The Reformed tradition in many ways enjoyed a golden age in nineteenth-century America. The list of notable American Reformed theologians and scholars includes Charles Hodge (1797–1878) and his son Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–86), William G.T. Shedd (1820–94), Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–98), James Henley Thornwell (1812–62), Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818–1902), John Girardeau (1825–98), John B. Adger (1810–99), William H. Green (1824–1900), Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851–1921)—the list goes on. No other land produced such a crop of Reformed talent. In particular, Princeton Theological Seminary, presided over by Charles Hodge, was a powerhouse of Reformed theology.
However, nineteenth-century America also produced a startling array of unorthodox religious movements. To this century in the United States we owe the origins of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and Seventh-day Adventism. Virtually all these and other sectarian movements held in common the attribution of some type of extrabiblical authority to one or more of their founders, who claimed prophecy, visions, or written revelation alongside the Bible. Notoriously, Joseph Smith (1805–44), the Mormon founder, was a self-styled prophet who professed to be God’s chosen agent in restoring true Christianity to a long-apostate Christian world.
Unbiblical religion of another type—the syncretistic, pantheistic religious thought of the Eastern world—also came to influence the West increasingly in this period. This was in part due simply to the way that the world was becoming a smaller place through technological progress. Travel and communication were becoming so much easier and more rapid. The European colonial empires also played their part in channeling Eastern thought back into the West. America had its own religious school of thinking, the Transcendentalism of New England, that reflected many Eastern themes. The pan-religious syncretism favored by this style of thought found concrete expression in the founding of the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. All of this presaged the multifaith ecumenism that would become politically correct in the twentieth century.
Other significant movements that began in the nineteenth century and greatly affected the twentieth century lay more in the area of philosophical theorizing (political, scientific) outside the church. Communism in its modern form originated in the nineteenth century with the political teachings of the German thinker Karl Marx (1818–83). Marx was a sort of renegade disciple of Hegel; he stripped Hegel’s philosophy of anything spiritual and interpreted human history in wholly materialist, economic terms. Hegel had seen everything as developing, by an inevitable historical process, toward an ultimate manifestation of “Spirit,” but Marx saw it developing toward the worldly utopia of a classless society. In the vanguard of this development stood the working class, who had to unite across all national divides and shatter the chains of their rich, capitalist oppressors.
Nor in Marx’s hands was communism friendly to religion, which he famously called “the opium of the people”—a drug-like refuge for suffering workers who knew no better. When the classless society dawned, the dream of religion would vanish as no longer needed. Marx’s prophecy was to be radically falsified in communist societies of the twentieth century, where religion would remain a potent reality despite all attempts by communist states to eradicate it.
The nineteenth century also saw the epoch-making work of English scientist Charles Darwin (1809–82) and his theory of life’s development (evolution) over vast eras of time from one or a few original forms. Here we must be careful. The theory of biological evolution had in fact been around throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, many decades before Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). What Darwin’s landmark treatise did was offer a seemingly scientifically viable mechanism—natural selection (sometimes called “survival of the fittest”)—by which evolution could take place. The end result of Darwin’s theory was to make the more general concept of biological evolution more palatable and respectable.
Although Darwin’s theorizing took place in the scientific domain, Christian thinkers wondered about its impact on the biblical narrative. Christian responses were extremely varied. Some saw no problem in Darwin’s theory as long as God’s sovereignty was regarded as lying behind natural selection. Others, however, argued that Darwin had framed his theory in such a way as to render the Christian God either redundant or positively incredible. The seeds of the later fierce religious controversies between “theistic evolution” and “creationism,” still divisive today, were thus sown at the very outset of Darwin’s impact.
Another nineteenth-century thinker worth noting is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). With more honesty than most, he stared into the atheistic void of existence without God and saw little or no meaning left (“nihilism,” from the Latin nihil, nothing)—that is, nothing but the struggle for mastery by the strong over the weak. Rejecting Christianity as the religion of the weak, a “slave morality,” Nietzsche prophesied the coming of an Übermensch (literally, “super-man”) who would embody human beauty and virility without God—and without compassion for the weak. Some have seen themes here that came to evil fruition in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
At the other extreme to Nietzsche, we should mention the Russian Orthodox writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81), who has a claim to being the greatest novelist of all time. Dostoevsky also stared into the atheistic void, but he drew the opposite conclusion from Nietzsche: the only valid meaning of human life lies in the God of Jesus Christ. In his novels such as The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explores these themes with unique imaginative brilliance.
Rome Responds to Modernity
Last, the Roman Catholic Church underwent some serious developments in the nineteenth century. In reaction to the anti-Catholic excesses of the French Revolution, the predominant note of these developments was intensely conservative. They were embodied in the figure of Pope Pius IX (pope from 1846 to 1878). He was nicknamed “Pio Nono,” because he was always saying no to anything modern. During Pius’ pontificate, the Roman Catholic Church formally defined two new dogmas as binding on the faithful. The first was the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary (1854)—Mary’s conception without sin—which until then had been merely an opinion denied by some of Rome’s leading theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas. The second was papal infallibility, proclaimed at the First Vatican Council in 1870.
Rome in the nineteenth century saw herself as the embattled city of God, fighting on two fronts: against the Protestantism so mightily incarnated around the globe in the British Empire, and against all the “liberal” and progressive tendencies of Western civilization in the nineteenth century. Few at the time could have foreseen the complete collapse of this mentality among Roman Catholics in the century to come. One of the more poignant lessons of church history is that it rarely enables us to foretell how future history will unfold.