You can never be entirely sure what you’re going to find in an archive. While making photographs of some old, hand-scratched documents at Yale Divinity School, I came across a number of faculty reports written by Leonard Woods, one of the founders of Andover Theological Seminary in 1807.
Each year, faculty would submit their reports to the board of trustees, outlining their productivity that academic year. Woods submitted his report as usual in 1826. However, it was longer than many of his other reports I found.
Woods took extra length in the roughly 20-page report to discuss his thoughts on the school’s curriculum for educating young ministers.
“I am clear,” he began, “that very little use can be made of Ecclesiastical History, understood in the common sense, and of course that comparatively little attention ought to be given to it in a course of Theological Study. And this, I am confident, is the universal opinion of the best and most enlightened ministers and Christians of New England.”
I chuckled to myself. I could not disagree more with the late Rev. Woods. That’s hardly surprising since I have spent years studying “ecclesiastical history.” I tend to believe that more, not less, attention “ought” to be given to it.
I also had to laugh because, having been raised a Virginia Baptist, dissenting against “the best and most enlightened ministers and Christians of New England” is in my theological bones.
Woods was concerned principally with where church history should be placed within the course of study for ministers in training. While 21st-century theological curricula may have some flexibility regarding when students take certain courses, in the early 19th century the curriculum was strictly regimented.
The foundation of any course of theological education, according to Woods, was “sacred literature” or biblical studies. In the seminary at Andover, Woods emphatically underlined in his paper, “the true religion [was] to be learnt—and to be learnt from the Bible.”
Christian theology would naturally fall within this 19th-century curriculum, as it was the “continuation of the study of Sacred Literature.” Rounding out this sequence of courses would be “Sacred Rhetoric” or preaching. When the “knowledge of true religion is thus obtained, the next thing is to acquire the art of teaching it,” Woods contended.
This clear progression from learning the biblical text to applying the biblical text to teaching the biblical text sounds quite logical and well reasoned. However, Woods’s argument for a course of theological study that neglected the history of the Christian church had a nefarious underlying logic:
“‘I am clear that very little use can be made of Ecclesiastical History … and of course that comparatively little attention ought to be given to it in a course of Theological Study.’”
In the process of studying the opinions and beliefs of “professed Christians in different ages of the church,” students might be “drawn aside from the only sure standard of divine truth.” If they studied the history of the Christian tradition they “will be extremely liable to be influenced in their inquiries and in their belief.”
Woods believed that when students began their study of Christian theology they should be “wholly free” from the beliefs of previous centuries. Instructors of theology needed to have “the first access to their [students’] minds.”
Such a perspective is troubling. Woods’s diatribe against the subject of ecclesiastical history reveals that the earliest constructions of American seminaries and divinity schools possessed little desire to cultivate theological inquiry. The only way Woods could have been more explicit about brainwashing ministerial students would have been to use that word.
While many institutions of theological higher education in America today are far more interested in nurturing the theological imagination of their students, some would find points of agreement with Woods. In my view, church history challenges the arrogance of believing that our theological constructions are the product of own reading of scripture and not built upon millennia of political, social and economic history. It challenges the idea that we are self-made Christians.
In recent weeks, public appeals to return to the history books have rung out. There have been calls to recognize the parallels between the Nazi Party in early 20th-century Germany and the contemporary challenge of ethno-nationalism building within some of the ranks of the Republican Party. Some have noted the sobering parallels between the conflict at America’s southern border and the policies that detained Japanese immigrants during World War II. The political disagreements and discussions regarding whether to label border facilities as “concentration” or “detention” or “internment” camps does not obscure but rather sharpens the historic parallels to parts of America’s darkest past.
Christianity provided a powerful motivating factor in both of these historical examples and continues to exert a powerful influence on American politics today.
Realizing that our Christian theological beliefs are not solely constructed between the biblical text and ourselves, or even our contemporary religious communities, will not fix our moral failings as Christians. However, recognizing that our theological beliefs are not only the product of our personal readings of scripture but are also the consequences of a violent and bloody history of disagreement might cultivate within us some humility. It might break down the certainty with which we hold our theological beliefs.
It might cause us to think all of Christian theology has simply been conjured and re-conjured with each crashing wave of time. It might cause us to remember that this process of conjuring and re-conjuring is what faith is about.