Christian History Home > Issue 72 > Modern Pioneers: Philip Schaff
Modern Pioneers: Philip Schaff
Father of American church history
In the development of the discipline of church history in the United States, few scholars played a more important role than the Swiss-born, German-educated immigrant Philip Schaff.
Known best for his multi-volume History of the Christian Church, which is still in print, Schaff spent his career arguing for and demonstrating the importance of studying the Christian past. Along the way, he founded the discipline of American church history.
Born in Chur, Switzerland, on New Year's Day in 1819, Schaff had a difficult childhood. He experienced poverty and life in an orphanage, where he was sent after his father died and his mother remarried. Fortunately, a series of benefactors cared for him and provided warm Christian nurture that would shape the rest of his life.
As a student at the boys' academy in Kornthal, Schaff experienced a dramatic spiritual rebirth that delivered him from intense anguish of soul and allowed him, as he wrote in Personal Reminiscences, "to realize for the first time what it is to have peace with God through the atoning blood of Christ which washes away all sin." This experience would characterize Schaff's piety throughout the rest of his life and would also influence his understanding of the role of the church historian.
Schaff studied at the University of Tübingen, one of the most dynamic institutions for theological study in the world at that time, and at Halle before moving on to the University of Berlin, where he found an intellectual home in the mediating theology of August Neander. Schaff called Neander "the most important church historian of our time" and "the father of modern church history."
Schaff also appreciated his mentor's deep faith and the Christian devotion that pervaded his work. Schaff noted that "the most enduring merit of Neander's church history consists in the vital union of the two elements of science and Christian piety."
Early in his teaching career, Schaff received an invitation that would change his life and the future of the discipline of church history. Two delegates appeared from tiny Mercersburg Seminary, in the isolated hills of south central Pennsylvania, and offered Schaff a position there, on the recommendation of his professors. The young scholar wrestled with the opportunity and eventually came to see it as a "Macedonian call, 'Come over and help us!'" to which he had to respond.
He arrived in Mercersburg in August 1844 and was pleasantly surprised at his compatibility with his only colleague at the seminary, John Williamson Nevin. Together, historian Schaff and theologian Nevin
developed a system known as "Mercersburg Theology," which emphasized the church's heritage and traditions in the face of the prevalent American anti-historical sense. The two men established Mercersburg as an unexpected center of American theological scholarship.
By 1863, Schaff believed that his work at Mercersburg was completed. He spent five years as secretary of the New York Sabbath Committee, then accepted a position at Union Theological Seminary as "Professor of Theological Encyclopedia and Christian Symbolism." That title reflects the astounding breadth of Schaff's scholarship and teaching.
During his time at Union, Schaff became involved in numerous ecumenical and scholarly projects, including organizing the international meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in New York in 1873, serving as president of the American Committee of Revisers of the Authorized Version of the Bible through the project's completion in 1885, founding the American Society of Church History in 1888, and writing and editing a number of multi-volume works of biblical scholarship and church history.
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