I recently was invited to contribute to a collection of historiographical essays on denominational history, a book that will be published by the University of Alabama Press. Our assigned task was to survey the field in our respective denomination's historiography since the publication of William Warren Sweet's classic series on Religion in America (c. 1940). And as you would expect, my assignment was Presbyterian historiography.
In doing the very initial spade-work for this essay, one thing that is very striking is the paucity of those who could be considered "historians of Presbyterianism," since 1940. I'm sure that I am missing someone, but thus far my list includes: Leonard Trinterud, Lefferts Loetscher, E. T. Thompson, James Smylie, Louis Weeks, Thomas Currie, James Currie, James Moorhead, Beau Weston, Brad Longfield, Erskine Clarke, Robert Brackenridge, D. G. Hart, Mark Noll, David Calhoun, and me. Gonna be tough to pull 25-30 pages out of that group.
Of course, I know that the major source for Presbyterian historiography is the Journal of Presbyterian History (JPH) and I will mine that very well in my essay. But the fact that there are so few legitimate names (and a few of these are suspect: for example, Currie, Weston, Longfield and Lucas have only published one significant book; Noll has only published one book that is directly "Presbyterian") suggests a more disturbing trend.
That trend is the death of denominational history generally and especially the death of Presbyterian denominational history. There have been several books over the past 15 years that have highlighted the need to recover denominational stories: the best of these was Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretive Essays, ed. R. B. Mullin and R. Richey. But with the slow death of mainline Protestantism--coupled together with the now-dominant model of "religious pluralism" in religious studies departments and "evangelicalism" within history departments that do religious history--has meant that doing histories about Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or other oldline denominations is simply not sexy.
There are two exceptions to this trend: Methodism and Baptists. For whatever reason, scholars have recently discovered Methodists in a huge way, producing several major books by Wigger, Andrews, and Hempton. Methdoists are now being explored for the way that they have shaped the egalitarian and enthusaistic world of the early American Republic as well as set the stage for Victorian moralism on both sides of the Atlantic. And Baptists have made a comeback for two reasons: first, as a result of the conservative take-back of the Southern Baptist Convention and second, as the result of the explosion of studies of the religion of the American South.
And yet, Presbyterians, who for so long were central to the WASP-elite story of America and its Christianity, have generally been shunted to the sidelines. Surely it is somewhat ironic that the most prolific Presbyterian historian (Hart) belongs to the 30,000-member Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which left the mainline PCUSA in 1936? And that JPH is publishing more and more articles from professors at the three conservative Presbyterian seminaries, presumably because mainline professors simply aren't doing this kind of historical work anymore?
The real question is how we got into this current state of affairs. And I think part of the answer is that historical writing can't help but fall into some sort of advocacy. And for mainline Presbyterians, historical writing served to buttress and justify larger themes--theological breadth in the 1950s and 60s, racial and gender inclusion in the 1960s and 70s, and denominational renewal and rescue in the 1980s and 90s. But by moving historical writing so fully into advocacy mode for a perspective on how the church should be, historians failed in their task of telling truth-full stories--stories that charted pitfalls and failures as well as progressive hopes and dreams. Mainline Presbyterian historical writing has often read like one long parade interrupted by boring speeches on the glories of the past and the programs for the future. Think Democratic National Convention in religious guise--that is what passed for mainline Presbyterian historical writing.
The historians who have chronciled the "offshoots"--the denominations that formed out of the mainline--haven't done much better. Too often our writing has felt like justifications and excuses and special pleading. It is fearful and temporizing, afraid of goring oxen and sacred cows. We haven't seemed to figure out a way to tell a truth-full story that helps readers (and Presbyterians) understand the larger sweep of what God is up to and what being Presbyterian in America has done both to Presbyterianism and America, for both good and ill.
And so, the next question is this: can Presbyterian denominational history be resurrected? I sure hope so, if for no other reason that the Presbyterian stories are so important for placing us in the grander narrative of what God is up to in this world, for shaping our sense of identity. If Presbyterianism is going to survive in America, then the next 50 years must be dedicated to reclaiming truth-filled (with the good, bad, ugly, and indifferent) Presbyterian stories.
Only then will we see the grandness of our faith and the glories of our God, who uses even flawed, crooked tools as instruments in his hand.