Friday, March 17, 2006

Death of Presbyterian Denominational History

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.


John W. Tweeddale said...

Thanks for this excellent post. I look forward to your article. Indeed, there is a dearth of solid Presbyterian history these days. You may be aware, but Andrew Hoffecker, Church History Prof at RTS Jackson, teaches a course on American Presbyterianism and has put together a decent bibliography. Here is the link:

Keep up the great work.


John W. Tweeddale

Sean Lucas said...

Thanks, John. I was aware of Andy's work--he is writing the Hodge biography for the American Reformed Biographies series that I am co-editing with Darryl Hart. But I was unaware of this syllabus; thanks for passing it along.

Thanks as well for your own Conventicle blog; I check it regularly and am thankful for your work!

Nathan said...


I enjoyed this post very much. I had a lengthy conversation this morning with the editor of the project you are referring to. We were bemoaning the dearth of Baptist history (or at least good Baptist history) that is being written, but from what you indicate about the state of Presbyterian history, Baptist historians seem downright prolific. But we still need better, balanced Baptist histories to be written.

I would love to see you post on how to write quality denominational history. BTW, kudos on the forthcoming book--I received an advanced notice from this week.

Sean Lucas said...

Thanks, Nathan, for this. This was sort of the initial outworking of the direction I will take the essay--right now, my outline has mainline, oldline, evangelical, and future as the four main points.

I think that the argument has to run along the lines of how Presbyterianism has been so invested in the meaning and making of America and how that has caused us to write history that serves to prop up that investment. The real question is how to write Presbyterian history (or any other denominational history for that matter) as an "insider" and yet be more critical of the capitulation of the church to the larger narratives of its place of sojourn. That's what I am wrestling with right now. sml

barlow said...

One of the problems it that scholars are made in grad schools with grumpy advisors who would prefer they stay away from denominational or organizational history. Calhoun's work on Princeton Seminary is just the kind of thing that is great to read (for us) but which I would have a hard time getting cleared to do (even if I had his abilities) at the University. And so they form their expertise in some other area and then head out for a career initially built on that expertise.

One thing I think would help is if the PCA and other Presbyterian denominations would put some thought into building a "farm team" of theologians and historians. We essentially graduate our guys from seminary and if they want to go to grad school for a Ph.D., they are pretty much on their own. For instance, the PCA doesn't even have a list of its members who are in graduate school right now - kind of like a "competency database" sort of thing. Does that seem like good management of our human resources? Imagine if the denomination had quick need of an opinion from a Ph.D. in chemistry about some issue - we're totally still at the each-one-reach-one stage of figuring out which of our people has that expertise. Also, competency databases are often used by the Press when they want to contact someone about an issue. Washington University in St. Louis makes it easy - if a reporter wants to ask a political science professor about the latest election, all he or she has to do is log on to the Wash U website and look at their competency database to find the right person for an interview or comment.

I also think that our confessional and theological identity, while not as important as our fidelity to scripture, needs good stewards who are respectful and also willing to rethink things. Supporting a guy in some way through Ph.D. work is a great way to still have his ear on theology. We will have credibility with this scholar in training so that even when his professors pound him about this or that, when the check comes in at the end of the month, he stops for a minute and relaizes that this check represents real people who need him and who have an interest in his studies - he's not a lone gunner seeking fortune and fame in academia.

Anyway, these are just some very convenient thoughts for me to be thinking - a PCA guy from birth who has more student loans for his Ph.D. than Picasso's got paint. But those of us who want to be useful to our denomination (in our historical fields) have to really work at finding a way. I'm in historical theology, by the way, so I'm not really going to be a church historian, but your comments have a similar upshot for theologians too.

Sean Lucas said...

I can understand your frustration, barlow, re: the entire process of grad school, etc. As part of my job as dean of faculty, I keep a list of guys who have graduated from Covenant Seminary and who have gone on to doctoral programs. When other seminaries/colleges are looking for people, I try to pull from that list to recommend. Of course, if we are looking for people, I pull from that list as well.

I do agree that denominational history is not very sexy right now, but I think the reason is that it all too often devolves down into "inspiration history." D. G. Hart observed in his essay on "the failure of American religious history" that contemporary religious historians have failed to make the case that religion is central to the American story. One of the questions I remember Darryl asking us was, "How will your work change the story of the American history lecturer?" If it doesn't change the story, then why should they pay attention?

But the flip side of that question is whether we should tell stories that have to do with America to begin with. For far too long, denominational history has been about America (or more precisely, how denominations have been "good" for America). What would a denominational history look like that pictured the capitulation of denominations to America and the negative effects of that capitulation upon both the church and America? That is what I am driving toward in my work.

Coincidently, that framework is very accessible for the academy as well, because it provides a telling of the story that coheres with ideals that they recognize--truth, justice, freedom. That is part of the "common grace" that enables Gene Genovese and me to talk about Dabney (and argue over slavery); but I have some say because I am willing to be an equal opportunity critic.

Wayne said...


One name not to forget, though yet another author with but one Presbyterian history volume to his credit, is that of George P. Hutchinson.

Others that come to mind, though they may not fit your criteria, are:

On the mainline side of things--
William Wilson McKinney
E.B. Walsh
Robert Stuart Sanders
Erskine Clarke
Guy Klett
Randall Balmer and that Fitzmier guy

On the dissenting side--
Joseph H. Hall
Charles G. Dennison
Frank J. Smith

Nick Willborn has of course not yet secured a publisher for his Girardeau bio.

Conclusion: We need to write a lot more!


D Hart said...

And let's not forget, the lovely, the talented, John R. Muether, the historian of the OPC who is completing a biography of Van Til for Sean's and my series with P&R, and who co-wrote with me a tercentenary history of American Presbyterianism due out this fall with P&R.

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Darryl! Glad to see you've wandered over here to this blog. And of course, you are right to remind me of John's work as well as your upcoming tercentary history.

Sometime it would be interesting to hear or read your reflections on denominational history! After all, you wrote one (Fighting the Good Fight) and are writing another larger one; it would be great to hear about the politics and pressures of writing denominational history from your perspective.

Gruntled said...

I think another reason for the paucity of Presbyterian-focused work in the PC(USA) is that the generation now in power, though soon to retire, defined themselves by their ecumenism. They see a denominational focus as too sectarian. Denominational attention is, for them, a failure to build up that organic union of all churches that remains always over the horizon.

My own work has been about the competition of the left and right for the hearts and minds of the loyalist center in the mainline/oldline Presbyterian Church. What makes loyalists loyalists is that they are loyal to the denomination the way it is. They especially abhor the kind of ecumenism that would dissolve the denomination -- which is one of the many reasons that most people in the pews are not filled with trust for church headquarters.

A couple of other serious biographies for your list is Dale Soden's book on Mark Matthews, and John Piper's on Robert Speer.

Also, most of the articles in the Presbyterian Presence series are, or contain, good historical reviews.

Also, I am a sociologist, so my work come up to the present moment more than most historiography does. Still, you might find my Leading From the Center helpful. It recapitulates the story of Presbyterian Pluralism, which you already know, then does a parallel analysis of the current struggle over homosexual ordination.

Beau Weston