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The Old Faith in a New Nation

American Protestants and the Christian Past

Paul J. Gutacker

Publication Date - 01 February 2023

ISBN: 9780197639153

264 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


Conventional wisdom holds that tradition and history meant little to nineteenth-century American Protestants, who relied on common sense and "the Bible alone." The Old Faith in a New Nation challenges this portrayal by recovering evangelical engagement with the Christian past. Even when they appeared to be most scornful toward tradition, most optimistic and forward-looking, and most confident in their grasp of the Bible, evangelicals found themselves returning, time and again, to Christian history. They studied religious historiography, reinterpreted the history of the church, and argued over its implications for the present. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, American Protestants were deeply interested in the meaning of the Christian past.

Paul J. Gutacker draws from hundreds of print sources-sermons, books, speeches, legal arguments, political petitions, and more-to show how ordinary educated Americans remembered and used Christian history. While claiming to rely on the Bible alone, antebellum Protestants frequently turned to the Christian past on questions of import: how should the government relate to religion? Could Catholic immigrants become true Americans? What opportunities and rights should be available to women? To African Americans? Protestants across denominations answered these questions not only with the Bible but also with history. By recovering the ways in which American evangelicals remembered and used Christian history, The Old Faith in a New Nation shows how religious memory shaped the nation and interrogates the meaning of "biblicism."


  • Challenges the typical portrayal of American Protestants as uninterested in history and tradition
  • Deals with a wide range of Christian denominations-Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Churches of Christ, and more-and on a variety of social-political questions, including religious disestablishment, immigration, women's rights, abolition, and slaveholding
  • Reconsiders the meaning of "biblicism"

About the Author(s)

Paul J. Gutacker holds a PhD in History from Baylor University and the MA and ThM from Regent College (Vancouver, BC). He has published in Church History, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Fides et Historia, and The International Journal of Christianity & Education. In addition to lecturing in the History Department at Baylor University, Paul serves as director of Brazos Fellows, a post-college fellowship centered on theological study, spiritual disciplines, and vocational discernment.


"Paul Gutacker's wide-ranging research has demonstrated what other historians (including myself) have ignored or misconstrued: 'religious memory' in fact meant a very great deal to antebellum American Protestants. Although references to history worked differently for different groups, women, Blacks, proslavery advocates, abolitionists, defenders of denominational distinctives, and others-all industriously appealed to the past as they sought to persuade the public. This book represents the best kind of insightful corrective." -- Mark Noll, author of America's Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911

"Gutacker has written a groundbreaking reassessment of how American Protestants struggled with religious authority. Just as important, however, this book also reminds us that history matters in ways that we do not always acknowledge." -- James P. Byrd, author of A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible and the American Civil War

"In his well-researched study of the antebellum American Protestant uses of Christian history, Gutacker lucidly demonstrates that despite their reputation for placing authority in the Bible alone, American believers often relied on church history and tradition. The Old Faith in a New Nation is essential reading for those looking to understand how nineteenth-century American Protestants imagined church history and how this historical imagining undergirded their commitments and deepened their divisions, particularly when it came to slavery." -- Molly Oshatz, Senior Fellow, Zephyr Institute

"History matters. But the study of history is not enough. Paul Gutacker, in this piercingly insightful study of how Christian history was received by Americans before the Civil War, shows the profound effects that the present can have on how humans make sense of the past. History is a study of change over time, but the contested ways which the past is received by generations located in later contexts also changes over time. Gutacker deftly demonstrates the significance of reading history. And he shows the indispensability of prudent historical thinking. The way we think about history matters, too." -- John D. Wilsey, Associate Professor of Church History, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

"American evangelicals have always been people of the good book, but they have also relied heavily upon the past to shape their convictions. In this fascinating study of the historical consciousness of evangelicals in the early national United States, historian Paul Gutacker complicates prevailing narratives of evangelical anti-intellectualism and primitivism by showing that born-again believers regularly employed Christian history to make sense of the most pressing social and political issues of the day." -- John Fea, Distinguished Professor of American History, Messiah University

Table of Contents


    Chapter One: Overturning the Past: The Failure of Christendom and the Disestablishment of American Churches
    Chapter Two: Restoring the Past: Tradition and the Democratization of Christianity
    Chapter Three: Fulfilling the Past: Teaching the Lessons of Christian History to an Exceptional Nation
    Chapter Four: Protecting the Past: The Troubled Place of History in Protestant Seminaries
    Chapter Five: Rewriting the Past: How Women Recovered their Place in Christian History
    Chapter Six: Liberating the Past: Christian History in the Debate over Slavery
    Chapter Seven: Fighting for the Past: Christian History during Crisis and War