America’s God by Mark Noll is an outstanding historical narrative, detailing how American nationalism and theology shaped each other from the Puritan ideal to the Civil War. Although dealing largely with intellectuals and their effects on religious culture, America’s God recounts the exploits of marginal and populist groups as well. Noll interweaves social, intellectual and theological history to produce a splendid tapestry.
From New England’s founding until the generation of Jonathan Edwards, an idiosyncratic brand of Puritan covenant theology provided the paradigm for the integration of society and religion. However, revolutionary Americans required a moral and intellectual framework that could ground a new nation while dismissing inherited authority. America reached a compromise in which common sense philosophy from Scotland lubricated the synthesis of Christianity and republicanism.
These three intellectual streams — post-Puritan Christianity, republicanism, and common sense — over the course of the next century so commingled as to become a single American ideology. America was Christianized, while Christianity was Americanized. This Christian America barrelled happily throughout the nineteenth century until hairline cracks appeared in the synthesis, fractures that would eventually lead to the shattering cannon blasts of the Civil War.
Instead of rehearsing the plot and argument of the book, I will merely comment on what a fantastic writer Mark Noll is. America’s God is pre-eminently educational, yet never fails to entertain. Its characters are complex, both shaping and shaped by their historical environs. Noll does not shy away from speaking about cause and effect; yet, his causes are never entirely theological, intellectual, or economic. Noll has the rare gifts of previewing without giving away all the good stuff and of recapitulating without mere reputation. He freely draws on the best secondary sources without engaging in scholarly nit-picking or excessive quotation that would distract from the argument. America’s God features thorough endnotes, a glossary, and a handy index. My only complaint is that the bibliography is so strangely arranged – classified not only by primary or secondary source, but also by region, genre, and theological tradition – that it resembles a labyrinth more than a list.
America’s God excels in both narration and analysis. American Christians (but especially pastors, theologians, and historians) will find it an edifying and engaging read. Most readers will learn new and perhaps perplexing facts about their religious heritage.