Has the status of clergy in America declined; what are the variables? Are pastors considered professionals or fellow believers with obvious gifts? How has "calling" and the practice of ministry been understood during different eras? Holifield presents all manner of penetrating observations on both the Protestant and Catholic experience. 359 pages, hardcover. Eerdmans.
In God's Ambassadors E. Brooks Holifield masterfully traces the history of America's Christian clergy from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, analyzing the changes in practice and authority that have transformed the clerical profession.
Challenging one-sided depictions of decline in clerical authority, Holifield locates the complex story of the clergy within the context not only of changing theologies but also of transitions in American culture and society. The result is a thorough social history of the profession that also takes seriously the theological presuppositions that have informed clerical activity. With alternating chapters on Protestant and Catholic clergy, the book permits sustained comparisons between the two dominant Christian traditions in American history.
At the same time, God's Ambassadors depicts a vocation that has remained deeply ambivalent regarding the professional status marking the other traditional learned callings in the American workplace. Changing expectations about clerical education, as well as enduring theological questions, have engendered a debate about the professional ideal that has distinguished the clerical vocation from such fields as law and medicine.
The American clergy from the past four centuries constitute a colorful, diverse cast of characters who have, in ways both obvious and obscure, helped to shape the tone of American culture. For a well-rounded narrative of their story told by a master historian, God's Ambassadors is the book to read.
While the roles of American clergy have changed over the past 400 years, this thorough account argues that the narrative of decline is unwarranted: in congregational leadership... the clergy have as much authority now as they did in the 17th century. According to Holifield, professor of American church history at Candler School of Theology, the gospel is both world denying and world affirming, which means that clergy stand in an irreducibly paradoxical relation to American culture. After summarizing the roots of Christian ministry from the first century through the Reformation, Holifield traces the shifts in authority from the American colonies through 2005. Using parallel chapters covering Protestant and Catholic issues, he weaves in portrayals of African-American clergy and the contested place of women in the ministry. Topics include the trend toward an educated clergy and their ongoing professionalization; the populist revival, which valued religious enthusiasm over theological accomplishment; increasing tensions between liberal and conservative Christianities; the social gospel; the changing role of the laity; and the impact of Vatican II. Holifield's section on clergy from 1970 to the present is tantalizingly brief but incisive. Full of detailed research, this balanced historical study is clear, well-organized and perceptive. (Oct.)
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"This volume is a masterful performance. . . Writing an integrated narrative involving many streams of Christianity over a four hundred year period is no small achievement. Holifield accomplishes this with excellence and grace. He has created a readable account from a vast array of material, both primary and secondary. In my judgment, this volume will become a classic. It will be of interest to all who practice ministry as well as those who are preparing to enter its ranks."
Reviews in Religion & Theology
"Brooks Holifield has undertaken the significant task of chronicling the story of America's clergy. He does so with grace and eloquence, making God's Ambassadors must reading for any one, clergy or scholar, interested in the place of Christian ministry, Protestant or Catholic, in American life. A book that is not just readable, interesting, challenging, but that is also a book to which clergy and scholars should give close attention. (Starred Review)."
Stephen J. Stein
Indiana University, Bloomington
"E. Brooks Holifield has framed the social and ecclesiastical contexts and the historical development of the Christian ministry in America in its denominational complexities with fresh clarity and insight. His work on the diverse and changing challenges to clerical authority will be of great interest to social and religious historians, to the general religious public, and especially to members of the clerical profession or those in training for it. This volume will immediately become the standard historical account of the topic for many years to come."
"Brooks Holifield has synthesized a vast amount of scholarship into a compelling story, gracefully written. God's Ambassadors will stand for a long time as the authoritative history of Christian clergy in America, but this remarkable book is more than that. It is a new history of religion in America, one with the clergy at center stage."
"While the roles of American clergy have changed over the past 400 years, this thorough account argues that the 'narrative of decline' is unwarranted. . . Holifield's section on clergy from 1970 to the present is tantalizingly brief but incisive. Full of detailed research, this balanced historical study is clear, well-organized, and perceptive."
Katarina Schuth, O.S.F.
University of St. Thomas
"In this extraordinarily well-documented historical account of the ministry in the United States from its early stages, Brooks Holifield captures a sense of the soul of the minister. His engaging descriptions of the varied missions of 'God's ambassadors' are threaded with just the right combination of fascinating details and serious theological reflection. The reader comes away with a balanced understanding of the achievements and disappointments of these ministers, both Protestant and Catholic. Through the centuries their work has left a deep impression on American culture, and Holifield's unique history brings to life the significance of their contribution."
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