Navigating between “Amen” and “No” — The dilemma and promise of the Presbyterian Outlook

Sometime in the early 1980s, when I was a recent graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, I had a conversation with an uncle. It was in the context of a family funeral, when we were all together. He has gone to glory now, but he – like my dad, and my brother and so many generations of ancestors before me – was a Presbyterian minister. We got to talking about the church, and he told me of an occasion that happened at a General Assembly when he was a commissioner from his presbytery in South Carolina. It was in 1968 at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), which was held in Montreat, North Carolina. Those years were fraught with social issues like civil rights and Vietnam and the role of women in leadership, and even though such fraughtness is not unusual at Presbyterian General Assemblies, this particular assembly, said my uncle, fairly crackled at every moment with the tensions of the late 1960s.

My uncle shared with me a story of such tension that had happened there in the context, ironically, of prayer. Apparently, the docket for that meeting set aside space throughout each day for prayer services – morning prayer, midday prayer, afternoon prayer, evening prayer – and in one of those prayer services on one of those days, the leader of the service offered a series of intercessions and, before closing them, called for spoken petitions from the congregation. Various concerns were lifted up, and finally one voice offered this petition: “O God, we thank you for many things, but especially for the great gift you have given us in Belhaven College, Reformed Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Journal.” There was a moment of silence, and then came another voice from out in the congregation: “And, O God, we thank you for the great gift you have also given us in Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and the Presbyterian Outlook.” Another moment of silence, and someone cried out, “Amen!” And then someone else cried out, “No!” And then other voices cried out together, “Amen!” — and a chorus of others cried out, “No!” This led to antiphonal chants of: “Amen!” “No!” “Amen!” “No!” And it went on for some while before the leader was able to finally get ahold of that service by using the Lord’s Prayer as crowd control. Had I been there, of course, I would have been a cheerleader on the side of “Amen,” and I know that my uncle would have been yelling equally loudly on the side of “No.” If that story is true, and I believe it is, then it looks like the Presbyterian Outlook missed a golden opportunity to celebrate last year, in 2018, the 50th anniversary of that cacophony of “Amens” celebrating Davidson, Union and the Outlook.

But here we are now, at a far more important anniversary: the 200th anniversary of that wonderful magazine. And it is important on this occasion for us to reflect on the heroic role of this relentless independent church magazine as it has navigated, and continues to navigate, that still-fraught space between “Amen” and “No.”

That, after all, is the purpose of an independent journal committed to the life of the church. There has been a place, of course, for such “house organs” as, in their time, Presbyterian Survey, Presbyterian Life, A.D., and in these days Presbyterians Today; but the church’s independent journals have shaped in sharper and more particular ways the narrative and life of our communion precisely because of their voice and perspective and, well, independence. The very fact that the Outlook is alive and well and thriving in the year of its bicentennial is a testimony to its successful history and its bright future as an independent magazine.

In looking across its history, many of us will remember the cover page of the May 31, 1993, issue of the magazine — its 175th anniversary issue, 25 years ago. That front page looked to me like the diagram of the innards of a solid state transistor radio, which you could still buy (at least in second-hand stores) in 1993. It took the whole front page to do justice to the lines drawn from 20 or more predecessor journals witnessing to the lifetimes of multiple predecessor denominations and multiple regions of those denominations from as far back as 1819: the Presbyterian Church in the USA (Old School), the Presbyterian Church in the USA (New School), the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, the United Presbyterian Church of North America, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and, as of 1983, the reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — all of these lines of journals representing these predecessor denominations, feeding like tributaries into the larger river that, in 1943, became the Presbyterian Outlook based in Richmond, Virginia.

My time in this address will not permit me to tromp around all of that landscape, so I will focus upon what I will call the modern era of the Outlook, starting in 1943. What movements and arguments and claims and changes have characterized those 76 years in the life of our church, and how did the Outlook use its voice in the midst of them? I want to try to answer that question, at least partially, by focusing upon a handful of the great trends that have propelled us as a church from 1943 to this moment. And while I won’t catalog the name of every single person of influence across these years, there are a few personalities who, because of their tenure and tenacity, require special attention; because these are personalities who, sometimes at great risk, dared to navigate between “Amen” and “No.”

In the 1940s, when the PCUS was still deeply mired in its own provincialism, the Outlook’s voice was blessed, from its very beginning, by the life and witness of the Reverend Dr. Ernest Trice Thompson Sr. Perhaps the most influential claim upon our communion in those days was a theological relic within the PCUS – a heresy, in my judgment, called the doctrine of “the Spirituality of the Church” – that, in the wake of the Civil War and through the opening decades of the 20th century, interpenetrated the ethos of the Southern church. That doctrine owes its life to Dr. James Henley Thornwell at Columbia Theological Seminary, who articulated it in 1861 at the General Assembly of a new schismatic church — the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. The expressed logic for this church’s formation was that the Confederacy was a new nation, and the PCCSA was to be a national church. Thornwell’s “Spirituality of the Church” was supported by, among others, Dr. Robert Lewis Dabney at Union Seminary and Dr. Charles Hodge at Princeton Seminary, all of whom taught and wrote across much of the 19th century and, coincidentally, two of them were also slave owners. According to this doctrine, the church could only speak what it was determined that Christ commissioned it to speak; it was exclusively a spiritual organization, it stressed that the church’s mission was not to reform people or to correct the evils of society or to advance civilization, but rather to save sinners and to beseech them, through Christ, to be reconciled to God (see “Presbyterians in the South (vol. 3)” by Earnest Trice Thompson). In an era in our country in which wealthy planters had little regard for the human rights of enslaved peoples – even though as self-proclaimed Christians they were participating in the enslavement of other Christians – the Spirituality of the Church was clearly a convenient doctrine for this new church. It both supported the institution of slavery and relieved pastors who might otherwise have been moved to speak prophetically against it from any burden, in fact, to do so. E.T. Thompson, in his own words, described the Southern Presbyterian Church at the close of the 19th century as “solidly conservative, strongly Calvinistic, distinctly sectional, and remarkably homogenous in outlook and belief.”

Nevertheless, in the early 20th century, the problems of war, industry and race – aggravated by the Great Depression – created an opening for Thompson to challenge all of that. Based on the thrust of John 3:16, and based also on John Calvin’s claim that that world is the theater of God’s glory (which urges us therefore to care about everything — not just our souls, but our school systems, sewer systems, hospitals, public services, everything!), Thompson preached and taught and wrote repeatedly in the Presbyterian Outlook in defense of the precepts of the emerging social gospel and in opposition to the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church. As editor of the Outlook from 1943 to 1946, and as a contributing editor from 1946 to 1984, Thompson persistently encouraged the Southern Presbyterian Church to reclaim the Reformed emphasis upon social responsibility. He was resisted, for sure, surviving heresy trials at the presbytery, synod and General Assembly level, but he was nonetheless vindicated by the church courts. From start to finish, he embodied both progressive orthodoxy and public theology. Here is how my dear friend, the Reverend Dean K. Thompson, an American church historian, a parish pastor and a former president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has described E.T. Thompson’s impact, in an article published in the Outlook in 1993, upon the church: “As co-editor, president and contributing editor … he diligently sought to teach American Presbyterians the meaning of Christian grace as both truth and power, as it penetrates and breaks down racial hostilities.”

Another setting in which “Amen” regularly battled with “No” was that of biblical theology across much of at least the first third to half of the 20th century. Over the last decade of the 19th century and the earlier decades in the 20th century, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy raged throughout the Protestant mainline in the north, and particularly in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America — the so-called “Northern Presbyterian Church.” In the north, the Westminster Confession was revised, dropping language declaring that the Pope was the “anti-Christ,” and adding a declaratory statement that included these lines: “Concerning those who are saved in Christ, the doctrine of God’s eternal decrees is held in harmony with the doctrine of his love to all mankind … that concerning those who perish, the doctrine of God’s eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine that God desires not the death of any sinner, but has provided in Christ a salvation sufficient for all … freely offered in the gospel to all; and that men are fully responsible for their treatment of God’s gracious offer.”

As Beau Weston points out in his illuminating history, “Presbyterian Pluralism,” it was this revision of the Westminster Confession that made possible in the early 20th century, after almost a century, the reunion of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the greatest measure of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. This was essentially a reunion that pleased and motivated the modernist wing of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (in great measure, I suspect, because of the prevailing Arminianism in the Cumberland Church). The next great victory was the creation of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908. The “inclusivists” in the Northern church had earlier desired a union with the Episcopalians, but, when that didn’t happen, “they began to work,” writes Weston, “on a project of federal union, which would not interfere with the ‘sovereignty’ of any member church but would allow for a united Protestant voice and more efficient Protestant action.” Decisions such as these were producing in the North a new church. Over time, modernists were countered by fundamentalists and there were a number of skirmishes — Harry Emerson Fosdick being removed from First Presbyterian Church in New York City, Gresham Machen vs. Henry Van Dyke and then ultimately Princeton Seminary, and on and on, but across these early decades of the 20th century, the modernists were scoring their victories.

And by comparison, the Southern church — by now, the Presbyterian Church in the United States — was like a bucolic pond (or perhaps, simply a stagnant pond) of relative theological and political uniformity and harmony. It would be hard to overstate its parochialism in the early 20th century. Lewis Sherill wrote in the Union Seminary Review in 1931 an article titled, “The barrenness of the Presbyterian pen” (meaning the Southern Presbyterian pen). He stated that nothing of any consequence was being produced amongst the scholars and pastors of the South. According to Aubrey Brown, in an address he gave in 1989 to a meeting of the Fellowship of St. James, E.T. Thompson agreed with this sentiment, and said, “No book had appeared before 1861 or after, up to this time (1931), which had been recognized beyond the denomination as a distinct contribution to theological literature.” Brown went on to say, “Both men [Sherill and Thompson] listed reasons for this, but neither mentioned,” said Brown, “what I believe was the underlying one — intimidation if not fear that their careers would be destroyed.” Brown went on: “Let us imagine a starry-eyed student finishing the seminary in one of these years, like 1932, with a concern for the church’s ecumenical heritage, a deep desire to see a reunited Presbyterian family, some awareness of the social implications of the gospel, and a hope that the abiding truths of our faith might be expressed in a language with meaning and power for our own day. What kind of venue did he face? The General Assembly [of 1931] had pulled the church apart from our brothers and sisters in the other major denominations who worked together in the Federal Council of Churches … [and] The Christian Century commented on the withdrawal by saying, in effect, ‘Good riddance; they were always dragging their feet and causing trouble for us anyway.’” Brown went on in his address to describe the Southern church in those years as “a theological wasteland.”

Nonetheless, E. T. Thompson, in his monumental three-volume history, “Presbyterians in the South,” noted, maybe with his tongue in his cheek, that the southern church in these years had complete confidence in its theological seminaries. The Presbyterian of the South, the immediate predecessor to the Presbyterian Outlook, rejoiced in there being no sign of heresy and no laziness in teaching. “We send our young men to these schools of the prophets, without fear of damage,” it declared.

In these early decades of the 20th century, faculty in those schools – Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, Columbia Theological Seminary, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary – shared a common commitment to the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration, and to an almost uniform rejection of historical criticism. The five fundamentals – the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s vicarious atonement, his bodily resurrection and his miracles – were accepted without question. Moreover, the so-called “destructive higher criticism” was predicted by numerous southern Presbyterian biblical scholars to be on its way out, and Thompson cites in his history that Dr. John M. Wells, a president of Columbia Theological Seminary, in defining modernism, stated that it included pantheism, higher criticism (which rejected the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch), Unitarianism (which denied the deity of Christ), evolutionism and Bolshevism. There was one seminary faculty member in a southern Presbyterian seminary in the early decades of the 20th century who explained in this way why he believed, to the bottom of his heart, in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch: “Moses could have written it,” he said, “and if Moses could have written it, Moses would have written it, Moses should have written it, and therefore Moses wrote it.” This anecdote has been shared with me a number of times, by a number of long-retired faculty from Austin Seminary, who swear that the professor who said that was Dr. Robert F. Gribble, professor of Old Testament and exegesis in the first several decades of the 20th century. However, I must also say, and I find this interesting, that other scholars have speculated that this comment could have been said by this or that professor at Columbia, Union and Princeton seminaries. On top of that comment, though, one of Gribble’s successors, Dr. James Wharton, is on record for having heard Gribble once say that the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church was the bride of fundamentalism (and he meant that as a compliment!). Such was the character of our church in the early decades, maybe even the first third (in some places the first half) of the 20th century. Again, in Dr. E.T.’s words: “solidly conservative, strongly Calvinistic, distinctly sectional and remarkably homogenous in outlook and belief.”

Modest as it may sound, and from its very beginnings, the Presbyterian Outlook began publishing – as a courageous counterpoint to this environment, and in great measure because of E. T. Thompson – the Uniform Bible Studies. These regular columns were written for the benefit of laypeople, who often based their Sunday school curriculum and presentations upon them. They were reverent examples of biblical and theological criticism, in which they explored the texts in terms of their contexts and in light of current events. In what was otherwise and overwhelmingly a hermetically-sealed ecclesial and theological environment, here was a place – in the pages of the Outlook – in which it was regularly demonstrated for the sake of curious laypeople that the Bible was a more interesting and engaging thing than simply a book that was dropped, in its pristine completeness, out of Heaven. People could read the Outlook, and encounter a living faith shaped by the word of God and by human vessels — a book that we did not simply read, but that also read us. As Dean Thompson has put it, these Uniform Lessons were “a progressive and evangelical teaching bridge linking the church’s mind and duty to a contemporary spirit, and leading Presbyterians to participate in mission and to think and to study through the help of Christian ethics (both personal and social), modern biblical-theological insights, and ecumenical commitments.” Now, of course, there were reactions, and heresy charges, and bad press. But the Outlook, and certainly Dr. E.T., both prevailed. In fact, that gentle, shy, soft-spoken man who nonetheless nurtured a prophet’s heart, was awfully good at prevailing — maybe even to the point of being a little sneaky! In a conversation I had with his grandson, the Reverend Ernest Trice Thompson III, Ernie told me: “When Granddad came to the seminary [in 1922], he began his time there teaching the English Bible, but they were concerned about his fascination with higher criticism and so they moved him to teaching church history. His first course in church history was the Book of Acts!”

Robert Bullock recounted to me words spoken to him several decades ago by the Reverend Bill Jablonowski — longtime iconic pastor of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and a card-holding member of a group of progressive pastors known as “The Texas Mafia.” Jablonowski would go to every P.C.U.S. General Assembly, and he and others would strategize throughout each assembly, generally at the feet of E.T. Thompson. He told Robert once: “It’s like sitting at the feet of the Buddha.”

Even in the tightly-bound environment of the PCUS in the early years of the 20th century, the Outlook – beginning under E.T. Thompson, and prevailing in every other era unto this day – modeled a preoccupation with wider horizons. Its pages regularly witnessed to the activities of “the greater Church,” the Church Universal — “Church” with a capital C. At the very least, this meant that, prior to the reunion in 1983, the Outlook reported regularly to the Southern Church what was going on in the Northern Church, and this diligence in lifting the curtain between the two communions, and keeping it lifted, was a great impetus to their eventual reunion. Starting in the remarkable 35-year tenure of Aubrey Brown’s editorship, contributing editors came not just from the South but from everywhere. The Outlook also extensively covered the goings-on of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and various glimpses of parish life in the Church of Scotland and in England as well as in mission outposts throughout the Global South.

Why was such exhaustive coverage important? Maybe Aubrey Brown put it best in an address he gave at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond in 1995, when he was reflecting upon his editorship of the Outlook across 35 years — 31 of them under the roof of that great church. In his remarks, Brown dwelt upon the name of one of the Outlook’s predecessors, The Watchman of the South. Drawing on the Old Testament roots of the word “watchman,” Brown noted, “If the watchman was not alert and did not sound the warning, if the city fell, he was held accountable.” Brown went on to note that “Outlook has something of the watchman idea in it, and it was needed. The church’s bureaucracy was committed to keeping the lid on things, the curtains drawn. It would tell the church what it wanted it to know. Boards and committees were closed to the church press and you might be given selected information or none at all. It was a long and constant struggle to get them opened up as they are today, though there are some agencies, bureaucrats and institutions that try to keep the doors closed and let the church know only after crucial actions are taken. This,” he said, “is why we have a continuing need for a bold and insistent – and independent – church [magazine], to turn the spotlight on what is being planned or is happening in the church and let everyone know. If that [magazine] does not use its independence to fulfill that role, it has no reason for its being and does not deserve our support.”

Those were prophetic words from a man who embodied a great prophetic spirit. No prophet is perfect, of course, and the lament that, on his watch, the Outlook could have done much more to robustly offer a moral and theological critique of the Vietnam War has been well documented. Some have suggested that John Leith, a professor at Union, lobbied the Outlook against such critique; and my guess is that, whether or not that is true, we may never know the complicated and perhaps intensely personal dynamics at work in treading softly around that story. Nonetheless, Aubrey Brown should be credited with shaping the voice of the Outlook in a bold and ongoing direction.

He and E.T. Thompson, across the span of their witness, created, as Ben Sparks has said, “a response to the Spirituality of the Church in almost every respect — race, ordination of women, church unity, ecumenism, and civil rights. Work in this area evolved,” Sparks continued, “out of the swamp and quicksand of Southern Presbyterianism.”

It is not an accident, by the way, that when Aubrey Brown retired from the Outlook after 35 years, and after countless steps taken toward beholding and representing “the Church with a capital C,” the Outlook chose as its next editor the Reverend George Laird Hunt — a pastor from the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., with which the PCUS had not yet reunited. A few decades earlier, such a selection would have been unthinkable. What created the possibility of Hunt’s selection, though, was a desire cultivated by Brown and Thompson and many others to bring to the ecclesial sphere the news and joys and struggles of Christians all over the world — and all over the country. In those days, the Outlook “infused its readers,” as Ben Sparks has put it, “with news of the Church universal.”

But never at the expense of an equal preoccupation with the “church” with a small c. Unapologetically, the Outlook fostered a deep relationship with parish life — its leadership, its Christian education programs, its ministries to youth and children, its music and its relationships to its larger communities. The Outlook’s connection with Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, which hosted the Outlook’s offices for years and whose pastors became ongoing conversation partners with its editors, is just one example. Every year, beginning with the days of Aubrey Brown’s editorship, and every other year now, the May meeting of the Fellowship of St. James – a Richmond-based collegium of pastors and scholars meeting monthly – is devoted to the agenda of the upcoming General Assembly. It is a time when the editor briefs this group, and there is rich dialogue. Outlook editors have had busy calendars made more busy by their preaching and teaching throughout the church, perhaps none of them moreso than the Outlook’s current editor, Jill Duffield. And while the Outlook has increasingly developed a national stature that sets it apart, many across the years who have known it well recall those legendary stories of, for example, how in their adolescent years each of Aubrey Brown’s eight children worked at the Outlook — after school and on Saturdays, stuffing envelopes, helping with mailings, and doing whatever was necessary to keep it alive.

George Laird Hunt, Aubrey Brown’s successor, served from 1979 to 1988, and witnessed a remarkable period of institutional construction: such events as denominational restructuring, the adoption of “A Brief Statement of Faith,” the reunion of the two largest Presbyterian churches in the country — the last of America’s denominations separated by the Civil War to finally reunite. Hunt’s years also witnessed women continuing to knock persistently on doors mostly still shut but nonetheless beginning to open, and the rising voices of the LGBTQ communities demanding their place, too, at the table of welcome. Reflecting on all of this, Hunt beheld our reunited church and observed a lack of trust in each other, in our leaders, in our processes, in our governing bodies and in our agencies. “It may even be a lack of trust in God,” he wrote in the Outlook, “a despair that God can do anything to bring order to this fractured church! This lack of trust,” he continued, “grows out of our failure to learn to know and respect one another despite our differences. In this we mirror our societies rather than set an example for reconciliation. We are like the kingdoms of this world rather than a sign of the Reign of God.”

Those words were true then; they are still true now.

One afternoon in Allen, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, the founding pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Allen was mowing his lawn. There was a phone call from George Laird Hunt, soliciting this pastor’s interest in interviewing for the Outlook. This man’s father had been a devoted student of E.T. Thompson at Union Seminary, and he himself had been a student of E.T. Thompson and Rachel Henderlite, among others, at Austin Seminary before going to Princeton University to earn a Ph.D. in American church history. Robert Bullock remembered with fondness E.T. Thompson’s work at the Outlook, and he took the interview, “because,” he said, “I do believe in the providence of God and the call of God.” Part of that call for Bullock had to do with holding the church together. “If Aubrey was trying to get us together,” he said, “I was trying to keep us together.” On Bullock’s watch, the Outlook’s financial picture improved dramatically. When Robert Bullock went to Richmond in 1988, the magazine had $50,000 in reserves; when he left in 2003, the Outlook had $1.3 million in reserves. He also worked hard, with respect to representation at all levels of decision-making bodies in the church, so that meaningful – not just token – theological diversity could be honored. “The person who sits in the editor’s chair,” he said, “is totally independent, not tied to anything, having a huge amount of freedom. That person, therefore, needs to have humility.”

Robert Bullock, who arrived at the Outlook as a Southern progressive, was succeeded by the second editor from the old Northern church, Jack Haberer, who arrived at the Outlook as a Northern evangelical. At his first Outlook board meeting, someone took assessment of the changes in the world and the changes in the way people wrestle with ideas, and said to Jack: “Now we’re in a new world that is flat —
a total democracy of ideas.” Then they paused and said, “Jack, you’ve got to reinvent this.” On his watch, the Outlook became, more and more, a convener of the conversation rather than the only voice. Moreover, he seized the opportunity to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Presbyterian Church’s first ordained female deacon, the 75th anniversary of its first female elder and the 50th anniversary of its first female pastor. In short order came the Outlook’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which itself was near the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have A dream” speech.

One day, early in Jack Haberer’s tenure, Dr. Dick Ray, a member of the Outlook board at the time, expressed to Jack, with respect to social justice issues, a sentiment also embraced by Robert Bullock in his tenure. Dick said: “Jack, the greatest social justice issue now is how the left and the right can stay together within one church. And Jack, we believe you are specifically equipped to reach out in that direction.” Haberer was indeed instrumental, during his editorship, in modeling that theological generosity, and in slowing the pace and limiting the number of churches toying with the schismatic departure into the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. He openly advocated for the unity of the body, and for living together with our differences.

I asked him about his fondest achievement as editor. Jack said: “I never stopped calling myself an evangelical. It was my desire to dignify the heart of evangelicalism at its best, so that the left and the right could show each other what each other looks like on their best days.”

“Also,” he said, “we outlasted Newsweek.”

The truth of the matter is that the Outlook has also outlasted every other independent journal in every other Protestant denomination in the country. What an accomplishment for us to note on this, its 200th anniversary! As I have traced, ever so briefly, the succession of editors in the modern era of the Outlook and the way it responded to the world and the church across these particular decades, it is remarkable that at the completion of every editorship, the next editor did not just pick up where the other left off, as if they were all clones of each other. No, the next editor – one after another after another – brought an astonishing sense of uniqueness and “fit” appropriate to chapter after chapter of an ever-changing context.

As I have been preparing for this presentation, it has sunk into my soul as a child of the Southern church, that over and over again, beneath so much of who we’ve been as a communion – even in the modern period of the Outlook – there has lurked the matter of racism. And way back into the 1940s, the Outlook struggled with what Tom Currie has called “A concept of a Southern Zion.” There was a smug sense of satisfaction – even then, and in some places even now – that was part of our church from its very beginning. We were not so much a missional body as we were an ethos of racist and classist complacency, wrapped in a closed-loop language of piety.

That lurking matter of racism, and all of its unfinished business, has prevented the Southern church from expressing its full and joyful missional self. You could dip into any decade and find it, but it was certainly conspicuous in the 1960s. Many young ministers graduating from seminary then were going into the parish at a time when there were tremendous pressures on them to conform to the incipient racism that was practically everywhere. In historian Erskine Clarke’s brand-new history of Columbia Theological Seminary, “To Count Our Days,” Clarke observes that everywhere “congregations were insisting that pastors continue to support openly, or by their silence and inaction, the oppressive practices and racist assumptions of a segregated South. Of course, some former students [at Columbia and almost anywhere else] were already convinced segregationists, and did not need such pressure to reinforce their commitments to racism. They argued in print and church meetings and papers that the Bible and orthodox theology supported a segregated South.” One Columbia graduate, Morton H. Smith, would go on to teach at Belhaven College, and later at Reformed Theological Seminary, and would eventually become the stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, which would be established in 1973 in Jackson, Mississippi. While Smith was at Belhaven College, writes Clarke, “he argued that the civil rights movement would destroy divinely established human diversity and help to establish communist domination over America. When he went to Reformed just a few years later, he insisted that the Bible did not condemn segregation. ‘The fact is,’ he wrote, ‘that God segregated Israel from the Canaanite.’ And he said that the church should not try to change ‘that particular pattern’ by ‘branding one form of culture as sinful as opposed to another.’ The Presbyterian Journal,” Clarke continues, “was a primary venue for the promotion of racist ideology in the church.”

There were, of course, heroic stories of PCUS pastors, but in those days they were relatively unusual. Erskine Clarke writes: “Most white Presbyterian ministers throughout the South … remained discreetly silent in the face of the violence and racism that marked the long history of the American South, or they quietly gave up and left the ministry — or they quoted Bible texts in an attempt to prove that segregation was the will of God.”

Clarke says that one of the great high-water marks in the PCUS regarding race in that crucial decade happened in 1966, when Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to speak at a conference in Montreat. King was by then a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, but, as Clarke puts it, “there was fierce opposition in the church to his participation. Some said King was a communist. Others said he did not believe in the fundamentals of the faith. Still others insisted the church had no business addressing social issues.” Nonetheless, opposition or not, Dr. King came and Dr. King spoke.

I was there. My parents took me to hear Dr. King. I must admit that, as a middle schooler, I was more interested in the drama around that event than I was in the deep content of his address, although I was deeply impressed by his cascading rhetoric and by the spirit of his message. The auditorium was packed, and security was tight, and Dr. King arrived in a long procession of Buncombe County, North Carolina, sheriff cars all lit up. I watched from outside one of the auditorium’s doors as he was spirited from the car to a room offstage where the officiants for the evening were waiting. I also remember a later moment, after the event was over, when my parents and I, back in our car, were inching out of the parking lot. I was sitting by myself in the back seat of the car, in the middle, and someone walking to the car recognized my father behind the wheel. Dad rolled down the window, and the man said: “Hello, Hubert! What did you think about that?” Dad responded, “I thought it was a great message.” They talked for a moment, and then the window went back up and we proceeded out of the parking lot, and my mother turned to Dad and said: “What do you mean ‘great message’? That wasn’t a great message at all! He was saying that all this trouble in this country was our fault, and it’s not!” I realize now that, in that moment, I was sitting in the middle of that back seat between two poles of a national argument that loomed over everything. And that event did not end conflict in the church over race or over King. As Erskine Clarke writes: “It rather intensified the conflict as conservatives began to organize for a division of the church. Five years later, leaders working for the formation of what would come to be the Presbyterian Church of America were to denounce King for his communist connections, his advocacy of ‘violence, murder and lying’ as means to a ‘millennial end,’ and his public rejection of such fundamentals of the faith as the Virgin Birth and Christ’s physical resurrection.”

Part of the Southern church’s racist and classist complacency is still marked by stains from the Spirituality of the Church, and those stains have often been expressed in some ultimately futile desire for balance in all things. Montreat, by the way, is a tidal basin of virtually every political and theological conviction that you can imagine. It’s hard to believe that many largely white, largely privileged Southern Presbyterians can have that many opinions. And so naturally, the specter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. coming to Montreat made a number of people angry because, whatever else he represented, he didn’t represent balance. And so, the suggestion came from some quarter that, yes, we should invite Dr. King to speak, but in the interest of balance, we should find another occasion, and invite a white segregationist to speak. Yet another manifestation of “Amen” vs. “No.” Thank God that didn’t happen.

But friends: One of the sins of our church that we need to confess is the sin of worshipping “balance” more than the radical gospel of Jesus Christ. “Balance” has been too often an article of faith, but it is not faithful. At a board meeting early in my tenure at Austin Seminary, we were talking about future changes we might make in our curriculum. One of our faculty members was present. He was a classical evangelical. And a board member, concerned about the possibility that we might steer in a direction that was too liberal, said that, above all else, our curriculum and teaching should demonstrate balance. That faculty member summoned the courage to say to that board member, “With all due respect, the gospel is not about balance.” In this particular issue, that faculty member was probably speaking against his own theological self-interest, but I was so deeply grateful for that remark. From the “No” side of this issue, he was witnessing to my “Amen” side. From his side of the aisle, he called out my own tribalism. My own complicity in nuancing gospel values.

The gospel is about more than balance. To put it more strongly, it’s not about balance at all. I believe that, in these days as we are busy creating the history of our reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — some portion of which was born out of the heresies of the Confederacy, we are being called to venture beyond the safety of balance. We are being called to strive to be more faithful, thank God, than the church we grew up in. We are being called, in this time and culture so defined by deep divisions and shocking irresponsibility on the part of national and global leaders who know better, to raise our gospel voices and to venture beyond the supposed safety of “balance.”

This is a peculiarly difficult and challenging time for the Presbyterian Outlook. And yet look at it! It is such a beautiful, comprehensive, provocative, stimulating magazine; and speaking for myself, I have never been more excited about it than I am now. I especially celebrate the fact that, at the helm, there is a woman – the first woman in the Outlook’s history – to have the power and the editorial voice, not to mention the other necessary gifts, and then some, to do this work, and to continue the process of opening up the Outlook to newer and wider voices and perspectives. Nonetheless, the cultural backdrop against which, and to which, the Outlook speaks is all so much meaner. This backdrop is being shaped by a particularly dangerous political climate in this country — by
shootings like the one at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and so many other mass shootings, too many to name or count; by the terror created by neo-Nazis storming the city of Charlottesville; and as that amazing editor of the Outlook said to me recently, “All of this has lifted a veil for me … that was never a veil for friends of color.”

She’s right. People of color know, and the rest of us need to work hard to know also, that the gospel is about more than balance, and that sometimes it is impossible to say “there are good people on all sides.”

I recently read a sermon in which the preacher was  articulating the problem with balance. “It is easy … to be in the middle,” said the preacher, “when the boot is not on our neck, the policies aren’t truncating our futures, and the prejudices aren’t rendering our children dead in the streets.

“[But] thanks be to God,” the preacher went on, “[that] we’ve been given a better way. We are no longer enslaved to the flesh-devouring ways of the world because Christ has set us free. Free from sin. Free from death. Free from fear. Free from the tyranny of self and the reign of any ruler but God.

“Christ has set us free for freedom’s sake. We are freed to take a stand, to stand for love of neighbor, for a generosity of life-giving justice, for the peace that passes understanding and the joy that comes in serving God and God only. We are freed for a kindness that upends cruelty and reveals the divine dignity and worth of every human being. We are freed for self-control that looks to the interest of others and refrains from vengeance even as it seeks to be patient, forgiving, compassionate and merciful with all people. We are freed for gentleness with the weak and with one another. We are freed for faithfulness in a world overflowing with evil and idols, suffering and sorrow.

“Freed to call out the purple of privilege.” And by privilege, I think the preacher means refusing to take a stand for the gospel. The preacher goes on: “Freed to be immersed in the purple of penitence that not only confesses, but repents and does better. Freed to be awash in the purple of preparation that not only welcomes the baby Jesus, but reminds us to be ready to face Christ when he returns to separate the sheep and the goats.”

That was an excerpt from a sermon that Jill Duffield, esteemed editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, preached in June at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a meeting of the Presbytery of the James. She was confessional, empathic, fierce, faithful and, in the holiest way possible, “unbalanced.” Like her predecessors, she is uncommonly suited for this time, this place, this church and this magazine. She is leading us, thanks be to God, to take new risks, to exorcise old demons, to encourage new voices, and to step out as church into the midst of the world in the name of the One who gave his life for that world and for us.

May God bless her, and the magazine, as we move now into our third century of witness.

Theodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas.


On October 5, 2019, friends of the Presbyterian Outlook gathered at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, to commemorate our 200th anniversary. Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, each offered their reflections on the role of the Presbyterian Outlook in shaping the Presbyterian Church historically and in the present. We have printed their lectures in full for this 200th anniversary commemorative issue with thanks for their energy, intelligence, imagination and love. We hope you find their insights as thoughtful and compelling as those of us gathered in October did. 

– Jill Duffield