Union Presbyterian Seminary has produced and released a new documentary, Division and Reunion: a Reflection on American Presbyterianism. It can be viewed online or a DVD ordered through that page.
The brief description on the page talks about the documentary like this:
We are pleased to present Division and Reunion: a Reflection on American Presbyterianism, a documentary narrated by lifelong Presbyterian Dr. Condoleezza Rice. We at Union Presbyterian Seminary hope this film will be a learning tool and a way to build faith, showing how God works through reconciliation. Special thanks to the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the Anne Carter Robins and Walter R. Robins, Jr. Foundation for their support.
There are a couple of points in this description that struck me as I watched the video. The first is the use of the term reflection in the title. This is not a comprehensive documentary on American Presbyterianism, far from it. But it is a reflection on history of division and reunion in the mainstream branch. And since that is the focus you can understand why another word in that description – reconciliation – is emphasized throughout the piece.
An additional important point to be aware of at the onset is that between filming and the final title and description a bit of the focus seems to have shifted. While the title refers to American Presbyterianism, In their concluding comments both Dr. Rice and Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, refer to this as a look at the Southern Presbyterian Church. Watching the documentary again, it clearly is that with an emphasis on events and groups related to the old southern church. For example, when the Second Great Awakening and the Restoration Movement is discussed the focus is on Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge movement in Kentucky but no mention is made of the Campbells of Pennsylvania. Similarly, of the groups that split off from the mainstream in the 20th Century only the split in the southern church forming the PCA is mentioned, and northern divisions forming the OPC, BPC and EPC are not mentioned and the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy is only alluded to.
But with that context and recognizing the focus I will say that I very much enjoyed watching this almost 45 minute reflection. For much of the first half it struck me as an enlightening history lesson by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas with thoughtful commentary by a variety of informed and diverse voices adding their historical perspective to the narrative. But, as I said above, it was not a history lesson per se but a collection of reflections around a few important moments. The second half picks up with the formation of the PCUS, or more precisely the PCCSA which would become the PCUS, and that branch remains the primary focus for the rest of the video. In that half we see much less of Dr. Lucas and the story is told more through the collective individual remembrances and the commentary. It is a story that is cast in such a way that the arc of the narrative necessarily brings you to the PCUS/UPCUSA reunion in Atlanta in 1983.
Within the tight focus I have already mentioned, I will say that I appreciated how Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival was included. The origins of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Presbyterians is frequently overlooked in these historical pieces and charts. On the other hand, mention is also made of the split of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in that same era, it is held on the running branch diagram for a bit and then disappears. Since this is about division and reunion I am surprised that the reunion with the CPC in 1906 was not included. Was it because it was a reunion with the northern church or because there was a minority who still have a continuing Cumberland church? Maybe even more intriguing is the history of the Cumberland Church and the closely associated African American branch, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, with the two branches currently on track for their own reunion shortly.
Finally, if this is about Southern Presbyterianism, it is worth noting that the Covenanter and Secession branch is not mentioned at all in the video. While its American expression began in the northern states this branch now finds it’s main concentration in the southern states with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church headquartered in South Carolina.
In conclusion, let me confirm what many of you probably suspect and that is the fact that throughout the video there are subtle, and some not so subtle, references to where the PC(USA) finds itself today. If anything, this is a piece that looks at where the church has been and the fact that in many ways the present does not look too different from the past.
If you are looking for a comprehensive history of American Presbyterianism, this is not the video you are looking for. If you are interested in a thoughtful, interesting and at some points very honest reflection on a few pivotal points in the history of southern Presbyterians, you will probably find this time well spent.