Seeking a Better Country by DG Hart and John Muether is overall a good book that looks critically at the history of Presbyterianism in America. If you are worried that Hart carries over some of his usual tone from his blog, do not worry. This book is even handed and avoided scorn and condemnation. It does point out places that the church may have gone wrong, but even then it is done with a gentleness that will surprise many. It is a well-researched book and many will learn from it. It comes up to the modern day and thus it does not have the opportunity to dive too deeply into any one period of history, yet applies the broad sweep of history to today. I appreciated the book a great deal.
That said, I have one large fundamental disagreement with this book that I think throws both Hart and Muether off in their historical application and point. This fundamental disagreement colors their understanding of all subsequent Presbyterian history differently than I color it.
Before I get into that point, I do want to point out one other small weakness. Hart and Muether are OPC guys and thus the Southern Church gets a bit of a short stick in this book. And some PCA guys might get heartburn when they read the conclusion that the PCA was not really unified in its formation (pg.236), and that the OPC is more confessional and the PCA more evangelical (pg.257). Those are really minor complaints, but maybe worth mentioning.
My fundamental disagreement with the book is this statement: “For confessional Presbyterians, including the authors, who tend to put a premium on the teachings of the Westminster Standards, highly prize the Presbyterian form of church government, and esteem the reverence and simplicity of historic Presbyterian worship, the era of the Old School Presbyterianism is the most appealing” (pg.257). I applaud the honest expression of their own bias in this history, however, it means they have seriously misunderstood the Great Awakening and the Old Side – New Side Controversy.
Overall the section in the book about the Great Awakening is better than most books. They don’t go overboard trying to smear the Old Side, and they are willing to admit some excess on the part of Gilbert Tennent. However, in the conclusion to the discussion they state this: “Many of the Old Side objections had already been removed with the formation in 1745 of the Synod of New York and its affirmation of creedal subscription and insistence that members submit to synodical decisions” (pg.66).
I think that is simply historically wrong. Creedal subscription never seems to have been a debate between the two groups. So, I am not sure why that is in there. The submission to synodical decisions was indeed an issue, but because the Tennent’s were willing to submit to synodical decision of fellow New Siders did not mean they were willing to do so with Old Siders. Any honest evaluation of the New Side behavior leading up to the split has to come to the conclusion that the New Siders were a disorderly group that viewed the Old Siders as unconverted wretches. Go read “Dangers of the Unconverted Ministry” again and remember Gilbert is preaching in a church that is not his own, in the bounds of an Old Side Presbytery, and had vacant pulpit. The sermon is a warning not to call an Old Sider because they are Pharisees. Not surprisingly within a year that church split with the New Side minority faction erecting a church literally across the highway from the original church. One of the first actions of the Conjunct Presbytery (the first New Side Presbytery after the split) was to order men to go on a preaching tour that included churches that were part of the Old Side Synod of Philadelphia several of which were not even vacant! This group actively tried to split churches.
And therein lies the rub. Seeking a Better Country laments the trend in Presbyterianism to go with so-called progress and innovate in an attempt to nab the culture or more members, yet the New Side is the group that did just that during the Great Awakening. It was the New Side that focused on individualism and had no problem throwing out church regulations and authority. It was the New Side that fostered a spirit of celebrity pastors, lower ministerial standards, and the “world is my parish” ideas. It was the New Side that fostered innovation in preaching styles and added “conversion narratives” as a requirement for membership not to mention ordination. This tension then between accepting the New Side conduct and desiring to remain a confessional, orderly church is still inherent in Old School Presbyterianism. The Old School is the New Side. The New School is the New Side taken to the next logical step.
This acceptance of the New Side as heroes of the faith leads Hart and Meuther to look uncritically upon the post-reunion phase of the church. An agreement was reached in 1758 that was to be a Plan of Union, yet this plan of Union was violated in almost every point as early as the year 1762. In that year the New Side majority Synod violated Point 6, which was the only doctrinal point in the Plan of Union. They broke point 7 often through their refusal to do things, but clearly in 1766 when they disbanded on Old Side majority presbytery without the presbyteries consent. They also earlier had refused to create a Presbytery west of the Appalachia Mountains claiming 5 churches were not enough to start a Presbytery, but the next year created a Presbytery with 5 churches. The only difference . . . the presbytery west of the Appalachia Mountains would have had an Old Side majority, and the other had a New Side majority. The New Side systematically destroyed their Old Side opponents with the majority power (which violated article 2). This unconditional acceptance also leads to praise of John Witherspoon ignoring the shadier parts of his character and his transformation of Princeton from a training ground for ministers to a training ground for lawyers and politicians.
In the end the book is worth a read. However, the problems pointed out by Hart and Muether seem to have an earlier origin that is not addressed. Using the Old School as the high point requires an acceptance of the New Side. So go read the book, just make sure you take a hard look at the Great Awakening. It is not all it’s cracked up to be.