The Arc of American Religious Historiography with Respect to War: William Warren Sweet's Pivotal Role in Mediating Neo-Orthodox Critique
This dissertation is an examination of how American religious historians have described Protestant support for American war from 1702 through 1992. It is a historiography that contributes to the lack of recent American religious historiographies that consider church histories written prior to Sydney Ahlstrom's 1972 text. In addressing this shortfall of scholarly attention to pre-1970s church histories, this work examines what each historian wrote about war in order to trace historical trends. Starting in 1930 here is a clear shift away from the uncritical triumphal language that justified warfare as a corollary to American expansion and exceptionalism. William Warren Sweet's 1930 The Story of Religions in America is central to the more critical historical narratives within the field of American religious history. Therefore, this work indicates that those who view the histories written between Robert Baird and Sydney Ahlstrom as a monolithic group fail to recognize the shift toward critiquing Protestant support for war starting in 1930. The historians within the first chapter of this dissertation (Robert Baird, Leonard Bacon, Leonard W. Bacon, and Peter Mode) wrote unabashedly universal validation for Protestant support of war, especially wars against Native Indians. Therefore, when William W. Sweet was critical about Protestant support for war and wrote little concerning wars against Indians, he broke decisively with those Christian historians who came before him. These narrative trends indicated he was part of a new cultural and political paradigm. The new worldview called into question liberal Protestantism's ability to resist American nationalism and isolationism. Protestant liberal nationalism made it impossible for many Protestants to resist enthusiastically supporting the Spanish-American War and WWI while isolationism made it impossible for many Protestants to confront fascism in Germany even as late as 1939. While critiques of liberal Protestant theology did not appear in Sweet's work, he did provide the first significant critique of Protestant support for war. Chapter two investigates the theological developments in America during the 1920s and 1930s that William Sweet's was aware of when writing his initial critique (1930) and his updated critique (1939) of Protestant support for the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the WWI. Sweet had knowledge of the writings of the Methodist liberals at Boston University, European neo-orthodoxy, and the Christian Century writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. Particularly influential on Sweet's concept of theology were three critiques of Karl Barth written in America in 1928 by Albert Knudson, Wilhelm Pauck and Reinhold Niebuhr. These three reviews of Barth influenced the language of Sweet in his 1939 review of theological developments in the 1920s and 1930s. Chapter three traces how Sweet's history was the first to criticize both Northern and Southern Protestant clergy during the Civil War. In addition he denounced the Protestant clergy during WWI for their turning their churches into government agencies that promoted the war. Sweet's critical narrative stemmed from and highlighted a crisis within liberal Protestantism. This crisis was magnified by the vast majority of Social Gospel liberals abandoning their pacifistic ideals to support a war that they truly believed would free the world from future war. Once the war was over, Protestants in large measure retreated to an idealist pacifist and a politically isolationist position that refused to resist the rise of fascist Nazism even after Hitler invaded Poland. To fundamentalist and Neo-orthodox Protestants these events clearly demonstrated the naïve way too many Social Gospel liberals approached war and their failure to understand the destructive power of social evil. The theological critique of liberalism that was spreading throughout American academic universities during the 1920s and 1930s provided a compelling and productive way to track the trends within the narrative accounts of American religious history. Chapter four evaluates how Clifton E. Olmstead's 1960 work made significant strides in overcoming the lack of discussion of Native Indian wars within Sweet's work. Olmstead described Protestant settlers at war against Indians, analyzed why the wars occurred, and provided a critique of Protestant support for those wars. Olmstead discussed how the settlers perceived the Indians as ignorant, shiftless, and depraved savages and pointed to these attitudes as reasons for lack of success in missions and in leading to hostilities. Earlier accounts justified settlers' attitudes toward the Native tribes but Olmstead questioned them in an attempt to critique them. He also provided the most significant analysis of neo-orthodoxy and the Niebuhr bothers' influence on American theology from the Great Depression through 1960. Olmstead's work set the stage for two historians in the fifth chapter, Martin Marty and Sydney Ahlstrom. They both wrote longer and more detailed criticism of Protestant support for war against Native Indians that led to genocide-like practices against Indians especially during Western expansion. The other historians in chapter four were Winthrop Hudson and Edwin Gaustad both of whom wrote relatively little concerning Protestant support for war. Chapter five also explored how historians Catherine Albanese and Mark Noll described Protestant support for war and how their interest in describing war paralleled their interest in writing about neo-orthodox theologies in America form the 1930s through the 1960s.
Church historian, Historiography, liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy, Protestant, war
April 18, 2012.
A Dissertation submitted to the Department of Religion in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Includes bibliographical references.
Amanda Porterfield, Professor Directing Dissertation; Neil Jumonville, University Representative; John Kelsay, Committee Member.
Florida State University
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