The Strange Career of German Religious Influence in America


Johann Neander

Ralph Keen is writing for us this week from the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City.  Keen is Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair of Catholic Studies and Professor of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 2018 he was president of the ASCH.

The session on the influence of German theology in the US brought to light new details about the reception of Johann August Neander and August Tholuck. Annette Aubert (Westminster Seminary) discussed the work of Neander, considered by many at the time as a founder of modern church history, author of a history that appeared in numerous American editions. Neander’s adoption of rigorous historical method, and his attempt to reconcile tradition and innovation, encountered resistance from more conservative seminaries. David Komline (Western Seminary) described a controversy over whether Tholuck was a universalist, a question that engaged Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans and Unitarians and that led some in these camps to claim (and others to deny) that universalism had become the theological orthodoxy in Germany. Tholuck himself tried to clarify his position in letters, with mixed success. Joel Iliff (Baylor) gave an account of Tholuck’s reception in the antebellum South, with attention to Tholuck’s history of rationalism and it’s role in shaping how many Southern theologians understood the task of theology. For them, Tholuck represented the union of piety and scientific biblical scholarship. Iliff pointed out that Tholuck was seen by some as a second Luther or Calvin. Aubert’s paper had a similar observation about the prominence (at the time) of Neander, whose supporters considered him a second Reformer.