[Note: I mentioned back in March that I had been invited to produce a historiographical essay for a forthcoming book on denominational history; obviously, I will be doing Presbyterian denominational history. While I will be rolling out the initial version of my argument (yes, historiographical essays make arguments) at the winter meeting of the American Society of Church History in Atlanta in a couple of weeks, I thought it would be good to share it here first.]
If there was a Protestant denomination that typifies the apparent death of denominational history, it has to be the Presbyterians. Even though the various Presbyterian branches recently noticed the three hundredth anniversary of the first American presbytery, there were no major conferences, commemorative books, or retrospective assessments, aside from a single issue of the Journal of Presbyterian History. That journal, sponsored by the Department of History of Presbyterian Church (USA), continues to limp along with barely a large enough subscription list to justify its existence. Likewise, the PC (USA) Department of History made news over the past several years with its decision to consolidate its archives into one central location, citing declining denominational funding for two locations. Increasingly, in denominational seminaries, Presbyterian history is subsumed under larger historical categories and the idea of having a dedicated “Presbyterian historian” on a faculty is often viewed as strange. No doubt about it, writing history about Presbyterians has fallen on tough times.
Part of the difficulty has been the loss of a coherent denominational identity in which to center the Presbyterian story. And perhaps this confusion over identity has resulted from Presbyterianism’s too cozy relationship with American culture. As historian James Moorhead has noted, Presbyterians have longed seen themselves “as close to the center of their culture.” During the Eisenhower age, Presbyterian historians generally made the case that Presbyterians were quintessentially American—as founders and custodians of American civilization, Presbyterians presented themselves as the bulwark of American liberties, institutions, and good manners. If Presbyterians were anything, these historians claimed, they were mainline. The historiography during this era supported Presbyterian self-identification by showing that they exercised their responsibilities carefully, seeking justice for blacks and women in measured ways, forging new possibilities of cooperation within ecumenical American Protestantism, and making sure that America remained one nation under God.
When American culture experienced the challenge of pluralism and the resultant religious restructuring during the 1960s and 1970s, Presbyterians were at a loss to identify themselves in meaningful ways. Also during this period, the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States experienced a painful rupture in 1973, with over 120,000 communicants departing to form the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. While they continued to focus their historiography on issues related to institutional self-preservation, especially the role of women and missions, Presbyterian historians also began to look seriously at what American pluralism meant for their denominations. The most extensive historical assessment was the Presbyterian Presence, a major Lilly Endowment-funded study that produced seven volumes in the early 1990s. And though the authors and editors of the Presbyterian Presence celebrated the diversity and pluralism of the church, there was also a strong sense that the church had become decidedly oldline, when compared to resurgent conservative Christianity.
As a result of this loss of a centering identity, the desire to tell Presbyterian stories by engaging in Presbyterian historiography is at an all-time low. Ironically, the most creative vein for this work has come from historians associated with historically sideline Presbyterian denominations. As these sideline Presbyterians mine their tradition’s history for a meaningful and workable religious identity, they have posed important questions both about Presbyterianism’s relationship to American culture as well as the increasingly apparent failure of mainline Presbyterianism. In doing so, these historians are providing the kind of work, methodologically and thematically, that will chart the way forward for a new generation of Presbyterian historians.
Presbyterian historiography in the post-World War II era sought to reinforce the denomination’s self-image as a centrist, “mainline” force upholding the best American values, especially moderation, cooperation, and religious liberty. Also key was the way Presbyterian historians reflected the changing ways Americans thought about cultural and ethnic assimilation. Drawing upon sociological analyses that were beginning to question assumptions of anglo-conformity, Presbyterian historians would shift how they talked about assimilation into the church and American culture. In place of older stories of a Presbyterian-Puritan inheritance that would give the Presbyterian church a decidedly Anglo-hue, Presbyterian historians groped toward stories that would emphasize the differences in the way minorities of race, class, and gender experienced the Presbyterian way of faith. The struggle for Presbyterian historiography was to honor the developing pluralistic model for understanding modern American life while still holding on to a center for religious identity and demonstrating Presbyterianism’s value and relevance for Americans.
Perhaps the best example of how Presbyterian historians adopted assumptions of anglo-conformity was Leonard J. Trinterud’s magisterial The Forming of an American Tradition (1949). Trinterud’s argument was that American Presbyterianism came into existence through the combination of ethnically-diverse elements, namely Scots-Irish Presbyterianism and English Congregationalism. As the church experienced the trauma of forging these elements together, American Presbyterianism came to stand for the supremacy of the Bible and religious liberty, seasoned by an appropriate dose of evangelistic piety and interest in education. But above all, for Trinterud, “to be the Body of Christ in history meant to be an American Church, within a divinely directed mission in American history, and not a mere colonial offshoot of some foreign Church which had neither part nor lot in American life.” As disparate “foreign” elements came to embrace the Anglo-American identity of the Presbyterian Church, they would enter into God’s divine mission for both church and country. Yet Trinterud, with other Presbyterian historians, also suggested that to be an American church also meant to champion theological moderation. After all, the clear heroes of Trinterud’s book were the New Side Presbyterians, who affirmed the supremacy of Scripture over all “man-made” creeds and who fought any sense of “strict” subscription to the Westminster Standards.
This sense that mainline Presbyterian identity should stress theological moderation and broadness, while inculcating others into an American faith, received historical reinforcement in Lefferts Loetscher’s The Broadening Church (1954). Loetscher traced the history of the northern Presbyterian church from the Old School-New School reunion in 1869 to the end of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in 1929. Suggesting that the conflict of the 1920s was one between “extreme conservatives” and “extreme liberals,” Loetscher held that the end result demonstrated that the Presbyterian church stood for theological moderation over against the poles on both sides of the aisle. In the short term, the controversy allowed “moderate liberals” to gain a voice in the church. However, the long-term consequence was that “the frank and realistic discussion of theological questions which the times and present opportunity call for” were inhibited; “‘the less theology the better’ seems to be the lurking implication.” By broadening the church theologically, attempting to encompass more theological pluralism, the church was unable to have constructive conversations about Presbyterian identity and mission in the world.
There was a growing sense that the way of continuing to provide intellectual and spiritual direction in an increasingly pluralistic America with theological diverse denominations was to develop Christian unity across denominational lines. Not surprisingly, Presbyterian historiography also moved to support and engage this line of thinking. Loetscher, for example, used his 1962 presidential address for the American Society of Church History to focus on the early nineteenth century as a period of unprecedented denominational unity among mainstream Protestants.
By the early 1960s, there was a growing sense that all was not well, either within mainline Protestantism or America itself. Minority voices, especially women and African-Americans, demanded to be heard. Presbyterian historians took up their cause in a continuing attempt to relate the Presbyterian faith to the issues of American society. Andrew Murray’s Presbyterians and the Negro (1966) charted how northern Presbyterians attempted to evangelize black Americans while southern Presbyterians rationalized enslaving them. In addition, he noted that in the post-bellum period, black Presbyterians went from “equal status” in white churches into separate denominations outside white control. While twentieth-century white Presbyterians made strides toward new relationships with their black brothers and sisters, Murray observed that “it is evident that in the foreseeable future most American Negro Protestants will continue to be members of Negro denominations, rather than becoming a part of white denominations like the Presbyterian Church.” Though he did not believe that the 1960s Black Power would prove attractive ultimately, Murray suggested that “the role of white denominations, like the Presbyterians, will probably be to identify themselves with the Negro’s struggle for full equality and help him secure full participation in housing, jobs, and education.”
Southern Presbyterian historians, such as E. T. Thompson, tried to use their historiography to force their branch of the church to confront their poor record on social issues. In particular, Thompson believed that southern Presbyterian commitments to the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church”—the ideas that the church’s mission is spiritual; that it should be restricted to preaching the Bible and administering the sacraments; and, as a result, it should avoid proclamations on public matters, especially dealing with racial justice—were restricting the church from speaking prophetically to contemporary culture in the American South. As a result, Thompson’s historical work consistently highlighted the negative aspects of the spirituality doctrine. In his little booklet, The Spirituality of the Church (1961), Thompson traced the antebellum debates over slavery and suggested that the spirituality of the church doctrine was forged in that controversy; further, this doctrine was preventing reunion with the northern church and cooperation with the National Council of Churches, he held.
Thompson expanded this argument in a massive, multi-volume work, Presbyterians in the South (1963, 1973). In his telling, southern Presbyterians’ involvement in the national church prior to the Civil War helped shape the way they viewed their calling and task after the war. In particular, the development of a defensive posture over slavery, the increasing attention to “divine right” Presbyterianism, and the preservation of Old School Calvinism shaped southern Presbyterianism in ways that placed it in an intellectual and cultural “backwater” by the start of the twentieth century. The catalyst for change, for entering into the “mainstream,” was a generation of young, moderately liberal scholars (such as Thompson himself) who were determined to open the church to contemporary theological scholarship, move toward greater theological latitude, and engage in a prophetic call for social change. Thompson’s telling of southern Presbyterian progressivism matched the tone of Presbyterian historiography in the 1950s and early 1960s: as long as progressive change was regulated by benevolent, moderate leadership, the identity of the church as a mainline, moderating force and preserver of key American values would continue to be preserved.