National Humanities Medal
"I am a historian who happens to be an evangelical Christian," says Mark Noll, the Francis A. McAney Professor of History at Notre Dame. "The two are important to me but it is possible to distinguish these identities. In my work, I'm not an advocate for Christianity but because I'm an evangelical I am drawn to study religion and the history of religion."
As a historian, Noll has established himself as a leading scholar on the history of Christianity in the United States. An author of more than thirty books on the subject, his most recent is The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
For Noll, the development of the evangelical Protestant church in the United States is a key component of the nation's history. "If you want to understand the early history of the United States," he says, "you want to understand these churches.
"The United States was quite unusual in its founding principle of separation of church and state," Noll says. "After the War of Independence there really is not any established religion. With a few exceptions, notably Patrick Henry, John Jay, and Roger Sherman, none of the founding fathers was evangelical." Religion, especially evangelicalism, however, left its mark on American society. Noll notes that the nineteenth-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville commented that although churches in the United States had no formal connection to the state, they had a strong influence on the state in shaping political life and the underlying moral culture.
"From 1790 through the next one hundred years, these churches played a most active role in civil society," says Noll. "By 1860 there were fifty-five-thousand Protestant churches in the United States that more or less followed evangelical traditions, about twenty thousand being Methodists," says Noll.
In defining the term evangelical, Noll says that generally evangelicals accept the Bible as the supreme religious authority and believe in taking an activist role in sharing their religious beliefs.
In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Noll says that as the slavery issue heated up across the nation, evangelicals on both sides were able to use the Bible to make their cases. Both abolitionists in the North and pro-slavery advocates in the South drew political ammunition from the scriptures.
"The success of evangelical groups presenting a form of Christianity in which the individual looks to the Bible is shown here," says Noll. "It was instinctive on every side to say we should do this or that on the basis of the Bible."
Noll received his PhD from Vanderbilt University and taught at Wheaton College for twenty-seven years before moving to Notre Dame last fall. He is the founder of The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism and the former president of The American Society of Church History. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in the United States.
From the founding of evangelical churches in the U.S. by people such as John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield in the eighteenth century, the movement has been framed by democratic ideals. The Protestant churches in the newly created nation, Noll says, were microcosms of democracy, formed by ordinary people with no formal religious training. "The religious movement in the United States did not necessarily rely on laws or traditions," says Noll, "but was decided on by the people who wanted this task."