During the 1960s, as Presbyterian historians began to work toward models that emphasized theological and cultural pluralism within the church, sociologists and historians were developing evidence that brought the value of theological and cultural pluralism into question. In fact, the data seemed to suggest that “fundamentalist” churches which pursued theological and ethical particularity were growing, while the mainline churches themselves experienced numerical decline. The most celebrated of these studies was Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing (1972), in which he suggested that the decline of the mainline was its capitulation to the standards of the American culture it was attempting to reach. Mainstream Presbyterians promoted a rational, democratic, ecumenical, and doctrinally tolerant faith, American values all; and yet, these values “are a recipe for the failure of the religious enterprise,” Kelley concluded. Growing conservative churches, Kelley pointed out, stressed definitive belief systems, distinctive behavioral patterns with institutional discipline for transgressors, and demands for time commitments to local and international evangelism and missions.
Several mainline Presbyterian defenders as well as other sociologists agreed with Kelley’s diagnosis. One example came from John R. Fry, who noted The Trivialization of the United Presbyterian Church (1975). Fry argued that the reason for decline in the United Presbyterian Church was theological—it had failed to “attend to the requirements of faithfulness placed on a modern, complex, national ecclesiastical institution.” Instead, it had focused its attention on denominational re-organization, ecumenical activity, and ecclesiastical merger with the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). Like Kelley, Fry approached these issues as a Presbyterian insider and challenged the church to take stronger theological stances to meet the challenge of the emerging culture instead of focusing on bureaucratic solutions. Another sociological analysis that drew attention to the growing division in northern Presbyterianism was Dean R. Hoge’s Division in the Protestant House (1976). Perhaps the best expression of the “two-party” approach to intra-church conflict, Hoge recognized that there were theological as well as broader cultural and economic issues in the Presbyterian difficulties of the 1960s and 1970s.
This type of sociological analysis reached its high point in Robert Wuthnow’s The Restructuring of American Religion (1988). Profoundly influential both within the historical profession as well as among sociologists of religion, Wuthnow suggested that the period after the 1960s was one of “religious realignment,” in which religious conservatives and liberals found greater commonalty with fellow believers across denominations than with each other inside the same denomination. For Presbyterians, as this conflict between religious conservatives and liberals played out within their denominational borders, there was a concurrent loss of denominational identity that produced the statistical decline upon which earlier sociologists had commented. This evidence, building from the early 1970s, that denominational identity and decline were related continued to be affirmed by Dean Hoge’s team of researchers in Vanishing Boundaries (1994). Studying Baby Boomers who grew up within mainline Presbyterianism, these researchers confirmed Kelley’s description of “mainline Protestant denominations as weak and [his emphasis upon] the critical importance of belief—or ‘meaning,’ as he puts it—in creating and sustaining strong religious bodies.” Because of its willingness to accommodate ranges of theological belief and religious practices, which in turn led to a decline in denominational identity, mainline Presbyterianism was becoming “oldline.”
The reaction by mainstream Presbyterian historians, theologians, and sociologists to this apparently incontrovertible evidence was to forge a historiography that embraced this pluralism as central for denominational identity. The seven volumes produced by the Lilly Endowment-funded Presbyterian Presence project made this case in great detail. Theologians Jack Rogers and Don McKim celebrated the fact that “when functioning in day-to-day policy making on matters where scripture might be invoked [twentieth-century] Presbyterians behaved pragmatically and appealed to pluralism.” Likewise, historian James Moorhead observed that during the twentieth-century, “Presbyterians were on the verge of redefining the nature of what it meant to be a confessional church.” This redefinition centered on the fact that doctrinal statements “have functioned as general guidelines for religious discourse rather than as specific prescriptions for belief; and theology has assumed an increasingly ad hoc character.” Theologian Edward Farley agreed, describing the Presbyterian approach to theology in terms of “critical modernism,” which willingly modified the Westminster Confession’s seventeenth-century Calvinism and incorporated a diversity of belief. Finally, historian Rick Nutt positioned the conservative secession from the PCUS that led to the founding of the Presbyterian Church in America as a reaction against the broadening, pluralistic approach of the denominational leadership.
This pluralism was affirmed not only in the theological heritage of the church but also in its educational and organizational structures. Historians John Mulder and Lee Wyatt welcomed the moves in theological education away from “the theological scholasticism and doctrinal rigidity of the Presbyterian theology and subscription to the Westminster Standards alone.” At the same time, they questioned whether the Presbyterian embrace of pluralism only allowed creative options on the theological left while avoiding positions on the theological right that would inform denominational life. While theological pluralism was affirmed, organizational unity may have been a higher value: in fact, as David McCarthy recognized, in times of theological crisis, the Presbyterian Church most often made recourse to an organizational solution. “If polity constitutes the means whereby Presbyterians adjudicate their theological differences, it is appropriate that polity should become more important in the face of increasing theological pluralism,” McCarthy suggested. And while this is certainly the case, McCarthy’s observation also confirmed what John Fry had argued two decades before—that modern-day Presbyterian identity was centered less on beliefs than on organizational loyalty. Yet what remained unclear in Presbyterian Presence series as a whole was whether “pluralism” could provide an adequate sense of identity that would in turn produce either Presbyterian faithfulness or historiography over the long haul.
Two studies produced near the same time as the Presbyterian Presence series shed historical light on the issue of pluralism while providing insight on contemporary Presbyterianism. Importantly, both looked at the key moment in twentieth-century northern Presbyterianism, the 1920s Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, and both suggested that the church opted for a centrist, moderate solution that affirmed a “competitive pluralism” while denying the extremes of either liberal or conservative dissent. While Bradley J. Longfield’s The Presbyterian Controversy (1991) pointed up the problems that both J. Gresham Machen’s Old School Presbyterianism and William Sloane Coffin’s radical liberalism presented to the church, he also recognized that the willingness of the church’s theological moderates to allow mission to trump theology unwittingly “contributed to the current identity crisis of the church and helped to undermine the foundation of the church’s mission to the world.” William J. Weston argued along similar lines in his Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House (1997). According to Weston, the theological moderates of the 1920s successfully argued that the church’s mission would be harmed by theological particularity. By demonstrating their loyalty to the church’s organization and constitution, these moderates sanctified “competitive pluralism” in the church’s life. However, in his epilogue, Weston also noted that though this was the result of the immediate conflict of the 1920s, the church since has avoided theological conversation in meaningful ways and so has experienced a loss of denominational identity and numerical decline.
It should become clear that the main theme of Presbyterian historiography since the disruption of the 1960s has focused explicitly and implicitly on the issue of denominational identity. Study after study focused on the church’s increasing diversity of belief, which it attempted to paper over by stressing loyalty to institutional organizations. And yet, the repeated conclusion of both sociological and historical studies from the period was that the Presbyterian Church had entered a period of deep decline, moving from the center of American culture to a position of being “oldline.” Not coincidently, this de-centering of religious identity also has led to the increasing evaporation of Presbyterian historiography.