he glorifies the past and depreciates the present, sees events in black or white, and by minimizing the social gospel loses the enrichment that movement might bring to his interpretation. But his handling of denominational realignments as affected by social and theological currents is incisive and masterly.

Aaron Abell, University of Notre Dame

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.