Let me say to start that I don't write in order to repristinate the past or to write inspirational history. Anyone who has read my book on Dabney, for example, knows that I have deep ambivilances about him as a man, churchman, and theologian. I don't shy away from pointing out his sinful and tragic attitudes toward African Americans, his wrestling with his own masculinity and honor during the war, his ambitious manuevering to land his position at Union Seminary, or his tragic squandering of influence in the postbellum southern church. Anyone who has read my book should know that, in my mind, Dabney is not a hero and that I am not seeking to return to the "good ol' days."
Then again, that is not why I write history anyway. If we simply come to history for some sort of useable past that reifies the status quo or justifies deviation from that status quo, then we are doing historical work for lesser reasons. Hear me well: it is not wrong to make the past speak to the present; that is what the best historians do. Yet, as James Cobb put it well,
"When historians are drawn into the politics of identity [which is what I am really talking about--sml], they may unwittingly cease to be scholars who simply try to make the past speak to the present and become ventrioloquists who are intent on making it say what they think their audience wants to hear. In doing so, they run the risk both of misrepresenting the past and of confusing what their readers want to hear with what they may actually need to hear" (Cobb, Away Down South, 316).
All too often, people approach history seeking what they want to hear. In my mind, however, historians need to do their work in such a way that the message people need to hear, pleasant or unpleasant, reifying or justifying, is heard.
To come back to the basic question then--why bother studying southern Presbyterians?--I think the answer has to look something like this: I study southern Presbyterians in order to gain wisdom and insight into the way I am today and the way my church is. In a denomination where nearly 60% of his membership still resides in the eleven states of the old Confederacy, and in a denomination that has many who still view it as the continuation of the old PCUS, we need all the wisdom and insight we can get about the way we are (good and bad), the beliefs we hold dear, and the practices that continue to shape us.
But I also study southern Presbyterians because they remind me that theology never operates outside of cultural systems--whether you want to put that into terms of "cultural captivity" or "contextualization." And that means, I must come to all ideas and beliefs and practices with sharp questioning--how does this operate within the current cultural moment? What strengths does this present? What weaknesses does this offer? How will my future be affected by this? How does this reflect the longer-standing tradition of the church?
And so, our call in thinking historically about these things is not to rail against "southern Presbyterianism" as though it were some aberrant form of the Christian tradition (though, no doubt, there are aberrations, especially on racial issues, as this demonstrates). Nor is our call to defend "southern Presbyterianism" as though it embodied perfected Christianity handed down to us on golden plates (though, no doubt, there are numerous strengths, especially in its general faithfulness to the Westminster tradition).
Rather, the historical task is to study the past in order to uncover the stories--to discover the wisdom and receive the judgment--that we need to hear in this moment. And the stories we need to hear above all point us forward to the only real hero in the Big Story, Jesus himself, who takes our evil and works it together for our salvation.