God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America

E. Brooks Holifield examines in detail the history of clergy—both Protestant and Catholic—within American religious history.

Reviewed by Michael W. Campbell, PhD, pastor, Wichita Seventh-day Adventist Church, Wichita, Kansas, United States

As a pastor and church historian, I found God’s Ambassadors to be a scintillating read that I could hardly put down! E. Brooks Holifield, one of my favorite historians, examines in detail the history of clergy—both Protestant and Catholic—within American religious history.

From the very beginning, argues Holifield, clergy have derived their authority from three sources: special status, divine gift or calling, and/or rational authority. From the colonial period up to the present, ministers have appealed in varying degrees to one or more of these sources.

Ministry in America took on a distinctive form from the begin­ning. Clergy were in short supply. Protestant pastors dominated the landscape (many of whom had previously been Catholic priests). Communities fortunate enough to have ministers would strive to keep them: 79 percent of clergy spent their entire lives in a single parish. Such ministers tended to be highly educated—as evidenced by the fact that 10 percent of New England clergy also practiced medicine (49). Many of the myths of ministry originated during the colonial period: the amazing ability of clergy to be able to study all day, every day, in their offices, contrasted with the realities of Cotton Mather’s admonition that every minister should “visit, visit, visit.” And I espe­cially appreciated learning that the leading cause of ministers getting themselves in trouble (and even dismissed) was insistence on trying to get their congregations to sing together in harmony (87).

The sermon dominated the ministerial landscape: most mem­bers could expect to hear 7,000 sermons during their lifetimes, ranging in length from one to two hours. “Clerical education assumed paramount importance among Protestants because their empha­sis on preaching required a clergy able to interpret biblical texts” (32). The shortage of clergy elevated the sacred office and, as a conse­quence, many colleges were begun in America to produce more pastors.

Revival and revolution signifi­cantly altered American ministry: the sensibilities of most Americans were shocked as women preachers rose up and African slaves were saved in significant numbers, especially in the American South (93). Democratic notions shifted from an appeal to the office to that of charisma as the source for clerical authority. For the first time, “conversion” was seen as a sign of ministerial success (105). Out of this arose one of the perennial debates that continues up to the present: the ordination of women. With the rise of the women’s rights movement, most notably at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the way became clear, especially in Methodist and Christian Connexion circles, for female preachers. A high point was reached during the Millerite movement with female revivalists (127).

Religious diversity and populism continued to alter and shape ministry within the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Holifield master­fully traces the diversity, especially the rise of Roman Catholicism, which quickly dominated the religious landscape. The 1940s saw perhaps the height of clerical influence in American religious history. One 1942 opinion poll cited clergy as one of the three top professions for “ ‘doing the most good’ ” (236). For the first time in American history, “church membership surpassed 50 percent of the population” in the 1940s, and the mid-1950s showed an increase of close to 60 percent (238). The professional ideal—with a highly educated ministry—gained broad support.

The cultural crisis of the 1960s and 1970s altered the influence of American clergy once again. Holifield argues that stereotypes fail to capture the complexity (327). Divisions between “traditionalists” versus “progressives” extended to both Catholics and Protestants. The debate over ordination continued as some denominations, frustrated by the lack of progress, circumvented official channels with unofficial ordination services. New issues during the 1990s, especially gay clergy, held the greatest potential to split mainline churches. Despite this, no generation of clergy since the American Revolution had such a high percentage of college or seminary graduates. Yet the populist impulse in America remained strong; some preachers with little or no education at times attracted greater public presence than seminary graduates (332).

Holifield tells of the long-lasting influence of clergy in America in a compelling way. Despite new challenges in a secular age (341), surveys painted a mixed picture of the past three decades that high­lighted both the peril and, at other times, the promise of ministry. Still, Holifield cites research that the vast majority of clergy state “that they would choose priesthood or ministry again if they were starting over” (344).

Ministry has certainly changed greatly through American religious history. From the very earliest begin­nings up to the present, ministers have worried about their declining influence. Yet it appears that clergy continue to have a significant influ­ence within American society. I highly recommend this book to any pastor who wants to better under­stand his or her role and influence.

— Reviewed by Michael W. Campbell, PhD, pastor, Wichita Seventh-day Adventist Church, Wichita, Kansas, United States.

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Reviewed by Michael W. Campbell, PhD, pastor, Wichita Seventh-day Adventist Church, Wichita, Kansas, United States

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