For the past twenty or thirty years now, a small cabal of historians has gradually come to dominate much of the writing that goes on in American religious history. The works of two in particular, George Marsden (author of Fundamentalism and American Culture and Jonathan Edwards: A Life, among other works) and Mark Noll (author of America’s God and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, among other works) have covered the story of American religion from Edwards to the present day several times over. Noll recently succeeded Marsden as professor of American religious history at Notre Dame. Previously, Noll taught at Wheaton College, a self consciously Christian school and Billy Graham’s alma mater (where Nathan Hatch, now president of Wake Forest, once provost of Notre Dame, and author of The Democratization of American Christianity, attended. Marsden taught at Calvin College, a similar school). As this might imply, all these men are committed evangelicals. Marsden and Noll, along with Hatch and sometimes others like Harry Stout or Joel Carpenter, have been dubbed, creatively, “the evangelical historians.”

They also have what increasingly appears to be a single story to tell. It is possible to piece together their works like a jigsaw puzzle; Noll is the most prolific and Marsden arguably the dean of the movement, but they often cite each other, and echoes of the same themes echo across all their pages. The single greatest of these, to borrow a term from Perry Miller, is declension. The American evangelical tradition began with the brilliance of Jonathan Edwards, who offered a majestic vision of a Calvinist God and a powerful awareness of what Paul Tillich called the Protestant principle – a sense of human fallibility and dependence on God’s grace that leads the Christian toward a sense of humility and self-questioning. Since, however, evangelicalism has been polluted by American nationalism and moralistic political activism, by an ever-stronger tide of arid anti-intellectualism, by increasing inattention to its own doctrine and history, and particularly by a dangerous confidence in their own righteousness. Marsden, Noll, and their fellows view history as prophecy, in a sense; they use it to call their own tradition to repentance and renewed modesty.

Finally, they are lauded in two camps – by both many leaders of their own movement as well as the American intellectual establishment. Marsden’s biography of Edwards won the particularly prestigious Bancroft Prize (also received by Richard Bushman for one of his early books); Hatch’s single major work and Noll’s many have also been acclaimed. They are also, importantly, recognized from within as intellectual leaders of the evangelical tradition.

What lessons can Mormons and their historians learn here?

An argument might easily be drawn offering a negative comparison of the celebration of these three for their prophetic-critical stance to the more frosty receptions that similarly critical Mormon historians have received. It is true that the Mormon tradition seems less receptive to the virtues of the Protestant principle than Calvinist sensibilities allow some evangelicals to be. This may, perhaps, be because of the defensiveness that is natural for a young faith; it has preoccupied us with the tendency to label criticism ‘anti-Mormon’ in order to de-legitimate it, which seems an increasingly useless way to think as our own culture and thought matures.

I think, however, that despite this such a comparison must be approached with care; the intellectual history of the Mormon tradition means that our historians begin from a different set of intellectual assumptions. Firstly, the history wars of Mormonism have been of a different type; they are fought over truth claims rather than the theological sensibilities that the evangelical historians believe are worth fighting for. This is in part because of the insecurities associated with our youth as a faith I mentioned above, but in part also because the religious power of the Reformed evangelical tradition does not depend upon its history to the degree that that of Mormonism does. Indeed, in a profound theological sense, Calvinism is a-historical, relying on the divine Word to enter history from above rather than, like Mormons or Catholics, seeing historical processes and institutions themselves as the guided unfolding of divine revelation. (The evangelical version of the latter, Left Behind-style mapping of the End Times, is among the errors that Marsden finds in his tradition.) Because of this, then, the evangelical historians understand their work as liberation of their tradition; they are freeing the essential truths of the Reformed faith from the extraneous baggage that is history, cleaning the iron rod of the Word of the grease and grime of human culture – racism, fundamentalism, and all the rest.

Thus, Mormonism’s theological inheritance makes it very easy to see a challenge in the Protestant principle; it is difficult for Mormons to make the transition that Marsden or Noll can: from awareness of individual inadequacy before God to the similar imperfections of the institutions those individuals create. The investment of divine authority our theology places in our organization makes such a task sticky at best; we see this difficulty frequently when Mormons urge each other to separate people from the church, as though there is a significant difference between the fallibility of the two. (I, personally, am more sympathetic to the concept of separating individuals from more abstract ideas such as theology or intentions; I maintain a Kantian doubt in our ability to perfectly process the divine.) Some thinkers, for example, have offered a Marsden/Noll-style interpretation of the priesthood ban; tragically, humans mistook their own cultural biases for God’s will and undermined the universality of Mormon theology. Mormon leadership, however, seems uninterested in such self-critical evaluation (the emphasis seems to be on simply moving on), while many lay Mormons are made uncomfortable by it, and rally the tenets of authority and sacred history as counter-arguments.

This is not to say that such prophetic criticism about Mormonism is impossible; Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion is an interesting example. However, such voices seem to be on the margins of Mormon theological culture, and I suspect there they might remain.