Philip Schaff and 19th Century Protestantism

Stephen R. Graham’s book Cosmos in the Chaos: Philip Schaff’s Interpretation of Nineteenth Century American Religion is a fascinating read. When put with such works as Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism, it helps to construct a very sobering picture of some very serious distortions of Protestantism that took root in the 19th century. In this entry my paragraphs are based loosely on Graham, pp. 45-81, and 91-95.

Schaff had always walked a tightrope between freedom and conformity in expressions of faith. Convinced that the American experiment of pluralistic religious freedom was a positive development of Christianity, Schaff nevertheless abhorred what he called “the host of sects” which had taken American Protestantism by storm. One sectarian idea in particular took a great deal of Schaff’s time to fight, and it was the unreasoning anti-Romanism of many sectors of American Protestantism. Many American Protestants were utterly convinced, for instance, that the waves of Catholic immigrants pouring into the country were part of a despicable popish plot hatched, in league with the European monarchies, to overthrow American democracy and make Americans the craven slaves of “Romanism.”

Graham highlights a few of the more odious features of this utter paranoia. First, from 1750 to 1857 there was at no small a center of education as Harvard a lecture series founded “for the detecting and convicting and exposing of the idolatry of the romish church: their tyranny, usurpations, damnable heresies, fatal errors, abominable superstitions, and other crying wickedness in her high places.”

Second, a popular game in New England was called “Break the Pope’s Neck”, a violent sentiment which was mirrored in an actual holiday called “Pope Day” in which “a parade culminated in burning an effigy of the Roman pontiff.”

Third, a convent suspected of harboring nuns guilty of “atrocities” was burned by a Protestant mob in 1834.

Fourth, in the 1840s a series of bloody riots took place because paranoid Protestants feared that the Catholic parochial school system was inculcating Catholic children with a “hatred” of the Bible and an anti-social exemption from all other religious instruction.

Fifth, propagandists recklessly fired populist fears by claiming that the Pope was trying to establish the Inquisition in America by having Catholic churches built with subterranean torture chambers and ordering Catholics to stockpile weapons in preparation for armed revolution. The paranoia was so great that in St. Louis, when some Jesuit medical students accidentally allowed some specimens of cadavers to be seen by passersby, the rumor flew far and wide that the Inquisition had already begun and the students were showing off the dismembered parts of Protestant victims!

Sixth, in 1845 the Presbyterian Church was fractured by a serious debate over the validity of Roman Catholic baptism–a debate that saw the radical, theologically-innovative deniers of that baptism’s legitimacy gain the rhetorical and cultural upper hand. (TE: Of course, the Presbyterian Church was already terribly fragmenting for other reasons, but this reason only served to deepen the schismatic mentality driving too many Presbyterians into expressions of profound insularity. Increasingly, Presbyterianism found itself simply incapable of dealing with its internal problems in a charitable manner, and also incapable of repelling the large-scale assaults on the Reformed faith which were emanating from other sections of American culture at that time).

Into this chaos, the then young Philip Schaff came, touting dangerous ideas about the need for theological balance, a spirit of catholicity in Protestant dealings with each other and other Christian groups, and a bright hope for the future of a reunified Church that would make use of the best of all the traditions–including those of the Roman Church.

Needless to say, Schaff’s views were not appreciated by the anti-Romanist fanatics who seemed to be the most influential forces in Protestant public discourse at that time. Among other “heresies”, Schaff insisted that the greatest threat to America at that time was rationalism, not Romanism. He opined that had Luther and Calvin been able to step into the American situation and have their say, they would decisively reject the “purely negative pseudo-Protestantism, as something altogether worse than popery itself.” (Graham, pg. 52)

Another “heresy” of Schaff’s was the notion that “the Reformation is the legitimate offspring, the greatest act of the Catholic Church.” Anti-Romanist fanaticism, being the unbalanced radicalism it was, simply could not stand the notion that the Medieval Church had actually had some good things going for it, and that the Reformers had been more a product of that Church than of a radically new, shamelessly innovative Modernistic “Gospel” nearly completely disconnected from the historical life of the Christian Church.

Schaff indeed did believe that the Roman Catholic system of Christianity was very corrupt, but he refused steadfastly to embrace the sectarian pessimism that seemed to so naturally accompany the traditional Protestant antipathy to Rome and he persisted steadfastly in believing that one day Rome would be redeemed and take her rightful place in a reunified, restored Christendom. He characterized the Roman Church’s system as clinging stubbornly to “the garb of childhood, like the Jewish hierarchy in Christ’s time” and accused it of having “parted with the character of catholicity in exchange for that of particularity”. Nevertheless he did not flinch from boldly stating that the Roman Church even prior to the Reformation had been “the legitimate bearer of the Christian faith and life.” (Graham, pp. 53-54)

Such carefully-balanced sentiments were too much for the “pseudo-Protestant” fanatics, however. Despite his intense interest in defending the Reformation as a legitimate creation of Medieval Catholicism and a reforming movement exhibiting a “catholic union with the past”, Schaff became deeply suspected of “compromise” by the fanatics. Early in his career he had visited England for six weeks and had some fruitful discussions with members of the Tractarian Movement there. This caused him to be rhetorically identified by the fanatics with “the followers of the Scarlet Woman”, whose Tracts were “a work of Satan.” (Graham, pg. 57)

Though he would subsequently express some reservations about the Tractarians, Schaff’s initial estimation of the movement as “an entirely legitimate and necessary reaction against the rationalistic and sectaristic pseudo-Protestantism, as well as the religious subjectivism of the so-called Low Church party” were destined to irremediably stain his reputation in the eyes of the fanatics in America, for whom nothing mattered except negatively rhetorically connecting every conceivable evil to their perpetual whipping-boy, “Romanism.”

Assailed from multiple directions by shrill accusations that he and his fellow Mercersburg theologian John Williamson Nevin promoted “A Perverted Gospel” and that they had opened up the floodgates to “Romanizing poison”, Schaff nevertheless went to extraordinary efforts (ultimately successful) to win Nevin back from a brief, but powerful flirtation with the idea of conversion to Rome. Some of Schaff’s harshest words against Rome emanate, in fact, from this period when he was fighting Nevin’s attraction to Rome. Not that the anti-Romanist fanatics noticed these efforts, or how contradictory they were to their continued slanderous denunciations of Schaff as a promoter of “poisonous Popery”. (Graham, pp. 62-64)

After the mid-1850s, this crisis seems to have died out, and Schaff, after describing himself as “a child and servant of Protestantism and an admirer and friend of Catholicism”, moved on to bigger and better things. In keeping with his somewhat “Hegelian” theory of the development of doctrine, he tirelessly promoted the idea of the eventual reunion of the sundered branches of Christendom in something bigger and better than any of them currently were. To this end he continued to resist the mania to convert people from Rome to Protestantism, insisting that the eventual reunion of the Church would occur as a result of intensive, generational works of internal revitalization in each body. (Graham, pp. 65-66)

Although he supported Presbyterians like Charles Hodge in their Reformational dissent from the sectarian decrees of the 1845 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church regarding “Romish” baptism, ultimately even Hodge proved to be incapable of appreciating Schaff’s mediating vision. In the grip of the rationalism of the system of philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism, Hodge insisted that the Mercersburg theology was “mystical” and “anti-Protestant”, and demanded that the Bible be considered a “storehouse of facts” systematically and scientifically arranged by unbiased interpreters. Schaff considered such an approach to the Scriptures to be dangerously rationalistic and tried to balance the need for reasoned thinking about abstract matters with a holistic emphasis on religious experience in the real world.

For various reasons, the controversy between Schaff and Hodge became so bitter that at one point Schaff answered a student’s question, Where is the home of Luther’s adversary Eck?, with the terse reply, “Princeton.” Later he evaluated a collection of Princetonian sermons he had perused by saying that “he thanked God he had come on the excursion if for no other reason than that he would henceforth know one dry place to flee to at the next deluge.” (Graham, pp. 94-95)

In light of this controversy, Schaff’s view of rationalism, which he thought was a bigger enemy to American Christianity than Roman Catholicism ever could be, is instructive. Stating that “rationalism is theoretic sectarianism; sectarianism is practical rationalism”, Schaff claimed that the rationalistic impulse confined truth to the realm of “the abstract understanding, the region of mere finite thinking, entangled in contradictions and external appearances, the standpoint of reflection.” By contrast to rationalism, he held that reason “is the power of perceiving the supernatural, the infinite, the harmonious unity, the essence of things, the primal idea of the absolute.” Reason “in its inmost nature, is a receptive faculty that must go beyond itself for its contents.” (Graham, pp. 92-93).

In these ways and more, Philip Schaff challenged the insular, sectarian, fanatically anti-Romanist nature of much of 19th century American Protestantism. His “truly cosmic vision of the possibility of a worldwide united church” (Graham, pg. 71) provided him with the ability to defend the claims of the Reformation against the claims of Rome while yet simultaneously holding out hope for the present and the future. His historical works, though now more than a bit dated and in need of critique at some points, still stand as testaments to how “knowledge of origins helps destroy unfounded fears” (Graham, pg. 72) and to the constructive power of a positive, world-affirming, catholic Protestant vision. Many of the troubles which Schaff fought are still with Protestants today, but by God’s grace perhaps he, though dead, may yet speak.

For follow up:

Philip Schaff, German Theology and the Church Question
Wayne Larson, Philip Schaff’s Idea of Historical Progress
Tommy Lee, Presbyterians and Revivalism
Peter Wallace, History and Sacrament: A Study in the Intellectual Culture of Charles Hodge and John W. Nevin
John Nevin, The Puritan Theory of Early Christianity
John Nevin, Catholic Unity
Charles Hodge, Is the Church of Rome A Part of the Visible Church?
Charles Hodge, Do RC Clergy Count As Gospel Ministers?

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