by Bradley J. Longfield
Westminster John Knox Press
Louisville, Ky. 296 pages
Bradley Longfield highlights the interplay between church and culture in his survey of Presbyterians in American history. Though most of the outstanding names and issues in Presbyterian history are present, this is not an institutional history. If the reader is looking for a careful retelling of the Presbyterian tale in the U.S., this book will not meet the need. Rather, Longfield, who is Dean and Professor of Church History at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, seeks to tell the history of Presbyterians within the broader context of American history, emphasizing the dominant themes that shaped each era of our history.
The narrative traces the central role Presbyterians played in the Great Awakening and American Revolution of the 18th century, the antebellum and Civil War eras of the middle years of the 19th century, the battles over Modernism and Fundamentalism that dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the rise of Neo-orthodoxy in the 1930s, and the great themes of the later part of the 20th century — the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the cultural revolution of the sixties. At every step, the narrative is informed by the best scholarship in the eras that the author surveys.
Longfield also reviews the internal controversies that rocked the church from time to time: subscription, old side/new side, old school/new school, higher criticism, evolution, the ordination of women and homosexuals. One encounters the great personalities of our history. The theologians: John Witherspoon, Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, James Henley Thornwell and J. Gresham Machen. The churchmen: Robert Speer, Harold John Ockenga and Eugene Carson Blake. The lay people: William Jennings Bryan, Pearl Buck, Henrietta Mears, John Foster Dulles and Catherine Marshall. The missionaries: David Brainerd and William Sheppard. The fascinating heresy trials of Lyman Beecher, Charles Finney and Charles Briggs. And a whole choir loft of others, too.
Presbyterians, because of their privileged place in the dominant culture of the United States, have played a huge role in the history of the nation. As H. Richard Niebuhr asserted and Longfield reiterates, Presbyterians as part of the Reformed tradition have sought to “transform culture.” Yet the disturbing aspect of this book is its thesis that the church has been more shaped by the culture than it has succeeded in shaping it. In fact, as Presbyterian history unfolds in the narrative, it becomes clear that at some point we simply ceased to shape the culture in any way, and we are now so thoroughly reflecting broader cultural themes that we have nothing left to say to the culture whatsoever. More damningly, Longfield believes with Joseph Small that our General Assemblies no longer deliberate on the great issues that divide us; rather, they simply take hurried votes that decide but do not resolve conflict. Sadly, therefore, we have come to be more defined by our polity rather than our theology.
Lay people, pastors and students of religion will find this an excellent but disturbing introduction to Presbyterian history. It will leave the reader to ponder the issues of Presbyterian identity and and beliefs within a pluralistic and post-modern culture in which, at the outset of a new millennium, the church finds itself both disestablished and assimilated at the same time.
MICHAEL PARKER is a professor of church history in a Presbyterian seminary in the Middle East.