Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Most Famous Man in America

One of the treats of Christmas break is to crank through some biographies that I have been meaning to read. One such book is Debby Applegate's The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher (Doubleday, 2006). Applegate, an independent researcher who holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University, offers a breezy look at one of the most important preachers of the nineteenth century. In a book that succeeds on a number of levels, especially in sorting out the details of Beecher's numerous extramarital affairs, I still finished the book wondering how to account for Beecher's amazing success as a religious figure and what this success tells us about American religious life on either side of the Civil War.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), the son of the famous New School minister Lyman Beecher and brother to numerous talented Beecher siblings, was always a bit backward educationally. His early years were spent trying to find a place in his precociously intellectual and talented family, led by his patriarch father. While Applegate sketches Henry's upbringing well, she shows little sensitivity to the religious issues that motivated Lyman's ministry, whether in Litchfield, Boston, or Cincinnati. Repeatedly, she characterizes the elder Beecher has a "rigid Calvinist" who held to arcane teachings regarding original sin and the "capriciousness of salvation" (38). And yet, when Lyman Beecher moves to Boston and eventually invites Charles Finney to hold a revival in 1828, she was forced to see him as "softening these ideas to fit a more progressive, self-empowered culture" (57). What the father actually believed is important to Applegate's story, because she presents Henry as rebelling against his father's Calvinism--but unless we understand the nature of that Calvinism, we cannot understand the lines of continuity and discontinuity between father and son, nor can we understand how the father approved his son's ministry nearly until his death in 1863.

During his college years, Henry falls in love with Eunice Bullard, with whom he is engaged for seven years, After Henry receives his education at Amherst and Lane Theological Seminary (overseen by his father), he takes a small pastorate at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and immediately goes to secure Eunice's hand in marriage. They return to Lawrenceburg to face a life of poverty, childbirth, and malaria; and yet, it is there that they were probably closest. Applegate presents Eunice Beecher as a shrew, a complaining, hypochondriac whom none of the Beecher's liked nor admired; while this may have been the case and while it sets up the numerous alleged affairs that Beecher had, Eunice came across as a two-dimensional figure--both jealous and bitter. There is no real basis for understanding why she would stand by Henry during the "trial of the century" in 1874 and endure the humiliation of hearing the accusations of his philandering; she must have had some redeeming qualities, yet her presentation is consistently negative.

After Lawrenceburg and a seven-year ministry at Indianapolis' Second Presbyterian Church, Beecher is recruited to minister to a new Congregationalist church, Plymouth Church. In describing the various forces that battled for control of the church, Applegate is at her best--her pictures of H. C. Bowen, Tasker Howard, Moses Beach, and Theodore Tilton are especially clear and moving; none of these men (with the exception of Beach) come off well in her story and all look as tawdry as Beecher himself.

And yet, I never felt clear about why Beecher was so popular--aside from the fact that he preached a "Gospel of Love" in place of a "Gospel of Law," why did he end up drawing 3000 people each Sunday? The only answers that seem clear are his own personal charisma and magnetism; and while it is certainly possible, I kept wishing that Applegate would help her readers feel Beecher's power in the pulpit. In addition, while she does a stunning job relating Beecher to the major political and cultural events of the day, Applegate is less sure on the religious events--for example, how did the sentimentalism of Romanticism, the rising tides of Victorian religion, or the Business Men's Revival of 1857-8 relate to Beecher? Had she paid attention to Kathy Long's The Revival of 1857-58, Thomas Jenkins' The Character of God, or even the classic Revivalism and Social Reform by Timothy L. Smith (none of which are represented in her bibliography), perhaps she would have situated Beecher's religion as surely as she does his politics and cultural contributions.

In addition, I kept wondering how Applegate's story connected to the loss of faith that Victorians experienced in the postbellum period. As historian James Turner argued in Without God, Without Creed, following on the heels of Paul Carter's The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age, the postbellum period represented the first time in American history when non-belief was acceptable socially; in fact, to deny the existence of God or hell or to transform one's understanding of God to fit the sentimentalism of the day was a major characteristic of the period. Even ministers were articulating a new "liberal Protestantism," that drew from the older sentimentality of a Horace Bushnell and merged it with the radical approaches to the Bible emenating from Germany and articulated at places like Andover Seminary. It is striking, for example, that the same year New York City is convulsed by the Beecher trial for sexual immorality, Chicago is enthralled with the David Swing trial for hetrodoxy. Surely, Beecher contributes to this transition; Applegate leaves us wondering how.

In the end, it is all about Beecher's affairs--and he apparently had countless intimate encounters during his ministry both in Indianapolis and Brooklyn. Applegate does a good job supplying a great deal of evidence, especially for his paternity of Violet Beach (the letter that the cuckolded husband Moses writes to his pastor is particularly moving). And her coverage of the Tilton-Beecher trial was profoundly moving. Again, I kept wondering how Applegate's story interacted with the rising feminization of religion in the postbellum period; there was no evidence that she had engaged with Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture or thought deeply about how Beecher's interaction with the women's suffrage movement meant for the large tides of American culture. And yet, the details are so salacious and the story told so well, that only someone who specializes in American religious history would be thinking about these things.

Undoubtedly, Applegate's biography of Henry Ward Beecher is now the standard and definitive telling of his life . And for those who have little background in the American religious history industry (with all the books that have been published over the past ten years), it is a crackling good read that is surprisingly (and depressingly) contemporary (as the recent Ted Haggard case makes abundantly clear). While the story could have contextualized Beecher's religion better, The Most Famous Man in America is recommended for an overview of the life of perhaps the most important preacher of the mid-nineteenth century.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Presbyterians in America, No. 3

Part one
Part two

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.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Presbyterians in America, No. 2

Part one

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.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Presbyterians in America, No. 1

[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.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Well, not really, if you have a stack of grading to do (as I do). In order to expedite the process, I have often talked about doing this, and it is great to see this method of grading thoroughly worked out.

[HT: Chris Morgan, via Robert Peterson]

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Harvard's Curriculum Review

I thought there were a couple of interesting things about this Reuters report about Harvard's curriculum review committee, which decided to drop a required religion course from the core undergraduate curriculum. The first is simply how the report claims questions raised by the humanities would be handled: students will be required to take courses under the major outcome heading, "What does it mean to be a human being?" What is fasinating about this is that it appears that Harvard is intentionally revamping their curriculum in order to ensure measurable outcomes, one of the major planks of the Spellings Commission, even though they are not accredited by the Big Six regional accreditors. By lumping religion courses with the rest of the humanities under this broad question, the review committee undoubtedly is saying that religion is one of many sources that would help to answer this big question about the meaning of human existence.

The second thing here is this: why is Harvard's curriculum review so important that it is reported on the regular news wire and picked up by Because where Harvard goes curriculuarly, many institutions will follow. And so, if you want to see the university to which your children may go (or at least mine will go), it is important to watch the curricular changes that Harvard proposes. Harvard's influence continues to be broad and deep, signaling important sea-changes in American education.

Who is buried in Grant's, ur, Graham's Tomb?

This was a fascinating piece in the Washington Post on tensions within Billy Graham's family over the immediate issue of where the Grahams will be buried. But, under the axiom that the issue is never the issue, as you read the article more closely, you discover that what is really at stake is the direction of BGEA and, especially, Franklin Graham's leadership of that organization.

Because BGEA is a multi-million dollar evangelical institution, and because Anne Graham Lotz and Ned Graham both rely on BGEA for their own salaries and ministries, it is not too difficult to see this as a major case of sibling rivalry. The next step was Ned's (apparent) invitation to the press into what should be the private decisions of a family; unfortunately, though the article makes Franklin to look like simply a crass marketer, it doesn't really make anyone look particularly good.

[HT: SharperIron]

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

So we do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10)

[Note: I preached this at a funeral today; I thought perhaps it might minister some comfort to others. I once was asked in an interview, if I could preach one text as my last sermon, what would it be? My answer was 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10.]

She was only twenty-four years old when she died. Suffering with dementia, she had tramped around her parents’ house, while they absented themselves in a world-wide tour, trying to recoup their finances. After Susy's death on 18 August 1896, her famous father Samuel Clemens, whom you probably know as Mark Twain, raged at everyone near and far. And in particular, he raged at God. Earlier in his life, Twain had been raised in a Missouri Presbyterian home, attended a fashionable Congregational church in Hartford, Connecticut, and counted a minister as one of his best friends.

But his daughter’s death knocked the props of his remaining vague religious beliefs out from under him. His books after her death would seize the opportunity to rail and blaspheme, most famously and succinctly put in his private notebooks two years after Susy’s death, “God's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.” And in his final unpublished novella, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, Twain’s main character admitted that “there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream.”

On one level, we can understand how the pain of life that Twain knew could take his breath away and even crush his spirit. After all, we are here today to mourn a loss that we don’t understand, to wrestle with a providence that leaves us afflicted, perplexed, struck down. Perhaps the question for you is not so much, “Why do people, like Mark Twain, lose hope?” Rather, the question might be better put, “Why do people not lose hope?” Even more, in the face this undeniable and painful sadness, why should I not lose hope?

There are strong reasons why you and I should not lose heart; we find them here in our text this morning. What we discover is that our hope is not tied to what we can see, what we can touch, what we can hold. Rather, our hope is anchored in the One who is unshakable, in promises that are infallible, and in realities that are far more real than anything our senses can know.

You see, the Apostle Paul here describes his life and ministry in terms that describe our lives. He notes that he has the treasure of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in “jars of clay.” And these jars are subjected to incredible stress: affliction, perplexity, persecution, striking down; dying. And yet, though these jars of clay crack and flake, God by his grace holds them together. Even more, God points Paul to the ultimate and painful lesson he is teaching: “to show that the surprising power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7). And so, though Paul is dying day by day, it is working life for him and others.

As a result, even if the face of tragedy, of nearly dying twice, of all that he faced that would crush most of us—he is able to declare, “So we do not lose heart.” And we wonder—how is it that Paul did not lose heart? How can it be that we might not lose heart in the face of these events that take our breath away?

1. We do not lose heart because we appraise this life and the life to come properly (4:16-18).
And the way we learn to appraise this life is by heeding the vast difference between “this age” and “the age to come.” In this age, our outer man is wasting away. We know this experientially—we experience sickness and pain; we have surgeries, hip and knee replacements, heart by-pass surgeries; we know that in this age, our physical strength is wasting away.

In this age, we experience “slight momentary afflictions.” Though Paul qualifies these afflictions that we experience as “momentary” (in reference to time) and “slight” or “light” (in reference to weight), they are afflictions nonetheless. We experience the loss of loved ones—of fathers and mothers, husbands or wives, brothers or sisters, children or children yet to be born—and we know, we feel that these are painful sorrows. They might be momentary and slight, but they are still afflictions and sufferings.

In this age, what we see is transient. As we experience these afflictions, we become convinced that this world is passing away. This world is transient; and our lives here are but a vapor, a breath, a fleeting moment.

By contrast, in the age to come, our hearts, our real selves, already being renewed day by day, will then enjoy “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension.” In the age to come, we will experience all those unseen things that are eternal. Now all we know is transient—our loved ones, our plans, our accomplishments all will pass from remembrance for they all are temporary. But then all we know will be permanent—for the City of God is built with foundations that no man can destroy.

For now, we live in this time between times, experiencing fully the tension between already having the treasure of the knowledge of the glory of God and not yet experiencing the fullness of that knowledge in the resurrection. But since we know this tension, we properly appraise this life and the life to come. In the midst of our sorrows, we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed.

Rather, we recognize a necessary connection between these human, earthly sorrows and afflictions and the coming weight of glory: “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory.” And because we know these things, because we know that this age is transient, but the age to come is eternal, we do not lose hope. Rather, we trust that even in our sorrows, God is working out his perfect salvation for us.

2. We do not lose hope because we know that God is preparing a resurrection body for us (5:1-5).
What Paul tells us here is this: because we look to what is eternal and not to our transient sufferings, we know that even when death comes to us and destroys the earthly tent of our bodies, we have “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

This is nothing less than the promised resurrection body that is imperishable, that knows neither corruption nor decay. No longer will we house the treasure of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in “tents.” Then we will store such knowledge in “buildings” that will never be destroyed or replaced, imperishable bodies like our Lord’s resurrected body.

And it is this expectation and hope that helps us in the midst of our groaning in our present condition. Twice Paul notes that presently we “groan” (5:2, 4), longing to have our present mortality swallowed up by immortality. This groaning is made more intense by the reality of the tension that we experience—for we already “have” a dwelling from God, but we have not yet put it on over these temporary clothes. We long for this, we groan as we experience our burdened estate—burdened with sin, sickness, and sorrow. We earnestly desire the immortality of the resurrection.

And yet, as those who believe in God, we wait patiently. For we have a great confidence that all God promised will come to pass. In fact, we have a guarantee—the Holy Spirit given to us to assure us that God will accomplish this purpose. And the Holy Spirit also stirs up these longings for immorality within us, using our sorrows to turn our hearts to the glories of the life to come—the resurrection body, the new heavens and new earth, and the full knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

As a result, we do not lose hope. Not only have we rightly appraised this age and the age to come, but we also know that God is preparing a resurrection body for us. The Triune God intends for his eternal life to swallow up our transient earthly lives and for his resurrection body to serve as clothing over our temporary earthly “tents.”

3. We do not lose hope because we believe that ultimately we will be with the Lord (5:6-10).
Paul sets forward yet another antithesis that is charged with the tension that we experience. In this age, as we are “at home” in these “jars of clay” that experience decay and as we long to be clothed with the immortal bodies that God has for us, we recognized that we are “away from the Lord.”

As a result, we do not live by sight—we do not yet see the Lord face-to-face. Rather, we live by faith—trusting that God will keep his promise, guaranteed by his Spirit, to raise us as he raised Jesus from the dead and to have his life swallow up and conquer our death. But in the age to come, we will live by sight. We will receive all that the Triune God has promised, all for which we have hoped.

In the meantime, we live with the deep tension—we struggle with sorrow and loss, with grief and hurt. But even as we wrestle and struggle and know the painfulness of these real emotions, we do not lose hope:
· because we have come to appraise this life and the life to come properly;
· because we know that God is preparing a resurrection body for us;
· because we believe that ultimately we, and all those within God’s covenant of grace, will be with the Lord.

We rightly love the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. But I wonder how Caspar Olevianus viewed that question in the years after he wrote it. After all, when his patron Fredrick III died in 1676, about 13 years after the catechism was published, the new elector of the Palatine was Lutheran. He immediately and Olevianus arrested; finally, he was expelled from his home and forced to wander through Europe. This one time preacher and university professor, the famous author of the Heidelberg Catechism, finally found work as a tutor for a wealthy family and a pastor in a small, insignificant church; and in that capacity, he died at age 50 in 1587.

As Olevianus wandered through Europe, expelled from the home that he had known, the friendships that he had forged, I wonder how the words comforted him:
My only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Like Olevianus, as we move through our lives with sorrow and joy, we must always remember that our only comfort, our only hope is not found in things or people that we can see, touch, or hear. Rather, our only comfort and hope rests on our faithful Savior Jesus Christ who watches over us and ensures that all things must work together for our salvation. We cling to this hope in this age as we walk by faith, and not by sight.

How about them Cowboys?

Yesterday, the Dallas Cowboys unveiled the designs for their new football stadium. Estimated to cost $1 billion dollars and to be built in time for the 2009 football season, it truly is an amazing structure. The supports for the structure are two massive steel beams that will extend like two arches the length of the building. The stadium will have retractable roof and walls so that it can either be open or closed to the elements. And it will seat 80,000 fans, making it the largest NFL stadium.

But the truly amazing and overwhelming feature of the project, IMO, is the 200 suites that will ring the stadium. Think about that--200 corporate suites. Just to put that into context, the new Cardinals stadium has about 53 suites; the new Indianapolis Colts stadium will have 142 suites across a price range from $40K to $235K. That means the new Cowboys stadium will have almost 60 more suites than the Colts venue (which itself is costing about $500 million to build).

One of the important parts of this is how stadium revenues factor into the profitability of a sports franchise. The NFL's salary cap forces teams to offer huge signing bonuses that are prorated for the life of the contract; in order to pay those signing bonuses (like Peyton Manning's $34 million bonus on the contract he signed last year), owners need to have enough cash flow to pay up front money. How do owners get that kind of cash on hand? The only way is through maximized income streams, such as stadium income.

And so, the Cowboys, with a potential suite income of $40 million (calcaulated at each of those suites going for $200K; that does not count the 80,000 seats, which themselves will go for a pretty penny), should be able to pay for whatever free agents they need to continue to build the team and still maintain an incredible profitablity for owner Jerry Jones. It is easy to envision that whenever Jones, or his heirs, gets ready to sell the Cowboys, the franchise could easily go for over $2 billion (considering that today, the Redskins and NY Yankees are each valued at around $1 billion).

As Jimmy Johnson would've said, "How about them Cowboys?"

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Entrepeneurs R Us

This editorial in the current Christianity Today reflects on the aftermath of the Ted Haggard scandal in such an amazingly thoughtful way--on how the entrepeneurial spirit that drives much of evangelical Protestantism can lead to the loss of accountability. I especially appreciated and took to heart these comments:

Entrepreneurial pastors and leaders bring special gifts to the work of the church. But just as we identify the gifts of emerging leaders, we also need to engage in the spiritual exercise of identifying leaders' weaknesses. Every area of giftedness has a "shadow side"; every charism brings its own temptations. Young leaders need not only to have their gifts identified, but also to be mentored by those who understand the unique temptations that accompany those gifts.

Is our leader telegenic? That can help him communicate the gospel, but it can also turn him toward worshiping his TV image. Is he a skilled administrator? That can help him guide an organization efficiently, but it can also tempt him to run roughshod over people who get in his way. Is he a natural motivator? That can help him enlist volunteers in the ministry, but it can also tempt him to manipulate people. The larger point is this: While leaders are responsible for their behavior, the discernment process is one that can and must take place corporately—for no Christian leader is capable of judging his gifts and motives alone.

One of the things that I especially came to appreciate in the recent interview process through which I went at Covenant Seminary was how much of the time was focused on my areas of weakness, or, better, the "shadow sides" of my areas of strength. Over and again, I repeated my openness to have others speak into my life, both to help me with a sense of limits and boundaries (something at which I am terrible) as well as to preach the Gospel to me. Above all, it reminded me of the need for the Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit, not simply in the "spiritual" parts of my life, but in every area of my life--in my work as well as my worship.

Two things

1. As you may be able to tell, I've switched over to Blogger Beta and also decided to change some of the colors and things on the blog. I've not yet figured out how to get my Bravenet counter back; every place I past the HTML code doesn't seem to work.

2. The other day, I downloaded Joe Grushecky's new album, A Good Life. Grushecky, a Pittsburgher and friend of Bruce Springsteen, gained a great deal of notice in the 1990s when his American Babylon album was produced by Springsteen. If you enjoy the Boss, then you'll like Grushecky; in fact, Springsteen duets on the opening song, "Code of Silence," and provides BGVs on three other songs.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Man Like Us

This is a piece which I wroe that I think is helpful, entitled, "A Man Like Us: Jonathan Edwards and the Spiritual Formation of Ministerial Candidates." The longer version appeared in Presbyterion 30 (2004): 1-10; this shorter version was in Covenant Magazine. The main argument was: "The early period of Edwards’ life still serves as a witness to the Church as we consider the process of spiritual formation for ministerial candidates. Both in its positive and negative aspects, Edwards’ spirituality during these early years teaches important lessons about how we as Christians and particularly as Christian leaders should live for God’s glory."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America

Yesterday, I received in the mail a new two-volume Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America, edited by my friend Michael McClymond over at St. Louis University. This morning I've enjoyed wandering through the first volume, which contains hundreds of articles (including three by yours truly) on a wide-range of American religious figures, all written from the aspect of their contribution to revivalism in America. The second volume is a larger, primary document source book that has a number of hard-to-find texts, especially from Pentecostal and neo-Charismatic sources. While non-professionals will experience sticker shock, this set certainly belongs in nearly every academic library that has a religious studies program as well as every theological seminary.

Top Ten Books that I Read in 2006, No. 2

Part one

6. Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do
One of my colleague's assigned this book for his educational ministries class; I picked it and read it. It was earth-shaking in the way it viewed the educational process, the way students learn, how to invite students into a learning enviornment. It was such an important book that I got one for every faculty member, had them read it over the summer, and discussed it for a couple of hours at our August faculty retreat.

7. Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
Stephen Ambrose-style meets the Pilgrims. I enjoyed the breezy way this was written as well as the emphasis upon Anglo-Native American relations. Philbrick was tone deaf when it came to theology and hence in interpreting the Pilgrim's worldview. Still, an enjoyable book--I wrote more about it here.

8. David Robertson, Awakening: The Life and Ministry of Robert Murray McCheyne
I think the test of any book, especially one that is essentially introductory, is whether it inspires the reader to attempt to find out more after the book is completed. Once I was done with Robertson's book, published in 2004, I wanted to go read McCheyne for myself and to read other books about the period. I wrote about this book here.

9. Iain Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage
What I just said about Robertson's book applies here as well. While I don't think this is well-titled, the book is a collection of Murray's essays on aspects of Scottish church history. The biographical sketches in part one were especially fine: Knox, Robert Bruce, Thomas Chalmers, and Hortius Bonar. Also excelllent were the essays on Robert Moffat, the Scots Missionary to Africa, and on the Free Church of Scotland. I learned a lot and ordered a number of other books as a result of reading this one.

10. Gerhard Forde, The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage
I particularly appreciated the Lutheran Quarterly Books series that Eerdmans is publishing. All of the volumes that I have read thus far have made a real contribution to my understanding of Lutheranism. I was familar with Forde from his writing on the Heidelberg Disputation, and I found this book to be a powerful theological reading of Luther's Bondage of the Will.

One book that I'm reading right now that could make this list is Christopher Wright's The Mission of God, which is excellent. But since I have a ways to go before I finish it, I have not listed here in my top ten.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Top Ten Books that I read in 2006, No. 1

Inspired by John Wilson's article in Books and Culture on the Top Ten Books of 2006 (and chided by my wife who said I need to post more often or she would stop reading), I offer to you the "Top Ten Books that I Read in 2006" (who knows if they are any good or not, but I enjoyed them! ). I give you my first five books; the next post will give the next five.

1. Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
A fascinating and sensitive, as well as historically rigorous, look at Bryan. I'm not sure that Kazin delievered on his premise that Bryan could provide a model for the modern-day Democratic party--i.e. how to forge an evangelical and progressive politic--but it still was a wonderfully written book. You can read what I wrote about it here.

2. D. G. Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State
A typical Darryl Hart book--brilliant at times, well-written always, wrong-headed in places. He always makes me think hard and well and has shaped me far more than I know. I wrote a review essay of this book that will be appearing in the spring 2007 Westminster Theological Journal, but you can read it here, here, and here.

3. Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis
A typical Mark Noll book, but even better because he fleshes out the argument that he made at the end of America's God. I have a review of this forthcoming in Presbyterion, but you can read it here as well.

4. Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War
This book should have been my favorite because I so highly respect Stout as a historian. And this book does have a number of strong points--thoroughly researched, consistent argument, and some excellent sections. However, I felt the thesis was a little convoluted--an application of just war theory to the problem of the Civil War--and that the moral fervor in criticizing both sides made the book more sermonic than necessary. Still, an important book for those who work on 19th and 20th century American religion and history.

5. James Giglio, Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man
While this book was published in 2001, I read it last month and thoroughly enjoyed this academic treatment of Musial's career and life. Particularly as the Cardinals advanced to the World Series, I got into a real baseball history mode again and found this book to be worthwhile.

Friday, December 01, 2006


[Note: Since this has been sent to the official Covenant Seminary family as well as PCA news organs, I thought it'd be appropriate to post this announcement here as well]

With thanks to the Lord, I am pleased to announce to the Covenant Seminary family that Dr. Sean Lucas has been appointed as our next Vice President for Academics, effective January 1, 2007. Dr. Lucas joined Covenant as Adjunct Professor of Church History and Coordinator of Candidate Relations in 2004. He was made Assistant Professor of Church History in 2005 and Dean of Faculty in 2006. Prior to coming to Covenant Seminary he served as Assistant Pastor of Community Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Louisville, KY and as Archives and Special Collections Librarian at Southern Seminary. He earned his PhD in Historical and Theological Studies at Westminster Seminary and is the author of two books on Presbyterian history and identity and has served as the co-editor of two other books, including Covenant Seminary’s 50th Anniversary volume, All for Jesus. Dr. Lucas and his wife, Sara, have four children and have been faithful, hard-working supporters of the ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church since they arrived in St. Louis.

Dr. Lucas’s appointment concludes the work of a joint faculty, administration and Board screening committee that has been processing applications since last August, when our present Vice President for Academics Dr. Donald Guthrie announced his intention to move into a more concentrated teaching role. I want to thank Dr. Guthrie for his years of laudatory service to this institution, distinguishing himself as an administrator of deep affection for the Lord, great vision for what this institution can be, and love for his colleagues and staff. I also want to thank the members of the Screening Committee (Dean of Students, Mark Dalbey, Professor of Church Planting Phil Douglass, Vice President for Advancement Dave Wicker, Board Chairman Walt Turner, Board Vice-chair Bill French, and Board Academic Committee Chairman Rev. David Sinclair) who have been so diligent and godly in conducting the interviews for this appointment. We praise God for his faithful leading and pray that he will bless us through this expanded ministry of Dr. Lucas.

Bryan Chapell,