Mark Noll, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)
Brooks Holifield, American Theology: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003)
Intellectual history, after a generation of neglect, is suddenly getting attention again in the United States. Giving impetus to this renewal of energy are two major works on American religious thought before the Civil War: Mark Noll's America's God and Brooks Holifield's American Theology. Both are big books, over 600 pages each, and they address a big topic stretching across time and space: the grand tradition of American theology, now a lost art. They treat a time when Christian theology as an intellectual activity enjoyed considerably more prestige and cultural influence than it does today, and surely it has seldom been so innovative and diverse as in the period they treat. Both books have been written by highly respected scholars, deeply learned in the relevant primary and secondary sources. The danger in reviewing such large undertakings is that reviewers will not treat them as a whole but simply grumble that their own specialty doesn't get enough attention: the historian of gender wants more about women, the historian of science more about his subject, etc. These books deserve to be evaluated in toto. Having been conceived and written independently, even though more or less simultaneously, they demonstrate contrasting visions of how to deal with their subject. The two books typify the “external” and “internal” approaches to intellectual history respectively, illustrating for the reader strengths and limitations of the two approaches as well as their complementarity.