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.

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