Sunday, August 5, 2007

A History Lesson

Since Susan and I joined the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor in October of last year, I have slowly been taking stock of my new church home. Leaving the CRC for a more mainline denomination has been full of challenges and joys, just as a move the opposite direction might incure. Our church is a rather large congregation, with over 2,000 members and four services on Sunday. Being the good Dutch Calvinist, I try to do two services a day, although at times I am at times a bit tempted to go for a walk at night instead. One thing I really enjoy about First Presbyterian is the preaching; we have a fine number of pastors, including one ex-CRCer, who has helped to make this transition a bit easier.

This pastor made a recommendation to me after a new members class, in which I should put my brain to work and read a bit on Presbyterian history. As the University of Michigan has one of the great library systems of the modern world, I was able to find a number of titles over the past year and delve further in learning about my new denomination.

After reading a number of books, I feel that I have a better grasp of Presbyterian history. It is a long story, spanning over 300 years in the United States, and another 150 years in Europe. Since the beginning of the existence of the Presbyterian Church in 1703, the church has confronted a pluralistic world. As artfully told by Randy Balmer (whom one played putt-putt golf with me when I was a little kid at one of my Dad's conferences), the Presbyterian church grew in the Middle Colonies, which was the first long-term experiment of religious and ethnic diversity in British North America. Like many denominations, the young Presbyterian church was torn apart during the Great Awakening of the 1740s, although the denomination reunited in 1758. It is interesting that during the Colonial period the Presbyterians held much in common with the Congregationalists (Puritans) of New England, as they shared a common Calvinist theology and British heritage (For a long and demanding work on the intellectual currents in England and American Calvinism check out Foster's The Long Argument). After the conclusion of the American Revolution (which Presbyterians strongly supported), the Presbyterian church held its first General Assembly in 1789.

Another trend threading through Presbyterian history is division. The main Presbyterian church has broken a number of times. As mentioned above, the denomination split in 1741 over the Great Awakening. The church reunited, but split again in 1837 over a number of issues, among them slavery, regional tensions, and the evangelicalism promoted by the "New School" faction of the denomination (which hailed primarily from the Midwest, New York, and New England) and was opposed by the "Old School" which found most of its members from the Middle Atlantic states, the South, and found its intellectual leadership from Princeton Theological Seminary. For a better explanation of this split, consult George Marsden's The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience. After the Civil War Presbyterians reunited on sectional lines, and remained so arrayed well past 1945. The northern church split again in the 1920s along the fundamentalist/liberal lines that broke many a mainline denomination during this period. Of all the books that I read, I rate Bradley Longfield's The Presbyterian Controversy as the most informative work. Longfield gives a great retelling of the battles of the 1920s by telling the stories of members of the church who found themselves on both sides of the debate.

In this day and age the PCUSA remains bedeviled by division. Some churches, mainly in the South, left the denomination in the 1960s and 1970s on issues of theology and civil rights (as they were opposed to their church supporting equal rights for all citizens) and formed the Presbyterian Church of America. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church was formed in 1983 as a reaction against the growing liberalism within the church, although it remains small in number. There is much dissent within the church today over issues of homosexual ordination and the interpretation of scriptures, and it remains to see how Presbyterians will congregate in their fourth century of existence.

I am glad to be learning about my new church home and am hopeful about my new denomination and fellow reformed family members in other denomations. I am glad that the PCUSA has room for evangelicals such as myself, and I am especially happy that my wife has begun the ordination process within our denomination. With any luck she will be able to look for a call at some point next year, and so I'm enjoying my weekly visit to the PCUSA website and looking a various church jobs all over the United States. Of course, Susan has the ordination exams staring in her face at the end of this month, so please continue to pray for her studying and persistence. I am not worried about her abilities, although I would recommend a week of reading Presbyterian history to better approach various theological questions. To be sure, I lean towards overkill when it comes to church history.

Summer Reading: Part II

My recent reading list unintentionally has focused on urban issues. While I'm in a superb urban planning program, I try to keep the summer readings focused on items that I do not have time to read about during the other three-fourths of the year.

It wasn't until I visited Detroit in late July that I realized that most of the titles that I was reading focused to some extent on the riots the rocked Detroit forty years ago this past July. The picture in this post is borrowed from the cover of Thomas Sugrue's The Orgins of the Urban Crisis (1997), which is an excellent analysis of the urban problems facing the Detroit metropolitan region in the years after WWII. Sugrue demolishes the commonly held perception that the riots were a cause of Detroit's urban decline; rather, it's decline led to the riots that occurred in the summer of 1967. Sugrue details the massive manufacturing job losses, ethnic flight to the suburbs in Wayne and Macomb County in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the crippling effect the interstate highway system had upon existing urban neighborhoods. I would highly recommend reading Sugrue's work if you have an interest in urban history. I would also suggest reading Kevin Boyle's excellent essay reflecting on the impact of the riots on southeastern Michigan.

Two books by Robert Beauregard, an urban historian at Columbia University, focused on the America's transformation into a suburban nation from 1950 to 2000. Voices of Decline (2003) dealt with varying interpretations of fates that touched most urban centers in the US, while When America Became Suburban (2006) narrates the increasing identification of America as a suburban nation in the late 1950s and 1960s, and the implications of this transformation. Both works are lighter on the analytical side, but do an excellent job at examining the thinking of various city planners, intellectuals, and national leaders during this fifty year period.

Evelyn Gonzales's The Bronx (2004) was a title that I have long been waiting to read. I know little about the Bronx besides the fact that the Yankees play there and that it has a zoo. Gonzales's work, a revision of her dissertation, focuses on the urban growth within Bronx County from 1840 to the present, and does a decent job detailing the physical changes that occurred within various sections of the city. This work really should be titled The South Bronx, as the book focuses on this part of the borough, and even with this title the book has several weaknesses. First, the description of the neighborhoods is surface deep, and the maps the accompany various chapters of woefully inadequate to the task of explaining a part of NYC that numbers 1.5 million people. Still, this is a good book to read if you want to learn more about NYC, and are waiting for a history of Brooklyn to be published.

Two other lighter reads that I finished this past week were Mark Hinshaw's True Urbanism (2007) and Harm de Blij's Why Geography Matters (2005). The latter book is a slimmed down version of the textbook that I used for my World Regions Geography class that I took at Calvin College almost ten years ago with Professor Curry. This class remains one of my favorite classes that I took while in college, as it opened my mind up to entirely new way of thinking about the regions of the world. True Urbanism was a much less exciting book, examining the return of residents to downtown regions of various US cities. Much of it was stories and simple little pithy lessons. Don't bother with this one.j

The final title that was on my nightstand over the past few weeks was Jon Peterson's The Birth of City Planning in the United States (2003). This was a good overview for the earliest days of the city planning profession, but clearly felt like a dry revised dissertation. I did enjoy reading about some of the feuding between the early leaders in the field, as planners duked it out over a variety of issues, including the City Beautiful movement, zoning, and the role of the national government in planning.