The Old Religion in a New World: A History of North American Christianity

Walter Klaassen

Mark A. Noll, The Old Religion in a New World: A History of North American
. Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

The author’s aim is “to provide a broad outline of the major events,
developments, and occurrences in the history of the Christian churches” and “to highlight some of the most important interpretive issues in the transfer of the hereditary religion of Europe to the ‘New World.’” This volume, prepared initially for European readers, may be seen as an abridged version of Noll’s larger work, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Eerdmans, 1992). While much smaller than the earlier one, this work has a wider scope in that Mexico is added to the United States and Canada as part of North America.

Chapters 1-3, 5-8, and 10 constitute a brief, very readable narrative of
the transformation of the old Christianity of Europe into a new distinctly
different mutation in the New World. Chapters 4, 9, 11, and 12 are topical,
dealing with the separation of church and state, and with theology, and they offer an interesting chapter on the spiritual life of Christians, including ethics, Christian literature, hymns, and especially the place and use of the Bible.

European Christians are almost universally puzzled by Christianity in North America, especially the Christianity of the United States. Noll brilliantly identifies what is specifically non-European about Christianity in the New
World. The four aspects of the North American religious environment which
made for a new “mutation of Christianity” (words borrowed by the reviewer
from Arthur Mirgeler) were: space — the simple geographical vastness of
North America; race and ethnicity — North America is a conglomerate of
immigrants; pluralism — a variety of religious forms arising from the plural
origins of the immigrants, and from the absence of confessional conservatism, caused largely by the forces of democratic individualism. In this connection Noll quotes George Grant’s words from Lament for a Nation: “The United States is the only society on earth that has no traditions before the age of progress.”

The main problem with Noll’s book is that despite its title, it is about
Christianity in the U.S., and the story of Christianity in Mexico and Canada is tacked on but not integral to the main narrative. (In this respect Robert T. Handy’s A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada [1976] is much more successful.) Noll mentions Canada occasionally, e.g., pages 20 and 32, in addition to chapter 10, which deals exclusively with Mexico and Canada. The Afterword refers only to the U.S., with not a word about Canada and Mexico. Of the list of six factors that have differentiated Christian history in North America from that of Europe, only three apply to Canada and perhaps none to Mexico.

What is obvious is not only a failure to present a North American picture,
but the extent of this failure. Perhaps it would be more accurate to acknowledge that Canada and Mexico are at least peripheral to the United States of America, a sentiment not unknown among Americans. This failure could be used as proof that a single history of Christianity in North America including Canada America, the U.S. America, and Mexico America is not possible, since neither Canada nor Mexico share the politico-cum-religious ethos of U.S. Christianity. Neither country has had, for example, the religio-political messianism that still characterizes much American Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant.

But why should such a comprehensive history be impossible? Could
not a serious attempt be made to compare and contrast on an equitable basis, chronologically, the ways in which Christianity has taken different forms in the three countries so politically and socially different from each other? Professor Noll did, after all, do it by comparison with Europe. Why not among the three Americas, especially since there have been and continue to be numerous ties, especially between the churches of Canada and the United States? Noll’s Appendix B offers a brief discussion with statistical tables comparing regional distribution of denominations in the U.S. and Canada. This does point to some major differences.

As to what the author has actually done in his description of the
transmutation of European Christianity in the United States, Noll’s book
deserves all the high praise it has received. It is a brilliant achievement. His description in chapter 1 what the transplantation of Christianity from Europe to the New World meant to nine men, coming to North America with Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity, is very illuminating. Some of them saw emigration as a way of preserving European forms of Christianity; other saw it as a way of renewing the old faith.

However, “The old religion in a New World: a history of Christianity in
North America” has still to be written.

Walter Klaassen, Vernon, B.C.