Presbyterian Presidents

While it was very tempting today to riff on Chesterton (“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”) or Psalm 20 (“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”) I decided on a different path. Instead, we have the potential for another self-identified Presbyterian to be elected the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government so I thought I would take a brief look at other Presbyterians in that position.

There are a number of lists of the religious affiliations of Presidents, including Wikipedia, Pew Research Center, and Adherents.com. From these lists, it is clear that the largest single group is the presidents who were Episcopalian with about eleven total. This is closely followed by the ten-ish Presbyterians. And coming to a fixed number is a bit challenging because of switching in their lifetimes.

But some presidents were life-long Presbyterians and easily identifiable with that denomination. These include:

  • Andrew Jackson, raised and self-identified as one his whole life, although he technically did not join a church until after he was president.
  • James Buchanan, raised and educated (Dickinson College) in a reflection of his Scots-Irish Presbyterian roots, but like Jackson did not officially join until later in life.
  • Grover Cleveland, a son of the manse but with age is reported to have become less devout
  • Benjamin Harrison, a lifelong and active Presbyterian. More on him a but further below.
  • Woodrow Wilson, a son of the manse often held up as a model of Presbyterian presidents. However, being politically and academically active during the fundamentalist/modernist debates, he came down on the modernist side at a time when the PCUSA was still dominated by the conservatives.

Two presidents became notable Presbyterians later in life:

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose upbringing and earlier life included family participation with the River Brethren sect of the Mennonites and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his presidential years and especially in retirement at Gettysburg Presbyterian Church he was an active member.
  • Ronald Reagan, was raised in his mother’s Disciples of Christ church but after moving to southern California was associated with Bel-Air Presbyterian Church much of his adult life.

And three presidents drifted towards the Methodists:

  • James Knox Polk, whose middle name Knox reflects his mother’s Scottish roots and descent from John Knox’s brother. While raised Presbyterian, later in life he would identify with the Methodist church, although he would regularly attend Presbyterian services with his wife.
  • Ulysses S Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, I am lumping together as, at least according to Adherents.com, their paths are about the same. While accounts are not entirely consistent they both may have had Presbyterian connections early in their lives but they were not the most religiously active later and generally were more visible with their wives’ Methodist traditions.

It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln, while not an adherent to a religious institution, did regularly attend Presbyterian services with his more devout wife Mary.

Another interesting note is that Jame Madison, while never identifying as a Presbyterian, was a student of that great colonial-era Presbyterian scholar and theologian, John Witherspoon, at the College of New Jersey.

And speaking of the College of New Jersey, it is probably worth mentioning that the son and namesake of clergyman and second president of that institution, Aaron Burr, Sr., was a vice-president of the U.S., but these days is better known for a particular incident.

Let me return to Benjamin Harrison and his Presbyterian faith. While Wilson is held up as the Presbyterian scholar and academic, I enjoyed finding out more about Harrison and in the humble, day-to-day faith associated with the Calvinists he may be a better representative for what it means to be an active member of the church. For an interesting read on his faith there is an article by William C. Ringenberg, “Benjamin Harrison: The Religious Thought and Practice of a Presbyterian President.” While his grandfather, President William Henry Harrison, is typically counted as a nominal Episcopalian, it was his grandmother, a strong Presbyterian, who helped raise him and left her mark. Upon graduation from college he considered a career in the ministry and while widely acknowledged as having the gift of oratory, his innate interpersonal skills were lacking and pastoral work would have been more challenging. He chose law, and politics, instead.

Throughout his life he was active in the local church, serving as a ruling elder, Sunday school instructor and other positions. Maybe the most telling statement in that article about his church activity is this:

A long-time usher, Ben passed the collection plate on both the last Sunday before going to Washington for his inauguaration [sic] and the first Sunday after he left office

Need I say more?

So as the first polls are about to close, will we have another self-identified Presbyterian become president? The experts say no, but it ain’t over until the voters have their say. We shall see.

Stay tuned
Postscript:

Reading through some of this stuff, it seemed to me that another interesting path to chase down could be Presbyterians who served as U.S. Secretary of State including such interesting political and Presbyterian names as William Jennings Bryan, John Foster Dulles and Condoleezza Rice. But I will leave that for another day.

Moderator Designate For The 2017 Church Of Scotland General Assembly

Rev Dr Derek BrowningTwo weeks ago the Presbyterian Mother Church – that would be the Church of Scotlandannounced that the Rev. Dr. Derek Browning had been selected as the Moderator Designate for their 2017 General Assembly in May.

Rev. Dr. Browning is no stranger to many in the Church of Scotland, especially those familiar with the Assembly, as he has had a regular presence on the platform as the Business Convener for several years now. (You can consult the picture at the end of this article.)

His primary call is as the minister at Morningside Parish Church in Edinburgh, having served there for the last 15 years. He began in pastoral ministry at Cupar Old and St Michael of Tarvit Parish Church in Fife in 1987.

He studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from which he ultimately completed a MA Honors History degree.  He did his ministerial training at St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews, and later completed a D.Min. at Princeton Theological Seminary.

His extended list of service to the church is too long to recite here, but it is worth noting that besides his service as convener of the Assembly Business Committee, he has served as a presbytery moderator and on the national Prayer and Devotion Committee as well as the Stewardship and Finance Committee. He has also served as the chair of the Board of Directors at the Eric Liddell Centre.

It is noted in the announcement that in his work with the Assembly Arrangements Committee and the Business Committee, he has had significant responsibility for organizing the Heart And Soul event  that is held on the Sunday afternoon of Assembly Week. In the press release he is quoted as saying, “The theme for Heart and Soul 2017 is ‘Word of Life’ and this rich and layered theme speaks to me about many things but ‘inclusion’ is one of those words of life. The issue of social inclusion is a key one in society and the church.” He continues, “People find themselves excluded for all sorts of reasons and the Church must play a role in bridging the gaps between individuals, communities and nations. The Church has much to offer, and has much to learn. Jesus was often found not only at the heart and centre of things but also on the fringes and the margins and that is where the Church must be.”

The articles says “he believes social inclusion is clearly a “gospel issue” and hopes to use his time as Moderator to highlight ongoing work carried out by churches that support people on the margins of society.”

The article also speaks briefly of his faith journey and how as he was feeling pulled in multiple directions upon completing college, including working for the BBC in London or for Shell Oil. But, he knew he had to address his spiritual pull first. The article says:

“I was in my early 20s when I felt a call not only to be a Christian, but to become a minister,” he said.

“For some people this is a gradual realisation, but for me it was a sudden awakening that I couldn’t put off until I had dealt with the questions it posed, and explored the possibility.

“My ministry afterwards has stuck with those two themes: dealing with questions and exploring possibilities.”

The announcement was widely covered in Scotland with articles by the BBC Scotland, The Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra, Herald Scotland, The East Lothian Courier, The Edinburgh Reporter, and The Courier.

I will conclude with my personal congratulations to him. I had the pleasure of spending a week in June sitting in from of him (and he has posted a picture on Twitter which clearly demonstrates that I do not improve the view). It was a pleasure to get to know him at the PC(USA) General Assembly that week and trade snarky insightful remarks. Commissioners to the Kirk General Assembly, be aware that he has a sharp and dry wit. I look forward to following the proceedings.

So best wishes to Dr. Browning as he takes on this new role. I have every confidence he will bring as much honor to the office as it will bring to him. And prayers for this time as he prepares for his moderatorial year.

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[Editorial notes: Pictures from Dr. Browning’s Twitter feed (@DerekBrowning2) or from the week he spent curating the Church Scotland Voices Twitter feed (@churchscovoices).

In addition, my apologies for the delay getting this posted as well as an overall lack of posting. I have taken on a major responsibility that has dominated my time and I am afraid blogging will be a lower priority for the next 10 months. I will try to do what I can.]

Giving Thanks For The Saints 2016

By all Thy saints still striving,
for all Thy saints at rest,
To Thee, O blessed Jesus,
All praises be addressed:
Thou, Lord, didst win the battle
That they might conquerors be;
Their crowns of living glory
Are lit with rays from Thee.

It is the first of November, a day set aside on many liturgical calendars as the Feast of All Saints. And while I do not observe it in the sense of a liturgical feast day, I do use the occasion to remember and give thanks for those I have known who in the past year have joined “all Thy saints at rest.”

Apostles, prophets, martyrs,
And all the sacred throng
Who wear the spotless raiment,
Who raise the ceaseless song;
For these, passed on before us,
Saviour, we Thee adore,
And, walking in their footsteps,
Would serve Thee more and more.

I remember and give thanks for:

  • Alice – A friend with an incredible story and wonderful spirit who I wrote about earlier
  • “Mrs. B” – A good friend of my wife’s family whose faithfulness, enthusiastic witness, and honest faith I came to respect
  • Bill – a lifelong Presbyterian who was faithful in his participation but quiet and humble in manner
  • Lynn – Another faithful witness who suffered much at the end but knew in whom her trust lay
  • Grace – Where do I start? A daughter of the manse (Lutheran to be specific) who knew what she believed and was not afraid to tell anyone. She had the most gracious spirit, possessed the gift of hospitality and was not afraid to use it, and had a faith that was both simple and intellectual. She lived life on her terms and to the Glory of God. (And in yesterday’s post in the picture at the end the “Little Luther” is standing on a German version of Luther’s Little Catechism given to me by Grace.)
  • Norm – a gentleman and respected public safety official who in the midst of a very long battle with cancer did not lose his faith, humor, positive outlook and sense of adventure.
  • Phyllis – A gracious lady with a love of, and talent for, music – especially used for the glory of God.
  • Joe – A humble but talented minister who lived a long and faithful life in the service of God and could always work in a word of praise to the Lord
  • Jack Rogers – known to many for his faithful service to the church and one I hope to say a bit more about in a future post.

And so on this day I give grateful thanks to the Lord of All for having each of them in my life at one time or another and the witness and encouragement they have each been to me.

Then praise we God the Father,
And praise we God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit,
Eternal Three in One;
Till all the ransomed number
Fall down before the Throne,
And honor, power, and glory
Ascribe to God alone.

[Verses from “From all Thy saints in warfare” (slightly altered) by Horatio Nelson (a nephew of the famous admiral of the same name)]

Reformation Day: How To Distract A Holy Roman Emperor

So it’s been 499 years since a crazy German monk allegedly nailed a debating document of 95 theses to the door of a castle church and started a movement that continues today.

There is no question that Dr. Luther’s efforts bore tremendous fruit, including in ways he did not imagine. But in many aspects he was, you could argue providentially, aided by a significant set of circumstances present at the time of his attempts to reform the Roman system. Where others had suffered for their attempts to challenge doctrine – like Jan Hus before Luther, or his contemporaries William Tyndale, Heinrich Moller, and Patrick Hamilton – Luther found safer ground for his thoughts. The prince ruling his region, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, got him safe passage and provided him protection from those who sought to arrest and punish him. And it should be noted that the invention of the printing press with moveable type significantly help Luther get his message distributed quickly and widely to be read by a broader audience, thus making it harder for authorities to silence him. And certainly Luther’s force of personality in writing and speaking was a considerable advantage as well. (You can check out the Lutheran Insulter web site if you want a taste of that.)

But today I want to take a moment to look a little bit higher and consider the top political power in that part of the world at that time – the Holy Roman Emperor.

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Charles V (from Wikimedia https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Charles_V_in_Armour_-_WGA20378.jpg)

That would be Charles V. He was a native of Spain, ascended to the Spanish throne in 1516 and was elected the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 upon the death of his grandfather. So he was not a ruler over the German states when this whole thing with Martin started, but as it progressed he became involved. He was present at the Diet of Worms and hearing Luther’s defense and possibly the famous “Here I stand” speech, rendered the verdict. He issued the formal verdict on May 8, 1521.

But in an interesting historical coincidence it was on that same date that an offensive alliance against France was signed by representatives of Charles and the pope. This protracted conflict became the major concern for the emperor and certainly diverted his attention away from that monk in Saxony. His edict was never enforced.

The online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that Charles considered the matter more of an ecclesiastical one and settled by the papal bull of 1520. In addition, in spite of the alliance against France, the Encyclopedia also tells us that Charles was not particularly fond of the pope and had his eyes on consolidating some of his holdings in Italy. In light of that, it is not surprising that France and the pope were the major parties objecting to him becoming the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. Both the French conflict and the Italian/papal conflict were settled by treaties in the summer of 1529 on terms generally favorable to Charles. So now the coast is clear to return to the German states? Not quite…

On the eastern and southern sides of the empire the Turks were advancing and having conquered much of Hungary they reached as far as Vienna in 1529. While trying to juggle the Lutherans in Germany, Pope Clement VII in Italy and the Turks in the eastern corner, Charles made some preliminary attempts to reunify the Germans around religion at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Little progress was made and soon Charles was occupied with a new advance by the Turks the next year.

At this point I will not try to narrate a play-by-play of shifting European political alliances – have a look at the Encyclopedia entry if you are interested – but the bottom line is that between these shifting powers and the threats from the Turks religious unity in Germany was not a pressing concern for him. He finally had the opportunity in 1546 and 1547 to return to Germany with military power, but while taking back some measure of political control the religious situation had progressed to a point where Charles let the status quo remain and Lutheranism had established it’s foundation.

Charles died in 1558, having placed other family members to administer the parts of the empire. The shifting political alliances continued throughout his life and beyond making political solutions impossible without strong military backing. And the hoped for reforms from the Council of Trent were slow in coming and received throughout the western churches with a variety of reactions.

I readily admit that this is a cursory treatment of the wider political situation at the time, but the bottom line is that in a complex world the need to contain this particular religious rebellion was not perceived as a top priority for the emperor. He was distracted with other conquests and maybe a bit ambivalent about getting political power involved in an ecclesiastical dispute. The catch on the latter point is that in a world of established churches the ecclesiastical is political. (Consider Calvin and Geneva for more on that.)

But it gave Dr. Luther and his followers the space they needed and, unlike other reformers who were not as fortunate to have that slight buffer around them, in Saxony the Reformation had the elements it needed to establish itself and spread from there to large sections of Western Europe.

So on this Reformation Day, we remember not just the hard work of Martin Luther and the risk he took to challenge the established church’s doctrine, but also the favorable ground his thoughts landed on to be able to take root. And if distracting the Holy Roman Emperor is part of that, so be it.

Happy Reformation Day. And I am not sure whether to encourage you to enjoy, or possibly cringe, at the build-up in the coming year to the 500th.

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Church Of Scotland National Youth Assembly 2016

NYA2016logoAs I write this the 2016 National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland will be getting underway in Stirling. I have frequently expressed my appreciation for this event because it provides a forum for young adults (ages 17-25) to get together and discuss contemporary issues and how they interact with society and their faith. Furthermore, their discussions and conclusions are then presented to the Church of Scotland General Assembly the following May. (If you are interested in more detail, have a look at the National Youth Assembly report to the 2016 Assembly as well as their longer Supplementary report which has more detail and narrative as well as pictures.) In addition, other entities within the Kirk, like the Church of Scotland Guild and the Go For It initiative work with the NYA and its leadership.

So this year’s Assembly convenes the evening of Friday August 19 and will adjourn mid-day  on Monday August 22. It will be meeting again this year at Gartmore House in Stirlingshire.

The discussion topics this year are Gender Justice, Mental Health, and The Future of Ministry And Fresh Expressions. This is an event with a moderate profile in Scotland and the Minister for Mental Health Maureen Watt MSP will address the Assembly delegates on Sunday concerning what the Scottish Government is doing to address the problem. The NYA Facebook page is one way to follow along with these discussions as well as to see links to some of the background readings that were posted in advance of the Assembly.

The new NYA Moderator is Andrew MacPherson and the Clerk will be Lyndasy Kennedy and you can read more about them in the Kirk press release from April. In addition, a new article was posted yesterday previewing the weekend and giving some of the late-breaking details.

The best way to follow along is certainly Twitter so keep an eye on the hashtag #nya2016. You should also be looking at the official NYA account (@cosy_nya) as well as the NYA Moderator Account (@nyamoderator). Also a chance you will see something on Andrew’s personal account (@StAndrewMac). The NYA will be covered by the curated account Church Scotland Voices (@churchscovoices) under the operation of Fiona Marshall for the weekend who can also be found on her personal account, @LikeWatervrDude. And we can expect an appearance of the Church of Scotland Moderator, Rt. Rev. Dr. Russell Barr, who tweets at the official account (@churchmoderator). Might see something on the Moderator’s official Facebook page as well. Other groups include the Go For It initiative who will be there (@GoForItcofs) as well as representatives from the United Reformed Church’s Youth Assembly in January (@URC_youth). And probably worth including the official Kirk account @churchscotland. Finally, let me include two individual accounts, that of the Minister for Mental Health, Maureen Watt, mentioned above (@maureensnp) and the Rev.Liz Crumlish who works with, and will be representing, the CofS Path of Renewal project (@eacbug). UPDATE: And I missed Lyndasy Kennedy, the Clerk, at @GhettoSmurf90.

And so, with that, I will wish the delegates and staff of the 2016 NYA well and know that we will be praying for them this weekend. It will probably take a bit for some of their deliberations, decisions and recommendations to be processed and reported, but we look forward to hearing about those at the appropriate time. And have a wonderful weekend of fellowship, discernment and spiritual renewal.

 

“Forever Wild”

With a title like that you could be excused for thinking I was writing a summary piece about one, or multiple, general assemblies. No, this is a bit of a departure from the typical style for my July Fourth reflection, but please bear with me.

As I began thinking about the piece for this year my mind drifted towards the centennial of the National Park Service. In case you did not know, it turns 100 on August 25th. In a patriotic spirit it has recently gained the popular title “America’s Best Idea.” That comment alone, made by Wallace Stegner in 1983, should be patriotic enough to end the post here and go watch the parade. The complete quote is “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

But this thought was not unique to Stegner. Franklin Roosevelt said “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”

Or as the first director of the Park Service, Stephen Mather, said

“The parks do not belong to one state or to one section…. The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.”

“Who will gainsay that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness…. He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.”

(Quotes from an NPS web page of quotes)

It is sounding very Presbyterian to me actually – the availability to all and the participation of all for the greater good – but it would make sense as one of the early advocates for wild space, John Muir, was born in Scotland and exposed to Presbyterianism there. His very religious father had an early Presbyterian affiliation before drifting through a variety of leanings and activities that had ties to the Restoration movement, specifically the Campbellites. But I digress.

As regular readers know, I have a great love of the outdoors, for the recreational opportunities and inherent beauty. But on a higher level for their spiritual connection as much as for their democratizing influence. And while the area around the Yosemite is one of my favorite areas, the earliest area that was a “thin place” for me was the Adirondacks of New York.

100_4297In case you are not familiar with the Adirondack Park it might help to know that it comprises one-third of all the land area of the state – over 6 million acres and growing – making it the largest state park in the country. That makes it larger than any national park in the contiguous United States. It is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokies National Parks combined. Of that area in the park, 2.6 million acres are Forest Preserve owned by the state – still an amount making it larger than any national park besides some Alaska parks and Death Valley.

100_4347But what makes the area truly unique from a public land stewardship point of view is the foresight that the leaders of the state had regarding the land. As more land was clear-cut for lumber the forest preserve was created in 1885 and the Park in 1892. In 1894 New York wrote a new state constitution and included this clause:

The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.

This was part of the constitution ratified by the citizens of New York and is known to many as the “Forever Wild” paragraph. Twenty times the voters have approved exceptions or land deals allowing sale or use of certain lands for reasonable causes from expanding a municipal cemetery to building two ski areas. But on this holiday it is notable that this must be done by an action of the citizens.

Over the years I have found a number of areas that are for me thin places. But still, for a variety of reasons there is none as thin as the New York State Forest Preserve. And I am looking forward to a return visit later this summer.

And on this Independence Day, I give thanks for civic-minded leaders and citizens that have the energy and foresight to create, maintain, care for and preserve public lands for the benefit of all.

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A Summary Of Summaries Of The 222nd General Assembly Of The PC(USA)

Over the coming week I will expand this page as different outlets and groups post their summaries of the 222nd General Assembly. For now – Here is mine if you are interested.

From The GA Junkie – A Brief Summary of the 222nd General Assembly (A resource I share with my church. You are welcome to use it as well.)

The traditional post-General Assembly letter from the leadership of the PC(USA)
The PC(USA) has posted their Assembly in Brief piece

While the Presbyterian Outlook does not have a single summary piece generally available, they have a page linking to all of their coverage.

From related organizations

Presbyterian Lay Committee in The Layman: A Shadow Of The Former Things
Fellowship Community – A Pastoral Letter
Covenant Network – CovNet Celebrates the Work of GA222: Real Progress Toward a More Just and Generous Church

Live Blog – Saturday Morning Closing Session Of The PC(USA) General Assembly

Good Morning! We are back at it for the conclusion of the 222nd General Assembly today. It is a bright and clear day in Portland.

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It has been a good visit to Portland and a pretty good meeting. But time to go home today. I did get one important item checked off my bucket list – I got a Voodoo Donuts maple bacon bar, thanks to my EP.

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So here is the game plan…

For the Assembly this morning I will be live blogging through the end of business and will conclude the live blog for the whole assembly as we begin closing worship.

Later this evening I plan to post my usual one-page summary of the actions of the GA. That should be available by 10 PM tonight.

And over the next few weeks I will do a few wrap-up and reflection pieces as time and family commitments allow.

But for now – let’s get to today’s business.

Live Blog – Friday Evening Session Of The 222nd General Assembly Of The PC(USA)

Good evening folks. It is Friday evening at the PC(USA) General Assembly. This is the session that goes along with the joke about the ’60’s – If you remember it you are lying.

Here is the lay of the land..

  • We are in the middle of an item with a minority report
  • The afternoon session was arrested with that item and two more items from Middle East Issues to be acted upon.
  • We still have the Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee moved from the afternoon.
  • And Peacemaking and International Issues was already docketed for tonight.
  • And there is coffee provided by the Foundation and the Board of Pensions (and maybe another agency).
  • The trains stop running between 11:30 and 12:30 depending which line you need

So remember – there is no tomorrow. (Well, technically there is but it is so closely docketed that nothing from tonight can be carried over.)

If we get close to drop-dead and there is still lots to do there are a couple alternatives. The Assembly could do what the 209th did at 2 AM and refer any unfinished business to the next Assembly. (They had the advantage it was still annual assemblies.) Or call on the Rev. Browning to describe the Church of Scotland’s Time Bound policy. It is affectionately known as the Guillotine and has the effect that you envision – It gets everything wrapped up quickly.

So hang on, get your caffeine ready and here we go…

Well, we finished before 11 PM. It was later last night.
We are in recess until 9 AM. No more posts from me tonight but maybe something in the morning before final business begins.