An Overview of the Nineteenth Century

One of the more poignant lessons of church history is that it rarely enables us to foretell how future history will unfold.

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.


In many ways, not just politically, but morally, culturally, and even spiritually, the nineteenth century was dominated by the French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath. The French Revolution introduced a new force into world history—democracy as “gospel.” When the French middle classes seized power from a decadent monarchy and aristocracy, they were driven by an Enlightenment devotion to the sovereignty of reason in human affairs. No tradition, however ancient or venerable, must be allowed to stand in reason’s path. This was quite different in spirit from the American Revolution of 1775–81, which took its stand on acknowledged British legal principles. By contrast, the French Revolutionaries wanted to jettison history and re-create human society afresh, based on purely rational ideals. This was reflected in their reform of the calendar: 1789 became Year 1. Time was no longer to be measured by the Savior’s redeeming birth but by humanity’s revolutionary rebirth.

When today we think of democracy as a kind of self-evident political gospel to be sold to (or imposed on) the world, we are showing ourselves to be children of the French Revolution. It may be worth reflecting that very few Christian thinkers at the time agreed with this idea. Partly, this was because they believed in original sin. Humans are incapable of behaving rationally for very long. The very fate of France’s revolution demonstrated this when the “rational republic” was soon transformed into the personal military empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, plunging Europe into the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). Those years of bloody turmoil ended when Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in Belgium by a coalition made up (chiefly) of Britain, Prussia, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia.

Although Napoleon had hijacked the French Revolution for his own ambitions, people never forgot what had happened in France in 1789. It remained an inspiration and rallying cry across Europe, ever bursting forth afresh—as in 1848, the “year of revolutions,” which shook conservative governments in many European capitals. The ideal of rational democracy and popular sovereignty was in the world to stay.

The military defeat of Napoleon led to the victorious nations’ redrawing the map of Europe and, in a sense, the globe. It was in the wake of Napoleon’s downfall that the British Empire was able to reach its zenith of world power. The previous great world-colonial empire of Roman Catholic Spain was in decline, whereas Britain built on foundations it had laid in the eighteenth century to become the new leading colonial power. This led to the export of the English language and aspects of British culture to other parts of the world. British religion—Protestant Christianity—proved just as exportable. In many (though not all) cases, British Protestant missionaries could work under the protecting hand of British colonial authorities.

Various global territories, but Africa in particular, would now be divided up among the new European colonial empires—Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and a post-Napoleonic France. These global empires meant that if there was ever a “European civil war” (such as broke out in 1914), large parts of the rest of the world would unavoidably be drawn into it, making a European war into a world war.

Theological Developments

Continental Europe not only dominated the political scene in the nineteenth century but the theological scene as well. It was in the leading German state of Prussia that “liberal theology” was born in the life and work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). A more philosophical type of Protestantism also arose in Prussia through the life and work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Both men would wield massive influence in the Protestant world for the next hundred years.

Not that Schleiermacher and Hegel were the only key Protestant thinkers in nineteenth-century Europe. A third way was charted by the great Danish Lutheran Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55). Often caricatured as a mere irrationalist, Kierkegaard was an orthodox Lutheran in his theology. However, he reacted passionately against all attempts to “domesticate” Christianity, whether as a “national religion” (the Danish Lutheran state church) or a philosophical system (Hegel). In protest, Kierkegaard—a literary and religious genius by any standard—emphasized what he called the “subjectivity” of truth. By this he meant the profoundly personal response demanded of each individual by Jesus Christ. It was useless to believe (or to think one believes) in objective truth without subjective appropriation of the truth by the individual in the depths of his own unique existence.

Moreover, Kierkegaard insisted that Christian truth was not necessarily amenable to comfortable rational analysis, as Enlightenment-influenced theologians seemed to think. Especially in its fundamental doctrine of the incarnation, Christianity transcended reason by the “paradox” of one person’s being simultaneously the infinite, eternal God and a finite, temporal man. Against such a paradox, “reason beat its brow till the blood came.”

Kierkegaard had minimal impact in his own day. But after the First World War, his ideas had a huge influence on the “dialectical theology” of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, which shaped much of twentieth-century Protestant theology. The great twentieth-century philosophical movement of Existentialism would also look to Kierkegaard as its founder; however, its appreciation of his stress on individual authenticity would often ignore his Christian faith.

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