by William M. Ramsay. Louisville: Geneva Press, 2005. ISBN 0-664-50277-6. Pb., 144 pp. $14.95.
History–that enigmatic subject. Everyone living seems to have had at least one unutterably boring history teacher. And yet, new members in our congregations and older ones need something to help ground them in the history of the church as they learn about current worship, education, and polity practices, and begin to tackle the foundational theological questions of our faith. A classic description of what such education should be in our Reformed tradition calls for materials and programs that are “Biblically grounded, historically informed, ecumenically involved, socially engaged and communally nurtured.”
Retired minister and teacher William Ramsay has given us a wonderful tool to help our congregations become “historically informed.” As Ramsay puts it in his foreword, the story begins in Eden, continues with Abraham and Jacob and Isaac, with Moses and the Exodus, and climaxes in the life of Jesus. But the story of the church does not end there. From the church in Acts to the present day, we are witness to the ways God continues to act in our history.
Smoothly writing with a lively touch, Ramsay never forgets that “The Story” is what makes for an engaging historical account. No dry accounts here of church councils or impenetrable discussions of advanced theological issues. An attractive device for adult classes is the occasional “you are there” setting. Readers experience a little of the atmosphere of a particular time, place, or event: life and work in early monasteries, Catholic worship in the 1300s, or perhaps services in pre-Revolutionary America.
You remember those old colonial days, don’t you? Worship was typically four hours long, with a quick break for lunch. Sermons were about an hour long. There would have been two sermons in that four hours, and a proper pastor would have memorized them.
Ramsay does not mince words when it comes to the persecutions, tortures, oppression and general hostility that Christians have, from time to time, inflicted on one another and on those of other faiths. Whenever we Americans become a little too ready to attribute enlightened commitments to “religious freedom” to the founders, it is helpful to recall that Quakers were hung in colonial Massachusetts and Baptists were beaten or imprisoned in pre-Revolutionary Virginia.
The text does more, however, than provide ambience with the strong narrative. It also gives the reader quick descriptions of some of the major theological ideas in the history of the church. Ramsay approaches these carefully, offering correctives to common understandings of classical Christian doctrine. For example, he clarifies Augustine’s understanding of “original sin” as having more to do with pride than with sex. He spends sufficient time on figures of the Reformation to make clear some of the differences between them, as well as how views of church doctrine and of societal structures and expectations were transplanted to the American colonies.
Since this is a book for Presbyterians, the final chapter takes us through a brief history of how Reformed/Presbyterian denominations developed in their American setting. Ramsay recounts the history of Reformed influence on worship, on development of missions, on the church’s response to war, and its work in Christian education, as well as divisions and reunions over the years.
Even though the book is a 100-yard dash through 2000 years of church history, necessarily excluding huge amounts of material, we don’t get the feeling of jumping over hurdles or falling into gaps as we move through time. This is no mean feat. Discussion questions follow each chapter, encouraging readers to make links between the history they read and the church they experience today.
Years ago, Lyman Beecher looked out toward the flowering American frontier and worried that growing prosperity and power in the new nation would overwhelm the institutions that formed the mind, heart, and conscience of a civilized people. “We must educate!” he declared, “or we must perish by our own prosperity.” For our furiously over-scheduled churches today, finding time to squeeze in church history as part of our Christian education programs is a challenge. With William Ramsay’s offering, you now have no excuse.
Melissa Kirkpatrick is a Certified Christian Educator currently serving at the Falls Church (Va.) Church. She is also a member of the Company of Teachers of the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington.