Blog: American Religious History: An Edge in Ministerial Training

By Paul Sanchez, Th.M.

If you plan to pastor in the United States, you should consider studying American religious history. Admittedly, if you are in seminary, your Master of Divinity program seems full. There is not much room to add requirements, nor am I promoting such an idea. What I am suggesting is a greater awareness of the worth of studying history for one’s ministerial education.

History is generally not the most popular subject. Even more specifically, we tend to neglect American history in theological circles. A glance at conservative theological journals, conferences, and publishing illustrates this. American history does not seem to inspire curiosity the way that Patristics increasingly does. We also figure that the American scene does not offer the theological weight of the Reformation. We are, at least most of us, Americans after all. Why would we need to study our own history? Just give us systematic theology, the biblical languages, and the pastoral classes, students might say. The couple of history courses already required by most seminaries seem heavy enough. However, I am convinced that studying American religious history will benefit those who plan to minister in the United States, especially those who are called to pastor. To study history is to gain wisdom and the more I study history and the longer I serve in ministry, the more I see the benefits of the wisdom I am gaining.

I’ve loved history since I was a kid. In college, I minored in history. Even before seminary, I determined that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. That was an easy decision. The more difficult decision initially was choosing which discipline I would study. I loved the biblical languages— both Greek and Hebrew. I considered studying Old Testament, as a beloved professor encouraged. I loved systematic theology too. History, however, was my first love and a wise friend encouraged me to study whichever subject really “lit my fire.” No one encouraged me to focus in American history. Actually, I don’t know if I knew anyone in seminary who was primarily interested in American religious history. As I took church history electives at the master’s level, I realized how edifying they were for my ministry. As I pastored a small church in Acadia Parish, Louisiana, I realized how edifying they were for my ministry. When I entered the Ph.D. program at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I took a colloquium in American religious history with Lloyd Harsch, which solidified my hunger for the subject and the benefits it held for those who studied it. I was hooked.

Those who serve in the local church will face a diverse set of challenges. Studying American religious history empowers ministers to confront those challenges, having a well of knowledge from which to draw. The student of American religious history learns about the history of denominations in America. They have insight into significant questions: (1) Why is Pentecostalism so strong in southern Appalachia, even having unique manifestations? (2) Why is Roman Catholicism so prominent on the gulf coast? (3) What happened to the Puritans that once dominated New England? (4) Why are the mainline denominations experiencing such a free-fall decline? These students study the history of missions in the United States, revealing the awe-inspiring work of John Eliot and the Mayhews in early New England and the expansive work by Roman Catholic missionaries in California, essentially securing the state for Spanish settlement. They study the development of homegrown religions too, such as Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They study the tensions between church and state, both in the colonial period, the early republic, and up to the present. They study the challenges that their forbearers faced on a range of topics, including race, morality, the tumult of war, theological battles, and so forth. The minister who grasps the history behind these concepts gains a wealth of knowledge that will benefit his ministry. As Christians, we know that history is not cyclical, but it does sometimes reveal patterns which repeat from one generation to another. The early growth, eventual plateau, and final decline of denominations is arguably one such example. Further, historical events produce consequences and repercussions that continue to impact society and thus ministry. Race relations during Reconstruction led to Jim Crow, which in turn led to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. Churches certainly felt these dynamics and still feel them today, as the discussion about race is increasingly a forefront issue. Theological infighting in several denominations during the twentieth century led to new denominations forming, institutions changing hands, and churches splitting. Ministers can gain a wealth of wisdom by studying this history.

Pastors have the opportunity and responsibility to be a prophetic voice in their community. This requires knowledge of social dynamics, trends, background, and so forth; it requires history, in others words. If someone pastors in Montgomery, Alabama, he should understand civil rights history in that city and the south more generally. If a pastor is serving in Washington, D.C., then understanding something of political history is essential. If someone wants to plant a church in Utah, he needs to grasp Mormonism. One serving in southwest Missouri should study the background of Pentecostalism, which holds such sway there. Faithful stewardship of the pastoral calling demands that ministers shepherd the flock, which is hard to do if one is ignorant of what his people believe, how they think, and what challenges they face. The pastoral office is theological, first and foremost, but history can be a tool more useful than we usually acknowledge. It’s hard to have a prophetic voice if you do not know what you’re talking about.

I am not arguing that pastors need a Ph.D. in history, although some might consider it. Disciplines like biblical studies and theology obviously lend well toward local church ministry, but history offers more than many have assumed. Most students who pursue a Ph.D. in church history hope to teach vocationally. However, the few teaching opportunities that exist for newly minted Ph.Ds. might mean more of them end up in the pastorate, which might not be a loss for the church. But this is not for most seminarians. Many students might merely considering taking one or two additional electives in church history. Some might earn a bachelor’s degree in history before coming to seminary, or even better, earning a Master of Arts in American history from a university beyond the M.Div. Most research universities offer an M.A. in history and the student can write a thesis on religion. At the very least, students might create a regiment of historical study on their own, in preparation for and during their service. If they do, I am confident that they will find American history more rich and fascinating than they ever imagined. More importantly, they will have an edge in their training from which their ministry will greatly benefit.

Paul Sanchez is an alumnus of NOBTS (2012) and has studied American religious history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 2013, earning a Th.M. in 2014, and currently pursuing a Ph.D. under Dr. Greg Wills. He is also the Lead Elder and Preaching pastor of Emaus Church in San Jose, CA. You can follow him on twitter @paulsanchez408.