Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

The 10 Most Important Christian Theologians in U. S. History

This kind of a list is necessarily subjective, but I am trying to base my choices not on “my favorites,” but on the basis of influence–both on other theologians and on the faith and practice of the churches.  After I post this list, my next posts will be a series of profiles of each of these ten. I do not think that either my choices or descriptions/evaluations are incontestable.  I invite others to submit their own lists and reasons for them–either in the comments or on their own blogs with links in the comments. I also invite readers from other nations to list the most important theologians of their nations. Our mutual enrichment could be considered a form of globalized “continuing theological education.” I hope you enjoy this series and I look forward to your responses. My list is in chronological order.

  1. Roger Williams (1603-1683).  Williams was a Cambridge educated English Puritan theologian who emigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony where his evolving views led to conflict with the colony’s religious establishment. He became a champion of religious liberty and church-state separation, as well as a friend and advocate for Native Americans. Banished (together with his wife) into “ye howling wilderness” by the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorities, Williams was saved by Native Americans of the Narragansett nation.  He founded Providence and secured a royal charter for the Colony of Rhode Island. He founded the First Baptist Church in North America in Providence, but soon withdrew himself from membership (believing all churches to be impure) to await the rise of a new apostleship. He wrote a grammar of the Narangansett language for English speakers, founded Rhode Island as the first colony to ensure religious liberty, and wrote many theological tracts that were influential on others, especially later Baptists.
  2. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Calvinist Congregationalist theologian of the Awakening, educated at Yale.  Although
    the stereotypes focus on his “hellfire and damnation” sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards was actually one of the foremost philosophical theologians of love.  He helped create the discipline of sociology in order to accurately describe the phenomena of
    the revivals.  His work Freedom of the Will re-thought the doctrine of Predestination.  Edwards reshaped Puritan theology to mold the Evangelicalism of the Great Awakening.
  3. Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Presbyterian theologian of the first generation of Princeton Theological Seminary, Hodge established the Calvinist orthodoxy of the central strand of American Evangelicalism.  He also began the form of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy (refined by his son, A.A. Hodge and by B. B. Warfield) that became so important to most U.S. conservative Protestants after the rise of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.
  4. Walter Rauschenbush (1861-1918). American Baptist pastor, church historian, and THE theologian of the Social Gospel movement.
    The son of an immigrant German Lutheran pastor (August Rauschenbusch) who converted to Baptist convictions. Educated at Rochester Theological Seminary and the University of Berlin, the largest theological impact on Rauschenbusch was his experience as a pastor of poor people in Hell’s Kitchen—one of the worst slums in NYC.  Rauschenbusch’s theology centered around Jesus’ inauguration of the
    Kingdom of God—in which both individual salvation and the struggle for social justice were incorporated.
  5. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Minister in the Evangelical Synod of North America (and, after the merger, with the Evangelical and Reformed Church)—an immigrant denomination of Germans influenced by the Heidelberg Catechism which combined Lutheran and Calvinist influences. (This is one of the root denominations of today’s United Church of Christ.) Educated at Elmhurst
    College, Eden Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Yale University Graduate School (but his father’s death prevented him from finishing his Ph.D.).  Greatly Iinfluenced by his time as pastor in Henry Ford’s Detroit.  As Professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, Niebuhr reconfigured the Social Gospel of Rauschenbusch with influences from Luther and
    Augustine—especially on the nature of sin.  He called the result “Christian Realism,” and, for better or worse, it has dominated the American Christian approach to social ethics and political involvement ever since.
  6. H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962). Reinie’s younger brother and arguably the more brilliant, but less influential, thinker. Influenced more by Calvin than Luther, also Troeltsch and Karl Barth. Created the foundations of what became “narrative theology” and the post-liberal tradition.
  7. John Howard Yoder (1927-1997). American Mennonite theologian educated at Goshen College and the University of Basel.  Influenced by traditional Anabaptist theology, Harold Bender,  Karl Barth, Markus Barth, and Oscar Cullmann.  Yoder took these
    influences and forged a nonviolent theology of social concern that rejected the Constantinian synthesis of imperial Christianity that had dominated Christianity since the 4th C.  He was probably the most influential Christian pacifist theologian since World War II and certainly the most Christocentric.
  8. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). African-American Baptist minister who took traditional Black Baptist pietism, the Social Gospel, Christian Realism, Boston Personalist philosophy & Gandhian nonviolence theory to forge the theology of the nonviolent Civil Rights movement. Educated at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, Harvard University, and Boston University, King repeatedly turned down academic posts in order to keep his commitments as a pastor and leader of the grassroots Civil Rights movement.
  9. Letty M. Russell (1929-2007).  One ofthe pioneers in Christian feminist theology, one of the earliest women ordained
    by Presbyterians, Russell incorporated feminism into a much more mainstream Christian tradition than did other early pioneers like Mary Daly (who became a self-described “post-Christian”) and Rosemary Radford Reuther
  10. James Hal Cone (1938–).  The most influential of the pioneers of Black Liberation Theology.  A minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Cone was educated at Philander Smith College, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Northwestern University, Cone has spent most of his career teaching at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. Influenced by traditional Black Methodism, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Power Movement, Cone has sought to re-think Christian theology from the perspective of the oppressed and to articulate a theology of liberation focused on the African American context, but in dialogue with other liberation movements and cultural traditions around the globe.

Well, there’s my list. I am deeply aware that it is dominated by white males, but the tradition has been so dominated for most of U.S. history and I am trying to organize my list in terms of influence.  I may believe (as I do) that Frederick Douglass should have been far more influential than Charles Hodge, but, at least at this point in U.S. history, it is not the case.

Even so, narrowing this list to 10 was not easy.  The omissions are glaring–and I hope your responses will help to fill them.



August 28, 2011 - Posted by | blog series, church history, history of theology, theologians, tradition


  1. All Protestant, too. How about John Shelby Spong and Dorothy Day?

    Comment by Blake | August 29, 2011 | Reply

    • True, It is all-Protestant because for most of our short history, Protestantism dominated the culture. Dorothy Day is a heroine of mine, but I wouldn’t class her as a theologian. If I were to pick the most influential U.S. Catholic theologian, it would probably be Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J. or,, in a completely different light, Avery Cardinal Dulles. You’ll note that I struggled with whether to have mainstream feminist Christian theology represented by the Protestant Letty Russell or the Catholic Rosemary Radford Ruether.

      Spong is Episcopalian . Whether or not that counts as Protestant depends of which Episcopalians/Anglicans you ask. In either case, I wouldn’t claim Spong as very influential–certainly not in the top 10. An Episcopalians I did consider for inclusion was William Stringfellow

      Blake, what’s your alternative list?

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 29, 2011 | Reply

      • Your list seems about right to me. Though the title should be changed to “The 10 Most Important American Christian Theologians in U. S. History.” If we were really talking about 10 most important Christian theologians in US history few of them would actually be American. You’re right about Spong, but I wonder if he’ll make that list someday. I do question whether both of the Niebuhr brothers should/need to be on the list.I think Dorothy Day is as much a theologian as MLK was that’s why I included her. I worry you’re underestimating the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the US. Protestant theologians naturally influence protestants and Roman Catholics influence Roman Catholics. Roman Catholics make up about 20% of the total population in the US and are the largest denomination in a majority of the states. Also, I would have picked Ruether over Russell. I’ve heard far more about Ruether than Russell, but that may just be my context.

        Comment by Blake | August 29, 2011

  2. I can’t argue with the top 5. For better or for worse, their influence is undeniable. I definitely think that Howard Thurman should be included in this list, though.

    Comment by papajason | August 29, 2011 | Reply

    • I’m a huge Howard Thurman fan, Papajason.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 29, 2011 | Reply

  3. Blake, I’ve taught at 3 Catholic institutions. The Catholic Church is NOW the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. It’s influence is now huge–but that hasn’t been true for most of U.S. history.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 29, 2011 | Reply

  4. I think Howard Thurman needs to be there.

    Comment by Jim Lawrence | September 17, 2013 | Reply

  5. I’m pleased to see you considered William Stringfellow. He should definitely be on the list. I know it the contra argument could be made on the basis of influence, but he will stand the test of time. He was too radical to be fully appreciated until more time has passed. Consider, however, the mind-boggling relevance of his insights on babel in the public arena, the threat of technological fascism, the need to exorcise demonic nationalism, plus the fact that his serious although highly intuitive engagement with Scripture offers a middle way for those still fighting liberal/conservative battles. Truly an original and incisive theological voice.

    Comment by David Len Miller | September 9, 2014 | Reply

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