The theologization of English: A history of the rise and development of academic English studies in Britain and America

Joel Robert Christenson, Marquette University


English studies gained entry into higher educational markets in Britain and America between 1750 and 1900 chiefly on the strength of an evolving moral, quasi-religious literary agenda that envisioned English literature initially as an aid to religion, then as parallel to religion, and finally as a viable and necessary cultural replacement for (bankrupt) religion. The decline of the theological enterprise within academic markets directly contributed to the emergence and empowerment of the academic English enterprise, by means of a gradual transfer of cultural capital from the one field to the other. As it slowly lost cultural status and authority, the theological enterprise functioned increasingly as a deep cultural resevoir--as a superfund of sorts--that the earliest promoters and professors of English were able to draw upon, with varying degrees of intentionality and success, in their efforts to project and construct a cultural identity for the new academic field. And while the theological "funding" of the academic English project came in many different forms and installments--the recruitment of ordained ministers to serve as the earliest English professors, the co-optation of the scriptural model of canonicity, and the use of evangelical preaching styles and objectives within literature classrooms, for instance--the net result was that the cultural value of English literature increased dramatically within educational markets on both sides of the Atlantic between 1750 and 1900 while the cultural value of religious dogma and Christian orthodoxy was steadily falling. Eventually, this shift in cultural authority elevated the academic English profession to the point where it was being called upon (especially by many of its own spokespersons) to provide the kind of comprehensive moral vision and cultural leadership--both within the academy and without--that the clergy had formerly been expected to provide. Although twentieth-century English professionals, in the increasingly secular atmosphere of the modern university, have increasingly sought to distance themselves from the theologically resonant features of the profession's past, quasi-theological modes and impulses have continued to shape, inform, and define many of the activities and protocols of the profession to the present day, particularly in connection with contemporary literary theory.

Recommended Citation

Christenson, Joel Robert, "The theologization of English: A history of the rise and development of academic English studies in Britain and America" (1997). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9823978.