Philip Schaff

Philip Schaff (1819-1893) was a Swiss-born American religious scholar and a great historian of religion. His evolutionary view of Christian development led him to support ecumenical efforts in religion.

Philip Schaff (originally Schaf) was born on Jan. 1, 1819, in Chur, Switzerland. He studied in German schools. At the University of Berlin he came under the influence of the famous theologian August Neander, who impressed upon him the importance of historical insight to Christian understanding. Following his graduation in 1841, Schaff traveled in southern Europe as a private tutor, during which time he observed appreciatively the Christian heritage embodied in Roman Catholic culture.

On his return to Berlin Schaff joined the university faculty but soon accepted a post at the German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, Pa.; this post was apparently created to save German-Americans from religious error in the New World. He arrived in the United States in 1844. He was soon married and rapidly embarked upon an exceedingly fruitful collaboration with his brilliant Mercersburg colleague John Williamson Nevin. Schaff and Nevin, cosponsoring the "Mercersburg theology," challenged several popular Protestant attitudes in the United States, particularly hatred of Roman Catholicism, belief that the Reformation marked a radical break from the Christian past, and fondness for revivalistic enthusiasm over organic growth. Shocked churchmen brought Schaff before the Pennsylvania Synod for heresy in 1845, but that body exonerated him.

Schaff's reputation as historian and theological critic reached a new plane with publication abroad and in the United States of his America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social, and Religious Character (1854). In a series of lectures given during a visit in Germany, which were the basis for the book, Schaff criticized Puritanical, antihistorical, and denominational facets of American religion. But he also told his German audiences they might well admire the religious vitality of Americans, which he attributed to the voluntarism of churchly life in the United States.

Schaff moved to New York City in 1863, and in 1869 he accepted a professorship at Union Theological Seminary. He now produced many of his most important works, among them a 25-volume Commentary of the Holy Scriptures (1865-1880) and a 3-volume Religious Encyclopaedia (1882-1884), still a major reference source. He edited a 13-volume American Church History Series (1893-1897), a project of the American Society of Church History, which he founded in 1888. Schaff also participated in national and international ecumenical movements. He retired in 1893, and on October 20 he died. His dedication to religious history inspired succeeding generations of scholars.


Further Reading on Philip Schaff

Probably the best book on Schaff is by his son, David Schley Schaff, The Life of Philip Schaff (1897). James Hastings Nichols discusses Schaff's years with Nevin in Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (1961). Also revealing is Perry Miller's introduction to the edition of Schaff's America which Miller edited (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Shriver, George H., Philip Schaff: Christian scholar and ecumenical prophet: centennial biography for the American Society of Church History, Macon, Ga.: Mercer, 1987.