In 2007, Emory University Professor E. Brooks Holifield made a pioneering attempt to shape the complex, contradictory, and largely unknown experience of America’s ministers, priests, and pastors into a single narrative. His God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) tells a leadership story that can widen the horizons and increase the imagination of all who care about this topic.

God’s Ambassadors shows how dynamic the ministry in America was and is. In the early eighteenth century, for example, preaching was so central to everyday life that church members might easily have heard more than 7,000 sermons in a lifetime (p.44). Through their printed sermons, books, and tracts, clergy were America’s best-selling authors, its first cohort of intellectuals. By the middle of the nineteenth century clergy had founded most of America’s antebellum colleges and 90% (262 of 288) of college presidents were ministers. (p.119)

As the nation became more learned and secular, clergy lost their early monopolies. New social needs, however, called forth new forms of leadership and clergy formed a host of new benevolent organizations. (p. 107).

The lives of these clergy varied. A few, like the Reverend Morgan Dix, the Episcopal rector of Trinity Church in New York City, did very well.  Leading a large downtown church with 5,535 members, he ran an “ecclesiastical corporation” that included a parish school, an industrial school, a music school, a parish hospital, a retirement home, a medical dispensary, and “dozens of girls’ guilds, boys’ clubs, women’s auxiliaries, and men’s groups.” One of New York City’s music and art centers (and one of its largest landlords), Trinity had become, by the time of Dix’s death in 1908, “the richest church in America” with a rector who had “the largest salary of any clergyman in America, $15,000 a year.” (pp. 145-146).

For most clergy throughout American history the reality was very different. The majority served—and still serve—small congregations. Most worked alone and struggled to make a living (some taking their wages in bales of tobacco or other crops, others supporting themselves as farmers or laborers). Many were highly educated, but many more were not.

Through all the denominational diversity and social change that makes up their story, Holifield found some basic continuities. First, the American environment put its clergy into a setting where their authority was ambiguous. Was it the ecclesial office they were ordained into that gave them their special role and status? Did their power come from personal charisma or an inner call from God? Or was their authority grounded in special competencies and knowledge that they possessed? Across the centuries, clergy in America tested all three options. The argument goes on today as clergy struggle with issues of role, status, and identity.

A second continuity has to do with core tasks that make up the clergy life: “the unrelenting demands of preaching, baptizing, serving the bread and wine (or grape juice), teaching, administering, organizing, raising money, helping the poor, instructing children, visiting, marrying and burying, and counseling with heartbroken parents and bewildered adolescents and people seeking one or another kind of salvation.” (p. 345) Each generation of American clergy has kept on doing these things, providing a cantus firmus to much of American life.

But as they did these core tasks they met the great challenges of the nation. In congregations of all sorts—and always in intricate relationship with the people who chose to belong to them—America’s clergy faced and shaped challenges like the American Revolution, the disestablishment of the state churches, waves of revivalism, slavery, the Civil War, urbanization, the emergence of new industries, the rise of professions, the flow of new immigrants, concentrations of wealth and poverty, media and popular culture. As they responded, often in contradictory ways, the clergy changed the shape both of their congregations’ lives and of their own callings. They did so with experiments that ranged from liturgical innovations to new kinds of sacred space to ambitious programs of social ministry and pastoral counseling.

At their best, these clergy, along with the laity who kept enlarging their own leadership roles and claims, kept doing certain key things that have kept the ministry alive and dynamic. They explored their worlds – whether the geographical frontiers of America, the depths of their sacred texts and traditions, or the lives of the people they served. They worked to understand what was really going on in their environments, in their members’ daily lives and in the great events that shaped the nation. They were willing to change, sometimes with small liturgical changes or subtle theological shifts in emphasis and other times with large social actions like joining protest marches in Selma or ordaining women into the ministry. They responded with faithful acts of pastoral care and religious leadership—and with innovations that set many of the contours for subsequent American life. Above all, they embodied hope. Week after week, conversation after conversation, sermon after sermon, they reminded succeeding generations of congregation members that they were not alone or forgotten, that they were, in fact, part of the people of God.