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A History of American Christianity by Bacon

Aside from local and sectarian histories


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The field of church history, aside from local and sectarian histories, was late in being invaded by American theologians. For many generations the theology of America was distinctly unhistorical, speculative, and provincial. But a change in this respect was inevitably sure to come. The strong propensity of the national mind toward historical studies is illustrated by the large proportion of historical works among the masterpieces of our literature, whether in prose or in verse. It would seem as if our conscious poverty in historical monuments and traditions had engendered an eager hunger for history. No travelers in ancient lands are such enthusiasts in seeking the monuments of remote ages as those whose homes are in regions not two generations removed from the prehistoric wilderness. It was certain that as soon as theology should begin to be taught to American students in its relation to the history of the kingdom of Christ, the charm of this method would be keenly felt.

We may assume the date of 1853 as an epoch from which to date this new era of theological study. It was in that year that the gifted, learned, and inspiring teacher, Henry Boynton Smith, was transferred from the chair of history in Union Theological Seminary, New York, to the chair of systematic theology. Through his premature and most lamented death the church has failed of receiving that system of doctrine which had been hoped for at his hands. But the historic spirit which characterized him has ever since been characteristic of that seminary. It is illustrative of the changed tone of theologizing that after the death of Professor Smith, in the reorganization of the faculty of that important institution, it was manned in the three chief departments, exegetical, dogmatic, and practical, by men whose eminent distinction was in the line of church history. The names of Hitchcock, Schaff, and Shedd cannot be mentioned without bringing to mind some of the most valuable gifts that America has made to the literature of the universal church. If to these we add the names of George Park Fisher, of Yale, and Bishop Hurst, and Alexander V. G. Allen, of Cambridge, author of "The Continuity of Christian Thought," and Henry Charles Lea, of Philadelphia, we have already vindicated for American scholarship a high place in this department of Christian literature.

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In practical theology the productiveness of the American church in the matter of _sermons_ has been so copious that even for the briefest mention some narrow rule of exclusion must be followed. There is no doubt that in a multitude of cases the noblest utterances of the American pulpit, being unwritten, have never come into literature, but have survived for a time as a glowing memory, and then a fading tradition. The statement applies to many of the most famous revival preachers; and in consequence of a prevalent prejudice against the writing of sermons, it applies especially to the great Methodist and Baptist preachers, whose representation on the shelves of libraries is most disproportionate to their influence on the course of the kingdom of Christ. Of other sermons,--and good sermons,--printed and published, many have had an influence almost as restricted and as evanescent as the utterances of the pulpit improvisator. If we confine ourselves to those sermons that have survived their generation or won attention beyond the limits of local interest or of sectarian fellowship, the list will not be unmanageably long.


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