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Comment on the Essay of Professor Clebsch* History, Bushnell, and Lincoln

  • Sydney E. Ahlstrom (a1)


During the 1960 convention of the American Historical Association a session on historical reviewing subjected the noncommittal or picayune irrelevance of these professional offerings to their due measure of censure and derision. Despite the justice of extending such judgments to the genteel and congratulatory “comments” and “critiques” ordinarily given at our conventions, I shall not attempt at any demolition of Professor Clebsch's scholarship or conclusions. This is not because my critical faculties are paralyzed but due to genuine satisfaction with what he has done and gratitude for the glimpse here given of his more extensive research. No more fitting centennial observance of the Civil War could be imagined than a sober examination of the meaning of this, our great national tragedy. Having no desire to manufacture disagreements or magnify quibbles, I can preserve some of the appearances of debate only by urging that the scope of his findings be extended at certain points. To this end I undertake the strangely impossible task of making the point of his essay both broader and sharper.



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1. “Darwinism” is too narrow a term, however. The entire complex of developmental, historical, and evolutionary ways of thinking is meant. Why Darwinism per ye made so deep a mark and why Social Darwinism cut so wide a swath in American intellectual life is a separate question of great importance.

2. See Holt, W. S., “The Idea of Scientific History in America,” Journal of the History of Ideas, I (1940); Strout, Cushing, The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958); and White, Morton G., Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism (New York: Viking, 1949; reprint, Beacon Press).

3. Schaff, Philip, What Is Church History? A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development (Philadelphia: Lippiacott, 1846). The fact that the A.H.A. represents a dominant stream in American thought and the early A.S.C.H. only a substream helps answer the question raised in my first footnote.

4. With post-Civil War problems — urbanism, industrialism, immigration, evolution, and scientific method—Bushnell was less able to cope.

5. Reprinted in his Work and Play; or, Literary Varieties (New York: Scribners, 1864).

6. See the two essays on language in God in Christ (Hartford, 1849) and Christ in Theology (Hartford, 1851); and also the discussion in Feidelson, Charles Jr, Symbolism and American Literature (University of Chicago Press, 1953; Phoenix paper).

7. Bornkamm, Heinrich, Grundriss zum Studium der Kirchengeschichte (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1949), p. 11.

8. Cheney, Mary Bushnell, Life and Letters of Horace Bushnell (New York: Scribners, 1888), p. 489.

9.O felix culpa!” See Lewis, R. W. B., The American Adam (University of Chicago Press, 1955; Phoenix paper), chap. iii.

10. See Bayne, Stephen F., The OptionalGod (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953); Donald, David, LinoolnReconsidered (New York: Knopf, 1956); Mead, Sidney E., “Abraham Lincoln's ‘Last Beet Hope of Earth’: The American Dream of Destiny and Democracy,” Church History, XXIII (03 1954); Marech, Wolf-Dieter, Christlicher Glaube und Demokratisches Ethos (Hamburg: Furche-Verlag, 1958); and Wolf, Wiilliam J., The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Doubleday, 1959) which cites the major literature on the subject.

11. This passing referenee to Karl Barth occasioned more comment and correspondence than anything else I said. It was not a studied or scholarly observation, however. Barth's universalistic interpretation of God's gracious sovereignty is one link, I think. Others are suggested in his “Letter to an East German Pastor” in Brown, R. M., ed., Serving God in a Communist and Land (New York: Association Press, 1960).

* This “comment” was given following Professor Clebsch's paper at the joint session of the American Society of Church History and the American Historical Association, in New York, on 30 December 1960. Only minor changes of the usual type have been made, except for my deletion of several brief remarks on minor matters of fact or interpretation.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
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