Monday, September 15, 2008

The need for a new history for Presbyterians

History is often written by the winners. That much is a truism. However, these days we can often go back and examine the claims of the winners by looking at the source material to make sure that our histories are correct. Sadly, I do not believe I have yet found a good history of the Presbyterian Church as it exists in America. Some are okay such as Richard Webster’s A History of the Presbyterian Church in America, but it only goes to 1760. It has a fairly New Side slant to it, but oddly enough, not nearly as much as the current histories. Charles Hodge’s Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America is good as well, but it is written for a political purpose. Thus, Hodge, while mentioning Old Side leaders and even occasionally championing them, still tries to smooth the differences between the two sides in order to help his debate against the New School. Other histories such as James Smylie’s A Brief History of the Presbyterians are just pathetic. His mentions the schism between the New Side and Old Side, but fails to mention any of the Old Siders by name, completely takes the New Side line and even makes historically inaccurate statements such as when he says, “Old Side members of the Presbytery of Philadelphia decided to go their own 1741” (pg. 49). This is simply factually wrong. The New Side leaders left the meeting, not the Old. The New Side leaders formed the Conjunct Presbytery after marching out. But, it always helps to demonize the side one disagrees with as schismatic. The problem is not to be confined to broad histories. Even the more particular histories such as Morton Smith’s Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology calls the difference between the Old Side and New Side “having been over matters of experimental religion and not doctrinal” (Smith Pg. 28). Of course the participants in the schism disagree greatly. Smith does admit that trouble continued in the north, but contends the southern part of the church was able to continue in peace. He of course forgets to mention that this was because those Old Side ministers were denied their right to form a presbytery west of the mountains. They proposed one which would have had a 3-2 Old Side majority, but it was denied for obviously partisan reasons by the Synod. Hardly the sign of peace pictured in the book. Books about the Great Awakening itself are almost always worse. Joseph Tracy’s famous work The Great Awakening actually says that the Old Side would have become “Arminian” and they even would have slide into “Unitarianism” (Tracy, pg. 388). This bold claim of course goes unsupported.

I am sure that other areas of history in the Presbyterian Church are just as biased. I just finished reading Can the Orthodox Presbyterian Church be Saved?, by John Robbins, which makes a similar claim of amazing neglect of primary sources and popular bias in the history of the OPC. Whether that is true or not, I am not qualified to say, but bias exists in us all, so it should not be hard to believe.

I am not claiming that I am unbiased. I have a great deal, I am sure. However, I do think that a new history of the Presbyterian Church needs to be written. One that critically examines the history we know and uses the primary sources. History is vitally important. The mistakes of history are all too often repeated if not learned from. If the history itself is wrong, then one be assured never to learn from it because they will be unaware of it. So you historians out there. Get to it! The time for writing is now.


Andrew Duggan said...

One book you didn't mention is Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church. Have you read it? I know it is by Gary North, but I think there is a lot of useful information and analysis in it, as long as the reader is familiar with North's own theological problems and carefully watches out for them.

The fact that the PCA and OPC, etc. are making the same mistakes as the PCUSA did 1900-1920s is quite sad really. Rather than dealing with unfaithful ministers they issue doctrinal deliverances, except now they're called study reports.

The PCA got rid of Wilkins, but what about the rest of the FV gang in the PCA? How many years since the AAPC FV conference? Then you have C.A. Briggs version 2.0 aka as Pete Enns -- where's the judicial action against him?

If it weren't the church we are talking about, it would be rather funny to watch organizations repeat the mistakes of their ancestors.

The problem only a very few ministers in either the PCA or OPC can subscribe to the WCF/LC/SC without equivocating (crossing their fingers) on a whole range of issues from creation, worship, authority of Scripture.

There is at least one presbytery in the OPC in which quoting even a single verse of Scripture in a speech on the floor, will generate a point of order from the floor for violating the by-laws. The only constitutional document which may be referred to is the BOCO.

Thanks for clearly pointing out the political purpose's of Hodge's Constitutional History. You are quite right about that. I have yet to read a historical book or article that didn't come with an agenda.