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The Work We Have to Do: A History of Protestants in America (Religion in American Life) Paperback – August 8, 2002

4.8 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Oxford's Religion in American Life series brought together top-flight scholars in various disciplines to write short, visually interesting, and well-researched books for the YA market. But why hide one's light under a bushel? Recently, Oxford has been repackaging these same books as grown-up paperbacks, moving the illustrations to an eight-page tip-in and bringing the price below $10. Wheaton College historian Mark Noll offers the latest installment in this Religion in America series, entitled The Work We Have to Do: A History of Protestants in America. This huge topic is covered deftly by Noll, who begins with introductory chapters on who Protestants are and where they come from and then traces their fragmented history through four centuries and dozens of denominations. To aid on this score, Noll includes a very helpful appendix that groups the various Protestant denominations into historical families.
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"Mark Noll's excellent book, The Work We Have to Do, explores the rich history of Protestants and their influence in nearly every aspect of American life....An honest assessment....The chapter on Modern America is particularly compelling for the light it casts on the incredible diversity of practices and beliefs among Protestants today. This book is perfect for those without much prior knowledge of the subject and for pastors wishing for a quick refresher in this chapter of church history." --Pastor Charles Trittin, All Saints Lutheran Church, Eagan, MN, Libraries Alive!


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Product Details

  • Series: Religion in American Life
  • Paperback: 184 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (August 8, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195154975
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195154979
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 0.6 x 5.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #882,916 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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This was a fun, fascinating little book to read. Although it may be short, this little book whets the appetite and leaves the reader wanting more. Mark Noll is one of the most well-known and well-respected scholars of Evangelicalism in the United States and handles his little project here quite well.
Noll breaks up the book into time periods, beginning with a bit about the Protestant Reformation before continuing with pre-1776 American Protestantism; he discusses the Civil War, the rise of so-called Fundamentalism, and ends with discussing secularization and other recent developments. The book is easy reading - one can read it in a few hours - and well worth taking the time to do so, especially in light of the continued presence of religion in American public life.
What I found most fascinating in this book was how American Protestantism groups so quickly divided into more groups because of a lack of government involvement. Whereas in Europe different churches came to be allied with the government of their region, this did not happen in the United States. Instead, a type of individualistic turn took place when Protestantism/s reached America's shores: if you didn't like how your church did it, you simply went off and started another one. Hence, in America there are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations that never existed in Europe.
If you have read Noll's work _The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind_, you will hear echoes of it in his analysis of what exactly Evangelicalism is (and, for that matter, isn't). He writes that Evangelicals have, for most of their history, been fairly skeptical of higher education and taking a more thoughtful approach to the faith; a type of American pragmatism exists within American Evangelicalism.
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How does one cover the history of Prostestants in America in but 133 pages?
Read how Noll pulls this off admirably in this fine text. He sweeps through using main emphases and figures that moved the history along.
His focus is fair from this reviewer's perspective, treating all areas with enthusiasm and interest as they play out their role in this unfolding history.
This is done in four main timeframes: 1607-1789, 1790-1865, 1866-1918, and 1918-. To supplement this there is an chronology, as well as bibiliography with reading suggestions.
Well done! A great resource to start one out on this topic.
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It is a tough job to pull church history in America together into a short volume; one will always tend to leave things out. Noll does a decent job in selecting material, but the book suffers from poor writing. There seems to be no real organization to his chapters; they read as loose collections of ideas and paragraph biographies. If the book were reworked, it could be a valuable introduction.
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Format: Paperback
We live stories.

When I worked as a chaplain intern, I discovered that I had a special connection with the drunks that came in and were strapped in gurneys to dry out. From their gurneys they would rage—often in Spanish—and many of the interns were intimidated. I talked with them; cried with them; and defended them in group. My affinity with these men was a mystery—I had never been drunk and strapped in a gurney. Much later, I realized that although I had never physically experienced gotten the gurney treatment, all my life my emotions had long been bounded and gagged—too dangerous to be expressed in the ever-present, polite company. My affinity with the plight of these men was metaphorical.

We live stories. Stories give life meaning. This is why history is so important. We find meaning in the stories that we tell and those that we cannot express.

Mark Noll starts The Work We Have to Do with the story of David Brainard. Brainard, a young man infected with tuberculosis, got into trouble:

“In 1742 he was expelled from Yale College when he claimed that one of his teachers did not have any more of God’s grace than a wooden chair” (ix).

Expelled from college for a private conversation, Brainard could not be ordained so he embarked on a career as a missionary to the Indians in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. A man of great passion, Brainard died at the age of 29. In the end, he was a friend of Jonathan Edwards and was at the time of his death engaged to marry Edwards’ daughter, Jeusha (ix-x). Edwards, of course, went on to inspire a revival known as the Great Awakening; it was Brainard who inspired Edwards. Brainard also inspired the founding of Princeton University and, in the nineteenth century, a generation of missionaries.
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Given the rapidly changing cultural climate, it can be surprising to learn of the dominant position that conservative Protestantism held within the culture a century ago. By dominance I do not mean merely a position of influence within a political party as the "religious right" holds within the GOP today but the acceptance by Americans in general of the faith and morals embodied within Protestantism as foundational principles upon which to base their culture.

In The Work We Have to Do, historian Mark A. Noll recounts the role of Protestantism in shaping American society. Beginning with the migration of Protestant dissidents and later those sympathetic to the established Church of England, Noll does a marvelous job describing how various Protestant groups gained a foothold in the American colonies and their influence on the fledgling republic. Noll gives a vivid account of how the Protestant ethos became so inculturated within the nation that it might seem the line between being an American and being a Protestant became blurred.

Noll then turns to the period of Protestant dominance of the culture in the 19th century. A general optimism abounded and there was a sense that America was destined to play a central role in bringing the Christian faith and Christian culture to the world. This manifested itself in both missionary work and the involvement in voluntary societies designed to create a society in line with Christian truth. He then covers a period of successive trials as the Protestant consensus is threatened by immigration from Catholic Europe and the beginnings of modernist revisions to the Protestant view.
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