The Long View Of Presbyterianism

ContinuingChurchSo this book was officially released yesterday. Through the efficiency of a shipper I received my copy a few days early and so far I have only had time to skim through it. It looks good, from what I have seen, and I hope to carve out a bit of time later in the month to more carefully read it.

But what I have found interesting in the lead up to this has been a certain amount of push-back I have gotten from several different quarters as I have unapologetically indicated my interest in, and anticipation of the book before its release. My overall interest in Presbyterianism and Presbyterian history is enough to justify my anticipation of this book. But it was further heightened earlier in the year when the author, Sean Michael Lucas, was featured in a documentary produced by Union Presbyterian Seminary called Division and Reunion.

The push-back I have received, both in general over my years of blogging and specifically regarding this book, usually can be boiled down to the statement of either “But they ordain (fill in the blank)” or “But they do not ordain (fill in the blank).”

So here is a response and why this book matters in either case.

First, it is easy to just view this as an academic exercise. I am interested in global Presbyterianism, history and polity. That alone is enough for me to be interested in this book.

But let me dig in a little deeper. Please note the subtitle of the book, “The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.” (emphasis added) What are those roots? It is predominantly the PCUS, one of the predecessor denominations of the current PC(USA). Hate to break it to some of the mainline folks but this is a book that is mostly about your roots too. The book has 12 chapters and is about 328 pages of narrative text. Of those, only two chapters and about 48 pages deal specifically with the actual formation and subsequent development of the PCA. Yes, most of the book deals with our shared heritage.

I am aware that a few objections can be raised about considering our shared heritage through this one book, one that it is written from a PCA perspective. Fair enough, and if I find it too heavily biased I will report that back to you when I write my final review. But based on the contributions by Professor Lucas to the documentary mentioned above I expect an academically honest and nuanced, if not neutral approach.

Another objection is that the PCUS was only part of the reunion and the PC(USA) has a lot of history from the northern side as well. (The PCUSA + UPCNA => UPCUSA line.) Again, a valid argument and again, I will find out more when I read it. But some of the more complex characters in the PC(USA) family tree, such as Robert Lewis Dabney and James Henry Thornwell, were part of the southern branch and it can be argued that their influence continues to the present day in both current branches. But to be fair, the book appears to start near the beginning of the twentieth century and neither Dabney’s nor Thornwell’s name appears in the index.

Finally, there is that doctrine and polity question about ordinations and a number of other differences. On this count let me remind you that the PCUSA began ordaining women as teaching elders in 1956, making that not quite six decades out of a history that spans over three centuries. Furthermore, ordination is evolving in other branches as well with women’s ordination becoming much more widely accepted in the EPC and questions being raised about deaconesses in the PCA. In the long view of American Presbyterianism there are a number of issues like this which have changed over the years with varying speed in different branches.

It will also be interesting to see what parallels and differences there might be between the PCA exodus from the PCUS and the current ECO exodus from the PC(USA). The Forward talks about the interest of the founders of the PCA to have a mainline denomination that was “characterized by biblical authority, doctrinal orthodoxy, experiential piety, and missionary zeal.” That sounds a lot like some of the core values of ECO.

I will acknowledge that there is another reason for some of the push-back. There is still concern and skepticism on the part of a few people I have spoken with about the way that the PCA/PCUS split played out that was very hurtful to them. In a few cases this is not just a continuing sore point but is still an open wound. I am curious to see how the book deals with that aspect of the formation of the PCA.

There is a final reason for taking an interest in this book and it gets down to something that is being talked about a lot in the PC(USA) right at the moment – Presbyterian Identity. The Epilogue to this book is titled Presbyterian Identity and the Presbyterian Church in America: 1973-2013. Again, the PCA identity and the PC(USA) identity developed out of some shared roots if not exactly the same roots. In his Forward, Ligon Duncan talks about the vision and legacy of the PCA concluding “Unwittingly, [the founders of the PCA] forged a body that has played a significant role in the resurgence of Calvinism at the end of the twentieth century and in the beginning of the twenty-first.” But his next line is “Yes from the onset of its history, the PCA has struggled with its identity.”

In some regards the PC(USA) and the PCA may be more alike than they want to admit. One of the manifestations of their shared roots is the fact that both are currently struggling to come to terms with their past regarding racial ethnic ministries and social justice work and figure out how to move beyond that to become a more inclusive and diverse churches for the future.

I found it interesting in the Twitter chat on PC(USA) Identity a couple days ago that one person commented “while history is important we need to forget ‘the way things used to be.'” If I correctly understand what he had in mind I might rather say that we need to move beyond the “seven last words of the church” – we’ve never done it that way before – but we need to realize how much of our present identity is shaped by our roots and how much we need to understand those to move beyond them in the future.

That is to say, I think we really do need the long view of American Presbyterianism because if we focus only on the last couple decades we miss a lot of the struggles, the high points and low points that shape our identity as American Presbyterians today. Looking forward to seeing if this book will help inform our knowledge of that history.

Note: Thanks to the reader who pointed out that I was not as precise as I had intended. The PCUSA began ordaining women at teaching elders in 1956 but it was a progressive move with ordination as deacons and ruling elders in the 1930’s. The above text has been modified to be more precise.

4 thoughts on “The Long View Of Presbyterianism

  1. Sean Lucas

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your generosity before you read the book. One thing: I think you are right about the “open wound” comment. In 2004, I was on a research fellowship at PHS in Montreat. Joel Alvis presented a seminar there on Presbyterians and race for the summer attendees and I went to listen. The thing that struck me most was the evident pain, thirty years laters, that these mostly older, former PCUS folks had over the 1973 division. That pain was because it was “a cousin’s war,” a division that occurred often among family members: John E. and J. McDowell Richards; William (Bill) Hill and Aubrey Brown (brothers-in-law); Henry and Marshall Dendy; G. Aiken and J. Randolph Taylor. The pain of the division itself–along with the evident “success” of the PCA compared with the decline of the PC(USA)–is a major continuing factor in American Presbyterianism. Can’t wait to hear your further reflections on the book.

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