Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America.
This volume focuses on the community of discourse in early America that engaged the issues surrounding "the canonical boundaries of the Christian scriptures" (10). In a word, was the biblical canon "open" or "closed"? Sometimes those who participated in this debate did so for reasons peculiar to their own religious communities; other times they were challenging judgments on the issue held by other religious parties and therefore were openly aggressive. In both cases, participants in the discourse believed that canonicity involved theological judgments critical for maintaining the truthfulness of their particular religious positions. In other words, the status of the Christian canon, a topic which has not received a great deal of sustained attention among Americanists of late, has more theological significance than would appear to be the case if the issue is measured simply by the amount of contemporary scholarship on the subject. For that reason, therefore, historians of American religions owe a debt of gratitude to David F. Holland for opening this topic in a very instructive manner.
The primary timeframe for this study extends from the Puritans to the Transcendentalists, and the principal geographical focus is the territory that became the United States. But Holland includes comparative reflections at spots that extend beyond that temporal framework and geographical context, judgments involving such pivotal figures as John Calvin and John Locke, as he contextualizes the early American story in the larger canonical history. Four inclusive categories to which Holland pays primary attention he identifies as the Reformed, the Rationalists, the Revivalists, and the Romantics.
The function of the biblical canon was that of a rule against which a host of other religious knowledge might be measured or tested. It was the standard; and if it was fixed or "closed," then its role was primary in determining acceptable theology and religious practice. If it was "open," then possibilities for religious and theological innovation were potentially infinite. No wonder parties engaged in the controversy over the status of the biblical canon regarded the issue of primary theological importance, one on which compromise seldom seemed an option. The canonical issue was commonly viewed by virtually all parties as non-negotiable.
Yet in early America there was no absence of challenges to the closed biblical canon, challenges both highly controversial and yet often very successful. In one of the strongest sections of this volume, Holland examines in detail three American religious movements which experienced remarkable success in the years of the early republic, especially in the decades preceding the Civil War. The three struck very different religious notes, but all challenged the concept of the closed canon. The Shakers, formally the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, the Mormons, formally the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Seventh-day Adventists, a group that followed on the heels of the Millerite movement--all three in the first half of the nineteenth century openly challenged the notion of the closed biblical canon by means of powerful prophetic leaders who received new written revelations or who offered unconventional and controversial interpretations of biblical texts. From the remarkable success of these movements in the pre Civil War era, it is obvious that a substantial portion of religious Americans were receptive to the implicit arguments against the closed biblical canon and ready and willing to accept the judgments regarding an open canon on which these emergent religious movements solidly rested.
Holland makes clear that there were numerous ways in which these religious communities challenged the closed canon. Perhaps the most obvious was the elevation of alternative scriptural documents alongside the New Testament. In the nineteenth-century American context, the Book of Mormon might be the most striking successful alternative scripture, a text that rose within the Latter-day Saint community to a status higher than the New Testament. Within Shakerism, the visions ascribed to the founder Ann Lee and the revelations received by subsequent generations of faithful Believers rendered suspect any limitation of divine revelation to the writers of the New Testament. The canon was open and expanding with each generation of Shakers. William Miller's deciphering of the "prophetic arithmetic" was a major apocalyptic supplement to the canon and a primary factor in determining the pattern of the Christian life for Millerites and subsequently Seventh-Day Adventists, the followers of Ellen White. The point is that these diverse nineteenth-century American religious groups all directly challenged the notion of a closed canon.
In sum, this monograph by David Holland documents the central role of the issue of the biblical canon in early American religious history. But this study also has an added value, namely, alerting all historians who are engaged with American religious history across diverse time periods that they need to be aware of the variety of ways that this issue of the biblical canon enters into American religious discourse. Holland's work newly places that issue on the collective professional agenda of all parties working on American religious history, and that is a significant contribution.
Stephen J. Stein
Emeritus, Indiana University
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|Author:||Stein, Stephen J.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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