The one bright spot for the entire enterprise of Presbyterian historiography can be found in the renewal of American religious history and in the increasing dominance in that literature of the theme of “evangelicalism.” Associated especially with the work of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, this scholarship has returned the focus in American religious historiography to “mainline” Protestant denominations that were historically “evangelical” in orientation; as a result, some of the best work on Presbyterianism has come out of this movement. Oddly enough, in this renewed evangelical historiography, the contribution of three historians who have been or currently are affiliated with “sideline” Presbyterian churches was especially important.
In the early 1970s, the work of George Marsden, who grew up in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), an off-shoot from the main northern Presbyterian body, helped set the course for future American religious historians. Marsden’s The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (1970) not only suggested that New School Presbyterians was far more important to understanding twentieth-century American Protestant fundamentalism than commonly believed, but also charted how Presbyterian theology operated within American culture. By allowing their faith to merge so closely with America, nineteenth century Presbyterians became “firmly institutionalized…fast becoming synonymous with the middle class status quo.” In other words, while the traditional coziness between Presbyterianism and American culture may have granted the church a sense of cultural custodianship, Marsden’s study raised the question of how high the cost was for Presbyterian faithfulness.
Likewise, Mark Noll, a ruling elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, another off-shoot from the main northern Presbyterian body, has focused attention on distinctively Presbyterian topics. Of these, perhaps the most important was his Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822 (1989). Focusing on a transitional moment in the history of Presbyterianism, Princeton College, and the United States, Noll focused attention on the ways that the Scottish Enlightenment, mediated to America by John Witherspoon and his disciple Samuel Stanhope Smith, shaped and transformed both Presbyterian theology and American political ideology. Once again, the interchange between Presbyterianism and America was not at all positive for Presbyterian faithfulness: toward the end of his essay, Noll asked “if the science of the Enlightenment, with its large claims for the human autonomy of perception and action, could ever rest comfortably with traditional Reformed Protestantism, given the Calvinistic vision of both divine mystery and intractable human sinfulness.” And though he decided not to give an answer to his “material question,” it seemed from the preceding study that the answer had to be negative.
A third historian working within the broader theme of American evangelicalism who has contributed a great deal to Presbyterian historiography was D. G. Hart. Currently a ruling elder in the OPC, Hart first received notice for his Defending the Faith (1994), an intellectual biography on J. Gresham Machen, one of the protagonists in the fundamentalist controversy. Hart turned the relationship between doctrinal particularity and religious pluralism on its head, suggesting that while Machen desired the Presbyterian Church to be a doctrinally particular church, adhering closely to the Westminster Standards, he also defended religious freedom and cultural pluralism in American society. As a result, the relationship between Presbyterianism and American culture was far less continuous than Machen’s contemporaries on the theological right or left understood. Hart pursued this theme further in his denominational history of the OPC, arguing that the identity of that church was shaped by its uneasy relationship with American culture: “it is more accurate to say that the OPC is committed to the ‘irrelevance’ of the world to the church.” In his recent writing, including a new history of the Presbyterianism in America, Hart continued to press the issue of Presbyterian identity in relationship to American culture, noting that “the history of Presbyterianism has in a sense been a lengthy debate about those features important to Presbyterian witness and identity.” How the American context affected that debate shows up in nearly every historical project Hart undertakes.
Each of these historians raised the same question as their counterparts from within the mainline—namely, the relationship between Presbyterian identity and American culture—but answered in tones that were markedly different from the historians on either side of the 1960s divide. Instead of trumpeting mainline Presbyterians’ contribution to American culture or questioning oldline Presbyterians’ relevance to an increasingly pluralistic culture, Marsden, Noll, and Hart all wondered about the effects of American culture upon Presbyterian identity. And not coincidentally, all three have been motivated by this question to produce an large amount of historical writing and reflection upon that topic. Or to put it in a different and more historical way, I think these historians’ contribution can be found producing historical accounts that recognize both the contribution of and the potential difficulties for religious commitments as they operate within cultural systems.
By developing a thick description of how religion (in this case, Presbyterianism) interacts with other beliefs and practices, symbols and stories, to forge a conception of religious identity, religious historians can recognize and describe sensitively how religion sanctifies beliefs and practices seemingly at odds with its best insights even as it offers real contributions in other ways. And so, the worldview of controversial figures, such as the redoubtable and angry southern Presbyterian theologian, Robert Lewis Dabney, can be meaningfully explored even when historians are repulsed by their rank racism and harsh commitment to gender hierarchy. Likewise, the interrelationship between twentieth-century religion, politics, and race in the PCUS could serve as a worthwhile topic because it raises questions about what constitutes faithful Presbyterian identity within the particular context of the American South. In other words, what is needed for the renewal of Presbyterian historiography is a commitment to both the belief and a method which stresses that these denominations, which represent Presbyterianism, really are “the Presbyterian Church in America.” Only by charting in positive and negative ways the interchange between Presbyterian identity and a particular American cultural context will historians be motivated to grope toward stories that will grant wisdom and insight for our postmodern age.