A Year With American Saints

with G. Scott Cady

A broad and inclusive cross section of American pilgrims of faith from all periods of American history and all major Christian faith traditions; their accomplishments and spiritual journeys are examples of perseverance, courage, and holiness.

(from the Preface)

The special conditions of American life helped shape the churches even as the churches sought to shape their society. Through most of the nineteenth century American life was dominated by the slavery question, the Civil War, and its aftermath. Christians were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and in the effort to incorporate the freed slaves fully into American society afterwards, an effort that came to a climax with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Christians worked together across denominational lines on these issues but several major churches became divided between northern and southern branches. Meanwhile an agrarian society was becoming an industrial power and therefore Christians were concerning themselves with the needs of immigrants and factory workers. Whether they saw the conversion and nurture of individuals as their priority or the transformation of church and social structure, many voices in many churches played a part. Some threw themselves into the cause of economic justice and described themselves as “Christian Socialists” while others maintained that the business of the church was not social change but the conversion of individuals

Through the four centuries since the first settlement in Jamestown Christians have been involved in these and other issues and have made a witness to their faith in many different ways. To single out a certain number of individual American Christians for study is not to suggest that American Christianity deserves special consideration but rather to ask what American Christians have in common and what unites them. It is an exercise in ecumenicity, not nationalism. A sampling of lives from four centuries of time will, of course, display diversity as well as unity and not every sentiment expressed will be congenial either to you, the reader, or to us, the compilers. Christians have always borne witness in diverse ways; nevertheless there is much that unites them. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians about the diversity of roles we are given by the one Spirit who works within us all as members of one body. It is the unity of that body that we have been looking for in assembling these names, the fact that each of those included here was seeking to serve Christ and moved to do so in often unique ways according to the needs of the time and the gifts they were given. An old rhyme says:

Men’s faces, voices, differ much;
Saints are not all one size.
Flowers in a garden various grow;
Let none monopolize.

This collection of flowers has been made in that spirit.

We should note that “American Saints” is not the ideal title for such a compilation; all God’s people are saints, set apart for God’s purposes and called to be holy. We do not mean to exclude all these millions by limiting ourselves to 365 names but only to mark out those who seem to have made a special impact in some particular way. Those we have selected for this “honor roll,” to use another term, are simply the ones whose voices were heard and whose example and witness were noticed. Because their names were recorded and their writings were preserved, we are able to know more about them than all those others who also served God faithfully though less noticed by their fellow Christians.

We have conducted no polls to see which 365 American Christians are most universally remembered and respected. No poll or other system we could imagine would be likely to win unanimous agreement in any event. Some churches have an official process for recognizing outstanding individuals and others do not, but we have not limited ourselves to officially recognized names. Undoubtedly we have overlooked some more important than those we included. But those we have included are Christian men and women whose lives are a significant part of the story of the Christian faith in this country and whose names and witness provide insights into the impact of Christianity on America and of America on Christianity.

We have pondered the definition of “American:” should we exclude those not native-born or those whose career was primarily in overseas mission? In a nation of immigrants, too narrow a definition would exclude many of those who played critical roles in the history of American Christianity. Finally it seemed best to include those who spent the most important part of their career in this country or who were raised and trained here and then served as missionaries elsewhere.

We have tried wherever possible to let the individuals speak for themselves by providing a substantial quotation from their writings; sometimes, after all, it is the words that live. But sometimes, even when the individual was known as a preacher, the words have not survived, and sometimes the individual spoke by what they did more than by what they said. Therefore, while the largest number of entries have a balance between biography and quotation, there are many entries with brief quotations or none at all.

It must also be noted, in the words of an ancient scribe, that “some there be, which have no memorial.” The men and women included in this list were simply the best known (or, perhaps, most easily discovered) of the millions who have borne their witness to the gospel. But these others, too, “were merciful men (and women), whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.” (Ecclesiasticus 44:9-11) The body, St. Paul said, is one body but it has many members and all play their part in the proper functioning of the body. Those not named here have also served according to the gifts they were given.